The man who wears dirty raiments, who is emaciated and covered with veins, who lives alone in the forest, and meditates, him I call indeed a Brahmana.
Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was an samurai from Japan's Edo period and was probably the greatest swordsman to ever live. Born in Mimaska Province to a family of lesser nobility, Musashi taught himself the art of swordfighting at a very young age. He won his first duel at the age of thirteen, when he challenged a samurai to a duel, easily defeating him with a crude wooden stick. Musashi spent most of his life wandering the countryside just challenging people to duels for no reason other than to prove to everyone how good of a swordsman he simply was. Over his lifetime he won over sixty duels, some of them against multiple enemies, and fought successfully in three major military campaigns, including the defense of Osaka Castle.
He even looked the part of a roaming samurai vagrant. He contracted severe eczema at an early age as a result of congenital syphilis, so his face was severely scarred and he probably looked pretty intimidating. Also, he rarely bathed or changed his clothes since he was worried about being caught unaware and unarmed. As a result, he was basically an ugly dirty guy who wandered around battling people with wooden swords that he whittled.
Late in his life, after he had perfected his "Two Swords" fighting style, Musashi climbed up a mountain and wrote the definitive treatise on the Zen of Decapitation, which he titled The Book of Five Rings.
The Early Years of Miyamoto Musashi
Around the age of 10, Musashi’s mother was dead and his father had either died also or completely abandoned him, so he found himself living in a monastery where he learned Zen Buddhism from the monks there. From here he would retreat into the forest to hone his samurai skills. Within the midst of nature.
At the age of 13 he was already confident enough to challenge an older samurai named Arima Kibie of the Shinto Ryu (school). Arima made the mistake of disrespecting Musashi by treating him like a child, which resulted in Musashi throwing him on the floor and beating him with a six foot wooden staff until his opponent died vomiting blood.
At 16 Musashi left the monastery and it would not be long before he found himself fighting his second duel, which he won easily. Soon after he would face a tougher challenge when he fought in the Battle of Sekigakarai (1600) on the side of the Ashikaga Clan against the victorious army of Ieyasu Tokugawa.
Despite being on the losing side, he fought bravely and somehow managed to survive both the battle and the ensuing massacre of Ashikaga troops that followed it. The aftermath of the Battle of Sekigakarai left Miyamoto Musashi in the position of being a master-less samurai (known as a ronin) so he began to wander Japan on a type of warrior pilgrimage known as a musha shugyo. During these years, he would test his fighting skills and philosophy in a series of duels, many of which were to the death.
Miyamoto Musashi and the Yoshioka Clan
The young samurai began his pilgrimage by making his way to Kyoto in around 1604, where he would have a series of challenges against the heads of one of the most notorious schools in the city, the Yoshioka Clan. There were three contest in all which would set the swordsman on his path to becoming a great warrior, building his reputation while ruining that of his opponents, they were;
Seijuro Yoshioka – This duel was fought with bokken (wooden sword) and like many instances of one-on-one combat at the time, was not meant to be to the death. Both warriors agreed beforehand that the winner would be declared by a single blow which was promptly administered by Musashi, who broke Seijuro’s arm in the process. After the battle, Seijuro retired from his position as head of the Yoshioka Ryu and became a Zen monk.
Denshichiro Yoshioka – As the brother of Seijuro, Denshichiro became the head of the family and soon challenged Musashi in order to regain honour for his family name. This time the duel would be to the death and as was his custom, Musashi turned up late in order to get his opponent angry, a tactic that worked well on both the Yoshioka brothers. Fighting again with a bokken, Musashi won the fight easily, killing his opponent instantly with a head blow and leaving the reputation of the Yoshioka Ryu in ruins.
Matashichiro Yoshioka – The new head of the Yoshioka Clan was a 12 year old named Matashichiro, who also challenged the warrior who had brought dishonour to his family. As the time requested for the fight was at night, Musashi became suspicious that foul play was afoot so he turned up early and hid himself from sight.
Sure enough, when the boy arrived he had a retinue of men armed with swords, bows and rifles who all found a hiding place intending to ambush Musashi while Matashichiro acted as bait. When the time was right, Musashi charged the young warrior and cut his head clean off. Surrounded by the boy’s retinue, he then drew his second sword and cut himself a path through the men trying to kill him before escaping into nearby rice fields.
This not only ended the Yoshioka Ryu, but was also a pivotal moment for Musashi according to many historians as it is believed that it was his first conception of fighting with two swords, a style that would become his trade mark in later years.
The Defeat of Sasaki Kojiro
The most famous duel Miyamoto Musashi fought while on his musha shugyo was against Sasaki Kojiro in 1612, who at the time was the Shogun’s martial arts teacher and the most feared and respected warrior in the land. Kojiro was seen as the ideal warrior who looked and acted the part of the samurai as laid out in the bushido code to a tee.
Musashi on the other hand was the complete opposite who was less concerned with his image or how society perceived him and more concerned with beating anyone who faced him in battle. The two agreed to meet on an island and unsurprisingly Kojiro turned up in a timely manner, sporting the best clothes and swords money could buy.
Musashi however made his opponent wait knowing that his turning up late would anger him, thus having a negative effect on his concentration and focus; Kojiro’s anger would have only increased when his opponent did finally arrive sporting his usual dirty rags instead of attire befitting a man of their social class.
Kojiro had his swords made just a little longer than the average sword length to give himself reach advantage over his opponents however it seems Musashi knew this and devised a strategy to combat it. It is believed that he fought with a bokken that he fashioned out of an oar on the boat ride to the island, making it longer than his opponent’s sword in order to beat him at his own game.
When the fight began, the two moved to attack simultaneously and Musashi’s reach advantage showed through from the start as while Kojiro managed to cut a nick in Musashi’s clothes, he himself was cut in the head. The two great samurai warriors moved towards each other for a second attack and once again Kojiro could only cut his opponent’s clothes while the extra few inches of the bokken allowed Musashi to sever his opponent’s throat, killing him instantly.
The Later Years of Miyamoto Musashi
In 1614, Musashi once again found himself at war and again is believed to have sided against Ieyasu Tokugawa, this time in favour of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Both winter and summer battles were fought at Osaka and Musashi was on the losing side once more, though some believe he switched allegiances before the end of the conflict.
After Osaka, Musashi spent a number of years teaching his sword skills until in 1620, he decided to undertake another musha shugyo, this time less to fight and test his abilities, and more to learn and develop his skills. During this time the master did partake in a number of duels, he won all of them though none of them were to the death.
By 1640, Musashi had become the retainer of Hosokawa Tadatoshi, Lord of Kumamoto for whom he would write his first book, the Hyoho Sanju Go (The Thirty-five Instructions on Strategy). Two or three years later, the samurai became sick and sensing that his end was near, he retired to a cave where he would write his masterpiece, Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings). While in the cave, he also managed to write a book on self-discipline called Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone), which he completed in 1645.