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.


Blogger Frederic Lecut said...

Great Article
Thank you for posting this article
I enjoy your blog.
I am a Frenchman living in Alabama. I practice and teach Iaido (MJER), Kendo, Tai Chi and Yoshukai Karate, and also train in Soto Zen.
I have a blog at

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Ikigai said...

First time visitor, but very impressed by the quality of your posts! The pictures are great and (Speaking of envy) I'm quite jealous of your chance to be there in person! haha.


11:08 AM  
Blogger BP said...

hello again, Bryan here from - fantastic series of posts here. Sorry I missed you at Meiji - I too was torn between the two big events, though I opted only for Meiji. Anyhow, about the third picture, the person on the right is Nishikawa Sensei, person on the left I am ashamed to admit I have forgotten his name. Both are with Matsumura Sensei.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Thanks for the additional info, Bryan. I thought they were probably students of Matsumura Sensei, but didn't want to go out on a limb and say as much.
One more correction: Mr. Shodai, the winner of the kendo tournament, is originally from Kumamoto and now plays for Kanagawa. I presume that he's a police officer.
Matt and Frederic, thanks very much for your comments!

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your friend has a really funny concept of TSKSR.

Obviously, if attacked, a member of the ryu wouldn't respond with a "kata", but instead with a single lightning-fast technique that is incorporated in the TSKSR kata curriculum.

In general, kata are always meant to be trainig tools. You practice correct stances, timing, power, proper speed among many, many other things relevant to the school. They are not strictly "weapons" or "secret combat techniques", although they basically always feature and introduce such things.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's probably Ota sensei with Nishikikawa sensei on MSR photo. Students of Matsumura sensei.

6:26 AM  
Blogger nikiixcandy said...

it's pretty cool.
anyone know of a famous kendo person??
it's for an assignment due today.

thanks!! ☆(≧∀≦)☆

(≧∀≦)☆ nikiixcandy ☆(≧∀≦)

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