53 – The Mindful Playing of the Shakuhachi with Kiku Day

Have you ever experienced being unconsciously absorbed in an experience?

The shakuhachi is more than just a musical instrument; playing it has the power to immerse you in a state of flow, where you become one with the moment, fully absorbing the experience.

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick speaks with Kiku Day about the beneficial aspects of playing the shakuhachi and how it is more than just a musical instrument.


What gives your life meaning?

“I would say that the shakuhachi and me cannot be separated. I would be completely lost if there was no shakuhachi for me in life - what is the meaning of my life.” - Kiku Day

Kiku Day

Kiku Day

Kiku Day is a shakuhachi player, a Ph.D. ethnomusicologist, and a world traveller from Copenhagen, Denmark. Her work lies at the intersections of performance of traditional shakuhachi music, contemporary music and improvisation, ethnomusicology, history, politics, meditation, and writing.

She studied shakuhachi with Okuda Atsuya, one of the foremost performers of jinashi shakuhachi, in Tokyo, Japan for 11 years before returning to Europe to study ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

She is also a founding member of the European Shakuhachi Society (ESS) for which she served as a chairperson from 2009-2019. 


Website - kikuday.com

Podcast Highlights

Early years in Tokyo

Kiku was born in Harajuku, Japan, to a Japanese mother and an American father. They lived in Japan until she was five years old. Due to her father’s political beliefs, they ended up moving to Denmark.


Defining the shakuhachi

The shakuhachi is a Japanese bamboo flute. The name of the instrument translates to "1 shaku 8", which is the standard length of a shakuhachi (about 54 centimetres). It used to be a part of Chinese court ensembles and first came to Japan in the 8th century. Traditionally, the shakuhachi was used for playing gagaku (ancient court music of Japan), but now is also used in contemporary music.

Learning to play the shakuhachi

Kiku plays the jinashi shakuhachi (without ji; a mixture of stone powder and Japanese lacquer, urushi). She started learning shakuhachi back in 1990. A friend of hers shared with her a recording of the shakuhachi, which she became instantly engrossed in, and led her to go back to Japan to study playing the shakuhachi under Japanese master player, Okuda Atsuya.

“A friend wanted me to listen to this recording, and I heard it and I just absolutely adored the sound. And I had been thinking that it would be nice to check out where my parents are from. So I hopped on this Trans-Siberian railroad and took the train to Japan.”


The shakuhachi is traditionally taught by imitating one's teacher by playing together. This enables the student to learn the flow of the piece in an effective way. 

Two concepts on playing the shakuhachi

Kiku learnt two concepts from Okuda on the complexity of the jinashi shakuhachi sound.

  • That one single sound corresponds to the sound of the universe

  • To succeed in the union of opposites

“For me, those two concepts are very important in the way of learning shakuhachi. Trying to express and also to accept sounds. The shakuhachi has a timbre that when you play in a certain position, you always have some kind of windy sound to it. And so you made the spectrum of sounds very broad."

Shakuhachi Two Concepts

The music produced by playing the shakuhachi can be a reflection of one’s emotion; the sounds emitted vary depending on your state of being.

“I find the shakuhachi to be such a mirror of your state of being. So if I am not feeling good myself, the sounds are never going to be great. So it really reflects you.”
Mirror of yourself

Writing a paper on shakuhachi

People’s usual understanding of shakuhachi is that it is a traditional musical instrument. 

Many people come to the shakuhachi via Zen meditation or an interest in meditation. But there are basically no instructions on how this can be done. This made Kiku investigate how one can meditate while playing the shakuhachi. 

Her research paper called “Mindful playing: a practice research investigation into shakuhachi playing and meditation”, focuses on careful research into how she was able to meditate while playing. 

Her research paper called “Mindful playing: a practice research investigation into shakuhachi playing and meditation”, focuses on how people meditate while playing an instrument like shakuhachi.

The difference between flow and meditation

During a performance at St. John's Smith Square in London, Kiku had an interesting experience, what she believed to be a heightened awareness of her observing her own flow state. She became acutely aware her performance yet still remind in a flow state,    despite fleeing anxious with this awareness. 

:Kiku points out that the flow and meditative state are not the same. Contrary to a meditative state where the awareness is in focus, a flow state is when you let yourself get completely lost in the moment, unconsciously being absorbed with your experience.

Ma (emptiness in space)

Ma is an important part of every piece of music. Often translated to emptiness in space, in the context of music, ma is both the absence of sound, the space between notes,  and also part of the sound itself. It’s basically how the piece flows – how musical pieces flow freely.

“It seems very much embedded in Japanese culture. I do reflect on a lot of Japanese cultural aspects, and this idea of silence or space to the point where it’s in so many forms of arts, crafts, or theatre – this emphasis on silence during performance. I guess growing up, the Japanese people learn it naturally and intuitively.” - Nicholas Kemp
Silence and Space

Kiku’s ikigai

Kiku considers the shakuhachi as her most important ikigai source, something she cannot seperate herself from. Playing and composing music with the shakuhachi is what gives meaning to her life, as does teaching and passing on her knowledge to others. 

Moreover, the shakuhachi gives her a platform to help others through community work for the shakuhachi society she founded. It can be likened to an ibasho (authentic relationships), where people interested in shakuhachi can connect and make music together.


To many, the shakuhachi is not just a musical instrument. It has a complex history and is used by many - especially outside Japan - as a meditation tool. The shakuhachi community is strong and many connect with others through the instrument.