Koto

What do you “hear” when I ask you to think of traditional Japanese music? Is it the shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, or the shamisen or biwa, guitar-like string instruments? Most likely, it’s the soft tones of the Japanese koto, ubiquitous in many videos about Japan.

The koto is one of Japan’s string instruments, a large zither-like instrument with origins in China. It’s made from Paulownia wood, is 180 cm long and has typically 13 silken strings. It is played with the right hand (using fingerpicks) and the left hand is used as support and to move the bridges that are used by tuning – sometimes even during the performance of a piece.

As mentioned above, and like many other things, the koto has its origins in China, and it was introduced to Japan somewhere in the 7th or 8th century. It is already mentioned in the Genji Monogatari of the 11th century, so it must have been quite widespread at this time already.

There once were different types of koto, and interestingly, as far as professional musicians go, these were exclusively blind men in the beginning. Only when this rule was changed, were women allowed to play and to teach the instrument. For this reason, many of the traditional songs were written by men.

With the westernization beginning with the Meiji Restoration, koto music, together with other Japanese traditions, lost a lot of its appeal for the Japanese, who were more likely to study the violin or other classical instruments of the Western canon.

However, Michio Miyagi, a blind man who reached the highest rank of koto performer when he was just 18 years old, created many new songs in which he combined the traditional and the Western style of music. His piece below is called “Tegoto” and I like it because it is so dynamic and shows off not only the instrument’s unique sound, but also the player.

The sound is not the best in this video, but you can see the hands of Ms. Kimoto at every note of the song. Enjoy!

Moon Viewing

Last Friday night was a full moon, and the full moon in September is considered the most beautiful by Japanese people. That’s why there are many moon viewing parties going on everywhere, from the expensive dinners and tea ceremonies in quiet gardens to festival-like events with food stalls in shrines and temples, and there are some people who just go out with a can of beer and organise their own moon-viewing picnic.

This year, I took some time out to visit Shimogamo Shrine for their moon viewing event. I live very close to the shrine, so it’s easy to get to, and my choice was partly driven by the cloudy skies that looked like it would start to rain any moment. At Shimogamo Shrine, the full moon is a rather minor accessory to the events, the big thing is a concert of traditional Japanese music. It lasts for three hours, and there are a number of participants. I am not sure if they are the same every year, but this year we had:

Five people playing the shakuhachi to kick off the concert. I was very pleased about that, and I found it quite interesting that my own shakuhachi sounds so much deeper than the ones they played. I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong, actually, that’s very likely since most of the times, I cannot get a tone out of it anyway…Gagaku Musicians

Afterwards we had a gagaku concert – traditional Japanese court music. It is still not my thing, I find it excruciatingly boring, and I am wondering if the people back in Heian times really and honestly enjoyed this kind of music.

Then, a large troupe of koto players took the stage, and this was the part I enjoyed most. They played very lively and modern sounding pieces, but from the reaction of the spectators next to me who could hum the tunes alongside the musicians, I guess that the pieces must have been very old and popular ones.

The biwa music that followed was less exciting to be honest, but still my fellow spectators knew the tunes. I could not help wondering whether half of the musicians were Buddhist priests or nuns – shaved heads and all.biwa musiciansAfter a biwa solo recital and one more fun koto part, we got to the highlight of the evening: another gagaku concert. This time, however, the music accompanied dancers, which made the whole experience much more bearable. We had three dances, first four children dressed in butterfly outfits, then two men who might have been courtiers, and finally, a single performance of a demon, complete with mask, sword, and spear.Kids dancing as butterflies.

The dance movements were extremely formalised, almost stiff, to be honest, the dancers didn’t look very graceful. Only the demon at the end was allowed to brandish his spear in a more realistic way, it must have been a part for a very advanced performer. Still, all the costumes were fantastic and elaborately decorated, it was a joy to just look at all the details. I am sure the colors and embroidery have some hidden meaning, but even so, they were lost on me.Demon Dance

I bought a ticket for reserved seats in front of the stage and I did not regret it – standing for three hours is no fun at all. The ticket also included a cup of green tea with sweets, but I would have had to leave my seat to get it. I thought about it and, looking back, I should have just gone during the first gagaku concert, but it was fine anyway. In the end, I had a nice evening – and when I walked home, the moon came out from behind the clouds for a brief “good night”.

Taiko

Among the many types of traditional Japanese music instruments, taiko drums are probably the most exciting. They have been used in many settings, including court music and theater – both noh and kabuki – but the biggest taiko drums were used during warfare. There, they were used chiefly for communication, to let the troops know when to attack or to retreat, or simply to keep the beat during long marches.

Today, these large drums are often played during festivals, and then, it’s usually in the form of a kumi-daiko, where a group of people with different sized drums performs together. I enjoy listening to taiko music, it is – excuse the pun – always very upbeat and energising. The video below shows a performance by Kodo, which is probably the taiko troupe that is best known outside of Japan, since they are touring abroad for four months each year.

The video is 8:24 long and safe for work – although you might want to turn the volume down a bit.

Important Cultural Property

You have no idea what I have met last Sunday… But let’s start at the beginning!

Last Sunday, I took a few hours off to take an introductory course on Noh in a very small Noh theater. Noh (or Nohgaku) is traditional Japanese theater with a history of some 600 years, and I have seen one play before. This time, however, there was an in-depth explanation of some aspects of Noh, given by three actors of both the Kanze and the Kongo theater – both major traditional Noh schools.

The course came in three parts: In the first, we got a brief historical overview, then talked about chants (Utai), masks (Omote), and movements (Kata). Two people could even try putting on one of the masks, which must have been very exciting for them. Anyway, in the second part, the movements were explored further, and the audience learnt a very short chant to which the actor then performed the moves on stage. Even though I can’t sing, this was the most fun part of them all.

Nohgaku TranslationIn the third part, we saw a short excerpt of the Noh play “Atsumori“. But first, the most senior actor played that part with all its movements and chanted in English what was happening. Noh movements are very complex and refined, without knowing what is going on it is pretty much impossible to discern it just from watching the play. So, this part was very useful, since we could compare the English version to the stylised real version we could watch just a few moments later. I liked this part a lot, and it gave me more incentive to go back and see more Noh plays. Yes, for some odd reason, I do like Noh, even though most of it is practically incomprehensible to the outsider.

Anyway, after the course, there was first a question and answer session, and afterwards, a few people – me included – went to have dinner in a nearby Japanese restaurant. There, the instructors of the course, the staff of the theater, and 12 people from the audience could sit together and eat, drink, and talk to the Noh actors. It turned out that the oldest one – who spoke English almost flawlessly – was the representative of a very small local Noh theatre. He was very knowledgeable, and talking to him gave me lots of things to think about.

Towards the end of the dinner, people exchanged business cards, and, you won’t believe it: That old sensei was a “Designated National Human Important Cultural Property” of Japan. These people are usually extremely knowledgeable in a traditional art of craft, and they are officially charged to maintain the art on the highest possible level and transmit their knowledge to future generations. Obviously, there are not many of them, and I am so thrilled that I could actually meet one of them – and even more: That he could speak English so well and that I was allowed to ask all sorts of questions.

Yes, I do indeed like Noh. I will be back for more!

Not Getting Out Of Bed!

A friend of mine just sent me a link to the video below, it’s a very cute Japanese song and anime with the title “I’m not getting out of bed” or literally, out of the futon. It tells a story every Japanese can relate to:

When you wake up in the morning and you have to get up, but it’s really, really too cold to step out of bed…
When the room is finally warm enough, but you now have to go to the toilet, but it’s really, really too cold to leave the room…

To all my European friends who suffer from the extreme cold there at the moment: I feel for you! If you can’t enjoy the cold, at least enjoy the cute penguin!

Kokyu

Last Saturday I went to a small open air concert in a temple in the centre of Kyoto: koto and shakuhachi. The two instruments go well together, and the flute was the main reason why I wanted to go. I had been to koto concerts before, but never heard a shakuhachi live. And I have to say – I was disappointed by it.

I am not sure what was wrong with the shakuhachi player – a rather old monk from said temple – whether I could not hear him because the microphone was not well-adjusted or functioning (there were a number of total outages throughout the concert) or whether the player himself didn’t have enough breath do make himself heard.

The two koto players were very good though, so my time was not wasted. Interestingly, I was the only non-senior in the audience, something I had not expected at all. But maybe because of this, I was treated to a very special performance: The last song (and the encore) must have been well-known tunes, because at some point, people in the audience started singing along! Man and women alike accompanied (or were accompanied by) the koto and the shakuhachi. It was lovely!

A Japanese Kokyu As a bonus, I learnt something new: In one of the pieces, a so-called kokyu was used. It looks like a half-sized shamisen, but is played like a cello. A kokyu has three silken strings and the bow is a thick handful of horsetail hair. The bow-strings (do you call it like that?) are slack, and you need to use the ring finger of the bow hand to tighten it while you play.

This is not easy, and I know that because I was allowed to try it after the concert – obviously the foreigner bonus. To be honest, the sound of the kokyu is not very pleasant to Western ears. It is reminiscent of the Chinese erhu, but the tones of the kokyu are less crisp. I guess this is either because the bow is never really taut, or because of the silken strings.

All in all I had a nice afternoon, even though I will have to try and catch another shakuhachi concert. I hope that I will hear about more concerts and events like this – there is so much to do and learn in Kyoto!

Shakuhachi

A Shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made from bamboo.

Recently, I have been looking for Shakuhachi music online and I am very impressed by it. I am not a very musical person, but learning Shakuhachi is something I might want to do at some point, given enough time and money – a good Shakuhachi can cost 300 EUR and more (oops, missed a zero: it’s 3000 EUR) . I will do some more research and write a proper weekend article at some other time.

Listen to the music below, it is a modern piece written in 1995, after the disastrous Hanshin earthquake in Kobe. Enjoy!

Court Music

Last Saturday I was invited to a performance of Gagaku – traditional Japanese Court Music. Gagaku is an ancient form of music; it was imported – together with instruments – from Korea and China around the 8th century, i.e., at the start of the Heian period.

A Gakagu orchestra consists of wind instruments (different types of flutes), string instruments (zither, lute, and harp) and different types and sizes of drums. There are often three parts to a concert: one where the whole orchestra plays together, another one containing songs and actual singing, and a third one where only the drums and wind instruments accompany classical dance.

I went to the performance not really knowing what to expect. When everybody had settled down (the place was sold out), a young girl came on stage and made a short introduction before the curtain lifted. There was an orchestra of maybe 30 people, sitting on tatami in a stage that was fenced off with red wood like in a shrine. The percussion instruments were in front, the strings behind them, and the wind instruments in the very back on red steps. They started with the kangen, concert music, and the effect was … striking. It was similar to the music I had heard before at shinto shrines; I would call it rather a sequence of tones that were more or less attuned to each other than a melody that you could follow to help you along. The second part was a short introduction to a song that was contained in the brochure, in the end the whole audience was expected to sing along with the teacher on stage. It was fun, even without understanding Japanese (or being able to sing…) a gagaku orchestraDuring the break, the stage had been rearranged for the third part, the bugaku, or dance music. The string instruments were gone, and the musicians now sitting to the left and right of the tatami stage in the middle, where the dancing took place. The dancers, clad in elaborate costumes, performed slow dances fitting the music, almost like the stylised movements in Noh theatre, or, as a friend of mine observed, resembling the slow movements in tai chi.

The whole concert took only 90 minutes, and to be honest, I was rather happy about this. It was interesting and worth a try, but nothing I really need to do again. The music could not move me at all, as I said there was no melody at all to help you along or make you understand the intention of the song. I liked the songs in the middle, but that was only a 10 minute intermezzo. The dancing would have been more interesting had I known what the movements meant. That was similar enough to Noh to expect that with some deeper understanding you could get something out of it though.

Maybe there is something more to it, I have to confess complete and utter ignorance here I’m afraid. I know, however, that I’m not the only one: the lady sitting next to me, after taking off her shoes, fell sound asleep within the first five minutes of the concert. Or, maybe, she just had had a hard day?

Obon

As mentioned before, this week marked Obon, the Festival of the Dead in Japan. It is an ancient Buddhist ritual to worship the family ancestors who are said to return from the afterlife to visit their decendants. Traditionally, Obon was celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calender (and is still in the southern parts of Japan like Okinawa for example) but with the switch from the lunar to the Gregorian calender, things became more complicated. Today, Obon is celebrated around 15th of August almost everywhere in Japan, but in the Kanto region around Tokyo and in Tohoku it happens one month before that. The three days of Obon are not national holidays, but many people are given leave anyway, especially small family run businesses are closed.

The rituals performed during Obon vary greatly depending on the local customs, but as I mentioned yesterday, many of them involve fire and light. I am sure there are special rituals performed at home as well, at each family’s ancestral shrine, but unfortunately I am not privy to any details here.

One thing that is done everywhere though are Bon Odori or Obon dance performances to entertain the dead – and the living as well. I went to the one at Enma-do temple in Kyoto last Wednesday night. There were about 20 performers, all dressed in same yukata and turquoise socks, and I was surprised to see both children and women among them (as women often have no place in religious ceremonies). In the beginning were musical pieces with flutes and small (taiko) drums.

Music performance with drums and flutesThen followed the dances, accompanied by music and sometimes a sung story. I am not entirely sure, but the two guys below dressed as women (do you notice their hair-ornaments?) performed a rather comical piece; and the two girls were meant to conjure images of the Maiko of Gion with their long sleeved kimono.

cross-dressed guys dancingwomen depicting maikoThe highlight however, was the lion’s dance: It told (all without words) the story of a lion, living peacefully in the forest – performing acrobatic feats so as to not get bored – until a “great” warrior came along and killed the poor beast. As you can see, I was rooting for the lion all the way! acrobatic lion on a small pedestalwarrior ensaring the lion in a net

Biwa

Besides the large parades and processions that involve all the inner city and the Gion area in Kyoto, there are many small events taking place in July that are somehow connected to Gion matsuri. For example, last week there was a biwa recital at one of the stages of Yasaka shrine.

A biwa is a traditional Japanese instrument, a type of lute, originating in the 7th century. It is associated with Benten, the Shinto goddess of music, poetry, and education, and has seen a revival in recent years.The biwa is a lute with four strings which are struck with a large triangular plectrum, and it is held so that the neck is pointing upwards, with the body resting on the lap of the player, who has to sit in seiza, a kneeling position. a woman playing on a biwaSo I went to the recital last week and found it very interesting. I had not expected it to be such a drawn out affair though; there were 11 players, each of them playing a song of about 15 – 20 minutes. Interestingly, the order of the artists was according to increasing proficiency (or years of training), with the two masters at the very end. Just as with the Noh, I did not have that amount of time or patience, so I left long before their performance, but next time I’ll know what to expect.

Also, I did not know that the players had to sing as well – I expected a purely instrumental afternoon and was quite surprised when the first song started. Once again, it was highly formalized, but I cannot say for sure whether the songs were traditional or modern Japanese – I did not understand much of them in any case. I found the recital very interesting, but it is not one of those things for every day, just like the Noh. Nevertheless I will try to catch another performance at some point in the future – knowing that I’ll have to arrive towards the end to hear the really good players.