As a martial arts and Japanese history website, it would stand to reason that much of our readership would be extremely interested in both of these things as a hobby, or even as a profession. That said, it strikes me as extraordinary that so many people who are so infatuated with the culture, practices and fighting techniques of the Samurai, rarely, if ever, practice or study fighting in Japanese Armour.
Now of course such training is not for everyone. Some are uninterested in training that is not directly related to self defence and street confrontations. Some may simply be interested in the practice of an art for its own sake, or for sport, like Judo or Kendo. I believe, however, that even for those who are not interested in an in-depth study of fighting in armour, the opportunity to understand more about the origins of their art is one that can provide great insight. For those who practice koryu bujutsu, those for who the tradition and history is equally as important as the techniques themselves, study of fighting in armour is not only invaluable, but essential to fully understanding the techniques and teachings of many schools, including Tenshinshoden Katori Shinto Ryu, Kito Ryu, Owari-Kan ryu, and many others besides these.
I have been lucky enough, recently, to obtain an excellent suit of armour from the Iron Mountain Armoury. It should be noted that this armour is of the Kachi class and therefore the cheapest variety of armour that the Iron Mountain Armoury makes. Other classes of armour have extra features and padding to make higher quality armours more protective, more comfortable and more durable. Important as I may believe having the opportunity to train in armour is, and fantastically made (and even made simpler to put on in some places) though the armour is; that does not stop it being a right pain in the behind to put on! So without any further ado, we present the Samurai-Do guide to wearing Samurai armour!
Step 1. We are starting out with a simple gi and hakama as underclothes. Traditionally, Samurai often wore specially designed undergarments called yoroi hitatare under armour. The specific hakama that is worn as a part of the hitatare does not have a back plate, is baggier, and has fewer pleats to better accommodate the lower portions of the armour. Not possessing such garments, however, we simply went with what we had!
Step 2. To keep the hakama legs tucked in, and to provide some extra padding, we use kyahan to wrap around the shins.
Step 3. Now for the armour! We work from the bottom to the top and from the inside to the outside, so the first thing to go on are the shin guards, or sune-ate. On our armour, these have two ties each, one at the top and one at the bottom to secure them in place (we use bows or other quick release knots to make the armour easy to remove) just like a shin guard in football. Be careful not to let the bottom of the shin guard press against your ankle, as this is excruciatingly painful, as Alex can testify!
Step 4. Next is the haidate, or thigh guard. These go on with a belt at the top and can then be left hanging loose. We prefer, however, to attach the bottom of the guard using two ties around the lower thigh. This makes it hug the thigh, and means there is simply less loose armour flapping around!
Step 5. Now for arguably the most difficult part of the armour, the kote, or sleeves. The reason that this is so difficult is that it is the sleeves that regulate how freely your arms and shoulders can move in the armour. As such, the process of putting them on is often something of a matter of trial and error until you find a balance that works for you. Our armour came with two ties that fasten together under the opposite armpit to the sleeve itself. The issue with this system is that the top of the sleeve often falls away. To rectify this, we added a second set of ties in the top of the sleeve that attaches the two kote across the back of the shoulder blades, keeping the whole assembly in place. When tying off the wrists, it is important not to make the sleeve too tight, as this can restrict arm movement, particularly at the elbow!
Step 6. Now for the really fun bit, the do. This just wraps around your body, and is secured on one side by a tie. There are also straps over the shoulders that are attached with toggles. while it is fine just to let this hang off of your shoulders for now, one notices that after a while this becomes quite a strain. Don’t worry, we will alleviate this eventually!
Step 7. Now that the do is in place, the sode, or shoulder guards, fit easily into place attaching by toggles over the shoulder.
Step 8. Remember how we said the do was getting really heavy? Well now is the point where we rectify that. The next step is to add the sarashi, or sash, across the midsection. Hoist the do up a little and then fasten the sarashi tightly around your midsection, over the lacing that attaches the kusazuri to the do. This should now hold most of the weight of the do on your hips rather than dumping it on your shoulders. (By the way, it is at this stage, if you were arming properly for combat, that your short sword would be attached inside the folds of the belt.). We also put the hachimaki, a ceremonial headband with metal plates, on Alex here for a bit of fun!
Step 9. We then ditched the hachimaki and went for the full kabuto. The ties attach underneath the chin to keep the helmet stable and in place.
Step 10. you could stop with just the helmet, but to complete the look you really need the mempo as well. This goes on before the helmet proper and can just hang until the kabuto is on over the top. From there just tie on the helmet as before, this time with the mempo sitting on your face, and the ties going under the chin of the mempo itself. Getting this bit right is also difficult as the nose guard has a tendency to push rather painfully against the bridge of the nose. Short of bashing this piece into a more comfortable position with a hammer (something I have sorely been tempted to do from time to time!) the whole thing is once again just a case of finding the balance that is right and comfortable for you.
And there you have it, one Samurai warrior ready to go! Once again thanks to the Iron Mountain Armoury (a link to their website is also at the very bottom of the page!) for making the armour, to Alex for posing, and to Jonathan for painstakingly photographing the whole event (despite the constant heckling and odd looks from passers-by!).