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City in Yamagata offers samurai experience

Courtesy of Murayama city government

A participant follows through after cutting through a rolled up straw mat.

The Yomiuri ShimbunMURAYAMA, Yamagata — Hayashizaki Jinsuke-Shigenobu, a master swordsman who was active in the Sengoku (warring states) period (around 16th century) to the early Edo period (1603-1867) and founded the sword martial art iaido was born in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture.

Starting this month, the municipal government and the city’s tourism and produce council programs that will give foreign tourists, including those from Taiwan and Europe, the chance to experience iaido for themselves. The programs will involve practicing iaido forms and letting participants try to cut through rolled up straw mats using real swords.

“We want foreign tourists to know that this is the birthplace of iaido and want them to visit here,” a city official said.

Iaido is martial art that seeks to respond to surprise attacks by quickly drawing one’s sword and not providing any opening for a counterattack.

Hayashizaki was born in 1542 in what is now the Hayashizaki district of Murayama, according to the city.

When he was 2 years old, his father was killed in an ambush. At age 8, he began training at a local shrine in the same district, dedicating himself to someday seeking revenge.

He spent eight years practicing his sword skills at the shrine, which is now called Kumanoiairyo Shrine. It was there that he developed the Hayashizaki Muso style, the forerunner to iaido.

When he was 18, he set out to seek his revenge, which he achieved in Kyoto Prefecture at age 20.

Hayashizaki then traveled the country teaching the sword fighting style he developed.

Kumanoiairyo Shrine where he trained is the only iaido shrine in Japan. The shrine has a statue and effigy of Hayashi-zaki and has been visited by swordsmen from all over Japan as one of iaido’s sacred sites.

A slice of opportunity

The city’s iaido tourism programs were first conceived in fiscal 2014, when city officials and travel agents discussed creating some kind of new tourist attraction for foreigners. They realized that being the birthplace of iaido presented an opportunity.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A statue dedicated to Hayashizaki Jinsuke-Shigenobu at the Kumanoiairyo Shrine, is seen in the Hayashizaki district of Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

In fiscal 2015, regular meetings attended by people involved in iaido, local residents, city officials and others were held to work out the details of the program.

Since last year, they have held 10 iaido events, mainly for foreigners who were visiting the prefecture. Through an interpreter they explained the history and manners of iaido, then let the participants try tameshigiri, or test cuts with a sword.

The foreigners said they enjoyed the events, praising the samurai experience and describing how wearing an iaido uniform made them feel motivated and inspired.

“I want the programs to make people interested in Japanese swords and iaido culture,” said Ryoji Yaguchi, a 62-year-old chairman of an association for promoting Hayashizaki style iaido.

At the same time, they found that some iaido terminology was difficult to translate into other languages.

“We want to improve the interpretation by running through the programs multiple times,” said Takamitsu Wada, 46, an official of the city’s commerce and tourism section.

Iaido tourism programs

The city offers three programs. The real samurai show for groups involves an iaido performance and viewing tameshigiri, which costs ¥30,000 for a group of up to 40 people.

The “iaido experience” program also involves an iaido performance and viewing tameshigiri, with participants actually practicing iaido forms. Participants are also able to perform tameshigiri themselves for an extra charge. These sessions are held for five to 15 people and cost ¥8,000 per person, or ¥11,000 with the tameshigiri option.

Private iaido lessons cost ¥30,000 for up to two people, with each additional person charged ¥11,000. All rates for the three programs are before tax.

The programs are conducted at a martial arts hall close to the shrine. Japanese are also welcome to participate.

Going forward, the city plans to create programs that promote soba noodles made in the city and tours of its famous sites, as well as two- or three-day iaido training programs.

About 1.28 million tourists visited Murayama in fiscal 2016, the fewest of the seven cities in the Murayama region, according to the prefectural government.

“We want to use iaido to increase tourism,” Wada said. “People can experience the importance of tradition and history in a way that is only possible on the sacred ground where it was born.”

The program’s official website (https://www.iaidoexperience.com.) offers information in Japanese.Speech

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