We often hear that Katana is not for beginners. Obviously, when you begin training, training with a metallic sword would create more problems than giving solutions.
My advice in this is to limit the use of metal weapons, to the black belt or Shidōshi.
I have been using a real sword since the nineties, and I cut myself a few times, although not terribly.
My point here is that, even if you’re an experienced practitioner, there is always a risk to get cut when using live weapons.
A weapon is a weapon, and it doesn’t know if you’re a good guy or a bad guy. A live arm will behave like a live weapon and do as a live weapon do.
In my dojo, I prefer the students to use padded and wooden weapons, as it is safer for practice.
Students are expected to have three different type of “sword,” each one being used for various situations and parts of the training.
Each weapon has benefits and inconveniences; I am reviewing them with you now.
They are the best for learning the waza with a partner.
Positive side: you can be able to move it in your exchange with your opponent.
Negative side: padded weapons are often round in diameter which prevents you from knowing where the cutting edge is.
This is the major drawback to using padded weapons.
Training note: always match the type of padded arms to avoid accidents. Bamboo against bamboo, foam against foam, plastic against plastic. The resistance of the components of your padded weapons should be a perfect match.
They are the best when you need to feel the momentum of the attack, the quality of your counters, or of the blocking of the assault.
Positive side: the weight of the weapon is developing your awareness of the momentum. As it is shaped like a real blade you know when you are using the cutting edge, the side, or the back of the blade.
Negative side: you might crush your knuckles or uke’s fingers. When I was a beginner, it happened to me quite a lot. Honestly, I think it is useless as it is slowing down the speed of the exchange with your partner.
Training Note: use a Tsuba to protect the fingers. We’re not training Aikidō. Add a scabbard to learn Nuki gatana.
The non-sharp metallic weapon is the real thing as it has the look and feel of a real sword.
Positive side: the weight is correct and teaches you not to overdo your movements (momentum, balance). Also, the sori (curvature of the blade) gives more than when doing the techniques. The scabbard becomes part of the art of swordsmanship.
Negative side: even if your blade is not sharp, a Tsuki will stab your partner.
Training note: avoid to buy a cheap one as it often has a poor balance.
For the advanced practitioners, if you buy a real sword, make sure it is not a modern sword designed for cutting straw poles. These swords do cut well, but they do so because they are modified with extra weight in the head of the blade. So it will not teach you the proper way to use a Japanese sword. Also, consider that buying a real sword is, financially, worth a few trips to Japan.
The title of this article says that “Katana is not for beginners.” I would add that Katana is not for training whatever your technical level.
There is another aspect to keep in mind. You need to take care of a live blade.
At the beginning of my Bujinkan training, I had an excellent friend who was a professional sword polisher. He studied sword polishing in Japan. I spent a lot of time with him in his shintō workshop (the area is like a shrine). There, I could feel and hold dozens of real blades.
When you have an actual Japanese sword, every year or so, you have to bring it to the polisher and pay a few hundred euros or dollars to get it sharpened, remove the rust, and to get it realigned.
Now, if you wish to get one, do it, but it means that you won’t train in Japan with Sōke for a long time.
Is it worth it?