Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thoughts on Viewing Martial Arts

I've been to a few events with a large number of very, very talented martial artists demonstrating. For example, I've been to the All-Japan Iaido tournament a few times, the All-Japan Kendo championships half a dozen times maybe, as well as the All-Japan Jodo tournament twice. I've been to a few kobudo demonstrations with hundreds of representatives of various koryu bujutsu groups performing over the course of a full day.

These events are definitely not the best place to view martial arts. The performers are unquestionably top-notch. The problem is that you get numb to what you're seeing. I've never been to the Louvre Museum, or the Prado, or the Rijksmueum, but I've heard that the sheer number of masterpieces on display eventually makes you breeze past paintings in a second or two that, were they displayed on their own, you might otherwise spend hours trying to take in.

I was having these kinds of thoughts last year, after going to the All-Japan Iaido tournament followed by an extensive koryu bujutsu demonstration in the same month. A few weeks later, I went to a public exhibition of a large national calligraphy contest.

Viewed singly, the works of art were breathtaking. A single, powerful word written by a shodo master could be analogous to a single iaido kata performed by a hachidan hanshi.

A series of kanji, part of a single, unified work of art and written by one hand, might be analogous to a demonstration of a set of kata from the same school, performed by a master of that school. The characteristic flavour of the school, as well as the individual performing it, comes across clearly and leaves a strong impression on the viewer.

Seeing a number of works of art at the same time, it is evident that they are slightly different, but it begins to become difficult to appreciate how they are different, or which is better, and why.

After viewing more and more demonstrations, you begin to feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. One performer ... or one work ... is starting to blur into the next.

You might even start to lose interest - even if you are deeply fascinated by your own study of martial arts (or calligraphy, or painting, or photography...)

And so it got me thinking about focusing on one work ... or focusing on an expert performance of a single kata. You begin to evaluate things on a more technical level. How did he or she make this movement? How did this sense of pressure or power occur at this instant? Why is the sword stopping here, and not there?

As you look closer, details begin to emerge.

Looking even closer, more details emerge. The almost "fractal" nature of the kata - the sense that there is no end to the level to which you can analyze the parts - becomes almost overwhelming.

Looking too closely, you lose your perspective and the work starts to lose the overall meaning it had before.

Step back and look from a position where you can see the whole, as well as the details, and you may be struck again by the beauty of this one-time event - captured on paper, on video, or in your memory.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Jodo Slip'n'Slide

It was very hot at practice last night and, because I am not only a natural sweater (in general) but have particularly sweaty hands and feet, it was tough. Just moving around on the floor without slipping was hard. If I tried to move powerfully forward, my back foot would slip out on me, so I was forced to take tiny little steps. Sensei kept telling me, "Bigger! Step in powerfully!" and I kept mumbling about having sweaty feet. I could tell that he wasn't getting it. If you have dry to normal feet, then it is hard to understand, I suppose.

The other thing that was happening is that I could barely hold onto my jo. Obviously, this makes a lot of things really difficult. For example, dō-barai (a defensive movement where you swing the jo sideways to block a disemboweling stroke) is hard to do quickly. Because I knew I was going to be slow with it, I was beginning the movement too soon. Sensei kept telling me, "You're blocking before the strike has even started! That makes no sense! You've got to wait..." so I'd wait, and then I wouldn't be able to get the jo over to block in time. "You're too slow! You're letting him cut you! Faster!" I just couldn't win.

Having a wet jo and sweaty hands did have one unexpected benefit, though. Sensei is always talking about how you can only really put power in the jo when you slide your hands. The ability to slide your hands is the jo side's "secret weapon". Well, my hands were certainly very, very slippy-slidy last night. It was almost all I could do NOT to bash the tachi out of my partner's hands when I did hikiotoshi. As long as my angle was good, the jo went through the tachi as if it wasn't even there and my partner's tachi went into the floor, or into his foot, or behind him, wherever I wanted it to go. It was kind of fun ... except that I almost lost my grip on my jo every time.

What does this mean for all of you with normal sweat levels? You might want to try a few hikiotoshi strikes using a single glove or mitten. Choose one made of cotton, wool, or fleece that will enable your hand to slide easily on a dry jo. Then carefully (!) do some hikiotoshi strikes and see if the increased slide helps you put power into your strike. I would say don't deliberately try to put a lot of power into your strike, but just see what happens when your hand slides easily down the jo. Be careful because if your glove is very slippery, you may not have enough friction to easily apply the "brakes" at the end of the strike. Then take off the glove and see if you are able to relax your grip enough to allow a good slide. If anybody tries this, I'd like to hear how it worked out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Winning in Jodo

I have written about this before - the idea of "winning" in Jodo. Of course the jo side always "wins", but it is possible for either the jo side or the bokuto side to really win without changing the outcome of the kata. On the bokuto side, for example, if you have to slow your strike down because the jo side wasn't ready yet, then you actually won. Or if you know that the jo side did an ineffectual hikiotoshi, or an ineffectual block that you could have brushed aside easily, then you have won. Or whenever you overpower your opponent mentally ... your kiai throws him off balance so that his finishing strike is wobbly and unimpressive ... then you won.

There is a guy in the dojo whom I'll call Mr. K. He's very intense when he practices, but it's okay because he is also very precise. He can stop and go on a dime, and so it's very unlikely that he's going to hurt anybody, even though he's practicing full tilt. I get the feeling that a lot of people don't like practicing with him. He's intimidating, and I understand that. But at the same time, I think there are too many people waltzing through jodo practices. At the end of the day, jodo is a martial art, and your goal is to overpower or neutralize your opponent and then symbolically "kill" him -- or at least put the jo between his eyes and let him know: "I can keep this up all day, but you're going to lose. So quit while you're ahead."

The problem is that, while you're learning, you get in the mindset where you think, "Okay, this foot ahead of that foot, now strike, now step back..." and you keep thinking of yourself as a "learner". Learners have no right challenging their teachers, right? (This might be a bigger problem in Japan than overseas...) And so I often see people who have carried this mindset well into their "mid-level" practice. They are 3rd or 4th dan, and they can perform the movements with accuracy, but they have no intensity.

In the west, I get the feeling that intensity is perhaps over-rated. People are really into doing things with a lot of power ... smashing, bashing ... but they are maybe doing some things with bad form and unfortunately that intensity just solidifies their bad habits all the more quickly. I think that was my problem sometimes, at least.

So what's better: to practice with intensity, or keep it light? When I practice with people who are really, really good, I am always amazed that they can turn it on and off at will. They are continually switching between hard and soft. Push them, and it's like pushing smoke. But then the jo is right back between your eyes before you know what's happening. They block you ever so lightly - the jo doesn't even touch your fingers, somehow - but then you're slammed down hard into a kuritsuke. As soon as that happens, the pressure lets up and you're free to back away, only to feel yourself cringing because you feel a crippling suigetsu thrust coming on ... here it comes like a freight train, but it miraculously stops with a light tap on your solar plexus. Next it's an immense overhead strike and there's no way it's going to stop anywhere less than three inches deep in your forebrain ... but it does, and it's gone, leaving you wondering why you are almost falling over backwards.

That's what I'm striving for! I might never get there, but it's just cool to know that some people have that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Famous Japanese Swords: "Meibutsu Token"

Thanks to Unka Kim and his Bloggie Thingie, I found out about a major sword show happening now (until September 25th) at the Nezu Art Museum in Omotesando, Tokyo. I had nothing better to do today, so I dropped by the exhibition. Since a lot of you budo bums are also sword-o-philes, I thought I might share.

Omotesando is one of my least favorite places in Tokyo, because it is one of the homes of the high fashion retailers like Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton ... and the people who patronize these places. And also the people who wish they could patronize these places. Everyone seems to be strutting around in oversized sunglasses, trying to pretend like they are famous people who are trying not to be recognized. The place always seems to be full of pallid, scowling, impossibly tall and thin European girls, too. Models or just wannabes? Who knows.

The museum itself is kind of nice, and you walk past a nice little garden and down a striking exterior pathway, lined by bamboo (living on one side, dry on the other).

No photography was allowed inside the gallery. 50 swords were on exhibit, a number which includes 3 National Treasures, 22 Important Cultural Properties, and 3 Important Art Objects. 12 of the blades were made by that most well-known sword smith, Masamune.

The sword which impressed me most and struck me as awesomely, fiercely beautiful was a monster by Bishu Osafune Kanemitsu, made in 1358, in the Nambokucho period. Swords of this period were often very large and this sword is no exception. Everything about it - the curvature, the kissaki, the hamon - speak of barely contained power. It really is something that would strike awe into the heart of anyone who saw it, I think - especially in the hands of an enemy. It does not surprise me to read that Kanemitsu, possibly a student of Masamune, was considered to have created some of the sharpest blades ever made.

Another fantastic blade was by Mitsutada, founder of the Osafune school. It was said to have been treasured by Oda Nobunaga, who was notoriously fond of swords.

I spent the afternoon drooling over swords, squinting at kanji, bobbing my head around trying to catch the reflection from nie and nioi ... just generally in awe of these venerable (but still somehow new-looking) objects of death and destruction. But is that fair to say? Most of these swords, if not all, were treasured status symbols and closely-guarded possessions of wealthy daimyo, custom ordered and presented as gifts from one to the other.

With that idea floating around in my head, I stopped for a quick photograph of the Prada building in Omotesando. Hard to deny that it is a beautiful building; the very essence of luxury. So the samurai had their silks and swords; today's movers and shakers have their suits and sportscars. Nothing ever changes, I suppose... we all like shiny, sparkly things!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Quick Note With No Content

Hi! I am back in Tokyo after a few weeks in Canada. One of things I did while I was home was to talk to my friends and teachers from my old iaido/jodo club. This always gets me excited to practice more, which will in turn, I hope, generate more posts on here. I am looking forward to getting back into updating this Blog more often. Thanks for your patience.