How I Learned to Wield a Samurai Sword
Anyone who has seen the final sword fight in Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 classic film “Sanjuro” has probably fantasized about making a single fatal cut with a katana sword. At the same time, any aficionado of traditional bushi (samurai) skills/arts will tell you that the necessary skills come only with discipline and practice.
Learning Iaido Sword Skills
One place that offers the opportunity to acquire such discipline through a short period of practice is Meihodo, a 14 acre complex of buildings and gardens dedicated to traditional samurai arts located inside the Mt. Aso caldera of Kyushu’s Kumamoto Prefecture.
The complex replicates samurai warrior residential complexes of the Edo Period (1603-1857), right down to the gateway. There is a martial arts practice hall (dojo), tea ceremony space, traditional kitchens, shrine, meditation space and even barracks like the ones used by samurai retainers serving their feudal masters. All of it is set on traditionally landscaped grounds.
My experience started at the well-appointed dojo, complete with several suits of traditional samurai armor, where I watched kata demonstrations of three forms of traditional martial arts: jujitsu, iaido, and jittejutsu (that's hand-to-hand, sword, and baton combat, for the uninitiated). Kata are exercises of specific martial arts moves. Each of the kata I observed began and ended with homage to an altar flanked with scrolls of bushi philosophy. Each showed the high level of physical skill involved, as well as the mental discipline required.
"Finally the sensei pronounced me ready to handle a real sword."
After the demonstrations and some introductory explanations from the sensei, it was my turn. First, I had to get suited up—donning a dogi traditional loose-fitting jacket and hakama trousers. All in black, I found myself feeling like a ninja.
Back in the dojo we began with warm-up exercises while holding a bokken wooden practice sword. Then I was patiently taught first how to move my feet (I had never before realized how important the feet were in martial arts), repeating the moves again and again. Next, I learned how to move my arms to wield the sword properly, combining it with the feet movements and practicing again and again. I was even permitted to amend the moves to accommodate my left-handedness.
Finally the sensei pronounced me ready to handle a real sword and let me to an outdoor practice ring overlooked by a room set up for a koto concert and flower arranging. I was told that tea ceremony, flower arranging and traditional dance lessons were all available at Meihodo.
"This time my cut was true—I lopped off my enemy’s “head” quite cleanly, to the amazement of one and all."
Once we were in the practice ring, which was laid out in very specific dimensions with entrances at the main compass points, the sensei explained that I would be cutting a rolled up piece of bamboo matting that had been soaked overnight in water. The sensei explained that the soaking gave the mat a more realistic feel when the sword went through. After a few demonstrations of a true expert deftly making beautiful diagonal cuts, it was my turn.
My first attempt went wild, slashing into the air above the bamboo (well, I am quite tall, after all). I became a great source amusement to all looking on. Fortunately, my next cut did better, nearly slicing through, leaving the top of the roll dangling by a thread and looking for all the world like Nearly Headless Nick of Harry Potter fame.
A new roll was set up and I tried once more. This time my cut was true—I lopped off my enemy’s “head” quite cleanly, to the amazement of one and all.
Drums, arrows and sand art
By this time, I had quite an adrenalin buzz going, which turned out to be a good thing because my next “adventure” involved beating the world’s largest taiko drum. It makes a mighty great sound, but in my inexperienced state I couldn’t make it resonate as the sensei could.
Perhaps sensing that I needed taiko lessons as well, my hosts led me to another practice hall, this one set up with yumi (archery) equipment in one half and several smaller taiko drums (including some antique instruments) in the other half. We had a brief practice session on the taiko and I began to see the fascination of taiko drumming as a pastime. I’ve always found watching taiko drums thrilling, but now I see that playing them is just as thrilling.
"Bonseki is the art of creating a landscape scene by arranging white sand and stones on a black lacquer tray."
The remainder of the complex included a reconstructed Edo Period cookhouse, with its massive clay kama stoves, a small house containing meeting rooms (Meihodo also has capacity to host retreats and conferences), and a small Kannon temple where visitors can meditate, perhaps while having a lesson in bonseki, the art of creating a landscape scene by arranging white sand and stones on a black lacquer tray. I didn’t have time to try this during my visit but it certainly did look like a meditative activity. The buildings were set in lovely traditional gardens with streams and ponds, all within sight of the Mt. Aso volcanoes.
"Meihodo has its own waterfall for ritual purification purposes."
Another experience that I didn’t have time for was misogi, ritual purification by standing under an icy cold waterfall. Misogi is often undertaken in preparation for martial arts training as it is thought to sharpen the mind and the senses. Meihodo has its own waterfall for misogi purposes. I can’t say that I regret not having the opportunity to try this; I never was one for cold showers.
"From the outside they look like traditional warrior barracks, but inside are well-appointed modern rooms in rustic décor."
It is possible to overnight at Meihodo in the samurai barracks. Well, from the outside they look like traditional warrior barracks, but inside are well-appointed modern rooms in rustic décor. During my visit the sensei tried to convince me to come back for a longer stay, as there is also a small house available for an “artist in residence” (think Natsume Soseki writing "I am a Cat") where one could work in this beautiful atmosphere. It is tempting.
My lessons were all conducted in Japanese, but English support is available with prior arrangement. For more information on available experiences and prices, contact Meihodo directly through their website. They accept inquiries in Japanese, English and Chinese.