A World of Wonder in a Single Cut
by Clifton Wessels-Yen
Fall-into-winter has always been a reflective time for me. The year is coming to a close and another year is waiting to start. It also marks another anniversary of my iaido training journey.
I had planned to write this article last year to compare what I’d thought during my first year with what I learned during my second year. The additional year of gestation is making me realize how many corrections are still necessary to what I thought I’d learned in my second year. It also makes me a bit nervous writing this article, as I will certainly look back on this article and cringe at what I thought I’d learned in three years. Caveat lector.
Toyama Ryu Iaido has been deceptively complex. In its foundation, there are eight cuts: (1) a vertical cut; (2) a left diagonal cut; (3) a right diagonal cut; (4) a left horizontal cut; (5) a right horizontal cut; (6) a rising left diagonal cut; (7) a rising right diagonal cut; and (8) a stab. How difficult can it be to learn and master 8 cuts? Well, as I set goals on what to accomplish in my fourth year, I find myself transported back to my first class on Oct 7, 2017: My basics need work. Let me share part of my journey.
My first day of class at Byakkokan Dojo to study Toyama Ryu Batto Jutsu was heady; it had been a decades-long aspiration of mine to become a swordsman, and this was my first step. My expectation was to start out on a wooden sword and was handed an iaito instead! It may not have a sharpened edge, but it is a metal sword and the pointy end can still impale. In the first half of class, sempai worked patiently with me on my kihon: batto, chiburi, noto. In the second half of class, sensei started to teach me how to swing a makko-giri.
The makko-giri should be a simple cut: get into a preparatory stance, hold the sword with both my hands, raise the sword above my head, then swing down vertically and stop the cut when the sword’s tip is at knee height. Simple . . . right?
I woke up very sore the next day: my back was stiff and my arms were aching. Turns out the muscles needed for modern office life are quite different from the ones used by ancient swordsmen. The sword may only be a couple of pounds but with the weight spread over 3 feet and then swung at speed, it requires lower back strength and core strength to maintain an upright posture and not be pulled forward with each swing. My arms were also sore from trying to swing hard to try to make the sword make the “whoosh” hasuji sound. However, the harder I tried, the more silent the sword—no hasuji. It turned out that it wasn’t just speed that makes the “whoosh” sound but more importantly it was the precise alignment of the blade that is required to make the hasuji. It took the better part of the year for my right hand and my left hand to not fight each other and work together to make the blade go whoosh consistently!
Time passed, seasons changed, and fall arrived once again. I found myself reflecting on all the techniques and skills that sensei and senpais had generously shared with me in the past year and came to the realization that my makko-giri needed more work. By this time my arms and back had gotten stronger and I was able to consistently get hasuji in my swing . . . however, my swing was small. In our sparring practice (with padded swords!) I wanted to have reach and speed so that I could deliver my cut without getting struck by my training partner. Since I had been focusing on powering my cuts with my arms, my elbows were the primary axis of rotation. If I could learn to power my cuts with my shoulder and make my shoulder the primary axis of rotation, then I could lengthen the range of my cut (elbow to hand distance versus shoulder to hand). As an added bonus (and without getting into the math), I discovered that I had also increased the velocity of my swing by ~30%!
Time passed, seasons changed, and fall arrived once again. I found myself reflecting on all the techniques and skills that sensei and senpais had generously shared with me in the past two years and once again came to the realization that my makko-giri still needed more work.
My swing arc was getting bigger, my sword was cutting faster, and I was delivering more force to my intended target; but one look at my hands and it was clear that my callouses were in the wrong places. I didn’t know callouses had the right place! Because my callouses from swinging the sword were on my right hand, it was a telltale of poor tenouchi. What is this tenouchi that sensei and sempai had been talking about these past couple of years? Well to add to what I had learned about using my shoulder as the primary axis, there can also be a secondary axis in my wrist. If at the appropriate moment during my makko-giri swing I added a measured amount of gripping tension with my left pinky, then my left ring finger, and my left middle finger then the sword would further rotate around my wrist becoming even faster and more powerful. For the technically minded, my shoulder is the primary axis of rotation and my wrist becomes a secondary axis of rotation. . .it’s like adding a turbo booster!
Fall is again upon us and I am once again making plans on what to focus on during my fourth year; perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel I still need to come back to basics and work on my makko-giri. The arc of my swing has gotten larger, I’m swinging my katana faster and stronger, and I’m applying tenouchi to the best of my ability. . .I’m finally getting consistent hasuji. However, sensei is helping me realize that I need to work on the placement of my hasuji so that the maximum force is generated just prior to the target. I also need to work on the length of my hasuji so that consistent power is applied to cut through the entire target. Also, I am starting to see that there may be two different sounds of hasuji. My hasuji sounds like a “whoosh” while sensei’s hasuji sounds like a “woomp”. I can only get the “woomp” hasuji maybe one in ten times. I’m experimenting with different power sources, and perhaps the “woomp” is related to generating the swing power from the core while having a totally relaxed arm, while projecting intent to the tip of the sword. Something about painting the wall with a sword. . . pretty esoteric stuff! I hope to know more next year than I do this year, and to share what I have learned.
The one thing I am sure of is that come fall next year, there will still be one thing I need to be working on.