Lose and cut

Recently I’ve had a few people telling me the same thing: I take it easy in ippon shoubu, and need to attack more. For most people who know me and how much I thoroughly hate losing, this might raise a chuckle. After all, how can I have produced the results I have to date by being lazy in ippon shoubu of all things? And one thing I love doing is the old barrage attack that overwhelms people into making mistakes.

So this got me thinking, what am I supposed to think about or do with advice like this? Inevitably, it’s when I am practicing with older people. Since coming to Japan I’ve heard it or it’s equivalent four times, and all from people who are either considerably older than me (ie a good twenty years) or from people watching my keiko with higher grades. Upon thinking about it I remember one consistent point between each keiko. I knew that if I moved, I was going to get hit, so instead of simply using my reach and speed (I’m always being encouraged to think past reach and speed), I tried to think around it and create a better or proper opportunity to allow me to attack freely. Weather I managed it or not is a different question, but the comments that came afterwards, from either the person I was practicing with or the busy body watching was that I should attack more against older people, or much higher grades.

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Yagyu no sato 柳生の里

Yagyu no sato (柳生の里) is a small village in Nara prefecture, Japan. Passing through it in a car or by very infrequent bus, you would probably notice nothing particularly different to any other sleepy rural Japanese town. However, this town was the center of Yagyu-han, the ancestral home of the Yagyu family, the masters of one of the most famous schools of Japanese swordsmanship.

Yagyu Sekishusai Muneyoshi (sometimes Munetoshi) was already a renowned bugeisha (martial artist) when – via the skilled spear-wielding monk Hōzōin In’ei – he was introduced to one of the legends of Japanese swordsmanship – Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami Nobutsuna. Following a legendary duel in which Sekishusai lost to one of Kamiizumi’s students armed with a fukuro-shinai, Sekishusai himself became a follower of Kamiizumi, eventually reaching the depths of his system of swordsmanship. Sekishusai’s fifth son, Munenori, went on to become an official sword instructor for the Tokugawa Bakufu (shogunate) and taught three successive Shogun. In his lifetime his stipend and position considerably rose, assuring both his families success and their notoriety.

The Yagyu family would continue to teach swordsmanship to the Tokugawa and their officials right up until the end of the feudal period (in fact, I personally practised Shinkage-ryu with a descendant of the Tokugawa Shoguns in Tokyo in 2001), and members of the family continue to practise and pass on the tradition to this very day.

The Yagyu family do not own the current village, of-course, but there are plenty of things for the discerning kendo tourist to see.

* Hotokuji (芳徳寺): the family temple was built in 1638 and houses statues of Sekishusai, Munenori, and also Takuan Soho. Inside there is a small museum and you can look Yagyu related historical items (all information in Japanese though). Around the back is the family graveyard: an amazing place to come if you are interested in Japanese swordsmanship.

* Itto seki (一刀石): This is a giant rock that his been split in two.. allegedly by the sword work of Sekishusai. He had been walking through the woods when he thought he was being attacked by Tengu. He dextrously turned around and cut down through what he thought was the enemy. Instead, it was the rock. Its hard to imagine how big the rock is until you actually go there!

* Former Yagyu-han chief retainers mansion (旧柳生藩家老屋敷): This is a museum with some Yagyu related articles. You can also buy tenugui here!

* Yagyu Mazakizaka Kenzen Dojo (柳生正木坂剣禅道場): A modern kendo dojo with the frontage of an old temple from Kyoto. It has nothing to do with the Yagyu family per-se but sits just outside Hotokuji and provides and amazing place to practise budo. You can hire this place out as for keiko and gasshuku.

There are more things to see in the town, but not that much. The location is pretty remote, but it IS well worth visiting it as it is a sort of pilgrimage site. If you are going by bus you have to be very careful to time it just right — leave Nara city as early as you can, and come back in the afternoon. Its too far to take a taxi (you have been warned!).

I’ve been there only once (at the time of writing back in 2008.. since then I’ve been scored of times), but I have promised myself to go down there and visit it again at least once a year. If you live in Japan then I highly recommend that you go at least once. If you are a visitor to the area that is serious about kendo and swordsmanship then I’d say it’s worth the effort to make the visit. If you don’t you will probably regret it.


Pictures

Some of the pictures below date from 2005.

Please check out some more pictures of Masakizaka kenzen dojo from Aussie ex-pat Andy who visited there in late 2013.


Videos about Yagyu Shinkage-ryu

Yagyu Koichi sensei, the headmaster of the orthodox branch of Yagyu shinkage ryu:

A demonstration of the art from 2014 in the Nippon Budokan:


Getting there

Yahoo Map: here (Japanese)
Tourist Map: here (with English)
Address: Nara-cho, Nara City, Nara Prefecture
Phone number: 0742-94-0002.
Access: There is very limited bus access, but it can be done. Check the tourist offices in Nara city.
Times: No idea. To be safe go in the early morning/afternoon.
Cost: Most things have a nominal entrance fee. Parking should be easily found.


Links

* yagyu.com (check out the fantastic pictures)
* Shinkage-ryu Hyoho

Jodan Renaissance?

This year Kanagawa-kenkei’s (Kanagawa prefecture police force) Shodai Kenji won the 56th All Japan Championships. As a young policeman on his prefectural A-team, a 4th time entrant to the competition, and an extremely serious contender for being in the Japan national side for next years World Championships there is nothing surprising here. What might be surprising, however, is that he is a JODAN kenshi, and is the first to win the title using this kamae since 1983. Thats 25 years.

Some of my friends have said “if he wins, it will be the start of a new jodan boom” and the such like, but as someone on the ground here in Japan who goes to many shiai, i’d say we are well into a boom as we speak. For the last few years I have been noting that in shiai here – from high school level up – there are increasing numbers of jodan people, both male and female. Shodai’s win might help to accentuate things (or to validate peoples selection of the kamae) but I suggest that he is not the reason for it.

So what is? And why have I chosen to call it a “renaissance” rather than an “emergence?” Well, the second question is much easier to answer than the first, so let me start with that.

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Kendo Places #1: Reigando 霊巌洞

I’d like to start the first in a series of short articles entitled “Kendo Places” by writing about a place that all kendo enthusiasts should visit at least once in their life and that is connected with one of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history: REIGANDO.

Reigando (霊巌洞) is basically a small cave in the mountains close to Kumamoto city. It is on the grounds of the very old Unganzenji temple (雲巌禅寺), and it was here, in this cave, where Miyamoto Musashi was said to have written his treatise the Go Rin no Sho (五輪書) in the early 1640’s.

Myself, my friend, and my sempai and his family travelled there by car early one morning back in 2004. It was a cold morning and we were a bit hungover. I revisited the cave in 2013 and have added some pics from that visit here.

After a good 30 mins or so drive from Kumamoto we arrived at the area, only to be greeted by a big white Musashi statue. The year-long NHG Samurai-drama had been “Musashi” in 2003 and during that year there had been a Musashi-boom. Anywhere even remotely associated with Musashi got an overhaul and loads of new products flooded the market. This gleaming statue was evidence of that.

2007-reigando-05

Heading down from the carpark we arrived at Unganzenji temple. Its very small and had a tiny showcase area of Musashi-related treasure, such as clothes and bokuto said to be used by him.

Going through that there is what is the most impressive thing to be seen at the area: the Gohyakurakan (五百羅漢). This is a small hillside with 500 small jizo statues sitting in various postures (and in various states). Its quite eerie to look at, and it must be quite scary in the evenings!

Passing through there and you reach the steps to the cave itself. We all went up there and we hung around seeing if we could get some inspiration… perhaps our kendo would become better due to visiting the place? The flyer (pictured above) had an image of Musashi sitting on the big rock outside the cave contemplating… so we promptly did the same thing!!!!

2004-reigando-03

The popularity of Musashi inside and outside of Japan is undisputed. What we concretely know about his life is very little and subject to academic study and close scrutiny. Did Musashi even write the Gorinnosho is a question that cannot be answered. That he lived, and that parts of his tale did actually happen (though probably not the way they are said to have… the fight with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryujima is an example of that) seem to be enough to fascinate people in this man. if you are interested in him and wish to tread in his steps, then I recommend that you pay a visit to Reigando. Its off the normal tourist routes and its a bit hard to get to, but if you are even slightly interested in studying a bit more about the history of kendo, I strongly recommend that you take the time out to visit this place.

After soaking in the atmosphere for a bit longer we headed back into Kumamoto and finished our Musashi-day with a trip to Kumamoto castle. All in all, a good day was had.


Gallery

Some snaps from my first visit in 2004 and another in 2013.


Information

Yahoo Map: here (Japanese)
Address: Kumamoto-ken, Kumamoto-shi, Matsuo-cho, Iwato 589
Phone number: 096-329-8854.
Access: There is very limited bus access, so please go by car (call for directions).
Times: 8am-5pm.
Cost: Parking is free, but it costs adult 200 yen, and children 100 yen to get in.

Links
* Flickr “reigando” tagged photos.
* Unganzenji and Reigando (Japanese)


Other places in the series will include Ganryujima, Yagyuzato, Kashima Jingu, etc etc. Watch this space. Contributions accepted.

Student Iai

Whilst nowhere near as popular or widespread as kendo, dedicated iaido clubs can be found at many Japanese universities. University students often have a strong showing in shiai, and student taikai are highly competitive with some great iai on show. University club members often have extremely strong form, visually impressive iai, and ability far beyond the average for their grade.* However, student iaido or ‘gakusei iai’ is also marked by several quirks that many sensei say must be overcome if a student wants to progress into the higher grades. Taking my former club as an example, I’ll give a brief description of why the student approach to iai does so well in shiai, and what its weaknesses are.

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