Today’s post is part 1 of a discussion on Kyohachi ryu, a martial system shrouded in mystery. It is said it possesses knowledge of unique yet superior techniques with the Japanese sword, such as the tachi. Many Japanese schools of old that have kenjutsu in their curriculum give credence to Kyohachi ryu. Some even claim hereditary traits to it, placing it on a platform that feels too high to ever reach. Before we get into the beginnings of this legendary martial system, let’s take a look into concept of tall tales found in many koryu bujutsu, and the reasoning behind them.
Those who are into the history and origin of Asian traditional martial schools (whether through research or through verbal explanations) tend to get a tale or two on a level of fantasy. This is no different with Japanese martial arts. These tales tend to present situations concerning how the founder came about with said martial system that is either surreal or plain out of this world. Examples of these tales are the following: a religious man or warrior from another country makes their way to Japan and teaches secret and amazing techniques. Or, a warrior seeking solitude in the mountains or forest for intense training and meditating for days miraculously becomes enlightened through some form of dream or revelation. Then there are those where a fighter engages with a wild animal, with the encounter helping to understand strategies in combat.
Why the tall tales? Well, one reason could be that, when establishing a martial system, there may have been a need to make it stand out and appear special. Having tales that make the founder and the course in obtaining the knowledge appear supernatural will give the teachings & techniques a more extraordinary quality. This will draw in prospect students, as well as grant employment by warlords looking for someone who is versed in winning strategies that would train his soldiers. This is especially true if the martial system is tied in with a religious practice, such as Buddhism or Shinto; techniques and strategies that have esoteric naming conventions make them feel empowered by the will of the gods.
With that little tidbit out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the beginnings of Kyohachi ryu. The time frame for this legendary martial system dates back around the end of the Heian Period1, an era where the Imperial family resided in Heian Kyo, or Capital city of “Peace and Tranquility”2. In the Northwestern area near Heian Kyo is Mount Kurama, well known for its growing religious and spiritual practices, and famous for tales of it being the home to the Tengu3. Up in Mount Kurama, an old monk versed in the way of both literary and military affairs by the name of Kiichi Hogen is said to have taught 8 priests that made their way up the mountain the mysterious secrets of Touhou, or sword methods. The priests, in return, passed on this knowledge to others by creating their own schools on sword fighting. As a whole, the 8 priests’ systems are collectively labeled as “Kyohachi ryu”, which is translated as “The 8 (Sword) Styles of the Capital”. This Kyohachi ryu, or each of the 8 martial systems, lead to the creation of many other sword schools in Japan.
So, what are the teachings received from Kiichi Hogen that would categorize under Kyohachi ryu? Unfortunately this is unknown. Were the 8 priests taught these secret lessons together? Or were they taught separately, as each one made their own personal journey up Mount Kurama? These questions are also difficult to answer without any detailed written records. It is said by historians that from the Muromachi period onward, many documentations related to Kyohachi ryu were lost, so it is difficult to accurately determine the specifics…let alone prove the existence of Kyohachi ryu at all. Yet, many stories that mention its use in the hands of swordsmen, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune4 and Yamamoto Kansuke5, paint a picture of this sword style’s techniques surpassing others with ease. Should such high belief be placed on this elusive sword style only through tales of valor?
This here ends part 1 on the legendary sword art of Kyohachi ryu. Stay tuned for part 2, which will focus on particular individuals and martial schools dating back around the same time as Kyohachi ryu. We will look into how their involvement with Mount Kurama gives them direct ties to this legendary martial system.
1) Time frame is from 794 to sometime around 1185~1192.
2) Present day Kyoto city. Before modern times, Emperor Kammu moved his establishment from Nara to this area around the 8th century. The Imperial family lived here for many generations. As the Capital city, Heian Kyo was an important area where many migrated to live in. It was the center of Japan’s rich culture, as well as the center of many major historical conflicts between warring clans, noblemen, and religious groups.
3) A tengu (天狗) is a spirit/mythical creature that is half man, half crow. Usually depicted in the guise of a yamabushi (a mountain hermit), sometimes with the legs and wings of a crow, a red face with a long nose. There are different grades and types of Tengu throughout the history of Japan. A Daitengu (大天狗, meaning a grand or supreme tengu) by the name of Sojobo (僧正坊) is believed to have resided in Mount Kurama.
4) (1159-1189) A general of the Minamoto clan. Famous for many successful victories against the Taira clan, which ultimately lead to their demise.
5) (1501-1561) One of 24 generals of the warlord Takeda Shingen. Although described as having physical handicaps, it is documented that he was a brilliant strategist.