Wiley Krishnaswamy: Koto Lessons with Sensei Kurahashi Ayako

The KCJS Japanese language curriculum includes a requirement for an individual project, something involving the Japanese language carried out by a single student to be gradually completed and reported upon throughout the semester. My project this semester involves producing (some of) an English translation of In’eiraisan (In Praise of Shadows,) a composition by Taisho/early Showa period writer and playwright Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, famed for his astute comparisons and contrasts of Western and Japanese culture and aesthetics. Quite early on in this essay, Tanizaki points out how western recording and amplifying technology (of his time,) having been developed to suit the particularities of Western music, failed to capture at least half of the charm and reticence so central to traditional Japanese musical aesthetics, the beauty contained in subtle musical texture, pauses, silence, and approaching silence—this idea stayed with me throughout my Community Involvement Project at KCJS, that being taking lessons in Koto with local teacher Kurahashi Ayako.

The Koto is a type of East Asian long zither, similar in construction and playing method to the Chinese Guzheng, Korean Gayageum, or Vietnamese Dan Tranh. It consists of a long and slender hollow wooden body likened to that of a dragon, above which a set of thirteen (usually) moveable bridges are held down by strings that run lengthwise down the 2 meter playing surface. The side of the strings to the right of the bridges from the perspective of the player are secured behind a hard bridge at one end, and are plucked with the right hand, wearing specialized plectrums called tsume. The left hand is free to either pluck strings as well, or push down the strings on the other side of the movable bridges to raise the pitch or create a vibrato effect among other things. The history of the instrument is somewhat unclear as stringed instruments have been found in Japan dating back to periods before heavy permeation of technology and culture from China/Korea, but it is likely that the modern Koto descends from a mainland long zither used during or before the Han dynasty in China. Originally used to play slow and elegant court music, as the instrument was adapted to Japanese tastes and musical styles over the years it changed in form and composition as well, leading to a modern instrument quite different from its ancestor.

I have been interested in the Koto for quite some time, having dallied in it for a few years in the USA before coming to Japan. As much as I read about playing techniques and musical forms, nothing could compare to having an actual player teach me how to properly play the instrument. Even before I came to Kyoto, I was decently sure that this was what I wanted to do for my CIP—after arriving, on the recommendation of my host family and a past student who stayed with them, I was directed to Kyoto resident Kotoist Kurahashi Ayako, an incredibly skilled performer and with years of experience who offers lessons out of her warm and comfortable traditional style town house. While she teaches the Koto and Shamisen, her husband, also an respected musician, performs and teaches Shakuhachi—They often perform together all over Japan and overseas as well. After my initial meeting with Kurahashi-sensei to work out scheduling and other details, I started going to her house weekly for lessons in the instrument. While Kyoto’s traditional cultural and musical world is quite known for being secretive and often unwelcoming towards visitors, Kurahashi-sensei and her husband were incredibly warm and welcoming towards me and other students coming to them with little to no experience, despite their incredibly high skill level.

As I had done some practice studying up on vocabulary surrounding the Koto and its various techniques beforehand, we were able to communicate quite smoothly (to her surprise) and each lesson has been quite rewarding. Each lesson was essentially comprised of some amount of working on a few specific techniques, followed by playing through full musical scores and working through difficult parts. After learning to play through the ubiquitous Sakura Sakura, Kurahashi-sensei chose two very different pieces for me to work on. One of them, Yatsuhashi Kengyo’s Rokudan no Shirabe, is considered one of the most important pieces of a Kotoist’s repertoire, as the six movements of the piece contain a wide range of techniques and playing styles. Considerate of the fact that I would be returning to the United States after the semester, she picked a piece that would allow me to practice and continue to improve a number of techniques on my own.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, Japanese music makes incredible use of reticence and subtle texture—while learning different playing techniques I was constantly reminded of this. Playing the Koto is so much more than it looks like; while one may see simply plucking on the right hand and pushing on the left, there are a myriad of different techniques involving these movements and more. Some of the more melodic ones include timed release of bent strings, karari and sarari (types of glissando-like techniques,) and arpeggios. Techniques that affect texture include playhing with the back of the tsume, scratching along the string with the side of the tsume, or even flicking the tsume sideways along the string quite quickly for a dynamic noise. It is quite hard to put into words, but after learning and using these techniques I became a lot more able to hear them in performance, and deepened my appreciation of Koto and other Japanese musical instruments.

The focus of the CIP, however, does not lie entirely in the subject matter one engages with—involvement in the local community and communication with those in the former are also key parts. Kurahashi-sensei and her husband Yodou-sensei were quite warm and friendly, inviting me to several concerts that they and their friends were performing at. Before and after lessons I spent time at their house talking to various guests from different parts of the world, observing practice sessions and learning about how those people from starkly different walks of life ended up practicing traditional Japanese music in Kyoto. While I can speak Japanese to the point where there were no real difficulties in conversation, my language (especially keigo) when put on the spot is by no means perfect. While I was initially worried that a mess up in respectful language would have unfortunate results, I quickly learned that most people do not fret about the small details of speech if respectful and kind intention is conveyed clearly through manner.

I learned this not only through Kurahashi-sensei herself, but through the other various people I met during the course of my CIP. In the process of buying music and tsume for my lessons, I became acquainted with a Koto retailer working out of a small store in Gion. Given the insular nature of both that area and the musical community, He tends to only show up at/let people into the store upon request. With introduction from my sensei, I was able to work out the details of our meeting and purchase the necessary materials, and as I am writing this I plan on visiting him again to talk in detail about the Koto business in Kyoto for a project in a different class.

All in all, my CIP experience allowed me to not only gain a solid foundation that will enable me to continue working on my Koto playing at home, but also achieve a clearer grasp on the necessities and peculiarities of socialization and conversation in an area of Japanese society that I see myself engaging with in depth in the future. I am quite grateful to Kurahashi-sensei and her husband for their warm welcome and continuing support, as well as to my amazing senseis at KCJS who helped me with some of the more difficult aspects of proper student etiquette and communication. I only wish that I had had a Koto with me in Kyoto to practice more often—while I am quite sad to leave Kyoto, one thing that I am looking forward to going back is being able to polish the base of skills that Kurahashi-sensei gave me everyday at home.

2 thoughts on “Wiley Krishnaswamy: Koto Lessons with Sensei Kurahashi Ayako

  1. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to participate in something that combines many of your interests. You clearly have genuine interest in Japanese history and culture, and I truly feel you found the best way for you to immerse yourself into Japanese society. Instead of just an extracurricular, it feels that this just became an extension of your Japanese studies. I’m happy to hear that you’re doing further research on the koto and that you will be practicing your skills even after you return home.
    I also find your observations about keigo to be really interesting because I’m not very skilled in using it. English does not have special language to convey respect, but I think the idea of conveying your feelings applies in both languages. As long as your partner knows you’re conveying respect, they’ll be happy. I can’t say Americans are always as respectful as Japanese people tend to be though. It is nice to know that I can try to convey my feelings even without perfect keigo.

    • コメントしてくれて有難う~~

      I’m so happy that you feel that way! I often feel very out of place playing Koto in the USA, but I love the instrument and musical culture surrounding it so much that it doesn’t really bother me I guess. I definitely feel more validated in my playing after this experience– maybe someday I will be able to suppress my anxiety enough to perform for people?? To be honest a lot of what let me do the socializing I did this semester was the base of interacting with you and Paiva-san in E-gumi every day, まさに切磋琢磨し合うっちゅうことやな。E組万歳やな。