Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Book To Check Out...

My friend Keith Vargo has just had a book published. Based on other writings of his that I have seen, it is definitely on my "To Buy" list. I recommend everyone else check it out and support martial arts publishers.

It has a great cover, too, by the way!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Meiji Shrine Demos and All-Japan Kendo

Culture day in Japan means 2 things to me - the Kobudo demonstration at the Meiji Shrine, and the All-Japan Kendo Tournament at the Nippon Budokan. They are held on the same day, and so I have (for the past few times that I've been living in or around Tokyo, anyway) gone to the Meiji Shrine in the morning, and then gone off to the Budokan to catch the third round and onwards of the kendo, in the afternoon.

As I am a weakling and a horrible budoka (don't all jump to my defense at once, it's true) I slept in on Sunday morning, so after my 90-minute train ride, I didn't get to the Meiji Shrine until about mid-morning. As usual, a large section of the shrine lawn had been roped off, and was surrounded by people (about 50% foreigners, it seemed) with huge zoom-lens cameras and camcorders, busily recording the action. In fact, the whole area had so many cameras, it was hard to move without getting in the way of somebody's zoom lens.

I felt pretty inadequate with my little point-and-shoot, but I got a few pictures anyway, some of which (of course) are better than others.

This is the Muhi Muteki Ryu, famous for their very interesting bojutsu. Interesting stuff; they seem to take a lot of difficult kamae. For me, the most interesting thing is seeing how the ma-ai differs between jojutsu and bojutsu.

How cute is that? This is a demonstration of Kurama Ryu. I didn't get a program (it may only be for participants, I'm not sure) so I couldn't verify whether the demonstrators are father and daughter, but I'd like to think so.

Shindo Muso Ryu jojutsu. I have no idea who these gentlemen are, unfortunately.

Kyoso Shigetoshi, son of Otake Risuke, demonstrates the iai forms of Katori Shinto Ryu. I was happy that I didn't miss the demonstration this year as I have in the past.

The naginata of Katori Shinto Ryu. A friend of mine doesn't like TSKSR because he believes that the kata are too long to be of any practical use, but I've always enjoyed watching their demonstrations, because they are always done to a very high level of technical excellence.

Even I was able to get a couple nice photos. This one surprised me because I didn't think that I could get such a high shutter speed on such a gray day and with such a high level of zoom. But it looks pretty crisp! That chunk of tatami seems to be floating there in mid-air. Nice cut by this fellow from Toyama Ryu.

There are always some really weird, inscrutable koryu on display. This is Shin Muso Hayashizaki Ryu, and the kata all seem to feature someone with an immense no-dachi (extra long "field sword" - why anyone would wear this indoors is beyond me) sitting down very, very close to someone else with a strange, chopped-down katana. I say "chopped down" because the blade is short and stubby but the tsuka is normal length. It doesn't have the proportions of a wakizashi or standard short sword. They sit down so close that the tsuka of the no-dachi is poking right in the face of the other fellow, who (understandably) gets offended and tries to cut the other guy. It's all very strange.

Which kind of brings me to my next point. Why do we (foreigners in particular) care so much about the koryu, especially when we don't even practice them, or in many cases, even want to practice them? When the pair above were doing their demonstration, dozens of cameras (representing scores of thousands of dollars in camera equipment) were zoomed in on them. I know I'm a hypocrite, because I was there too, doing the same thing, but I couldn't escape the feeling that this was an absolutely pointless exercise. We're like butterfly collectors, I think, trying to get pictures of that rare and elusive species that we've never seen before. The weirder the better! Boring old karate doesn't excite anybody's interest, but hey! Guys with huge swords doing impractical waza badly, that's fascinating. I don't get it...

Anyway, the time was getting on, and so I headed off to the Budokan. As a member of the "press" I get embarrassingly good seats for the most prestigious kendo event in Japan.

I was sitting down right beside those tables reserved for the judges. In the far left of the photo, to the left of the number 2, you can see the NHK television cameras, pointing directly at where I was sitting. Which explains why many of my students who do kendo came up to me later in the week and said, "Did you know that you were on TV?" I tried to tell them I was a judge, but they wouldn't believe me.

It was a great event. I always start thinking about getting back into kendo when I see it, especially at such a high level. This year's finals were the most interesting in the last few years. Teramoto, last year's winner and many people's favourite for the title this year, was deposed in the quarter-finals, I think. The eventual winner was Shodai, a jodan fighter from Osaka. His strikes from Jodan were so quick that, between my slow trigger finger and the shutter lag on my camera, I couldn't ever time a shot. I kept getting him coming up off the rebound.

The nice thing about kendo, in my mind, is that it's kind of a professional sport (there are certainly police and teachers at sport universities who are paid to play kendo) but basically, even at the highest level tournament in the country, little kids can come up and get autographs. And the players sit on the floor to write them. And they seem kind of embarrassed by all the attention.

After the tournament, a bunch of people went out for drinks afterwards, which was a lot of fun. Some people were kind of incredulous that I don't practice kendo. "What the heck are you doing here?"

The next day I went to talk to a doctor about my knee and the ongoing pain I've been having. I actually haven't done iaido in about 3 months because the pain has been pretty bad, on and off. Just when I think it's getting better, it comes back for no apparent reason. Anyway, a brief consultation and a few x-rays later, it seems that I have osteoarthritis, probably a result of being overweight and doing iaido for 17 years. It's not a good prognosis, because there's no cure and it tends to just get worse as you get older, but ... well, there are things I can do (like losing weight) to keep it under control. And, maybe this is blind optimism but ... I am hopeful that treatments will get better in the future. Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, they will be able to give you an injection of stem cells or something, and you'll start growing new cartilage.

This last weekend, I went to an exhibition of the recent works of Tenmyouya Hisashi. He does a weird blend of pop illustration, graffiti art, and classical Japanese drawing. He calls his work "New Japanese Art" or Shin-Nihonga. His stuff is amazingly cool and staggeringly good from a technical standpoint. But (paranoid foreigner that I am) I couldn't help wondering if he is right-wing, politically. A lot of his stuff is about "The Spirit of Japan" and I can't tell if it's being ironic or not. Anyway, speaking of irony, I initially saw this illustration on the web and laughed out loud:

But actually it's part of a series of beautifully drawn ink paintings done to illustrate daily articles in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The rest of the pictures are completely serious, and in fact resonate with a kind of gravity that is hard to describe. Taken together, they seem like visions from a dream whose meaning is inscrutable. So I viewed this drawing completely differently in context with all the other pictures in the series. As a scribbler myself (it's hard to call myself an artist in comparison to him) I was very envious of his technique and skill.

In connection with all this (envying the artist his skill; envying the All-Japan kendoka their skill; being impressed by the level of the All-Japan iaido tournament, etc.) I have been trying to bear in mind something Miyamoto Musashi wrote (as quoted from Colin Watkin's page):

Sozen to wa soto gawa kara mieru: Means, "When I look at people I am disturbed by them and am envious."

That happens to me more often than I'd care to divulge, so I've been really trying to take it to heart lately.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

All-Japan Iaido in Sendai

The good folks at Kendo World needed somebody to go up to Sendai to cover the 43rd All-Japan Iaido Tournament, so I bravely volunteered! It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. It was scheduled for Saturday, so I headed out of Tokyo after work on Friday night by Shinkansen, and got into Sendai in time to enjoy a late dinner of beef tongue, the local specialty up there. The folks in the bar were extremely friendly, and I was reminded (again) how nice people are once you get away from Tokyo. (Not to put Tokyo people down but they are, shall we say, accustomed to foreigners.)

I got to the gym in plenty of time but there was some kind of miscommunication, so I was led around to the wrong place, and then left to sit for a while, and then made to wait a little bit more, by which time the opening ceremonies had begun, and the guy in charge (i.e., the guy who was supposed to know I was coming and give me the thumbs-up) was busy; finally, they just felt sorry for me and told me I had carte-blanche and to go ahead and film whatever I wanted.

Unfortunately, by that time all the best seats were taken. Everybody in the front rows had already set up their video cameras and were busily recording the action. (What happens to these scores of video tapes? Are they traded on some kind of underground network of iaido enthusiasts?) Resigning myself to having a crappy angle, I settled in and set up the camera.

I was under instructions to film the finals, at the very least, but I had 4 hours of battery life and a couple one-hour tapes, so I indulged myself with a few "practice runs" and filmed some of the preliminary rounds when I knew one of the competitors. The team from Oita consisted of Kosaka Sensei (7th dan; has won 6th dan twice and come in 2nd or 3rd quite a few times; has gotten 2nd at the 7th dan level but never won) and Nishino Sensei (6th dan; has gotten 2nd or 3rd at the 5th dan level a few times, and done well at the 6th dan level, but never won) and a new member, Oishi-san (5th dan, 31 years old). In the end, Kosaka Sensei and Nishino Sensei were eliminated fairly early on, and it was Oishi-san who got the furthest, making it to the best 8.

As the day wore on, people left their seats, and I jumped into the vacancies, gradually moving closer and closer to the action. Eventually, with the words of my editor Alex Bennett ringing in my ears ("Jeff, just be ruthless and get in there, mate!") I ducked under the cordon and into the area reserved for the ZNKR cameramen, and just filmed from there. I figured that, since I was "Press" it was okay, and in fact, there were already some sneaky buggers in there before me anyway! So, in the end, I got some good angles.

In between filming, I wandered around and said Hi to a lot (but not all) of the teachers I have had the chance to train with over here. It was a great opportunity to shmooze. I was disappointed, though, that I couldn't seem to find some people whom I had expected would be there. Their names were in the program, but maybe they couldn't make it after all.

I also got a chance to speak briefly with Kawamura-san, the Kendo Nippon photographer who put out the fantastic "Iaido" photo collection in the early 90's. I told him I was a huge fan of his work (he seemed surprised by that) and I asked if he had any plans for an "Iaido 2". He said he had no plans; the original had been a labour of love that was actually very, very difficult to put together and to publish, and which lost money. He also said that many of the people in the original book had since passed away (definitely true; I would say about 80% of the people in there are now deceased) and that not enough time had passed to fill a new book with a whole new generation of iaido masters. I'm not sure about that.

Anyway, it was a great day and a great event. I was, as usual, just blown away by the caliber of the iaido on display, but at the same time, kind of sad (in a way) that the judging standards have become so narrow that everyone is doing basically the same kind of iai. There doesn't seem to be any room for "individual variation" as such. I remember Yokoyama sensei (MJER from Kochi, I think) telling us that we all had to do our own style of iai, in a way that suits our physical stature and our personality. I'm not sure if there's room for that in modern iaido; or if there is, it won't win you any tournaments. Which is fine, I guess. Everyone can enjoy skating, for example, but not everyone is going to make it to the Olympics.

Now, regarding my little "theory" ... well, first of all, Miyagi prefecture (the host prefecture) won the team competition as well as first place in the "prestige event", the 7th dan division. Sasaki sensei, who won for Miyagi, has done well in the past though, so it was certainly no stretch to imagine him winning first place.

There are probably a few reasons why the home team regularly wins. I'd like to keep an open mind about the whole thing, but here's what I imagine:

1) Judges have a (probably unspoken) understanding that, whenever it comes down to a close decision, they will favour the home team. And let's face it, at this level, it always comes down to a close decision.

2) The home team knows at least 2 or 3 years in advance that they will be hosting the event, so they train LIKE MADMEN and rise to the occasion. (I've seen how hard the Oita group trained for events in other prefectures, so I can imagine how hard the host team trains.)

3) Knowing that they are favoured gives the home team a certain confidence; we all know that iaido is a highly mental/spiritual discipline, so that confidence extends to their technique and gives them an intangible edge.

Having said that, here are the results from the past few tournaments as printed in the back of the program.

Tournament, Location, Winning Team

43 Miyagi Miyagi
42 Okayama Okayama
41 Hokkaido Chiba (2nd: Hokkaido)
40 Chiba Chiba
39 Miyazaki Miyazaki
38 Saitama Saitama
37 Osaka Osaka
36 Yamanashi Yamanashi
35 Oita Oita
34 Yamagata Yamagata
33 Hiroshima Hiroshima
32 Kagoshima Kagoshima
31 Ishikawa Tokyo (2nd: Kanagawa, 3rd: Ishikawa)
30 Kumamoto Kumamoto

And so it goes. But what's more telling is what teams have finished in the top 3 the most times. Since the 30th (I'm lazy and not willing to go back farther than that) we have:

Kanagawa - 8 times
Chiba - 5 times
Tokyo, Oita - 4 times each
Saitama - 3 times
Hokkaido, Fukuoka - 2 times each

And now, some photos.

Nishino Sensei competes in the 6th dan division, showing his commendable form.

Inoue Sensei taught me during the time I was living up in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima. Here he is in the 6th dan tournament.

Mitani Sensei from Kochi is, of course, one of the most respected MJER teachers in Japan.

Azuma Sensei from Oita (left) and Tanno Sensei from Fukushima (right). Both men have won the 8th-dan Hakone tournament. Tanno Sensei seems to have injured the fingers on his right hand, but I didn't get a chance to speak to him or find out what happened.

"If only I had a better sword I'd be out there competing right now..."
That was certainly what I was thinking when viewing all these swords on display. Alas, they had nothing in a 2-point-7.

There are videos and (hopefully) a full report up at Kendo World. Have I mentioned that you should subscribe, too?