Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The hunter

Recently I taught a class at my school to a boys' group about masculinity. I showed them the clip above, as well as one of a modern "big game hunter" with a high-powered rifle and telescopic sight, shooting at game that was trapped by a fence within a compound. We then considered the different approaches to life in these two ways of killing, and the different masculine qualities each demonstrated.

I believe that, at its best, Bushido had something of this reverence for life, and the necessary regret at taking it. The fact that we still are not allowed to celebrate our victories in shiai is a link to that; respect for our fallen opponent. We use our kiai not as a show of emotion, but to probe for weakness, to unbalance, while on the inside we remain cool and efficient like the hunter.

But nothing I know comes close to this man's endurance, persistence, empathy, skill and compassion. He's not doing this to win fame at the Olympics. He wears ordinary clothes, not expensive runners or compression undergarments. He does what he does so his family can eat. I think in this clip he is the complete Man.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How to replace kote palms

Here's a brief, but I hope helpful, post on how to replace your worn-out kote palms. Click on each picture for a bigger, more detailed view.

Sometimes kote palms (called tenouchi) wear out so badly that you can't patch them any more. If the rest of the kote is not too rotted from sweat, it should be possible to remove the old palm and replace it with new leather. I won't go into which kinds of leather here, but if you have questions about that, ask me in the comments.

To take off the old palm, start with the indigo-coloured beading. Use an unpicker. The end of the beading is threaded through both sides of the kote and then under itself. Remember how this goes, because you'll be doing it eventually!

You might find it easier to unlace the kote completely before you start work.

When you've removed the old palm and the beading, you'll be left with the inside of the kote, usually coloured white with some kind of indigo stitching pattern, and the outside, completely unstitched. You'll be able to see the horsehair (on good quality kote) or the kapok (on cheap kote). This is horsehair. It's all chopped up in short lengths, so it tends to fall out, so have a short stick or pencil on hand to keep poking it back in.

Hence the bulldog clips.

Notice I've patched the inside of the thumb. You'll often find wear-holes inside the kote. These are definitely worth repairing at this point.

These are the tools you'll need. Linen thread and glover's needles. They have a triangular section at the tip that helps a relatively small, thin needle cut its way through leather. I wax the thread as I use it to help the thread hold tension while I sew. A thimble is essential.

This is the new tenouchi. This one is goatskin I believe. I've not used it before so we'll see how it wears. Kangaroo and deer skins are apparently the best for dealing with, not the wear-and-tear of   Kendo usage, but the sweat-and-dry.

Here are templates for you to print out. Each page is A4, with a cm ruler for you to check the size of your print out.

Start by tacking the palm in place at the base of the palm on either side, at the tip of the fingers and thumb, and at the curve between thumb and fingers. You might have to undo and reposition these tack-points as you sew. I think this is probably the most difficult part. knowing how to stretch the palm correctly around the shape of the kote.

You can see here you have three layers you will be sewing together in your first of three passes.

Use a doubled thread for strength, and another reason I'll show later. Also, for this first pass, make the stitches on the palm-side wide, about 1cm, and on the other side short, about 3mm.

With doubled-thread, if the thread breaks, or when you get to the end, it is easy to tie off. Note how short and far apart the stitches are on this side.

Once you've gone right around with your first pass of stiches, and you think the tension of the palm is OK, you can do the second pass. This will be the first pass where you attach the new beading. I like to use a different coloured thread. Now the stitches on the palm side are short, and on the "blue" side are long. The two alternating rows of stitches should fit together, the second pass in the appropriate space left by the first pass.

The second pass, a little further along.

Once the second pass is finished it will look a bit like this.

Now the final pass is about folding the beading over to cover the first two passes, and the join. Hopefully you'll be able to do more even stitching that I have. This row should be single thread as it has more of a cosmetic role and you have less material and space to work with.

Well it started off pretty wonky but the stitches got a bit more uniform as I went along. Not an amazing job, but serviceable and strong.

A lot better looking than it was. Unfortunately the tension is not perfect and has left some loose folds, which interfere a little with grip. But it has saved a good pair of kote that were destined for the bin, and it was fun and relaxing to do.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Kenshikan, Melbourne 謙志館メルボルン

I have been training regularly at the Kenshikan lately, with Yano sensei and members of the Melbourne Budokai.

The Kenshikan has many interesting artefacts which are not uncommon for a dojo in Japan, but are quite rare for a dojo outside Japan. I thought I might create a pictorial journey for Nanseikan students to become aware of the significance of some of these artefacts, especially since most of you now have visited the Kenshikan in person for the purposes of attending a grading.

The dojo was established in 1990, after the donation of a large sum of money by the late Mr Kenshiro Otsuka. Here is the name above the front door, designed by long-time member and graphic designer Mr Peter Hocking. What does "Kenshikan" mean? Well it is a clever play on words: "Kenshi" (謙志) sounds like "kenshi" (剣士) which means swordsman. But these characters are from the name of Mr. Kenshiro (謙志郎) Otsuka (大塚). Kenshi, as in 謙志, means "aspire to humility", so the Kenshikan means the Hall of Aspiring to Humility.

The dedication plaque, also at the front entrance. I'm always reminded of a gravestone whenever I see this. I'd be willing to bet money that it was made by a stonemason who specialises in funerary monuments. Of course that's just my aesthetic sense working overtime, the important thing is the content!

The tokonoma, just inside the front entrance. It says jakunenfudo 寂然不動 which is not an easy term to translate, but I do know it is the same four-character phrase that is used at the Mitsubishi Dojo in Tokyo. The tokonoma is the high place in a family home and it's sole purpose is to display significant calligraphy, flower arrangements or both. So please don't place anything on there, e.g. bags, or feet when you are putting on your shoes!

This calligraphy was brushed and donated by Mr Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japanese Prime Minister from 1982-1987 (which is a long time for a Japanese PM!). He visited the dojo privately not long after it was opened, and I have this souvenir of his visit below (spot the familiar faces if you can!). As to the calligraphy it says jinseikaitaku (人生開拓) which means 'developing human life'.

By the way, I was looking at the VKR's History page compiled by Gary Oliver and came across this picture of the guests from the opening of the Kenshikan:

The list of official guests is pretty impressive:

Kiyoshi Nakakura
Mrs Nakakura
Mr Tadatoshi Haga
Mr Makoto Miyaji
Mrs Miyaji
Mr Koichiro Ikenaga
Mr Shosuke Tsujimura
Mr Kazuma Hashimoto
Mrs Mitsuko Tsujimura
Mr Tokuichi Kozuka
Mr Kunio Shizawa
Mr Tadahiro Ajiro
Kendo, Iaido Hanshi 9th Dan
Kendo, Iaido Hanshi 8th Dan
Kendo Hanshi 8th Dan
Kendo Hanshi 8th Dan
Kendo Kyoshi 8th Dan
Kendo Kyoshi 8th Dan
Naginata Kyoshi 8th Dan
Kendo Kyoshi 7th Dan
Kendo Kyoshi 7th Dan
Kendo Kyoshi 7th Dan

There's a huge amount of info on the VKR's history page. I highly recommend you check it out.

This object is an important one. It's just a sign with the words "Kenshikan Dojo"on it, and it is something that would normally be hung outside the dojo. Sadly, it wouldn't be possible to do this in Melbourne because it would get stolen (like the stone lantern did, and Nagae sensei's new bogu bought for the opening...). What most local kenshi don't realise is that this calligraphy is by Nakakura sensei. He probably didn't carve it, there are artisans who do that in Japan. He would have just brushed the original design. Nevertheless it is an important piece, because, unlike the joseki, it was created solely for the Kenshikan.

Here is the Kenshikan's joseki, also by Nakakura sensei. It says butoku (武徳) which means 'martial virtue'. Nagae sensei once translated it to me as "braveness and courtesy". He was simplifying, but not oversimplifying I think. Interestingly, I have a tenugui of this exact design, which is what caused me to look at it a little closer...

This is, in fact, the original screen from which that tenugui was made. You can see the black areas are solid paper (usually treated with persimmon juice to make it more durable) and the white areas a clear mesh through which the ink can pass. I'm still unclear on exactly how these kinds of stencils are made, and also how they print a tenugui on both sides, which is something I should find out since I have two Bachelor's degrees in Printmaking! So Nakakura sensei donated the original stencil to the Kenshikan. I think there was some debate at the time as to whether this or the Nakasone calligraphy should be the joseki. Nakasone's was considered purely because he was such an important man. However Nagae sensei chosen the one above, not only because Nakakura was a Kendo sensei, but also because the term butoku was close to Nagae sensei's heart.

Here is the other side close-up. The big kanji is "virtue" 徳 and the other ones are (vertically right to left) Hanshi kyuudan (範士九段) Hanshi 9th dan, Nakakura Kiyoshi (中倉清), then his two seals: the top one says Nakakura Kiyoshi In 中倉清印 or 'seal of Nakakura Kiyoshi' and the second one just says  'Kiyoshi'.

You can see this fan has the same kanji, butoku (武徳), on the back. This is the logo of the Dai Nippon Butokukai, the predecessor of the All Japan Kendo Federation. Nagae sensei's father was a member, and this fan belonged to him. 

In the meeting room at the front of the Kenshikan there is lots of memorabilia, not all of which I know the significance of... But above you can see a framed version of the Nakasone group portrait, and a picture of John Butler doing iaido at Melbourne Town Hall, at a demonstration I took part in, in 1984! John Butler was a founding member of the Melbourne Kendo Club. He had started Kendo and Iaido in England, then emigrated to Australia and had to start a Kendo club here because there weren't any yet. He regularly tracked down visiting Japanese businessmen who had some Kendo experience through the Japanese Consulate in Melbourne. This was how he found Nagae sensei. The rest, they say, is history. John was a great storyteller, a strong kenshi and a wonderful person. 

No idea where this is from,  but it is a copper casting of the kind of sign that would hang above the entrance to a large, old dojo or temple entrance. The kanji says shuuren 修錬 which means 'training'.

This is the original joseki of the Melbourne Kendo Club, brushed by Mrs Nagae's calligraphy teacher whose name, sadly, I don't know. It says muso (無想) and means 'no thought'. This was the joseki that hung in the YWCA gym in Elizabeth St when I first started Kendo. It now hangs in the meeting room in the Kenshikan. 

The large taiko of the Kenshikan, which has the Otsuka family tree written on the side, and the date and occasion when it was given to the Kenshikan. In the picture is also Yano sensei's bogu and shinai bag, the latter you can see has "Kenshikan" written on it in Japanese.

Various of the dignitaries who came to the Kenshikan opening brought auspicious gifts, such as these bokuto. The one above says 香取神御神刀, meaning Holy Sword of the Katori Great Shrine. This is the same shrine that is the home base of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu school of swordsmanship and weaponry, and a very important Shinto Shrine for the Japanese martial arts.

This one is from Kashima Shrine, the other great shrine for swordsmanship in Japan.

This is a bust of Mr Otsuka, who made his fortune from charcoal, and who unfortunately never lived to visit the Kenshikan himself.

So that's a brief cultural journey through the Kenshikan. Feel free to ask any questions you like down below in the comments and I'll endeavour to find answers and update this article with them.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sensei's shinai

Recently I received a shinai meant for my sensei. 

It was quite heavy, but the most unusual thing about it was that it had a very thin handle. This, coupled with that fact that it was a koto style shinai, meant that it was very heavy towards the tip. In fact, it was very hard to wield at all quickly. Basic suburi was OK, but as soon as I started to use it in more dynamic situations where I wasn't focusing purely on the cutting action it would tire me out incredibly quickly. In fact tired and frustrated it made me, because my cuts just never landed or went where I wanted them to.

Recently we have had some very accomplished young sensei come to Melbourne from Japan. These kenshi have incredible speed and an amazing range of techniques for every situation. They prefer jissengata or dobari shinai where the tip is lighter. They also do a lot of suburi and even weight-training to develop their muscular power and speed. They can cut at any angle, any timing. I have learnt a great deal from these young sensei about levels of commitment to training, and how much to expect of oneself. 

In the light of their influence I found myself wondering about this shinai of sensei's. He is not much stronger than me, in fact his forearms are quite skinny. I'm sure he has hidden Kendo muscles, but in general he must find this shinai almost as difficult to swing quickly as I do.

Then I thought about how difficult it must be to face someone who you know can cut from all sorts of positions and timings, when you are just aiming for a single cut. It requires a huge amount of confidence and self-belief. Maybe it was I who needed belief. I had started to believe that sensei's way was all very well and traditional, but that these younger guys were where it's at. Thinking about it now, I realise their Kendo is highly visible, whereas sensei's is minimal, almost subliminal. Whereas their techniques leave you in no doubt that you've lost, sensei's often leave you wondering 'what just happened?'

Sensei obviously believes in his way so firmly that he buys shinai suited only to his way. He is not tempted by these younger kenshis' success or their powerful Kendo. With this shinai he cannot fight in their manner, only his own.

To me this shows great self-confidence, but then I am looking at both sensei and these Japanese kenshi from below. They all look indomitable to me. From where sensei is, he can likely see the flaws in their Kendo and so has no temptation, like I imagine that I would in his place, to imitate them.

So what's the point of all this? Several things and more:
  • Learn from others but don't be too quick to discard what you know. 
  • It is difficult to perceive the motivations of those who are ahead of us. 
  • The shape and weight of a shinai is able to inspire confidence in others, 
  • ...and it can also embody your chosen path in Kendo.