An Unexpected Trove

Since coming to Toronto, I had heard rumours that the Royal Ontario Museum held an exceptional array of Japanese swords in its archives, unavailable to the public. Finding a way to get a look at those swords has been on my mind for years now, but thanks to some very well-connected friends, Toronto Kenjutsu was privileged to go behind the scenes at the ROM and examine some of its many treasures.

The rumours were well-founded. We stood around in stunned amazement as tray after tray of fabulous works of art were presented to us. Swords of the like I never thought I'd get a chance to look at, much less handle (after very stern lessons on proper handling of priceless artifacts), lay before us in stacked rows. It was truly an amazing experience.

One day was not sufficient to go through all the treasures, but we found plenty to marvel at. There were gorgeously detailed koshirae, classic katana and a number of very strange swords, difficult to classify but fascinating to consider and wonder about. We passed them around, our hands encased in thin gloves to shield the ancient artifacts from our skin and its oils. There were swords that had been made for battle, and many bearing signs of heavy use (though whether on the battlefield or just getting thrown around by an incautious owner, it's hard to say), and then there were some in breathtakingly perfect condition. And not only swords; we examined daggers and spearheads and other edged weapons.

While not everyone finds the Japanese sword AS compelling an object as most of us do, there's no denying the elegance and beauty of these artifacts, and the careful detail that goes into them.

This little moth pattern appeared on a kurigata -- the little knob on the sheath to which the cord is attached. It's no wider than your little finger, and yet so much care was lavished on it. We saw item after item like this, until the mind could scarcely take it all in.

But this attitude, of attaching importance even to the smallest of details, is paramount in our practice. The angle of the feet, the line of the cut -- if these are not understood and performed to the most exacting standards, the sword will not cut. More importantly, if the mind is not fully present, and not truly aware of all these tiny details, then opportunities slip away, and vulnerabilities are not seen or attended to.

It's not that there is only one 'correct', or 'perfect' way to perform the kata. But as I practice, as I strive to attend to every conceivable detail (and Sensei is always able to find yet another detail I am not attending to), I learn to open my mind to what is truly in front of me. To let go of my preconceptions and prejudices and see clearly that which is actually there.

This last illustration came from a massive sheath -- carved from a single piece of ivory that can only have come from an elephant's tusk. It was covered all over with carvings of this sort of detail and delight. Full of samurai pursuing each other, swinging swords and naginata, on horseback or on foot, beautiful images of fighting men in poses and stances that we practice to this very day.

We will never use our arts for the same purpose they did. We will never kill or face death at the end of a sword. But the wisdom those long-ago men learned in that violent, terrifying fashion still serves us today.

We are very grateful to the staff members at the ROM for accommodating us and making this visit possible. It was honestly a dream come true for all of us, and we will always remember that day.