Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Sais Have It

<---Look what Santa bought me! My school is on end-of-year break (no classes at all since 12/20), but guess what I've been playing with for the last week?

Sensei introduced us to the sai about a year ago during a session on empty-hand version of kata Saifa's bunkai. We saw how the weapon could be used to rake, pull and impale if the practitioner were to place a pair of sais in those empty hands. Suffice to say that Saifa can be a nasty, nasty kata without weapons, but it's even nastier with a pair of sais. Saifa is a bit advanced to start with, so we're working on much more basic form to learn how the sais are supposed to move and function.

But before we could even get to those basics, learning how to hold and "open" the sai - moving the weapon from a non-offensive hold against the forearm to a ready-to-strike/block/trap position - was the first course of business.

When Sensei handed me his 21.5" long chrome-plated octagonal sais, I was totally scared to touch them. Unlike my bo, they were shiny, pokey and designed to be used with only one hand. They were beautiful, but also looked very heavy and kinda slippery. As Sensei spun them around slowly and demonstrated a few very basic techniques, all I could think about was having one slip out of my hand and either fly across the room or land on a training partner's foot. Nothing interrupts the flow of a great training session like a trip to the emergency room.

Let me back up and give a bit of history about the sai: these Okinawan weapons were originally used as farm tools for planting crops - and they also measured the distance between planted seeds. A multi-pronged rod, the sai was pushed into the ground where it would leave three holes. The farmer would use the third hole as a reference point and push the sai into the ground again so the holes would be evenly spaced. After many crops had been planted this way - with the farmer repetitively thrusting the sai into the ground and flipping it over to plant the seeds - it's not hard to see how he or she could build quite a bit of dexterity, strength and accuracy with these blunt instruments. Later, sais were used to fight against swords, bo staffs and tonfa. The size of your sais should be about the length of your forearm from balled fist to elbow.

Before I ever really examined a sai up close, I thought they were sharp and pointed, but the shaft (monouchi) and the side prongs (yoko) are actually blunt. The shaft can be round, heptagonal or octagonal and the thumb rests on the mid-point between the two side-prongs (moto) and pinkie, ring and middle fingers hold the handle (tsuka - which is usually wrapped in some sort of material - like leather or plastic - for easier gripping). The forefinger is usually extended along the shaft. Each weapon actually has many parts that can hurt you, including the monouchi (used to block or strike), the butt end (tsukagashira - which is used to poke) tips of the yoko (tsume - used for ripping and trapping) and the tip of the monouchi (saki - used for impaling, striking and poking). Here's a very pixelated illustration:

Back in class, after I finally worked up the nerve to hold one, I played around with Sensei's sais for a few moments, thinking the whole time that I would never, ever get used to flinging these monstrous things around. After a few tries, my forearms were killing me and I thought I must look a lot like Popeye - but I had a whole new respect for golfers, tennis and ping-pong players.

Usually when we get new info, Sensei gives us homework and our first official sai lesson was no exception. Our objective was to do 50 "opens" per side per day with strict instructions to only work one sai/hand at a time. He also suggested starting with our non-dominant hand. A natural lefty, he always learns new drills, techniques or weapons on his right side first and wanted us to do the same in reverse so, as he says, our strong side could teach the weak side. It literally took the rest of the class for me to get those first 50 in, but I did it - without any training partners suffering any injuries as a result :-). And believe it or not, this righty was much better on my left side (which was a very odd feeling). Since Santa left me my very own pair under the tree, I've been doing my homework every day and flowing my first form. I must say that manipulating them is getting a little easier every day. OK - they're not so monstrous. I'm actually starting to enjoy my new shiny, pokey and very heavy artillery.

But for the record, my forearms are still killing me.


  1. Weapons training is not an anachronism. Weapons can teach important lessons: learning about managing distance, precise movements (you are a little out of place and the business end of the weapon is far out of place) and projecting power outside of yourself.

    As a young man I invested some time trying to learn how to handle the nunchaku. I came to the conclusion that if I was attacked while in possession of nunchucks, I would immediately hand them over to my attacker and watch him beat himself to death.

  2. You began, "a bit of history about the sai: ... "

    Are you sure that is the accurate quote as to Sai history?

    Charles J.

  3. Too funny, Rick...

    And of course I'm sure about the accuracy of what I researched, Mr.James. A journalist (my day job) always checks her sources. I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't sure, trust and believe...

  4. Ooo... exciting!!! Sai's are a little further down our weapons syllabus so I have a while before I have to do battle with them yet (I'm looking forward to them and dreading them in equal measure I think! LOL).

    Tonfas are next on the syllabus for me (beginning at the start of February). I'm not sure if wielding two heavy chunks of wood is better or worse than two pointy daggers..... equally painful, just in very different ways!

    Good luck with the Sais.


  5. Nice!

    My favorite weapons are bo and tunfa but lately I have been spending more time on sai. My training partner and I are working on Chatanyara No Sai.

    Enjoy your sai!