Lunch with a Shakuhachi Player | Japan | Living in Mexico

Lunch with a Shakuhachi Player

Our itinerary said we'd be having lunch at Heihachijaya, a 300-year-old inn overlooking the Takano River, and that while there, we would be treated to a "private musical performance."

You don't find wooded places with large gardens like this in Tokyo. Although much of Kyoto is just as urbanized as the rest of Japan, with the usual ugly jumble of clashing architectural styles and blighted utilitarian postwar concrete structures, it nonetheless contains many hidden corners like this—delightful little islands of beauty and tranquility.

Here, a portly member of the tour group poses at the inn's entry gate. It probably is the only remaining original wooden structure in the inn complex, given that in Japan, wood eventually yields to fire and water. If the damp climate doesn't rot it, frequent fires consume it.


We were greeted by two bowing women, who, it turns out, were to be our waitresses. They were nearly identical: Both of an age, same height, similar hairstyles, identical black kimono with red shoulder decorations, white under-kimono, beige obi (wide fabric sashes), white tabi (socks with toes) and wooden geta (clogs). Before you unwittingly accuse the Japanese of all being the same, note that these ladies have expressed their individuality in their choices of aprons.

It's so very nice to be bowed into a place.


The interior of the restaurant was simple, sleek and modern-looking—at least to my untutored eye. We were seated at long, low, red lacquer tables. The photograph reveals that none of us Westerners were capable of sitting on our heels, as would be proper at a traditional Japanese meal. Anticipating this, the management provided cushions with back supports, which we gratefully used. Note that the large plates on the table have a flat edge, which allows more of its contents to be nearer one's mouth—desirable when one eats with chopsticks. Keeps the sea cucumber out of your lap.

Shoji screens had been opened giving onto a view of—that's right; A viewing garden. No traditional inn would be complete without one.


Our waitresses knelt on the floor to serve us, without grunting and groaning, and without using their hands which were always carrying trays, anyway. I was impressed whenever one of them would rise, gracefully, smoothly and apparently effortlessly.


Even in restaurants with western-style furniture, I noticed that waiters and waitresses kneeled to take our orders.

Before lunch was served, a musician introduced us to the shakuhachi, a type of flute. A bamboo instrument configured for the Japaese five-note scale, it is capable of producing an amazing range of tones. Our musician played traditional and modern music that was evocative and haunting. He also played a Christmas song—Walking in the Winter Wonderland or some such—which I found to be offensive and condescending. However, it was interesting to see how could produce the non-natural pitches; in fact he was able to play an entire chromatic scale, even though the flute was bored with finger holes for the five-note scale. At one point, he demonstrated a continuous glissando through two octaves!

I can't find enough words to express how captivated I was by his performance.


We were told that at one time, Samurai were forced to give up their weapons. Some of them took up the shakuhachi and made their livings wandering from village to village, playing for handouts, which, I imagine, were readily forthcoming, given who was doing the asking. We were also told that they could use their flutes as weapons, not having any conventional ones. Having personally handled a large shakuhachi, I can attest to the weight and lethality of these... er... flutes.