Sometimes people who practice martial arts become so proficient with their weapons that it becomes reasonably safe to start practicing with real weapons instead of the blanks or dummys most mere mortals have to use. At the famous Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo’s Kudanshita district I saw these two elderly masters give a flashing sword fight performance with real blades. Obviously they are well choreographed, but still you would need to be able use the weapons very well in order to be able to perform these shows regularly. Yasukuni Shrine is a great place to go to see classic Japanese culture for free. I saw this performance in the morning of the large Mitama Festival in the summer of this year.
One of the most elegant but least well known of the Japanese martial arts family of Budo, is the art of drawing the sword, or iaido (居合道). Unlike most martial arts in Japan iaido is practiced without an opponent and focuses on the ritualized drawing, cutting, and replacing the Japanese sword, the katana, in a fluid and well practiced motion. Classical iaido takes place sitting down, but these days a lot of kata (movements) are performed standing up. I have never practiced iaido, but it looks and feel similar to kyudo, which the art of zen archery, in that the outcome of the kata is not important, only how you execute it. In this, both iaido and kyudo is very philosophical and have strong elements of zen buddhism. I seem to remember having heard about the background of this very elegant sport, many of the noble classes of ancient Japan lived with the risk of being assassinated or attacked by enemies who would pose as emissaries and it became necessary to practice the quick draw from a sitting position as you would never know when the attack would come. Yesterday I went to Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo’s Kudanshita district to see several well know iaido practitioners perform in a spring ritual. Unfortunately I missed out on the younger martial artists and the females. To become good at iaido you will need to spend years and years perfecting you breathing, your movement and your balance. I think it is impossible to become good at this without almost adopting wholly the Japanese way of acting, working, thinking and living. One day I would like to try!
As I mentioned a couple of days ago I recently drove up to Tochigi prefecture, or more specifically to Nikko for my second visit in as many years. Nikko is one of those “must see” places often touted in guide books and although absolutely a very nice place to visit the distance from Tokyo doesn’t really make it that much of a must. Still, I enjoyed it on both visits.
I haven’t had time to organize my photos so I’d just like to show these. I arrived early in the morning while walking up the stairs to the main temple area I could hear the distinctive sounds of battle! Somewhere up there a large group was practicing Kendo (Japanese fencing). I remembered having read that Nikko is the birthplace of modern Kendo, so I ran up the stairs, pulled out my camera, switched to my trusty Sigma 30mm lens and managed to get one shot of the martial artists as they parted from the last training clash of that morning. Lucky! I have never actually seen kendo being trained there before. Kendo is fought with bamboo swords called shinai, and the practicioners wear heavy protective armor: these fights are anything but gentle and loud shouts accompany clatter of bamboo on steel. Great fun to watch, and strangely similar to dancing.
I also had a chance to walk around the temple area and enter an ancient shrine where I saw the extraordinarily long sword (called Oodachi) once belonging to the shogun Tokugawa Ieasy. It is easily the longest sword I have ever seen, about as long as I am tall. I figured, that if you came upon this blog from Googling about Kendo you might appreciate this amazing sword.
When I was a kid naturally my dream was to become a ninja. Don’t all kids have that dream? My mother dutifully informed me that there were no ninja anymore and so I had to chose a different career path. My second choice was to become a knight, but again my mother informed me that these days there might still be plenty of damsels in distress, but dragons and tournaments are still rare enough to make that career path less likely to bring me success. In bitter resentment I decided to wreck my revenge on the world by going into marketing. (cue evil laugh). But seriously, I did it all, horse riding, archery, fencing. It was easy enough. Keep from falling off, aim at the target, hit the other guy before he stabbed you in the face (even with the mask it hurts, really).
When I finally made it to Japan I decided to immerse myself as much as I possibly could. After classes I headed over to the all Japanese part of the campus and looked for a good club to join. I found the Kyudo club, or as we say in the West, Japanese zen archery. But kyudo has about as much in common with archery as “paint by numbers” have with Picasso. In archery, you draw the bow, look down the arrow, adjust for distance and wind, and let go. It doesn’t matter much how you do it, if your aim is true you will hit even a small target at up to 100m. And here I was, proud that I could put a long bow arrow through a car door at 150m. Little did I know about the “zen” part of kyudo.
In kyudo, it doesn’t matter if you are half blind: if you stand correctly, breath correctly, use just the right amount of muscle tension and let go at the exact moment, you will hit. A child can do it. An old woman of 90 can do it. If they know how, that is. I trained daily for 6 months, and I barely learned how to draw the Japanese bow. It is insanely difficult and easily the hardest thing I have ever attempted. It is the truest test of your inner spirit that I have ever come across. Zen in it’s truest sense. Why? Because you have to un-learn everything you know. You have to leave yourself and merge with the bow, the string and the arrow. Breath out a tenth of a second early and you are lucky if your arrow even leaves the string, you might even end up smacking your face with the string or getting a nasty burn to your wrist.
Which is why, when I came across these two ace archers practicing early one morning I could barely breathe with respect. To get this good at kyudo you have to devote your life to it. Attitute and posture is everything. Hitting the target is just proof of your skill. Real archers don’t even see it. They don’t have to.