Josen Shakuhachi

daishihan grandmaster craftsperson and teacher

Josen shakuhachi daishihan grandmaster craftsperson teacher Zen practitioner
Practicing formal shakuhachi Takuhatsu Komuso alms begging in Asheville, NC, June 4, 2012 (photo by Steve Shanafelt)
Me practicing formal Takuhatsu Komuso ‘alms begging’, June 4, 2012

All things shakuhachi

Welcome, my name’s Josen (Jon Kypros) and here you’ll find my handcrafted shakuhachi flutes for sale and my growing catalogue of free shakuhachi lesson videos. It’s been my great joy to be a full-time teacher and craftsperson of shakuhachi musical instruments for over twenty years. I hold the title of Daishihan or ‘Grandmaster’ and I practice Zen Buddhism, both of which I will cultivate for the rest of my life. You might be familiar with me via my Bell Shakuhachi instrument and my book, Your Shakuhachi Journey (under revision/expansion).

It would be my pleasure to guide you on your pilgrimage down the také no michi or ‘bamboo path’. Reach out to me with any questions and thank you for entrusting me to be of aid on your odyssey. I hope to meet you in the bamboo, Josen

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shakuhachi musical instrument root end home age

jinashi and jimori


The sound of bamboo

I handcraft Jinashi and Jimori (地無し•地盛り) — the only types of shakuhachi musical instruments that preserve the natural inner bore of the bamboo. From these, you will hear the unique voices of nature and find those which resonate with you.

Are you ready to play?

I’ve taught countless people and it would be my honor to teach you. My approach combines videos with personalized instruction which greatly enhance your learning, saving you time and money.

Tradition


Learn how to play

On the lessons page, you’ll find a growing resource of free videos on how to play shakuhachi. Including my series on how to play Honkyoku, in which I teach you diverse Zen pieces from across Japan. By passing the Honkyoku down to you, we forge new links in an unbroken chain of teacher and student that stretches back hundreds of years to the Komuso monks. No matter which path you take, you’ll experience the most venerated pieces, and that’s what’s important. All the variations between styles and masters are riding on the same deep undercurrent. We have a saying, ichi on Jobutsu, ‘one sound Buddhahood/enlightenment’ — let’s enjoy the ‘one sound’ together.

shakuhachi musical instrument notation lesson
shakuhachi musical instrument komuso tengai hat shakuhachi notation shakuhachi guides shakuhachi lessons

Fundamentally, we can define shakuhachi in English as end blown, rim blown or vertical flutes from Japan with five finger-holes tuned to the minor pentatonic scale. To make them, craftspeople most often use bamboo. However, they’ve utilized many other materials for shakuhachi flutes stretching all the way back to the ancestral instruments from China.

Additionally, shakuhachi are the only melodic musical instruments we associate with Zen Buddhism, via their near exclusive use by the renounced Samurai-turned-Komuso monks. Of course, there are other things which set them apart; their essence as flutes or musical instruments. Next, I’m going to share with you what makes a shakuhachi, a shakuhachi.

Their essence

Undoubtedly, we can hear that shakuhachi are sonically flexible flutes, in the right hands. Yet, they’re minimalistic by design (not to be conflated with simplistic, of course). Suffice to say, unlike a silver flute with its many keys, the shakuhachi didn’t evolve to allow us to play many notes with the greatest of ease. Additionally, they aren’t designed to make sounds for us as easily as possible either.

For example, shakuhachi don’t have a mouthpiece with a ‘fipple’ air-way to direct our breath like recorder flutes, ocarinas, kaval, or other ‘whistle-type’ flutes. Conversely, the essence or design of the shakuhachi evolved so as to give us great control over the sound. In turn, this allows us to explore the sound via shaping the single note we’re voicing. We do this by subtly shaping our lips or embouchure in relation to our air-speed or breath.

In this way, we can make the absolute most out of the shakuhachi. Truly, no other flute offers us as many possibilities on a single note, giving us a deep connection to the sound. While this makes shakuhachi harder to play compared to other flutes, the rewards are unparalleled.

Shakuhachi diagram: A - utaguchi 歌口 'song mouth' or blowing edge and chin rest area. Finger-holes: 一 ichi 1, 二 ni 2, 三 san 3, 四 shi/yon 4, 五 go 5th thumb hole on back. B - the first node. C - root end and bottom opening which voices Ro ロ or the fundamental/tonic/key, i.e., the lowest/deepest note of the shakuhachi.
Shakuhachi diagram: A – utaguchi 歌口 ‘song mouth’ or blowing edge and chin rest area. Finger-holes: 一 ichi 1, 二 ni 2, 三 san 3, 四 shi/yon 4, 五 go 5th thumb hole on back. B – the first node. C – root end and bottom opening which voices Ro ロ or the fundamental/tonic/key, i.e., the lowest/deepest note of the shakuhachi.
Left and Middle: Oldest shakuhachi in Japan, 8th c. 'above root' bamboo, Shoso-in, Nara. Right: Ikkyu Sojun's 'above root' shakuhachi, mid 1400's.
Left and Middle: Oldest shakuhachi in Japan, 8th c. ‘above root’ bamboo, Shoso-in, Nara. Right: Ikkyu Sojun’s ‘above root’ shakuhachi, mid 1400’s.

Origins of the shakuhachi

Like most things in early Japanese history, the first shakuhachi were imported to Japan from China (Nara period, 710-794 ad). These flutes were a part of the court music ensemble called Gagaku 雅楽, as it’s translated from Chinese into Japanese.

These flutes were crafted from bamboo poles, jade, various stones, and ivory. Shakuhachi were also shorter at approximately 1.08 shaku in length or, ichi-shaku-hachi-bu, which comes out to be about 32.7cm or 12.8in. That’s 22cm shorter than the later and current standard of 1.8 key of ‘D’ or, ichi-shaku-hachi-sun, which is around 54.5cm or 21.5in.

The shakuhachi would also see other variations and evolutions. For example, they were not initially crafted from root end bamboo. Rather, they were made from upper portions of the bamboo stalk for nearly a thousand years in Japan before the root end was utilized (8th c. to late 17th c.).

Madaké bamboo

For over a thousand years, craftspeople have primarily used Madaké 真竹 bamboo for shakuhachi musical instrument construction. Madaké bamboo is native to China, thus Japanese people imported the first live plants, from Zhejiang province to be exact. Crafstpeople primarily use Madaké bamboo because of its favorable characteristics and its abundance in Japan.

For instance, it typically grows very straight with good distances between the nodes for finger-hole placement (internodal spacing). The first meter of the stalk can also have a nice inner taper which is essential for the correct sound and feeling. In my experience, its most supreme gift is its variety; the myriad voices of nature. These voices are only truly heard with Jinashi and Jimori type shakuhachi instruments which preserve the natural inner bamboo bores.

Playing shakuhachi in front of giant Madaké bamboo, 2010
Shakuhachi in waiting, swaying in the wind – Playing in front of giant Madaké bamboo, 2010
Me in my self woven Komuso Tengai hat, 2011
Me in my self woven Komuso Tengai hat, 2011

The Komuso monks and Honkyoku

The Komuso 虚無僧 ’empty/clear-mind monks’ are to thank for much of the progress made with both shakuhachi instrument construction and playing. Notably, scholars credit the Komuso monks with using the lower portion of the bamboo stalk, often including the root end. The Komuso also composed the largest body of solo flute music in the world which they called Honkyoku 本曲. Of course, these are the most venerated pieces, being meditative or spiritual in nature and intent. For example, they often have motifs from Buddhist chanting and titles referencing Buddhist concepts.

In our time

Thanks to manga, anime, and video games, we’re seeing an increase in the exposure for shakuhachi around the world. For example, in 2020 the American developed game Ghost of Tsushima became the first to feature the shakuhachi musical instrument as an actionable accessory, as well as having shakuhachi music in the soundtrack. Thus, Ghost of Tsushima introduced the shakuhachi instrument to thousands of people around the world.

Perhaps this will also ‘come back home’ and result in a resurgence of interest within Japan. However, as it stands there continues to be an ever declining interest in the shakuhachi within Japan, along with all other traditional Japanese arts. However, the history of the Komuso is a testament to the enduring power of spiritual and artistic practices in the face of adversities. Despite persecution and many other hardships, the Komuso remained committed to their practice and inspired generations of players. Indeed, we each keep the flame alive every time we pick up our shakuhachi.

Shakuhachi featured in Ghost of Tsushima, a 2020 action-adventure game by Sucker Punch Productions, published by Sony Interactive Entertainment