About Learning Shakuhachi in the 80s in Tokyo

When I was 18 years old, I moved to Japan and spent the next 18 years as a member of the Taiko group Ondekoza that connected me with Yokoyama Katsuya. Very limited information was to be found on Shakuhachi, even in Japanese, as we did not have internet yet. 

I lived in Nagasaki prefecture and would travel to Tokyo once a month to take Shakuhachi lessons.  I was not allowed to practice indoors in Ondekoza, I needed to be able to project and play without amplification when we played in large concerts halls. I practiced daily for hours on end outdoors in all seasons rain (snow) or shine. 

Yokoyama Sensei had about 4 days per month set for lessons- students would come for a lesson on those days and would wait their turn. It allowed students to hear different songs being played by others and that was part of the learning process. 

Furuya Sensei would teach me earlier on, as Yokoyama Sensei was busy. The lessons were done kneeling (Seiza). We would also talk about different subjects at the lesson.  I was already playing Shakuhachi professionally after a year with Ondekoza, and I was hungry for any extra information that would help me. Yokoyama was very helpful in giving me hints about Japanese arts and recommending what artists to check out that would help with my study of the Honkoyku repertoire. I had heard of Watazumi Sensei, who was still alive at the time (but I never got to meet him). I did find some recordings and listened to his music to help me better understand the Honkyoku. I was surprised to hear the differences between Watazumi's and Yokoyama’s rendition of the songs. I liked Yokoyama’s interpretation.  I spent many hours with Yokoyama Sensei and Furuya Sensei talking about Shakuhachi, books, art, etc. Hints about playing could be found everywhere. The study of the Shakuhachi did not simply end with playing and learning songs. In Japan, there is an “interconnection” of religions (Shintoism, Buddhism, and Christianity) that has permeated daily life, I think that is why not so much was explained about the Honkyoku except the general idea of the Honkyoku without giving much information. 

I was never given any music from Yokoyama, but Furuya Sensei had transcribed a lot of the Honkyoku, which I got when I studied with him. Memorizing the songs was encouraged, but having a score was helpful to take notes during the lesson. I usually warmed up with Yokoyama Sensei and then I would play the song on my own and he would give me some pointers. We would then play the song together. I would try to get as much as I could during that time to understand the Honkyoku. He would encourage you to make the Honkyoku your own, as long as it made sense the way you played it.  He would point out the mistakes in phrasing, tuning, etc. In Japan, you are first taught to copy the teacher until you grasp the song. 

You will only start to understand the Honkyoku after playing it hundreds of times (with some guidance from the teacher), little by little it reveals itself when played over and over.  It might be a long process, but I find it is the most effective way. Each time, I would come back to a Honkyoku after a year, Yokoyama had made some adjustments. That made me understand that a Honkyoku is a living song, it changes with time through the process of playing it. As to the techniques and details of the song, I learned the most from Furuya Sensei.  Yokoyama Sensei would play phrases and segments of the songs that were difficult but never gave too much info. It was really up to you to pay attention and try to recreate what you heard and saw being played. 

My teaching is similar to the way the Honkyoku is taught, I do give a little more information on technical passages of a song. I also start with a warm-up and then have the student play the Honkyoku. I give a few pointers on the song and corrections and go over some passages. At times, find that singing or chanting the passages (as Yokoyama Sensei did) helps me better understand the phrasing. I play the Honkyoku once or twice together, so the student gets a better idea of the flow of the Honkyoku. I also try to open the students to other aspects of Japanese culture or give them info on some books that might help them in the Honkyoku study. 

Yokoyama talked about similar points, that Honkyoku is not only what you hear.  The interpretation of it is just the tip of the iceberg. There is all the work that goes behind it, that gives it its depth and beauty.  The study or understanding of Honkyoku does not end on the page, it’s the whole work behind it, your lifestyle, your daily practice, etc. I complemented my study by seeing Kabuki, Noh theater, Kyogen, and Japanese art, which helped me a lot in understanding some of the Japanese concepts such as “Ma”, Kyōjaku (strong and soft), Wabi Sabi, etc. Being able to speak Japanese did help me tremendously in the study. Honkyoku came originally from older forms of songs or religious chants. I find the rhythms in the Honkyoku similar to speech patterns. Japanese language has a flow and the intonation becomes very useful in the study (for example Kabuki or Noh actor’s speech pattern). 

Yokoyama had an openness that went beyond the limitations of the traditional “Iemoto” system. He was very open to having students check out other Honkyoku styles. He was a protagonist of more freedom of learning and collaborating in traditional music. 

A lot of changes have occurred with the internet, but not always for the better. Videos of all levels of playing are being uploaded on the internet. In a way, it has become more confusing for new students to weed through it all and I feel it is mostly a disservice to their studies. 

Yokoyama told me that it was my duty as an ambassador of the Honkyoku to pass it on to new generations of players. I have since shared my knowledge and Yokoyama’s passion with others worldwide. I try to go teach in areas that usually don’t get much exposure to his music and try to be supportive of dedicated musicians that sometimes don’t have the means to study. 

It took me 14 years before I felt I was ready to do a solo recording and still felt unsure. Your whole life is dedicated to the study of Honkyoku. A recording is an interpretation of yourself at the time. Yokoyama taught me that it is a living art form. Your interpretation changes and will evolve in the course of your life. I feel very blessed to have been able to experience his music and his energy and which has fueled my passion for Honkyoku. 

Yokoyama at one point moved to Okayama. It was a beautiful setting in a very remote town. I went a few times for lessons there, and he showed me his recording studio and the Shakuhachi Kenshukan. A few years later the first shakuhachi festival was held there and I was invited to perform and had the honor to share the stage with Yokoyama Sensei.