CIP Blog 2: The Koto
The first time I ever heard the koto played was in my second year of elementary school and I, child that I was, fell in love with the sound and swore that one day I would learn to play it. To find myself in Japan some thirteen years later, realizing that childhood pledge is a bit wondrous in an odd sort of way. I’m not sure if it was serendipity or extreme care when it came to assigning host families (though I suspect it was the latter) but I was lucky enough to be placed in a homestay with connections that allowed that childhood whim to become a reality.
As with most things, it started off rather simple and increased with difficulty as I progressed to more complex pieces. However, though I’ve learned many songs and practices associated with the ikuda-ryuu tradition, I feel that what I’ve really gained is a glimpse into the heart of Kyoto.
My instructor, Imoto-sensei, is both nothing like I expected she would be, and precisely how I imagined a Japanese thespian would be, if that makes any sense at all. She was raised in an era where everything from behavior to language was cultivated to present a certain image of the Japanese woman, and in Japan’s ancient capital no less. This, combined with her artistic roots and, of course, her own personality has lead her to speak with some of the most flowery language I’ve ever heard. Now, by flowery I don’t mean poetic and overdone, but elegant, pitched, and extremely polite. So polite, in fact, that I was thrown when she spoke to me, her student, in keigo (honorific language), and bowed so many times I eventually lost count.
Naturally, when your sensei bows, you bow back (and lower) and respond to her words in kind. This formality, from what I’ve heard, is not uncommon in the world of traditional Japanese arts, but as one who is still somewhat unsure when to bow to whom and how deeply, I found myself a bit flustered until I learned how to enter, greet, and then conclude these lessons. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t understand the process or words as that there were so many ordered exchanges and bows it took me a few weeks to remember what order they came in. Then there was the presentation of omiyage, and (more difficult to navigate) the way to accept a return gift graciously. I actually found myself biking home in the rain one day with several cold tofu products balanced on one handlebar and about thirty freshly made kara-age on the other, knowing that my host mother had already been cooking all day for her granddaughter’s birthday).
I even had the chance to get an inside glimpse at the way neighborhood relations work when I helped put one of my friends in contact with sensei (I assumed it would take one or two phone calls; in fact it took close to fifteen and a lot of face redress strategies out of respect for people’s existing relations).
All in all I found my experience informative and rewarding. Though it did tend to get time consuming and complicated at times, I realize looking back that it was then that I learned the most. If there is one thing I regret about my CIP, it was the lack of opportunity to interact with people my own age on a more daily basis. Because the American and Japanese school years don’t line up well and we can’t commit to everyday practices, it’s rather difficult for study abroad students to get involved in most university clubs and circles. Unfortunately, this also decreases our chances of interacting with Japanese students who do not actively seek to participate in international circles or courses. Most host families do not tend to have children around our age and, unless you’re up for weekly rounds of nomi-kai (drinking parties), opportunities to befriend Japanese people of our generation are rather limited. Having elected to study abroad a full year, I had hoped to make lasting friendships, but I’m worried that if I don’t find more ways to get involved next semester I’ll lose my chance.
Gabrielle Reinecke: O-koto (traditional Japanese string instrument)
CIP Blog 2: The Koto