A space for miscellany posts with all things shakuhachi and beyond.
KSK’s 30 Year Anniversary in Bisei, Japan
Impressions from the Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshūkan’s 30 Year Anniversary Katsuya Yokoyama Tribute Festival in Bisei (Japan) – August 29 to September 1, 2019
Yokoyama Katsuya founded the Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshūkan in 1988 (translated often as International Shakuhachi School/Training Center). The 30-year anniversary festivities* took place, as usually, in Bisei, Okayama Prefecture which is about 4-5 hours south-west from Tokyo.
It was my second time I visited Bisei, but the first time for one of the major Kenshūkan Festivals. The Bisei location consists out of a former Senior High School building called now the Hoshino-Sato Fureai Center in which the KSK host its regular workshops and classes during the year since its foundation. (*due to the WSF taking place in London in 2018 the anniversary was celebrated a year later)
The old school building is a complex of several simple wooden barracks connected through sheltered walkways and it has a number of dormitory style rooms for sleeping, classrooms for teaching and a common kitchen eating area. There are also numerous rooms where one could play and rehearse oneself. Though in practice all the buildings were a giant place to play and there was hardly a time during day or night the shakuhachi fell silent. Some choose to start a 6 a.m. while others still were engaged in musical conversations at 3 a.m. – I don’t have proof but possibly there was always a Tamuke played somewhere sometime.
The communal spirit is present from the very beginning as the people who arrived a day earlier starting to organise the spaces and the sleeping areas for the other ca. 80 participants to be arriving the next day. The day’s activity is finished off with the obligatory visit to the ice-cream shop in Bisei Market.
Part of the Bisei experience is the communual breakfast, lunch and dinner which is provided by the organisers via a local food service. Strictly Japanese food of course, but if cold octopus tentacle in the morning is not your thing you can always help yourself to more boiled rice or miso soup. But of course the food was excellent and plentiful and the eating together is one of the many sharing characteristics of the Bisei traditions which makes the ambience so special.
Bisei – town of ice and stars
Bisei-cho lies within the hills of the Oda district, Okayama Prefecture about a 40-minute car ride away from Shin-Kurashiki Station which is on the main Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Hiroshima. It is a quiet and sparsley populated town with only about 75 people per sq. km and an overall population of ca. 5000 (2003).
The central part of the town features a small market with fresh local produce, most notable possibly the ‘Shine Muscat’, the ‘King of the Grapes’ a local variety of giant sweet grapes, a bakery, tea house and maybe most importantly the already mentioned ‘famous’ ice-cream shop. Famous maybe mainly in the Kenshūkan mythology as no stay (or even day) seems complete without a visit to sample flavours ranging from black sesame seeds to green matcha, all made in-situ from local milk.
Wandering through the loose assembly of roads and buildings making up the central stretch of town and when as a non-japanese person encountering locals one was usually greeted with a knowing “Ah, Kenshūkan!”. It was clear that the Kenshūkan was in town again to have one of its celebrations or workshops, as there seemingly could be no other conceivable reason to visit Bisei.
Maybe, though just outside of the central area in the green hills is the excellent Bisei Observatory and indeed the relation to the sky and stars seemed to be ubiquitous around town as even the manhole covers and variuos other signage around town show proud depictions of stars or the observatory.
Unfortunately the cloudy days did not present us with great viewing possibilities and a nightly excursion of a group of keen stargazers to the main observatory tower was only rewarded with a faint and brief glimpse of the star Vega… nevertheless Australian Dave sneaked his shakuhachi into the dome and could not resist to play (or pray?) for a further clearing of the clouds. It was not to happen.
This years celebration consisted out of two main concerts, various classes/workshops, lectures, a symposium and a shakuhachi competition of honkyoku classics.
The main Japanese Kenshūkan performers/teachers present were Furuya Teruo, Matama Kazushi, Kakizakai Kaoru, Ishikawa Toshimitsu, Okada Michiaki and Sugawara Kuniyoshi. In addition we had jinashi specialist/historian Shimura Zenpo, shakuhachi player Obama Akihito and matouqin (Mongolian fiddle) player Miho completing the Japanese contingent.
From outside of Japan players included David Kansuke II Wheeler (Chikuyusha), Gunnar Jinmei Linder (Chikumeisha), Jim Franklin (KSK), Kiku Day (Zensabo) as well Kenshūkan performers Lindsay Dugan (Australia) and Christopher Molina (USA).
For the ensemble pieces in the concerts there was koto support by Nakatsuka Chieju and Chidori-kai as well as Yamaji Miho and Yamaji-schachu, which boasted an 88 year old on koto!
The opening evening concert at the Kankyo Kaizen Center in Bisei started off with the ensemble piece Minori-no Aki composed by Yamakawa Ensho, featuring koto ensemble, the regular KSK teachers as well as some percussion. A fitting opening piece which functioned like an overture to the remaining proceedings.
This was followed by Fudo I (Kineya Seiho) performed by here Sugawara Kuniyoshi, Okada Michiaki and Ishikawa Toshimitsu. Fudo I is part of a 5-piece cycle which was originally composed from 1965 onwards for the acclaimed Shakuhachi Sanbonkai trio (Yokoyama Katsuya (Chikushinkai/KSK), Yamamoto Hozan (Tozan-ryū) Aoki Reibo (Kinko-ryū/Reibo-kai). All Fudo pieces have an elegiac atmosphere with a quiet, pulsating energy and use shakuhachi of different length (2 x 1.8 & 2.4) to great effect, this performance being no exception.
Ishikawa’s also performed Futatsu-no Uta (Yokoyama Katsuya) an intriguing piece for shakuhachi, voice (Buddist shomyo chant), nohkan and 17-string koto played by Yamaji Miho (usually tuned in two octaves, the 17-string koto here is tuned over four octaves.)
Also at the first evening concert was the contribution of the foreign player contigent which had Kiku Day performing the honkyoku Koro Sugagaki, Gunnar Jinmei Linder performing the honkyoku Ikkan-ryu Koku Kaete, David Wheeler playing the sankyoku Midare Rinzetsu with Yamaji Miho on koto as well as Jim Franklin presenting his composition Songs from the Lake No.3. All well received and expertly done.
Interspersed in the main programme were the performances of the winners of this years honkyoku classics competition, Liu Chang and Io Pavel playing Yamagoe and the winner of previous shakuhachi competition Imai Yusuke performing an arresting interpretation of Yokoyama’s composition Makiri on a 2.4. (more about the 2019 competition further down the article.)
The evening proceeding were rounded off by a captivating and flawless perfomance of the Fukuda Rando trio Wadatsumi-no Iroko-no Miya by the Kenshūkan’s masters Furuya Teruo, Kakizakai Kaoru and Matama Kazushi. Here the interplay of 2 x 1.8 and 2.8 shakuhachi create fast, joyous and intricate runs and reflective, moody slower sections to conjure up a delicate shifting balance of patterns and moods, all hold together by the sublime handling of the musicians of their instruments. Encore!
Yokoyama Katsuya Tribute Concert – Final Concert
The second main concert ‘Yokoyama Katsuya Tribute Concert’ was held in the great hall of the local Junior Highschool, not least to highlight the strong connection of the Kenshūkan with the local community in the Bisei the concert was well attented by the locals and also feature the local 101 Hoshizora choir.
The extensive and varied programme of the Tribute concert was kicked off by another all-star – Japanese as well as international guests – ensemble piece performing Miyagi Michio’s arrangement of Hokkai Minyo-cho.
The programme also featured the Kenshūkan finest with the duet Shunsui (Yokoyama Katsuya) performed by Kakizakai Kaoru and Matama Kazushi, a beautiful set of Fukuda Rando compositions with Kikyo Genso-kyoku played by Okada Michiaki, Gekko Roteki played by Sugawara Kuniyoshi and Tabibito-no Uta played by Teruo Furuya. Furthermore we had the spellbinding quartet performance of Min’yo Kumikyoku (Funakawa Toshio) by Sugawara Kuniyoshi, Kakizakai Kaoru, Matama Kazushi and Teruo Furuya.
There was more: Lindsay Dugan and Christopher Molina gave an assured rendition of Shika-no Toone. Illustrating the bandwidth of the different styles present at the 30-year celebration Shimura Zenpo contributed his version of the Renpoken Honkyoku classic Tsuru-no Sugomoro on jinashi shakuhachi and Obama Akihito partnered up with matouqin (a Mongolian fiddle) player Miho to mix elements of min’yo and Mongolian folk songs in a wide ranging performance.
The local community choir, 101 Hoshizora, was also present in a further group piece, here performed with the support of the core Kenshukan personel with invited international guests on shakuhachi. The children choir gave it all in Mimasu’s arrangement of Cosmos, a musical poem celebrating sky and stars and given Bisei’s connection to astronomical observation, a fitting rendition of a very popular Japanese song.
As the anniversary celebrations are very much about being and playing together, there were also two new commissions for group pieces to be performed at the final concert: Christopher Molina’s Eien-no Tabibito (The Eternal Traveler) and Doi Keisuke’s Futatsu-no Oshushi (Two Poems for Melancholic Cherry Blossoms).
In Doi Keisuke’s composition and main festival commission Futatsu-no Oshushi the different layers of shakuhachi playing slowly descending sequences spaced out over the four different sections created a beautiful warm cushion of sound where the voices of the choir and the solo parts could dwell and linger in slight melancholic mood. In Chris Molina’s Eien-no Tabibito the shakuhachi groups bundled up in smooth melodic lines complimented by various solo shakuhachi, and together the music created a forceful and poetic sense of movement and reflection.
Besides we had opportunity to join into group performances of San’ya (Mountain Valley) on 2.4 shakuhachi as well as a glacial and moody rendition of Tamuke supported by a front row of the main Kenshūkan personnel playing the super wide giant 3.6(!) shakuhachi (one octave lower than 1.8). And, I suppose, no Kenshūkan celebration is complete without a forceful outing of the group ‘classic’ Goru composed by Yokoyama.
The group pieces are a great element of the celebrations and I feel capture the communal spirit of the festival very well. Everybody is invited to be part of the performance and indeed only the multitude of shakuhachi can bring these pieces to proper fruition and make them alive. To me it was one of the highlights of being at the festival to take part in the group pieces.
Another element of the Festival was the “Competition of Honkyoku classics handed down by Master Yokoyama Katsuya” where the 10 players who made it into the final selection were battling it out in the Kankyo Kaizen Center in Bisei on the afternoon of the first day. The prize was a performance slot in the opening concert that very same evening. Mende Takayuki (San-an), Takeuchi Kazuhiro (Tamuke), Sasaki Toru (Shoganken Reibo), Ohtani Kouho (Sokkan), Katsura CreaSion (Tsuru-no Sugomori), Liu Chang (Yamagoe), Nakashima Tomohiro (Yamagoe), Nishimori Keiji (Tamuke), Io Pavel (Yamagoe) and, as the only European taking part, Emmanuelle Rouaud (Daha).
You could feel the suspense in the air as each performer went on stage to give his/her best. Performing honkyoku is never easy and doing it in front of a knowing and capable audience as well as the six distinguished competition judges Furuya Teruo, Matama Kazushi, Sugawara Kuniyoshi, Kakizakai Kaoru, Ishikawa Toshimitsu and Okada Michiaki does not make it less nerve racking.
But in the end it was clearly Yamagoe’s day as three of the first five places featured performances of the energetic and technical demanding honkyoku classic. Liu Chang from China blasted his way to the first place with a powerful and encapsulating performance on a wide 2.4 flute and left few in doubt who will be the eventual winner of this competition. The maybe more restrained but technically beautiful executed rendition of Io Pavel earned him the second spot. Takeuchi Kazuhiro’s soulful performance of Tamuke on 2.4 was very moving I found but it landed only on spot 4 this time.
Workshops, Lectures & Symposium
The main workshop and classes were focused on the classic honkyoku repertoire as taught and transmitted by Yokoyama. Pieces explored were San’ya (Mountain Valley), Shingetsu and Sagariha. Of course ample time was dedicated to the study and rehearsals of the aforementioned group pieces Futatsu-no Oshushi (Doi), Eien-no Tabibito (Molina) as well as Goru (Yokoyama).
The second evening did not feature a concert but instead a special symposium on “Yokoyama Katsuya and the KSK”. A panel of KSK core teachers completed by Noshino Noburo (Bisei Tourism Association President) and David Wheeler were emptying their pockets of memories of the KSK over the years to piece together the development of Yokoyama’s idea, intention, legacy and possible directions in the future as well as shakuhachi developments abroad:
Bisei was the location for the first ever International or World Shakuhachi Festival in 1994. Yokoyama initiated the festival with the idea to bring together the various Shakuhachi Schools present in Japan to perform together. Traditionally the Japanese schools are quite separated from each other and only stage events within their own group/school/style context. This innovation and ideal to celebrate the shakuhachi and its music together was taken up again in Boulder, Colorado in 1998 with the first international Shakuhachi Festival outside of Japan organised by David Kansuke II Wheeler and subsequently World Festivals have been held in Tokyo 2002, New York 2004, Sidney 2008, Kyoto 2012 and London 2018 and Chaozhou, China in 2022 will be next. Besides the all-schools-and-styles-are-welcome philosophy was of course also a blueprint for other shakuhachi festivities happening nowadays and was adopted as a founding principles for the ESS Summer Schools in Europe.
Spread out over the workshop days were also various lectures and talks covering a wide array of e.g. ideas and theories of sound production, history, tradition and inter-generational transmission of honkyoku and oral traditions in general as well as a lecture-concert about historical jinashi and jinuri shakuhachi. Worth seeing were also some close-up videos of vocal chords of amateurs and professionals while playing shakuhachi and other wind instruments, which illustrated the varying degrees of control of the ‘cords’ (i.e., the membranous tissue spanned either side across the larynx) through air pressure during tone production and hence quality of tone. On these and other occasions, I would like to mention, we non-japanese speakers were very much indebted to the translation and other assistance provided by David Wheeler, Takashi Kakizakai and Emi Kakizakai – arigatō gozaimasu!
Later in the evening…
Aside from the hard learning and studying and the serious commitment to shakuhachi everyone present was showing, the later in the evening gatherings were the place were the serious fun was to be found: Kanpai! or “to empty your glass” was clearly the connecting thread in late evening entertainment. Each bottle of sake, brought by participants from all over Japan, was formerly introduced and “arigatos” were given to the generous provider.
Mixed with the culinary discoveries of unusual Japanese nibbles and finger food the atmosphere was warm, friendly and language barriers seemingly disappeared direct proportional to the emptying of the sake glasses. In particular the last evenings’ ‘farewell’ party where women from the Bisei community choir prepared a sumptuous buffet for everyone was a splendid closure to the 30-year anniversary celebrations. Kanpai! indeed.
Only a stone throw away from the old school building and the festival’s main location, is the former house of Yokoyama Katsuya. Today the spacious and traditional built house, surrounded by trees and bamboo plants and set slightly back from the street, is an upmarket restaurant. Nevertheless a day after the official end of the festival, we, a small remnant of participants and teachers, were following what could only be described to be another tradition and made the short ‘pilgrimage’ to the building. Because to the delight of former students the room where Yokoyama was teaching stayed unchanged and can still be admired and memories of “your tsu meri is too high” may still linger in the air, but I am only guessing.
Talking about traditions, we then descended into the market area to have a final ice-cream before the mini-bus picked us up and we had to leave the green hills of Bisei behind and head back to Shin-Kurashiki from were everyone took their own trajectory again and we all dispersed in our directions.
Coda – Hopefully another time
The four days of the Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshūkan’s 30-year celebration was a rich and unique experience and once the final ‘ro’ was sounded and all flutes packed away, already instilled the desire to one day return again to a workshop or celebration to the hills of Bisei.
The event not only presented the shakuhachi in many different colours and shades through high level performances, gave ample opportunity to participate and perform, it also showed the cross-generational appeal of the instrument with a wide gamut of ages being present at the festival and the generous aforementioned communal spirit permeating the proceedings. Furthermore the international, inclusive outlook Yokoyama pursued with the founding of the school and the first Bisei festival in 1994 is certainly not waning with a significant number of international shakuhachi afficionados making the long trip to Japan this summer.
I strongly recommend it in case you find yourself anywhere near Bisei during workshop or festival dates to pop in at least once to sample the ambience for yourself, whatever school or style you ‘belong’ too. And have an ice-cream while you there!
The Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshūkan website about the Bisei 30-year event is at:
Photo credits: Emi Kakizakai (EK), Kaoru Kakizakai (KK), Sasaki Toru (ST), Io Pavel (IP), Isaka Hiroyuki (IH) & Thorsten Knaub (TK)
WSF2018 London – a memory snippet
Hard to believe for me, it is already one year since the World Shakuhachi Festival in London 2018 finished! More than 80 performers from all over the world were invited to London, with 40 from Japan alone. Having such a variety of players, styles, schools and tradtions at the same place in Europe was an unique and excellent experience.
Being part of the WSF2018 executive committee was a great learning curve and a very busy time too, so some memories are already a bit hazy. Though being interested in free improvisation I was particular happy to put together the curated programme ‘London meets Japan’ as part of the ‘New Horizons’ theme – now thanks to finally putting this video togther you can experience a small taste as KURODA Reison (shakuhachi) and John Edwards (double bass) battle it out in great style in one of the lunchtime concerts. (apologies for shaky mobile footage…) The other duets performing were ORIMO Sabu (shakuhachi) & Jennifer Allum (violin), ENOMOTO Shusui (shakuhachi, saxophone) & Tim Hodgkinson (multi-instruments/clarinet) and OBAMA AKihito (shakuhachi) & Steve Noble (percussion).
More info here at the World Shakuhachi Festival London 2018 website – www.wsf2018.com