Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bill Mears

I was shocked and saddened to hear that our friend Bill Mears passed away suddenly this week of an apparent heart attack.

Bill was a very energetic and enthusiastic iaidoka. He had a genuine passion for iai, and particularly koryu, that was contagious. It was Bill, I believe, who got Kim Taylor and Goyo Ohmi connected with Matsuo Haruna Sensei at an English iaido seminar, thus paving the way for regular instruction in Ontario and helping to build Canadian iaido from a small group to the hundreds of participants we have today.

One of the top iaidoka in Canada, Bill was always ready and willing to help beginners. He was a very large and imposing figure standing at about 6 foot 5, and he had many tips and pointers for me about how to perform what he called "big man's iaido". He had a devilish sense of humour, but he also had an admirable, gentlemanly air about him. "Kigurai" or the dignity of iaido was very important to him and he always conducted himself with great dignity.

After iaido practice last night, I toasted your memory, Bill. You will sadly missed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

From "Lost Japan"

Alex Kerr is a very smart American guy who has been living in Japan since 1977. He wrote a great book called "Lost Japan" that I just finished. It has a lot of interesting things to say about traditional arts. It doesn't say much about budo but it does say this about tea ceremony and a culture seminar he attended: (long quote to follow)

The folding of the fukusa, the sliding movement of the feet in Noh, the grip of the sword in martial arts - everything was difficult. Moreover, as the seminar progressed, it became clear that these movements were not merely ornamental, but expressed a philosophy. For instance, I encountered the rhythm jo, ha, kyu, zanshin; basically this is quite simple, amounting to "slow, fast, faster, stop". When wiping the tea scoop with the fukusa in the tearoom, we were taught to start slowly (jo) speed up a bit at the center of the scoop (ha) and finish off at the end quickly (kyu). At the instant one draws the fukusa off the tip of the scoop, there is the closing zanshin, which means "leaving behind the heart". Then one returns to zero, in preparation for the next rhythn of jo, ha, kyu.
At first I thought this rhythm was a pecularity of tea, but I soon found that it applies in exactly the same way to the foot movements and raising of the fan in Noh drama. In martial arts and calligraphy as well, this rhythm governs all movements. Over the course of the seminar I realized that jo, ha, kyu underlies every single one of Japan's traditional arts. The teachers went on to explain that jo, ha, kyu, zanshin is the fundamental rhythm of nature - it defines the destinies of men, the course of eras, even the growth of galaxies and the very ebb and flow of the universe.

-Alex Kerr

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sweat and Self-loathing in Chiba

Yesterday was the Chiba Prefectural Kendo Federation's Iaido Seminar. You need to attend two seminars before you are eligible to try a grading. This one (plus the pre-grading seminar on the morning of the test) means that I should be able to try my 5th dan in August, assuming I'm actually in the country AND in Chiba in August. Oh well...

Anyway, it was an all-Koryu seminar, and I was the only Jikiden person there, so they just made me learn Shinden, which was fine. We started out with a demonstration broken down by rank. First the 7-dans, then 6-dans, 5-dans, and finally us lowly 4-dans.

Now, a brief aside: I have always had a problem with sweaty feet. They are so sweaty that if I am trying to do iaido on a floor with no absorption, it is like doing iai on a floor that has just been mopped -- VERY slippery! And not in a consistent way, either; sometimes extremely slippery, sometimes just a bit slippery, and sometimes kind of sticky if my feet are only moist. ANYWAY, I have been using this crazy industrial-strength spray-on stuff before practices lately. I have been getting good results, too, but I guess the 30-degree heat plus my general nervousness yesterday was just too much for even the toughest anti-perspirant. In short, my feet were completely swampy and I did a horrible demo with lots of slips, stumbles, staggers, and baby steps in between. Very embarrassing, not to mention painful because I did a really nice simultaneous groin-pull-ankle-twist thing when I was doing Yae Gaki (oops, In Yo Shintai).

For the rest of the afternoon I was slip-sliding around in my own juices. Disgusting, yes. Too much information, I know. After the seminar I was totally zonked: exhausted and completely dehydrated. I had gotten a ride with Mr. Fukuchi from our dojo, who is a very talkative guy, but I was too drained to try and understand what he was talking about so I just sat in the passenger seat grunting occasionally while he attempted to explain "Gokui" to me. (Misoo? Anybody? Gokui?)

Oh, in the "Gaijin: Membership Has Its Privileges" category, one of the 7th dans whom I had never met before came up to me with a videotape and said, "Present! Present for you. Please take." It was a video he'd shot of the Kyoto Taikai in May. Apparently, one of the 7-Dans from Nagasaki that I knew when I was there managed to pass his 8-Dan test. He's Shinden, but if you're ever looking for a good Shinden teacher (like there's a shortage of Shinden people, right?) he's young-ish (54?) and speaks English. Very nice guy, named Miyazaki.

Hope you're all well!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

10 Fingers

So last week I practiced with my shinken without incident. I was a bit nervous because it was the first time I've used a shinken, but of course I had nothing to worry about. It was a bit heavy, though... my cuts really wobbled at the end (more so than usual, even!)

The old and somewhat senile sensei came over and started correcting me, grabbing hold of my sword and everything. I was a bit scared that he would cut himself, and I was just about to interrupt him and say, "Sensei, be careful! It's a shinken!" but I hesitated because I thought he might say, "I already know that, you idiot!" or something... anyway, it was fine, but I was kind of tense there for a second.

But the whole reason I used the shinken was because that drunken fool from the previous week was so certain that I would cut myself because of my "faulty noto", and I didn't! So that sure showed him! Ha! Okay, actually, I don't think he noticed one way or the other...

Anyway, I went back to using my iaito this week because it's so much lighter (and it makes such a nice, overpoweringly loud Swoosh sound!)... So during koryu practice (with The Drunk watching me very closely, of course) what did I go and do? Stabbed myself in the palm of my hand between my thumb and forefinger! I didn't look right away, but tried to be nonchalant... sneak a peak down... oh, it's bleeding all right! Bleeding like a stuck pig I am... Okay, slip the hand up to your mouth, pretend to wipe the sweat off your lip, but actually lick the blood off. Wipe the hand on your keikogi...okay... now hope your hand's not too slippery to hold the saya...

I guess I deserve it somehow for being too conceited to think that *maybe I am* doing something wrong with my noto.

After class, The Drunk (I really need a better name for him don't I?) showed me his custom-made shinken. Absolutely beautiful sword, perfect balance, really flashy gunome-choji hamon. Just the sort of thing we all covet because we think somehow it will magically make our iaido better! Sighhhh... and I'm guilty of it too.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Yeah, I know. It's just one of those days and I can't think of a title. Part of the problem is that I'm completely exhausted from yesterday's Jodo practice. It's clear that I need to exercise more regularly; doing nothing all week, and then trying to practice hard is getting me nowhere fast.

Yesterday was pretty tough. It's getting hot and so I was sweating more than usual. Morii Sensei was trying to fix a whole bunch of my bad habits at once, and I was just getting tired without getting any better, so he kept saying, "Do it again! No, that's not it... again. Okay, you almost got it. Nope, now you're doing the bad way again." And I wasn't moving fast enough, either. He said something that stuck with me: "Doing everything with the same timing - that's not budo." That's pretty succinct...

Tonight is Iaido practice and I really feel like staying home, but I have to go because it's been one week since that weird guy got completely drunk and spent 3 hours insulting me at the bar. I have to show everyone that I'm not offended, so I have to show up at practice or they'll think I've decided to pack it in or something. Also, Mr. Yoshimura (the ex-English teacher) is going to tell me whether or not I can do my grading. (He's been researching it, apparently.) So no staying home for me.

One of the funny things that drunk guy was saying was about my sword. He asked me if I have a shinken, I said yes, he asked me why I don't use it, and I said that I liked my iaito just fine, and also that the shinken was pretty heavy. He laughed and said that his sword was heavier than my sword; I declined to speculate that perhaps this is why his iaido is so terrible and why he can't control his cuts. After that, he went on to state that, because my noto was completely wrong, that I would "definitely, definitely" cut my hand if I used a shinken. So anyway, I have decided to bring my shinken tonight and see how it goes. If I can still type tomorrow, I'll let you know.