Last night I was packing up my bags for another night of iaido practice. Into the bag went my hakama, gi, and juban along with my obi and tenegui to mop the perspiration from my face and hands. I check my sword bag for bokken, and sword cleaning kit. Then I look to my sword rack and start to ponder, what blade do I take tonight? Each one has its place on the rack and each will eventually be reviewed here. Two iaito sit in the lowest rungs of the rack. My trusty Minosaka basic series iaito is always a good choice. I call it tombo and despite its basic style and fittings, it has held up to hundreds of hours of kata practice. It is light and nimble but I haven’t used it in practice for some time now. Next up is my Sword Store Iaito. It’s a long 2.55 shaku blade and was the result of a very fortuitous craigslist purchase. Poor fellow bought a very expensive iaito just to turn around and sell it to me for pennies on the dollar. It is a spectacular practice tool. I’ve named it Bean Pole due to its length and bean pod menuki. It is my go-to blade for seminar and testing having struggled with me through several years of dedicated practice. Tonight, however, my hand drifts higher on the rack to the shinken that occupy the higher rungs.
The shinken, or sharp sword, sit higher on the rack. Not because they are used any less than the iaito, but because they demand a higher degree of presence to wield than the iaito. I question myself each time I take one up just as if it were a firearm. My hand gently flows from one tsuka to the next until it comes to rest on my oldest and most reliable of sharp swords. My Ronin Dojo-Pro Yama Kuma, purchased through Sword Buyers Guide, has been with me since 2008 and has been through enough suburi and kata to rival my old bokken in terms of usage and familiarity. This was my first shinken and has served me very well for the last 8 years. As I took it into my hands I realized that this sword is truly exceptional at least from my point of view. It is an old friend and I can trust it as I trust myself. In this unconventional review, I’ll tell you why.
The first impression of my Ronin Dojo Pro was good. In fact, I was ecstatic when I first held the sword. I had owned a couple of lower priced swords of various makes that never quite felt like a real pillage and plunder sword. As for exact measurements and details, I’m not going to put you through all that. If you want that info, go to the manufacturer’s web site as they have it all there in its boring and tedious glory. What I will give you are my impressions and experience in the actual, daily use of this blade for my practice of Eishin Ryu Iaido and cutting from various other ryuha.
I appreciated the Spartan aesthetic of the all iron koshirae and the soft but warm buffalo horn accents on the saya that combine to produce a shinken that I was truly excited to use in kata. The only out of the box imperfection I could identify being that the ridgeline that runs the length of the mune deviates slightly to the right and does not continue all the way to the tip but veers to the right just a centimeter or so from the tip. Also the saya, while very pretty, leaves a lot to be desired. There is a lot of rattle when the sword is sheathed. Worse, it came practically filled with sticky grease that despite multiple cleanings with various implements, never seems to end. It’s like the saya is a cosmoline fountain that was intended to house a monkey wrench. It is the only truly inferior aspect of the sword and needed to be replaced if I intended to use the sword in my practice. After several frustrating attempts to work with the manufacturer, I replaced the saya with one from Cheness Inc making the system fully serviceable as a kata sword.
To date this sword has been through the performance of many thousands of kata and even more suburi. The koshirae has never loosened or been any cause for concern. I haven’t even had to deal with the tell-tale rattling that occurs where the tsuba and tsuka meet that seems to affect most swords used in iaido. While each of my iaito has developed the faint click that is usually an indication of substantial use, my Dojo Pro remains silent as I complete my cuts. The ito wrap has taken the use well and hardly seems worn. The only indication of the actual age and use to which the shinken has been subjected is the discoloration of the tsuba and fuchi where my fingers make contact and the faint scratches on the blade that are evidence of my learning to cut dry bamboo. The sword has cut dozens of tatame mats, dozens of bamboo poles and more pool noodles, rolled newspaper, and water jugs than I can count. My last cutting took place several months ago with a few good friends where it met with some North Carolina bamboo for the first time. It cut very well and still produces good cuts and has a keen edge despite my developing technique.
In regards to Iaido kata practice, the sword feels very much like my Sword Store Iaito. The weight is nearly identical although it is shorter by about 3 inches overall. The point of balance is slightly forward making it very eager to cut but also responsive to tenouchi and very agile. The slim, wasted tsuka is double pinned and wrapped with silk or silk like ito, is very comfortable in the hand. I never flinch while considering a two to three hour practice as it is as comfortable a sword to wield as any after a long night. There is no bohi or fuller in the blade making it more ideal for cutting but as a result there is very little audible feedback for cuts.
When I purchased the sword it was with the idea that I would use it as an aid to my Iaido practice and eventually learn to cut tatame and bamboo with it. The construction of the Dotanuki style 1060 carbon steel blade was supposed to be rather forgiving of botched cuts, which it has thankfully been. What has surprised me to no end is the fact that after all these years and after thousands of kata and suburi, that the simple iron fittings and silkish tsuka ito have remained solidly attached and only slightly worn with use. This sword which nearly didn’t make the cut while I was shopping has never failed to impress and even when inspected by those practitioners who aren’t fond of Ronin Swords or their management, has always comported itself with grace and a razor sharp edge.
If you are on the market for a good low cost shinken for iaido that can do double duty as a cutter, and can deal with the need for a new saya, the Ronin Dojo Pro line of Dotanuki style shinken may be just what you are looking for.