June 22, 2000
Shortly after responding to a preliminary market survey regarding the prospective importation of tameshigiri grade tatami omote (6' X 3' woven tatami sheets, used to cover tatami floorboards) into North America, the "Mugen Dachi Company", owned by Mr. Jim Alvarez and Mr. David Wilson, approached me requesting a written review of the makiwara (target) quality and performance.
Concurrently, Mr. Wilson rushed me 20 complimentary makiwara (I had committed to buying a box anyway, but there's no sense in turning down free targets!) to use for testing as I saw fit. Friday June 9th, an associate Mr. Howard Quick (Shinkendo Australia) and myself prepared the shipment of makiwara in accordance with the target preparation instructions found on the Mugen Dachi web page.
Preparation of makiwara:
The mats were then bundled together, placed in a tub and weighted down completely submersed (to ensure thorough, even saturation). Soaking time was approximately 6-7 hours, which is a little on the short side normally, but generally adequate for cutting (this amount of time is recommended for MDC's new mats). It is worth mentioning that some mats that are over soaked become soft and soggy, which in turn *reduces* the resistance to cutting (the targets become considerably softer than flesh, which is what it the mats are supposed to replicate) and allows even some poorly executed cuts to successfully pass through. Conversely, an undersoaked target will be overly resistant, and if cut dry will be nearly impossible to cut. Proper preparation of traditional targets is therefor an important part of practicing tameshigiri/shizan.
H.Quick Sensei with the
Weapons used and sequences of cuts:
In an attempt to be fair and comprehensive, several edged weapons were used during the cutting session:
From top to bottom:
as listed above
The tanto was used successfully to cut left kesa giri on a half-mat target several times. Then, the Kotetsu was used to cut kaeshi (tsubamegaeshi) in both directions (down/up and up/down), and Darumagiri (alternating side cuts) on a full-mat target, all in rapid succession. Four half-mats were suspended from a "cutting tree", the first two of which were cut with the Kotetsu using sayu kesagiri and yokogiri. The last two half-mats were cut using the wakizashi, which included a left kiriage, and sayu kesagiri.
Both the Paul Champagne and Kotetsu were then used to attempt full cuts on the "O-makiwara", to which both attempts made it just through the bamboo core (past half way through) before stopping. Two of the mats were then unrolled (leaving a bamboo core target with four full mats rolled around it), and the makiwara was retied, remounted and again cut. This results were exactly the same, verifying that the inner layers of mat had not been properly soaked, along with various other contributing factors (I intend to try again in the near future, having gained valuable insight from the first failed attempt!).
An attempt at left Kesagiri on the
O-makiwara using a Paul Champagne Katana
Sayu kesa giri was performed with no complaints on a double full-mat roll re-tied and re-used from the O-makiwara. Finally, the last test consisted of two attempts at Dotangiri (center cuts on horizontal stacked targets) using the Paul Champagne blade to successfully cut through more or less four full-mat targets.
The tanto cutting proved to require substantial speed and power, but was effective against half-mat targets. The wakizashi is an outstanding cutting blade anyway, and cuts all mats like they were butter. The Paul Champagne and Kotetsu cut the various targets comparably, though the Kotetsu is slightly heavier and the balance is more forward than the Champagne. I've cut several dense targets repeatedly with the Paul Champagne, but have not yet developed the same sense of metallurgical confidence with the Kotetsu yet.
I would rate the new tatami that was supplied to me from the Mugen Dachi Company to be quite favorable in cutting quality, based on my experience. Compared to beach mats, they rate *FAR* superior (there really is no comparison - beach mats represent the thinnest, lowest quality "mat" on the market). However, compared to the high grade used tatami omote our group usually acquires they are in fact a grade or two thinner, judging from the impression I got while preparing the mats and the difficulty level of cutting. The MDC mats are full sized (not reduced in height as was once announced), and when it came time for cutting, I found them quite comfortable - though significantly less challenging than the higher grade used tatami omote mentioned previously. The MDC targets seem to be the same overall diameter and length as that which I'm used to cutting, regardless of the slightly thinner grade used.
Since the MDC mats are new, they are far less dirty to prepare, cut more consistently, smell nicer, cost about the same if not cheaper, sport a nice greenish hue after soaking, and most importantly, are anticipated to be in stock with consistent availability. These are pretty tempting considerations in my book, and make the MDC mats appealing.
In recent years various iaido and kenjutsu groups in Japan and abroad have begun to accept the value of tameshigiri practice more openly, and many now incorporate it either officially or unofficially into their practice regime. While tameshigiri practice has enjoyed a dramatic rise in popularity over the last twenty years, the obtainability of proper cutting materials outside of Japan had not yet been addressed proportionately. The availability of proper tatami omote makiwara outside of Japan at any price has to this date been sporadic at best, and at times, non-existent.
Battodo groups in Japan have been enthusiastically embracing this new idea of cutting rolled tatami omote instead of straw since it has proven to be more consistent in density, easier to clean up after, and if prepared correctly, still accurately simulates the traditional targets in feel.
As an instructor in a kenjutsu style (shinkendo) that incorporates tameshigiri in it's curriculum, I am relieved to find a company finally specializing in the importing of traditional makiwara to North America and wish them luck and longevity.
Mugen Dachi Company can be contacted at: www.tameshigiri.com, or email Mr. Wilson for further information.
©2000 Tsuki Kage dojo