Tuesday, May 26, 2009


My first kendo teacher in Japan didn't immediately teach students who came to him with prior experience. He said he would wait 3 years, to watch them, judge their character, see if they were teachable.

By this I think he meant that he was waiting to see whether or not they could unlearn what they had previously "learned". He had to work with a blank slate, to write his own kendo upon each person from scratch. At the time, I had a hard time understanding his approach. Looking back, I don't think I unlearned enough kendo to learn what I could from him, and it is to my ongoing detriment.

I have a hard time letting go of things, especially when it comes to martial arts. That is part of what has gotten me into my current mess, trying to work on too many things at once.

Starting something completely new, unrelated to any prior martial arts activity, is relatively easy. But starting something that is related to things you have studied before...there are endless problems of cross-over, of old habits that interfere with new ways.

I have felt this most keenly in kobudo. As part of my karate training, we learned several weapons forms or kata. I burned some of those into my body pretty deeply, and the habits and motions of a decade and more are not easily erased.

I have had no karate action for a few years now. But I have recently made a big shift in kobudo, shifting from a couple-years' half-assed commitment to kobudo to a much more serious approach lately. It has not been easy, and there has been much unlearning.

The forms I learned many years back were right, true and correct for me at that time. More recently I have come to see them as having been "Shotokan-ized", adapted and changed from the original to fit into the overall rubric of Shotokan karate. Some of the forms I am working on now are exactly the same ones I started over fifteen years ago - and yet they are completely different.

The best example is Shuushi no kon sho, one of the basic bo / staff kata. It is the same and yet different. On the surface, you could see two people doing roughly the same kata, but once going in deeply, they become worlds apart.

For some years, my ideal was to preserve the old forms I had learned in my formative years while getting to know the "new" (original) ones. And, predictably, I made progress in neither. I have finally tried to let the old forms I grew up on go completely, and am focused solely on the "new" (for me) forms - and am, also predictably, also finally making progress.

Another example is the sai - a weapon made of metal, slightly longer than one's arm (see photo elsewhere on the blog), a rod with two tines protruding. One of the basic kata is tsukinshitahaku no sai (or, in the Okinawan dialect, chikinshita haku no sai). I have had to unlearn and re-learn completely opposite motions and principles. Only recently, after completely setting aside the "old" form which I originally learned, have the "new" motions sunk into my body.

"new": stack up at 45 degrees, block fully facing or torso square into the opponent. Stack up with the handle near my shoulder or armpit, not up by the ear. the arm is flat to block down, with the sai outside on the edge - not with the arm rotated or turned out. Narrower front stance. And on and on.

When I think about it, it has taken me just about three years to let go of my old habits, fully open myself and embrace the "new" habits. Maybe now the real learning can begin.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

iaido mistake

This morning’s iaido class was quite good, in the intensive scrutiny kind of way. Some classes I am kind of left alone while the teachers focus on whoever is newest in the group. Those are the times to absorb or steal as much of the teacher’s instruction as you can. You are not being taught directly, but you are expected to actively take what you can get – and thus you are being taught, however indirectly.

There is a movement in the iaido world to make it more accessible to everyone, to teach very freely and directly, and to focus very strongly on passing tests for dan-ranks. The same movement tends to place very heavy emphasis on the seiteigata, newer iaido forms which were created after the war. The older, koryu styles are left very much on the back burner.

The pair of teachers I have chosen are not part of that world. Of course you cannot escape it completely, but they are trying to preserve something which they see as being more original and perhaps more pure.

We are pursuing an uneasy existence, floating along the edges while trying to preserve a different core. For us, the old style koryu techniques (from which the modern, seitei forms were adapted) are the core, and most practices focus strongly upon them, rather than on passing rank exams.

There is much more to the story, and much that could be written about machinations within the iaido world here in Japan, but this is neither the time nor the place.

What concerns us, or me anyhow, is one of my mistakes, and my teacher’s response to it.

I had warmed up with about ten zillion basic cutting techniques, most of them using yokoburi, or a sharp sideways motion with the blade to shake off the blood and goo which have accumulated upon the blade after dispatching my imaginary opponent. I switched to a standing technique to give my knees a rest and promptly botched it.

It is the only standing waza or technique in the shoden set, 虎乱刀 or korantou, and is one of my favorites. There is also a kae-waza, an alternate version which is the mirror image of the usual, and it was this that I plunged into – and messed up. My motions were good – the intention while walking, the pair of cuts timed and executed well. Then I went directly into yoko-buri to finish, just sharply taking the blade across to the side with a strong wrist motion. But it should finish with a much larger type of chiburi, with the tip being taken widely out to the side/ rear, then the forearm folding in like Mt. Fuji, and a strong cutting motion downward to fling off that troublesome blood and goo before re-sheathing the sword.

I tried to recover smoothly, finishing with a sense of zanshin for proper finish. My teacher had been watching all this from behind and I could sense him walking up behind me. He didn’t say a word about the mistake in the form. He was concerned with the mistake in my yoko-buri. Rather than taking the blade directly across, I had taken it across and then pulled it back slightly closer to my body, creating a bit of arc. He would have none of that! It was no longer in the optimum position to begin the next motion, taking the blade back across to the left once my left hand had slid down to the koiguchi or opening of the saya/ scabbard and rotated it 90 degrees.

So I repeated just that part of the motion several times, then repeated the entire korantou waza – with yokoburi at the end – until I got that tiniest of nods that means “it’s not great yet but it is a notch better. And I don’t want to spend all morning on this one damn technique…”

Then I repeated korantou a couple times with the “correct” / larger chiburi, and all seemed well, ready to move on to the next waza.

It may not seem like a big deal to most people, but I really appreciated his response. Too often in Japan, people are fixated way too heavily on the sequence of motions rather than the overall feeling or deeper issues. I know I mucked up the waza – but in this case, it really didn’t matter, because that muck-up revealed a big problem, and one that needed to be fixed on the spot. Just repeating the waza with the correct ending would really teach me very little, apart from reminding me of a sequence of motions – yet that would be what many teachers would focus on, just that single obvious mistake. But a flaw in yoko-buri…that would affect all of the chuuden techniques, all of the okuden techniques (seated and standing), even the kumidachi techniques, which are forms done with partners while using wooden bokuto swords.

I could babble on for hours about problems with the current iaido world here in Japan. But here was an instance of something very good and useful happening, the kind of thing I would like to see much more of. And it had nothing to do with rank examinations and promotions and the like. And everything to do with openness and flexibility which are all too hard to find in the modern budo world in Japan.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

flash practice

There must be a better name, but you get the general idea. Quick bursts of practice, maybe a few minutes each, usually unexpected. And they can be quite revealing at times.

I have had a few of these lately, each of them valuable. You can’t make any substantial progress with only these short bursts, but they can be valuable supplements to the regular regime.

My daughter likes going to gongfu class with me on Friday nights and will practice her routines or basic staff motions there, but not much at home. So I was surprised and pleased when she suddenly said “let’s practice sticks” a couple days back.

That was great – for about three minutes. Then she told me to wait right there, she would be right back. She went into the house and soon emerged with badminton equipment. So much for the sticks.

True, I had also been wanting to play badminton with her for some weeks after the brief Badminton Excitement about a month earlier, which ended as quickly as it began. But this was strange timing indeed. We played badminton about 20 minutes, until it was quite dark outside. Six-year-olds have their priorities, I suppose.

But that quick little flash of practice time together with my daughter was quite valuable, something I need more often. And it reminded me how difficult it can be to explain to / show others a motion which you can do by yourself with no trouble.

A second incident involved a visit to a friend’s taiji class. I am not her student but needed to drop by on other business. She invited to run through a taiji form with her students. Normally I might have tried to politely decline, but I saw this as a chance, a very small kind of test.

I had not practiced this particular form for some weeks, since I have been concentrating heavily on the Sha Family tai ji forms. I had no problem with the order of the motions or anything, but I soon noticed where the rust had crept in – especially on the “Snake Creeps Down” move. Creeping down was okay – but I was noticeably wobbly when rising into the subsequent one-legged posture.

So it was a good wake-up call for me, a reminder to continue the occasional rotation of back burner items while focusing on one form or set. And it only took a few minutes of my time to make this (otherwise obvious) discovery.

Days like yesterday – over eight hours of stretching and practice - are obviously valuable and rewarding. But I will also be searching for these short little bursts of practice time as well.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

adjusting to your environment (1)

Three days of one week, five of the next week, spent down (up?) in the mountains near Hakone, maybe 90 minutes from Tokyo. It was a beautiful location with a perfect view of both Mt. Fuji and the ocean.

But no outdoor training for me. This was a work gig after all – teaching business English skills to ten new employees of XOXO Company in the company’s training facility. It is an immersion program, all English all the time, and we were pretty much under lockdown.

It reminded me a little of pharmaceutical studies where the subjects are confined to a building for a set period of time, except the pay is a little better. No one goes out the front doors. There is nothing within 20 minutes’ taxi ride of the building.

If you want fresh air, you can go out on the balcony or up on the rooftop. I chose the latter, away from prying eyes. Fresh early morning mountain air, no one up there except me and the surveillance camera. Great tai ji setting.

Some nights we worked until 9 PM. Some nights we trainers finished early while the trainees kept working or preparing for the next day’s activities. Those were the good nights.

I had taken up a pair of nunchaku and a pair of tekko in my suitcase – both smallish and the former lightish. But there was no question of taking up a wooden bo staff. Luck was with me, and I found a two-meter aluminum pole with a hook on the end (for catching handles on open windows near the ceiling).

A bit lighter and longer than my bo, and with an unneeded hook on the end, but other wise perfect. I found a fairly secluded spot and got to work, careful not to rip any of the scrolls hanging on the walls. The space was just right and only a few people came to gawk.

I saw a couple of them later. All the work had been completed and the trainees were drinking in a common room. In the middle of that crowded floor, two of them were trying to work through one of the first kata in Shotokan karate.

That was neither the time nor the place, but the next day we found an empty training room and I ran one of them through it, helping him remember the form he had learned in a university class all those months ago.

All in all I kept up a good training regimen through the lockdown – daily morning stretching in my room, rooftop taiji in front of Mt. Fuji, and evening kobudo work on alternate nights. Some weapons I took along, some I found along the way, and all came in handy.

I have another 8 days of training in the same facility coming up later this month and am already thinking of how to maximize training opportunities under lockdown. I recall The Lab in Lincoln where I did enough pharmaceutical studies to pay for much of my university tuition.
We could have limited exercise in the courtyard. At that time I was working on the 3 tekki kata (naihanchi), which involve movements left and right on a straight line. There was a short (one-foot?) concrete wall lining a flower bed and I don’t know how many hours I spent atop that ledge, zipping left and right.

Any weapons would have been seized immediately, but open hands work was fair game, as long as you were willing to put up with a constant chorus of hi-yaaaa’s and misinformed comments about “tae kwon do bullshit” in the background.

But none of that atop the roof under the morning sun.

is it worth fighting over?

Made it out to the park for an extended stretch and workout this morning, excellent in every way – cool and breezy weather before a rain, no mosquitos at all, no rush to get home. Even just riding my bicycle over there, I felt lighter as heaviness and accumulated stress dripped away.

And once there, it was ideal. Almost no one else in the park, giant trees whispering overhead, and good memories of past practices with a university group there. I learned how to say “wood-pecker” in Japanese under those trees and left any number of worn-down circles behind from the motions of ba gua zhang.

Good memories all, and in stark contrast to another morning practice about a week ago. Same group, new venue. A couple years back we changed parks for these lessons, moving to a park nearer their location, no more bicycle commute for me. It was raining all morning, so we lined up inside a nearby recreation facility to buy tickets.

Several of us had arrived early and were near the head of the line. It grew steadily behind us and I worried about space issues. Once upstairs, we staked out a spot in one of the corners and started stretching while watching the other groups who came in. MMA/ grappling/ K1 type groups soon staked out their spaces on the mats. In came the karate kids, some judoka, even two guys who seemed to be practicing the fake strikes and falls of pro wrestling very seriously.

In came a non-Japanese carrying three very large bags of pads and the like. He cast his eyes about, looked at our clearly-marked corner (wolves use piss; people on the mats use their bags and clothes to mark territory) and ambled right over.

I couldn’t believe it. He went right to the corner and threw his bags down one, two, three, right in between two of our bags and just in the corner. Keeping his back to us, he pulled out a mobile phone and called some buddies.

The university kids in my group weren’t going to make a move. They kept stretching or moving as they were, being very polite and Japanese and non-interventionist. One second to make a decision and… I…. joined my friends in not responding, in letting this guy completely steal our space.

I was going to wait it out, hope he would see the light and be reasonable. Fool. What was I thinking?

More of our group came, four of his students came. Even his students were obviously surprised or confused by the situation. There was absolutely no way of mistaking it – this was OUR territory, and he had swiped it. And none of us had the balls to challenge him.

The balls or the gall or what? Is it really worth the trouble? What are the options? Talk to him and he realizes the situation and moves his group elsewhere. Not bloody likely. Talk to him and the situation escalates – more likely. I am not going to fight over some space on the mats. (Nor could I win – he was tough and a fighter. I am neither). It could escalate and we would have to back down in front of all and move our group even further away. Unpleasant. It could escalate and we would run crying to The Authorities because the very bad man had taken our space and we couldn’t handle it ourselves. Unpleasant.

I ended up approaching him, trying to handle it without escalating the situation. His response was simple and, in that situation, irrefutable.

“We like the corner.”

OK, one second to respond. Press the issue (“that’s nice, pal, but we were here first” Smack, fight is over and balding taiji guy with slightly protruding gut is hauled off the mats by his ankles) or swallow pride and deal with crowded mats all morning.

Damn it, this is a once-a-month special practice (sometimes less) and one of my few chances for close scrutiny on this particular tai ji form. Without being anchored in the corner, we are going to be pressed in upon from all sides. All morning long.

DAMN IT, one second is up.

Balding taiji guy with definitely protruding gut backs down. But remains petulant enough to make a point of slowly walking directly between the instructor and his four students for three trips back and forth, moving my bags from what had been our corner to what was our new little strip along the side.




But I had to do something, after all, after having done nothing. I really showed them.

The rest of the morning was spent predictably dodging neighboring judo-ka and MMA people as they came rolling, falling, and flying into what also should have been clearly recognizable as “our” space.

Any amount of that will happen, it is unavoidable. It can even be fun, making a game out of noticing and dodging the incoming with quick and natural motions. But it typically elicits a small apology, a quick move out of the way. Normal, common sense kind of stuff.

Nope, not here. This is a vicious world. I have been off in ooey-gooey lala taiji harmony land too long. Memories of the harsh and unforgiving world of the playground resurfaced after lying dormant for years. There are no apologies there, no thoughts for others.

I was thinking about all of that while riding my bicycle back from the massive 300-year-old park where I had practiced this morning, glad for the early rise and the completely unrestricted space.