MY LIFE WITH THE SHAKUHACHI

By David Osborn

Getting Started in High School: The Shakuhachi “Inn Crowd”
I remember vividly, as if it were just yesterday, the first time I put the Shakuhachi flute to my lips.  It was in an ethnomusicology course I was in in high school in Japan.  We were studying traditional Japanese music that day, and my music teacher, who played the Shakuhachi, was showing us one.  After telling us a little anecdote about how hard it was to even produce a sound on the Shakuhachi, and how a history teacher at the school had tried repeatedly but failed to get even a little whimper out of the instrument, it was my turn to do what had been touted as very difficult for a rank beginner to accomplish.  I put the Shakuhachi to my lips and – lo and behold – I got a strong, steady, sure sound out of the instrument the very first time I tried!  Actually, it was nothing really strange or difficult for me – the touch of the Shakuhachi against my lips was like getting back in touch with an old, long lost friend.  My teacher, Donald Berger, was amazed, as was the whole class.  This initial experience with the Shakuhachi was one of the many occurrences in my life that have made me a believer in reincarnation. 

Was it really a reawakened past life memory?  Or did my initial experience with the Shakuhachi have a more prosaic, mundane explanation – like my early beer bottle blowing training with my dad at the tender young age of four, combined with the natural flexibility and adaptability of youth?  I’ll leave it to you to decide.  At any rate, I had just found a new musical friend in the Shakuhachi, and whether it was an initial discovery or a veiled re-discovery of the instrument, I was hooked.  The servants at my dad’s diplomatic residence, where I was living at the time, quickly heard of my newfound love and chipped in to buy me a cheap Shakuhachi – one that was still heavy with the pungent aroma of just-dried Urushi lacquer.  I also bought myself a cheap plastic Shakuhachi, which were just coming out in Japan at the time, as well as a couple of records of Jazz played on the Shakuhachi by Hozan Yamamoto and Minoru Muraoka, and taught myself how to play by playing along with these recordings on pieces like “The In Crowd” and “Taboo”.  I also shelled out a little more of my allowance money to buy a copy of Hozan Yamamoto’s Gendai Shakuhachi Nyuumon, or “The Modern Shakuhachi Method”.  To be totally frank and honest with you, traditional Japanese music did not really appeal to me. 


Living National Treasure Hozan Yamamoto Plays Take Five on the Shakuhachi

So after I got hooked, brimming with the natural enthusiasm of youth, it was only natural that I turn my friends and acquaintances on to the great thing I had found.  One of the first people I converted was a wannabe girl friend who I had a huge crush on, who was in my high school choir; she also took up the Shakuhachi.  To my amazement, and considerable consternation, when that year’s high school yearbook came out, it was she who was explicitly mentioned as being a great Shakuhachi enthusiast, whereas I only got the generic credit of being a “music super talent”.  Alas – such is life, and all too often, the credit doesn’t really go to whom it is due.  Seeing the great interest and enthusiasm aroused by the Shakuhachi in me and my wannabe girlfriend, my high school music teacher, Mr. Berger, decided to open a beginner’s Shakuhachi class.  Being a natural ethnomusicologist and an ardent devotee of traditional Japanese music, Mr. Berger’s basic approach was to spend the first lesson showing them how to get a sound on the instrument, and how to play the basic notes; then, seemingly at the very next lesson, he slapped a piece of Sankyoku, or traditional Japanese chamber music, in front of them, fully expecting them to play right along with him – or even want to.  Observing his approach to teaching the Shakuhachi, and having no desire to learn Sankyoku myself, I politely declined. 

Instead of teaching them Sankyoku, which was just about as meaningless and irrelevant to them as the man on the moon, why not teach them the Jazz Shakuhachi of Hozan Yamamoto and Minoru Muraoka?  Why not teach them how to play “The In Crowd”?  In my high school days in Tokyo Japan, there was a popular fast food joint that many of my classmates hung out at called The Hamburger Inn, and those who frequented that spot became known as the “Inn Crowd”.  And after I had gotten the basic skills of modern or contemporary Jazz Shakuhachi under my belt, I then started jamming on the Shakuhachi with friends who played the guitar to form nifty, dynamic duos.  And the Shakuhachi started to catch on at my high school, The American School in Japan, or ASIJ for short, spreading way beyond the initial twosome of me and my wannabe girlfriend.  Come on guys, what are you waiting for?  Join the Shakuhachi “Inn Crowd”!

Two Schools of Thought, Two Approaches
When it comes to studying world music and traditional ethnic instruments like the Shakuhachi, there are two basic schools of thought, two basic approaches one can take: the purist or traditionalist approach, versus the liberal, contemporary or eclectic fusion approach.  Needless to say, my own natural inclination was towards the latter.  I scoffed at the “stuffed shirt” traditionalists who would bristle at the very idea of playing “Haarlem Nocturne”, a tune popularly associated with strip tease acts, on the Shakuhachi, or “The Baby Elephant Walk”, a comic tune from an old Disney movie.  Why cheapen the instrument with such banal associations?  But for me, if it was neat and cool, if it was a joy to play, if it sounded good on the Shakuhachi and made full use of its musical and expressive possibilities, then why not go for it?  And besides, artists like Hozan Yamamoto, in his methodical, systematic approach to applying the traditional techniques of Shakuhachi playing to contemporary music, and Minoru Muraoka, who added an extra two holes to the basic five to make the chromatic notes more playable, had made admirable contributions to the art of Shakuhachi playing that appealed to my progressive, eclectic sensibilities.            

I’m sure that many of the traditional purist ethnomusicologist types looked askance at the emerging contemporary culture of post-war Japan in the sixties and seventies with a jaundiced eye.  You see, traditional Japanese society and culture places a great emphasis on the idea of kakko, or “form”, which can also be translated as “style”, with everything expected or arranged to fit neatly into certain external forms.  To be cool, in the contemporary Japanese lingo, is to be “kakko ii”, or literally, to be in “good form”.  In their admiration for the contemporary American culture of the era and their desire to be “cool” and “with it”, were the Japanese merely slavishly imitating the outer form of the “cool school” jazz men or the Greenwich Village beatniks without fully comprehending their inner substance and message?  That was a common prejudice among the traditional purists, as well as among many American expatriates living in Japan at the time, and cross-cultural misperceptions and misunderstandings are all too easy to fall into.  But in going through the pages of Hozan Yamamoto’s Modern Shakuhachi Method, I could see that, in distilling the essence of the traditional Shakuhachi playing techniques and applying them to popular and contemporary forms of music, Hozan Yamamoto had taken a very serious approach. 

“Many musicologists see the Shakuhachi as a kind of musical relic to be relegated to old museums, but we see the Shakuhachi as something that can be taken out of the museum, dusted off, and made to serve modern musical tastes and needs.”  If I had to distill the basic message of Shakuhachi modernizers like Hozan Yamamoto and Minoru Muraoka down to its essentials, this would be it.  To me, the traditional Japanese music for the Shakuhachi was still too foreign, too esoteric, and something for the traditional purists, the ethnomusicologists of academia, or the “Buddha head” Zen enthusiasts.  I hadn’t gotten there yet.  But in that vast cultural space in between the esoteric and “high brow” traditional Japanese music and the more banal expressions of pop musical culture lay a lot of good music, which was also included in Hozan Yamamoto’s Modern Shakuhachi Method; this included Shinkyoku, or “new pieces”, as well as Japanese folk songs or Minyoh, and older popular tunes from the Meiji and Taisho eras.  Call it “middle brow”, if you will. 

Hozan Yamamoto, in his little book, had truly opened my eyes to the wonders of the Shakuhachi and its musical and expressive capabilities.  Special breathing techniques, like Muraiki or Kazaiki, in which the player blows in breathy gushes of sound, are, in the hands of a skillful player, so dramatic in their expressive potential that they can send chills up and down the spine.  The cliché old Japanese movie scene associated with this kind of playing is the samurai drawing his sword.  You could play either full breath, said Hozan Yamamoto, or you could play softly in a kind of Shakuhachi soto voce technique that he called sabutohn, or “sub tone”.  The koro-koro technique, involving special fingering, imitates the cooing of birds.  Hozan Yamamoto did not only take the traditional Japanese playing techniques and bring them into the modern era; he also took playing techniques from Western wind instruments, such as double and triple tonguing, as well as flutter tonguing, and applied them to the Shakuhachi, making his cross-cultural cross-pollination truly a two-way street.


Minoru Muraoka Plays Harlem Nocturne

Revisiting the Shakuhachi in Grad School: Araki Kodo Sensei
My next encounter with the Shakuhachi came in graduate school, when I was studying ethno-musicology at the University of Washington.  Yes, I had finally entered academia, and was studying ethnomusicology after graduating from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee, where I had majored in voice but gave my senior recital on the flute.  With the fundamentals of music as an academic discipline under my belt, I had now embarked upon the study of world music.  One requirement of the ethnomusicology department was that we study some practical performance aspect of a world music tradition.  When I came to Araki Kodo Sensei to study the Shakuhachi, I had previously studied North Indian vocal music with Ustad Dagar, a Veena master.  I was now ready to be initiated into traditional Japanese music, specifically the Honkyoku, or Zen-inspired “original pieces” of Araki Sensei’s Kinko School.  The Kinko School had been founded by Kurosawa Kinko, who had traveled all over Japan, visiting the temples of the Fuke priests, collecting and notating its corpus of 36 Honkyoku.

I found the study and mastery of the Kinko School Honkyoku to be a very laborious and exacting process, demanding consummate control over one’s tone, breath, embouchure and finger technique.  I had to fall away at the end of the phrase in my tone and pitch, for example, but putting just the right touch on it was not so easy to accomplish.  “No, no, no – the drop needs to be more edged”, Araki Sensei would tell me whenever he found me slurring my phrases like a drunken sailor.  So perfect was Araki Sensei’s control and technique, as well as his embouchure, that even when he gave me a lesson one evening after his mouth had been numbed by novacaine at the dentist’s office, his embouchure control was still better than my own – a quite humbling experience!  In addition to the Honkyoku we studied, Araki Sensei would throw in a Minyoh, or Japanese folksong, every once in a while to lighten the mix. 

Araki Kodo Sensei was the holder of the distinguished artistic name of Kodo, which literally means, “old child”, which also designated him as the hereditary head of the Kinko School of Shakuhachi playing, the oldest school in existence.  Araki Kodo Sensei was the eighth generation direct descendant of Kurosawa Kinko, the founder of the Kinko School.  Like a prizefighter, Araki Sensei had a title to preserve, which required that he go back to Japan periodically to defend his title in concerts and musical competitions.  Another thing he had to defend was the legitimacy of his marriage, which was greatly scorned by his ultra-traditional Japanese family and relatives.  You see, Araki Sensei had married a foreigner (heaven forbid!), an American woman, in a Ren Ai Kekkon, or marriage for love, which was in stark opposition to the traditional custom of arranged marriages.  Araki Sensei had found his happiness with his American wife and mixed blooded children, and they were one big, happy family – but his Japanese relatives were bitterly opposed to the union.

Honkyoku Mysticism and a Dying Bird
When I went to Japan after my stint in grad school, I taught English to support myself, and in my spare time, I studied Shakuhachi.  The seventies was the golden age of English teaching in Japan, and a young English teacher like myself could make enough to support himself by only working part time, leaving a lot of time open for studying and practicing the Shakuhachi.  I lived in the Osaka area, in Ikeda City, a suburb of Osaka, with a Japanese family that was very musically inclined.  The mother, who was more like a mother to me than my biological mother, played the Shamisen, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument; the eldest son played the flute, and he and I would often play duets together on the flute; the younger son played cello, and ran an audio and recording service with his buddies.  The family that played together stayed together, and this was, on the whole, a very happy time of my life. 

I had a Shakuhachi teacher in those early days, a gentle old man whose name escapes me, who had been a pupil of a renowned teacher named Jin Nyodo, who taught me the Koten Honkyoku, or the “ancient original pieces” – pieces that purported to be the true authentic pieces originally played by the Fuke priests, even before Kurosawa Kinko came up with his 36 Honkyoku pieces.  I liked the pieces he taught me, which somehow seemed to be even more ancient and primitive than the Kinko School Honkyoku.  Many of these Koten Honkyoku pieces had names that were very evocative of Buddhist thought and religious doctrines.  One of the pieces that we spent quite a bit of time on was titled Ajikan, or the “piece of the letter Ah”.  Ah, being the first letter of the old Sanskrit alphabet, as well as the Japanese Hiragana alphabet as well, symbolized nothingness, or theprimal void out of which everything in existence originated – the mystical beginning and ending of all things. 

My Sensei told me that this particular piece had special powers; he told me that he had played this piece at a Buddhist funeral, in front of the deceased as he lay in his casket.  And, lo and behold, by the end of the piece, he told me, the deceased had almost revived, and a pinkish, rosy color had returned to his cheeks, and warmth had returned to his flesh.  It didn’t matter how well or poorly you played the piece, my teacher told me; what mattered was one’s faith and sincerity.  One morning as I was practicing Ajikan, I took a break and went downstairs to the kitchen and opened the back door.  Lo and behold, a pigeon fell down at my feet, convulsing in its death throes; soon it was dead.  I rushed upstairs to get my Shakuhachi and my sheet music for Ajikan, and started to play it in front of the dead pigeon.  Unfortunately, no signs of life returned to its dead body, and I was tremendously disappointed, to say the least.  When I reported the incident to my teacher at my next lesson, his basic message was: You gotta believe!  When I told this story to my subsequent teacher, Iida Sensei, he disparaged my previous teacher for resorting to such pseudo-mystical ploys in a cynical effort to retain a gullible student.

Meeting Iida Sesshu Sensei in the Back Streets of Osaka
After my big letdown with Ajikan, I was walking through the shopping arcade near Osaka’s Jyuusoh station, doing some shopping on my way home from a lesson, my Shakuhachi in hand in its embroidered tote bag, all in one piece.  Frankly, I don’t remember what the heck it was that I was shopping for, or what I had come to Jyuusoh to get.  Then, when I least suspected it, a short, stocky middle aged Japanese man in tee shirt, shorts and zohri or “flip-flop” sandals came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.  “Is that a Shakuhachi?” he asked, and I said that it was.  “Then come – follow me,” he responded, taking me through a long, convoluted maze of back alleys.  I’ll never know exactly what got me to trust him that day, since he also looked a bit scrappy and pugnacious, like he could even be spoiling for a fight.  “Who knows?  He might be a yakuza gangster,” I thought to myself with considerable nervousness and trepidation.  My fears were allayed when we finally arrived at his humble abode, snugly tucked away off of a back alley.  He then proceeded to introduce himself to me as a Shakuhachi maker and teacher.

His artistic name, he told me, was Iida Sesshu; he was a second generation Shakuhachi maker, and his father had had the same artistic name – you could say that he was Iida Sesshu the Second.  The name Sesshu (literally ‘snowy islet’), he told me, was also the name of a famous Japanese painter.  His artistic family name of Iida (literally ‘rice field’), he quipped, was because his Shakuhachi buyers were always remarking “Ii da na!” (How good!) when they tried out his flutes.  We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking about Shakuhachis, about flute making, with him showing me several of the instruments he had made, many of which he had for sale.  As I peered down the bores of his flutes, I noticed that many of them were not as perfectly smooth and glossy as I had come to expect in a quality instrument; nevertheless, his flutes all sounded great.  “That’s the thing about a great Shakuhachi – it doesn’t have to look perfectly smooth and glossy on the inside to sound great.  I’m known not so much by how my flutes look as by how they sound – and when it comes to sound, my flutes sound the best!”

I had to admit to myself after playing Iida Sensei’s flutes that they all sounded great, even though their bores did not look as flawless.  Impressed by the quality of his flutes, and by his knowledge and expertise when it came to all things Shakuhachi, I decided to become his student, and broke off relations with my former teacher; in addition, Iida Sensei became my sponsor and guarantor when I applied for a cultural activities visa.  In retrospect, this decision may not have been so wise, since it gave Iida Sensei a kind of control over me as his student that tied me to him, impairing my freedom to go study with other teachers if I so desired.  In addition, Iida Sensei’s personal behavior and demeanor was, as his appearance suggested, rather scrappy and pugnacious, and more than a little rough around the edges; and besides, he was always boasting about himself and his accomplishments.  My discussions with my home stay mother, Mrs. Nagata, prompted her to seek a meeting with Iida Sensei to find out exactly what kind of guy he was, and if his influence on my was for better or worse.  In the end, my Japanese mama-san gave Iida Sensei her approval, albeit with certain cautions. 

Human Relations: Navigating the Rapids of the Shakuhachi World
One of the most frustrating and difficult things for me was navigating the intricate maze of human relations that existed in Japanese society as a whole, which seemed to be raised to the n-th degree within the artistic world of the Shakuhachi, with its feudalistic fiefdoms of filial piety and fierce loyalty binding Sensei to student, and vice-versa as well.  These old Confucian ethics and norms were quite confusing and confounding to me.  One book that had a huge influence on me in my early days in Japan was Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which took a rather harsh, unforgiving view of the calculating intricacies and intrigues of society and human relations in Japan.  After many discussions with Mrs. Nagata about its various ideas and theses, she had to remind me that this was, after all, a book that was written by an American anthropologist while the US was at war with Japan, in an effort to know one’s enemy.  What Ms. Benedict had downplayed or ignored in her book, Mrs. Nagata reminded me, was the whole dimension of human kindness and human feelings, which are pretty much universal. 

Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that Japanese society is definitely more regimented, feudalistic and tightly organized than Western or European society, which places a greater emphasis on personal individuality; in Japan, the group definitely takes precedence over the individual.  Take the Kinko School of Shakuhachi playing, for example – it had various sub-groups, or Kai –s, within its overall umbrella, organized along Sensei to student lineages.  Iida Sensei was a member of the Kodo Kai himself, or the sub-group of student descendants of Araki Kodo – not the fifth generation Araki Kodo, who I had studied with in Seattle, who was also obviously a member of this Kai, but rather, his grandfather, Araki Kodo III.  Iida Sensei played me some old recordings of Araki Kodo III, and indeed, his talent and technique were phenomenal.  This whole Confucian idea of filial piety, which extends beyond familial blood relations to teacher – student relations in any field, art or discipline, is organized according to Oyabun / Kobun (parent / child) relations, and pervades all of Japanese society. 

Iida Sensei had his own little aphorisms or words of wisdom for me when it came to navigating and understanding the complex world of human relations in Japan.  Hito wa sama-zama, he would tell me, meaning that people are of many kinds, with the corollary being that a person’s outer appearance gave no sure indication of his or her inner feelings or sentiments.  In Japan, that whole dimension of human relations is related to Hara Gei, or “the art of the belly”.  “Don’t stand a person’s belly on end,” Iida Sensei would warn me.  To give you some idea of how easy this was to do in Japan, it just so happened that one of the Shakuhachi players I really admired was an eccentric Buddhist monk named Watazumi, who played on Shakuhachi made from rough pieces of bamboo in his own inimitable style.  I shared my effusive praise and admiration for Watazumi with a certain visitor to Iida Sesnsei’s flute store and ever after that, he would have nothing to do with me, and avoided me like the plague.  Iida Sensei then had to take me aside and explain that that guy hated Watazumi’s guts, and I had stood his belly on end. 

Besides the relationship of parent to child, or teacher to student, other relationships were also arranged in strict hierarchical fashion in Japan.  For example, fellow students of the same Shakuhachi teacher are called Take Kyodai, or “bamboo brothers”; actually, the phrase could be translated literally as “bamboo olderbrother / youngerbrother”.  I run the words together here to illustrate the fact that there is no word that simply means “brother” in Japanese, which does not also incorporate the hierarchical idea of ranking, or being older or younger, into it.  The Western idea of universal brotherhood irrespective of rank or hierarchy does not really exist in the Japanese language.  “The Chinese ideogram for ‘person’ is one line leaning upon another; this shows exactly how human society operates – we all need and lean upon one another, and no one can live in isolation”, was another one of Iida Sensei’s pithy words of wisdom.  Japanese society is indeed tightly woven, and nowhere was it woven as tightly, it seemed to me, as it was in the artistic world of the Shakuhachi.

Your Sensei was your guide and father in the art or Way that you were studying; he was also your protégé and benefactor.  The flip side of this was that it seemed that the Sensei could get quite jealous and demand unswerving loyalty.  But heck – what if you just wanted to spread your wings or expand your horizons artistically by visiting and studying with other teachers on the side?  “If you go behind his back and study with other teachers, sooner or later, word will get back to your Sensei”, a gaijin (foreigner) Shakuhachi friend told me.  Whatever you did, you had to clear things with your Sensei first.  I found this out the hard way when I attended a one day workshop given by Sakai Chikuho II, who was a popular teacher with many gaijin students.  I thought nothing of it – after all, it was just for one day, with no ongoing commitment required – but was I wrong!  Sure enough, word did get back to Iida Sensei, and relations between us frosted over for a while. 

Truly, trying to navigate the world of hierarchical, tightly woven master / student relationships in the Shakuhachi world was like trying to navigate treacherous rapids.  I envied my foreign colleagues who seemed to have a much greater facility than myself for navigating this world and going gleefully from teacher to teacher to learn and assimilate what each had to offer.  But, for one reason or another, for better or worse, I seemed to be stuck in a trap with Iida Sensei.  Perhaps the reason was strictly visa-related, as he was the sponsor of my visa, rather than an employer.  I also resented the way in which he would lead me on, in carrot-on-a-stick fashion; I told him in no uncertain terms when I started with him that all I wanted to study were the Honkyoku pieces.  Iida Sensei said that I had to study a few Sankyoku pieces first, to develop my embouchure and technique, and to get a better sense of pitch and rhythm.  Only on my very last lesson before I returned to the US did Iida Sensei introduce me to a Honkyoku piece – but it was too little, too late. 

After returning to the US, I found my first job in Little Tokyo.  I started asking around in the book and music stores there if anyone knew of a Shakuhachi teacher who I could study with, and I did find one in Yamaguchi Sensei, who had his home and Shakuhachi studio right across the Los Angeles River in East LA.  Like my first teacher in Japan, Yamaguchi Sensei was a gentle, kindly old man who taught Koten Honkyoku pieces as he had learned them from his teacher, Jin Nyodo.  In addition to my private lessons, all of us students of Yamaguchi Sensei got together from time to time to hold Shakuhachi Kais, or practice circles.  I was even in a performance with Yamaguchi Sensei’s students at the main theater in Little Tokyo, playing Kumoi Jishi, a nice, lyrical Honkyoku piece.  The Nisei and Sansei Japanese American community in Los Angeles was often described as being rather insular and set in its ways, but many felt that, as Japanese living in cultural exile outside their ancestral homeland, they had clung to their ancestral traditions and culture even more fervently than Japanese living in Japan.

To the Japanese, the human world only exists through the relationships we have with other humans.  To be outside this sphere of relationships would be, to the Japanese person, something sub-human, more akin to being an animal, living in simple Darwinian survival mode.  To illustrate what I mean, let us take the compound of two Chinese ideograms that is commonly translated as “human” or “human being”: Ningen.  The first character, Nin, means “person” – the one line leaning against the other line that Iida Sensei was referring to.  The second character, Gen, refers to a space in between two things.  So, the compound Ningen could more literally be translated as “the space or relationships between people” – in other words, the world of the human being is the world of human relationships.  This brings us to the existential question of whether or not a human being has any real separate existence in and of him- or her-self.  Interesting question.  To the Japanese person, the answer could very well be “no” – or at least that the human being is somehow less than human when he is thinking only of himself. 

Shakuhachi Making with Iida Sensei: Bamboo Can Get Expensive!
Before I got to Japan to study with Iida Sensei, I thought I made pretty good Shakuhachi; after becoming his student and seeing his flutes, it seemed like I could do nothing right in this department, that all the so-called Shakuhachis I made were merely toys or trinkets.  Sure enough, I did not have access to the authentic, root end pieces that he had, but I thought that I had done quite well with the bamboo that was available to me – before I became his student.  I accompanied Iida Sensei out to the mountains in the countryside to cut bamboo once or twice; I remember that one of these expeditions seemed to be all for naught, since the soil from which we harvested the bamboo was too damp and marshy.  When that bamboo dried, it seemed like it was not much harder than cardboard or balsa wood – quite a disappointment.  I remember Iida Sensei telling me the story about how he saw the perfect piece of bamboo on one of his harvesting expeditions, but when he shook the stalk to test its firmness and strength, he found that it was too lightweight and flimsy.  Nevertheless, he knew that in a few years, as the bamboo stalk thickened and hardened from the inside, the piece would be perfect and peerless in quality.  He put a mark on the stalk of bamboo so he could find it again when he came back for it three years later, but until then, all he could do was to hope and pray that no one else came to cut that bamboo stalk down.  And, miracle of miracles – it was still there three years later!

Seeing that I was eager to learn the art of Shakuhachi making, and yet still being reluctant to take me into his full confidence as a deshi or apprentice until I had thoroughly proven myself, Iida Sensei decided to give me half-made Shakuhachis to see what I could do to overhaul or refurbish them – and by this, I am referring specifically to bore engineering.  He also gave a little basic instruction, mainly through observation, in some of the outer or exoteric operations involved in making a Shakuhachi, such as cutting the mouthpiece or Utaguchi; reaming out the joints; putting in the finger holes; and cutting and rasping away the rootlets and sculpting the root end.  I remember vividly one particular piece, one half-made Shakuhachi he gave me to work on; it was somewhat deformed in that it had a couple of tortuous bends in it that departed from the usual norms, like bending backwards.  Another thing about that particular piece was that the bamboo was unusually, phenomenally hard – seemingly even harder than the fine steel knives I had to carve it with.  This gave me a newfound awe and respect for the incredible power of Nature when it came to bamboo.  It seemed like many of the pieces he gave me to work on had been “problem pieces” for him – and he was interested to see exactly how I would try to resolve the extraordinary challenges he himself had faced with these pieces.

One thing Iida Sensei had warned me about was the possibility of an insidious infestation of bamboo by bugs, which would eat it up like termites.  Bugs in bamboo were like cancer in people, he told me – they could lay dormant for years, and then start to spread or metastasize.  If bug infestation was discovered in a piece of bamboo, that piece had to be thrown out along with others near it that might also be infected.  Iida Sensei also showed me how to check for the signs of bug infestation. 

Bugs, or at least the suspicion of them, became the basis for a particularly stark, Zen-like encounter between me and Iida Sensei one afternoon.  Full of anxiety, I brought a piece he had given me, a small piece that would have made a good shorter length Shakuhachi, over to his workshop.  “I think that this piece of bamboo has bugs!” I exclaimed.  “Where do you think the bugs are?” Iida Sensei shot back.  “Right here,” I replied, pointing to the spot where I had seen something strange moving around when I peered up the bore.  “Then let’s see…”  Before I could even figure out what the heck was going on, Iida Sensei had grabbed a hatchet and split the bamboo piece in two at exactly the spot at which I had said the bugs were.  “So- where the heck are the bugs?” Iida Sensei replied, his voice full of scorn.  To really drive his point home, Iida Sensei then took the hatchet to the bamboo piece again and again and – voila, no bugs anywhere!  After that little incident, Iida Sensei never gave me pieces of bamboo to work on – I had to buy everything I got.

I also remember assisting Iida Sensei in doing some of the basic preliminary work for making the Shakuhachi I would later buy from him as my main instrument.  It was an absolutely beautiful piece, especially from the outside, being handsomely mottled in light brown throughout its length, somewhat like the spots of a leopard.  I fell in love with that piece from the very time I first laid eyes on it.  The only problem with it was that the joint in between the second and third finger holes was nastily crooked.  Iida Sensei did what he could to straighten out that joint, heating it up over a hibachi stove and bending it hard in the bamboo press to straighten it out.  It was a particularly hard and stubborn piece of bamboo, so despite Iida Sensei’s best efforts, that joint remained a little crooked; he would just have to do whatever he could to straighten out that kink internally during the bore work and tuning process. 

Iida Sensei was also working on making several other Shakuhachis in the same batch as the one I wanted.  Those other Shakuhachis also needed their bores to be sculpted and tuned, and one by one, Iida Sensei finished them off.  Iida Sensei also tried to discourage me from holding out for what I had covetously claimed as “my piece”, encouraging me to buy one of these other Shakuhachis instead.  But I staunchly turned them down, without even so much as trying them out – I was holding out for my “mottled beauty”.  The weeks dragged on, and I kept on pestering Iida Sensei, asking when my Shakuhachi would be ready.  I was getting really impatient after asking him repeatedly when all of a sudden, one day, there it was – he presented me with my Shakuhachi, and charged me an arm and a leg for it – four thousand dollars, to be exact.  When I told a friend of mine at work, a fellow English teacher, about my recent purchase, he quipped, “They got ya comin’ and goin’, don’t they?”  Nevertheless, I persisted with my new Shakuhachi, trying hard to adjust my playing to compensate for its kuse, or quirks. 

My final and crushing let down with this Shakuhachi finally came years later, at a Shakuhachi workshop in Los Angeles that was being led by Katsuya Yokoyama, one of the great masters of the Kinko School.  After trying out my Shakuhachi for a few seconds, he promptly put it down on his lap, looked me right in the eye, and proclaimed bluntly: Take wo kaenakya akan,” or, “You gotta get a new bamboo.”  I was absolutely devastated, as I had tried to make do with this defective Shakuhachi, as expensive as it was, for years by that point.  My natural first response was to heap blame and resentment upon Iida Sensei for selling me this “lemon” of a Shakuhachi.  But upon deeper reflection, I realized that the one I really needed to blame was myself.  Iida Sensei had repeatedly begged me to consider buying some of his other flutes as they came off the assembly line, but I had staunchly refused time and again, holding out for what I had designated as my beautiful piece of bamboo.  The moral of this story:  Bamboo can get really expensive, and unwarranted bamboo infatuation can have dire consequences.

Conclusion and Reflections: The Many Difficult Nodes of My Shakuhachi Experience
In traditional Japanese bamboo symbolism, the nodes of a bamboo stalk symbolize the various problems and difficulties we encounter in life from time to time, which we need to work through with great diligence and perseverance.  The nodes of the bamboo also present the Shakuhachi maker with definite challenges and difficulties in the process of tuning the instrument.  For me, the Shakuhachi and its art was a real taskmaster, and presented me with all kinds of problems, challenges and difficulties – not merely in a musical or artistic sense, but also in the difficult and thorny aspect of human relations within the artistic world of the Shakuhachi.  So – in the final analysis, what precious life lessons and advice can I distill from my many years of involvement with the Shakuhachi and its art?  In a word, “Go for it!”  Be persistent and resolute in navigating the rapids of the Shakuhachi world, never giving up until you succeed in finding your heart’s desire in studying the kind of music you want with the kind of teacher or Sensei you want.  And in finding the right teacher, you should look for one with whom you can go beyond the initial formalities and enryo, or “distant considerations” of face saving and social propriety to achieve true, heartfelt understanding.  Then the sharing and transmission can truly begin. 

In connection with all I have discussed above, I can do no better than present you with a quotation from Confucius’ commentary on I Ching Hexagram number 13 – Fellowship with Men:

Life leads the thoughtful man on a path of many wanderings.  Now the course is checked, now it runs straight again.  Here, winged thoughts may pour freely forth in words.  There the heavy burden of knowledge must be shut away in silence.  But when two people are at one in their inmost hearts, they shatter even the strength of iron or bronze.  And when two people understand each other in their inmost hearts, their words are sweet and strong, like the fragrance of orchids. 



Source:  The I Ching, or Book of Changes, Wilhelm – Baynes Translation, pg. 59.  Copyright 1950 by Bollingen Foundation, New York, NY USA.  Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.