Last Saturday I went to a small open air concert in a temple in the centre of Kyoto: koto and shakuhachi. The two instruments go well together, and the flute was the main reason why I wanted to go. I had been to koto concerts before, but never heard a shakuhachi live. And I have to say – I was disappointed by it.

I am not sure what was wrong with the shakuhachi player – a rather old monk from said temple – whether I could not hear him because the microphone was not well-adjusted or functioning (there were a number of total outages throughout the concert) or whether the player himself didn’t have enough breath do make himself heard.

The two koto players were very good though, so my time was not wasted. Interestingly, I was the only non-senior in the audience, something I had not expected at all. But maybe because of this, I was treated to a very special performance: The last song (and the encore) must have been well-known tunes, because at some point, people in the audience started singing along! Man and women alike accompanied (or were accompanied by) the koto and the shakuhachi. It was lovely!

A Japanese Kokyu As a bonus, I learnt something new: In one of the pieces, a so-called kokyu was used. It looks like a half-sized shamisen, but is played like a cello. A kokyu has three silken strings and the bow is a thick handful of horsetail hair. The bow-strings (do you call it like that?) are slack, and you need to use the ring finger of the bow hand to tighten it while you play.

This is not easy, and I know that because I was allowed to try it after the concert – obviously the foreigner bonus. To be honest, the sound of the kokyu is not very pleasant to Western ears. It is reminiscent of the Chinese erhu, but the tones of the kokyu are less crisp. I guess this is either because the bow is never really taut, or because of the silken strings.

All in all I had a nice afternoon, even though I will have to try and catch another shakuhachi concert. I hope that I will hear about more concerts and events like this – there is so much to do and learn in Kyoto!


A Shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made from bamboo.

Recently, I have been looking for Shakuhachi music online and I am very impressed by it. I am not a very musical person, but learning Shakuhachi is something I might want to do at some point, given enough time and money – a good Shakuhachi can cost 300 EUR and more (oops, missed a zero: it’s 3000 EUR) . I will do some more research and write a proper weekend article at some other time.

Listen to the music below, it is a modern piece written in 1995, after the disastrous Hanshin earthquake in Kobe. Enjoy!

Court Music

Last Saturday I was invited to a performance of Gagaku – traditional Japanese Court Music. Gagaku is an ancient form of music; it was imported – together with instruments – from Korea and China around the 8th century, i.e., at the start of the Heian period.

A Gakagu orchestra consists of wind instruments (different types of flutes), string instruments (zither, lute, and harp) and different types and sizes of drums. There are often three parts to a concert: one where the whole orchestra plays together, another one containing songs and actual singing, and a third one where only the drums and wind instruments accompany classical dance.

I went to the performance not really knowing what to expect. When everybody had settled down (the place was sold out), a young girl came on stage and made a short introduction before the curtain lifted. There was an orchestra of maybe 30 people, sitting on tatami in a stage that was fenced off with red wood like in a shrine. The percussion instruments were in front, the strings behind them, and the wind instruments in the very back on red steps. They started with the kangen, concert music, and the effect was … striking. It was similar to the music I had heard before at shinto shrines; I would call it rather a sequence of tones that were more or less attuned to each other than a melody that you could follow to help you along. The second part was a short introduction to a song that was contained in the brochure, in the end the whole audience was expected to sing along with the teacher on stage. It was fun, even without understanding Japanese (or being able to sing…) a gagaku orchestraDuring the break, the stage had been rearranged for the third part, the bugaku, or dance music. The string instruments were gone, and the musicians now sitting to the left and right of the tatami stage in the middle, where the dancing took place. The dancers, clad in elaborate costumes, performed slow dances fitting the music, almost like the stylised movements in Noh theatre, or, as a friend of mine observed, resembling the slow movements in tai chi.

The whole concert took only 90 minutes, and to be honest, I was rather happy about this. It was interesting and worth a try, but nothing I really need to do again. The music could not move me at all, as I said there was no melody at all to help you along or make you understand the intention of the song. I liked the songs in the middle, but that was only a 10 minute intermezzo. The dancing would have been more interesting had I known what the movements meant. That was similar enough to Noh to expect that with some deeper understanding you could get something out of it though.

Maybe there is something more to it, I have to confess complete and utter ignorance here I’m afraid. I know, however, that I’m not the only one: the lady sitting next to me, after taking off her shoes, fell sound asleep within the first five minutes of the concert. Or, maybe, she just had had a hard day?


As mentioned before, this week marked Obon, the Festival of the Dead in Japan. It is an ancient Buddhist ritual to worship the family ancestors who are said to return from the afterlife to visit their decendants. Traditionally, Obon was celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calender (and is still in the southern parts of Japan like Okinawa for example) but with the switch from the lunar to the Gregorian calender, things became more complicated. Today, Obon is celebrated around 15th of August almost everywhere in Japan, but in the Kanto region around Tokyo and in Tohoku it happens one month before that. The three days of Obon are not national holidays, but many people are given leave anyway, especially small family run businesses are closed.

The rituals performed during Obon vary greatly depending on the local customs, but as I mentioned yesterday, many of them involve fire and light. I am sure there are special rituals performed at home as well, at each family’s ancestral shrine, but unfortunately I am not privy to any details here.

One thing that is done everywhere though are Bon Odori or Obon dance performances to entertain the dead – and the living as well. I went to the one at Enma-do temple in Kyoto last Wednesday night. There were about 20 performers, all dressed in same yukata and turquoise socks, and I was surprised to see both children and women among them (as women often have no place in religious ceremonies). In the beginning were musical pieces with flutes and small (taiko) drums.

Music performance with drums and flutesThen followed the dances, accompanied by music and sometimes a sung story. I am not entirely sure, but the two guys below dressed as women (do you notice their hair-ornaments?) performed a rather comical piece; and the two girls were meant to conjure images of the Maiko of Gion with their long sleeved kimono.

cross-dressed guys dancingwomen depicting maikoThe highlight however, was the lion’s dance: It told (all without words) the story of a lion, living peacefully in the forest – performing acrobatic feats so as to not get bored – until a “great” warrior came along and killed the poor beast. As you can see, I was rooting for the lion all the way! acrobatic lion on a small pedestalwarrior ensaring the lion in a net


Besides the large parades and processions that involve all the inner city and the Gion area in Kyoto, there are many small events taking place in July that are somehow connected to Gion matsuri. For example, last week there was a biwa recital at one of the stages of Yasaka shrine.

A biwa is a traditional Japanese instrument, a type of lute, originating in the 7th century. It is associated with Benten, the Shinto goddess of music, poetry, and education, and has seen a revival in recent years.The biwa is a lute with four strings which are struck with a large triangular plectrum, and it is held so that the neck is pointing upwards, with the body resting on the lap of the player, who has to sit in seiza, a kneeling position. a woman playing on a biwaSo I went to the recital last week and found it very interesting. I had not expected it to be such a drawn out affair though; there were 11 players, each of them playing a song of about 15 – 20 minutes. Interestingly, the order of the artists was according to increasing proficiency (or years of training), with the two masters at the very end. Just as with the Noh, I did not have that amount of time or patience, so I left long before their performance, but next time I’ll know what to expect.

Also, I did not know that the players had to sing as well – I expected a purely instrumental afternoon and was quite surprised when the first song started. Once again, it was highly formalized, but I cannot say for sure whether the songs were traditional or modern Japanese – I did not understand much of them in any case. I found the recital very interesting, but it is not one of those things for every day, just like the Noh. Nevertheless I will try to catch another performance at some point in the future – knowing that I’ll have to arrive towards the end to hear the really good players.