Koto: The National Instrument of Japan


In doing some research on the Shamisen, I stumbled onto the Koto and was suddenly reminded that this instrument (and it’s cousins) are largely and undeniably associated with Asian culture.

“The koto (箏) is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument, similar to the Chinese zheng, the Mongolianyatga, the Korean gayageum and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. The koto is the national instrument of Japan. Koto are about 180 centimetres (71 in) length, and made from kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa). They have 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, index finger, and middle finger) to pluck the strings.” – Wikipedia

circa 2008, near the Japan Sea. Photo I snapped on our way out of the hotel.
circa 2008, near the Japan Sea. Photo I snapped on our way out of the hotel.

I’m a big fan of string instruments and the peaceful sound they can produce. I can remember sitting in the hotel lobby of a popular onsen in northern Japan, waiting to check out , feeling a calm come over me. When we got up to leave I hadn’t realizes a woman had been softly playing a koto on a small stage.

It was beautiful. A nice end to that part of our trip.

“When the koto was first imported to Japan, the native word koto was a generic term for any and all Japanese stringed instruments. Over time the definition of koto could not describe the wide variety of these stringed instruments and so the meanings changed. The azumagoto or yamatogoto was called the wagon, the kin no koto was called the kin, and the sau no koto (sau being an older pronunciation of 箏) was called the sō or koto.

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 5.20.41 PM
Japanese Koto | Haji Maji from hajimaji.com

The modern koto originates from the gakusō used in Japanese court music. It was a popular instrument among the wealthy; the instrument koto was considered a romantic one. Some literary and historical records indicate that solo pieces for koto existed centuries before sōkyoku, the music of the solo koto genre, was established. According toJapanese literature, the koto was used as imagery and other extra music significance. In one part of “The Tales of Genji (Genji monogatari)”, Genji falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman, who he has never seen before, after he hears her playing the koto from a distance.”

I’ll leave you with the “Koto Concerto” I found.

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Three Strings: The Shamisen

As promised last week, here are my findings on the Shamisen.

A Geisha And Shamisen
A Geisha And Shamisen

“The shamisen or samisen (三味線?, literally “three strings”), also called sangen (三絃?, literally “three strings”), is a three-stringed, Japanese musical instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi.”

“The shamisen is a plucked stringed instrument. Its construction follows a model similar to that of a guitar or a banjo, with a neck and strings stretched across a resonating body. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and slimmer than that of a guitar or banjo. The body, called the  (胴?), resembles a drum, having a hollow body that is taut front and back with skin, in the manner of a banjo.” -Wikipedia

A Geisha And Her Shamisen, 1955
A Geisha And Her Shamisen, 1955

“The Japanese shamisen originated from the Chinese instrument sanxian (Chinese: 三弦). The sanxianwas introduced through the Ryūkyū Kingdom (Okinawa) in the 16th century, where it developed into the Okinawan instrument sanshin (三線) from which the shamisen ultimately derives. It is believed that the ancestor of the shamisen was introduced in the 16th century at port Sakai near Osaka.


The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen, in ensembles with other Japanese instruments, with singing such as nagauta, or as an accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki and bunraku. Both men and women traditionally played the shamisen.” -Wikipedia

Shamisen crafter with a customer, 1909
Shamisen crafter with a customer, 1909

You couldn’t watch most Samurai era movies without hearing or seeing one. They have a very distinct sound that emotes a feeling of tradition and ethnicity Japan is known for. However, everyone who is playing this traditional instrument is not exactly staying with tradition.

For some reason “Riverdance” comes to mind when watching this video.

Random Riverdance Reference
Random Riverdance Reference

I don’t know why… Call me weird.

My wife does.

Anyway check out this video about the Shamisen. I watching love the “BEGIN Japanology” series when I can catch it.

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Japan’s Rolling Thunder: The Taiko Drum

Taiko performance near Nagoya Castle. The Giant Taiko drum in the back has a length of 240cm, and a diameter of 240cm in the center and 195cm at the ends. The drum was made out of a single piece of wood of a 1200 year old tree, and weighs about 3 tons.

Anyone familiar with Japanese culture has heard the Taiko Drum. I also like to refer to it as “rolling thunder”. Why? Maybe you’ve never heard one…

“Taiko (太鼓?) means “drum” in Japanese (etymologically “great” or “wide drum”). Outside Japan, the word is often used to refer to any of the various Japanese drums, (和太鼓, “wa-daiko”, “Japanese drum”, in Japanese) and to the relatively recent art-form of ensemble taiko drumming (sometimes called more specifically, “kumi-daiko” (組太鼓)). The performances can last between 5 and 25 minutes and typically follow a jo-ha-kyū (beginning, middle, end/rapid, sudden, urgent, and emergency) structure, which means the performance will speed up significantly towards the grand finale.” -Wikipedia

If you weren’t paying attention, let me highlight part of what you just read, “The performances can last between 5 and 25 minutes“. Twenty-five minutes?! These guys are not playing pop songs or trying to showoff their snazzy outfits. These are dedicated and disciplined human drumming machines with an insane endurance one can only be in awe of.

A photo I took of a Taiko street performance a few winters ago.

From wikipedia:

Yayoi period (500 BCE – 300 CE)
The various drums of taiko are of Chinese origin and were brought to Japan between the Yayoi period (500 BCE – 300 CE). Along with the martial use of the drums, they also held a strong foundation in the court style music called Gagaku, performed in the castles and shrines across ancient Japan. Gagaku alone is one of the oldest styles of court music that is still being played in the world today.

Uses of the taiko in warfare
In feudal Japan, taiko were often used to motivate troops, to help set a marching pace, and to call out orders or announcements. Approaching or entering a battle, the taiko yaku (drummer) was responsible for setting the marching pace, usually with six paces per beat of the drum (beat-2-3-4-5-6, beat-2-3-4-5-6).

According to one of the historical chronicles (the Gunji Yoshu), nine sets of five beats would summon an ally to battle, while nine sets of three beats, sped up three or four times is the call to advance and pursue an enemy.[1]

You can’t forget about the mythology either.

The Sun goddess emerging out of a cave, bringing sunlight back to the universe

According to myth, taiko was started by Ame no Uzume, a shaman-like female deity. One day, fed up with her cruel younger brother, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, hid herself in a cave. The world became pitch dark and the other deities tried to appease Amaterasu, so that world be bright again. They held a big party in front of the cave and Ame no Uzume danced an erotic dance, stamping her feet on a wooden tub. The gods laughed and cheered loudly and the noise provoked Amaterasu to come out her cave. And thus, the world saw light again.

Okay now that’s outta the way here’s what really inspired this latest entry. I dare you to watch this and not be impressed by their stamina alone, especially Eitetsu Hayashi’s.

An amazing collaboration between the master of taiko and shamisen.

Eitetsu Hayashi

“Hayashi Eitetsu is a master of the “wadaiko”, a type of taiko drum. His innovative drumming techniques redefined the use of this traditional Japanese instrument, and has made him well-known beyond Japan’s borders. A prolific artist, he has worked in television, film, and in live performances throughout the world. Among his film credits is the 1985 animated film Kamui no ken (1985) (Dagger of Kamui).

He founded two musical groups devoted to the wadaiko: Sado-Ondekoza in 1971, and Kodo in 1982. In 1982 he left Kodo to embark on a solo career. He made a live performace in 1984 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the first taiko drummer to do so. He has collaborated with many artists around the world, spanning different musical genres, including jazz.” – IMDB

* * *


“Shin’ichi Kinoshita is considered the best in a new generation of players of Japan’s Tsugaru-shamisen, an instrument akin to a three-string banjo. At 39 years old he is considered a pioneer in shamisen-playing. That’s thanks to his marriage of centuries-old rhythms to jazz and rock. Since releasing two albums simultaneously in 2001, Kinoshita has established himself in Japan and beyond, where he has earned the nickname of the man with “divine hands”.” – MondoMix.com

Keep in mind true Japanese artisans dedicate their lives to their crafts in order to be true masters. Training for most disciplines takes at least ten years no matter what you want to pursue.

Next week I’ll see what I find on the Shamisen but for now enjoy another video.

Fuji-san: World Heritage Site

Japan Promotional photo
Japan Promotional photo featuring Mt. Fuji

During the 37th U.N.E.S.C.O. (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Committee Session, Mount Fuji was added to the World Heritage List. Really? For some reason, I had already assumed that Mount Fuji had been on this list. Another reason never to assume anything…

Japan Promotional photo featuring Mt. Fuji
Japan Promotional photo featuring Mt. Fuji

If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about let me give you a hand. What do they do?

Directly from their site:

“UNESCO works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission and activities.

The broad goals and concrete objectives of the international community – as set out in the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – underpin all UNESCO’s strategies and activities. Thus UNESCO’s unique competencies in education, the sciences, culture and communication and information contribute towards the realization of those goals.

UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.”

Or, they are the part of the United Nations that reminds us that we have a lot in common as THE human race and should work together in learning and appreciating our global diversity.

I think they are trying to prove we all can get along and grow together.

Crazy clouds over Fuji-san
Crazy clouds over Fuji-san

Again, one of my assumptions about Japan was that since Mount Fuji was a major tourist attraction and icon for Japan it would be a no brainer to believe it was a World Heritage Site. However, famous mountains/tourist attractions and World Heritage are not the same thing.

What is World Heritage?

Again, from the site:

“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage.”

Further more:

“What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage , adopted by UNESCO in 1972.”

So I’d like to imagine that if peaceful aliens from outer space came down for a global vacation and wanted to see places and relics that we as humans feel define us historically and culturally (globally and nationally), they would consult this Heritage list.

Japan Promotional photo featuring Mt. Fuji
Japan Promotional photo featuring Mt. Fuji

Also from the site, about Mount Fuji:

“The beauty of the solitary, often snow-capped, stratovolcano, known around the world as Mount Fuji, rising above villages and tree-fringed sea and lakes has long inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimages. Its representation in Japanese art goes back to the 11th century but 19th century wood block prints have made Fujisan become an internationally recognized icon of Japan and have had a deep impact on the development of Western art. The inscribed property consists of 25 sites which reflect the essence of Fujisan’s sacred landscape. In the 12th century, Fujisan became the centre of training for ascetic Buddhism, which included Shinto elements. On the upper 1,500-metre tier of the 3,776m mountain, pilgrim routes and crater shrines have been inscribed alongside sites around the base of the mountain including Sengen-jinja shrines, Oshi lodging houses, and natural volcanic features such as lava tree moulds, lakes, springs and waterfalls, which are revered as sacred.”

One of the more popular mythologies of Japan, involving Mount Fuji, is Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The end of the tale essentially establishes why and how Fuji-san became volcanic. From what I’ve read so far, it’s a great fairytale.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” A famous woodblock print by artist Katsushika Hokusai
Notice Fuji-san in the background.

Personally I never knew of this list or UNESCO until my first trip to Japan back in 2008. We went to Kyoto and it’s been on the list since 1994. I remember seeing signs around town stating it’s World Heritage significance and you can feel the pride the natives have for this status. It’s an amazing place if you ever get to visit.

The USA have a few sites as well.


I’ve no burning desire to make the climb to the top of Mount Fuji but I wouldn’t flat out turn down an opportunity either. The surrounding country side is beautiful in the  summer and winter (I have yet to go over in the spring or fall). If you go in the winter heed the road warning signs. Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell you how we almost died going to an onsen on our way past Fuji-san… 

Mt. Fuji
The only GOOD photo I’ve taken myself of Mount Fuji.
My last attempts were thwarted by lingering clouds.

Hoped you learned something, or I at least sparked your curiosity.

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