Saturday, February 25, 2006

Still Definitely not Ego-Free

So in the martial arts, you're supposed to be working on erasing your ego; especially in iaido, your "imaginary opponent" is yourself, and it's symbolically your ego that you're killing over and over. Right? Right?

Well, I still have quite a lot of ego to kill, I'm afraid. I went to a practice at a new place last night. It was pretty good, but the sensei in charge didn't really look at my techniques much. Instead he delegated his wife to give me some pointers, and I have to shamefully confess that I was kind of ticked off by that. I think it was because she wasn't really much higher-ranked than me ... but in the end, she gave me some good hints.

I don't know why I felt that way. I guess I was disappointed that the main teacher couldn't be bothered to give me any instruction. Boy, am I ever getting spoiled!

After going through Seitei Iai (everybody still calls it that) I was in turn assigned to teach the only other foreigner there, a local ALT who has been doing iai for a couple years, I guess. I don't know how he felt about getting corrections from "the new guy" but he was pretty cool about it. He has many of the same problems that most beginners have, so I gave him such help as I could.

I have noticed that Japanese beginners and Western beginners seem to have different kinds of problems. I wonder if watching all those chambara movies on TV really does have some impact on Japanese people when they start iaido... On the other hand, Westerners are usually really stiff-legged and tense in their upper-body. I wonder where that comes from?

Anyway, I guess I'll be able to have 3 or 4 practices a week now; and I. Sensei does jodo too, apparently, so maybe I can get back into jodo a little bit. I haven't done any jo in months.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to moving to Oita. Imai Sensei lives in Oita, Iwami Sensei lives an hour and a half away, so I might be able to do some Niten; there are good Jikiden Sensei in the town I'll be living in, and Fukuoka (Namitome Sensei and Tominaga Sensei) are also about an hour away. This could be very, very cool... The Jikiden sensei is a young eight-dan by the name of Azuma Sensei; there was an article about him in Kendo Nippon a few months back. I haven't tried translating it yet, but someone told me that he is mostly self-taught. (How is that possible?) He apparently has some obscure Jikiden scrolls or books or something ... I'll be interested to follow up that thread if/when I meet him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tanno Sensei

Tanno Sensei, who won the 8th-dan tournament recently (actually, I'm not sure about that; either he won it last time, or he's come in 3rd two times, or perhaps both) came to practice last night. He's pretty damn good, as you would expect. The best thing about his iai is his cut. It manages to be extremely fast, sharp, powerful, and effortless all at the same time. His body movement is also pretty remarkable; when he moves, you say to yourself, "What just happened? I want to see that again!"

Somebody told him that I had wanted to meet him for a long time; we were both pretty embarrassed by that, I think. It sounds so fan-nish. Anyway, hearing that, he told me to do Koryu "Mae" for him a few times. He spent the rest of the practice watching and fixing small things (and some not-so-small things) in my technique. The most important thing in iaido, he said, was to cut from saya-banare - the point where the kissaki is still within the saya. I have heard this before, but somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it and started drawing my sword out completely, then cutting, which is wrong. I remember Ohmi Sensei telling us that cutting from saya-banare is the very essence of iai. Because I don't have enough confidence in my ability, I think I was drawing the sword out completely and then cutting, out of fear of slicing my hand. He showed me how to hold the koiguchi and assured me that I wouldn't cut myself if I held the koiguchi properly. I hope so.

Anyway, last night I wasn't in a very energetic mood, so even while I was getting some one-one-one attention from an 8th-dan, I was having to mentally kick myself in the ass. Practice harder, you lazy piece of crap! This doesn't happen everyday! By the end of practice, I had done Mae ... quite a lot. My knees were killing me, and as tired as I was, I thought to myself, You could have done a lot better. So I have tried to promise myself that I will practice harder in the future ... a promise that is suitably vague and easy to slip out of ...

After practice, I talked to him for just a few minutes. He goes to France once or twice a year, apparently. He seems like quite a nice guy; he has none of the arrogance that some teachers get. I asked Mr. Kimura what Tanno Sensei does for a living: he is some kind of construction worker/manager for a railroad company. Tanaka Sensei used to run a sake shop before he retired; Namitome Sensei was a farmer and post-office worker. They are all very friendly, down-to-earth people with no airs. I think that should be a criteria in choosing a teacher - the intersection of high technical skill plus a blue-collar background would seem to be ideal...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Fukushima Iai Koshukai

We had the prefectural seminar (and grading) on Sunday. It was fun; lots of people there, and very surprisingly (for me) there were about 7 or 8 foreigners there! Most of them were local JETs; I found out from them that one of the top 6th dans in the country lives and teaches iai in Nihonmatsu, where I live. Actually, the dojo is at an elementary school about 10 minutes away from my apartment. (Why do I always find these things out 2 months late?) Well, actually, I enjoy going into Fukushima, and the guy in Nihonmatsu is Muso Shinden ryu; but still, I could have been practicing 3 or 4 times a week instead of just once or twice. I will start this Saturday, if possible.

The seminar itself was quite good. I got a lot of good pointers, which I am trying not to forget. I really ought to start keeping a list of pointers on my computer. The problem, however, is to make sure to go back periodically and read what you were told last month and the month before that...

Interestingly, some of the people at the seminar did Hokushin Itto Ryu as their "koryu selection" during the grading. Even though it was an ikkyu grading, people were free to do one koryu waza if they wanted. So, some people did some kind of funky-looking koryu which I later found out was Hokushin Itto Ryu. Very interesting stuff, although ... not to be too critical, but ... kind of weird. For example, there is a technique where you finish by stabbing backwards; you then finish with some zanshin, and then literally wipe your sword on your hakama. Then you turn back towards the front, and holding the sword out in front of you, examine both sides of the blade as if you were appraising the sword. Finally, you do a "normal" chiburui (like Omori Ryu's o-chiburi) and put the sword away. It seems like a lot of time spending doing chinagui/chiburui considering you didn't actually get any blood on the sword. But anyway. Some of their techniques are quite impressive; there is one that looks kind of like oku-iai zawaza's shihogiri, except instead of cutting, you are stabbing every which way, and stomping as you do it, so the overall impression is "turn, stomp, stab, stomp, stab, turn, stomp, stab, stomp, stab" ... if you're not expecting that, it's pretty surprising to see that waza show up in the middle of an otherwise quiet grading.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet Tanno sensei this time. I guess he was double booked or something. So maybe I will get to meet him later this week. In the meantime, I should go and write down my corrections before I forget them...

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tinkering, and Rebuilding

Recently, Tanaka Sensei has been trying to get me to change some pretty fundamental stuff, like how I sit in seiza, how I grasp the sword, how I cut, and how I draw. It's great, but it's also pretty scary.

Kim always told us that we should never be upset about changing our iaido. When a teacher tells us to do something a different way, we should just do it a different way, and not ask why, or try to determine which way is the "right way" and try to cling to that. It seems to be a way to keep your iaido flexible - "Today, you're doing it this way, don't ask why." If you find yourself unable to do it the new way, or even if you find yourself getting irritated with this "new" way, it's probably because you have gotten into a rut of some kind. We should relish the challenge of trying something new.

So ... why is it so hard for me to wholeheartedly change how I'm doing things? These changes may, in fact, be quite small. I don't know yet. But I feel kind of like a proud automotive student, who has painstakingly managed to build an engine piece by piece from the ground up. You want me to change the oil? No problem! I can do that. You want me to change the spark plugs? Sure! But now you want me to change it from a V8 to a straight-6? WHAT?

I feel it's kind of the same. You want me to make my chiburui a bit flatter? Cool! You want me to use less right hand when I cut? Thanks for the tip! You want me to completely change the way I draw, rise up from seiza, cut on nukitsuke, and hold the sword? WHAT? There's some resistance there, I have to admit.

But having said that, I'm having fun. After all, these changes aren't really that radical, they just feel weird. Maybe it's because we start to regard our iaido as something material that we've accumulated over the years ... and if we change it, something intangible is being taken away from us. Pretty ridiculous when you put it that way, isn't it?

Anyway, tomorrow is the prefectural iaido seminar. I'll get the chance to meet a lot of people, probably, and see how some other teachers do things. More confusion! I'm starting to welcome it.

Friday, February 10, 2006

No Grading For Me

Just when I thought I would be able to take a grading next month ... my dad mailed my jodo certificate to me and, surprise surprise, the date on it was May 2003. So I'm not eligible to grade until May of this year. Oh well. It saves me a bit of stress and a lot of money.

Meanwhile, I am practicing a little bit in Fukushima with Tanaka Sensei. "A bit" means about once a week. Mr. Kimura, the local veterinarian, is kind enough to drive me into the city every Wednesday night. (I learned recently that he was the prefectural 5th dan champion and their delegate to the Nationals a few months back.) Although it has been warming up, the gym is still extremely cold; you can see your breath as you practice, and the floor is numbing, even with tabi on your feet. But I'm not complaining. It's better than trying to practice in summer when it is so hot. In fact, except for my feet, it's quite comfortable once I get moving.

Tanaka Sensei continues to have a lot of corrections for me. He wants me to do things the way I used to do them before I started practicing in Chiba. First I get bent one way, now I'm being bent back! I don't mind it particularly, but I think I understand how Chris Gilham felt when he travelled all around Japan and met people who were doing "standard" iaido in a hundred different ways. I suppose it's natural that the people who do things differently tend to be the provincial Hachidan Hanshis who don't feel the need to change what they're doing just because some committee in Tokyo says so! I experienced the same thing down in Nagasaki. But then I went to Chiba (which is adjacent to Tokyo) and got hammered with the "orthodox" Seitei Iai ...

Anyway, it's just a different emphasis, I think. Seitei iai (by which I mean "Tokyo" seitei) seems to put a lot of emphasis on the correct kamae. For example, on number 6, you cut to the face, stab, then turn quickly into a sort of jodan kamae before you step through and cut. Tanaka sensei emphasizes not standing still or stopping the sword at any time, so there is no kamae at all. Kind of resonates with what Musashi says in Go Rin no Sho. Anyway, as I mentioned before, Tanaka sensei's iai resembles Haruna sensei's iai (as I remember it anyway) so I'm happy to learn it. It just takes a slightly different mindset because the riai, or interpretation, is a bit different.

What else is new ... I bought a jo and took it to work, thinking that I would have some time to practice in my lunch hours or after school. Needless to say, it still hasn't even been unwrapped. I might go to school tomorrow (Sunday) to practice with the kendo club. They asked me to come up and teach them iai, but now they seem to be hemming and hawing, and just want me to come and do kendo with them. It's been a really long time since I played kendo, but I guess I've got nothing better to do. (Nice attitude, huh?)

Next Sunday, there will be a Fukushima-ken iaido seminar, so I might finally get to see Tanno Sensei. He's the guy who won the All-Japan 8th Dan championships recently, so I'm looking forward to seeing his iai. Tanaka Sensei might even suit up; I gather that he practices iai every morning by himself, so for the last 4 or 5 practices, he hasn't even changed out of his civilian clothes. I'm looking forward to seeing his stuff, too. I'll tell you how it goes!