Thursday, November 10, 2005

Half-Formed Ideas

I was thinking about the idea of budo and self-improvement. This is something that people talk a lot about but I don't think has been clearly elucidated very often. Exactly how is it that martial arts make you into a better person?

I think it has a lot to do with the sempai-kohai relationship, and the student-sensei relationship. When the sempai-kohai thing is abused, it's pretty bad; it essentially boils down to a master-servant relationship. But I think, at it's best it is the key to self-improvement...

You enter into an art and, acknowledging that your seniors know more than you do, and recognizing the years of dedication they've put into the art, you voluntarily take on the role of "junior" and all that goes with it, in exchange for the chance to learn what they know. You develop your sense of social awareness and try to respond appropriately in any given situation - for example, a good kohai jumps to his feet to help when he notices somebody struggling to carry luggage into the dojo, and offers a helping hand. And he is constantly on the lookout for such situations. How can I help somebody else? What should I be doing right now?

Ideally, this mindset continues outside of the dojo. It is not something that we do because we want sensei to notice our efforts and promote us at the next grading. We should have this mindset towards everybody, everywhere. It is exhausting and I can only maintain it for a short time, but the goal is to think this way all the time, and to extend this feeling to strangers, to society in general, to other countries, to the world...

I dunno. Kind of hippy-dippy, I know. But there have been lots of times when, in the course of helping out with a seminar or something, I've seen beginner or intermediate level students just wandering around the gym with their heads in the air, meanwhile there are dozens of little jobs that need doing. Iai is about being ready for any situation, all the time; how can somebody expect to develop a mindset that will prepare them to defend themselves if they aren't even looking around them or thinking about their place in relation to their surroundings?

Just something that occurred to me recently...

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Nagano Gassuku

We had a jodo gassuku in Nagano this past weekend. I met the other members of the Nikkei jodo club at Tokyo station, and we all got on the 8:40 am Shinkansen. At 8:45, the beers and dried-squid snacks were distributed. Yee-haw! After my liquid breakfast, I was feeling well settled.

We were met by the Nagano contingent outside the station and shuttled off to the practice location, a small town up in the mountains called Nozawa Onsen. We practiced all afternoon and then went back to the small inn we were staying at. Everybody hopped into the spa before dinner. The hot springs there are a bit sulfurous and very, very hot! I couldn't stay in for long and came out looking like a boiled lobster. We changed into our yukata and had a delicious feast while listening to everybody introduce themselves. I drank more than my share and so, by the time the party finished around 11pm, I was ready for bed. A lot of other people, true budoka to the last, stayed up drinking until 4:30 am...

The next morning I was feeling a bit stiff but otherwise okay. Meanwhile, the 65-year-olds who had been drinking while I slept were as spry as ever. Sigh. We practiced all morning in the ice-cold gym and then did a bit of sightseeing. All too soon, it was time to go back to Nagano city. We caught the Shinkansen with about 30 seconds to spare following a mad dash to the platform. We spent the ride back to Tokyo practicing aikido on each other to the delight (?) of the other passengers.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Front Row, Leftish

Thanks to Alex and Hamish at Kendo World magazine, I had front row seats for the Kendo championships yesterday. It was great. Too bad I was so busy trying to take photos that I barely saw any of the matches! Actually, I'm exaggerating but between messing with my camera, reviewing photos, adjusting settings, blah blah blah, and my usual bad luck, I did miss most of the good points. But it was still a phenomenal experience that I won't soon forget.

Harada from Tokyo won. I guess this is his 9th appearance. He set the record at his first appearance as the youngest-ever participant, and he made it to the quarter- or semi-finals that time. He then placed highly in a lot of subsequent appearances, and has gotten 2nd or 3rd place a few times. So basically he has been near the top for the last 9 years, and it was finally his day to shine... everybody in the place was thrilled that he finally won.

Here are some pics. Most of the photos I took, unfortunately, are pretty awful. I am starting to realize that one major limitation of my camera is the lag time between depressing the shutter release and the actual shutter. My camera is pretty slow, so I always miss the action; my only hope is to anticipate the strike and take the shot a bit early. Anyway.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Kobudo Demo

Yesterday was Culture Day, and so there was a Koryu Budo demonstration at the Meiji Shrine. I went to it last year and I had mixed feelings about it. Part of the problem was that I got up late last year and so I missed the first hour or so, which (I imagined) probably had the best demonstrators.

I decided to set my alarm plenty early so as not to miss anything this year. But the plan backfired; I was so soundly asleep that I didn't even hear my alarm go off and slept right through it to 9am. So I didn't get to the shrine until 11am; by then, well... most of the good stuff was finished.

It's a weird experience going to this thing. They have roped off a section of lawn, and all around that, people have camped out to get the best photo- and video-taking spots. Of course, these keeners are all foreigners. They follow the demonstration eagerly, panning their video cameras back and forth to catch all the action. They check off each demonstration in their programs, and consult each other excitedly about who's coming up next and did you see them last year?

Last year, I left the demonstration feeling a little bit cynical. Doubly so this year. I saw one group called (I don't think I'm exaggerating) Muso Shinden Eishin Ryu Iai Battojutsu Heiho. It was just two people, and they did a strange mix between Shinden and Jikiden with some outright ridiculous stuff thrown in. For example, to sit down, they stick both hands into their hakama vents, fluff them elaborately, and sit down while the legs are still billowed out on both sides. Their noto is equally bizarre, going out sideways like shinden, but then shooting upward on an angle... pointless (unless you're doing a handle strike as you do noto!) and very flashy.

There were some schools that were just trying to out-scream each other. And then there were the jujutsu schools where one guy walks up to another and for no apparent reason grabs him, throws him down, armlocks him, rolls him over, puts him in a different armlock, flips him over, puts him in a leglock, etc. etc. etc. Sigh.

The physicist Ernest Rutherford had a good quote: "In science, there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting." He's not just being a physics chauvinist; his point is that real science is about figuring out how things work (be it chemistry, biology, or whatever) and the rest is just cataloguing, collecting, and sorting. I'm starting to think that martial arts is the same way. In budo, there is only practice. All the rest is stamp collecting.

Eat dirt, you young whippersnapper!