For this assignment I’ve chosen to look at an object I use nearly every day, but which I often take for granted. It is a makiwara, a traditional training instrument for Japanese and Okinawan martial arts. The word means “straw roll” because originally makiwara were constructed of rolled bundles of rice straw that were fixed to specially cut posts anchored in the ground. My makiwara is made of more modern materials, but I use it in the same way that makiwara have been used for centuries. I strike it repeatedly with various hand configurations while standing in a variety of positions. It is an implacable foe; it never gets tired or retreats. It always defeats me. Although not all martial arts practitioners hit the makiwara, those who see their practice as a traditional mental and physical discipline nearly always do.
I constructed my makiwara from an eight-foot hemlock 4X4 post. I trimmed one foot off the bottom and cut the other end so that it tapers from one inch to four inches thick over a span of three feet. I planted the bottom three feet in the ground and anchored the post with stones. The post, as it extends from the ground, is thick for about a foot and then tapers to its narrow, upright end. The blank, untapered, side faces the user and is topped with a pad. In my case I do not use a rice straw bundle, but a thin foam pad approximately four inches wide and six inches long secured to the post with a wrap of silver duct tape. It’s not as pretty as a hand-carved, cedar post with rice straw, but it is just as effective.
Over the past decade or so I’ve replaced the post twice and the pad four or five times, but the configuration is always the same. It’s now gray with age and the duct tape is fraying around the edges. The pad is indented slightly in the center where I strike it. It doesn’t cushion quite as well as it should and I’ll have to replace it soon. My feet have worn smooth three ovals in the soil, one each to the left and right of the post where I place my front foot depending on which hand I’m using to hit the pad and a larger one in line with the post about three feet in front of it where my rear foot lies. My pad is in the shelter of a large white pine and I can hear the wind in the tree branches sometimes when I go out to hit the pad.
I both love and hate hitting the makiwara. It can be uncomfortable and boring, but it holds the promise of unfettering the mind and forging the body. Its genius is in its simplicity. The tapered cut allows just the right amount of flexibility in the post to avoid most injuries, but not so little integrity that the user doesn’t receive immediate physical feedback. When I first started hitting the makiwara I sprained my wrist, often scraped my knuckles and even broke a few fingers. Over time, however, as my technique improved and my body became conditioned to striking the pad I sustained fewer injuries. Now my knuckles rarely get skinned and my joints have become more robust. My skin has thickened in the way an expert guitar player’s finger pads toughen. My art has begun to shape my body.
There is a great deal of written about the makiwara, some of it folklore and some of it truth. What is known, though, is that all the great masters hit the pad. Funakoshi of the Shotokan-ryu, in his nineties, wrote that his hands “itched” if he neglected his makiwara practice. At the turn of the last century Shito-ryu master Mabuni’s devoted wife held an umbrella over his head so he could practice during the rainy season in southern Japan. Today Minoru Higa, of the lightning fast Shorin-ryu style, and Morio Higaonna, who is associated with the powerful Goju-ryu system, are renowned for their makiwara practice. Maybe if I keep at it, too, I’ll be able to pullback the veil and catch a glimpse of what the masters know.
Since I wrote this piece I've replaced my makiwara once more. Below are some pictures of my current makiwara with a much better rope wrapping. This one's been up for about a year. Feel free to come by and try it out.