Portrait of Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) Biography
Musashi was born in Miyamoto village to a noble, if somewhat humble, family. His mother died shortly after he was born, so Musashi was raised by his step mother. His father, an expert with the Jitte - was notoriously harsh and distant. His family background and his own violent nature led Musashi to study Kendo (Japanese fencing). At 13 Musashi took on an experienced sword fighter in an organised duel. To everyone's surprise, Musashi killed the visiting samurai. A few years later, in the classic style, Musashi left on a long journey to discover himself, learn from nature and other schools and develop his own technique.
Travelling alone and with a single-minded determination to improve his skill, Musashi had several recorded duels and probably many we do not know of. After all, travelling alone in feudal Japan was perilous enough even if you were not looking for a fight.
Musashi was quite tall and had facial scars from a childhood illness that meant no amount of grooming would make him attractive. Perhaps this, his life on the road, his fear of being caught unarmed in a bathtub and his violent nature all conspired to make him quite averse to bathing and grooming himself. His unkempt appearance made quite an impression in noble circles. According to the 17 century records of Spanish and Portuguese visitors to Japan, Japanese were quite obsessed with personal cleanliness to a level much higher than Europeans of that period. Imagine the reaction of samurai being challenged by such a wildman.
Like some Buddhist Monks, Musashi is said to have been fond of taking showers below waterfalls.
Mock up of Musashi's fictional imprisonment
Musashi ended up on the wrong side of the most famous battle in Japanese history, Sekigahara. His side lost but unlike 70,000 comrades, Musashi somehow survived both the battle and the ensuing manhunt for straggles of the defeated army.
Sometime later Musashi left for Kyoto to avenge an insult to his father by the Yoshioka clan. First Musashi fought Yoshioka Seijiro, the head of the family. He faced Seijiro's sword with only a wooden bokken and yet managed to win by breaking his arm. In shame, Seijiro cut off his samurai top knot. Musashi hung around Kyoto a while which probably goaded Seijiro's brother, Denshichiro, into applying for a duel with Musashi. Musashi killed him quickly with a blow from his bokken to Denshichiro's head.
Outnumbered & Outgunned
Finally Seijiro's son, a minor, issued a challenge. It would be normal to be represented by a second in this situation, but around 30 men were waiting for Musashi at the designated area. They were armed with guns, arrows and swords, some of them hiding in a tree beside Seijiro's son. Problem was, Musashi had anticipated their plan and hidden in the bushes several hours earlier. He waited until they were ready to give up and then sprang out of the bushes, cut down the young boy, and then dispatched the rest, stating with the gunmen. Musashi said that being surrounded by so many enemies made him spontaneously put out both swords using one to control the enemy's position and the other to kill. This was the beginning of his famous two sword technique.
Later he fought Baikin, a master of the sickle and chain. Baikin usually dispatched his opponents by wrapping his ball and chain around their sword and stab them with the sickle while they were struggling to free their sword from the chain. This didn't work on Musashi because he wasn't unreasonably attached to his sword. He simply pulled out his short sword and stabbed Baikin with it. Baikin's followers were shocked and angry but before they could attack Musashi dispersed them with a show of violence.
Musashi never took a wife and instead designated a street kid he met in Dewa as his heir. At 60 years of age he took his leave of royal patronage, climbed Mt Iwato and went to live alone in a mountainside cave. He wrote the Book of Five Rings and became quite ill, probably from some kind of stomach cancer. His followers brought him back to civilization for palliative care. In a few months, he was dead. Finally Musashi returned to his home town as his cremated bones were placed in his family's tomb in Miyamoto.