Archive for the ‘Shinai’ Category

Shinai toolThere are numerous approaches to shinai preservation and maintenance. Some people recommend immersing the bamboo in oil, some talk about taking the shinai apart and coating the inside surfaces, others believe that the edges of each take should be sanded down before use.

Kenshi who use oil seem to have their own favourites. These include purpose made shinai oil, light engineering oil, linseed oil, cooking oil and various other alternatives. Over the years I have tried most of these and I am yet to be convinced that any of these lubricants or any the above application methods make the slightest difference to the health or longevity of the shinai.

It may well be that the oilers have got in right and that I am part of an ignorant minority, but the only pre-use precaution that I try to take with shinai is to keep them for 6 months or so for the take to adjust to the difference in humidity. This is not always possible when I need to buy last minute replacements.

Obviously shinai need to be regularly inspected and broken take need to be replaced. Those that are just slightly splintered at the edge can be rubbed down with sandpaper or with a purpose made shinai file. It also helps seal the edges if you run a hard metal object along the repair. This compresses the bamboo fibres to stop further splintering. These repairs are often completed with the application of more oil or wax, (there is a school of thought that believes that applying candle wax to the repair will keep everything in place).

Going to these lengths shows a commendable concern for your own shinai, but does not necessarily show the same level of regard for your opponents’ bogu. I have turned up to a number of special occasion keiko in my Sunday best handmade bogu only to find wax stripes on my men or kote afterwards.  These do give a clear record of where I was hit and may even replace shiai referees in the future; on the other hand they are almost impossible to remove without damaging the armour.

So please when you oil or fix your shinai, make sure it is wiped dry. And keep away from candle wax, unless the lights go out.

While we are talking about shinai repairs I have a question that has puzzled me for years. Why when shinai bend do the ends point downwards in the opposite direction to the tension of the tsuru? Does anyone know the answer?

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OutzizeThe kendo year is now in full swing and I have a number of kendo travel commitments already booked. Whilst I am looking forward to them all, I know that each of them will provide the challenge of how not to spend as much on transporting shinai as they cost in the first place.

In Europe I usually get round the sports equipment charge that most Airlines impose by borrowing shinai from my hosts. When I went to Brussels earlier this month I came up with the cunning approach of sending my shinai and bogu in a friend’s car while I took the plane. I am going to Japan next week for the 16WKC Referee Seminar. The plan is to travel with an empty shinai bag and buy some shinai there with the hope of persuading the nice Japanese ground crew that they should bend the rules to further the international development of one of Japan’s key cultural pursuits.

I have whined about this before and readers have come back to me with a number of tips to get around the problem. I have been advised to tape the shinai bag to my suitcase, use a combined ski and clothing case, try  a golf or ice hockey bag and a range of other creative approaches to luggage. Frankly I am too old and too small to pretend that I am an itinerant ice-hockey pro. I like the feeling of travelling in my own skin, as a tourist with my bogu inside a normal suitcase and with an added shinai bag.

I met Kumi Sato last year at Copenhagen Airport and she had successfully managed to take her shinai on board as hand luggage on a flight from Stockholm. This was probably helped by the fact that her two shinai were in a brightly coloured polka-dot shinai bag. Readers in the UK will get the picture if I mention Mr Blobby.

The fact that she was allowed to take them on board may have been a part of the drive by European airlines to allow bigger hand luggage to cut baggage handling costs and I am seriously considering exploring this approach. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that Kumi’s more playful shinai bukuro may have stood a better chance of getting on the plane than the usual bag with its austere martial arts kanji. Can anyone lend me a Hello Kitty shinai bag?


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Shattering Shinai

Broken shinaiIt’s been a while since I last wrote about shinai, but having suffered the loss of three of my favourites in as many weeks, I feel like writing an obituary for them.

As I may have mentioned before, I am a sucker for expensive shinai; preferably koto style with a medium sized grip. I used to go for fat handles but I have converted, believing that I get better mobility and tenouchi if my fingers are not overextended.  My eyes immediately light up when I see madake on the shinai description. Colleagues argue that like Musashi, one should be able to use any shinai or bokken, boat oars included, and that we should follow his advice of “use a heavy sword lightly and a light sword heavily”. Unfortunately I am not Musashi, so I am stuck with my own prejudices and preferences. The one discovery that I have made is that no matter how high the price tag, shinai can break at any time.

There are the obvious accidents, which happen in slow motion like car crashes, as you watch the shinai bend like a banana and then snap as a heavyweight opponent comes charging onto the point. There are the less satisfying stealth breakages where you find a hairline crack when you examine your shinai after keiko. With these you always start optimistically imagining that it’s just a surface wound that can be rescued with sandpaper until you look at the inside of the take and realise that the skin wound is a terminal fracture. I have on several occasions seen a crack running through the centre of the bottom take above the nakayui. In this case it seems worth losing the shinai for this concrete confirmation that I am hitting with the datotsubu.

So there must be some preventative medicine for shinai. I have tried oiling them, soaking them, seasoning them, keeping them inside and outside and they still break when they decide to. I do none of these now and it has not changed the life expectancy of my shinai. If you however you are a fan of lubrication, please remember to wipe the shinai before keiko. I still have some waxy stripes on my nice new deerskin men and kote which could have been avoided.

Of course there is also the good old Frankenshinai option. Although experience tells me that on average these last for one practice, optimism has triumphed and I have just married the remains of two identical shinai and plan to use the result in my next keiko. I will let you know how I get on, but don’t hold your breath.

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Everlasting shinai

I am down to my last two shinai. One is a beautiful handmade Japanese madake koto shinai, that thanks to the ever rising yen is worth an average European weekly wage and the other an interesting piece of kit with Japanese madake written in kanji on the tsuka, and made in China inscribed in English on the take. This unfortunately is now bent like a banana and now of little use for anything other than hitting around corners.

I did acquire a standby from the dojo cupboard, but this has a koban handle and somehow seems like half a shinai, in that it only works in one direction. Within two minutes of removing the string rings, it collapsed inwards after receiving its first kirikaeshi, so I do not think that it is going to provide a permanent solution to my shinai needs.

I have two of Chiba sensei’s shinai stashed in the spare room against his future visits and the devil on one shoulder keeps telling me that it would not hurt to borrow them. The angel on the other shoulder however, reminds me that it would be wrong to do so, and that my using such a meijin’s shinai would approximate giving a Stradivarius violin to a chimpanzee.

In the middle of this quandary the manager of the Linkedin kendo group asked about the pros and cons of using carbon fibre shinai.

Clearly carbon fibre is hard wearing and long lasting, but I still have an aversion to shinai made of this material. Their feel and the sound they make when striking a target is very different to that of their bamboo counterparts and when I used one briefly in the past, I sustained elbow injuries.  This is not an uncommon experience, and there are numerous reports of golfers elbow sustained through their use. I have also heard of cases of damage caused to bogu and impact injuries to people hit with them, but these reports may or may not be urban myths. I was given a carbon fibre many years ago, and its use moved rapidly from keiko, to receiving uchikomi and I then gave it away.

There are numerous fans of carbon fibre shinai. Many German kendoka use them as their weapon of choice. This may be because of the influence of the late Ando sensei who used them and other products made by their manufacturer. Nevertheless my own preference is for bamboo, so when I make my trip to Japan next week, I will be taking an empty shinai bag and a pile of yen.

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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?

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