Kikuchi Senbon Yari: Crafting a Kikuchi-Style Takeyari

Recently I stumbled upon some interesting information. In the book Zustesu – Kobudōshi (図説・古武道史), there is a section that talks about of long battlefield weapons used during the warring times in Japan, such as the spear. While discussing the roots, the many variations used in battle, and the exclusiveness in training among high-ranking practitioners during peaceful times of the spear, one description regarding the origin of the spear caught my eye¹. It mentioned the use of a sharp instrument attached to one end of bamboo, which would essentially make it a takeyari (竹槍). This takeyari, or bamboo spear, is a type of weapon that doesn’t get much talk about. In the past, a takeyari was quite useful due to the fact that it was low cost in production, easy to mass produce, can outfit a large group of soldiers with this, and was simple to use. While a takeyari can be crafted without a blade, placing one on the end of a bamboo would definitely increase its overall effectiveness. This falls in line with a type of takeyari related to my studies in Kukishinden ryu sōjutsu (Kukishinden style of spear techniques) that was made famous by a member of the Kikuchi family, which I will speak on in this article.
 

TALE OF THE ESTEEMED “KIKUCHI  SENBON YARI”

There is a story in many historical books from Japan regarding an individual by the name of Kikuchi Takeshige (菊池武重), who was the 13th head of the Kikuchi family. His family line is related to those of the famed Fujiwara family (藤原家) who had relocated to Kikuchi District in Higo, Kyushu. His family supported the Southern Imperial Court for some time, since when his father, Kikuchi Taketoki (菊池武時), pledged loyalty to the Southern Emperor, Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇).

A snapshot from the website Kikuchi Ichizoku talking about Kikuchi Takeshige and his feat called “Kikuchi Senbon Yari” (菊池千本槍)

During the early mid 1300s, There was much conflict between the Hōjō clan, who claimed Shogunate rule, and those who sided with the Southern Imperial Court. A war general by the name of Ashikaga Takeuji (足利尊氏) made efforts with others to not only regain control over Kyoto, former capital and home of the imperial family, but also Kamakura, ridding the Hōjō clan’s control. In an attempt to avoid potential usurpers, Takeuji took Kamakura himself and lauded himself with the title “Sei-i Taishōgun²”…all in the name of the Southern Imperial court. However, Emperor Go-daigo did not accept these actions, and opposed Takeuji’s plans.

Late in the year 1335, Takeuji and his brother Tadayoshi lead a large force against the Southern Court. The Southern Emperor had his faithful allies take up arms to deal with this threat from the Ashikaga, which included a reputable military Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞). It just so happened that Yoshisada had Kikuchi Takeshige and his men employed in his army, and had ordered them to fight in the forefront. Crossing through the mountainous area of Hakone Tōge (箱根峠, Hakone Pass), Yoshisada and his force made their way to Take no Shita (竹の下), where they would clash with the Ashikaga and their army. This encounter would be called “Battle at Hakone-Take no Shita³.

Takeshige’s force split from Yoshisada to eventually go head on against Tadayoshi’s force. To strengthen his troops, Takeshige would turn his sights to a bamboo grove, have each of them take a bamboo pole that was around 6~7 feet tall, and craft theirs into makeshift spears by inserting into one split end of it the tantō each of them carried in their belts. Doing so proved to be most effective, for despite being outnumbered 3:1 when facing off against Tadayoshi’s army of 3000, Takeshige’s force consisting of 1000 spears was more then enough to surprise and force the opposition to retreat. This greatly helped to earn a victory for their side against the Ashikaga force.

It is through this improvisation by Takeshige and victory against a much superior opponent that lead to the term Kikuchi Senbon Yari (菊池千本槍, 1000 spears of the Kikuchi clan).

CONSTRUCTION OF THE KIKUCHI-STYLE TAKEYARI

Taking a knife and fitting it on the end of a bamboo pole to make a Kikuchi-style takeyari is generally associated with this tale. This episode is believed to have inspired Takeshige to have a unique style of spear created called the “Kikuchi yari”, which utilizes very long single-edge tantō-like blades made in either hira zukuri (平造り) or shōbu zukuri (菖蒲造り)⁴. However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of a takeyari was invented by the Kikuchi clan, for it is believed to have existed way before in advance.

A snapshot of a page featuring blades of Kikuchi yari mounted for swords. From the website Usagiya

Although I’ve made a safe training takeyari (simple design with a padded end for a point) a while back, making a Kikuchi-style takeyari sounds like it would be a fun little project. From the descriptions found in various sources, the construction of this is not complex, so I figured I would give it a try. Let’s take a closer look at the method for constructing this unique takeyari.

  • Take a bamboo pole of considerable length
  • Use a tool suitable for splitting the bamboo
  • Insert knife (in this case, a wooden training knife) into the split up until where the handle completely fits
  • Take some rope and tie it over the split section to hold the knife firmly in place

The one I’ve made is just an experiment, and a great way to understand how warriors in the past may have had to improvise. Using a bamboo pole near 7 feet, I was able to fit my wooden tantō in it, and reinforce the split end with a good length of rope. The type of wrap used for the rope added more weight, giving a better balance to this takeyari, as well as could double for a tachiuchi (太刀打, wrapping used to reinforce the spear blade against impact).

Pics of crafting a Kikuchi-style takeyari, from start to finish.

ENDING

I hope you enjoy the tale of the Kikuchi Senbon Yari, which is a piece of history held in high regards in Japan. For those who have a knack for crafting, a Kikuchi-style takeyari is a fun one to try, and experiment with.


1) The original line from the book Zusetsu – Kobudōshi is on page 278 in the 1st paragraph, which reads as the following:

「…楠正成の家来天野了簡が、竹のさきに大鏑の根をくっつけて使ったのが、槍の起源であるという…」

“…it is said that the origin of the spear (in Japan) is due in part to the shaft of a large kabura (鏑, signaling arrow) being fitted on the front end of bamboo. This was a clever idea of the Amano clan, who were once retainers of Kusunoki Masanari….”

Of course, this claim was debunked in the aforementioned book, for it was actually the precursor for a small single-handed weapon called an inji yari (印地槍), or better known as uchine (打根). What really interested me from that statement was the mentioning of bamboo and a bladed instrument being used to create a spear.

2) 征夷大将軍. This is generally translated as “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians”. Or, the shorter title of “shōgun” works just as well.

3) 箱根竹の下戦い. This title reflects that the clash between the Ashikaga army and the Imperial Court’s army took place somewhere between the Hakone Pass and the bamboo grove in Take no Shita. The area in which the battle took place is now known today as Take no Shita, Oyama Town, Shizuoka Prefecture

4) Both are types of blade-forging methods.

Eda Koppo for Training

This weekend I finished making a new training tool, called the eda koppō¹. Although I’ve used improvised versions over the years during my time studying in the Bujinkan, this is the first time of making one that is suitable for training in my Chikushin group.

The finished product of the eda koppō. Two are shown in the pic

The eda koppō has a unique meaning that is often difficult to translate correctly in English. To explain simply, it is a short stick, originally made out of a small branch, that was devised to give the user the upper hand in a fight. Given its shape and size, the wielder can use this to attack vital areas through strikes, or assist in joint locks and throws by applying pressure on bony areas. Small in size, it is considered a good self-defense tool, as well as a kakushi buki² (hidden weapon).

It is believed that the eda koppō was developed during more peaceful times after the tumultuous warring period of Japan, when the country was unified under & ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Many martial schools that specialized in jujutsu used small weapons such as this to give them an edge when a more preferable weapon, such as a sword, was not readily accessible.

Example of the eda koppō in the book “Stick Fighting”, by Masaaki Hatsumi and Quitin Chambers.

This version of eda koppō is designed to be a safe training tool. It is made out of the thinner section of bamboo, and hollow through. A thick fabric is attached to both ends for softer impact. Finally, a looped cord is threaded through singularly in order to allow the eda koppō to swivel, as well as allow for different grips. This is a 1st generation design, and I’m planning on different versions, and possibly an upgrade if necessary.

Showing 2 possible positions

This week, if things go as planned, I’ll give it a thorough test run during normal training sessions.


1) 枝骨法

2) 隠し武器

Benefits of Overcoming Difficult Things

In classical Japanese martial arts, just about everyone runs into techniques, routines, or concepts that are difficult to handle. Like a very high wall, these may seem near impossible to overcome, whether it means adapting this particular thing into one’s repertoire or working on it for long periods until it becomes something natural to do. In some cases the difficulty is due to a lack of physical strength or coordination, while in others it’s a mental block. Then there are those cases where our lack of interest causes us not to proceed forward with that particular area of training. However, with a bit of drive, we can overcome such difficult things, as well as gain an overall benefit in our journey of learning the martial arts.

Examples of flexible weapons. Top left is a kusari fundō, bottom left is a kyoketsu shoge, while on the right are a kusarigama and ōgama. All are handmade training weapons which are light, fairly soft materials with no sharp parts.

A case that sticks out particularly in my own experience is the difficulty of using flexible weapons. In my younger days, I made a point to be as proficient as I could with all that was taught to me at my previous dojo. Yet, I was more inclined to not further my studies on such martial tools like the kusari fundō (鎖分銅, chain with weights on opposite ends), hayanawa (早縄, fast-tie ropes for restraining), and kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain with a sickle and weight on either ends). These types of weapons are much more difficult to use than non-flexible ones, and require more personal training time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn how to use them, it’s just that I saw no real value in doing so; other than twirling them, I couldn’t grasp any practical applications with them. Exaggerated images of using flexible weapons for lassoing was one of the dominant reasons for my personal mental block. Despite getting training in them, my notes and experience on flexible weapons were often pushed to the side to collect dust.

Many years later, I began doing research on the style of kusari fundō used in the martial system I was studying at the time. I also explored similar weapons studied in different martial arts schools and observed how these flexible tools were being used. Little by little I began to realize that my understanding of flexible weapons were flawed and misinformed. To correct this I continued with my research, sought out advice, and began retraining outside of my normal training regiment for several years. Focus on structured handling, and practical applications of flexible weapons based on classical teachings has given me a new outlook.

Pics from a past training session with a fellow buyu (武友, martial arts buddy). Working with a kyoketsu shoge (距跋渉毛), a unique tool that consists of a knife with a hook on the side connected to a rope with a metal ring on the other end. For training purposes, a handmade “safe version” is used. Also, instead of a rope, a plastic chain is used for strength building purposes.

For example, the use of kamae (構え, one’s posture based on the given moment) is critical in understanding where each part of a flexible weapon is at all times, which is an important fundamental that extends to every weapon one studies in classical Japanese martial arts. The image of mindlessly swinging them has also been eliminated from my mind, for I’ve learned that doing so is actually not the core principle for using flexible weapon, but something that serves several purposes, such as improving one’s control through furigata (振り型, practice of swinging flexible weapons in specific directions and under specific conditions) . While it was a difficult endeavor to make these adjustments, my motivation was reinvigorated, and I was driven to put great amounts of energy into the training of flexible weapons and learning them correctly.

Although my journey is far from over, I have grown as a person and am in a better place with handling flexible weapons I originally could not understand. Everyone encounters difficult things in activities they engage in, especially classical Japanese martial arts. My advice is to hang in there, seek help, and work even harder to overcome them. In time, you will notice results, one step at a time, and be more inclined to tackle any obstacles that may come your way.

Discerning Measurements for Training Weapons

Great care is necessary when studying weapons in martial arts. In the beginning, there are specific forms or drills one must go through in order to understand the characteristics of the weapon that is connected to the ryuha¹, or style of martial system, one is training in. One of the challenging points to ensure correct study is obtaining a training weapon proportional to your body type. For this post, we will look at how the characteristics of weapons (i.e. measurements, material, etc.) are preserved by traditional schools and the hurdles that come with this, the ups & downs of dealing with manufactures that follow the “one size fits all” model, and how one should go about to training with weapons that match us properly.

IMPORTANCE IN DETAILS VS MARTIAL SYSTEMS

A good martial arts school will ensure that new students obtain a training weapon suitable for them, whether they are buying it or not. For Japanese traditional martial systems this is commonplace. For example, there are numerous types of systems for kenjutsu² (sword techniques), each with their own unique philosophies. Some may specialize a slightly shorter blade length that requires ashisabaki³ (evasive movements with the feet), or a much longer blade where maai⁴ (distance) and chōshi⁵ (timing) are key components. Others may utilize a nitōryū⁶ (2-sword style) system, where two swords that are wielded in each hand are a different size from each other. At any rate, when wielding a sword that does not fit your school’s criteria, unforeseen adjustments will be made, which will prevent a new student from grasping the principles of the particular kenjutsu being studied.

Example of training kusari fundo I’ve made over the years. Each can have a variation in length, weight, size of the weighted ends, etc.

During my years as an assistant instructor at my previous dojo, I was adamant regarding using training weapons that were proportional with those who attended my class. In one case, the monthly theme was a weighted chain called kusari fundo⁷. We used rope versions for safe training. Since I was already making these rope versions for my own training, I did so for those who attended my class to ensure they learned correctly. I had to measure each student’s arm length so to have their rope kusari fundo tailor-made to them.

There is an interesting story⁸ that deals with the weighted chain. A man by the name of Charles Gruzanski, a military officer stationed in Japan during the 1950s, was accepted as a student in Masaki ryu Manrikigusari jutsu⁹ under the 10th successor at the time, Nawa Fumio. One of the challenges that his teacher had to deal with was finding an appropriate chain size for Charles, as he was a tall man with large hands. The weighted chains that Fumio had just were too short, which would’ve made studying the techniques difficult to comprehend. Through some searching, he finally tracked down a chain from a different style that was large enough for Charles to use. This story is an important reminder that appropriateness in weapon size is necessary in the beginning of one’s training.

DETAILS IN ANCIENT DOCUMENTATION

There can be a fascination regarding information in ancient documentations, such as scrolls and manuals. Those that have descriptions of weapon dimensions, for example, are important details critical to the identity of a martial system. However, one must take caution in following these details too literally. When a training weapon is being prepared based on specific dimensions, it still needs to be adjusted based on the student’s body proportion.

3 pics that illustrate different lengths in staves used in Japanese martial arts. When first studying bōjutsu that requires the rokushaku bō, choosing the right length is critical. Click on each pic for descriptions.

Let’s look at a very common weapon used in Japanese martial arts, which is the rokushaku bo¹⁰, or 6-shaku staff in English. A shaku¹¹ is an old measurement unit used in Japan. This “6-shaku” is a length that serves as a standard, a rough measurement for a staff that should be around or slightly taller than your height. In the past, this length would be appropriate for most Japanese martial artists that were above 5 feet, but it was not unusual for the staff to be made shorter for accommodation purposes. Likewise, those who are much taller than 6 feet (especially in western countries) would need a staff slightly longer. In cases like these, access to having weapons custom made according to a practitioner’s needs is a must.

SHOPPING TIPS FOR THE RIGHT SIZES

Shopping for one’s training weapons can be at times difficult. Going to a common martial arts store in your neighborhood that sells everything at only one size is limiting unless you are at that perfect height where everything fits your body type (around 5″6 & up). When shopping around, especially online, what you should look for from retailers is those that A) provide multiple sizes, B) provide customization services, or C) custom make their weapons.

Stores that offer multiple sizes of a particular training weapon is very convenient. Not only does it make finding one that fits you quickly, but this is also convenient for practitioners of all ages. For example, some stores may offer a wooden daito¹² (a standard sized sword) in 3 sizes: large, medium, and small. This ensures that no matter which size you select, it is proportionally designed, from the blade down to the handle. Those needing a smaller size daitō will not need to substitute with a wooden kodachi, which is naturally designed as a one-handed short sword¹³.

Some retailers may offer a customization service, whether they do it on-site or can have it done by another party. This is good when small adjustments are needed, but don’t necessary need to be redesigned from the ground up. Looking at the rokushaku bō as an example, it may be possible to have one adjusted in length in the case where a shorter one is needed.

Here is a comparison of 2 bokken, or wooden swords. The bottom one is a custom made version of the sword that is used in one of the ryuha I study, Togakure ryu. I was given the dimensions as it is said to be written in that system’s scroll, but had to make slight adjustments when getting it designed in order to match my body type.

Possibly the best option is to shop from a retailer who has training weapons custom made. Not only is it possible to have the dimensions tailored to your liking from the smallest detail, but can go as far as craft it and make it unique just for you. While this can be a great option, it can also be more pricier, as time, cost of materials, and labor goes into custom making training weapons. Quality control for custom made weapons tends to be very high, so if money and time is not an issue, then this is a great route to go.

CONCLUSION

As a rule, it is important to train with weapons that proportionally match. Finding what matches the practitioner is a task that can be handled by the teacher, as it will ensure little to no errors when purchases are made. However, when this has to be in the hands of a student, the best choice are from retailers that give many options that can fit one’s needs.


1) 流派

2) 剣術. An older name related to fighting techniques with a sword. The modernized system of kendo (剣道) derives from this.

3) 足捌き

4) 間合

5) 調子

6) 二刀流

7) 鎖分銅

8) You can read the full story, and more about Charles Gruzanski’s life story in Japanese martial arts at “Tru-Flyte Martial Arts Memorial Website“, which is maintained by Robert C. Gruzanski.

9) 正木流万力鎖術. Manrikigusari is another name for a weighted chain.

10) 六尺棒. Usually translated as 6-foot staff in English, thus most are sold as so. However, in reality 6 shaku does not equal to 6 feet.

11) 1 shaku = 11.93 inches.

12) 大刀

11) 小太刀. A big difference between a daitō and a kodachi is that the handle of a daitō is long enough for 2 hands to grip, while a kodachi’s handle is long enough for only one hand. Size difference in handle makes it difficult, if not impossible, to practice kenjutsu that requires a normal sword, such as a daitō.

Bo Shuriken At a Glance

Within Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, there are many different weapons and tools to study. One of them is the bo shuriken1. Part of the kakushi buki2 category, bo shuriken is often used as a secondary or supplementary weapon, when there is a chance to be deployed. While I’ve invested several years in this, recently I’ve been training more with this as to learn how to adapt this into my taijutsu better. In this post I will talk abit about what the shuriken3 is, what is unique about the bo shuriken, as well as some basic tips when learning how to throw this.

DEFINING THE SHURIKEN

Bo shuriken is a type of shuriken, small to average sized blade that can be deployed from close to medium range. These are especially renowned as a projectile weapon, although their usage is not limited to this. The shuriken is a Japanese weapon that, through the course of history, can be crafted in many different designs. Shuriken generally fall under 2 categories, one being “hiragata shuriken4“, and the other being “bo shuriken”. Looking first at hiragata shuriken, these are wide, flat, and have multiple points. These are iconic with being the prized tool of the ninja. There are many different types of this, of a multitude of unique designs. The hiragata shuriken tends to be the more popular out of the 2 categories, with such versions like the “shaken5” (otherwise known as “chinese stars” or “ninja stars” in pop culture”) usually come to most people’s mind when they hear the term shuriken.

A set of antique bo shuriken. The label on the upper right reads “根岸流” (Negishi ryu). From Wikipedia.

Next, the bo shuriken is a single or double pointed, relatively straight bar of metal. These are generally associated with bujutsu schools, and tend to have more formalized training methods. The bo shuriken is considered a much more difficult projectile to accurately throw due it’s design; whereas the hiragata shuriken has to be thrown with a spin and is almost guarantee to connect with at least one of its many points, the bo shuriken has to instead be thrown with as little rotation as possible and calculated from which distance its point will connect. This is especially critical when wielding one that only has one point.

It is not certain when the shuriken was first developed. However, there are documentations that mention it’s use around the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) a time when warriors were active for combat due to warlords struggling for power. On a general basis, the image of the shuriken is associated with the ninja and ninjutsu. This is due to exaggeration through the various ninja boom that took place over the years, first in Japan from the Edo period (1603 – 1868) onward, then followed by many other countries in the late 20th century. The truth is, the shuriken was never solely a ninja weapon, but a tool as a means to hurl a projectile from a distance out of reach of an opponent by warriors and martial artists. While some types of shuriken may have been more frequently used by ninja, the skills to wield this was learned even by samurai.

ABOUT THE BO SHURIKEN

The bo shuriken can be designed in a multitude of ways, although its base still resembles that of a long, spiked bar. It’s body can be rounded, flat, or squared. Bo shuriken are often thin, easy to stack in a bunch, and portable. Throughout Japan’s history, a good number of martial schools and systems trained in the shuriken, especially from Edo period onward. Nowadays, there are a good number of traditional schools that retain their knowledge and history with this projectile weapon and provide training with them, such as Negishi ryu, Meifu Shinkage ryu, and Kukishin ryu. Depending on the ryuha6, or martial school of a specific style, there are special labels for the type of bo shuriken used. For example, in Kukishin ryu these are called uchibari7.

A set of homemade bo shuriken. On the left is live (sharpened) version, while on the right is safe training version.

In the system I study, the bo shuriken techniques are primarily associated with Togakure ryu8 and Kukishinden ryu9. Using it is based on taijutsu, with our kamae a starting point for learning when to throw. One of the basic kamae we learn to launch a bo shuriken from is called Doko no Kamae10, where we stand with our left foot forward and right hand up next to our right ear, holding the point upwards. When training with “live” shuriken (that is, sharpened metal ones), a large target, such as a wooden board or a tatami mat, is used, while safe, non-metallic versions can be used during drills & kata keiko with your training partners.

THE BASICS

When training with the bo shuriken, a key aspect to focus on is one’s form. This is considered basic, and is crucial for beginners to take to heart. Instead of trying to make the bo shuriken stick into the target when throwing it, one should instead focus on how to take proper posture (In this case we’ll use Doko no kamae) before, during, and after the throw. This process has to be repeated many times in this fashion, where your form dictates the bo shuriken striking the target correctly. The key point here is that the technique is within one’s form, and once a person ingrains this into their body, will it be possible to get consistent results.
Once your body has “learned” the form, can one then gradually focus on aiming for the target. One can attempt to control where you want the bo shuriken to strike, as well as progress to throwing multiply projectiles in relative quick successions. The throwing form is not abandoned, as you still need to be aware of how to prep yourself to launch the bo shuriken; instead you put faith in your body being trained enough where you don’t have to think about your throwing form from start to finish.

SITUATIONAL ADAPTATION

In the beginning, when learning the bo shuriken (or any projectile for that matter), we do it stationary. Usually this is from a frontal, standing position. As time progresses and our ability to consistently hit a target increases, we work on being able to throw under different conditions. Some of these conditions include facing different directions, crouching down, and having another weapon in hand. In one example, this can be integrated with kenjutsu as, while holding a katana in Seigan no kamae11, you take out a single bo shuriken with your right hand and skillfully hurl it at the target.

Throwing a bo shuriken can also be accomplished while moving, which includes walking, turning, and leaping. This is is especially difficult while performing Ukemigata Taihenjutsu12, for timing varies if thrown at the start of, during, or after tumbling to the ground. Conditions like these further challenge the practitioner to develop the ability to use the bo shuriken in any scenario.

CONCLUSION

Studying the bo shuriken is demanding, for developing a skill for precision is a must. In the end, it is very rewarding. That about wraps up this post. Hope this was informative, especially to those who have interest in shuriken training.


1) 棒手裏剣

2) 隠し武器. This means “concealed weapon”.

3) 手裏剣. While this is generally read as “a hidden blade in the hand”, I’ve learned that the actual meaning is “a blade held in the hand is thrown outward”. To better represent this meaning, shuriken can be written as 手離剣, with the second character meaning “to gain distance” or “move away from”.

4) 平型手裏剣

5) 車剣, which means a bladed projectile that is round like a wheel.

6) 流派

7) 打針

8) 戸隠流

9) 九鬼神伝流

10) 怒虎の構

11) 正眼の構. A posture in kenjutsu where the tip of the katana is held towards your opponent’s eyes.

12) 受身型体変術. This is an area of training that focuses on breakfalls, rolling, and moving through the air with agility.

Fun with Fukuro Shinai ~Part 2~

In an unexpected continuation from a previous post here, I decided to take a 2nd shot at making fukuro shinai. My previous attempt was very informative, and was more of a practice run using materials I had stashed for future projects. This time around, 2 bamboo poles are used in an attempt to make real sturdy fukuro shinai.

First task was to cut the bamboo poles to the appropriate lengths. I used one of my longer bokken as a guide for this. Following this was a bit of sanding. Next was to split the bamboo poles several times from the top down to where the tsuka (sword handle) would be. I used a few methods, including one my wife showed me she grew up with when she was living in Japan. This involves using a knife with a strong & durable handle, place the knife edge at the top of the bamboo, and striking the knife’s handle with a hammer. If done right, on can cut down along the bamboo very quickly with just a few solid strikes. This can be done with a razor/box cutter as well. Just as a word of caution, I don’t advice using a knife or razor with a metallic handle, or one that is not designed for work entailing heavy labor.

I found it easier to use one of the bamboo’s joints as a marker to where to stop, as long as it was close to the tsuka. I did so because since the joints tend to be thicker, they won’t further break and split due to impact. Of course, since each bamboo are slightly different from each other, this varies how far down each one would be split. The variation isn’t too vast, fortunately.

The slivers of bamboo were then taped at 3 points. Then a padded wrap to serve as a “fukuro” was devised and wrapped around the slivers. A strap was also attached to the fukuro to serve as a tsuka wrap, if needed.

And voilá! 2 fukuro shinai are made and ready for use. While I followed the Shinkage ryu method of making a fukuro shinai (otherwise called a “hikihada shinai”), I did not add the red lacquer, so these look more like Yagyu Shinkage ryu versions (being the color white, that is). I didn’t pre-tie the strap to work as tsuka ito (cotton threads used to wrap a sword handle) like the way most fukuro shinai are designed, for I prefer a wrapless tsuka. However, that may change in future.

Fun with Fukuro Shinai

Recently I became interested in adding fukuro shinai1 to my training. Gathering some materials together, I managed to make my own working versions. This is a great substitute for a bokken in one’s kenjutsu training, permitting you to actively strike at your training partner trying to outbest him/her with technique without the need to stop inches away to avoid seriously damaging one another. This is pretty much the roots to the conception of this safe training tool, which I will explain in detail below.

Two fukuro shinai I recently made, as an experiment. A little bigger (fatter?) than intended, but works as intended.

The fukuro shinai was developed by a strategist and warrior named Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami Nobustuna (1508? – 1577). Born in Joshu2 during Japan’s tumultuous era of constant warring called Sengoku Jidai, Nobutsuna studied bujutsu from various martial schools such as Kage ryu, Nen ryu, and Shinto ryu. He would also take part in battles and other means to hone his skills before starting his own system, Shinkage ryu Heiho.

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A demonstration of kata using fukuro shinai (hikihada shinai) at Itsukushima Jinja in Japan. Taken by Nyuyen Thahn Thien on 11/2005. From Wikipedia.

There is a theory of how Nobutsuna came up with the idea of the fukuro shinai within the school of Shinkage ryu. It is said that Nobutsuna would go on “shokoku rurou no tabi”3, or training expeditions, with a few of his top students. They would carry with them specific weapons, primarily a sword. Since these are real swords, they are subjected to all sorts of harsh conditions, such as dirt, rain, moisture, and collisions with nature. To protect their swords, they would put them in a soft, padded case called a saya fukuro4. While training, normally blunted swords or bokuto would be used, but practioners would have to hold back so not to hurt (or kill) each other. To remedy this, Nobutsuna decided to get bamboo from a bamboo forest, insert it in the saya fukuro, and use it in place of a real sword. Thus the birth of the fukuro shinai. Now, warriors can go all out and strike each other with these fukuro shinai and utilize the kenjutsu techniques they’ve studied for years, and not worry about serious injuries.

Historically, the fukuro shinai was called “Hikihada shinai”5 under Shinkage ryu, where the shinai is covered with a bag-like leather sleeve from the tip down to where the handle starts. Many other koryu schools adopted this type of fukuro shinai. There are other types of fukuro shinai out there. For example, Jiki Shinkage ryu’s fukuro shinai is covered from tip to about halfway point of the shinai. Others may use a tsuba (sword guard), although Shinkage ryu does not utilize this.

A screen capture of practitioners of Kashima Shinden Jiki Shinkage ryu using a variation of fukuro shinai during the 33rd All Japan Kobudo Demonstration.

Here’s a short rundown on the process for making the fukuro shinai that is used in Shinkage ryu, according to a related blog6:

① Bamboo is collected as it is grown outdoors during the winter time. It is cut from its joint at the desired length.

② For a year, it is dried in a shaded area until all water and moisture is gone.

③ Once it dried and cleaned, it is then split several times, from 6 to 8 times7. The splits happen from the tip of the bamboo down to the midway point. This allows the fukuro shinai to bend with impact.

④ The slivers of the bamboo are then taped at 3 points. These points are not taped tightly; the tape is applied just enough where the slivers have space inbetween each other, and can compact upon collision.

⑤ The handle part is then made fine with sand paper.

⑥ The fukuro, or cover for the bamboo is cow hide that is painted with a red lacquer. It also comes with a kawa himo8, which acts like handle wrap if needed.

⑦ The fukuro is then sewn to fit like a sleeve. The stitching acts as an indicator for the blade.

Speaking of safety, the fukuro shinai actually predates the shinai, a similar safe training tool utilized in kendo. While they both share similarities (most obviously both being made out of bamboo), the differences stand out more. For example, fukuro shinai is wrapped with a slip on cover, where as the shinai doesn’t, but instead is padded heavily at the tip. Construction of the shinai differs abit as well (i.e. split 4 times, much more sturdier, a wire attached from tip to tsuba to indicate back of blade, etc.), while a tsuba and a wrapped tsuka is considered the standard. Possibly the main difference between the two lies in how they are used; while the fukuro shinai is swung in a slashing motion, the shinai is primarily used in a stabbing motion.

The shinai, used in kendo. From Wikipedia.

In kendo, bougu9, or protective gear, is used to keep practitioners safe. The reason being that since kendo is sport-oriented and practitioners score points striking specific areas such as the hands, face, and chest, protective gear is a must to avoid internal injuries as practitioners competitively strike and (more fatally) thrust at these areas with force. For koryu bujutsu, on the other hand, protective equipment is usually not necessary, possibly because training one’s sword cuts is still systematic and controlled.

In ending, the fukuro shinai is an essential training tool for those who study classical Japanese martial arts, for it is supple and designed to not do harm (at least, not too much) upon impact. It is something I will be using more when engaging in randori-like sessions with training partners.


1) 袋竹刀. Commonly read as “Encased Bamboo Sword”, this was not always the case. While “fukuro” (袋)remains the same, at one point “shinai” was represented by the Chinese character “撓”. This character, used as a verb pronounced as “shinau”, means to bend and be flexible, with a nuance towards the bamboo. So fukuro shinai can be written as (and is at times so in Japan) “袋撓”.

Possibly the original writing for fukuro shinai in Shinkage ryu was “韜”. A rather complex character that is rarely used in Japan, it possesses a multitude of rather deep & intricate meanings depending on how it is used , such as “strategy”, “hidden talent”, and a “weapons-carrying bag”. It seems that in the case of the fukuro shinai, the 3rd meaning may have been the intended use.

The Chinese characters “竹刀” are actually read as “chikuto”, with the proper meaning of “bamboo sword”. There are records of this word being used as so with said pronunciation. So why is it that “竹刀” represents the “shinai” phonetic? Not sure, but in Japan’s history it was not unusual to use the phonetics of one character and attach it to a completely different character for the sake of written comprehension. Sorta like having 2 meanings both verbally and written form.

On a similar note, “shinai” is the same pronunciation of another Japanese word written as 死ない, meaning “not to die”. Since the purpose of the fukuro shinai is to avoid death while training in kenjutsu, I wonder if this word also had an influence on how this training tool was named…?

2) Also called Kozuke no Kuni (Kozuke Province) in the past, now known as Gunma Prefecture.

3) 諸国流浪の旅. A journey where warriors would be away from home for months’ (or years) end in the wild for the sake of training their skills. Same as kaikoku shugyo.

4) 鞘袋

5) 蟇肌竹刀, or correctly written as 蟇肌撓 in Shinkage ryu.  The name means “Toad-skinned Bamboo Sword”. Although originally cow’s hide or deer skin was used for the the leather sleeve, once the red lacquer was applied it would resemble the skin of a hikigaeru (Japanese common toad).

6) From the blog “Shinkage ryu Heiho”, run by Mouri Keisuke. This can be accessed here.

7) Some schools are known to split the bamboo as few as 4 times, and as much as 8 times.

8) 革紐

9) 防具