Miyamoto Musashi Died On June 13, 1645.

Considered one of the greatest samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi’s reputation has grown to mythic proportions over the years, despite much of his life remaining a mystery. The undefeated swordsman, master of strategy, calligrapher, painter, writer and martial arts icon, Miyamoto Musashi was born towards the end of the warring States period. He took part in a great many battles and duels, created his own unique sword style and wrote one of the best known and widest read books on strategy, confrontation and victory.

Musashi was born Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin, with the childhood names of Bennosuke or Takezo, in the village of Miyamoto in Mimasaka, Harima Province. His mother died soon after he was born, and he was raised by his father, Shinmen Munisai, an accomplished swordsman and expert in the jitte, a baton like instrument with a side protruding hook used for blocking, deflecting and trapping swords.

At a young age, Musashi was sent to live with his uncle at a temple, where he was taught basic reading and writing skills. According to Musashi’s Book Of Five Rings, the “Go Rin No Sho“, Musashi had his first duel at the age of thirteen. His opponent was Arima Kihei a wandering swordsman from the Shinto-Ryu school. Musashi’s uncle tried to stop the fight on account of Musashi’s age, however moments into the bout, Musashi threw Arima to the ground and hit him with a wooden staff. Arima Kihei died vomiting blood.

At 17, Musashi is said to have joined the army of Ukita Hideie fighting for the Toyotomi loyalists in the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600. Following the battle, Musashi roamed Japan perfecting his fighting skills, enduring hardships and duels in an effort to better himself.

Arriving in Kyoto, the 21 or 22 year old Musashi fought a series of duels against the famed Yoshioka Clan, respected instructors to four generations of the Ashikaga Shogun and founders of the Yoshioka style, one of the eight major sword styles of kenjutsu created around 1532 by Yoshioka Kempo.

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There are many depictions of what Musashi looks like. I like this one from Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel the best.

The first duel was against Yoshioka Seijuro, then head of the Yoshioka family and school and took place on March 8, 1604, outside the Rendai-ji Temple in Northern Kyoto. It was to be fought with a bokuto (wooden sword) with the winner declared by a single blow.

As a part of his strategy, Musashi arrived late. Angered by this disrespect, the overconfident Seijuro lost his temper, and his concentration. In an instant, Musashi struck at Seijuro with his wooden sword, breaking his left arm. Having lost the duel to a “nobody”, Seijuro retired from samurai life and became a monk.

Yoshioka Seijuro’s brother, Denshichiro, then became the head of the Yoshioka clan. Denshichiro was said to have been an even more able swordsman than Seijuro, and to avenge his brother and restore family honor, another duel was arranged. The second bout was staged at the Buddhist temple Sanjusangendo, in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District. Musashi, armed with a bokuto once again arrived late, and again was the victor, killing Denshichiro instantly with a single blow to the head.

This further angered and embarrassed the Yoshioka Clan and their followers, who issued the next challenge in the name of Yoshioka Matashichiro, the 12-year old head of the clan. The Yoshioka honor and reputation was at stake, and so the school arranged for the following duel to be fought below the spreading pine tree on the slopes below the Ichijo-Ji Temple in the north of Kyoto.

This time Musashi arrived at the designated area well ahead of time and waited in hiding. He was not surprised to find the young Yoshioka leader dressed in full battle armor and surrounded by a large contingent of retainers armed with swords, bows and matchlock guns. Musashi waited patiently as the boy took hisposition under the great pine tree and his men set the ambush.

He emerged in the very middle of the Yoshioka trap, and cut the boy down, instantly ending the Yoshioka School. Within moments, the Yoshioka disciples were falling over each other in an effort to cut down their single enemy. Greatly outnumbered, Musashi fought his way out of the ambush in a manner unseen by the samurai of the time. He held his katana long sword in his right hand, and companion sword, the wakizashi, in his left, and so used both swords to cut his way out of the Yoshioka throng.

It was a style based on his fathers’ teaching with the Jitte, using the short sword to block the opponents blade, allowing a decisive cut be made with the main sword. This style was to be known as Enmei Ryu, later the Nito-Ryu and Niten Ichi style of swordsmanship.

Musashi’s greatest duel took place on the morning of April 13, 1612 against Sasaki Kojiro. The two arch-rival swordsmen, Musashi and Kojiro had agreed to meet on the island at 8am, however Musashi failed to arrive until a little after 10.

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The battle of Ganryuji.

As he was being rowed to the small island, Musashi is said to have fashioned a wooden sword from an oar, with the intention of fighting with that, instead of a real sword. As his boat approached the beach, Musashi nimbly jumped out into the knee deep water and faced Kojiro.

The story goes that Kojiro snarled “You’re late!”, drawing his oversized sword and angrily casting the scabbard into the water. “You’ve lost,…” answered Musashi.
“What makes you think that?” spat Kojiro moving menacingly forward.
“If you were going to win, you’d need your scabbard again later,” answered Musashi calmly striding out of the water and onto the beach, holding his carved oar behind him.

With a roar, Kojiro made the first move, and in an instant Musashi struck him down. Rumor has it, that as Kojiro slumped to the ground dead, Musashi’s headband fell away, sliced by Kojiro’s near fatal cut.

Musashi then bowed to the official witnesses, returned to his boat, and was rowed away. It is believed Musashi was taken to a small castle that once stood on the opposite side of the channel overlooking the site of the Battle of Dan no Ura in 1185.

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Replica swords on display in Kokura castle. Left sword is a standard katana, middle is Kojiro’s long sword and right is the bokuto (wooden sword) that Musashi used.

From then, Musashi continued to travel the country, teaching his two-sword style of fencing, but never again using a real sword in combat, preferring to use just a wooden bokuto.

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This is Musashi in his old age. I took this photo at the entry gate to Reigando cave.

He would later be employed by the Hosokawa clan of Kumamoto Castle, where he spent his final years as a sword instructor and advisor to the clan. In 1543, suffering from suspected neuralgia or sciatica, he retired to the Reigando, a cave outside of Kumamoto, and wrote his treatise on strategy known as the Go-Rin-no-Sho, or the Book Of Five Rings. Not long after completing this, he died, aged about 60, of what is believed to be thoracic cancer.

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Me sitting on Musashi’s rock inside Reigando cave in Kumamoto, Kyushu.

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Reigando cave, Kumamoto, Kyushu.

Credit to Chris Glenn for the article.
Photos Stuart.

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