Following the Flute to Kyoto
The author had a passion for the Zen instrument, so he sought its master in Japan.

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.

Within a week, I'd made a cheap homemade flute out of PVC pipe. After drilling the fifth hole -- the thumb hole -- I sat down, took a deep breath and blew: Nothing. The sound of no hand clapping.

A few attempts later, through the haze of hyperventilation, a clear and sustained note emerged. That was the point of no return. The bamboo was planted inside me.

To some, the shakuhachi is just another musical instrument, but it can also be a relentless teacher of awareness. Notoriously difficult to play, it forces a face-to-face confrontation with expectation, self-criticism, disappointment, frustration and impatience -- all in a single breath. Exhaling through all those impediments and releasing one's attachments to them can dissolve the ego so that one can experience only the sound -- and become the sound.

What I mostly found as I began to practice was a furiously chattering mind. But moments arose when preoccupations with the past or future would melt under the soft, mellifluous tones of the present.

Two hours of practice a day, an upgrade to a bamboo flute and 11 months later, I flew west to taste Japan for the first time and snatch a few moments of teaching from one of the country's top shakuhachi players.

Kyoto, about 230 miles west of Tokyo, occupies a basin surrounded by mountains to the north, east and west. Home to the Japanese imperial family for more than a thousand years (until 1868), it is the ancient cultural heart of Japan, harboring imperial gardens and palaces, museums, scores of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines -- and even an occasional urban rice paddy or onion field.

The city was spared from bombing in World War II, but much of the old architecture has fallen anyway to developers and their sterile concrete, steel and glass buildings. Even though the city is exceptionally clean, tidy and safe, it hums with a frenzied modernism. To escape that, one need only to step through the gates of a temple, wash in a sacred fountain and gaze at the peaceful countenance of the Buddha.

The Teacher

In the southern part of old Kyoto, only a block away from the legendary location of the Rashomon Gate, Yoshio Kurahashi teaches shakuhachi in his home studio. I arrive for one of the hour-long lessons I've scheduled for each day of my visit.

Sensei (the honorific term for teacher), a robust 53-year-old with a disarming smile and a love of books printed in English, lives with his wife and three children in the house his grandfather built 80 years ago. He leads me through two sets of sliding doors and to an indoor stoop, where we remove our shoes. We pass through a living room and ascend a steep staircase into his studio, where I sit on the floor, facing Sensei across a low table on which the sheet music rests.

An important accessory to the lesson is tea. Before beginning, Sensei serves a small cup of buttery-tasting green tea, with no hint of bitterness.

"The trick to green tea," he explains, "is steeping the leaves for only a minute in hot water -- but not too hot." (About 170 degrees is best.)

The lesson begins with an old classical piece, "Shintakasago," a song about sailing from Takasago to Osaka.

"The beaches of Takasago were once beautiful," Sensei says. But development and pollution have changed that. "On one beach stood two very old pine trees that were intertwined, growing together. This is why the music is played at weddings."

The trees, he says, are still there, but one has died in the arms of the other.

Traditionally, shakuhachi teachers play in unison with the student, often drowning out the notes of the weaker flute. But Sensei stops and asks me to play alone so he can study my sound.

My confidence swells as I nail a difficult meri note, where a finger slightly opens a hole as the head is bent forward to create a flat, muted tone.

"No," Sensei stops me. "Too loud. It must be very soft."

I try again at about half the volume. A tiny nasal sound emanates from my flute.

"No. Softer. Make a very, very small sound."

I attempt the note again, but with only the slightest stream of breath. The sound barely hovers above my hearing threshold.

"Yes," says Sensei, smiling. "I like this sound."

At my next lesson, Sensei introduces the oldest of the ancient Zen tunes, "Kyorei" ("Empty Bell"). At least 600 years old, it's a slow, repetitious, mournful tune played in the flute's low register.

"You must breathe this way," Sensei instructs, drawing in a deep breath, holding it for a moment, then relaxing suddenly, letting the air escape in a natural sigh. "But tighten your lips so that it escapes slowly." He draws a long, tapered triangle as a visual aid.

"The loudest tone is at the start of the first note of the phrase. As the breath continues, the sound grows softer until it fades into silence."

Like a bell. Like Fuke's bell.

Fuke was a ninth-century Chinese Zen monk who rang a bell to draw attention to his street preaching.

"If attacked from the light, I will strike back in the light.

If attacked from the dark, I will strike back in the dark.

If attacked from all directions, I will strike back like a whirlwind.

If attacked from emptiness, I will lash out like a flail."

No matter the challenge, Fuke could thwart any threat to his peace of mind.

According to legend, Sensei explains, one of Fuke's followers, Chohaku, was very fond of the sound of Fuke's bell but could not afford a bell of his own. One day, as he was walking through a bamboo forest, he heard the sound of Fuke's bell made by the wind blowing across a cut bamboo stalk.

The birth of the shakuhachi?

More likely, says Kurahashi, the shakuhachi developed from similar end-blown flutes that migrated from Egypt, across Asia and finally into Japan about 1,400 years ago.

As centuries of feudal warfare ended in the 17th century, and Japan grew unified and relatively peaceful, many samurai warriors became masterless. Some of those ronin adopted and modified the tradition of the komoso (straw-mat monks), who played bamboo flutes on the street for alms.

The Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism became a refuge exclusively for samurai who wanted to withdraw from the world and become komuso (monks of nothingness). The komuso temple in Kyoto was called Meianji (Bright Dark Temple), named in reference to Fuke's street rant.

The Fuke sect gained exclusive license to play the shakuhachi, but solely as a meditative tool. Komuso may have been the first to craft it out of the bamboo's root end, which could serve as a handy spiked club should a monk get into a scrape. Komuso could also carry daggers and were allowed to duel -- but only on temple grounds.

The Edo Period's Tokugawa government (1603-1868) employed some komuso as spies, taking advantage of their wardrobe of anonymity and free-wandering ways. But by the mid-1800s, when the Meiji reformation government arose, the Fuke sect, which was rife with discipline problems, was stripped of its privileges. It was finally banned in 1871.

Most of the Fukeshu temples were destroyed or dismantled, but the artifacts of Meianji survived and were later installed in the current temple, which was built from donations to the Meianji Society, established in the late 1800s.

The last shakuhachi-playing monk at Meianji died several years ago. The temple is now occupied by his son, who lives there with his young family.

A small enclave of the larger Rinzai Zen temple of Tofukuji, Meianji opens its gates to the public during the day. Inside stands a huge slab of rough granite with two chiseled Kanji (Chinese) characters: Sui Zen (blowing Zen).

"There are two characters missing from this," says Kurahashi. "The full sentence should say 'Blowing Zen One Same,' meaning 'Blowing [the shakuhachi] and Zen are the same thing.' "

Sensei telephones Meianji from his studio to let them know that I wish to visit the temple. The young monk is not there this afternoon, but his wife is. She will show me the temple's altar and graveyard, but there will be no explanations.

That afternoon, after lunch at Mr. Gyoza's, a small restaurant famous for its pork dumplings, I take a public bus a couple of miles east down Kujo Street. After we cross the Kamo River, I hop out and walk a quarter-mile into the foothills embracing Tofukuji Temple. The zigzagging street, flanked by high walls, leads me to the opened gates of the small Meianji Temple. Inside, I ring the bell to the private residence.

The monk's wife answers the doorbell, greets me in Japanese and leads me up into a large room floored with tatami mats and decorated with exquisite panel paintings of nesting cranes and pine boughs. Large sliding glass windows reveal a deeply shaded moss garden outside.

A recess in the wall holds the main altar, the focus of which is a life-size painted wooden statue of a man playing a shakuhachi -- without the roots.

I place an envelope containing an offering on the main altar and sit quietly on the floor. The statue depicts Kichiku, whose name means Empty Bamboo, the legendary founder of Meianji in the 13th century. His eyes are wide open, staring into space. The upward slant of the brows suggests he's in a revelatory state, perhaps experiencing what the Komuso described as ichion jobutsu (enlightenment with one sound).

The Instrument

Kurahashi, who learned the shakuhachi from his father, the late Kurahashi Yodo, can trace his teaching lineage nine generations to Kinko Kurasawa, who began collecting Komuso music in the mid-1700s and transcribing it into written notation, a form of which survives today.

Musical notation for the shakuhachi in no way resembles Western staff notation. Japanese music is read from top to bottom, right to left. Strings of notes are written in the Japanese equivalent of Do, Re, Mi. The four front holes of a shakuhachi play Ro, Tsu, Re, Chi and Ri, a pentatonic tuning -- as in the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." But few shakuhachi tunes follow the simple pentatonic pattern. Notes can be flattened, bent, odd-fingered and overblown into one of reportedly 64 sounds per octave.

Shakuhachi student Dan Gutwein, a professor of music theory and composition at the College of William and Mary and an accomplished jazz flutist, likes to ponder the differences between the finely machined Western silver flute and the rustic bamboo Zen flute.

"It's like comparing a formula racer to an ox cart. On an asphalt track there's no contest, but if your destination is at the end of a rocky old stream bed, you may only be able to get there in the ox cart."

"Western instruments are very precise machines driven by the European preoccupation with systematic tuning systems," he continues. "It is much easier to get a sound out of a modern flute, play the intervals in tune, play large intervals between various octaves, and play fast. But it is much more difficult to create primal sounds, intervals that have strange quirks between tones, etc., and as a result the West has no solo woodwind instrument that can rival the shakuhachi in sheer tonal complexity."

Western-style music, however, seems to have the upper hand in Japan. But efforts are being made to revive traditional music.

The city of Kyoto recently tapped Kurahashi to help introduce the shakuhachi to school students. Entering his first class, Kurahashi noticed that only girls were present.

"Is this a class just for girls?" he asked.

"No," was the reply, "boys are welcome, too."

In Japan, school brass bands are composed almost exclusively of girls, so they are much more inclined to show interest in a traditional wind instrument. But what about the boys?

"Oh," Sensei winks, "boys only want to play the electric guitar."

To see the author's video of Yoshio Kurahashi playing the shakuhachi, plus images of Kyoto, go to

Details: Kyoto Flute

GETTING THERE: United Airlines flies from Dulles or BWI airports to Osaka, with a connection in San Francisco, for $865 round trip, with restrictions. The Airport Express "Haruka" train runs directly from the airport to Kyoto Station. The 35-mile, $24 trip takes 75 minutes. From Kyoto Station, you can catch one of the clean and efficient buses to almost anywhere in the city for about $1.75 per ride.

WHERE TO STAY: Kyoto has a wide variety of accommodations. One of the city's least expensive hotels is only a couple of blocks from the train station. The Kyoto White Hotel (Agaru-Higashi-iru Shiokoji-Higashinotoin Shimogyo-ku, telephone 011-81-75-351-5511), which is actually yellow, is a bleak, five-story concrete building reached through a narrow alley. The hotel has about 50 rooms, none of which offers more than a view of other concrete buildings. But the rooms are clean and only $43 a night. Madake bamboo, the kind used to make the shakuhachi, grows alongside the parking lot.

WHAT TO TAKE: Wear shoes that easily slip on and off, as every home, hotel and temple requires you to remove your shoes before entering. Your hotel may provide slippers, but if you have big feet, bring your own slippers or be prepared to walk the halls in your socks. Pack a towel, too, as your hotel may not provide you with more than a small face cloth.

FLUTE LESSONS: Yoshio Kurahashi will teach the shakuhachi to anyone interested in learning. A one-hour lesson is about $32. Take as many as you can afford, but try to space them out so that you'll have time to digest the lessons. Be patient. Like most Japanese disciplines, years of study are required before you are no longer regarded as a beginner.

Traditionally, lessons are taught one-on-one, but Kurahashi does teach groups as well. His English is very good. The only requirement is that you have a flute.

If you can't make it to Japan, you can catch Kurahashi in the United States during one of his regular trips here, when he holds private workshops and offers individual lessons. For concert and teaching schedules, go to, or email Kurahashi at

Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin, a ninth-level grand master of the shakuhachi, teaches Kinko-style shakuhachi in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. A 45-minute lesson costs $65 in New York or $60 in Philadelphia or Baltimore. Details:

FINDING A FLUTE: For about a dollar and a few beads of sweat, you can make a fairly decent flute yourself using PVC pipe and instructions found at

The best bet for a student flute is to buy one from America's best-known shakuhachi maker, Monty Levenson. A well-tuned, durable, non-root-end flute made of tiger bamboo costs about $325. A professional-quality root-end bamboo flute can cost $1,500 and up -- and up. Details:

Wooden flutes are as expensive as one of Levenson's but are often poorly tuned. However, they will probably never crack due to changes in humidity, so they're good as a knock-around instrument for campfires, beach blankets and car seats.

Take lessons for a while and let a teacher guide you to a better flute.

INFORMATION: Japan National Tourist Organization, 212-757-5640,, or Kyoto Prefectural Office, 212-997-6462,

-- Patterson Clark

© 2002 The Washington Post Company