Friday, January 31, 2014

Mugai Ryu Iaido

(A picture of the founder of Mugai-ryu: Tsuji Gettan Sukemochi found at

DISCLAIMER: I have only been practicing for about two months, have no other experience in iaido, and have not read much on the art. Also, everything I take in from my class is in Japanese and I don't understand 100% of everything that is said.

You shouldn't believe everything you read anyway.

But to the subject at hand!

I practice Mugai Ryu iaido, one of many different styles in the art of iaido, and I've been anxious to learn what makes it different from other styles.

I've done some research on my own in the internet but haven't found much. Most of the information I got I found on Wikipedia where it talks about the founder of the style, Tsuji Gettan Sukemochi, who was born in 1649. He practiced Yamaguchi-ryu iaido and also studied Zen Buddhism and Classical Chinese Literature. Eventually he created his own style, Mugai, a word taken from a poem that was given to him by his zen teacher (which I have included at the end of this post). Other sources I have read said that Mugai-ryu is influenced greatly by zen philosophy. Like many other budo during the time of relative peace in the Edo Period, budo underwent a lot of transitions from the battlefield to the abstract.

Other than that very small research (please notify me of other sources if you know any on this style!!!) I have what I've been absorbing in the physical practice and talks with my sensei. I'm not sure how much of it overlaps with other styles of iaido, because I don't know anything about other styles, but I'll just mention what my sensei has said is characteristic of Mugai-ryu, which may also be similar to other styles.

When we swing the sword, we don't merely swing down, hit, or rip through anything ... we swing the sword using our wrists to snap the blade forward so that at the moment of impact the tip of the sword falls first (not the hand falling with the blade following), and from there we pull the sword. When we swing forward in the standard strike, we raise the blade above our head, swing forward snapping the wrists so that the blade finds the target as quickly as possible, and then we pull the blade towards our bellies.

Mugai-ryu emphasizes speed, because once you're hit with a blade a cut can be made. Cutting with the blade happens at only a few inches at the end of the blade. Contact with that part of the blade is made, and then pulled to rip open a long cut. There is no idea of cutting all the way through something using bull strength and momentum. We're not focusing on cutting people in half in Mugai-ryu. Mugai-ryu utilizes fast precision cuts to take advantage of distance and timing.

One interesting idea which I think may be very different in other styles is that Mugai-ryu doesn't seek to overtake an opponent with one deadly strike. Many of the wazas I've learned utilize two strikes on one opponent. Often, the first is more of a movement to move faster than the opponent and set him off balance, once that is achieved, the final strike is made.

For example, in one waza we begin sitting in seiza imagining an opponent sitting across from us. Once the opponent starts to move unsheathing the blade, we begin as well. Once the opponent raises the blade above his head for a downward cut, we cut with a diagonal upward slice, but this is not intended to end the opponent there, but more so set him off balance. Once that balance is upset we step forward and strike down on the open opponent. A lot of techniques seem to follow this practice, and sensei says this is characteristic of Mugai-ryu.

To be honest I didn't really like this at first. Idealizing in my head without practice, I would think that you should end an opponent as simply and quickly as possible. Shouldn't you try to do this in one move? Why waste an initial movement that isn't even intended to cut?

I don't have clear answers for this right now, and am left to my own mental meanderings.

One thing our sensei says is that what we are practicing has a long history that is based on real experiences. This style developed this way because of millions of people using the swords over hundreds of years. It was not thought up in isolation and practiced without experimentation. Some of the practices or reasonings may seem strange to us, but then we have 0 experience using a sword to kill someone in battle. With that, you kind of have to trust what your sensei says on this, experience different styles, and judge for yourself.

Another main point sensei is trying to teach us is that the first person who moves or initiates an attack is at a great disadvantage. He tries to explain to us using physical examples and parts of it make sense. This is familiar to me in aikido where most all wazas are in reaction to an incoming attacker (though there are pressing instigating movements like atemi-waza as well). However, something about this seems a bit strange to me, and there's something stuck in my mind similar to Bruce Lee's theory that the best defense is a good offense, that you never defend, and rather press on an opponent to win.

It is on this subject that we begin talking about Katsujinken and Satsujinken. Katsujinken is translated as the life-giving sword. I first read about this from the Edo Period's Yagyu Munenori in his book, "The Life Giving Sword." The implication of this term is that the sword should not be used to kill, but to protect. This is in contrast to the Satsujinken, which is the life-taking sword. Perhaps a Satsujinken style is one that focuses only on successfully killing an opponent with the sword.

The description seems simple, but it's really difficult to differentiate the two isn't it? Of course the sword is used to kill people. In iaido we're learning to swing a sword in order to defeat opponents. If we're not using a sword with the intention of cutting something, then what is the point? Why not do something else? If you're so worried about taking life, why even have a sword?

This conversation seems to come up in my mind and in conversation with others in relation to the martial arts. I think it's popular in the West to practice a martial art with "real" practical ability. What the means exactly I'm not completely sure, but people seem to want to practice the "most effective" martial art which can defeat an opponent as simply and quickly as possible. Though this is said, the image is of violent fast strikes with big muscles. I think of UFC and the idea that it's training the "best" warriors because it pits styles against each other and you're seeing lots of very ferocious young men who probably could kick a lot of people's asses. It's funny that budo also seeks the "most effective" way of doing things by completing an act as simply and quickly as possible, but the image is completely different. But then there isn't one image, because each martial art in budo is completely different.

Back to the point ...

I could imagine talking to a lot of people who would say, "I want to practice the real iaido, the one that is the best at killing people, not some pussy knock off that idealizes not using the sword at all." Perhaps the discussion doesn't have to have such a violent intent, and one could say that they want to practice the most effective sword style, and with that superior ability, develop an idealogy of not killing others. Maybe that's what Mugai-ryu is?

I've had this discussion in aikido often as well. People ask why practice a martial art that emphasizes evading and moving an opponent around instead of just striking and ending an altercation immediately? There's a lot of different ways to go about this, and the discussions could last for hours, and pages, and lifetimes. It's interesting though that although people accept that martial arts aren't used often and that we should follow peace, but then desire to practice the most vicious violent arts out there. It's like they're just saying, "Oh yeah, we shouldn't hurt each other and the art isn't used in practical life ... but I could kill you in two seconds if I wanted to." I think it's an obsession with power and a fear of loss.

The most interesting about all of this though, is the mental position one takes when adopting a particular style. People like to think they can do one thing and yet think another, for example practice a deadly martial art while advocating peace, but people underestimate the ability of the techniques they seek to imprint on their subconscious.

I first realized this idea when practicing Tai Chi and reflecting on my Karate practice. In Karate we practice wazas that are meant to defeat opponents using strong fast strikes. We practice these wazas until they are ingrained inside of us so deeply that we can react using them without thinking. Well, what happens when someone comes up behind you and taps you on the shoulder and you turn around firing a strike right into their face? What happens when you get in an altercation with a drunk person at a bar and end up using a strike that kills or debilitates them? Maybe they hit their head on the curb and bled to death because you knocked them out cold on the street.

What happens when you meet an opposition and your natural inclination is to "defeat" it?

This is dangerous physically to ourselves and others, and develops an aggressive success-obsessed mindset that is afraid of loss. This is an angry prison world damned for hell. You cannot win. You cannot be happy.

To me, this is the Satsujinken, life-taking sword.

So after class I asked sensei about the characterstic of Mugai-ryu where one doesn't seek to cut someone in one strike, but utilizes a few strikes to knock the opponent off balance and then finish. He said it was particular to Mugai-ryu. I asked if there were other styles that focused on cutting someone immediately with one strike and he said of course there were a lot. He then showed us a couple wazas from the Eishin-ryu. I was surprised to see this, and asked him about it. He's practiced different kinds of iai but he decides to teach and follow Mugai-ryu. I asked him if he like Mugai-ryu better than other styles he's known. At an older and higher ranked teacher with a lot of skill and experience, I would assume that he would choose "the best" style.

When answering he said, "I guess it has to do with katsujinken. In Mugai-ryu and in accordance with the katsujinken, a practitioner doesn't necessarily seek to fight an opponent. In fact, a Mugai-ryu practitioner would wait for an opponent to begin a move, but if nothing happened, then nothing happened and there is no reason to fight. Furthermore, maybe someone draws their blade against a Mugai-ryu person and so the Mugai-ryu practitioner draws. Maybe they stand there and the other person realizes the Mugai-ryu person is stronger and decides not to fight. At that point the Mugai-ryu won't mind and the problem can cease. Maybe the other person swings and the Mugai-ryu person cuts them and then they run away. The Mugai-ryu person will not chase them, but will be content without having to kill."

These are all just ideas and discussions. We are talking about various scenarios and ideas. This is a big part of iaido I think.

In aikido we are utilizing practical empty-handed movements, but shy away from talking about it too much and just train having the techniques ingrain themselves and naturally effect us.

Kyudo is so disconnected to modern self-defense that we don't even need to talk much about practical application. We just practice the technique in an honest fashion and that's good enough.

But Iai is another strange world where practicality, cutting instead being cut, and life and death is heavily considered, yet actually using a sword in an altercation is as unlikely as finding a dragon. Like the other arts I've practiced in Japan, I'm focusing on the physical technique: reaching out with the tip of the blade and pulling towards me, moving through the movements of the particular waza. But I'm also thinking and talking a lot with sensei about the philosophy. Perhaps more than other arts Iai allows for philosophical meandering.

But then I don't really know. Practice is fun, so I'll keep going and learning.

I here leave you with the poem from which the Mugai name came from:


Ippou jitsu mugai
Kenkon toku ittei
Suimo hou nomitsu
Douchaku soku kousei

"There is nothing other than the One True Way
Heaven and Earth profit from this single Virtue
The fluttering feather knows this secret
To be settled during confusion is to be enlightened and pure"

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why Hit the Target?

(I have no idea who this guy is, but I think he knows what I'm talking about. Pic found at

Because it's cool!

This is by far the best reason ever to hit the target in kyudo.

Hitting the target does not mean you're:




-or even that good.

It also doesn't necessarily make you all that cool, but if you want to hit the target because it's cool, I think you're on the right track.

In kyudo we're doing a lot more than just trying to hit the target, so accomplishing that goal is only just a small part of the whole practice. Hitting the target isn't bad, in fact it's great. It's just that it's not the only thing we're doing in kyudo, so focusing only on that will make you ignore all of the other aspects and then what you're doing is not really kyudo, but just shooting an arrow at a target. Just shooting an arrow at a target is also not a bad thing, it's just not all we're doing in kyudo.

Technically, we do things with the body to create results that lead to better shooting which allow us to shoot the arrow straight to the target, increasing our ability of hitting the target. The techniques are difficult enough to take a long time to cultivate, so we must work on them often and consistently. The techniques are so many we cannot possibly think of them all at the same time consciously and do them effectively. A teacher cannot just say, "OK, do this and this and this and this, and that is all the technique of kyudo and you'll hit the target." The mind cannot possibly think of all these things at the same time. Can the mind even successfully think of two things at the same time?! We practice little by little and eventually we'll hit the target more and more without even trying, though we're also putting all of our effort into the practice.

Through our great effort, we hit the target effortlessly.

But then that's only technique for hitting the target, which is still such a small part of the practice of kyudo.

After that there's etiquette: relating to other people, the equipment, and yourself.

There's also maintenance of equipment and facilities.

There's also ceremony.

As a culmination of all the different facets there is the soul practicing that we so often hear of with kyudo. Kyudo is not just shooting an arrow at a target, but an entire realm of life.

It's kind of like studying the world. We can take a class, look at a map and some pictures, and read descriptions of places. In doing that we can create images and meanings to places. I think people (me included!) do this with kyudo. I remember meeting a young guy who practiced kendo and aikido and when he heard that I practiced kyudo he said, "Oh kyudo's about the ritual, right?" Well, that's a part of it, but there's also actually hitting the target, I thought. But now in this writing I'm trying to convey that kyudo is not just hitting the target. When we talk about kyudo, we are talking about ideas, and we can use those ideas to balance out our over-emphasized impressions. We use words and ideas to balance our training though they are not completely accurate.

So you can study the entire world, even visit lots of different countries and say that you know the world, but until you've completely indulged in one place until you forget about everthing else can you really know,

I think.

In kyudo you have practices working only on ceremony where you completely forget about shooting and you think it's stupid because it becomes something that has nothing to do with shooting. Then you practice only shooting and hitting the target for a while until you think that's all there is, and then have to work on something else, like fixing your bow and then you realize how narrow and close-minded just trying to hit the target is. You see others trying their best though not hitting the target, and that is much more beautiful than those focusing only on hitting the target and being satisfied with just that.

Kyudo is an entire realm of it's own, in which hitting the target is a small part. What to do with that small part which seems to be the focus of it all? How do we focus on it? Why do we focus on it?

Because it's cool!

We have a lot of other things to worry about. Shooting an arrow into a target is really not so important.

Just do it because it's fun and you think it's cool.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sensei's Greatest Concern

Will I continue?

I'm thinking of my specific situation in iaido, but it relates to all sensei and students everywhere.

In my experience, and from what I've read of other traditions of martial arts, meditation, or anything in particular involving a teacher and a student, the number one most important factor, and so therefore the most brooded over by teachers, is this question:

Will the student continue training?

On the one hand, the idea of all of these practices is that one's training is never finished, so we must continue cultivation until our end. In a way, once a person stops, it's all over. One could say it's a waste of the teacher's time if the student quits early. In that respect, ideally a student should practice until they improve beyond their master and can then pass the teaching on to someone else, who will then again surpass the teacher. This is an idea you can rationalize, but it's also the number one most serious feeling I've ever sensed from my teachers. I've practiced many martial arts, and so I've moved and stopped training in many of them. I've said a lot of goodbyes, and aside from the excitement of moving on, the goodbye's totally suck, because of a hidden love between teachers and students, and the hope that the student will continue on even though they move.

On the other hand, such transitions are inevitable in life and should be understood and accepted by teachers. I've moved many times and changed teachers and arts, and though I've chosen to do so everytime, it feels inevitable. This is my life, and I am just the person who can't sit still in his 20's. Though I've moved around, I feel as though I've been cultivating the same internal practice, be it karate, tai chi chuan, ba gua, aikido, kyudo, iaido. I am continuing self cultivation by using the body, working towards some invisible goal with kindred spirits. I feel as though I am doing honor to the teachers of my past, though I may not continue their art. There is a practical aspect of passing on an art where such movement doesn't help, but for that overall picture, I think a student and teacher should trust that this journey will not end, and blessings should be given instead of dark judgements. Like, "Great. What a waste of time. He doesn't respect the art and will lose all he's gained." But then again, if a teacher feels that way, they're probably not a very good teacher.

Back to the specifics, I think this is something my iai teacher is really thinking about with me. He knows about my past trainings and movements and must think that this will be no exception and I may just leave in a couple years. If such is the case, why would he teach me? It is a service of sorts I pay money for, and I'm not a bad student, so I don't think he'll just refuse to teach me. But assuming I do just leave after a couple years and not continue iaido, this isn't desirable for the teacher.

The issue is, I don't even know what I'm going to do. Who knows how long I'll be here. At least a couple years. A lot of years? Forever? Nobody really knows the answers to these kinds of questions.

As much of a hassle it may be for a teacher to lose a student, it is also undesirable for me to invest so much time and money and effort into an art that I will just forget.

So this is life. The teacher and student come together and have an experience in that very moment. It's not just for the future, it's not for physical gain, it is an experience of life. This is where we are now, and I know we are both doing our best. He's watching me giving me little bits here and there, and I am practicing like I'll be here forever.

We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I Don't Know


I have no idea why I do the things that I do.

Kyudo. Japanese. Iaido. Live in Japan. Enjoy the things I do.

Why instead of pursuing monetary gain or fame or more practical skills do I do the things I do.

On a perfect day off I'm lost in the woods or on top of a mountain.


I can think of reasons, but in the end, when I don't do the things I want to do it eats away at the inside of my stomach. Like a legion in my brain it consumes all in the black thought that I'm not doing what I want.

A part of me wants to do it.

A part of me feels like it has to do it.

Like a sticky living pieces of thread wound together, I don't know which is which.

It is only in the moment of no-thought, that I know I am right in the world.

But that action which propels me into no thought is fate decided. It is a step in the world which I cannot take back.

Perhaps that is courage, to take that step regardless of myriad fears, those purple clouds.

I want more and more of that time inside. I want to take those steps, but the outside world comes in eating away. Taxes, applications, messages, bills, TVs, toys, drugs, people ...

I sit now and look at all of this. I've been here enough to know I can't separate the two. It is taking that step how I want to, in this world I didn't choose. Half and half, the ultimate compromise. I can do that.

Then again, I never chose this situation. I can't decide to have or not have the sky or these cities, they live on without me. I am a noble guest here. It's half me and half everything else. Blurring those lines is becoming the undescribable art.

I don't know why I do the things I do. That thought doesn't change much either.

I guess we'll just see how it goes.


Funny thing is, I'm sitting next to my wife as I wrote this and she asked what I was writing about.

"I'm writing about why I want to practice budo."

"Isn't it because it gives you satisfaction?"

So simple! Such a simple answer. Because it makes me happy.

"But why when I could be out making more money and getting things done do I go and shoot bows and arrows at the dojo?"

"Then go make more money!"

Monday, January 27, 2014

Release the Pressure

Like overworked machines we combust all of this hot pressure, condensing the furious fumes inside of our constricting bodies, shaking increases speed and sharp high pitched sounds slowly spike until one giant very unsatisfying explosion occurs. Before you realize it, the pressure has already begun to build again.

We need to release the pressure before all of this happens.

We need to just relax and not care so much, and the magic will just happen.

I used to read and hear stuff like that and consider it bullshit, or something you can do after you've acquired the skill that you want. I used to say, "Ha, that's nice but bullshit, tell me exactly how to acquire the physical technique and I'll do it." Perhaps a lot of other people feel the same way. If that's how you feel though, I'm guessing you haven't spent much time practicing budo.

I think it's essentially an issue of power, strength and desire. These are all things that are utilized in budo, but in very specific instances, like little slivers of toothpicks inside of a clay mold. The rest is basically putting our bodies and selves into the right shapes, which doesn't necessarily require strength and power. We think it does, and in order to find the shape at first we use excessive strength to get there, but more than often it just gets in the way.

We want so badly, so anything less than what we want is considered failure and not tolerated. Effort and concentration is used to isolate problems and overcome them, but in budo we're dealing with a lot of factors of sensitivity beyond our seeing eye. We're dealing with our bodies which are far more complicated than understanding through logic in a moment, so we have to intuitively feel out the movements and differences of our bodies instead of just thinking. We're also dealing with pieces of equipment that are not us and completely foreign to our bodies. We're working on goals based on the works of masters, that cannot possibly be acquired by beginners. And yet we still strive to be perfect on the very first day.

I remember one of the best days I ever had in kyudo was when I was sufficiently hungover. I went into the dojo, sensei said I stunk like alcohol, I said I went to a farewell party the night before, and then started getting ready. I wasn't thinking about kyudo at all, because that function of my body was hindered incredibly by the hangover, so I just picked up the equipment and shot. For some reason it felt great and I hit the target twice as much as usual. It was uncanny. It was because I didn't care, and just subconsciously went through the motions ... albeit it was a little sloppy.

Hail drunken kyudo!

It makes me think of the rest of the time I live a sober clean life where I do my best in everything. There are many benefits to that, but I can feel it when I go to kyudo, that I expect it all to be perfect. I appear "relaxed" and tell myself so because it's what I "should" be, but it's largely because I want to please myself and everyone around me. There, there is already pressure building. I pull the bow staring so clearly and focused on the problems that they are all I see. I don't do it perfect so frustration builds, concentration focuses, and then other problems start arising because of my tunnel vision and tension of muscles. Everything is a waste of time, and all you're doing is hurrying so you can try again and maybe get it right, but that rush already compounds it all, and you've already started your next shitty shot in your head.


I'm doing my best?

I didn't drink last night and am living healthily?

I'm nice to people and pay all of my bills on time. Kyudo is about having a correct spirit. I'm doing everything else perfect, why can't I do kyudo right?

This is how I felt today. Remarkably I hit the target 50% of the time, which is ridiculous because I used failing technique the whole time. I was either really lucky, subconsciously adjusting to my faults, or my desire to hit the target overrides my crappy technique. I'm not proud of any of those, and focusing on any of them I think will just breed worse kyudo. Today was a practice. Perhaps it's not my favorite, but I went, did my best, will go on to reflect, and it is a very important chink in my kyudo chain.

There is an obsession of sobriety that is incredibly dangerous.

We must release the pressure.

We must breath big and consistently. We must not care if we fail. We must accept our imperfections. We must see with our belly.

Who are you pullling the bow for anybody?

There's nobody else there. There's no riches to be made. You will die and be forgotten.

Why are you trying so hard?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kyudo Progress


Tonight was another classic case of having the chance to go to night kyudo, almost opting out in order to relax at home, but going and having an excellent session. It was a day off and I spent the day with the wife out exploring our new home of Nakatsu. It was raining and I thought about just relaxing and cleaning at home, but ended up going to practice anyway and it was definitely worth it. It's funny no matter how long you practice martial arts, this tendency to opt out of practice still remains strong. I guess I recognize it when it happens better, "Ah, I feel like not going, but I know if I don't I'll regret it." It takes us back to rule number one of practicing a martial art:

Just go to training.

Anyway, I went around 6 o'clock, just before most everyone shows up and the first person I see is the head 8dan (hanshi [8 degree black belt]). I perked up right away as we greeted each other. I knew right away it was worth it to come. Such a high ranking and highly skilled kyudoka is rare and to watch him practice, and have him watch you and comment is a very special opportunity. Getting changed I was aware of him the whole time, and knew he was aware of me. It's kind of like how I feel around the other head sensei in iaido. I feel like they're always critically watching, and so I'm especially sure to be on my best behavior, not without a little healthy anxiety.

When I first told my kyudo sensei in Toyama I was moving to Nakatsu, the first thing he did was grab the official book of kyudo dojos and looked up Nakatsu. When he found that Nakatsu had a hanshi sensei, his eyes widened and he said, "When you go to Nakatsu, go there immediately and start training with him." He also said I should do my best to be on good relations with him and talk to him as much as I can, and that was also the first thing I thought of. This is only the second time I've seen him at training because I can so rarely go at night when he shows up. But like I said, just having him there put me on my toes and made me excited about training.

Anyway, going back to anxiety ... I think it's really helpful in kyudo to have. When I first started, I was shocked at the amount of times that you shoot while other people watch you. At first it's like, "Please don't watch me, it makes me nervous," but I learned quickly you can't say that, and it's just a natural part of the art. We learn from watching and being watched by others. One of the most important things about kyudo is learning to get used to people watching you shoot alone. It feels like someone watching you when you're naked. You probably don't like it at first, but in kyudo it's something you have to get used to, and it will make you a lot better. This is also why it's important to participate in tournaments and tests. It's about doing your best and shooting as you are, even when everyone is watching you, especially under the pressure of competitions and exams.

I used to hate this nervousness and fight against it, trying to relax and eat away at the nervousness so shooting alone and shooting in front of others became the same, but I don't think so anymore. In fact, that nervousness I think makes you a better archer.

I'm not sure about how to explain it in a way that is honest to the feeling. Because it's mostly just a feeling. I feel nervous, and when I do, I shoot better. I miraculously do a lot of the things I've been trying to do subconsciously and for some reason snap into some ideal budo mode where I do my noble best without caring too much about hitting the target. It's when I'm left alone and without any pressure at all that it all falls away.

So the head sensei was there watching, I was nervous, shot a lot, and did fairly well. I was ever conscious of him, waiting for a chance to talk to him. Just to run up to him and bombard with questions or ask him to watch you seems a bit much. Everyone wants his help and attention. To single yourself out and just approach him like he's another archer seems to go against some unsaid rules of protocol. But then again, he is just another archer, and if I have a question I shouldn't hesitate to ask him. I shot a lot, felt pretty good, and right when I was going to go and sit next to him and initiate some conversation I got distracted by other archers who started talking to me. We talked for about 15 minutes and then I walked over to where I thought sensei was, to find him gone. I looked around for him, but apparently he had already sneaked out and gone home when I wasn't aware.

So I'll just have to wait until next time. But no one here is in a hurry, so it's all good.

I finally feel like I'm in a good place now in kyudo. My hand is completely healed and I'm doing my best not to instigate a reinjury, which shouldn't be a big problem. In fact, it helps me focus on proper technique. I've also been going consistently lately, maybe 3 times a week (I hope to make it 4 or 5 on the average) and so I've found a consistent rythm where I'm not embarrassingly bad. I've been around long enough that I recognize most people in the dojo and am not just "the new guy", and have developed friendships with others around. This is probably the most important part of practice, getting along with others. Once you establish that, everything becomes the best it can be. After that, I think at the one of the deepest levels, the greatest part about kyudo is the relationships with others that you make. Definitely.

I've said it before, and will say it many more times in the future, if it weren't for all the incredibly genuinely nice people in kyudo, I would have quit so many times a long time ago.

But anyway, specifically about technique, my two main issues are ones that have been around for a long time:

First, the string pre-releasing. It only happened once today, and I noticed it within the glove before it could slap me. In fact, it happened just before people were about to pull the arrows out of the targets and I was the last one shooting all by myself. I noticed that the arrow had slipped out but still in my grasp. I returned to the starting position, everyone looked at me strangely and I said that it slipped out, and then I told the people to take the arrows so they didn't have to wait for me. The other people around said, "No no no, wait, he's going to do this next one!" And told me to go ahead and do it again.

Goddamn. It's very unnerving to have that happen, and to have everybody watching and waiting while I try again is a special kind of hell. I realized the best thing to do was just bear up and do my best and try again, which I did, and I hit the target to my great surprise.

That was a little lesson in kyudo. We must face our fears and shoot in the face of potential failure and humiliation. Sometimes we will fail embarrassingly in front of everyone, but sometimes we will succeed.

So anyway, I said a long time ago that I realized this problem wasn't just in the kai (draw of the bow) where the string slips out, but in dai san (a transitional period where you change positions with the bow over your head), but then thought that maybe I'll realize it starts much sooner like in uchiokoshi (where you raise the bow). Recently I realize it's earlier than that at the very first moment you grip the string and arrow (torikake). Crazy, but I'm happy I've traced the problem back to here. I had a senior student show me how to do it right, and I did it with great success. But I've forgotten exactly how it goes, and am searching to find it on my own, to some success. This is another thing in kyudo. Learning how to fix something, doing it right, then completely forgetting. It's incredibly humiliating and embarrassing for your self and spirit, but we must accept these facts and humbly move forward doing our best. Failure upon success upon failure, we keep folding over this experience until one day we can just do it.

After that, there's my tenouchi (hand that holds the bow). I have certain bad tendencies I've had from the beginning but haven't fixed completely yet. I had a senior student help me out a lot tonight, telling me things I've heard maybe a hundred times before. I know this so well, but for some reason my hand won't do it. I am grateful for his help and don't regard it with frustration, but consider it helpful advice that will definitely contribute to my future success.

But then again there is no future,

and if something isn't a success now,

it's because I won't let it.

The beautiful humble path of an archer. I've never experienced a budo like this.

I can't wait to go back tomorrow morning.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

We Are Not Samurai

In answering this question I want to get to the core of human physical emotional and spiritual movements but it gets really complicated in Japan due to a lot of social tendencies. I make it difficult because I have my own American social predispositions. I want to talk about the real underlying principles of it all but I'm afraid most of the discussion will fall into the category of cultural comparison.

Perhaps it's one of the first surface levels before the deeper layers of general human activity. Of course I can't put it all out here due to time and space restrictions, as well as the fact I probably don't see it all.

Anyway I can start with big cultural generalizations:

Americans want to be able to do everything.

Japanese want to do one thing really well.

When I was young and had my first curiousities about beginning martial arts I wanted to become strong.

I still do.

That strength is less about doing one thing perfectly and more about being able to do anything well. That in and of itself it's own own perfection of life, I think.

There's something about that independence and self reliance. I want to be able to survive alone and provide for myself.

For a long time being a 10th degree blackbelt was less appealing to me than being a 3rd degree blackbelt in three arts, or a 1st degree blackbelt in ten different arts. I'm not sure exactly how I feel now. I've naturally strayed from my original ideas, moving more towards the Japanese status quo, but this is an idea under great inspection now in my mind.

I think understanding what the different levels of early blackbelts mean changes my opinion quite a bit.

I think being a 3rd degree black belt in three arts, or a 10th degree black belt in ten arts is a lot less desirable than being a 10th dan in one art in Japan. It means you've drifted from here to there and without taking one seriously or devoting yourself fully to one single art. Also, in many arts, the first black belt means you're still a beginner and it isn't until after your 3rd degree black belt that you may be considered intermediate. Very generally, for me as a first degree blackbelt to visit another dojo, someone will realize I'm taking the art seriously, but have really just started. At second degree, you can see that someone has spent quite a bit of time in an art and is not necessarily just a beginner anymore. At third degree, perhaps you find some pretty skilled artists who are working on building their own style of movement, but aren't quite at the level to start offering what they have to others. Then at fourth degree, you'll be expected to have a pretty high level of skill and have something worthy enough of teaching others. Above that, I'm not really sure exactly how things go. In fact, I'm still just a first degree at best, so what do I know anyway. These are my impressions after seeing lots of different levels of practitioners in different arts.

Back to the argument of reaching high levels in one art, one could also say there's no way to be good at everything, and trying to blind yourself to that is just an illusion. We only have this much time with our lives on Earth and we can't do it all. We must accpet that limitation and do the best we can with one art.

One could also say that each specific art is a complete world and separate entity on it's own. Filling in it's weaknessess with other arts is uncessary because the system was made to be complete.

The Japanese way of doing things is backed by it's history of tradition spanning many generations with lots of participants. The American vein is benefitted by it's lack of history and freedom to create based on idealizations.

This is where history comes in and the benefits of Japanese culture are largely in debt to it's own.

But how long is that history really?

I am not an expert in Japanese history, but I believe it goes very generally something like this ...

A long long time ago in Japan humans began to fight, and so strength, numbers, and weapons were utilized to win fights.

Theories were borrowed from abroad, states and armies were raised, and warriors became a social class on their own.

With many generations of warriors and wars, martial arts techniques were used to effectively kill in the nature of war.

Then Japan entered 200 years of relative peace in the Edo Period and martial arts left the battlefield and were connected to philosophies and religions like zen. (It was also just before this time that guns were introduced to Japan and adopted in favor over traditional weapons if possible. Perhaps Japan also entered many small periods of peace where this happened.) Martial arts during this time didn't die, but they changed in many ways focusing on art, specialization, and perfection as opposed to immediate practical ability.

Then Japan entered the Meiji Period where the samurai class was abolished and Japanese culture was largely abandoned in favor of the West. Popularity and utility of martial arts in Japan dropped dramatically during this time.

After WWII, martial arts were banned in Japan for a while and lost more favor.

Eventually popularity rose again in the 1960's, thanks a lot to Western curiousity perhaps, and now budo is commonly practiced again in Japan. (I once met an Australian who practiced iaido in Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture who said that budo would be lost without the curiousity of Westerners. I resented this comment at the time, thinking of all of the Japanese budoka I know who practice with no thought for popularity or westerners. I think of all the people who have continued practicing budo through the ups and downs of history. But who knows.)

So, the point of all of this being, what we practice in modern budo is likely very different from what traditional samurai did a long time ago when the purpose of the art was to kill. I don't think it's bad for us to have some ideal of a samurai in our heads and practice trying to reach our goals, but I think we need to understand that if it's that, it's mostly just an image we've created ourselves, absent of historical fact and existence. I think we should seek to study the actual histories of the arts we practice if that's where our interest lays, and seek to practice arts in a way that works with our common era, and the future.

Trying to revitalize the practices of the ancient samurai is akin to preserving ancient art in a museum. That is not a bad thing. I love art, and I love museums. But it's not what I want to do in my martial arts practice. I want something alive and purposeful in my daily life. I want my martial art to change and adapt to the challenges of today. To believe that we are doing what samurai did hundreds of years ago, I think is a bit silly.

However, it is interesting to remember that these arts we are practicing are rooted in violence based on submission and survival.


Strange thoughts in these river flows.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Iaido Progress

Today I had my second practice with Yamada Sensei and it was invigorating. I was sure to get there early, and ready to see what was going to happen. When I went the door was locked and nobody was around, but I saw Sensei's car. Last week Sensei said I should go in myself and get ready before the lesson, but now it was impossible. Is this another test!? I mused wondering if sensei's trying to mess with my head in some extra training. But he came out of the nieghboring house, and showed me the key hanging just outside the door. So I went in, got ready, the other student came, and we started practice. Time disappeared as I focused on the immediate.  At one point I thought about looking at the clock, but decided against it. It ruins everything, and by not looking I think I build a habit of not caring. I had nowhere else to be that day, I was consumed with iaido at the moment. There's no need for clocks in this time.

Yamada Sensei is a great teacher. We start by practicing swinging the sword straight up and down, the most basic of techniques, move to something else, then go back, and I'm way better all of a sudden. He shows us the basic movement in so many different ways, training the little details of the single movement in various movements so each time we build and build these little bricks to make a big swinging sword castle. We move to something else, and come back and I'm way better again. In the end all we're doing is swinging a sword, but when you look closely, there's a lot more details than you noticed a first. I feel like I'm making a lot of progress with this practice.

Here's some of the details we worked on and things that come to mind now.

Changing tenouchi, position of the hand holding the sword. Sensei showed us that we change the tenouchi in iaido sometimes when we went to quickly swing the sword in the opposite direction it ust came. He said that when we change the grip with the jo (short staff) you change the jo within your hand because it's round and the same no matter how you hold it, so you can switch it easy in your hand. But the sword isn't round, so you change your hand around the handle of the sword.

I realized my worst habits are not keeping my back straight and bouncing when I swing. It's also not raising the blade in front of me from the tip. Then there's also squaring my shoulders straight when I'm facing forward (maybe a habit left from aikido where you're also in the hanmi position and never facing forward with square hips).

The two biggest things helping my technique are cutting with the back hand while the front guides the sword. Also stretching my self, arms, and blade at the furthest point of impact, extending completely. When I relax my front arm, extend fully, and snap with the back hand, it feels good and I can hear the swish of the blade through the air, which is a good sign.

This is one of the interesting parts of iaido, and perhaps where one can learn from the sword itself.

Sensei said we learn aikido using the 5 senses. We watch a teacher, we feel the weight of the blade, we listen to the sound of the  blade, smelling ... not sure about that one yet ... taste ... I'm not sure I want to taste the blade, but for some reason I can imagine learning iaido by taste ... I'll have to work on that in my head, though.

One other interesting point we worked on was the sensitivity of our hands on the sword. If we stand with another person and touch blades, we can sense so easily the slightest little bit of movement with the nerves in our hands. An amazingly small amount of movement or pressure is so clearly felt. I remember going over this in aikido, like when someone grabs our wrist, they can feel you react by flexing or moving our hand, so you work to move in ways that people can't detect what you're going to do. I forgot how sensitive we are to this without even noticing.

So yes, progress with the sword! Things are moving slowly and well. I think I'm building a good schedule between iaido and kyudo ... and everything else in life! I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but it feels good today.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Martial Arts Solo Practice: Good or Bad?


I wander in the woods inside of myself, where I just move. Maybe I'm teaching myself. It's good because it's where I go.

But in the dojo I'm holding a tool. I'm working together with this foreign object to fly on invisible straight lines. Alone I warp myself into comfortable awkward positions and become acclimatized to my own particular grains.

Then someone comes and puts stints on my limbs, they turn my head, pull my shoulders back and paint a red dot to catch my attention. It is no longer me but the lines and a master. Because of the world as a whole, my arrow can fly straight.


Some say that the bow can teach ou how to shoot properly in kyudo. I've also heard the same with the sword. When I first heard this I thought that you could practice faithufuilly on your own and you'll naturally find the correct principles.

However, in my practice it seems that 95% of the time I just fall into lazy counterproductive habits. (But then that's where all my attention goes. Maybe that 5% is an unseen world of beautiful progress?)

After a while of swinging the sword and shooting the bow on my own, I go to practice to be corrected. A lot of it has to do with kuse. I didn't know what it meant at first, but I've heard so much of it lately I've come to understand it quite thoroughly. A kuse is basically a bad habit.

It's like changing your grip on the sword after everytime you swing it, or bob up and down when you swing the sword. It's like moving your thumb around on your left hand when you do you kyudo.

Perhaps one can learn proper technique on their own, but I'm guessing it would take a looooong time, with a lot of introspection and some natural genius. (but don't we all have these things in our own amount?)

Practicing kyudo and iaido and even aikido without partners or teachers is like falling in darkness alone. Working together with a teacher and other students is like rising to the sun with proper technique.

This makes me think of my solo Tai Chi and Ba Gua practice. I practice alone and believe that by doing it over and over again I can improve in my own way. Yet I don't know for sure because I have no teachers and partners here to check with. I don't know if I'm getting good. I'm not even sure what getting good is. I guess I don't even know really what I'm doing at all.

But I kind of like that. I worry about doing things right in my other arts. Doing Tai Chi and Ba Gua forms is my free time flowing through the movements. It is my own special experience.

I don't know if it's the best because some ideal of "the best" is not where I am. I'm just here, never stopping through the dark forests.

I'm just walking through the forest.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Meeting the Head Iai Sensei

So iaido is going well and slow. I meet on Friday mornings to practice with Yamamoto Sensei and one other student and practice on my own time in my apartment (trying my best not to slice up the walls and ceilings.)

But last Snday afternoon I got a call from Yamada Sensei, the head sensei of the dojo. I was surprised to get the call and picked up immediately. He asked if I had time to meet the next morning for training. I was caught off guard but accepted and told him I'd be there at any time in the morning or early afternoon. This is what I'm here in Japan for anyway, right?

So I showed up about 15 minutes early for our 10:30 training, earlier than I usually do. The dojo door was slightly ajar. I went in and said my morning greeting, but nobody was there. Maybe somebody was in the bathroom? I heard nothing for a few minutes, so I assumed I was alone. I thought about getting changed and ready, but then I decided against it. In Japan, and as a student, it seemed best to do nothing until I was specifically told to do something. But then maybe one plays into the stupid student role where the teacher comes in and gets mad at you for not getting changed, but if you got changed the teacher asks you why you took the liberty of getting changed without knowing if that's what you should do. Or maybe that thought is just silly. Regardless, I decided not to get changed.

So I walked around the inside of the dojo looking at the scrolls and weapons on the wall waiting for something to happen. After about 5 minutes nobody came and I felt a little weird just standing in the dojo alone, so I decided to wait outside next to my bike. About 3 minues later Yamada Sensei came around the corner fully dressed and said good morning. We went into the dojo. He told me to go ahead and get changed so I did. When I got out we started talking about budo. He's a nice guy and was asking me the normal questions one would ask like, "Why did you want to start iaido?" This was normal, but he seemed much more inquisitive in a way. He was very silent while I talked, which made me a little nervous. I said that I have a great interest in budo, have practiced a few other arts, and since I found the dojo's website online and I've never done iaido before I wanted to give it a try.

We talked more and he mentioned another foreigner who trained with a partner dojo in Tokyo. He's an American and has been training for a while and is currently a 6 dan in iaido.

Then he asked me about reigi in the other arts I've practiced. Reigi is roughly translated as etiquette, and I thought he meant about formal bowing in and such, so I said that in aikido when you enter the mat you bow and then before beginning you bow one more time in the seiza sitting position. I think he was more concerned about timing. Specifically, I think he was trying to get to the point that in this dojo if the sensei says 10:30, then the student comes with enough time to get dressed, sweep the dojo, and get stretched so that practice can begin at the agreed upon time. At that moment is was about 10:43, and the point was made, those thirteen minutes should be spent training, any getting ready and chit chatting should be done before. He was very polite and matter of fact about it, but I laughed a little inside,

"This guy might be more strict than other teachers I've had before."

But that's good. Part of trying new budo is seeing the way other people do things, and I will do everything to adapt to this new environment. I'm happy he told me this straight up because I've actually been a little weary about the reigi of this dojo. The other teacher Yamamoto Sensei is much more informal, and when I was initially told to come at 10:30 the first day, I did and got changed and we usually just start when we do. Now I know, and if I go to another iaido dojo I'll do the same.

A little later on, the other woman who I usually train with showed up (she agreed to come at 11:00), but it was more like 11:04 and the sensei mentioned that she was late. I could see the look on her face which was the same as mine when he told me.

We got started and we did a lot of the same things we have done with Yamamoto Sensei. I think largely Yamada Sensei was gauging these two new students and making sure that we were clear on a lot of the basics. First he asked me to explain what I was doing when I swung the sword, which wasn't easy, but I did so and he reminded me of things I forgot to mention. He spent most of the time repolishing a lot of the things we had learned. It was great and made me much more attentive of the little details. He's the kind of teacher that will naturally make you a lot more conscious of doing the little details right when he's around.

Here are a lot of the specific details we went over in the class:

-Don't move the body up and down when you swing.

-Slice with the tip of the sword, the landing spot being an opponents face, and from there pull back to your stomach.

-10 back, 8 forward. This is with swinging the sword. Raising the sword to the ready position is arguably the most important, because if you're not there, you can't swing it down, so there is an emphasis getting to that ready position, which makes it a bit fast than the downward slice. Also, it puts a good tension in the movement, spreading the chest and elbows out.

-When raising the sword above your head with the previous points, act as though you're stabbing something behind you.

-The power of the cut comes from your rear hand, the forward hand is largely for guiding the blade, and so tension should be taken out of that front hand on the sword.

-When stepping forward, you step (pat-pat) instead of sliding the feet. Also, when stepping forward, the blade slices before the feet, because that is where speed is most important.

- Also practice in the left stance.

-Keep mouth slightly open to relax, act as though you have a small egg you don't want to crack in your mouth.

-Breath in as you raise the blade, out as you swing down. Hide the breath so that an opponent can't read your intentions and movements.

He's a very nice man, and seems proficient in his art, but honestly I really can't tell well what it means to be a great iaidoka yet. I enjoy his crisp and strict attitude and greatly look forward to training with him again. I'll go to the next normal Friday training with Yamamoto Sensei, but then he asked us students to come again on Sunday.

Anytime I hear the word "Sunday" come from a teacher is a small time of panic for me. I keep myself busy through the week, and Saturday is usually no different with work, errands, budo, or planned events, so Sunday really is my sacred day. I never really worried about this so much until I came to Japan, the number one offender of countries not respecting Sunday freedom. Generally, everyone in this country works hard at jobs or school throughout the week, and so when special group events happen (as they often do with work, school, extra curricular activities) it happens on Sunday. I think when Japanese do relax, they are really good at doing absolutley nothing or drinking a lot, because they usually do have to do something on their days off. Anyway, I cringed at the sound of Sunday training, but then again, this is what I came here to do anyway, so I agreed happily, if not a bit hesitant. The wife and I are strapped for cash after making the recent moves and perhaps this Sunday training will keep me from extra spending. No matter how awesome the budo, I don't think I could ever consistently give away the Sunday.

But then who knows.

The path of the sword continues!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Don't Rush the Blade

In iaido there are two big things I'm working on, that basically rely upon the same principle: getting out of the way of the sword to let it cut efficiently.

In iaido we rely upon straight lines and non resistance in order to make the most efficient cuts. The sword needs our bodies to manipulate it and execute its purpose, but we must not use superfluous movements and efforts that inhibit the swords function to slice.

So there are two things I'm working on:

1. Drawing the blade. When you draw the blade it is best to draw it along a straight line through the scabbard. When you do, it is effortless and silent. When you don't, you are using extra muscles and effort which will limit the following strike by making it waver. You can tell when someone does this by the sound that the blade makes coming out of the scabbard. If it makes a rough rickety sounds, it means you're banging the blade against the inside of the scabbard in the draw, which means you're putting unecessary strength into a movement that is not straight.

Our teacher has told us this from the start, and I've been conscious of it, however I get caught up in the moment and rush through the draw, which ruins everything. Rushing will do nothing but tense your muscles and make a loud rickety draw. Who cares if you're slow, if you don't do it right, you're not doing anything at all. I'm not practicing very slowly and quietly in my apartment, letting the sound of the blade teach me how to draw it.

2. Swinging the blade. When you raise the sword above your head and then swing down to slash, just like while drawing the sword, one must eliminate extra effort to let the sword fall upon the perfect straight lines of gravity. Our hands and bodies and souls handle and direct the sword, but we do not do the cutting, the sword does. Our teacher tells us to let the blade fall by itself with gravity. In doing this we do not insert unecessary effort.

When sensei swings his swords there is a loud slashing sound reflective of his skilled technique. When us lowly green horn whitebelts swing our swords, there is nothing but the tension in our shoulders and anguish on our faces. In trying to create that sound I naturally try to make that sound by using effort, muscle, and speed, but it won't work. The more I put myself into the sword, the farther I get away from that effortless echoing sound. I need to accept and trust that the sword will do it's job perfectly if I just relax and do only the movements I need to do.

Isn't the same in everything else we do in life?

Cleaning is a practice with a lot of parallels to budo. I like to clean, but I can't stand only cleaning one part of my apartment. I also like drinking lots of coffee and trying to clean in a short amount of time, which means I spend a lot of effort on this task without much of anything getting cleaned at all. Instead of trying to do everything at once in one full sweep, while doing everything else as well, if I can just relax and do clean one room right, that room will be clean and I will be happy ... accepting that maybe I can't clean my whole apartment in the time I've alotted.

Maybe I can accept that I can't do iaido perfect on my first try.


What we are training in budo is patience and an inquiring intelligence. We are learning to let things move according to their own ideal time. We are learning to let go of our great tragedy of effort. We are learning to be beautiful. We are learning to be effective.

Perhaps one of the greatest treasures in that great dark deep sea abyss is relaxing and slowing down. It is the key to happiness and relieving stress. Perhaps it is also the key to standing victorious amid violent encounters.

Maybe it's the key to understanding the Great Imminent Failure: Death.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Budo is Selfish

This is an idea I have every once in a while. Most recently, I had this thought on New Year's Day while watching a Japanese traditional dance at a shrine.

New Year's is arguably the biggest holiday in Japan. It is also one of the few times that Japanese people visit shrines en masse, and perhaps the best chance for modern people to reconnect with older Japanese traditions. One of these traditions is seeing/participating in dance.

A common scene at a shrine on New Year's Day is a long line of people waiting to give their prayers at the shrine while a dance goes on on the shrine grounds. The dancers are specially trained and perform in great costume along with musical accompaniment, usually a drum, flute, and bell. These people practice their art, and probably do so because they like it, however it has no immediate monetary value, similar to many of our practice of budo. However, it's not something they just do with each other or in private, it's something they present to the people, it's something they can give to the people. When people watch these dances they have a multitude of experiences depending on the individual. It is a gift of inspiration in a way. I suppose this can happen with budo in demonstrations, but it seems more selfish in budo for some reason. It's more like "Hey look at us and our practice which makes us stronger." instead of "Hey, look at this dance if you like and feel whatever you want to feel."

The particular dance I saw (which is a common theme in traditional Japanese dances) included two people, one acting as a Japanese Shinto priest dressed in traditional garb, and another acting as a demon wearing a bright red mask with large white hair. I'm not sure exactly about the specifics of the dance, but it looks like they are fighting. It seems to be a dance of deep spritual significance, but to show only that deep spiritual side I think is to be selfish in a way and limiting. For those who are interested in the subject of deep spiritual matters this can be incredibly intriguing, but for those who aren't, or who are averted in someway, it can be very alienating and restricted. To counter this feeling, and in attempt to include all of the people around, aspects of comedy and participation are included.

People go to the shrine to pray to the gods for good luck. One could also say participating in the dance is equally beneficial in the eyes of the gods. So, during the dance, the demon goes into the crowd and pulls young children from their parents to dance with them. Usually, this looks like the demon pulling a baby or small child from the parent while the baby is screaming in terror while grasping the parent. The parent laughs, the child is eventually taken, and held by the demon while dancing and being blessed. The child is returned and another is taken until everyone is satiated.

This is something unique to Japan. In America I think this wouldn't be met with much approval. Why would you terrify small children while tearing them from their parents. This can be seen as a very traumatizing experience! It certainly is for most children at first, but many start laughing amid the dance and are happily returned to the parents, or they're completely scared shitless and have a new found love for the safety of their parents when they're returned.

Japan likes scaring it's children. I think it's to make them stronger. I think it's good and funny. But surely not everyone thinks so. I saw a program on TV where they followed some people dressed up as demons around New Years who ran around towns with giant bamboo sticks spanking young boys. Most young boys see this and run, only to get caught and spanked, but everyone understands what's going on and accepts the pain of tradition with a laugh. However, they showed one boy who really didn't want the spanking, but received it regardless. He was crying uncontrollably afterward asking why he needed to be spanked. The demon consoled him telling him it was to make him stronger. I understand the demon and society's perspective, but I'm sure this kid just thinks the demons a big asshole and getting spanked has nothing to do with anything, which I can understand as well.


What I saw on New Year's with the dance was a group of people using Japanese tradition to help, inspire, and include all of the people in society. When I thought of my budo practice, it looks like a very small selfish practice benefitting only myself. Largely what we are doing in budo is exactly that, strengthening ourselves. A big part of this is being able to overcome obstacles with strength and determination. But if all we're doing in budo is working on making ourselves stronger in order to defeat others, I think we're missing the big picture.

I think what we really should be doing in budo is helping ourselves along with everything around us. I think it should be an all inclusive practice with clear merits in society. We can accomplish this by reaching out and working with other people. But how far can we go?

I think at the first step we learn to work with ourselves, as if we are two people. We start a conversation with ourselves in our solo practice, fighting and working together to unite ourselves as one entity progressing on our path.

Next is working with a teacher who we interact with. The teacher gives his/her time unselfishly to help the student improve. The student puts aside him/herself in order to progress according to the teaching of the student. I think this is the first and most necessary stage where we learn to put ourselves in a secondary position to another (while still maintaining our self-preserving strength, but that's another conversation in and of itself.) This is the intimate transmission of life practice through martial arts.

Next is working in a class with others. You have your teacher/student relationship, but then a myriad of other student/student relationships where you work together as a whole. This becomes a small community where everyone benefits each other with their particular personalities and efforts. It is a melting pot where everyone effects others with their own particular presence.

Next is branching out to those who are not directly involved in the art, and I'm not exactly sure how that goes, but maybe we can brainstorm here a bit.

It could be demonstrations to the public. In doing this one can share the beauty and inspiration of the art with others. Some may be influenced to begin a practice, but to focus only on that becomes a form of proselytizing, which is definitely not in-line with the core of budo, I think. Such demonstrations could be less about promoting the art, and rather revealing it like an art exhibition in a park or museum, whose only purpose is to inspire the public.

One could use the specific benefits of an art to help others. But this can be difficult since most arts have become greatly separated from daily use. How can shooting an arrow in kyudo or swinging a sword in iaido be of any direct help to someone who isn't genuinely interested in the art? (Interesting how I've found myself in these two seemingly irrelevant arts!)

However, there are some arts that have great immediate benefits to society. Three immediately come to mind:

First is using martial arts as self defense. Living in a society where violence is a potential threat, one can benefit greatly from having a practice of self defense. This was one of the big draws to martial arts for me at first when I started karate. The teacher focused heavily on practical self defense, and also ran workshops specializing on women's self defense with people who had no experience in martial arts or whatever. This is one of the best ways I've personally seen martial arts be a functional part of society.

Second is using martial arts as a physical means to protect people, by that I mean especially police and military. I have no experience in either, and am pretty sure with those two you're dealing with two different things. Perhaps in military training you're learning to physically eliminate opponents in life-threatening situations where serious violent techniques are required. But for the police, one would need to work on techniques to restrain people instead of harm them. For this I think aikido or jujitsu would be of great worth.

Third is using the martial arts for health. All martial arts can help people improve their health, but for those who need serious rehabilitation working on a soft art like Tai Chi Chuan can be of great help. Perhaps this isn't limited to just physical health, but mental health as well. By utilizing the meditative aspects of Tai Chi Chuan, one can certainly bring balance to a turbulent emotional life. Furthermore, instead of a practice focusing on violence and relying upon phsical strength, one is working with movements that massage and strengthen joints, tendons, and fluids ... which seem to often be the most influential parts of our health.

Having a practice that benefits the self is the first foundation of martial arts, but to have only that is a lonely and limiting experience. How can we use our art to help people? I believe by answering question we will reveal the true worth of martial arts while also progressing it's methods in the modern world and future.

I don't want to talk about budo with only other budoka, but people who seem to have no relation to its practices at all. I want to find the underlying principles of daily life that can be translated by movements found in the martial arts. I want budo to be a gift to those who are suffering. Budo is a way, one that climbs a mountain making us strong and wise and giving us inspiration.

Budo is not a stagnant practice of ancient violence, but a way of living that can benefit mankind.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

90 Year Old Kyudoka

                                                        (I have no idea who this man is.)

Today I met a 90 year old man who practices kyudo.

When he first came in, I could tell he was pretty old, but was lively and cheerful. He started chatting to me in English, and I was surprised at his ability. He was better than most younger Japanese people and could keep a conversation going. He said he was 90 years old and still doing kyudo ... 90 YEARS OLD AND DOING KYUDO!!! Kyudo is no soft art, and pulling a bow at that age standing up straight and straining your muscles and will is no small feat ... for anybody. That surprised me, and he walked away for a minute, and came back with some small Japanese treats for me. (I think every aged person in Japan is always carrying around sweets to hand out to foreigners, because this happens most everytime! Maybe it's a habit I'll start soon.)

So we chatted more, he left, and then came back again with a postcard with him on it and a printout in Japanese that looked like it was from a newspaper and gave it to me. He said it was from about 20 years ago when he was 70, and he looked super strong and healthy ... at 70! At that time I was in elementary school trying to hide picking my nose from other kids on the school bus. He said he was in the coastguard and liked building radios. At that time I was changing ready to head out for work so I didn't see him shoot unfortunately.

After that I went home for a minute and showed the postcard and printout to Satomi and she was super impressed. Curious as to what she found out I started reading the printout on my own.

He started kyudo when he was in middle school, which means he started kyudo about 75 years ago (though he said he's been practicing for 60 years, which probably means he took time off when he was working, not sure). That's unbelievable to me. I can't possibly imagine doing anything for that long. I suppose if I'm lucky enough, I can say that I've practiced kyudo for 60 years one day.

But then, the part that really impressed me was that he pulled a 37 kilogram bow in his prime.


If you don't practice kyudo then that probably doesn't have much context, but the strongest bow I've pulled is 17, but now I'm using a 15 (I think). A lot of perfectly skilled teachers use 20 kilogram bows. Using a 25 km bow is considered really strong. I've never met someone who could pull a 30kg bow, and now I just met this dude who used to pull a 37 kg bow. That's crazy. Apparently he's been dropping the weight as he's gotten older, but I think he pulls a 20 kg bow now at 90, which is impossible for me now at 28.

The numbers are just too much for me, I'm dumbfounded and impressed. In a way I feel like continuing is pointless because I'll probably never be able to pull a 37 kg bow like him, but then I'm also motivated because the only important thing is continuing with a genuine effort. Without that there is nothing. With that, you can do anything ... including doing kyudo for 60 years and pulling a strong bow.

My kyudo practice has resumed after a hiatus during the winter break, and my ability is pretty weak, but it is what it is, and that's perfectly fine. I'm working on humbly going when I do, enjoying it, while focusing on two specific aspects:

1.) Pulling the bow with my back, which means maintaining the stretching tension in my back and backs of my arms from the beginning to the end. When I do this things work out very well and I do great kyudo ... when I don't, it's because I'm afraid of the string slapping my face, and I break the connection somewhere ... I think in uchiokoshi when I raise the bow.

2.) Building a good tenouchi (hand posture that holds the bow in the left hand). I need to keep my and in a vertical position, and relax all of the parts that aren't necessary especially my middle and ring finger. When I do this, my kyudo is great. When I don't, it's because I'm gripping the bow too hard, and don't hold my hand vertical due to the break in tension during uchiokoshi (raising the bow). Also, I need to grip the bow better with my pinky, which locks the hand in the vertical position.

When I started, I couldn't do anything at all, but after about 5 pulls I had about 3 or 4 good shots on the makiwara, then went to the target while doing zassha (sitting ceremonial shooting) shooting two arrows and did great. My first shot was a little in front of the target, and the second hit. I was shocked and elated at the feelings I felt through the shooting. Went back to the makiwara and had about 2 good shots, then it all started unraveling and my technique deteriorated.


It's a very strange phenomenon in kyudo, and I'm not sure if it happens to everybody, but always with me. I start out well and progressively get worse throughout the day.

I think this is due to two things:

1.) Thinking too much about the specifics while forgetting about the big picture.

2.) My hand/shoulders getting tired and slacking or tensing in the wrong places.

But it's all good. I practice my best, watch myself silently, and do my best to improve for the next time.

Iaido practice is going well. I'm finding time here and there throughout the day to practice, and I think it's great. By doing it in this way, I'll really want to practice, pick up the sword and go for ten minutes, then stop and continue my day until an hour or so later I get the urge again. Each piece is very small, but each drop is pure quality curiousity and effort and all the small pieces add up to a picture much bigger in the end. I'm taking it very slowly in these early stages, we'll see how it goes.

Hope you are all starting afresh in this new year, cause it's a great time to begin.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Winter Travels - New Year Fresh Start

Hisashi Buri!
Happy New Year!
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!

It's been a busy two week break with lots of movement. I went back to Toyama to pick up my wife while staying at her house and meeting with old friends. I had a great time with her family, was super excited to meet with old friends, and had very strange feelings going back to this second home. First I rode a train for an hour from Nakatsu to Kokura (Kita Kyushu City) and then took a twelve hour midnight bus to Osaka, where I rode another bus for 6 hours to Toyama. Once I breached the Hokuriku border when entering Fukui Prefecture, the sky went dark black and snowy mountains loomed in the distance. This is my ancient home, just like northwest Washington where I was raised, and northern Europe where my ancestors came from. I might be getting a little corny, and to be honest I'm not really sure where I came from, but I feel a connection to Toyama that is a little more than mysterious. Anyway ... it was interesting to see the place after 2 months away and adopting a new home ... I love Toyama, and the mountains are absolutley unbelievable. I feel like I could move back anytime and stay a long time ... but now I live somewhere else, in a land of funny shaped cone mountains in the warmer southern island of Kyushu.

So I picked up the girl, and we got in her car and drove to Osaka. We realized when we reached the city borders because the highway walls loomed high enough to conceal our surroundings and giant trucks congested all around us.

We got through the city on time despite rush hour traffic, and boarded our overnight ferry from Osaka to Beppu Port in Oita Prefecture. This was our bed for the trip. (It went well with the giant sento bath on the ferry! A giant bath on a ferry!)

The ferry also came with a buffet that looked way better in the brochures, but it was a nice ferry.

On the ferry deck my wife and I said our great farewell to Honshu (the main island of Japan).

We arrived safely to a much warmer Kyushu, and our home of Nakatsu! Also home to a cool castle.

We had a few days together before two other friends from Toyama came to stay for a couple days. We went to Usa Shrine in the neighboring town of Nakatsu. It's certainly famous in Oita Prefecture and this area around Nakatsu, but one brochure even said it was the most important Hachiman Shrine in Japan (Hachiman is generally considered the god of war in Japan, but is also described as many other things and in much more detail).

We went on New Year's Day, and for some reason I didn't realize how many people would go to the shrine that day. I lost all confidence while we were stuck in traffic on the small country roads, but once we got there I was happy to go to such a special shrine on such an auspicious day.

The shrine was great, and on the ride home I was utterly happy with my wife and a couple of best friends in the new home of Nakatsu ... and a beer in the belly.

The next day we went to Yufuin, a place in the mountains of Oita Prefecture, famous for the single mountain of Yufuin Dake (shown below), lots of amazing onsen, and a quaint tourist town area. It's been the number one destination in my mind for a while and it didn't dissapoint.

At about 1600 meters it's certainly not the tallest mountain in Japan, but definitely worth a visit, or many.

It's a touristy town with all the touristy qualities one can expect, but it was fun.

After that we went to Beppu, the onsen mecca of Japan. We went to a really cool onsen, ate food, and went home. No pictures, but at about an hour and a half away from where I live, I know I'll be back again and again and again.

The next day we headed to Fukuoka City, the largest city in Kyushu, and one of the largest in Japan.

Getting there takes a little over an hour by express trains and about $50 round-trip. It's close enough to feel like I can go anytime, but far enough to be completely separate.

It really is one of the biggest cities in Japan, and you can feel it immediately. Lots of big fancy building and hordes of people. Very fun to visit.

I've been having small technical problems with the blog lately,

my computer keys are sticky and there is some lag with the typing,

And the amount of Tateyama Sake I'm drinking is enough to draw my attention away from this typing...

So I'll leave you with this ... HAPPY NEW YEAR! I've had millions of budo thoughts lately and want only to tell them you all here. I assure they will flow in a continuous and constant wonderful pattern this year here at Gaijin Explorer.