Before coming to Japan, Jennifer Biggers had achieved some success as a musician in her native Texas. The world music enthusiast had composed and produced two tapes and a CD of original music.
But after five years of combining performance with teaching yoga and working part time, Biggers was ready for a change. “I wanted to travel,” she says. “I needed a new perspective.”
And so Biggers came to Japan in 1998 to teach English on the Japan Education and Teaching program. A strong incentive was the opportunity to broaden her musical horizons.
“I was attracted by the music,” she says. “I was in a two-person band back in Austin, and we were doing a lot of world music. That’s when I got turned on to the shakuhachi flute. Moving to Japan was an opportunity to hook up with a good teacher.”
Pure coincidence had led to her discovery of the shakuhachi. After graduating from Southwestern University with a major in chemistry, Biggers settled in Austin, where she worked as a telephone operator and yoga teacher.
“I could play the flute and guitar, and it was a dream of mine to be in a band someday. In Austin, I met a guy who shared the same dream and we started practicing together.”
Little did she know at the time that her new friend’s father was the president of the International Shakuhachi Society. One day the friend brought her a Japanese bamboo flute and asked if she could play it.
“My first impression was that it was some Zen temple object,” Biggers recalls. “But I took it home and gave it a try anyway.”
Within a month, she was making consistently resonant sounds with the shakuhachi. The Japanese instrument quickly became a mainstay for improvisational pieces she and her friend performed in concerts at local live houses and shopping malls.
Musical connections also led to her request a placement in Tokushima Prefecture after her acceptance to the JET program.
“My band partner and I had been conducting a pen-pal project with people around the world, asking them to send us samples of their native music,” Biggers says. “He covered Africa and South America, and I had the Far East. One young Japanese girl kept writing about how beautiful the nature was in her native Shikoku, and it sounded like a good place to be.”
As the plane descended into Tokushima Airport, Biggers was overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountain scenery from her window seat. But the Texan also recalls being startled by the contrast with the urban surroundings of her apartment and the school buildings where she was going to teach.
At first, Biggers was frustrated by the transformation of her social life in a country where she was not proficient in the language.
There were also challenges at her new workplace.
“The most difficult, perhaps, was learning to enjoy things like school sports day events and teachers’ drinking parties,” she says.
Regardless of these day-to-day frustrations, though, Biggers’ life blossomed in Japan. Soon after arriving, she was introduced to a jovial 80-year-old shakuhachi master. Every Saturday she cycled 10 km to study with him.
“I was the youngest of his students by decades,” Biggers commented. “Though I couldn’t understand a word he spoke in the local dialect at first, we communicated perfectly musically.”
Biggers’ skills improved rapidly. After just six months of training, she was invited to perform solo before a large audience of shakuhachi appreciators. “It was my experience with yogic breathing techniques that really strengthened my shakuhachi performance,” she added.
This summer marks the end of Biggers’ third and final year as an English teacher in the JET program. Future plans?
“My shakuhachi master tells me that with another five years of study I can become a qualified teacher,” she says. “I plan to stay on in Japan a few more years, studying shakuhachi and pottery, then eventually settle down some place like Hawaii and devote my energies to exploring the world of sacred music.”