Last November, I went to Kyushu to see the Karatsu Kunchi festival. It was a wonderful spectacle, with huge, flamboyant floats pulled through crowded streets to the rhythmic accompaniment of drums, music and shouts of “Enya! Enya!” I loved it all, but if I had to designate one aspect as my favorite, it would be the handsome young men on every float who were playing some kind of flute with a high pitch. So, what the heck is that instrument?
Philippa J., Hyogo Prefecture
The instrument you found so captivating is a type of bamboo flute; but before I get into details, let me provide some background for the benefit of readers who haven’t had the good fortune to witness this famous festival, designated in 1980 as a juyo mukei bunkazai (Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property).
If you take out a map, you’ll find Karatsu by the sea in Saga Prefecture, to the west and a little south of Fukuoka. It’s in the part of Kyushu that juts out toward Korea, putting you about as close as you can get to the Asian continent with your feet still on the Japanese mainland. Given that location, it’s not surprising that Karatsu was an important port in Japan’s ancient trade with Korea and China, and that local culture was influenced by this exposure to foreign lands.
Today, Karatsu is best known for two things: its Korean-influenced Karatsu ware pottery and the Kunchi festival, which is held every year from Nov. 2 to 4. The word “kunchi” works like a suffix, tacked on to a place name, and means a festival that was originally held on the ninth day (“ku no nichi”) of the ninth month of the lunar calendar — an auspicious day. Another well known example is the Nagasaki Kunchi, now held every year in October.
In Karatsu, the festival features parades of elaborate floats — the same every year — that tower 5-6 meters in height and weigh as much as five tons. The floats are called hikiyama, and there are 14 in all, dating from 1819 to 1876 and built at huge expense by competing neighborhoods. Each is more spectacular than the next: lions, dragons, a drunken monster, massive samurai helmets in lacquer and gold, and my personal favorite, a giant red sea bream that seems to be swimming in the waves — all moving to the beat of matsuribayashi (festival music) played on flutes, drums and gongs.
And that brings us back rather nicely to your question. In Karatsu, the flutes on the floats are a type of yokobue, a broad category of traditional flutes held horizontally and played by blowing a stream of air across the embouchure hole. “Yoko” means “side” and “bue” is “fue” (flute) with a sound change because it’s in a compound. In English, this type of instrument is called a transverse or side-blown flute. It’s a very old instrument that spread from Asia to Europe around the time of the Crusades.
There are many different types of Japanese transverse flutes, varying greatly in form and sound as well as who plays them for what purpose. These are different from the shakuhachi, which is an end-blown flute that is held vertically. Some examples of Japanese side-blown flutes include the shinobue, which is used in festival music and to accompany kabuki plays and nagauta songs; the ryuteki, which is used in Gagaku music; and the nokan, played in ensemble with other instruments in noh plays.
Given the huge variety of Japanese side-blown flutes, I decided I’d better speak with someone in Karatsu to get the specifics on what you saw and heard. I had to go through channels, but eventually, with the blessing of local leaders, I was put in touch with an organizer for one of the neighborhood associations. He didn’t want his name in the paper, demurring that his contribution was just one of hundreds needed to stage the festival, but he was happy to explain how the flute corps are organized and trained.
“In our neighborhood, the flute players are all boys in middle school and high school,” he told me. “We put about eight flute players on the float at any time, with relief players coming in as needed. Everybody plays the same music, and it takes at least three years of practice to play well enough to earn a place on the float. That achievement raises a boy’s status in the neighborhood, so there are always plenty of children who want to play.”
When I asked what the instrument is called, he insisted he’d never given the question any thought. “Here in Karatsu we’ve always referred to it simply as fue,” he said, using the most generic word for a flute. “But I can tell you what is distinctive about it: There are seven holes in addition to the blow hole, but only six of them are for fingering. We cover the extra hole with a small piece of chikushi, a paperlike membrane from inside the bamboo plant. That allows us to hit high notes.”
Now I had a description but still no name. Fortunately, I had just heard about a group called the “Yokobue Kenkyukai” (Society for the Study of Side-blown Flutes), and wrangled an invitation to their monthly meeting. Takanobu Takahashi, a flute maker and head of the group, listened to the information I had gathered from Karatsu and provided the identification I needed.
“That’s what’s called a chikushibue,” he explained. “The basic structure is borrowed from the minteki, a flute that came to Japan from China in the early 17th century. It spread here from high society to the common people, who incorporated elements of its design into the much older shinobue festival flute.
“Karatsu is an old town that has done a great job of protecting its traditions,” Takahashi observed. “That means the music you hear in Karatsu today is probably quite similar to what was played there long ago, which makes it even more interesting to enthusiasts of festival music.”