I was told by Sensei, in no uncertain terms, that I had better attend a particular iaido seminar. The purpose of the seminar was for 4th- and 5th-dans to get experience acting as judges, and to get acquainted with all the intricacies of sitting, standing, holding flags, passing said flags, furling and unfurling the flags, bowing, and so forth. It sounded like a riot, so I said I would be happy to go. Especially as she had just told me that I had to.
She was so keen on the idea of me going that she asked somebody in the dojo to write an e-mail to me in English explaining all the details. I was flabbergasted. And touched.
For once, everything was crystal clear. I took the necessary day off work. I got to the venue with plenty of time, with all the necessary stuff. When I went up to the reception desk to register, there was my name and everything. This was probably a first for me!
The seminar itself was, uh, well, how can I put this? Awful. Abysmal. Agony. (And that's just the A's...) First off, it was about 33 degrees inside the gym, and extremely humid. Second of all, we had to take turns demonstrating, while our peers acted as judges. With my slippery, sweaty feet, it was humiliating - like doing iai on a Slip'n'Slide.
Third, judging wasn't much better. I had been paying keen attention to what the instructors were telling us, but to not much avail. Ever seen that Far Side cartoon "what we say to dogs... what they hear"?
Well, what I heard from the judges was: "blah blah blah FLAGS blah blah blah IMPORTANT blah blah blah DON'T blah blah blah YOU MUST blah blah FLAGS blah blah blah ..." This was accompanied by some not-very-illustrative flicks of a flag here and there.
Anyway, I did my best and stumbled through it, although I was hampered by this handicap I have called "Common Sense". For example, while acting as part of a 3-person judging team, we all stood behind our chairs for a moment behind the table, looking very impressive. The head judge gave a quiet signal that we should sit (it should all be in unison, obviously). There wasn't enough room between my chair and the other judge's chair, so I used COMMON SENSE and went the other way, and sat down. I was quickly (like, in about 0.3 milliseconds, almost as if someone had been waiting for me to make a mistake) corrected that I must sit down in my chair from the left side, i.e., in counterclockwise fashion. Oh, right. Silly me. Had this been a real grading or tournament, the whole thing would've been ruined!
The one thing I did take away was that flags can be dangerous. I was so intent on raising my flag with the correct judge-ly deportment and decisiveness, that when the head judge stood and yelled "Hantei" my left arm shot up and ... pretty much stabbed her in the face with my flag. Oops! Be careful to deploy the flag slightly to the REAR of the adjacent judge, not directly sideways, as that can be painful.
In the afternoon, we went through ZNKR iai, focusing on some of the fine details that we need to look for when judging others. I wanted to explain that I was awesome at judging others; it was just my own techniques that suck. And suck they did. Hard. I'm sure everyone else was shaking their head thinking, "This guy is 5th dan? Wow, they really make it easy for foreigners..."
Again, these fine details we were learning were pretty ... um, fine. Apparently the ZNKR handbook uses three slightly different verb tenses for the word meaning "to put your hands on the tsuka": kake, kakete, and kakeru. If I could tell you the difference between these tenses, I wouldn't have been inwardly screaming "What is going on here???" at the top of my mental lungs. Sensei spent about 20 minutes explaining, in depth, the differences between kake, kakete, and kakeru as it relates to different techniques. Eventually, he took a break. After the break, he came back and announced, "Okay, we figured it out. This is kake, this is kakete, and this is kakeru" while showing us the hand position for each. Imagine that - showing is sometimes more effective than telling! (Sorry, I know that not everybody is a teacher by profession...)
-editor's note: Still want to go to Japan to learn Iaido folks?