Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Remembering the Legend and the 'Hard Bastard': Key builders of Canadian Iaido

These last couple of days before the new year is typically a time for reflection. And while many of us will look back at 2014 with a mixture of accomplishment, regret, and nostalgia, we should also take this opportunity to reflect on those who got us to this point; and have laid the foundation to a brighter future, full of possibility.

The Legend
I started Iaido in 2004, but even before that I had started reading up on the art and its growth in Canada. Besides the usual suspects, the current leaders in Ohmi, Cruise, and Taylor, another name kept popping up: Haruna. Who was this man and why did everyone speak of him with such awe and reverence? I'll let the words of those who knew him best from his time in Canada speak for themselves:

The 'Hard Bastard'
I recently became aware that a new member of our Iaido dojo had actually started training over 10 years ago in St. Catharines, Ontario, but had to stop due to various other commitments. Back in 2003, Iaido in Southern Ontario was expertly organized and taught by one Bill Mears Sensei; a tall, bearded transplant from the UK who was affectionately referred to as a "Hard Bastard" by his many friends, colleagues, and students of Iaido in Canada. His tragic passing in 2005 of a heart attack left a hole in the hearts of many across the country and around the world. His legacy is still remembered and honoured by a tight-knit group of Iaido students; a community that he helped build.

Spring 2015 will be the 10 year anniversary of his passing, so let us take a look back and appreciate the many lessons he brought to those who had the pleasure of knowing him for years, or even only a few moments:

Friday, 26 December 2014

3 Things to Maximize Your Learning Experience at Seminars

Travelling and meeting people is one of the joys of being part of an international community1. I don't think my wife and I have taken any trips in the past several years where we didn't train, or meet with someone in the local Iaido/Kyudo community. When not heading to a seminar in Canada, the US - or shugyo-ing it up in Japan - our vacation plans inevitably include a stopover at the local dojo.

In June, I had the distinct pleasure to attend a seminar, taught at the highest level by Hanshi 8-Dan, Sakono Yasuo Sensei, at the 2014 AUSKF Iaido Summer Camp. This annual event was conveniently located in the center of Manhattan, NY and hosted by our friends from Ken Zen Institute and ShidogakuinI'll be covering my key takeaways from the seminar over several posts, so please stay tuned.

Introductory Speech from the AUSKF President

Each day opened with announcements, as well as some words from AUSKF President, Arthur Murakami Sensei. While his speeches were brief, they nonetheless carried significant wisdom that all participants could learn from. 

Simply attending the seminar is not enough. Without consistent practice and being mindful of the takeaways for the rest of the year, you're just wasting your time.

A great opening speech for seminars of this magnitude. As one of only few major, country-wide, events to host instructors of this quality from Japan, the annual summer camp is really where the best of the country find out what they need to work on for the foreseeable future. This echos one of the lessons I wrote on the Tokyo Judging Technical and Judging Seminar in 2013: On Attending Seminars and On Learning (View Now)

Here are 3 things I've learned about maximizing one's learning opportunity at these events.
  1. Be Noticed - This is essential, and probably the most overlooked, factor for being at any martial arts seminar. I'm reading a book right now called Never Be Closing by Dunne & Hurson. Why is this interesting? Because it's a book about "Selling" - And it is as relevant to the business world as it is to anything else in life. From the beginning, the writers discard the most common myth i.e. The salesperson's goal is to get you buy something you don't want or need. In reality, the standouts are those who realize that selling is about two things: 1) Long-Term Relationships and 2) Value Generation. I won't go into too much detail about the process (perhaps a topic for another post), but put into the context of a seminar, it is important to realize that theirs a value exchange going on. Obviously you are there to learn something, but the visiting instructors are also there to pass on their knowledge. They receive value when they see you learning something. So no, you are not there to show how good you are - You are there to Show Your Iai, Receive Instruction, then Show that you have improved as a result of that instruction. Be Noticed.

  2. Be Genuine - Don't try to change the way you do your Iai. You may be motivated to show more power, more speed, more feeling, etc. But that is not how you normally practice. Your Iai is what you happens when you are not thinking. When you don't focus on any particular point or theory. As my brother recently wrote in his blog: Just Do It (View Now). This is no place to experiment with your own thoughts, or even those from other students. The visiting instructors can only comment on what they see and it is in your best interest to show what you normally do - any instruction will then be salient to you and you alone. Be Genuine.

  3. Be Observant - In Kyudo, we talk about three different types of Keiko (training). They are 1) Kufu Keiko - Thinking and Reflecting, 2) Kakari Keiko - Repetition, and 3) Mitori Keiko - Looking. While many of us are pretty good at the first two points, number three is often difficult to assess. What are you looking for? What are you look at? What can you take from it? I'll probably expand on these questions at a later date, but the real question I want you think about is: Are you "seeing" or are you just "looking"? In Dan Roam's book, The Back of the Napkin, he explains the difference between these two terms. When you are just "looking", you don't comprehend the details. It's like when you commute along your regular path to school/work, and you suddenly wake up at your destination - It's like your brain went into standby and failed to receive any information for the past 45 minutes. Can you remember the last time this happened at an Iaido seminar? I can. To be observant is to not just look, but to "see" what is actually going on. When the instructor is lecturing, demonstrating, or correcting someone else, pay attention - and I mean really pay attention. Test yourself at your next practice. Start by eliminating those commute moments and you'll find the seminar you attend to be much more fruitful.
1 It really all started in 2007 and we haven't looked back since: http://sueniaidokyudo.blogspot.ca/2011_09_01_archive.html

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Guelph Iaido Seminar - Which day should you go?

As an Iaido practitioner outside Japan, it is a rare opportunity to learn from 8 Dan Sensei. In Canada, we have the annual Guelph Iaido/Jodo Seminar. A 3-day intensive training camp (4-days if you count the senior's class) held at the University of Guelph; ~45 minutes from Toronto. This year, it brought together Iaidoka from all across the continent, including visitors from the United States and South America. For those of us living in the country, we have the luxury of a statutory holiday on Monday. And while non-Canadians may be forced to leave early due to work commitments, those with children also have to grapple with this first warm-weather long weekend after a harsh winter.

If you are one of these unfortunate folk who are unable to attend the full session, this post will hopefully assist you in deciding which day(s) to attend. The following description of the three main days at the seminar is based on personal experience over the past 5 years: 

Day 1 (Saturday) - Group-General Instruction
Following Friday's senior class, the head delegate from Japan will often have an idea of what needs improvement, or is lacking in a general sense. This year's focus was on "Riai" - The theory, concept, or reason behind each kata and each movement. On Day 1, the head delegate (with assistance from the other two Japanese Sensei) will spend the day going through all 12 Zen Ken Ren Iai kata, with the goal of filling these gaps. Occasional practice following each kata will help lay a foundation for training for the rest of the year, but it is not expected (or realistic) that you have everything corrected by the end of the seminar.

It doesn't really matter which kata you are doing, or whether you're doing an Iaido kata or not. The concepts and theories mentioned in this session can be brought into all aspects of your life. From work, to relationships, to hobbies.

Who is this day good for?
  • Instructors who want an overview of what is important in Iaido training
  • Students who are grading on Day 3. They are given just enough details that they can fine-tune their kata, but not too much such that large modifications are required

Who is this day not so good for?
  • Students/Instructors who are looking for lots of practice or specific technical details

Day 2 (Sunday) - Group-Specific Instruction
With three Japanese Sensei, the participants are split into groups as evenly as possible by rank. This year it was 1 dan and below, 2 dan to 4 dan, and 5 dan and up. As I've been in the middle group for the past five years, I can only speak to this experience. The Sensei will typically run through each Zen Ken Ren Iai kata, providing instructions along the way.

We'll often get a mix of broader technical concepts like balance, connection, relaxation, and flexibility, along with a few kata specific corrections.

Who is this day good for?
  • Instructors who are looking for specific details that Canadian Iaidoka are lacking and how to improve on them in the upcoming year
  • Students who can find a benefit in any correction, whether or not they think they are doing the technique incorrectly

Who is this day not so good for?
  • Students who are grading on Day 3 and are easily confused or overwhelmed by detailed instruction
  • Students who often think that general corrections are meant for others in the group and not themselves

Day 3 (Monday) - Individual-Specific Instruction
With the grading held in the morning, this unstructured session provides a rare and unparalleled opportunity to get one-on-one instruction from the 8 Dan Sensei. By positioning yourself in front of them, or simply going up and asking for help, you can be treated to instruction that is fundamentally and uniquely specific to yourself.

Who is this day good for?
  • Instructors/Students who are eager to receive high-level, personalized input on any kata they are working on, and have the patience to train for a year or more before fully realizing the depth of these corrections. 
  • Those who are okay with asking your question and getting an answer without the assistance of a translator (not as difficult as it sounds!)

Who is this day not so good for?
  • Students who have trouble practicing on their own without constant feedback (it'll be another year before you see this 8 Dan Sensei again, if ever)
  • Students who get frustrated when they don't understand something immediately

In conclusion, the answer to which day you should attend the Guelph seminar is simply: "ALL OF THEM"

Monday, 3 February 2014

2014 East Coast Iaido Seminar and Taikai

People measure time in all sorts of ways. Some take it "one day at a time", others plan out their schedules months in advance. Our typical year is highlighted by several key seminars that spread from the deep, hibernation of winter, to the scorching, dog-days of summer.

As organizers we always try to make each year's event better than the previous. This past weekend, the East Coast Iaido Seminar and Taikai exceeded all expectations. With the meticulous planning and execution, the Shidogakuin and Ken Zen Institute Kendo and Iaido dojos put on a packed weekend of equal parts education and celebration.

Under the guidance of Kishimoto Chihiro Sensei (Hanshi 8 Dan Iaido, Chiba) and expert demonstration by Okuda Kazuma Sensei (Kyoshi 8 Dan, Hiroshima), the 90+ participants were lead through the intricacies and details of Zen Ken Ren Iaido. The Sensei' themselves were equally honoured to see the dedication and commitment of all the participants coming from across the eastern United States and Canada.

  • Saturday - Seminar + Banquet
  • Sunday - Grading + Tournament

Once again, it was a pleasure to participate and represent our dojo at one of the only two tournaments with both Canadian and US competitors. All four participants representing Mu Mon Kai won at least one match, with my wife, Hanna Ikeda-Suen defending her Gold in the 2nd/3rd Dan division and also being awarded the first ever "Kishimoto Cup".

  • Justin Lee (1st Kyu) - 3rd Place (1 Kyu + 1 Dan division)
  • Hanna Ikeda-Suen (3 Dan) - 1st Place (2 Dan + 3 Dan division)
  • Bruce Meecham (4 Dan) - Won one match, then fell to the eventual champion (4 Dan+ division)
  • Patrick Suen (4 Dan) - 3rd Place (4 Dan+ division)

While deepening our knowledge of the art and achieving success in competition are nice, it is primarily the relationships we've built that matter in the end. The people we've met at his event, and through other shared Iaido seminars, have been some of the most kind, generous, honest, and genuine individuals we know. It is our honour to be able to call them friends.