Caring for and cleaning shakuhachi
Compared to most instruments, the shakuhachi requires fairly minimal care. Crack prevention is probably the most troublesome of measures that needs to be taken if a bamboo shakuhachi is not bound (more on cracks and bindings below).
As for cleaning, the inner bore of a shakuhachi requires periodic attention because this is where moisture from the breath can condensate leading to odors and/or mold. To clean the inside of a shakuhachi, pull a tsuyutoshi or “dew-cutter” swab-cloth through the bore after playing it. A swab-cloth can be made by tying a length of string that is longer than a shakuhachi to the corner of a bit of cloth which is of a size that will not get stuck in the bore (usually about 14″ x 14″). To use the swab-cloth, drop the string down the bore, protect the edge with the thumb, and pull the cloth through. To help the string drop through the bore more easily a small bead can be tied to the end.
This cloth can also be used to periodically clean the inside with a one-to-one solution of water and distilled white vinegar which will kill mold, germs, and remove odors. To do this, moisten the swab-cloth with the vinegar solution and ring it out before pulling it through the bore, then wipe off any solution that gets on the outside of the shakuhachi. The smell of the vinegar will completely dissipate in a few hours or less.
The finger-holes can be cleaned with a baby size toothbrush, cotton swabs, or nylon bristle pipe cleaners. For a natural, unlacquered shakuhachi a dryer vent brush might be needed to periodically scrub the bore should it become moldy. To do this, dip the end of the dryer vent brush in the vinegar solution, protect the edge with the thumb, and carefully scrub the bore. When done, run the swab-cloth through the bore to soak up any excess solution.
“Why does bamboo crack and how can I prevent my shakuhachi from cracking?”
Cracking is a natural part of bamboo’s life cycle. Culms crack out in nature so that they’ll decompose more readily. This makes room for new shoots and returns nutrients to the soil. All bamboo will crack, it’s just a matter of time. Humidified storage helps to keep this natural process at bay, with varying degrees of success, but it can often result in the growth of mold. On the other hand, fully binding a shakuhachi prevents cracks from ever being an issue. In my experience, binding is the only way to prevent cracks and makes for a worry free shakuhachi.
For those that go the humidity route – store between 50% and 70% in an air-tight bag or case and clean with distilled white vinegar if mold appears. Some people twist a bit of damp cloth or paper towel into the top of their flute bags but make sure that it doesn’t touch the flute. Avoid leaving a shakuhachi out of its protective bag or case when not playing it, especially in harsh dry environments such as air-conditioning, heaters, closed automobiles, deserts, and so on.
“What are bindings?”
Bindings are high-tensile string that’s wrapped under tension around the bamboo to keep cracks closed or to prevent them from occurring. They can close just about any crack and usually hold for life. There are topical bindings (right) and inlaid bindings (left). With inlaid bindings, imagine what we see on the right but inlaid into a carved out channel and then topped with rattan veneer. The rattan veneer should be flush with the surface of the bamboo.
“What are utaguchi inlays? Are they needed?”
The black triangular and crescent shapes seen in the photo above are inlays at the utaguchi or “song-edge”. Inlays provide a harder edge but they create more problems than they fix. As we can see in the photo, inlays can cause cracks. They’re also still susceptible to damage which can result in costly, specialized repair. As for sound, inlays at the edge do not inherently affect the sound. Any change in the sound is due to the geometry being altered. Contrary to popular belief, the sharp edge that’s possible with an inlay does not improve the sound either. In fact, many antique shakuhachi have a “dull” inlay edge from age.
“Do cracked and repaired shakuhachi sound different?”
Cracked and repaired shakuhachi usually sound the same because the bamboo will join back together like two puzzle pieces. Unfortunately, sometimes additions to the bore (paste/plaster) are effected. For this reason, I always recommend having shakuhachi bound before cracks happen, as a preventative measure. Many people have had great success with preventative bindings, especially those who live in harsh, dry climates.
“Should I oil my shakuhachi and does it help”?
I don’t recommend oiling shakuhachi. Whether or not it helps prevent cracking is unknown. Most oils have strong odors, will go rancid, and will probably grow mold more easily. Oiling a shakuhachi will make it impossible for lacquer to adhere to it, which should be kept in mind if lacquering might ever be desirable. I don’t accept returns or exchanges if a a shakuhachi has been oiled.
Lacquer – Urushi and others
Lacquering the bore of a shakuhachi can make it play louder, with a more crisp tone color, and/or more responsively. With that said, whether any of these changes are desirable is up to each individual. A clear advantage of lacquer is that it hardly ever grows mold and it’s easy to clean. Conversely, an un-lacquered natural bamboo bore can grow mold much more easily, regardless of age. This requires periodic cleaning (I use distilled white vinegar). Very thin coats of lacquer are sufficient enough to greatly deter mold while having the least possible affect on the sound.
Lacquer and cracks
If a shakuhachi is lacquered inside-and-out, like the ones picture above, than they’re better protected against cracking. However, most shakuhachi are only lacquered on the inside. While this helps prevent cracks from any sudden introduction of moisture to the inside, such as from the breath or from cleaning, it perhaps increases the chances that a shakuhachi will crack at rest (read more about cracks here). Ultimately, the only thing that truly prevents cracks are bindings.
About Japanese urushi lacquer
(Because urushi is the same as poison ivy and tends to cause horrible rashes for many people I opt to use an alternative which also adheres better and is more durable. However, when cured correctly, urushi is more than durable enough.)
Urushi lacquer is made from the sap of the urushi tree. The sap contains “urushiol” which is an oily organic allergen found in plants of the family Anacardiaceae, especially Toxicodendron (e.g., poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac). Cashew, mango, and pistachio are also in the same family and a lower quality lacquer is made from cashews. In sensitive individuals, urushiol can cause an allergic skin rash on contact known as “urushiol-induced contact dermatitis” AKA “poison-ivy rash”. The name comes from the Japanese word for the sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum (漆 urushi). The oxidation and polymerization of urushiol in the tree’s sap when in the presence of moisture allows it to form a hard lacquer which is used to produce lacquerware.
The sap of the Japanese urushi trees contains the highest concentrations of urushiol thus forming the strongest and most adhesive urushi. Urushi made from Japanese urushi tree sap was so much more adhesive that the “maki-e” or “metal leafing” technique could only develop in Japan. The shakuhachi and its ancestors have been lacquered both inside and out with urushi lacquer for centuries. The Komuso monks often applied urushi lacquer to the entirety of their shakuhachi which served to protect them from the elements.
Japanese urushi lacquer history
During the Edo period (1603-1867) the urushi tree was highly valued being proclaimed as one of the “shimoku” (four essential trees). There was an urushi-tax and people had to pay a part of the tax with urushi and urushi-wax which was made from urushi seeds and was used for the production of candles. There was also an urushi magistrate who collected the urushi-tax and took care of urushiware which belonged to temples and shrines.
There were special urushi craftsmen who traveled around the whole country to repair and maintain urushiware. Until 1959 the production of urushi-liquid was at its height and urushiware was still used daily. Urushi-liquid collectors earned a fortune with their work. However, from 1960 and onward cheaper urushi was imported from China and the employment of the urushi experts decreased.