In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki
Sometimes, misfortune brings opportunity. After I injured my shoulder more than a year ago, my Kendo and Iaido practices were reduced to mitorigeiko (watching keiko 見取り稽古) for several months. It was then that one of my sensei suggested learning Nito-ryu (two sword style 二刀流) in order to make use of my intact shoulder and arm primarily. I was lucky enough to have two instructors with nito experience at my dojo who taught me the basics, and to have a head sensei who allowed it to happen. This cannot be taken for granted and is a great privilege.
In Nito-ryu Kendo, two swords are used simultaneously. Nito-kendo’s koryu (old school 古流) foundation is Niten-ichi-ryu, a style created by Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most dramatized swordsman and the author of the famous book “The Five Rings”. Musashi promoted the use of a one-handed grip, which allows utilizing both swords of a samurai’s daisho (large sword and small sword pair 大小).
Compared to the strictly standardized itto (one sword 一刀) Kendo, Nito-ryu is more flexible and offers a challenging variety of choices. The first, most basic one: In which hand to hold the long sword (daito 太刀) and the short sword (shoto 小刀), respectively. This choice was made for me, since my injured right shoulder only allowed for gyaku-nito (“reverse” nito, daito in the left hand), as opposed to sei-nito (“standard” nito, daito in the right hand).
Nito footwork is similar to regular Kendo, but the feet can be positioned with either foot in front. Also, the shinai can be held with the hand anywhere on the tsuka (handle), although most nito teachers grip the daito at the bottom of the handle. Ideally, an experienced nito player should be able to use both sei-nito and gyaku-nito as well as the corresponding footwork. All the important principles of Kendo, like ki-ken-tai-ichi, seme, maai or zanshin are the same in both itto and nito Kendo.
Before using nito at regular dojo practices for the first time, I practiced nuketo (drawing of the swords 抜け刀) and noto (sheathing of the swords 納刀), nito kamae and other basics of handling two swords at home. I also increased the number of daily katate-suburi (one-handed swings) before starting to practice basic shikake waza at the dojo.
The next step was to study how drills like kirikaeshi and different kinds of keiko are done with two swords. Most waza that are normally used during kihon (basic) practice can be done with two swords, using the shoto (short sword) to apply seme and to create an opening. For most waza, the timing, distance and footwork need to be adjusted for nito. I found nidan waza and hiki waza more difficult to do, especially if only using the daito (long sword) to cut (If and how to use the shoto to strike ippon in practice and shiai is a complex matter that I will not touch here). Oji waza are done differently, since two swords allow you to block and strike simultaneously. Done with one sword, techniques like suriage or kaeshi waza require, even if carried out quickly, a sequence of movements. Executed correctly, the ability to block and attack at the very same instant is a key advantage of Nito-ryu Kendo.
An important part of practicing nito is, in my opinion, to be aware of how this affects other people in the dojo. While keiko with a nitoplayer is a beneficial exercise for more experienced kenshi, it can be confusing and distracting for beginners. In order to make sure everyone can practice properly and according to his or her skill level, it is necessary to switch to itto sometimes, especially as motodachi.
For me, another important part of learning nito (and doing Kendo in my late 40s) is how to pace myself and to have realistic expectations. At the beginning, I was overly ambitious with katate-suburi and about playing nito from the beginning to the end of every practice. This quickly caused left-arm tendonitis (“tennis elbow”) and other problems. Now, I don’t feel bad about switching back to itto after extended mawarigeiko (rotation keiko) or kakarigeiko drills, rather than risking injury. Even if you are physically strong enough to play nito all the time, in order to improve your Kendo you still have to make sure to get a good amount if regular itto practice in.
Attending the U.S. Nito Kendo Seminar
My nito highlight of the past year was attending the three-day 12th US Nito Kendo Seminar, organized by Robert Stroud sensei and the Idaho Kendo Club. The instructors were an excellent group of five 7-dan sensei from Japan, lead by Fujii Ryoichi sensei (8-dan). Many of them were or still are members of the prestigious Musashi-kai, a group that lead the effort of practicing and teaching Nito-ryu Kendo in a systematic manner and within All Japan Kendo Federation rules and guidelines over the last two decades.
As a first-time participant I was surprised that, even though some nito-specific techniques and strategies were taught, the instructors’ emphasis was on more general Kendo principles. The seminar’s participants, mostly yudansha, came from all over the U.S. and abroad, and it was very encouraging to practice with and learn from them. The seminar ended with the Toda cup, a unique tournament where each player faces the same opponent twice, with the players switching from itto to nito (and the other way around) in between the matches.
I have heard of all kinds of preconditions that some dojos set for students to learn how to play jodan or nito, like a certain rank or a number of katate-suburi or even push-ups one can do. While it probably doesn’t make sense to learn a variation of Kendo if one doesn’t understand the basics of Kendo, the only thing you really need, in my opinion, is shoshin (a “beginner’s mind” 初心), meaning the eagerness, openness and patience to learn. The rest is hard practice, as always.
For me, starting to learn Nito-ryu Kendo was not only a way to deal with my injury, but also to open up new perspectives and to better my Kendo in general. Practicing nito has strengthened my left side, improved my posture, helped me to understand the strengths
and weaknesses of different kamae, and boosted my morale. I feel that I am more calm and focused in shiai, since the strong defensive qualities of nito allow me to better control the match and set the timing for my attacks.
Hopefully I’ll have the chance one day to learn the kata and waza of Niten-ichi-ryu as well. Some people may still look at Nito-ryu as a fringe activity for the “odd adult” kenshi, but that shouldn’t discourage you from starting to study it if you’re seriously interested. The only relevant opinion in this regard is your teacher’s.
I am deeply grateful to San Diego Kendo Bu’s head instructor Henry Kikunaga sensei for allowing me to practice Nito-ryu, and to Matt Schultzel sensei and Jim Vahl sensei for teaching me the basics. I also want to thank Young Yoon sensei and Susan Zau sensei, as well as all my sensei, senpai and fellow SDKB kenshi for their help, encouragement and patience. Brian Sherry sensei of Fudokan Kendo Dojo kindly reviewed this article.
Copyright 2020 Patrick Schultheis