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"Tsuru No Sugomori" (Crane's Nest)

Ok, last one: “Tsuru No Sugomori” (Crane’s Nest), performed by Goro Yamaguchi. And a bunch of words with punctuation and spaces in between.

In the mid-2000s, I lived in rural Miyazaki Prefecture in Japan. Miyazaki is well known for its beaches, but I lived way up in a crater-like valley at the foot of the Kirishima mountains.

My karate teacher was the head priest of a Shinto shrine there. The shrine, like many others in the countryside, was located in a small patch of trees surrounded by rice fields.

Naturally, given my teacher’s position, the worlds of karate and Shinto bled into each other on occasion. Sometimes we would be called to the shrine to demonstrate our martial arts skills to the townspeople for festivals at the shrine. Actually, the first time I broke a wood board in front of people was for a harvest festival in the shrine’s courtyard.

As part of most shrine events, my teacher would be decked out in full priest’s gear, robes and long hat, sitting on the ground and playing the shakuhachi (Japanese 尺八), an end-blown flute fashioned from bamboo. When playing, he was usually flanked on both sides by hand drummers. The music was gorgeously imperfect and it permeated the atmosphere around the shrine.

Our dojo was maybe a half mile away from the shrine, in the small town area on the edge of the rice fields. We practiced two times a week, or three if we went in on the weekends. The kids practiced for an hour, followed by the adults. I’d usually get there in time to hear, as I approached the building, my sensei yell “REI!” and then fifteen children yell in clumsy unison “ARIGATO GOZAIMASITA!!!”

Soon after there would be a smattering of hurried, heavy footsteps running across the boxy wood floor towards the exit, toward parents waiting outside to take the young karate students home for dinner. I usually had to swim up a stream of squealing children in sweaty karate uniforms slipping on their shoes while dashing one-legged through the door. High five, high five, high five. Bye bye.

Hello sensei. “ONEGAISHIMASU!”

But on very rare occasions, maybe two or three times in a year, while still in the parking lot I could hear music coming from inside the dojo, a single shakuhachi blowing wistfully. These were always quiet days where, upon entering the dojo, we in the adult class would train on our own and our teacher would sit near the window facing inward, eyes closed and playing the shakuhachi as we each worked in solitude.

These were special days when the only sounds were our feet on the floor, our ki-ai yells, our fists on the bag, and the soft tones of a wooden flute floating through the air.

The shakuhachi, for me, will forever be tied to those moments. Listening to “Tsuru No Sugomori” (Crane’s Nest), one of the tracks included on the golden record aboard Voyager 1 when it launched in 1977, takes me back to those rare quiet days of training in our dojo.

What a great sound to send out into eternity.

"Tsuru No Sugomori" (Crane's Nest)
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