[Note: There are many versions of this story, and these events have even been attributed to other warriors. The tale was likely passed around orally before it was written down myriad times in myriad different ways (most famously in the Kōyō Gunkan.) The details of the story aren’t important; it’s the overall moral of the story and that remains the same from one version to the next.]
Tsukahara Bokuden listened to the braggart nauseating the ferry passengers with graphic details of his “exploits.” Bokuden would have happily ignored the young samurai, but the cocky youth seemed eager to take offense at the lack of interest in his tales of hacking people to bits and was looking for a fight. The other passengers on the boat were all commoners: an elderly man who was probably a craftsman or a small business merchant, and a mother with her young child.
“Do you doubt me? Do you have the audacity to call me a liar,” The young man said, having not received a suitably enthusiastic response to his stories. And he stood, one hand on his scabbard and the other brushing his sword’s hilt.
Tsukahara Bokuden said, “Easy, young man. No one is calling you a liar. These good people are just not used to such bloody stories.”
The young samurai turned to eye Bokuden, who had appeared to be napping in the back earlier. The braggart asked, “And who are you to challenge me?”
“I didn’t challenge you. I merely explained these people’s lack of enthusiasm for your yarns. But if you must know, I am Tsukahara Bokuden,” he replied, hoping his name might give the bragging samurai pause. Bokuden was well-known, having traversed Japan in musha shugyō (sometimes related to the European “knights errantry,”musha shugyō was a time in a samurai’s life–particularly in times of relative peace–when he traveled the land engaging in matches with individuals from other schools to increase his skill and notoriety–i.e. if he didn’t get killed, which was not uncommon, even when the fight was with wooden swords.)
“I’ve never heard of you. What’s your style?” the cocky samurai asked.
“Mine is the School of No-Sword,” replied Bokuden.
“I’ve never heard of that school, but it sounds weak,” the braggart said.
“I assure you, the technique is quite powerful,” Bokuden said.
“Are you suggesting that you could defeat me with this so-called ‘no sword’ technique?” the braggart said, his hand tightening on his scabbard.
“I said nothing of the sort. I would just like to enjoy the remainder of the ferry ride in peace,” said Bokuden.
“Are you scared to have a match to see who’s style is better?” the cocky youth asked.
“Not in the least, but I see no benefit in it either,” Bokuden replied.
“I’ve had enough of your lip, old man, prepare to defend yourself,” said the young samurai.
Bokuden sighed, “If you insist upon a match, let us at least do so where these good people’s lives will not be in peril. Surely you’ll agree that it would do no great honor to the samurai class if we were to injure or kill innocent bystanders.”
At this the braggart just harrumphed, “Who cares, but I’ll take you on wherever you wish.”
Tsukahara Bokuden said to the oarsman, “Sorry to trouble you, but would you mind diverting to drop us on that outcrop so that we can spare these people the swinging blades.”
The oarsman was readily agreeable. He didn’t want two samurai fighting on his ferryboat any more than Bokuden did.
He rowed them to a stony outcrop that jutted up out of the water. The uneven rocky ground wasn’t ideal for a match, but it would spare the other passengers and would provide a challenge.
When the boat’s bow ground up against the rock, the young samurai jumped out, twisting around in air, and landed on the rock. The braggart held his scabbard and hilt at the ready for a swift draw. The young man was eager to do battle, and it was clear that he was annoyed with Tsukahara Bokuden’s slow movement. The older swordsman took out both of his swords and asked one of the passengers to hold the swords. The oarsman and the passengers were surprised by this disarming behavior, but they’d heard him call his school the “school of no-sword.”
Tsukahara Bokuden then moved up to the boat’s bow as if preparing to move ashore.
“Might I borrow your oar, young man?” Bokuden said to the oarsman. The oarsman nodded and handed Bokuden the long oar with two hands, and with his head bowed. The general assumption was that the older samurai wanted to stabilize the boat against the rock so he could pass ashore smoothly.
Taking the oar, Bokuden drove one end into the outcrop, and grabbed the other pushing the boat away from the rock. The boat glided out from the rock in an accelerating fashion.
Lunging toward the water’s edge, the perplexed braggart called out, “What on earth are you doing, old man?”
To which Bokuden replied, “I’m defeating you with the school of no sword.”
By the time the young samurai could remove his swords and tug away his outer garment, Bokuden had rowed out to deep waters and returned the oar to the oarsman.