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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7th dans achieved. Come and visit Ryoshinkan Iaido and Jodo Dojo Website at www.ryoshinkan.org

Wednesday 21 November 2012

A Thanks to Murakami Sensei (and how to make Ochiburi easy)

Well that was quite a lull wasn’t it? I guess I haven’t been actually that busy with training for a while and the time I have spent in the dojo has been mostly about helping others. Our dojo suddenly seems full of newish people, space is in demand and I generally default into the helping position when it gets congested.

I would like to share one point though that was conveyed to me by Murakami Sensei during his visit to Wroclaw recently. As I may have mentioned, this was the first time for me to meet him and his dojo members and it was a very enjoyable few days. What comes across very clear from Murakami Sensei is that very little of what he does he does simply because someone has told him so. It is very obvious that he is no stranger to hard and vigorous training and everything he demonstrates he does so with an air of something very well grounded in. He does iaido and jodo as it works for him, a lot of which I’m sure is because he has applied himself so hard to learning but the outward appearance isn’t that he has great difficulty doing anything that he demonstrates.

One thing which stuck with me was his very interesting explanation of ochiburi and how it makes it much easier to do. I would like to start this explanation with a premise concerning a particular point within the ochiburi action and if you don’t already do it this way then this post might not be very helpful. That premise is that between the point from the arm being stretched out to the right to the point where it brings the sword close to the head that the grip should relax so that the potential to do tenouchi is created. I realise that the absence of this premise is that the right hand holds the sword very stiffly maintaining an elevated kensen throughout this action. I don’t personally believe that that way of doing it is natural or necessary if the physical action of chiburi is to shake the blood from the sword (regardless of whether that literal interpretation is practical or not).

What has always been a difficulty for me though is maintaining some semblance of kissaki control during this action, typically with the kissaki waving to the left and right so that it goes behind my head and then back to the outside as the grip starts to engage. Through the transition from the position of the right arm being outstretched to holding the sword near the temple the following conditions must be maintained (or so I have been taught):

1.       The kensen must not drop below horizontal
2.       The kensen should not waiver to the left and right but should remain at roughly the same relative position to the hand
3.       The grip should relax so that tenouchi can be used to actually make the chiburi cutting action

Murakami explained that the seiteigata method of doing this was to ensure the the kensen projects out to the side when the right arm is outstretched, essentially meaning that the right hand grip doesn’t change from the end of the kirioroshi.  He further outlined that it was koryu methodology that required the kensen going straight back but seitei should have the sword kept out to the side (see images below).

The images above don’t of course show the final position by the side of the head with the tsukagashira towards the front of the right eye but I’m sure you get the meaning. 

Anyway, by actively making the kensen adjust from an oblique position to a straighter position during the movement from outstretched to the temple this tends to keep the kensen in a much tighter control that is, it is easier to control the position by actively moving it rather than trying to keep it relatively still. Simple though this revelation was it fairly well fixed a problem that didn’t seem to be going away. Such is life with long arms and a long sword.

I think now even in shoden I will try to provide a small part of this movement even though I try to keep the movement more fluid.

I don’t believe it is explicitly written in the ZNKR seitei manual that ochiburi must be performed like this, it sounds like something transmitted orally and learned through good training which is the thing that is so obvious with Murakami Sensei, he appears like a keiko workhorse.

Shortly after this seminar Murakami Sensei with his brother won the All Japan Jodo Championships for 7th dan, an acclaim which I think must be well deserved. There were some aspects of his technical methodology in both iaido and jodo which I had not come across before and even where it was slightly counter to my study lineage it was all worth trying, incorporating and finding useful aspects for one’s own technique. His compact but devastating hikiotoshi demonstrated to me how important it was to keep one’s body angle at 90 degrees for as long as possible so that the hip twist is still taking place during the contact period between jo and tachi.

Anyway, a new blog entry is waiting for my fingertips….

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….

Sunday 8 July 2012

End of the Preparation, Training In Japan (or The Meaning of Sharpness)

While I start writing this while zipping along on the bullet train to Kyoto it is quite likely that it won’t be finished until we are back in the UK so please excuse me if the post wavers around a bit.

Well, for those of you that have followed this from the beginning you will know that the main purpose of the Shugyo blog was to track my progress in training in preparation for my 6th dan iaido grading. I am glad to say that that particular preparation has reached a successful conclusion. This of course isn’t to say that my training stops here of course but that distant objective and the slow, meandering walk towards it has. I hope that my pre-6th dan training blog has been useful in some small way regardless as to what grade or stage you are training at. Doing this has certainly helped me to keep in the front of my mind what I have done and what I had needed to do. Now where to go from here….

Firstly, there is some unfinished business with my 6th dan which I promised myself I would keep in that drawn out period between coming off the shinsajo and waiting for the results. I detailed this in my last post but to reaffirm it, I am determined in the next few months to train my embu to a point where I am confident that the techniques are more or less correct without actively and consciously monitoring them. The reason for this is that during the shinsa I found that I couldn’t think about them at all. That might be something rare to me but I have discussed it with a few other people and they shared the same experience – when in the “zone”. That isn’t something though that I want to spend hours on writing blogs about, it’s a relatively dry and slow progression.

Secondly, I want to spend a bit of time on those in our dojo who are preparing for gradings coming up this year. We have quite a few and they are mostly high(ish) grades. As Ishido Sensei said in Villingen this year, the grade you are is the grade to which you make other people. I will try to make sure that happens at least until people get a little bit bored of me hanging around them.

Thirdly, there is the minor issue of ANOTHER 6th dan grading coming up, that is Harry’s and mine in about 6 weeks! No blog has been written about this – what hope do we have? Well, I knew from the outset that a Jodo Shugyo blog would be a lot harder than an Iai one, the latter being so much more introspective and reliant on the self. It almost seems like it would require both people in a Jodo training scenario to write a truly accurate reflection of a training experience. That’s not to say that I’m not going to write about Jodo only that it might not be of the same flavour as the 6th dan iai prep one. Maybe it should only be about tandoku dosa….

Fourthly, I have my 7th dan grading in 6 years. By that time what do I hope to achieve:
  • Consistent technical correctness.
  • An easily recognisable expression of kankyu-kyojaku and jo-ha-kyu.
  • Iaido with personality (fukaku) and dignity (hin’i)
  •  A high, demonstrable level of ability and knowledge of the koryu.
Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I still have much to write about and hopefully many, many more experiences to relate, for example….

Training in Japan
Well as anticipated I am beginning to write this while on the plane flying back from Japan. Harry and I spent two weeks in the land of the falling rain which was part training part holiday. We stayed in Kawasaki from a Tuesday to the following Monday and so were able to get in some good training hours with Ishido Sensei. Training at Shinbukan comes with so many additional benefits that a trip to Japan to go there is certainly worth the time, money, annual leave and risk of deep vein thrombosis. Obviously the first major benefit is being under the tutelage of Ishido Sensei himself who as well as being one of the finest exponents of iaido I have ever met (if not THE finest but that of course is a matter of opinion) he is also an excellent teacher and coach. By “teacher” I refer to the ability to put one's own expertise into a 'learnable' context. I hope my own definition is clear here, it relies on someone having a high level of knowledge and personal experience which is background from which one teaches. Ishido Sensei of course has this knowledge and experience having learned iaido from his father as a child and having to date achieved hanshi 8th dan and is (I believe) menkyo kaiden in both Muso Shinden Ryu as well as Muso Jushin Ryu. In his experience he has also learned Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and another style of standing swordsmanship whose name escapes me while at this altitude (or having drunk so much sake). He is also kyoshi 7th dan in Kendo and kyoshi 8th dan in Jodo – overall an amazing roundness in martial arts. 

I don't want to miss out on the chance to waffle on about what I perceive to be the difference between a teacher and coach so here goes and feel free to fast forward if you have already been on a BKA coaching course or if you are one of the 99.999% of people who find this boring. A coach, I feel, is someone who is able to develop another individual or individuals without resorting to the need, or having the existence of, a deep level of knowledge and experience. A coach resorts to a fairly common and consistent set of communication skills to lead others into their own road of learning. The coach themselves frequently only need to have a slightly higher level of knowledge than the student themselves. They need not even have the ability to do what the student is currently achieving. I often like to refer to a part in the great film “Chariots of Fire” in which the character played by Ian Holme, obviously not the most athletic looking person in the world even with the best CGI currently available (which the film makers didn't have), approaches one of the British Team athletes with an offer to shave off some vital fractions of a second of his 100m sprint. This character would not have been able to make even a slightly impressive attempt at a sprint but through his observation, knowledge and basic coaching was able to get this athlete to win his race. This is what I consider to be coaching and it is fairly obvious how it differs from my definition of teaching. One of the discrete skills in the coaching toolbox is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the student and see progression from their perspective and not to try and lead from a standpoint miles above from which the student currently exists. Empathy, communication, honesty, patience and an ability to import skills from other fields are vital to being an effective coach.

On top of being an excellent teacher, I find Ishido Sensei quite naturally able to be a really fine coach as well, this is something quite rare in martial arts to be honest. He is often able to look at an individual and discern the best method of performing a technique using that individuals own bodily dimensions and general ability to move. This sometimes mean that the student does something slightly different  from the rest of their peers but the end result is that the student can perform a certain technique around the same level of competence as their colleagues even if they are built less advantageously. 

Anyway, getting back to the main thread, Shinbukan Dojo's other advantages as a training venue include the fact that there are a few exceptionally good students there who are worth observing and trying to emulate and assimilate their techniques. The dojo sessions are run quite informally and Ishido Sensei doesn't spend much time addressing the whole group but instead prefers to give individual feedback. The dojo being quite small means that there are often around 3-4 students who have to sit out and wait for a space to avail and so everyone politely rotates after about 15 minutes of training. This gives those having a rest a time to regenerate some energy and see what others are doing as well as having a chat with Sensei over a cup of tea. I should add that there is a very low level of noise, both literal and mental. Everyone quietly gets on with their own practice, chatter is kept to a comfortable minimum and little time is wasted.

To this environment we joined our first training session on Tuesday evening for regular iaido practice. It was great to see Morishima Sensei turn up as well as Nakada Sensei. John Honisz-Greens is also training there and it was good to meet up with him there and later on in the week in Tokyo. There were a lot of new faces there as well but everyone is very friendly and welcome. We spent a couple of hours doing Seitei and then gradually moved onto Koryu. The evening went all too fast and we finished at about 11pm and joined Jane Styles for a drink and a bite to eat at Fujiya Restaurant.

I will hereby provide a slight preface to my learning experiences there by saying that I am not going to relate everything I learned while training there. Firstly, and most significantly, I have probably already forgotten more than I have learned and hence the importance of writing everything down as soon as one can. With our busy schedule and the need to have a beer in the hot rainy season, I stupidly discarded this sound bit of advice. Secondly, a lot of what was told to me was for my particular problems and circumstances and might be misleading if I relate it here as if Sensei was distributing it freely. Thirdly, there were some points which were extremely insightful but I would not do them any justice at all if I relate them as my way of communicating them is at best, third rate compared to how Sensei would explain it. I will instead try to talk about how the experience of training there affected me and the way I do iaido.

I firstly noticed that some of the better students moved with a terrific essence of stability and precision. On further observation I noted that they have a slightly deeper posture and therefore lower hip position than what we often train with and are taught by the senior teachers. By increasing one's stability then the posture is affected less by the inertia and momentum created by the sword cutting. To this effect, one needs to cut with slightly less power in order to achieve the same level of perceived sharpness.  One thing which I will relate that Sensei is constantly trying to embed into all of his students is the importance of the moving foot to engage with the floor before the major part of the cut initiates. This of course doesn't mean standing still with the sword hanging stupidly above one's head. Instead whether cutting while moving forwards or back, the cutting action is made with body the properly stabilised through both feet. This applies in both seated and standing kata. Moreover, by keeping the body low and the stance deep, one is able to move further and faster on standing techniques as the natural step is made longer. Again this adds to the sharpness and dynamism of the technique.

On Wednesday we trained in the morning and then had Jodo in the evening. We trained on Thursday, Friday night and Saturday morning and afternoon. Quite a lot of practice I hope. Throughout the sessions Ishido Sensei gave us only information that we needed at that time in bite-sized portions. He completely took apart my Oroshi in the most interesting way. 

During this week he was working on improving the sharpness of Inari-san and Harry and it was very educational for me to listen and watch the points. If I was to try to outline what the main points were (and repeating much of what I have already written) in order to create this sharpness I think I would classify them to the following areas:

1.       Stability: The posture (shisei) is maintained to that which is intended during the various parts of any form. It is not always necessary to remain dead upright either with the angle of the back or the neck. However it is important that peripheral movements of the limbs or the hips or the cutting of the sword do not adversely affect the posture. The back represents the stable axis or pivot around which the rest of the body moves. When it moves it moves with purpose and not as a reaction to something else.
2.       Moving and positioning of the feet: The feet must be moved into a position which contributes to the stability explained above. The cuts must be timed such that the part of the cut which requires most physical power coincides with the engagement of the moving foot with the floor whether stepping forwards or backwards. The movement of the feet works most smoothly when one is thinking about moving the hips. This way the body height remains uniform and the upper body posture avoids trying to “reach” it's objective too fast (i.e. bending forwards).
3.       Preparation: The timing of the lifting of the sword and the cut must allow for the appropriate amount of power generation (tame). This means that the sword should not be lifted to fast but should gradually accelerated in a non-linear rate so that the timing of the cut is perfectly set by the stability of the feet.
4.       Metsuke – I saw many exampled demonstrated by Ishido Sensei which showed the metsuke being actually used rather than something that was merely being controlled. The metsuke was used to determine the direction of movement and the cut and created purpose in the cutting action. Without this I think it would be impossible to arrange the preparation and foot movement correctly. Furthermore by fixing the metsuke to a fixed point the posture is better maintained.
5.       Flexibility – This comes in two “flavours”. Firstly physical flexibility and relaxation so that the sword can be moved freely and easily. Sensei always uses the word “yawarakaku” as a kind of adverb-cum-onomatopoeia connected to furikaburi. This word means softly, flexibly and is the same Chinese character as the “ju” in judo and jujutsu. The outcome of this is that sword moves fluidly and one can gradually feel the increasing of power as the cut builds itself up. The second flavour is concerned with the direction and nature of the cut, a kind of flexibility of intention. Sensei showed a few times how it was important to not set one's direction too early as if the opponent was not moving. Instead one should be ready to move and change one's cut at any point up to the actual contact by the sword. This is only possible with physical flexibility, metsuke and appropriate preparation.
6.       Power Control: One of the objectives of continuous training is to increase the strength and power yield of the muscles which are used when cutting and braking the sword. As one increases this power, one should look to “performing” the art to a moderated level. During actual training though one should carefully work within the boundary between comfortable stability and that point of pushing the boundaries slightly, maybe just edging into the area of instability slightly but not so much that it is destructive to one's technique or stability. One is then able to deliver sharp, powerful cuts within a framework of good posture, timing and control. I believe that one of the aspects and meanings of iai is not only to blend and harmonize with one's surroundings but to also harmonize the internal aspects of movement so that body movement, foot movement, metsuke, shisei and the speed and power of cuts are all in balance with each other. Our sensei at the 6th dan grading advised us to use 80% of our available power during the pre-grading training and in the grading itself. Ishido Sensei is always urging us to make sure are cuts are “sharp” (and he says this in a way which seems to mean using your body strength adequately to make the sword move fast but with stability). 

When we are told by our Japanese sensei's to cut more “naturally” I sincerely don't believe that anyone is born with a natural sense of how to cut and I am even more convinced that they mean to use a natural amount of power in the context of what we can deal with at the current time. The objective should then be to move that framework up so that each one of our “natural” cuts gets gradually more fast, powerful and “sharp” without causing problems for the rest of our body. If we train to push that envelope further to the right then our improvement should surely be faster.

Jodo Time!

Sunday would be an episode of what I would remember as being of pure “jamminess” (for non-English English speakers this refers often to the kind of luck that goes to the undeserving – the latter is probably me). Sensei put Harry and me forward for the 30th Kanagawa-Ken Jodo Taikai which also happened to the 1st Yano Sensei Memorial Taikai. We were of course both in the 5th dan division along with Jane and lots of other extremely skilful Jodoka. The event was a straight knockout and both of us got eliminated on our 2nd fights 2 flags to 1. I lost against Sanno-san who went on to the win the event and I was extremely honoured and privileged to be asked to be his Uchidachi for the rest of the event. We were also asked to judge in the event which was interesting as lots of the other 5th dans had clearly never judged before. It was funny to hear Harry's clear annunciation of the commands with better confidence and clarity than some of the other Japanese judges. Ah well.

It was interesting to watch all the levels fighting and compare to what we see in Europe. At this event I believe that nearly all of Yano Sensei's dojo members were encouraged to take part from the very young through to the more mature. All performed with great enthusiasm. Given the fact that everyone was competing, the range of technical skill was quite a lot wider than we would see at a European Taikai. There were some people who clearly weren't so experienced or with natural skill (whatever the hell that means) and there were some people who were absolutely devastatingly good. By that I mean that they were very consistent with their technique. Watching the 7th dan taikai was also very interesting as they ranged quite a lot in terms of age (I would guess from about mid-40's through to late 70's) but they were all consistently “clean” i.e. they all had good clear technique with little evidence of bad habits or idiosyncrasies.

Towards the end there followed a Koryu embu which was interesting. As the 8th dans got ready to go on, Otake Sensei wandered over and said that he had lost his Uchidachi who was busy filling out menjo and he needed a partner.....and he asked me! I thought it was a joke at first but he insisted and so I went on with three 8th dans and did Tachiotoshi through to Ran Ai. Sadly my camera ran out of memory before we got to Ran Ai but here is the movie of the embu....

In reflection from this embu I got four points of observation:
1.       My head often leads a bit too much (this happens in iai quite a lot too), this is very obvious in the first form on the embu, Tachiotoshi. My overall shisei would be improved if I could just keep my neck aligned with my back a bit more.
2.       Otake Sensei told me that the course of the jo is coming round a bit too wide and should be following a narrower path.Tachiotoshi
3.   When under pressure I pull the jo back to do kuritsuke in 
4.       Ishido Sensei told both Harry and me afterwards to be careful not to step forwards too much with the left foot prior to Ai Uchi. He said that it was his bad habit as well and I retorted by saying that nearly all high grades do this....ah well.

For the rest of our stay in Japan we travelled to Kyoto and took in the most of the main temples there, Arashiyama, Nara, Kyoto Station (quite amazing) and Osaka where we met our old friend Eiko Matsuo. It was very pleasant going to Japan in the rainy season; while it is hot it isn't too unpleasant (especially with the wide installation of air conditioning in all public transport and buildings) and the rain brought something out in the temple and shrine gardens we visited that I don't think we would have seen if it had been dry weather. To see Japan this way I think is to see a true aspect of the country and I felt many times that Akira Kurosawa would have delighted in the deluges of rainfall that we were in and that he otherwise would have had to create with a big hosepipe. 

I personally think it is important to one's martial arts training to do more than just hack it in a dojo. Seeing the culture, the history, the religion and the people all makes up part of what we follow when we do traditional Japanese martial arts. Even Ishido Sensei insisted on taking us away from the dojo one afternoon to go to Kamakura (and then go discount market shopping as well). Breathing out always has to be followed with breathing in. I will follow this notion up later when I have condensed what I have learned (not that much to be honest) about Katsujinken Setsuninto...

Anyway, I'm back at home now so don't try to break in unless you want to waste some time.