Wind Instruments

Japanese traditional musical instruments are, as is true around the world, made from what is available in the area. Bamboo is abundant in Japan, so naturally, bamboo is the obvious choice for making wind instruments, because there is no need to hollow it out.

Japan has a big variety of flutes of which you find a brief overview and short description on this page. 


Shinobue is a horizontally played flute (fue) made of thin bamboo (shino) with seven holes. Different sizes are used to produce different keys. 

There are two types of shinobue: kotencho (also referred to as hayashi) and uta

Kotencho has the classic style of a flute and is not tuned to the western scale, the finger holes all have the same size.  

The most common type of the shinobue flute is the uta (meaning ‘song’) type. It is properly tuned to the western major/minor scale and its finger holes are different in size. It can be played together with other musicians and as a solo instrument. 

The key of the shinobue is called choshi in Japanese. The choshi range from the lowest pitch ‘1 hon choshi’ to the highest pitch ‘12 hon choshi’.

Choshi1 hon2 hon3 hon4 hon5 hon6 hon7 hon8 hon9 hon10 hon11 hon12 hon
KeyFG flatGA flatAB flatBCD flatDE flatE

Shinobue have a range of two and a half octaves. 


The nohkan is a seven-holed, lacquered horizontal flute, commonly used in Noh and Kabuki theater. The flute has a length of about 39 cm and is made of bamboo. The nohkan is  played like the shinobue but its sound is much more piercing. 

Nohkan has a part called nodo (meaning ‘throat’). It is a thin, short bamboo tube inserted between the mouthpiece and first finger hole. Because the nodo part gets in the way of the breath, it helps produce hishigi, the highest pitch on the instrument. Nohkan flutes belong to the most expensive flutes in Japan. 


The ryuteki (literally ‘dragon flute’)  is a seven-holed transverse flute made of bamboo. It is one of the major melodic wind instruments used in gagaku (court music). Its bamboo body tubing is wrapped with cherry bark or rattan twine to help preserve it. 

The loud and strong sound of the ryuteki is said to represent the dragons that soar between heaven and earth.


The shakuhachi is a five-hold (four finger holes plus a thumb hole) flute traditionally made of bamboo. However, versions now also exist in ABS and various kinds of hardwood. 

The shakuhachi flute  is associated with Buddhism since it was used by the Zen Buddhist monks of the Fuke sect who practiced Suizen, a Zen practice consisting of playing the shakuhachi as a means of attaining self-realization.

Unlike the shinobue and nohkan, the shakuhachi is played vertically and is very breathy and subtle. The shakuhachi is the most difficult flute to play. Its sound is delicate and mesmerizing. 

The name of the flute refers to its length, 1 shaku (30,3 cm) and 8 (hachi) sun (3 cm), but it actually comes in different lengths as well from about 1.3 shaku (39,3 cm) up to 3.6 shaku (99cm). Although the sizes differ, they are all still referred to as shakuhachi

The shakuhachi is tuned to the minor pentatonic scale.

The sound of the shakuhachi is also frequently featured in electronica, pop and rock music, especially after being commonly patched as a ‘preset’ instrument on various synthesizers and keyboards since the 1980s.


Hichiriki is a Japanese short, double-reed wind instrument, used in gagaku (imperial court music).  The present Japanese form is about 18 cm (7 inches) long and has seven finger holes on the front and two thumb holes on the back of the flute.  

It is made of lacquered bamboo and wrapped with bands of cherry or wisteria bark between the finger holes. The reed (shita) being broad and thick, is placed in a widened end of the pipe, thus giving the hichiriki an external conical shape, although the pipe is cylindrical. 

The musician uses a loose but controlled embouchure (lip position) and delicate finger movements to create a rich, fluid melodic style. 

SHO (笙)

The sho, a hand-held Japanese mouth organ descended from the Chinese sheng, is used in gagaku (court music). It is made up of seventeen slender bamboo tubes symbolically arranged in the form of folded phoenix wings. 

Air blown through the projecting mouthpiece circulates through the air chamber activating tiny rectangular metal reeds, mounted in the side of some of the tubes.

The lacquered air chamber is often beautifully decorated. 

Comparing to western instruments the sound comes closest to a harmonica but it is far more difficult to play. In antiquity, the sho’s fluid tonal character was associated with light shining down from heaven.


Horagai are large conch shells, usually from Charonia tritonis a type of snail , that have been used as trumpets in Japan for many centuries. Unlike most shell trumpets from other parts of the world which produce only one pitch, the Japanese Horagai can produce three or five different notes. The different pitches are achieved using a bronze or wooden mouthpiece attached to the apex of the shell’s spire. 

The sound of the conch, giving its player a powerful, superhuman voice and the ability to communicate, served a similar function to drums and bells in signaling troop formations, setting a rhythm for marching, conveying power, spiritual practice and music making.