Sounds of Japan: Traditional Musical Instruments

  • If you decide to go to Japan you should know about the culture and a bit of language, but it can also be important to know about music instruments, especially if you’re a music lover! In fact, if you visit the Ainu people in Hokkaido, if you go to see a Kabuki show or if you attend any traditional festival, you might see a few Japanese traditional instruments. It seems, therefore, important to introduce you a few of them!


    Shamisen is a three-stringed musical instrument. It varies in sizes and shapes and can normally be seen in kabuki, and heard in most of the traditional songs.


    First of all, the most famous instrument that you might have heard of is Koto. It is a national string instrument made of Paulownia wood. It generally has 13 strings and is very long (180cm)! You can see this instrument in some movies where Geishas play them to entertain the guests.


    A less common instrument is Mukkuri, which is a jaw harp made of bamboo. It’s a traditional Ainu instrument. By the way, Ainu people are indigenous to Hokkaido.


    Then if you go to a Buddhist temple you might see the Horagai instrument, which is a big shell used as a trumpet. In fact, for hundreds of years some Buddhist monks were using this instrument for rituals and ceremonies, and nowadays it is still used by some. In a military perspective, Samurai used this shell as a signal instrument during wars.


    If you have a chance to go to Himeji Oshiro Festival you might notice that some participants are playing a bamboo flute. It is called Shakuhachi and it was traditionally used by Zen Buddhist monks as a spiritual tool.


    Another instrument used for Buddhist ceremonies is Mokugyo is normally a wooden fish-shaped instrument. Nowadays it normally is made as 2 fish holding a ball. Fish were believed to be strong as they never sleep!


    If you attend various traditional festivals or events, you might see Taiko instrument! It is very famous, it is a type of drum. There are actually a few Taiko music bands all around the world, for instance, in Australia or in Brazil.


    This last presented instrument is about percussion. It’s called Hyoshigi and is a very simple instrument made of two pieces of wood that are used as clappers. You can see this instrument at some Kabuki shows or even at some festivals.