Japanese Culture: Bamboo ็ซน

Stately stalks of giant bamboo; the ultimate in user-friendly materials and perhaps the most sustainable crop we humans produce

Mark Brazil

Bamboo and bananas share important things in common. The initial B is merely a red herring; they are both immensely user friendly.

Bananas are the ultimate fruit: nutritious and loaded with vital minerals. They come ready wrapped and easy to peel with a quick opening pull down tab, even better they self-indicate their own ripeness by changing from un-ripe green to ripe yellow.

Not only do they peel easily, but they snap in half easily with a quick and simple pull, and then to cap all of that off they provide a final colour change, from yellow to brown, indicating when they are over ripe and ready for cooking.

There is no fruit that can compete. Bamboo is no fruit, though the fact that it is a grass, albeit the largest of all grasses, surprises many people, and bamboo comes packed with strengths (rather than with goodness), mostly derived from the fact that rather than being solid it is a hollow tube with transverse nodes, making it strong, light, and flexible.

Furthermore it is rapid growing, thus making a rapidly replenished resource; now that really is user friendly.

To say that bamboos grow quickly is actually something of an under-statement, they are actually some of the fastest growing plants of all with some reaching skywards at an astonishing rate of a metre a day.

Bamboo forest.
Reaching for the light. Giant bamboo groves are a delight to the eye and on the ear; dappled light to the sounds of environmental percussion.

Bamboo Items

The items made from bamboo are phenomenally diverse: just listing all of them would fill the space for this article, but as a quick taster consider: ribs for fans and umbrellas; chopsticks; paper; take tombo; massaging foot rests (when cut in half and placed cut side down, round side up); trays (turned up the other way to serve sweets or for a rolled up oshibori); containers and dippers.

Consider most large plants and you will realized that they grow steadily over many years, and when mature they taper from the base of the stem to their growing tip. Trees, for example have a broad trunk base, which grows upwards and branches outwards ending in fine twigs, but may take decades or centuries to reach their fully mature size.

Bamboos in contrast, don't taper; they are columnar. The tallest grow up to 30m high, and may be as much as 20cm in diameter, though of course the majority of species are shorter, narrower and with slower growth rates, closer to 10cm a day. The smallest, the dwarf bamboos, are more recognizably grass-like.

The stem of each bamboo, known as a culm, starts beneath ground as an upward bulging shoot - that's the famously edible part - that first pushes up the surface soil, then emerges at its full diameter. Within a single growing season of just a few months the culm rockets upwards, reaching for the sky without branching, until nearly at its full height.

Then, finally, it produces fine side branches from the nodes and produces leaves with which it photosynthesizes to obtain energy. Then the culm hardens and may remain resistant to decay for a further two or three years; it is during this phase that commercial harvesting can take place, while the bamboo stems still retains strength. Finally, the bamboo will be overcome by fungi, mould, lichens and the like, all stealing energy from its stems, until it finally loses strength and collapses.

Bamboo reaching for the light.
Slender straight stems beautiful in growth and suitable for the manufacture of a wide range of products from paper and chopsticks to basket ware and scaffolding.
Bamboo reinforced adobe wall.
Japanese gardens feature bamboos in multiple ways, as growing plants, as fencing, and for decorative details, as revealed here in a trellis window made of bamboo.

Species of Bamboo

These perennial evergreen plants are members of the family of true grasses, the family Poaceae, but in their own tribe, the Bambuseae.

Bamboos grow almost, but not quite worldwide, and do so in two basic ways, either in dense clumps, slowly expanding outwards over time, or by 'running', growing up from runners, underground roots or rhizomes, that extend quickly allowing them to send up new culms in new areas.

With nearly 1,500 species, bamboos can be found from cold snow and mountainous regions from the Himalayas and India to Australia, in sub-Saharan Africa, and from Chile and Argentina north to the United States.

There are no native species in Europe, but they occur across Asia from China to Japan and north into the Kuril Islands. Their broad geographical range is mirrored by their varied resistance climatic variables, some of the hardiest species survive long periods of freezing - the dwarf bamboos of Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, for example survive prolonged periods well below zero, and occasionally as below -30, yet many warm region species are incapable of surviving frosts at all.

Bamboos are famously infrequent flowerers, with some flowering occurring only after several decades, though the longest known interval is of more than a century. When they flower, typically they all flower together, then die back with extreme consequences leading to rapid increases in rodent populations using bamboo seed as food.

Bamboo water dippers at a Japanese shrine.
Bamboo dippers and a bamboo rest at a stone basin for ritual purification at at shinto shrine.
Bamboo shoot, Japan.
A giant bamboo shoot forces its way through the soil, its basal diameter will not change as it lengthens enormously in the days and weeks ahead.

Economic Importance of Bamboo

In Asia, bamboos are particularly important both economically and culturally, and Japan is no exception. This flexible, versatile construction material is used in endless ways.

Harvested commercially, while the stems still retain their greatest strength, bamboo groves are regularly thinned out to allow the penetration of light to the crop and to increase productivity.

The stems are harvested towards the end of the driest period of the year, when they contain least sap, and best practice suggests harvesting around dawn, because after the long night during which they have not been photosynthesizing, their sap sugar levels are lowest.

The stems are then leached of the remaining sap by drying the cut culms slowly, sometimes standing the base of the stem in freshwater, this also ensures that the outer layers of the bamboo stems don't crack or peel, and so remain resistant to insect pests.

In Japan, bamboo is eaten, or at least the underground shoots are, and the stems are used for fencing, decorative details inside traditional Japanese homes or rooms, for such traditional items as chopsticks and kitchen utensils, including spice dispensers and noodle servers.

More recently, bamboo has been gaining popularity as a flooring material, a laminate made of bamboo strips glued together and pressed into boarding; and in every case bamboo serves as an environmentally friendly alternative to other materials.

Most beautifully, bamboo produces marvellous sounds: when standing in natural groves while the wind blows and rattles the stems together so that they knock and clatter like percussion instruments, when the wind rustles the bamboo canopy leaves, when in the form of Shishi-odoshi (deer scarers) trickling water fills a hollow bamboo on its pivot until it tips gushing out the water and falls back to knock with a hollow 'tonk' on the heel stone, and most wonderfully in musical form, when a master musician plays the traditional flute made from bamboo known as shakuhachi.

Buy original bamboo products including bamboo flutes from Japan. offers a range of bamboo products including take tombo, toys and fan stands.

Giant Bamboo.
The fine-grained stem of a giant bamboo is intersected by regular nodes.

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Bamboo fence at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto.
Bamboo fencing at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto.

Text + images by Mark Brazil

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