Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ninja Parade

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

So the results are in from the All-Japan Kendo Federation Iaido Tournament. The results are, um, let's just say "a bit predictable". Hosts Okayama won the team tournament, as well as taking first place in the 6th and 7th dan categories. Hmmm.

Oita did okay, I guess. Kosaka sensei came in 3rd in the 7th dan division, but the 5th-dan and 6th-dan competitors both got ousted in the first round, so Kosaka's points were only enough to give Oita 7th place overall. Still, coming in 7th out of 50 prefectures is pretty respectable, I think.

Which brings me to "Prejudice" ... the home team has won the tournament the last 4 years running (and possibly longer, I just don't have the data ... does anybody?) so why isn't everybody screaming the obvious: "The tournament is meaningless! It's rigged! The results are pre-decided!"

Well, I guess nobody wants to upset the apple cart. Besides, in all honesty, it's pretty difficult to judge iaido at that level. I suppose the judges might (consciously or unconsciously) make a decision in favour of the hometown player when everything else is equal ... and at that level, most of the time, everything else is pretty equal! I dunno.

I wonder about the 8th-dan taikai which is held every year in Hakone, near Tokyo. It might be more impartial than the other taikai, since it's held in the same place every year. Or, maybe it's even more political. Who knows?

Which brings me to ... Pride. I'm certainly guilt of it. I don't like it when my juniors give me pointers, or when one sensei tells me to fix something that another sensei (one I probably like more) has told me to do. This is just our pride getting in the way of our objectivity.

Martial arts is supposed to be all about destroying our ego, tearing down our sense of Self and replacing it with a sense of Selflessness, a willingness to serve society and others, blah blah blah. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work that way. The higher up we get, the less likely we are to be Selfless, and the more likely we are to have a very high estimation of ourSelves.

I saw a video of myself taken at practice the other day. Wow, it was incredibly cringe-inducing. Azuma Sensei is always telling me, "Jeff! Stop pursing your lips! Keep a poker face at all times ... you should have the tiniest little smile as you draw!" I have heard him say that so much that it was starting to annoy me. Well, I'm kicking myself in the ass for my own arrogant stupidity, because I can hardly watch that video, I look like such a prune-faced twit, screwing up my face into a ridiculous grimace. I have vowed never to question my Sensei again ... but I also know I will break that vow, probably soon.

I recently heard about a high-ranking member of a national martial arts organization who, after failing a grading and having some other requests turned down, decided to quit the organization. That's fine, he can become a "ronin" if he wants and train directly in Japan, but what happens to his students? They are forced to choose between 2 equally unpleasant options: 1 - turn their backs on their national organization and follow their sensei, or 2 - turn their backs on their sensei and stay loyal to their national organization.

This sort of things seems to happen a lot, doesn't it? And it all seems justified by some weird sense of "loyalty" which is in turn driven by a twisted kind of pride. I don't know ... the best advice I can think of is "Just keep your head down and practice as much as you can ... and when someone tells you you're doing something wrong, believe them whole-heartedly, and try to change it."

Simple. But not easy.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Beppu iaido group

This is the part where I pretend that I'm a fully-integrated member of the iaido group and not a perpetual outsider... (I'm not bitter!)

We had a big turnout the other Sunday, so I made everybody line up while I took a picture. I'm not too pleased with the performance of my camera, but I didn't really adjust the settings very well, so it's my own fault.

Front row (l-r): Yasumatsu Sensei, Azuma Sensei, Kawamura Sensei, Sato Sensei, Nishino-san, Uramoto-san.
Back row (l-r): Kosaka Sensei, Tokumitsu-san, Hirota-san, Naka-san, Yamamura Sensei, Karai-san*, Hamasaki-san, Fujikawa-kun, Yoshimochi Sensei, Ishii Sensei.
*I'm almost certainly not reading that right, but I don't know his real name because everyone calls him Kacchan!

Keep your eye out for Fujikawa-kun. That kid is going to win the All-Japans, starting in about 10 years and continuing for a while, I think. Yoshimochi Sensei is the new soke of Niten Ichi Ryu (in the Gosho-ha scheme of things) and Ishii Sensei is his training partner. Both of them also teach Sekiguchi Ryu.

Here is the team that Oita is sending to the All-Japan's next week. From left to right: Kosaka Sensei (7th dan division) has placed 2nd or 3rd a number of times, but as far as I'm aware, never won. He is currently writing a series of iaido articles for Kendo Nippon magazine. Sato Sensei (8th dan) is the team coach. Kawamura Sensei is one of only 3(?) ZNKR 9th dans in Japan. Nishino-san (6th dan) came in second last year. Uramoto-san (5th dan) is very good, but maybe is going for the first time, I'm not sure. Anyway, I wish the whole team good luck as they've been training really intensely for the last 6 months, at least. I hope they can upset the "expected" outcome and knock out the favourites: hometown heroes Okayama, and the powerhouse team from Chiba that has been dominating the competition for the last couple years. Bring it home, guys!

Jo, Ha, Kyu

At practice the other night, as I was trying to do the first Sekiguchi Ryu technique, Sensei stopped me and said, "In Seitei iai, and in Eishin ryu, you have Jo-Ha-Kyu, but we don't have it in Sekiguchi Ryu. It's just 'Baaaat!' ... once you make the decision to draw, you just draw as fast as you can and cut in one motion."

I found that very interesting. Jo-Ha-Kyu is a fascinating concept, I think. There are a lot of different metaphors people use to describe it. Sensei described it by making the analogy with a waterfall. If you watch a bit of water (a ripple or something) as it travels downriver, it appears to be moving quite slowly and peacefully. It gently crests the edge of the waterfall, and begins accelerating. Your eye follows it naturally, and you're not aware of just how fast it's going until BAM! It hurtles into the mist at the bottom and disappears.

Another description was often given by Kim when I was in Guelph. Imagine you have a large rain barrel, with a hose in a bit of water at the bottom. You turn on the hose, and at first, you can't even be sure whether the water level is rising or not. You come back a bit later, and the water level is closer to the top, and you can definitely see it moving, although still quite slowly. You come back a bit later and the barrel is almost full, and the water level is coming up quickly, so quickly that you can't shut it off in time ... and the water is overflowing everywhere because you misjudged how quickly it was coming up.

I had my own experience of Jo-Ha-Kyu the other day. I have an old umbrella with a few bent vanes. It doesn't open the way it used to when I bought it. You press the button, and nothing seems to happen; you want to give it a shake, but no, very gradually, you realize that it is actually unfolding. But the more it unfolds, the more advantage the springs have on the vanes, and the faster it unfolds! Suddenly, it's really moving and FWAP! it opens with such a snap that you almost drop it, you're so startled.

In comparing ryuha, it's kind of too easy to make categorical statements, so I'll try to avoid them. But Mr. Sakashita was saying that some people, when they see Sekiguchi Ryu, say that it has no "kigurai" or "dignity"; it's too quick and to the point, whereas Eishin ryu is considered a very aesthetically nice, upright, and dignified style. I don't know if that's true, but I do wonder how much Jo-Ha-Kyu is an aesthetic point, and to what extent it might be a "combative" element.

Jo-Ha-Kyu is present in many Japanese traditional arts, such as Noh, calligraphy, and drumming. So it might be easy to dismiss it as simply aesthetics. But considering the metaphors used above, it might also be a way to lull one's opponent into thinking they have more time than they actually do, thereby controlling their timing and possibly suppressing their movements. When I first learned Mae, the mental state was "Don't draw ... don't draw ... don't ... [and at the last possible instant] okay, too late! Cut!"

Sekiguchi ryu seems to take a different approach. I'm not sure I understand it, but it seems closer to: "Wait ... wait ... wait ... Cut!" It isn't so much a suppression of the opponent, as an anticipation and reaction (or perhaps "pre-action" would be a better term).

Anyway, it is a very deep subject, I think, and something I'm looking into more.

Sad news: Yamashita Sensei, 8th dan, of Omuta, Fukuoka, passed away recently at the age of 91. He was Namitome Sensei's iai teacher. He always referred to his iai as "iaijutsu" and in demonstrations, he often did unusual variations of techniques that I have never seen elsewhere. Azuma Sensei told me a bit about him; he was of the "old guard" and was one of the last "bushi" -- people who approached budo with a real warrior spirit. I'm sorry I didn't get to see more of his iai.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Messing Around ...

I spent the last couple hours tinkering around with Pixelmator to make the image below ... the source images aren't very good to start with, and I don't know what I'm doing, and the program seems a bit buggy. For example, it introduced that weird diagonal line into the one photo when I resized it. Also, it's a demo, so there's a watermark I can't get rid of. Anyway, here you go.

I wonder if that diagonal line is an artifact resulting from changing the image size by an improper fraction or something ... anyway, I'm through worrying about it.

Practice has been good this week, although my legs and toes really hurt after trying to do Sekiguchi Ryu on Wednesday. To be honest, I am just hopeful that we will do some Niten, but every week Sensei is pretty insistent on me learning Sekiguchi Ryu. And I'm not really in a position to argue. All the same, I don't know if I will ever get the flexibility (and also the necessary leg strength) to do it properly. As it stands, I'm sort of doing it against my will; I think it's really cool, but I can't do it.

I go up to the dojo with Mr. Sakashita, who lives in Beppu and gives me a ride in his car on Wednesday nights. The trip takes about an hour each way, and so we end up talking about iaido, or Japanese history, or martial arts in general. (Or movies: it seems that Akira Kurosawa's "Ran", one of my all-time favourite films, was shot here in Oita, on Kuju plateau, and a large number of his horse-riding friends were samurai extras! How cool is that??) Unfortunately, since he does most of the talking, I'm not sure whether or not he realizes how poor my Japanese really is, and how much of what he says is lost on me. Occasionally, I'll stop him mid-story, when I've lost the drift of what he's saying, but since I can't say "I have no idea what you're talking about" usually I'll pick the last difficult word he's said, and repeat it in a quizzical voice. Then he'll get out his phone and we'll look up the word in the mini-dictionary, and it will be something like "absolutism" or "fiduciary" which will shed almost no light whatsoever on the subject. Oh well.

Here in Beppu, practice is also going well. For the last long while, the class has been split into two groups. Kawamura Sensei and Sato Sensei take the three who are going to represent Oita in the upcoming All-Japan's (to be held in Okayama in two weeks' time) while Azuma Sensei and Yasumatsu Sensei take the rest of us. Today we focused on number 10 a lot. I'm still not convinced that I'm doing the handle-strike properly; I never used to think too much about it until Tanaka Sensei (in Fukushima) saw me do it once and proceeded to break it down completely; he told me that it must be done like a very solid kote strike in kendo. I could see what he meant when he did it, but I couldn't get it right myself despite doing it over and over again. Since then, I haven't had much confidence, and the kata has kind of gone downhill from there. But today I think I worked out a lot of kinks, although it all still needs to get smoother and more stable.

I think it's interesting how our favourite and least-favourite techniques change over time. I'm not sure why that is, except perhaps that our perspective changes. I hope the techniques themselves don't actually backslide! For example, I used to like number 8, but now I hate it; I hope it hasn't actually gotten worse in the execution but rather that I now recognize some weaknesses that were always there. Meanwhile, I've really come to like Mae, and occasionally do a very satisfying nukitsuke and kiritsuke, although other parts of it are still very bad.

Anyway, my back is killing me today; not just muscle pain, but it seems to be pressure-on-the-nerve kind of pain, and it keeps threatening to go into spasm. I kind of hoped that I was through with that ... this is no doubt my "payback" for having been physically inactive for so long. I will have to make sure to get light exercise every day for the next few weeks until I'm sure I can handle it, and then start jogging and stretching again. Damn.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

One-Legged Cutting

Azuma sensei frequently talks about balance. Last class he had us standing on one leg and cutting. We had to think about why we wobble back and forth, and also why we tended to kick up the foot that we had lifted off the ground at the moment when we cut.

It was really hard to do, and I thought about my friend Ed, who has one leg but does beautiful iaido. The reason he does such nice iai is because he is never off balance. If he goes off balance, he takes a fall. The rest of us, however, can indulge in bad habits where we lean forward, or lean backwards, or bob our heads when we cut. These habits are extremely hard to break because balance is so fundamental that it is hard to change.

So here's a suggestion: lift one leg right up and try cutting a few times. Keep doing it until you can cut without wobbling or moving your lifted leg. Gradually lower your foot until it is almost in contact with the ground. Then, cut and without toppling forward onto that foot, shoot the front foot out. Next, try to step through and recapture the feeling of loading your weight entirely on one foot as you transfer your weight. Now, try and make the whole process natural!

Here's another check. Do ipponme-mae but stop at nukitsuke. Check your posture mentally. Carefully perform furikaburi, and at the jodan position, lift your front leg completely off the ground and cut with your front leg in the air. Could you do it? I couldn't.

One more check: do mae and continue through to kiri-otoshi. Before you do chiburi, imagine that your opponent suddenly cuts for your front foot. Don't block, just step backwards so that your feet resemble the nukitsuke position for Ushiro. Was it easy, or were you so dog-legged that you couldn't stand up easily?