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

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.