This is the eighth year I have attended the Canadian Kendo Federation's Spring seminar, hosted by Sensei Kim Taylor, head of Sei do Kai. Usually it falls on my birthday, but this year it ended a few days before. Since the first year I came I have felt that it was a long weekend and a few hundred dollars, a birthday present to myself, well spent, because of the incredible quality of the martial arts instruction.
There are generally no less than 6 or 7 visiting Senseis from Japan instructing in Iaido and Jodo. This year the head of the Japanese contingent of instructors was once again Namitome Sensei, 8th Dan Hanshi Jodo and 8th Dan Iaido. Instructing Jodo with him were two 7th Dan female Sensei, Etoh Sensei and Otofuji Sensei. At the opening of the sessions on Friday afternoon, Namitome Sensei told us that he had planned to retire from Canada. He first came to teach in Canada in 2000.
Sensei in fact had retired from Canada when his knees became painful
several years ago, and we spent a while training with Sensei from
Tokyo, but at the opening session Namitome Sensei told us that last
year he was invited to come to be part of a senior grading panel and
that despite his bad knees he decided to make the trip. He must
still like instructing us, or feel that it is worth his while,
because here he was again, this year, once more enticed by the invite
to be part of a senior grading panel. There were three senior iaido
instructors accompanying Namitome Sensei – Yoshimura Sensei, Kyoshi
Dan iaido and 7th
Dan jodo, who recently graded for and passed his 8th
Dan Grading, Hatakenaka Sensei, a 7th
Dan woman sensei with incredibly clean powerful cuts and Tsubaki
Dan iaido and 7th
Front Row, sensei L to R: Cruise, Kimeda, Ohmi, Otofuji, Etoh, Namitome, Yoshimura, Hatakenaka, Tsubaki
The author is directly behind Etoh sensei. Click image for larger photo.
Friday afternoon is usually a warm up for some of the more senior students. Not all the participants are present yet. The jodo sensei focused on koryu, old style jodo, demonstrating the omote series of kata and pointing out the difference between each of the koryu kata and their seitei, or new style standardized equivalents. We practiced … repeating, or attempting to repeat the movements demonstrated by the sensei. This method of instruction, like most martial arts training is based on learning by doing, or repetition, repetition, repetition. There is no other way to learn kata.
In the worlds of jodo and iaido a one-inch difference in the placement of a hand, or a foot, can mean the difference between a pass and a fail, and the higher up the ladder you go, the less leaway there is for error. So, when the Sensei come around and correct you, either by saying ‘no, not like this!’ or simply by shaking their heads and moving your hand, your sword or bokken, your jo or your hips to the correct position, it’s a good thing. This is one place where you welcome what in other circles might be considered negative attention – someone telling you what you are doing wrong and how to fix it.
The first year I came to the seminar, I was almost a complete novice of iaido, and when the Japanese Sensei said “No, not like this!”, and showed me what to do, often I could not tell the difference between what they were showing me and what I had done. Such is the way of the untrained mind. You cannot see what you cannot see, or maybe you don’t know what you are looking for. As I advanced in iaido and now jodo my mistakes and the corrections in positioning and posture have become apparent even to me, not just to the visiting Sensei.
Getting back to Friday’s opening sessions, the 2 hours went by very quickly. For some of us nidans and sandans, who are relatively new to koryu, the focus was on learning the sequence of the moves for each of the katas. The more senior yondans, and godans who clearly already knew the patterns, focused their attention on the more minor intricate details.
When I first started training in iaido and later jodo I used to wonder how someone could do the same thing over and over again for the years and years, even decades, that it takes to go from no dan to 8th Dan and holding. Didn’t they get bored? What could they possibly learn doing the same things again and again? … Well, now that I have 8 years of iaido and jodo training under my belt, a dan in iaido and just graded for and passed my 3rd dan in jodo, I know a little more about the answer to those questions then I did before.
Jodo and Iaido training, like many other martial arts, is really the search for perfection, which ultimately is unattainable. One can get closer and closer but never ever actually get there, but the way, as Miyamoto Musashi, the famous Japanese swordsman said, is in the training… and every year after the seminar, I am always amazed at how much my posture, positioning and technique has improved over the short but intense three and a half day weekend seminar.
There is something to be said about total immersion, immersion in the art with a dedicated group of like-minded people who are intent on learning and improving their art, their technique. There is something to be said for learning from a group of highly ranked instructors and repeating the same basic drills and the same katas over and over and over again. There is something to be said about living, eating and breathing your art for several days. It is a doorway to improvement. To use the words of my traditional medicine teacher, "It allows you to take a step up." Following the jodo session on Friday there was an instructional iai class, which my Sensei and other dojo leaders attended, that concentrated on metsuke, or gaze, one of the hallmarks of good iaido, and merihari, or telling the story/showing the story of the kata.
Saturday morning welcomed about 140 participants to the West Gym of the University of Guelph, a large, well-lit gym with incredibly high ceilings that would serve as the seminar's main home for the entire weekend. This location, along with another smaller gym and a couple of seminar studios, were the ideal spaces for the various sessions. The Saturday morning seminar always begins with a formal welcome to Namitome and the other visiting senseis by Sensei Kim Taylor, the seminar’s main organizer, as well as a formal greeting to the students from Namitome Sensei. After the mokuso, the official bow, we lined up according to our dojos. The groups spread from one end of the gym to the other. There were 10 students in the line from our dojo, a good number, but a few of the dojo line ups had double that. People had come from as far away as British Columbia, from Quebec, New York city, Detriot, Ottawa, Pickering, Toronto, all across Ontario, in fact, from Nova Scotia and the list went on. The quality of the instruction makes this one of the world’s star iaido/jodo attractions, and the word is out!
We split into our respective arts. To me, the numbers seemed evenly split between the jodo group and the iaido students. In the past, being the consummate multi-disciplinary martial artist who wants to do it all, I split my time between jodo and iaido, spending time in some of each of the sessions. It is incredible that there is leeway for that at the seminar. These days I am slightly more focused, doing only the jodo sessions and finding that the entire weekend devoted to one art really allows me to deepen my learning.
We started the jodo session with the basic basics – kihon dosa – the twelve basic moves that constitute the core of jodo. The first visiting Japanese Sensei I studied with was Nakaima Sensei, one of Namitome Sensei’s students, who told me that in his dojo, the students have to study the basics for 2 years before they are allowed to practice kata. In North America, we are in fast forward mode, so 2 years of basics get condensed into 3 hours of morning practice.
Our dojo, which includes jodo as part of the kobudo or ancient weapons program, is like many in North America which do not follow the Nakaima Sensei 2 years of basic training practice before kata and throws rank beginners straight into kata with the basics thrown in for good measure, but definitely not the only focus. It is good to review the basics with these masters and to note that even those with more senior belts than I have get corrected from time to time.
In the afternoon session everyone went through the kata from the bottom up and once we reached seven and took our break, we split into two groups, one staying on those kata and the other going on to the higher kata… By the end of the day I was knackered, my voice hoarse from kiaiing, my shoulder, which had started the day stiff and in pain, was sore, but no longer stiff. The constant movement during the day had somehow eased the pain. An epsoms salts bath and an early night are the order of the evening.
Usually the gradings are held on the Sunday morning of the seminar but this year was different. We got an extra day’s practice before performing in front of the panel of judges. Sunday morning picked up where Saturday evening left off – kata, kata, kata. Those grading were told to stay in the grading group and work on improving the posture and details of the kata. Those who were not grading got to go along for the ride all the way to the end of the 12 kata selection.
There were details upon details from the
visiting sensei who each supervised
a different group of students and each went around correcting hand and
foot positions, targeting and body postures, speaking only in
Japanese, to a group of students who, except for a few student
translators, don’t understand very many words of Japanese at all. But
somehow we understand each other. It is the language of devotion to a
common art, a common goal. As the weekend goes on, we seem to
absorb Japanese by osmosis – even when the translator is not there,
the Sensei comes around and explains their corrections in Japanese
using hand movements, demonstrating positions and almost
miraculously, we are communicating, in two different languages. We
are speaking the language of jodo.
The author and her partner being taught by Namitome sensei
At the end of the day on Sunday I was again happy with the day's progress. I had received many corrections from Namitome Sensei, Etoh Sensei and Otofuji Sensei and still had one more session in the morning to seal those changes they suggested into my body memory before the grading. Having moved back and forth, first with instructors from Fukuoka and then Tokyo and back to Fukuoka, which have slight but significantly different styles, my body memory sometimes gets confused about whether to lean forward here or to square the hips up there.
In the morning we continued as we had in the last session of the evening, with the most senior students training koryu with Namitome Sensei and two other groups of students repeating the grading requirements and a few more senior kata. The Monday grading started, as always, from the bottom up. The improvement of the students was impressive, especially obvious in those who knew very little at the beginning of the seminar and are grading for 1st Kyu. The whole grading group seemed well prepared, or so it seemed to my only just beginning to be trained sandan eye. There were details that the Sensei had corrected in my kata that my body still had not completely absorbed despite the morning training session, so I asked the jodo gods to allow me to remember them for my grading.
Luckily I am partnering a nidan candidate so I get to do a trial run of most of my kata directly in front of the panel of 6 judges. That dealt with the nerves and when my group went up to grade, I could concentrate on demonstrating what I know. The entire grading passed. A rare moment indeed! We were told just as we sat down to watch the senior iaido grading. After lunch we once again started from the bottom up, this time each group demonstrating the embu, or five kata, particular to their group. It was a pleasure to get to demonstrate in front of the whole seminar audience and to watch what others had been working on all weekend. The demonstrations ended with the jodo and iaido sensei wowing us with their fine technique.
Then we were treated to a short lesson in tanjo, a sort of Japanese walking stick, and I realized once more that the path of a martial artist is never ending. Here we go again, another new art to master. Tune in same time next year for more on that story! All in all it was another incredible seminar. I remain ever grateful to my Sensei for the years of instruction and training that has allowed me to benefit from this seminar, to the Japanese Sensei for their patience and attention to detail and last but not least to Sensei Kim Taylor of Sei do Kai for yet again pulling off a masterpiece!