Samurai lessons in Japan

The dojo of Tenshinsho Jigen Ryu is located in downtown Tokyo. To get there we had to cross the extremely fast and rather confusing Tokyo metro station before hopping on to one of the major trains headed out of the city. Luckily we had been in Tokyo a few days and Jono had utilised his hobby of recognising prime colours to plan our every assault on the metro with military like efficiency. When we finally arrived Sensei Keitaro was already waiting for us at the main exit to the station. Keitaro was a friend of a couchsurfer I knew and we had been in contact for a couple of weeks. Keitaro is a friendly, bookish fellow who studies under Kagenori Ueno Soke, the 29th grand master of the katana discipline known as the ‘Tenshinsho Jigen Ryu’ (heaven truth justice self source school). We were incredibly privileged to have been invited to train at the dojo as new members, foreigners included, normally have to pay a ¥5000 (nearly fifty quid) join up fee. Luckily for us this fee had been waived due to our, somewhat dubious, martial arts backgrounds and before we knew it we were ushered into a brand new dojo, still under construction, and ordered to help prepare the targets. The targets consisted of tightly rolled reed mats, representing flesh, with a block of wood in the middle to represent bone. When I tried to break one of the rolled mats across my knee I failed. Laughing Keitaro ushered me to a seated position just off the training floor and with devastating speed drew his five hundred year old Katana from its sheath.

Breathing deeply and with a calm, concentrated look upon his face he raised the blade above his head. Catching the light the ancient sword gleamed seductively as it flashed towards the first target. An explosion of straw and wood marked his success as half of the mat, easily as thick as my calf, fell to the floor. Whirling the blade around his head with astonishing elegance Keitaro stepped backwards and resheathed his sword before advancing yet again. With a sharp battle cry Keitaro pulled out his blade and in the same motion took off the ‘head’ of his target before cutting downwards into the collarbone and back up into the groin. Each stroke was beautiful. The action itself was so fast that it was impossible to catch on camera. For three hours we watched the lower grades hack at targets with mixed success whilst we received training on the Cata (foot movements), various strikes and even the philosophy behind the school. Only about 50% of the class could cleave a target in two on the first attempt and so I was both excited and nervous when Keitaro lent me his sword to try out on some of the targets.

Keitaro strode up to me and with an unreadable expression informed me that we were permitted three attempts to cleave the mats each, if we failed our dishonour would mean we had to commit Sepuko. Jono went first and succeeded in mortally wounding his ‘opponent’ in three places but was unable to cut the bastard in two. I was next, breathing deeply I rolled my shoulders, cleared my mind as instructed and held the sword straight upwards. “Relax your muscles, it will make it easier” explained Keitaro sagely before adding “Or just think of someone you hate, that works too”. Scrolling through the long list of those to suffer when I come to power I picked an old favourite and imprinted her face upon the rather solid looking obstacle in front of me. With a grunt I swung the sword with all of my might and slid my left foot back at the same time. There was no hint of resistance as the target flew apart into two pieces upon my first assault. The dojo erupted into applause as Gi wearing warriors rushed to congratulate me upon my kill. To be honest I was rather surprised at my success but was thrilled nonetheless.

Samurai Lessons in Japan

Splitting a target in two

New targets were bought out and I devastated another, this time on the second try, before handing the beautifully crafted weapon back to Keitaro. The higher grades then treated us to an impressive display of skills as they flung sets of heavy ropes over beams in the ceiling to create fast moving targets which they could accurately cut to within a few millimetres. The Sensei’s also demonstrated extreme control by showing how they could hit a target at full momentum and only penetrate one, two or three layers of the rolled mat depending upon which they desired. This, Keitaro informed me, was a skill which has become an increased rarity since the vast majority of skilled swordsmen perished in World War two. After a thoroughly enjoyable day we had to say goodbye to our new friends at the dojo and catch a night bus to Hiroshima.  It had been fantastic to meet such a friendly group of martial arts masters and I really did feel honoured to have been allowed to take part. It was good to leave Tokyo in high spirits, for me Hiroshima has always represented the brutal end to a tragic period in history and I expected to find the next part of our journey disturbing.

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