Author Archives: Cheltenham swordandaikido

About Cheltenham swordandaikido

Welcome, this is the blog site for 'Cheltenham Sword and Aikido', where our students and instructors contribute thoughts, short poems called; 'Koans', and hopefully some wisdom and wit, inspired by their weekly lessons. Cheltenham Sword and Aikido is a class open to all, teaching personal tuition in the beautiful and fluid movements of Aikido and Japanese sword. We teach these non-violent, yet dynamic art forms every Monday and Wednesday in Cheltenham Dean Close school

Wiggle Your Big Toe!

“Time for some powerful insights in to the art of sword from one who is really passionate about the subject!

Over to you Dohigh Tam!”

When asked by Richard Sen to write an article on sword, I didn’t know where to begin. So where best to start for me than – “Wiggle your big toe!” Those that know me well will know the significance of this quote from Kill Bill on a number of levels.

The path of Ken Kai Ryu is a long and winding path and has many levels to it. As well as developing oneself physically and mentally, the sword also develops the student on a spiritual level. In some respects the old mythology of a sword being part of the samurai’s soul remains true to this day. For me it has been a means of becoming aware of my original face and getting to know who I am and who I can be. It has given me strength to carry on and wiggle my big toe when at times in the past I would have given up. It has instilled a samurai spirit of never giving in, no matter what the battle of life may throw at me. “You can always die. It is living that takes real courage” – Himura Kenshin

When I talk to people who do not understand the nature of Iaido, I often reflect to them that the sword is not so much about the perceived violence, but about being able to be still whilst moving. The sword requires the student to learn to become at one with it. Until the blade is held, it is a perfect work of art and physics. It will glide through the air with precision and beauty. As the martial artist you have to learn to move as the blade requires you to move in order to maintain its precision and beauty, not the blade move to your requirements. You have have to become one with the blade and you become an extension of its spirit, strength and grace. Sometimes, training can feel like the sword is putting you through the same process that it had to go through to be so perfect. One must be fired, pounded and folded a thousand times, but it is and will be worth it.

Sword, as with any martial art, requires mindfulness when practicing it. However, the sword is a greater teacher at this. If one does not practice mindfulness and lets the mind wander when handling the sword, it will bite you and redirect your mind to where it should be, in the moment and no where else. It is also an art which requires great strength in body and mind in order to achieve the grace required to reflect the beauty of Iaido.

I find a lot of zen philosophy is reflected in practicing sword and in practising sword a lot of zen philosophy is learnt. Some zen philosophy can only be truly understood through experience. One such example was the great grading / demonstration night we had in July.
The whole evening was best summed up by Sun Tzu, “The dance of battle is always played to the same impatient rhythm. What begins in a surge of violent motion is always reduced to the perfectly still”. In each demonstration there was a explosion on strength, knowledge and grace, but each started and ended with a perfect stillness.

I think everyone who worked on their demonstrations with Tim Sen learnt that “To a real warrior, power perceived may be power achieved”. The way we perceived ourselves in our mind has as much an effect on our performance as our physical abilities. Through Tim Sen’s guidance and unusual techniques, I felt able to reach artistic heights I thought unattainable in such a short period of time.

For me, my last zen lesson became reality (I think) during the demonstration. The lesson was about is what we experience reality or not? It all depends on the story we write. I became so lost in the moment of the demonstration of Kim Kiri, that after the session I was unable to recall what did and didn’t happen, just like for Chuang Tzu, “I do not know-

whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man”. For that moment, reality became blurred, I did not know whether I was Dohigh Tam dreaming I was a samurai or whether I was a samurai dreaming I was Dohigh Tam. Either way, for that moment I perceived myself as a samurai and was a samurai.

We all have to ability to experience our own reality, but it is up to us to chose whether we do or do not “wiggle [our] big toe”.

“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself” – Chinese proverb.


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Sword and its Simplicity

KissakiFor most students of sword the simplicity of sword appears anything but simple! It takes many years to perfect Iado, that is the draw, the cut and the resheath, then there are Ken-Jitsu katas and movements to understand, that is the free style movement of sword, then there can be bokken work and sparring that allows you to explore the ‘Budo’ nature of sword, then finally the ultimate test of the swords man, that of Tanden work, which is spontaneous sword, performance of sword work that you create from nothing, which has no relationship to the patterns you had learned in the past, so simple yes?….No!Tsuba & hand 2

But that’s not what i think the origin of the expression ‘Sword and its Simplicity’ means, maybe the ‘simplicity’ refers to a more Zen like concept if you will.

Once all of that knowledge, experience and technique has been learned you must, if you like, forget it! To try and explain the invisible and impossible think of three elements, there is the swordsman waiting to perform, the sword waiting to cut and lastly the cut waiting to exist, each of the two elements needs the other to give reason. If as a swordsman you let your mind dwell upon either one of these three elements you will not find this simplicity we are talking of nor even the ultimate truth of the sword, this mythical concept that is sometimes referred to as ‘sword of no sword’.

img00002.jpgThink of the sword in your hand and you doubt, think of the cut to be performed and you doubt, think of yourself…and you doubt, each doubt leads to the mind, and the mind to the ego that fails to be in the moment.
So first we must learn of sword and all its complexities but then seek the simplicity of ignorance, let go and forget everything, join with the sword and the cut and you will disappear in a true cut, a cut that breaths life and not takes it.

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February theme: Mune & Hi

We come to the last of this series about the ‘parts of the sword’, and I hope it has helped you the student, to understand the meanings behind the names of the sword parts that we use regularly in the classes.But i hope also that it has shared the passion we have as instructors for the sword, and the privilege we feel in being able to use this once terrible weapon now purely as an instrument of creativity, and as a path to peace.

I didn’t wish to undertake a description of the forging process of a Katana here in this series about the sword parts, although that is such an amazing story; of a sword smith thrusting steel again and again into the fire, folding and beating it so many times that it made thousands of layers of purified steel and carbon! That may have to be described in detail at another time! Although I recommend to all students of sword that they investigate further the magical art of the swordmaker.
But two important names that go along with a finished forged blade are the ‘Hi’, which is the cutting edge of the sword and the ‘Mune’, which is the profile or back edge of the Katana.

The brilliance of this weapon was due to the mastery of those early sword makers, who developed techniques and skills in the tempering process that allowed them to manufacture a blade that had an extremely hard cutting edge called the; ‘Hi’, that could take a fine razor like killing edge polished upon it, and yet had a softer back edge called the ‘Mune’, that allowed the blade to absorb the impact shock of cutting and blocking upon it.
This tempering process along with the lamination process during forging made this a truly remarkable weapon not just in Japan, but unparalleled in the whole of the world at that time.

So let this be the last lesson we as swordsmen take from our blades at this moment, to think upon the duality of the hard and soft nature of the sword that rests in our hands, a duality that makes this weapon so strong, yet so versatile.

This should show us that we may need to combine in our life, a cutting edge of wisdom, focus and action, yet also the tempering of the soft resilience of compassion, patience and love.

One day upon the battlefield of life,
You may owe your life not to the cutting edge of action,
But to the soft edge of patience.
Knowing when to move and when not move,
May be found deep in the practice of sword.

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January Theme: Menuki

Menuki are the good luck charms that are bound into the Ito of the Tsuka.

So if you look at the handle of your sword you will see one upon each side, they are chosen along with the furniture of the sword, like a Tsuba’s emblem or the Kashira’s pattern.

These Menuki would have been chosen to reflect the theme of the Tsuba or tell a story along with the Kashira’s pattern, and of course bring luck to the swordsman!

They can appear to a modern student a somewhat frivolous distraction from the serious business of warriorship in those days of old, but ornamentations, ritual and even superstition became very relevant when your life was frequently short and bloody, and was often very arbitrary as to who survived and who perished!

Much of our modern life now, seems to be so much in control, with our ordered societies with their healthcare, law and order, education etc. but control of one’s future can often just be an illusion, the student of philosophy understands that there is only one true reality, and that is the present moment!  The sword student too should understand that despite all of the strategy, and all of their plans and techniques they may think they know, when two swordsmen meet it can all go array in the first clash of sword or Bokken!
Or as a the Samurai might of seen it:

“One thought of victory and you loose the real while clutching the false, so what is real? When the blades of your enemies are slashing ferociously at you, and your life hangs in the balance, you will know. If you do not, you have lived your life in vain.”

So let us forgive all human beings their desire for luck, for sometimes it is all we have!

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October Theme: Kashira


The Kashria is what we call the ‘Pommel’ upon our swords, and is basically the cap at the end of the Tsuka that protects the wooden handle from damage and the bindings called the ‘Ito’ from unravelling. It is often ornamented with matching themes from the Tsuba or even the Menuki (handle ornaments) and a swordsman when ordering the furniture of his sword would choose all of these designs to reflect himself and his life.

Also a strong end cap would of been of great use in the heat of battle, when both ends of the sword may be called into service for close quarter fighting, and the Kashria could be ‘smashed’ in to an opponents face! Or driven in to the body to create room for a full swing of the sword, who might know!

These forms of desperate measures that must be used in combat are more the province of our unarmed combat classes now, and not found in our tranquil sword classes today…luckily!
But as an instructor it is surprising how often one refers to the Kashria in a class. To a beginner it may appear a seemingly unimportant part of the sword, but as always in sword it pays not miss the detail!

As the student prepares to execute an Iado movement, that is to draw the sword from the Saya and perform a cut all in one movement, the direction and angle with which their Kashira is pointing will determine the flight of this cut, the instructor then knows whether the students cut will be correct before he even draws the sword, thus the teacher will attempt to correct the cut through correction of the Kashira before the sword is even removed.
So to a watchful swordsman the Kashira revels the cut to come, a useful advantage to a swordsman who does not ignore the small things, for he knows it is the detail that reveals the end!

Each small moment is shown to a watcher.

The trembling leaf revealing the wind to come.

A still heron, that a fish lies below.

And a ripple showing the tide has turned.

And to the wise…?
Their future!


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September Theme: Mekugi

If you have ever wondered how the blade of a Katana stays in the handle (Tsuka), then look carefully at the handle of a sword about a third up from the Tsuba and you will see a little pin of bamboo poking up from between bindings in the handle. This is called the Mekugi, and it is only this little pin of bamboo, only about an inch long, that attaches the blade to the Tsuka. Something to think about when performing strong men cuts in front of your instructor!
This clever yet simple idea allows the swordsman to remove his blade for cleaning or repair with just a few taps of a special hammer, thus removing the blade from the furniture of the handle.
In older times it allowed the swordsman to quickly change blades in battle, or simply to clean and service his most precious possession and even to allow him to change his Tsuka for a more ornate one during ceremonial occasions from his more basic day-to-day Tsuka.

Either way  this surprisingly simple and yet strong solution to the problem of  securing the blade to the Tsuka survives today and is still the method we use in our swords, everything held together by a little hidden peg of wood! In fact how often do we observe and yet fail to see what is important, be that in an event or even in the hidden quality of a person.

No student of sword cannot train with a weapon of death and not begin to realize the thin thread that attaches us to life, for around us is the illusion of stability and permanence and yet at any time we may depart this world, so much unfinished or unsaid. A swordsman must truly understand  his own fragility to be great.

For training in a true martial art shows a student  not just about his power and strength, but his vulnerability and humility, these are his true strengths.

Just like a small peg of bamboo, they lie unseen, strengths that holds all together.

One little piece…special.

Holding a man to his life

Hidden yet there.

Just one heartbeat from greatness,

and maybe just one more from rest.


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August Theme: Saya


The Saya, the Japanese sword terminology for the scabbard.
The Saya contains the sword when it is not being drawn or removed for cleaning, in the traditional form they are made of wood, carved in two pieces to fit exactly the blade and then glued together to form a whole piece. Then the wood of the Saya is protected and ornamented with a lacquered finish of varnish and paints in different colours and finishes, or even in ages past bound in different types of animal skins.
Part of the furniture of the Saya includes the ‘Kurikata’, or cord knob, that holds the Saigo cord in place, and sometimes there is a ‘Kojiri’, which is metal cap that fits over the end of a Saya protecting the wood from damage.

So is the purpose of the saya to simply protect the blade from damage or the swordsman from the blades sharp edge? What if it is a cloak masking the latent danger that resides within? Or is its purpose to signal to the knowing observer the mindset and skill of the swordsman? It would appear if it serves all of these!

All sword movements begin with the swords draw and end with the re-sheath, so the saya is truly part of this whole, the beginning and the end. So don’t be fooled by a saya’s plainness, or wary if it’s very ornate, you may say; never judge a book by its cover or the swords man by his saya!

For we don’t always see all that there is to see, and we don’t always know all what there is to know.

His hand on the Tsuka, sword resting easy within the Saya.

Posture relaxed, dialogue prefered.

State your intention!

Blade now partially revealed.

A mere flash.

The strike swift and true the threat now over.

The sword now back within the saya,

 Tranquility and harmony no longer disturbed.


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