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 7 April 2013

Blogpost Special – Judging Points for Iaido and Jodo

Just between me finishing off the 3-part (or possibly more) article I am writing at the moment on the Suio Ryu Taikai I thought I would quickly bash off a short posting on judging points for iaido and jodo. Considering the emphasis that Ishido Sensei has given to these at recent event I think they can be considered to be useful points to concentrate on whether one is training for a taikai, towards a grading or simply deepening their training experience. The points are taken from a section in each art’s judging rules and comes as a list of items to consider in no particular order of emphasis. I have translated specialist words where necessary if they happen to be terms which the exponent might want to learn (I have omitted well-known words such as chiburi where if the reader doesn’t know them then they need to learn fast).
It is slightly interesting that both iaido and jodo essentially require the same criteria albeit there are one or two specific to the art.
I hope you find these useful…

Jodo Shiai – Refereeing Rules (Originally Published 1st July 1997)
  1. Fullness of spirit.
  2. Correct posture.
  3. Correct balance of strength and softness of strikes and thrusts.
  4. Ma (timing) and ma’ai (distance).
  5. Metsuke.
  6. Zanshin.
  7. Reiho.
  8. Ki-jo-tai no ittsu (Spirit-jo-body as one).
  9. Whether it is logical as budo.
  10. Accordance with the ZNKR Technical Manual – special points for consideration for examinations and taikai.

Iaido Shiai – Refereeing Rules (Originally Published 1st October 1996)
  1. Depth of practice.
  2. Reigi (correct behaviour and etiquette).
  3. Technique:
    1. Correct nukitsuke and kiritsuke (drawing and cutting).
    2. Correct sayabanare and hasuji (release of sword and blade angle).
    3. Correct chiburi with angle.
    4. Correct noto.
  4. Kokorogamae (preparedness, readiness):
    1. Calmness.
    2. Metsuke.
    3. Kihaku (spirit, vigour), zanshin, ma (timing) and ma’ai (distance).
  5. Ki-ken-tai no ittsu (Spirit-sword-body as one).
  6. Whether it is logical as budo.
  7. Accordance with the ZNKR Technical Manual – special points for consideration for examinations and taikai.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Suio Ryu Koden Embu Taikai, Katsujinken Setsuninto and the Rest of the Universe – Part 2

What else might this imply in terms of this separation from reliance on one’s teacher? Let’s look at some individual aspects:

Seminar attendance: regularly attending seminars is a great way for obtaining and absorbing a breadth of information. I rarely see a seminar as being a chance to do hundreds of forms but rather a learning activity of new matter OR the same matter but explained and demonstrated in a different way.  One gets to learn from potentially higher graded and more experienced teachers than one’s own dojo teacher as well as the much underrated experience of learning from one’s peers and even juniors. I think that every single person has something to offer in terms of learning martial arts, which although sounds a bit woolly, I should add means not that everyone can directly teach something of the art but, for example, watching a complete beginner struggle to get through a technique is in itself valuable and interesting data.

Reading and research: by this I mean to not limit absorption activities to just reading the written word as I am aware that there are many other sources to learn from including video and audio media. Reading the thoughts and opinions of very senior teachers has been very inspiring personally and is another underrated and underused form of study especially when it comes to Koryu.

Taikai: yes, here it comes, the banner flying for taikai against all forms of criticism! Yes, budo is not a sport and maybe a competitive spirit is not in alignment of the budo spirit (or so some might think) but surely any activity which pushes the individual to try their very best to “beat” another person is exactly the basis of all martial arts. I have personally learned so many aspects of budo, both standardized and Koryu, from taikai I can’t understand why people limit themselves by avoiding them. Surely just coming to watch some spirited performances would be a useful insight into one’s art…?

Self-critique: I am going to emphasise this again as I’m not sure I convey how important this is. Limiting one’s self-evaluation to using your own eyes in realtime while doing a form has limited use as a) perspective is important (parallax error being a great example of how to mess up angles terribly) and b) the act of observing itself is likely to change what one does during a form. I like the idea of using mirrors although that in itself suffers similar problems to those immediately above. Video, from various angles and heights, is an indescribably useful medium for learning about one’s own performance.

The body you train with: this might be a new thought to many people (albeit not those who have done any kind of coaching course I am sure. Looking after your own health is an important and instrumental part of one’s martial arts training – isn’t it? I don’t believe that in martial arts the student should rely on their teacher to tell them how to look after themselves in terms of health. Why not? For the same reason that I don’t ask my sensei where I should park my car when I come to training or which way to drive to the dojo or from which bank account to pay for dojo subs. They are all strongly associated to my personal application of martial arts training but are probably utterly irrelevant to everyone else. I know when to say to a dojo member that they should warm up and stretch more than they do but I am not keen on providing life coaching to anyone. That is a responsibility that each student must assume for themselves. I won’t tell anyone that they should lose weight, gain weight or lose a limb – that’s up to them. However, from this student’s perspective what is important about bodily health? It’s a fairly general term but I think it applies to a number of criteria:
·         Cardiovascular fitness: this means that a general amount of exercise doesn’t leave you lying in a heap on the floor. Neither Iaido nor Jodo are generally aerobic enough to create or demand an athletic level of fitness but it certainly doesn’t help if exhaustion is holding back one’s training during important parts of a training episode (like when at the end of the seminar the sensei says “and now for something completely different”). Doing some work to maintain a good level of cardio fitness will often contribute to the other following criteria.
·         Limb and core strength: meaning muscular strength in the arms, legs, connecting joints, trunk and back. Iaido and Jodo for me seem easier to perform well when the legs are feeling strong, warmed up and able to carry oneself quickly and efficiently around the katas. Building up some strength in the arms means that less consciously applied effort is required to make sharp and powerful cuts, strikes and thrusts. Having good core strength improves stability of posture and reduces the effort required to move around.
·         Flexibility: this is so important to asymmetric arts like iaido which is strange when one thinks about what are important physical actions in the kata i.e. sayabiki, the ability to turn and look fluidly. Iaido can destroy flexibility and it requires it as well. What does this tell us? It says that we have to supplement our normal training to drive that inflexible condition away. I leaned a couple of years ago that Morishima Kazuki Sensei (Ishido Sensei’s star pupil) did about 30 minutes of stretching before he started training. I’m sure that’s not the sole cause of him being so good but it must surely be a significant factor. As soon as I started applying a proper stretching regime to my training I found my legs and feet starting to be used in a constructive manner rather than being long blobs of tripping hazard.

So, that’s quite a long diatribe concerning passing gradings, something that I can sit smugly and cast advice about. What I really mean to convey though is that as the gradings get more advanced, especially around 4th dan, candidates need to start taking care of their own training, progress and preparation.

Getting back to the taikai, it was very interesting to judge as there were four Iaido koryu styles present and various subsets within those including:

·         Suio Ryu – generally the whole group under Robert Rodriguez Sensei
·         Muso Shinden Ryu:
o   Poznan (Adam Kitkowski) under Ishido Sensei via Momiyama Takao Sensei
o   Wroclaw (Michal Szczepanski) under Murakami Sensei
o   Czech Republic (Tomas Kyncl) under Ogino Sensei
o   Gdnia (Dariusz Leszczyński) under Ishido Sensei via various sensei’s
o   Other parts of Poland (Krztof Górnicki) under Inoue Sensei
·         Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu:
o   Katowice (Lukasz Machura) under Oshita Sensei via Henry Schubert Sensei
o   Krakow (Michal Nowakowski) under Iwata Sensei via Neil Kemp Sensei
·         Tamiya Ryu – generally the whole group under Patrik DeMuynck Sensei

With all these potential variations it was impossible to lay too much emphasis on judging on technical correctness (there was no seiteigata in the taikai). Robert spoke to the judging group and said to judge on what you could perceive from the heart of the performance.
The taikai started and the judges sat down ready (feeling slightly bemused, or was it confused?) but within a short period of time we became used to judging not on the minutia of the technique but other things, more difficult to describe.
For me it began to resound with something that Ishido Sensei had spoken about before in articles and explanations. This issue had been explained to him by his father, Ishido Sadatoro Sensei, as the essence of Niku-Sanke, a nature which is present in styles of Iaido.
Rather than present my own memory of this explanation I have pasted in below the article excellently translated by Richard Stonell and published in Kendo Nippon in an article with Ishido Sensei:

My father was not the kind of man to make detailed comments when I was training like this. He would only repeat a single phrase occasionally: “remember the ‘two ku’ and ‘three ke.’”
The ‘two ku’ are ochitsuku (calm and relaxed) and hayaku (quickly). The ‘three ke’ are metsuke, nukitsuke and kiritsuke. These are, regardless of the school or the technique, the absolute fundamentals of iai. I came to realize more and more that no matter what kind of practice you are doing, these ‘two ku’ and ‘three ke’ should be the foundation. However, at the time my father was telling me this, I didn’t yet understand properly, so I thought of these words simply as something my father liked to say.

From this I tried to spot these elements in the competitors’ performance by asking myself the following questions:

1.       Is the exponent calm and relaxed so that the techniques are soft and sharp (ochitsuku)?

2.       Does this softness build into natural speed and power (hayaku)?

3.       Do they maintain good metsuke which shows clearly where the opponent is?

4.       Is their nukitsuke (or opening attack) performed with decisiveness and clarity?

5.       Is their kiritsuke (or finishing attack) delivered with a sense of finality and natural power?

I started trying to vote on these criteria and found my voting to be closer to the other judges (rather than standing out like a plum). Judging and deciding became a lot easier once stability also became a part of the criteria.
Towards the end it became obvious who was going to reach the finals. It was a very interesting experience trying to develop a method of judgement when adherence to geometric form no longer became under critique. 

At the end of the presentations I offered a prize to one of Robert’s students who I thought, while his embu wasn’t beautiful per se, it showed what I thought were lots of the five criteria listed above.
In the next and possibly final part of this posting I want to discuss how these criteria reach into the notion of “Setsuninto Katsujinken”.

Thanks to Meishinkan Pskiij Pskiij and Maria Enquist for the use of their photos.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Suio Ryu Koden Embu Taikai, Katsujinken Setsuninto and the Rest of the Universe – Part 1

So this was to be my final blog post for 2012, it got delayed quite a bit with all the stuff going on at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 and by February I decided that it would be best broken up into several sections so here goes part 1…

I expect this will probably be my final blog post for 2012 so it’s going to be a long one. I just got back from the 20th Anniversary of Tenshinkan Dojo, Warsaw which saw the first Suio Ryu Koden Embu Taikai in Europe. I was invited by Marcin Wojtacik along with:

·         Robert Rodriguez Sensei: (Suio Ryu)Iaido 7th dan, Jodo 6th dan

·         Patrik DeMuynck Sensei: (Tamiya Ryu) Iaido 7th dan, Jodo 6th dan

·         Takao Momiyama Sensei: (Muso Shinden Ryu) Iaido 7th dan, Jodo 7th dan

·         Neil Kemp Sensei: (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu) Roshukai Iaido

·         Philipe Merlier Sensei: (Muso Shinden Ryu) Iaido 6th dan

·         Henry Schubert Sensei: (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu) Iaido 5th dan, Jodo 5th dan

·         Jose Martinez Aberco Sensei: (Suio Ryu) Iaido 5th dan

This for me was a complete delight; I get on well with these EKF teachers and had never met Neil Kemp before although I had heard a lot of good things about him. For those that don’t know him, Neil heads the UK Roshukai group, a group of dojos who were under the tutelage of the late Iwata Norikazu Sensei learning the Tosa-ha branch of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido. Robert had through his presence brought a massive contingent of the Spanish Iaido group as well as many students from Versailles. They all seemed very excited and glad to be here.
On Day 1 the event was divided into those who wanted to do koryu (dividing into Muso Shinden Ryu, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu with Neil and Henry working together, Tamiya Ryu and Suio Ryu) and those wishing to do seitei (mainly people taking a dan grading that day). Given that there were some 33 people in this group and I had been asked to lead this group I asked Jose for some help to which he obliged. We ran through three katas at a time showing the important points and addressing questions. BY rotating ten people out at a time we managed to get through a lot of actual kata practice. We tried to emphasise the importance of correct footwork –this seemed to stick with some people and not with others. We did a bit of a grading rehearsal and then the grading was on us.
The results were quite mixed but I could see that nearly all the panellists were fairly consistent in their marking. The shodans and nidans were not much of a problem with them all passing, the sandans passed three out of five but only four out of thirteen yondans passed (31%). It reminded me of the article by Peter West, The 4th Dan Barrier in Iaido which I will represent for you here, it is an excellent read:

In my opinion to pass 4th dan an applicant must show ALL of the following:

  • There should be no technical errors in the Seitei performance. (By technical errors I mean those details describing the correct actions of the reiho and kata as laid down by the ZNKR. The document for this has been ably and expertly translated by Chris Mansfield and copies are readily available. This project has been of enormous benefit to our Iaido. All members should obtain a copy.)
  • There should be no errors in the reiho
  • The first cut of the first kata must be strong, well timed and decisive. (In 1995 Sagawa Sensei made the point that the first cut is the most important. If it fails, then anything that follows has no meaning. In competition he said that if two performances are so similar it is impossible to judge between them, then the effectiveness of the first cut should be the deciding point.)
  • Shisei should be strong, focussed and well balanced. (shisei does not only mean having good posture physically, but the correct state of mind)
  • Kigurai should be demonstrated from the first moment you are seen approaching the shinza jo to your manner after leaving.
  • The performance should demonstrate Jo-ha kyu in all actions, kan kyu in the kata, ma and maai should be correct as demonstrated by metsuke and how far you travel between cuts for the timing you choose.
  • The performance should demonstrate aji, fukaku
  • There should be no suki that could be entered by a person of at least similar grade.
  • This is the first grade at which the performance should consistently appear as though it would work in a real situation. (The applicant should not look as though they are trying to correctly remember a sequence of movements, but are performing naturally and realistically, performing effective cuts and strikes to deal with the situation of the Riai of the kata while remaining in control and not looking overly aggressive, rushed or as if taken by surprise.)

This may all sound a tall order, but is it really too much to expect after a minimum of 7 years training? I really don’t think so. And, as I have said, this is only my opinion. Other examiners may have different criteria. That said, I feel confident that all of us who have sat on grading panels in the UK have similar requirements. I know people have passed that I have thought should not, and vice versa. For this reason, to eliminate the inevitable variations of specific expectations of the different examiners, grading panels increase in size for higher grades.

You might reasonably ask then, what you should do if you are one of the unfortunate people who have failed 4th dan on more than one occasion.

  • Of course, more training is necessary, but if what you are training is incorrect it will do you no good. You need to find out what is wrong with the way you train.
  • After teaching at Watchet last year it became all too apparent that many people who do not train kendo, but only iaido or Iaido and Jodo do not do enough suburi. Suburi not only improves cutting efficiency (reducing the need for force and making the movement faster, sharper and less stiff), but improves shisei, breathing, seme, kigurai and many other aspects of the performance.
  • Seek help from other teachers. This is not an insult to your own teacher, whose permission or recommendation should be sought. I don’t mean you should abandon your own teacher. Seeking help elsewhere is useful for you both. This can be done at BKA seminars for example, or squad training. Another teacher might explain the same thing differently or change the emphasis so that you better understand what you have already been shown. This is particularly the case if you have access to a Renshi or Kyoshi instructor from time to time. Looking beyond the confines of your own dojo and deepening your understanding in this way is the “Ha” stage of “Shu-ha-ri”. Anyone seriously challenging 4th dan should be seeking knowledge and understanding from all sources and beginning to assimilate different methods.
  • Have faith in what you have been taught and in your training. Practice with no thought as to the correctness of your movements, but try to imagine the enemy and deal with the situation using the method in the kata. Use a video camera and review your practice as soon as possible after the session so you can recall what happened, how you felt and connect what you see with the performance itself. Of course you should not be making technical errors. By this I mean that your training should now allow and enable you to perform a kata correctly in this sense without thinking through the various stages and moves. This will allow your movements to flow naturally your own personal interpretation of ma and mai will develop and subsequently so will fukaku.
  • Do grading embu practice as often as possible.

At all times maintain a positive attitude. We all have barriers to our progress, and they are often related to a wrong perception, or wrong thinking rather than bad teaching or reaching a competence limit of some kind. When this barrier has to be crossed, and it is different for all people, it can seem insurmountable and frustrating, but generally most people hit one in those 3 years after third dan. Look deeper, train harder and seek further afield for the answers. They are there to be found.

Good luck

Peter West Myoken Dojo

I guess what this means for me is that most cannot pass their 3rd dan and then carry on coasting at the same speed into their 4th dan.  At some point one has to engage significantly more with their training and their budo; simple repetition of forms will probably not suffice. This has prompted me to write a more in-depth document for taking iaido gradings in my capacity of Iaido Bucho for the British Kendo Association, not because I claim to know all the in’s and out’s completely but I do know that there is a lot of information out there which relates to this topic which doesn’t always get distributed evenly to all members.
So what else does this mean?
In my humble opinion, and this mirrors heavily on that which Peter wrote, before one even tries for 4th dan one should be starting the gentle separation from the reliance on one’s teacher to be the single source of knowledge, feedback, criticism. Quite recently at 4th dan gradings it has become apparent that many of the candidates had insufficient idea or perception of what they were doing in comparison to the standard seitei description. There was lots of evidence of hard practice but not so much in adherence to technical detail. I wonder if any of them had seen themselves on video doing iaido. I don’t mean spending hours delighting oneself with relentless showings of one’s last taikai embu; I mean that, for example, every time someone videos me doing a taikai, grading, embu or just training, I try to watch it very carefully trying to identify: bad habits that have crept in or crept back, good aspects that I want to amplify more and simple compliance or non-compliance with technical standards. Those who have read older posts in this blog may know already that I wasn’t against doing weekly videos of my grading practice and getting home to go through it frame-by-frame and critically appraising the technical correctness and performance of each form. I’m not suggesting that this is anything special, I just think that a serious approach to training, where training opportunities might be limited to a few hours a week, requires a very broad range of training aids to progress oneself.
I would like to unpack that further: simply turning up to the dojo once or twice per week for a couple of hours isn’t going to overcome the natural plateau’s that occur in one’s development. One has to do some kind of “extracurricular activity” and the higher the immediate grade one is aiming for the more is required. Most of us outside of Japan unfortunately don’t have the luxury of having a dojo and a sensei available for nearly every day of the week. I am sometimes ashamed and frustrated that I don’t train more considering how much time my line of teachers have devoted to their training. Some of this is me being lazy, other times I’m enthusiastic to train but I just don’t have the opportunity to have some space and time to do it properly.

End of Part One

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Supplementary Post - Dojo Layout and Stepping From ZNKR Seitei Manual

I have quite a sizable article being written right now although it does go on a bit and is being in parallel with a document concerning iaido gradings so it's taking quite a looooooonnnngggg time.

In the meantime I decided to translate page 35 of the ZNKR Seitei Iaido Manual which covers "How to enter and leave the dojo: Direction of stepping and rotation". This wasn't translated in the current English version and I have to be honest, I am not sure of the purpose of this except when we all go and do our 8th dan embu in Hakone. If you watch videos of these embu then you might notice a slightly more elaborate style of entry to the dojo and carrying out reiho. I believe this is in harmony with this diagram shown below.

The link for the PDF of this drawing (which is better quality than the JPEG shown below) should be downloadable here:


Any questions, please drop me a message.