Iaito And Katana
This page is my advice on what to look for and possible sources for acquiring swords for use in iaido.
Basics - especially for beginners
Iaido is an art practiced with the Japanese katana. But actual katana are not usually used by beginners for several reasons:
- Real katana, whether antique or new, are quite expensive, and
- Real katana are normally quite sharp, and it's easy - especially for a beginner - to cut yourself with one, and
- In some places (Japan in particular) an actual katana is regulated as a weapon.
When you add in that there is little actual cutting (in the sense of actually cutting an object) in early iai training, most beginning students opt for one of the other options.
Katana are sized by measuring from the munemachi (the notch in the blade the habaki fits into) to the tip in a straight line. They are usually sized in shaku (a traditional Japanese measure that is just short of a foot long - 11.9303 inches). 2.45 shaku is a fairly typical length, but 2.25 shaku is an in-stock size at all three of the sources I generally use.
There are no hard rules for how long a katana should be, but generally the rule of thumb I use is to hold the sword loosely in my hand; its point should be a couple of inches off the floor. The other test is to be sure that you can sheath the sword, although with practice your ability to sheath a longer sword will improve somewhat.
There's a table available in a couple of places (specifically here) that attempts to suggest the appropriate length for a katana based on height of the iadoka.
To Hi or not to Hi, that is the question
If you'll pardon the pun...one feature that may or may not be present on a katana style blade is the "hi" or fuller. This is a groove running most of the length of the blade. Its actual purpose is to lighten and strengthen the blade. But from an iaidoka's perspective, the hi is the source of the audible "whoosh" a proper cut makes. As a result, most iaito have a hi. But it's by no means universal, especially in swords not made specifically for the practice of iai.
Hi come in a number of styles, but the most common is the "bo hi", which is a single relatively wide groove.
It is possible to set up a wooden practice sword to be a useful practice weapon for iaido, and this is likely the first option a beginner should look at.
While you could call any sword used in iaido an "iaito" (since the word means "iai sword") the term is generally used for a training sword made specifically for practicing iaido. Instead of a steel blade, they are made with a non-ferrous alloy (aluminum and zinc, if I recall correctly). As a result, they are much softer than a steel blade, and are not sharpened on the edge.
Purpose-built iaito are commonly sold in martial arts supply stores specifically for the practice of iaido and related arts. The three first sources I look at when looking for such iai supplies are:
- eBogu (Southern California). eBogu carries a relatively limited stock of iaito compared to the other two on this list, but they are in Southern California and are very responsive. As I write this, most of their iaito seem to start at about $600.
- Seido (Tokyo) Their in-stock iato start about $460, and they also will make custom iaito. Additionally, they carry iai wakasashi (and tanto)
- Tozando (Tokyo). They carry a wide variety of iaito at various price points, starting at about $400.
All three of these offer good to excellent iaito, with the various price points for in-stock iaito varying primarily with the koshirae (the various fittings of the blade, including the handle and scabbard). Custom made iaito will be noticeably more expensive.
Many stores sell "Oriental" decor, and frequently these sell "katana" in ornate kosherae primarily intended to be hung on the wall as decoration. Despite this, they can be used as beginner iaito, and are generally fairly inexpensive.
For the purist, only a blade forged in Japan from tahamagane steel in the traditional process should be called "Nihonto". But there are swords in the katana style made outside Japan. Some are very similar to traditional Japanese katana in their forging, while others are forged from single billets of modern steel. In general, perhaps because they lack collector value, they tend to be significantly less expensive than actual Nihonto, and may be of good quality --- although since the market is not regulated, the buyer must exercise due diligence.
- Cheness Cutlery specializes in Japanese-style weapons, though not necessarily forged from traditional techniques. As of 2023-07-21, their web site indicates that they are going out of business, which I'm sad to hear --- I have one of their mono-steel blades, and am very happy with it.
- W.K.C. Stahl-und Metallwarenfabrik Hans Kolping GmbH & Co. KG. I ran across this web site and it looks interesting, but I've never seen their product in person.
- Sword and Armory is fairly local to me, in Pomona CA. Their swords are inexpensive and of moderate quality (arguably excellent quality for their price point) but somewhat variable. I'd suggest a personal visit to select the specific blade, if possible.
- Hand Made Sword in Walnut CA advertise themselves as the home of collectable handmade swords. They offer an inexpensive line of iaito according to their website, and may be worth investigating.
Shinken (live steel katana)
Other Useful Accessories
- Cleaning kit: Iaito are not as sensitive to being kept clean as steel blades, but still should be cleaned regularly. Traditional cleaning supplies are sold in kits, and that's the simplest way to get them.
- Sword bag: You'll probably want a simple sword bag to protect the sword while it's being stored and transported. While there are fancy (and expensive) bags available, all you actually need is a simple bag. Check the sword you're buying; it's likely that a simple bag will come with the sword.
- Carrying bag: It's convenient to have a bag that you use to carry all of your weapons (sword, bokken, jo) to and from the dojo. While all of the suppliers I like have several varieties, my favorite types come from eBogu.