Generation Y of modern Japan may find the traditional shakuhachi bamboo flute an old-fashioned instrument. In fact, there is a dwindling number of people that are interested in learning how to play the instrument these days. But before this musical instrument gained popularity among people in the past generations, Zen priests used this instrument as a tool for meditation during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
Brought in by the Chinese around the 8th century, the shakuhachi used to be described as “an instrument of Dharma” (hoki in Japanese). Komuso monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism have been using this instrument widely for meditation with the belief that playing the instrument equates to chanting the sutras. It is a mortal sin to refer to the shakuhachi as a simple musical instrument (gakki) because at that time, common people were not even allowed to touch it. The shakuhachi was played to beg for alms instead of chanting the sutras.
During the middle of the Edo period, the imperial court relaxed the rules for the shakuhachi, partly because many people admired the komuso monks so much that they wanted to learn from them and because the instrument in itself offers an avenue to express emotions. But despite the instrument looking very simple, it takes a lot of practice before one can master playing the instrument.
The shakuhachi is an instrument that requires air and the music is produced by blowing into the mouthpiece (utakuchi). There are only five finger holes with four on top and one on the bottom. The instrument measures one foot (shaku) and eight inches (hachi sun) which is probably the derivative of its name. Given the measurements and the form of the instrument, hitting the desired pitch can be extremely difficult. The challenge also lies in producing a stable note on your first try.
Although there is a wide range of techniques that can be used to master the instrument, it is often said that every player has a unique tone. So, oOne can tell the difference between two musicians playing the same note as the shakuhachi is similar to the human voice.