Owen and I, the founders of Koryu Crafts, are both practitioners of the sword arts. As a result, we usually stock our company with the products that we would like to use ourselves! One of the most important items that we use at virtually every single class meeting is the iaito: the practice sword.
Although there are many versions of the practice blade, we will be discussing the ones most commonly made in Japan and used in arts such in iaido and iaijutsu training. In Japanese, "to" (pronounced "toe") is one word for the sword. "Iai" means drawing and cutting. Thus, an iaito is a practice sword for the iai arts. These blades are typically made of an aluminum alloy that is made to approximate the size, weight, and feel of an actual sword (shinken). They are a modern invention, post-WWII, to allow for safer and more affordable training in sword arts. As a metal alloy, they are not suited for contact training of any kind. Iaito are for solo practice only.
Different schools have different philosophies about using practice blades. Since they are a modern invention, it is obvious that students practiced sword arts for hundreds of years without the benefit of this tool. However, in the beginning days of our sword practice our bodies are still learning their ways. It is very easy to go too quickly or too slowly, too softly or too hard. One of the more common mistakes with a sharp sword -- even experts have made it -- is to cut too soon (while the sword is still in the sheath/saya), cut through the sheath, and cut the thumb gripping the sheath. Iaito minimize the injuries from this mistake while our bodies learn the proper muscle memory.
Another concern is the safety of others. When we are training in a class, swinging a 30" razor blade in close proximity to other people, safety is an immediate concern. While iaito have a sharp tip and the blunt edge can easily break bones, a mistake will not remove anyone's limb. Even advanced practitioners can lose focus or be surprised: mistakes happen to even the best. In class, the safety of ourselves and others must be our first concern. An iaito helps with this tremendously.
Finally, if you are a serious student of a Japanese art, then travel will probably become an issue at some point. Taking a real sword into or out of Japan requires a mountain of paperwork as the Japanese are trying to prevent the exodus of their national treasures while they keep foreigners from bringing in forgeries. If the Japanese authorities test your blade and a magnet sticks to it, you're going to have a very long day at the airport. However, an iaito that is made of aluminum alloy will travel through with no problem. If you ever want to take a sword to Japan to train, plan on acquiring a decent iaito.
Many who seek to buy a katana want the legitimacy of a steel blade, as sharp as the day is long (during summer, and on the equator)! Trust me, I understand. But if you are hoping to train in the sword arts, you may want to invest in a good iaito first. Talk to your teacher, determine what is recommended by your dojo, and come talk to us. We're sure we can find a good fit for you, whether sharp blade (shinken) or practice sword (iaito).