Lessons From a Samurai

If you had told me four months ago that I would have the chance to be able to swing a real katana, I probably would’ve laughed in your face. I would respond with something like, “No way, I’m way too clumsy for that.” However, a few weeks ago I got to do just that, and I learned quite a bit from it too.

Some friends and I had been planning a trip to Japan for some time. One of the reasons we went was that one of my friends was from Japan and was about to start a summer internship in Tokyo. So, jumping at the opportunity, we decided to have a last hurrah before the end of the semester and the four of us proceeded to book our tickets and accommodations.

“A sheathed katana rested against the wall and I could feel my excitement bubbling up inside of me.”

A few days before we left, I get a text from my friend with whom I’d be flying into Osaka saying that he had a friend there who recently opened a samurai dojo. This person said that he wanted to give us a private lesson completely for free. At this point, I had to admit that I thought he was joking; alas, he was not.

We would actually get a samurai lesson in Japan. How much more cultural immersion can you get?

We arrived in Osaka late in the evening and then spent the morning at Osaka Castle. While the castle was beautiful and fun to see, I couldn’t help but think about this samurai lesson. Would I cut myself with the katana? Would I fall flat on my face? I had no idea how the afternoon was going to go, but I was ready to take on the challenge.

Later on in the afternoon, we ate some delicious okonomiyaki for lunch, (if you don’t know what that is please look it up and try it) and then made our way to the dojo. Right when we walked in, the staff immediately welcomed us and helped us get changed. I was led into a dressing room by a Japanese woman who helped me change into the traditional samurai attire. Since I am of rather short stature, the clothing was a little long on me, but I managed to avoid tripping over my own two feet.

After we were all dressed, we were greeted by our instructor for the day who went by the name of Yasu. Yasu was the one who originally contacted my friend and offered to give us the lesson for free. Needless to say, we couldn’t stop thanking for this huge favor.

Oh, it was also the dojo’s opening day. After a few minutes of small talk, Yasu led us up an elevator and into a gigantic room covered in hardwood flooring and had a beautiful stained glass window. It really felt like things were about to get real.

Yasu then directed us to where two thin cushions and two wooden swords were placed and told us to sit down. After we had made ourselves comfortable, he began to perform an elaborate ritual-like process for properly sitting down. Afterwards, he told us the importance of the actions and then had us stand up to copy him.

Next, to demonstrate how to properly handle the sword, Yasu told us to pick up the wooden swords and begin practicing with them. I will admit, the first couple of swings were a little awkward. I had no idea whether I was doing it correctly and I didn’t want to end up hurting myself with something that was made for safety reasons. However, after a few technical corrections, I was swinging that thing like a pro. Even Yasu and my friend were surprised.

About another 20 minutes went by before we were told that we would prepare to slice a rolled up straw mat that was the density of an actual human body. We were led to what was called the “zen room” and told that we needed to meditate so that our mind and body could become one. In order to do this, we were instructed to sit on cushions facing the wall with our hands in our lap and out thumbs touching each other. If our thumbs started to create “mountains” or “valleys,” then we weren’t concentrating hard enough.

Five minutes of meditation later, we were led downstairs to the main lobby area and into a sectioned off corner of the room. Behind the sliding wooden double door was a stand with the straw mat. A sheathed katana rested against the wall and I could feel my excitement bubbling up inside of me.

To save you guys another twenty minutes of reading, here’s a video clip of the real deal:

I was able to slice the straw on the first go-around. Everyone, including myself, was impressed. Plus, I got to rub it in my friend’s face that I got it on the first try and he didn’t.

All’s far in love and war, right?

To say the least, swinging the katana and slicing the straw — on the first try no less  made me feel super strong. It was such a fun experience and I am so thankful to Yasu and the rest of his staff for making us feel welcome and giving us something to remember.

If any of you guys happen to be in Osaka, check out The Last Samurai to try it for yourself. You’ll come out of it feeling strong, powerful and just all-around proud of yourself. I know I was.

Dana Pineda is an International Security and Conflict Resolution senior. She is studying abroad at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in spring semester 2018.

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