Wednesday, October 25, 2006

If you're wondering what to get jrf for Christmas...

Bujinkan Hombu Dojo

I have, unfortunately, never been to the Bujinkan Hombu Dojo in Japan. Maybe someday.
The Hombu Dojo is somewhat unusual among dojos in the sentimental clutter adorning the walls. It may come across to those unfamiliar with Hatsumi sensei as the martial arts version of a Bennigans, Chilis, or Applebees. This kind of sentimental attachment to souveniers is a little unusal for Japanese, but not for Hatsumi sensei. The decor is also the result of decades of foreign visitors bringing gifts to Soke. Gift giving in Japan has some odd rules, and in one sense, Hatsumi's receipt of a gift actually does place an obligation upon him not only to accept the gift gracefully, but keep and maintain the gift.

This is the Shomen of the Dojo. This is the wall that is the focal point of the dojo, and quite rightly has the Kamidana shelf and the Shinden that is the Shinto shrine.
The Shinden is a typical feature of the traditional Japanese dojo. What is very unusual for a Japanese dojo is that the Shomen also houses the racks of various weapons. Usually, the Shomen is kept neat and uncluttered. The only distinguishing feature is the Kamidana and the various accessories that go on and around it. If you are interested in why this is unusual, and what possible significance the Bujinkan arrangement might have, please read Dave Lowry's In the Dojo, a book a recommended several weeks ago.

The Hombu Dojo is small. This is also not unusual for Japanese dojo.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Coming to Grips with a Dangerous Situation

Few subjectsget the knife fighting crowd more stirred up than the "correct wa(s)" to hold a knife. Crazy methids of gripping leap out of the woodwork.

Look, without getting wildly technical, there are basically two ways to hold a knife:
"Forward." The knife is held so the blade extends up from the thumb.
"Reverse." The knife blade extends below the heel of the hand.

All the main variations entail the angle of the blade to the arm, and the super important (yeah, right) placement of the fingers -- especially the thumb. What gets all the so-called experts in a dither is that digit placement... Again, you want some good, basic advice? Hold the knife so you can really hold it. Any finger placement that risks losing the knife is probably not good.

Anyway, my martial arts class got involved in a discussion of the reverse grip. It seems the question arose about whether the sharp edge of the blade belongs to the outside (i.e. away from the forearm and towards your attacker) or inside (i.e. facing the forearm and away from your attacker). The class, for whatever reason, split about 75% in favor of an outside reverse grip.

Our Teacher and Fearless Leader (FL) had contacted his own instructor, a rather well-known and respected martial artist ("He Who Shall Remain Nameless," or HWSRN) on the question. HWSRN also believes in an outside reverse grip. His standard answer was apparently provided: "Keep the dangerous part of the weapon between you and the bad guy."

I emailed my FL the following story, and now post it here for whatever it is worth...

I had a drinking buddy for many years named Bush (uh, no... not the famous one). Bush was a great storyteller and a former Marine. We talked about life, the universe and everything while drinking. The subject of knife fighting came up exactly once.

The Marines gave Bush a single block of instruction on how to use a Ka-Bar knife in combat. He learned the proper way to slit a throat and how to hold his knife in a last-ditch struggle.

The Marines told Bush to always grip the knife in the outside reverse grip. All he then had to do was punch and fight like his life depended on it. The idea was that punching was a pretty natural fighting reaction and the sharp part of the Ka-Bar would generally end up where it needed to be to do damage.

This was back in the days just after Vietnam. Formal martial arts-type training in the services wasn't widespread. On the other hand, plenty of combat vets were still in the service and knew how to get the job done. While this style of knife fighting lacks elegance, subtlety, or technique to recommend it, there is a definite sense of simplicty to the instruction. It gave the young Marines something useful to walk away with and not get lost amid their other, more specialized training.

Trick or Treat

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ma-ai in Suwari Waza

Wow... Those are som escary foreign words in the title. What do they mean? Easy: "Distancing in seated forms." That's not so bad.

My class was recently drilling three common seated kata in class. A member of one group I practiced with asked our teacher the question "How far apart should the two people start?" It's an excellent question; his answer was: "Far enough." It was the kind of answer that can boil a beginner's blood. A white belt wants an answer. Actually, the white belt mind wants THE answer.

I kept my mouth shut during the class -- which is what lead to this blog. Because I have a very real opinion on the issue. However, I recognized the teacher's answer has wisdom too.

Ma-ai, or "critical distancing" is very important in any martial arts encounter, whether it is a prearranged kata, or spontaneous sparring. Distancing is disregarded at the martial artist's peril. In one sense, there is always a specific "critical distance" that allows Tori to counter Uke. And Tori should always be striving to control the critical distance. However, this isn't always possible. Tori will have to make do with the distance that is available as he shifts to a better position.

In the kata we were practicing, the two actors both start in Fudoza, a sort of "half-lotus" position in which the person sits on the left heel and folds the right leg so the right foot sits in the crook of the left knee. It is already an awkward position for Westerners, and often it presents plenty of challenges that overshadow finding distance in the kata. Uke moves first, stepping up onto his right foot and reaching out to grab Tori's lapel. A common issue is that the Tori feels crowded, and finds it hard to act in accordance with the remaining movements of the kata. In particular, there is an instruction to "lean back" as Uke grabs. Under most circumstances, Tori falls back.

Certainly, we could take the attitude that "Uke is Never Wrong." This is a perfectly valid position and should definitely be trained. However, when these little things crop up, I think it's important to play rather than discount instructions out of hand. So here's my hypotheosis...

Assumption: The suwari waza in question apparently originate in the Takagi Yoshin Ryu, which was used by samurai tasked with guarding a lord mostly inside enclosed spaces. Many of the seated kata seem to involve a typical scenario in which the lord and his men are greeting guests in a formal setting.

Now, if I'm a body guard, my job really should begin long before an actual attack. I would be very concerned with proper distancing and arrange my seating accordingly. I would probably not want to let someone sit so close as to simply reach out and touch me. I want them to have to make at least one good step. If I'm really in control, I would set the distance outside the arc of a slashing short sword.

With this in mind, I experimented with the distancing of the kata. I found that the two actors in the kata start a little further apart than normal. Uke was forced to make a good step forward to initiate the attack. This eliminated the problem of crowding. It also gave Tori both the distance and space to perform the proscribed response.

I also found that Uke naturall pulled Tori forward with the grab. It now made sense for Tori to lean back to maintain the required distance. Tori did not topple backward, because Uke's grab provided enough resistence to pull into a neutral position. Suddenly, those strange instructions made sense!

Am I right? I won't say that I am; it's just one perspective. But I think the process of exploring the questions is important.

Kristen Bell

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Evangeline Lilly... For all you Lost fans


I won't be so crass as to steal the articles directly off of the websites and reprint them. However, I thought some of my martial artist readers would appreciate a few thoughtful articles by others on the subject of stealing balance for a throw, so I will post these as links. Please enjoy.