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

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Beijing leftovers (4): signs, manners

While in Beijing, I saw quite a few interesting signs, all related to campaigns to change manners before/during the Olympics (we'll leave aside the question of whether these changes will remain afterward). First up is a reminder to line up and board the subways courteously. At most stops, there did seem to be a change from the mob action of the past, pressing in from all sides before anyone could even get off the train, everybody trying to cut in front of somebody, etc. My first thought upon seeing this sign was that things have deteriorated in Tokyo and manners seem to be on the slide everywhere, especially regarding trains and subways. With Tokyo mayor Ishihara lobbying hard for a Tokyo Olympics in 2016, I think we'll need a serious manners campaign here in Japan as well.
I will never forget the day in 2006 or 7 when Liu Laoshi, Misters T and N and I were waiting for a train at the station. As it pulled in, Liu Laoshi cautioned us "排队" - paidui, line up for the train. I thought it so curious at the time that a Chinese person was telling us in Japan - the home of good manners - to line up properly to board the train. The images of mass chaos in the streets and at the stations from my time in China in 1999 were too fresh in my mind, my concept had not changed. But now I see these two switching roles, more quickly than I might ever had imagined.
Second picture: Drive in a civil manner. Not much more need be said. This campaign is also needed in Japan (just the past 2-3 years seemed to have undermined all concept of civility, courtesy, and harmony on the streets of this country) and my home country.
Third: This is one of my favorites. A too-literal translation might read "one small step forward for the toilet, one giant leap for culture". Basically, don't dribble on the floor in front of the urinal, guys. Recent years have seen signs like this popping up all over Tokyo, though the reference to elevated culture is eliminated - "take a step closer to the urinal, please".
The last picture isn't related to manners but serves as an excellent example of the difference between public signs in Japan and China. It is, as one can read in English, a subway map. However, absolutely none of the station names are given in English. The picture was taken inside one of the newer subways - inside the car, where you might be looking at the map to see where you were going. Granted, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates how un-foreigner-friendly Japan can be (don't forget 2016....). It is quite common to find train and subway signs with only the major stops given in English (also a perplexing phenomenon), but this one was too much. Why bother to put the words "subway map" in English?
While in Beijing, every subway sign I saw - on the platforms, in the trains, everywhere - was in both Chinese and English, 100%. Of course there was a massive campaign to get Beijing ready for the invasion of foreigners that would accompany the Olympics, but I do think this is emblematic of a long-term approach to welcoming non-Chinese as visitors. Tokyo has already had an Olympics, by the way, back in 1964, so there has been plenty of time to learn about making it easy for foreigners to navigate the city. Ishihara has few friends among the Chinese, but it might behoove him to study how well they carried off the Olympics.
One sign of hope is the private Odakyu train line, which features signs in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beijing leftovers (3)

Sometimes I think it is really impossible. I started too late, there is too much to learn, there is not enough time. And someday I have to start teaching....
First tai ji quan experience, age 18, first "real" or deep martial arts experience, maybe two years later, plunging into the university karate club. That filling my life for seven years before moving to Japan. But already a growing awareness that those who are destined to be really good are those who have already been training for ten years by the time they hit 20, 21...
Too much to learn? Don't even get me started on that. The more I learn - breadth or depth - the worse it gets. And the worse the agony over reviewing the old vs. seeking the new.
Not enough time? Don't even get me started on that. 40 this year, a rough year by all reckonings. How long to stay in Japan, how much to deepen and polish my skills before going back? New doors continue to open for me over here, yet the call to go home grows insistent. And I hear more stories about those who stayed too long in Japan, couldn't go back or couldn't get things going once they got back. And more stories about those who went home too early, trying to teach with almost-polished skills...

Yet there is nothing to do but plunge ahead. I started interviewing a teacher in Beijing in August, asked about difficult times for training in his life. Go take a look at the history of 20th Century China and you can guess some of the periods I am talking about. He stopped training when there was no food for 2, 3 years. He and so many others. He trained in secret during other times. He and so many others. And he is still going, 70-something and strong. What do we know of this in my home country??
I continued interviewing him in Tokyo in September. He studied deeply with one teacher, then another. He made the rounds of the parks, seeking any knowledge he could find from those practicing, had chance encounters which revolutionized his life and training. He traveled long distances by train to another city for short periods of training with one teacher. Tuition was high and his salary was not. He mastered the empty hand techniques of one teacher, wanted to study the spear techniques for which the teacher was really famous. But that teacher died and all was lost. Time was too short. Now he has plenty of time, some money, the trains are faster - but all those teachers are gone.
What can one do in the modern world? Books and DVDs everywhere, every teacher to be found on Youtube. Borders are crossed much more easily these days. Learning at the surface level can be had by anyone at their convenience. But what really matters is the one on one time, the personal connection, the sweat of endless repetitions and the reluctant grunt of tentative approval from the teacher - then everything is worthwhile. When you hear that, you start to think it may be possible, that you can go on and that all is not lost.

quote (1)

"Modern Wu Shu is a fine sport and is beautiful to watch, but it is misnamed; arts without fighting cannot by definition be considered martial arts." - from Tim Cartmell's website,

This seems incredibly obvious to me yet it also seems lost on many modern practitioners. At the same time, it condemns me equally. My years in Shotokan Karate were my start and my strongest foundation, and kumite free-fighting was an essential part of almost every practice. My karate has been on hold for several years now. I remain centered on my practice of Chinese arts, and I remain on fire, but I must confess, I do feel something is missing. There is a growing need in me to get back to the basics of sparring, of putting techniques (and spirits) to the test. As I have mentioned before, one of my long-term projects is to work on ways to incorporate semi- and free-sparring into the training I am focused on these days. More meditations on this to come...

Monday, September 22, 2008

sticks in the street (3)- bones

Sept. 23 (2008) on this side of the international dateline, a day marking the official beginning of autumn. Great weather for waking up early, working through Sha Family tai ji quan routines before starting the day's work (= cleaning).
I recall one of the best nights I spent in Wenzhou, China some ten years back. It was an autumn festival. We had an excellent kendo practice, typically small, just me and a handful of students in the dance studio we borrowed. Afterward, it was beer and eats as usual, but that night we sat by the river and really feasted, swapping stories and drinks under the brightest and fullest of moons. Tales were told and Tang Dynasty poems recited, though the last were lost on me. Was it before or after that night that a great typhoon swept southeastern China and flooded much of Wenzhou? Four of us from the same group went wading through the waist-deep water in the streets in the night and I knew then that Wenzhou would always be a special place for me.
My time in Beijing has been much too short for such experiences. But I did feel something special with the sticks in the street group and feel sure that I will get back to do more training with them. Nor have I had time yet to make deep, close friends as I had in Wenzhou, though I feel that is coming in the future.

Pix above: In addition to the clacking wooden instruments (kuai bar), Mr. Liu also plays a pair of instruments made from the shoulder bones of cows. Though I didn't have a chance to make music with them, he insisted on some photos. As with other items used by group members, it turned out they could also be used as weapons and fit together into various routines both musical and martial. I am not a big fan of posed pictures but these are what I have to work with for now, until I can engage in some serious study in the future.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Olympic leftovers (3)

August 10-15, 2008 and Sept. 2008

Two nights without a Liu Laoshi class, 13-plus hour days, a little taiji snuck inside 2f of the cabin – at least I have nice chunks of on-call time upstairs when everyone else is hunched over monitors and wires downstairs. It is way too hot and humid to practice outdoors while still at work, so the cabin is the perfect haven.

A day with practice, just Liu Laoshi and I in the park…he fans himself with a folding fan in the humid night. He has brought an extra fan for me and chastises me for not being able to open and close it with snappy flair. My gongfu is not yet developed, he says, and I must practice more.

Two more without a class, getting by with solo practice in the parking lot. It turns out to be much better than I had expected. A bright and full moon shining down from an uncommonly clear Beijing sky. The crowd filtering out from the last day of judo matches. The Chinese jubilant since Tong Wen won the gold in the womens’ division. But I remain hidden away in the shadows on the side, unseen.

There are people practicing taiji outside the hotel in the mornings, but their level does not seem especially high to me and I would rather review what I have learned most recently from Liu Laoshi. So I move a bed and other furniture in my room to clear a path and start down and back, working through the 12 animals of xing yi. There is a knock at the door – room service – and a suspicious eye is cast over my sweaty body and the room in disarray, but nothing is said. Sticks, staves, drying laundry and empty beer bottles strewn about the room do little to raise her estimation of me, but the cleaners should be used to it by now.

Her work is soon finished and her demeanor improves considerably when I venture some Chinese, commenting on the hotel’s measures for environmental protection and such. She is gone before long and I return to practice, unseen (though perhaps heard by those below).

Olympic leftovers (2)

8/26/08 And all the sudden, it’s over. I join a busload of Japanese for the ride to Beijing Airport. I am a double foreigner – an American traveling together with Japanese in China – and it already feels like I am in Japan. For a month, I was in a completely different world from my usual: no wife and daughter, language practice and use all day long, surrounded by all things athletic and Olympian, navigating a new city full of surprises (and pains in the ass) rather than moving seamlessly through my home of 13 years, Tokyo...

All the familiar sights of the past month are drifting past – the small open space where we practiced staff fighting late at night, the subway station I got to know so well, the entrance to Renmin Daxue University, where I wondered what it might be like to be a teacher again in China. I spoke to three helmeted cyclists at a nearby corner – they had arrived just four days earlier for their first stint as English teachers and were already full of advice for me.

9/22/08 A rainy afternoon at home with no work, just what I needed. Almost a month back in Tokyo now and it has flown past and the entire crazy world of the Olympics seems so far away. And even now I remain hovering on the edges of my Tokyo life. Martial arts practice has been stellar. Work has been occasional. That had been my ideal life for about 12 years over here, until recently. Real life has caught up with me, if it has not sucked me in all the way. Well, I have some extra time this week. For now, more leftover Olympic pictures.
One from the marathon - I had to get up at 3 AM (once for the mens', once for the womens') to help the TV crews set up. That was the toughest venue - no room in the cabin to sit/work, lots of mosquitos outside, and horrendous toilets (and the ONE time I had stomach trouble all month in Beijing happened to be that morning...).
Another, just a ticket for those who never saw one.
Finally, a decoration outside the wrestling venue, which was one of the easiest to work at and which certainly had the best staff to work with.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

rainy day book

'While Pan struggled to recite English routines from memory, he began teaching me how to use traditional weapons. He would teach me a single move, then have me practice it in front of him until I could to it ten times in a row without a mistake. He always stood about five feet away from me, with his arms folded, grinding his teeth, and the only time he took his eyes off me was to blink. One night in the late spring I was having a particularly hard time learning a move with the staff. I was sweating heavily and my right hand was bleeding, so the staff had become slippery and hard to control. Several of the athletes stayed on after their workout to watch and to enjoy the breeze that sometimes passed through the training hall. Pan stopped me and indicated that I wasn't working hard enough. "Imagine," he said, "that you are participating in the national competition, and those athletes are your competitors. Look as if you know what you are doing! Frighten them with your strength and confidence." I mustered all the confidence I could, under the circumstances, and flung myself into my move. I lost control of the staff, and it whirled straight into my forehead. As if in a dream, the floor raised up several feet to support my behind, and I sat staring up at Pan while blood ran down across my nose and a fleshy knob grew between my eyebrows. The athletes sprang forward to help me up. They seemed nervous, never having had a foreigner knock himself out in their training hall before, but Pan, after asking if I felt all right, seemed positively inspired. "Sweating and bleeding. Good."'

- Mark Salzman, "Iron and Silk"

strange and good day

Saturday still. I love typhoons (from a distance) and I also love the days after typhoons - the days of clouds and rain give way to wondrous blue sky full of white clouds and laundry can be hung outside again at last. No kendo today to follow yesterday, but good solo practice (ba gua jian, 64 hands, tai ji 48) when not being "taught" a kind of prancing sword dance by my daughter, who is more than a foot shorter than the ba gua sword.
Mid-day, she and I went to the tiny festival nearby in my sometime late night practice area, a small public area down the road. She played some games, we ate the usual fare, yaki-soba noodles and buttered potatoes. Later, neighborhood children made the rounds carrying the large omikoshi (check wikipedia and google) and that was quite a nice follow-up to the typhoon. Much practice later, I had worked up quite an appetite.
So I ran off to the next station (where I seldom go) and knew from the drum sounds that something good was up. All I wanted was a big mess of gyoza (pot stickers, jiaozi, dumplings, whatever). And I got them, along with a serious samba session. After missing them at the Mitaka festival while in Beijing this summer, I had unwittingly stumbled upon the samba team from somewhat nearby International Christian University. Musashi Sakai is known for its belly-painting festival, but there was much more being watched than the exposed bellies here.
I don't know how/why ICU has a samba team, but they have been making the rounds of festivals among more traditional Japanese style dancers over the past few years. Sorry, no samba pix, but guessing from the throngs of eager video camera wielding middle-aged men, you'll soon find something on Youtube. As for me, I think my gyooza are ready....

strange and good kendo days

Interesting and strange and good. Full schedule of work, of course, but along the way some good practices sandwiched in. Wednesday night was a stand-out kendo practice - members of the Ministry Finance Dojo - where I sometimes practice - went to the Ministry of the Economy Something Something Dojo for a shared practice. Konishi Sensei from MinFin and Toda Sensei (METI) together in one room, along with Kurihara Sensei (Japan Energy) and a slew of 7dans all packed into a fairly small dojo...
Tokyo is the center of the government in Japan, and Kasumigaseki is the center of the government in Tokyo. All or most of the government ministries are plastered in a small area, along with quite a few embassies and such. MinFin happens to be across the street from METI, but they are in different worlds in terms of kendo, and very few people train at both on a regular basis. As to why government ministries have kendo dojos in them (and two across the street from each other), and about the closing of the Postal Ministry Dojo (that building is next to METI), see my article in Kendo World, to be posted later.
Anyway, it looked to be an excellent practice. Unfortunately, I was starting a three-day seminar for work and had to haul my shinai, uniform and bogu armor all day in addition to my stuff for work. Quite a heavy load, still humid in Tokyo so I was working up a good sweat on the walk to the station. About midway, I noticed that there seemed to be many more people than usual walking toward the station.
Once close to the station, a disaster was in plain sight. There were people packed outside the station, unable to get in. It was the morning rush, brought to a complete halt. I snuck a peek through the fence and my worst fears were confirmed: no trains were moving. The entire train platform was jammed with people, the stairs to the platform were packed with unmoving people. That meant the entire inside of the station was also packed and they were spilling outside- and more pedestrians and buses and bicycles arriving by the minute.
After hovering outside the station and watching the lines waiting spill out in every direction, down the stairs and along the street, I gave up and hauled my bags to a quiet spot in the shade a hundred meters away and sat down, kicked off my shoes. No way I could make it to work on time, but fortunately someone could cover the first hour for me (damn, I had busted my ass to make an early arrival to have extra prep time....).
I found out later there had been two problems - one way out west, jamming the over-crowded Chuo Line and stalling the trains (thus the masses walking to my station from one station further down the tracks). That would have been bad enough. But then they also had some kind of signal trouble between my station and the next, so it was complete chaos for an hour. Things were not looking good that day...
But they turned out well. Work was fine, yeah. Practice - back in the vaunted Budo Bum days, I trained once or twice a week at METI, but I hadn't been there in over a year. I walked in the door and was greeted by Sensei after Sensei that I knew from METI, MinFIn, Japan Energy...what a wonderful feeling. The place was packed and I only had two sessions, but the second in particular was quite good. Then there was food and drink downstairs and much conversation and encouragement. Maybe the thing that stuck most was to "walk like a bushi" - not plonking the feet down, but powering off the back foot and propelling the hips forward on each step. K Sensei reminded me that since we easily walk over 10,000 steps each day, I could practice all day long without even being in the dojo. Drinking was followed by more drinking at another establishment, which made for a late return home and a long next day at work.
Two days later, I went to my usual Friday night practice at MinFin, still charged from the excitement of Wednesday. A typhoon was blowing in - a big slow-moving one which did much damage way down south but just gave us rain here in Tokyo. Still, it was an unusual day with all the atmospheric tension building.
I arrived earlier than usual and got in practice with a few extra teachers. I was busted right off the bat for straying off the centerline when pulling the sword up, and was reminded at the end to turn on the power only at the instant of striking (vs. my bad habit of lifting up with muscle power, bringing down with muscle power, no focus or snap at the instant of impact). Though disappointed in my own performance, I was also uplifted by the great deal of suggestions for improvement that I was given. We always eat and drink in the dojo after practice, and that offered the usual opportunity for further instruction. I got home quite late but very satisfied.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Beijing leftovers (2)

From Beijing, just some pictures, Liu Laoshi teaching a Greek man in Tao Ran Ting Park, Beijing. From Tokyo, just a few words. Liu Laoshi is safely back in Beijing, I am safely back in Tokyo after 3 days with the young kids (see previous post). That gasshuku was an excellent chance to intensively review 六四手, a bagua zhang form freshly learned during Liu Laoshi's Tokyo visit. The 64 hands form is significant because it was created by Liu Laoshi, based on the more widely known 六四掌 or 64 palms. The 64 hands form is made up entirely of motions connected in a straight line, though filled with characteristic circular motions of bagua zhang.
On the final day of his seminar, he challenged us to do more than memorize a sequence of motions - of course we should already be thinking of how to apply these motions in response to high, middle, and low level attacks. We practiced several sequences in pair drills and of course things made much more sense. I need more of that kind of practice. This is one thing I really miss from karate, where everything was put to the test in kumite, or free fighting. We do some pair work in bagua, but nothing like free fighting. This is something I will be working on in the future - trying to adapt the pre-arranged and free fighting drills of karate to the motions of the Chinese arts on which I am now focused.
On a similar note, regarding the bagua jian or straight sword (beginning of the seminar), I have heard there is a partner routine for this weapon. Of course I want to learn it in the future. But another long-term project I envision is working out some way to practice armored fighting with swords of Chinese origin, drawing upon my ongoing study of kendo, in which we put on the armor and bang away with bamboo swords in every practice.

Friday, September 12, 2008

gasshuku (1)

gasshuku 合宿
Sept. 2008

Gasshuku is a Japanese word referring to a group of people stepping outside of normal lives and routines and going on a sort of retreat together. There are lots of happy group activities, practice, and, in the case of adults, much drinking. Having practiced Japanese martial arts here in Japan for about 13 years, I have had a good share of gasshuku experiences.
At the moment, I am taking a high-speed shinkansen train out of the endless sprawl that is Tokyo, headed into the semi-countryside for a 3-day gasshuku with xx University Kung Fu (sic) Club. I usually travel to gasshuku by bus - with the group of course – but I don’t know how well I fit into this group.
Almost all these kids are literally half my age. It would be easier if I were from the university, but I am not. I began joining their monthly special trainings (one-day or half-day affairs) a few years back. Then last year I was invited to join their gasshuku and it was fantastic. I look forward to another excellent experience.

My first gasshuku in Japan was kendo- and iaido-related. A group of us foreigners from my then-dojo took a trip into the countryside for a weekend with another kendo group. Ogino Sensei and his students welcomed us warmly and it was made better by the presence of many lively children.
On the last day, we all ate nagashi-somen outdoors. This is a traditional summer favorite in which a long slide made of split bamboo runs down a slope. Ice and water flow down from the top in order to bring cool and delicious noodles to those waiting below. We lined both sides of the trough and used chopsticks to quickly grab mouthfuls of noodles as they streamed down.
Inevitably, germs are spread with all the chopsticks going in and out of the oncoming noodles. And people at the bottom of the slope, like me, are left with the few strands of noodles which remain after everyone else has dipped in. But these are healthy young kendo kids and are not easily brought down by a few mere germs.
Not so the adults, it seems. A day or two later, my throat was painfully swollen and I could barely open my mouth or swallow. For three days, I ate nothing but watery rice gruel. おたふくかぜ. Yes, it seems that the mumps I had never had in my youth had finally caught up with me.
Even so, that remains one of my favorites gasshukus ever, and I look forward to another chance to study with Ogino Sensei someday. (Curiously, he is also a friend of with my iaido teacher. Last year, they were chatting and looking over pictures from Ogino Sensei’s mountain dojo when Kogawa Sensei spied my picture and just about spat his dentures out in surprise. “How the hell do you know that guy?”)

Then there is karate. Kenkojuku Shotokan (Okano-Ha) has an annual summer gasshuku which is completely oriented toward the 200 or so kids who jam onto one bus too few for a weekend of practice which culminates in a rank exam. I was lucky enough to join several times and one memory stands out in particular.
Adult black belts are strongly encouraged to attend but their role is primarily to teach and watch over the children (and to handle the massive job of orchestrating meals for these 200+ kids). We adults had one special practice each day and could of course practice on our own, but the real instruction was focused on the kids.
During the rank exam on the third day of the 1997 gasshuku, Okano Sensei waved me over and took me outside. I wondered what massive breach of protocol I had committed and was about to get busted for. Nothing of the sort. He had suddenly remembered that he had asked me the night before what kata I would like to work on the next day. So we went bit by bit through kankuu sho, which is rarely taught in the dojo. We drilled it carefully about seven times, going slowly and making sure I understood. He seldom taught kata like this, and it was the first time I had been taken so thoroughly through a kata in Japan, so that brief time outside the main gym remains special to me, one of my best Kenkojuku memories.

Then there is naginata (think of a long wooden handle with a curved blade on the end, something like a glaive in appearance). I used to spend much time practicing naginata and built a strong foundation. I attended numerous weekend seminars on top of 3 times a week practice and eventually passed the test to become a naginata referee, something only a handful of foreigners have done. Alas, my training time for naginata has diminished rapidly, though many good memories (and that foundation, I believe) remain.
One such memory takes us to Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Winters are snowy and cold, damn cold. And our gasshuku was in the heart of the snow and cold.
Naginata is one of the least popular budo or martial arts in Japan in terms of numbers. Also, it has been relegated in the public awareness as a woman’s martial art.
More on the history of that elsewhen. Though outside Japan more men than women practice naginata, men are still the overwhelming minority within the already small naginata world in Japan (less than 5% of the total). The naginata federation is making efforts to promote the presence and participation of men in naginata. One part of that effort is the annual men’s naginata gasshuku, which is held in a different part of Japan each year, in a move toward accessibility.
For whatever reason, someone decided to have one year’s gasshuku in Hokkaido in mid-winter. The snow was deep – streets were lined on each side with walls of snow more than three meters tall after the snowplows went through. And the cold was cold. Then another someone had the idea of taking our group picture outdoors in our uniforms.
The naginata uniform is not designed for cool climates. The legs are covered by a hakama, a sort of pleated skirt-like thing which is split into two legs and is usually made of a fairly heavy material. But the tops…thin white cotton, short sleeves…and the wind was blowing. And the cameraman was taking his time. I think I suggested going topless to show what we were really made of, but nobody warmed to the idea. Anyway, the mandatory group pictures were taken and we hustled back inside the unheated school gymnasium which suddenly seemed so much warmer.

Back in Nebraska, we trained hard in the university dojo. And we made several trips each year to Denver, where a senior teacher in karate, kendo, and iaido taught. We joined their special trainings and took rank exams there. We might skip some Friday classes, make the 7-8 hour drive and arrive just in time for Friday night training.
We felt the effect of the high altitude right away but energy remained high on the first day. Saturday was devoted to several sessions, sometimes in the mountains. The pain and fatigue of the second day was lessened over eats and drinks, but the third day was just plain hard. And time seemed to move so much more slowly. Somewhere in the afternoon it ended and we piled back into our cars for the long drive back to school. Each of these trips left us utterly exhausted as well as filled with new excitement and energy.
So tonight I have returned to the big city from my second gasshuku with this university group. Again, it was an excellent experience and very different in feeling or flavor from my gasshuku involving Japanese martial arts. I was not pushed to the point of utter exhaustion – nor did I need to be. We all left feeling that we had been pushed, challenged, and filled with new energy. So now it is back to everyday life and everyday training.
NOTE - The 5 characters in the picture refer to five virtues upheld by swordspeople. Our gasshuku was held in the kendojo and ping pong room of a community gymnasium, and the characters were brushed by a junior high school kendo student.The Japanese reading is jin-gi-rei-chi-shin. Anyone know if this same set of 5 virtues is commonly referred to among Chinese martials artists?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

sticks in the street (2)

OK, so it was more the sidewalk than the street, but we often spilled into the bus/taxi lane - and passersby rarely batted an eye, having gotten accustomed to the late night crash and smack of sticks. Members of the stick group tend to do only one thing, no outside practice, and they do it every night. So some of the younger members made quite rapid progress in just 3 months. My 3 weeks did not, alas, result in such rapid progress.
Still having internet trouble (do not accept wireless network updates which are not compatible with your wireless system and which apparently cannot be un-updated...). Meanwhile, more pictures.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Olympic leftovers (1)

Sorry few posts lately - I foolishly agreed to add some updates to my computer and no longer have internet access, grrrrr. Was watching the opening ceremony for the Paralympics tonight and decided to upload a few leftover pix from what I saw of the Olympics.
No training news just now - every day is with Liu Laoshi, my head is swimming just trying to keep up. More on all that later...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sticks in the Street (1)

Not even two weeks have passed since returning to Tokyo and too much is getting lost in the blur...two sessions a day with Liu Laoshi is more than enough to fill my plate, and there is so much left over from Beijing. Thinking back to the sticks in the street group, how easily and warmly they welcomed me. My time with them was too short to build a strong enough foundation for subsequent solo practice, but the door is open for the future. Pictures today of fei cha (飞叉), an apparatus said to be unique to Beijing. Apparatus? Weapon? At least in the practice I saw, it was not used as a weapon but more as part of a performance. Swung, rolled, and swirled about in every direction and all around the user's body - I never saw it used to strike or thrust. Yet I felt that at any moment it could be used to block or to attack.
This goes back to one of the first conversations I had with Zhao Laoshi, one of the more senior members of the group. They were encouraging me to join in for practice. I said I wanted to but that I was studying with Liu Laoshi and it might not be appropriate to study with another group simultaneously (especially given that time was so short). He laughed - "that's wushu (武术) - we practice yishu (艺术). I dismissed it initially as a joke, mere wordplay. But later I discovered this stick-based group is directly tied to jingju (京剧) performance and saw his logic - there would be no problem whatsoever. There is much overlap, but the two disciplines are quite distinct.
The fei cha is about four or four and a half feet long, a stick with a metal tri-pronged...thing...attached to the end. It is not bladed, but I certainly would not want to be hit with it. In terms of yishu performance, it is beautiful to watch. The stick is kept in constant rolling motion, so the blade-like thing seems to be round or spherical rather than flat. One night they attached a pair of cymbals, facing into each other, near the end. The entire area was filled with a wonderful whirring sound as the edges of the pair of discs whirled about each other. The noise seemed to be taken for granted by passersby and those living in nearby apartments - perhaps a break from the late-night clacking of sticks? Throw in Mr. Liu's occasional bursts with the kuai bar clacking instruments, and it got to be quite lively.
Fei cha seemed to be the specialty of a group of two or three who pulled up in a taxi most nights about 1030PM or so after the day's driving shift was finished. i wonder what other implements of potential destruction the driver kept stashed away in his taxi. The driver himself had quite a large girth but moved quickly and supply. The one who seemed most adept was younger, athletic in build (he warmed up by doing a walking handstand all around the park).
Much more research is needed, but here are a couple pictures - anyone with more knowledge about fei cha, please comment!