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Birthplace of traditional sword style to offer tours in bid to attract foreign visitors

Murayama Municipal Government officials try out the basic technique "shohatto" of the iai style of swordsmanship, at the Murayama Iai Shinbukan, in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture, on Sept. 3, 2018. (Mainichi/Nanami Hidaka)

MURAYAMA, Yamagata -- Known as the home of the founder of the "iai" art of swordsmanship, this city in northwestern Japan plans to offer tours that let visitors experience the practice in a bid to attract inbound tourists.

The tour by the Murayama Municipal Government will feature a samurai swordsmanship experience, playing to the popularity of Japan's "samurai" warriors overseas. Participants will learn basic moves from the iai style of sword work in a Japanese training hall, and even try their hand at cutting with an actual live blade. Tour programs and services targeting Europe, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other foreign regions will be provided through travel agencies from late October.

Iai is a type of swordsmanship thought to have been developed by Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu, a swordsman active during Japan's 16th century Warring States period and into the early part of the Edo period in the 17th century. It is a technique which consists of quickly and simply drawing a sword from its scabbard and making a cut. Murayama is home to Japan's only shrine dedicated to the "God of Iai," Kumano Iai Ryo Shrine. There is even an "iaido" club at an elementary school in the city.

Murayama Mayor Takao Shifu and other city officials attended the "Iaido tourism experience program" put together by the city and other organizations in September. They received instruction by ranked iaido practitioners at a training hall at Murayama Iai Shinbukan.

One city official, Ihoko Misawa, 50, tried out the basic technique "shohatto." Imagining an opponent in front of her, she drew a fake sword from her sash and swung the blade down from the upper right to lower left before returning the sword to its sheath.

"It was difficult to draw and sheathe the sword," she said, "but it's amazing to hold a real sword."

Officials also gave "shizan" test cutting a try. Holding a sword weighing about 1.3 kilograms with both hands, they attempted to cut a 90-centimeter-high "tatamizutsu," made from a rolled straw mat. Cheers filled the training hall as participants got a taste for the swords' remarkable sharpness firsthand.

The municipal government is also considering combining the samurai experience with local specialties such as soba noodles and imoni, a type of taro and meat soup, as well as sightseeing tours around the city.

According to the Yamagata Prefectural Government's tourism promotion department, around 1.28 million tourists visited Murayama in 2016. Among the seven cities in the Murayama region including the cities of Yamagata and Tendo, Murayama itself drew in the lowest number of visitors.

Takamitsu Wada, 46, part of the city's commerce, industry and tourism department, is hopeful about the new samurai-centered venture. "It would be great if people could become interested in Murayama through iai," he said.

(Japanese original by Nanami Hidaka, Yamagata Bureau)

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