Sunday, January 05, 2014

Iaido Championship in Oita

I had a piece on the championships published over at Kendo World so if you haven't checked it out, head on over there.  Get a subscription while you're at it!  They are working hard to share Japanese-language information on the sword art, as well as bringing you original content, so give them your support.

Meanwhile, I said I was going to upload a few more pictures from the event.  A lot of these pictures are not very good, technically (it seems that I still don't really know how to use my camera ... probably because I only seem to use it to cover important events, so I don't get enough practice with the damn thing) but I like them for one reason or another. 

As Haruna-Sensei used to put it: Ssssu-PAAA-t!!


Like a coiled spring...

I really like the sense of lower-body stability here!

I had the pleasure of training with Mr. Inoue from Fukushima while I was living there a few years back.

Ohira, 5-dan, Oita, doing Sekiguchi-ryu's characteristic tobichigai

Past 7-dan champion Akiba from Chiba

Kosaka Ryoichiro, Oita, 7-dan

I've talked before about the fact that the results of the All-Japan championships are basically a foregone conclusion.  Well, this year the hosts Oita won the overall (i.e., team) title, and Mr. Kosaka from Oita, whom I have had the pleasure of training with regularly, won the 7th-dan division.  I would like to take a moment and point out how much he deserved to win it this year, by drawing your attention to some of his past achievements:

2000 (Oita): 1st place (6th dan division)
2001 (Yamagata): 1st place (6th dan)
2002 (Osaka): 2nd place (6th dan)
2003 (Saitama): 2nd place (6th dan)
2012 (Shizuoka): 2nd place (7th dan)
2013 (Oita): 1st place (7th dan)

In addition, I know he has quite a few 3rd- and 4th-place finishes.  So, congratulations to him for finally achieving the 7th-dan victory!  I believe he earned it and was the best iaidoka on the floor that day.

Technical note: I rented a 70-200 mm f2.8 lens for the event.  If I had known what I was doing, I would have fixed my camera aperture at 2.8 as well, to get more bokeh to blur out the backgrounds.  Live and learn... Speaking of screw-ups, at some point I unwittingly pressed the small "exposure bracketing" button on the side of the camera, and couldn't figure out why so many of my photos were coming out under- and over-exposed.  Duh!  I also learned why a tripod is so invaluable.  I thought that, since I would be moving from place to place on the floor, a tripod would just slow me down.  Well, there are two reasons why a tripod is necessary.  First, that 70-200 lens is heavy!  It will definitely give you a sore back and shoulders hefting it all day.  And second, (perhaps more importantly) it saves you having to go into Photoshop on every damn shot and fix the inevitable tilt that hand-holding has introduced! Fixing tilt always seems to soften the focus, as well... so you end up with a straight, but soft image that is pretty mediocre-looking.

Happy New Year!

Happy 2014, everyone.  As this is the year of the horse, here's a shot from November's Meiji Shrine yabusame demonstration, as the participants entered the area.

Takeda Ryu Yabusame, November 3rd, 2013
 Here's hoping this year brings you all happiness, health, and good things.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Use Your Head

At Jodo practice the other day, one of the Sensei was giving a few of us hell for just "going through the motions". He broke it down for us and explained why what we were doing made no sense from a Budo point of view. Specifically, if we moved in a certain way before striking, we were opening ourselves up completely to an attack. Uchidachi would never just stand there and let himself get hit in such a circumstance; he'd attack.
After practice, Sensei continued his discussion. Basically, it boiled down to this: you can't expect your teacher to tell you that you're doing something wrong all the time. Sometimes, you're doing something fairly subtle, and Sensei has bigger fish to fry, such as how some of the beginners have their footwork wrong.  Or, he may have shown you how to do it once, twice, or maybe even three times, and has (very reasonably) decided he's not going to tell you anymore.
But a big part of it is that, at some point, Sensei has to leave you to your own devices and force you to figure things out on your own. This can lead you down some dead ends, where you do something for years or even months before finally figuring out that it doesn't work. But self-examination is a crucial skill to develop. This process forces you to question everything you're doing, right down to the very basics. All those assumptions you made early on; all those teachings you took at face value without challenge - everything needs to be examined. What am I doing, and why am I doing it?  Am I doing it right?  Is there a way I could do this more efficiently, faster, with more power? Eventually, you are doing everything consciously again, your technique starts to fall apart, and you feel like a complete beginner. That is a good thing.  The alternative is to be stuck in a rut, making no progress, polishing the same old, wrong movements. It is a comfortable place to be, certainly, but it's not why you're there.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

48th All-Japan Iaido Championship

I flew down to Oita last week to cover the All-Japan Iaido tournament for Kendo World magazine. My report is up now, so please head over to Kendo World and check it out!  I will put up some extra pictures on here in a week or two, but for now, go there and check out the photos and video.  And if you don't have a subscription to Kendo World, get one!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Practicing? Not much. Eating? Hell yeah!

Does this even qualify as a "budo" post?  Only marginally.  Went to a ramen shop the other day called "Noodle Shop: Musashi Niten".  The whole place was done up in a Miyamoto Musashi motif, from the front sign, with its two neon-lit swords...

To the curtain outside, with a nice little picture of Musashi leaping over Sasaki's cut to clock him on the noggin.

Here's a picture of the bowl of noodles I got.  You can see that even the counters have a Musashi / Sasaki motif, plus the crossed swords on the spoon.  Bowl had a design too.

The pun in the name (or in the menu, I suppose) is that you can get two kinds of tempura, hence "Ni Ten", with your noodles.  Mine came with chicken and pork.  Healthy!  I'm sure Musashi would approve.

So how was it?  Decor was awesome, and the service was great. (I really envied the staff their cool Musashi Niten t-shirts; apparently the shop did a collaboration with clothing giant UniQlo a couple years ago and sold a small number of the shirts.  Too bad I missed that!)  Unfortunately, the ramen was not amazing, but a lot of that is just down to personal tastes.  You might like it.  Apparently it's a chain, so you can find their shops throughout Tokyo.

So is this blog turning into a food review Blog?  Probably not ... I just needed something to ease me back into writing!  Sorry for the long absence; hopefully more soon.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Quote

I was reading Jonathan Frantzen's excellent book "Freedom" and found a great quote that was very applicable to me.

"Looking back now, the autobiographer sees her younger self as one of those
miserable adolescents so angry at her parents that she needed to join a cult
where she could be nicer and friendlier and more generous and subservient than
she could bring herself to be at home anymore. Her cult just happened to
be basketball." (p. 40)

Replace basketball with budo and you have a pretty good picture of me ... at one point, anyway. I like to believe that I have grown up a bit, although I'm not sure that's true.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Ed's Visit to Tokyo

Many of my original readers from the Sei Do Kai will know Ed. He visited Tokyo in March to get his 5th-dan in Jodo. He put in some very intensive practice with Tsubaki Sensei on a nearly daily basis for about 2 weeks, along with some visits to Shiiya Sensei's dojo and the Nikkei Dojo, to get pointers and to brush up on his skills before the test.

I tagged along "to help" but of course I was just trying to leech some of the training and pointers, too.

If you know Ed, you will also know that he passed his 5th-dan with flying colours and impressed the pants off of everyone there. Way to go, Ed!

With all that training, there wasn't much time to do anything else, but after the grading he and I did spend an afternoon at the Tokyo Edo Museum...

One of the exhibits was the "face" from the Okamoto Taro "Tower of the Sun" from Expo '70. A quick look at the Wikipedia page mentions that the tower had 3 faces, one of which was in the basement, called "The Face of the Underworld". It is currently in an "unknown location". I wonder if this is it ... or just a facsimile of the main face? Gee, shoulda read the pamphlet.

Playing with the "miniature" effect on my camera.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why I Don't Like University Clubs

Please take most of this post with a grain of salt. It's largely the rantings of a grumpy old man. You've been warned!

Let me begin by saying that I started martial arts at a university club in Canada. But I want to talk now about Japanese university martial arts clubs. I don't think these clubs are a good thing, based on my experience with them.

First, a bit of background. Japanese students go through a long and grueling process to get into university. Most of their time in high school is spent learning very specific knowledge that will prepare them for passing the university entrance examinations. (This is a large part of why most Japanese people can't speak English; they spend all their time memorizing word lists and grammar rules, and almost no time using the language to communicate.) The entrance exams are tough, but once you're in a university, you're in, and it's almost unheard of to flunk out, no matter how little effort you put into your classes. So, most students devote the majority of their time and attention to their club activities. Their club defines who they are, and establishes their social circle. It also prepares them for Japanese corporate life, because in a club (like in any Japanese hierarchy) the new people are scum and do all the work, and the older people (who have put in their time being scum) get to push around the juniors. As my friend put it, Japanese clubs are a "shit totem-pole".

I happen to think that Budo should be something that enriches and gives purpose to your life. What it entails, exactly, is up to the individual, of course, and so Budo might mean many different things to different people. But Budo as it is practiced in Japanese University clubs is, as far as I can tell, just a nasty excuse to get together and for juniors to show their "humility" by kow-towing to the seniors, and for seniors to lord it over the juniors. The best Sensei I have known have been people who, despite their skill, rank, and position, were remarkably humble, courteous, and gracious. This is not what I see being taught in Japanese University clubs.

At the iai dojo I (used to?) attend, about half the students are members of the iaido club from a prestigious Tokyo university. It's not the Harvard or the Yale of Japan ... but it's probably #3. The students there barely acknowledge the presence of anyone who is not in their club ... although of course they are smart enough to bow to the Sensei. It is quite a different story when a 3rd- or 4th-dan "Old Boy" shows up. Then they fall over themselves (sometimes literally) to get down into seiza and put their faces to the floor. They raise a cacophony of meaningless "Osu"-s while the 24- or 25-year-old subject of their affection smiles and waves like a rockstar. I said that they know enough to bow to Sensei, but even a hachidan hanshi does not warrant this degree of adulation from them. (Unless said hachidan hanshi also happened to be an Old Boy - a possibility which, frankly horrifies me...)

When I first started at the Dojo a couple years ago, Sensei introduced me and pointed at all the university students. "They're all studying English, so do them a favour and speak to them in English, would you?" It ended up being a moot point, because I barely ever exchanged words with any of them. My greetings were returned with a blank look or an unenthused, canned response. Certainly none of them was ever anything approaching "friendly".

When a group of Canadian iaidoka came to the dojo for a visit, the university students asked for a photo of them posing with this group of foreigners (whom they hadn't spoken a word to previously) to post on their club website so they could advertise how "international" and cosmopolitan they were. This is what typically passed for "cultural exchange" in Japan, sadly.

My Jodo dojo (Jo-do-jo?) has also recently seen an increase in the number of students who are attending from an associated university club, which is overseen by some of the senior members of our dojo. These students tend to sit in a big circle in the dojo before practice, chatting and giggling with each other. This is in distinct contrast to what I've always been told: the dojo is not a place for idle chit-chat, and time before practice is to be spent warming-up. I've often felt that someone needs to tell them how to behave in the dojo, but I feel it is not my place, and the language barrier holds me back. Plus, there is a nagging feeling that I'm just being a killjoy.

Like the students in my iai dojo, they basically ignore everyone around them (except Sensei, of course). Lest you think I am ticked off because I feel they should be kissing my ass, it is not on my behalf that I am irritated. Our dojo has a number of 7-dan jodoka who have being practicing for 30, 40, or more years. They deserve to be shown respect, and yet they are ignored by these kids who know they should bow to the guy at the front of the room, but otherwise have never bothered to find out who anyone else is.

When practice starts, they are generally made to keep to themselves, which is fine, I suppose, except that I keep seeing someone who has done Jodo for about a year, "teaching" someone who has been doing jodo for about a month. Remember what I said about the shit totem-pole? Well, picture someone who has next to no idea what he is doing, acting like an arrogant know-it-all, teaching incorrect techniques to someone who has absolutely no idea what he is doing, while the junior bows and scrapes to this so-called "senior" the whole time. It takes all my concentration not to intervene. Someone who has done Jodo or Iaido for 1 year should not be teaching anyone anything, much less should they be viewed as something approaching a Sensei, and yet this is what regularly happens in university clubs.

On a few occasions, I have seen someone do something slightly dangerous, that might get them or someone else hurt, and I have intervened and told them what they were doing wrong. This always gets me a confused look (as if to say "Why are you talking to me? You're not in my club!") and a hesitant, somewhat dubious "Oh ... I see ... right ... thankyouverymuch" followed by a quick retreat.

Once, in the iai dojo, a fairly tall student was practicing overhead cuts quite close to a basketball hoop. His "senior" was standing there supervising. I felt as though I should say something as he got closer and closer to hitting the hoop, but kept thinking "It's not my place..." Eventually, of course, the inevitable happened and he hit his sword with force on the metal hoop. Luckily, it didn't snap the tip off his sword or injure anyone. I was left thinking how stupid it was that I didn't say anything, just because of this ridiculous separation between the university students and the non-university members.

Another anecdote. I'm not sure how it fits in really, or what it means, but maybe you can tell me what you think.

It was September and we were just starting second semester at the university where I teach. I ran into one of my first-semester students, named Mariko. I asked her how her summer vacation had been. "Oh, so-so" she told me. Really? I asked. Why only so-so?
"I spent every day, only doing club."
"What club do you belong to?"
"Kyudo club."
"Oh really?" I said. I told her that I had done a very little bit of Kyudo in the past, and that I found it to be a beautiful and interesting art.
She looked a bit skeptical. I asked her "How many days a week did you practice Kyudo?"
"Every day. Seven days a week." Wow, so she was being literal!
"Oh, well, how long did you practice Kyudo every day?"
She counted on her fingers for a second. "Mm... six or seven hours. Verrrrry tired!" she said with a grimace.
"Really? You practiced six or seven hours!?"
"Well, not practice all time. Sometimes practice, and cleaning dojo, and talking with seniors..."
I was reminded of something Haruna Sensei always used to say. I repeated it to her:
"It is better to do something once, while thinking about it, than to do something one hundred times without thinking." And then I added my own, overly-blunt thoughts: "You can't concentrate on anything for 6 or 7 hours. You should do 2 hours a day and then go home, or go study, get a job, enjoy your life. 6 or 7 hours is way too long to spend doing Kyudo every day!"
She smiled in that way Japanese people do when they feel uncomfortable. "Mmm. Very deep idea. Maybe."

The thing is that Mariko probably didn't have a choice how much time she practiced. With Japanese clubs, you are fully in, or you're out. If you don't do what your seniors tell you to do, you're criticized and eventually ostracized until you quit. And that's your social circle and group identity, gone.

There's something sick at work in the university clubs here. Budo here might be partly about overcoming obstacles, building self-discipline and self-development, but I get the feeling that it's largely about torture, too. Another friend told me about a kendo summer gasshuku where juniors were forced to run around in a circle while seniors beat their ankles with shinai. What in god's name does that have to do with kendo? What does sitting around in 40-degree heat for 7 hours a day, cleaning the dojo or mowing the archery range grass or collecting arrows or fetching drinks for your seniors have to do with Kyudo?

The most important things for seniors and sensei to learn are compassion, generosity, encouragement, understanding, and courtesy. You learn this as a junior, from your seniors, who should be good role-models. I don't see much of that in university clubs, unfortunately.