A while ago we did a post about conch shell trumpets that date back to ancient Aztec times. While researching Asian-Pacific Instruments, we found similar shell trumpets in Tibet, Korea, the Pacific Islands and Japan. Here’s more about the Japanese version of this unique instrument.
Although shell trumpets can be found in various locations around the world, the Japanese versions – Horagai (法螺貝) or jinkai (陣貝) are a bit unusual. They consist, not only of the large conch shell but also of a wooden or bronze mouthpiece that allows the instrument to make a series of sounds, as opposed to only one loud blast or note. Most closely connected with Buddhist monks such as the Yamabushi Warrior monks in Japan, each group or school would learn to play the instrument in different ways and to produce different melodies.
Historical records show that horagai was used in various Buddhist rituals that date back at least a thousand years or so. These shell trumpets can also be seen in present day Japan in religious ceremonies such as the omizutori (water drawing), which is part of the of the Shuni-e rites at the Tōdai-ji in Nara. When used by the Yamabushi (Ascetic warrior monks of the Shugendo sect) the instrument would both accompany the chanting of sutras or prayers as well as to signal their presence or movements throughout the mountain region where they lived. Because the temperatures in these high mountains could easily drop below zero, it is said that the wooden or bronze mouthpiece was added so that the trumpeter’s lips would not freeze to the shell in the extreme cold.
When used in Samurai times, the jinkai, or “war shell”, would play different combinations of notes to signal troops to attack, withdraw or change battle plans. It was sometimes used to confuse the enemy who might misread the number of troops attacking or what the various battle signals might be. As you might guess, an experienced trumpeter; called a kai yaku (貝役), woudl have to be an adept musician and would be valued greatly by the Japanese fuedal lords or Samurai for their talents.
To learn more about different shell trumpet traditions or to hear a beginner horagai player learning the instrument, check out the links and resources below.
Links and Resources
Instruments From Ancient Mexico – The Conch Shell Trumpet
Wikipedia’s Horagai Page
Learning to play the Yamabushi Conch-Shell Trumpet (Horagai)