Shakuhachi buyers guide – how to buy 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.
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.

(Of course, because I’m a craftsperson selling shakuhachi I won’t be recommending any of my own works here, or those of anyone else.)

TLDR: 1.8 D is the best to start with alongside any other shakuhachi lengths/keys you’re drawn to and can afford. There are affordable, professionally approved wooden, resin, and occasionally entry level bamboo 1.8 D shakuhachi which are more than capable instruments to begin on (under 200 to 800 dollars). You can ask around public shakuhachi groups to learn about your options for these (I recommend asking the Reddit shakuhachi group). It’s of course possible to spend a lot of money on a shakuhachi which actually turns out to not be suited to you, your skill level, ambitions or intentions, and so on. For these reason, you should probably get your start on something capable but humble, such as the aforementioned 1.8’s I alluded to.

Introduction to purchasing a shakuhachi

Purchasing your first shakuhachi can be a daunting task. On top of that, finding the type of shakuhachi you want or need can be even be difficult as it may be a less common type like Jinashi and Jimori. In this guide I hope to help you learn how to buy shakuhachi and avoid disappointment. For example, you don’t want to over-buy by purchasing a shakuhachi way above your requirements. Similarly, you don’t want to buy a pseudo-shakuhachi which can’t function properly and have to turn around and purchase a real shakuhachi. My goal here is to get you off to a good start with shakuhachi because I don’t want you to give up. So, gambatte kudasai, or ‘please do your best’! Josen

To 1.8 or not, that is the question

As you probably know, 1.8 key of D is the standard shakuhachi length or key. This means that most instructional materials will be aimed at 1.8 and most teachers teach on 1.8. If you have small hands or physical limitations, 1.8 might also be the largest shakuhachi you can hope to play. For these reasons, 1.8 D is the best choice for most people’s first shakuhachi purchase.

While those with small hands might think it’s best to opt for something shorter, smaller shakuhachi are harder to play as they take more focus from the embouchure to hit the higher notes of Kan, the 2nd register. The fact is, there are very few adults who can’t manage to play a standard 1.8 when using proper form. If you’re drawn to the deep sounds of longer shakuhachi and you’re physically able to manage them, it’s still a good idea to make one of your first shakuhachi a 1.8 D.

PVC and other cylindrical bore flutes are far from shakuhachi in truth

I’ve written at length on this topic in my guide, Traditional tapered shakuhachi bores vs. cylindrical bore flutes, such as pvc. To summarize or give a TLDR; shakuhachi have tapering bores, not cylindrical like PVC, and this is essential. This is not snobbery, marketing, or archaic stuffy traditionalism either; it’s a scientific fact of acoustics. All that being said, if you have to get your start on a PVC or other cylindrical bore shakuhachi it’s far, far better than nothing (I would not begrudge it).

Are shakuhachi “overpriced” or “too expensive”?

Everything is of course relative, so let’s make some comparisons between shakuhachi and concert silver flutes. You can acquire both beginner level concert flutes and shakuhachi for well under 500 dollars. When it comes to “expensive” or “professional” level instruments the price tags for quality bamboo shakuhachi rarely surpass 5000 dollars, while quality headjoints alone for concert flutes regularly exceed 5k (search for Miyazawa, Rodger Young, and/or Mancke headjoints).

While these headjoints are crafted from precious metals, consider the sheer amount of work and effort that goes into acquiring quality Madaké bamboo for shakuhachi. Of course, headjoints can require a great amount of effort and precision to craft, but I think it’s safe to say that crafting an entire quality shakuhachi from bamboo is more difficult compared to any concert flute headjoint.

In this light, by considering just a small part of the broader world of flutes via headjoints, quality bamboo shakuhachi are grossly underpriced. However, unlike concert flutes, very few people make any sort of income playing shakuhachi. Thus, very few people can justify their purchase of shakuhachi as a business expense with the hopes of earning returns via performances. This combined with the far fewer players of shakuhachi (lower demand) has and will keep the price of quality bamboo shakuhachi, and now even metal shakuhachi, far lower than their ultimate worth.

While quality bamboo shakuhachi are indeed expensive for most of us, they are, in fact, priced at a fraction of their true value. I would also argue that quality bamboo shakuhachi are actually priceless.

All that glitters is not bamboo

Musicians and makers of instruments love opulence. In fact, the shakuhachi world has its fair share of the bourgeoisie. With 50k antiques, ivory blowing edge inlays lined with gold, and so on, shakuhachi have been thus adorned all the way back to the Edo Period. But does the shiny stuff affect the sound? No. With that said, either the sound of the shakuhachi is worthy of these frivolous additions, or not…

Check that return policy

Of course, it’s always a good idea to check and see if there’s a return policy or auditioning period before buying a shakuhachi. However, when it comes to shakuhachi auctions, you’ll hardly ever get any sort of option for returns. People should also accept returns without hassling you over it. If a seller gives you a possible solution to a problem you’re having with a shakuhachi you purchased from them, such as “getting used to” XY or Z issues, make sure they tell you in writing that they’ll extend your auditioning period while you try their advice, or seek out a teacher to help you with it.

Just because one or even many people love a shakuhachi or a particular maker it’s no guarantee that you will as well. Additionally, it’ll take time for you to judge shakuhachi for yourself and to develop tastes and needs. This further underscores my advice to start with affordable, “entry level” shakuhachi (NB: “entry level” is not to be conflated with “low quality”).

Keep cracks in mind

Also keep in mind that bamboo shakuhachi can and often do crack, especially when shipped by inexperienced people who don’t know that they should be packaged in an air-tight bag. The harsh conditions of shipping put the bamboo or wood through a lot of stress if it’s not packaged properly.

Cracks can be especially devastating and difficult to repair with Jiari or Jinuri shakuhachi with their plastered bores and center joints. For example, let’s say you acquire a cracked Jiari for 500 dollars on auction or it cracks in shipment; the repairs alone could cost you more than the instrument, doubling your costs. Just keep that in mind.

Lastly, all bamboo can crack no matter how thick, thin, old, pretty, or expensive they are (bindings are the only way to truly prevent cracks which is why I offer them for free on all my root ends). Accept that bamboo shakuhachi will crack, should crack, are naturally meant to crack. They may not crack within our lifetime, or for many lifetimes, but they will split eventually.

Antiques are usually a bad idea for one’s first shakuhachi

Antiques are usually bad, period. This is because most antiques are Jinashi and most Jinashi could benefit from some bore tuning, however, they didn’t know how to do this back then. Couple this with very small finger holes, a traditionally sharp 3rd hole, often small top OD’s and ID’s (inner and outer diameters), difficult to blow utaguchi edges, cracks, other damages, and common botched alterations from hobbyists… and I can hardly recommend that anyone try to acquire antique shakuhachi on auction. If an antique was curated by a professional you can rest assured that the price will be high, and you’ll still have to contend with many of the aforementioned hurdles.

Caveat emptor: that’s not an antique “Komuso monk” shakuhachi

Unfortunately, some people market or erroneously think that some “antiques” are rustic, “wabi sabi” shakuhachi crafted by humble Komuso. In truth, most of these that I’ve seen are actually throw-away apprentice works. Essentially, in Japan, shakuhachi crafting apprentices are given throw-away pieces of unsuitable bamboo to practice their skills upon.

After the apprentice is done, these are then donated to local Japanese pawn shops which no serious shakuhachi player in their right mind would purchase from. Instead, these are intended to be bought as Ikebana flower vases and the like, i.e., as decorations. However, they have been known to come into the hands of probably well-meaning, non-Japanese people, and are then sold as rustic “Komuso” shakuhachi, perhaps after a little TLC. It takes a moderately skilled eye to spot these, however, take my advice and avoid “antiques” altogether, at least at first.

In summation

Acquire one of the aforementioned, entry-level, humble 1.8 D’s vetted by experienced players and/or professionals (you can inquire on shakuhachi Reddit for your options for resin, wood, and occasionally bamboo). Next, acquire any additional shakuhachi lengths you may desire, ideally also beginning with relatively inexpensive and humble options. Over time, the path through the bamboo to the shakuhachi of your dreams will become clear. In the end, you’ll have earned it more so with your dedication than with your bank account. Ganbatte kudasai or ‘please do you best’, Josen