Tomorrow I depart for Guelph to attend the annual SDK Iaido/Jodo seminar. I’ll try to take as many pictures as I can (budo and non-budo related) and hopefully my poor brain will retain most of what is said. I’ll be bringing a little journal so I can record my thoughts from each day since I won’t have access to a computer. Hopefully I won’t be too sore when I get back but then again, I’ve been threatened with being dragged to have dinner with the visiting sensei since my friend, who talked me into going, translates for them each year she goes. Now let’s just hope the border patrol won’t give us too much grief for our iaito!
During the last month or so, I’ve been going to practice without my contact lenses for two reasons. First, my eyes were starting to get bothered by them and second, I ran out of fresh ones. When I made the decision to stop wearing them for a while, I remembered something my sensei said during one of our practices some time ago. When he was younger and competing in college with the kendo club, he didn’t have the option of contact lenses or glasses inside his men so he practiced much harder to compensate for his lack of sight. He found he was able to not rely on visual cues from his aite but more from the feeling he got instead. I believe this falls into the realm of 先, 先の先, and 先々の先 (sen, sen no sen, sen zen no sen), anticipation, knowing what your opponent will do an act first, and sensing what your opponent will do.
I started to think about this and tried to figure out which of the three terms my sensei’s case would fall under. Since was not able to see his opponents, then it must be 先々の先 since he was able to react purely on something he felt from his opponent. The more I thought about it however, the more I started to think that it might be closer to 先の先 because that would have been too early in his kendo career and he would still have been able to see the general shape of his opponent and general body movements. This becomes all to clear whenever I have keiko with him as he is able to just pick up on every single little movement I make and strike me down every single time. With this in mind, I decided to try to push myself (at the expense of my vision health probably), to try to better develop my 先の先.
The first night I went without my contacts was an odd feeling. I had always thought that sweat in the eyes was no big deal but that was because my contacts had always protected my eyes. Stinging eyes, check. Lining up for uchikomi geiko was interesting because my astigmatism made it harder to approximate the exact location of my partner from across the floor. Blurry blue blobs, check. The rest of practice went without incident but then sensei decided it was time for us to have some kakarigeiko. Incidentally this was also when his wife was at the dojo armed with a video camera. Long story short, I was surprised I didn’t miss more often and that my only major screw up was a botched final strike due to exhaustion and crappy fumikomi. If you’re interested in seeing the results of this, send me an email and I’ll provide a link.
As the weeks went by I got more and more used to not being able to see as clearly and it has made me realize a few things. First, I don’t need to see my aite clearly in order to read their body language and anticipate what they are going to do. I had become so fixated on trying to maintain proper enzan no metsuke that I had not been paying nearly as much attention to my aite’s body language. Second, I can land a strike with yukodatotsu from father away than I thought I could. Third, my eyes wander far too much and it’s no wonder that in every single taikai I’ve been to I’ve been knocked out in either the first or second round. Despite my efforts to focus on my aite’s eyes, I still fall into that old beginners habit of looking everywhere else. Was I able to improve in terms of 先の先? Maybe but it’s hard to say for sure since I’ve only been able to see the results with my dojo-mates, I haven’t had the chance to test these results on someone new from a different dojo, and I haven’t been able to have jigeiko with a few of my sempai in recent weeks.
Up till now I haven’t really given this concept much thought even though I was practicing it ever since I earned shodan. I get the feeling I’m just on the tip of the iceberg and that if I want to be ready to attempt sandan next year I need to get cracking. There’s still so much I have yet to even realize about this and I’m certain that I’ll be working on this for as long as I practice kendo.
Originally written on February 2, 2009.
So this pas Sunday was the East Coast Iaido Seminar and Shinsa and for those of you who don’t know, I started practicing iaido last summer and this was my first time testing. Iaido is a Japanese sword martial art that focuses on drawing the sword from the scabbard, cutting down a certain number of opponents, and returning the sword to the scabbard. Currently, I am just practicing the Seitei Gata, a set of 12 forms that were made by the All Japan Kendo Federation to help propagate iaido and is a standard by which people can be tested for rank. They were also created from several different traditional sword schools and as a result, each form is very subtly different in terms of their reasoning behind certain movements. But I digress.
The day began at 5 AM and I was on the road at 6, getting to the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute around 8. After getting changed and settled in the gym, the seminar began by dividing everyone based on their current rank. For me, since I didn’t have any, I was all the way at the far end. Due to space constraints and the large number of people, two groups took turns practicing the forms and this went up to lunch and continued after we ate until mid-afternoon. By then we began to get set up for the shinsa and I got my number (based on age and current rank if held).
Thankfully I had a low number so I was able to go in the second round. I finished my forms without any serious mistakes but was still very nervous. I found out a little later that I was selected to go a second time to try for 1st kyu. I was able to maintain my composure but while doing ganmenatte, I ended up sliding my saya down my hakama! I didn’t panic but I’m sure my heart skipped a beat and my eyes had to have noticeably gotten wider. In any event, I finished the cuts but when it came down to doing noto, I had to take a little extra time to pull the saya out far enough to pop it out of my hakama. From there everything went without a hitch but when I finished and stepped out of the gym I was really frustrated with myself. I took a small comfort in hearing someone else did the same thing but theirs got stuck.
The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur as I watched the remaining people take their test and after waiting anxiously after packing up, the results were posted on the wall. I found my name and saw that I was given the rank of 2nd kyu. I was relieved that I made it at least that far and that my mistake hadn’t cost me too dearly but I would still like to know if I hadn’t made that mistake would I have gotten 1st kyu? I’ll try to figure that out later but I’m just happy I didn’t completely fail. Time to get back to training the basics.
On Sunday, March 8, I participated in the 16 Annual Shidogakuin Tournament held at Rutgers University. The morning primarily consisted of kyu through nidan shinsa so I spent most of it trying to relax and loosen up a little bit before the floor opened up for larger warm-ups. Just as other tournaments I’ve been in, kids, mudansha, and women’s divisions went first, resulting in everybody from shodan and up waiting until early afternoon. By then my legs felt like lead weights and my knees felt very stiff. Leading up to my bracket, I tried to limber up again as best I could and when my match came up, I stepped in, and wasn’t prepared for what i was about to face.
The first thing I noticed about my aite was how he gave absolutely nothing away. There was nothing I could pick up on at all. His eyes were unwavering, his posture and shoulders barely changed when he moved, his shinai held chushin extremely well, and something else that I couldn’t identify. Needless to say, the match was over in less than a minute (I checked) from two solid men uchi. I could do nothing.
I spoke with my sensei afterwords and we both watched his succeeding matches and we both saw why he beat me so easily: he was completely relaxed. No tension whatsoever in his shoulders, arms, or hands. His face betrayed nothing and his entire kamae looked so effortless and allowed him to just flow seamlessly from standing in chudan to landing a solid strike. Watching him, my sensei said that my speed probably is on par with him but his ability to relax is what beat me. The rest of the day I replayed that match in my head and I tried to figure out where all my tension was coming from. What was keeping me wound up and holding me back?
My first practice after the tournament I focused primarily on addressing this problem. My first step was loosening my grip on my shinai which resulted in a significant reduction in tension in my arms and shoulders. This combined with pushing forward with a stronger seme as I moved in to strike allowed me to land more successful strikes. On top of that, I started to receive fewer wayward strikes on my arms and knuckles. I continued this through all of this last week and when I visited Kyu Do Kan in Scarsdale, New York, I got much of that same feeling. All of my keiko that day was with 7th dan, 6th dan, and 5th dan sensei’s and I definitely felt much better about my keiko than I have in a long time. My seme, ashi sabaki, zanshin, and timing all seemed much sharper. I also felt more patient and was able to gauge my opponent more acurately.
I think I’ve just found the tip of the iceberg here and now I can’t wait for the next practice so I can further experiment with my newfound relaxed state.
After considering this for quite some time and reading other related blogs, I decided to start my own. I don’t intend to go on about my own interpretations on budo or any other related Japanese sword art, although I may from time to time, but I primarily wish to record my own experiences and thoughts from my kendo and iaido journey. My own handwriting is borderline illegible not only to others but myself as well, so going digital is the next best thing. I will update this as often as I can or remember to and hopefully they’ll be coherent enough to be understood when revisited in the future. Here goes nothing.