Creative non-fiction / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Zithering Away

by Sarah Coomber

Mists of another place and time trail my sensei, my teacher, as she carefully descends the spiral staircase to her studio, her gait quiet, her posture noble, aged silver-haired head tilted forward.

Seated before her koto, she tunes its thirteen strings one by one, lips pursed like tasting lemon. My lips do the same when I tune alone, always beginning with the pentatonic scale known as hirajōshi—"tranquil tuning"— D, G, A, A-sharp plus nine more notes rising, and I wonder what long-ago sensei invented our habit.

Sensei to seito, sensei to seito flows this music, this centuries-old Japanese tradition in which I am entangled, every week getting in my car and driving forty-five and sometimes many more minutes through the worst bottleneck in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area, flying through a tunnel and emerging onto a highway that feels for all the world like one I drove in Japan, to my first koto teacher's home. This portal leads me to a neighbourhood of cut-leaf maples, gaudy azaleas and rhododendrons, profuse blooming irises and the home of the petite octogenarian Japanese woman with whom I spend an hour in Japanese, learning technique, theory and repertoire, I sitting at the head of one koto, she sitting diagonally from me at the head of another. We begin with bows. "Osewa ni narimasu," I say, "I appreciate your care."

We play in unison and in parts, always simultaneously, so unlike how I studied piano as a child on the Upper Great Plains, every lesson an exam, every week a nervous solo performance. With koto, my teachers have played alongside me as if holding my hand, leading me forward into the music, backward in time. Our lessons segue to discussions of the jōhin—refined or elegant—spirit with which a koto player must perform, the clothes—kimono or black skirt and white blouse—she must wear and the image she must convey. Sensei makes sure that I frown with her on the flamboyance of Liberace-esque styling, the gall of wearing a Westernised kimono, and on any other behaviour that might smack of desecrating the fine heritage of this instrument.

I did not plan to study this art. I should be building my career, parenting my child, visiting friends or working out. Instead I sequester myself in my bedroom at night to practice and once a week grab a mug of tea, dash out of the house and drive into another world.


The koto is the official musical instrument of Japan, although like so much of Japanese culture—the tea ceremony, the written language, Buddhism—it arrived from China. In the eighth century, the koto was adopted into Japan's court music tradition and over time became the province of blind male musicians, and later a popular hobby for daughters of the nobility and middle class. Classified as a zither, today's common koto is a narrow, shallow six-foot-long box made of paulownia wood; thirteen strings are stretched taut down the length of its back, two sound holes are carved on its belly. Its thirteen ji—bridges—are moved fore and aft to give it various major and minor, traditionally pentatonic, tunings.

When asked to describe the koto's sound, I say it is the stringed instrument heard over sound systems in Japanese restaurants. But diners often eat to the sounds of the three-stringed shamisen, a fretless banjo-like instrument plucked with one corner of a large, elongated plectrum that looks like a windshield ice scraper. A relative newcomer to Japan—having arrived in the sixteenth century—the shamisen has a jaunty sound, like a tennis ball hit hard against a concrete wall, the sound of summer.

The koto, played with three small plectra worn on the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, has a less percussive, more serious sound. Autumn, winter and spring. Sitting at the koto's head, we use twenty-four different techniques in the right hand and fifteen in the left to produce some sounds common to Western musicians—vibrato, pizzicato and glissando—and others original to the East, the actual terms for which I cannot say. I have never stopped to count how many techniques I have learned or have yet to develop. Most of my understanding is based on oral tradition. I accept what I am told, absorb what I can and try not to fret the details.

Sensei says playing the koto is good for the body, good for the mind, the way it makes the blood flow among head, heart and hands, the way it requires the eyes to decipher notes, the way it pours songs into the ears. But playing this instrument can be painful. Passages with many sharps or pizzicato notes work the finger pads hard and eventually, mercifully, with regular practice, thick calluses develop. I imagine this would not have been the case years ago, when kotos were strung with silk.


My sensei's ancestors moved among feudal lords, and black-and-white photographs from her childhood hint at a privileged upbringing: her mother and older sister, women of regal bearing, stand solemn with younger children among snowy pine trees, three maids at hand, eyes downcast; her dark-suited father, having lost a son studying to be a doctor in Nagasaki, leads Emperor Hirohito through a crowd of bowing local families, all mourning their war dead. Sensei says she has never shown her husband the gnarled family tree that traces her family's roots back to 549, because to do so might be boastful. "I am an old-fashioned Japanese woman," she smiles, as explanation.

Before and after the War—playing music would have been frivolous during it—my sensei travelled to her sensei's home for daily lessons in which she learned the instrument's repertoire by ear, phrase by phrase, echoing her elder. She earned her koto license and taught neighbourhood children before meeting and marrying her husband, her plan to become a Japanese housewife, not a koto teacher.

Then plans changed. Her husband's company transferred him to the United States and back, while she stayed in Japan with her parents. Then it transferred him again, but he refused to go without her and their two young daughters. His company acquiesced, and the four of them arrived in Oregon, Sensei with a pair of kotos. That was half a century ago, just sixteen years after the end of the War, when Sensei thought her stay abroad would be brief. She kept her children immersed in the Japanese language at home, ever ready to return to Japan. She battled melancholy with appreciation: for the novelty of central heating, for the comfort of dry summers.

When five years had passed, Sensei recognised that her life would be in the States, even if home would not. She accepted her uprooting and loneliness by offering koto lessons to other Japanese immigrants and their children. She formed a non-profit music group that played at schools and festivals; its members became her social circle.

Insulated from most of American life, she never became conversant in the language or culture. Transplanted from her homeland, she maintained the old ways—dress, language and mores—and is ribbed for this by childhood friends on annual visits back. When my Japanese host sister met Sensei, she marvelled to find in the United States a woman so like her late grandmother, who had never ventured far from home in southern Japan.

Sensei's atmosphere reminds me of the haze that rises on cool mornings from rice paddies, out of the mud and verdant leaves, temporarily transforming workaday farmland into an otherworldly scene. She exudes a certain soft loneliness, an air of in-between-ness that comes from being not quite here or there. Mists over rice paddies dissipate with the midday sun, but it seems nothing has ever pulled Sensei completely into the bright day of her own life.


I understand Sensei's use of koto as an elixir for loneliness, and without the spectre of too much solitude would never have encountered her world.

I arrived in the Portland area in 2005, forty-four years after my sensei, also as a result of my husband's work. Lonely, I turned to my koto, which had been languishing for years, dragged from place to place, home to home, usually propped in a corner, dressed in its orange brocade cover, tsuru—herons—in full flight, ji in place, ignored, as I, and then my husband and I, established a life.

I had let my koto out for air a few times, played it in a Wisconsin pub before a rowdy crowd hit the floor for beer-fuelled polkas; demonstrated it at a chain restaurant in my Minnesota hometown for curious senior citizens; performed at an international festival for which my then-future husband, an American, studied a Japanese brochure to learn how to tie a stiff golden obi around the waist of my kimono, transforming it into a gilded butterfly. But mostly my koto was quiet.

Preparing to move to the Portland area, I had found Sensei on the Web. When I first arrived at her home, I found her to be an old woman, grey hair layered in soft curls, body clothed in refined grey and black. Her Western-style home was installed with low kitchen counters, Eastern and Western art co-mingled on her walls, windows framed a Japanese garden-style yard. She insisted I not take off my shoes, but I could not help myself. East meets West meets East again.


The koto and I had made our first acquaintance in 1994, eleven years before I met my Portland sensei. I was twenty-four years old and freshly unencumbered, a divorce and disappearance from graduate school effectively hitting the pause button on my life. I arrived in the town of Shuho-cho, in southern Japan, where I found a perfectly tidy three-bedroom apartment, pink sheets on a twin bed, picture-perfect grapes in a chest-high refrigerator, frog-filled rice paddy outside my window. The peacefulness was astonishing.

Aside from fulfilling a one-year contract teaching English conversation to junior high school students, my only goal was to avoid new entanglements. I figured at the end of one year I would leave Japan, return to the United States, press play and carry on.

Then, during my first week there, my new boss at the stuffy, smoky Board of Education office sent me with his wife away from the banks of grey metal desks strewn with papers and pens and up the stairs to a world of woven tatami mats and sliding wood-and-paper doors. She took me to meet her club, the koto club, which included an assortment of townspeople: the wife of a Buddhist priest, a post office worker, a girlish town employee and a male junior high school teacher who played the group's only seventeen-string bass koto.

As I entered the sun-warmed little room, where the koto club members had been setting up instruments and music stands for their group lesson, everything stopped. Their sensei, sensing change, turned, saw me and beamed.

She possessed an unusual level of twinkle and looked like one beloved. Her lined face and long, pinned-up hair were accented by finely detailed clothing and delicate jewellery, all offset by the energy of a young woman, even a girl, albeit one with wise eyes. She locked those friendly eyes on mine. "Hallo," she would say. "Howareyou? Hahaha!" I imagined her deeply in love with a debonair grey-haired husband who, now retired, would surely be tapping at his watch wondering why time stood still as he awaited her return to their love nest.

Much later I would learn that she was older than I had thought, that hers was a life of substantial tragedy, that she was alone except for her son, his wife and their daughter, and later misfortune would strike that happy nook of life as well. I would see melancholy play itself across her face only late at night, when she hosted me in the creaky, uneven-floored house she had inherited from her father. After soup, fish and rice, after glasses of beer (or were they cups of tea?), after baths in her cast-iron tub, after she had changed into her sleepwear and let her hair spill long, she would tell me stories, happenings she said she could not share with others. I felt as if I was hearing confession, that I was becoming her keeper of secrets, secrets that I would gather in the vessel of my memory, removing some sadness from her world, taking it with me back to mine, where I could toss my memories of those troubles into the wide-open spaces of my homeland, where the wind would scatter them like bad fortunes blown from paper o-mikuji, which are tied to the branches of trees at Shinto shrines.

After relocating to the States, visits back to Japan would bring me to her home, where I slept on futon in a small room blocked off with fusuma—sliding paper walls—and filled with her collection of expensive-looking blouses, skirts and scarves. One year I fell asleep to the sound of rats scuttling overhead; another year, I lay awake listening to the snoring of her protective new tenant, a bald-headed, tough-looking friend of her son, who must have scared off the vermin while helping her fix up the old house. The next morning, she had him deliver me to the train station in his broad, low-riding, dark-windowed car.

But all that would come later. The day I met my first sensei, she quickly had me on my knees, seiza, lower legs prickling and then falling asleep in front of a koto, which was raised on a stand just inches off the tatami. On the tips of my right-hand thumb and first two fingers she put leather rings to which were attached tsume—literally "claws" or "fingernails." She directed my eyes toward a sheet of koto music—boxes of Japanese characters, beautiful but mostly indecipherable to me, read top to bottom, right to left, pages turned with the left hand—set on a short music stand. And she made me play.

She pointed to the characters on the page and pointed to the strings. This was my first experience of tablature, in which the character for one (一) corresponded to the first string and so on, up to thirteen (巾). An incompetent reader of Japanese, I found it nearly impossible to translate the information on that page into music. She seemed unwilling to believe it.

By the end of that unexpected lesson, after I had successfully plucked a few notes at the right time, she had me signed up as a koto club member carrying my own pink plastic box of tsume and orange brocade folder of unreadable music. And, horrifyingly, she had signed me up to perform with her group in an upcoming international music festival that was inexplicably being held in our little rural town. I protested. I had spent fourteen years studying the piano with rigorous and demanding teachers and would never have performed in public without knowing I had a good shot at executing the music with competence. My sensei's response? "If you get lost, just po-zu!,"—"pose." She twinkled and giggled in the back of her throat.

That koto lesson was the beginning of the unravelling of my plan to live a solitary year unencumbered, floating in Japan. Just like that, I had a large borrowed instrument for a roommate, new music in my head, a reason to study the Japanese language and an upcoming performance.

The unravelling continued that first week in Shuho-cho, with my twenty-fifth birthday, which prompted a party that introduced me to my second encumbrance.

The Shuho-cho Board of Education, which had imported me—greeting me at the Ube airport with welcome signs; my smiling boss, eyebrows raised, hopping up and down; a caravan of cars driving me like spoils of war (their very own foreigner!) back to Shuho-cho—had prepared my apartment on the executive floor of a cement company dormitory. This building housed several young men in single rooms off a community living area on the ground floor, where they were nurtured by a sweet obasan, who cooked for them, did their laundry, listened to their troubles and enabled them to focus solely on their careers and extracurricular pursuits. The second and third floors of the building had apartments where several couples and families, and then I, lived.

When my new neighbours learned it was my birthday, they invited me for a party downstairs: bouquets and toasts, a fruit-covered cake and kind wishes. I was seated next to a twenty-five-year-old man, a geologist for the cement company, who patiently helped me negotiate the swirl of Japanese words around me, maybe even smoothed over my first big gaffe, when I was asked what I thought of rural Shuho-cho and replied that I liked it so much better than Tokyo with all that horrible cement up there.

Afterward, as I retreated to the outdoor staircase that led up to my apartment, my new ally dashed out of the building and placed books in my hands, one of which was titled "Beyond Polite Japanese." A birthday gift. He smiled and ran back inside.

In my mind, this man quickly became entwined with the koto as I timed my practising to coincide with his arrival home from work. The otherwise empty tatami-matted bedroom I had designated as my music studio faced the building's parking lot, and I would crack the window, slip my tsume on my fingers and kneel before my koto to play, listening for his car and hoping he would hear me, hoping he would remember me and pay me a visit. I felt like a character in some old Japanese novel, where the koto's song conveyed messages, where men fell in love with unseen women playing kotos.

I was not looking for love, but my new friend did come to visit, and he did become my beau. That is another story, one that grounded me in Shuho-cho and its koto club for a full year longer than I had planned. For a while I was not lonely.


That first koto lesson in Shuho-cho was eighteen years ago now, and it has been seven years since I began studying koto in Portland, but still, when my second sensei and I embark on a new piece of music, I must ignore how awful it sounds. The first time through sounds grisly, not only because of my many errors but because my Western ears tell me the composer has written intervals and lines of deliberately bad-sounding music in wilful disobedience of the common rules of good taste. Progressions make no sense, intervals seem random. As if that were not challenge enough, once I begin to play with some confidence, Sensei switches to another part—because one melodic line of dissonance is clearly insufficient—at which point my brain insists we are playing two different pieces of equally grating music that were never meant to meet. The emperor has no clothes.

Over time, though, out of the fog of sound, sense begins to emerge. After more time, I begin to anticipate and even look forward to the next phrase and the next, until the discordant piece becomes a friend, and I become eager for each thematic element and, when it arrives, relish it and find that somehow dissonance, in my ear, has become consonance and the song feels as if it has become my own.


As I was wrapping up my two years in Shuho-cho, saying farewell to students and teachers, shopkeepers, postal workers, friends and boyfriend, who by then had been transferred to horrible, cement-encrusted Tokyo, my first sensei made me an offer she would not let me refuse: she gave me her old koto. I demurred. She insisted. I declined. She persisted. And then she set conditions: before sending my koto home, I had to get it restrung. Hai, Sensei. Then, once I got it home, I must share koto music with others in my home country. Hai. It was my own Great Commission.

I was mortified—not as much by her offer but by the fact that I had not seen it coming and had not pre-empted it by doing the honourable thing: purchasing my own koto. Not long after getting drawn into her world, my sensei had started working on me to purchase a koto and get my license. Much as martial artists work to attain different coloured belts, koto musicians work to attain ever higher levels of competency and then licensure for teaching.

But my intent had been to spend a discrete, deleteable year in Japan. I planned to leave Japan in Japan. "What would I do with a koto in America?" I had asked her, imagining the burden of hauling and storing a six-foot-long instrument that I would have only the rarest of opportunities to play.

Now I knew my sensei's vision, perhaps from Day One, had been for me to introduce the koto to the uninitiated masses across the Pacific.

My koto experiences had included much more than weekly lessons and the rather harrowing international music festival at which I, wrapped in lavender yukata and extremely visible as our group's only foreigner, lost my place and, for some terrible seconds, did need to "po-zu." Then came bunkasai (the autumn culture festival) and various koto gatherings for which we club members dressed in kimono, kneeling on stages to play, I all the while worrying that my sleeping legs would betray me, leaving me to crawl off the stage dragging my koto behind me. Lessons sometimes involved as much visiting as playing: my sensei arriving with seasonal treats wrapped in soft, exquisite papers, I arriving with questions about Japanese society and culture, sometimes in tears.

I was embarrassed that I had so vexed this woman by not committing to the koto that she had decided the only answer was to send one with me. And I felt the weight of what she was asking me. How would I share the koto with America? I was a beginner tossed into the middle of the koto ocean—suddenly adopted into a koto club, quickly pulled into a koto performance, and then another and another—and had never stopped to learn anything about koto history or theory. Just as my survival-based approach to learning the Japanese language, focusing on conversation over reading and writing, had left me mostly illiterate, my focus with koto, keeping up with my sensei and the other students, had left me to learn songs loosely, theory flimsily, never considering the music's pentatonic nature or how it related to or contrasted with Western music. I was treading water all around, unqualified to teach or explain much of anything to anyone.

Besides, I was a pianist. I had accepted the koto as part of my life in Japan mainly because of the benefits I could reap: membership in a club and an identity beyond the isolating designation of "foreigner." But my plan had always been to say sayōnara to Japan, and return to my planned career in journalism and avocation of playing the piano, a reasonable, useful instrument.

I had studied piano through college, where I resisted my teacher's urging to major in piano performance, unable to envision a life indoors, sitting, practising, perfecting. The decision made, I frowned at the piano majors from afar, watching them pursue my rejected path, knowing that in dropping out of the race, I would never be able to catch up, learn the repertoire, maintain the technique. The decision haunted me for years, bothering me throughout my time in Japan and beyond. What I could not see when my first sensei gave me her koto was that it would become my deliverance.

Some years after returning from Shuho-cho, I would study piano again for a time, reconnecting with my childhood teacher, even playing with her school-age students in a spring recital, my new parents-in-law beaming in the audience. It would be my last piano hurrah, followed by a cross-country move to Washington state, sans piano. A couple of years later, I would acquire a dusty 1929 upright I found for free in the want ads. Once installed in my husband's and my home, it would stand in judgment, beckoning me and repelling me as if I had invited a tyrant inside. I would feel I should be working to rebuild my technical skills, playing through old music and learning new. But why? I would play and then avoid playing, make no progress and find little joy. We would haul that behemoth with us once, twice, three times. I would dutifully get it tuned, and it would loom again in each new home. Quietly.

Then I would find my new koto community, and with my second sensei being in her eighties and surely not teaching forever, the decision to jettison the piano and its associated guilt would be suddenly easy. Redemption by koto.

I could not foresee any of this when I received my Great Commission in Shuho-cho. Obediently, I mailed home my freshly restrung koto, airmail, the only way the postal service would accept such a long, narrow object, and envisioned my parents opening their door in Minnesota to accept that oversized cardboard container filled with a strung wooden box wrapped in orange brocade, memories of two years lived in a small Japanese town, reminder of an old woman's wish.


Many years after sending my koto to Minnesota and hauling it with me to a succession of homes in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Washington state, I learned that the koto is likened to a dragon, a ryu.

I had known that the plectra used to pluck the strings were called tsume, meaning fingernails or claws, but I had not envisioned a dragon in the rest of the instrument's body: the top of the instrument being the dragon's back, the base, where leftover string is coiled, the dragon's tail or the two-legged stand the dragon's legs.

Did it mean that when I arranged the koto's ji, or bridges, I was harnessing a wild beast? Truly, if not tuned properly its notes are as dissonant as Godzilla's howls. I felt powerful, imagining that wearing the dragon's claws, I was tickling a great creature's back, however mythical.


When I play the koto now, I feel as if I too trail mists of other places and times: the dreams of the sensei I left in Japan and the legacy she wanted me to share in America; the teaching of my current sensei, a dai hi han—grand master— koto player, who passes down what she learned from her sensei and her sensei's sensei, something like apostolic succession, back to the seventeenth century, when our school of koto was born. I remember my first sensei, unlucky in love, and my own unluckiness that had brought me to Japan, to her koto club. I think of my second sensei and her choice to join her husband in a foreign, lonely land, and my own decision to decline a proposal that would have kept me on the other side of the same ocean, in her homeland, possibly forever.

Instead I followed the gravity of the familiar, moving home, later marrying well and happily. But still I encountered a loneliness that led me back to the koto and to her.


When I left Japan, I did not receive—or perhaps did not understand—instruction in the care and feeding of the koto, and did not know till nearly a decade had passed that a dragon should be left unharnessed, given its head when untended.

I discovered my mistake when my second koto club gathered in Portland to play, some of us bringing our own instruments. From my first lesson with her, Sensei's most common admonishment had been for me to play her koto with more strength, and when I brought my own koto that day and began tuning it, she instantly understood the problem. For years I had left my koto's strings mounted taut on their ji and, as a result, they had loosened to such a degree that they were slack, nearly spent. I had slain my dragon with ignorance, and there were no koto technicians around to revive it. Sensei hurried the sorry thing off my stand and out of her studio.

She cast about and soon found a club member ready to part with a newer, better-cared-for koto that I was invited to purchase. Before long that second koto was in my home, mostly unharnessed, and every time I reined it in, put its ji in place, I built up stronger fingers and clearer sounds.

I asked Sensei if she knew anyone who might want to purchase my old, tired koto, now relegated to the back of the closet, at rest below my husband's shirts. She advised me to keep it for someday when I too might teach, as this was her plan for me. I took in a breath, preparing to protest. Then I stopped.

Perhaps fate, like the koto, is best left unharnessed.

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