Making noise

IMG_2262There are always sound effects at the Japanese dinner table — at least, there are when there are musical hashioki.

The most plaintive notes in Japanese music are made by the shakuhachi, or Japanese end-blown flute. Its name relates to its traditional size; shaku is a traditional measure equal to a little less than a foot, IMG_2263and hachi means eight. A traditional bamboo shakuhachi measures one shaku plus eight-tenths of a shaku, or about 21 1/2 inches. Some schools of Zen Buddhism use a shakuhachi during meditation, and expert players can produce a wide range of notes and pitches from this simple instruments.


This hashioki depicts a hyoshigi, a traditional Japanese percussion instrument made from aIMG_2264 block of wood or bamboo. Normally a pair of hyoshigi are attached with a rope strung between one end of each. They are clapped together or beat against the floor in kabuki and other Japanese theatrical performances to announce the beginning of a play, or to emphasize dramatic moments.

The tsuzumi is a small hand drum. It is shaped like an hourglass, and is constructed fromIMG_2265 two leather skins laced over a lacquered wooden frame, and a player can modulate the tone by squeezing the laces. Versions of this drum are used to accompany both Noh and Kabuki dramas. Tsuzumi are also frequently played by geisha when they in entertain at parties.



Like the tsuzumi, shamisen (below left) are associated with geisha. They reportedly originated in Okinawa. This 3-string instrument is a kind of lute, and is played or plucked with a plectrum. Shamisen (also known as samisen) are made from wood, and the box-like portion of their body is traditionally covered with cat or dog skin. That fact is a little unsettling for me, although I will admit that the high pitched twang of a shamisen sounds a bit like an unhappy feline.

IMG_2266 IMG_2267

More recognizable as a lute is the biwa, a short-necked instrument (above right) which usually has four strings. Historically the biwa was used as to accompany the oral recitation of stories, especially The Tale of the Heike, a twelfth century history of a battle between the Minamoto (or Genji) and Taira (or Heike) clans. Historically many biwa players were blind.
This wooden saxaphone and guitar attest to the popularity of jazz music in Japan. Jazz wasIMG_2268 first popularized in the beginning of the twentieth century when it was featured in hotel bars and on cruise ships crossing the Pacific. And the influx of Americans after WWII made jazz even cooler. Appropriately, I purchased these hashioki in a department store in Osaka, which is the unofficial jazz capital of Japan.

My only disappointment from these musical hashioki is that none of them actually make noise. In other words, none of them work. I’m still on the lookout for a hashioki that appeals to both the eyes and the ears.


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