Jinbo Sanya

Jinbo Sanya is a traditional honkyoku, and one of the most famous pieces. It is named after Jinbo Masanosuke, a shakuhachi monk who lived in a temple in Fukushima. Supposedly he devoted his life to playing just this one piece, and never played anything else. Whether this was true or not, I find it interesting that Japanese culture has a meme for admiration of such staggeringly single minded dedication, which a westerner would probably find incomprehensible if not totally nuts. What status would we assign to a musician that knows just one 10 minute piece?

Jinbo spent some time at a shakuhachi temple in Echigo, where he would have heard one of the temple’s pieces called Echigo Sanya, which may be as old as 400 years. Jinbo’s sanya seems like a variation on Echigo’s. 

Sanya is found in the title of many shakuhachi pieces, just as reibo is. It means, or may be interpreted to mean, three valleys. What three valleys means for a shakuhachi piece is not at all clear. Futaiken temple, for instance, has passed down both a reibo and a sanya, and you would be hard pressed to argue that they are significantly different. Between reibo pieces and sanya pieces, you’ve covered a substantial portion of the honkyoku repertoire. 

The piece has a traditional structure. It starts off slow and low in the first octave (the range of the shakuhachi is two octaves plus), moves into the second octave, playing higher notes and more quickly, before returning to the low octave in the end. Thus a structure with the profile of a mountain. 

I play this on a 1.8 shakuhachi, a contemporary instrument made by Murata Hozan (or Hozan Murata) from Kyoto. A 1.8 has a length of one shaku (11.9 inches) and eight (hachi) sun, 10 sun to the shaku. So to say a 1.8 shakuhachi is technically redundant. But as it has become the standard length, the word is used generically to refer to all instruments of the type, regardless of their length.

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