….well I passed 6th dan. That was weird.
What can I say about it? I don’t think the actual embu was particularly enlightening for me although once I had come off I realised that if I had failed I knew what I had to work on next. Let’s rewind a couple of weeks….
Two weeks ago I went with some of our dojo members to Ishido Sensei’s Jodo and Iaido seminar in Villingen. These seminars are always a bit more rewarding for higher grades than the big summer seminars as people tend to get a bit more personal attention and I think the Japanese sensei feel less of a need to go through every single basic point. The Jodo was brilliant although anything Jodo-like will have to wait to be included in Shugyo. The iaido was very strict on basic technical points especially, and I can’t stress this enough, footwork. Ishido Sensei pointed out the important aspects of footwork in nearly every kata and made it clear that the majority of us had never done the footwork in some kata ever (except maybe by accident). We had a little taikai during which I finalised with Claudio. After the taikai, Sensei demonstrated the various points during the taikai on which we should have been judging and judged on. Again he made it very clear that there were dozens of technical points which we were missing and it was all too easy to judge on less objective stuff like “not enough zanshin”.
He went on to explain how all of our judging, whether in a taikai or in an exam, should be based on combinations of three manuals:
· The ZNKR seitei technical manual
· The ZNKR rules for judging taikai
· The ZNKR rules for sitting on a grading panel
There is a little bit of overlap between these documents but reading them does help to cement concepts such as chakuso and reiho being extremely important.
On the final half-day Karl Danneker had requested that Ishido Sensei host a high grade seminar for 5th dans and above. For this session Sensei watched us running through Seiteigata and then basically tore strips off of us. For me this was absolutely eye opening as being at the front he pointed out every single footwork error I was making and wouldn’t let up until I had started doing it right. It was surprisingly difficult.
The second half of the session was mainly verbal explanations concerning the necessity of careful observation of the self and others regarding technical points. It finished going slightly tangentially into correct attitude and behaviour (I have to post an article on the seven virtues at some point having done most of the translation work on this). I have to say, I think this session overall was the one with the most clarity I have ever been to. Sensei was very strict and set a very high bar for people to aim to but I really liked what he was saying; observe what the important points are, teach them, identify them in others, identify them in yourself, do something about it, start again….
The week was amazing especially as Harry and I had a few days before the seminar to see some parts of Germany around this area.
On the Wednesday in the dojo following this seminar I tried to do a bit of final scrubbing up of my form especially seitei. I have to say, a short course of ibuprofen can do wonders for sorting out one’s feet and legs. I think I realise now that for some time the joints in my feet and ankles must have been chronically swollen but after about one week of pills every day (200mg seems to be quite enough per day) I discovered a new ability to sit in tatehiza and seiza without pain – this was I should emphasise after I had stopped taking them so it wasn’t that my pain receptors were already dulled. Chris made Harry and me do two embu at the end of the class which I hope went okay, it seemed to.
So a few days later I find myself in Bologna (I don’t mean that spiritually) at the CIK-hosted EKF seminar and grading. The ZNKR had sent a delegation consisting of three 8th dan hanshi’s: Azuma Sensei, Nakano Sensei and Kamikokuryo Sensei (who was among the delegation sent to Andorra last year). Azuma Sensei took the 5th and 6th dan group. As per the usual formula we spent Saturday morning having the seitei points demonstrated to us and some of the essential criteria explained. We then split up into dan groups with Azuma sensei taking the 5th and 6th dans. The session was quite useful if a little slow as Azuma sensei had every point explained for each time we did a kata. Maybe it just felt slow as I was translating along with an Italian kendoka called Leonardo who was doing a fantastic job translating Japanese into Italian.
At the end of the day I asked Claudio to book a few of us a table at a good local restaurant. The few turned into some 16 of us and we had a fantastic time. That evening was absolutely memorable, we all knew each other quite well more or less and it was great to just relax, not talk about budo, eat good food, drink good wine and slap Andrea Setti (who actually seemed to enjoy it – well, Claudio did anyway). I would like to thank everyone who made that evening, it was the pinnacle of…..well a pinnacle of something.
The following day, feeling not much worse for wear we continued the training. This time with a bit more emphasis on grading we did some embu practice and received feedback at the end. There were some interesting questions about timing for the shinsa as in Europe we do not have time limits. Notwithstanding, Luc posed the question what would happen if an individual fell out of step with the others significantly. Azuma Sensei responded that if one person was particularly out of step with the group that it wasn’t particularly “beautiful” – I think we all understood what he meant. Possibly that sort of individual wouldn’t score any particular minus points but at the same time would not get any bonuses either. Luc then asked what would happen if the group were heading way outside of the “five forms in six minutes” format and an individual kept within that time. Azuma Sensei’s response was that it was important to maintain your own inner clock and not end up having your timing dictated by others.
The morning session was over very quickly and everyone scooted off for lunch. Most of the people grading hung around and waited pensively for something to happen. The 6th and 7th dan candidates mooched a bit and then gradually sloped off to get washed and changed into their montsuki's.
We picked up our numbers and most of us had a quick slap through the shiteiwaza which I record here because I am quite prone to forgetting:
1. Free choice (I did Shohatto)
2. Free choice (I did Tozume)
Finally the greatest challenge to the grading commenced - The Waiting. There was only the one grading panel and they had to go through all the grades from shodan through to nanadan, four candidates at a time - and there was a lot of them. During the three of so hours we discovered new and exciting ways to sit and be bored and avoid falling asleep or crying. At one point the excitement was so great that I had to buy a ham sandwich.
Anyway, eventually we were called to line up. I wished everyone in my proximity all the best and then we went on (I was 601 and so luckily in the first group - the oldest in the group had to stand in teito shisei for some 25-30 mins!).
I have to say I don't remember much about the embu. Shohatto seemed to go without too many problems. On Tozume my right foot didn't plant in a secure position on the second cut and I had to scoot it across a bit to remain stable. I did the seitei fairly slowly as I didn't want to cock up on some trivial technical error. I was aware that the whole group were going quite slowly but I thought, what the hell....
It was over and I walked off. I should say at this point that, and I'm not sure about anyone else, I had so far spent this weekend on the mindset that we were all going to fail but we all had to take part in this expression of futility. I still felt the same at this point. As I sat down and watched my colleagues doing their embu I realised that if I had failed I had at least identified what it was I should work on. It was this...
When I had finished I realised that I had no idea if I had done any technical errors or not. I guess I was, as they say, in the zone. I was thinking only about focusing my attack on someone. I was aware that sometimes the cuts landed well but other than that I could have been retrospectively told anything about my performance and I would not have known any different. It was this, this lack of confidence and awareness about its technical correctness, that was missing. I knew that in the next period of training I would have to work on being able to do the kata full-blooded but still be aware of what I was doing.
I watched my colleagues through to the end and I saw some very nice embu. Gradually those that had finished gathered to watch the remaining candidates and then to watch the 7th dans.
Once all the gradings were finished we were called to line up and Azuma Sensei outlined what each grade had to focus on. When it came to the 6th and 7th dan candidates he merely said that he hoped we would continue to train and focus on what he had told us in the last couple of days. That was it. It was announced that the results were now posted a the back of the hall and we gradually sauntered over.
There were two numbers, mine and Stefano's from Italy. I had passed. I couldn't believe that none of the others had passed though and I am still unsure to this day what the differences were between us.
Anyway, it's probably time to finish this post. I want to say though that it was a genuine honour to train and compete with such excellent budoka in the fifth dan group and I am sure that soon they will be with me in the 6th dan group. All of these people, despite any competitive rivalry that others try to impose on the relationships between us, are my friends, first and foremost.