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 type 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 Western 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 nonsecular shakuhachi activities to continue.
As a result, nonsecular shakuhachi music became popular and the shakuhachi went mainstream. Eventually the ban on Buddhism was lifted and the practice of 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
- Seien ryu Fudaiji (西園流 譜代寺) – founded by Kanetomo Seien I (1819-1895), Nagoya, Aichi prefecture.
- Kimpu ryu (Kinpu ryu or Nezasa ha) – founded by Nyui Getsui (1833 – 1898), Tsugaru, Aomori prefecture.
- Oshu kei and Echigo Myoanji den (Fudaiken aka Futaiken, Kinjoji, Myoanji) – honkyoku from the former Oshu and Echigo regions in the North.
- Shimpo ryu (original Kyoto Myoanji) – founded by Ozaki Shinryu (1820-1888), Kyoto.
- Kinko ryu (Itchigetsuji and Reihoji) – founded by Kinko Kurosawa I (1710 – 1771), Kanto region.
- Kyushu kei (Itchoken) – honkyoku from the southern island of Kyushu.
Post Edo period honkyoku styles created by individual masters
- Myoan Taizan ha – Higuchi Taizan (1856-1914), Kyoto.
- Jin Nyodo kei – Jin Nyodo (1891 – 1966), Tokyo.
- Dokyoku/Chikushinkai – Watazumi (1911-1992), Tokyo.
Confusion over Myoan
There is much confusion over the word Myoan (sometimes incorrectly Romanized “Meian”). The main shakuhachi temple in Kyoto during the Edo period was the Myoan temple (Myoanji). The unique regional style of Kyoto, the Shimpo ryu, was taught there, however, the temple was destroyed and the Shimpo ryu nearly went extinct. Later on, when Higuchi Taizan moved to Kyoto (Meiji 1885), he eventually founded a new Myoan temple in a different location which served as a base for honkyoku activities in the Kyoto area as well as the school for his unique style.
Higuchi Taizan’s style did not contain any pieces from the Shimpo ryu but rather his rearrangements of the Seien ryu (Fudaiji) honkyoku as well as some rearranged Kinko ryu pieces. However, because he revived the tradition of honkyoku in Kyoto and due to the fact that his style became widely popular, it is often referred to as Myoan. Lastly, in Echigo there was a temple also named Myoanji which was unrelated to the temples in Kyoto.