THE 5 RINGS OF A 21ST CEN­TURY SWORDS­MAN

How Black Belt Hall of Famer DANA AB­BOTT teaches the An­cient Ways of Com­bat to Mod­ern Stu­dents

Black Belt - - SCREEN SHOTS - BY ROBERT W. YOUNG

Like re­li­gions, the sharpest minds in the mar­tial arts of­ten emerge in the harsh­est en­vi­ron­ments. Wit­ness the chron­i­cles of the samu­rai, who waged war for cen­turies in the rugged moun­tains of Ja­pan, where bit­ter cold and scorch­ing heat are the norm. Re­call the sto­ries of Korea’s an­cient Hwa Rang war­riors, who per­se­vered in bat­tle with hu­man en­e­mies as well as with win­ter winds rag­ing south from Siberia. Look up his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of Mon­gol fight­ers, who … well, who lived in Mon­go­lia. Half­way around the globe ex­ists an­other kind of harsh­ness called Ari­zona. In much of the state, mois­ture is min­i­mal, veg­e­ta­tion is scarce and the sun is un­re­lent­ing — Phoenix, where I just spent three days, recorded a high of 124 de­grees in 1995. In con­trast, at the camp­ground where I am right now, lo­cated some 5,000 feet above sea level, it was a nippy 31 de­grees when I got up this morn­ing, and I’m freez­ing my butt off as I key this into my lap­top. Yes, I’m next to a fire of crack­ling ju­niper, and yes, I may have had a sip of sake to take the chill off — thank God there’s no wind chill — but I must seem crazy to be com­pos­ing an ar­ti­cle out­side in these con­di­tions. I’m not crazy, though. I’m just over­flow­ing with en­thu­si­asm af­ter train­ing with Black Belt Hall of Famer Dana Ab­bott to bet­ter un­der­stand the way he teaches swordsmanship in the 21st cen­tury.

As a nod to his­tory, I will de­lin­eate the world ac­cord­ing to Ab­bott us­ing the same chap­ter ti­tles cho­sen by Miya- moto Musashi, per­haps the great­est swords­man ever, for his clas­sic Go Rin No Sho.

THE BOOK OF EARTH

The in­ter­pre­ta­tion of 21st- cen­tury swordsmanship that Ab­bott con­veys to his stu­dents starts with stance, the swords­man’s con­nec­tion to the earth. He tells me to keep my feet un­der my body and fairly close to­gether with the right one slightly ahead of the left. And that’s about it. My sen­sei, it seems, is a prac­ti­cal man when it comes to the blade.

Things don’t get much more com­pli­cated when you move, he says. “Your knee should be over your foot so your foot isn’t hit­ting heel- first or toes- first. You can hear the dif­fer­ence — in fact, a blind teacher can tell if you’re do­ing it right be­cause it sounds like an ele­phant step­ping.”

The aim is to fa­cil­i­tate ex­plo­sive for­ward move­ment while per­mit­ting eva­sive foot­work in any di­rec­tion. That mo­bil­ity is cru­cial for two rea­sons: You want to land the first strike and, as Mr. Miyagi re­minded us, “Best block no be there.” Ab­bott is a bit more elo­quent:

“Swordsmanship is like ten­nis in that you want to win on the serve. You don’t want to vol­ley.”

I con­fess that I’m a tad un­der­whelmed by the sim­plic­ity of this stance and the way I’m told to keep the sword

in front of my torso with the tip point­ing out­ward and up­ward, par­tic­u­larly af­ter watch­ing scores of movies in which samu­rai, once en­raged, would raise their weapons and charge their en­e­mies. Or as­sume a pho­to­genic pos­ture and then bounce around like a gym­nast with a blade. “The­atrics!” Ab­bott de­clares. “A lot of what you see in movies is. I’m sure some­body at some time did that, but it’s not how you should learn. I like to look at it this way: The sword is the main ob­ject in the fight. The per­son be­hind it, no mat­ter what he’s do­ing, just isn’t that scary. Imag­ine a 4-foot- 8 Ja­panese guy; he doesn’t look scary. But if he has a sword in front of him and he’s staring at you and not mov­ing, now that’s scary. So if you just as­sume a stead­fast po­si­tion — for ex­am­ple, chu­dan no ka­mae, or cen­ter stance — with the sword out in front, you es­tab­lish your line in the sand. You’re ready for any­thing.”

Ready for any­thing un­til Ab­bott’s next re­veal, that is. He draws a steel blade and in­structs me to not move a mus­cle. First, he po­si­tions the tip inches from my groin, and I’m fine with it. Next, he places it inches from my gut, and I’m OK with that, too. He cau­tions me once again to re­main sta­tion­ary right be­fore plac­ing the tip inches from my throat. I can’t help but lean back­ward. For a sec­ond, I won­der why I was less con­cerned about my groin, but the thought van­ishes when Ab­bott starts talk­ing.

“As you just felt, when I held the sword point at any part of your body, it was OK, but when I went to­ward your throat, you im­me­di­ately had to move back a few inches be­cause it wasn’t com­fort­able,” he says.

“You want to make sure the other per­son is never com­fort­able. That’s what the sword does best.”

His point about be­ing un­com­fort­able is spot on. He calls it “fear of the blade,” and be­lieve me, it is real. “When I teach peo­ple the sword, I start with the cen­ter stance so they can set up their base,” he ex­plains. “Your base should be pro­tec­tive so the other per­son doesn’t want to come in. Your op­po­nent can’t throw him­self at you be­cause he would throw him­self on your sword.”

Ab­bott says the biggest prob­lem with be­gin­ners — and some ad­vanced stu­dents — is they over­think the next phase of train­ing, which is mov­ing the weapon. “From this po­si­tion, swing­ing the sword just means lift­ing it and then bring­ing it down on the tar­get. It should be as ba­sic as shoot­ing a ri­fle, which means point­ing it and squeez­ing the trig­ger, but peo­ple tend to com­pli­cate things with off-the-wall stuff that doesn’t make sense. Then they de­velop bad habits. Be­fore you know it, they’re say­ing, ‘ My sword doesn’t work any­more.’ Yeah, be­cause you’re hold­ing it like a mon­key! So what do they do? Swing it harder. When you shoot and miss the tar­get, you won’t im­prove your aim by grip­ping the gun tighter. You need to re­lax. It’s the same with the sword.”

Re­lax­ing, it turns out, is key to grip­ping the katana. Hold it firmly but not too tight, he says. It’s not un­like hold­ing a ham­mer. Your fore­arms shouldn’t be per­pen­dic­u­lar to the sword han­dle; they should be at an an­gle like when you hit with a ham­mer. The sword, like the ham­mer, starts high and then swings down. The weight of the sword, like the weight of the ham­mer, helps you get the job done.

“The se­cret is hav­ing a con­stant an­gle be­tween your fore­arms and the sword, not bend­ing your wrists dur­ing the swing be­cause that can change the tra­jec­tory of the blade,” Ab­bott ex­plains.

“With this cut, most of the mo­tion of the sword comes from your el­bows.”

A prob­lem crops up when new stu­dents try to hold the sword with the same kind of grip they’d use on a base­ball bat, one that has their arms com­ing in from op­po­site sides. “It looks like they’re try­ing to eat a taco while look­ing at it,” Ab­bott says.

“They might see their teacher do it the right way, but hold­ing that base­ball bat is in the back of their brain, and it tells them to hold it that way. That’s hard to over­come for many peo­ple.”

THE BOOK OF WIND

An­other of Ab­bott’s in­tri­ca­cies in­volves, be­lieve it or not, the use of a singing sword. He hands me a par­tic­u­lar weapon with a bo-hi, that lon­gi­tu­di­nal groove on each side of the blade. Con­trary to what some would have you be­lieve, it’s not a “blood groove” de­signed to make your op­po­nent bleed out af­ter a stab. Like­wise, it’s not a way to make the blade stronger, which is non­sen­si­cal when you con­sider that a bo-hi is cre­ated by re­mov­ing metal. It’s in­tended to lighten the weapon for bat­tle.

The bo-hi’s main purpose these days is to serve as a metronome, Ab­bott says. “When you swing the sword cor­rectly, you can hear it sing. That’s the sound of the air flow­ing over the bo-hi.”

Af­ter a few demon­stra­tions, he hands the blade to me. Much to my sur­prise, I im­me­di­ately coax it to ser­e­nade, and it makes me gig­gle like a school kid.

“You can hear when you do the cut cor­rectly,”

he says. “Hear­ing it also gives you a bet­ter feel for the rhythm of rep­e­ti­tion, which is es­sen­tial for prac­tice. Rep­e­ti­tion is the only way to get good.”

Speak­ing of wind, I ask Ab­bott what role lan­guage played in his 14-year pur­suit of sword skills in Ja­pan. “It was im­por­tant be­cause it de­ter­mined which masters I had ac­cess to,” he says. “When I lived there, I dis­cov­ered

that I couldn’t do any re­ally old styles of swordsmanship be­cause although I speak Ja­panese, I can’t un­der­stand what was writ­ten by peo­ple 450 years ago or what their thought pro­cesses were. It’s like an Amer­i­can try­ing to un­der­stand old English.

“So I chose to go through Ja­pan’s De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, and that meant I learned the mod­ern way, or gendai. It’s good to be able to see the dif­fer­ences be­tween old and mod­ern, but what you do should be mod­ern or you won’t get any prac­tice with peo­ple who know the same art.”

The study of the sword all comes down to prac­ti­cal­i­ties like lan­guage and train­ing time, I say to my­self. “Of course, if you learn in Amer­ica, you don’t even need to learn Ja­panese,” Ab­bott con­tin­ues. “What you have to do, though, is find a teacher and a style that work for you. Oth­er­wise, you won’t prac­tice as much as you should.

In learn­ing the sword, the lack of per­sis­tence is the biggest prob­lem.

Peo­ple start and then find rea­sons not to prac­tice — ‘ I can’t do it any­more be­cause my wife left me and my dog died.’ Or ‘ I have a prob­lem with my fin­ger­nail and can’t use my right hand.’

“Too many peo­ple have ex­cuses. In the old days, you ei­ther showed up or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, your teacher would think, ‘ He bet­ter be dead, or he might find that we don’t need him here any­more.’”

THE BOOK OF WA­TER

When pre­view­ing the next phase of my train­ing, Ab­bott is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally prac­ti­cal. “I call it cut­ting wa­ter,”

(Right) At slow speeds, the blade of the katana cuts a splash-free path through the wa­ter. he says as he strides over to a filled tub he keeps be­hind his house, takes up a po­si­tion at its edge and swings his katana down­ward. No mat­ter the an­gle of the strike, the blade slices into the liq­uid with a unique sound and hardly a splash.

The act gives me the hee­bie-jee­bies be­cause I was raised by a dad who preached never to get fine metal wet. In his case, he was talk­ing about hunt­ing ri­fles, but the sen­ti­ment ap­plies equally to blades, I sup­pose — un­til Ab­bott ex­plains that he’s us­ing a spe­cific old sword for this drill.

“I be­gan us­ing this one be­cause the plas­tic-leather han­dle wrap doesn’t ab­sorb wa­ter like a cot­ton­wrapped han­dle would,” he says. “The sword cuts the wa­ter well, has a tra­di­tional de­sign and just hap­pens to be in­ex­pen­sive. Some might call it a beater, but it hones your tech­nique to per­fec­tion. My teacher would say,

‘That sword was hon­ored above many other swords to cut wa­ter and ox­i­dize.’

“When you cut wa­ter, it spanks you from day one. It’s so sim­ple and clean. At slow speeds, you want min­i­mal splash and just the right sound. It’s great be­cause of the au­dio and visual feed­back, and you can do it at home — all you need is a trough. Of course, if you live in a cold cli­mate, you won’t be able to train in win­ter. You don’t want to hit ice.”

His men­tion of the po­ten­tial for dam­ag­ing a blade prompts me to ask for ad­vice on pre­serv­ing the sword I’ve brought to this train­ing ses­sion. “Don’t hit hard ob­jects,” he says in his own Capt. Ob­vi­ous way.

“Don’t miss and hit the con­crete. Don’t miss and hit your foot.

Make sure when you’re test- cut­ting that if you cut through the mat, you don’t hit a wall. Make sure your sword doesn’t touch any­thing but its in­tended tar­get.”

Fair enough, I think, then home in on the sub­ject of tar­gets. “In Ja­pan, most peo­ple cut bam­boo and tatami,” he says. “There’s a bam­boo for­est in front of every­one’s house. And there are plenty of tatami mats — you nor­mally change them in your home ev­ery three to four years and throw the old ones away.”

Know­ing some­thing about the prac­tice of soak­ing tatami in wa­ter be­fore cut­ting, I ask why that’s the stan­dard. The dif­fer­ence be­tween cut­ting wet tatami and dry tatami is the tar­get’s weight, which is di­rectly pro­por­tional to in­er­tia, its re­sis­tance to ac­cel­er­a­tion, Ab­bott replies. “Even a nice sword can have trou­ble cut­ting through a dry mat be­cause there’s no weight to re­sist the mo­tion of the blade. It’s like biting an ap­ple in your hand ver­sus biting an ap­ple that’s hang­ing from a string. The wet mat is, of course, heav­ier, which means more in­er­tia and more push­back.

“It’s also been said that cut­ting a dry mat is like hit­ting a mummy when you want your train­ing to be like hit­ting a fluid-filled body.

If you cut an arm off a mummy, it would prob­a­bly fly across the room. If you cut an arm off a hu­man, it will fall to the ground — just like a sec­tion of wet, rolled-up tatami.”

When it comes to cut­ting bam­boo, the key is to har­vest it at the right time, he notes. “If you get very young bam­boo, it’s easy to cut. But that shouldn’t be for cut­ting; it should be in your soup! If, on the other hand, you have bam­boo that’s a cou­ple of years old and is all brown, you’re more likely to bend the blade if you make a mis­take. I don’t rec­om­mend this for be­gin­ners.”

The fact that tatami isn’t free in the West and bam­boo doesn’t grow on trees — and could kink your blade — is what drove peo­ple here to start cut­ting wa­ter jugs and soda bot­tles, he says. “Plas­tic bot­tles aren’t the best for test-cut­ting, but peo­ple do it. It could dam­age the blade, but it prob­a­bly won’t, es­pe­cially if you clean it to pre­vent rust.”

The dis­cus­sion prompts Ab­bott to cite a gen­eral rule of the sword: “The blade will say ev­ery­thing you’ve ever done with it. If you do noth­ing, it will stay beau­ti­ful. If you do a lot of test-cut­ting, you’ll see lots of scratches. Now, if you start hit­ting swords to­gether, you’ll see dents, chips and abra­sions. That’s not a big deal in the present day if you’re us­ing a cheap old sword, but imag­ine it’s the 1400s and you’re not fast enough in a bat­tle. You block when you should move out of the way, and ev­ery time you do, it leaves a mark. Those marks are seen by you and then your chil­dren and your grand­chil­dren be­cause the sword is an heir­loom that’s passed down. It might take a gen­er­a­tion or two for ev­ery­thing to be re­paired. That’s why the Ja­panese say,

‘What­ever you do with the sword will be reg­is­tered on the sword for a long time.’”

Later that day, I gain first­hand knowl­edge of how a sword can be­come a reg­is­ter. My first at­tempt at test-cut­ting took place 10 years ago (see the Au­gust 2008 is­sue), and it was, shall we say, less than stel­lar. Af­ter I ex­plain this to Ab­bott, he re­minds me of what I learned from the wa­ter cut­ting and sword singing. Then I’m ready to give it an­other go. I swing, and the blade glides right through. My new sen­sei con­tin­ues to fine-tune my tech­nique as I slice that tatami like a sausage. But then I get a lit­tle too close to the bot­tom and slam my blade into the wooden peg that sup­ports the tatami roll. The dam­age isn’t se­ri­ous, but I get the feel­ing the mark on my blade will be there for some time.

THE BOOK OF FIRE

Fire plays an in­te­gral role in how a sword is cre­ated, of course. “These days, all af­ford­able swords come from forges in China, which is where you’ll get yours un­less you’re rich,” Ab­bott says. “A katana that’s made in Ja­pan

might cost $20,000, and the ones that are made here might in­volve an 18-month wait. If you have ei­ther one, then you prob­a­bly wouldn’t want to use it for ev­ery­day drills like cut­ting wa­ter.”

But for the pur­poses of a 21st-cen­tury swords­man, those im­ported blades are per­fect, Ab­bott con­tin­ues. “I don’t have any that cost that much, and I don’t need any. An ex­pen­sive sword doesn’t make you a bet­ter swords­man. A Marine will hit the tar­get us­ing a $ 500 hand­gun while a Har­vard boy with a $ 4,000 gun might miss.”

If he did have a $ 20,000 katana, would he use it? “Sure, I’d test- cut with it. What else are you go­ing to do? Let it sit around and then sell it to some­body else?

I would, how­ever, treat it with a lot more re­spect.”

I seize the op­por­tu­nity to ask an ex­pert why a sword might de­serve re­spect. “Yes, it’s an inan­i­mate ob­ject, but in Ja­pan, shinto teaches that spir­its are in inan­i­mate ob­jects,” Ab­bott says. “If you want to be part of the group, you’ve got to be­lieve — or at least speak and act — the same way. Per­son­ally, I tend to view my swords as steak knives, as tools for prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion. But in Ja­pan, if some­one was to give you a nice sword, you’d want to re­ceive and use that gift the way they’re ex­pect­ing.”

The con­ver­sa­tion jumps back to the mun­dane. “For be­gin­ners who are learn­ing how to cut, a wide, heavy blade is good, but you might out­grow it soon,” he says.

“Peo­ple of­ten find that big­ger isn’t al­ways bet­ter. Think about it this way: If you’re buy­ing your first gun, shouldn’t it be a .22? Yes, you can buy a .45 as your first one, but are you go­ing to prac­tice with it? It’s the same with swords. With a big, heavy blade, you might not use it as much be­cause you’ll get tired, which isn’t op­ti­mal be­cause it takes more reps to get pro­fi­cient with a heavy sword. And if the blade is big, it can be harder to put it back in the scab­bard safely. So you end up half-ass­ing it. You sac­ri­fice all the art. You’re just able to pull it out and use it like an ex­e­cu­tioner.”

For those rea­sons, Ab­bott of­ten finds him­self rec­om­mend­ing what he dubs the clas­sic blade. “That’s a thin­ner one that weighs around 1,000 grams,” he says. “It’s the av­er­age sword size that’s been around for 800 to 1,000 years. It’s the most versatile. It will cover the whole spec­trum of things you can do. “Do you just want to look at it? Then leave it up on the wall. “Do you want to get good at draw­ing it? Get an emery cloth and take the edge off, then draw it 10,000 times. When you’re done, take a stone and put the edge back on. By then, you will have been around a sword long enough so you’re not scared of it any­more. “Do you want to test-cut with it? No prob­lem!” Length fac­tors into your pur­chase only if you plan to do a lot of draw­ing and are on the shorter side of av­er­age, he adds. “A taller per­son might want a 30-inch blade, while a shorter per­son might want a 28-inch blade.

Ei­ther one is go­ing to cost you be­tween $500 and $700, which is what I rec­om­mend spend­ing. When you in­vest that much money, you’ll feel good about the blade, you’ll feel like you’re re­ally get­ting into swordsmanship and you’ll be able to cut safely.”

And just how should you take care of such a sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment? Should you oil it once a week, pro­tect it from fin­ger­prints, con­trol the hu­mid­ity in the room where it’s stored? “No,” Ab­bott barks. “You’d do all those things if it was an 800-year- old sword. But your $ 500 sword is a tool, so do what­ever you want. It’s go­ing to be sharp for a long time be­cause you prob­a­bly won’t be test- cut­ting that much. You could cut 500 mats with a sword like that, and the blade will be sharper than you need.

“If you want to prac­tice draw­ing, ev­ery fifth or 10th draw, oil the blade so it slides smoothly through your hand. That’s four to five drops of oil on a cloth. Use clove oil or 3-in- One ma­chine oil. It’s not only for preser­va­tion but also for func­tion­al­ity. You don’t want it to pull on your skin when you prac­tice draw­ing. The slicker it is, the more times you’ll draw it in train­ing.”

THE BOOK OF THE VOID

I won­der out loud what it is about swords that makes them seem al­most mag­i­cal and worth ded­i­cat­ing one’s life to even though we don’t carry them and we don’t fight with them. We don’t think the same way about the bat­tle-ax or mace, for in­stance.

“The movies are a big part of it,” Ab­bott says. “A sword cre­ates a con­nec­tion to the past. If you have a katana, you might think of your­self as rep­re­sent­ing the spirit of the samu­rai.

But I think it’s the fear of the blade that makes it seem mag­i­cal.

Re­mem­ber when I put the tip of that sword near your throat? Sim­i­larly, if I take a sword and draw it from the scab­bard by pulling it be­tween my fin­gers and then do the op­po­site when I put it back in, peo­ple will of­ten freak

out. Of course, the swords­man doesn’t freak out, but to many peo­ple, that’s liv­ing on the edge.”

His com­ment rings true, but I think it’s just part of the an­swer, so I probe for de­tails.

“The Ja­panese spent a long time mak­ing the katana per­fect,”

he says. “For 800 years, they were ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing a de­sign that feels good and works well. They learned to fold the steel to mix a stiff metal with a pli­able metal. Add in a rigid spine, and you get a per­fect weapon. You can cut through any­thing, and the blade won’t break.

“And it’s made to be por­ta­ble. It had to be strong and durable enough to fight lots of peo­ple, but it had to be light enough for the samu­rai to be able to walk any­where without drain­ing them­selves. If they knew they were go­ing into bat­tle, they’d use a spear or a bow and ar­row, but when they were walk­ing around, the sword was the best com­pro­mise. Through trial and er­ror over the cen­turies, they def­i­nitely fig­ured out their geom­e­try.”

But is there more to it? Could there be a fringe ben­e­fit of learn­ing the sword in an era when no­body car­ries one? “For self-de­fense, it will make you more ag­gres­sive in a good way,” Ab­bott says. “That hap­pens when you spend your time train­ing with ag­gres­sive mar­tial artists, and it will make you ag­gres­sive no mat­ter what you have — a stick, a sword or a knife. In a fight, you’ll end it fast, and the other per­son usu­ally isn’t pre­pared for that. They don’t ex­pect an im­me­di­ate re­sponse.”

Af­ter a minute of in­tro­spec­tion, he con­tin­ues: “The sword teaches you to drive 12 car lengths ahead. It teaches you to pay at­ten­tion to your sur­round­ings much more. In the past, you had to do that; oth­er­wise, you might end up on the wrong side of the street fac­ing 10 other guys with swords.”

Hav­ing got­ten con­fir­ma­tion that learn­ing how to wield the katana in 2018 is a worth­while en­deavor, I ask Ab­bott what be­ing a 21st-cen­tury swords­man means to him. “It means pol­ish­ing all the dif­fer­ent sword skills and mak­ing them sim­ple so you can be spot on when you need to,” he says, “and that takes a lot of ef­fort and time — which a lot of mod­ern sword prac­ti­tion­ers don’t want to in­vest.”

My mind con­jures a se­ries of fol­low-up ques­tions that I be­gin fir­ing off. What if I come to you claim­ing to be a swords­man. You ask, “What do you do?” and I say that once a week I slice wa­ter bot­tles in my back­yard and try to get bet­ter. Am I a swords­man? “No,” Ab­bott says. “You’re a back­yard cut­ter.”

What if I say that I get to­gether with friends and we take out our shi­nai, put on pro­tec­tive gear and go at it? Am I a swords­man? “No,” he says. “You’re a combatives guy who likes play­ing with bam­boo swords.”

What if I say that I go to the dojo, and af­ter class, I take out my bokken and do some kata? Am I a swords­man? “No, you’re a karate guy with a sword do­ing some kata,” he says.

What if I say that I have a valu­able sword hang­ing on the wall and reg­u­larly go to sword shows? “You’re a col­lec­tor.”

With that in mind, what makes a per­son a swords­man in this day and age? “Five years af­ter I ar­rived in Ja­pan — by then, my Ja­panese was pretty good — peo­ple would ask me what I was do­ing there,” he ex­plains. “I would say learn­ing kendo. They’d say, ‘Oh, how cute! How nice it is you’re do­ing one of our arts.’ They’re happy for you but a lit­tle sar­cas­tic. They might think of their own kids learn­ing it and would ask, ‘ Where do you learn your kendo?’ I would say. ‘ I go to Ni­hon Tai­iku Daigaku.’ They would say, ‘ Uh? You’re se­ri­ous! I’m sorry!’

It fi­nally clicks. In Ab­bott’s world, be­ing a swords­man means train­ing reg­u­larly in a le­git­i­mate art learned un­der the guid­ance of a le­git­i­mate in­struc­tor — and then, ide­ally, liv­ing your life ac­cord­ing to the lessons you ab­sorbed.

“That tells peo­ple you’re a swords­man. Be­fore that, to those peo­ple in Ja­pan, I was just some for­eigner play­ing with a toy. That’s the dif­fer­ence.”

For more in­for­ma­tion about Dana Ab­bott and the sword ser­vices he of­fers in the Ari­zona desert, visit learn­thesword.com.

The first stance that Dana Ab­bott teaches be­gin­ners in­volves hold­ing the sword in front of the body in chu­dan no ka­mae as de­picted here. The­o­ret­i­cally, it’s ef­fec­tive whether the swords­man steps for­ward and thrusts or waits for the at­tacker to ad­vance...

Sword novices of­ten adopt a ready stance in which the weapon is held ver­ti­cal near their shoul­der, but it ends up look­ing like they’re hold­ing a base­ball bat, Dana Ab­bott says. What those stu­dents are at­tempt­ing to repli­cate is the hasso po­si­tion shown...

The bokuto (of­ten called bokken) is the pre­ferred tool for be­gin­ners who want to learn the way of the Ja­panese sword, Dana Ab­bott says, be­cause it’s less likely to dam­age by­standers and sur­round­ings than a metal sword.

The 12- o’clock-to- 6- o’clock down­ward cut is the first sword strike Dana Ab­bott teaches new stu­dents. It’s aimed at the top of the head.

The 11- o’clock-to-5- o’clock cut aims at the right side of the op­po­nent’s neck, while the 1- o’clock-to-7- o’clock strike tar­gets his left side.

The 3- o’clock-to-9- o’clock cut at­tacks the left side of the op­po­nent’s body.

The 9- o’clockto-3- o’clock hor­i­zon­tal cut can tar­get the ribs or neck on the right side of the op­po­nent’s body.

(Left) “Cut­ting wa­ter” is the name Dana Ab­bott uses to re­fer to a drill that en­tails slic­ing through liq­uid at var­i­ous speeds while pay­ing at­ten­tion to the sound the sword makes and the splash it cre­ates.

(Be­low) At full speed, the blade cre­ates a shock wave that erupts along its tra­jec­tory.

Tatami mats that have been soaked in wa­ter, rolled up and se­cured with rub­ber bands are per­haps the best ma­te­rial for test- cut­ting.

When the au­thor’s test­cut­ting got a lit­tle too close to the bone, his sword sliced into the wooden peg used to hold the rolled tatami.

The “fear of the blade” man­i­fests when the swords­man con­fronts his op­po­nent with a con­fi­dent stare from a stead­fast po­si­tion that has his weapon ready to at­tack the other per­son’s neck, Dana Ab­bott says.

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