Darlington 2013

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, or so the proverb goes. I began my training in Iaido a few months ago, so in the context of the journey I have perhaps one heel off the ground. Thus, it was with anticipation that I arrived with my fellow students at the British Kendo Association’s Darlington seminar, ready for a weekend of instruction from those who are much further along with their respective journeys. Here would be gathered many students of Budo, all of varying grades and styles, and all with their own experience to share. I was excited and a little nervous at not knowing what to expect, so I resolved to keep an open mind, and hoped to give as good an account of myself as I was able.

To those unfamiliar with the organization, the BKA encompasses the majority of practitioners in the UK of Kendo, Iaido and Jodo. The disciplines, although distinct, are complimentary and so one can see the sense in them being under the same umbrella, so to speak.

We arrived at the hotel and in the reception were gathered people of various ages evidently here for the same purpose as we were. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged as old friends met again. Checked in, it was up to the room, a quick wash, then down to the bar. I was introduced to a few people, then we sat and relaxed, glad the drive was done and the weekend begun. The conversation was warm, engaging and funny. I recall receiving instruction on how to articulate some very colorful words in sign language, certainly not what you would see on the BBC. Not necessarily the first thing I had expected to learn from the weekend, but I was grateful for it just the same. The atmosphere was very positive, and I retired for the evening looking forward to the training ahead.

We arrived at the venue the following day with breakfast in our bellies, through registration and in to get our gear on. One of the guys from our dojo had insisted on carrying his sword in his guitar case, and so we had taken to calling him “El Mariachi” after the Mexican who favored carrying his weapons in this manner. Our spirits were high as we arrived on the floor and went through opening etiquette. Another one of the guys from our dojo, Ray, had very kindly loaned me his iaito (which showed a lot of trust on his part), and I spent a few moments in quiet appreciation of the weight and feel of it in my hands.

We were then paired off and instructed to begin taking turns going through the first of the twelve forms of Seitei Gata, Mae, and offer our partner our views on what could be improved. My partner for this, Phil, was of a much higher grade and experience than myself, but when I informed him that I was a beginner and thus wasn’t really qualified to offer a critique, he replied “that’s okay, just see if there’s anything you can spot”. His humility greatly impressed me, and we got along famously for the rest of the day. For those unfamiliar with Iaido, the first form, Mae, is really the wellspring from which the other eleven forms flow. Proper technique in this form is key to developing the more elaborate ones, so it is of central importance. To use a metaphor, you could think of it as the foundations upon which the rest of the structure is built. A bad foundation, and it’s not long before your walls fall over, your roof caves in and it’s back to the drawing board. Accordingly, we spent the whole morning up to lunch practicing and refining this form. The higher grades stalked the hall, quietly observing, intervening where they could see errors taking root, like gardeners pulling up weeds. One, Anna Stone sensei, was of particular help to myself. I came to understand the phrase “that’s interesting” as meaning “try again”, and I am grateful for her instruction.

After lunch we devoted portions of time to the other eleven forms, and Phil was of great help to me. His understanding of common errors enabled him to pre-empt my own almost, and by the end of the day my motion was feeling more fluent and the sword more comfortable. In such a scenario, you are receiving input from multiple sources, sometimes simultaneously, so it can be challenging to keep up, but very rewarding when you feel something “click”. Sore and satisfied, we took our positions for closing etiquette.

That evening it was back to the hotel for a much needed shower and change of clothes then out to dinner. We were all meeting at a local pub in Darlington, before moving on to a Chinese restaurant, which had been organized by the local sensei, Lee Mountain (what a terrific name). We all gathered in the bar and the conversation flowed from one topic to another. Again I was impressed at what a warm, intelligent, diverse and eclectic mix of people were represented. There were people from all walks of life, of different nationalities, all brought together by their shared passion. Though I was meeting many people for the first time, I was warmly received by all and found the company very absorbing. Dinner seemed to fly past in an array of dishes, colors and laughs. Every time I looked up from the delicious food I could see heads turning, people laughing and articulating, and my ears were filled with the buzz only a room of people enjoying themselves can create. After dinner we retired to the pub once more, leaving a trail of delighted serving staff in our wake. We passed a few more hours enjoying each others company, then called it a night. I recall being asleep before my head hit the pillow. It had been a terrific day.

The next morning the attendees were to be split into three groups. Those who wished could practice Jikiden Koryu, Seitei Gata (standard Kata), or Shinden Koryu (a different school from our own). Koryu translates roughly as “old school”, and the forms are more challenging and elaborate than Seitei. Each group would be led by one or more sensei ranging in levels from fifth to seventh dan. I would be in the Seitei group, as Koryu is really for the more advanced students. Leading my group was Jock Hopson sensei, seventh dan, whom I had met the day previous and was greatly looking forward to learning from. Things did not start well. As I assumed Seiza for Mae I was pulled from the floor by one of the senior students from our dojo, who pointed out that my feet were bleeding quite profusely. I registered some surprise, as I honestly had not felt a thing, and by the amount of blood one could be forgiven for thinking I’d had my toes clipped by a shinken. Upon getting cleaned up the culprits turned out to be two rather innocuous holes on the knuckles of each foot, likely from the day before. Nothing to worry about, some medical tape and I was quickly back on the floor. For those considering taking up Iaido, I would say some pain is inevitable. The differences between Japanese and European physiology make it almost a necessity, but the body is wonderful in its capacity to adapt and evolve to changing demands.

The training, once begun, was fantastic. We moved through the various forms again, but because it was a smaller group and a smaller room, we devoted more time to each. Further to this, we could watch each other more closely, there not being enough room for everyone on the floor at once. From the observation, instruction and practice that day I managed to glean some invaluable insights. The feel of the session was definitely more “martial” than “art”, which I found quite invigorating. I recall Jock Hopson sensei halting the session with an exasperated growl: “no, no, no, NO!! You're not dancing with the sword, your trying to kill someone!! Show me some Hatred!!!!”. This session has since been printed indelibly on my mind.

The afternoon was to be devoted to grading, something I had been looking forward to witnessing firsthand. Not only would I get to see Jodo demonstrated at close quarters, but I would get to see two members of our own dojo grading, for Ikkyu and Shodan respectively. This, I hoped, would give me some idea of what to expect, and would be an important experience in my own development. The beginning was devoted to Jodo. This consisted of two person kata, based on the Jo (staff) against the sword. As someone who had never seen it, I found it fascinating to watch.

Next up came the Iaido Ikkyu, the junior level grading. Our candidate, “El Mariachi”, did very well. His movement was fluid and purposeful and I saw no hesitation or pause. He came off the floor at the end, and I recall hearing him exhale as though he had been holding his breath. One down. Next was Shodan, the first dan grade. As you may expect, the level of technique here was higher still, and our friend did not disappoint. Despite tearing his number plate with a Tsuki halfway through he never missed a beat, and finished strongly. The grading after this were of still higher levels, and the number of candidates fell as they increased (I recall only one candidate for Yondan). Once they were done it was a nervy half hour pacing the hall as the judges deliberated, then the results were pinned to the back wall and the crowd gathered. Both our guys had passed. It was a terrific result for them and our dojo, and we spent a good deal of time congratulating them. The event drew the seminar to a close, and warm handshakes were exchanged as log books were signed and certificates received.

So it was we drove home a happy team bus indeed. It had been a good weekend for our dojo, and for me personally had been highly informative. I had many things to work on, to improve and to cultivate, and I looked forward to our training session the next day in Edinburgh. As a beginner, the experience of the seminar was invaluable, as each person learns new things in different ways. The fact that you’ve got so many experienced people in one place all with the goal of helping you improve makes it inevitable that some things are going to stick. It’s also an enjoyable experience from a social point of view, as the shared passion among everyone makes them genuinely pleasurable company. I had always mistrusted disciplines which placed too much emphasis on grades, but during the grading I realized something quite important. As an exercise, it cultivates one personal trait which is critical to many aspects of daily life. How to control fear. Because for me, it’s not the fact that you feel it that describes your character, its how you respond to it that counts. As I said, the journey is only just begun, but with landmarks along the way like this, I am sure it will be one I shall enjoy.

Kevin Gibbins
Edinburgh Genbukan
November 2013