On Making Weapons

I have been making my own bokuto for training since 2015 and I usually make two each year.  The process is similar for the other wooden weapons I have made, whether it is a tanto or naginata.  The first one I make doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it and with each iteration the results improve.

Perhaps the most basic weapon you can make is a jo.  Go to your hardware store, walk to the wooden dowel section and pick out a blank.  Take it home and cut it to length (approximately the height of your armpit), sand it down, and oil it.  Congratulations!  You have just made your first weapon.

What did you most likely learn?

  1. Commercially available wood sold at retail stores is light.  It is difficult to find a densely grained hardwood.
  2. The range of diameters available are usually too thin, or too thick, when compared to a jo you buy in a martial arts store.
  3. The grain is probably not straight and tight.
  4. Heartwood is ideal, but the available stock is mostly sapwood.
  5. Sanding the weapon is tremendously satisfying.
  6. The oil you apply can affect the surface of the wood and the ease in which is slides through your hands.
  7. It is a pleasure using a weapon that is made to fit your body.

In making my own bokuto, I get the benefit of training with a weapon that I made to my own specifications, and the deep familiarity that develops with using it is there from the first day.  I own every imperfection, but I also feel a connection with the details I put into the shape and balance of its movement.

My weapons are not perfect and invariably through use in training during the year, they develop cracks or start to splinter – rendering them only suitable for suburi.  This has forced me to use bokuto of different weights, lengths, and curves over the past five years.  It has given me an appreciation of how the weapon affects my maai and interacts with other weapons; which has given me a deeper appreciation for the sword as an extension of me.

Each year the design is slightly different.  Some of the changes are due to my understanding of the weapon and our art.  Others are due to the process of making the bokuto.  I start with an outline of the overall curve of the weapon and my desired cross section.  Then, I carve away parts of the wood to give me the weight and balance I’m looking for.  It is a very tactile process and I often swing the sword during the shaping process to get an understanding of how it responds.

Once the overall shaping is done, I move on to final carving with a knife and detailed hand sanding.  This is the point in the project when it feels like I am close to finishing, but I still have all the detail work to complete by hand.  It is all about how the weapon feels while I am holding it.  Is it comfortable?  Do the proportions make sense?  It may look fine but picking it up quickly reveals imperfections in the uniformity of the shape and whether it is the right scale.  Using a machine at this point could result in taking too much material away and it hinders my judgement.

Progress was slow this year. I picked out two nice pieces of reclaimed timber to use and they both had serious flaws and cracks only visible after I cut out the initial blanks. I had to go out and source more hardwood.  All the best timber suppliers had closed for the holidays, but I was able to find new  pieces to work with after an hour of sorting through wood at a retail store.

Sanding took twice as long as usual because I was too cautious and cut the blanks too large. The lesson for 2019 is: don’t leave so much fat to allow for mistakes. Trust that I can get it right the first time.

Joe O’Brien



Doctor Who Goes Forth

Despite the title, this particular missive has nothing to do with martial arts.

Its purpose is rather to pass on trivial information that, as far as I am aware, has previously gone unremarked.

Doctor Who, original series, season six, The War Games, episode one, Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, appears at first glance to have had a remarkable influence on the Black Adder Goes Forth series.

The sets used to portray the office in the trenches and the general’s headquarters are strikingly similar.

Major Barrington in Doctor Who looks and acts just like Captain Black Adder, sans the dry wit. Similarly, lieutenant Carstairs is very much George, but with an actual brain. The physical similarities and behaviour patterns continue to parallel with Captain Ransom, the Doctor’s version of Darling. General Smythe does not look like Melchett, but certainly speaks with much the same mannerisms.

All this could well be just coincidence.

Or perhaps somewhere, lurking in the subconscious of Ben Elton and, or, Richard Curtis, are childhood memories of The War Games.

Sadly, Baldrick is lacking from the Doctor Who version.


Kai Cho


Note Bene: early imperial Romans did not use chariots in battle.



Jo Beginners

As a rare treat, I taught a couple of sword taking techniques this week using the jo.

I had forgotten how amusing it was to watch students deal with this weapon for the first time.

It is just a stick after all.

The techniques taught were very simple, essentially just a couple of movements each.

But as soon as they picked up the jo, everything they just saw demonstrated, left their brain.

First, they stand there, frozen in place, looking at the weapon in their hand as if somehow it would do the right thing.

Then they try, in a myriad of complex ways, to reproduce the technique. Hands change grip, extra footwork is added, the jo spins round in an effort to make sense what they think they were just taught. There is the inevitable joke by the instructor that they must be holding it upside down.

Scenes so cliched, yet still both amusing and dismaying as to how anyone could turn something so simple and effective into something so complex and ineffective.

Lest you think I am singularly cruel in my enjoyment of this confusion, it is worth noting that one of the yudansha in the class, whilst watching these struggles, was quietly giggling to themselves in remembrance of their own first attempts to come to terms with the jo, many years ago.

It is just a stick.


Kai Cho




Japan Trip 2018 – Day Sixteen


Breakfast, (again, ruined by the previous evening’s meal), packed and in the lobby for the 10.30 a.m. shuttle bus to Tokyo station.

There was no 10.30 shuttle bus.

We took taxis.

Spent the time waiting for our train wandering the vast underground shopping city beneath the station, talking to a very friendly crow and eating some delicious vegan ramen.

Nice, comfortable NEX to the airport.

More waiting.

Posted the internet back to its home.

Then the long, inevitably claustrophobic, poorly catered flight back to Australia. By the end of which, I believe, the air staff thought student one and I to be a gay couple – we did get extra wine out of the relationship, which was a bonus.

Home and time to start planning the next trip.



We got up, we had breakfast.

Then we packed and waited around and it turns out we missed the shuttle bus to the train station.

So, waited for student one to finish packing, then caught 2 cabs, (three in one and three in the other), to the train station.

We went into a café in the train station. I had a doughnut, mum had a coffee and pumpkin tart.

Then me, mum and dad went up above the train station.

We saw a lot of stories, just by sitting on the bench, then a fire truck caught my attention.

We saw a spectacular crow.

It was big, fat, gorgeously adorable, (Japan has stunning crows, way better than Aussie crows).

Then caught the NEX train to the airport for a couple of hours.

When we finally arrived at the airport, we did the security stuff. I bought my future Simba, (adult version), then waited . . . . . . until we can board the plane.

On the plane, I watched Monsters Inc. and the Lion King, then I snoozed for only an hour; I wanted to watch the Lion King again until landing.

We landed, then hopped off, did security stuff in Australia, then caught a maxi taxi to student two’s house to pick up the car. (Mum HAD to stop for coffee, so we came inside).

After that, went home!!!

Unpacked, then I can play my game!

Had dinner, cleaned teeth after shower, then went to bed . . . . ahhhh.





Japan Trip 2018 – Day Fifteen


Having eaten so well the night before, the hotel buffet breakfast was far less appetising.

Wife, daughter and I set off for a “brush museum”.

Turned out to be a display room for a brush making company – all types of brushes, from make up to the other kind.

It was shut.

Then to a sword shop in Asakusa.

Unfortunately, it was located right in the middle of shopping mall hell; so it was slow progress as shiny shops kept distracting the other two.

Did overhear an American tourist explain to a friend that the ryokan they were staying at, “too their slippers very seriously”.

At the sword shop, wife bought a new katana bag and sageo, and I heard another tourist ask a random Japanese stranger whether samurai were a Japanese or a Chinese thing.

They were pleased to discover it was Japanese, because The Last Samurai was such a good movie.

Time to meet up with the others at the national museum.

On the way, I finally had my Lebanese/Japanese falafel roll; it was good.

Relatively easy trip to Ueno Park where daughter interacted with a street performer and was rewarded with a balloon flower sculpture. (This actually survived back to Australia). He worked hard for his hundred yen.

Joined up with the others and headed into the museum.

Did not make it much passed the first sword room, before I had to vacate the building with a seriously misbehaving child.

We sat outside the museum for two hours as she ran through every incarnation of a temper tantrum known to humanity.

Back to the hotel for some quiet time whilst others continued shopping.

Last night’s excellent vegan restaurant was our choice for a final dinner together.

It was shut.

Student two found an Indian place nearby which had vegan options. We went there.

It was good, very, very good.

A nice cultural moment at the end of the meal when the owner corrected daughter’s Japanese grammar; she said it is delicious, instead of it was delicious. No native born Japanese person would ever have pointed that out.

I wish they would.

Hotel and bed.



We got up, then had breakfast.

We went to Ueno and then went to a museum.

Swords, swords.

Then I started to be naughty.

No, no, not a good idea.

Then more snapping from dad, then mum snapped.

Back to the hotel, then relaxed.

I have to wright today’s journal.

Then we went to dinner . . . . .



Japan Trip 2018 – Day Fourteen


Room too dark and claustrophobic for full comfort, but the beds and pillows and shower are all good.

Wife slept well.

The hotel has an included buffet breakfast that contains enough variety to feed even the vegans amongst us.

Turns out the museum we were going to visit is shut today, so plans changed to a visit to Akihabara in the morning for some of us, and then to meet up at the Edo museum.

Wife and daughter had alternate plans for the afternoon.

Akihabara was much as anticipated and failed to live up to any expectations other than heat, crowds with a higher than normal proportion of foreigners and lots and lots of walking.

I did pick up a present for the wife, which, hopefully, she will enjoy.

Off to meet back up with student one and an easy trip to the Edo museum.

And now the gods laugh at us!

We gave ourselves a more than need half an hour to make the journey – it took us more than two.

First, much discussion as to which train, which line; we had it on good authority that we could easily walk there from the Sky Tree stop.

Within minutes, student one had figured out the subway system and took charge. 

Countless changeovers later, we and the hundreds of thousands of other sardines emerged into the light and air at the Sky Tree.

The Edo Museum is not near the Sky Tree.

I suggest a taxi.

Student one, determined not to be defeated by the train system insists we go back down into commuter hell.

Again, gasping for air, we emerge.

Again, we are nowhere near our desired destination.

Student one hails a taxi.

My Japanese works and we set off.

Student one is not happy with the route the driver took, but, at least we do get to the museum.

Museum was large and impressive, very child friendly and interactive.

Briefly met with students two and three, but was by now too tired and done with crowds to do justice to the place.

I walked the half hour back to the hotel, leaving the others at the museum.

Later went to dinner with wife and daughter at a relatively close vegan restaurant.

We were dubious about going at first as the online reviews were mixed, based on the smallness of the proportions. Also, it meant another subway ride.

Correctly assured by the wife that the train trip would be comparatively painless, we went.

Food was delicious, portions more than adequate, décor that of a concrete bunker.

Only complaints, stodgy rice, (there is way too much reliance on rice cookers in this country), and the overpriced alcohol.

We could not eat all the food that was served, there was so much.

Back to the hotel for a quiet rest of the evening.



Yes, another day in Tokyo.

We had breakfast, of course! Then we did, (me and mummy), the Paper Museum.

When we were going to the 3rd floor, we took the stairs and ended up at the 2nd floor.

There was an exhibition on, so we peered in and asked if it was okay with them.

The answer was: YES!!!

So we came in and a woman started chatting to us!!

Also she gave me a copy of her book, (she teaches kids how to speak English and to read Japanese and English).

Then business cards exchange.

Then she made me an origami heart ring.

We took two and a half hours there just CHATTING.

That is incredible.

Back to the hotel for a bit, then me, mum and dad went out to dinner.

Then shower, clean teeth, then I went to bed.

I had a sore muscle, then finally I went to sleep . . . . . zzzzzzz . .. . .




Japan Trip 2018 – Day Thirteen


Travel day.


Two cars to the train station – minshuku owner insisted on helping out with his car.

Then hanging around till the first train – the small Aizu Mountain Express.

Daughter and the train driver became friends and chatted together for much of the journey.

When it came time to switch trains, he got off his and walked us as a group to the next one, making sure we were all sorted before going back to his own train.

Long journey to Tokyo and an approaching typhoon.

Subway to the appropriate stop and a short walk to the hotel.

Not a fan of western style hotels, but the beds are comfortable and the shower is good.

They charged us an extra 9 000 yen to put in a sofa bed for the daughter, having assumed, when the room was booked for two adults and a child, that the ten year old would sleep in one of the beds with an adult.


Wife set out into Suica Card Hell.

Daughter and I went to one of the many local combini to forage for food, then an early night.

The typhoon was disappointing.



We got up.

Crazy finalised packing, then had breakfast.

Checked out of the minshuku.

We went on the local train and made friends with the train driver, who let us, (me and mum), stand up the front.

He gave me chestnuts.

Saw the kitten train station master.

Then fancy train for three hours when a typhoon was brewing.

Quickly rushed to the hotel.

Turns out they did not have my bed ready yet, so we waited . . . . . .

Finally my bed was ready and we went into the room.

Mum did jobs.

Me and dad went to the combini for dinner, then bed.

When the typhoon hit, I was fast asleep.



Japan Trip 2018 – Day Twelve


Another relatively lazy day.

No appetite for breakfast.

Drifted in and out of sleep in the minshuku whilst wife climbed a nearby mountain.

Once she had returned, we wandered to a dengaku place down the road that I have always wanted to try, but never quite got the timing right, (they only seem to be open for a couple of hours a day, around lunch time).

Turned out the others were also there, finishing the remains of their meal.

The usual communication battle to express our vegan needs, along with the no miso sauce caveat of the child. This, in particular, is always a difficult concept to express in such venues.

Mochi was the best and freshest so far and the tofu even better; all cooked on an open hearth in the floor next to us.

We separated back into our original groups and our three headed to the local pottery shop.

Aizu is famous for its pottery.

The owner, Ryoko, remembered Wife and daughter from last year and a very cute and broken English conversation ensued.

Purchases made, she followed us out of the shop, exchanged names with daughter and waved us off.

She may be waving still.

Wife asked if I minded going to the giant Samurai House gift shop on the way back.

I did mind.

So I said no.

In we went.

More purchases were made.

I did find a nice gift for the instructor left behind, who was running the classes for us. One relevant to his first trip to Aizu many years ago.

A minshuku drop off and then up to the onsen area to book a private room for a family bath.

Everything was shut or overbooked, so we settled for soaking our feet in the preferred foot bath of the Shinsengumi.

Eventually, we went to our final Ne Ne Ya, for a comparatively subdued meal and are now packing for our trip back to Tokyo, tomorrow morning.

There are problems of Newtonian physics involved; matching the now expanded level of mass, compared with the available baggage space and number of carrying appendages.



Last Aizu day.

Oh my, Japan is going so fast!

We got up and had breakfast.

We were given presents from the minshuku owners: Japanese sun umbrellas.

Then mum went for a walk, while me and dad relaxed. I got a new phone game: merge plane.

Went and had lunch at the mochi place. Fresh mochi, (not as good as at the castle).

Soaked our feet in an onsen foot bath, then headed back to the minshuku.

But at the Samurai House, mum went into a gift shop. So much stuff.

Mum has bought more stuff.

Dad bought a pack of cards for the instructor back home.

Relaxed at the minshuku, then at 5:45 p.m. we headed to Ne Ne Ya for dinner, then cleaned teeth, then went to bed!

ZZZZ. . . . .


Today’s Tsukemono

Connoisseur one

Minshuku Aizu


As we bring our stay at the minshuku to a close, they finally bring out the big guns.

This pickle is daikon with a vibrant orange colour.

It glows with promise.

Thinly sliced, about 2-3mm.

Cut in quarters.

Salty, with the perfect amount of moisture.


A strong turmeric flavour.

I am pleased with this pickle.

When I close my eyes and think about Japanese pickles, this is the flavour and texture that will come to mind.


Connoisseur two

Classic daikon pickle.

This is what you expect from a Japanese pickle.




Almost as good as my own.



Japan Trip 2018 – Day Eleven


Slow start, very tired.

Wife, daughter, student two and student three went for a drive.

I napped.

Then daughter, myself and wife headed for the castle, so daughter could do some souvenir shopping.

They went ahead and abandoned me, but by catching the next, correct, bus, I arrived before them.

Student one was on that bus.

Daughter did her shopping then we went to the saké brewery and did ours.

Another bus to drop things off at the minshuku, then another bus to town for wife to do some stationery shopping.

Reconnected with student one.

He and daughter and wife raced ahead to look at another shop; I lost them whilst photographing the sunset.

Had a very expensive beer in a bar and rejoined, by now, everyone, in a very expensive Italian café for half a bowl of very expensive salad.

It was drink saké from the castle walls night, so to reduce taxis, student two and I walked there whilst the others headed back to the minshuku to pick up the saké and car.

We climbed the walls, drank, viewed the moon.

Back home for bed.



Today we had breakfast, then me, mum, student three and student two went into the car.

We got out at a forest mountain walk. We found a playground, then we played.

I had turns with student three on the flying fox, then went on a forest walk.

There has been a bear incident here recently, so that has freaked us out a bit, so back in the car and drive back to the minshuku.

We, (me and mum and dad), tried to catch the bus, but left dad behind!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So he caught the next bus, while me and mum are on the bus taking the long way to the castle.

I bought stuff.

Then mum bought stuff from a stationery store.

Back to the minshuku, then at 8.?? p.m. we head back to the castle to watch the moon rise, but we made it at 9.30 p.m.

It was still beautiful and the castle was glowing and everyone was having a good time.

Back to the minshuku, shower, bath, chip stars, clean teeth, then around 11.00 p.m., bed.

Ahhh, so relaxing.



Today’s Tsukemono

Connoisseur one

Minshuku Aizu


Sunny day.


The hum of the surrounding refrigerators adds white noise to the already ticking clocks and buzz of the light fixtures.

Pickle 1 – Plum

It was suggested that the plum should be added to the morning’s rice, sprinkled with dried ribbons of seaweed.

The plum was pitted and shrivelled.

It is a strong flavour.

Strong enough that first contact with the rice is enough to flavour the bowl.

After stirring the rice, the plum disintegrates.

It is an incredibly sour plum.

I do not like it.

By comparison, the lemon served with it was positively sweet.

Pickle 2 – mini eggplant – the size of brussel sprouts.

It has the soft texture of a black olive.

It is juicy, but not in a good way and the juiciness is watery and slightly briny.

Not an enjoyable pickle.

It is difficult to bite and too large to eat whole.

I recommend serving it to guests who have annoyed you in some way, but you want to remain friends with them – possibly because your children have activities together.