The Iaido Journal  Sept 2006
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Taikai Fever

Copyright © 2006 Jeff Broderick, all rights reserved

Wednesday was Culture Day, a national holiday. I had the day off, which was nice because it let me take in some Culture in the form of a huge budo demonstration and the Kendo Championships.

The budo demonstration was in Meiji Shrine Park. It was outdoors, which I thought was kind of strange, considering the amount of rain we've had lately, but fortunately it was sunny. In fact, although it was November, I was sweating and would have gotten sunburned if I had stayed any longer. The demonstrations themselves were, um, kind of boring. Okay, incredibly boring. They announce the next weird style of art, usually with the word "shin" in the name somewhere. A bunch of people parade out and do their weird, inscrutable kata with weird kiai and weird etiquette. Then, they leave, and another even weirder group comes out.

I'm being sarcastic, obviously, but it seems kind of futile as an outsider to try and understand what other schools are up to. Some of their demonstrations might just be exercises, but we perceive them as fighting techniques. Some techniques may be altered for the sake of safety, or to obscure their meaning so that outsiders can't understand them. In any case, once you've seen a few demonstrations like this, they quickly lose their appeal. This time, in particular, I noticed (in my infinite wisdom and vastly superior knowledge) that most of the demonstrations could be lumped into one of three categories:

1) Schools (often the really, really old ones; not naming any names) that seem to have lost any connection to fighting. Somewhere along the way, something happened, and although they may have been founded by illustrious swordsmen, they are now being performed as if the participants are under water. ("Okay, now I will cut you veeeeeeeery slowly, and you reach up and grab my hands like that, that's it, and now I fall down, and you sit on top of me and scream.")

2) Schools that seem to be composed only of very young people (probably because they only were invented in the last couple decades) and have extremely bizarre, lengthy, and acrobatic techniques. ("Okay, first we draw the sword in reverse Zatoichi-style, cut the opponent in two, throw the sword in the air, and before it falls, do a spin kick to the opponent's solar plexus. Now while he's still stunned, we drop and kick his legs out, do a front roll, come up behind him, catch the sword, stab him in the back of the neck, and sheath the sword, while the opponent falls into six pieces.")

3) Schools that seem to have reasonable techniques executed with strength, sharpness, and precision.

Needless to say, category 3 is the rarest of the lot.

So, I stayed at the demonstrations for a while. It seems as if politics plays a big role in who is invited to demonstrate (is that a surprise??) For example, while I was there, there were at least two separate groups doing Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo. Kind of odd.

Anyway, I got bored after two hours or so, and decided to go over to the Budokan for the last part of the Kendo Championships. They were terrific and have made me want to learn kendo again (at least for the next few minutes). It was awesome to see so many great bouts in person. After the first two rounds, they got rid of the split court and just had one court in the center of the floor. For these matches, it was as quiet as a church, with the audience paying rapt attention to the fight.

Fighting for your Life

I had another good practice with Furukawa Sensei the other night. After going through Seitei Jo a number of times, he asked me and some other people to line up. We were just going to do number 11 (Midari Dome) and 12 (Ran Ai) a few times. He had a glint in his eye that suggested I would be well-advised to focus. I was on jo to start, and he was tachi. He came at me a grunt that told me he meant business. He went through the kata in a way that wasn't actually vicious, but I knew that if I screwed up I would get hurt. On Ran Ai, especially, he took a few swipes at me that narrowly missed my ribs but would have definitely sliced my clothes if his sword had been real.

Now, I'm making it seem like I was in real danger, but of course I wasn't. On the next-to-last motion of Ran Ai, where the Jo side knocks the swordsman's cut aside, my form was pretty bad and I could tell that he was pulling his attack a lot, generously choosing not to knock me on the head and kill me. He's just that kind of guy... But he yelled at me to be careful and told me to do it again. This time, he swung like he was going to break my skull and fortunately, I did the technique properly this time.

Then we switched weapons. With a jo, he is even scarier than with a sword. When the jo threatens the swordsman's eyes, he had that stick inches from my face. His control is good enough that I didn't feel like I was in any real danger while at the same time being scared witless, if such a thing is possible. Kind of like riding a roller coaster: you know that you're safe, but your body is telling you to be terrified.

Fortunately, we only had this intense practice for the last 5 minutes of class. I don't think I could have lasted for much longer. Afterwards, while waiting for the next train in the station, Mr. Shimizu bought me a bottle of water and we talked about jodo. It was kind of funny because, rather than get into some sort of deep conversation, he admitted that, "Sometimes, it's just fun to yell and swing a stick, and feel the impact when your stick hits the sword, and to get covered in sweat. That's a good practice." I couldn't agree more.

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TIN Sept 2006