Caring for a bamboo shakuhachi is rather simple when compared with many other instruments. They are incredibly durable and have no moving parts to worry about. When fully bound, bamboo shakuhachi actually require no special storage to prevent cracking. However, if left unbound, proper storage and cleaning are the most important measures for maintaining a shakuhachi. It is advisable to store unbound bamboo shakuhachi in an air-tight bag or case at about 50% humidity. Some people twist a bit of damp cloth or paper towel into the top of their flute bags but make sure that it doesn’t touch the flute. Avoid leaving an unbound bamboo shakuhachi out of its protective bag or case when it’s not being played and especially in harsh, dry environments such as air conditioning, near heaters, camp fires, closed automobiles, in deserts, on beaches, in the snow, and so on.
As for cleaning, the inner bore of the instrument requires periodic attention because this is where moisture from the breath can condensate. To clean the inside of a shakuhachi, pull a tsuyutoshi or “dew-cutter” through the bore after playing it. A swab-cloth can be made by tying a length of string that is longer than a shakuhachi to the corner of a bit of cloth which is of a size that will not get stuck in the bore, usually about 14″ x 14″ (see video below). To use the swab-cloth, drop the string down the bore, protect the edge with the thumb, and pull the cloth through. To help the string drop through the bore more easily a small bead can be tied to the end.
The above video shows me tying a removable knot to make machine washing more easy. Alternatively, we can tie any knot and hand-wash the cloth or put it in a delicate garment bag for the washing machine which will keep the string from getting tangle around other clothing items and possibly causing damage.
This cloth can also be used to periodically clean the inside with a one-to-one solution of water and distilled white vinegar in order to kill mold, germs, and remove odors. To do this, moisten the swab-cloth with the vinegar solution and ring it out before pulling it through the bore then wipe off any solution that gets on the outside of the shakuhachi. The vinegar smell will completely dissipate in a few hours or less.
The finger-holes can be cleaned with a baby size toothbrush, cotton swabs, or nylon bristle pipe cleaners. For a natural unlacquered shakuhachi a dryer vent brush might be needed to periodically scrub the bore should it become moldy. To do this, dip the end of the dryer vent brush in the vinegar solution, protect the tone-edge with the thumb, and carefully scrub the bore. When done, run the swab-cloth through the bore to soak up any excess solution.
Lastly, I don’t recommend oiling shakuhachi. Whether or not it helps prevent cracking is unknown. Most oils have strong odors, will go rancid, and will probably grow mold more easily. Oiling a shakuhachi will make it impossible for lacquer to adhere to it which should be kept in mind if lacquering might ever be desirable. I don’t accept exchanges or returns if a shakuhachi has been oiled.