instrumentsJapan has a long tradition of unique and outstandingly interesting things, such as pieces of literature, food or art. However, today I will tell you about something a little more special, that being Japan’s traditional musical instruments. Known worldwide as wagakki (和楽器), they are used in concerts and representations of traditional folk songs (although there are a lot of amazing contemporary compositions).

Japan has been quite hidden and unsynchronized from and with the musical European context, until approximately the 16th century, they have invented some mesmerizing musical instruments that sound like nothing a European or Westerner could ever conceive, absolutely divine and mesmerizing. There is a wide variety of these instruments, ranging from wind instruments to strings and percussion. Today I will present to you only 5 such wonderful instruments.

1. Hyōshigi – Theatre Instrument

This instrument called Hyoshigi is a very old percussion instrument that is used for a number of activities in Japan. It consists of two blocks made of two different types of wood and is used by “clapping” them together. The sound they produce is recognizable as the sound of wood chopping, in my opinion, used in Kabuki or Bunraku theatre representations or in sacred Shintoist ceremonies.

2. Koto- The Japanese Zither
“Descending Geese of the Koto Bridges”, from the series “Eight Views of the Parlor (Zashiki hakkei)” by the Japanese artist Suzuki Harunobu. Depiction of two koto players. (1766)

Koto is a string instrument I personally love a lot and I am absolutely mesmerized by its sound. It is called the Japanese half-tube zither and it represents the national instrument for Japan. Although we can find various representations and varieties of this instrument all around Asia, the koto for me has a unique sound that resembles almost the crying of the wind. This magnificent instrument has such a long tradition that I can simply not encapsulate all of it into this simple article, however, should you be interested in its history and tradition and sound I urge you to listen to a koto concert.

3. Biwa- The Story-singing Instrument

Biwa is another Japanese string instrument whose sound is strangely unique and beautiful, unlike anything I personally heard before. It is a short-necked lute used in storytelling concerts, an old tradition that combined singed narratives of ancient myths or legends usually with the accompaniment of various instruments. Biwa musicians use a fan-like thing to sing their wonderful stories while engulfing their listeners in a sacred atmosphere with their specific melodies.

4.Ryūteki- Instrument of the Dragons
“A Japanese ryūteki player in Kamakura, Kanagawa” – credit:Wikipedia

The ryūteki is a Japanese flute made of bamboo and it is used in gagaku (a piece of Shinto classical music performed at the Emperor’s court). As the name indicates (ryū means dragon in Japanese) it is said that the sound made by this instrument is similar to the cry of dragons ascending to the sky, hence their association with the imperial court.


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