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)