Following the scent of roses blooming on a residential street, I explore the town area of Haramachi, stopping at an ochre-colored wall. Inside, I find Hosshinji, a 1631 Zen temple affiliated with Engakuji in Kamakura.
Priest Daitetsu Kosuge, 73, waves me inside, where he promptly prepares me some thick green tea. The wind outside and the swish of the bamboo chasen (whisk) frothing the tea mingle nicely.
In conversation, I gradually learn that Kosuge harbors a special passion for the bamboo shakuhachi flute, an integral part of the Fuke-shu sect of Zen Buddhism. “Monks once practiced suizen, a form of prayer through playing basic meditative pieces, which were known as the honkyoku,” he explains. “These monks — many of whom were samurai that had lost their commissions once Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate — were known as komuso.”
Throughout the Edo Period (1603 — 1868), komuso, wearing their distinctive tengai (a woven bamboo or rattan hood meant to render their own egos void), were offered rare license to wander across the country’s borders freely, so as to visit other temples and sustain their mendicant lifestyle. Kosuge suggests it might have been this freedom of movement, plus their samurai training and secretive hood, which led many to suspect the Komuso of moonlighting as spies for the shogunate.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 greatly curtailed the practice of Buddhism in favor of the Imperially-preferred Shinto religion, and the practices of Komuso monks were banned. “The main Komuso temple was only about 2 km from here,” Kosuge says, “So many of the monks took refuge in this temple.” I contemplate the horror of being an egoless priest, only to have even that practice voided.
Seeing that I’m keen on the subject, Kosuge guides me to a temple room where he has stored more than twenty shakuhachi. He plucks one off the rack, and as his breath enters the bamboo, the sound blows away the afternoon. For all its overuse in documentaries and by restaurants hoping to evoke a taste of Japan, to hear a well-played shakuhachi in person is stirring.
Kosuge next shows me upstairs to his museum of shakuhachi, Komuso songbooks, rare ephemera, woodblock prints and unusual flutes. After the Meiji Era, the shakuhachi was taken up as a purely musical instrument, but Kosuge sees a revival of interest in the classical pieces these days, too.
At last, I (journalist Kit Nagamura) request a try at the flute, ignoring the sexual innuendo often associated with women and shakuhachi. Kosuge laughs as I struggle to establish an effective embouchure. When a note purls out, it feels, frankly, as though my whole soul follows it as it floats off. Kosuge nods. This makes sense to him.
I could blow off the rest of the day with Kosuge, but knowing he must be busy, I excuse myself. Heading back toward Okubo Avenue, the priest’s gentle humor and hospitality lingers like notes well-played.