Date: August 21-24, 2000Watching the two men, roughly of the same ability, perform a full series of forms from the same style of swordsmanship made me realize that a person's general disposition can be seen through one's iaido. One man’s techniques were strong and powerful, the other’s were smooth, flowing, and gentle. The former is outgoing, cheerful and frank. The latter is quiet, calm, and observant. Both men possess confidence that displays itself through their iaido. I’m talking about Brisbane’s John Isaacs and Dave Kolb.
Instructor: David Kolb
Organization: International Kendo Federation, All Japan Kendo Federation
Location: Brisbane, Queensland
Dave and his wife Naoko is a 'budo couple' by definition. They both practice aikido, iaido, and jodo. In the 'budo room' at home lay weapons of various sorts, and shelves of martial arts books--some Japanese, most English. Japanese scrolls hang from walls, pictures from martial events smile back at me. Dave and Naoko definitely live the martial arts lifestyle. Although members of the Kenshinkai, they do not regularly train with John Isaacs, due to scheduling differences. Instead, Dave and Naoko train in iaido, at their local aikido dojo. When not swinging swords they’re throwing each other around in the very wee hours of the morning, before they go to work: Aikido practice starts at 7 a.m.
Dave is soft spoken with a clever, typically Australian dry sense of humour. He's always listening and watching though, which leads me to believe he’s more Japanese than Australian. Having this Japanese practice style made it a real pleasure to practice iaido with Dave. During training we were able to enjoy our own personal 'iai time.' There was little need to run a structured class: We went in and went to quiet work on our techniques--knowing that there is always something to work on and improve. I too took some moments to watch Dave and Naoko. I immediately noticed their training consistency and tenacity. They both showed that ‘sticking’ ability needed to break through particularly weak sections of a form, or waza. Instead of passing over an area lightly, they drilled themselves repeatedly through a technique, until they had come to understand, and control it better.
In effect, the Kolbs have reached a stage of iaido self-sufficiency, through years of practice and self-reflection. Of course, Dave and Naoko go to Japan whenever they get the chance (As Australian Kendo Federation and All Japan Kendo Federation members) to brush up on their techniques, or ‘refuel’ on information.
Dave prepared some excellent answers to my interview questions so, rather than continue to read my ramblings let’s go straight to the interview.
How long have you been practicing iaido?
I have been practicing iaido now for about 11 or 12 years.
What made you start iai? Why did you start iai?
I'm not really sure, there's nothing really inspirational about it. I had been doing karate for quite some time and then became involved in aikido. Believe it or not I found that I had some extra time available so I started doing iaido one night per week as well. I had always been interested in Japanese swords and felt it was a good way to pursue that interest as well as supplementing the weapons training in aikido.
How did you initially train in iai?
At that time there was a class conducted on a Monday evening at the YMCA in the city that was led by Greg Mapstone who was a nidan who had recently returned to Brisbane after having lived in Japan for a few years. There was quite a strong group there then with a lot of energy. It included a lot of people who also trained in kendo like John Isaacs. If it hadn't been for those two guys I probably wouldn't be doing iai today, we've all had our ups and downs, but throughout it all they've done a lot to keep iaido going here in Queensland. The funny thing about Greg was that he was a friend of another guy that I had met in a sword appreciation club that had been happening in Brisbane. Anyway, at one stage a few years earlier, I had bought an old sword and a tanto that he had sold on Greg's behalf. This had been to finance Greg's trip to Japan. Coincidentally I later eventually met Greg and started to train with him. Looking back I always thought that it had been a good investment, I got the sword but I also benefited from all the training that Greg did in Japan.
Where did you and Naoko meet?
Naoko and I met here in Brisbane, when she came here as part of a contract, teaching Japanese in high school. She had done some Daito Ryu Aikijutsu and iai back in her home in Hokkaido. Neither style was available here so she did the next best thing. She joined our aikido club and the next thing she showed up at iaido as well. It's a long story from there but eventually we got together and became married 4 years ago, thanks in part to the Immigration Department. There's both positive and negative aspects to living and training together, but on the whole it works really well for us. But then again we are both pretty easy going. Being a bit of a budo nut I've always had a problem in past relationships finding a balance between training and doing other things. There are potential problems though, you have got to be careful to separate things to a certain extent and not bring problems from home (not that we ever have any) into the dojo.
Have you done other arts before/during iai?
As I mentioned before I have previously practiced karate, initially a sort of eclectic style, then Okinawan Goju Ryu and most recently I trained under Patrick McCarthy, a well-known Canadian karate teacher who now lives in Brisbane. I also train in aikido in the Aiki-kai style and have been doing that for about 14 years now. I was also lucky to be introduced to jodo several years ago through my karate teacher, Glen Henry. In the last 12 months or so Glen has managed to get jodo going quite well in Brisbane. We've had Paul Maloney from Sydney taking seminars and in January we went to Melbourne to train in seitei jo under a group of teachers from Japan that was led by Namitome Sensei.
What is your training/teaching approach to iai?
At the moment Naoko and I are essentially training by ourselves twice a week. I really don't have the expertise to consider myself as an iaido teacher. The present arrangement is good because our training time is spent getting stuck into it. Although in the near future I might try to see if I can organize a few people to train with us. If I can borrow your term, that would be acting as a facilitator and acting on behalf of my teachers in Japan.
Who have been your iai instructors?
Greg Mapstone who I mentioned earlier was my first iaido instructor. However, the biggest influence on my iai has been Obayashi Sensei (8th Dan) and the other teachers of the Dai Ken Kyo group in Japan that is headed by Ikeda Sensei (8th Dan Hanshi). I was introduced to Obayashi Sensei through Greg and another Australian guy, John Wright who was living and training in Japan. I had a natural connection with Dai Ken Kyo through being in the police service here, with all the teachers being either current or retired police. The good thing about Osaka is that all the different ryuha seem to get along quite well and the whole Osaka Kendo Renmei Iaido Bu get together twice a week for a joint practice at the Shudokan Dojo located within Osaka Castle. Anyway, I first went to Japan in 1993 and stayed for a couple of months training mostly in iaido and have been back another 5 times since then. Nowadays of course Naoko and I travel together and combine training with visiting her family. My experience is that there would seem to be a far greater emphasis on koryu, at least in Osaka, with our koryu being Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. This tends to make things a bit interesting because the majority of teachers that get to make it over here seem to be from Kanto with a background in Muso Shinden Ryu. It can make it a little hard to adjust because there are some subtle differences.
Where did you grade and what grade are you now?
I have done all of my grading in Osaka and am presently 4th dan and Naoko is 3rd dan.
What can iai offer to people?
I think iai offers quite a lot. It's probably no coincidence that a lot of iaido teachers are expert in other arts as iaido seems to go well with any type of martial art. I don't necessarily go with the official line that iaido and kendo are like the two wheels of cart, I think that relationship is as much political or coincidental as anything else. Essentially iai is a mental and physical discipline that allows for reflection or introspection through working on perfection of the physical exercises (kata). The relative simplicity of the movements seems to heighten the intensity of the constant search for improvement. The nature of the practice means that one is able to continue developing well into old age, this is something important when compared to most physical activities that seem to focus on strength, speed, and youthful agility. Westerners get the added bonus of potentially being able to gain an insight into Japanese culture as well.
What's the most important thing about doing iai-(metsuke or nukitsuke\par or all of it etc...)?
I' m going to go for heijo shin, but all of those concepts like metsuke, zanshin, te no uchi, etc are vital. I've got some calligraphy from Ikeda Sensei, which reads 'Heijo Shin Kore Michi'. I take that to mean that this way (iai) is all about Heijo Shin, that calm, natural state of mind. I suppose it is related to the concept of Sei Chu Do (stillness within action) that we were talking about the other day. Good iai should have intensity, but it should also be controlled, so it can be a way to develop that mental calmness that is essential if you are ever placed in a crisis situation. In terms of actual practice I think the hardest and most important thing is simply hanging in there. Being in the dojo and actually training is the relatively easy part; it's getting there that is the problem. When you are tired after a big day at work, it's too cold, too hot, there's something good on TV, or whatever excuse there may be for not going to training. If someone makes a conscious decision to stop training that's okay in my mind, as compared to just drifting along with the excuse that you'll make it next week. You're not going to get short-term rewards out of iai, in fact I don't even think there's a guarantee that you will keep improving. Half the time I think I'm actually getting worse, the longer you practise the harder it is to make those small improvements. That's the challenge, to make the effort, and keep grinding away. That's fairly anachronistic in modern society where if you can perfect your tennis game, or your golf swing you can earn a million dollars. Perfect your kiritsuke and your noto and probably no one will be watching and all you'll be left with is a fleeting good feeling.
What is the current purpose of iai?/ What are your purposes for doing iai?
Obviously, I like the discipline of it. Swinging swords around, whether it is in gendai or koryu bujutsu fashion, has no value in itself. It probably sounds a bit cliche but the real purpose is not only to try to perfect aspects of oneself, but also to build relationships with others. I think the thing that I most admire about Obayashi Sensei is not only is he highly skilled at iaido but he is also about the most down to earth, kind, and warm person I have ever met. Just seeing the way he relates to others whether they are highly ranked teachers, kids on the train, or dumb gaijin is a revelation. So that is my purpose in training, to try and work on those things, probably none too successfully.
Please add anything you feel is important/ relevant...now's the chance!
Yeah. I just hope that a mental health professional
goes through your site and then maybe you and the rest of us can get the
therapy and medication we desperately need.
You have a way with words Dave! And it's so true!