The shakuhachi music of the komuso monks
Honkyoku (本曲) literally means “original music” and can refer to a single piece or to the genre as a whole. Honkyoku are the most venerated pieces of shakuhachi music because they are considered to be spiritual or meditative, most having been composed by the komuso monks during the Edo period. Many distinct regional styles of honkyoku developed across Japan though few have survived to this day.
Honkyoku are unique in that they are mostly solo pieces with pauses of silence, which effectively makes empty-space, or relative silence, a part of the music. Honkyoku are highly nuanced making it virtually impossible to transcribe them to staff notation and even the Japanese systems of notation for the shakuhachi cannot convey many of the subtleties. For example, it would be like trying to infer or convey the accent of a regional dialect with only written text. For this reason the teaching of honkyoku has been, and remains, largely an oral tradition.
It is estimated that there were more than one-hundred komuso shakuhachi temples across Edo period Japan, however, the Meiji Restoration abolished Buddhism which resulted in the closing, or often destruction of the komuso temples. The Meiji government soon decided to try and ban nonsecular shakuhachi playing as well, however, the Kinko ryu Grandmasters Araki Kodo II (Chikuo) and Yoshida Itcho successfully petitioned the government into allowing secular shakuhachi activities to continue.
As a result, secular shakuhachi music became popular and the shakuhachi went mainstream. Eventually the ban on Buddhism was lifted and the practice of nonsecular honkyoku could once again continue out in the open. However, subsequent generations saw a decline in interest for honkyoku resulting in the continuous extinction of styles up to the present day. Currently only six distinct regional styles of honkyoku have survived to the present, in addition to the various post Edo period styles created by individual masters.
After the Meiji restoration the Edo period honkyoku styles gradually became ryu or “schools”, typically after a few generations of teachers had passed. A teacher of a style would adopt the name of a previous teacher thus becoming the II or III head of the style. Interestingly, foreigners who seek to learn the shakuhachi have been primarily interested in the honkyoku, however, we mostly see the propagation of post Edo period honkyoku styles which were created by such master as Jin Nyodo, Watazumi, and Higuchi Taizan (Myoan). One exception to this is the Kinko ryu which has spread outside of Japan.
The six regional styles of Edo period honkyoku that have survived until today, in whole or in part
(in order of how I teach them *no link means I don’t teach them*)
- Seien ryu Fudai-ji (西園流 譜代寺) – founded by Kanetomo Seien I (1819-1895) in Hamamatsu city (currently located in Nagoya city), Chibu region.
- Shimpo ryu Myoan-ji – original Kyu Myoan-ji or “Old Myoan Temple”, the first Myoan temple before Higuchi Taizan’s Myoan-ji – Kyoto city, Kansai region.
- Kimpu ryu (Kinpu ryu or Nezasa ha) – founded by Nyui Getsui (1833 – 1898) – Tsugaru city, Tohoku region.
- Oshu-kei and Echigo Myoan-ji den (Fudai-ken aka Futai-ken, Kinjo-ji, Myoan-ji) – honkyoku from the former Oshu and Echigo areas in the North, Tohoku and Joetsu regions.
- Kinko ryu (Itchigetsu-ji and Reiho-ji) – founded by Kinko Kurosawa I (1710 – 1771), Edo city (Tokyo) Kanto region. Kinko ryu has evolved far past how it was played in the Edo period.
- Kyushu kei (Itchoken) – honkyoku from the southern island of Kyushu. Unfortunately it is very hard to tell how this style was played before Taizan’s school took over the region.
Post Edo period honkyoku styles created by individual masters
- Taizan ha/ryu “Myoan” – Higuchi Taizan (1856-1914), Kyoto.
- Jin Nyodo kei – Jin Nyodo (1891 – 1966), Tokyo.
- Dokyoku/Chikushinkai – Watazumi (1911-1992), Tokyo.
Confusion over Myoan – Higuchi Taizan’s Myoan vs Shimpo ryu or Kyu Myoan
Suzuki “Taizan” Kodo, AKA Higuchi Taizan (1856 – 1914) was born in Nagoya where he studied sankyoku and his region’s honkyoku in the Seien ryu. He studied under Kanetomo Seien I who received the honkyoku of Fudai-ji (which was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration) from two komuso named Gyokudo and Baizan. He also studied in the Kinko ryu under Grandmaster Araki Kodo II (Chikuo) and in the Ikkan ryu which was a branch of the Kinko ryu under Takigawa Chuka.
In Meiji 1885 he moved to Kyoto to teach sankyoku music, however, he failed to become successful most likely because Kyoto already had a very established sankyoku community. He was adopted, so to speak, by a the Higuchi’s, a Kyoto family, so he changed his name to Higuchi Taizan (Taizan being his professional title). He eventually began teaching the Seien ryu honkyoku as well as some of the Kinko and Ikkan ryu’s honkyoku. He made some changes in the pitch, ornamentation, and structure of the pieces and his school further evolved or diverged from teacher to teacher over successive generations. Perhaps most notably he most likely added the furi technique which is a quick shake of the head to create a vibrato, usually done after an Atari or “repeat”. A similar technique can be found in the Shimpo ryu honkyoku of Kyoto of which he did learn a few pieces, but included none in his school.
He rented a new space in Kyoto to act as the base for his school which he named Myoan-ji after the temple that had been destroyed years earlier during the Meiji Restoration’s persecution of all things Buddhist. It remains the base of his style and a major gathering place to this day. As mentioned previously, his school actually contains none of the original Kyoto honkyoku from the first Myoan-ji temple (Shimpo ryu), however, his school is most often called “Myoan” after the temple he founded in Kyoto. When “Myoan ryu” or just “Myoan” is heard today it almost always refers to Taizan’s school. “Myoan” is also sometimes incorrectly used as an umbrella term for “old honkyoku” or “koten honkyoku’, however, this is inaccurate and very misleading. To avoid confusion the original Myoan-ji is often called Kyu Myoan-ji or “Old” Myoan-ji.
Higuchi Taizan instigated the revival of honkyoku in Kyoto and founded a new Myoan-ji which stands to this day and is a hub of activity for shakuhachi events and “pilgrimages”. Taizan’s school became very popular and spread across Japan sometimes effecting or even eclipsing local regional styles and schools. For example, in places like Kyushu it is extremely difficult to impossible to ascertain what the original way of playing was like there before Taizan’s school reached the area. Masters such as Jin Nyodo and Watazumi were heavily influenced by his style and received all of their Seien ryu Fudai-ji honkyoku solely through his school, which by then had developed quite differently from the source material of the Seien ryu (this includes such pieces as Kyorei, Takiochi, Mukaiji, and others).