How to take apart a shakuhachi

The best method to take apart a Shakuhachi

Blowing Zen

Thoughts on Hocchiku and blowing zen

In some of the discussions about shakuhachi/hochiku/hoki, etc., there seems to be some confusion between music making and spiritual practice/blowing Zen (suizen).

Nothing new here, as this confusion has been in Japan and elsewhere long before we shakuhachi list people came on the scene.

Here is, in my opinion, an example of this confusion. There seems to be the idea that the meditative/spiritual endeavour of a person playing one type of instrument, eg, a shakuhachi, is somehow more or less valuable than that of one playing another type of instrument, eg, a hochiku or hocchiku.

A belief that the nature of one’s instrument defines one’s spiritual experience is as absurd as believing that doing meditation in, for example, a temple (built specifically for the purpose) is, by definition, and always will be, ‘better’ than doing meditation, for example, at home (built for other purposes). Sometimes this may be true, but not because of the buildings themselves.

Some instruments might be more condusive to meditation, just as some buildings are more conducive to meditation. But no material ‘thing’ exists that is more or less inately spiritual than any other ‘thing’.

I would take it one step further: to think that a hochiku is particularly more spiritual than a regular shakuhachi, or an electric guitar or any other musical instrument, is risking mistaking the plate for the food.

I appreciate the pleasure of making and playing simple bamboo flutes, hochiku or otherwise. I also respect and acknowledge the challenges these instruments present to their players. I know that often a challenging instrument can make for a great performance, eg, a recording I recently heard, of Choshi played on a quickly and roughly made flute.


If “the main difference between a shakuhachi and a hochiku is the philosophy behind the two instruments,” and, if one plays a shakuhachi with the same PHILOSOPHICAL attitude as when one plays a hochiku, then where is the difference? There may have been a difference in attitude during the making of the instrument, but we are talking here about playing the bamboo, not making the flute.

For example, imagine (it’s not hard!) someone who practices ‘blowing Zen’ for years on what s/he thinks is a really good hochiku, made in the spirit of the hochiku. But actually the flute is really just a badly made shakuhachi. Or imagine that the person knows that the flute wasn’t made as a hochiku, but, doesn’t care how the flute was made; s/he just wants to do ‘blowing Zen’.

So, for argument’s sake, this shakuhachi wasn’t made in the ‘spirit’ of a hochiku, but rather by someone who had never even heard of the hochiku tradition, and who just wasn’t very skilled at making shakuhachi. The flute can’t play ‘dai kan’; the sound disappears with all but a small volume of air; it is so out of tune that it can’t easily play pitches based on natural laws of physics (such as octaves); it can’t be played together with other folks, etc. It requires a gentle, controlled breath to make it work. (This sounds just like a description of a hochiku.) In any case, the player thinks that this shakuhachi, even though it isn’t a hochiku, does very nicely when ‘blowing Zen’.

What is the difference between the person using this instrument and another person who practices ‘blowing Zen’ on an ‘authentic’ hochiku made by a maker who is very much into the ‘hochiku’ tradition?

In my opinion, sometimes discussions of differences between hochiku and shakuhachi might be attempts at placing a high value on one thing at the expense of other things. Generally speaking, value judgments are counterproductive in meditative practice.

Also, think a moment about the idea that it is very important to hear hochiku live. We are told this is so because much of the tone colour is lost on CDs. This may be true, but how does this differ from regular shakuhachi, or any other musical instrument?

[By the way, someone once asked/lamented how he could ever sound like a performer whose CD he recently listened to. Do not despair. From my limited experience, it is amazing what magic can occur in recording studios. Just try playing in a large concrete stairwell to get an idea of this. A good recording engineer can improve anybody’s sound even more than a good stairwell can!]

If the point of playing hochiku is to do blowing Zen, then the question is: Why would someone want to listen to ‘blowing Zen’ anyway, live or recorded? That would be like watching someone meditating. I suppose that doing so can be a calming, meditative experience, and if it helps one meditate, great.

One could argue that listening to a teacher play his/her hochiku helps one become better at playing one’s own hochiku. But then one is now talking about music making, not about spiritual practice. In general, you don’t get very good at meditating by watching someone else play a flute.

It can be meditative watching people meditate, but likewise, it can be meditative listening to music. Observing spiritual practice isn’t a very rewarding spectator activity. Listening to music however, is.

With spiritual practice, it DOES NOT matter what sort of bamboo flute you blow into. It might be better if you threw all of your pieces of bamboo away, as just more distractions, and got on with meditating.

Music making can be spiritual practice, and spiritual practice can include the making of music. They are, nevertheless, two distinct activities. They work under different rules. Confusing the two can result both in bad music and ineffective spiritual practice.

Interesting historical questions around the Shakuhachi

The most important change that occurred to the shakuhachi after the instrument was imported into Japan from China was not the change of bamboo, but rather the reduction of finger holes from six to five, and to a lesser degree, the enlargement of these holes. The reduction was primarily due, so the theory goes, to the growing desire of the Japanese of the time to play music in Japanese modes rather than Chinese ones. The sixth hole was not necessary in playing Japanese music. The enlargement of the holes better allowed for manipulation of pitch which further allowed for playing Japanese modes.

One can easily guess why madake was chosen as the bamboo of choice, replacing the thinner Chinese bamboo used to make the xiao. Madake is the second most common bamboo in Japan, just after the even larger moso. When making bamboo flutes, the first rule is to use bamboo that is available to you! A side effect of using madake is that the bore, compared with the xiao, became larger. This meant that the blowing hole was larger. This, in turn, allowed for the development of the meri/kari technique of pitch manipulation, again conducive to playing Japanese modes.

There was another Japanese bamboo flute descended from the Chinese one, called the hitoyogiri. It had small holes (though also 5 of them), and sometimes used thinner bamboo. It was almost impossible to meri/kari and to partially open and close finger holes with this flute. It is no surprise that it was delegated to the museum of nearly forgotten musical instruments by the end of the 19th century.

The theory behind the use of the roots in the construction of the bamboo is that the instrument made a better weapon when made with the heavier, ‘spiky’ root end. The wandering komuso (‘priests of nothingness’), all former samurai versed to various degrees in martial arts, and perhaps some of their lower status predecessors, the komoso (‘straw mat priests) were not adverse to using weapons to protect themselves while on pilgrimages.

Contrary to what many people think, the Edo period komuso were allowed to wear and use swords. So the root end shakuhachi didn’t necessarily replace their swords, but it appears that it may have contributed to their defences.

How many octaves should a good shakuhachi be able to play?

The answer depends, I suppose, on your definition of a ‘good shakuhachi’. Most decent 1.8 length flutes can produce in the third octave, the pitches e, f#, g, g#, a, b, (or is it a# and not b?) and c. Some can produce a fourth octave d on a good day. These are all pitches above the tsu-no-meri (d#) made by opening the 2nd and 5th finger holes.

If you count the otsu no ro meri, then that’s three complete octaves minus a few pitches, notably f-natural, for example. A 7-hole 1.8 shakuhachi can produce the high f-natural too. Longer flutes, for example 2.3 or 2.4 (with a fundamental or otsu no ro of A below middle C) usually produce the third octave above otsu no ro, or the pitch ‘A’ way above the treble staff.

This means that when the otsu no ro-meri (a-flat) and otsu no ro dai meri (g) are added, one is getting into the fourth octave! Many of these ‘dai kan’ notes are not very useable in performance (for example, with the 1.8, most of the pitches above the g#), but are great for developing one’s embouchure muscles.

Riley Lee Shakuhachi teacher

How much should one spend on a shakuhachi?

In my opinion, one should buy the best instrument one can afford. How much one can afford depends not only upon one’s financial situation, but also one’s commitment to the instrument, and one’s priorities. For example, as a professional player, I can ‘afford’ more expensive flutes than I could if I wasn’t a professional, with the same income.

Having ‘good’ flutes are possibly more of a necessity for me than if my livelihood didn’t depend on it. Everyone has to decide for themselves at what price does a flute stop being a necessity. So it really boils down to a personal decision. There is no reason to wait until one is a ‘better’ player before buying a ‘better’ (or more expensive) flute, so far as I can see. A total beginner will still get more from a good flute than a not so good one.

The issue of choosing an instrument is a totally different one, however. The better the flutes, the more difficult it is to determine their strengths and weaknesses. A total beginner will not be able to tell the difference between a $100 flute and a $10,000 flute, at least in terms of playing, much less the difference between a $9000 flute and a $10000 flute, or a $1000 one and a $1500 one, or two flutes priced exactly the same.

I recommend that you buy the best instrument you can afford and that you have a person or persons who you trust (ideally your teacher, or someone that plays like you want to play) help you choose that instrument. Though I could justify buying the most expensive flutes in existence, many of my flutes are quite moderate in price. A more expensive flute is not necessarily a better one, especially after a certain level (US$2000-3000?).

Finally, what makes one flute ‘better’ than another flute, can be subjective after a certain point. The best way to acquire a good flute is usually through a teacher or shakuhachi player that you respect and trust.


The only theory behind the kana used in shakuhachi notation that I have heard of goes like this: The earliest notation (early 1600s) used the kana fu, ho, u, e, ya, i. These were chosen because they evoked the breathy or airy sounds of the solo shakuhachi. At this period in time, most if not all shakuhachi music was solo, predominantly honkyoku.

By the way, the “fu-ho-u” set of kana is still used by some lineages, notably in the Chikuho notation system. The late Watazumi also used these kana to notate his honkyoku. The kana used in Kinko notation, that is, ro tsu re chi ri (or in the case of Tozan notation, ro tsu re chi ha), were chosen when Kinko notation was developed in the18th century. They were chosen because at that time, the shakuhachi was more and more being played in ensemble with the koto and the shamisen. The kana was chosen because they evoked the percussive sounds these two instruments make when their strings are plucked with picks or plectrum.

The conclusion drawn by shakuhachi players who use variations of the “fu ho u” system is that it is more suited to honkyoku and it is older and therefore better than the “ro tsu re” systems. The opinion held by the 99% of the shakuhachi population who use the “ro tsu re” systems is that the above information is marginally interesting, but which kana used in the notation has no affect on the music, honkyoku or otherwise (unless, as Michael Gould pointed out, you sing the notation), and in any case, older is not necessarily better.

Shakuhachi in Australia

The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute traditionally made of bamboo. It was imported from China into Japan in the early eighth century, and remains one of Japan’s more popular traditional musical instruments.

Despite it’s long tradition and popularity, the official numbers of shakuhachi players in Japan have, according to a survey undertaken in 2002 decreased by a third in the last ten years. In contrast, shakuhachi players and especially shakuhachi music listeners appear to be increasing in Australia at a remarkable rate.

This article describes the ‘shakuhachi scene’ in Australia at the turn of the twenty-first century. It focuses upon the author’s experiences since his arrival in 1986 as Australia’s first professional shakuhachi player. It also discusses the discrepancy between the perceived downturn in player numbers in Japan compared with the increased numbers in Australia.

The shakuhachi has probably been in Australia since World War II, and possibly from much earlier. It was however, virtually unknown here until the latter decades of the Twentieth Century. It is now a vibrant, integrated musical tradition in Australia.

In Australia over the past two decades, the shakuhachi scene has become well extablished. The level of recognition of its distinctive sound, its name (no mean feat in this case!), and its music is increasing amongst the general public. The numbers of persons purchasing shakuhachi CDs and attending live shakuhachi performances are rising. The numbers of persons who own a shakuhachi instrument, and those who are actively studying with a teacher are growing. The numbers of new works and arrangements for the shakuhachi by Australian composers have increased. Finally, the number of professional shakuhachi teachers and performers are also increasing.

Shakuhachi music can be heard most weeks on one of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s radio networks, and shakuhachi recordings can be purchased in most record stores. At least twenty CDs featuring Australian shakuhachi players have been produced in this country. A national organisation of shakuhachi enthusiasts, the Australian Shakuhachi Society, was created in 1997.

The following account of my personal experience with the shakuhachi since coming to Australia in 1986 may shed light on the recent Australian shakuhachi phenomenon in particular, and to a lesser extent the shakuhachi scene worldwide.

Never too old

Someone once asked me if his desire to begin learning the shakuhachi at the ‘advanced’ age of 38 was a sign of mid-life crisis, being too old to start learning a musical instrument. Below is my reply:

If you think 38 is ‘mid-life’, then think again boy-o.

You are still very young and could become a master musician as easily as one who is much younger.

Really the advantage youngsters have over older people is that they are more likely to have the 5-8 hrs a day to practice needed to become a ‘master’. So it is really not age but circumstance that gives most youngsters the advantage.

But in your case, try practicing 30 minutes to one hour a day for a start. The more the better, but that is sufficient for you to reach your goal in a few years (ie., 300-400 hrs of practice).