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Musashi Miyamoto, The Great Swordsman

Musashi Miyamoto, the great swordsman

A famous samurai expert in katana (shinken) swordfighting, Miyamoto Musashi is one of Japan’s most important Kenshi (grand masters of ken-jutsu), whose exploits have inspired numerous stories.

He is the archetypal medieval Japanese hero. Born in 1584 in Harima province, he was the second son of Munisai Shinmen, himself a katana expert, who orphaned him at the age of 7 (killed in a duel). Raised by his uncle in a monastery, Musashi took advantage of this forced stay to train with the katana, winning his first duel at the age of 13 against Arima Yoshibe. At 17, he fought under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s banner at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, during which he was seriously wounded.
From 1604, he was based in Kyoto, where he challenged and defeated Yoshioka Seijuro, an important katana expert, as well as numerous members of his clan. Undefeated in over 60 duels, he last faced the famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro of the Mori clan, renowned for his long sword (O-dachi). Killing his opponent with a simple wooden oar, according to legend, Musashi never fought again.

Musashi Miyamoto, The Great Swordsman

From the 1630s, he devoted himself entirely to the study of the Way (Do), while practicing calligraphy and painting, arts in which he excelled. During his lifetime, he became a Kensei (sword saint). In 1637, he returned to the service of his former adversaries, the Tokugawa, and fought for them against the Christian rebels of Shimabara. He was then given command of a reserve corps by Ogasawara, lord of Kokura, during the siege of Hara Castle in 1638. During this period, he adopted two children: Iori and Mikinosuke. The latter committed seppuku years later. In 1640, he became an instructor to the powerful Hosokawa family of Kumamoto. In 1643, he retired to the Reigendo cave (Ungan-ji temple) on Mount Iwato, east of Kumamoto. Here, a few weeks before his death in 1645, he wrote the text Gorin no Sho (Treatise of the Five Wheels), which has become a classic of martial arts literature. He died at the age of 62 and was, in accordance with his wishes, buried in his armor.
Musashi Miyamoto contracted eczema at an early age, leaving large scars on his face which he kept for the rest of his life. For this reason, he bore no resemblance to the other samurai of his time. As a result, he never shaved his hair, nor did he sport the samurai hairstyle: the toupee. Miyamoto Musashi was a giant for his time. He stood nearly 1.84m (around 6 feet) tall, while his Japanese colleagues averaged 1.53m (5 feet).
It is said that Musashi never took a bath in his life. Instead, he washed in the icy waters of the torrents to work on his mind.

The way of the sword

Musashi Miyamoto, The Great Swordsman

When Musashi returned to his village, he was not welcomed as a hero. The village elders considered him uncontrollable and he had to leave. He eventually found himself a captive in Hejime castle, where he learned the way of the warrior. After a long apprenticeship, Musashi was offered an important position with a daimyo (lord of a large or small region). He courteously declined, preferring to become a Warrior in search of Enlightenment (musha shugyo).

The Yoshioka Family

So he set off for Kyoto, the capital at the time. Eager to test his fighting skills, in 1604 he challenged one of the most renowned schools, that of the Yoshioka family, whose founder was apparently a renowned duellist. The first to accept Musashi’s challenge was the head of the Yoshioka family, Seijiro. Seijiro was armed with a real sword, while Musashi was armed with a bokken, a wooden sword. The battle lasted only a short time. Seijiro lost his arm in the duel and died. This earned him the hatred of the Yoshioka clan. The second duel took place against Denshichiro, Seijiro’s brother. Once again, the fight was short-lived. Musashi shattered Denshichiro’s skull in the blink of an eyelash…
Denshichiro and Matashihiro, who had grown tired of Musashi’s attitude, challenged him to a third duel against Matashihiro, still a child, setting a trap he could not escape. But for once, Musashi arrived early. He had time to see the Yoshioka’s cowardice in action and finally attacked them. Matashihiro died and Musashi escaped the 80 samurai waiting in ambush, killing a dozen clan members. This was the famous battle of Ichijoji.
He then hit the road again, winning challenge after challenge, undefeated in over 60 duels.

Musashi Miyamoto, The Great Swordsman

Muso Gonnosuke

History brings us different versions of the encounter between Musashi and Muso Gonnosuke. Having met Musashi and been defeated by him for the first time in 1605 in the Harima province of Akashi, the latter decided that the traditional 1m80 stick could not achieve sufficient speed against a katana. Retreating to Mount Honman (in Kyushu), he reduced the stick’s length to 1.30m after some mystical experiments. He combined the handling of this new staff (Jo) with what he already knew of the spear, katana and Naginata. Legend has it that when he met Musashi for the second time, the length of the Jo, even parried, enabled him to reach a weak point on the opposing swordsman’s body at the level of the solar plexus. Gonnosuke managed to defeat Musashi without causing him much harm. But this was Musashi’s only defeat, and it was due to a new Jo-Jutsu technique.

Sasaki Kojiro

In April 1612, Musashi met the famous Sasaki Kojiro of the Mori clan, renowned for his long sword (O-dachi). He confronted him on the island of Mukojima, using a simple piece of wood or an oar (depending on the version). The duel takes place on the beach. A single blow to Kojiro’s head sends him sprawling on the sand, defeated by the weapon’s unusual length. There are many other versions of this fight, saying that Musashi had lost, or that Musashi was just a coward, and so on. Musashi never followed the teachings of any particular school of kenjutsu. Having certainly benefited from his father’s talent, and then from the monastery’s teaching, he mainly acquired his fighting techniques on his own, later taking on the status of musha-shugyo (the warrior’s quest, a form of learning the warrior arts which consisted in going from master to master, from school to school, to learn and confront his technique with the most varied sources). Musashi experimented extensively, and of course produced his own technical synthesis. He created a two-sword fighting style (katana and wakisashi) called nito-ryu, then niten-ryu, which he used notably in the Ichijoji fight. Although the school disappeared with his death, there are still two-sword kata handed down through kenjutsu in the centuries that followed. Today, however, the Hyoho Niten Ichi-Ryu claims to transmit Musashi’s technique.

Musashi Miyamoto, The Great Swordsman
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