Miyamoto Musashi is considered one of the greatest samurai of all. Said to have fought over 60 duels and participated in a number of battles, never once being defeated, Musashi created his own sword styles, gained fame as a painter, calligrapher, wood and metal sculptor, writer and strategist.
Musashi was born Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin, with the childhood names of Bennosuke or Takezo, in the village of Miyamoto in Mimasaka, Harima Province. His mother died soon after he was born, and he was raised by his father, Shinmen Munisai, an accomplished swordsman and expert in the jitte, a baton like instrument with a side protruding hook used for blocking, deflecting and trapping swords.
At a young age, Musashi was sent to live with his uncle at a temple, where he was taught basic reading and writing skills.
According to Musashi’s Book Of Five Rings, the “Go Rin No Sho“, Musashi had his first duel at the age of thirteen. His opponent was Arima Kihei a wandering swordsman from the Shinto-Ryu school. Musashi’s uncle tried to stop the fight on account of Musashi’s age, however moments into the bout, Musashi threw Arima to the ground and hit him with a wooden staff. Arima Kihei died vomiting blood.
At 17, Musashi joined the army of Ukita Hideie fighting for the Toyotomi loyalists in the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600. Following the battle, Musashi roamed Japan perfecting his fighting skills, enduring hardships and duels in an effort to better himself.
Duel With The Yoshioka Clan
Arriving in Kyoto, the 21 or 22-year-old Musashi fought a series of duels against the famed Yoshioka Clan, respected instructors to four generations of the Ashikaga Shogun and founders of the Yoshioka style, one of the eight major sword styles of kenjutsu created around 1532 by Yoshioka Kempo.
The first duel was against Yoshioka Seijuro, then head of the Yoshioka family and school and took place March 8, 1604, outside the Rendai-ji Temple in Northern Kyoto. It was to be fought with a bokuto (wooden sword) with the winner declared by a single blow.
As a part of his strategy, Musashi arrived late. Angered by this disrespect, the overconfident Seijuro lost his temper, and his concentration. In an instant, Musashi struck at Seijuro with his wooden sword, breaking his left arm. Having lost the duel to a “nobody”, Seijuro retired from samurai life and became a monk.
Yoshioka Seijuro’s brother, Denshichiro, then became the head of the Yoshioka clan. Denshichiro was said to have been an even more able swordsman than Seijuro, and to avenge his brother and restore family honor, another duel was arranged. The second bout was staged at the Buddhist temple Sanjusangendo, in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District. Musashi, armed with a bokuto once again arrived late, and again was the victor, killing Denshichiro instantly with a single blow to the head.
This further angered and embarrassed the Yoshioka Clan and their followers, who issued the next challenge in the name of Yoshioka Matashichiro, the 12-year old head of the clan. The Yoshioka honor and reputation was at stake, and so the school arranged for the following duel to be fought below the spreading pine tree on the slopes below the Ichijo-Ji Temple in the north of Kyoto.
The Battle at the Spreading Pine of Ichijo-Ji
This time Musashi arrived at the designated area well ahead of time and waited in hiding. He was not surprised to find the young Yoshioka leader dressed in full battle armor and surrounded by a large contingent of retainers armed with swords, bows and matchlock guns. Musashi waited patiently as the boy took his position under the great pine tree and his men set the ambush.
He emerged in the very middle of the Yoshioka trap, and cut the boy down, instantly ending the Yoshioka School. Within moments, the Yoshioka disciples were falling over each other in an effort to cut down their single enemy. Greatly outnumbered, Musashi fought his way out of the ambush in a manner unseen by the samurai of the time. He held his katana long sword in his right hand, and companion sword, the wakizashi, in his left, and so used both swords to cut his way out of the Yoshioka throng.
It was a style based on his fathers’ teaching with the Jitte, using the short sword to block the opponents blade, allowing a decisive cut be made with the main sword. This style was to be known as Enmei Ryu, later the Nito-Ryu and Niten Ichi style of swordsmanship.
Having defeated the Yoshioka School, Musashi spent a few months at the Hozoin, a Zen temple in the south of Kyoto where even today, the monks train in a traditional spear technique. Between 1605 and 1612 Musashi undertook Musha Shugyo, a warriors training in which he traveled extensively testing himself and improving his skills with the sword. During this time he faced opponents such as Shishido Baiken, a master of the Kusarigama, a sickle, ball and chain weapon, and Muso Gonnosuke, a strong swordsman and master of the short staff. Musashi faced Muso twice in non-lethal combat, winning both.
Musashi also spent three years in Nagoya, teaching his Enmei Ryu, two sword style to the Owari samurai of Nagoya Castle in conjunction
with the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu style favored by the mighty Tokugawa Clan.
Musashi’s most famous duel was fought on April 13, 1612 on the island formerly known as Funashima, or Boat Island, against Sasaki Kojiro, creator of the Ganryu Style of fencing, and an expert in the Nodachi, an extra-long sword.
The two rivals, Musashi and Kojiro had agreed to meet on the island at 8am, however Musashi failed to arrive until a little after 10. As he was being rowed to the small island, Musashi is said to have fashioned a wooden sword from an oar, with the intention of fighting with that, instead of a real sword. As his boat approached the beach, he nimbly jumped out into knee deep water and faced Kojiro.
“You’re late!” snarled Kojiro, drawing his oversized sword and angrily casting the scabbard into the water. “You’ve lost,…” answered Musashi. “What makes you think that?” spat Kojiro moving menacingly forward. “If you were going to win, you’d need your scabbard again later,” answered Musashi calmly striding out of the water and onto the beach, holding his carved oar behind him.
With a roar, Kojiro made the first move, and in an instant Musashi struck him down. Musashi then bowed to the official witnesses, returned to his boat, and was rowed away.
In 1614 and 1615 he participated in the winter and summer Battles of Osaka, fighting for the Tokugawa against the Toyotomi, before entering the services of Ogasawara Tadanao supervising the construction of Akashi Castle, design of the garden, and organizing the layout of Himeji Town. Here he adopted a son, Mikinosuke, who would be accepted as a retainer to the Honda of Himeji In 1622.
The swordsman once again began to travel, arriving up in Edo in 1623 where he became friends with the Confucian scholar and advisor to the Shogun, Hayashi Razan. Through Hayashi, Musashi petitioned the shogun for a position as sword instructor.
He was declined as there were already two sword-masters appointed.
Musashi later made his way to Yamagata and adopted a second son, Iori. His first son, Mikinosuke visited Musashi and Iori in 1626, explaining that with death of Honda, he would follow his master in death by suicide in the tradition known as Junshi. The following year Musashi and Iori stayed in Ogura, before traveling again to Kokura joining the Lord of Kumamoto Castle, Hosokawa Tadatoshi.
Musashi took part in quelling the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637, however, suffered a leg injury in battle from a thrown rock. Iori instead would be recognized for his gallant efforts.
In 1641, Musashi wrote the “Hyoho Sanju Go“, or “The Thirty-five Articles of War ” for Lord Hosokawa, which would form the basis of his masterpiece, the “Go Rin No Sho”. By 1642, Musashi was suffering bouts of neuralgia, a painful disorder of the nerves. Realising his end was near, Musashi retired to the Reigendo, a cave outside of Kumamoto to write “The Book of Five Rings” which he completed early 1645.
Three months later, he wrote ‘Dokkodo‘, or “The Way of Walking Alone”, a book on self-discipline, which was intended as a guide to future generations.
Miyamoto Musashi died of what is believed to have been thoracic cancer in the Reigando cave about June 13, 1645. His body was buried in full armor on the main road through the village of Yuge near Mt. Iwato. In Kumamoto Prefecture.