My Journey with the Dragon – How I fell in love with the Koto

I heard the Koto played long before I ever decided to learn how to play.

In fact, anyone who has been to a Japanese restaurant has more than likely heard the Koto being played as background music. I grew up in a family with strong musical roots- my great grandfather composed music for bands that played in the gazebo in New Farm Park .

However, growing up, no musical instrument really took my interest, and by the time I moved to Japan, I couldn’t read sheet music, let alone play an instrument. I was convinced those piano lessons my parents had forced me to take had been a waste of time and money.

So, when I moved to Japan for work did I have a sudden epiphany to start learning music? No. Did I take it up as another hobby to help me integrate into my community? No.I started playing Koto because of sponge cake, that’s right, sponge cake.

Let me explain. An elderly Japanese friend had bought her first-ever oven and wanted to make a birthday cake for her grandson. Apparently I was the only person she knew who could make a cake from scratch so she visited my apartment one day for a cooking lesson. Once the cake had come out of the oven and we’d enjoyed it, together with copious amounts of green tea, my friend turned to me and asked…
“You like Japanese things don’t you?”
“Yes of course” I answered, it was only polite and frankly it was true.
“What do you think of the Koto?” she asked.
“It sounds nice” I said in reply thinking nothing of it.
“Why don’t you try it?”
Knowing my friend played the instrument I thought this was an invitation to try which would have been rude to refuse. “Okay sure” I said not realising what was about to happen, “When?”
“What?” I replied in shock, still covered in flour. It was then that I was hurried from my apartment and led through a series of winding back streets to a house I was sure did not exist the day before. After being ushered through the door, I found myself in front of a woman who wore her age with a dignity I have never seen since. Her beehive of hair seemed larger than she was but there was a warmth in her smile.
“Welcome,” she said casually strumming her instrument, the notes cascading from her fingers like a babbling stream.
It became clear she’d been expecting me because her next words were.
“Your first concert is in three months, good luck.”

Somehow from that first meeting, I have become a certified player and the proud owner of three Koto, a 17 gen base koto and a shamisen. But that’s another story. The moral of this story is, that sharing a sponge cake recipe in Japan can take you to fascinating places.

David Shield

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