If you fancy yourself the next Grohl or Hendrix then now’s your chance! Look no further than your chance to play a shamisen, a traditional Japanese musical instrument.
This three-stringed guitar of some sorts is played with a plectrum called a bachi.
Once every month, Arts Council Tokyo runs three free shamisen workshops at the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre, right across from Senso-ji’s Kaminarimon gate. Check out the schedule online and just turn up on the day. It’s a truly unique experience, offering you a real, authentic sense of Japan, right in the heart of Tokyo city!
The shamisen produces a unique sound that is one of the most versatile and beautiful in the world. Sure, you might not be able to bash out the entirety of “Stairway to Heaven” on it (though you could probably give it your best shot!), the shamisen has been used to entertain the public in geisha performances and bunraka theatre for centuries.
The instrument was first brought to Japan from China in the 16th century. Known then as the sanxian, it was popular in the Osaka area of the country as an accompaniment for bunraku and kabuki performances.
You might have heard of bunraku already, but if you haven’t, don’t worry. It’s more commonly known as puppet theatre. The development of this and the rise of the shamisen go very much hand-in-hand. Lavishly dressed wooden puppets (ningyō) were used to tell tales from popular literature, accompanied by the music of the shamisen to narrate the performances. The sound of the strings lends itself very well to storytelling; all sorts of emotions and narratives can be created from it!
Until the 19th century, the playing of the instrument was largely limited to male players during performances. However, it soon became very popular among geishas and maiko and was (and still is) considered one of the necessary skills a young geisha has to have mastered. It was considered a refined task, something of an accomplishment due to its difficulty and complexity.
In true Japanese fashion, combining tradition with the edgy means the music of the shamisen is still prominent. Performances in Tokyo and in the ‘home’ of the shamisen in Osaka are still well attended. It even features today in some music produced by the country’s most popular artists, like the Yoshida Brothers.
The shamisen is at the forefront of Japanese culture’s fusion of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the old-fashioned and the cutting-edge. Music is undoubtedly the underpinning of this blend of time and cultural tradition. It’s one of the country’s massive success stories. So, whether you are transported back to the 18th century by the emotive storytelling of bunraku puppet theatre, or whether you’re jamming out to the local radio in the privacy of your Air B n B, there are plenty of ways for you to get involved with the shamisen.
Why not check out the Asakusa arts centre and see if you can turn up for a quick session? You’d be throwing yourself into Japanese culture full force. Make the most out of your trip by challenging yourself in arguably one of the most authentic forms of culture out there. It’s worth a try, for sure!