ShakuhachiShakuhachi (尺八) is a Japanese flute which is end blown as opposed to transverse. Tuned to a pentatonic scale it was used by Zen Monks in the practice of Suizen (blowing meditation). It is usually made from the root end of bamboo and, despite having only 5 holes, is a very versatile instrument. This is because holes can be covered only 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, etc., and pitch varied subtly by changing the angle at which air flow hits the flowing edge. Thus, the shakuhachi can produce any note on any scale.
The name shakuhachi is derived from "shaku", which is an archaic measure of length about 30 cm long, and "hachi", which means "eight". Thus the standard shakuhachi is 1.8 shaku in length, or 54 centimeters. However, shakuhachi vary in length from about 1.3 shaku up to 3.3 shaku. Although the lengths differ, they are all still referred to generically as "shakuhachi".
The bamboo flute first came to Japan from China via Korea (like most of traditional Japanese culture). However, it was greatly improved upon and "perfected" in the subsequent centuries in Japan. During the medieval period, shakuhachi were played only by the Fuke sect of Zen monks. They used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool, playing songs called "honkyoku" that are both medidation and music.
However, the Fuke sect was also in league with the shogunate rulers of Japan during this period. At the time, movement around the country was restricted; however, the shogunate granted the Fuke sect permission to move about freely as part of their spiritual practice of playing shakuhachi and begging for alms. However, this also meant that some of the Fuke mendicant monks were really spies for the shogunate, using their unparralled access to various parts of the country.
Thus, when the Meiji Restoration occurred in 1868, the Fuke sect was abolished and the playing of shakuhachi forbidden for a few years. During this time many songs and important documents were lost. When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played again, so much information about this musical form was lost.