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Traditional Japanese Instruments Play On


Music is something everyone loves. Even in a different language, people are able to enjoy and feel the emotions held within. Japan is home to many traditional musical instruments, many of which are still used today. A number of these are associated with Shinto, one of the major religions in Japan. Despite being hundreds of years old, these instruments are still capable of making wonderful music. Take a look at some Japanese instruments that are still making the rounds.

Biwa

This type of lute hails from the 7th century and is one of the main traditional Japanese instruments. It is typically used in classical music scenes or storytelling. According to Shinto legend, it is the preferred instrument of the goddess of music. Although almost eradicated at one point, the biwa has managed to stay on the stage even in modern times.

Shakuhachi

This simple flute has been in use since the 6th century. Traditionally crafted from bamboo, they were used by zen monks to perform suizen, or “blowing meditation”. The monks would play songs to pace their breathing, helping them meditate. The flute has four holes on one side and one more on the back. Though small and seemingly unremarkable, it is a strong instrument capable of producing nearly any pitch.

Kagurabue

This six or seven hole flute is used in Shinto performances known as kagura. Once reserved for sacred ceremonies, kagura performances have become more accessible. These dances are now more theatrical and reminiscent of folk dances.

Hichiriki

This double reed flute played an important role in ancient imperial court performances. The sound is similar to that of a clarinet, and it is notoriously difficult to master. It is still used today in many forms of traditional music. Considered a sacred instrument, the hichiriki is prominently used in Shinto weddings.

Nohkan

Yet another flute, this one is used for traditional imperial theater performances, such as Noh and Kabuki. Due to its construction, the flute produces a high pitch unique among flutes. When crafted traditionally, no two nohkan are alike. Each flute is deliberately slightly different, allowing them their own characteristics and pitch.

Suzu

A Shinto priestess holding a suzu

Source: Wikipedia

Another instrument used in Shinto is the suzu, which can come in a variety of sizes. Small ones are attached to good luck charms or other accessories, while large ones adorn shrine entrances. Ringing these bells attracts Shinto spirits, which empowers the user while warding off evil. Though made mostly by machines these days, some master artisans still craft them by hand, and those are said to be of a superior quality.

Yamatogoto

The yamatogoto is one of the oldest stringed instruments in Japan

Source: Taiko Center

A six or seven stringed zither that is allegedly the only stringed instrument native to Japan, this instrument is truly something special. According to the Shinto creation myth, the sun goddess once went into hiding and plunged the world into darkness. The goddess of mirth successfully drew her out through dance and music from six hunting bows. Intrigued, the sun goddess finally emerged, and the six bows were formed into the yamatogoto. While revered for its role in the myth, the instrument is now seldom played except during certain Shinto ceremonies.

Koto

A wider version of the yamatogoto, the 13 or 17 stringed koto is the national instrument of Japan. There are a number of bridges underneath which can be moved to adjust the pitch. Players usually wear special picks on three fingers so they can pluck the strings. Each part of the instrument has a traditional name which corresponds to a dragon’s body. For example, the top is the “dragon’s shell” while the string holes are “dragon’s eyes”.

Tsuzumi

This small hand drum is used in many theatrical performances like Noh and Kabuki, as well as Japanese folk music. Shaped like an hourglass, the cords that connect the two sides can be adjusted to alter the pitch. Traditionally, the tsuzumi sets the rhythm of performances. It is also called the kotsuzumi, meaning “little drum”, and is usually played with a larger version called the otsuzumi.

Shime-daiko

This is another drum found in traditional musical performances. Unlike the tsuzumi, the cords are tightly drawn to produce a higher pitch. The ends are covered in animal hide, which are beaten with wooden sticks to produce sounds.

These instruments may not be as familiar as guitars or keyboards, but they continue to have a place in the world. Capable of producing beautiful sounds, these tools sometimes even find their way into modern music. Listen carefully and you just may hear a koto in your favorite song.

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