Yesterday I popped into my sempai’s kendo shop in central Osaka to buy a shinai. Almost all my shinai have round handles, but sometimes I do use koban (oval-handled) shinai, so I picked one up. I took a snap and posted it on facebook to quickly see if kenshi247 readers also try koban shinai. Of course the answer was in the affermative.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am really picky about shinai. This has led me, over the years, to experiment with different types of shinai, be that lengths, weights, brands, balance, handle length, and even handle shapes. I think only the last one will raise an experienced kenshi’s eyebrows. Even then, for most people a change in handle shape means the decision to use a normal round handled shinai, or the oval, more sword-like, koban handled shinai. Thats it. But the reality is that there are various types of shinai handle shapes out there. Although rare, I’ve tried SQUARE and OCTAGONAL handles, and I’ve heard of triangular and hexagonal.
As a quick comparison, please take a look at these snaps of square, octagonal, and oval handles on these shinai that I own:
But why bother with using a non-round handled shinai anyway? Here are a selection of comments from the original image I posted on facebook:
“I use one pretty regularly. What I like about it (aside from how it fits in the hands) is that it is a more realistic representation of how an actual sword would feel when gripping.”
“I use koban only. I feel my grip is more over the top of the Shinai. It helps my seme, tenuchi and feels more like a katana.”
“My definitive preference is koban shinais. Considering the shape of a half-closed human hand is that of an oval, I would consider koban to be more anatomically correct, comfortable, and a better representation of a katana grip.”
“I did for a while when I had a lot of trouble keeping my hasuji accurate. It also helped strengthen my tenouchi.”
“It helps me with Do(u).”
“I love the oval grip. I do notice it tends to make me lazy when using a normal shinai and tend to let the shinai drift from left to right in my grip.”
“I prefer koban… I think they’re easier to use than the round grips.”
“I started Iaido and Kendo at the same time it only felt natural to have a koban styled shinai.”
“After many years of battodo, iaido and taijutsu I couldn’t get used to a standard tsuka, koban gata feels more natural for me and helps with correct hasuji.”
“I started kendo after several years of iaido practice. Koban tsuka was a natural choice.”
I don’t really have too much to add on top of what everyone wrote, but if I try to summarise everything it would go something like this: basically, koban are easier to use because they fit into the hand better, they promote a better awareness of the ‘blade’ part of the shinai (thus leading to better, more correct hasuji), and they fit more into the shinai-as-a-sword part of kendo’s culture. I think the other handle shapes also promote the same things to a degree (though the square shaped handle can bite into the hands a bit).
What I do want to add is this: I think its worth exploring different handle shapes in order to explore how you use your hands, not only in the action of striking, but how the shinai sits in your hands in static kamae, and how this changes during the actions of osae, harai, etc. For me personally it took a long time (over 15 years?) to begin to become aware the subtleties of finger use and to wake up to the fact that my grip was constantly changing during an encounter (and that this is normal). Also – and this is an important point for me in particular – deeper understanding of shinogi use and concomitant change in how the wrists work – is very hard if not impossible to come by while using only a round handle.
At any rate, although you can do all this with a normal, round-handled shinai anyway, I do think its a good exercise to use an oval (or whatever) handled shinai now and then in order to explore what your hands and fingers are doing during keiko. Try it!
I’m super busy at the moment, so this article was a little bit rushed… I hope it actually makes sense! Feel free to comment on facebook or below. Cheers!