The koto is a traditional Japanese instrument that came to Japan from China around 700 AD. It was originally made from kiri (paulownia tree) that has heart-shaped leaves. It is a soft, porous wood that gives the deep, warm sound, like a harp (although it is classified under the zither family). It is approximately 6'-3" long, 10" wide and about 3" deep. It has two sound holes at the bottom and is hollow inside. The traditional koto has 13 strings (originally silk, and now usually substituted with tetolon), with 13 moveable bridges (originally ivory but now also made of plastic). It is played with three ivory picks worn on the right hand. Some compare the koto to a dragon crouching by the sea because of its length. At the head of the dragon the strings are pulled down through eyelets, representing the horns of the dragon. At the opposite end the strings are coiled like the tail of a dragon. The bridges represent the scale of the dragon.
To know (o)koto is to understand me and my love for this Japanese instrument. I was born in Japan but immigrated to America at the age of 6 with my mother, brother and two sisters. Facing the struggles and hardship of adapting to a foreign country, I longed to return to Japan. It was not much longer after our arrival in Los Angeles that was I introduced to the instrument. My family was attending a social/welfare event for immigrants, and I saw a woman perform on the koto. This woman sat at one end of the koto and when her fingers touched the strings, beautiful, harp-like sounds emanated throughout the hall. At that moment, I immediately fell in love with the sound and image. I begged my mother to let me play koto.
This woman playing this angelic sounding instrument was Kazue Kudo, who also had just immigrated to America. She was searching for a place to teach and was settling her life in a new country with her husband and three sons. My family's living room became the "studio" where Kudo Sensei (teacher) initially taught in the Los Angeles area. I have studied classical, traditional koto with Kudo Sensei for over thirty years. I have also received my "natori" (teaching/professional/master degree) from the acclaimed Michio Miyagi Koto School of Japan.