Sunday, 23 January 2011

Musashi Koshirae

Poster for an exhibition at the Shimada Art Museum 2009

The subject of swords and koshirae is vast - and one that I`m not really qualified to venture too far into. Koshirae - the term for the various fittings and furniture that go with a blade to make what we generally call a 'sword' - is, nonetheless, interesting to me as a practitioner of swordsmanship, and in that light I will offer a few comments about Musashi's koshirae. Of course, tsuba, which I wrote about in my last post, form part of the koshirae, as well as the tsuka, kashira, fushi, menuki, saya and all the other bits and pieces.

As bushi went through their lives, most would have owned a number of different swords. Good blades would have been kept, though some were no doubt, broken or lost or passed on, depending on circumstances. Sword blades in Japan were often refitted according to the taste of the owner,  and occasionally cut-down or otherwise altered from their original form.

In Musashi's case, it seems that in his younger years he preferred a very functional style of koshirae. In his own writings, he disparages attachment to any particular weapons, and was, of course well-known for his use of bokken in duels. Both from this comment (which I take to mean, not that he didn't value well-made swords, for example, but that he was wary of the limitations that may arise from partiality to particular weapons) and from what we know about his wandering lifestyle in his early years, it is no surprise that his taste tended towards the dour and practical.

It seems there are some differences of opinion on this subject - I was shown a sword with Musashi koshirae some years ago. I didn't ask its provenance - the blade was certainly fairly old and I can't remember exactly what I was told about the koshirae, though they had certainly been fitted long before the current vogue for reproduction swords in the style of famous historical figures.
A modern example of gangi maki

The tsuka was wrapped in the style known as gangi maki (see photo for a modern example) and the saya was lacquered a dull brown - quite different from the shiny (and modern) tamenuri finish of the sword in the Shimada Bijutsukan in Kumamoto.

The tsuka gashira on the example I saw looked something like this

The tsuka gashira (the cap on the end of the hilt) was a slightly pointed arch shape, but not the exaggerated point that is sometimes seen, but obviously intended for striking. In terms of functionality, this also makes sense... there would have been no need to actually penetrate the body with the strike - tsuka gashira merely needed to focus the shock and remain undamaged. The butt end of the saya (saya gashira) was also metal and durable-looking, although I must admit that I have forgotten the exact design.

The advantages of this type of design are apparent for someone who led a life involving a lot of traveling, possibly living rough, combined with hard training and punctuated with fights. Although the normal type of mountings can stand a degree of rough treatment, everyday use can take its toll, even in modern life, let alone if you were tramping through mountains and forests. I can readily see the advantages of something that is more resistant to wear and tear.

An older example of katate kasane maki

On the other hand, the late Rev. Kensho Furuya, who was a sword collector as well as aikido teacher wrote that Musashi's tsuka was wrapped in katate kasane maki, rather than gangi maki. One or two references to this can be found online, as well as this picture, (posted by Furuya) which shows the style of wrapping.


  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting.

  2. I'm glad you find it interesting.. it's good for me too, to organise some of the disparate pieces of information I've collected over the years.