My katana

This article was originally something I wrote for the Kendo-world forum back in 2007 when I got my katana. Digging through the archives, I thought it would be fun to post it here. 

(May 2007) Last Monday, I had a chance to get to Seki, Gifu where my father-in-law and I met with Mr. Igarashi to pick up my new katana. It took about 6 months to make and was produced by a local Seki toshyo. We went to the Nosyudo shop, and spent some time looking at the inventory he had on hand. Things were pretty hectic as Mr. Igarashi was preparing for the Kyoto budo demonstration and taikai.

67
Mr. Igarashi

On the second floor of his shop, he had a very nice selection of old and new blades, some affordable, and some very expensive, but of course all very nice.

As we had some tea, he brought up my custom ordered katana. I was a bit nervous – my hands actually started sweating as I drew it from the saya. Beautiful, very well-balanced, and all I had hoped for. My father-in-law who had helped order the sword for me also was a bit nervous as I passed it to him to inspect.

17
Go-mai-sa-za kamon on the habaki

My wife’s family kamon is a 5 leaved bamboo leaf cluster called “go-mai-sa-za”. We used the same design to have a custom silver habaki made. I was very impressed with how everything turned out. Even the extra saya we had made was beautiful in a wine-red lacquer.

72
The first floor display of iaito at Nosyudo

Mr. Igarashi was very nice, informative, and helpful despite the near-chaos of the 1st floor staff preparing, gathering, and loading all of their goods for the trip to Kyoto. He explained how to remove the tsuka, clean, and properly oil the katana. He also gave us a quick rundown on what to look for when appraising a katana and some of the easy pointers for deciding if the blade is a good one. Of course it takes years of practice to really know how to appraise a blade, but he gave us some quick, useful information anyway.

Then we went for a quick tour to the toshyo’s house and smithy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there, but we were still able to see the place where he had actually forged my blade. I guess that smiths in Japan are only allowed to forge 24 blades a year. Tough way to make a living I think, but beautiful. My smithy was a 3rd generation smith in his family. On the tang the kanji reads, “Nosyujyukanemichi.”

After that, we went to the small katana and smithy museum in Seki for a quick tour, video explanation about the forging and making of a katana, and then looked at some of the katanas on display by Seki smiths. Beautiful! I was happy to see the smith that made my blade had a display as well.

69
Shaping the blade

We hopped back to Mr. Igarashi’s shop, for a quick tour of where they make and assemble their iaito and katanas. Iaito blades are made somewhere else, and then brought to the shop as rough “blanks.”

They are polished using a wheel by one of the staff there as seen in the photo above.

They also hand-make the tsuka in-house as seen in the photo below.

71
Making tsuka

The saya, habaki, and tsubas come from other specialists all to be assembled in-house by Mr. Igarashi’s staff. It was all very impressive even though it was in a very small space.

I and my father-in-law had a great time and Mr. Igarashi went out of his way – especially for being so very busy- to make us feel welcome and to present me with my new katana.

It swings beautifully, and I can’t wait to start practicing for real with it!

Here are some photos of the katana.

Above you can see with the very nice black saya, silk sageo. Note the curvature of the blade and tsuka – it’s beautiful!

10

In the photo above, you can see the menuki, tsuba, and fuchigane are all bamboo themed. This is to match the habaki kamon of the “go-mai-sa-za.”

More bamboo.

12

Here’s a quick look at the hamon. It’s much more defined, but the lighting and reflection make it difficult to see.

14

And the kissaki. Razor sharp by the way!

As a follow-up note: I was able to go back later and meet the smith, Mr. Kanemichi and his apprentice at his smithery. He was a very nice gentleman, and I enjoyed meeting him. My father-in-law later commissioned him make a new tanto (to be used for family events – weddings and funerals) as well. He showed us literally, a “wall” of charcoal that he uses to make a single katana. I was amazed at how much it takes! His forge had all of the traditional forging tools, as well as a hydraulic hammer to speed the process when needed. His apprentice was actually working on a blade as we met.

Several of my students have also purchased their iaito from Nosyudo, and I must say, they are quite beautiful. The craftsmanship, quality, and balance are exceptional.

I can’t recommend Mr. Igarashi and Nosyudo enough. First class all the way.

Advertisements

Kendo is …. (fill in the blank)

Numazu Iaido Dojo

I started kendo in 1996, as a “consolation” martial art for not being able to find Japanese swordsmanship iaido or kenjutsu in the city I was living in. I realize now that kendo was essential to starting my study of iaido and provided me with a great baseline for the kihon, concepts, and reishiki.

When I first arrived in Japan, my priorities were:

  1. Start to learn the language
  2. Find a dojo that teaches the sword

And that’s it.

Below are some excerpts from the diary I wrote when I arrived in Japan that fateful day in April 1996. Disclaimer: I was pretty young… ‘nuf said.

May 12, 1996

… I am still hoping very much that I will be able to study Kendo. This is one of the main reasons that I came here, unofficially of course. I have been practicing my Karate the last couple of days though, and feel better about that. I need to stay tuned. I really do miss my friends at the Dojo and the regular workouts.

May 27, 1996

… Went a touring on my bike today. Wow, the seat is short!! Found a martial arts shop that sells Kendo, karate, judo gear and after many sheets of paper, the owner called and talked to a Kendo sensei. I went to the BuDoKai center and again after using the dictionary and more paper, arranged lessons twice weekly starting on the first. I am totally psyched! The hakama’s they were are really sharp, and for about ¥1600 I can own one. The shinai is about ¥2000 and the lessons are ¥130 each!  Finally I will be able to start. My student, Tadashi, is a police officer and said that he will introduce me to his sensei next Saturday evening. Maybe I can take it from two at once.

June 1, 1996

Today was my first Kendo lesson. I went to the BuDoKai and worked with my instructor for an hour on the formal seiza, “greeting procedure” before a match, and footwork. My arms were a bit sore after working with the bokken, but I will practice at home and become stronger as I progress. The footwork is difficult, because I keep wanting to step into a triangle stance. I have to keep my feet straight, and shorten my stance considerably. Again, time will take care of that. My instructor speaks very little English, so the lesson was completely in Japanese, and we did consult the dictionary quite a bit. He seems really nice, and presented me with a bokken as a gift to study at home.
During the afternoon, I went to the festival in the city down by Aeon. There were hundreds of booths on all of the side streets with many different things you can purchase. There was food, games, plants, clothing, even small chickens, live eels, and gold fish for sale. I sampled some of the local quisine again, but went for the crepe again for dessert. Many things to buy, so little money to spend.
I went to my first Kendo lesson at the Dojo that Tadashi took me to. The Sensei was very nice, and I met his family. The Dojo is very impressive. It is only two years old, and the floors are beautiful. There was a small kitchen/reception area where we had tea. We talked a bit before the lesson, and then I watched his class. The Sensei had his daughter work with me on footwork and striking. Again, it was difficult, but I felt very welcome there. I am looking forward to my next lesson there too.

June 8, 1996

Went to my Kendo class this a.m. and had fun. My foot (blister) was taped, so hopefully I will develop some calluses soon. I do get tired from swinging the bokken and shinai, but again, that is all part of the developing. My biggest fear is developing bad or incorrect habits and never re-learning correctly. My instructor, Mitsuru Nakasuji, is really patient and funny, and he laughs at my mistakes too. He is very supportive, and does say when I do it correctly, “Very good Bradley.” I found out he is a big San Francisco Braves fan, so I asked my mom to pick up a hat and mail it to me. He gave me a head band for a gift to use under my bogu gear. The kanji say Sim Sin Cho Wa, or heart, body, harmony. I think it’s really cool, and I plan to send one to Mike and Paul back at the dojo. Mitsuru refers to me as Ken Si, maybe student??

June 15, 1996

What a great day! It started with Mitsuru buying me lunch at the Dojo. I had some zaru soba, and some cha han. It was a nice lunch, and I really enjoyed talking to him about things other than Kendo. I told him I had a date that evening. He started giving me shit until I told him that she was taller than he is (about 165cm).

July 3, 1996

Things have been going pretty smoothly lately. I have been learning slowly at Kendo, and everyone says that I’m doing really good. I am “a very powerful Kendo player.”

November 2, 1996

Today, not so genki. I had kendo this morning, but my ki was weak. I had a really good practice yesterday, but today I couldn’t seem to get into the groove. I think that part of the problem is I can’t see well without my glasses, and I can’t wear glasses in the head-gear. Anyway, I couldn’t hit at all, and then I became very slow and frustrated. I am learning kata well, though, and I really enjoy that, but the idea is to learn something new. Mitsuru was a real help and gave me a little talk about how long he has been practicing, and that I shouldn’t be frustrated. I don’t want to let him down.

June 26, 1998

I am doing well, and very busy. I have been studying Japanese at least once a week in class, and have recently started Kendo again here. It has been a lot of fun to resume again, and my feet are finally starting to get back into shape with some callouses on the bottoms. I’ve suffered from the blister-on-blister problem for a few weeks now, and besides being painful, it makes it difficult to practice. My new sensei is very good (7th degree), and speaks a little English, so maybe I can learn more of the tradition and meaning behind the art, and not just the mechanics.

December 9, 1998 (Letter to my Grandpa)

I am still studying kendo.  Kendo is Japanese sword fighting using a bamboo sword and protective gear where you score a hit on either the chest, head, or hand.  It’s a lot of fun, and I think you knew that I got my black belt (shodan) last year.  I am improving in that as well, but still have A LOT to learn.  It’s also sometimes difficult trying to communicate with the sensei sometimes, but I seem to manage okay.  Someday, I hope to buy a real samurai sword to bring home as a souvenir, but they’re rather expensive.

April 23, 2001

… We cut bamboo in my Iaido class last night. It was pretty fun, and my cutting is improving. I was a bit worried when I bent my Sensei’s sword though, but he straightened it and then bent it himself also. If you don’t cut correctly, you can easily bend or break your sword. No pressure. We have a demonstration this weekend before a kendo tournament, so I will do kata with the rest of the group, and then 3 of the higher students will do cutting again. It should be fun and my first “public” performance.

I transitioned from kendo to iaido around 1999 when I moved from Toyama prefecture to Shizuoka prefecture. I started kendo, but when my back started to hurt and the movements became painful for me to do, I searched once again for kenjutsu or iaido, and was able to connect with Takeda sensei who did both kendo and iaido. I later found out that my pain was associated with a herniated back which chiropractic treatments has resolved.

I’d like to start kendo again, but it’s been hard due to the lack of local instructors being available. The closest club is Minnehaha in the Minneapolis area.

I never did take my 2dan test, and would consider myself a “rank beginner” again if I restart.

Funny story about Nakasuji sensei. I was totally incorrect in the conversation about his favorite baseball team. After further conversations I learned it wasn’t the Braves as his favorite team, it was the Giants. In my naivety, I assumed he meant the American team the San Francisco Giants, but of course he was referring to the most popular national Japanese team the Tokyo Giants. It was a bit of an awkward moment when I presented him with a SF Giants baseball cap as a present expecting a great “thank you” and it ended up a complete miscommunication and a somewhat awkward, yet grateful acceptance for the “gesture” behind the hat. I think he wore that hat for the rest of the day, and then I saw it on his desk in the Budokan every time I came in. I’m guessing it made for a great story about his “Gaijiin” student’s effort to present him with something special, and the mis-communication that followed. I laugh about it now remembering his face when I gave him the hat and he looked like, “Whaaaaaat??”

Natsukashiii ne!? Good times.

I miss both my sensei a lot. Takeda sensei is the 4th from the left on the front row.

Senpai as Sensei

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been having my students all “teach” a kata that they feel they know well.

We’ve been using the ZNKR Seitei iaido series, but I’ve done this in the past with our koryu Musoshindenryu as well.

It’s been a great experience both for myself and the rest of the dojo members as well as we switch roles and take turns showing the other members not only our unique style of teaching, but also the self-realization that comes with having to explain something as you’re doing it with specific attention to detail.

TylerSenpai
Tyler Teaching Ukenagashi

Methodology

Each student-teacher would have 10-15 minutes to self-practice and brush up on the kata, how they want to present it, and the kata-specific grading points found in the Seitei iaido manual. Then the Senpai would demonstrate the kata with the appropriate timing. Next, they would teach / demo more slowly pointing out specific points to watch for, foot positions, blade positions, etc. There would be a review of the grading points either from memory or the book itself. Then the Senpai would lead the group through the kata at least twice. During or before the Q/A, I would offer specific comments that were to add clarification or emphasize any additional specific points that were either relevant for grading or the performance of the kata. The senpai would lead the group through one more round as I observed, final comments, and then we’d move on to the next person to lead.

Every person took a turn, and I can safely say that every version of the methodology of how to teach a kata was as unique as the Senpai presenting it.

Group Ukenagashi

Takeaways

What I heard from everyone was:

  1. It was a good experience because it forced people to focus on the points and explain them as they’re doing them instead of just “going though the motions.”
  2. That focus really required specific though on footwork, positioning, angles, cuts, and all of the kihon that go into a kata.
  3. The grading points in the book were sometime more or less than what they’d believed for the specific kata.
  4. It was challenging.

What I noticed was:

  1. We all learn and teach differently – some by using more words and some by using/hearing less words combined with more actions. When I learned the kata originally from Takeda sensei in Japan, my “Budo Japanese” was pretty poor, and so I had to rely on learning from sight, visualization and emulation, correction, and repetition.
  2. There’s no “one way” to teach something or reach a specific point.
  3. My students focus on specific points in kata could be very different from my own. This isn’t a bad thing, just different. Points that I considered very critical to the execution of the kata were less emphasized by some Senpai, whereas they emphasized some things that I rarely did. I will learn from this and consider my methodology as I go forward.
  4. Kihon is extremely important. Specifically consistency in correct kihon. We will need to work on this a bit. Examples being cut and swing, chiburi, and noto.
  5. It was nice to be a student for a change.

I look forward to incorporating this type of practice more in the future as I think it’s a valuable way to mix things up a bit.

The 2 Rules

Why hello there!

I was surprised to find how many Japanese martial art blogs there are when I first started searching, so I am glad you ended up at this one. If you have any question regarding the Japanese words used, please check the bottom of this post for a brief glossary.

Let’s see, what should I go on about today… How about the two basic rules of Iaido:
Don’t get cut, and cut.

During my first trip to the AUSKF Iaido Summer Camp in 2017, the sensei and senpai there provided plenty of feedback with an overarching theme: Your iai is like a robot pausing after each move, and your cuts are not cuts. In other words, your opponent has ample opportunity to cut you, and you will not cut them. Both rules of iaido BROKEN and I’m dead!
Anderson-sensei appreciated this feedback and moved to focus on these pain points. I like to think this meant we were technically proficient enough in our seitei iai to move on to these issues, but that’s just my ego talking 🙂

In any event, how do we improve upon these concerns?

Don’t get Cut
Anderson-sensei had us make our kiai audible and powerful. This was a deviation from our typical kiai as it is normally quiet, but this turned out to be a useful tool to improve our breathing. We begin our audible kiai when the kata begins, and strengthen it when we strike, trying to make a single breath last the entire kata. This forced us to move through the kata with little pausing for the simple fact that we run out of breath if we stop. Now we were much harder for the enemy to hit because we gave them fewer openings and less time to respond. **

Cut
The second issue was our inadequate cuts.

What sensei taught us next can best be summed up with this anecdote. We went down to Des Moines Iaido in Iowa for a seminar led by my sensei this past August. One of their students asked for advice on how to enter seiza. He found it easier and more relaxing to open his leg up to the side as he went down, but that was different from what he was being taught. In response, Anderson-sensei brought another student to sit in seiza in front of the standing inquisitive student. Sensei pointed at the seated student, looked at the standing student, and said

‘He is trying to kill you. Now sit in seiza.’

And wouldn’t you know it, his entry to seiza was much improved.

What does this mean? This means that when you begin a kata, the enemy must be right there with you.

Before we perform a kata, we take a moment to breathe and place an opponent(s) in the room with us who plans to kill us. As we move, we must also move the opponent as they strike or retreat. This visibly made our cuts more accurate and improved our cutting power. We were actually cutting through someone in our mind’s eye.

In conclusion
These are important principles that I find useful in all of my iai. I am far from mastering even these basic points, but now I know how I can improve: Don’t get cut, and cut.

 

**Note: This is not to say we rush through the kata. We still consider proper timing, our zanshin, and a jo-ha-ku approach. The latter two of these will likely be the subject of future blog posts.

Glossary:
Senpai = senior student
Kata = sequence of moves
Iai = synonymous with Iaido
Kiai = spirit. In this case, inaudible or audible breathing/shouting.
Seiza = traditional Japanese seated position. Sitting on the tops of your feet and knees with your legs together.

Paint Your Own Picture

“Paint your own picture” is something I’ve been challenging my students with lately. One of the hardest things about iaido is not only identifying that hidden opponent, but putting them in front of you and reacting to them as you move through your kata.

Seitei is pretty much a “by the book” style, so there’s not always that much room for creativity in some of the basic movements (kihon). It can become a routine of prescribed movements.

However, there is creativity in how you see your opponent and react to them. This emerges in timing (maai), distance (ma), pressure (seme), and continuing awareness (zanshin).

Much like an artist has to visualize the subject they are painting, the iaido practitioner has to visualize their opponent. Without seeing them, how can we effectively react? Without visualizing their movements, their spacing, and their timing, how can we avoid their cut and then counter?

Anybody can draw a stick figure and call it art, but that’s boring and uninspiring. It’s the composition, details, skill, and perspective that make it beautiful and unique. No two paintings are the same – ever.

If we apply those concepts to our iai every time we execute a kata, and start to “see” our opponents, we create something unique and beautiful.

I challenge you to “paint our own picture.”

Des Moines Iaido Seminar 2017

We had a great seminar in Des Moines last weekend with sensei Ric Flinn and the Des Moines Iaido club. Three members from our Agassiz Dojo went to get a great run-though of the seitei jo kata with Flinn sensei, a WHOLE bunch of seitei-iaido practice, some tameshigiri, and some Musoshindenryu iaido.
Top that off with an excellent sushi meal at a Japanese restaurant and some sake.
It was a great weekend!

Here are some photos from Nate Thomason.

 

8 Dan Musoshindenryu Demo

Love watching these high level sensei do Musoshindenryu iaido. It’s very interesting to see slight variations on how we do it. If you understand the picture being painted, seeing it in a different way sometimes adds insight to how you’re painting it yourself.
Very cool.

Junichi KUSAMA Sensei Iaido Hanshi 8 Dan, Noboru OGURA Sensei Iaido Hanshi 8 Dan

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fiaidoserbia%2Fvideos%2F1443773258968569%2F&show_text=0&width=560

While Sensei is Away

While sensei is away…
I was unable to make class last week due to other family commitments, but I had full confidence that my classes would be run and taught well while I was gone. My two senior senpai Kelly J Maier and Michael Schuldt do an excellent job of filling in when needed, and I know I can depend upon them to instruct the other students in the manner consistent with myself.

I think it benefits everyone to be put into a leadership position.

It benefits the senpai, because teaching also adds insight and wisdom into your own techniques. Sometimes showing something to others reveals flaws in our own techniques, which we can correct.

It benefits students, because they’re hearing things from a different person in perhaps a different way. Sometimes impact is added to the message if it’s delivered differently. Also, when senpai lead, they sometimes do drills or activities that we haven’t done in a while or try something new and that brings variety and growth as well.

I’m very happy that I know I can trust the senpai to lead while I’m gone.