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

Myths & Tales: Kyohachi ryu ~Part 1~

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.

Japanese artwork
The legitimacy of Kyohachi ryu: Truth or a tale to work up the imagination? Untitled work by Utagawa Toyokuni I, from

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.

Kiichi Hogen
A artwork depicting Kiichi Hogen. From

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.