Saturday, December 27, 2008

Parks in the cold

Bright sun with bitter cold and wind in Tokyo today – perfect chance to bundle up in layers and start moving outside.

I make a few circuits through tai ji 48 outside my home but the sunlight is blocked, so I venture off a few hundred meters to Kami 3 Hiroba, a small park-like area where I used to practice near-nightly a few years back.

The sunlight is good but the exposure throws me off a bit. There had been a good border of overgrown trees and shrubs which provided a feeling of sanctuary. I could hear the people and cars passing by on the street, but they would have to be really looking to see me.

Earlier this autumn the city came in and cleaned it all up, leaving only the large trees standing and a perfect view into the park from the road.

No reason not to perform in front of people, so I got down to work, continuing the 48 form and almost instantly forgot the gawking passersby anyway. I stopped now and then for a sip of hot water from the thermos and sat at a make-shift table on wobbly benches. Rather uncharacteristic of Japan, where everything is new and bright and shiny. This table and benches have been out in the rain and wind for several years now and they show it. They have also hosted their share of late night drinking sessions and are thus much appreciated. I hope they will remain for many years to come, broken down and rough.

Sitting in the wind in the park took me back to Tao Ran Ting, the park in Beijing where Liu Jingru Laoshi sips tea and teaches each day. My first trip over there was in late October and it was chilly and windy, though the harshness of Beijing winter had yet to descend. No, it was still reasonable outside, though we warmed ourselves with regular sips of tea.

I learned a form using the yuan yang yue there, a pair of curved, pointy, multi-bladed weapons written about elsewhere in this blog. The motions of the form took me up high and down low, and weaving back and forth across the practice area, occasionally halting suddenly to avoid a hapless, totally unconcerned passerby ( If I were walking through a park and saw a crazy foreigner running around with bladed weapons, I might take it upon myself to take a few steps to the side, rather than stop, stare, and then continue walking directly into the practice area….). I changed clothes midway through each practice to avoid catching cold from sweat-soaked shirts.

Liu Laoshi was quite worried about me catching cold. Beijingers, of course, had nothing to worry about because they had grown up in this climate. One day, a long-time student of Liu Laoshi’s dropped by. It was colder and windier that day. He started walking ba gua circles. A growl from Liu Laoshi and his stance got lower. Another growl and he paused to remove his coat and shirts. Liu Laoshi kept him circling several more minutes, until sweat was dripping and steam was rising – and still he circled. Maybe the lesson was for me after all. Once it was my turn again, I got down lower, swung out wider – and didn’t feel the cold.

I now recall another park, this one in Lincoln. Out by Holmes Lake, on the opposite side of town from all the usual university environs.

One night three of us went out for a dip. It had been a long night of practice – the kendo was exhausting on its own. Then there was about three minutes to change and get a swallow of water before the really exhausting workout began, karate. But those were the good old days when my energy was inexhaustible. Tell me what to do, and I did it.

So when, after karate one teacher asked me and a fellow brown belt friend to go out for a swim, neither of us hesitated. The dojo follows a pretty strict, traditional hierarchy and there is little interaction between those with and without dan ranks. The teachers were not elevated to cult status by any means, but this was clearly a special event, a chance to see something of the teacher outside the dojo, in the real world.

We drove across town quickly on the late night streets. In the car, everything was nice and toasty, though a small pit was growing in my stomach, wondering what was in store for us.

We arrived at the lake, got out of the car…and into the cold. Did I mention it was winter? And there was not exactly a lack of wind, if you know what I mean. Damn, it was xxxxing cold. A thin coating of ice ran around the edge of the lake – it hadn’t yet frozen over, but our first few steps into the water would have to break that thin layer.

I moved toward the water, trying to psyche myself up a bit, then hesitated. Of course we had all left our coats in the car – this was to be some special winter training, after all. I figured we might wade in up to our knees, or maybe really go after it and go waist-deep. But our teacher had just started – off came the top of his karate gi or uniform, then the trousers. Friend and I looked at each other, shrugged, and shucked. There was no way to back out in front of the teacher. Off came the last shred of protection from the wind. Now it was cold.

Our teacher shared none of my hesitation – he was already plowing through the water. Nothing to do but steel oneself. There was an instant of cold as my first foot entered the water. Another step, and another, as the cold rose up my legs. Then it was like the cold had turned to heat. NOW it was fucking cold.

Once in, why not go all the way? Leap up in the air, submerge totally, bounce off the sandy bottom and leap up again and feel the wind. A brief moment of exhileration, maybe even a second submerging and leaping. OK, wet in the wind, this is beyond cold. As expected, we ran through a few kata in the water, maybe chest deep, trying to appear oblivious to the cold. Whew, enough of that, plow through the water and out into the cold – which in the wind, seemed colder than it had been in the water.

And then NOT as expected, our teacher went back into the water. My friend and I looked at each other, shrugged again, and moved back into the water, trying not to betray any lack of enthusiasm. Was it colder the second time around? I don’t know. It was just damn cold, beyond comparison.

Another kata or two, then it was time to finish up, dry off, and shiver in front of the heaters going full blast. Hell yes we ran the heater on the way back – we weren’t, after all, masochists.

Monday, December 22, 2008

kobudo and ba gua zhang

A good teacher friend was telling me about his kobudo system. What struck me was their open attitude toward practitioners from many disciplines – something which reminded me of the way the art of ba gua zhang began.

Kobudo, or Ryukyu Kobudo, is a system of weapons forms from the Okinawan Islands. The curriculum includes bo staff (the fundamental weapon of this group), nunchaku, tekkou (brass knuckles, basically), sai (pair of short metal weapons), tonfa/ tunfa (pair of short wooden weapons), kama (pair of scythes?), eku (oar or paddle), and the tinbe/rochin combination (turtle-shell shield and short thrusting weapon).

There is much cross-over with those training in Okinawan karate styles. Our teacher is of Shorin Ryu lineage in karate and naturally teaches both karate and kobudo. Some people start kobudo after years or decades of karate work; others follow the reverse pattern, and still others begin both nearly simultaneously.

People come in with deep experience in a different karate ryuha or school – they go through the same basics in kobudo as everyone, but have a tough time shaking old habits (i.e. spot the xxx-ryu guy with his extremely deep shiko-dachi stances: way too deep for us, but correct in his system).

Here is the point- people of all stripes are welcomed; it is inclusive. Of course everyone is expected to move nearer the “correct” style for our particular group – but there is also much understanding and respect for differences. This, to me, is especially refreshing after years in Japanese budo, which are extremely exclusive – things must typically be done exactly THIS way, or not at all, there is the door.

To maintain the tradition, there must be sameness and uniformity…to some extent. The answer, I suppose, lies in balance between faithful continuation of the tradition and realistic recognition of variation. Listening to my friend, I felt strongly that this group has an excellent sense of that balance.

Ba gua zhang (pa kua chang) was created well over 100 years ago and one person is recognized as the originator: Dong Hai Chuan (董海川). He had several main students – and each of them began ba gua having already trained for extended periods in other martial arts. And Dong taught each of them differently, according to the styles of motion already inherent in their bodies. Thus, several lines of ba gua zhang remain extant today, each still reflecting characteristics of the arts already mastered by those who later began ba gua zhang (xxx was a master of Shuai Jiao “wrestling” – his branch of BGZ has more grappling applications). They were actively encouraged to develop their own styles of BGZ while remaining true to its principles.

These two arts differ in the sense that (virtually) no one is encouraged to develop his / her own style of kobudo (then again, perhaps things were different as the roots of kobudo were developing. And there is certainly no single “founder” of kobudo). But the similarity in terms of openness or inclusiveness really struck me.

Much has been written about the many similarities between ba gua zhang and aikido, and there is supposition that aikido founder Ueshiba encountered/ studied ba gua zhang during his secretive years of travel in China (see posts at Dojo Rat in particular).

But this is the first time I have thought much about similarities between ba gua and kobudo. The physical motions bear no resemblance. Yet at a deep level, both serve as the same type of model for welcoming and encouraging practitioners while maintaining a good balance between adherence to tradition and acceptance of difference.

The photo shows two people, each demonstrating a different version of the same basic ba gua zhang posture. One is a master. One is obviously not. (from the 105th anniversary celebrations of Sha Guo Zheng's birth, in Kunming)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

F Street

Some 15 years back, I attended tai ji class at F Street Recreation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska on Sundays. Tai ji was new and fresh to me at that time, and each class was an adventure.

Winter classes were the best. I can still hear the soft hiss of steam coming from the radiators there on second floor, the only sound to guide our motions. And I can still see snow falling through the window, slowly piling up outside.

Classes began with gong fu basics as warm-ups, then we might work on the 48-style. We were so happy to move on after what had seemed an eternity with the 24-style. And here I am in Tokyo, still working on that 24-form, two classes on Wednesdays and other classes elsewhen.

It has been cold and rainy all day. This morning, during the push hands segment of class, I glanced out from the second story window of a local community center and could see the circles rippling out from where raindrops hit the large puddles in the playground area out back. There are no radiators (have never seen one in Japan) but otherwise the setting took me back to F Street and its playground area in the rear.

I found myself wishing for snow, for the large wet snowflakes of spring in Nebraska. I wanted to ride my bicycle through snow-filled streets, then bask in the warmth of F Street. Those Sundays were so relaxing – not the least because I was in the heyday of my karate training and every class was intense and physically exhausting. For me, tai ji served as a good balance or counter to the heaviness of the karate dojo, and Sunday afternoons were a time when I could bask in lightness and empty some of my stress.

I have written in other posts about losing contact with Di Ma over the years. A couple weeks back, I found her at last on the internet. I emailed someone who emailed someone who emailed her and was quite pleased when she wrote back. I got another, longer email from her yesterday, which might explain today’s memories of taiji in Nebraska.

We’ll have to meet again in the future and of course I would welcome her instruction and guidance again. And given that her family lives in Minnesota, there is a good chance there will be snow falling outside when we do meet again.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

If I were a true master...

…I would have played a tune upon it, without an instant’s hesitation.

As it was, or as I am, I managed only a single note.

I was outdoors, doing the first of the Sha family tai ji forms. It would have been a nice variation on shou hui pi pa or “strum the lute”, which pops up all over the place in various branches of tai ji. That is a fairly nice and benign motion, except for the fact that the application involves smashing an opponent’s arm from opposing directions, probably doing considerable damage to any joints like the elbow, which might get caught up in the action.

Would have been, except that I was doing dao juan gong, “reverse reeling”, though I prefer its alternate name, “repulse the monkey”. Your body is moving backward although one hand is exerting force to the front. One hand reaches back behind yourself, then pushes forward, scraping over the lower hand, which moves in toward the body while sinking down to the level of the dantian.

The Sha family version has in interesting, seldom seen variation, in which – while the body is stretched to the maximum in opposite directions, hands front and back – you lift the front foot up to the lead hand before stepping down, moving back, and pushing forward with the upper hand. This version requires much more balance and dexterity - and is quite beautiful when done well.

The first three in the series of four had gone smoothly. Just when I had reached back on the fourth and final, and stretched myself maximally in opposing directions front and back, I felt the string, plucked it with the hand behind me. It was stretching from neighbor’s house to our tree, having been blown down lower by the previous day’s wind. I had been watching it a few days, above me as I practiced outdoors. But this time, unknown to me, it had fallen within my reach. I stretched back in the motion, happened to touch it, became aware of it, hesitated an instant, moved my hand slightly, and continued the motions of the form.

Somehow, I did not break it, only gave it a good shake, probably gave a good scare to the spider who had spun it. Being freed of all constraints of ego, I of course felt no satisfaction in my martial accomplishments whatsoever. Those non-masters of lesser martial accomplishment would surely have snapped the string, after all. But me...I had shown the light touch of mastery not to an opponent, but to a hapless spider on its web.

These spiders suddenly appear in late November. Out of nowhere. One morning, the beginnings of their webs can be seen everywhere, single strands of web stretching from branch to branch and from roof to tree. They are called jorou gumo, which could be literally translated as “prostitute spiders”, or more loosely as man-snarers. Japanese folklore links them with waterfalls and pools of water and the ensnaring of the unwary. Perhaps they are not so hapless after all.

You can read more about them here: and you can see some here:
There is also a story by Tanizaki in which they figure in the title, and which was later made into a movie.

I have always been fascinated by these spiders and their webs, which sometimes stretch for several meters through the air. They fly through the air on gusts of winter wind, carrying a strand of web with them as they go, reaching out and crossing vast distances in the spider world. I like the idea of something both fragile and strong, shaken but not blown down by the wind. I always take care not to disturb these webs when gardening or trimming trees in the spacious one meter of “garden” surrounding my house.

So I must admit a guilty streak of pleasure upon realizing the lightness of my touch, the softness of my reaction as my fingers played upon that strand behind me. But at the same time, I must also recognize the instant of hesitation I felt, that moment of awareness. Sigh, the path of True Mastery still lies far ahead of me.

Meanwhile, all the jorou gumo are gone, vanished as suddenly as they came. I actually wrote the first (and better, if I may) version of this post last night, and JUST as I finished, some evil entity entered my laptop and wiped out everything I had written but the links. Were I not a True Master, I would have uttered some few strong words under the cover of darkness and solitude.

This morning, I went out to take more pictures (you can find one back on the “REEEEEEEN” or however-many E’s post), but they had all disappeared, the spiders and their webs. So I am left with memory traces of the post written last night and that instant of slight stickiness and awareness as my fingers caressed a string but produced no sound.

(picture from one of the Universities which hosted an Olympic event, probably wrestling, in Beijing)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

end of the year approaching

Days, weeks, months are slipping past too quickly and another year as well. I may have had less practice time this year than in any of the almost 20 prior years, before things got serious. Being slightly under-employed at the moment, I am racking up some nice end-of-the-year sessions but it can’t make up for the entire year of not-quite-enough.

Still, I am happy to have as much training time as I do, and regular access to the best teachers. It has been a year of both broadening and deepening my overall experience, and the stage is set for much more of the same next year. Yet I will be striving more for deepening than broadening, digging in more deeply in the current areas rather than exploring so much around the edges. It is time to go back and re-examine and strengthen my foundations.

I have already been assigned my main theme in training for 2009 – to get my middle section moving much more. My hips and shoulders have gotten looser, but that vast expanse between them has been neglected. Above dantian/ tanden, below the collar bones – nothing is happening there, or precious little, when I move.

Just three weeks until the new year and so many events on the horizon. Another demo/ tournament this coming Sunday, one in January, another in February. March will likely see another trip to Kunming and the Sha family. Somewhere in there I will get down to Okinawa. A trip to see Liu Laoshi in Beijing this spring would also be good, before his annual summer visit to Tokyo.

And in between, the challenge of everyday practice. Having a single goal for an entire year seems a bit much, but when I think of how quickly the years have been passing recently, I almost wonder if even more time will be needed to work on this one point which creeps into all the Chinese arts I practice.

(picture from a bell tower in Beijing which became (in)famous during the Olympics

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Beijing leftovers (6): more Liu Laoshi sightings

should be cleaning my room or studying languages or SOMEthing but here I am, buzzing around the internet and I find back-to-back Liu Laoshi references. Once at where there is a Joseph Crandall translation of a book co-authored by Liu (and I thought I had everything of his in English and Chinese...), once again at where there is a new post with some (probably commercially available) video footage of Liu Laoshi running through 八大掌 or the 8 big/main palms (and I thought I had most of his readily available video...). The rest of the night is clear: close the laptop, put on some shoes and start walking the circle outside.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

random thoughts and meetings

1. was running a bit late for my afternoon job today, mumbled bad words to myself upon just missing the train that would have gotten me there on time. hit the bottom of the stairs to the train platform, rounded the corner, and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, one of my teachers coming down the stairs from above. 10 seconds faster, and I would have been on the train that just pulled out, would not have even seen my teacher. as it was, we rode in sometime-silence and sometime-conversation. talking about the future, what I will do if/when back in the US. it was a much-needed and long-overdue talk. chance is like that, bringing us unexpected meetings and opportunities if only we keep our eyes open.
2. about a year back, I was making one of my many pilgrimages across town for a shot at kendo 4-dan. I was a bit ahead of schedule and sauntered onto the slow train rather than rushing for the express. I plunked my gear down, looked up, and saw a 8-dan kendo sensei at the opposite end of the train – I knew him from lunchtime practice at the Postal Ministry, though not well. still, it was an odd coincidence. weird. my gaze returned to directly in front of me – and there sat A. Shihan from my karate organization, Kenkojuku Shotokan. moving across town on his way to a karate event. weirder. there was over a century of martial arts experience just in those two men on the train. we chatted across town. I had faded pretty well out of the organization at this point but still see him each year for an interpreting gig, running J/E for he and some foreigner kids who came for a brief “this is karate” experience while on their university exchange program here in Japan. the signs were auspicious, but I didn’t pass kendo 4-dan that time, either.
3. tonight’s practice – not such an influence of chance, just a good one. we have a twice-monthly sword class with the teacher mentioned above – tonight, his off night, a few of us gathered for group self-practice. I have plenty of complaints about how a lot of people study both Chinese and Japanese martial arts in this country. I am hopelessly old-school and lack the patience to put up with various foibles and annoyances. but tonight those of us who came fit together very well. I am not a fan of practicing with others without a teacher – far too much time is wasted on inane points and pointless discussion, far better to practice alone. but tonight was special – we had just the right feeling and practiced together well. we each remembered and shared different points from the teacher and really moved ahead as a group (working on Sha Style tai ji jian / sword number 1). plenty of repetition, mutual self-correction with just the right feeling. also some runs through a sequence of 长拳/ long fist -based sword motions. this, too, went well – helping each other remember details, good balance of sheer reps and occasional discussion, everything one could ask for in a practice.
4. tomorrow is Happy Wednesday – practice with Mr. T in the morning, again in the afternoon, and yet again at night. I keep work out of the picture, still have time with my daughter.
5. the other night, just before the local mitaka tournament I FINALLY found mention of Di Ma on the internet, she having taken part in a healing festival. I immediately wrote the contact information and requested their help in contacting her (my main tai ji teacher back in Nebraska, all those years ago). no reply yet, but I feel that things are moving in a good direction. what led me to try that particular (successful) combination of words on a google search that particular night??? once again there were auspicious signs, but my demonstration of the 杂式捶 za shi chui form from xing yi quan was not good enough to win an award even in the admittedly small mitaka tournament…

Monday, December 1, 2008

Chen Shadows

after Mitaka's small-but-good tournament...


Finally got a follow-up lesson in Chen Style over the weekend – spent a morning in the park reviewing the old and plunging further into the new than expected. There is no regular class for this one, so there are some long gaps between lessons, long sessions of self-practice. That approach has worked well for me in areas in which I have some grounding, some foundation. But Chen Shi is so different from the other styles of tai ji I have studied.

Once again, I dug out that old video of me working through a Chen form with Di Ma back in Nebraska almost fifteen years back. On a whim, I tried yet again to find a trace of her on the internet, having lost contact over the years. This time, I found something, a healing festival in which she had participated (she had begun to teach much more Qi Gong just about the time I left Lincoln). Still waiting for a reply from the contact addresses I found on the site…

My movements were so stiff and clunky…maybe I will look back on my current self, fifteen years down the road, and say the same thing again. But these cycles can only lead up – the clunkiness of 15 years ago, of 10 years, 5 years back. What I may come to see in the future as the clunkiness of 2008…surely the level of klunk is moving upward?

Spiraling upward, not merely circling on a flat, horizontal plane. That kind of spiraling is supposed to be a key element of Chen Style, though you wouldn’t know it from my current level of klunk. For now, it is all corners, but they will be slowly rounded down and made beautiful. I have the feeling I am going someplace good…

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Whoever invented bogu / armor for kendo did something great. Back in the 1700s in Japan, people practiced kenjutsu – old style/ koryu which was done with wooden swords called bokuto or bokken. This was great, because practicing with live blades is nice and realistic and all, but one slip and you are injured or dead.
But practice with wooden swords can also result in injury and occasional death if gone at full force. So you sacrifice some realism to enhance safety, pull the blows just short of contact…but again, one slip and you have severe pain or injury.
There is a lot to be said for the realism which comes with such practice, though I have not experienced it first hand. Nope, in our relatively peaceful world, I welcome the trade-offs that come with increased safety. Using bamboo swords, for example, is a marked departure in shape (straight vs. curved), cutting style, and the awareness brought about by being in proximity of a live blade. Their use also allows us to practice kendo with virtually no fear of injury, meaning that we can lead work and family lives.
Back in the 1700s, people began to wear armor designed not for the battlefield but for the blows of bamboo swords called shinai. Hence the beginnings of kendo as we know it today. The number of areas to strike with the shinai is quite limited and it corresponds to those places where bogu is worn: the head (men), wrists (kote), side of torso (doh), and throat (the sole legitimate target for a thrust or tsuki).
While having bogu is a great thing – there is one great drawback.

The smell. The armor is not washable. Nor does it dry quickly when soaked with sweat, especially in the humid summers of Japan. Let’s see…practice a couple or few times a week for just a year and the accumulated sweat stink is abominable. It comes with the practice and you get used to it, though those around you cannot be expected to do the same.
Anyhow, I bought a new pair of kote the week before last week’s kendo grading. My prior best pair was getting a bit frayed along one edge and I didn’t want to risk being failed due to the external appearance of my equipment (which is a very real fear). Also, the leather lining of the palm had just begun to tear.
And I was quite happy to have a pair of kote which didn’t stink with the accumulation of years of sweat. But the leather lining of the new pair has a peculiar odor all its own, one that may not be gone until it has been overcome by the stench of sweat.
I failed the exam anyway, due to my performance and technique rather than to my equipment. And I remain quite happy with my new kote, despite their unusual scent. Some kind of protection, old and stinky or new and smelly, is necessary. We must vie with unknown opponents and wrestle with stink. Truly, the world of kendo is not for the timid.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Shinsa 1: The Losers' Train

It is a train full of people hauling their kendo equipment home, none of them looking very happy. We carefully avoid eye contact with each other, even though we are spread noticeably through the train with conspicuous bags full of bogu (armor worn in kendo) and bags full of bamboo and wooden swords.

We are the losers, the people who didn’t pass the 4th or 5th dan (level) exam in kendo, offered three times a year here in Tokyo. About 1000 people come to each test, so they need to weed people out quickly. The first part of the test is jitsugi, the actual contest on the floor with two opponents.

The three-digit numbers of those with that special something are posted on a board after a long wait. They are the people taking pictures of the board. Everyone else turns around and slinks out quietly. We don’t even get to show our stuff in the kata (forms) portion of the exam. Nor do we get to hand in the written tests after slaving over them for hours (at least of us who are not native Japanese speakers).

With such a low pass rate and so many people gathered for the test, every train moving out in the early afternoon is full of those who didn’t make the grade. The number of bogu-bearers is diminished slowly, a few at each stop. I live on the other edge of town, so I witness the slow exodus and am among the last off the train.

Today was my 12th or 13th or somethingth try. The 4th dan exam is notoriously difficult, with a pass rate hovering around 15% or so. Unlike most countries in the world, in Japan the idea is to let people run up through the ranks (shodan, 2dan, 3dan) pretty quickly and easily – then things suddenly get tough at 4dan.

There are a few non-mortals among us who do the much-hallowed ippatsu – taking 4dan in one try. But they are few and far between. And you won’t find them on the losers’ train.

In my defense I will note that I took iaido 4dan in one shot, but that is not much consolation (nor is it much-hallowed) on a cold and rainy Sunday in Tokyo, moving across town on that slow, silent train.

Friday, November 7, 2008


someone in the neighborhood just fired up a power tool. Other peoples’ noise means one thing…I can make noise without fear of disturbing Harmony in the neighborhood.

There are two kinds of noise I like to make. If the miscreant power tool is disturbing the peace only briefly, I go to the makiwara striking post and fire off some one-twos, thwack thwack, thwack thwack. Nothing like punching an unmoving opponent to make me feel accomplished.

If someone is working on a big project and making lots of noise, it is time to get out the spear.

I got the wooden shaft from a friend on one of his trips to Taiwan, later got the metal tip on one of his later trips (both to see his Sifu). It is not so common here in Japan, but since I have been working on one of his spear forms, I did it the Taiwanese (really old mainland style, since his teacher’s branch of the line fled to Taiwan after the excitement in 1949) way, and put little metal balls in the tip to rattle with each focused motion of the spear.

My noise-making was brief today, and was followed by explorations in nature, all one meter of the ground surrounding my little house here in Tokyo. Perfect twilight moment, the setting sun and the rising moon both visible. Above me one of the autumn spiders had been wrapping some fresh prey in a web which vibrated with each thwack of mine. The spider kept on undisturbed, in fact stopping its motions only after I stopped my punches. In the other corner, I spooked a frog who had come out from the jungle of ivy just before I passed.

Such excitement and wonder. I have been cooped up in the house too long.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


tuo is one of the twelve animal forms in xing yi quan. I am not sure what it is exactly – various translations refer to alligators, water lizards, water striders, and so on. It is one of the simpler animal forms, essentially one motion repeated side to side while advancing with a zig-zag step.
For the past five years, we have been working on one version of the twelve animal forms and several of them are essentially a single motion, repeated over and over (tiger, horse [single- and double-fist versions], snake, tai {another strange creature, some kind of bird], the eagle-and-bear combination) – just over half, now that I think about it.
The other five (swallow, sparrow-hawk, chicken, monkey, dragon) are more complicated, with much greater variety of motion.
We had a hint of things to come two years back when Liu Laoshi came to Tokyo and briefly taught a special, more complicated version of the horse form. This year, he brought over “new” versions of a few other animal forms, all far more complicated. Mr. T has been leading us in review of the “new” tiger and it is truly a new beast altogether. We just started reviewing the “new” monkey this week, which is not so much more complicated than the prior one.
The picture above shows two different ways to write the character “tuo”. When I asked him this summer in Beijing, Liu Laoshi cast about, picked up a rock and scratched out the two versions on the pavement.
You don’t have to look far in Chinese parks to find someone “painting” Chinese characters on the pavement with a brush dipped in water. There is something beautiful in watching the character be drawn, and something mysterious in watching it slowly fade to dryness before your eyes.
Characters scratched with rocks may last a bit longer but are similarly impermanent. Despite the hardness of the rock, the characters drawn possess a similar beauty to those done with water and brush.
I had asked how to write the character, and nodded with understanding and satisfaction when he finished the first version. Then he went on with the second. I wonder how many ways that character can be written. And I also wonder how many more versions of the twelve animals he has up his sleeve.

Monday, November 3, 2008


It’s been a busy budo weekend: Zaimusho kendo Friday night, Chinese stuff Saturday and Sunday, Meiji Jingu demos today (see prior post). And somewhere in there was a long-overdue first visit to the famed Koubukan Dojo in Nakano, Tokyo.

One dojo member – whom I met a couple weeks prior at a kendo tournament – had put together a sort of gaijin kendo bash, drawing 40 foreigners from around Japan (two from Singapore, in town for today’s all-Japan kendo championships) as well as a couple Japanese who had lived abroad for some time.

He had hoped for 20 and gotten 40, not bad at all. Ozawa Sensei watched while the show was run by and for we gaijins. The format was unusual and good – three separate 30-minute sessions of practice or keiko, each punctuated by a 10-minute break to rest and, more importantly, to commiserate.

Everything was quite free (choosing your own practice partner, feedback if appropriate, “lining up” in a circle) but all the necessary decorum was also observed – a nice respite from the sometimes overformal martial arts world in Japan. Really, everything was done exceptionally well and I look forward to the next time.

Kind of a funny feeling – at most practices in this country I am the only foreigner present. At most big events like gradings and tournaments, there is usually a handful of foreigners who already know each other or who get to know each other quickly. Yet here we were, basically a dojo full of foreigners in Japan blasting away on each other and doing it the right way, good kendo.

New friends made, old friends seen again after many years – cheers to all.


Today (Nov. 3) was Culture Day in Japan, as good enough an excuse for a national holiday as any. Because there is so much culture in Japan, I am annually the victim of double booking. You’ve got the all-Japan kendo tournament over here, and the Meiji Jingu Koryu whatever-kai over there. Know lots of people at both, need to go to both. And the winner is….

Meiji Jingu, a shrine in the heart of a mini-forest in the heart of Tokyo which hosts an annual demo of various koryu or traditional martial arts, some with histories/ lineages stretching back centuries, the oldest more than twice as old as the US.

I used to go and religiously videotape all the koryu for “preservation” purposes, certain that each performance I witnessed was a jewel to be treasured and, with the magic of video, saved for posterity. The number of videotapes piled up and the time to actually watch them shrank.

Today I spent more time playing with four kids than watching the demos, and didn’t do any taping, despite having taken my videocamera. It was good. An afternoon of wrestling and playing Frisbee and arbitrating disputes among four kids is also a treasure, one that cannot be captured on video.

Met friends and seniors from years back, regular acquaintances, and some surprise visitors. Even strangers have become familiar faces who demo year after year. There are enough groups involved to run two demos simultaneously, side by side. We are really spoiled, such a concentration of great martial arts action just a train ride away.

But some of the magic has worn off. Over the years I have become too aware of the political infighting and bullshit in and among many of the groups demonstrating. It has become harder to separate great technique from not-so-great personality. There is also a tendency toward insularity within some of the groups, one which prevents true appreciation of other groups.

Even so, it is still a great experience every year. And one thing never changes – they finish with a demo by one of the groups preserving the centuries-old style of firing guns. It is always a crowd favorite, with participants in age-old armor, the packing of powder, the roar of the guns – and the hundreds of giant blackbirds startled from their roosts who go circling over the park while cawing in dismay, disrupted once each year by the die-hards trying desperately to preserve a small piece of traditional Japanese culture.

(photos from yabusame exhibition, in which mounted riders fire arrows from galloping horses, also an annual crowd favorite)

Friday, October 31, 2008


Kami ichi mai (紙一枚) : I hear a lot of references to this lately in kendo. Literally, “one sheet of paper”. That is how much progress we make in a practice. And we are piling up these sheets of paper, slowly. So we can’t really be aware of our own progress in the short space of a single practice. But over time, with many practices, many sheets of paper get piled up and the stack is noticeably larger. Part of the message is “don’t despair” – we might feel like we are not getting anywhere, not making any progress, but it is happening, just more slowly than we can see in an instant.

I heard it used in a very different way last week. I went to a local naginata tournament. Naginata is like kendo in that two people face each other in a match wearing armor called bogu which is worn to protect the spots that are targets to be hit. The naginata is about two meters long and has a curved blade on the end – one made of bamboo in the modern sport version of naginata.

But the body mechanics are completely different between kendo and naginata. In the latter, the body is turned sideways rather than front-facing (as in kendo). And the feet are not parallel but are turned out.

After the matches were over, the Sensei’s main comment was “kami ichi mai” – in this case referring to the need to keep the heels raised just off the floor, for maximum mobility. All of the participants suffered from a certain flat-footedness which slowed their speed, she said.

It had been a long time since I had seen most of the people in this group. The top fighters had grown quickly, more quickly than I had anticipated. Despite the teacher’s words, I saw clearly that I had been surpassed by people who used to be below me. When I go back for practice, I will have much to learn from them, be they flat-footed or otherwise. They have been adding those sheets, one by one, while I have been idling.

(photo above is of equipment used in Ten Do Ryu Naginata, one of the two main branches of koryu or old-style naginata still practiced in the Tokyo area. There are techniques for jo (really a naginata with the blade broken off in action), nito ryu (two swords style), kusarigama (go look it up) and other weapons. But in most of the practice, the senior student wields a bokuto or wooden sword against the wooden naginata used by the lower student).

Monday, October 27, 2008

no people

Picture above is from Teishin Dojo, which used to be located inside the Japanese Postal Ministry and used to offer a short-but-excellent lunchtime kendo practice. I say used to because it was closed down back in 2006 as part of the wave of privatization which swept the Japanese government.

I wrote an article on the dojo’s closing for Kendo World magazine in 2007 (interested parties, please contact me and I can send the text by email). This morning, I was giving copies of the article to a few people. One of them glanced at the pictures and said, “there are no people in the pictures, only things”.

His comment stung an instant – I rather liked the photos. But he was right – no people in motion. I could beg off on technological issues, as I am armed with a cheap digital camera which captures the blurs of people in motion quite well…but in fact I had chosen to take these photos, and I had recommended these photos for the layout.

He said the pictures did not show the feeling or environment of the dojo. But I wonder – must every article about kendo use the same photos? Here are two people with tips crossed in kamae, here is someone landing a great strike to the head, oh, look, here is someone kneeling in seiza, taking off their armor (bogu). I did find an appropriate irony in his comment, as in fact the people have all been removed from that dojo…

And I will be keeping his comment in mind in the future. I am even now working on a profile of a Sensei at a different dojo. And I snapped some shots of people in kamae (and landing a shot to the head, and taking off bogu…) a couple weeks back. But, honestly, I prefer the other pictures. Look for those in Kendo World later as well.

(photo above appeared in Kendo World volume 3.4 Also, KW can be found online at


I hit kote today, a very nice shot.

This is not, by any means, big news in the world of kendo. But this was, for me, a very special kote.

Kote is the wrist, one of the four targets in kendo. Getting whacked with a bamboo sword hurts but does not cut or (usually) injure. To allow people to practice together in a basically injury-free environment, kendo people wear armor which covers the head (men), wrists (kote), sides of the waist (dou/doh), and, for protection against thrusts (tsuki), a piece of armor covering the throat.

We can argue day and night about the realism or combat effectiveness of kendo, which limits strikes solely to those areas protected by armor (compare most schools of old-style koryu bujutsu, which are full of strikes exactly to those areas without armor or where the opponent’s armor would be weakest). Kendo allows us to strike (or cut, more properly) the opponent. Kenjutsu and other koryu bujutsu require that blows be pulled, just short of actual contact, though with full intention. So each has points to recommend it as well as limitations. Given endless time, energy and money for practice, as well as access to good teachers, you would of course do both. But here in the real world…

Back to the kote. In a typical kendo practice, you should try a variety of attacks to a variety of targets. But in some practice situations you practice with little or no variation.

One of the many excellent teachers at morning practice shares much time with me. Unlike the case with most opponents, we don’t have matches, though, trying to “win” by scoring a point. With him, practice is nothing but ai-men, the simultaneous striking of men by both parties. And it goes long, 20 or 30 minutes, sometimes longer, of doing nothing but lining up, crossing tips, probing and firing an attack on men. There is only one goal: driving directly down the center and taking men. No feints, no combination attacks, and certainly no head-dodging to avoid getting hit cleanly when receiving.

Every once in a while he will slip under and take my kote as I go for men. No problem, just go again and again. Men, men, men. But it can’t be mindless or robotic – you have to make each shot real, as if it were your only chance to strike him. And never look at the clock, no matter how tired you get. Just keep going with determination and don’t worry about the time.
Every once in a while I slip in a different technique but it usually draws a frown – it is only a distraction from the task at hand, an evasion.
My job is to throw a clean, orthodox men attack. It is, in one sense, an exercise in futility, because I am not going to land any of these attacks unless he lets me have one, perhaps judging that my set-up and technique were proper. And yet it is this hopeless practice which builds the correct technique which will someday blast through and land on top of his head.
This morning, out of nowhere, I dropped a kote which landed just right and drew the briefest of nods from him. It had the right snap at the end, not my usual heavy plonking down. I hadn’t planned on going for kote at all – it just dropped out of nowhere. But after that, it was men all the way.
People had long since faded off to work and the floor had gone from being more crowded than usual to hosting a single pair of combatants. The drum sounded to finish practice and we both fired off a final shot at men.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Just a brief note to explain the flurry of posts tonight. Blame it all on Nebraska - or on not going to Nebraska.

8:30 PM. My daughter fell asleep a bit early and I faced a weighty moral dilemma. Go to Nebraska or stay home and blog. The answer was clear.

I first visited Nebraska bar in the musicians' nexus of Koenji/Nakano in Tokyo about 13 years back. I had come to live in Tokyo just a few months before and all was still new and fresh to me. Two respected long-time martial artists were heading back to the US for a month and were apparently desperate, for they asked me to house-sit for them.
If I knew then what I know now...I would have quit all work and spent 24 hours a day in their vast library of budo-related books and videos.
Well, I did soak in a bit. And one night went out for drinks and more drinks and somewhere along the way stumbled into a now-defunct okonomiyaki eatery where somebody's grandmother regaled me with drunken tales of hardship in the post-War years (the area around Nakano station was completely flattened in one bombing raid, thus accounting for the unusual presence of straight streets in Tokyo) as I scribbled notes inside the cover of a Milan Kundera novel. And somewhere else along the way I stumbled into a tiny bar with about 7 stools called Nebraska. A haven for rock musicians after their live performances, it grabbed me right away and I had a wonderful night in that smoky den named after my home state.

And couldn't find it the next night. Or for the next year or so. But one night, on a lark, I determined to wander that area until I found it. I started out at the apartment where I had house-sat, and walked an ever-larger circle, backing up whenever I hit a dead end but leaving no street unwalked. It took a while, but I did manage to rediscover it, and have been back many times since. But I didn't make it tonight, and that's why I have been blogging like I haven't blogged since I was in Beijing.


I spent much of 1999 living in Wenzhou, China and was fortunate enough to be introduced to Mr. Wu, who taught me the 42-movement taiji form in one-on-one lessons each morning. The mornings were early and waking up after long nights of kendo and post-kendo refreshments was sometimes grueling. But each lesson with him was a treasure and I now miss those mornings and the individual attention.
Mr. Wu remains a good friend and I hope to learn from him again in the future, though he is currently in the US (in Missouri, next door to my state, Nebraska) and I am in Japan. He will be moving to Europe about the time I get back to Nebraska. Another case of bad timing in my life.
After 1999, I made several follow-up trips to Wenzhou – both to continue my studies with Mr. Wu and to see my good friends there (kendo friends and otherwise). On every visit, our lessons were similar – early morning in a parking lot or on a rooftop. Basically an English – taiji exchange. Some days I felt it a bit heavy on the English, but again, I now miss those mornings terribly.
He is soft-spoken and knowledgeable but is certainly not directive. For him, everything in taiji should be natural and in accord with our personalities. He was seldom specific about details – “just do it naturally and you will improve”. This was/is in stark contrast to most teaching in Japanese arts, in which every aspect is circumscribed in detail and in which each and every detail, angle, and distance can be judged correct or incorrect.

So the few times when he made clear pronouncements left a great impact upon me. Two of them have been ringing in my head recently.
1. There was a person in the town with long experience and much skill but “he practices many styles of taiji and sometimes mixes them up”. At the time I was most surprised to hear such a frank evaluation of another person. More recently, the words point to me – I am getting cozy with a growing number of taiji forms and must keep his words in mind, constantly stay on top of things to avoid mixing up my forms.
2. “Almost no one can master both the hard and soft styles”. At that time, karate was still a major part of my practice, and my karate was still stiff and hard, not smooth. He didn’t refer to karate directly, but the point was clear. Ten years later, I am deeper than I ever imagined in the internal arts, but I do keep up bits of external practice as well. Once again, I feel it important to keep his words with me.

Simple messages, really, but they have meant a lot to me lately. Was thinking about them both today as I began a Chen style taiji form. In the park, surrounded by university students practicing a variety of soft and hard styles, internal and external. For some years now I have wanted to (re-)start the Chen style, but only recently did it feel the time was right and I asked my teacher about it.
Last night, I dug out an old video of myself from about 15 years ago in Lincoln. (Damn, I was in good shape back then!) It was a hot, muggy night near the end of summer. My taiji friend and I had been learning a Chen form from our teacher, Di Ma. She was moving to Texas, and we begged her to let us record the form, and her teaching us, on video. I was shirtless, betraying all the more the stiffness of my karate-driven motions even while trying to do taiji.
My friend and I didn’t know the form well – we were just able to string the motions together ABC, 123, connect the dots (though she was far better than I). But it was too late – or too early – our timing was off. Di Ma was moving away and we had not yet learned the form well at all. I helped move them and drove one of the trucks all the way to Dallas, Texas, where I got out to see my family. They drove on to El Paso, and that was the last I saw of her.
Over the years, we both lost the form. We also lost track of Di Ma, and can’t find anyone who knows where she is (blatant appeal for help, if anyone has a clue….). So much was lost. How I would like to meet Di Ma today, ask for her instruction again.

I had doubts this morning, thinking it might be too early, I have too many other things not yet mastered…but I also recalled words I heard yesterday – if I don’t start soon, it might be too late. I don’t want to miss the timing again.
The form I started this morning appears to be the same one on that grainy, unlit video from years back. There is no audio on the video. I wish I could recall what advice and cautions she gave us that night, one of our last practices together.

picture from a 2007 practice in Toyama Park


1. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, and I still fall for it. You think you are getting comfortable with a form, then somebody has you perform it facing a different direction. Suddenly, you are not so comfortable.

I think I suffer more than others because I am very location-based in my learning. Not just martial arts, but everything – I am quite slow at remembering language students’ names, but I can easily recall who sat where. Likewise, I can remember where I was – and which direction I was facing – when learning various forms.

Learning the bagua swimming body form is a great example. Liu Laoshi taught us in Tokyo in 2007. It was a great form to learn but a little frustrating because in many spots, the directions/ facings were not fixed. Pretty common in Chinese martial arts, but my core may still lie in the Japanese arts I began with. And in those arts, everything is fixed, determined.
So we weren’t told to turn 270 degrees before swooping out from under with the left palm – no, you just turn an appropriate amount. So I fixed on one corner of the gym and drilled it. Months later, some people asked me to help them review. They wanted to know how many degrees to turn. I could only say that in my case, if you start facing this way, you end up aiming for the corner which should be here…
Liu Laoshi, with over 50 years in the business, can say something like “oh, no problem, turn 180 degrees, OK, turn 235 degrees, OK”. But not people like me. Not yet.

Anyway, I thought I was getting comfortable reviewing the Sun style taiji form. And I was always oriented the same direction in the little parking area next to my house. Last night for fun, I moved into the one-meter strip of ground on the other side of the house. It is narrow and confined, but trees hang overhead and the bugs make nice bug sounds at night – can’t say that for the paved parking area.
And there I was, stuck for a moment in the middle of the form, without my usual bearings. Obviously a ways to go before having learned it deeply…

2.) Tonight I had some spare time before dinner and went out to my preferred practice spot, a much larger public area a few hundred meters from my home. When next door in the parking stall, my daughter can open the door and yell at me if dinner is ready, if she must play cards with me NOW, or whatever.
But in the public space (kamisan hiroba), I have more seclusion. A line of trees makes a wall which almost blocks view of occasionally passing traffic. The night is full of sounds which help transport me out of the heart of the city.
Or so it was. Last week the city must have come in and trimmed the trees and tall grasses. The entire place had been mowed down, leaving only the eight or so trees – and their lower branches had been cut off as well. I was completely exposed, and much of the magic of the spot has been taken away. And it threw off my practice a bit, having to perform in front of those passing by, no longer hidden away behind a wall of brush and shrubs.
Maybe I have been hiding away too long and it is time to show others – this is my taiji, this is my xing yi quan…

picture snapped at the Beijing Olympics. fang song!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Olympic wushu tournament

武术比赛 or Wushu Tournament Beijing 2008 was simply named and well-run. It was designed to showcase the best talents among wushu competitors from around the world and is part of the motion toward having wushu designated as an Olympic sport. It would have been quite fitting if China could have hosted wushu as an Olympic event in this time of many lucky 8s, but at least the wheels are in motion.
Running from August 21-24, it risked being overlooked among all the prominent and well-known sports events being run at various venues around Beijing. But fans who gathered at the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium proved that wushu had not been forgotten among all the Olympic excitement.
The competition is split into taolu (套路, forms) and sanshou (散手, fighting) divisions, with men and women competing separately in each. Taolu entrants compete in Chang Quan (长拳 , long fist), Nan Quan (南拳, Southern fist), and taijiquan (太极拳) for open hands routines. Weapons routines included: dao or broadsword(刀), Southern broadsword (南刀), the double-edged jian (剑), taiji sword (太极剑), staff (棍), Southern staff (南棍), and spear (枪).
It featured 128 athletes from 43 countries competing in a total of 15 events. There were also a few dances and somewhat vaguely wushu-like group performances which, frankly, seemed quite out of place. And controversy, oh yes. At least in the Japanese press.
Basically this event was held to legitimize the presence of wushu as an Olympic-sport-to-be (that it WILL become an Olympic sport has already been decided by the Chinese). Winners in the wushu competition were given gold, silver, and bronze medals almost identical in every way to those awarded to the Olympians in recognized sports. Also, wushu competitors dined and slept in the Olympic Village, putting them on an equal basis (gasp, shock) with the “real” Olympic athletes. For some reason, these two points got a lot of mention in the Japanese mainstream press, though the competitions themselves seemed to lack coverage. The competitors also had their own Olympic logo with the same design as those of other sports (see photo), but this did not draw the scrutiny of the Japanese press.
Due to work obligations, I could only watch one day of the competition, but it was a treat and provided me with many good memories. The level of some of the Sanshou competition was lower than I expected, but most of it was exciting and stimulating.
The best moment came at the conclusion of the Tunisia-Iran Womens’ Sanshou fight. It was well-fought though too many blows fell a bit too short (too wary of excessive contact calls?). The judges’ decision was visible a moment before the ref approached to raise the winner’s hand. She felt that the other competitor had beaten her, and kept her hands solidly behind her back, drawing a look of surprise from the French referee. After a few uneasy moments, he took her hand from behind her back and raised it, at which the crowd laughed and roared with approval (for both competitors).

Photos include (1) members of the American team and a supporter (2) Olympic logo for the wushu competition

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ending, beginning

I love the feeling of completing a new form – that is part of the addiction of martial arts for me. But it never really ends, does it? You’ve got to keep practicing it to recall the gross motions, then drill it endlessly to get the finer motions. Then you start playing with different timings, different applications. And you have to start training back-to-back with similar but different routines, making sure everything is fully consolidated and separated.

Sunday was the third day-long seminar in the Sun style tai ji form (the competition form, 73 moves. Any Sun stylists would not be satisfied with it, I am sure…) and we have finished connecting the dots to string the motions together after months between each seminar.

So I have finished/ begun a new form and have the joy of playing with a new toy. But this is not a toy to be set aside once the initial excitement fades for the child

Sun style is one of the five main styles of taiji. I don’t have plans in the near future to go any more deeply into the Sun system – this form is enough to give a taste. Mere mortals cannot master all five main styles. I am pretty satisfied with this exposure to the Sun style – it should keep me satisfied for some time.

It has many similarities to the Sha family taiji routines. Actually, the reverse is true. Sha Guo Zheng (Sha family patriarch) was a devoted student of Sun Lu Tang and paid tribute to the Sun style in several movements when creating his own routines. That connection alone is enough to draw me in for a taste of Sun style – but now it is back to work on more long-term projects, such as those Sha family routines (while keeping the Sun form alive).

As always, I feel lightness and heaviness at the same time. The lightness is the excitement of wrestling with and coming to understand something new. The heaviness is the burden of maintaining a wide spread of routines…

Monday, October 20, 2008

a day off

Busy and relaxing days recently. I will regret the lack of income later, but just now having a Monday off is the best feeling. Review in the morning, cementing the Sun style tai ji (73) form, doing it fresh after yesterday’s seminar. Review in the afternoon, too, blending into the night as twilight fell quickly to darkness. More Sun style, lots of sword work, still not enough time.

And I read some today, too. Yes I, the former used bookstore co-owner, now without a non-budo page turned in weeks or longer. At this rate, and with the size of the book (Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story), I will still be working on this one next year.

Friday night was a banner night – my daughter and I went to Gong Fu class and she actually trained for the entire class for the first time, no breaks to play or draw. Saturday night was also a banner night – an old kendo friend visiting from way up north in Tsugaru. We visited an excellent practice in an elementary school gym in the downtown Shitamachi area. The teacher is 83 and still damn strong, taking on a row of 7dans at a different dojo practice.

Last week I was massacred in a kendo tournament in the same elementary school dojo. Couldn’t score a point on either opponent, though I did get one of the three refs to raise his flag. I’ve never been a tournament guy and much prefer to just practice, as we did on Saturday. Still, I was a bit more fired up than usual, still licking wounds from the prior week and drawing on that energy.

Getting up early tomorrow for morning kendo practice. Listening to the night sounds just now - crickets and bugs outside, footsteps fading, a siren in the distance, then the sound of a train. 5 AM wakeup comes much too early...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

thoughts in the rain

Sword class tonight, shifting gears from Sha family tai ji jian work into some basics for the jian/ straight sword, drawn from sword routines for chang quan / long fist. Completely different, then, these quicker and more punctuated motions, a very different way to handle the sword.
Got to thinking about this in comparison to kendo. A key difference between Japanese and Chinese sword practice is that in kendo, there is always an actual opponent present, one who is trying their best to hit you, even as your goal is the same. There are tons of great solo routines and a few nice partner routines, but the latter are completely pre-arranged, so the Chinese side lacks a certain psychological pressure which is ever-present in kendo. We could go on and on about the relative merits of each – suffice it to say that each is an essential part of my practice.
Somewhere in there I also got to thinking about the work of the blade after it has pierced the skin, particularly in relation to thrusts. There is a danger in kendo of being satisfied with merely striking the opponent with a bamboo sword (shinai), not being concerned with the detailed work of the blade as one might be in, say, iaido practice. A mere thrust will of course do some nasty damage, but the other person is left with relatively small and closed wound – and might be around to return the favor. While working on tonight’s new motions and new way of handling the sword, I began experimenting a bit.
The sword is drawn back a bit for a thrust, held with the palm facing out. On the thrust, the hand and blade rotate 180 degrees, so the palm finishes facing in. The key point is where in the motion to rotate the blade – a typical taiji motion would emphasize a slow, continuous rotation, which would result in minimal rotation after penetration of the skin. But I think tonight’s motions need a quicker rotation – one delayed a bit. The end result would be insertion into the skin, followed by rotation: opening a larger wound, causing more damage.
This got me thinking about the naginata, a Japanese weapon something like a glaive. Think of a wooden staff almost two meters long with a curved blade attached to the end (maybe 18 inches long??). Modern, sport-oriented naginata emphasizes cutting strikes, though thrusts are sometimes seen. Only one target is allowed for thrusting, the throat, which is protected by a special piece of armor.
But in one centuries-old school of traditional naginata, Tendo Ryu, thrusts are often aimed at the chest level, after having intercepted the attack of a sword. And one characteristic of Tendo Ryu motions is eguri, the twisting or rotation of the blade after it has entered the body. The curvature of the blade results in a much larger diameter of internal damage. Pretty nasty concept for something relegated to the status of a “woman’s martial art” in Japan.
Back to the Chinese sword – similar principle but less damaging – on the horizontal thrust forward, it is not a simple thrust moving forward parallel to the ground at a constant height. Instead, there is a noticeable rise in height as the sword advances along a horizontal line. This would presumably also result in a larger wound, since the blade would be changing height while entering the body.
Sorry if this is a bit gruesome for those readers outside the martial arts world. But I was thinking about this during practice tonight and later while waiting for the bus home and marveling at the beauty of the sounds of falling rain around me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

beijing leftovers (5): more Liu Laoshi pix

The bagua jian or straight sword is an extremely long weapon and people don't carry them around much. In August 2008, Liu Laoshi was teaching the jian form to his Greek student. Some days I saw him using the somewhat shorter taiji jian, and occasionally he improvised with a folding fan. I didn't get to see him using a bagua jian until September in Tokyo, and it was worth waiting for.
I was struck by a comment of his that the bagua jian is not used like other swords, in which the arms do most of the cutting work. Instead, the turning motions of the entire body move (drag?) the sword along the opponent's body. The idea is to maneuver the sword into the proper location, then letting my body motions - those characteristic twists and turns of ba gua zhang - do the work. There are very few hacking or slicing motions, though there are numerous thrusts and blocks.
Curiously, there are many parallel motions between this form and the yuan yang yue form he taught me last year. Yue are a pair of much smaller, multi-bladed and curved weapons completely different from the jian in appearance, yet they can be used with very similar motions, another lesson in the inter-connectedness of the empty-handed and weapons forms of ba gua zhang.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

lost tai ji classic rediscovered

I wasn't going to tell anyone about this, but I can no longer contain myself. While sifting through musty old tomes in one of my favorite used bookstores, I came upon an unimagined treasure - a long lost tai ji classic. I can't divulge too much yet, but I was pleased to find a chapter whose contents may rock the gentle tai ji world. In short, this work says it is acceptable, even good, to practice tai ji late at night.
For years I have struggled with the common taiji edicts about practicing early in the morning. But this work tells me not to worry - that is only for morning people. The Tao, after all, is about finding the right practice for each of us. And for those who are late-nighters like myself, we do the best for ourselves and for tai ji itself by living in accord with our true nature. So no more struggling awake at ungoshly hours in the morning for sluggish taiji practice for me. No, better to live in accord with my True Nature, and do my practice late at night under the moon.
What forces have conspired to hide this aspect of tai ji theory I cannot imagine, but the true Tao cannot be suppressed. Like water, it creeps and flows forward, overcoming all obstacles. Verily, the soft shall overcome the hard and the late shall overcome the early.
Of course it is far too soon for me to divulge all the details, but more are on the way. Until then, rejoice and reclaim your true Tao Nature, fellow late-nighters!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

dancing in the streets

I. July, street festival tonight, awa-odori from Japan’s Tokushima Prefecture with long spindly legs, knees bent and crouched low as they wind down the street. There is dancing, music, drinking and eating. But the main point is watching the teams of dancers perform this traditional style of dance. Most love the guys who leap up from that crouch, turn 180, land in another crouch– reminds of the spinning gongfu kick where we kick our outstretched hand. But sometimes, I wonder, why bother? Why keep doing awa-odori when the swamp-rock band 200 meters down steals the show? Why do whirly kicks with no combative value?

II. Leaving for Beijing soon and cramming in all the China-related TV I can. Discovery Channel is cashing in on the Olympics and airing lots. One of those was a 30-minute special on a famous tight-rope walker from the Xinjiang region of China.
He is 36, can no longer perform as he used to, now teaches.

I am 40, can no longer perform like I used to, but remain a student, it being too soon to take on teaching responsibilities. Every day I think about the timing of moving back to the US. I feel dual pressures – one to get over there and start teaching asap because it will take 10, 20 years to build a foundation of students and organization and then I will be 60, old and decrepit. But another one to remain here in Japan as long as possible. I have so much more to learn from Mr. T and others. And the access to China, and his teachers, from here is so much better than from the US.

III. Back from Beijing and finally getting back to these notes. We had a local neighborhood festival a couple weeks back. No dancing, but carrying a big omikoshi (portable Shinto shrine) through the streets. Dress up in traditional gear and feel “Japanese” for a day. Each year I am tempted and think about doing it the following year. This year, again, I was outside, practicing obscure Chinese arts, as they passed by, and I wondered what it was they were preserving and whether I would join in the next year. I am similarly tempted to join as a drummer for one of the local dance groups, take part in the frenzy that culminates a year of practice.
But I suspect I will be outside practicing for next year’s omikoshi when they come along, and that I will be watching the awa-odori dancers from the sidelines next year with good friends as usual, sitting and eating and drinking and playing with the kids. And yes, I will still be working on those whirly kick-your-hand spinning kicks.


Picture above is of a friend's notes for the bagua 64 hands (not palms) routine - we were both attending a review session from Liu Laoshi's visit, much needed and appreciated by everyone involved, close to 30 people. Seeing his notes got me thinking about notes and recording and all that. I take notes after almost every practice I attend, but I very seldom see the written notes of others. Friends and I trade videos frequently, but not written notes.
There is prejudice against the use of video among some martial artists - we are supposed to learn it with our bodies, looking at videos later will only distract us, etc. There is also a sense - which I share - that the very shooting of video in a training situation can lessen the pressure, the absolute determination to get it now, to learn it in one encounter and burn it deeply into ourselves. That is, it is too easy to think, "oh, I can always watch the video again later". That is true, we can watch it later, but it is never the same as in person. And as long as we remember that, I think that the use of video can be an important part of one's training regime.
I make a ten-day trip to China. I practice for hours a day, review on my own, and believe me, I am out to make these new motions mine, to engrave them deeply in my body. But a year later, even a half-year later, I pull out the video I shot during that visit, and I realize some of the mistakes that have crept in. By its very nature, this is a special trip, something above and beyond normal training, and I don't have access to this teacher on a daily or even monthly basis. So I want everything I can get, and I am grateful for teachers willing to be photographed or to let someone shoot video.
At the same review session this weekend, Mr. T was sharing some photographs he had taken of Liu Laoshi over the years. I took a look at them and thought again of the importance of photos. One point is simply keeping a record of correct postures and positions. Another is keeping memories of a special visit, a special person. You remember a specific corner in the park where you learned a certain routine, and suddenly something the teacher said comes back. But I was also struck by seeing the changes over the years - the white hair on the temples on Mr. T's first set of photos, the fully white set of hair in the last.
Tonight I was reviewing some sets from the Sha family, learned on visits to their place in Kunming, China. I paused several times to review video I had taken while there. Seeing the motions performed again with such grace and power was amazing in itself, and the physical record is important to me, as it is basically all self-practice between visits, with very occasional scrutiny from Mr. T. But other things remain in that recording - the everpresent sound of the birds in Kunming, the piles of boxes of mineral water stocked inside the training hall, the curtain dangling from a wire in the corner where people change in a tiny triangle, glimpses of visitors passing through - all of that caught on video.
There is much reason for teachers to be leery of video. You never know who is shooting what or where it might end up, especially with Youtube and other such services proliferating. And the teacher does have the right to control over their own material. There is also the problem of people "learning" solely from video, going on to "teach" others what they have gleaned.
But the bottom line is that, in my opinion, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. When taken with permission, used as a supplement to regular training, and released only with permission of the teachers involved, I think that videos are a wonderful tool for the martial artist. Ever watched old grainy black and white videos full of people demonstrating amazing martial arts, all dead and many of the techniques lost to the world? You know then that something special was caught and you can share in its beauty and power, and then you know what a treasure video can be.
Really it is just an extension of photos and good old written notes. They are all tools to help us learn and improve - and can also preserve valuable moments and memories to share with others. I still run into someone once in a while who says all martial arts books are crap and they only distract us from real learning. There is not really much of a reply one can make. But as for me, I will be shooting video, taking pictures, scribbling post-practice notes, the works. There is no substitute for those key moments of intense learning from an instructor. But to blindly refuse to preserve the works and motions of experienced martial artists is a loss to everyone.
One more thing - sound recordings. I have done several interviews for magazines like Kendo World and I always keep the sound recordings. Even those can be valuable - just the sound of a teacher's voice can stir old memories, bring back things fading into memory.
Our job is to correctly and faithfully pass on what we have learned, and I will use every tool I can to supplement the learning that gets etched into my body.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

more reps of smaller bits

Have heard it many times before, but it resonated in a special way last night - do more reps of smaller portions of the routine. The subject was tai ji jian 32, but it could have been anything. It is the best way to learn, whether we are talking muscle memory or language work. And I tell my students the same thing frequently in language/ communication classes - don't listen to the whole CD once; do several reps of 5 minutes' worth of the CD. Don't watch the whole movie for language study - do reps of a 5-minute segment. And on and on - yet I have not applied this to my own practice well. I spend more time running routines from beginning to end than I do on repetitions of chunks. And it really clicked last night, for whatever reason.
Just the first few motions of this sword form, over and over, and I could really feel the difference. Moving the sword with the entire body, not just with the hand. Much more awareness of the joints moving in sequence, all of it. But even so, it is hard to stop midway. Just one more motion, just one more motion. Then the voice comes back in my head, reminding me: more reps, smaller chunks. And the temptation changes slightly - just one more time through this section, just one more rep before the dinner which is already sitting on the table, getting cold.

(picture from a Beijing subway station)

Monday, September 29, 2008

iaido, manners, rank testing, and more

Heard something I liked the other morning at iaido. (Iaido, for the uninitiated, is the Japanese art of drawing a katana or Japanese sword, performing a series of cuts as if against an actual opponent, removing blood from the blade, and replacing it in the scabbard. It is not a flashy art and has little to do with the crap seen in "samurai movies" or throwing aluminum fake blades up in the air and catching them, as seen in some American "martial arts" tournaments. More on what it actually is, elsewhere and elsewhen).
Back to the main story: somebody Sensei was talking about testing in iaido. At least in the Tokyo area, you go out in groups of five. Each person does the opening reiho (etiquette/bowing related to the sword), does 5 waza or techniques, does finishing reiho, and is done. Basically,everyone is focused on those five techniques. They are announced that morning and everyone does the same techniques for the test.
But this person's point was that there are really 7 waza in the exam, that the opening and closing reiho should be weighted equally with the 5 sword techniques. Apparently something like 50% of the people testing for 2-dan recently failed - and most of them because of improper reiho.
This is really unheard of, at least in Japan, as the first three ranks (shodan, nidan or 2dan, sandan or 3dan) were pretty much guaranteed in kendo, iaido, and jodo (they are all part of one federation). Even the initial test begins at ikkyu or first kyuu level, and it was of course pretty much guaranteed. The idea seemed to be to encourage people, to give positive reinforcement.
Then bang! Things suddenly get very demanding at 4dan level. I managed iaido 4-dan in one shot (the much-hallowed "ippatsu") but my kendo has been stuck for years at 3dan, and I have failed kendo 4dan about a dozen times, having lost count somewhere along the way.
This has always been puzzling to me, having started in the US. I practiced kendo for 5 years and reached the respectable rank of sankyuu or 3rd kyuu (the lower, kyuu ranks start from 10kyuu and count up to 1kyuu). For adults, 3kyuu does not even exist in Japan - everyone starts from 1kyuu and as long as you can hold a shinai (bamboo sword) correctly and swing it somewhat correctly, you have passed. I became a kendo 1kyuu overnight and passed the first, second and third dan levels bang bang bang. And am now stuck.
After about three years of iaido in the US, I had no rank but came to Japan and received first, second, third dans, bang bang bang. I practiced longer than the minimum time required (3 years after 3dan the minimum) and took 4dan on my first try. I started jodo (a staff about 4 feet long) in Japan, worked up to 3dan but left my dojo, end of jo career.
Along the way, I have had many reservations about the ease of attaining 3dan in Japan, after coming up through the ranks the hard way in the US. So when I heard about the recent toughening of standards at iaido exams in Tokyo, I thought it a good idea and one long overdue. Hell, I would re-institute the kyuu system and make people practice about five or seven years before attaning first dan/ shodan / "black belt" status (colored belts are not actually worn in kendo, iaido, or jodo, except for the purpose of holding one's sword in place).
The notion that so many people could fail for reiho - which is something I see as so basic and essential - was shocking to me. But take a look at the prior post re: decline of manners and general courtesy in Japan.
This is all doubly strange to me because I have been wrestling for years with the sense that far too much concern is paid to inane matters in Japanese budo, and that people fuss too much over external matters of little consequence. I think much of the recent over-focus on appearance is a mere by-product of living in a country with too much money to spend. Go tell Miyamoto Musashi he has to spend four thousand dollars on a set of kendo bogu (armor) before he is eligible to test for fourth dan...
I would rather go back to helping teach kendo in Wenzhou, China, ten years ago. We used the leftover and cast aside bogu and uniforms from Japan. Yes, we tied it properly and took good care of it - but external appearance was not what the key. It was the internal desire to find and express good kendo. Same at my university club before that - we students had miserable bogu, held together by duct tape, our skulls and wrists crushed with every blow because the padding had long since worn thin...I hesitate to say it, but I may have learned more about reiho outside Japan than in Japan. Our equipment looked horrendous - but I was thankful to use it each time and I believe we were evaluated upon our efforts to learn and show good kendo, not upon the length of the hakama trouser/skirt, or the number of stitches used in sewing one's equipment, or other such.
Don't get me wrong - I am all for caring for one's equipment, respecting the tools and uniform of one's trade - but I do think too much attention is sometimes paid to inconsequential things (i.e. external appearance) here in Japan. At the same time, I think more attention should be paid to things like reiho, which expresses inner qualities. It cannot be measured and is thus hard to judge, but I think it is far more relevant to budo/ the martial way. So I am all for a toughening of standards in this regard as has been seen recently in iaido.
I have written in Kendo World magazine about my experiences in testing for a referee qualification in naginata here in Japan, and that article touches on some of the above topics. I don't know how to upload a Word file onto this blog, so anyone who wants to read the article, please email me. Of course everyone should be familiar with the Kendo World website at