When you think of some of the greatest samurai who ever lived, Miyamoto Musashi's name will always undoubtedly be among them (if not topping the list).
History remembers him as a great philosopher and teacher (one of his most famous writings, The Book of Five Rings, is still is still considered to be a preeminent text on strategy). However, he was also an incredible warrior whose exploits in feudal Japan would be borderline unbelievable in even the most over-the-top action movie.
Born in 1584, Musashi began training in swordplay at a young age. At 13, he won his first duel, and by age 15, he had left his village to travel Japan and hone his skills. Over the next few years, Musashi would participate in several battles as a ronin (a samurai without a lord), but his true calling were one-on-one duels with other samurai and warriors.
At the age of 20, he traveled to Kyoto to challenge the master of the Yoshioka School, one of the major martial arts schools in the country. Despite Musashi's young age, the master agreed.
On the agreed-upon date, though, Musashi arrived very late, which greatly incensed the Yoshioka master. This proved to be a calculated bit of mental warfare, as Musashi was able to use the master's rage against him, striking a single blow to his shoulder that knocked him unconscious.
The disgraced Yoshioka master then passed on leadership of the school to his brother, who challenged Musashi to another duel. Musashi again arrived very late, but won the fight after disarming his opponent, who in turn, relinquished leadership of the school.
After this second embarrassment, the Yoshioka family was out for revenge. They challenged Musashi to a third duel, but secretly planned an ambush for him with an entire force of sword-, bow-, and musket-wielding soldiers.
Musashi, however, was crafty and anticipating a trap, and this time actually arrived early and waited. With the element of surprise on his side, Musashi attacked the larger force. To deal with so many opponents at once, Musashi drew a second sword, fighting with both at the same time. This would eventually become his trademark fighting style, a double-blade approach called Niten-ryu.
Using his wits and swordsmanship, Musashi was able to escape with his life, killing the new head of the Yoshioka family in the process. After yet another embarrassment, the Yoshioka School soon collapsed, and Musashi departed Kyoto to continue his journey.
Over the next few decades, Musashi traveled to Nara to learn from monks who had mastered a unique type of lance fighting, learned from a school of staff-wielding fighters in Edo, and even spent time studying Zen Buddhism at a temple.
During this time, he continued to duel prominent martial artists and samurai across the land, and was undefeated with at least 60 victories (for comparison, the next most well-known duelist is a contemporary of his, Ito Itossai, who had 33 wins).
At a certain point, he became so good that he stopped using a blade in his duels, instead fighting with a wooden training sword called a bokken.
Arguably his most famous duel was against a man named Sasaki Kojiro, a feared warrior known as the "Demon of the Western Provinces," who wielded a giant two-handed sword.
The duel took place on an island, and Musashi took his time crossing the water, arriving very late. He then quickly won the duel with a wooden sword, which some say he actually carved from an oar that was on the boat he took to the island. According to legend, he had once again arrived late on purpose, as the tide had changed, making his escape from Kojiro's allies easier.
In the later years of his life, Musashi recorded his philosophy and knowledge in books and scrolls, although he still occasionally dueled, and remained undefeated. In 1645, sensing his own death, Musashi retired to a cave to finish his writing.
Just before his passing, Musashi drew his sword for the last time, and kneeled in a ready position. His body was discovered this way, still holding that pose. He was 62 years old.
Musashi was buried in armor in the village of Yuge, and nine years later, a monument was erected in the town of Kokura eulogizing his life's story.
Today, Musashi is as remembered for his teachings as he is his fighting prowess. He has since become the subject of countless films, novels, comics and music.
His life and exploits continue to inspire generations of martial artists.