I have a bad habit of missing gradings for one reason or another. So when I heard that I might actually be able to take this one in Beppu, I maintained an edge of suspicion that something would go wrong along the way to scupper my chances. But I was determined to do everything correctly. I applied well in advance, while I was still in Tokyo, and paid my grading fees by postal money order. Since it was only an additional thousand yen (about ten bucks) I also decided to join the Oita prefectural iaido tournament on the same day as the grading.
While I was in Tokyo from February to April, I was determined to train hard in iaido. The dojo I was going to certainly fit that bill, with a very intensive two hour practice a few times a week. Unfortunately, they stopped practicing (for spring break, I guess) about a week after I first got there. So basically, I spent my whole time in Tokyo - two months - doing no iaido practice. Lots of jodo, but no iaido.
When I got back to Oita, I contacted my teacher and was hopeful that we would have lots of chances to go over my problem points, and fix them before the grading. Sadly, he informed me that, due to various iaido events around the country, there would be no practice before the grading. "You're going to have to go in cold," he said. "Good luck."
Awesome! Meanwhile, I was informed that, through some administrative mistake, I had been quoted the wrong amount for my grading fees. There was still 6000 yen outstanding; could I pay it immediately please? As it turned out, I couldn't; I was absolutely broke. And then, to add insult to injury, my phone was cut off (non-payment of my bill) so I couldn't even contact anyone to tell them why I hadn't paid.
So, I showed up at the dojo having not practiced (with a sensei, anyway) for about 3 months, and without knowing whether or not I would actually be allowed to take my grading!
To make a long story short, I talked to some people, and they sent me to talk to some other people, and around and around; I pulled the "I'm a confused gaijin, help me" face as much as I could reasonably get away with, and finally we agreed that I could pay the outstanding fees when I got paid. So I would be able to grade.
Watching everybody warm up and get ready, I started to get really nervous. Then, we all assembled for the speeches. More nervous. Then, we were put into our testing order, and told to stay there. More nervous! And sore, because we were expected to sit there for an entire hour while we waited for all the lower ranks to do their gradings. After an hour, they still hadn't gotten to us, and some of the sensei doubtlessly had to go to the bathroom, so they told us we could take a break. By that point, I could barely walk, but I did my best to stretch my legs and try to restore some power to my aching muscles. Unfortunately, my muscles seemed to be capable of only two modes: complete relaxation, and shaking uncontrollably. My feet, too, were intent on cramping constantly. If you've never had a foot cramp, it feels like somebody is reaching into your foot with a pair of pliers and tying the metatarsals into a knot.
Meanwhile, I was getting flak about the way I was dressed. I had gone for my black tetron iaido top that morning, only to find it was liberally coated in sweaty salt stains. I thought that would never do, so I opted for my blue quilted jodo top. At least it was halfways clean! When I got there, however, I was chided and told that I really should wear a black top. Hmph. In addition, I was wearing my tabi (split-toed socks). The soles of my feet sweat so much that it is like trying to do iai on a floor that has just been wet mopped. It has gotten to the point where I simply cannot do iai without tabi. (This is in spite of using a special sweat-stopping chemical spray that is "Guaranteed to work." It doesn't work.) Normally, wearing the tabi isn't a big deal, but I was told at least 3 times to take them off, and then when I politely explained, 3 different sensei took me up for a consultation with some other, higher-ranked sensei on the grading panel, who then consented that I could wear them if I wanted. Phew. Now I was feeling really self-confident.
Finally, it was my time to go. I did my techniques (koryu mae, then numbers 2, 6, 10, and 11). I didn't feel very powerful at all, but I didn't stumble or miss noto or anything cringe-worthy. After the grading, a number of beaming old-timers came up to me and said, "Great! Who's your teacher? Oh, that figures. And by the way, you dropped your tip. Be careful!" I was left feeling like I must have passed.
The grading committee conferred for a while, and then announced that they were posting the results. Those people who passed the technical test could continue and write the paper test. My number was on the list of those who passed! All right! (If you're curious, out of 50 candidates between 1st and 5th dan, there were about 5 failures.)
The paper test is just a formality, as everyone knows the questions and correct answers in advance. It's just a question of remembering the kanji for all those obscure iai-related terms. I had been cramming for days, so I knew the paper test inside and out, but I could see most of the younger Japanese kids writing "air kanji" on the palms of their hands, as they often do when they are trying to remember how to write something. This seems to confirm the recent hysteria that older Japanese have about how the younger generation can't write kanji anymore, thanks to computers. (Speaking of which, have you looked at a Western kid's handwriting recently? Good God!)
So anyway, I passed the test, and I was really quite pleased with myself. Lots of "congratulations" and "you must be tired after all your hard work" were going around in every direction on the gym floor.
Now it was time for lunch, after which the tournament would begin. I wandered down to the staging area, not particularly wanting to compete at all by this point. I was physically and mentally drained after being absolutely on edge for about 3 hours straight. I looked for my name in the 5th dan category; sure enough, they had left my name out! Yippeee! I thought that, because I hadn't paid all my fees up, that they hadn't entered me in the tournament. A stroke of good luck, I thought ... until I realized that we were all to compete in our "previous" grade, even if we had just passed the dan test. In other words, I was still in the 4th dan category, and yes, there was my name on the other sheet of paper. Damnit.
I wandered around and took a sneak peak at my first-round competitor. He didn't look so tough; I knew I could beat him. It then remained to see who my second round competitor would be. Well, no point in going too far with this tale of my stupidity and over-confidence. I lost in the first round, 2 flags to 1.
I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but when, as a spectator, I watched my opponent in the next round, I saw that he was really, really good. Definitely better than me in terms of anything that counts in a competition: footwork, posture, precision, etc. I don't think he was really cutting much more than air, but I've discovered that, in a tournament situation, being a little conservative and staying in control is way better than going all out and being a bit out of control.
He ended up finishing second (I really thought he should have won the division) so I felt a little better. In any case, I likely wouldn't have finished in the top 4, but at least it made me feel a bit better about getting elminated so quickly. If ya gotta lose, ya might as well lose to the best.
After the tournament, I had lots of people come up and offer me helpful (and unsolicited) advice, even though I wasn't really in the most receptive mood for corrections at that point. But basically, I was dropping my tip consistently, my upper body was swaying a lot, and I need to extend more because I look much smaller than people who are physically smaller than me. Argh, the large man's burden! I envy little 5-footers when it comes to iaido. There's just so much less that can go wrong with their techniques! They're more stable, their swords are lighter ... higher strength-to-weight ratio ... (I'm making excuses, I know.)
So anyway, I left the gym feeling a lot of mixed emotions. Happy and relieved because I passed, but sad because probably, I just barely passed. I know I was doing a lot of things wrong, anyway. Now I just have to work on them and iron them out. They are all things I've been getting corrected on forever. Why I can't I fix these damn bad habits? Why do I keep doing the same bad and/or negligent stuff? And does anybody else see a connection here between iaido and their "real life"? ("Why can't I lose weight? Why do I keep fighting with my wife/friend/family about the same stupid issues? Why do I always react the same way when somebody mentions [fill in the blank]?") If you can become conscious of a bad habit in iaido, and by force of will, change it ... well, then you can do the same thing in your life, right? Self improvement, people! Self improvement! It's all starting to make sense to me.