For as long as I have been writing kenshi 24/7, and even before then, I have been very picky about shinai (and to a lesser extent, bokuto). Whenever there is an article in a kendo mag about someone’s shinai preference, I read it. I have also spent many years not only trying out different shinai brands, but experimenting with different types of shinai grip.
Over the last year I have been using a combination of round handles, koban, and octagon ones. I started to use the latter about maybe four or five years ago, and since then they have exploded in popularity, at least here in Kansai anyway.
So when my good friend Jack, who works at Tozando in Kyoto, mentioned they were experimenting with a new type of tsuka a few months ago, I had to have one. Jack owes me a few beers, so he obliged readily. Here is what it looks like:
Ok, so it’s impossible to tell from the pics I took above what changes were done to the tsuka shape, so I asked Jack to send me some pics of a shinai without the tsukagawa on. The two pictures below illustrate much better what has been done:
The rounded part of the tsuka has been flattened at the base of the omote (left) side, and towards the top of ura (right) side.
Initially Jack said that the tsuka was shaped to be more like that of a katana, which was slightly a difficult to imagine at first. It turned out my mental block was because the two swords that I own and swing often – an iaito that I bought in the mid-90s and a habiki for kendo kata – had been wrapped kind of flat… so it wasn’t until that I got my newly refurbished katana that it actually clicked.
Here you can see clearly that the wrapping bulges out over the menuki at the top left and bottom right.
I am not sure if the new design of tsuka is actually a “real” katana grip or a “more” katana-like grip, but I don’t think that it actually matters (see below).
So why bother anyway?
The purpose behind these various tsuka shapes is that they allegedly help your grip, and by extension, your general posture/kamae. I am not sure about any benefits to kamae to tell you the truth, but grip, yes, I can see how it may help.
First of all, as far as I am concerned, how you hold the shinai and the mechanism of how the hands are used as the shinai moves and strikes is encapsulated in the term “tenouchi.” In English this would be basically be “grip.” A good strike has “sae” or a “crispness” to it that results from a snap (which utilises the wrists as well).
I have written on numerous occasions in the past about tenouchi, and my stated opinion is that it’s basically not so difficult to acquire good tenouchi, it just takes time and a lot of practise. Other caveats can be read in the linked article.
If I was to add to what I stated previously I’d say that lately I have come to the opinion that your average kendoka is usually far more worried about acquiring good sae than the actual shape of their hands on the tsuka, probably because they are wearing kote (though it must be said that there are some kote types that try to help the shape along). This might not be a bad route for most people to take.
My thoughts on different tsuka shapes
I think that good tenouchi can be acquired with a normal round-handled shinai, but that it doesn’t hurt to experiment with different tsuka to help you “get” it. My gut instinct is to say: keep the majority of your shinai standard handled ones, and occasionally experiment with others. The goal, of course, is to have good tenouchi whatever kind of shinai it is you use.
My thoughts on the katana-like tsuka in particular
Ok, so obviously Jack is my friend and he gave me this shinai for free. He didn’t, however, give it to me for review, he gave it to me because he wanted my opinion. He knew a review was probably coming though!
In short, I like it. Perhaps a lot. The effect is subtle, but it is exactly the type of nuanced feel that I like in my shinai, especially in the right hand. Other people may feel that it’s gimmicky, and I do understand that, but they probably aren’t quite so picky as I am… or maybe they aren’t ready to experiment yet. Personally, I am willing to spend more time using tsuka like this because I definitely feel a benefit, in particular for right hand placement (i.e. it goes on flat).
The problem – as with all differently shaped tsuka, but in particular with this one – is that it will be difficult to put different slats together once breakages inevitably occur. The secret to this is, of course, to continually use the same type of shinai/tsuka and keep a stock of slats.
btw, in one of the articles linked above I said:
Making unnatural shapes with their hands is also a no-no (people coming from an iaido background will often make affected shapes with their hands): “hold the shinai naturally.”
I still believe this. So, In that respect, it doesn’t matter to me that this is meant to be a katana-like handle… it simply feels nice.
Anyway, I have been using the shinai that Jack gave me on an almost daily basis for a month now, and I will continue to experiment more with it in the future, and perhaps update this article at a later time. In the meantime, if you try it out, please post your thoughts in the comments below.
The more I think about different tsuka shapes – and especially this katana-like one – the more I have a desire to whip out some sandpaper and experiment myself. If I come up with anything useful, I will let you know. And if you have your own shinai tsuka hacks, please comment and share!
Tozando is just starting to sell the product. They are calling it the “shinken-tsuka” (Katana Grip Shinai in English) and it is an upgrade service that they offer on any of their shinai (I assume they will have pre-made ones on sale as well). Here is the promo vid: