I have been living in Japan and taking koto lessons for 6 months. I have a students’ concert in one month and here I am, full of mistakes and cold reading the last part of “Sakura Saukra” in practice with my teacher, Mizutani-sensei. She gets the patience award. Big time. I take lessons weekly in her traditional home. She serves me tea and we bow with an “Onegaishimasu” before we begin the first song of the lesson.
The nails I wear are called “tsume,” which literally means claws. When I googled them to find a picture, this blue, muscular wolf-man from manga or anime kept appearing. His name, “Tsume,” Claw. The song we are playing, however, is ancient. “Sakura Sakura” celebrates the cherry blossom season that Japan will enter in April. For me, April means either bluegrass or Tejano music. Both are vibrant and start and stop in a hurry. Koto is ethereal and wise. I feel like a child with ketchup on my fingers stumbling through the formal living room of a nice house when I claw my way through new songs. Koto lessons are also lessons in grace and control, in nuance and vibration.
The koto is described as the Japanese floor harp or zither, the answer to, or incorporation of, the Chinese guzheng. Though its players traditionally don the formal kimono and play as if their fingers breeze easily over the braided nylon strings instead of pressing painfully down on them for bravado, this appearance, too, is simply a measure of grace. Last month I thought I was making the half tone correctly with my declawed left hand until one day Mizutani-sensei shook her head patiently and taught me again. My muscles could barely sustain holding the ninth string for the duration of the whole note. I looked at her surprised. “Itai!” I said. “It hurts!” “Hai, itai,” she agreed warmly. “Yes, it hurts.” I had no idea. It’s not really a callous-forming sort of “itai” either, that will soon go away when my skin thickens, as it did with viola and guitar. This is more of an awkward, lurching and holding down of strings, arm extended, off balance.
So, along with the grace and the ancient wisdom, there is something visceral about the koto, the tsume that the players use, and the two meters of kiri wood striped like a tiger’s coat. I am reading music written vertically in Japanese kanji and annotated in symbols never found on a western music staff. I find that I second guess myself a lot in practice, as I am learning Japanese and the koto at the same time, and also making sense of my life here. After teaching all day, I get to be taught and, as with every challenge met in Japan, I feel very grateful to be aware of this luck of mine, to be awake as a student, and understand the giving of oneself it takes to teach what you love.