Monday, October 31, 2005

Oh ... My ... God

Sunday, I went to my iaido practice and afterwards, Jerky told me about a huge sword show that was being held in Tokyo. It's only held once a year and dealers from all over Japan come to hawk their wares. It's the biggest sword show in Japan, so that makes it the biggest in the world, I would think. He had bought tickets to go but he had extras so he gave me a ticket and told me how to get there. Off I went! (See, he's not all bad!)

When I was a kid, I was really into comic books, which I bought using my allowance at the local convenience store. They had one rack of comics and you couldn't predict which ones were going to be there in any given week. You could try ordering other comics but you wouldn't always get what you wanted. Even so, I didn't have enough money to get all the comics I wanted, so I usually had to pick one or two out of the meagre selection they had.

Then one day, I went to a comic shop. I never imagined that such a wonderful place could actually exist. There were comics hanging on the walls, for God's sake! It almost blew my mind. It excited me but it also depressed me a little bit to think that there were so many comics in the world and I would never be able to buy or read them all.

Well, that's pretty much how I felt when I walked in the doors of the Tokyo Art Club on Sunday afternoon. There were swords as far as the eye could see, as well as suits of armour, whole stores devoted to Tsubas, and spears, naginatas, even some ancient guns. It was jaw-dropping. They had an entire display of new swords that had just been finished by people like Gassan (Sadamune?), Yoshihara Yoshindo, Kawauchi, and others I didn't know... it was incredible.

They also had a "Kantei" corner where you could get your sword appraised, Antiques Roadshow - style. I took my sword there and the appraiser said that I should probably spend between $1000 and $1500 to get it polished. Hmmm. But in the end, he never actually told me how much the sword was worth. Kind of strange. He didn't seem particularly impressed by it, but I guess you get kind of jaded when you are used to evaluating swords worth over $100,000.

I met the nice people at the Noshu-do store. There was an American guy there (whose name I have forgotten, but it may have been David Goldberg?) who is a swordmaker from Pennsylvania. We had a really nice chat about a variety of topics; he teaches iai and aikido down there and is also a full-time swordmaker. What a life!

Overall, the sword show was pretty amazing but at the same time, it was kind of depressing, just like when I was a kid and I saw all those comics I couldn't buy. I'll never have enough money to own a really nice or really "important" sword, and come to think of it, what's the point? Do people who own these swords take them out and look at them every day? Does it give them pleasure to know that they own the sword, not some other person? Or is it the case that they have researched these blades to such a high degree that they feel they "know" them and so they have to own them? Or do they just want to impress the other collectors? Swords have been commodified to such an extent ... I wonder if the people who run these stores take any pleasure in them anymore. I'm sure the swordmakers must get a huge feeling of satisfaction when they create a new, beautiful sword, but the collectors and dealers just seem to be in it for the money, which is a shame.

And I don't know how the average Japanese person feels about swords. Are they objects of terror? Do they feel that their family is not really respectable unless they own an "heirloom" sword? How should I feel about swords as a person who does iaido? Is it a tool, and nothing more? When we bow to our sword, and talk about the sword as the "soul of the samurai" do we do so with a feeling of irony because, after all, it's just a lifeless lump of metal? On the other hand, there are weirdos out there who sleep with their swords because they feel that will make them a better martial artist...

I guess the bottom line is that some swords are really beautiful, and I for one, would like to support the traditional craftsmen by (someday) buying a sword from one of them. Now, I just need to save $50,000 or so...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More developments

A few interesting things.

The other night, Shimizu-san (the very kind-hearted man who usually waits for me after practice so we can take the train together back to our homes, which are relatively close) said something very interesting. I forget what we were talking about, but he said (basically) "We're lucky that everybody in our dojo is very nice. Some dojos have very strange people." I asked him what he meant by "strange" and he said, "Well, some people who do jodo are a little bit odd... they like to practice really aggressively and try to hurt or scare other people. If you join their dojo, you have to put up with 1o or 12 years of being bullied before you get accepted into their group. And during that time, you have to endure all kinds of bad things. These people have a problem with their hearts..." I thought, wow, where have I heard that before??? That comment definitely resonated with me. (Some Sei Do Kai folks will know exactly what/who I'm talking about...)

Next interesting thing: there is a jodo seminar scheduled for next weekend in Nagano, which is a really beautiful part of Japan that I've never been to. Mountains, hot springs, jodo, and (most importantly) drinking! Sounds good to me. Kind of expensive, though, especially since I'm trying to save a bit of money for a trip to Kyoto next month.

Random observations: Furukawa Sensei is unreasonably strong. He does this thing where he holds the jo around the middle with one hand and smashes the sword (which you're holding in 2 hands) and it almost flies out of your hands. Also, he is very difficult to push when you do tai atari. I understand how people need to use concepts like "ki" to explain how someone can suddenly make themselves seem heavier than they really are...

I am in one of those periods where I am doing everything wrong. My technique is constantly being broken down lately and criticized. But these periods of rebuilding are good; this is when you actually have some chance of coming out the other side with improved techniques. Just sitting in the rut of your "status quo" practicing the same way over and over is useless, so I'm happy to be given corrections (although they can be kind of harsh sometimes).

It's all in your mind: lately I've been coming home from practice feeling really exhausted. I drag my sorry ass up the stairs at the train station thinking, "Wow, I feel like a wrung-out dishcloth" but if I say to myself, "Just pretend that you don't feel tired" suddenly... I don't feel tired! It's hard to explain but I think that at least 75% of it is mental. Another related thing: my right knee has been killing me lately, especially going up stairs. I started walking in different ways and if I put my weight on the heel of my foot instead of the toes when I go upstairs, it doesn't hurt. I can't think of a physiological reason of why this is possible, so it must be mental, right? Anyway, kind of interesting...?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

All-Japan Kendo

Looks like I will be enjoying some front-row seats (literally) for the All-Japan Kendo championships in a couple weeks. Alex from Kendo World has (through an incredible bit of good luck) invited me to help them take pictures for the magazine, which means I'll be sitting on the sidelines with the "press corps" (i.e., 2 or 3 guys from Kendo Jidai and Kendo Nippon magazines). Woo hoo! The only people closer to the action will be the judges. I'm going to wear a bright orange t-shirt so that I will show up on the NHK broadcast. I'll be the big orange blob who's staring off into space not watching the match... Haha! I feel a bit guilty because there are a lot of people who "deserve" to be there more than me, but who ever said that people always get what they deserve? (Good thing, too.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Jerky Update!

Almost forgot to mention: I went out for drinks with some folks after iai practice, including Jerky. I guess he wasn't banned after the last time. There were a few funny moments.

-him trying to get a rise out of me (I think) by saying, "You do number 11 all wrong! Eh? It's wrong! It's definitely wrong! You stop the sword here! You see? You're not supposed to! That's completely wrong!" etc. etc. I just smiled the biggest, widest smile I could manage and said, "Yes, you're quite right!" and that really seemed to disappoint him. He was in the mood for an argument but there was just nowhere to go from there.

-Fukuchi sensei then telling me not to worry, because I was definitely ready to pass 5th dan as long as I just continued doing what I was doing in class. Jerky looked kind of sad at this point.

-Jerky mentioning that he was ordering a new sword to be made with a fancy carving on both sides of the blade. Everyone laughed at him because he has so much money to throw around on ostentatious things like swords with decorative carvings in them. Then Fukuchi told him that swords with carvings are weaker than plain blades and that, besides, iaido should be done with a "plain" sword that doesn't try to attract attention to itself. He looked even more miserable here.

Also, speaking of ostentatious, I saw a lot of sensei at the All-Japans who obviously have more money than they know quite what to do with; so many of them were sporting outfits costing well over $2000; sword-bags made completely of sharkskin; Louis Vuitton luggage; not to mention their swords and everything that were probably astronomically expensive. Sigh... Here's a picture of some 9th-dan's just to remind us what iai is supposed to be about. You can't take it with ya!

40th Annual All-Japan Iaido Taikai

The 40th Annual All-Japan Iaido Taikai was held yesterday (October 15th) in Chiba city. It moves around from prefecture to prefecture. Last year, apparently it was held in Miyazaki. Next year, I understand it will be held in Hokkaido. Anyway, lucky me - this time it was held about 90 minutes from my house.

Namitome Sensei called me and told me he'd be going, so I should make sure to attend. I thought that he also invited me to go drinking after the taikai was finished ... or so I thought. (That's foreshadowing there, folks.) I seem to have a knack for misunderstanding Namitome Sensei, so it seems that he meant that I should come and drink Friday night because he was flying back to Fukuoka directly after the taikai. Ah, well. Pretty disappointing, but anyway.

I learned (to my naive surprise) that the championships are basically rigged. Last year, the team from Miyazaki won and their members did very well individually. This year, the Chiba team won, and each member won his own division too (5th, 6th, and 7th dan groups). Sure enough, looking back at the "trees" that show how the elimination tournament progressed, not once was there a vote cast against any of the Chiba players. Each one of them won all their matches 3-0. That seems a bit fishy, doesn't it? Don't get me wrong; they were very strong guys ... but sheesh... And the Miyazaki players this year (surely some of them were champions last year, right?) didn't make it very far at all.

I was very disappointed to hear this. I don't know how much of a "sure thing" it is; ie, whether the judges decide in advance that the host team will win, or whether it's simply a case of "tie goes to the home team" and at this level of competition, there are a heck of a lot of ties. Certainly, I saw only a very, very few matches where I could clearly predict the outcome.

Overall, however, the level of the competitors was quite awe-inspiring. I thought the best group overall was the 6th-dan division. They seemed to possess the best mix of spirit and physical technique. The 7th-dan players may have been technically "better" (I don't know) but from where I was sitting, the 6th-dan group was really strong and dynamic.

After the competition, there was a demonstration by lots of 7th dans, a bunch of 8th dans, and the 3 surviving (or at least, mobile) 9th dans. It was really impressive. Among this group I saw (just to drop as many names as humanly possible) Oshita, Koyama, Ishido, Kaneda, Morita, Kaminoda, Namitome, Ide (the younger), and Miyazaki Senseis. No time to shmooze with them all, I'm afraid...

After the competition, I had the strange experience of sitting beside Namitome sensei while he was waiting for his ride to the airport. It would be an exaggeration to say that everybody in the building bowed to him; just everybody who came within 5 metres. Crazy. And I just sat there doing nothing because they're not bowing to me, so it would be improper for me to bow back... kind of like if you were standing beside Tom Cruise and a bunch of photographers showed up and started taking his picture, and then you started smiling and waving too as if it was you they were interested in...

After Namitome sensei left, I was filled with this feeling that I'm either going to improve my iaido or kill myself. I decided on the second option, and went to McDonald's to do it slowly... Mmmm... death by Big Mac... ssslurrrrp...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wow... Visual Stimulus

Well, hopefully this will now work for me. I'm trying to upload some pictures here. They're not particularly good ... so sue me! Anyway, hope you enjoy them. More to come. Let me know in the comment section if these slow the page down too much.

Tada Sensei practicing some koryu - Ryuto, I think. He's quite good and a really nice fellow to boot.

A sweet kabuto in the window of Sokendo in Harajuku; in other words, how I plan to spend my lottery winnings.

How I plan to spend the rest of my lottery winnings.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Boy, am I ever dumb... when I was packing, I took my 3-dan IAIDO certificate and not my 3-dan JODO certificate... so I guess I won't be able to grade for 4th dan, at least not at the grading in 2 weeks in Tokyo. Hmmm. I'm kind of mad at myself, but at the same time I think it's important to remember all that stuff we say about how grades don't matter, and then to actually BELIEVE it! There are too many people who are obsessed with their grades, unfortunately...

On Friday night at Jodo class, there were a few people I had never met before (because I rarely attend on Fridays). One was a young woman who was getting ready to challenge her 3rd dan. She was really, really sharp! Much better than me, I would say. I found out later that she is a member of her university's Jodo club, and that she practices every day, pretty much. Well, that would explain it! The other new guy was obviously a jodo beginner but he handled the tachi side with such obvious confidence and skill that after 5 seconds I knew he must have a high grade in some other martial art(s); sure enough, he is a high-ranking kendo player. I was secretly pleased with myself that I could see that fact so readily. (I'm polishing my finger nails on my shirt right now...)

So anyway, even when we go through periods where maybe we think we are being really dedicated budoka (kind of rare for me lately, but anyway...) we should remember that there is always somebody training way harder than we are. And, a second lesson: even when we meet somebody we think is a beginner, there is a good chance that they are an expert in some other art and they could teach us much more than we could teach them. Take that!

Next week is the All-Japan Iaido Championships in Chiba ... I hope it will be a chance to do some drinking with Namitome Sensei afterwards! I'm really, really looking forward to it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Samurai Movies

I saw a new samurai movie called "Semi Shigure" (A Chorus of Cicadas). I didn't understand it very well, but I did enjoy it. There were a few points that kind of irritated me, though.

One of these was the fact that the lead actors looked very Western, in my opinion. I don't know if that's just because this is what's taken for "handsome" or "pretty" nowadays, but I think it's kind of a shame. If you picked a hundred girls off the street, you wouldn't find any who looked more western than the girl in this film. Why don't they use normal looking people?

In addition, everyone had perfect white teeth, clear complexions, and generally seemed to be in excellent health. In the west, we seem to be in the midst of a "realism" movement: if we are watching a film set in 1600's London, we'll see grubby orphans, diseased and deformed folks, and people (even upper class people) with stained, rotten teeth. I don't need everybody in my movies to look like dental disasters, but a few crooked teeth would be nice. Most of my students (who actually have access to dentistry) don't have teeth nearly this nice. Plus, didn't women of this period commonly black their teeth out with soot or ink? I guess the Japanese movie industry needs to ignore this fact for the sake of appearances. [As a sidebar, I read recently that the white foundation makeup used by Japanese women of this period was made from nightingale droppings... that really makes them extra kissable!]

The fights were generally quite well done; at one point (before the big battle) the protagonist's best friend turns to him and asks, "So, have you ever actually cut anybody?" Of course, the protagonist has never drawn his sword in anger, and we start to get the feeling of what a horrible, desperate thing a sword fight must be. The ensuing fight is quite horrible and desperate, but then falls back onto the old standard choreography: hero in the center of a crowd of faceless baddies, all of whom take turns rushing him with their swords conveniently over their heads so that he can slash their stomachs. (This is the preferred method of killing because the makeup department doesn't have to do anything special... the guy just convulses, staggers, and falls down, all of this with his back to the camera.) And so, with very little effort, the good guy soon finds himself in the middle of 20 or 30 corpses.

The final little thing that bugged the heck out of me (same problem with Kill Bill) was the outlandish sword noises! All of these swords seem to have metal noise-makers embedded in the koiguchi that make the sword scrape with a metal-on-metal sound when they are noisily drawn out of the scabbard. In addition, all the swords have extremely loose furniture so that they rattle at the slightest movement (kind of like guns in Hollywood movies that are constantly clicking and rattling unlike real guns).

Someday, somebody will make a movie without all of these cliches... and it will be roundly criticized by the Japanese public (who, after all, don't know the difference between iaido and aikido, or jodo and judo) as being unrealistic!