Disclaimer and Stuff

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.

Secondly I would like to thank everyone in advance where I have used photos of you or photos you have taken. I have quite a library of digital photos and virtually no record of who took them so I hope you will take this general thanks as adequate gratitude. If there are any photos of you or taken by you that you would like removed please let me know.

Thirdly, some articles have been published on my dojo website if you would like to read them in an easier format

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Wednesday 30 March 2011

Bideford Spring Iaido Seminar

Technically speaking I was teaching on this seminar so the notion that I might learn something through experience deserves me to be strung up and pelted with potato peelings. Anyhow, it was an enjoyable weekend and I did learn some stuff, from watching what people were doing, talking to them about it and also sharing some of Martin Clark's thoughts and experiences. He is a very good teacher when allowed to spread his wings at these events as he otherwise keeps a low profile when other high grades are around (to his credit).

We started the first day trying to improve our balance during nukitsuke and kirioroshi by swapping our legs out during the furikaburi. I found this very useful as it forced one to slow down the furikaburi in order to fit the leg movement in...and this is where things go wrong.

Furikaburi is quite a tricky action in Seitei. It is described in the following sequence:

With a feeling of thrusting behind one's left ear, lift the kissaki up in a parrying action ensuring that the kissaki does not drop below horizontal.

Sounds easy doesn't it? And yet there are a few more conditions which have to be considered and are taught orally:

  1. The right hand must not cross the centreline. It may join with the centreline on the sword's ascent to above the head but the hand and arm must not obscure the vision of the exponent.
  2. The sword therefore must pass in front of the exponent to execute the guarding/parrying action of the furikaburi.
  3. The sword must cut at the apex of the movement.
  4. The apex is defined by the tsukagashira being above the hairline.
These all tend to make this movement more complex that it seems. I have tried to show this on the diagrams below:

What is a bit more obvious to see from the diagrams is that:
a) The right hand remains quite static in it's position throughout a lot of angular movement of the sword.
b) This movement should be done keeping the edge of the sword pointed at the opponent.
c) The upward inclination of the sword is gradual and once it is started, the sword does not disincline again (i.e. the upward angle of the sword is maintained).

Many people (myself included when I am not concentrating do a number of the following things:

a) Bring the sword across the body and let the edge drop.
b) Bring the kissaki and tsubamoto straight up onto the centreline in too steep an angle.

It's a bit difficult to write about these things but very easy to see them. I urged the people at the seminar to slow down and make sure this movement was correct especially checking that the sword was thrusting past the left ear.

The image shown of Ishido Sensei is actually him doing furikaburi (check out the left hand). You can see how flat the sword is while the right hand is hardly moving.

The rest of the day was spent going through seitei. One bit of advice which I gave the others which I intend to use more for myself was to stop using all forms of power. This only has the effect of making the kata "lumpy" but by trying not to use power then it created something of a "tabula rasa" or I like to think of it as a clean workbench to work from. From there one can start to add contrasts of feeling, timing, speed and power but one first has to ensure that one's technique is pretty much correct first. With training this should be easy to achieve once one stops trying to throttle their sword.

I'm just trying to remember the points that me or Martin made, here are some of them:

  1. That at the moment that nukitsuke is made, the hips must be moving forwards. This is combined with the upper body twisting into the cut.
  2. That the feet should remain apart during iaigoshi.
  3. The importance of driving the body forwards with the foot doing fumikomi in Ushiro.
  4. The importance of not crabbing sideways during furikaburi on Ushiro (so easy to do).
  5. Ukenagashi remaining relatively contained.
  6. Using the hips to make the thrust on Tsukaate.
  7. Securing the feet well to make the static kirioroshi on Tsukaate.
  8. Getting the timing of the sword and front foot synchronised on Kesagiri.
  9. Softening the hands during chiburi of Kesagiri.
  10. Making a large draw using the tsukashira as the pivot on Morotezuki.
  11. Ensuring the feet don't come too close together before the thrust on Morotezuki.
  12. How to make the very subtle distinction of hikinuki and ukenagashi ni furikaburi on Morotezuki (i.e. don't lose sleep about it).
  13. Using the body and large cutting action on Sanpogiri.
  14. The importance of changing ones position related to the centreline on Ganmenate.
  15. How to change and select your own timing on Ganmenate including making contrasts of timing and speed.
  16. Making a direct draw on Soetezuki.
  17. Getting the movement active to make the thrust on Soetezuki.
  18. How to avoid rediculous positions of chiburi on Soetezuki while still following the ZNKR seitei directive.
  19. Contrasting the distance and timing of each cut on Shihogiri.
  20. Letting the caterpiller reverse into the marshmallow a.k.a. assuming gedan no kamae
  21. Creating seme at the end of each cut of Sogiri but keeping the cuts soft so that the successive cut is easy to initiate (and must be visibly so).
  22. Filling the time available in Nukiuchi and making full proper movements.
I sat on the grading panel in the afternoon to examine the ikkyus, shodans and nidans. Luckily Tony Devine was sitting next to me and I could seek advice from him. I consider myself to be an utter novice in gradings despite writing the Examiner Mentoring Programme. It is very difficult to maintain concentration and not miss obvious mistakes. After a while though I believe that one develops a bit of a gut instinct for seeing the good parts of people's performance. I saw that a lot especially from the more senior-in-age candidates. Where they were unable to do things fast or sharp I could sometimes see calmness and maturity.

Anyway, a great weekend (for all I hope) and a good chance for me to draw seitei points to my own attention for training (tonight).


Friday 25 March 2011

Iaido Training Session 51 Part B

Ok, had some time to think and now some time to write....

Shohatto: Not feeling too bad providing I don't race. Nukitsuke needs a little more time (and some training) to get the tempo right.
Sato: In contrast to the above feels quite good.
Uto: As above
Atarito: Footwork needs some work.
Inyoshintai: Yokochiburi needs some work.
Ryuto: Not bad for a big guy
Junto: He's dead
Gyakuto: Ok
Seichuto: Ok
Koranto: Ok
Gyakute Inyoshintai: Deflection needs some work
Batto: Better now left hand is working more actively

Yokogumo: No problems although noto needs some change.
Toraissoku: Balance issues on block.
Inazuma: I like!
Ukigumo: Forever work in progress but feeling quite good about it.
Yamaoroshi: Feels like I've been working on it but need to check about tall person's nukitsuke.
Iwanami: Ramping off the kirioroshi seems to work.
Urokogaeshi: Ok
Namigaeshi: Need to work on hip strength.
Takiotoshi: Thrust needs some work.
Nukiuchi: As batto

Kasumi: Getting better
Sunegakoi: Difficult at my height
Shihogiri: Improving speed
Tozume: Responding to training nicely especially with a more diagonal draw.
Towaki: Working on the Ishido Sensei tempo...
Tanashita: Push/pull working better...who's ever gonna do this anyway?
Ryozume: Ok
Torabashiri: Starting to like this one

Yukizure: Ok
Rentatsu: Work in progress on draw.
Somakuri: Work in progress on all
Sodome: Getting more flow'ey
Sodesuregaeshi: Yah, no problem
Mon'iri: Not sure about the flow of this one.
Jinchu: Becoming strangely stable at the mo.
Ukenagashi v1: Not bad
Ukenagashi v2: A bit staid
Ukenagashi v3: Coming on
Ukenagashi v4: Responding to training (especially after this session)

Seitei-wise, I really want to get Kesagiri a bit tidy.

That is all (for now). Don't really have much to write really, having spent the whole session training, everything is still simmering over and not much bubbling to the surface. This weekend might tell me more...

Thursday 24 March 2011

Iaido Training Session 51

A hard working evening. We ran once through Seitei and then I decided that some free practice wouldn't go amiss. I hid myself to the side and went once through all the koryu, to the end, non stop.

Didn't manage it.

Well, eventually I did but not non stop. I tried to make sure that each form was given 100% concentration and not like a session of throcking. I thought it went quite well, ran into a few problems here and there.

This is going to be one of those short posts. Right, there ya go...

Saturday 19 March 2011

Nukitsuke revisited

It could only be a Friday night when I write on a publicly viewable blog that I just had an Epiphanic moment in the shower with the use of a blue Bodyshop foot scrubber.

My last post was bothering me, I hadn't finished my thoughts on nukitsuke and the sayabiki/sayabanare moment. I could sense Peter West's fingers approaching his Mac keyboard to remind me of a continental-sized aspect I had missed in my argument. And then it came to me with the momentary use of a foot scrubber. I thought back to the video of Morishima Sensei doing an embu in Mierlo. I thought about how I tried to get some feeling into nukitsuke. I thought about all the photos of Japanese sensei in the pronounced moment of nukitsuke (in monochrome photos wearing montsuki).

The initial parts of the draw are done with the hands. During the moment of sayabanare the left and right hands "talk" to each other to communicate when and when the kissaki is to be released and has been released (that sentence wasn't a typo by the way). And now the bombshell; the sayabanare is done with the hands but the final sayabiki is done with the upper body....

...you knew that already!?

Well, if you did then I guess that just says that I have just acknowledged it in my blog.

Anyway, that's the feeling that was missing in my observations, that was why their kissaki's were too wide of the mark at the end of the draw, that's why the moment was being lost.

...and this is why I think that swords which are too small are a bad thing...

Friday 18 March 2011

Iaido Training Session 50

Standing on the shoulders of....other dojo members

Woot, made it to 50 sessions and my arms haven't fallen off yet. Wednesday and the couple of days following makes me realise how grateful I am to be part of a dojo filled with people who are willing to listen to my vague feedback to them about their iai, not really helping them at all, just so I can meditate on what was bothering me for the next 2-3 days. I'm sure once I am older and more dribbly that they will have their vengeance, like putting earwax into my liquidised food, but for now they happily exist as petrie dishes for my thought experiments and directionless mutterings and my development to 6th and the end of rational thought.

My teacher told me about one year ago that my Iaido training had to move it's focus away from the "What" and onto the "When". This post is devoted to that thought.

We expanded our abstract order training of seitei to 3 forms each this week (wow) and with no direction of what, where and when any emphasis should be placed. We then separated into free practice, Harry and me doing Chuden and the others doing seitei bits and pieces.

I was now caught and bothered by Lucy and Aurelien's nukitsuke from Mae. I couldn't help noticing that the sword was coming out a little too directly and easily and with little sayabanare going on. I spent a bit of time explaining how sayabiki converts into sayabanare at the moment of release of the kissaki from the saya. This in itself is a difficult thing to time. It is necessary, especially in Muso Shinden Ryu, to not finish the final sayabiki until the sword is actually cutting into the nukitsuke. This is of course quite a small movement with the saya compared to the larger movement of the sword and one can either make the saya move in slow motion (which then lacks any sharpness to the movement) or moderate the earlier part of the movement into a final acceleration. Tricky indeed. Suffice to say, the entire control of the left hand on the saya is a complex one. I have tried to simplify the action in the diagram below:

This implies (and correctly I believe) that sayabiki comes and goes a little bit or rather, it's speed is modulated during the nukitsuke action.

  1. Sayabiki is first used to facilitate the removal of the saya from the sword.
  2. Sayabanare accentuates the release of the kissaki from the koiguchi and provides impetus for the sword to travel forwards.
  3. Sayabiki is finally used to emphasise the cutting action of the nukitsuke (whether or not one actually cuts or merely subdues is based on opinion).
I guess my point around this is that just at the moment of sayabanare there needs to be a building up of feeling, a moment of tame, rather than simply pulling the sword out and casting it at the opponent. I'm not suggesting that this is a long moment but something needs to be there. This is the way I originally learnt this form, that the form demonstrated saya no uchi no kachi and hence that in the Seitei description one puts the hands on the sword gently. The draw is to be done in a way that prevents the opponent from attacking. If at any moment the opponent gives up then one can avoid attacking them. By drawing the sword out quickly then one has not appreciated the meaning of this technique and in Seitei, this kind of draw is quite unique whereas nearly all the other forms require the hands to be put on the sword sharply.

But looking deeper into this point, this is what I think: that at the moment where the decision is finally made to draw the sword, this is the point where you are most likely to die.

By this I mean that this must be the final moment, where the enemy's attempt to attack is maximised and is thus the most dangerous point for you. The Seitei manual describes this in the line "kisen o sei shite [komekami] ni nukitsuke" or "seize the moment of opportunity and draw to the opponent's temple". I think this "seizing of the moment" is an important point to express in one's kata if we are attempting to import Katsujinken (the sword that saves or wins) into what would otherwise be Setsuninto (the sword that kills). I also believe that whether one intends to allow the opponent to live or not, the moment of this decision needs perceiving, living and tempering . It is a moment where one has decided to kill. It is also the moment that you are about to die.

It reminds me of a nice proverb which reads quite well in Japanese:


Shori no shunkan
Kabuto no himo wo shime

At the moment of victory
Tighten the helmet straps

The meaning of this of course is that the very moment of victory is the moment when the opponent is at their most dangerous and you are most likely to lose. Perhaps instead of the Seitei manual saying about "seizing the moment" that the phrase "squeezing the moment" would be more appropriate.

From a practical point of training, I am pretty sure that at a high level the only way to actually see this moment would be through looking at a slow-motion video, however if the sword is merely accelerating out of the saya with no point of tame then clearly this moment does not exist. In fact I think that the setting of the front foot position is probably just the second where this moment exists.

Anyway, after watching the others go through considerable pain to analyse and change what they were doing I encouraged them to play around with the various versions of Koranto to lightent the moment somewhat. Hopefully that will make them hate me less.

Monday 14 March 2011

Kiyome and the Flow of the Ryuha

Some part of me is hesitant to write about this particular subject as my thoughts on it sit more comfortably with Jodo than with Iaido. Why is this? Iaido, by it's nature where the effectiveness of technique is sometimes difficult to test, generally tends to be far more detailed and technically strict in it's teachings. Jodo, on the other hand, while not lenient in the area of technical correctness, is more forgiving in it's allowances for personal physical interpretation providing the effectiveness of technique is convincing. It is not the absence of flexibility in Iaido which makes me reluctant to write this in an iai context but rather the tendency towards uniformity. Perhaps if I didn't do Jodo I wouldn't feel the same way. Anyway, getting on...

I want to reflect on some thoughts I had while flying to Poland recently and getting towards the end of the book "Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Those of you who have read it or are familiar with Douglas's works will know that the book is an account of their project to see and record species which are approaching extinction. In one part of the book Douglas recounts an earlier visit to Japan where he had the occasion to see Kinkajuji, the temple of the golden pavillion in Kyoto. His tour guide informs him that the building dates back to the 14th century. Douglas mentioned that it was incredible that a building so old should continue to look so spectacular. The tour guide responded that the building itself had been rebuilt numerous times, sometimes because of fire, sometimes because of general degradation. Douglas challenged the tour guide on this saying that surely then this isn't the original building. "Oh yes, it's the same building. Exactly the same as from the 14th century and it's been rebuilt many times." Douglas concludes, quite nicely in the book, that this is a contrast in the way of thinking between the East and the West. In the West we tend to attribute the permanence and age of a building by it's physical materials in the walls, the pillars, the bricks, the roof, the floors etc. In Japan at least, the building is a manifestation of a design, an intended use, an image that an architect may have dreamed up. No permanance or nature is given to the materials of the building itself. The building lives and exists through it's form through design and it's use.

This is connected to the tradition and process of "Kiyome" or purification. Whole shrines and temples are dismantled and their materials renewed. Much work goes into ensuring that the "new" building matches the previous design as closely as possible. Often the work is carried out with the assistance of the monks and priests of the site. We might interpret this as refurbishment when it comes to buildings but this is a skeletal image of what actually happens. Through this process the building is regenerated, given a fresh life and most of all, purified but loses none of the original dream of the designer.

The underlying principal in all this is that the nature of the temple or the shrine is in "the intention of the architect" and this is a phrase I would like to use when thinking about how kata must inevitably vary as they are passed from generation to generation, from varying physical body to varying physical body, from personal mind to personal mind. Where experiences and the environment change the visible material of the kata. So what is the Ryu if the "software" goes through such inevitable change? Surely only the intention of the architect.

To explore this further perhaps it is important to make distinction between the two "tendencies" of kata with regards to Iaido. In one extreme, a kata may have been the result of an actual combatitive experience and the survivor of this experience may have thought that what action actually saved the day was worthy of preserving and teaching to others. In this sense, the technique is a wholly practical one and is the response to a certain situation. This might be referred to as a "Jokyo Kata" (situational kata). In the other extreme, an experienced swordsman might have recognised that certain "exercises" in technique, timing and movement within a mental context would facilitate the creation of a well-rounded martial artist where nearly any situation might call upon the range of well developed techniques to save the exponent. These are referred to as "Toho Kata" (sword methodology kata). Some people actually divide kata up into these two category; some consider all kata in a style to be either one or the other; some consider that all kata are Toho but have to be learned through the context of Jokyo, the latter of which should be essentially cast aside as soon as it's use subsides. I fall into that category of people who believe that the last interpretation is the most accurate.

In any case, even with the most attentive of soke of a style, change is inevitable in a ryuha. While we may spend sleepness nights worrying about this (or not) I believe the grace of it all is in believing that each stage of a kata being passed from one person to another is another phase of Kiyome, of ritual purification where the architect's intent is transmitted and the materials renewed. In this case it is not realistic for a teacher to assume that even the best student should produce a carbon copy of his taught form. By passing a kata from an elderly teacher to a younger student, the kata may become invigorated with youthful energy. It may lack some of the smoothness of well trod wooden floor boards but provided the architect's intentions are preserved, Kiyome has taken place without detriment to the design.

A good example of this is the contrast between Ishido Sensei and his main student Morishima Sensei. The two of them are separated by about twenty years in age, Morishima is a bit taller than Ishido Sensei. Their koryu are slightly different, the former being quick and light, the latter being large and vigorous. You can see slight variations in their delivery of form and often one will favour a different kaewaza to another but the similarities are very deep. You can see how Morishima Sensei has embedded critical factors taught to him by his own sensei but which have been smoothed and moderated by the elder. Even greater contrasts are obviously visible between Ishido Sensei and his European Monjin where body build, transmission variances and lifestyle differences have created sets of interesting variations, each containing some aspect of Ishido Sensei and all with a larger or lesser emphasis.

Maybe this is what we judge when we observer others' performance. Some will be able to display the architect's intentions very clearly, some will have more subtle and smoother features to be viewed. Some, who have misinterpreted or never understood the intentions, might be viewed with critical eyes regardless of how vigorous, strong or fast they are. Lucy Earley explained to me recently that Ishido Sensei performs the draw in Batto/Nukiuchi quite slowly and smoothly these days. He used to show off a bit with how quickly he could do this draw. Both ways of making this sudden draw are surely valid, one fast to the point of being invisible, one so smooth and subtle that it is unnoticeable and thereby it's a fine, fine thing that Iaido is available to everyone regardless of their strengths or limitations.

I do not imagine for a minute that I will ever be able to do Iaido as well as or better than Ishido Sensei but maybe in trying to replicate his splendid halls of stone, my brick-built toilet block will suffice...

Iaido Training Session 49

More Shinsa Training

Last Wednesday we spent another evening devoted to shinsa training through embu. I like this kind of solid practise and it stops me being distracted by other people.

Key points for me to remember:

  1. Chiburi from shoden needs to be more clearly accelerating into the cut whereas seitei can be a bit more steady.
  2. The first cut in Tozume needs to be a little more diagonal (this needs some work).
  3. Yamaoroshi tempo mustn't become labored during the drawing process even with circles considered.
Ochiburi took a lot of hammering this evening and my legs and elbow felt it the next day. I am working to try to get the right hand to move more directly to the objective position rather than orbiting over and around my head. It's funny because I have been trying to get Lucy to do this for ages and now I am working on it myself. Shohatto as a whole is starting to feel more solid now that my focus is on footwork and I need to train ochiburi so that it becomes a favourite part of the kata rather than an Achilles heel (much like Soetezuki used to be for me).

I think the time is getting close to having another video review and then maybe take a break from the shinsa training to do some broader koryu training. I would like to ensure that my koryu kata for the grading are the "best of the bunch" rather than the few I could manage...

More coming up in a separate post...

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Iaido Training Session 48

Shinsa Training and Kigurai

So this session we had Chris Sensei back at normal hours and a chance for me and a few others to do some dedicated examination practice. After the normal random ordered seitei run through we divided out and Chris Sensei gave us some briefing on what to work for for the grading. Of particular note is the notion of not leaving the grading panel with a question mark about whether you pass or not. This is a good reason for aiming for one grade above which you are a candidate for.

We all did an embu practice with 5 forms of our own choice and I used Shohatto, Tozume and three seitei. Sensei asked us if we were satisfied with our performance and if so, by how many kata. To be honest I wasn't happy with any of mine as I felt I had rushed through them and couldn't catch up with myself. Shohatto was unstable, Towaki wasn't a big enough initial cut and the seitei disappeard from memory.

We tried again and I swapped Gyakuto into the first kata. Sensei leapt on me and said that my koryu was now too much like my seitei. It was technically correct but the merihari had gone. I thought this might be the case as I was utterly focussed on getting it technically correct but I guess it must have looked robotic. I did it a few more times with a feeling of ebb and flow and he preferred this. If I was to summarise what the final form had as essential criteria I would say that it had to have:
  1. The ebb and flow of timing and speed to create the merihari
  2. A certain flourish to show competence and confidence with the technique
  3. An observation to good shisei even if at parts of the form one is made to lean forwards
I think these are especially true where one is tall and with a long sword and has difficulty in being naturally sharp.

Sensei made me do a peer evaluation of my Tozume in front of the others and after a few goes managed to get my posture to become part of the form.

We gradually did more and more practice on various parts of our embu with a special emphasis on my own about maintaining kigurai, that elusive quality that sits somewhere between pride, awareness and keeping a bloody straight back. It was interesting to see the difference it made in Sensei's posture when just standing in Keitoshisei....and I guess this is the point (and the one I try to make to others frequently). Why stand with the hands in such a place that the middle finger touches the side seam of the hakama? It's not the way that most people naturally stand so why do it in Keitoshisei?

I think the direction of thinking is reversed here. We often hear teachers saying "Be natural" and "Do this naturally" but I wonder if sometimes we miss the hidden half of this point, which is this:

Use your training to make good habits a natural part of your body and your movements.

If one stands as naturally up straight in a relaxed posture the hands tend to fall forwards of the thighs. What is this saying? Maybe it's saying that there are a lot of other things wrong with our "natural" (or bad) posture. By forcing oneself to pull the shoulders back slightly, to tighten the stomach muscles and to incline our hips slightly forwards, maybe our posture is improved as the fingers certainly naturally find their way to the side seams.

It's a long shot but a fairly logical one. Once cannot afford to be too natural if one is naturally "bad". Sometimes the learning of new and good habits brings a new and improved natural.