Hōki-ryū iaidō in Indiana

Hōki-ryū iaidō

at Yobushin Dojo, Indiana


What is Hōki-ryū? What is Iaidō?

Founded around 1596 by Katayama Hisayasu, Hōki-ryū is a classical tradition of iaidō (ee-EYE-doe), which is a form of Japanese swordsmanship that specializes in the art of drawing the sword to respond to an attack. The word iaidō may be glossed as the "way () of meeting (ai) whatever situation one is in (i)," and as a martial metaphor, iai refers to the act of sword drawing. Indeed, only by inhabiting the moment with the fullness of mind and spirit can one be prepared for any eventuality, wherever one is (tsune ni ite, kyū ni awasu), even with the disadvantage of a sheathed sword. Properly pursued, iaidō is a path of combative, physical, and mental development, teaching the practitioner to move with grace and balance, and to focus on the here-and-now.
Iaidō in Japan
Above: At a grading of high-ranking iaidōka in Japan.

Hōki-ryū has a curriculum of fifteen solo kata (prearranged practice patterns) that teaches fighting from the scabbard in a number of combative scenarios (e.g., suddenly being attacked by someone from behind). The practice of these kata is characterized by the presence of mind and the exactitude of technique. The student should approach each repetition as the one chance in a lifetime (ichi go, ichi e) to do the kata, giving it their all. Though an iai training session may strike the casual observer as “Zen-like” or tranquil, upon closer examination he or she will discern the intense concentration and the martial intent beneath the surface. Only with the proper mental disposition can the students drill kata and cultivate the synergy of spirit, sword, and body (ki-ken-tai itchi).
Above: A dramatic moment as Nakamura sensei cuts through the target straw mat.

Practicing iaidō requires either an unsharpened sword made from an aluminum alloy (iaitō) or, at the advanced level, a live blade forged in the traditional Japanese fashion (shinken). The uniform derives from traditional samurai clothing, consisting of iaigi (jacket), hakama (wide pleated trousers), and iai obi (a wide belt). Unlike kendo, iaidō uses no protective coverings. The overall appearance generally conveys austerity and dignity. For more information, read on, but also read the history page, as well as Diane Skoss’ article "Koryū Primer," which explains what a koryū (classical tradition) is.

What Makes Hōki-ryū Unique?

Born of a particular culture and time, Hōki-ryū does not merely teach how to draw the sword, but it also offers a look into the past. Its four-hundred year history makes up a part of what it is. As a classcal art, Hōki-ryū offers a path for self-cultivation, yet discloses its meaning only to those who commit to training their spirit and body in the long term. The students must overcome the challenges that arise in the pursuit of this discipline, perfecting the techniques and forging their spirit (seishin tanren). Such issues cannot be adequately addressed here, so instead we offer a few brief observations about Hōki-ryū’s practice below.

  • Simplicity and elegance. Hōki-ryu eschews unnecessary embellishment and complexity for a small set of simple, efficient movements to addresses a range of combative situations. Indeed, Hōki-ryū’s design is practically-minded, and may even be likened to the modern military principle of KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Simplicity, however, does not mean crude techniques, but in this case it is the result of careful refinement. As a consequence, Hōki-ryū is elegant in appearance, with understated movements and dignified postures.
  • Compactness of movement. Hōki-ryū techniques generally require relatively little space to perform, and some of the kata are explicitly designed to teach iai in cramped or close-range situations. One could easily imagine a palace guard in the feudal era learning such an art, if only to prepare for indoor ambushes. Today, certain lines of Hōki-ryū practice drawing while standing only two feet in front of the wall, and this is possible only if the movements are compact.
  • The nature of shōdachi. Hōki-ryū kata are primarily defensive, and they teach certain strategies to overcome the disadvantage inherent in such combative scenarios. Contrary to what one might expect when defending against an attack, the first action of the sword (shōdachi) as one draws the sword is frequently not a parry. But rather, it aims to disrupt the enemy and interrupt his attack, preparing him for the killing blow.
  • Garyū no kamae, the “posture of the recumbent dragon.” This is Hōki-ryū’s most distinctive posture, found in no other style. It is so named because, on the surface, it evokes the idea of a dragon at rest with a great deal of energy coiled up within. At a deeper level, the attendant teachings form an important part of Hōki-ryū iai. Garyū no kamae usually occurs before sheathing the sword, and the entire sequence of movements forms a part of Hōki-ryū’s set of distinguishing features.
Above: A document entitled Shinkyōgo attributed to Katayama Hisayasu. Iwakuni Chōkokan Museum. Photo courtesy of Nakamura sensei.

Other than the general points above, Hōki-ryū is also distinguished by a number of specific technical features:

  • Sōete-tsuki, braced thrust. Hōki-ryū is known for this technique, which is also a good illustration of the ryū’s compactness of movement. The same hand position is also adapted for very close-range cutting action.
  • Use of kiai. Kiai is the focusing of energy as one delivers an attack, generally expressed as an explosive "spirit shout." While many other iaidō practitioners train in silence, Hōki-ryū employs kiai in its practice.
  • Echoes of armored swordsmanship (katchu kempō). For the most part of its existence, Hōki-ryū’s milieu was peacetime, and it was primarily a form of unarmored swordsmanship. However, it supposedly had a battlefield origin, and that has left a few tell-tale marks in the execution of certain movements — cutting close to the body, for example.
Above: Paul Smith, the instructor of Yobushin Dojo, performs a seated kiri-oroshi. Note that the sword tip ends at approximately chest height (suigetsu), which is characteristic of Hōki-ryu, whereas most other schools tend to end lower.

Is Hōki-ryū Iaidō or Iaijutsu?

Nakayama Hakudo (1873-1958), the revitalizer of Shinden-ryū, coined the term iaidō to distinguish his modern form of iai from classical iaijustu (“the art of iai”). Hōki-ryū, however, does not observe this distinction, and uses these two words rather arbitrarily. Certain lines of Hōki-ryū refer to their practice as iaidō, while others employ the term iaijutsu, though we all practice effectively the same material. For Hōki-ryū, the choice of the term does not mean that we align ourselves with the modern rather than the classical (or vice versa), or that we are a "spiritually"-oriented - art rather than a "combatively"-oriented -jutsu art (or vice versa). Our school calls our practice iaidō, but we are also koryū. For a more thorough explanation, see Rennis Buchner's "The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same."

How Can I Join Your School?

Typically, a prospective student should make an appointment to observe a class. Afterwards he or she will discuss the possibility of joining the school with the instructor. Our classes are small, and the instructor invests a substantial amount of time and energy on each individual student, necessitating a screening process to discern the prospective's suitability and interest. Upon admission, the student should consult with the instructor before investing in training equipment.

Yobushin Dojo
Yobushin dojo interior
Left: Yobushin Dojo's entrance in the deep of winter.
Right: dojo interior.


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