Carl Bergman


At twelve years old I came across a book by chance. Something about it drew me in - perhaps the beautiful lettering on the spine or the lovely shade of the burgundy covers? However, the book was threateningly thick and in my early teens I thought I had better things to do than actually study a dusty old tome. The book stayed on my shelf and moved around with me for years until I opened it up as a nineteen year-old - and simply couldn’t put it down. I devoured its thousand pages in almost a single sitting. 
The book was Yoshikawa Eiji’s ‘Musashi’ and it had a tremendous effect on me. More accurately, the person who’s life story the book narrated, did. Or even more precisely that person’s, Miyamoto Musashi’s, tenacity and his complete dedication to the Path he had chosen for himself.
Based on an actual, historical figure, the book narrates one version of the life of a masterless samurai, ronin, Miyamoto Musashi. He was born in year 1584 in Japan, in the now lost province of Harima, into relatively modest conditions. He was orphaned early on and spent long years of his childhood in a buddhist temple, eventually rising to fame as the most skilled swordsman of his time, taking part in over sixty duels, putting his life on the line in every one of them.
Indicative of his dedication is the way he honed his body and art to the extreme in relative isolation, for a long while only visiting “civilized society” occasionally to put his skills and progress to the test. I think it can be said with conviction that he paid an enormous price in terms of creature comforts and a social life in order to reach the heights that he did on his Path. Instead of this accomplishment making him proud and egoistic, what he found from the proverbial summit of his art was a new perspective into the arts and crafts of masters from different fields and backgrounds, including but not limited to tea ceremony, fine arts, building engineering and artisan crafts. What he managed to do was turn his own art, the base character of which is destructive and deadly and turn it into a channel through which to build, protect and appreciate fleeting beauty.

This series is the result of a pilgrimage to the life of this nearly mythical figure. First I divided his eventful journey into what I considered pivotal moments and went bearing witness to the locations around Japan where those moments had taken place. How much was the same, how much had changed? At each site, I photographed a texture which may well have remained unchanged for these past four hundred years along with a reference to Musashi’s life’s story.



Arima Kihei, a ronin on his musha shugyō (warrior’s pilgrimage) arrived in Musashi’s home town In 1597 and put up a wooden sign post, presenting a challenge to anyone who would dare to answer it. Contenders were instructed to write their names on the board. When Musashi, still known as Bennosuke at this time, heard of this challenge he rushed to the scene and painted over the whole signpost with ink, preventing anyone else from writing down their names.
This quite apparently angered Arima Kihei who agreed to fight this impudent brat.
Here Musashi engaged in his first duel, killing for the first time, using a wooden quarterstaff.
He was only thirteen years old.



Quite soon after these events, at around fifteen, Musashi left his home town and relatively little is known of his movements until he, at twenty-one years old appeared in Kyoto, determined to challenge the shogun’s teacher, the master of the Yoshioka fencing school, Yoshioka Kenpo to a duel. However, by the time Musashi reached Kyoto, Kenpo had perished and his sons, Yoshioka Seijuro, Densichiro and Matashichiro respectively headed the school.
Musashi engaged the brothers in a series of fights, first defeating Seijuro at a now lost location on the outskirts of Kyoto, both utilising wooden swords, bokuto. Musashi emerged victorious, breaking Seijuro’s arm who promptly retired from his position at the head of the Yoshioka school and became a zen monk.
Next was Densichiro who faced off with Musashi outside Rengeō-in, also known as Sanjūsangen-dō, a buddhist temple in the Higashiyama district in Kyoto. They, too, fought with wooden swords but this time the exchange proved fatal for Densichiro, who received a mortal blow to the head and perished.

Musashi’s final skirmish against the Yoshioka clan was fought in Ichijoji, under the leaves of the Sagarimatsu tree near the Hachidai shrine in northeast Kyoto. Feeling his clan’s honor tarnished by the defeats of his siblings Matashichiro challenged Musashi. However, Matashichiro, the clan’s last male heir differed from the other brothers in the sense that he was only twelve or thirteen years old at the time. I think it’s safe to say Musashi did not expect the fight to be a duel.
At this point Musashi had established a pattern of arriving late to face his opponents, a habit which he now proceeded to break, this time showing up hours in advance, hiding either behind a bush or in a tree and observed as approximitely sixty students of the Yoshioka school arrived in Matashichiro’s tow, with the intention of staging an ambush. Musashi managed to turn the situation around by taking the Yoshioka by surprise, stabbing and instantly killing Matashichiro. As he withdrew from the hill where the skirmish took place he battled the enraged Yoshioka students, killing them in large numbers.
During this ordeal, Musashi later recounted, he spontaneously started using his wakizashi in his off-hand in addition to his regular katana in the other in order to fend off attacks from many directions at once. This two handed technique ended up becoming a trademark, if you will, of his and the basis of his own school of “Niten Ichi-ryu” (Two swords/heavens as one).
All the samurai back then carried two swords but only used one at a time. The shorter wakizashi was, for the most part, intended for close quarters combat in confined spaces where the length of a katana would’ve rendered it clumsy to use.

As a consequence of these events the famed Yoshioka school came crumbling down but the family line and name were preserved through marriage and the following generations’ success in silk manufacture and trade. 



In the Spring of 1612, an obvious watershed moment took place. Perhaps the world’s most famous duel that pit two of the most renowned swordsmen of their time, Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro, against one another on Funajima island, between Honshu and Kyushu, where Kojiro along with his retinue waited.. and waited.
The match was scheduled to take place at dawn but on the morning of the fight Musashi slept late in Shimonoseki and made no effort to hasten his arrival. Apparently, over three hours late, he had himself rowed over to the island and during the boat ride carved himself an extraordinarily long (measuring 1,26m) bokken, a wooden sword, out of either a spare oar or a piece of driftwood. His purpose was to counter the longer than customary nodachi sword (measuring 90 cm) which Kojiro was known to employ. In other words, Musashi was well versed in his opponent’s technique, valued their skill greatly and saw it best to, once again, utilize strategy in a broader sense in order to achieve victory.
To reiterate, Musashi arrived on the island hours behind the appointed time. As the row boat he was traveling in approached the shoreline, Musashi jumped out and into the shallow water, taking care to hold the tip of his wooden sword submerged, thus concealing the actual length of his new weapon from his opponent.
Kojiro understandably felt humiliated by Musashi’s late arrival, was furious and ran to the water’s edge to meet his approaching opponent. There is an account of this moment when the two finally came face to face according to which the agitated Kojiro drew his sword and tossed his scabbard into the water to which Musashi responded by telling him he had already lost; A swordsman wouldn’t throw away his sheath unless he knew he would have no chance to ever use it again. According to the witness accoutn, this line sparked Kojiro into motion and the combatants struck as one and only once -
Kojiro collapsed onto the sand. The reach of Musashi’s bokken had taken Kojiro by surprise, he had suffered a blow to his head and his own strike had missed. 

This base idea of a duel, or actually any situation or experience, extending outside the physical limits of the event and into the realm of the mind and thereby being within reach of psychological manipulation repeats in Musashi’s life and writings over and over again. His purpose was to throw his opponents off-balance, to bait them into his own rhythm using careful advance preparation and practice, to reinvent himself over and over again and to defy expectations.

Musashi lived quite literally between two worlds; The old belligerent “Warring states” Sengoku period ended and the Edo period that brought over 250 years of relative peace to Japan began in 1600 when Musashi was 16 years old. This polarity, which from a martial perspective meant the glorification of strength, cunning and winning by any means necessary during the Sengoku period and morphed into a culture that emphasized technique, style, etiquette and rituals during the Edo period, was mirrored in Musashi’s life and development. The first half of his life was spent in pursuit of maximal efficiency which culminated in a very brutal way in this most famous duel of his in shallow water in the Kanmon strait against Sasaki Kojiro.
The next, second half of his life differed from the first in many ways;
After his victory on Funajima, Musashi felt sadness over having extinguished the unique flame of his opponent. Although he continued to engage in duels in the latter part of his life, he never used a forged sword and never took another life in a match again but instead was content to use a bamboo cane or a bokuto to disarm or dominate his opponents.



After his final fight to the death, Musashi travelled and immersed himself more and more in meditation, construction and arts separate from kenjutsu. He practiced among other arts tea ceremony, painting, sculpture and poetry. In 1640 he finally settled down in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu as a valued guest and teacher of daimyo Hosokawa Tadatoshi.
However, he did not end up spending a lot of time in the Kumamoto castle itself but instead travelled back and forth to the mountains west of the city. Along the way, there is a large stone, roughly three by three meters in width and length and flat on the top where it’s said that Musashi used to rest and practice Zen Buddhist zazen (meditation). During these years, having felled his last true rival, Musashi occupied himself in inner struggles - trying to attain a greater understanding, harmony and clarity of the mind. 



Reigandō is a cave to which Musashi travelled westwards from Kumamoto. The cave is, as caves tend to be, very ascetic. The wide mouth offers only limited protection from the elements.
He eventually ended up calling Reigandō home. In the middle of the cave there’s a rock on which Musashi sat as he wrote ‘Go Rin No Sho’ - a series of texts which ended up cementing his legacy for future generations and which has through the centuries taken its rightful place among the literary classics on strategy. 
‘Go Rin No Sho’ speaks, at least superficially, of kenjutsu and strategy but a significant part of it are observations on the importance of not just learning but specifically of personal training and the new perspectives opened up by physical awakenings during and through said training. In ‘Go Rin No Sho’ Musashi also stresses over and over again the importance of patience and flexibility in both thought and technique.
In this cave, Reigando, far removed from the comforts of the civilized society, Musashi spent his last moments and eventually died, at sixty-one years old - committed to his Path right until the end.



Back to Top