“Maples and Ivies Turn Yellow” marks the end of autumn, and this will also be my last essay following the 72 microseasons for 2022. The fast-changing seasons caught up with my slow writing and I need a little more time to write the remaining two seasons. I’ll continue working on them and hope to share the essays for winter and spring after next year.
Thank you for your kind comments, emails, and encouragement, which kept me going for the last 6 months because writing these essays has been the most difficult thing I have ever done. And, most important, thank you for taking the time to continue visiting my website.
Maples and Ivies Turn Yellow
The name of this microseason immediately brought to mind the Japanese children’s song “Momiji (fall foliage)” with lyrics written by Takano Tatsuyuki and music by Okano Teiichi:
In autumn’s setting sun,
a glowing mountain of fall foliage
Dark to light colors,
among the numerous trees
Adding colors to the pines,
the maples and ivies
Decorating the mountain foot
with a patterned hem
I clearly remember the day when the black Yamaha U3H upright piano arrived at our house through the balcony window of our second-floor apartment. It was in 1976, and all the neighbors in the surrounding apartments were curiously looking out from their windows and balconies to watch it get slowly winched up by a crane into our living room.
Convincing my father to buy the piano was a challenge that fell to my older sister. “Dad was adamant that I prove to him that I won’t quit practicing the piano,” she recounted. “He made me practice on a paper foldout keyboard that was attached to the back of a piano lesson book. It was pathetic.” To the grown-ups’ amazement, my earnest sister continued practicing on that sheet of paper for nearly a year to persuade him.
All the while, my mother was secretly itching to buy a piano. Like many Japanese mothers of her generation, she grew up yearning to learn the piano, which became popular as it became more affordable after the war. When my father finally agreed to buy it, my mother went all out and bought the tallest Yamaha upright piano that our family could afford.
The piano arrived a few months later and took up a third of our living room space in the apartment. But this imposition didn’t bother my mother, who was ecstatic. “I spent all of dad’s summer bonus salary on this piano,” she proudly said. “Now you can all learn to play it.”
My mother’s fantasy of having her three daughters play the piano, unfortunately, didn’t materialize. My little sister and I dropped out quickly. We had a lot of motivation to imitate our big sister but lacked the determination to learn an instrument, which is mostly done alone. My older sister saved my mother by continuing with her piano lessons for many years.
But the impact of the piano on my family didn’t end there. Not long after my older sister learned to read music, she started playing well-known and popular songs to relax after practicing difficult piano pieces. She invited me to sing, and we soon discovered that we really enjoyed this musical collaboration. After a few years, we had an extensive repertoire of Japanese and foreign language songs that we harmonized and sang with the piano.
The song “Momiji” at the beginning of this essay is one of the first songs that I sang to accompany my sister on the piano. I know it by heart and sang it before I even knew the meaning of the words. This training, coincidentally, helped me greatly to pronounce English words after I moved to Singapore a few years later. The Beatles and Culture Club became my best English teachers.
When I revisited the lyrics to children’s songs’ written by Takano Tatsuyuki many years later, I realized that many classic children’s songs are renditions of great poems. And I think what sparked my interest in languages evolved from these poems that are etched in my memory from childhood. Throughout my life, I have been curious how the sounds and rhythms of the words can convey meanings and emotions to the listener.
The Yamaha piano that was my mother’s pride and joy is still making music. It is now singing with my niece who is dreaming of becoming an actor. And speaking of singing, the world might not know this, but I think a lot of Japanese people love to sing. We didn’t invent Karaoke for nothing. It’s baffling that so many Japanese are fearless about singing in public but awkward about speaking English, which they spend at least 6 years studying at school. Maybe Japanese schools should start teaching English like they teach music.