Shikano Shakuhachi Pilgrimage

About forty minutes away from Tottori City lies the old castle town of Shikano. Shikano is a picturesque place—old Japanese houses line the streets, and in the middle of a wide moat populated by koi and swans, the local middle school does its best impression of an ancient castle.

We join a small horde of eager cameramen—both professional and hobbyists—who have descended on Shikano to document the Shakuhachi Pilgrimage which occurs once every two years.

The shakuhachi is a Japanese bamboo flute with origins from China. The name “shakuhachi” comes from the traditional length of the instrument, which was one shaku and eight (hachi) sun. The shakuhachi features a wide end made from the root stem of bamboo, and is capable of a wide variety of pitches that make it a versatile—and musically evocative—instrument.

In the past, the flute was once played specifically by the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism. These monks, called komuso, were a common sight during the Edo period. Distinctive in their wicker basket hats meant to hide their ego from the world, the ‘monks of nothingness’ walked ancient streets playing their bamboo flutes, their songs calling for alms and guiding them on musical meditations.

Today, shakuhachi enthusiasts honor their instrument’s heritage by going on musical pilgrimages to former Fuke sect temples.

This is what I have come to Shikano to see.


We hear them before we see them. The sound of bamboo flutes fill the cool autumn air—high and reedy, punctuated like meditative bird song.

The shakuhachi players walk in groups of four, taking small, mincing steps. They don the robes of the past, their faces, like the ancient monk’s ego, hidden from view by wicker basket hats.

The flutes trill as the musicians walk past houses hung with glowing lanterns bearing flower-like family crests. The notes of their instruments sing high, then low, each group of musicians seeming to perform a different movement of a single song. Eager onlookers and the click of camera shutters follow them. Some people whisper, a child runs out into the street giggling.

Families peer from behind sliding screen doors, and children squat on concrete steps as the shakuhachi players walk past. In their komuso robes, they seem like a vision of the past in the present.

At the local temple, the head monk offers a blessing, and the flute players join in a song of reverence. One ascetic takes out a smartphone and films himself in concert. The sun sets, a white moon rises above.

Candles in bamboo holders light the way from the temple and into the streets. In the darkness, the shakuhachi’s voice sings, and like the story of the pied piper, we follow. The musicians stop by a single house, playing for an elderly woman who bows respectfully. When they finish they file out towards the river, their flutes whistling melodies to one another.

A bus awaits.

Flutes are lowered, wicker hats are removed.

The song pauses.

It will be picked up again, in two years’ time.

We turn and walk through the night, our thoughts filled with the contemplative images the shakuhachi’s song has conjured in our minds: autumn leaves crinkling, bamboo rustling, crickets whispering.


Written by Sharon Chan

Sharon is a matsuri enthusiast on a quest to find Japan’s best souffle pancake.

Tokyo Community Event Spotlight

Aquarium art, Indian food, and Coffee! 

Vincent Bickhart (Tokyo)

Art Aquarium 2017
The Art Aquarium is an annual exhibit held in the Nihonbashi District of Tokyo. While this area is typically known for fine dining and shopping, the aquarium is tucked away nicely in the historic Mitsui Memorial Museum. Each year, ecological artist Hidetomo Kimura attempts to outshine his previous exhibits by blending aquatic life, glass sculptures, music, and lights into a unique form of art. This year’s exhibit paired small, simplistic arrangements, reminiscent of the Edo Period, with complex sculptures akin to modern Tokyo. Despite the mesmerizing designs and lighting, the stars of the show were the goldfish that let their personality shine in each display. After spending a few minutes here, visitors quickly realize why the Art Aquarium brands itself as the “most unique aquarium in the world.”


Namaste India 2017

Namaste India celebrated its 25th Anniversary at the Yoyogi Park Event Square on September 23rd and 24th. Recently, the Indian government acknowledged that this is the largest annual celebration held outside of India for it’s citizens. Over 300 dancers, singers, and Bollywood personalities took over the event stage to share with everyone the diversity of Indian entertainment. Workshops were offered to let visitors experience Indian tuk-tuks, traditional instruments, henna, and traditional painting techniques. Perhaps the most exciting part of the Namaste Festival was the opportunity to try authentic foods that aren’t common in the Indian restaurants around Japan. Masala Dosa, Bonda, Chaat, and Panipuri were some of the best sellers at the food stalls. Classics like Lassi, Curry and Naan, Samosas, and Tandoori chicken were available in abundance as well. Like many cultural events held at Yoyogi Park, Namaste India had a friendly atmosphere that left guests with a positive impression of India.

Tokyo Coffee Festival 2017 

Each season, the United Nations University hosts the Tokyo Coffee Festival in their events courtyard. Autumn’s festival was held across September 23rd-24th and featured over thirty coffee roasters from all over Japan and around the world. For ¥1,500 guests received a special edition coffee mug and their choice of 4 coffees. The most popular choices were REC Coffee’s domestic blend from Fukuoka and 27 Coffee Roasters blend from Honduras. In addition to the wide variety of coffee to try, there was also a book van specializing in books about coffee, live musical performances, coffee flavored ice cream, meet the roasters sessions, and the 2017 Japan Aeropress Championship. Although most people left the festival with some serious caffeine overload, the experience was a relaxing way to start off a Saturday.


Author Bio

Vince Bickhart is an ALT and Prefectural Advisor residing in West Tokyo. Although his original plan was to teach in Japan for one or two years, the connections he’s made with his students and friends have inspired him to stay for all five. In his spare time he enjoys traveling abroad, cheering for the Yakult Swallows, following the NBA, exploring the city, and grabbing some drinks with his friends.