Following the Flute to Kyoto

By Patterson Clark
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 4, 2002

Ripping the evening air, a passing motorcycle imposes a harsh counterpoint to the bright, ringing tones of Yoshio Kurahashi's bamboo flute.

"I enjoy performing with city sounds," says the master of the shakuhachi after his performance in northeast Kyoto. "The music becomes part of the city -- not like playing in a sealed room."

Kurahashi's signature piece, "Jinbo Sanya" ("Three Valleys"), is a haunting 400-year-old tune once played by wandering monks who wore woven baskets over their heads for anonymity. They performed the song for women in labor, to help ease childbirth.

Although there are no longer any mendicant shakuhachi-playing monks strolling the streets of Kyoto, Kurahashi helps keep the tradition of the sound alive by teaching and performing in Kyoto and overseas.

"Sometimes it seems that most people interested in shakuhachi live outside of Japan," he says.

Indeed, of the nine people performing under the full moon on the Hosomi Museum's outdoor stage, only two are Japanese. Five are American students of New York teacher Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin.

Seldin, who speaks fluent Japanese, is in Kyoto for his yearly tour through Japan, exposing students (or anyone else who's interested) to temples, theater, arcane markets, gardens, dinners in private homes, shakuhachi makers and teachers, and introducing them to the Tenrikyo religion, in which Seldin is active. Eager to take as many shakuhachi lessons as I can with Kurahashi, I've joined the group for the week-long Kyoto leg of their tour.

After Kurahashi's stunning performance, four of us novices climb onto the stage, sit on our heels in a line facing the audience and play a short, slow tune together.

Through the bright lights, I notice a stark difference between the Western and Japanese listeners: Most of the Westerners' eyes wander and they tend to fidget, while the Japanese sit motionless, transfixed on even the squeaky sounds of rank beginners.

The Discipline

A year ago, ignoring the advice of every gardener I've ever heard, I decided to introduce bamboo to my garden.

"Once you plant it you can never get rid of it," echoed their voices as I surfed the Web, searching for cultivation techniques.

Suddenly my attention was diverted by a link to something called a shakuhachi -- the Zen flute -- and its fascinating history as a meditation tool. I could feel a hairline crack forming in my walls of musical and cultural ignorance.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2002 The Washington Post Company