Master Yamaoka Tesshu (Ono Tetsutaro, 1836-1888) was born into a family of samourai and began his education and practice of ken-jutsu in his childhood. He studied the art of sword in the different schools of ken-jutsu (jiki shinkage-ryu and ono ha itto-ryu). At the age of 17, he moved to Tokyo and joined the military institute of Kobukan. Upon the premature death of Seizan Yamaoka, which left the family without an heir, he married Seizan Yamaoka‘s sister and adopted the name “Yamaoka.”
He developed an exceptional force and power through the intensity of his practice of the art of the sword.
Portrait photo of Master Yamaoka Tesshu
At 27 years old, Yamaoka Tesshu was considered a frightening combatant of great efficiency. As he was very tall for a Japanese (more than 6 feet or 1m 80), and was intense with an extremely competitive spirit, he was given the nickname “Tesshu the demon.”
At the institute of budo, he met a high level practitioner, Master Matashihiro Asari, who was then 59 years old. He immediately jumped into a challenge with him to evaluate his progression. Beaten without compromise, Yamaoka Tesshu bowed to Master Asari in recognition of his crushing superiority in the art of the sword. From this day forward, he became obsessed with defeating Master Asari with a sword and invested totally to achieving this. During their practices, Master Asari pushed Tesshu through the dojo like an infant from one wall to another.
Master Asari Matashihiro
Knowing that sword training alone would be insufficient to achieve his goal, Master Tesshu set out to re-enforce and develop mentally through the intensive practice of zen. Each day, during his practice of the zazen posture, he confronted the image of Master Asari. Finally, at the age of 45, Yamaoka Tesshu attained a state of satori (illumination) while in zazen. At once, he enters the dojo to confront Master Asari. Once face to face, Master Asari said to him: “You have arrived!” and the two practitioners lower their swords.
portrait of the celebrated Master Yamaoka Tesshu
Soon after this, Master Tesshu opened his own dojo, the Shumpukan, where he trained, amongst others, Master Zazaburo Takano, who would greatly influence modern kendo.
Yamaoka Tesshu lived during a turning point in Japanese history where he played an active role in important transformations. He occupied many important posts in both the final administration of the shogunat, Tokukawa, and after the young emperor Meiji. He was recognized for his sword abilities, for his calligraphy and his Zen practice.
Master Yamaoka Tesshu died, at the age of 53, of stomach cancer. At the moment of his death and after he was holding the posture of zazen.