Myths & Tales: Kyohachi ryu ~Part 2~

We continue today with part 2 on the topic about Kyohachi ryu. The focus of discussion will be on people who have direct ties to the legend of this sword system. If you missed out on the previous discussion on the beginnings of Kyohachi ryu, you can read it here.

First on our list is Minamoto no Yoshitsune. A famous general of the Minamoto clan on his own merit and deeds, Yoshitsune is viewed as a possible representative of Kyohachi ryu. There are some speculations that he may have been  one of the eight monks whose style collectively represents Kyohachi ryu. There are, unfortunately, no solid proof regarding this. The reason behind these possibilities has to do with how close he was to the source.

Let’s set our sights to the early years of his life, when Yoshitsune was known by the name of Ushiwakamaru. Around 1170, Ushiwakamaru was sent to reside in the Kurama Temple around the age of 11 up in Mount Kurama. There, under the care of the monks, he was fed, clothed, and educated in various things, including bujutsu.

Ushiwaka-maru training with tengu
Artwork called “Ushiwaka-maru training with the tengu”. (鞍馬山での修行, created in 1859 By Yoshikazu Utagawa) Features Ushiwakamaru (middle, top), Daitengu Sojobo (right, pale skin, red attire), and other tengu of different ranks. From Wikipedia.

It is written that he was very talented and skilled in the martial arts, particularly with the tachi. It is even fabled that he was taught an unusual sword method by a tengu, due to his unique sword play. However, in some written accounts it is said that the “tengu” was actually Kiichi Hogen1. This is most likely the case, since Kiichi Hogen is associated with Kurama Temple. The Gikeiki2, a written account on Ushiwakamaru’s (Yoshitsune’s) life, features detailed accounts regarding Ushiwakamaru and Kiichi Hogen’s history together. There is even an account of him stealing one of Kiichi’s prized manuals and studying it to understand the secrets of warfare3. However, the many accounts in Gikeiki are not all considered factual, so some things have to be taken with a grain of salt.

kuruma dachi artwork
A sketch of Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s kuruma dachi (車太刀), which can be found on “Kuramadera“, the official website of the Kurama Temple here. Sketch by Neal H.

While there are no descriptions on a systematic level in regards to what was learned while residing at Kurama Temple, what has been passed down in documentations are descriptions of Yoshitsune’s display of skills. For example, Yoshitsune apparently wielded a short tachi4 with great mobility. A description of it from Wikipedia illustrates his kenjutsu as:


Which I’ve translated as:

“A sword art that incorporates a short sword to quickly trap his adversary through the use of agility”

Described as being quick, yet crafty & tactful at a young age, Yoshitsune was a force to be reckoned with. Could it be that this is a representation of Kyohachi ryu? Did he utilize this same unusual sword method to defeat the likes of individuals such as the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei5, and the thief Kumasaka Chouhan6?

Ushiwaka and Benkei dueling on Gojo Bridge
Artwork entitled “Ushiwaka and Benkei dueling on Gojo Bridge” (五条の大橋, 1881 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi). From Wikipedia.

As an adult, Minamoto no Yoshitsune is said to have been a skilled fighter and strategist during the Genpei Gassen, or the Genpei War7. His skills with the sword is fitting with the premise Kyohachi ryu is based on. Is it possible that some form of records or inheritance of his kenjutsu exist? There are several guesses. One of them, for example, is that Yoshitsune inspired the development of martial system known as Yoshitsune ryu. It is also known as Kurama ryu in some sources, but this is highly debated, and will be addressed at a later time.

There are no known detailed records of Yoshitsune ryu’s history or contents, which makes verifying its existence even harder. On a positive point, it is mentioned in old documents pertaining to other martial schools, Musashi Enmei ryu being one of them. Musashi Enmei ryu, which specializes in kenjutsu and iaijutsu, gives credence to several sources for its foundation, which are Shunjoubou Chougen (founder of the main line Enmei ryu), Miyamoto Musashi (founder of Musashi Enmei ryu), and none other than Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Here’s a brief summary (in my own words) of what is explained in this school’s history8.

“In the Heian period, Minamoto no Yoshitsune received training on Mount Kurama from the Daitengu Sojobo, as well as studied many military manuals. (Kiichi Hogen’s presumably…?) Later in the years, he developed Yoshitsune ryu. Shunjoubou Chougen too trained under the same Daitengu, and through the tutelage from Yoshitsune, was taught the inner secrets of his Kurama ryu (aka Yoshitsune ryu). From this, Chougen developed his own sword system, Enmei ryu.”

Since Musashi Enmei ryu, a branch to the original Enmei ryu, traces back to the knowledge of sword play from Yoshitsune himself, one would think that it’s possible to get an understanding of the great sword methods passed down from Kiichi Hogen. Perhaps. But with many arts that have a long history, there is a strong chance that the contents have changed based on the times, the necessity of certain techniques, and the vision the successors of the time may have had on Enmei ryu. Or association with a legendary figure like Yoshitsune may have been used as an angle to give more credibility to this sword school.

Here ends part 2 on the discussion of Kyohachi ryu and Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s connection with this sword system. In the next part, we will continue further with particular individuals said to be one of the 8 monks that received their sword training from Kiichi Hogen himself.

1) In martial arts, stories about being trained by tengu implies how extraordinary the techniques are. This also implies that the individual receiving the training was supernaturally skilled. Since there are many tales regarding Yoshitune achieving feats that seem impossible, it is most fitting to tie his abilities to be the making of the tengu.

2) Gikeiki (義経記) is a book on military-related tales concerning Minamoto no Yoshitsune. It is believed to have been written and compiled sometime between the Nabokucho period and Muromachi period.

3)  Rikuto (六韜, pronounced as Liu Tao in Mandarin), which translates as “The 6 Secret Strategies”, is a famous Chinese military manual written by Jiang Ziya, believed to have been first penned in the Zhou Dynasty. (circa 1100 BCE) This is 1 of 7 writings on warfare from China, which as a collection are referred to as “The 7 Military Classics of Ancient China”.

4) The name of Yoshitsune’s sword written in kanji (Chinese characters) is “車太刀”. This is read as “kuruma dachi”, and is very akin to the kodachi (short sword). According to the book “Koshirae – Japanese Sword Mountings” by Markus Sesko, this type of sword was possibly designed for use in confined spaces, such as while riding a coach-like vehicle. The sword length of Yoshitsune’s kuruma dachi is 53 cm with a rather wide curvature.

5) Musashibou Benkei, a famous sohei (warrior monk) who was a loyal companion to Yoshitsune. A rather large and brash monk who is usually portrayed wielding a naginata, Benkei proved to be a great support in the many adventures of Yoshitsune till the very end. While there are conflicting accounts as to when, where, and how the two became acquaintances, one of the more popular versions from the book “Nihon Mukashi Banashi” (written by  Iwaya Sazanami in 1894) tells the story as the following: On the Gojo Daibashi (Gojo Bridge) Musashibo Benkei was terrorizing any warriors that attempted to cross by beating them, and confiscating their swords. Benkei amassed 998 swords and would stop once he acquires 999 total. His 999th encounter so happened to be with Ushiwakamaru (Yoshitsune). Although Benkei tried intently to smite his young opponent, Ushiwakamaru used light footwork and agility to evade his attacks, and defeated him with his own counterattack. Amazed, Benkei gave full devotion to his young superior, and from there on joined Ushiwakamaru’s company.

6) Kumasaka Chouhan is a legendary leader of a gang of thieves during the Heian period. A popular version of his story from the traditional performance “Eboshiori” recites how Chouhan lead a robbery attempt with his gang of 300+ thieves on Ushiwakamaru (15 years old at the time) and his merchant companion Kaneuri Kichiji as they were traveling at night to an area called Oshu. Ushiwakamaru is said to have cut down 83 of the thieves with speed and agility, as well as beat Chouhan 1-on-1 with unique yet superior sword techniques.

7) The Genpei Gassen (1180-1185) involved the rivalry between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan. Both sides were struggling to maintain power over the Imperial court and gain control over Japan. Minamoto no Yoshitsune contributed to ending the war through offensive warfare and strategic approach during the progression of battles, which ultimately led to the eradication of the Taira clan.

8) Full explanations can be found on Musashi Enmei ryu’s official website here

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