Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 7

TUE 24-JUL: Seventh day in a row! Joints starting to feel the strain... must...not... give in...

Hatakenaka Sensei and Tsubaki Sensei were generous enough to meet us for lunch prior to the noon training session, and we took this opportunity to ask a few questions. We ate at an Izakaya across the street from the Shinjuku Cosmic Centre and chatted over some excellent homestyle cooking. It was just like "2nd dojo".... except in reverse order.


1. Zekken

We had noticed that members of her dojo were either (a) not wearing Zekken, (b) wearing Zekken with Tokushi Kai, or (c) wearing Zekken with Shinjuku. With (c) being the most prevalent.

"Hatakenaka Sensei, what's up with that?" <--- Not translated word for word

The purpose of the Zekken is to allow a travelling student (to seminars, tournaments, or other classes) to indicate what organization they train under and what their name is. In Japan, it is unwise, and close to impossible for you to train outside your home dojo without a Zekken.

So which one would you wear?

Only in rare cases, for extremely small events would you actually need to wear a Dojo Zekken. For city-wide events like Tokyo, a student of Hatakenaka Sensei, Kikkawa Sensei, or Yoshimura Sensei (just to name a few) would wear their Shinjuku Zekken. For prefecture events, they would wear their Tokyo Zekken. And finally, for national events, they would use the name of their prefecture, which also happens to be Tokyo. (Ex. Tamano City members would use an Okayama Zekken)

So what would this mean in terms of Canada? Since Iaido is still pretty small in terms of organization; we don't have provincial administrators, it would still be acceptable to wear Dojo Zekken even in national events. However, those travelling internationally would do better to get a Canada Zekken. (Or Toronto Zekken, since everyone knows that Leaf nation is the centre of the universe)

2. Tokushi Kai (篤志会)

How did her dojo name come about?

The two Kanji making up the name of her club are Toku (篤), taken from the first character in her name Atsumi (篤美), and Shi (志).

Toku (篤) defined like Jyonetsu (情熱) means PASSION, while Shi (志) means RESOLVE, HOPE, and LOVE.

A great name for a Martial Arts club. It gives an identity, as well as a goal, for the members to live up to.


After lunch we began our early afternoon practice at the Cosmic Centre. A 300yen ticket at the vending machine got us in, and we got to the change rooms just as the previous session attendees were leaving. A couple of men were carrying sword bags, so I would assume they were there for Iaido as well.

Since it was only the 6 of us using the space, and with only one practice remaining, we decided to ask Hatakenaka Sensei a series of technical questions. Our goal was to clarify instruction that was passed to us at Guelph these past couple of years, and I think we satisfied a few lingering issues that were confusing. Looking forward to bringing these back to Canada.

The discussion was very productive, and with just a couple of hours left in our session, we all spread out and went about our own practice. Occasionally, Tsubaki Sensei would give Peter and Michael some advice, while Hatakenaka Sensei gave all of us some tips to improve our technique.

It really is a completely different experience and feeling watching Hatakenaka Sensei practice away from the pressures of jet lag and 100+ pairs of foreign eyes on her (as always the case in Guelph). Her Iai is at a much higher level; relaxed, flowing, and powerful. In her comfort zone, she is a marvel to watch. Much like we can see from the highest levels of Kyudo, an 8 Dan Iaidoka also exudes Shin (真) - Truth, Zen () - Goodness, and Bi () - Beauty.

Being able to see this level of Iai up close is already worth the trip. With the added benefit of indepth personal instruction, we have more than enough stuff to work on for the next couple of years. We really can't emphasize enough how important it is to look for opportunities to train in Japan.

With another excellent training day at an end, we treated ourselves to All-You-Can-Eat Yaki Niku (BBQ)!! ^_^

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 6

MON 23-JUL: 6th day in a row!

Today's evening practice was once again held at the Yotsuya Hiroba, and with a whole day to spend out and about, we decided to head to the lively district of Shibuya!

Anyone that's been here will recognize this well known meeting spot.

We spent some time at the Tokyu Hands, a store almost twice the size of the one in Shinjuku. We couldn't stay long as we had a surprise appointment with one of our new Kyudo friends from Okayama! When we said our goodbyes over two weeks ago, hoping to meet next time in Toronto, we would've never thought we'd see each other so soon again. It turns out Watanabe Naoko-san from the Mitsui Kyudojo was in Tokyo for three days on work assignment. These trips, while frequent, only land her in Tokyo 2-3 times a year, so it was an amazing coincidence that we'd still be in town! ^_^ We planned to get together at the Shibuya Hikarie mall for afternoon tea, so we decided to head over early for lunch.

After looking around, we found a Teppanyaki joint that look very interesting. The raw meat was brought on pre-heated stones that have already begun the cooking process. We were told to wait until it's our preferred doneness then wrap the meat in lettuce and other greens, then dip and eat. It was a fantastically, delicious meal!

After lunch, we took a short tour of the building from the 12th floor down to the 2nd basement. Watanabe-san joined us not long after, and we decided to go for coffee and cake at Harbs. Michael and I weren't very satisfied with the portions at lunch so made up for it by getting two slices of cake each. Good thing this was a martial arts training trip, or we'd be gaining weight like there's no tomorrow.

It was great chatting with Naoko again, as our time in Okayama was too short to really get to know anyone. She talked about going to Meiji Jingu to challenge for Renshi two years ago, a place we visited just a few days prior. When I mentioned the look of it in comparison with the Tamano-shi Kyudojo, she said there are actually two at Meiji Jingu. The larger kyudojo has a door system that opens and converts the Kinteki (28m) range into an Enteki (60m) range. Sounds very cool. The door was also manufactured by the company she works for, Mitsui. =P

We spent about an hour enjoying our cakes, drinks, and company before saying our goodbyes again. Hope our next meeting wouldn't be that long away.

Iaido class tonight was at the Yotsuya Hiroba. We made the short walk from our hotel in good time and arrived before anyone had started practicing. The building always seems to be occupied by some administrative staff, and it's not uncommon to see parents bringing their children in for some kind activities.

It was another warm evening like the last time we were here. The mosquitos were out in force, and with most of the students arriving later in the session, they took their hunger out on me and Hanna. I must've gotten at least 4 bites per foot. Only the allergy medicine that we prudently brought lots of was keeping the reaction in check. Still....*itchy* *itchy*

We started our free practice shortly before 6:00pm with a couple other students, and over the next hour, the rest began filing in. Hatakenaka Sensei arrived around 7:15pm. By that time, the space was really getting cramped with 13 people doing their own practice. Everything went as expected until a surprise (at least for us) visitor dropped in for class. Fellow Canadian Jeff Broderick, who also has a Budo related blog here. We'd only met him briefly when he visited Toronto several years back, and never really got a chance to chat.  As a long time fan of his blog, it was cool to finally get to talk to him.

After class, we headed to a coffee shop near our hotel and had some good discussions on Budo and Japanese Culture. It's always nice to talk about these deeper topics of our martial art. It felt just like our MMKDG's back at home. It was also fun to hear about his experiences during the earthquake last year, especially because he, nor anyone he knew was hurt. We compared the international reaction to the situation in Tokyo to the SARS event in Toronto. Interesting how different the first-hand accounts are versus what we hear in the media.

It was a tiring day and practice, and as it was getting late, we bade our second fond farewell of the day and went home to rest.

While not looking anymore Japanese in these past 12 years, some habits are bound to be picked up.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 5

SUN 22-JUL: 5th day in a row! Another weekend practice means another early morning... er...Yay!

Although technically not in Shinjuku, our venue is still close enough to count for membership. The Yotsuya #3 Elementary School is located about 5 minutes by foot from the Yotsuya Metro and JR stations. Finding the street wasn't difficult as a 7/11 was parked right at the corner, and the park across the street was an easy point of reference. Getting to the school was another story. The large bicycle lot that we remembered from a previous trip wasn't in sight of the main road, so we had to guess at the entrance. Luckily, something drew me to the first opening we tried, and after a couple of turns everything from our memory was in plain sight. The bicycle lot in the courtyard surrounded by buildings, the separated men and women change rooms, and the gym entrance itself (see picture below).

Also used as a basis for movies about insane asylums.

This morning, although humid, was a pleasant 26C with overcast skies. We showed up at 9am, but the other students, including one who could open the door didn't arrive until a few minutes later. Like the Hiroba, it was a large auditorium/gym, and we had even more space this time as most of the higher ranked students were at some kind of seminar for 4, 5, and 6 Dans.

Everyone just started their own practice as they arrived. In total, about 7 members joined us in the class.  Hatakenaka herself, did not make it until about 10:15am.  It was a good practice, with no chatting, and relatively few instruction from Hatakenaka Sensei.  We all got a good sweat going and finished the practice with group Seitei again.

After practice, the youngin's (current & recent university students) went off as a group while we followed Hatakenaka Sensei to a local Tachi Soba joint. She really seems to love this food, and it was mighty fine indeed.

We spent the next few hours resting at the hotel and watching the 27 hour marathon variety show on TV. That night we went for Kaiten Sushi again and dessert afterwards. Our plan is to eat so much Sushi that we don't feel like it for the first few months after getting back to Toronto. Not sure if we have enough time for that =P

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 4

SAT 21-JUL: 4th day in a row!

Weekend classes with Hatakenaka Sensei are in the mornings, so we had to arrive at the Yotsuya Hiroba by 8:45am. A much earlier day than we've had recently, but our excitement was building with the opportunity to look at and possibly buy new swords!

When we got there, an elderly man was already unloading many long boxes.  Since none of the Sensei had arrived yet, we first got changed and set our stuff in the dojo. It wasn't long before Tsubaki Sensei and Hatakenaka Sensei showed up and we began our tests.

For my height (~163cm), the sword I've been using is apparently too long at 2.45 Shaku, and too light at 840g. These two points were noticed by the Sensei right away from our previous day's practice. I guess their experienced eyes weren't only for finding problems with our technique ;)

As a practitioner of MJER, they recommend 2.35-2.40 Shaku and a weight of 900-1000g. Two boxes were placed in front of me, six Shinken in total, just waiting to be used. The first thing I notice is how the feel is completely different from Iaito. The superior balance of these hand forged blades make them feel like an extension of my arm. In comparison, holding my Iaito, or even others that this retailer brought, felt like a bar of steel with chunks of heavier and lighter parts spread out from the Tsuka to the Kissaki.  It's difficult to explain with words, but I can truly say now that I understand why a Shinken is absolutely necessary to progress to the higher levels in Iaido. Only then will it be "real".

After looking at four of them, I finally find one that felt really good. Tsubaki Sensei also commented on the quality of balance and weight. At 2.35 Shaku and 910g, it was well within my ideal range. The balance was exceptional and the thicker Tsuka fit my hand much better than my current tip-heavy Tozando Iaito. Unfortunately, the paper work would not be ready for another two weeks, so it seems this match was not to be. Hopefully, next time we are in Japan, we'd have more time and the right sword will find me. I might even feel the "Lightning", as our friend Paul put it with his shinken. =P

Peter was more lucky, and found an Iaito that was just right.  Since papers weren't necessary to get them out of Japan and into Canada, he was able to purchase and use it on the spot. The sword is 2.40 shaku @ 800g; the length being what he's used to, and the weight recommended by the Hatakenaka Sensei for his age and physical conditioning.

With most of the morning already over from the shopping, we began practice for about an hour before Hatakenaka Sensei called for another Embu.

Group 1 was 2 Dan and below with seven people including a 12 year old boy who recently started and only did Mae
Group 2 was 3 Dan with five people including myself and Hanna.
Group 3 was 4 Dan+ with nine people including Peter.

We had to perform Two Koryu + Three Shitei Waza from ZNKR Seitei: Tsuka Ate, Ganmen Ate, Shiho Giri.

Afterwards, Hatakenaka Sensei had to leave early, while the rest of the class completed our group closing practice: Omori Ryu, then Seitei in a circle. Overall, it was a good practice. I could only imagine how it would've been with a proper shinken. =P Oh well, no hurry.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 3

FRI 20-JUL: Third day of practice in a row.

Since we weren't planning to meet with Hatakenaka Sensei and Tsubaki Sensei until mid-afternoon, we decided to visit the Meiji Shrine for a bit of site-seeing. In 2009, we had the opportunity to watch a Kyudo practice and do a bit of makiwara shooting. Unfortunately, the dojo schedule did not show a class in the morning, so we hoped to at least get a look at the building again.

The Meiji Jingu park was as grand as we remembered. With wide paths were brushed clear of all but the evenly laid gravel, and the foliage trimmed to perfect symmetry.  Massive Torii divided the various sections of the park.

After visiting the main shrine, we made our way up to the Kyudojo. Turns out there were at least a dozen elderly men and women training. They were all decked out in Kimono, and based on the way they moved, it was clear they all had at least 5 Dan. An even older man was watching and giving corrections. We assumed he was the Sensei leading the class.

Hoping to get a closer look, Hanna went to the reception to ask about getting inside. From our last experience, it seemed to be a very exclusive and strict place to go, so we wouldn't be surprised if they denied us entrance.

Luckily, it seems that mentioning we were from abroad helps a bit. Although we still couldn't enter, because a couple of us were not wearing socks, they did allow us to watch the practice from the "side entrance".

Pictures were not allowed past this point, but it was interesting to see that the upkeep was not as we had remembered. In fact, looking at it now, it would seem the Tamano City Kyudojo is kept in much better condition than it's Tokyo counterpart. While the dojo itself was clean and shiny, the grass and shrubbery around the shooting area had many loose strands and spider webs could be seen all over. Perhaps they're going for the natural look? =)

With time running out and the skies clouding in, we made our way to the Shinjuku Cosmic Center for Iaido practice. This venue is also located off the Fukotoshin subway line near Nishi-waseda station. We got there a bit early so waited at the Tully's coffee shop for Tsubaki Sensei, knowing he would have to walk by us.  Walk by he did, but on the other side of the street... We were confused. Why did he cross away from the Cosmic Center?

Our questions were answered as he entered the Uniqlo clothing store, so we waited for him on the other side of the street. A couple minutes later, as he walked by a window and glanced out, we took this opportunity to wave. Boy was he surprised!! "How did we know he was in there and going to look out the window?!" Haha. But enough with the fun, let's start the practice!

The dojos here, while smaller, are much better quality and climate controlled than the Sports Center we trained at yesterday. Located across the hall of the Wood and Tatami dojos was a full sized, indoor Kyudojo.  Wouldn't it be nice to train in there!

The afternoon session is from 3:40pm - 6:40pm and cost 300yen. We got our tickets from the machine and attached it to our Uwagi to be easily visible when the guard comes in to do his security check. As with the other public spaces, we shared the floor with a couple of other martial arts practitioners. A woman doing Taichi and a elderly man doing Karate kept to themselves mostly, but I felt compelled to occasionally stop to watch them. Even with my little experience, I could see that both were of extremely high level in their arts, and it was truly inspirational watching them in action. Their balance, grace, power, and flexibility was simply amazing. Not much different from watching Hatakenaka Sensei in her own practice, which she did much more of today, than in her own class.

Like the last couple of days, we started with a general discussion from Tsubaki Sensei before getting into our own free practice. Hatakenaka Sensei arrived 10 minutes later, and one of her students (Iaido 4 years) from Waseda University also showed up. We each found our own space in the room and worked hard for two and half hours straight. The only speaking consisted of the occasional instruction from Hatakenaka Sensei and Tsubaki Sensei.

Nearing the end of the session, Hatakenaka Sensei requested an embu of all 12 Seitei Kata from the four of us, before wrapping up with closing etiquette. This day was, by far, the best training I've had in a while. Several factors contributed to this:

- Excellent climate control
- Excellent floor
- Sufficient personal space
- Exceptionally high level martial artists practicing in close proximity

My energy, enthusiasm, and motivation is sky high right now! ^_^

The bell tolled and a PA system announced the end of the afternoon session. Tomorrow morning, we get to see swords!

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 2

THU 19-JUL: Barely 24 hours after our first Iaido class with Hatakenaka Sensei, we are at it again.

This second venue for training is the Shinjuku Sports Center, located a short walk from the Nishi-waseda subway station of the Fukotoshin Line. The dojo space itself was a large wood floor room that was shared with anyone who purchases the 400yen ticket. This day, we were joined by a two dancers doing ballet and something that looked like modern performing art. An elderly man practiced an Iaido koryu that I could not recognize, and another pair of individuals were mixing it up with some sticky hands and bokken work.

While the rest of the building was comfortably air conditioned, the training rooms were void of this luxury. Even with all the windows open, there was barely any wind to cool us down from the 36C day.

Our training was scheduled from 1pm - 3:30pm, with Tsubaki Sensei leading us through warmups followed by some free practice with instruction.

We took a break around 2pm to refresh and took this opportunity to ask about purchasing Iaito and Shinken. Tsubaki Sensei had already mentioned our interest to Hatakenaka Sensei, so after a short discussion on our preferred length and weight, he gave her a call to book the retailer. We would be meeting him on Saturday to test out several options.

With the excitement of a new sword in the horizon, we went back to work on two selected kata for Tsubaki Sensei to help us on: Morote Tsuki and Sanpo Giri

At 4pm the chime rang for the end of the afternoon session and we all had to vacate the rooms. As we passed the reception desk, the ticket we purchased earlier was placed in the basket marked "Martial Arts dojo #1". What a convenience to have such inexpensive spaces in the city for public use. A similar facility in Toronto would cost almost 50 times as much.

We celebrated our second straight day of practice with a tempura dinner at "Tsunahachi".

Friday, 20 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in Tokyo - Day 1

WED 18-JUL: Iaido training begins!

Our first training venue is located at the Yotsuya Hiroba in Shinjuku. It's about a 5 minute walk from the Yotsuya 3-chome subway station which happens to be the next closest stop from our apartment, so we decided to make the trip on foot.

The class is scheduled from 6pm - 9pm, but we showed up early to greet Tsubaki Sensei (Kyoshi 7 Dan), who may or may not be staying for practice. We arrived around 5:30, and already saw a couple of students getting the small school auditorium ready. Preparation involved moving some furniture around, opening the windows and doors, and setting up fans. Unfortunately, this also let in all the mosquitos who were thirsting for hot Iaidoka blood, but in a scorcher like today every little bit of airflow is a necessity.

Tsubaki Sensei arrived around 5:45 and with no sign of Hatakenaka Sensei (Kyoshi 8 Dan) yet, we changed and started warm-ups. Several more students gradually appeared, and finally, midway through our suburi practice, Hatakenaka Sensei made her entrance and was greeting warmly by all. She directed Tsubaki Sensei to continue our warm-up until she finished changing, then we all moved onto free practice.

Over the next hour and half, several other students arrived, and a couple of them left. In total, there were about 15 of us at the class tonight; less than usual due to university exams. Each new attendee first bowed to Hatakenaka Sensei and Tsubaki Sensei before starting their own practice. Hatakenaka Sensei would rotate between her own practice and giving some pointers to each of her students.

Nearing two hours into the class, Kikkawa Sensei (Kyoshi 8 Dan) showed up. It seems his presence is a common one, as a student immediately brought over a chair for him to sit on. He didn't stay there long, as he seemed to take a lot of interest in helping out Hatakenaka Sensei's son, Kei (5 Dan)

At 8:00pm Hatakenaka Sensei called for an embu:

Group 1 consisted of 2 Dan and below. Five members.
Group 2 consisted of 3 Dan and 4 Dan. Five members, including Hanna and I.
Group 3 consisted of 5 Dan. Three members, including Peter, Momoko (5 Dan), and Kei.

We each did two Koryu followed by three Shitei Waza from ZNKR Seitei. I felt a bit nervous going in, but the overall positive energy of the class gave me strength.  It was a great feeling training with other such high-level and dedicated individuals.

The ending of class was as exactly as we remembered from previous trips. Everyone gathers in a circle facing each other and go through the 12 Seitei Kata as one student calls them out. We wrapped up with closing etiquette and got a quick group photo before the students went to work putting the gym back to the way it was.

After several minutes of changing out of our sweat soaked, uniforms, everyone gathered at the front before leaving in small groups in all directions. We made plans with Tsubaki Sensei for practice tomorrow, and went back to hotel for some much needed food and rest. First things first: LAUNDRY!!!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido and Kyudo Shopping in Tokyo

TUE 17-JUL: Martial Arts equipment stores have been popping up all over North America in the last decade. While they cater primarily to the more popular activities like Karate, Judo, and Kendo, it is still possible to find Gi, Hakama, and Tabi that can be used for the arts that we do.

For the more customized equipment like Iaito, Yumi, and Ya, online stores that ship from the States or Japan have become an important resource, but are still prohibitive due to shipping and import fees. Even as the quality of selection increases, nothing beats the ability to see, touch, and choose in person.

Our stores of choice in Tokyo are Asahi Kyuguten for Kyudo, and Shobu-Do Sangyo Co. for Iaido. Asahi is located approximately 10 minutes by foot from the Otsuka JR station. The service was exceptional, as a friendly, elderly lady catered to our every whim.

We shopped for over an hour, trying on Gi, Hakama, Shita-gake, and looking through a variety of Ya and Nigirikawa. As we completed our purchases, one young women brought out a folder filled with order forms. Apparently, this huge stack of paper represents all the business our club in Toronto has had with them. Go Seikyu Kai!!! ^_^

After a quick stop for lunch at Yoshinoya, we continued on to our Iaido shopping. The Shobu-Do shop is located about 5 minutes by foot from the Suidobashi JR station in the direction of the Tokyo Dome theme park. From our current location, we simply hopped back onto the JR Yamanote line to Sugamo station, then switched to the Toei Mita subway line to Suidobashi.

We spent considerably less time here, as there really isn't all that much equipment required for Iaido practice. We got some extra Gi, Juban, and Obi, and were asked to come back in four days to pick up the Hakama which are to be embroidered with our names.

It was such a great feeling having accomplished our major equipment purchases with so much time left in our trip, that we decided to celebrate with some Kaiten Sushi! This huge restaurant is located in the second basement of the Shinjuku 2nd Building. It had five chefs working in different corners of conveyor belt as they worked specific orders. The service was extremely quick, allowing entering patrons to find a seat in short order. Needless to say, the food was Oishiiiiiii~~~~

Tomorrow, training begins!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Ohara - Iaido lineage & French bread!

FRI 13-JUL & SAT 14-JUL: Our time in Tamano City ended all too quickly, we had barely gotten to know the great people there, but the journey must continue. Our next stop would be Ohara, birthplace of the legendary Miyamoto Musashi and becoming quite the ghost town if not for the tourism and state-of-the-art budokan. We were met at the station by Trevor Jones-Sensei (Iaido Renshi 7 Dan) who, once again, offered to host our short stay.  With less than an hour before he had to go to work, we made a brief stop at Haruna-Sensei's house to pay our respects.  His wife was expecting our visit, and greeted us warmly at the door. 

It was Hanna's first time visiting the house of our Iaido Sensei' Sensei, but even with this memory, the architecture was no less impressive. The finishing of the beautiful front foyer/dojo has been maintained as if brand new, and the tatami rooms that lead to Haruna Sensei' shrine would've put the best ryokan to shame. Following Trevor's example, we performed a shinto ceremony to the shrine, then retired to the living room to admire the wall of trophies and to chat for a bit. There aren't as many visitors these days, as Haruna Sensei' students have moved on to other dojos. It is primarily foreigners who still wish to honour their lineage that stop by a couple of times a year. Trevor says she appreciates that the few of us still remember him this way, and we're sure Ohmi Sensei will feel good about hearing this.

That night, we had a very satisfying Ramen and Gyoza dinner before returning to Trevor's house. We chatted about various interests with conversations often returning to our shared involvement in the Iaido community. It is always great to hear about the past and how each of us that do Iaido in the Western world are connected by only a few degrees of separation.  Fellow Mu Mon Kai student, Michael H, has participated in recent BKA Iaido seminars and has nothing but praise for the organization and the people. We must not forget that the Canadian Iaido history is closely linked to that of the UK and while we've lost connections, it is my hope of re-establishing the communication to help each other grow to the level of the Japanese. 

The next day, Trevor brought us to a hidden French Bakery/Bed & Breakfast less than 10 minutes from his house. It was only a chance meeting at the bank that lead to this amazing discovery. Apparently, he was having a little trouble translating a phrase when a Japanese women, Hiromi, speaking near-perfect English came to his assistance. After a brief chat, it turned out that she lived with her husband and two kids, Hugo and Leo, in the adjacent city of Nishiwarakura. The family had moved back to Japan only two years ago from London, where her husband Olivier was a trained French baker and Yoga instructor. There they set up a local business next to the home, named it after the kids, and Olivier spends time baking twice a week, and teaching English, French, and Yoga in the nearby cities.

It was an amazing feeling, stepping in to this small bit of France in the middle of a village in Okayama. We ended up staying a lot longer than expected, having a great time chatting with the family about how they ended up here and what our plans were for this trip.  The discussion somehow lead to them asking if we knew a certain individual from Quebec that had visited their shop recently. Of course, in our minds we were thinking:

"If you asked if we knew someone in Toronto, it is still highly unlikely we'll know them, let alone another province"

but we humoured the question as they continued:

"Yeah, he was apprenticing under a Japanese swordsmith..."

.... what? ....really!?

That could only be one person!

Pierre Nadeau, who, along with his Sensei was invited to the JCCC in Toronto several years ago to do a demonstration on swordsmithing.  Lo and Behold!

What a small world! ^_^

When our plans were set to come to Ohara, we would have never expected such a turn of events, and this has immediately become one of the highlights of this trip. With the day moving on, we signed the guestbook and hope them good business in the future as we moved onto the Musashi Tourism area of Ohara.

Our first stop was at the Musashi Budokan, a marvel of architecture, with the roof shaped like a helmet from the side, and the Musashi Tsuba from the top. We wandered the emtpy halls, looking into the large auditorium and smaller sub-dojos imagining what it would be like to have such a facility back in Toronto. One can only dream....

As we passed by one of the sub-dojos used by the local Kendo club, we came across an interesting motto from the Musashi Budokan Kendo Club. Interestingly it reminded us of a key point in Kyudo, and is a great indication of how all the Japanese Martial Arts are related by culture and history. 

Our next stop was the Musashi Dojo, the original training spot for Iaido and Kendo in Ohara, and also the home dojo of Haruna Sensei. The building hasn't changed since our visit almost 5 years ago when our journey in Iaido had only recently began. A quick search into a closet revealed an Oar/Suburito prop used in re-enactments of the Musashi vs Sasaki Koijiro fight. We had a little fun with it as Trevor described the excitement and fun the locals put into the show. While the dojo remains empty most of the time, we are happy to hear that it still gets the occasional use, as a non-Kendo Federation Iaido group from Osaka had booked some training there in a couple of hours.

These two days were quite refreshing as we prepared ourselves for the hectic environment of Japan capital.  It's hard to believe that we're only halfway through this Asia Trip. We've already accomplished so much, now we must work even harder. So long, Okayama. Bring it, Tokyo!

Huge thanks to Trevor Jones Sensei for giving us a place to stay, taking us around town, and generally being great company!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Kyudo Instruction in Okayama

Our time in Tamano was very informative. Each of us received unique and effective tips for improving our Kyudo from a range of perspectives. I've listed out the overall focus for each of us below.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that these are our interpretations of what was said to us. It may not be helpful to anyone else, nor can we say it is exactly what we were told. That being said, we all felt much more confident in our Kyudo following these two days of intense training and instruction.

For Patrick:

1) Must Aim! See the target. Place the target as your perform the technique. Release into the target at the conclusion of your technique - Only with this awareness will your Kyudo have meaning.
Up until this point, I've had lots of trouble aiming when doing Kinteki. I've had a lazy right eye since I was a kid, making it extremely difficult to focus or even use that eye when both are open. My left eye tends to take control. This was immediately noticed by the Sensei who could see that I wasn't aiming at any specific point for each shot. They suggested I close my left eye during Hikiwake->Kai until I'm able to use the right eye regardless, and this helped a lot. It will still be some time before I'm able to aim properly, but at least we've found a solution to work on.
2) Relax the hands and maintain the shape throughout. With a proper grip, left-hand on the bow and right-hand on the string, the equipment and body can do the work.
A lot of the tightness in my hands was due to trying to keep the bow and arrow level during Uchiokoshi. We worked on this for several minutes, gathering quite the crowd in the dojo. I think we came to a pretty good solution for this as well. ^_^
3) Hanare from the centre through to Tsunomi. Let everything flow through. Leave nothing behind. Even from a distance, the release will look beautiful.

For Michael:

1) Thumb for both hands must align with the target going in opposite directions.

2) To begin Hikiwake, must push the bow and allow the string to catch the groove of your glove and pull it. It is not initiated with the pull of the right hand.

3) At hanare, think about opposite motions. The thumb pushes forward, while the middle finger must pull in and the line of your arm extends toward the target.

For Hanna:

1) Relax body at Kai. Looking very tense. Use breathing: Before drawing, exhale everything and bring power to the lower body. As you get to kai, breath in to open up your chest. As you open up your chest, you open up your Kai.

2) Tsunomi needs to be correct. Her arrow has a tendency of going down because of incorrect use of Tsunomi.

3) Use entire body as a spring, especially at Hanare to allow for a natural release. The core of your spring is the middle of your body which is your heart. Physically and mentally you are releasing this spring. A spring expands both ways. If you're able to do it right, you will feel good about it, and the person watching will also feel good.


There was a lot of talk these two days on aiming and seeing the target. When asked how we can practice this aiming when using Makiwara, Sato T-Sensei was able to give this tip:

1) Find an aim point on the makiwara.
2) Arrow should end up 45 degrees to the top-right, about 4-5cm away.

If you can consistently hit that point, then you should be able to consistently hit the Mato.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Kyudo in Okayama - Day 2

The following day, Sugimura-san had arranged for us to receive instruction from Sato Kaoru-Sensei (Hanshi 8 Dan) at the Tamano City Kyudojo and arranged to pick us up at 12:15 at the hotel. His contribution to our trip so far has been exceptional. We cannot thank him enough for all he has done to make this stay fruitful and enjoyable. 

THU 12-JUL: Our first stop was at the Mitsui dojo where we trained the day before. We were to change into our dogi and hakama and pick up our equipment for transportation to the city dojo. It was only about a 10 minute drive, but Sugimura-san was able to fill us in on the history and importance of our intended destination.  In fact, the Tamano City dojo was the site of the 2005 Kokutai Kyudo Taikai. Every year, Japan holds a national competition that puts athletics at the forefront. The kyudo event is a show case of the country's up and coming talents, with each prefecture sending their best and brightest representatives. Two members of our Toronto Kyudo Club (Seikyu Kai) had the honour to participate in the general and student categories: Takahashi Mie-Sensei, our club founder, and Itokawa Yukiko-san, our head sempai. The building was impressive indeed. Reminicent of the one at Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo that we briefly toured in 2009. With such a storied history, we entered with a hint of trepidation, hoping our modest grasp of Japanese etiquette was enough not to embarrass our dojo.

It was a relief to be welcomed from Tanaka-Sensei whom had trained us the day before. After a brief tour, Sato Tadashi-Sensei and Watanabe-san (one of the female members at dinner) dropped by, and were eager to see how our session would go with Sato Kaoru-Sensei. Needless to say, we felt his presence right as he stepped through the doorway, and he wasted no time in slapping us into shape. And I mean that quite literally! It seems he is well known for having an "hands-on" approach to teaching Kyudo. With a firm slap to the lower back, my centre of gravity was shifted forwards. With another slap to the upper chest, my body was aligned top to bottom. He kept his hands at each of those points until I was almost into Kai. At which time, he gently tapped my left arm and slid his hand towards the target. *Soot* *Soot*. "Push towards the target!". "Feel the snap towards the target!". and BAM! My arrow flies true, if only slightly strong, landing just above the Mato. I didn't see how he instructed Hanna, but Michael got pretty much the same thing as me.

The onlookers seemed mildly amused, and later asked us how we felt. While it's a rather different approach than what I'm used to, I personally enjoyed it, and came away with quite a bit of satisfaction and awareness from the lesson. It would be interesting to feel the effects long term. After a bit more training and instruction, we broke for some tea and mochi that was kindly donated by Tanaka-Sensei. We sat down and chatted for a bit, before the other Sato-Sensei (Sato T) comes over to get us to try Enteki…..Really?….Cool!!!

In Kyudo, there are three shooting distances: (1) Makiwara, ~half a bow length distance, to practice basics, (2) Kinteki, 28 meter distance and is the typical length used for grading and Taikai, and (3) Enteki, 60 meter distance.  Since modern Kyudo is based around Kinteki, the goal is to hit at 60 meters with as little change of your technique as possible. A slight arch from the hip at Uchiokoshi is required so as not to lose the cross at our shoulders and spine. It is also important to ensure the release of the right hand continues along the downward angled path. 

Our results weren't very impressive, but the experience was definitely a lot of fun. The Sensei seemed to enjoy helping us out as much as we did taking the shots. Both are quite the characters. Sato-Sensei with his boisterous humour, and Tanaka-Sensei with his quiet, laid-back attitude. The spirit of Kyudo and the character of the Mitsui Kyudojo is so clearly represented by these two individuals. With such contrasting personalities yet exact same approach to training.  In the past two days, I've seen them each shoot over 20 arrows. Every single shot was preceded and concluded with full Taihai (Rissha) etiquette. From Nujo, to Taijo. Not a single step rushed. Not a single movement wasted. It is truly inspirational to see these Sensei embody the way of the bow.

Following our visit to the Tamano City Kyudo HQ, we returned to the more relaxing and familiar confines of the Mitsui dojo for another 3 hours of training. We received some final instruction, words of encouragement, and requests to come again soon. 

It has been an overwhelming couple of days in Okayama. Our first Kyudo training experience in Japan was memorable for the practice, the learning, but most importantly, the people.  We were welcomed with open arms and spirit, like members of their own family. For isn't that what the Martial Arts are about? Wherever there's a dojo, you will find family.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Kyudo in Okayama - Day 1

This first week in Asia has been a mixed blessing. The excitement of reuniting with friends and family coupled with opportunities to explore the cultures we came from, have been tempered with mental and physical stress and illness. We're hoping that is all left behind as we head towards our first Kyudo training session in Japan.

WED 11-JUL: We were scheduled to meet with Shojiro Sugimura-san (5 Dan) at our hotel in the small port city of Tamano, Okayama. The Diamond Setouchi Marine Hotel is situated above a beach and is home to its own Spa and luxury suites. A bus from Okayama station (1hr 10m) took us directly to the lobby where we left our baggage to be checked-in later.

After a quick stop at a convenience store for a bento, the taxi took the three of us + Sugimura-san to the Mitsui dojo. The Kyudojo Is owned by a local shipping company, and has almost 90 years of history. It was a short walk up a narrow, paved road to the practice area. The dojo itself is constructed of the bare minimum necessary, with only space for 3 mato. A club's vast supply of yumi and ya were hidden behind a few sliding doors, but everything else was in plain view as you entered the front door. The inside was a huge contrast to the simplistic exterior, with a beautiful wood floor and walls lined with history (achievements, pictures, and names of the dojo members).

A white board for notices was hung along the kamiza wall and, for now, contained some rather familiar faces. Looks like we were well expected prior to arrival.

Sugimura-san introduced us to Sato Tadashi-Sensei (Kyoshi 6 Dan), Ojima-Sensei (Renshi 6 Dan), and Yonemoto-Sensei (Renshi 5 Dan) who all practice "Shamen" style.

We began by finding a bow and fixing the string to the nock of our arrows. Michael, Hanna, and I had each brought four "ya" for practice with intention of purchasing more in Tokyo later in the trip. The sensei helped us wrap and file the strings to the right size and we were able to start by 11:30am. Sato-Sensei wanted to watch us do taihai first to gauge our level. While were a bit nervous (apparently, not Michael), we did our best to show what we've learned from Toronto. Afterwards, Sato-Sensei proclaimed us sufficient for 2 Dan and our training got under way. Little did we know that the encouraging words were just a precursor to a day full of tearing down, and building back up.

The first thing he wanted us to do was increase the pull-strength of our bows. Michael was upgraded from 13kg to 14kg (not much due to his still busted ankle). I was upgrade from 14kg to 16kg, and Hanna was upgraded from 9kg to 11kg. It definitely pushed us out of our comfort zone, but we gathered as much spirit as we could and started shooting, and shooting, and shooting, and shooting....

I had to work on improving my:

- Ashibumi needs to be at the right length and angle. To help out, Sato-Sensei got a triangular piece of cardboard with measurements for where your feet should go based on your yazuka and angle. A good way of measuring. Apparently, my yazuka is "93.5cm"
- Tsunomi at hanare. Point left thumb into target. 
- Right hand should snap/whip back relaxed and with right thumb opposite of target.

We continued this way for the next several hours; taking the occasional rest, grabbing our own arrows, and watching Sato-Sensei and Yonemoto-Sensei practice. While we could start feeling some improvement in the major areas, there was still a lot of refining to do. The Sensei were kind and gave us time to work it out, shot after shot, arrow after arrow. A bit later in the afternoon, Tanaka Chotaro-Sensei (Kyoshi 6 Dan) arrives and gives some instruction as well. He practices "Shomen" style, one of the few at this dojo.

Altogether, we were at the dojo for 6 hours. Somewhere after the first 3, I had to switch back to a 13kg.  During one period of rest, when Michael was massaging his ankle, Sato-Sensei casually mentioned that  he should try to shoot at least 50 arrows this afternoon. Not sure if he made it there. 

At 6pm a couple of dojo members including an Aoi Tomoka, (who just got 5 Dan) came in street clothes to get a few shots in quickly. Sugimura-san mentioned that this is what they do if they have to work late and don't get much time.  It's good to see that even with busy schedules, the members find ways to get into the dojo for at least a few shots.  It doesn't hurt that the group is very friendly and sociable, as we proceed right after to an Izakaya for dinner. We were joined by Tanaka-Sensei, Yonemoto-Sensei, Sugimura-san, Aoi-san, Watanabe-san, later Konishi Kengo-san (5 Dan at same time as Aoi-san).

Hanna and them seemed to have a lot of fun chatting, so we didn't press her for translations. It's a tough job so she deserves to have some fun. One thing I was able to pick out was that in Japan nowadays, students are only looking to hit the target and there's less focus on Taihai. That might be a difference in approach from foreign countries who do Kyudo not for the sporting aspect. There were many comments by the dojo members that our Taihai was top notch for our rank.

As the night was winding down, Sugimura-san gave us a good piece of advice for tomorrow's training with Sato Kaoru-Sensei (Hanshi 8 Dan). Although we might hear differing or even contradicting instruction. That's ok. They're all correct. We need to take it all in and choose what's works best for us. After some extended fairwells, we get a lift back to the hotel from Tanaka-Sensei. We could definitely use the rest for another day of keiko.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Asia Trip 2012: Iaido in HK

THU 05-JUL: Our first training session and meet-up was at the Shek Tong Tsui Athletic Centre in Sai Wan. The complex is on the 5th floor of a municipal building and has courts available for Squash, Ping Pong, and Badminton, as well as a couple of multi-purpose rooms; one of which we used for the Iaido class.

This special session was booked by the local HK Kendo Association rep of the Iaido division for our sakes and we were extremely grateful for this added opportunity to train and get to know each other.

Ms. Agnes Lee has 3 Dan Iaido and 5 Dan Kendo, and her technique, along with her students, show this experience, feeling and solid basics. Being such a small group, they haven't had any local options to grade, so their ranks: a couple of 1 Dan, and a couple of 2 Dan, show the quality as expected from being awarded in Tokyo.

The training session was especially rewarding, finally having the opportunity to do Iaido in HK. We had the room from 9pm - 11pm and the most of it.

After bowing in, we shared warm-up exercises. Nothing too different, as expected. We followed with about an hour of self practice and then some embu, which is typical of visits such as these.

Hanna performed 5 x Seitei-gata with two other students, while I did 5 x Koryu with Ms. Lee. It was a good opportunity to show our differences in MSR and MJER. The club's exposure to Koryu has been relatively lacking as Iai is still in its infancy Hong Kong. Following the Japanese schedule, Koryu is not required for grading until 4 Dan, so introduction has been slow.

Following practice, we proceeded to a nearby McDonalds for a little socializing. Turns out a couple of the members, including Ms Lee, have lived in Canada for an extended period of time and their command of the English language showed. Hanna was sure relieved at that. =)

It was a fun evening. Tomorrow evening, we do it all again. ^_^ First, we visit Ocean Park to see the Pandas!!!!

*Edit: We were supposed to meet again on FRI 06-JUL, but a family dinner went over time. Nevertheless, our brief encounter on Thursday was memorable and we hope it is a start to a lasting relationship.