The 15th Rocky Shakuhachi Camp, Kyoto

What do you get when you put 80 players of the shakuhachi together in two floors of one building for four days?

Serious Shakuhachi Practice

A hell of a lot of fun, learning and playing.

The Rockies Shakuhachi Summer Camp is usually held near Boulder, Colorado with about 30 attendees. To more than double the size and transplant it to Kyoto was a miracle that David, Cory, Christopher and the rest of the crew pulled off beautifully. It was a time to explore the many styles and schools of shakuhachi. To refine technique and discover new ways to approach the instrument. To hear some inspiring performances and, perhaps, best of all, it was a place to catch up with old friends and make new ones. In fact, when I think of those few days, what first comes to me is a collection of faces of new close friends passing before my eyes. Their smiles and easy closeness.  The happiness of being together.

Kyoto Shakuhachi Camp Members

Of course, there were some difficulties. Like Kundan attempting to sit on the floor for the whole camp. “Hey, I sit for an hour at a time occasionally, I can do this.” He went home the first night, thinking, “I wonder why I’m so tired. Maybe it’s my biorhythm. A good night’s sleep will do me.” Half way through the next day, in a small workshop, the sensei asked if he was ok. “Oh, sure,” he said to the fuzzy image before him. The sensei was no fool. He soon called a break and had the translator bring Kundan a chair. Superman quickly returned to life and was able to gather the strength to play his shak again.

The first evening was devoted to introductions. There was supposed to be other stuff but with 80 individuals…  Here are a couple of the many good stories from that evening:

One man wanted to marry the daughter of a shakuhachi teacher. The father told him, “If you want to marry my daughter, you’ll have to learn to play the shakuhachi.”  He knew how to test a suitor’s intentions! Twenty-five years later, the son-in-law is still happily married and is teaching the shakuhachi.

Another Japanese man wasn’t interested in traditional Japanese music. He loved jazz. Then, one night he heard a British musician playing jazz on a shakuhachi (there were some eye brows raised at this suggestion) and loved it. The next day, he was walking his dog and saw that his neighbour, who had the same type of dog, was carrying something shaped like a shakuhachi. Not only was it a shakuhachi but the neighbour is a shakuhachi teacher. And, now his teacher.

The vastness of the camp allowed me to make some great ‘mistakes’ . One was when I wandered into the “wrong” workshop and learned a bit of a beautiful piece “Haru no Umi” that is accompanied by koto. Having only learned solo pieces, this was a fun new experience. At another workshop we all learned some folk tunes. During the camp we got to hear improvisation with tabla, as well as, pieces accompanied by koto, shamisen and singer. (The woman who played the koto, shamisen and sang was the amazing Sawako Fukuhara.) There were absolute beginners who got their own classes and gave heart the rest of us to know that we are a living growing tradition. There were people from all over the world including a group from China who included some very good players. The shakuhachi was originally brought from China to Japan and, then, kinda faded away there. Over the last decade, the shakuhachi returned to China. Chinese players have multiplied and there are over one thousand people studying shakuhachi in China. The last evening, was a student/faculty concert that I joined in amongst a large number of my colleagues for one number. One of the highlights was an arrangement by Elliot Kallen of James Brown’s “I Feel Good”.

Then, there was the field trip-

We were all given the opportunity to dress as a Komuso and play in the garden of a Zen Temple. The Komuso were the Zen priest who used the shakuhachi as a meditation tool. When outside the temple, they would wear these basket hats and wander freely all over Japan.

Our one authentically dressed Komuso before the basket.

Many of them were masterless samurai. Eventually, enough rumours of their possibly being spies reached the Shogun that he disbanded them. It is from them that many of the great pieces have been passed down.

To play Komuso in a garden!!!! I jumped at the chance. I was surprised that there were only a dozen of us up for it. We only had six of the basket hats and only one of us had the authentic costume. So, we improvised. Aikido gi, kimono, whatever looked Japanesee.

The “Gate” at the Zen temple.

We, then, filled a van and two taxis for a drive across town to a large Zen temple complex. David had picked a splendid location, the ‘Gate’ of the temple.

As the first group of six got fitted with their baskets, tourists (mostly Japanese) started to gather. There were lots of smiles and pictures.

Group One “Komuso”

Everyone was having a great time. One British couple were getting a discourse on the shakuhachi and told of the upcoming festival.

Then… a young woman came tearing down the hill toward the gate in a very official mode. We let her attempt to find out who was in charge for a little while before directing her to the right person. It transpired that we weren’t allowed to have a “photo session” in the temple grounds without applying for permission and paying a fee. Well, we didn’t think of this as a “photo session”, just a bit of fun. So, we packed up and walked over to a small public roadway within the temple complex and continued our adventure. 86ed from a Zen temple. That was a new one.

We left the tourists behind but there were still some passersby.

Even with the basket hat, they found me.

K & The Geisha

A Model Komuso

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

There were so many great sessions. I’ll just write a little about two of them.

One of the special guests was Junsuke Kawase III. Among other things he told us that twenty- five years ago he gave up smoking. Besides gaining a little weight, he developed asthma. It got so bad that he couldn’t play his shakuhachi. He was inhaling steroids up to six times a day. He asked his doctor if the treatments would cure his asthma and was told, “No, we’re only dealing with the symptoms.” Then, a friend told him of having a successful treatment in Beijing. So, off to Bejing where he started treatment with a Qi Gung doctor. In a very short time, he felt much better and was able to start playing his flute. The Qi Gung doctor said to him, “I didn’t know that they had such a Qi Gung instrument in Japan.” Junsuke went on to tell us some of what he learned about Qi Gung and it’s relation to playing the shakuhachi.

On the last day, the Super Session was with Ichizan Hoshida-sensei. He started by asking us if, when we warmed up in the morning, did we start off blowing the best note we could or just blowing. I was one of the majority who raised their hands to the latter. It was an eye opener to me. Among other things, he talked about starting off with just blowing at 40% strength for four seconds at a time and making each blow the best note that we could blow. I remembered this.

The camp ended at noon and the World Shakuhachi Festival Competition Final Performances began at one o’clock in the same building. There were 24 contestants. It was open to anyone of any age with any level of experience. Most of the contestants were in and around their 20s. What surprised me was the entry of Riley Lee in the competition. If you don’t know, Riley Lee has been playing the shakuhachi since the early seventies. He has performed publicly for many of those years and has produced a large number of excellent cds. To say that I was puzzled is an understatement. My answer was to arrive:

This is how I experienced it. The competitions finalists included some of the finest young up coming players. It was, of course, a highly charged event for them and they would have been listening very carefully to the other players. They each played two pieces. The first was a choice of two pieces that the organisers provided. One with two koto accompanying. It was very melodious. The second with koto  and shamisen contained some very intense sections with the solo being a slower interlude. The second piece played was a choice of the player and only limited by time. Riley was number 22 in order of playing the first piece. Watching the other performers, they would stand or sit beside the accompanists and, facing the audience, would nod when ready and set off into the piece. When Riley came on stage, he adjusted his chair to the side of the accompanists so that he was facing both them and the audience. As he played, he and the koto and shamisen were playing as a unit. Then, when he came to the solo part, it was Riley sitting there alone surrounded by a silent stillness out of which came the exquisite sound of the shakuhachi. When Riley played his other solo piece, that same intense experience occurred. To be present when a shakuhachi master plays at such heights is a rare opportunity.

The morning after the camp, I woke at 5 am. (Not on purpose!) By 5:30, I was in the garden of a small shrine moving through a beautiful slow Yang Chen Fu form. Then, I unpacked my shakuhachi. I stood feeling the energy move up from the earth to mix with the breath in my belly, then, to rise up at 45% strength to emerge as the best note that I could blow. I continued this way maintaining the 45% strength for a length of time until I felt the energy of my breath increase of its own accord and while I stayed relaxed it moved up to emerge as a loud best note I could blow. I had often wondered about the term “Suizen” (blowing zen). That morning, I felt that I had tasted it.

Ten Thousand Words


3 thoughts on “The 15th Rocky Shakuhachi Camp, Kyoto

  1. Hey Kundan,
    Thanks for sharing your shakuhachi camp experience. I too love Riley Lee’s performance. And the basket hats made for a fun addition to the blog. I love blogs but feel I’m too much of an introvert to put one out myself. But you never know. I find yours inspiring. with Love, Gayle

  2. Thank you for the memory. So much beauty, sharing and learning in so few days. I went back to the temple days later and walked up the mountain to the older Shinto shrines. No one to be bothered by Shakuhachi playing there! I have been speechless since returning to Minnesota. Only to say, “La vida es corta, pero ancha!”, life may be short, but it is very broad. May we both reach 50% power in our Ro.
    Jim from Saint Paul

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