The Hokushin Ittō-ryū teaches the following fighting methods since its foundation in order to prepare its kenshi (swordsmen) to succeed in a fight of life and death on the battlefield, as well as in duels.
- Kenjutsu: Kenjutsu, is the art of fighting with a katana or wakizashi: the famous long and short sword of the bushi (samurai), respectively. It is not a point scoring sport like modern kendō, in which only certain targets are allowed to strike in order to be victorious. Kenjutsu teaches using a shinken (real sharp edged sword) to defeat the opponent with or without yoroi (samurai armour) by strengthening technique, spirit and strategy of the kenshi. In contrast to modern kendō, the whole body is a target, especially the weak spots of the yoroi. The kenjutsu of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is first practiced with bokutō (wooden swords), shinai (bamboo swords) and later with shinken.
- Battōjutsu: Battōjutsu is the art of combative sword drawing. It was mainly used for self-defense during a bushi’s daily life and for assassination purposes, rather than for the usage on the battlefield. Its techniques can either be used offensively to strike at an unsuspecting enemy in a premeditated attack, or defensively when attacked while the own sword is still sheathed. The battōjutsu of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is from the beginning taught with Shinken.
- Naginatajutsu: Naginatajutsu is the art of fighting with a long glaive like pole weapon. In addition to the yari (spear), the naginata was the main battlefield weapon for close combat of the samurai. A naginata consists of a wooden pole ending with a curved single-edged blade. Combining the techniques of yari, katana and the bō (staff) in one single weapon, the naginata is one of the most flexible and effective battlefield weapons of feudal Japan.
- Jūjutsu: Jūjutsu is the art of close combat for defeating an armed or unarmed opponent with strikes, throws, joint locks or kicks. It is primarily used for self-defense purposes , if coming too close to an enemy during combat. However those techniques can also be used when being unarmed in hand to hand combat or in grappling.
As in all traditional Japanese koryū, those jutsu (fighting methods) are transmitted via fixed forms called kata. Therefore, the student is able to learn and study the waza (techniques) contained in a certain kata, in a safe environment, without getting injured while practicing them. Each technique has to be studied carefully and deeply until it can be applied effortless within a kata. All movements have to be trained over and over again until they become part of the own body. Then the technique becomes completely effortless and one is able to execute them perfectly whenever needed.
The kata of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū are structured in omote no kata (open forms) and ura no kata (secret forms). The omote no kata are displayed openly on the dōjō-mokuroku (list of all open forms) at the Chiba-Dōjō. Overall, the Hokushin Ittō-ryū counts 182 omote no kata. This includes all kenjutsu, battōjutsu and naginatajutsu kata. The jūjutsu kata together with certain kenjutsu, battōjutsu and iaijutsu kata and waza, form the ura (secret) curriculum of the school, which is only passed on to the best and most dedicated disciples and is not openly displayed. The list shows all 182 omote no kata which are taught to the students of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū.
After learning the basic techniques and movements of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū, the student has to practice the learned strategies and techniques in free fighting in order to fully master those waza. The traditional free fighting in koryū is called gekiken. Gekiken is the sparring practice done in traditional koryū-bujutsu (traditional Japanese martial arts) schools. It is usually performed with bōgu (protective armour) and shinai (bamboo swords) and is used as a reality based training method for an encounter with real swords in a life and death situation. Hokushin Ittō-ryū gekiken practice is not only limited on the kenjutsu, but also includes practice of the battōjutsu naginatajutsu and jūjutsu techniques of the school. Through this severe training the swordsman not only develops a powerful technique, but also a strong spirit and personality as a human being, which is based on the way of the sword.
Modern kendō adopted the use of bōgu and shinai from gekiken during its foundation during the 1920s as many gekiken schools like Hokushin Ittō-ryū, Shintō Munen-ryū, Kyōshin Meichi-ryū and Shingyōtō-ryū had a major influence in its creation. Therefore it seems similar to its parent form at first glance. After a closer look, gekiken differs significantly in technique and spirit from modern kendō. The Gekiken training in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is structured in four stages:
- I. Kata-geiko: In stage one, the kenshi starts with practicing the kumitachi-kata (paired forms) with full contact, while wearing bōgu and using shinai, in order to test and master the learned techniques.
- II. Uchikomi-geiko: In stage two, the uchikomi-geiko is taught. This is a practice method in which the uchitachi (attacking swordsman) frequently attacks the shitachi (defending swordsman) without defending himself at all, so that the shitachi can learn to defend himself against different incoming attacks by using the techniques already studied during kata-geiko and counter the enemy attacks effectively. This training method was crucial in the past where it could happened, that a beginner and still unskilled kenshi had to fight against a fully-trained sword master. Therefore, uchikomi-geiko was very important in teaching how to survive and counter strong attacks. During uchikomi-geiko the practice of kumiuchi waza is also taught. Kumiuchi is the usage of kenjutsu techniques combined with jūjutsu techniques.
- III. Shiai-geiko: In stage three, shiai-geiko, the free sparring (or duel) training of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is taught. A clear distinction to modern kendō is how the bōgu is used in gekiken shiai. It is used only to protect the student from grave injuries. In comparison, modern kendō, where only certain parts of the bōgu are valid targets, in gekiken shiai, the whole body is considered a valid target. On a high level, duels are even fought without the protection of a bōgu, with shinai (bamboo swords) or bokutō (wooden swords) and full contact. Of course, for being given allowance for this, the student needs to have ample control and polished technique with their weapon so that serious injuries can be prevented. Fighting techniques against multiple opponents, as well as fighting techniques in groups, alongside other swordsmen are also taught and practiced during the shiai-geiko of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū.
- IV. Shinken-shōbu: The fourth and highest level of gekiken training in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is called shinken-shōbu. Here, two masters of the school fight a duel with shinken (real sharp edged swords). It is not about the practice of “first blood” (or “premier sang”) like in European fencing and duelling. Instead a strike will be performed with sundome. Sundome means that the blade is stopped one sun (circa 3 cm) in front of the opponent’s body what
will demonstrate control and mastery of the own technique. This kind of training is very dangerous and demands tremendous technical and mental prowess and only the highest masters of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū are allowed to participate in a shinken-shōbu.
Reihō and Tetsugaku
In addition to the fighting techniques, strategies and practice methods of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū, reihō (etiquette) and tetsugaku (philosophy) are taught alongside the physical training.
The reihō of the school teaches on how to behave, move and act according to the customs of feudal Japan. For example, different ways of bowing, according to who you are dealing with and in which circumstances are taught together with the right usage of the daishō (sword pair of the samurai) in those situations. The ways a bushi should move and act correctly and politely in traditional attire, be it in everyday life, towards the own lord, fellow bushi of higher or lesser rank, or on the battlefield in military hierarchy, are also part of the reihō.
Tetsugaku on the other hand educated the bushi ethically in relation to the arts of war and their everyday life. The teaching of satsujinken, the sword which takes away life and katsujinken, the sword which gives and protects live, are for example from utmost importance in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū. Both teachings are deeply rooted in the gokui (highest secrets) of the school and in its techniques. Many other philosophical teachings which are based on Confucianism, Shintoism and Buddhism are taught as well.
The physical techniques of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū combined with its reihō and tetsugaku have the goal to bring out a perfect kenshi with an undefeatable mind and body.