Koryu that are not like Kendo at all

In the previous post I listed the various branches of Itto Ryu and asked you to consider the similarities between their use of the sword and Kendo.

Sometimes when one becomes used to a certain way of doing things, one can fall into the trap of thinking that is the only, or maybe the best, way of doing things.

In learning iai kata of Tatsumi Ryu, we are trying to break out of that thinking by exposing ourselves to a system devised long before even the Itto Ryu was founded. This means that there are some fundamental differences in how the sword is used. 

In these posts I am mostly interested in the differences in how to swing the sword.

In Kendo, and indeed in most of the styles of iaido practiced today, the fundamental cutting action is a straight up-and-down action often referred to as kirioroshi, cutting through or cutting down.

In Tatsumi Ryu, the characteristic action where the sword first goes through a circular backswing before cutting downwards is called kowauchi, or 'powerful strike'.

There are a number of ryuha (styles) that also have very different approaches to using the sword than how we do in Kendo. They are too many to mention here, but I will post videos to a few of them for you to consider.

Firstly, it is historical convention to see the origin of sword-fighting systems in Japan as having started from a number of ur-lineages: the Chujo Ryu, the Nen Ryu, the Shinto Ryu and the Kage Ryu. Many of the videos below show styles that still exist which are descended from those originator styles.


The Maniwa Nen Ryu is as far as I know the only surviving descendent of the original Nen Ryu. It is based in rural Gumma Prefecture and has long had a connection the the farming village of Maniwa. They are known for using their own unique bogu for sparring, which predates Kendo by a long way.

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu is a surviving example of the Shinto Ryu lineage and is described as the oldest surviving style in Japan. It is now widely practised outside Japan. Their basic cutting action is also distinctive and very different to Kendo. There are many videos available online of this ryuha.

Another Shinto Ryu is the Kashima Shinto Ryu, founded by one of Japan's greatest and most interesting swordsmen, Tsukahara Bokuden.

Satsuma Kage no Ryu from Ben Sheppard on Vimeo.

Like the Nen Ryu, there are not many versions of the Kage Ryu in existence. This is partly due to the success of the Shinkage Ryu (New Kage style), which, as the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, was one of the official styles of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Nevertheless a few do exist and they are quite fascinating. This video was shot by me many years ago and it's pretty rough but I think it is still the only video of the Satsuma Kage no Ryu online. Apparently there are some clear connections in style between this ryu, and another of the Kage Ryu family, the Jikishinkage Ryu (the 'shin' in 'Jikishinkage' is not the character for 'new' but the character for 'heart/mind').

This branch of the Kage Ryu uses nodachi or super long swords that are so long they bind cloth around the blade to be able to swing them effectively. 

Here is the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, probably one the two or three most influential styles prior to the 20th century. They are famous for using the fukuro-jinai, a shinai that is split bamboo encased in an all-over leather sheath used for full-contact training.

The Jikishinkage Ryu is a very interesting and distinctive style for many reasons. Like some older ryuha they train with their hakama tucked up in the momodachi manner. They also use a variety of training weapons including distinctive large bokken and the enormous furibo for physical training. Since the 1970s this style has been quite widely practised in Europe. One of it's most famous headmasters was Sakakibara Kenkichi, the man who devised the first inter-style competitive matches of swordsmanship in the Meiji period, which paved the way for the development of what is now Kendo.

The school founded by Japan's most famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, is the Niten Ichi Ryu. There are no clear precursor styles in the formation of his swordsmanship, but there are historical theories about what styles he may have learned or practised throughout his life that fed into Niten Ichi Ryu. For instance, there are faint, slow-motion echoes of Jigen Ryu (see below) in some of the paired kata. This is a theoretical possibility, since Musashi was living in Kumamoto (previously called Higo Province) towards the end of this life. Kagoshima (or Satsuma as it was known) which is the home of Jigen Ryu is the neighbouring province, so he may have observed or known of swordsmen who were Jigen Ryu exponents at the time.

Below is another video of NTIR featuring Iwami soke, head of a branch of the Niten Ichi Ryu. His kata has amazing intensity

Yagyu Shingan Ryu are know for their kata wearing full battlefield armour. It is interesting to watch how they use hasso to avoid the helmet's maedate or crest.

Last but certainly not least, Jigen Ryu from my second hometown of Kagoshima. The focus of Jigen Ryu is winning on the first strike, no follow up techniques, hence the intensity of their kiai. The do however have kata that show sequenced attacks and counters. Their basic cutting action starts from the distinctive high, hasso-like position which they call tonbo-no-kamae (dragonfly kamae).This style is still closely associated with the Kagoshima region and the former governing clan the Shimadzu.

This is just a small taste of the dozens of styles that still exist in Japan.  I haven't included styles whose primary weapon was not the sword, but which are well worth your further investigation, such as Owarikan Ryu Sojutsu (spear), Tendo Ryu Naginata, Takenouchi Ryu (jujutsu), and so on. I also haven't included younger styles under 250 years old like Tennen Rishin Ryu, the style made famous by the Shinsengumi and a million cosplay fans. But I hope this at least whets your appetite for finding out more. I've certainly learned a lot putting this together.


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