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)
“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.
[ 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.
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.
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!