The Shakuhachi came to Japan in the seventh century from China and was a six-holed flute used in Imperial Court music. Later, in the middle ages, it was changed into the five-holed flute played today.
The name shakuhachi means "1.8 shaku", referring to its size. It is a compound of two words:
shaku (尺) is an archaic unit of length equal to 30.3 centimeters (0.994 English foot) and subdivided in ten subunits.
hachi (八) means "eight", here eight sun, or tenths of a shaku.
Thus, "shaku-hachi" means "one shaku eight sun" (54.54 centimeters), the standard length of a shakuhachi. Other shakuhachi vary in length from about 1.3 shaku up to 3.6 shaku. Although the sizes differ, all are still referred to generically as "shakuhachi".
Shakuhachi are usually made from the root end of madake (真竹) (Phyllostachys bambusoides) bamboo culm and are extremely versatile instruments. Professional players can produce virtually any pitch they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original Zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa, and shamisen, folk music, jazz, and other modern pieces.
Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone colouring, and the ability for its variation. Different fingerings, embouchures and amounts of meri/kari can produce notes of the same pitch, but with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. Holes can be covered partially (1/3 covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by changing the blowing angle. The Honkyoku (本曲) pieces rely heavily on this aspect of the instrument to enhance their subtlety and depth.
Mendicant Zen monks who wandered the countryside played the Shakuhachi during their pilgrimages, wishing to be delivered from earthly desires. Honkyoku are the songs which were created by these monks.
The komusō (虚無僧 komusō, hiragana: こむそう; also romanized komusou or komuso) were a group of Japanese mendicant monks of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism who flourished during the Edo period of 1600–1868. Komusō were characterized by a straw bascinet (a sedge or reed hood named a tengai or tengui) worn on the head, manifesting the absence of specific ego. They were also known for playing solo pieces on the shakuhachi (a type of Japanese bamboo flute). These pieces, called honkyoku ("original pieces"), were played during a meditative practice called suizen, for alms, as a method of attaining enlightenment, and as a healing modality. The Japanese government introduced reforms after the Edo period, abolishing the Fuke sect. Records of the musical repertoire survived, and are being revived in the 21st century.
Listen to a musical sample of the Honkyoku song Honshirabe played on the shakuhachi: