The Reality Of Swordsmanship
On the 16th of August 2019 we hosted a cross training seminar with Sabeomnim Rob Howarth and the guys from Outlaw Martial Arts – Hybrid Hapkido looking at Japanese Kenjutsu and Korean Kumdo (Swordsmanship).
This was a great seminar that gave us the opportunity to compare two completely differing sword styles but it raised some interesting points. We focused primarily on teaching the Kuden (basics) of Kukishin (Kukishinden) Ryu Hikejutsu and a few of my favourite techniques as obviously we have limited time to compare techniques at a 3 hour seminar.
Sabeomnim Rob Howarth explained about the application of Korean Kumdo and started the session by explaining the importance of using the left hand to drive each cut through the opponents guard and snapping the blade back into a position where a secondary cut can be performed and proceeded to get all of the students to practice this snapping back action in a horse stance. It sounds basic but the fact is many people leave themselves open by overextending and not controlling the blade after performing a cut so its a great place to start.
One key difference we noticed from the start is that they do not practice the same amount of etiquette we do in the dojo, When i asked Rob about this he said in Hapkido they are more concerned with getting on with training so they don’t really bow in in the same way we do.
Sabeomnim Rob then proceeded to explain that its important to drive through the opponents guard when performing an overhead cut (Shomen) so you have to commit to it, then snap the blade back and cut to the side of the opponents head (Tento Uchi) instantly to catch them off guard.
As Rob continued to teach the techniques slowly developed into a form of pattern drill that flowed from end to end, which initially I did not get at all, I just couldn’t see how the movements connected which had my students giggling as they knew what they were doing more than i did at this point. The thing is we had been training for a while at this point and repeatedly performing cuts is quite tiring when your really going for it so my body was willing but after about 200 cuts my mind had checked out.
We were then unfortunately interrupted and had to move into another studio in the venue! The studio we were in had been double booked by a local fitness class which we obviously weren’t happy about considering the time it took to set the dojo up for the seminar. You had to feel sorry for the guys who had to come into a room full of swordsmen and tell them to move.
Once we had relocated into the other studio, Rob continued to teach by introducing us to what he called “The Pineapple Pizza of Martial Arts”, This was a technique from Korean Kumdo known as “Duck Stepping” a form of Randori specifically focused on using Tai Sabaki to move between opponents to cut them down in sequence.
This was great fun! The overall point of the technique being to attack the first opponent then quickly launch a follow up attack to cut them down, use your footwork (Tai Sabaki) to block the second opponent by fanning the blade over your shoulder and performing a cut and then moving to the third opponent, who blocks the cut to which you counter and get clear.
We continued to practice this for quite a while as it was difficult to get into the correct position to perform each cut depending on the positioning of each opponent.
At this point Rob and I switched over and i began to teach our half of the seminar.
I started off by teaching the basics how to draw the sword (Nuki Uchi) and its application when moving from Fudoza No Kamae into Iaigoshi No Kamae to cut, stressing the importance of not moving the tip (Kissaki) of the blade past the shoulder of the drawing arm.
If you over extend, you leave yourself wide open to counter attacks from the opponent so it’s important to keep the tip of the blade (Kissaki) pointed towards them at all times ready to perform a Tsuki (Stab).
I then explained how to properly perform Chiburi (Shaking dirt off the blade) and how to place the Katana back into the Saya with a technique called Noto (Putting the Katana away).
If these techniques are performed correctly it significantly minimises the chances of you cutting yourself with your own sword as your left hand is not exposed to the edge of the blade. A very common accident for students who have never used a live blade before is to release the Habaki (Ferrule) from the opening of the Saya (Sheath) with a technique called Nuku (Pushing on the Tsuba to release the sword from the Saya with the thumb of the left hand), Then they leave their thumb over the edge of the blade as they draw it and slice their thumb open.
Live (Sharp) Katana are not permitted in the dojo at any point unless we are specifically hosting a Tameshigiri (Test Cutting) seminar!
How to Nuki Uchi – Draw your Katana
- Pistol grip on the Tsuka, Knuckles pointing upwards.
- Nuku to release Habaki, Watch thumb position.
- Draw one third vertically.
- Rotate the Saya horizontally so that the blade edge is facing away from you.
- Draw another third of the blade.
- Pull the Saya backwards as you draw the last third of the blade to get it clear.
- Perform Migi Do Kiri (Right Horizontal Body Cut).
- Don’t let the Kissaki pass the shoulder of the drawing arm.
How to Chiburi – Shake dirt/blood off the blade
For this example i’m outlining O Chiburi
- Hold the Katana vertically in front of you.
- Blade edge facing left away from you.
- Rotate the blade edge to face forwards as you extend you arm out in front of you.
- Point the Kissaki at a 45 degree angle and thrust upwards.
- Swing the blade in an arc down at a 45 degree angle stopping just past the right leg.
- Watch your leading leg if your Kamae is wrong you may catch you knee cap!
How to Noto – Sheath your Katana
- Upon finishing your Chiburi bring the back of the Habaki to the opening of the Saya.
- Turn the Saya so that it’s horizontal with the curve facing away from you.
- Use your thumb and forefinger to form a guide for the back of the blade.
- Run the back of the blade through your guide until you reach the Kissaki.
- Guide the Kissaki into the Saya opening (Kogoichi)
- Return two thirds of the blade into the Saya horizontally.
- Turn the Saya and the blade vertically.
- Return the last third of the blade up to the Habaki.
- Slide the Saya forwards over the Habaki.
- Hook the Tsuba with the thumb of the left hand and push it securely into position.
- Slide the Katana back into position in your Obi.
Once we had covered how to draw and sheath the Katana in a couple of different ways I moved on to basic Kamae and the Kotsu (Essence) of Kukishinden Ryu (Kukishin Ryu) Hikenjutsu.
I started off with 3 Kamae to begin with:
- Jodan No Kamae / Daijodan No Kamae
- Hasso No Kamae
- Seigan No Kamae
Which developed into a kata called Aikiken, I personally like this kata as it gives the student a good idea of how important footwork (Tai Sabaki) is in Kenjutsu. I can’t stress enough how key Tai Sabaki is to Kenjutsu, when you actually fight everything speeds up to a thousand miles and hour, you simply can’t block every attack coming your way so you have to move so that your not in position to be caught out by the opponents counter attack.
I then proceeded to demonstrate this without a sword so that everyone could see exactly how important it really is.
The Kotsu or Essence of Kukishinden Ryu (Kukishin Ryu) is as follows:
- The tip of the blade is focused on Uke. All movements pivot around the tip.
- When in Kamae, give an opening for Uke, I.e. by moving the tip of the sword across or down. This is done by moving the whole body. Thereby keeping the Kamae and focus on Uke. Compensate by using the knees, focus on Uke. This gives more balance. Again don’t move the tip or allow it to deviate. If you need to parry use the hips, turn the body. This controls the direction of the opponents blade and their point of attack. If Uke doesn’t attack, return to Kamae. As Uke attacks the openings you present you should be in position to attack or counter attack immediately, with no extra movements of the Kissaki (This gives you more time).
- When you Tsuki keep the tip (Kissaki) Along the same line (It’s the shortest route). Compensate for raised arms. Don’t let the Kissaki wobble or move off line.
- After avoiding an attack, step in so as to hove one foot forward and the Kissaki in line for a Tsuki.
- When drawing the sword, take the Kissaki as far as Uke. Any further and you are vulnerable (Miai)
The Hikenjutsu Waza have one base technique and at least two Henka (Variations). Soke Hatsumi says that to start to understand the Hikenjutsu you must study at least 5 Henka to each Waza.
It’s important that the Kotsu is present in your technique, they aren’t simply philosophical principles but are genuinely important. In the photo above I am demonstrating how not to position your feet when blocking as you risk losing your knee cap when the opponent follows through with their cut. It’s important to draw the rear foot back to make sure that the area is clear to receive the opponents cut.
We the started to look at some basic techniques from Kukishinden Ryu such at Tsuki Komi, Saya Gyaku, Tsuki Kake and Kiri Age No Sayu Gyaku.
The important thing is to open up the Uke to enable an attack, there are 6 particularly relevant Kamae for Kukishinden Ryu Hikenjutsu but the most important one to remember is Seigan No Kamae. Seigan No Kamae is the foundation for pretty much everything, you then change in to the other Kamae as they become relevant to the technique your are about to perform in response the the Ukes attacks.
I also demonstrated how you don’t need to expend excess energy by using proper technique and Kamae. This is complicated to explain but you can use the opponents momentum against them to force your cut into a counter attack with devastating effect. If they cut from Daijodan No Kamae and you block with Kasumi No Kamae you can guide your cut around into a Kesa Giri upon impact with your sword, this provides a quick but simple counter attack. Again Tai Sabaki is key.
Towards the end of the seminar the duels started, First up was Rickie Gomez and Cletus from Outlaw Martial Arts – Hybrid Hapkido. We provided lightsabers for this bout to make it a bit more interesting.
The bout started with the guys both stood in Seigan No Kamae and Rickie saw an opening in Cletus’s guard and proceeded to take his head off his shoulders (Not literally before anyone panics).
We unfortunately had to stop the duel as Rickie managed to break his lightsaber and these are professional grade stunt sabers!
We then moved on to the duel between myself and Rob Howarth, The instructor duel!
We armed ourselves with Shinai (Bamboo Swords) and squared off in the centre of the room assuming Seigan No Kamae ready to start the duel.
It’s important to mention that full contact sparring with Shinai is not a great idea, aside from anything else it’s quite painful as they are still wooden swords after all. We were mainly doing this as a friendly demonstration and were confident we wouldn’t inflict any major injuries on one another with Shinai but we were well aware that it was going to hurt lol. We agreed that a full contact duel was the only way to do it so that we could really test ourselves and our technique.
When your just about to duel your mind goes blank, This is totally normal as even with years of practice, this is not an individual technique or kata but everything recalled in a split second. You just have to respond with attacks and counter attacks the best that you can, it’s definitely a case of train hard, fight easy.
The reality of swordsmanship is that it’s never perfect, even with all the kata, all the henka and Tai Sabaki in place you will get cut. All you can do is fully commit your intention and make sure that the major attacks from the opponent are defended against and you don’t receive to many minor injuries during the fight. Yoroi (Armour) makes a big difference! You can rely on the armour to a certain extent to deflect the minor cuts and position yourself to gain the advantage over your opponent but without Yoroi your just getting cut.
We had this discussion during the seminar but cutting through armour is highly unlikely, you may pierce it with the tip of your blade but you won’t cut into it with the blade. You have to open the Yoroi up to stab the opponent or cut to the areas of the body which aren’t covered in Yoroi.
Rob and I started the duel and it was a good bout! We both got each other a fair few times and upon disarming Rob the duel turned into a test of our Jutaijutsu skills and Jime Waza (Chokes).
I have been somewhat apprehensive about posting the video of our duel and i will explain why. Rob and I agreed to fight with intention but we are both experienced martial arts instructors, We knew what we were letting ourselves in for from the start. We agreed to spar until submission so without me explaining the situation it looks like its descended into a fight, I can’t make it any clearer this is not what happened. If you watch the duel in slow motion i disarm Rob and leave him no option but to fight unarmed, I left myself a bit open so he locks me up, I release myself from the headlock and choke him into submission, He taps, we release each other and hug it out.
It’s just sparring with Shinai added to the scenario and we both went for it in the duel. Do not replicate this as i said before sparring with Shinai is not safe and is definitely not a good idea!
The seminar with Outlaw Martial Arts – Hybrid Hapkido was a pleasure to host and we all learnt a variety of techniques and their applications during the seminar. We will be travelling to train with them hosting the next seminar.
We were then obviously obligated out of respect to travel to the closest pub after the seminar to have a few drinks and discuss our respective arts.
Check out Rob Howarth and the guys from Outlaw Martial Arts – Hybrid Hapkido we had a great time training with them.