The road to third dan  

Friday, 22 October 2010

This Summer has been really great. But it’s not all been lounging around on beaches and having impromptu barbeques in our car parking port here at Beerhound Mansions. There was also the small matter of my iaido third dan examination that took place in September. Regular readers will know that I failed the first attempt earlier this year. No surprise, as I had really not had enough practice in the run-up to the test. If I’m honest, I’d also seriously underestimated the standard required. Having never failed a martial arts grading before, I thought I’d be able to swing in on the day. I was wrong. So this time, and with the honour of the dojo at stake (this is actually quite a serious point) I was determined not to make the same mistake again.

I had been practicing regularly throughout the Spring and early Summer, but my plan was to start accelerating the training in the run-up to September. As well as iaido practice, I also wanted to build up a reasonable level of base fitness. Even though the examination is not a full-on aerobic challenge like the gradings we used to do in aikido, it is still necessary to have a reasonable amount of core strength to be able to carry out the moves properly and with the required poise. So to help with this, I started running in June. As a devout Fat Bastard, this didn’t come easy at first but within a few weeks I was running a 5km circuit quite happily.

The next milestone was attending the dojo’s Summer Gasshiku, or Summer Camp. This is a tradition in many dojos – a kind of retreat where you just focus entirely on practice. As there is also an element of shared endeavour about the whole thing, this has the additional benefit of helping to strengthen the social ties within the dojo. So it was that I found myself trudging to the station at 4.30am on a bright and hot August morning for the long train journey to Katsuura on the Boso Peninsula.

My destination was the Japan Budo Centre; a purpose-built complex for visiting dojos and school clubs. Set high on a hill, the centre overlooks Katsuura and the Pacific coast of Chiba. It’s basically a hotel with dojo facilities. When I say hotel, perhaps the word hostel would be more appropriate as we were 2010-08-21 18.11.11all expected to share 4 or so to a room and the facilities were somewhat, er, Spartan. But comfortable nonetheless, and the dojo was blessed with AIR CONDITIONING! a rare luxury.

The weather was, to use the correct terminology, Bleedin ‘ot. So the air con in the dojo was a blessed relief indeed as the training sessions ran from 9am until 6pm with an hour for lunch. Over the two days, we ran through a lot of stuff; Seitei no gata, lots of koryu (old style) and some of the paired kata from our school where you get to practice with a real opponent using a wooden sword for safety. 2010-08-22 13.16.11

On the Saturday night after practice, I walked down the very steep hill from the Budo Centre to the town below. After purchasing some liquid refreshments from the local Family Mart, I made my way to the little fishing harbour for a little drink and some contemplation time. When I say ‘fishing harbour’…think more ‘Grimsby’ than ‘The Algarve’. But the fact that it was dark and warm, and I had a plentiful supply of various alcoholic beverages to hand, lent it a subtle charm. I spent a while watching the local yahoos let off fireworks on the beach (fireworks are a Summer thing here –quite sensibly, in my opinion) and quietly quaffing my Nodo Goshi and Chu-hi. As I sat gazing out across the calm Pacific waters, I really had a sense of wonder about how my life has turned out. I wouldn’t say utterly brilliantly – there’s plenty of things I’d change given the chance. But it certainly has been a remarkable journey; and I think I can take a little bit of pride in the experiences I’ve had and achievements I’ve attained along the way.

After the gasshiku, I had a couple of weeks to refine techniques ready for the grading and I took full advantage of the training opportunities to make sure I was as  prepared as I could be. I was still struggling with niggling doubts. Things can always go wrong in an iaido embu (demonstration). The cords that are used to tie the sword scabbard onto the belt have to be expertly handled and can easily get tangled; the scabbard can jump out of the belt; your foot can easily get caught under the hakama – the long pleated trousers we wear. These are all apart from any technical errors in the handling of the sword itself, and any of these will result in an instant fail. Bear in mind that this perfection has to be demonstrated under the baleful glare of a panel of 8th dan masters, looking at you from several different angles, and you can begin to appreciate some of the pressure. Oh and the entire embu has to be completed in 6 minutes, otherwise that’s an instant fail too. I’d had some real problems with the opening and closing Reiho (bowing and sword etiquette) during the gasshiku. During one practice grading, I just couldn’t get the sageo (cords) tied on correctly and I went over-time. These things were really playing on my mind: If it went wrong in the practice, it could also easily go wrong during the exam. But iaido is just as  much about mental training as it is physical. Having practiced as hard as possible – including hours spent at home just practicing tying and untying the cords and performing the bows correctly – I felt I had done my best and now it was really out of my hands. With that realisation came a degree of calmness.

2010-09-11 13.50.15

The grading itself was held at the Tokyo Budokan in Ayase – scene of both my biggest failure (first 3rd dan test) and my biggest success (winning my 2nd dan class at the Tokyo area championships). There are just two gradings each year. The Summer one was a good deal less busy than the March one, which made it feel a little less stressful. As always, I got there very early so I had a lot of hanging around to do before hand. But soon enough, it was my turn to march out onto the court and do my demonstration. You are given five techniques from the seitei no gata to perform within 6 minutes, including all the opening and closing formalities. These are announced on the day, so there’s no chance to practice these specifically in advance – so you have to know all twelve kata from the set equally well.

I don’t really remember much from the test itself, apart from the fact that it felt a whole lot better than last time. The techniques we’d been given were not my worst ones and I felt quite strong, smooth and in control, compared to last time’s desperate thrashings. It was all over pretty quick, and then I had the long wait to see what the result was. 2010-09-11 14.15.46

Once everyone has completed the test, the judges retire for their deliberations. I think for 3rd dan, a minimum of 3 out of 5 judges have to award a pass. The techniques are judged purely on technical merit, so it’s quite unlike a competition where you need to imbue your demonstration with a bit of spirit. I watched another gaijin going for 2nd dan – alas, with a bit too much gusto. He was obviously trying hard but it looked far too aggressive and didn’t exhibit the calm spirit required to advance up the grades. He didn’t make it that time.

After what seemed an eternity, the official emerged with the sheet of paper containing the numbers of those who had passed. If your number’s not on the list, you didn’t make it. I remember the disappointment of last time as I scanned the list in vain for my number. But this time, it was there. Ureshi! I’d done it! My sensei and fellow students were as delighted as I was (and perhaps a little relieved that I hadn’t disgraced them with another failure).

So, another milestone passed. I’ve passed a dan grade exam in Japan and I am now a fully-fledged sandan. Not that this means very much in the great scheme of things: I’m still one of the most junior members of the dojo. However the significance for me is that I have now passed the rank of the guy that wrote my first iaido manual, that I bought maybe 20 years ago when I was studying aikido. The book, “Iaido – The Way of the Sword” by Michael Finn, told the story of the author’s travel to Japan to study iaido and was just as much a personal adventure story as it was a description of the art itself. I was fascinated by his tales of harsh training sessions, stern discipline and his fear of losing face with his teacher. I remember thinking that, while it sounded exciting, it sounded pretty scary too and I wondered if I would be able to cope in such a demanding environment. The author finished his particular journey as a 2nd dan. I can now understand much more about his experiences. Whereas at the time I thought him the ultimate expert, now I can see that maybe he wasn’t quite so adept at negotiating the subtleties of iaido and Japanese culture. But that’s not a criticism – at no stage does the author try to elevate his own status or claim any special knowledge or skills, even though at the time the book was published he could have so easily done both. I have the greatest respect for someone who can maintain such dignified humility. And I still enjoy reading his book – I have it with me here in Japan.

Having an experience like this really brings life’s long journey into perspective. Like looking down from a high mountain pass at the road you’ve travelled along. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to travel the same road as an author and commentator I respect, and to have perhaps even passed a little way beyond his vantage point.

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Chi-chi-chi – le – le - le  

Friday, 15 October 2010

fenix Well done Chile on a successful outcome to the trapped miner saga.

I am looking forward to re-enacting the dramatic rescue later with the Mrs. I shall be playing the role of the Phoenix 2 capsule. Hopefully managing a few more than 33 return trips.

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