shinai complex 竹刀コン

It must have been in 2001. It was the night before the European kendo championships (Bologna I guess) and I was chatting with the then U.K. kendo team coach Honda Sotaro sensei about shinai. In particular, I was unhappy with the shinai I had taken with me to use in the competition and was seeking advice. Many of my friends proclaimed to be happy to use anything that came their way, but I was a little bit more picky than that. I remember being told by Honda sensei quite specifically that it was important to understand what shinai is right for you, and that being fastidious in shinai choice isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I felt reassured that my worry was for nothing but of-course these were the days when internet ordering of shinai was pretty much in its infancy, and when European kendo suppliers were extremely uncommon, so I didn’t really have the chance to be picky anyway.

Fast forward a little bit to 2006. I had been living in Japan for a few years and it had become amazingly easy for me to go to a kendo shop and physically choose and purchase a shinai. In that years June edition of Kendo Nippon there appeared an article called 私の好む竹刀 or “my favourite (type of) shinai” The article got 24 kenshi from around Japan and asked them about their shinai preferences (along with a picture).

I won’t translate all 24 here (read the mag!) just the Chiba Masashi hanshi section. I will then briefly post the name, height and weight, favoured shinai type, and main quote from the other 23.


Chiba Masashi, hanshi (Tokyo, 170cm / 79kg)


(click to see larger version)

“With a tsukagawa that measures 3.5 fists in length I can use it in both chudan and jodan.”

From the beginning I never used a dobari or larger shinai. Although you can’t find them today, I used to love a thin yet strong shinai called 清次 (not sure how to translate this as there’s many possible derivations).

I have a normal build and thus have normal sized hands. Maybe this is why I like handles so thin as when I squeeze the the shinai the tip of my little finger just meets the very base of my thumb. If I use a handle thicker than this my speed and dexterity (冴え) are compromised.

Selecting a shinai that matches the weight regulations I end up in the range of 510-520g. When I was younger I used 530-540g shinai but I reduced this as I got older.

The perfect length of the handle for me is the same length as the length of my lower arm measured from the elbow. Using this as the criteria I use a tsukagawa of around 37.5 in size. If you say this in fist lengths it would be around 3.5 fists maybe. This is what I get made for me by Moribudogu. If I use something of this length/size then I can use it easily for both chudan and jodan.


Note that shogo/grades are those at time of publishing.

Kyoshi hachidan:

[ Name (prefecture, height/width, favoured shinai type if noted) ]

Kano Tsuyoshi (Chiba, 171cm/82kg): Cutting a little bit of the end of handle brings you closer to the size of a real sword.

Kuboki Fumio (Kanagawa, 181/63, chokuto): I prefer using shinai heaver than general practitioners.

Takahashi Toshiaki (Kyoto, 177/77): I think about the balance of the entire shinai and aim for something that can “cut.”

Makita Minoru (Chiba, 175/84): By making my handle shorter I aim for a straighter style of kendo.

Kuboki Masaru (Tokyo, 160/59, mainly koto): Since my student days I’ve always paid attention to my shinai. Detailed customisations shine through to improvements in my seme.

Futagoishi Takashi (Hyogo, 173/75): When I was an active competitor I aimed at facility, now I go for balance.

Tajima Makoto (Shiga, 178/81, chokuto): I discovered how to use the shinogi only when I moved from a dobari to a chikuto.

Kawata Kiyomi (Tokushima, 171/68, koban): I started using a koban tsuka only after I became hachidan.

Ujiie Michio (Tokyo, 170/75): I choose shinai by how it actually feels in my hands rather than type or shape.

Tasaki Hiromitsu (Kyoto, 172/78, koto): I covered my weakness for many years by using a thick handle.

Nishikawa Kiyonori (Tokyo, 184/78): I can feel the difference in even a tiny change in tsukagawa length.

Kyoshi nanadan:

Yamaguchi Akio (Yamanashi, 175/81, koto): After looking at a famous sensei’s shinai I changed my view – I aim to use a light shinai heavily.

Yuzawa Hiroshi (Akita, 179/82): I aim not to feel the heaviness of my shinai. (Note: Yuzawa sensei used a 610g shinai when he took part in the senshuken taikai. Now he uses a 570g one)

Eiga Hideyuki (Hokkaido, 178/88): Since each shinai has a different feel, I sense that they are actually living things.

Imura Yoshiki (Ishikawa, 178/85, dobari): I need to use a particular brand of shinai (火の國) to get a good ippon.

Rokudan and below (shogo/grade noted):

Makita Naoto (5dan, Chiba, 178/80): I use a heavy shinai in order to strike strongly.

Tanaka Takanori (5dan, Toyama, 158/76): I like to use a shinai which makes it easy to execute waza, even against tall opponents.

Nakabara Izumi (5dan, Kagawa, 187/90, chokuto): The quality of the materials (i.e. bamboo) reflects in striking power.

Hoshino Toshiyuki (5dan, Ishikawa, 177/75): When I choose a shinai I check that the balance is towards my hands and that the shinai was made from bamboo taken from the roots.

Omura Ken (4dan, Shimane, 174/70, koto): To raise the quality of my ippon I am picky about where the balance is.

Ladies:

Yano Hiromi (renshi 6dan, Kagawa, 160cm, dobari): After having a kid, I changed my shinai and my kamae evolved.

Nakamura Yuko (5dan, Iwate, 168cm, dobari): I modify the tsukagawa to fit my size.

Nobutani Kana (3dan, Shimane, 158cm, dobari): I have no preference other than just swinging the shinai and seeing how it feels.


Shinai types in brief

Very briefly I want to expand of a couple of the terms used above in the “favoured shinai type” above. These aren’t precise definitions as they can slightly change based on the craftsman/manufacturer.

Koto (古刀型): where the body of the shinai is generally thinner than normal shinai and the balance tends to be spread over the entire body. Said to be the original, more traditional style of shinai.

Dobari (胴張り型): where the body of the shinai is beefier. This is more pronounced towards the base of the shinai where the balance lies.

Also used – with slight overlap – is:

Chokuto (直刀): a very straight type of shinai with (in my experience) balance differing between manufacturer. Overlap with koto above.

Koban (小判): a shinai whose handle is oval shaped (thus approximating a sword handle better). In my experience these tend to feel like dobari shinai above (perhaps due to the balance shape caused by the re-shaping of the round handle).

You sometimes hear other terms such as jissen (実践型/実戦型) but they generally don’t change too much in basic design, only in balance and perhaps length of tsuka.


Fast forwarding to today and – almost 10 years since I was first told it was ok to be picky about shinai – I confess that I am even more fussy over shinai than I was in my youth… so much so that if a shinai doesn’t have a particular feel then I can loose focus in my keiko. Maybe I am overdoing it a bit!

What I noticed over time – via my own experience, chatting with sempai and sensei, and again when I was reading the article above – is that peoples preferences obviously evolve over the years. As you get older your body not also changes, but so too does your purpose for practising. This necessarily modifies the tools that you use to pursue your goal.

Anyway, perhaps I am a little bit too fanatic over my shinai, but I am comfy in the knowledge that I am not the only one!

Sources
スキージャーナル剣道日本。2006年6月発行

Published by

George

I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

14 thoughts on “shinai complex 竹刀コン

  1. I’m pretty new and inexperienced when to comes to shinai types so I tend to go with what I feel is comfortable. In recent years I do prefer the straighter and thicker handled shinais over the thinner ones. I feel more control between my fingers, a bit like driving a fast sports car with fat handled steering wheel. I don’t want my shinai to feel like I’m driving Miss Daisy! 😉 Furthermore if the shinai is weighted more at the tip I notice my cuts are a lot straighter and it’s easier to take control of the centre. I used dobari and oval shinais in the past and I found them uncomfortable and it was difficult to perceive where the centre was.

    Thank you for such an informative article!

  2. Ah, a topic close to my heart! I’ve done a lot of personal research into shinai in the last 2 years. Onlinekendo have been doing fairly inexpensive custom orders of any length/weight combination for some time and I used this as a way to get an idea of some very different shinai set-ups. FWIW here goes…

    I’m 175 cm and of a fairly light build, so what is heavy to me is probably quite light to a lot of people.

    I started with a very heavy (for me) size 36, koto style, weighing about 550g. This meant the handle ended up being reasonably thick. Also in order to make a shinai of that length heavy enough, the staves were so thick that there was relatively little compression on impact — probably a bit painful for my opponent! I liked the overall feel and the length was the same as my iaito. But the thick handle over time meant my small to average-sized hands became fatigued. It also took some time to adjust my uchi-ma accordingly. This shinai was very fast through the air however, in spite of its weight, and I noticed a real difference in how close I could execute techniques, esp. oji-waza. It did feel a little like a (bamboo) shoto in its lack of flex and lack of compression.

    Next I ordered a slightly lighter (about 540g) koto shinai size 37.5. This is closer to my ideal shinai, with the handle the right thickness. However it is sometimes hard to get used to if I change back and forth between 37.5 and 39 as the difference is not as marked as the 36, which straight away reminds you that it requires a different approach altogether.

    So far I have favoured koto/chokuto style. However I thought I should confirm my bias by experimenting with dobari. So I thought I would try quite a heavy dobari and see if the more centralised balance-point made it feel like a lighter shinai. I chose a 37.5 dobari with a weight of 550g. I really didn’t like it. It seemed to be hard to control and I just didn’t connect with it. I still pick it up from time to time, just to check, and I always end up putting it down again!

    Lastly I ordered a shinai by mistake that was size 37 and only 340g (it was literally an email typo that caused it!). At first I was annoyed but then I realised it could be a fantastic training tool. It might force me to perform more kizeme than physical seme and I would have to stay relaxed in order to wield it straight. In fact I did find it a very interesting shinai to use. I’m not sure what my opponents thought of my kendo but I’m sure the more experienced could see there was something… different. It was like fighting with a long toothpick. Unfortunately it didn’t last long, either through faulty bamboo or lack of tensile strength due to its slender shape, it soon busted a stave.

    I still like to use off-the-rack 38 (women’s and men’s), always koto. And I still have the 37.5 which I use regularly. I’ve also gone back to 39 so as to not lose the ability to wield a longer shinai. They do feel very strange at that length if you spend time using a shorter shinai. I’ve also been using koban shinai but I still have no particular preference. A good round handled shinai is still much preferable to a so-so oval handle.

    Finally (phew!) I prefer 38 tsuka. One disadvantage of onlinekendo is their shinai makers produce tsukagawa of very uneven lengths. Generally on a 39 shinai if the tsuka is starting to cover the dobari it’s too long for me. Conversely if you can start to see the handle shaping of the bamboo above the tsuka its too short I reckon. b

  3. Nice article, great site.

    Anyone know what the various variations generally help with?

    From what i could gather above…
    -Thinner handle better dexterity.
    -Shorter handle straighter kendo style.
    -Heavy shinai strike strongly.
    -火の國 good ippon 🙂

  4. Hey Ben, thats a lot of comment there!!!

    I have a type that I discovered by chance that I use with younger opponents. Its a bit pricey (and I use them a lot) but I really can’t go without them now. For my everyday vs adult shinai I guess I am finally coming to a point where my choice was not as random as before. Hopefully I can do my first bulk order of shinai this coming sale seasons (Dec-Jan).

    @alfanator: that sounds about right!! But more than that, I think that choosing shinai is a personal choice. Sure there are quite a few people that say they can use anything, but I reckon the more discerning you are the better.

    Cheers guys!

  5. Like I said, it’s a subject close to my heart!

    Apart from discovering more about my own preferences, the most interesting thing I learned from all that was just how much of a difference length makes. A shorter shinai moves through the air faster and easier than a longer one, even if the shorter is considerably heavier. b

  6. Around the time when I started doing jodan, I also developed a taste for nice dobari shinais. I guess I should count my self lucky that they were in general unsuitable for jodan usage (Madake shinais tends to be denser and heavier), as they were also a lot more expensive..but for chudan usage, I do love a more ‘solid’ shinai.
    Now, that I’ve gone back to rebuild my chudan, I’ve also gone back to the more heavy shinai and are currently using a koto-style shinai. (Still biased slightly towards the handle).

    It does greatly influence my kendo. You can’t snap off an ai-kote-men at the same speed and you also need to tweak the timing of oji-waza, as it will take longer to get the tip moving. Doing jodan is a lot more difficult and puts a lot of strain the wrist when you miss, but on the other hand, it also makes any hits that might have been borderline too light before, into solid points.
    For more traditional jodan-proponent (1 cut , 1 point), this obviously fits in well, but not so much for the competitive jodan fighter.

    As for myself now, it forces me to focus on keeping things simple. I need to keep a relatively strong focus on the connection between left foot and left hand to launch any effective attacks, because any lag between the hand and feet(hips, really), will be magnified due the weight and balance of the shinai. (It’ll also make me compensate with the right hand, opening up nicely for degote)
    On the other, when you do get it right, you are also rewarded with a stronger, straighter cut, that can power through the opponents attacks or defenses.

    Having said that, I do also have a do-it-all shinai. It’s the standard practice shinai from Tada-Sangyu, which is a durable, cheapish shinai that is truly a good all-round shinai and I will always try to have some of those in stock.

  7. Where I practice now, I don’t get a lot of options for shinai. I have one chokuto practice shinai about 520g and another madake shinai (big handle and very thick, 580g). I use them interchangeably, and my kendo style definitely differs with each of them. When using the heavy one, I can’t strike as fast as with the light one, so I have to focus more on subtle movements along the chushin. Timing is also different.

    Once i asked my sensei about his shinai, he said he could use anything, just adjusting his style to fit the shinai.

  8. All I have been doing ever since I started Kendo seven years ago was just buy a cheap shinai, regardless of the weight balance. When I started, I was in college and didn’t have the money to experiment and there’s the issue of only having the opportunity to try out the various shinai at tournaments a few times a year.

    There was one shinai that I had a while back that felt nearly perfect for me. It had the thick handle so it felt better in my hands, and the weight balance was spread more evenly throughout so I was able to handle it much better than the ones that were balanced towards the handle.

    These days, I have a more disposabe income so I am able to try out more kinds of shinai when I get the chance. Unfortunately, since there are no martial arts stores that are close by, the only time I can really experiment is at tournaments.

    There are many more different kinds of shinai out there that I haven’t tried yet and I have many more years of practice which can allow for many changes in style of Kendo and taste in shinai. As painstaking the process seems to be, it almost seems kinda fun.

  9. George, I also bought that number of “Kendo Nippon” magazine years ago. And poorly translated Chiba sensei comments and a few others sensei. Very interesting.

    Thanks again for yout good work.

  10. Good translation.
    As for the name of the shinai Chiba sensei mentions at the beginning of the article, it’s most likely read “Kiyotsugu.” It’s a name, so it was possibly named after whoever crafted the original design of that particular shinai or maybe just after some random historical figure.

    The only thing missing in the translation was when he explained the grip length, he does say that he measures from the elbow, but more specifically, the inner side of the elbow. So to find the right grip length, he would bend his elbow, then place the bottom of the grip where his bicep would meet his forearm, then grab the shinai with his hand to check for the right length.

  11. Thanks for the comment! I guess the kanji could be Kiyoji as well… we just don’t know and may never know as the article implied you can’t get them today. As for the measuring thing – doing it with the inside of your elbow is so ubiquitous I didnt feel the need to mention it… in fact, how else could it be done!!

    Again, cheers!

Leave a Reply