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 a bamboo species in the genus Phyllostachys. Madaké bamboo has become identified in use and name with Japan even though it originally came from mainland China and Korea. 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 bamboo will grow. Only new shoots provide a 100% positive ID when expertly examined in the spring. While madaké bamboo can grow in a wide variety of climates it grows best for shakuhachi in areas such as Central to Southern Japan and the US South Eastern States.
Harvesting Japanese madaké bamboo for shakuhachi
First a positive ID must be made which is only possible by examining the bamboo shoots in Spring or by finding a dead shoot or sheath, as seen above. Luckily, madaké has very unique shoots with “auricles”, smooth leopard spotted sheaths, and pinkish hues.
Many grueling 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 the rhizome. The thick, often incredibly tough rhizome is the subterranean womb of the bamboo grove which gives birth to each stalk. Rhizomes are 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 sprouted, 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.
Harvesting is performed during winter when certain insects like the giant Japanese hornets have died or gone dormant. Although other dangers persist such as wild Japanese boars. During the colder months bamboo also tends to be more dormant and dry, 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. Once dead however, harmless fungi 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). When making shakuhachi the fungi are killed during the next process of heating over fire.
Harvesting madaké bamboo comes with certain unique risksvarious wild life. In Japan there are giant wasps which can and do actually kill people each year.
Aburanuki – heating madaké
After many long hours of harvesting, transporting, and cleaning, the time finally comes for the next amazing process called aburanuki.
Aburanuki is the act of sweating bamboo over fiery hot coals or with fire which drives out moisture and cooks the juices of the bamboo making them more viscous like glue. This in turn makes the bamboo fibers 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.
They also have to be protected from the rain and other sources of excess moisture such as dew. 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.