Tsugaru Shamisen Adventure Begins

This year marks my entrance into the world of the Tsugaru Shamisen. I began my shamisen adventure in January of this year when my friend, Robin Shackleton gifted me with a Hosozao beginner’s shamisen. I was quite overjoyed to receive this precious gift. Although at the time, I had no idea the quality of this instrument, I saw it as a very precious, valuable instrument. I didn’t even have a bachi. Robin used an oud pick, which is just a thin piece of hard plastic about 4 inches long. I went to the hobby store and found some similar plastic strips and used them in the beginning. I started to get familiar with the body of the instrument and how the notes were divided on the neck. I had no idea how to properly play it. I was just relying on my experience and familiarity with the guitar to navigate my playing of this new instrument. I enjoyed every minute hacking away at it.

I started visiting Kyle Abbot’s Bachido.com to learn more about shamisen in detail. I’ve always been very impressed with the work that Kyle and his dad, Carl have done to teach and inspire people to play Japanese music. And Kyle, just like his dad is doing great things in introducing Tsugaru Shamisen to the West.

While visiting my parents in Southern California, I got the opportunity to have a lesson with shamisen virtuoso, Mike Penny in Los Angeles. This was my very first formal shamisen lesson. My very first lesson which I got to actually hold a real Tsugaru Shamisen was last August 2014 when I met Tsugaru Shamisen Master, Hiroshi Yamaguchi when we played together at the Nikkei Matsuri in Burnaby. I remember how great it felt to hold his shamisen, but how quickly fatigued I got just holding it for a few minutes. He gave me the notation for Kokiriko and the first movement of Rokudan. I actually successfully slogged through Kokiriko, and managed to understand the tablature ok as I was familiar with biwa and guitar tablature which is similar.

I first heard the power of the Tsugaru Shamisen in 2000 while I was living in Japan. There was a solo shamisen player playing at Asakadai Station in Saitama where I was living at the time. I was returning home from work, got off the train on a chilly Friday night and was struck by the amazing feeling I got as this virtuoso player mesmerized me with his performance of Jongara Bushi. A crowd quickly gathered around him as he played blowing everyone away. The power of this solo, rhythmically and melodically moving music has impressed me ever since. I remember going up to the player afterwards and complimenting him. He wrote his name and number on a piece of paper for me. I will try to look for it. It’s been 15 years since I first met him, but if I find it somewhere in my files, I will be so ecstatic! Although I was deeply impressed, it never crossed my mind to pursue the shamisen at the time because I was so immersed in shakuhachi and biwa at the time. But I kept in as a secret desire to learn it in the back of my mind. I could not afford it anyway as shamisen are so expensive.

My next shamisen injection came while I was on a Shakuhachi Roots Pilgrimage in Japan  in 2008 when I ran into Jack the Shamisenist busking right in front of Kyoto Station. I was totally impressed with his playing and asked him how long it took him to get to a level of performance. He said 3 years! I immediately thought to myself, “Wow! Perhaps I can do it! It’s actually possible for me to play shamisen!” Since then, I witnessed how Jack has become quite a famous shamisen player in Japan as well as internationally. He’s great!

It was through Bachido.com that I finally received my first authentic Tsugaru Shamisen. It was on Friday, April 10, 2015 that my shamisen arrived in the mail. I could hardly believe it! The joy I felt when I first opened the box and first laid my eyes upon this exquisite, high quality instrument. From that moment on, the joy just increased exponentially, with every touch and strum and slap of the bachi on the skin…pure pleasure.


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