One evening at naginata practice, we did an exercise in which one person would hold a shinai (a bamboo sword used for kendo) and the other would strike it with their naginata to work on their accuracy. This is also something you can practice with both people holding naginata, but since we have many short people with limited reach, the shorter shinai was a little easier. Some of the girls were giggling and imitating kendo strikes and intrigued by how flimsy the shinai seemed to be in comparison to our beloved naginata.

As a few of us learned later that night, the shinai is worthy of some respect for the damage it can do.

After our usual practice session, those of us with armor and time stayed later to get some sparring practice in with A-sensei, who happens to be Nihon-ichi (number one in Japan), now three years running! She is awesome. The fact that I get to practice with her is also pretty awesome, although I’m still a sparring beginner. Even the elementary school girls have to take it easy on me, but they are really hardcore and tough to begin with (and I can’t stress enough how cool they all are!).

As we were packing up our armor and only a few of us were left, A-sensei asked to borrow some shin guards–not for her, but for someone else suiting up in armor across the dojo. This man was usually around at that time practicing iaido, the art of drawing a katana and overall looking pretty cool and samurai-like, but apparently he was also a kendo practitioner. While I don’t know who prompted it, he was suiting up for a duel with A-sensei.

I’ve seen her duel at naginata matches, but not so much during our practices, during which she is providing instruction while sparring instead of going at it with her full strength. Furthermore, I had never seen a duel between a kendo-ka and a naginata-ka, only duels against the same weapon. The remaining students and teachers and I were of course very excited to watch this match.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do with my sloppier than usual sketches I made after returning home late that night, as I didn’t even have my phone on hand to snap pictures–not that they would have done justice to seeing it in person anyway! They were both attacking aggressively, using strikes that are only used by experienced practitioners for their increased chance of injury, such as throat strikes. While the rest of the iaido class and the judo class on the other side of the dojo of the Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall calmly continued their classes as usual, we watched and listened as they traded shouts and strikes.

For all I could tell, it looked like A-sensei was winning, as she was getting more accurate strikes in without them getting blocked. However, something very unexpected happened:

The naginata she was using snapped in half!!

I don’t mean the part where the bamboo blade is attached to the (usually) oak portion, as that is meant to be easily replaced as it gets beaten up during fierce matches. I mean the oak itself! I didn’t see exactly how it happened, but it was a clean, diagonal break down the middle.

A-sensei, cool as ever, shrugged it off, saying that it looked like it was going to break soon anyway. I have no idea how much experience she might have with pushing weapons to their limits, but nonetheless my other teachers were very surprised to see it happen. She had a spare ready and the match continued, with another classy break later for the kendo-ka to readjust his mask. A-sensei’s performance implied she wasn’t shaken at all by the broken naginata, but it made the rest of us even more fired up.

Men! Kote! Sune! The strikes picked up speed, but A-sensei was making most of them!

Her opponent was not quite as fast, but still got a number of powerful strikes in. After the match, we saw that she didn’t escape a couple of light injuries.

At last, they stepped away from each other and bowed, indicating the formal end of the match. It was A-sensei’s win!!

As the kendo-ka removed his mask, he was sweaty and smiling, shaking his head and commenting on how hard it was to match her speed. She was smiling and sweaty as well, as they thanked each other for such an invigorating duel.

You could say that, although they were both very skilled, A-sensei turned out to be the better opponent. However, as my younger classmates were celebrating her victory, one of the teachers remarked, “Of course, the naginata has better reach, after all.” No need to pick on katana and shinai users, as both have their merits, but I do wish naginata could be even half as popular as kendo. With more practitioners, we’d see even more skilled naginata-ka like A-sensei. For now it’s just a pleasure to train with her, but seeing as the other competing adults I’ve seen in the region have trained just as much, I don’t think my odds would be very good in a real match quite yet!

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