My shakuhachi journey
I found the shakuhachi at the relatively young age of 18, but I suppose my story starts around age 8 which is when my father started sharing the Japanese art of bonsai with me. Of course, there was much that I did not understand about the art at such a young age, and I do not think that I comprehended the cultural context of it, however, I distinctly remember gaining an appreciation for nature.
In my teens I became very interested in the martial arts which led to me discovering ideas such as mushin or “no mind” in Miyamoto Musashi‘s, Book of Five Rings. Around age 16 I had a chance encounter with a Buddhist refugee which further propelled me on the path of the spiritual seeker. My interest in meditation quickly led me away from the martial arts and I began practicing bonsai again. One day, the individual that I bought bonsai supplies from offered me a bunch of bamboo that he had cut down so I took it off of his hands.
Being a part of the Google generation I did a search to see what I could make with it and “bamboo flutes” was one of the first things that caught my eye. When I was a kid I really enjoyed climbing up trees and playing simple melodies on a recorder flute that I had at the time, and now I was presented with a chance to make my own instruments in the form of bamboo flutes. I had never played real flutes before, and after struggling to make my first sideways style bamboo flutes I quickly realized that I would need to purchase some professionally made examples.
I bought some simple sideways bamboo flutes, one of which was a very large base with four finger-holes tuned to the minor pentatonic scale, the same as the shakuhachi. I really fell in love with this particular flute and felt deeply that flutes were the instrument for me. I was around 17 years old at the time and little did I know that I would spend the years to come completely immersed in bamboo flutes, specifically the shakuhachi.
I mostly made sideways flutes back then but when I finally tried my hand at making an end-blown shakuhachi-like flute I immediately found that it was the direction that I wanted to go in. In 2004 at age 18 I went ahead and purchased the only real shakuhachi that I could afford which was the plastic shakuhachi YUU. I can remember playing it at the foot of my bed so that when I fainted I would not fall on the floor.
In the summer of 2006 I was fortunate enough to be able to move to New York City, Manhattan, to live in an apartment building with one of my older siblings. I decided to move there when I saw that a shakuhachi teacher would be within walking distance of our apartment on The Lower East Side. I was completely naïve and had no idea what New York City would be like.
At this point in my life I had also never held a steady job but I had been selling a fair amount of bamboo flutes over the Internet, mostly sideways flutes. During my time in New York City I was fortunate enough to completely support myself by continuing to sell my flutes online which enabled me to study shakuhachi full-time. I studied under Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin and periodically under Kurahashi Yodo II, both masters of the Jin Nyodo style.
Three times a week I would walk from The Lower East Side over to The West Village to have a lesson with my teacher Ronnie, rain or snow. I would also stay afterward to watch at least two other students have their lessons. When Kurahashi Yodo II was in town I would walk over The Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn to study from him in a group setting.
All of the flute playing and making I was doing at the time resulted in me developing repetitive strain injuries in both of my forearms. After struggling with it for years I decide to try weight training in 2015 and it virtually eliminated my issues.
In the spring of 2008 I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a trip to Japan with my teacher Ronnie. It was mostly a tourist type of trip but part of the objective was to try and secure an apprenticeship with a shakuhachi maker. The apprenticeship fell through when the shakuhachi maker decided that he was too busy with family to take me on, but it was all for the best as life had some other interesting things in store for me.
In 2009 I discover that there were large quantities of Madake or “Japanese timber bamboo“ growing in the United States. Madake is the species of bamboo used to make shakuhachi. I would actually become the first professional shakuhachi maker in The US to utilize this domestic resource, thus pioneering its use for the making of shakuhachi.
Going back a bit, at the end of 2008 I had to leave New York City and my lessons. I was very close to completing the Jin Nyodo repertoire and receiving my official license; however, over the next couple of years I came to find that the Jin Nyodo style was not what I wanted to teach. I found this out when a certain British shakuhachi teacher living in Japan named Justin Senryu Williams began sharing the results of his extensive research online. I found that what I wanted to focus on were the unique regional styles of Edo period shakuhachi honkyoku music, as opposed to the post Edo period styles which were created by such masters as Jin Nyodo, Watazumi, and Higuchi Taizan.
I was fortunate enough to begin studying these older Edo period styles from Justin over Skype video chat in 2011. I now teach these regional styles to people around the world and I continue to study them with Justin regularly. In short, this is the path that I snaked through the bamboo grove and I thank you for taking the time to read about it. I hope that your journey with the shakuhachi will be a deeply rewarding one.
If you would like further guidance I invite you to contact me at email@example.com and I look forward to hearing from you. Jon~
Pioneering the use of Japanese Madake bamboo growing in America
In 2010 I met with Jim Mortensen who has identified possibly the largest concentration of old, established Japanese madake groves in America. Jim does not grow much madake at his nursery, probably because there is so much in the area. The “Alabama groves” are where I harvested most all of my Japanese madake.
In 2011 I met with Keiji Oshima in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Mr. Oshima and his wife Stephanie have been growing Japanese madake and other bamboo species in the mountains for over 30 years.