Stepping into a mature madaké bamboo grove is like entering another universe. You feel dwarfed by towering bamboo giants. A bamboo grove is a testament to the resilience of life on earth. It becomes apparent upon seeing the bamboo grove that the shakuhachi truly embodies the simplicity and versatility of bamboo. The shakuhachi is held upright with root facing downward which shows us how bamboo grows out in nature. We, also being a part of nature, utilize the bamboo which, with no small amount of work, provides us with shakuhachi.
Phyllostachys bambusoides, commonly called madaké and giant Japanese timber bamboo is the primary bamboo used for crafting shakuhachi. Madaké all over the world has the same DNA because bamboo reproduces Asexually directly from the roots or rhizomes, however, growing conditions such as the soil, lay of the land, exposure to sunlight, climate, and micro-climate have a big effect on how it grows. While madaké bamboo can survive in a wide variety of climates it grows best for shakuhachi in areas similar to Central and Southern Japan.
Harvesting Japanese madaké bamboo for shakuhachi
First, a positive ID must be made which is only possible by examining a bamboo shoot. Ideally this is done in Spring but since harvesting is done in winter I often locate a dead shoot or sheath, as seen above. Luckily, madaké has very unique shoots with “auricles”, smooth leopard spotted skin, and pinkish hues when alive.
Many hours are spent digging up the root end of the bamboo for making shakuhachi. Besides the roots of the stalk itself, each root-ball is connected to the “mother of bamboo” or rhizome. The thick, often incredibly tough rhizomes are the subterranean wombs of the bamboo grove which give birth to each stalk. Rhizomes are also unbelievably hard and have shattered my tools.
The new shoots bud from the rhizomes and soon breach the earth, climbing toward the sky in order to process light into food. The whole grove is one large family tightly interconnected with one-another. Besides the rhizome from which a stalk sprouts, there are often other rhizomes intermingling in the root-ball making it even harder to dig up. Digging root ends for shakuhachi is actually good for the bamboo grove because only the old, dying, or dead stalks are dug up which discourages infections, infestations, and overcrowding.
Of course, when harvesting madaké all of the general dangers of doing hard manual labor with sharp tools are present, however, harvesting in Japan comes with its own unique set of risks. For example, harvesting is performed during winter when certain insects such as deadly giant Japanese hornets have hopefully died or gone dormant, as they love to make subterranean homes in bamboo groves. However, other dangers persist such as wild Japanese boars. During the colder months, bamboo also tends to be more dormant making the drying process somewhat faster and less likely to cause cracking.
The average lifespan of one stalk of madaké is only about four to six years. The ideal time to harvest is about 4 years of age while still green so that heat-straightening can still be performed. Harmless fungi can also create lovely mottled splotches or “spalting” that shakuhachi enthusiasts have come to love. The Japanese call these spalted pieces of madaké goma which translates to “sesame seeds”, inspired by the small bumps of dried sap that usually form on the skin of dead bamboo (see picture above).
Aburanuki – heating madaké
After many long hours of harvesting, transporting, and cleaning, the time finally comes for the next process called aburanuki. Aburanuki is the act of sweating bamboo over a heat-source which drives out moisture and cooks the juices of the bamboo, making them more viscous like glue. This in turn makes the bamboo somewhat stronger and less likely to crack. After performing aburanuki the bamboo is placed in the full sun to dry for a month or more. Each piece has to be rotated to receive even sunlight so as to dry and change color correctly. After sun drying the bamboo is placed indoors to further dry or “cure” for a year or more until they can be worked with tools into shakuhachi.
Madaké in America
Madaké has been planted extensively in the southeastern States which often have ideal climates for its growth. Some groves have been lovingly looked after for decades like Keiji Oshima’s grove at Haiku Bamboo Nursery located Hendersonville, North Carolina. To date, I have harvest madaké from three southeastern States.