The fortune-teller

Yagyu Munenori was a great student of fencing technique, and there was a standing invitation to any challenger to come to his house and have a contest with him with wooden swords. Afterwards Yagyu used to discuss fencing with the opponent over a meal ; even if the other had lost, there was often something to be learnt from his techniques. There were many unorthodox styles of fencing which relied mainly on surprise, and it was essential for the teacher of fencing to the rulers of Japan to know about all of them. Some of the wandering swordsmen were wild figures, like the famous Musashi who used to dress almost like a tramp.

One day an extraordinary figure appeared to challenge Yagyu. He was very thin and held the sword in an unusual way. There were at the time two main styles of contest technique: to wait cautiously for an opening, or to rush the opponent with a continuous volley of cuts. This man followed neither; he advanced swiftly with his sword held almost straight in front of him in an apparently awkward grip. Yagyu however had met before a type of expert who relied on a lightning counter-stroke from an unfavourable situation, using exceptionally fast movement, long practised, to defeat the opponent’s reflexes. He found the absolute confidence of this thin man upsetting; the man was taking tremendous risks, inviting a blow at the head as if saying, ‘However fast your direct blow, my counter will be even faster.’

Yagyu found himself giving ground more and more. When they reached the end of the practice hall, his opponent made a clumsy halfhearted blow at his head which he easily parried; Yagyu countered with a light tap on the head which the other made no attempt to stop. The contest was over.

At the meal Yagyu asked him who he was, and the other looked down and said, ‘The fact is that I am a fortune-teller from a few streets away. I have had no customers and I am starving. I thought I would challenge you, suffer the pain of a blow on the head, but at any rate get a meal afterwards. But you didn’t seem to want to hit me.’ Yagyu gave him some money as well as the meal, and said seriously, ‘I have surely learned something from your fortune-telling fencing.’


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