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Firstly I would like to say that all of the material contained within this blog is of my own opinion and any inaccuracies in technical content or other's personal quotations are completely my own.

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7th dan iaido grading due in

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Passing Jodo 6th Dan

Well, I guess the title gives away the content of this posting then. Let’s leap straight to the finale, I passed my 6th dan Jodo examination a couple of Sundays back at the European Jodo Championships in Brussels along with my partner Harry and one other candidate, Chantal from France. The seminar was led by three Japanese sensei:
-          Tominaga Sensei, Hanshi 8th dan
-          Kurogo Sensei, Hanshi 8th dan
-          Arai Sensei, Kyoshi 8th dan
It was a fairly interesting seminar for me as I had already been to three previous main seminars with 8th dans at them and so to see how each explained the latest emphases was going to be insightful.
As I haven’t really detailed my Jodo training what with my Iaido 6th dan taking centre stage for so long I ought to outline what I have done during 2012 to push my Jodo further:

Villingen Seminar
We had two and a half days with Ishido Sensei, assisted by Hayashi Sensei, in Villingen this year. I now find these smaller seminars far more beneficial than the larger summer events as there are fewer people that attend (just) and they generally have a higher distribution of grades in attendance. To request, Ishido Sensei spent the first half day holding a senior session with the 5th dans and above to cement the important points for seitei. I will summarise what the majority of these are later.

Harry and I had one week in Kawasaki regularly training with Ishido Sensei. This only allowed us one evening’s training with the Shinbukan students and very little feedback. I did however try to identify what the students their exhibited as part of their Jodo and I guess I would have to say that it was to do with effortlessness. Soft and efficient technique seems to be mainstay of the training and one didn’t feel like they were being intimidated when they trained. Everyone focussed on improving themselves and not at the expense of their partner. We also had the fortune of attending the 30th Kanagawa Ken Taikai and the 1st Commemorative Yano Sensei taikai which was extremely enjoyable and has been detailed in another post. 

Eindhoven Seminar
Ishido Sensei once again insisted on a total of a five-day seminar rather than the six and this worked out quite nicely. I had a good opportunity to train with Janet Griffiths as well who was about to go to Japan to try her 6th dan (which she passed – well done Jan!). Shoji Sensei, Miyagi-ken’s new 8th dan took a large part of the seminar and went over the salient points of what was considered important to the ZNKR Jodobu. As well as doing lots of training with Harry I had some opportunity to also do some nice training with Margherita from Italy, Catja from Switzerland (sorry for the bad spelling all) and many others. This enforced training with people one hasn’t trained with before is extremely useful and insightful. 

British Kendo Association Summer Seminar
Otake Sensei, kyoshi 8th dan from Kanagawa led the seminar this year. I have to say right now that he is one of my favourite Jodo teachers. He is the perennial student and an absolute technician. His enthusiasm and studiousness is infectious and you get to feel like he shares everything he knows. One never feels ashamed to ask him any question regardless how stupid and he is generally always able to answer. On the last day he gave the “soon to be grading” group a run for their money and put them through the mincer – very useful it was too.

And so back to Brussels. I tried my best to participate although I was nursing a very sore back and neck that had locked up in the last couple of days (from lying on my sofa of all things). We did a bit of tandoku dosa on the first afternoon followed by a quick run through the salient points of Seiteigata. The referees seminar consisted merely of practice and going through the 3-man team procedure.

The next day was the taikai starting with the team event. It is wonderful to see how the various participating countries have moved up to similar levels as everyone else nowadays. There are no foregone conclusions and the veteran countries of the earlier years are constantly stressed into doing their utmost best to beat relatively newer countries which have no leaders above 4th or 5th dan.

I was delighted to see the UK team come second to the host country, Belgium, and I am sure it was a close thing. The team was led by Aurelien Nacrour (Taisho), with Daniel Silk as Chuken and Jo Hirst as Senpo.
The individuals took up the afternoon and after a long wait the 5th dan division started. Both Harry and I won our individual pools which meant we wouldn’t meet before the final…and then surprise,  we both made it through to the final. As the finals were run at the end of the day, Harry chose Catja as her uchidachi and I chose Aurelien. The fight took place and I was unfortunately aware that I was using a little bit too much strength in the final strikes as I am apt to do in finals. The flags went up and Harry won 2-1. I looked at Aurelien and we both grinned like cats. This was the first time Harry had won a European Jodo Taikai (she had previously only won a bronze and that was in a taikai with only about 3 people). I was so delighted with her. I had lost and yet somehow I had also won. I can say with all honesty that this was the best result to me. I had won lots of taikai before and the feeling of elation was fleeting, lasting only about 5 seconds as one is walking off. For Harry though I am sure this was a big thing and so it was a big thing for me too…just before our 6th dan exam too!

We had a bit of time in the afternoon to practice before the grading as we were doing the okuridashi system. This meant:
1.       Harry tachi’d me.
2.       I tachi’d Chantal.
3.       Chantal tachi’d Len.
4.       Len tachi’d Harry.
Poor Harry, she had to stay on the longest before it was her time to do the jo. After the 6th dan candidates I tachi’d for Chris Buxton who was the sole 7th dan candidate. Funnily enough I was feeling much better about that embu than my own.

My thanks to George Valkov for recording our taikai as well as our gradings.

The results went up. Harry, Chantal and I had passed and so had Chris Buxton! The dojo went a bit mad. It was fantastic. Chris has been trying on and off for 7th Jodo since around 2003 (I think Papendal was his first try). Although I train a lot with Chris and helped him prepare for 7th dan I think this is the first or second time only that I had tachi’d him for his grading so it was a great honour for me to see him pass; I don’t mean that with conceit, I am sincerely pleased that he passed and know that he did it on his own steam.

Fay Goodman also passed 5th dan which was great to see as she has also been going to European seminars this past couple of years to get extra training at Ishido Sensei’s seminars. 

And so, menjo’s were awarded, tears were shed (i.e. the menjo registration fee was over 100 Euros!) and thanks were given. 

Where to go with this? I haven’t yet decided what I want the 6th dan to mean for me and how I want to recreate myself with this. I have done it with my Iaido 6th dan but I’m not sure about my Jodo. I certainly want to be more consistent in my Jodo and I want the catches in Kuritsuke, Kurihanashi and Taiatari to be more reliable. I realise that Rai Uchi has its own very unique challenge regarding sharp timing but other than that I don’t feel an Achilles Heel in my seitei  jodo – that’s not to say of course that they couldn’t all be improved, I’m just reflecting that most people have a least favourite seitei iaido form, I don’t have the same thing for Jodo.

Key Findings
I don’t want to pretend to have reached some form of enlightenment from this experience, just as I have with the rest of the Shugyo blog, I merely want to reflect and share some of the things I have learned along the way. I guess for Jodo, the majority of the key points are very general and don’t refer to any particular grade; the quality and quantity with which one applies these points though of course becomes more critical as one progresses up the grades.
In no particular order:

  • Ma-ai (distance)
Ishido Sensei stressed this as being a factor not considered strongly enough amongst the European students on more than one occasion this year.  In particular, Seiteigata has very strict definitions of what the distance is between Shi and Uchi through every point of the kata. How this is created is important as well as how it is then further utilised, for example:
-          With two-step cutting distances it is important that the Uchidachi doesn’t lift the sword on the first step but waits until the second step is well underway before lifting and cutting.
-          With one-step cutting distances, the lifting of the sword and cutting commences almost simultaneously and should be executed without delay (or without sukima – opening).
At these one-step cutting distances it is important to check that neither side should be able to hit each other without moving. However, if they are too far away then they are not in issoku-ittou-no-maai  (one-step cutting distance) therefore the approach should bring the Uchidachi right up to the very danger limit. Both sides should sense a danger within this proximity akin to standing on the very edge of a cliff. Without this critical sense of danger there is no longer any point in the Uchidachi stopping as they do in Seitei – this is the very meaning of the pause – to exude, exhibit and sense this danger zone.
There are two other factors of distance which are important in Seiteigata, those being Chijimeru and Nobasu which respectively mean “to shorten” and “to lengthen”. More than is realised, these two actions happen in nearly every kata but they are more easily identified in Katas 3 and 12, Hissage and Ran Ai.
In Hissage, from the initial awase distance, the action of the Shijo as the Uchidachi moves into Jodan Kamae is to lengthen (nobasu) the distance between them thus creating a brief pause during which the Uchidachi has to recalculate and re-establish their distance.  While the word “Hissage” means to carry in one’s hands, I believe that the name is a play on words as the individual characters that make up the name mean to “draw back” which is the ultimate action of the Shijo at the aforementioned point.
In Ran Ai, after the initial encounter from which the Uchidachi draws the sword up and back and the Shijo steps back to hikiotoshi, the next action of the Shijo is to suddenly and drastically shorten (chijimeru) the distance thus forcing the Uchidachi to arrest their forward movement and make a shorter cut. Again this sudden change of distance along with the action of seme causes the Uchidachi to pause briefly in jodan kamae allowing the Shijo to execute their next technique (the outside kuritsuke).
The importance and the effect of these two actions are often overlooked as the exponent focusses on what to do with the stick rather than considering what to do with their feet.
  • Ma (timing)
It would be inappropriate for me to say at my level that I have a consistent understanding of what overall the timing of the katas should be. I am certain that the individual levels of the exponents, the kind of training they are doing and their individual physical criteria and feeling all play a part in dictating the katas timing. Certainly at 6th dan level it was clearly expressed to us that clear and steady timing of the katas was important rather than focussing on speed.
The aspect of timing which I have learned is a) of utmost importance and b) often overlooked is: timing with regard to one’s opponent. We have often been told of late that as individuals we are doing the techniques very well but we are not doing them in accordance to what the opponent is doing. Kuritsuke is a good example: moving too late is generally unheard of but moving too early provides the Uchidachi an opportunity to change directions and cut to where the Shijo is moving to.
The Japanese term is “aite o ishiki suru” that is “to be aware of one’s opponent”. This doesn’t of course merely realise that they are there and thundering towards you but that you are actively and carefully monitoring their position and movement. Ultimately in Jodo, the timing of the Shijo’s movements are, and I don’t like to use this word, dictated by the timing of the Uchidachi. The reason why I don’t like to use this word is that it can be wrongfully equated to mean that the Uchidachi controls the Shijo’s timing – I don’t mean this. The subtle nuance I mean to communicate is that the Shijo’s timing is dependent on various aspects of the Uchidachi’s timing….I think I might have laboured this point a lot now.
On the side of the Uchidachi there are equally important factors to consider. In a two-step cut, revealing ones intention by lifting the sword too early leaves an easy opening for the Shijo to evade or counterattack. The timing should be set to the very limit of unexpectedness just like the distance mentioned before. The term “giri giri made” is often used to describe both timing and distance and means “to the very edge” or “to the very last moment”.
Furthermore, it should be considered that in long katas the general rhythm of the form is dictated by the Uchidachi and it is important that one’s form does not become too “busy”. This is best understood through an example in either Kasumi, Midare Dome or Ran Ai when the Uchidachi has to step back into hasso kamae to make a new attack. Without the tiniest brief pause or change of pace it looks like the Uchidachi has pre-empted the next attack and hasn’t taken the time to check distance and the availability of the target. While physically stopping (“tome”) is not advanced Jodo, a moment of re-establishing one’s position and accumulating intent (“tame”) provides a good tempo to the form. My own teacher does this very well, on receiving, for example, a Tai Atari he moves back regaining his balance and for just a split second he is at a two-step cutting distance to the Shijo during which a split-second decision is made and he returns for the next cut. It is very perturbing for the Shijo.
  • Ashi Sabaki (footwork)
It’s very strange and I’m sure most people don’t notice it but if one were to measure the amount of time that the average 8th dan spends explaining and demonstrating footwork compared to how much time they spend on the action of the stick itself I am sure the proportions would be around 5:1 in favour of footwork. Yet, we spend so much time worrying about and correcting the jo and taikai shinpan strain their eyes to look to make sure the jo has landed in the right place……
The Seitei manual makes it very clear about the correct positioning of the feet and how they relate to the angle of the hips and thereby the shoulders and upper body. There are only a few foot positions but they have to be clearly distinguished and correctly executed. Blurring one to another is out as is moving outside of the carefully described limits on angles and weight distribution.
Of much interest of late was a teaching from Otake Sensei who emphasised that in Yaya Hanmi (for honte no kamae for example) that the weight in the rear foot should be distributed to the ball of the foot so that the rear heel can ever so slightly be lifted from the floor (and by that I mean by about 1mm). Furthermore, when moving forwards from a static position, the distribution of weight should be so that 55-60% of the weight is on the front foot. Just like Seitei iai as well, rotation of the feet is best done on the balls of the feet and not the heels. The effect of this is that as the hips turn the weight doesn’t sink down as it can tend to do when rotating on the heels.

  • Dai-Kyo-Soku-Kei  (large, strong, fast, smooth)
This covers a multitude of technical points really but I guess with regard to the Jo it has the following relevance:
-          When striking actions are made they should be delivered with a feeling of largeness. This has the effect of relaxing key muscles and allowing the functional ones to work unhindered. The effect on the jo is that strikes are made with a smooth arc and accelerate through their movement while maintaining a good level of accuracy.
-          When thrusting actions are made they should be delivered with a smooth acceleration thus ensuring that the leg and body movement plays an integral part of the thrust instead of merely providing a firm base from which only the arms are used.
-          When catches are made (kuritsuke, kurihanashi, taiatari) the body should be relaxed in the preparatory movement so that the jo remains fixed to the body and should only be lifted as the body gets into its evaded position.
-          The power of strikes and thrusts should be primarily generated from the lower body; the upper body is merely an instrument through which this power is transmitted.

  • Shisei (posture)
I realise that in the west, posture is often translated into “kamae” but I want to draw a difference between understanding the technical points of each stances of readiness and what I think is a slightly different aspect which is the beauty of correct and refined posture.
Firstly, being able to clearly define one kamae from another is a key point of Jodo, it is very easy to blend them especially as there exist small margins of allowable difference in each kamae. What one should aim for though is the action of making a visible change from one kamae to another rather than it being too fuzzy. Once one is able to make the changes clear then the next stage of course is to make these transactions smooth and in the right time with regards to the opponent.
Returning back to the “beauty” of shisei, the posture should reflect what one should be feeling inside i.e. alertness, flexibility, mobility and with a certain tension.  In general, the lower body contains all the strength that the body needs and should support the upper body which should thereby be relaxed and able to produce large expressive movements.
I could of course spend an entire post devoted to what is said about shisei but I think I should leave this for now.
So, now having written all this out, I am waiting in an airport lounge at 5:30am after another seminar in Poland, this time led by Murakami Sensei and I have a whole raft of other points to work on and describe in time. Anyway, enough for now….