I admit that I am a sucker for expensive shinai – ideally koto style madake with a thick handle to fit my hand. There is however no guarantee that these last longer than their cheaper cousins and although unusual, I have had the fun of breaking a 7,000 Yen shinai on its first outing. O.K I appreciate that more expensive bamboo grown in northern climates is denser and more likely to last, but I still break them.
I am not a shinai snob however and have been really impressed with some of the more recent Chinese exports. It is just that whenever I pick out shinai at random from the bin in the bogu shop my favourite always seems to have the biggest price tag. My taste in shinai is now pretty much fixed. I have tried dobari, chubu, oval koban and even heaven forbid, carbon fibre shinai in my time and I simply prefer koto shinai with the balance in the middle and a handle that is thick enough to grip. I do not get the rationale that dobari shinai make it easier to do suriage waza etc. My favourite technique is suriage men and a koto works perfectly well. Koban are, I suppose, useful if you are in the habit of turning your shinai round in keiko, but beyond that I really cannot see the point.
Carbon fibre shinai do, I am sure, have a use. If you are on a kendo mission to an inaccessible part of the world and your next shinai replacement mule train is 6 months away, then by all means take one with you. I am afraid that with the help of a drill and a ball of string, my only ever carbon shinai became four really useful, shinai bag size keikogi hangers.
Before I set off in my normal stream of consciousness fashion to write this, I thought I should do a quick web search to see what other people had to say. Weirdly there were a number of posts on “how to make your own shinai. Having now seen two professional demonstrations on shinai manufacture, (both at the Kyoto Taikai), I would not recommend this DIY approach. I like many people, believed that take were made to fit together by cutting and shaping, where in fact the shinai craftsmen take big fat pieces of bamboo, heat them over a hibachi and compress them using wooden tools. The only cutting is the final trim before assembly. I imagine that there are production line versions of this process and not all shinai are made by a nice old man with a charcoal brazier and a wooden monkey wrench. Understanding the effect of heat on bamboo, it is easy to see why shinai left in the car boot in summer sometimes come out looking like bananas.
The most important issue with shinai is maintenance for safety, so anyone with a conscience should make a regular habit of checking for and removing splinters, ensuring that the sakigawa is sound and that the tsuru and nakayui are tight. After that my wisdom on maintenance starts to fade. I have tried oiling, spraying, soaking in oil, waxing and leaving them alone and in my view, the last option seems about as good as good as any. One trick though, that is worth doing, is if you are importing your shinai from another country, buy them in advance and let them adjust to the climate for 6 months or so before you use them.
Finally, reflecting on the advice to buy shinai two at a time from the same supplier, so that you can replace broken take with similar sized spars – forget it. That is unless you are a master woodworker! Having built numerous “Frankenstein shinai”, I cannot justify the return on investment, an hour or so’s shaping, trimming and sanding and they always break first practice.
Here’s a pic of four of my favourite shinai two are expensive Japanese madake and two economy Chinese versions. Any guesses which are which?