Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fukuoka Budo Festival

On Saturday morning, I hopped on a bus for Fukuoka. The weather was cold, rainy, and foggy, so I fell asleep pretty quickly, and felt like I opened my eyes and the trip was over. I had arranged to get picked up by Namitome Sensei at Hakata station, and I resolved not to screw this up because I was still smarting from the last time when he got really angry at me for messing up our meeting time and then not calling him, thus delaying his family's dinner and causing everybody to worry that the hapless gaijin had gotten himself lost. Therefore I was a bit dismayed when I found out that I wasn't in Hakata station at all, but Tenjin station. I jumped in a taxi and sped off to Hakata, and met Namitome Sensei just in time.

He seems to be quite healthy apart from his leg, which has been getting worse and worse every time I see him. It is now very strongly bowed outwards and is quite obvious even when you see him from a distance.

We drove in the rain to Kamado temple, the "Jodo Shrine" where Muso Gonnosuke received his inspirational vision lo 400 years or so ago. Normally, they have a practice outside on the grounds of the temple. I was told that we would practice indoors because of the rain. There were only about 11 people there, and so we assembled inside the shrine. The priest appeared and beat the drum, then proceeded to pray and bless us. We all lined up and received a cup of sake from the priest. I also learned the correct way to worship at a shrine (something none of my students knows). It is, bow twice, clap twice, bow once. (Remember that!)
We then practiced inside the shrine. I felt an intense pressure to remain sitting in seiza, despite the pain in my left knee. Everyone was practicing koryu while Namitome Sensei watched. I felt distinctly out of place among 3 8th dans, 5 7th dans, and a couple 6th dans. Eventually, my turn came around. I politely requested to do Seitei, and nobody seemed to mind. I did the first couple waza before feeling slowly started to return to my feet and my legs started shaking, either from adrenaline and nerves, or from the returning circulation, I don't know. I do know that I did 12 terrible katas. Afterwords, I sat back down again in the doorway of the shrine with the others. Through some bizarre combination of climatic conditions, steam was pouring off of me as if I were a horse that had just run 10 kilometres in the snow. It was further embarrassment that I got so steamed up doing such lousy techniques.

Anyway, nobody seemed to mind. We practiced a few more rounds, taking turns being shi-jo to the sensei's uchi-dachi. Finally, we finished and went for some drinks in the basement of the shrine side-building. I took a few pictures of the shrine and the jodo memorial stone.

That night, i slept in the dojo. Namitome sensei came around and picked me up at 8:30 in the morning, and we went off to the Fukuoka budo festival. It was an event organized by the Fukuoka Kendo Renmei. It was pretty interesting, and had demonstrations of Jodo, Shinto Ryu kenjutsu, tanjojutsu, tankenjutsu, kusarigama-jutsu, and even some war-fan, I presume. Here's a picture of Shinohara Sensei and Otofuji Sensei (the granddaughter, I believe, of THE Otofuji Sensei) doing war-fan against sword.

After jodo and its various incarnations, there was naginata, iaido, and lots of kendo. There was even some taryu-jiai (kendo against naginata) that amused everyone with the speed and ease with which the naginata player won. I have always thought that the way to win against naginata was to grab the naginata behind the blade section, and then hit men one-handed. Perhaps this is regarded as a dirty trick.

I took a ton of pictures, most of which didn't turn out very well. I think it is time I learned how to use my camera properly or something...

Anyway, it was a fun weekend. I will definitely try to get my sorry butt to Fukuoka one or two Saturdays a month!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Missing Photos from Last Post

For some reason, Blogger is doing weird things with the layout. Sorry, it doesn't look so great...

Kondo Isami's grave and memorial stone in Itabashi.

Beppu park, 3 minutes walk from my apartment. Not too shabby.

Tokyo! Oita!

So I've gotten more or less settled in down here in Beppu city, Oita. It's a great place ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, I said goodbye to the good folks up in Fukushima. I was really getting used to it there ... despite the freezing cold dojos, it was a great place to practice. Tanaka Sensei was very "old school" somehow - his style was very graceful, yet powerful. As a high rank-holder in kendo, he understood the importance of jo-ha-kyu, seme, ma-ai ... his iaido never seemed rushed at all, downright relaxed in places ... but he always gave me crap for being too slow. I now understand that this is because I was slow in the wrong places. It's not a question of being quick-quick-quick, but fast and sharp when you have to be. I am trying to remember the feeling of his iai.

And on the other hand, there was Inoue Sensei, whose iai is very geared towards competitions. He is consistently 2nd or 3rd in the 6th-dan All Japan category (he has yet to win the championship, but I am increasingly thinking this is political). His iai is super-precise, super-sharp, very powerful, energetic, quick - you almost expect his sword to leave a vapour trail after each cut. He looks a lot like Kaneda Sensei; I presume he studies his videos.

And then there was Tanno Sensei, who I only got to see once, but who is probably the best all-around iaidoka I have seen since Haruna Sensei, which is saying a lot. I have a lot to try and remember from all three of them.

After leaving Fukushima, I was in Tokyo for about a week. My company put me up in a hotel in Itabashi, which is near Ikebukuro. I was very lucky to get to the right place; there is also a station called Iidabashi, but since I couldn't read either station's kanji with complete confidence, I gambled and got lucky by going to the right place. The cherry blossoms outside my hotel were in full bloom, and it was really beautiful all across the city.

The location of my hotel was the first fun coincidence: right beside the grave of Kondo Isami, head of the Shinsengumi. (One could argue that you can't swing a cat in Tokyo without hitting some historical spot, but I was quite pleased just the same.) I took some pictures, but for some reason, Blogger isn't letting me post them today. Maybe next time.

Then, the second weird coincidence. I was on the train heading for the airport, carrying some luggage and of course, my sword. An older, caucasian man with a really remarkable beard and mustache approached me on the train and asked me if I did kendo. I told him that I had done some kendo but now I mostly stick to iaido and jodo. Well, as it turns out, he was Alain Ducarme, president of the European Kendo Federation, and (along with Roy Asa) vice-president of the International Kendo Federation. Cool, huh? He was in Japan for some meetings and practice sessions.

So, finally, I arrived in Oita. After inquiring via the internet, I found out that there is an iaido practice on Sundays in the City Gym, which is close to my apartment, on the opposite side of an absolutely stunning park which is now full of blooming cherry trees and azaleas. Somehow, walking through a beautiful park settles your mind just perfectly before practice... so much so that I got completely turned around and couldn't figure out where I was! Luckily, I spotted a woman wearing hakama and carrying a sword case (perhaps my third lucky coincidence) who kindly led me to the dojo.

I met 8th-dan Azuma Sensei (he's only 58 or so, but started 40 years ago!) and we started practicing in a small-ish dojo inside the city gym. After about half an hour of keiko, we all picked up our stuff and moved to the cavernous main gym, which looks more like an aircraft hanger. Azuma Sensei took our group, while a group of other 8th dans divided up the other practitioners. It was a very good practice; Azuma sensei had a lot to tell me about my footwork. His three main "themes", he told me, are paying attention to turning, to balance, and to the centre line. As I am poor at all three of these things, he told me to practice extra hard paying attention to those points.

After practice, I met a bunch of other 8th-dan teachers, and one of the few surviving 9th-dans in Japan. Wow. If only I could remember his name ... but as Ms. Ikenaga (the woman who escorted me to the dojo - she turned out to be a 7th-dan kyoshi herself!) told me, "Just calling them 'Sensei! Sensei' is okay."

It might turn out that I have only one iai practice a week, which would be too bad, but my apartment has very high ceilings, so I can do a bit of practice in my apartment, believe it or not. I also found out that there is a group doing jodo in Oita city, 15 minutes away.

But somehow, the best part of the whole situation is that park ... walking through it on the way to and from practice is more satisfying than I can explain. I would post photos, but ...

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Hayashizaki Iaido Shrine, Murayama town, Yamagata

Here are those pictures I was promisin'.

This is the small outlying shrine that, I think, marks the original location of the site where Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu prayed for divine inspiration and came up with the idea for iaido.

Here's a stone erected by the "True 20th Headmaster" (that's what it says, I think) of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Kawano Sensei.

Here's the shrine building itself. Note the snow. This was in late March!

A couple of other things stuck out in my mind. The first was a very out-of-place building which was located smack dab in the middle of an onsen town. There, in the middle of this town that I swear didn't have a single building over 3 or 4 stories, was this 30-floor monstrosity. Imagine if someone said, "Hey, let's build an office tower in the middle of this farmer's wheat field". It was so out-of-place that I, and some other tourists on the train, just started laughing and pointing. I think we all ended up taking pictures of it too, for some reason. I'll spare you the bandwidth.

The other rather odd thing was a bilingual sign for the Iai Shrine, in English and ... Russian (?) Kind of strange. I didn't think we were THAT far north ...