Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rainy Season

The rainy season starts from about the second week of June, and lasts for about a month. In other words, we are right smack dab in the middle of it. It's hot and humid; the kind of weather where you sweat as soon as you get out of bed; where you start sweating right out of the shower and think to yourself, "Why is my face still wet? I just dried it off! Oh, wait, that's sweat."

Doing iai in the summer here is no fun. For one thing, my kneepads and hakama get soaked through pretty quickly, and trying to shift forward on Mae or Ushiro becomes difficult. For another thing, my hands and feet sweat like crazy so I am always wearing tabi. It would be nice if I could wear batting gloves or something too, but tabi are odd enough. As it is, the handle of my sword is generally damp after a short time, and it starts to get a bit slippery. I don't think it's a safety issue (it's not THAT slippery) but it is hard to maintain a proper tenouchi sometimes.

Lately I've been having an issue with my cuts. I know how I'm supposed to cut; also, Azuma sensei's cuts are notoriously good, so I have a good example at all times. But I can't seem to get it right. I may be worse now than I was in the past, or perhaps I'm just becoming aware of some things I'm doing wrong.

The cut is supposed to start from the tip. In other words, the first thing that should happen is that the tip should move, and it should move upwards from horizontal. If someone were to gently pinch the kissaki as you held the sword horizontally above your head, the first thing that should happen as you start to cut is that the kissaki would pop UP, and not forward or diagonally. This means that you have to start the cut using your little fingers.

But what I find happens is that, if I do this, my wrists move into "shinite" -- essentially, the wrists are over-extended forward into a weak position called "dead hand". So as my sword makes contact with the forehead of my imaginary opponent, my wrists are over-extended. Then my hands move in a soft, rounded finish as I pull the sword into my tanden, instead of "accelerating firmly to a stop" as it is supposed to do.

Add to this mixture some other pointers that have been drilled into me lately. First, you should cut in such a way that the kissaki goes from horizontal to the opponent's forehead in the minimum possible amount of time. Thus, no wasted energy cutting the air above your or your opponent's head. Also, I was told to cut by pulling with the left hand, and pushing with the right hand in an opposing fashion. When I did this, the teacher who told me said, "Okay, now you're finally cutting correctly!"

But when I keep those things in mind, all kinds of other bad things happen. My sword pops around at the bottom of the cut, or finishes too far out from my tanden, or the tip drops before the cut, or ... or ... or ...

I would like to blame my crappy cuts on a few things. One is my weak, spindly arms! (Well, for my body size, they're pretty weak.) Also, my sword is very long (2.7) and pretty heavy. (1200 grams?) I'd like to get a lighter sword but I don't know if that would help me. Another problem is that the tsuka is thin, and it's hard to get a good grip on it.

Maybe all of this is just excuse-making, I don't know. Unfortunately, swords are pretty expensive, so it's not like I can afford to buy a few swords and experiment with them. And there aren't many people around here with similar-length swords that I could try swinging. (Although one of the teachers today had a 2.65!)


Today was the prefectural "Advanced Dan Holders Seminar". Now that I'm 5th dan I get to attend this thing. It was really good, although I spent most of the time wiping the sweat out of my eyes. There were about 50 people there, 5th dan and up, and we focused on seitei iai only. Azuma Sensei's "specialty" or focus is on balance, posture, and turning. His whole idea is that this is 90% of iai. Most people can cut pretty well but throw themselves off balance when they do so, for example. Or maybe they have good posture when they're standing still, but their balance falls apart when they are turning. So that's what we worked on today. Of course, that's exactly my weak point (do I actually HAVE a strong point??) so it was good for me.

After the morning seminar, I was fixin' to go home when they started to announce something about "Will the participants in the tournament this afternoon please be sure to ..." Tournament? Why do they always have tournaments that I never know about? Azuma Sensei approached me and told me that I was joining the tournament; it was a team tournament and one of the so-and-so team's members was unable to attend due to a last-minute problem, so I was going to help them out by being the third member. Oh, and by the way, I was to be the captain. Oh great!

I'm not sure how it works, but I guess each team of 3 people can have one person of up to 3rd dan, one of up to 4th dan, and one of up to 5th dan. So you could have a team with 3rd, 4th, and 5th dan, or you could also have a team with 3 3rd dans. The highest-ranked person is the captain. In fact, last year's champions were the young kids in our dojo, who are (I believe) 2nd, 3rd, and 4th dan. And they're all teenagers. And they're all fantastic. Argh.

In the first round, I was just purely focused on not dropping my tip before a cut. I was really nervous, and I felt like I did really badly. But I won, 2 flags to 1! And our team beat the other team 2 matches to 1, so we were through to the next round. The second match I felt like I was much more relaxed. I had a lot more zanshin, my cuts were more powerful, my balance was more stable ... and I lost, 2 flags to 1. And our team lost, 2 matches to 1, so we were finished. I felt kind of bad but I also felt like my opponent was really good, so I lost "honestly" if you know what I mean. At least I didn't lose in the first round like I usually do.

Afterwards, Azuma Sensei came up to me looking pretty pissed off. "You know why you lost? Because you dropped your tip. The first round, all your cuts were okay and you didn't drop the tip. But then, in the second round, your tip dropped every single time. All the judges said that your techniques were really good except for that, but it's a basic error so you lost almost automatically. I keep telling you to stop dropping your tip, and you keep making the same mistake." After that I felt pretty bad. He's right; I can keep my kissaki up if it's all I focus on ... but this experience has shown me that, for the next little while, it's all I SHOULD focus on, even if it feels like the rest of my techniques are falling apart.