And so begins the shugyo blog on my road preparing for iaido 7th Dan. Why now, I hear you ask along with the other voices in my head, some telling me to put my toaster in the fridge at 3:27 every day. Well I am currently writing this while in Japan for a week training with Ishido Sensei (and today, on Sunday, with Yoshimura Sensei) and this short period of intense training makes a clear mark of my starting my prepatory training.
To be honest the last year or so I have been quite lazy with my own training. We now have quite a full dojo with a perfect number of students and each iai class generally has two or three levels in it. For about a year now I have been pushing our guys to learn Shinden Ryu from scratch and I have tried to ensure that everyone understands the basic form of every kata in accordance with Ishido Sensei 's teaching. We are now working through Okuden Tachiwaza, it has been quite a slog (I don't know how they put up with me). There is also a section of the dojo preparing for their forthcoming grading so there is also a focus on Seitei at the same time. We also have a relative beginner or two so each class requires quite a bit of supervision especially given the limited space available. This requires a lot of sacrifice for all of our dojo's highest grades.
I have been busy helping the training in Poland as well along with a few other fine teachers. Watching the Polish guys develop has been a rewarding study in itself if not a highly challenging one. They have done extremely well at a European level and every time they win something I have to think hard about how to up my coaching to be useful to their ever ascending level.
So the result of this circa 18 months of teaching is a pretty improvement in what my eyes can see but my body is knackered...
Now I have to train to be able to do what I teach, to walk the talk and other overused clichés. And this is why I am now in Japan by myself. The last few days I would have to say has been a glorious learning experience, both for my technical knowledge, my knees and my ability to creatively use sticking plasters. I arrived last Wednesday so I had a bit of time to settle in before the evening Jodo practise. I spent all of Thursday daytime training in the dojo by myself as Sensei slowly drove me through the harder parts of Shoden and Chuden (the latter of which I can't remember experiencing any easy parts). It was during the Chuden part that Sensei introduced me to the concept of Ohyo (応用). It turned out that I had trained this aspect before but didn't realise exactly the concept I was focusing on.
Ohyo means "application". It is quite different to Riai which means the logic of the form. It is probably best to understand it via the way it is used in training. More so in koryu one learns the basic or kihon of a form. In this part of the training, moves are often exaggerated and constructed in a way that makes the performance of the form as physically challenging as possible. By this I don't mean that it would require huge amounts of dexterity, rather it requires the most physical movement aiming for the smallest targets. As one progresses it becomes necessary to practically apply the form. In order to do this effectively and efficiently, certain compromises should be made to the basic form. This might include things like only using the hands to maximise sayabiki where in the kihon the hips might have been used. Moreover small variations in the application in the form are studied. This might include variations in the distance and position of the enemy, what the enemy is doing, variations in timing etc. I should point out here that this is different to the well known concept of kaewaza (variations of the form). One could be concentrating on the most basic and orthodox version of a form but through training in Ohyo one learns how to practically and skillfully apply the technique.
I can't explain much more about Ohyo without visual references but suffice to say that Chuden has quite a lot of opportunities to train Ohyo (especially Ukigumo, Oroshi and Iwanami). After a day of this I started to realise that knees rely on muscles around them...
On Friday I had the morning and afternoon session with Sensei by himself again although as he was busy he ran me through the Okuden Suwariwaza and the points he wanted me to focus on. Again the difference between the Kihon and the Ohyo came up. The Okuden forms are quite short and simple at first glance but it is the Ohyo of the forms which presents the challenge. Again I should emphasis that this is also different to the kotsu (secret or knack) of the form. Ohyo is a way to put the kotsu into practice as an application. Of particular difficulty is the Ohyo of Towaki which I discovered by sticking the point of my new iaito into my forearm. At this point I realised the importance of carrying a tenugui in one's keikogi as an impressive spray of blood went across the floor. One plaster and a box of tissues later I was back into practise with no one the wiser (probably including me who is sure to do this again some day). During these sessions I worked up to Towaki only and then went back to my hotel for a welcome break.
Not satisfied with torturing myself in the day only I then accompanied Sensei to the class he leads in Tsurumi. It was a nice big dojo, very warm with a good floor. Sensei let me alone to train a while and I was happy to do some Seitei practise. I was getting very tired by now and only had enough energy to go through the forms quite limply. At one point I started Mae, extremely relaxed and slow and then found the sword whipping out into nukitsuke. "Ah, that was good" said Sensei as he passed by. He recognised the softness being turned into sharpness and he described to me the feeling that this should have. He said, imagine sitting in a very hot bath where you don't want to move around or create waves of hotter water which would hurt. Instead you move very smothly and slowly as if not creating any turbulence. I repeated this and became aware of the effort put into my legs but how relaxed my arms were. It was much easier to track the positions of my hands while doing it this way. I will need to check with Sensei but I am guessing that with tactility is what initiates and amplifies Jo-Ha-Kyu.
Anyway I managed to get through this evening training without stabbing myself through the head so we went back to the dojo for the Friday night training. It was a nice class with only Aurelian, Jane and Morishima Sensei. Watching him reminded me of how keeping a low and deep posture creates core body tension which develops power. After training he told me that I should worry less about techniques and focus on the heart of the delivery. By this he said, he meant that one must focus on the enemy, which should of course be oneself (should be easy to beat in my case), and it should be visually evident to anyone watching that you have utterly killed your opponent by the way the form is performed. I understand pretty much what he means but it is difficult for me to agree that my technique is anywhere near good enough. This week had so far been a lesson in a) how much I still had to learn and b) how unfit my body was to do the forms well.
Anyway I finally got home after midnight from one of the longest training days I had ever had. I have to say it was one of the most enlightening. Certainly my tourniquet skills have improved considerably.
Saturday was open training day in the dojo so I went along in the morning to do some Seitei training with a little revisit of Towaki in the afternoon. Sensei got Inari San to demonstrate Towaki from Eishin Ryu and she showed beautifully how to maintain movement as per the Ohyo of the form. After a tour-de-force of standing Ukenagashi we left (and went for dinner and drinks with Yoshimura Sensei and Otake Sensei).
So now I sit here at the airport finishing this off. I had all day Monday and Tuesday morning at the dojo working through koryu forms again. On Monday, Ski Journal journalists turned up to photo Sensei and get some more details for the koryu articles which are being published from his resource. I helped with the photos for Kabezoi so maybe my fifteen seconds of fame are not far away. Actually he showed a lot of detail around footwork and application for the standing forms so I was very glad to be present and record some of this stuff. It especially made Moniri a lot easier to understand. Of special interest was the explanation that the form is performed realising the possibility of an overhead obstruction; it wasn’t necessarily a given that one would hit the obstruction but one had to perform the kata in a certain way just in case.
Once this had finished and they had left after lunch, I then worked further on my Towaki and “how to avoid putting a sword through my arm” technique. I then had about two hours rest before coming back to the dojo for normal iai training. Sensei explained how the tsuka should rotate within the hand exactly 180° in Ukenagashi so that the tsukagashira replaces the position where the blade was previously and brings it onto the centre. This then avoids the left arm obscuring the vision (the same applies for Kesagiri and Sogiri). I tried this and it made the cut quite short but much sharper.
Steffen Michaelis joined the morning training on Tuesday morning (he arrived on Saturday) so we did some koryu training together, it was nice having someone else in the dojo to be honest as I was worried Sensei was getting bored with dragging my sorry ass through the forms.
And so, here at the end of this short but very rewarding trip, with inflamed toes, ankles and knees and no shortage of sticking plasters in various places, I now return to foggy shores (ooh, that was nearly poetical) and soggy weather; there is quite a lot of information collated that I now need to work on regularly and share with my dojo cauliflowers. In fact with all this information I foresee another RSI condition around the jaw....
(As a postscript I just also want to thank Lucy, Jane, Aurelien, Steffi, Steffen, Inari-san for being such good company during my stay and providing me with the frequent assistance in the dojo)
Steffen demonstrating the benefit of a cattle-based diet and the ability to reach objects on high shelves