Important Note: Tameshigiri is a highly disciplined art that involves intensive training and stringent safety practices. Please do not attempt to wield a sword without proper training and/or supervision.
It was a beautiful June afternoon in Irvine, California, and five hunks of damp, rolled-up tatami thudded to the floor as honed and whetted swords whooshed through the air. While aikido may encourage compassion for one’s opponent, there was no mercy for the tatami targets — when the aikidoka at Ikazuchi Dojo weren’t moving through them fast enough, Jim Alvarez Sensei of Aikido of Livermore-Shinrei Dojo (Aikido 6th dan, Shinkendo Kyoshi, Toyama Ryu Batto-do 5th dan) would pick up his blade and demonstrate the speed, precision, and technique of a virtuoso.
This was the grand finale of a four-hour workshop in tameshigiri, or test-cutting, where earlier 20-odd students ranging from fifth kyu to 4th dan had been practicing special movements with bokken that would translate to smooth and hopefully non-injurious sword handling. Alvarez Sensei demonstrated sword techniques that efficiently utilized momentum to produce sweeping cuts that wrapped all the way around the wielder, preventing energy loss from trying to stop the blade. He also talked about the difference between Iaido, the art of the quick draw and cut, versus Shinkendo, a gendai budo (modern martial art) developed by Toshishiro Obata Sensei. Alvarez Sensei has been a personal student of Obata Sensei for over 27 years, and he described Shinkendo as a more complete system of sword training which includes suburi, kata, batto-do, paired sword kata and lastly, tameshigiri.
“I invited Jim Alvarez Sensei to lead this series of workshops as I believe he’s one of the more proficient swordsmen in the aikido community,” said Josh Gold, co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo and executive editor of Aikido Journal. “With 40 years of aikido experience and 27 years of Shinkendo training, he has a deep understanding of the blade. He’s also an excellent instructor and has an extensive background in handling live blades and leading tameshigiri workshops with a cumulative zero percent injury rate. Additionally, he’s a great communicator and contagiously enthusiastic.”
When it was time to switch from bokken to live blades, Alvarez Sensei’s two expert assistants set up a table at the end of the dojo with seven numbered katana. They had slightly different styles, weights, and lengths, so the aikidoka queued up to very carefully handle each sword to feel out which they would want to use on the tatami targets. There was an extensive safety lecture by Alvarez Sensei as well where he demonstrated and described the correct way to hold the swords while walking and hand them to the assistants to be cleaned after a round of tameshigiri.
There were five target stands set up in the middle of the training area, and each had a rolled-up and water-soaked tatami stuck onto it like a candle on a candlestick. Then five students would approach the sword table, choose their weapons, and take their places at the targets to begin. To get a better sense of the workshop, here are some descriptions of the experience from the students themselves.
Ted Rose, 3rd dan, appreciated the physical attributes of the sword he chose and the orderliness of the test-cutting process:
The sword was heavy — heavier than the stout Iwama-ryu bokken I’ve been using for years, heavier than the iai-to I have at home. And it was razor-sharp. I chose a heavy katana in the hopes that I could concentrate on technique and let the weight of the blade effortlessly do the cutting.
The first cut was from upper left to lower right, the notorious kesagiri or Monk’s Robe cut [a fundamental cutting stroke that derives its name from the kesa, a type of robe worn by Buddhist monks that leaves one shoulder bare]. Sensei counted off a few slow practice strikes, and then came the command: “CUT!”
Five swords came down at once. Those whose aim was true, and technique smooth were rewarded with a sound of “SNICK” and the cut-off mat tumbled to the ground. And so we went on for the next two hours. After the initial practice, we could try other cuts, first demonstrated by Sensei, who always kept vigilant for safety. There were no injuries and we all left the dojo with big smiles.
Ikazuchi instructor Nastia Shuba, 2nd dan, found personal meaning and a greater sense of herself through the practice:
About five years ago I bought a sword, and as it often happens with whimsical purchases … the sword sat mostly idle all these years. Sometimes I would practice suburi with the blade, as it was heavier than any bokken I owned, but I never got a chance to cut with it. The moment I’d been waiting for arrived during Alvarez Sensei’s seminar in our dojo. And there I was in the front of the target, sword in hand, and doubts in my mind: “What if I won’t be able to make a single cut and I’m the only one at the seminar with my own sword?” Of course, with that kind of thinking I barely scraped the target.
Self-confidence has been a major struggle for me over the last few years, and after that first cut I decided that this was a perfect opportunity for improvement. I saw the target as a representation of my current internal struggles and tried to focus on that. The second cut was better. That gave me a little confidence. For the rest of the workshop, I tried to empty my mind and to focus on the sword and the target alone. Some cuts were good and clean, others were not – all depending on my focus. Although confidence and focus come through in other aspects of training, I thoroughly enjoyed the immediate and objective feedback of the target. There was something beautiful and mysterious about the process that is hard to put in words. The workshop not only improved my sword skills but also gave me a tactile experience that I can use to keep building my confidence.
Josh Gold, 4th dan, who has had extensive experience with sword training, also found personal transformation and a new pedagogical perspective because of the workshop:
I had trained with the sword for 26 years before my first tameshigiri experience. I’d practiced with bokken and metal iai-to, but until recently, I’d never cut through a target with a live blade. Wielding a razor-sharp katana profoundly shifted my perspective on my personal sword training.
I also found the experience to be deeply meditative. Facing a target with a shinken (live blade) was a powerful catalyst for concentrating and unifying my breath, mind, and body with the sword. The act of cutting was like a light switch that brought me into a heightened state of zanshin (pervasive awareness). Something seems to have clicked in my psyche and I can now bring myself back to that place at will. I’m not sure how long that will last, but I’m still able to do it weeks after the event.
After watching almost 50 people of varying skill levels (less than one year to 35+ years’ experience) practice over a two-day period [NB: there was a workshop hosted at a corporate campus the day before], I also realized that tameshigiri is a potent learning and correcting tool for sword work. When learning a mind-body activity, one of the most powerful mechanisms for skill development is to have an immediate and consistent feedback loop. You can swing a bokken through the air thousands of times and really have no idea if you’ve properly unified the edge angle of the blade, the angle of the cut, your body, and your mind. Cutting a target gives you instant feedback that can be used as a diagnostic tool. A poor cut can be deconstructed and analyzed. Experienced practitioners quickly dialed in their cuts and were able to consistently execute clean and accurate cut lines. Novices generally had poor initial results but were able to quickly correct based on feedback and were able to improve dramatically even after cutting only three to four targets.
The sentiment among the workshop participants was very positive, and it was clear that having the opportunity to practice with real swords was a dream come true for many. Alvarez Sensei and his able assistants handled the class professionally and also expressed appreciation for the discipline of the aikidoka in attendance.
As Alvarez Sensei also teaches aikido, he told an amusing anecdote after the workshop about using ukemi in real life. He was once walking down the street during a steaming New York City summer holding a six-pack of beer, when he tripped on the lip of a manhole cover. Faced with the prospect of belly-flopping onto the pavement and losing his purchase, he hugged the six-pack to his chest and took a forward roll, to great effect. “Whenever students ask me why they have to learn forward rolls,” he said, “I tell them: ‘You have to save the beer.'”