Hunting Bamboo

I went looking for bamboo with my teacher today.

In his car, we zigzagged up a mountain road and parked on a hairpin bend. I readied my backpack and trekking poles, anticipating a nice hike along a trail. We walked about twenty meters down the road, then he said "OK", hopped over the roadside barrier in his wellies and scrambled down a steep slope, thick with vegetation. I abandoned my poles almost immediately, they kept getting caught up in stuff and there was plenty to grab on to - plus I had to carry the spade.

There are hundreds of varieties of bamboo, several of which are suitable for making shakuhachis. The type traditionally used is "madake" bamboo. I asked my teacher how to tell which bamboo was madake, and he essentially said "it's the one that looks most like madake bamboo".

Bamboo is selected by looking at the age, the width, and the spacing of the nodes. In this picture, the bamboo at the front still has a loose, brown, papery skin at the bottom and is therefore only about a year old. Bamboo older than three years is best. The bamboo on the left is a likely candidate.

He cut through the bamboo above the eighth node with a small handsaw, and covered the remaining portion with a plastic bag as the untreated green surface of the plant is easily damaged. We then set to work with a hefty spade, digging around the root.

The other tool for extracting bamboo is a heavy metal pole tipped with a blade like a spear, and a sledge hammer. In this photo, the metal pole is perfectly concealed by the bamboo.

In this way we found four pieces of bamboo that could potentially become shakuhachis, as well as a few other bits and pieces which he will use to make joints etc. Some of the bamboo culms were quite easy to dig out, one took me about half an hour of backbreaking labour. Doing all this while standing on a slope didn't help. I quickly developed cramp in my feet. In fact this prompted me to ask if good bamboo needs to be on a hillside to grow. Apparently if the ground is soft and moist - which it is more likely to be on a plain - the bamboo grows too quickly, the nodes are spaced too widely and the walls of the bamboo can be too thin.

Here's the haul, back at Teacher's house.

After a bit of a wash with the hose, he set about removing some of the mass of roots from the best-looking one.

Here it is cleaned up a bit and trimmed. Under all those rooty twigs the distance between the bottom few nodes isn't ideal. Traditional shakuhachis have seven nodes, but this is for visual rather than sonic reasons and a good shakuhachi could still be made by chopping the bottommost node off.

He then heated the bamboo over a flame and with a blowtorch, which turned the surface a darker green colour as the sap liquefied.

After rubbing down with a rag, a fresh pale green skin is revealed. This treatment helps the bamboo to dry well and it should also turn a nice colour.

Now the bamboo will be left for a couple of months and then placed in the sunshine to dry. If the internal nodes are removed and air is allowed to circulate through it, the bamboo could be ready to be worked on in about a year - but it could take longer.