Komuso were Buddhist priests who wore woven straw baskets called tengai on their heads and travelled around the country playing the shakuhachi flute. These uniquely dressed monks often appear in historical dramas, and many people have surely seen them in these shows and films. Originally, komuso were ascetic monks from a sect of Zen Buddhism called the Fuke sect. This sect aimed to attain enlightenment by playing the shakuhachi. The monks did not shave their heads, but instead wore the basket-like hats and played the shakuhachi while begging for alms.
Although these monks may seem to be a thing of the distant past, there are still temples that carry on the tradition to this day. Icchoken in Hakata Ward is one of the few remaining temples where komuso still practice. During the Kan’ei era (1624-43), some monks from Myoanji Temple in Kyoto came to Hakata to open the first komuso temple in Chikuzen Province. After relocating several times, the komuso found a home within the premises of Saikoji Temple, in what is now Gokushomachi in Hakata Ward.
This became the home of a shakuhachi tradition called “Icchoken Denpochiku.” It is also referred to as the Myoan School (or Kyushu Myoan School) because it was handed down from Myoanji Temple in Kyoto. Because the government banned the Fuke sect during the Meiji era (1868-1912), all the komuso temples in the country, including Icchoken, were temporarily abolished, but the shakuhachi tradition was handed down over the generations and was eventually revived. The current chief priest, who is the 22nd generation, is now the steward of this shakuhachi tradition.
In the Fuke sect, the shakuhachi is considered an instrument of meditation, so monks learn to play it in a temple’s dojo. Members of the general public can also learn to play the shakuhachi at the dojo at Icchoken, and players who learn all 60 songs of the tradition are certified as shakuhachi masters. In fact, some of the temple’s shakuhachi pupils are foreigners who are interested in Japanese culture. Although the players typically perform in various places, these performances have been temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their training, however, continues.