Nanzen-ji Garden

Nanzen-ji Temple Garden

I’ve been on vacation in Japan for the last month, thus the lack of recent posts and slow responses to emails (I’ll be getting to them shortly!).  I spent a couple of months in Japan nearly 20 years ago, but hadn’t been back since then, aside from brief stop-overs.  It was even better than I remembered…fascinating history, awesome sights, great food, and ridiculously friendly and respectful people.  But most remarkable to me was the unparalleled depth and refinement of Japanese culture, likely due in part to their extreme isolation during the Tokugawa rule.  There’s no place like it, and I’ll definitely be going back again in the not too distant future.

Related to my trip…

Seika Kitahara Shakuhachi

Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

At the end of last year I wrote a post on the shakuhachi, a beautiful Japanese flute used by Zen monks of the Fuke Sect as their primarily tool for meditation, and designed by ex-samurai Komuso monks to double as a weapon.  Prior to the Komuso redesigning the flute, it was made from a weaker section of bamboo, but the Komuso monks began using the thicker, stronger, and heavier root-end of the plant.  In addition to its uses as a meditation device and easy-to-carry-anywhere potential weapon, making it a great tool for any martial artist/self defense practitioner, the shakuhachi is an amazing musical instrument.  (See my other posts on the connection between music and martial arts, and the benefits of using music as a counter-balance to martial arts practice.)

In my previous post I mentioned having purchased two of my other shakuhachi from a guy who sells Taiwanese made flutes.  The Taiwanese made flutes are around $100 US.  They’re relatively nicely made, they’re fine for meditation or folk songs, and because they’re made in one piece they can easily double as a weapon.  But on my recent trip to Japan I discovered an entirely new level of shakuhachi.  The one I purchased is pictured at left.

My wife and I were staying in a fantastic hotel in Kyoto with the best customer service I have ever experienced in my life.  If you are going to Kyoto, you need to stay at the Mume Hotel.  I asked the hotel staff if they could put me in touch with any shakuhachi makers in Kyoto, and they set up a meeting for me with both a music store that sold them and with one of the most highly regarded shakuhachi making families there, the Kitahara family (Japanese language website here).  I had searched online before I went to Japan, but I was unable to find anything in English regarding current makers in Kyoto.  The Kitahara’s have been making shakuhachi for generations, and both Ikuya (father) and Hiroki (son) are still making them today under their company called Seika (精華).

Shakuhachi made in Japan are not cheap.  It’s hard to find them for less than $1,000 US, and the average seems to be $2,000 – $4,000, with some going up to $10,000+.  Since I primarily play the oud and am only a beginner on the shakuhachi, I wasn’t planning on buying one there.  I only wanted to see and try them, and to see what the difference was between the Taiwanese made flutes I already had and a higher quality Japanese made flute.  I was also curious about the Japanese made wooden shakuhachi as a beginner instrument.  But when I got to Kitahara’s place, picked up one of his shakuhachi, and started to play it, I couldn’t resist buying one.  The difference was extreme.  I can’t speak for other Japanese makers, but the Kitahara/Seika shakuhachi I tried were amazing professional quality instruments.  Here’s a close up of the bottom/root-end of the shakuhachi I bought:

Seika 精華 Shakuhachi

Seika 精華 Shakuhachi

Again, I’m a beginner on the shakuhachi, but I do know that the instrument has amazing expressive potential.  It only has 5 finger holes, but by changing the position and shape of your mouth relative to the blowing edge or using partial hole coverings you can play an infinite variety of tones, from the Japanese pentatonic to any other scale you can imagine.  It’s also possible to play over 3 octaves by varying the way you blow.  The finer details and subtleties of playing are where the Kitahara’s shakuhachi make a tremendous difference.  There’s just no comparison between them and my cheaper shakuhachi, or a wooden version, which I also tried.  Here’s a close up of the blowing edge:

Seika Shakuhachi Blowing Edge

Seika Shakuhachi Blowing Edge

The Kitahara’s themselves were outstanding hosts.  I visited Ikuya Kitahara four times in a week, and took a long time trying to decide which shakuhachi to buy.  There was never any pressure to buy one, and Ikuya was very helpful, giving me playing tips and helping me to see which flute was best for me personally.  If you’re going to be in Kyoto and are interested in seeing or buying a high quality shakuhachi there, I very highly recommend visiting the Kitahara’s shop.  Here’s a link to their contact page.  It’s in Japanese, but if you show it to your hotel staff they can help with the directions.

Ikuya Kitahara

Myself and Ikuya Kitahara

One issue with any shakuhachi made from bamboo in a humid climate (Japan or Taiwan) is the potential for the instrument to crack/split if your home country or home itself is drier.  Some people store their shakuhachi in a sealed plastic bag or container with a damp cloth or other specially designed humidity releasing device.  I’ve read that there are pros and cons to such methods for various reasons, although nearly everyone seems to recommend a sealed plastic bag with a source of humidity for air travel.  There is very little or no lack of consensus though for another method, one that is nearly guaranteed to prevent full cracks…binding the shakuhachi.  Unfortunately Kitahara didn’t have time to bind mine before I left, but Perry Yung, a very respected shakuhachi maker and musician in the US, made a YouTube video on how to bind a shakuhachi yourself.  I’m going to give it a try in the coming days.  Perry was very helpful in answering my questions about binding, and he also makes both professional and student level shakuhachi that I’ve read great things about.

In addition to the shakuhachi as a musical instrument and tool for meditation, I’m fascinated by the history of its development and use by the ex-samurai Komuso monks of the Fuke Sect.  In Kyoto I visited the former Fuke Sect headquarters, the Myoan-ji temple:

Myoan-ji Temple

Myoan-ji Temple, Kyoto – Fuke Sect Headquarters

Although the vast majority of modern day shakuhachi players may have little in common with wandering ex-samurai monks, particularly viewing their instruments as potential weapons, this is a self defense website after all.  So I should mention that many modern shakuhachi, including the one I bought from Kitahara, have a joint in the middle.  This makes them impossible to use as a weapon while not in a carrying case/bag, as although the joint is tight, it would come apart on impact or when swung forcefully.  With such an amazing instrument, obviously it would be preferable not to use it as a weapon anyway.  But in a worse case scenario, if the end were pushed tightly to the end of the carrying bag and the front was gripped tightly over the bag, the bag would keep the flute from separating.  😉  Kitahara gave me a nice and strong leather carrying bag.  For my other shakuhachi, which happen to be one-piece, I really like these bags.

My goal for the not too distant future is to begin learning some of the original Komuso honkyoku pieces.  Jon Kypros, my current Skype teacher, teaches the Seien ryu honkyoku, which should be great to learn.  As a sound sample, here’s a nice video of a guy paying a Tozan ryu honkyoku piece:

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