The Thrill Kill Cut

Monday night I entered the dojo (“Konichiwa!”) and the first thing I noticed were large garbage bags full of damp, tightly rolled tatami mats. They are sometimes wound around bamboo to create the consistency of flesh and bone, but that night there was no bamboo.

We were going to perform tameshigiri — the Japanese art of target cutting.

We students stood at the front of the dojo. Some wore katana looped to their left hip at the hakama strings. (I don’t have a hakama yet. I’m waiting until I pass my first test. Then I’ll feel like I’ve earned it.) Sensei stood with the two carved wooden stands, each with a thick wooden peg jutting up from the stand, which was painted with Kanji. One of the other students placed a target on each peg.

The two reedy pillars dominated the dojo.

Sensei unsheathed a live katana. The finely polished steel caught the lights. A white flash raced across the dojo. My stomach leaped. He tested the sharpness: a piece of paper dissolved into halves as it fell across the sword edge. I felt the uneasiness of being in the presence of a dangerous animal on a thin leather leash. Still, it was in my sensei’s hands. I was safe as houses, as they say.

He called me up.

My heart fluttered. I had no idea that I would be cutting so soon. I’ve slung all kinds of swords, and even a knife or two, but never one that could chop off my hand.

We reviewed the protocol for safely transferring a live katana from one person to another.

It wasn’t the first time I’d held one. We’d had class a month back where it was just me, sensei and B, his best student. We took apart B’s katana and I marveled at the extraordinary craftsmanship. Sensei had let me practice wielding the blade. An incorrect strike won’t make any sound at all. But a correct strike makes a dramatic “woosh” sound.

Back then, I’d made the “woosh.” As I would now learn, if I didn’t make the “woosh,” I wouldn’t cut through the tatami.

Sensei handed me the blade. It felt alive, solid. Exciting. Perhaps intimidating but not frightening. Mostly comfortable. He instructed me on how to approach the target and what kind of cut he wanted me to make. He then stepped back.

I got my distance, raised the blade overhead…

…and sliced downward at an angle to the right, stepping forward. Woosh! The top of the target spun off the pillar and flopped to the mat.

I performed the chiburi — the “blood flick” — with the katana and stepped back. Sensei commented on the cut. It wasn’t perfect. It was a 45-degree cut, not 35 degrees. But it wasn’t bad. I tried again.

On the third try, the katana swept through the tatami as if were nothing. Woosh! The top of the target slipped off and fell to the dojo mat.

35 degrees. A perfect cut.

I drank in Sensei’s praise yet suppressed the excitement. It was only one good cut. I moved to the other target. Sensei instructed me to cut from a different, more challenging direction. I didn’t get another 35-degree cut, but I was sometimes quite close.

When finished, I performed the chiburi again. I ritually passed the katana back to my Sensei and skedaddled off the mat to watch my betters. I always love watching the other students as they use bokuto or blade. They’re that good.

I’m sadly missing a seminar today and this weekend. Couldn’t be helped. It’s with Sensei Obata at the Honbu dojo. But I’ll be at the one in June for sure.


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