And that drove you forward.
Yeah! I kept winning. From the very small competitions in clubs to the city, to the prefecture, to the country, I just kept winning.
When I was nine years old, there was a national championship for competitive swimming and a professional piano competition on the same day. I was going back and forth. Swimming pool and concert hall. My parents are driving between. I was eating bananas and chocolate in between so I would have energy. I passed the first round of the swimming competition, and went to the piano competition. As I exited the pool I heard from my parents that I passed the piano competition first round. I kept going back and forth. That day, I won both competitions, and went to get my trophy from the piano competition, and my hair was really wet because of the swimming pool. My mother had to change me from the swimming costume, wash, dry, put on the dress — back and forth. At the end of the competition when I received a trophy, the chair of the jury asked, “Why is this girl’s hair wet?” My parents said, “Oh, she had a swimming competition just half an hour away from here.” They laughed, because these things happen so much in Japan, and in Asia. Parents kind of encourage children to do many things and do them well.
These competitions were in Kyoto, so not so big. You could get back and forth.
Right. But it was still crazy. I did so many things in Tokyo, too. That was where I competed for my prefecture in the one-hundred-meter sprint. That was very, very tough. Very tough training with all the parachutes. All the equipment.
You would run with a parachute for resistance.
Yes! So I loved everything I was doing. But after age fourteen, it got tougher. Physically, it’s twenty-four hours a day. I was offered a sponsorship for sprinting and to become an Olympian and compete for Japan. But I decided to pursue piano — and I really felt then like I had lost half of my body.
I had attended the Liszt Academy in Budapest when I was thirteen. My teacher, a student of Zoltán Kodály, encouraged me to do this competition. Budapest was a completely different world. That gave me the desire to live in Europe, learn European culture, learn the language, and study. At fourteen, I won two competitions in Japan that gave me the opportunity to perform the Chopin E-minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw. This was before the Chopin competition, which I did not take part in, but there was this energy there. I visited Żelazowa Wola, the village where Chopin was born. And Duszniki, another village where he spent his summers. I met a Polish pianist and professor from the Chopin Academy in Warsaw, who was doing research for the Jan Ekier edition of Chopin’s music. So I got to see the research process for this edition. At that age, you absorb everything like a sponge. Everything is so fresh!
Coming back from Poland to Japan and competing again in sprinting and swimming, I felt a hole, and realized my true passion was for music.
I loved Beethoven and Bach so much. And Van Gogh in the galleries. I used to paint all the walls in my room.
But in physical life I’m still competing. I’m running. I’m swimming. I’m figure skating.
Did you feel like you were going through the motions in the physical sports because “this is what I do”?
Yeah, I did. People respected me. People treated me a different way because I was a winner. But my passion was somewhere else, and I started to feel this kind of emptiness of doing things because of this winning.
It was a hollow victory.
Yeah. I got a scholarship from the Swedish government to move to Sweden to study music. So the Swedish government gave me a scholarship to study there, and that gave me the opportunity to see more of Europe.
At fifteen, you decided, “It’s just piano now. I have to stop my competitive athletics.”
Yes. I left Japan, I left my parents, and I moved to Sweden. I was fifteen years old. Quite young, when I think about it.
You lived in Sweden for six years, then moved to London — where we are speaking today! In retrospect, did the running, swimming, and figure skating help you with your piano playing?
When I was younger, after athletic competition, I often felt I could have done better. While my teammates trained six hours in track and field on Sunday, I trained two hours because I needed to practice piano for three. Meanwhile, my piano friends are practicing six hours. I could do only fifty percent of the training. Same in the figure skating. I woke up at six o’clock in the morning to skate before going to school, or swim before I went to school. I had limited time to do things.
I remember I was on my way to a sprinting final and felt like I couldn’t do it. Two other girls were training so much, and I knew how much they were improving. We were all running in twelve seconds, but the two of them were training so much. I was in the car to the stadium and I told my father, “Oh, I wish I could have trained a week more for this final.” Then he told me, “You know that you all run in twelve seconds. You are the best eight in the country. It’s zero point zero one faster or slower.