Imagine yourself as a fourteen-year-old boy whose father was assassinated when you were five. It is your duty to avenge your father’s death in order to preserve your family’s honor. This is the story of Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu, the founder of the Japanese martial art iaido.
Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu was born and raised in Murayama, Yamagata. After his father was assassinated, he underwent a great deal of training in order to face his father’s killer. In spite of his best efforts, his training was not showing much progress. Desperate and hopeless, he went to meditate at Kumano Shrine (now called Iai Shrine) for months. This is where he had a divine dream, a dream that became his inspiration to create iai. Iai is a technique that enables the practitioner to draw their sword and swiftly strike down an opponent, even in the face of a sudden, unexpected attack.
It is said that Hayashizaki Jinsuke was just fourteen years old when he created iai. Through iai, he found a way to overcome his physical disadvantage to fight against those older and stronger. It is said that he managed to avenge his father’s death when he was nineteen. He later went on to travel around Japan, teaching iai to his new disciples. Iai changed the way samurai thought about and used their swords. Iai has come to be recognized as a fundamental aspect of the bushido warrior spirit. Thanks to Hayashizaki Jinsuke’s efforts, the way of iai has been preserved and continues to be practiced to this day.
Nowadays, almost 450 years later, iai has come to be called iaido, which means literally “the way of iai.” In terms of Japanese language, any martial art that has the character 道 (read “dou”) in it, like kendo (剣道) or judo (柔道) means it is a martial art that teaches something of great spiritual value. These do, or “ways,” are forms of spiritual as well as physical training. They teach practitioners more than just how to hurt an opponent.
I live in Murayama and have been practicing iaido for about one year. I train hard to master the kata, patterns of iaido movement, to perfection. For me and the other members of my dojo, it is a path to self-improvement and a means of creating balance between one’s physical and spiritual existence. There is a saying in iaido world: “win without having to fight,” suggesting iaido is a means of creating peace, that one should avoid unnecessary conflict and keep one’s sword in its scabbard. Draw your sword only as a last resort.
Samurai from across Japan used to gather once a year at Iai Shrine to demonstrate their sword technique. For a long time, the world of iaido was closed off to the general public. But now, 450 years after iaido’s inception, an iaido workshop has been created that allows dabblers and tourists to learn about it and try it for themselves.
The Iaido Original Experience program was started in 2019 to attract more visitors to Murayama, the birthplace of iai. This program gives visitors the opportunity to feel like samurai by practicing iaido on the grounds of Iai Shrine itself! Participants get to dress in traditional iaido wear, learn iaido techniques, and receive a lesson from iaido masters on how to handle katana swords. Participants will even get to try tameshi-giri (tatami cutting) using real katana.