Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Few Photos

I was looking through my phone at some of the more-or-less random things I've taken pictures of, probably thinking at the time, "Oh, I must put this up on my Blog" but never got around to posting. Here are a few of those pictures:

As I think I mentioned before, there is a bit of an ongoing "Sengoku Jidai" boom in Japan at the moment. There is a bar in Shinjuku which is decorated with kamon everywhere and suits of armour in the lobby. Sadly, the service was pretty poor, the food was unimpressive, and the decor was cheesy. That's what you get for going to a gimmick restaurant. (Although, apparently there is a restaurant called "Ninja" where the staff dress up like ninja [?] and they supposedly have very good - and very pricey - food.)

I was in the National Museum a while back, and did a no-no by stealing a shot of this calligraphy, which I was really fond of. It says "Dragon" and "Tiger" and was apparently written by Emperor So-and-So ... yes, my memory is like a steel trap!

I also like to take pictures of Daruma paintings when I can. You often see him in restaurants; I honestly wonder if Japanese people know who he is. Here are a few I saw recently:

This last one, on a curtain outside a little bar somewhere, is probably my favourite of the few I've taken, although I am still partial to Musashi's Daruma:

I was at an exhibition of treasures of the Hosokawa family, and they were selling reproductions of this scroll ... they were a bit pricey, so I didn't buy anything (which I kind of regret now)...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spoiled by Choice

Too much choice is not always a good thing.

Living in Tokyo, I have a lot of choices of martial arts to practice. If you live in a small town somewhere, and wish you could find even one good dojo near enough to your home to commute to regularly, I feel your pain. I grew up in a small town too. And having too MUCH choice is definitely preferable to having too LITTLE. But it brings its own problems.

When I lived in Oita, I dabbled in Sekiguchi ryu iai. Then I moved to Tokyo (through no choice of my own, unfortunately) and thought, "I ought to continue practicing Sekiguchi ryu - even if it's with another group." I located another group, somewhat far from my place, students of another teacher. In the end though, I realized that this would only end up being bad news. Separate koryu groups, I've found, like to lecture you not only on how everything you're doing is technically wrong, but also on how your teacher is a bad person, and how you were wrong for ever learning from him in the first place. Not a good scene.

Shortly after I moved to my current apartment, I saw a YouTube video (I linked to it in a previous post) on kendo, part of a series called "Samurai Spirit". In the video, the host pays a visit to a revered Kendo 8-dan hanshi. It turns out that this dojo is not far from where I live. I thought to myself, "Wow, what a great opportunity! I should definitely take up kendo again and practice with this great teacher!"

Well, I never did quite get around to it, but with that thought rolling around in my head, I did a search for kendo dojo in my area. It turns out there is a good dojo right up the street from me. "Wow, what a great opportunity! So close to my apartment, and everything!"

The only problem was that I already have an iai practice that conflicts with a jodo practice, and if I went to every scheduled practice for just iaido and jodo, I'd be practicing about 5 days a week. I usually make it to about 3 practices a week. Do I really need to add kendo to the mix? To go to kendo, I would need to skip an iai or jodo practice. I would probably end up going to each art once a week - is it possible to make progress at that rate?

A bit later, I was at a Tokyo iaido event, when I saw a Sensei doing Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (my style of iai) and wearing a nametag that said "Toshima ward". I checked on the internet, and his dojo is in Ikebukuro, close to where I live, and right where I work. "Wow, what a great opportunity!" But do I really need 3 iai dojo? This would just create more conflict. Going to 2 different dojo is bad enough; iai teachers don't like sharing students.

I was actually heading to iai practice a few weeks ago when I spotted a man and woman walking with sword bags over their shoulders, the same as I was carrying. "Are you doing iai?" I asked them. The man was very cagey and clearly didn't want to tell me anything. He answered with unhelpful, one-word answers as much as he could. Eventually, the woman informed me that they were doing Shinkage Ryu at the local community center. "Wow, what a great opportunity!" I thought. Another koryu to practice, within 10 minutes' walk from my place! But do I really need another koryu, especially one that clearly has some people who don't want me there?

I was looking in a book on koryu recently, and discovered that the Soke of one of the branches of Araki ryu lives near where I work every Saturday. I had seen his demonstration at the Budokan, and been very impressed. "Wow, what a great opportunity! I should call him and see if I can practice!" As if I need another koryu, particularly one that deals with a number of different weapons.

Next, I was at an iaido event and met a guy from the US who has been in Japan for quite some time. He mentioned that he also did kenjutsu; I asked what ryuha. He said that he does Niten Ichi Ryu with a Sensei up in Saitama, not far from where I work. "I have done Niten Ichi Ryu too! Wow, what a great opportunity!" Well, you get the picture.

I think we are just programmed to think, "The more martial arts, the better!" There is a saying in Japan about chasing 2 rabbits at the same time. The punchline is that you'll end up catching neither of them. While I think it's possible to practice 2 martial arts, I think 3 is really pushing it. 3 is possible for some people who are especially dedicated or for "professional" martial artists, i.e., teachers who basically do nothing but practice budo all day, every day. For most of us, 2 is more than enough.

And yet there's always the attraction of the unknown; something new. Surely that new and exotic martial art contains all the secrets that my current martial art doesn't have; surely that new teacher will tell me everything my current teacher isn't giving me. If I could just learn one more martial art, that would fill in all the gaps and make me the ultimate martial artist! Ooh, if I could just learn that really rare koryu, then I could go back home and be really, really special.

It's all an illusion. I need to focus on the practices I've already got scheduled, and just GO to them instead of coming up with reasons why I should be looking for something else.

Friday, July 23, 2010


At Jodo keiko the other day, I was practicing with one of the senior students. He is an extremely kind and considerate guy, but when it comes to practice, he is pretty intense.
Some jodo groups are quite "friendly" (meaning they seem to take into account the fact that different people have different goals when it comes to martial arts) whereas other groups are more traditional - if you don't bring 100% intensity to practice, then maybe jodo isn't for you. I think our dojo is mid-range, although a bit towards the "friendly" end. This senior student used to practice at a dojo that was further towards the "traditional" end, and he brings a severity to practice that is good, I think.
I hadn't seen him at practice for a few weeks. I guess he had been busy with work, and it seemed like he was trying to make up for lost time. His movements were very sharp, fast, and strong. We were practicing Ran-Ai at the time, and I was on the tachi side. I had just been kuritsuke-ed when one of the Sensei, who was watching from the sidelines, called out, "Jeff, your hands are wrong!" I looked over at the Sensei, to try and get more information about what I was doing wrong. But my partner didn't slow down. Instead, he attacked me with more vigor.
"Don't take your eyes off your partner!" he growled. I barely blocked his strike, and stumbled backwards, off-balance. "Ignore what's going on in the dojo!" He attacked again, pulling his strike at the last possible instant in a way that let me know that he could have brained me but chose not to. "That's how people end up getting HURT!" Attack, block, counter-attack, avoid. He was getting more intense as we went along. I had recovered a bit of balance and realized with full clarity that he was totally right, and that by momentarily taking my attention off of him, I was doing him a terrible disservice as my practice partner.
The kata continued to the end. The jo side threatens the tachi side with a large strike. I barely avoided this by tucking my arm under my chin, and jumped back as the tip of the jo whipped past my face. He waited with his jo low, inviting a head-strike. I cut down, and he bashed the bokuto to the side so firmly that I almost lost my hold on it. Then, he finished the kata by hitting me in the suigetsu, harder, I think, than I have ever been hit before.
I had been thoroughly beaten up, but he was totally right. When we practice with our betters, not only are we at their mercy, but we are asking them to teach us. We owe it to them to give them our full attention and respect.
We returned to our starting positions. "Again!" We went through the kata again. It is a long kata (for jodo) and by the end I was panting. "Again!" We ended up doing the kata about 5 times, and I was only saved when the top Sensei said, "Alright everybody, let's take a break. Or else Jeff is going to die, I think."
I bowed deeply to my partner. He was panting and sweating profusely, too. He smiled and said, "Good practice. Remember, don't ever let your attention wander when you're practicing. This is Budo." I think I learned my lesson.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tokyo Judging Seminar

I was told by Sensei, in no uncertain terms, that I had better attend a particular iaido seminar. The purpose of the seminar was for 4th- and 5th-dans to get experience acting as judges, and to get acquainted with all the intricacies of sitting, standing, holding flags, passing said flags, furling and unfurling the flags, bowing, and so forth. It sounded like a riot, so I said I would be happy to go. Especially as she had just told me that I had to.

She was so keen on the idea of me going that she asked somebody in the dojo (I still have no idea who, exactly) to write an e-mail to me in English (someone in the dojo speaks English??) explaining all the details. I was flabbergasted. And touched.

For once, everything was crystal clear. I took the necessary day off work. I got to the venue with plenty of time, with all the necessary stuff. When I went up to the reception desk to register, there was my name and everything. This was probably a first for me!

The seminar itself was, uh, well, how can I put this? Awful. Abysmal. Agony. (And that's just the A's...) First off, it was about 33 degrees inside the gym, and extremely humid. Second of all, we had to take turns demonstrating, while our peers acted as judges. With my slippery, sweaty feet, it was humiliating - like doing iai on a Slip'n'Slide.

Like this, but with swords.

Third, judging wasn't much better. I had been paying keen attention to what the instructors were telling us, but to not much avail. Ever seen this Far Side cartoon before?

Well, what I heard from the judges was: "blah blah blah FLAGS blah blah blah IMPORTANT blah blah blah DON'T blah blah blah YOU MUST blah blah FLAGS blah blah blah ..." This was accompanied by some not-very-illustrative flicks of a flag here and there.

Anyway, I did my best and stumbled through it, although I was hampered by this handicap I have called "Common Sense". For example, while acting as part of a 3-person judging team, we all stood behind our chairs for a moment behind the table, looking very impressive. The head judge gave a quiet signal that we should sit (it should all be in unison, obviously). There wasn't enough room between my chair and the other judge's chair, so I used COMMON SENSE and went the other way, and sat down. I was quickly (like, in about 0.3 milliseconds, almost as if someone had been waiting for me to make a mistake) corrected that I must sit down in my chair from the left side, i.e., in counterclockwise fashion. Oh, right. Silly me. Had this been a real grading or tournament, the whole thing would've been ruined!

The one thing I did take away was that flags can be dangerous. I was so intent on raising my flag with the correct judge-ly deportment and decisiveness, that when the head judge stood and yelled "Hantei" my left arm shot up and ... pretty much stabbed her in the face with my flag. Oops! Be careful to deploy the flag slightly to the REAR of the adjacent judge, not directly sideways, as that can be painful.

In the afternoon, we went through ZNKR iai, focusing on some of the fine details that we need to look for when judging others. I wanted to explain that I was awesome at judging others; it was just my own techniques that suck. And suck they did. Hard. I'm sure everyone else was shaking their head thinking, "This guy is 5th dan? Wow, they really make it easy for foreigners..."

Again, these fine details we were learning were pretty ... um, fine. Apparently the ZNKR handbook uses three slightly different verb tenses for the word meaning "to put your hands on the tsuka": kake, kakete, and kakeru. If I could tell you the difference between these tenses, I wouldn't have been inwardly screaming "What is going on here???" at the top of my mental lungs. Sensei spent about 20 minutes explaining, in depth, the differences between kake, kakete, and kakeru as it relates to different techniques. Eventually, he took a break. After the break, he came back and announced, "Okay, we figured it out. This is kake, this is kakete, and this is kakeru" while showing us the hand position for each. Imagine that - showing is sometimes more effective than telling! (Sorry, I know that not everybody is a teacher by profession...)




Feet and Knees

I haven't written in a long time. My apologies. I've been busy with work; I haven't actually been practicing all that much; I've been kind of depressed.

I've always had a couple of problems when it came to iaido (and to a lesser extent, jodo). The first problem is with my knees. I'm a big guy, and I don't have particularly strong legs, and that usually translates to bad knees. I have gone through bad periods before, but they always cleared up with a bit of rest. For the last couple of months, I have been in a cycle that looks like this:

-do a normal evening iai practice; feel more-or-less fine during, and immediately after
-start feeling pain in my knee as I'm getting home or going to bed
-wake up in the morning unable to bend my knee more than about 90 degrees with excruciating pain
-take half a week or so off iai (i.e., skip a practice or two)
-go back to practice and do only standing techniques; do this for maybe 2 practices
-by the 3rd practice back, my knee is feeling okay, so try doing techniques from seiza ...
(return to start)

Only recently, the "unable to bend my knee" period is getting longer and longer.

The other problem that I have is sweaty feet. I've gone on about this before, but I want to explain the extent of this problem. The other day I was at a seminar (I will perhaps write about this in another post) and I was demonstrating in front of a number of people. First of all, it was hot as blazes, so I was sweating to begin with. But the foot- and hand-perspiration is also closely linked to nervousness, so since I was demonstrating, as well as worried about my slippery, sweaty feet, the sweat was coming even faster. I was standing (still can't sit in seiza right now) and I was preparing to start Kata #6. This kata starts by stepping forward with the right foot. I couldn't even do that - as I shifted my weight forward, my left foot "squirted" backwards and I stayed in the same place. I couldn't even walk, let alone do iai! Suffice it to say that I managed to baby-step my way through the technique, although my turns were ... I don't know how to describe them. Imagine how you would do #6 if you were standing on a mixture of snow and ice. Some places have traction, other places are a bit slippery, and other places are completely devoid of useful friction. It was miserable.

As much as this picture disgusts you, it disgusts me more.

I have asked in the past if I can wear leather-soled tabi. Sometimes people are easygoing and say, "Sure, do whatever you want" and other times, people have a stick up their butt about it. "It's not part of the official uniform" they say. "Well, can you make an exception?" "Why should we make an exception for you?" "Well, I have really sweaty feet..." "Yeah, lots of people have sweaty feet. You just have to learn to deal with it, like they do." At one of the dojo I go to, I was told by the Sensei that I couldn't wear them because, if I wore them, it would just become a crutch for me, and I wouldn't be able to practice without them. Well, bad news: it's already a crutch for me.

This picture must be Photoshop or something.

There is an operation you can undergo to stop excessive sweating, where they snip a nerve where it branches off from your spinal cord. It's called a thorascopic sympathectomy, and possible side-effects include damage to the lungs, as well as the chance of a lazy eyelid and impaired vision. Oh yeah, not to mention the small risk of death that accompanies every surgery performed under general anaesthetic. And something vaguely referred to as "devastating side effects." Yippee! Sounds awesome.

That's right - I would look EXACTLY like this.

All of this could be avoided if I were just allowed, for the sake of my own safety and those around me, to wear tabi. Oh, did I mention that lots and lots of 8-dans wear tabi all the time? Why? Oh, you know, because they are a bit chilly. Dojo floors are really cold, haven't you noticed?