The reason I moved from the US to Japan four years ago was to was to study the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, and eventually earn my junshihan koto degree.
Last weekend, I boarded the shinkansen to Nagano city to finally take my junshihan exam. Nagano was an especially fitting location for the test since it's the birthplace of my koto school, Seiha. Even on the train, I was squeezing in some last minute review.
The exam took place over two days. The first day, Friday, was a series of written tests - encompassing Japanese music history, the history and structure of Seiha, and music theory - followed by listening exams where I had to identify excerpts from famous songs as well as transcribe a melody played on koto behind some folding screens.
There were seven people taking the exam this time around - ranging from a high school student to a music teacher from another part of Japan. I was the only male in the group so I felt extra pressure to not end up with the lowest score. I didn't really socialize with any of the other participants or their teachers until after the exam was over.
Day Two, Saturday, was the “performance” section of the test. That morning, the participants drew lots to see which songs we would have to play from the list of possible selections. We played one from each of four categories - the classic (koten) songs, the new classics, the more lyrical kakyoku songs, and the instrumentals. Each performer was allowed to choose their fifth piece, but it had to be memorized.
My morning performances went well. I was especially pleased with my performance of Miyamajishi, the koten piece - the room had great acoustics so I was able to hear my voice clearly and maintain control over it. However, I was very disappointed by my afternoon performances - particularly that of the instrumental piece, Ballade. (Incidentally, Ballade is one of my all-time favorite koto songs. And, of course, the person evaluating my performance was Okuda Utanoichi sensei - my teacher and the composer of the song!)
So, after all was said and done, I felt that my performance was a mixed bag - I'd done better than I'd expected on certain parts and flubbed others. I was uncertain of the results and they wouldn't be announced until the following day. So my representative and I visited the temple Zenkoji, which was a short walk from the hotel. I was moved by the atmosphere of the place.
The following day, we all went to Daihongan (which is located elsewhere in Zenkoji, not in the main building pictured above) where a memorial stone had been erected to commemorate the founding of Seiha. The test results were announced and I was relieved to find out that I'd placed first out of the group, with respect to my score. That meant a lot to me - for one thing, I was determined to not just pass by the skin of my teeth. Also, my teacher is the vice iemoto and had done so much to help me prepare, so I felt that I owed it to him to perform well.
In the end, I received my black “junshihan” badge. The ceremony at Daihongan - with monks chanting, followed by my teacher performing the classic song Rokudan no Shirabe - left an indelible impression on me.
There were a few things that the iemoto said over the course of the weekend that also stuck with me. Before the written exam commenced, she said something along the lines of: the purpose of the exam is not to weed people out, but rather to welcome people into Seiha. She also said that receiving our junshihan certification was the beginning of each of our musical journeys.
I have to say that the weekend of the exam was probably the most stressful experience of my life. However, it's a weekend that I'll remember for as long as my memory holds up. The next step is for me to choose an “artist” name with my teacher. Both the sound and the meaning of the kanji are important, and I'll have it for the rest of my life, so I'm considering it carefully.
I keep getting asked what I'm going to do now that my reason for moving to Japan has been fulfilled. Well, I have a few unfinished songs that I'd put on the back burner to fully focus on my exam. I plan to release those first and then dive into composing new music again. Other than that, I'm going to take a step back and think about my next move. To all of my family, friends, and teachers who have supported me, thank you again.