Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was the most famous swordsman, teacher of the Way of the Sword, and ronin (masterless samurai) of the early Edo period. His story has been enshrined in popular legend, novel and movie; the movie is repeated on television each New Years in either its 7 or 15-hour version.
Musashi was like many a young samurai at the end of the Warring States period and beginning of the Edo period; quite unprepared for a cessation of fighting. He was young and eager to learn the skills which were necessary to survive and advance throughout the century of wars which had preceded the Edo peace: fighting, swordsmanship, and tough-mindedness. Like tens of thousands of his fellow warriors, he found that he was unemployed in the Edo peace and he was not willing to find any other occupation. Unlike many “ronin” who descended into various forms of trouble-making, Musashi undertook a serious study of swordsmanship.
To an extent, this put Musashi at odds with the Tokugawa shogunate which was seeking to put an end of instability. Musashi traveled through Japan, frequently along the Nakasendo, at a time when the authorities were trying to increase social stability by pinning people down to particular occupations and places of residence. Musashi also created trouble at schools where swordsmanship was taught by intruding into the proceedings. Sometimes, he received instruction; often, he was challenged and fights between the students and Musashi occurred. This brought the displeasure of the authorities who objected to street fights, complete with dead and dying ‘students’. Some of his more notable fights with entire schools were against the Yoshioka school in Kyoto and the monks of Hozoin.
Eventually, Musashi retreated into the emptiness of the Nakasendo. By this time, he had very nearly perfected is mastery of the sword. He had also fallen into the company of a woman. Legend has it that Musashi was torn between the purity of the Way of the Sword and love of the woman. Popular belief has it that the two were irreconcilable. In the loneliness of the Nakasendo, the young couple camped near two waterfalls while Musashi achieved a breakthrough in his comprehension of the Way of the Sword. At just that moment, sexual attraction overcame the pair. If Musashi gave in to it, he would have destroyed any further understanding of the Way. Accordingly, at the last moment, the woman immersed herself in the Female Waterfall and Musashi went under the Male Waterfall (Odaki) and cooled his ardor.
Having escaped the impurity of sex, legend has it, Musashi did indeed perfect his understanding of the sword. One of the strokes he is alleged to have invented soon after he cooled off under the waterfall was the ‘Swallow Cut’ which he practiced with the ‘cooperation’ of the swallows that abound even today along the Nakasendo in the Kiso River Valley; unfortunately, a quick and successful ‘Swallow Cut’ divided the swallow in half. After this period of intense training of mind and technique, he embarked on his most famous duel, a match against the other great swordsman of the day, Sasaki Kojiro. The fight was staged on a beach at dawn and was, if you can believe the movie, every bit as great as you would expect of the two best fighters of the day.
He finally became a much sought-after teacher and settled down in 1640 in Kumamoto, one of the large castle towns on the island of Kyushu. There he was the chief sword instructor to the Hosokawa daimyo. The Hosokawa family were retainers of the Tokugawa and had fought well at the battle of Sekigahara with them. Their domain was large and performed an important role in keeping watch on the ever dangerous tozama daimyo. The Hosokawa were therefore intensely interested in maintaining their military skills and Miyamoto was a valued addition to them.
Miyamoto eventually wrote a book about his knowledge of the sword, The Book of Five Rings, which in translation became a favorite of stockbrokers and businessmen in North America in the 1980s (it was published in 1982 in paperback by The Overlook Press of Woodstock, New York). Like most of the truly accomplished members of the samurai class, Miyamoto was also a skilled painter and calligrapher. He was a student of Zen Buddhism whose teachings influenced both his brushwork and his sword play. Yoshikawa Eiji wrote a popular novel about Miyamoto which was serialized in a daily newspaper in the late 1930s and was translated into English under the title Musashi in 1981.