Monday, March 15, 2010

Samurai Spirit - Iaido & Kendo

In case you haven't seen these, YouTube has a number of episodes of "Samurai Spirit" talking about iaido and kendo. Although there are some obvious criticisms that could be made about the show, I think it's overall a great series. They actually find and speak with people who hold high ranks in real organizations (unlike some other documentaries I've seen where they interview somebody no-one's ever heard of, who's getting arrows fired at him in an abandoned factory, expecting us to believe that this is how normal training is conducted in Japan).

The iaido series contains an all-too-brief interview with Trevor Jones Sensei (7dan). Mainly though, it focuses on Kishimoto Chihiro Sensei (8dan hanshi) who is the chairman or head of the Iaido division of the All-Japan Kendo Federation. In other words, they went straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak, which is refreshing. Here's the first of 5 parts on YouTube.

The kendo episode is also very good, if a bit silly at times. (Why was he surprised that he didn't know what to do when facing an experienced, highly skilled kendo player, while doing kendo for the first time in his life? I suppose it is to drive home the point that kendo is much, much more difficult than it looks, even for someone experienced in other martial arts.) This episode features a very good interview with Alex Bennett (6dan) who is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Kendo World magazine. (Go on, get a subscription...!) The main Sensei they interview is Niibori Sensei (8dan hanshi) who is also one of the most respected kendo teachers in Japan. It is worth pointing out that, every year at the 8th-dan kendo gradings, fewer than 1% of all the hopefuls make it through to hachidan, and not all of these will ever be awarded the title of hanshi.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

22nd International Seminar of Budo Culture

This annual event was held once again at the Nippon Budokan's Training Center in Katsuura, Chiba from March 5 - 8th. Over 100 people, from something like 33 countries, came to hear lectures on budo, to socialize and discuss martial arts, and to train in Judo, Kendo, Karate, Aikdo, Naginata, Shorinji-Kempo, Sumo, and Jukendo.
The seminar began on Friday afternoon with an excellent lecture on the commonalities between Zen and Budo, given by Thomas Kirchner, a monk at Tenryu-ji in Kyoto, and an associate researcher at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism at Kyoto's Hanazono University. One of his main points is that Zen and Budo could be complementary arts, because some of the points learned in Zen are more easily or more quickly learned in Budo, and vice versa. He believes that there could be a benefit in studying both, and cited a few famous "Zen Budoka" like Yamaoka Tesshu. He also mentioned his experience with Kyudo, and the impression he received from his Kyudo teacher.

Saturday and Sunday both began with lectures in the morning. One very interesting talk was about "Women in Budo". Despite some objections to the contrary, I think this is a topic that everybody should be interested in, but particularly anybody who's part of a minority group, including "Foreigners Doing Budo in Japan".

We heard a good talk from the Soke of Togun Ryu kenjutsu, who is also a historian and writer. He talked about "Yamato-gokoro" (the Japanese Heart) and how this is a good alternative to "Bushido", which was basically a fabricated and idealized code that never actually existed.

In the afternoon we had sessions allowing us to "Experience a New Budo". This is a chance to get an introduction to a martial art you don't usually practice, and in some cases is very "accelerated". For example, if you join a Kyudo club, you don't even get to handle a bow in the beginning, but progress from working on your stance with an imaginary bow, moving on to using a rubber strap, and then firing an arrow into a target only a few feet away. Finally, after an extended time (in the old days, it sometimes took years) you graduated to firing an arrow at the full distance. We, however, were able to try a few shots within 15 minutes, with one-to-one instruction. Similarly, in kendo one usually trains basics for a number of months before putting on the armour, but we got into the armour almost immediately, and had a bash. I also tried jukendo (bayonet) which is very interesting, but is waning in popularity and now practiced almost exclusively by military personnel.
After the "Experience a New Budo" sessions, there were practical training sessions where you get the opportunity to practice with top-notch Sensei in your own martial art. Unfortunately, neither iaido or jodo are represented, so I got to go sit in a hot bath and relax! Poor me.
Dinners were provided by the Training Center, and after dinner, almost everyone stayed around to chat and drink until the wee hours of the morning. This seems to be a part of Budo culture: it doesn't matter how much you drink the night before, the real test comes the next morning. If you can still get up and train, (assuming of course that you're not still inebriated) then you didn't drink too much. Doing budo with a splitting headache and upset stomach is a form of endurance training, right?

Monday was the final day, and every year the headmaster of a Koryu group is invited to give a lecture about his or her style. This year, Nemoto Soke of Katsushin-ryu Jujutsu came along with some of his top students. They demonstrated a number of kata, and then allowed us to try 5 or 6 of the techniques, with hands-on instruction. It was fascinating stuff. I had seen Katsushin-ryu demonstrated at the Kobudo Taikai this year, so it was really cool to be able to see (even superficially) how it works. Watching a demo, it struck me as a bit slow and perhaps ineffective, but I quickly changed my mind when I found myself on the receiving end.
The best part of the seminar, as usual, is that you get to meet and talk with martial artists from different arts, from different countries, with different experiences in Japan, but you always find some common ground. Drinking and laughing together, you really do get the feeling that budo is not a way to fight, but a way to bring people together.

Size has its drawbacks

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big guy, but in the arts I do, this is a drawback. In iai, being big just means that your movements are not going to be as sharp, or as quick, as a smaller person's. There also seems to be "more room for error". If I'm leaning forward 5 degrees when I should be standing straight, it's a little bit more noticeable on me than on somebody who is much smaller. That can make the difference between winning and losing in a Taikai.
The other thing is that being large means it's much more tiring. My muscles and joints receive a lot more wear and tear. I can't practice as long before I get tired, and in the long-term, I'm damaging my knees.
In jo, being large means that I can muscle people around, and get away with having techniques that only utilize, say, 60% of my available power. The other day, I had one of those wonderful/terrible practices where somebody noticed I was doing something strange, and decided to try and help me fix it. This time, it was hikiotoshi-uchi. I've learned a few different ways to do this strike. (Well, saying "learned" sounds like I actually mastered them - let's say I've been told a few different ways to do it.) My strike is okay, and usually knocks my partner's sword out of the way reasonably well, but it's got a lot of problems, too. If I had actually mastered any of these ways, I think nobody would have an issue with my technique, but the problem is that I am reaching in 3 or 4 different ways at once, and that doesn't really work.
One of the upper-level students was working with me, and had me do the strike repeatedly. "Don't bend forward." 8 or 9 repetitions. "Keep your left hand over here." 10 or 12 repetitions. "Twist your foot." 7 or 8 repetitions. "Your timing's off." "Tip of the jo should be over here." "More vertical." "Strike deeper."
By this time, my technique had been dismantled and was falling apart. Sensei walked by and asked "What the hell are you DOING?" (I'm paraphrasing.) I actually had no idea. Sensei gave me a few more pointers (contradicting some of the things the senior student had told me - this is Budo, after all!) and although I did get a few really nice, smooth, powerful strikes in there, I was left feeling like, "I have no idea what I'm doing anymore - I'd better practice harder!"
And that's a great thing. Not every class, but once in a while, we need to have somebody come and really shake us up.