Back To The Bottom

I went back to the Eishin-Ryu dojo at UBC this weekend and enjoyed myself immensely. It’s very liberating coming into a new dojo; you don’t know anything, and everyone knows you don’t know anything, so there are no expectations on you to know anything. You just sit back and watch everyone else and do whatever they’re doing. You can learn from EVERYONE.

Having not been in a dojo in many years, it’s wonderful. And set me thinking about how and why the dojo is structured and operated the way it is.

Steph and I talk about this sometimes; how learning requires submission and the dojo “system” is designed around that basic idea. In order to learn anything you have to accept that you don’t know something — every time we learn we have succeeded in beating down our ego enough to admit that we didn’t know that.

The traditional dojo does a really good job of giving people an environment in which they will accept their own ignorance. Having a strict hierarchy of sempai and sensei means you always know who’s a worthy teacher for you — everyone senior to you is (of course, there comes the day when you realise that those junior to you are also worthy teachers). There’s no need for debates or arguments. If you disagree with what sensei says, well, too bad. Do it his way while you’re in his dojo.

And more often than not, in my experience anyway, after you’ve done it sensei’s way for a while you find that maybe it isn’t so wrong after all.

The dojo is also good at making you leave your ego at the door. Bow, sit in seiza, put your sword on the left, or on the right, all the little rules of ritual make it harder and harder for you to bring your own issues into the practice. By submitting yourself to the elaborate rituals of opening that most dojo provide, you start down the path of preparing to learn.

This is why it’s so important to perform all these rituals with every bit of intensity and focus that you would bring to your cuts and stances: not because they’re important in and of themselves, but because by doing so you make your own learning easier.

Just like accepting the hierarchy of sempai and sensei helps you. It’s not just respect, which is how bowing and whatnot often get described in Western literature. Of course there’s respect, but there is more importantly submission. The Western tradition denigrate submission (the American branch especially), and in doing so I sometimes think we’ve lost touch with something powerful and important. If you won’t submit to anything, you’ll never learn anything. Even de Bergerac was willing to give way to courtesy and romance.

So here I am at Eishin-Ryu UBC, not even knowing how to bow properly, and it’s just so wonderful. A room full of teachers. Life on the bottom is good.

Funny Thing, the Internet

So in browsing about looking for stuff on my beloved Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, I come across this Blogger post about a story on Sugino Dojo, where I studied during my little sojourn in Japan. And realised it sounded very familiar, mainly because I myself wrote it.

Quite a surprise.

That was a long time ago now. Nearly ten years have passed since I came back from Japan, and in all that time I have not found another teacher to guide me. It’s been hard. I went back to Calgary a few times and received teaching from Sensei Skoyles, who first set me on this path, but that’s only once or twice a year. And Sensei Skoyles has no background in TSKSR anyway.

So I’ve been practicing by myself for these years. I did study briefly with a ZNKF Iaido group, but it was deeply inconvenient to get to and the style was a difficult transition for me from TSKSR, and I abandoned that practice. I’ve been practicing off and on at the YMCA, and in the summer I go down to the beach every so often to startle the locals.

My company’s new office, however, includes a gym with a racquetball court and I’ve now been practicing there twice weekly. A couple of folks at the office have demonstrated interest in practicing as well, and there’s now a couple of us. I’m showing them the fundamentals of the TSKSR Omote-Tachi kata, though I take great pains to tell them I am in no way a qualified teacher. I just really need somebody to practice with.

We are careful to avoid risk — without a qualified instructor present the risk of injury is high. We go slow and maintain careful distance from each other. It’s startling, though, how different it is training with another person. The TSKSR kata are paired kata, and practicing them all these years by myself has taught me many bad habits.

Fortunately I was never very good to begin with, so I couldn’t have slid too far backwards.

Seeing so many articles about the people I studied with around the Internet has been very inspiring, though. Waka-sensei looks well, and little Hideo is all grown up! Time rolls on by, don’t it just.

Osafune Kiyomitsu made my sword

So I finally got around to investigating the origin of my sword.

I bought a katana many years ago when I was living in Tokyo. I’d been studying at Sugino Yoshio’s dojo for about a year when I approached some of the senior students about finding me a reasonably-priced antique katana that would be good enough for a humble barbarian wanna-be like myself.

One fellow had a friend who was a collector and was planning to get some of his high-end blades polished, so he was looking to sell some of his crappy blades to raise the money to do that (katana-polishing is very expensive). The fellow looked over his selection and brought one to me.

At the time I knew almost nothing about swords. And my Japanese was never terrific, so communication was always a problem. But the sword was beautiful, if obviously flawed in a couple of respects (two chips, one right at the tip, and some minor corrosion), and I bought it, having faith in the people who were teaching me how to use it. There was a signature on the tang, which I was interested in, but I understood that it was considered probably a forgery.

Note that that doesn’t mean the blade is worthless; it means that the guy who made the blade figured he could get more money for it by passing it off as the work of a superior smith. It’s still a properly-made and antique weapon, it’s just not made by who it says it was made by.

Okay, enough preamble. My copy of The Samurai Sword arrived the other day and I just spent the last couple of hours inspecting the blade and figuring out what it says and what the rest of the weapon’s qualities can tell me.

I’ve owned it for nine years now, and I’m just getting around to verifying what people told me. Nine years after I spent several thousand dollars just taking their word for it.

Anyway, the tang inscription says “Bizen Osafune Kiyomitsu” which is a reasonably well-known smith from the mid-1500’s. The blade is of size and shape and style consistent with smiths of that time, and although the hamon (the temper line) is quite a bit smoother than the one verified Kiyomitsu blade I found online, it is very similar in terms of form (ridgeline, general shape, grain of steel and tang) and I think it’s reasonable to say it’s from a smith who knew Kiyomitsu’s work pretty well. I’m pretty sure it’s not a mid-Tokugawa sword, as I once thought, as the grain is very pronounced, which apparently is rare in the later swords, so I think I’ve got a Muromachi or an early Tokugawa sword.

That’s what I’m going to believe, anyway. And I thought it was cool and that I would tell you lot. So I did.