A moment of clarity  

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

I am presently going through one of those revelatory periods in my iaido practice where some small insight into the deeper significance of the art has become clear to me. This has come at the end of a reasonably despondent period of training where I don’t seem to have made any progress at all. After all the disappointment of failing 3rd Dan, I really felt down about the whole thing.

The reason I felt I didn’t do well was related to a lack of practice – of course – but also to a sense that my ki (spirit) just wasn’t strong enough. In the dojo, it’s easy to kid yourself you are better than you really are; it’s not until you are in front of the unwavering scrutiny of a panel of 8th Dan masters that you really find out how good your techniques are. It is very stressful, and that stress manifests itself as tension, which in turn robs you of speed, power and fluidity. In a weird way, it’s like the ki is being sucked out of you leaving your cuts weak and your movements slow and clumsy. And it’s the same in competitions as well. This is what I have felt has let me down many times in the past – not the knowledge of the technique but the strength of spirit to be able to carry it though under stressful conditions. This is the very essence of any martial art – without the will to carry through your attack, all technical proficiency is pointless.

It was this weakness of spirit that denied me 3rd Dan, and rightly so. The question was, what to do about it. I considered that perhaps what I needed was a period of more physical training involving actual combat. A return to this kind of environment, I reasoned, would help to rediscover a more aggressive fighting spirit. However my plans to start kendo were comprehensively poo-pooed by my teacher, who suggested that if I have time to study kendo, I’d be better-off training for my 3rd Dan re-test. She had a point.

But suddenly, just last week, I suddenly had a eureka moment. I can’t describe in words what I mean, other than to say that it suddenly became clear that I had been concentrating on the wrong thing. Rather than obsessive focus on perfecting technique, the mind should be almost entirely on the act of engagement with your enemy. This had been described to me before by a 5th Dan colleague in the dojo, and I thought I understood at the time, but now I can see I didn’t really get it. Furthermore, this mind has to be carried with you at all times, and in all things. If you can maintain this mind, then suddenly everything drops into place. At last week’s practice, I decided that I would practice with this in mind. The results were spectacular – smooth, co-ordinated strikes with dramatically improved power.

I have since re-read a translation of a book written in about 1630 by a famous samurai Lord called Yagya Tajimanokami Munenori, called the Heiho Kadensho. In it, is the following passage that describes in amazing accuracy what I have just come to realise.

The books of Confucius are thought of as a gate to those who devote their mind to learning. What is a gate? A gate is the entrance to a house. Only by going through the gate can one meet the master of the house. Learning, for example, is the gate to truth. Only by going through the gate can you obtain truth. Opening the gate should not be mistaken for having entered the house, for the house lies beyond the gate. (my italics)


The gate in question is my iaido technique. I can see now that learning the technique is merely a means to an end. Seems obvious now. But I feel that with that knowledge I can perhaps start to make progress on the path towards what is waiting in the house for me.

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Festival time in Nishiogi  

Sunday, 23 May 2010

This weekend there are festivities happening in our local town centre, Nishi Ogikubo. There doesn’t appear to be anything particularly significant about the date – I think it’s more of an early Summer shopping festival run by the local chamber of commerce. But it doesn’t take much for the locals to get into the festival spirit and any excuse for a parade is usually eagerly grasped. We went along to have a look yesterday evening and to watch the matsuri parade around the main streets near the station. As to be expected, it was a colourful and noisy affair – made even more fun by the presence of a couple of mounted samurai warriors. Not quite sure of the significance, but I must say, they looked very impressive.

On paper, Nishi Ogikubo is a fairly non-descript urban suburb on the western fringes of Tokyo. At first there doesn’t seem that much here to write home about. But over the last couple of years I have grown to really love this area like an old friend. Even Big M, who is normally rather cynical about these things, has to admit a real soft-spot for Nishi. Charming is perhaps not the right word to describe it, but it certainly has a real vibrancy and character that illicits a real feeling of affection. Although not as well-to-do as some of its neighbouring districts, it is a comfortable, relaxed area to live.

And did I mention?…full of characters who are as equally charming and colourful. Not to mention just a teeny bit mad (in the nicest possible way!)


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Doubting Thomas gets twatted  

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Fresh from the “That’d never work in real life” school of martial arts scepticism, this reporter decided to pit himself against an 8th Dan iaido sensei in a direct stand-off. After having witnessed iaido competition and training, which is always carried out solo (for obvious reasons – it’s a real bloody sword!), our hero has clearly formed the opinion that it’s just a load of wannabe samurai waving swords around. Watch as his attitude is swiftly – and painfully – corrected. To be fair, he’s not an idiot and I suspect his “attitude” was really more for the camera’s benefit. But a salutary lesson none the less.


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Nihongo wa totemo musokashii desu ne?  

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Your humble scribe has just returned from his twice-weekly humiliation at Japanese class. Tonight was a particularly taxing session after the recent holidays and I found myself in one of those classes where I am so completely out of my depth that it just becomes a meaningless exercise. Most of the time I am ok; I don’t understand everything that’s going on but if I can get a hook on the topic of conversation, I can usually take an educated guess and I’m usually not far wrong. But then there are nights – like tonight – where there are no straws within grasp and I really flounder.

The problem is that Japanese actually contains many languages within one. In English we tend to have “posh” words and “common” words for many things, but verbs tend to stay the same. The difference between “common” and “posh” is dramatically different here; in the UK, use the wrong word and people might think you’re a bit thick. In Japan, you can be ostracised forever for using the wrong terms of speech. It’s serious stuff.

In Japanese, there are not just different words for levels of politeness but entirely different verbs and terms of speech. This makes Japanese as it is spoken between friends a radically different language to that learned in most courses. In practice, what this means is that entire conversations can whizz past without you hearing any recognisable words that you can latch onto for reference. It’s very difficult.

But it is worth the effort because slowly…slowly, comes familiarity and understanding. I understand far more about what is happening around me than I did a year ago, so slow though it may be, there is progress. I am absolutely determined to be able to speak another language passably well. There is something so extremely cool about bilingual people – most of the gaijin (foreigners) I know here can speak reasonable Japanese and I always feel like a total chump in their company. It might take me a while, but I feel sure I’ll get there eventually.

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What a difference a day makes  

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Well, it seems the BH panic was a little premature and everything seems to have turned out ok at Number 10. Yet, I fear the whole Nick Clegg wobble affair has revealed something of his true character and intentions. DC would do well to keep a close eye on that one.

But for all the drama, let’s not forget the real good news – Brown and all his cronies have gone from power. And with any luck, Labour is now about to be torn-apart by bickering and in-fighting for the leadership. If our luck holds, that should give DC and Cleggy a chance to get going on the problems facing the country without being distracted by the constant whining from the opposition about how they didn’t really lose…yeah right.

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Twists and turns on the road to ruin  

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Well, I never thought that I would be anything less than overjoyed to hear that Brown had got the hint at last and slung his hook. But it has come to pass; it looks like the slimy toad has managed to hang onto power after all with the help of the even more slimy Nick Clegg. I am – frankly – gobsmacked that anyone would have the sheer brass neck to state publicly their intention to act in the national interest, and then take exactly the opposite path. The sheer treachery of it is truly jaw-dropping.

Now with the markets in predictable flight away from Sterling, I truly believe we are witnessing the final months of the UK as an independent sovereign state. After revealing himself to be nothing more than a duplicitous snake-in-the-grass, Cameron cannot seriously contemplate having anything to do with the Yellow Peril. That leaves no other option than the eventual implosion of the country as England is financially ransacked by the EU, and by the national assemblies of Scotland and Wales in the inevitable deal to keep the “traffic light” government together. What future awaits the country I can only guess. A terrible day.

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Hung parliament? Not a bad idea  

Monday, 10 May 2010

“I don’t think a hung parliament is a bad idea…who should we start with?” So said an unknown but pithy commentator on the recent UK elections. I think that comment sums up the mood of the country better than any post-election analysis. Your humble scribe couldn’t concentrate too much on work matters last Friday for following the unfolding drama online. And in the end – as you will no doubt be aware - the result was pretty much as many had been speculating'; a parliament where no one party achieved an overall majority and thus a clear mandate to govern.

As the final returns trickled in, a certain pall of gloom settled over Chateau Beerhound  as I contemplated the fact that after the dust had settled, the incumbent first minister remained in residence at Number 10. I was disappointed – actually bitterly so – that a party I regard as having done so much damage to my country, and a PM that I so utterly despise, remained with their hands gripping on the reins of power. Albeit slightly less firmly than before. From there, it is all to easy to start blaming the opposition for their woeful inability to land a glove on what has got to be the worst government in modern British history. But then I got to thinking about it a bit more, and I realised that perhaps the good old British people had got the result they really wanted: to shake-up Westminster and put all MPs on notice that they are very definitely in probatio for the foreseeable future.

I think most people are heartily sick of the bureaucracy and political correctness; of endless rules and regulations, initiatives, spin, spiralling taxes and deteriorating services. And yet, after the expenses scandal, who do they turn to in an effort to sort it out? While Labour are completely discredited to all but the staunchest supporters, the Conservatives under Cameron would appear to promise little alternative if given the chance to rule. The Lib Dems make nice noises but appear to many to be strong on idealistic rhetoric but unable to delivery in the real world. The alternatives are too cranky or too small to offer any kind of credibility. And yet – almost magically - the British people appear to be heading for possibly the best solution in a difficult situation -  an alliance between Cameron & Clegg.

To my mind, this has certain advantages. 1) Labour, and particular Brown, are out of office and will hopefully be so consumed in such bitter in-fighting over the next few years that they will remain so for a long time to come. 2) Cameron gets to try and implement his Big Society idea, but through a tenuous majority that means they’ll have to tread slowly and carefully, and they’ll have to bring a lot of people along with them rather than steamrolling through legislation. 3) Politicians of all hues are made keenly aware that none of them has the unequivocal backing of the people to rule and that the people will not tolerate more mistakes and hypocrisy at the top.

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Lows, highs and my eternal gratitude for both  

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Well, at the risk of tempting fate, we’re still here despite the mass exodus of oarfish. Although regular visitors might be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the shameful lack of recent posts, for which I can only apologise.

I’d love to be able to explain the aforementioned post drought on work pressures or thrilling adventures being had in far flung corners of the globe. But the truth is – I haven’t really been motivated to sit down and pontificate much of late. After the chaos of Europe and the UK at the beginning of the year, I’ve been enjoying just bumbling around the house with the toolbox and doing something other than sitting in front of the PC. But that’s not to say I’ve been idle. Oh no. There’s been plenty going on in Shoan Nichome, as I shall now relate.

Firstly, Little M started at University. We went along to the matriculation ceremony at the beginning of April. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. As we were ushered into a lecture theatre to watch a video of the proceedings on a big screen, I had a suspicion that this probably wouldn’t turn out to be the most exciting experience of my life. And so it transpired. Nevertheless, I was as proud as punch of Little M and her achievements, and very grateful to have had the opportunity to have played a small part in helping her get to where she is. Incidentally, Princess Maki is a classmate of Little M – who knows…maybe an invite to the Imperial Palace might be forthcoming after all.

The big disappointment was your humble scribe failing to achieve 3rd dan in iaido. To be honest, I didn’t deserve it and it’s a good thing that I didn’t get it. I’ve never failed a martial arts grading in 30 years of training, so perhaps it was a lesson I needed to learn. In any event, it has kicked me out of my complacency and made me more determined to practice hard for the next chance in September. My resolve was given a boost by winning in my class at the Tokyo area championships a couple of weeks ago. Nobody was more shocked than me, but I finally hit gold in Japan. It’s not like winning an Olympic gold or anything like that, and actually it really doesn’t mean anything. But I’m secretly bloody chuffed that not only have I had the chance to train in Japan but I’ve actually beaten Japanese in straight competition. Amazing. The nervous little 10 year old that started karate in Lochaber Road church hall in south London would never have dreamed that the path he was starting would lead so far.

Next week marks the 6th anniversary of the “official” start of my relationship with Big M. We’ve been talking a lot about that week and it is still so fresh in my mind I can almost feel the gentle Pacific breeze as we walked hand-in-hand along the harbour wall in Kamakura. I can see her dear face sheltered under an umbrella as we dodged Spring showers between our numerous forays to various restaurants, shrines,temples and bars (not necessarily in that order!) It was a magical time. I won’t go into details, but I will say this: If anybody ever tells you love isn’t real, don’t believe them. Love is as real, as powerful and as glorious as all the poems and songs say it is. Most people never get to experience it the way I have – and I am truly and daily grateful for that.

Anyway – it’s 1.30am and the shochu is slipping down far too easily as I write so it’s probably time to call it a night. I won’t leave it so long next time!

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