Unka Kim's Martial Art
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2009 Apr-Sept
2009 Jan-Mar
2008 Aug-Dec
2008 Apr-July
2008 Jan-Mar
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Well by some curious combination of not uploading this file and having a disk crash without any backup, I have lost this set of blogs.

If anyone should have it backed up anywhere, or an older version covering the period from April to September 2009, please send it to me so I can restore these.

Many thanks


Nick Stam has kindly located our missing blog entries and sent them along to me.

Many thanks Nick!
October, 2012

Training Take a note

My senior student came out with the statement "they were all taking notes" a few days ago. You have to understand that this was right out of the blue, and it was just the two of us working on some new kata so I was a bit confused.

"I wonder why I don't take notes" she continued, "perhaps it's because I'm sitting in front of a 7dan two or three times a week". She's right of course, she really has no reason to take notes because she gets constant supervision and correction, and she can just ask if she ever has a question. No need to take notes when the textbook is right in front of you, right?

Well, no. I told her to start taking notes because I'm not always going to be here and in 20 years those notes are going to be all that's left of the way I did things and what I thought about them.

Take notes, take photographs, take videos of your teacher. One day he won't be there for you to ask questions.

Oh, and she was suddenly thinking about a seminar the two of us had attended over a year ago. That's the way her mind works.

Nov 10, 2009
Photos Stereo Photos of Old Japan

Nice collection of "jiggle-gifs", conversions of stereoscopes of old Japan.


Nov 10, 2009
Living What is hard

Death is trite.

It is the natural state of the universe, life, the kind of life that can understand that it is alive can't be anything but statistically zero in an infinite universe. What doesn't exist should not fear what is everything. What is everything is so common it's trite.

Life is hard. And very, very special.

We know we are alive, so we are able to fear death. Personally I don't know why we should but out of that fear we invent afterlives that are just like life and, perversity upon perversity, we make ourselves miserable, sick and even killers so that we can attain that supposed life after death. We fear it but it isn't hard.

No, death isn't hard, it's inevitable, and easy to find early if you really want to. Once you're dead you don't fear any more, there is nothing else for you. Those you leave behind will miss you but death is... Death isn't what we fret about. Deep and serious sickness isn't hard either. We've got lots of procedures for that stuff, and medicine. We know how to do sympathy and receive gift baskets.

What's hard is life. What's easy is complaining about traffic, lunch, gosip, unfairness, relationships, money, sex, and just about everything else. What's hard is appreciating, at all times, whenever we are awake, the miracle, the absolute amazing, statistics-defying, absurdly unlikely delight and joy of being alive.

We need to pay attention. We need to learn how to be in the moment. We need to have some lumber heading for our eyeball once in a while to train us to appreciate the obvious, that we're not dead.

What we also need to do is figure out how to find joy in everything we're usually complaining about. Life is special, too rare and beautiful to waste making yourself miserable finding things to complain about. Hey, even when you are convinced you have every right in the world to be upset, vengeful, and entitled to divine justice, is it better to be upset or find a way to spend the next few minutes with some happy aspect of the situation? Surely you can find some way to make the situation happy? The ultimate would of course be to remind yourself that you are still not dead, but that you could be before the next breath. And if it's bad enough...

Oct 29, 2009
Learning Uchi Deshi

An uchi deshi is an "inside student" one who lives with the instructor. I once had a fellow ask me to be my uchi deshi for Niten Ichiryu. I told him that I couldn't afford to feed and house him.

At some point many of us entertain the thought of living with our teacher and learning from him full time. Trust me, I once ended up as housemates with a teacher for over a year and it's not a thing I would recommend, nothing removes the mystique of "sensei" quite as fast. Now this wasn't in Japan where the system might work so let's think about it a bit.

Traditionally, an uchi deshi was an apprentice who lived and worked with a craftsman in return for food and the chance to learn the profession. Those who want to live with a martial arts instructor and learn martial arts without babysitting his kids or cleaning his toilet or digging his garden are just "leeches we teaches". I suppose the system could work with a professional instructor so that the student would clean the dojo, answer the phone, post flyers, chase down students for fees and otherwise do the money-grubby jobs which would free up sensei to teach more classes.

The problem here, and uchi deshi have indeed complained about these things, is that the outside students often get taught more quickly and systematically than they do. This makes sense, the outside students pay for their lessons and sensei needs to teach them quickly enough to keep them coming back. (But not so quickly that they get it all at once and don't have to come back). The uchi deshi aren't going anywhere so sensei can take his time with them.

I have heard the same complaint from western students who go to Japan to learn from sensei there. Although they are not uchi deshi they are at class every week. These students often see other western students come into the dojo and get taught massive amounts of technique, often jumping ahead of the "in-country" students. What is happening is similar to the situation above, the visiting students are given lots to go work on while the weekly students are fed in smaller, more careful doses.

So what about a paid uchi deshi system? These are more usual now than the apprentice system, in this case the students are paying to stay at a dojo for a short time (even a couple of years is short if you think about it) and don't have the expectation or even the chance of taking over the business some day. The system is more like a vacation (in the short term) or a traditional western university degree (in the longer run) than an apprenticeship.

Is being an uchi deshi a good thing? If you plan to teach professionally and want to learn how to run the business it would be great. If you just love the martial art and want to learn as much as you can as fast as you can, one of the other forms of instruction such as a week long seminar might be a better fit to your needs. Uchi deshi spend a lot of time learning how sensei washes his dog and changes his baby's diapers which may or may not have something to do with the martial art you're trying to learn.

Oct 29, 2009
Training Practice like your hair is on fire

I just drove by a place that was hit by a tornado. We get those around here every now and then. It reminded me, as if I ever need reminding, that things are temporary. Buildings, clubs, teachers, even the art you're learning, all are temporary.

Got something to do? If you put it off for too long it just might not get done. Want to get really good at the martial art you study? Practice like your hair is on fire.

Tomorrow may be too late.

In fact, with a club like mine, where we practice at a University, it's forever almost too late. Institutions have no memory and if we don't get a couple more students to sign up for class we may end up losing our 2-3 hours a week to Hip-hop Bangra Seductive Dance. 20 years of instruction doesn't mean a thing to an 18 year old in charge of paperwork for the athletics clubs.

Oct 28, 2009
Teaching Accepting Failure

You can't fix everyone. This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons to learn as a sensei. It works on a couple of levels, perhaps the first every instructor encounters is that some folks just can't be taught physically. The student who tells you why they can't do some movement or other, the one who fixes it while you're looking at them and then drops right back into the same old habits, the one who looks at you blankly, as if to say "I'm doing it that way, what's wrong with you?" and the one who tries, really, really tries but never gets it.

All of them can make you wonder if you're a failure as an instructor. After all, this stuff isn't all that hard, you learned it so others should be able shouldn't they?

Well some can't. Some won't. Some will, slowly, so slowly you can't see it. All you can do is keep teaching, correct them and move on, check back in a week.

What about the other level? The one most of us would rather not speak too much about? We know that the martial arts are not about learning how to kill folks with a sword, or how to win sport matches. As my TKD instructor used to say, "nobody trains for ten years on the off chance they will get into a bar fight". So what about us teacher types who understand that we're there to help folks become better people, get off drugs, do better at school or just become a little nicer around their family?

A very long time ago... OK when I was 8 or 9 years old... I figured out that people could be manipulated. When I hit high school I became publicity director for our student council and I have been in the influence game in one form or another ever since.

When I was an undergrad at University (thirty years ago!) my mother asked me why I kept bringing these little birds with broken wings into my life. Not only did I have no idea why, I was shocked to realize I was doing it. I was trying to fix people's lives.

Becoming a martial arts instructor many years later hasn't helped much but I try to keep things in perspective by yelling at least once a month "I'm not your mother!" in an attempt to keep the students from telling me their personal problems. I just try to create a space in the dojo where they can get away from the girlfriend/boyfriend/job/parents for a while, physically and mentally. With a bit of a breathing space most folks will sort things out for themselves.

Mostly I think those who have passed through the dojo have gone out the other side a bit better for the experience and I'm content with that.

What shocks me, every couple of years, is running straight into the realization that there are folks out there who don't want to get better. They don't want to stop being miserable, complaining, despairing wretches. They really don't. Some folks just want to be a black cloud over their own and their acquaintance's heads. They want to rain on everyone's parade, not just their own, because they can't see that they are mostly the cause of their own unhappiness.

There's a special kind of egotism that says "I am unhappy, it can't be my fault therefore it is someone else's fault, therefore I will make others unhappy until they make me happy". Of course all the other person gets from this is a big downer of a day/week/year/lifetime.

It shocks me that these people seem immune from any idea that they will die some day, that in ten years nobody will ever think of them and in 100 years nobody will even know who that miserable coot in the photograph is. They seem to think that they will live forever and that their happiness will always be of concern to those around them. 

It shocks me that they can waste their lives, and those of the people who could be loving them or at least liking them in such a perverse exercise of sadism.

It also shocks me, every single time, that I can't fix them. The best you can do is walk away, and if you can't do that, at least put them in a space where their depressing influence on others is minimal.

You can't be happy until you want to be happy and are willing to do what it takes to be happy. That may even involve understanding how much you have been responsible for your own unhappiness. It's a tough lesson and no instructor can teach it.

Oct 20, 2009
Technique Seven on one

There is a youtube video out there of a Japanese TV show which features a kendo teacher who fights seven guys who have never done kendo before. To eliminate the suspense, he beats them twice even though they are all attacking at once.

It's fun, the setting is great, an old castle or some such, but it's more interesting to see how he does it. The opponents all start on one side and they all start on command. Their job is not to get killed of course, as is the teacher's. The tactics are pretty clear from the start, fght them one at a time: go to the end of the attacking line, chase them into each other, back into a restricted area so they have to bunch up, if you have to go into the crowd attack through them and turn back quickly to face those chasing behind.

Above all, don't be cautious. It would be interesting to compare his tactics to what Musashi advised in the Go Rin no Sho if I had time, but what it most reminded me of, was the randori practice in Aikido.

Oct 19, 2009
New Products New Stuff I'm Making

Been in the shop lately, have made several new tanren bo and suburito, a few new knife designs for Arnis/Kali type training, some new exotic bokuto, some thick bo (1.25 inches dia, up to 7 feet). 

I will also be making some beefy ipe Niten Ichiryu bokuto for those who like them like Soke's set.

Anyone got some ideas on new stuff for me to make? The rising Canadian dollar (falling US dollar) has cut into what poor profits we've been getting lately to the tune of 30% since March. Ouch, and the house needs a new roof and back room. Looks like the retirement fund is going to get used early.

Oct 15, 2009
Learning My Trip to Japan

Speaking of learning, I just ran across a copy of our itinerary for the trip to Japan last spring. Here it is for those who want to be jealous.

Apr 24, 25 Leave for Japan and arrive Tokyo.
Apr 26, Iai 9am-noon
Apr 27, Iai 1-9pm
Apr 28, Jodo 7:20-8:40 Nihon Budokan
Apr 29, Jodo 10am-late afternoon Kanda
Apr 30, Iai 6-9pm
May 1, To Kyoto
May 2, Embukai
May 3, 8dan gradings
May 4, To Fukuoka
May 5, Jodo
May 6, Jodo
May 7, To Tokyo
May 8, Back to Canada

So all in all a most satisfying trip, although some of the folks are making noises about going back some time to see Japan instead of the inside of a gym. It was a lot of different locations and several of our instructors and great training all around... but I think I'd still rather bring the sensei over here for a seminar with a hundred folks rather than me traveling there.

That trip set up several more trips and seminars for the summer that let me get quite a bit of instruction for myself. It was quite a shock to find some beginners standing in front of me this September.

Oct 14, 2009
Learning How does Sensei learn?

At the heart of things, the easiest way sensei learns is to be pushed by his students. Two things have recently reminded me of this. One is that the student who is with me most these days has started to challenge me. She's starting to push back a bit during demonstrations and occasionally during practice. This is how I learn the techniques more deeply, by getting challenged and having to figure out where I need to be when that lumber is heading toward my head a bit more quickly than I expected.

The other way to learn is to have students ask questions. Every once in a while they will come up with one I haven't heard before and then I have to think. Recently there have been some online discussions of beginner questions and I hear a lot of advice such as "do what sensei says and shut up" or "because I say so". Neither of these are very helpful to a sensei who is trying to keep learning. We need questions to learn, either generated by ourselves or by students, it's too easy to "rest on our laurels" and very hard to drive ourselves once we're at a certain level. It's much easier to use student questions to keep ourselves moving forward.

So in a very real way, sensei learn by having students. Does this mean that you should teach if you want to learn? Absolutely not. You should teach when you have no other choice, and only then. If you can find someone to learn from, someone who can teach you directly, be a student, it's a hell of a lot easier. 
Oct 13, 2009
Learning I Hate Learning

I mean it, I really hate learning new kata. I have three new sets of kata that I have to learn because they have recently been taught to me so I'm spending two or three days a week with my notes, my videos and whatever books I can find, learning which foot goes where and what my opponent is doing now.

It's like memorizing biochemical pathways, you have to keep repeating them. It will be months before the sword and the stick movements are worn into my bones and then finally I'll be able to get into the good stuff. In the meantime I am not spending the time on the stuff I already know, so I'm not doing much in the way of good stuff at all.

What's the good stuff? That's the timing, distance, and intensity of the kata. It's the fear when your partner suddenly gets ahead of you and almost hits you in the head. It's the sudden realization that you "get" what the teachers before you meant for you to learn in the kata. Up until then you're just learning dance steps.

So why am I complaining? I mean it's great to learn new stuff right? Who wouldn't want to learn a new set of kata?

Well... me for one. I actively resist new kata these days, and to tell the truth, I've got students who do the same to me. They yell stop when we are blasting through kata for them to work on. The reason I resist became clear to me the other day when I started to think about just how many kata I'm supposed to be practicing these days.

Schools I (should) regularly practice Set numbers Total

Zen Ken Ren Iai 12 12
Zen Ken Ren Jo 12 12
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iai 11(+1), 10,8,10(+3), 5, 10, 10, 4 72
HyoHo Niten Ichiryu 12, 7, 5, 5, 5 34
Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo 12, 12(+1), 2 27
Uchida Ryu Tanjo Jutsu 12 12
Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu 12 12
Keshi (Keishicho) Ryu Iai 5 5
Shindo Munen Ryu Iai (Mitsuzuka s.) 12 12
Total kata to "regularly" practice

Other sets and schools I could be practicing but don't
  • Muso Shinden ryu iaido      
  • ZNIR Toho iaido      
  • ZNIR Batto iaido      
  • Kendo no Kata kenjutsu      
  • Aikido Ken and Jo     
Other sword schools in which I have had some more or less serious instruction and in which I could/would likely practice if I had the time      
  • Hoki ryu iaido      
  • Mugai ryu iaido      
  • Katori Shinto ryu kenjutsu      
  • Kashima Shinryu     

I've surely forgotten some but you get the idea. Hang around long enough, practice with enough people, and you will accumulate sets of kata as you accumulate inches around your waist. 

It gets to the point where you actively avoid situations where an instructor is likely to hand you another set of 10 or 12 kata to learn. After all, it's not like I haven't got enough to work on now.

Oct 12, 2009
EJMAS October Updates

You'll find the October updates at: http://ejmas.com/thismonth.html

The new stories:

Oct 1, 2009
Scams Martial Arts Instructor Needed

I received the following email to an unknown list and from Gerston Field <gerstonrecruiting@gmail...>

Hello,My Name is Mr Gerston Field,

I am looking for an experienced martial art Instructor who will handle five teenage boys they are age 14 to 16 years they will be attending Kung Fu and Self Defense class for a month Nov to Dec.

The student are based in UK and they will be coming over to your training school for the period of the training. And there is also a logistics agent that will be put in place of all their logistics like International airport transfer, Flight, Accommodation if there is no accommodation in your place of training and other logistics needs of the student.

I want you to Get back to me with your response and also the price estimate and total cost for a month class as we don't have much time with us so that they can start and resume class with immediate effect.

Please get back to me via my personal email which is

Best Regards,

This is the first martial arts variation of the cheque scam I've seen. What happens after the quote is the cheque arrives but it's too much. You refund the difference and the cheque bounces. Pretty simple really.

Clues to a scam? They don't know your name, they are sending 4 teenage boys overseas to someone whose name they don't know, they are sending the email to a list of people which is unidentified, the send and receive freebie emails don't match and it's a limited time offer.

None of them are a particularly screaming clue but taken together...

Oct 1, 2009
Students Nerds

One of my students recently told me that all my students were nerds. I agreed and said "it's funny that I'm not a nerd".

He laughed, a lot.

What's a nerd? Someone who is obsessed with something, someone who is way too much of an expert, much more than the average person. By that count I guess I'm an iaido nerd, and a photography nerd, and an analytical biochemistry nerd...

What I meant of course was that I didn't watch anime, play video games, or read manga. I don't have any interest in MMA or dressing up as a Shinsengumi character at cosplay conventions. I know about this stuff from my students.

When we get together and play Trivial pursuit, the Lord of the Rings edition, I just read the questions and referee the arguments about whether or not running the board on the first turn is allowed, and whether or not you have to answer every single question on the last card to win the game.

Like I said, nerds.

On the other hand I clean up when we play the original edition because I'm a boomer and they haven't heard of half of the countries in the geography section... they don't exist any more.

So why are so many of my students nerds? What are nerds? Well if anything they're enthusiasts, they get into something heart and soul. They are also flexible of mind, they have no trouble arguing whether the book or the film is the authority when talking about Middle Earth, they have no trouble learning elvish so why would they have a problem learning an obscure Japanese martial art that was its most useful in about 1670.

Bless those nerdish characteristics, long live the nerd.

Sept 13, 2009
Practice There are no wrong notes

from Sept 6 2009

Here at the cabin we had quite a conversation last night. My daughter plays violin and Nate is quite musical as well (choirs and guitars, a regular Singing Nun as it were). Somehow the conversation got around to crescendo and Vivaldi's first movement of Winter from the Four Seasons. Of course Nate had it on his ipod, and he played it a couple of times for Lauren who then played it back to him by ear thus earning respect all around.

Lauren then played a piece she's working on, stalled and stopped and threw her head back when she hit a wrong note.

That's when it started, Nate launched into quite a lesson on the non-existance of wrong notes, the slowness and quickness of slow and quick parts, and the importance of playing rather than fixating on playing it correctly and exactly and just like it was written down. Miles Davis' Bitches Brew was played and the Jazz continued for some time after I went to bed.

The discussion sounded a lot like a lesson in the martial arts to me, especially one like iaido where you have a piece of music (a kata) which has a tune and a timing.

Students memorize the kata, they fuss and worry about each degree of angle and half an inch, they write notes on just how long a "brief pause" is. When they think they're off they stop dead, go back and repeat that part of the kata and try to move on from there.

That's fine, useful even and I have to admit I teach that way quite often, even do it myself while I'm working on this or that but that's not iaido. It's not iaido any more than a piece played with stops and starts and "Ooooowwwwwwhhhhs" is a Bach sonota.

Eventually you have to put it together and play it. When you do that there are no wrong notes, you just play and if it goes off the rails a little you ease it back on in such a way that nobody but your teacher should know.

You've got to feel it, breathe it, surf it, you've got to play it and remember always that there are no wrong notes.

Sept 12, 2009
Creativity Solitude

For the second time in as many visits to the cottage I'm writing three or four items without any effort at all. That's because the internet, television and the phone don't reach this far into the woods.

It's not like I'm Henry David Thoreau but even a small space away from the dozens of distractions of daily life let me get some serious thinking done. Or at least as serious as my thinking gets these days.

Nate tells me that it takes him about three days to stop missing television and settle down to life out here in the woods (he's living full time at the cabin while he writes his Doctoral thesis). He's run through all the movies on his hard drive and is now enjoying the change of seasons, the hummingbird fights around the feeder and reading the complete works of Nietzsche.

Other books I've seen in the place include the Iliad and ... well that's enough of an example right there. Anywhere you can read ancient Greek heroic poetry has to be a pretty quiet place.

It seems that each generation gets further away from solitude. I grew up with the beginnings of television when living rooms rearranged themselves so that chairs which once faced the chesterfield now faced the boob tube. My kids live with cell phones, the internet, facebook and twitter. They are rarely out of chattering range of someone from waking up in the morning to turn on the TV for the weather (I stick my head out the door) to bedtime which finds them watching Family Guy or Futurama if they're not online watching YouTube videos or writing emails.

Yet these kids seem to be able to adapt to a rainy day at the cottage by, yes, reading and drawing and even fishing in the lake.

So how do we find a little solitude if we're stuck in the city with our jobs, our cell phones and our televisions?

The practice of martial arts of course. A couple times a week we have a place and a space where we have to listen carefully, move carefully and think carefully. No getting distracted or we risk getting injured. Nothing like the risk of a bloody nose to concentrate the mind and get rid of the distractions.

How can we have solitude or creative thoughts while we're in a class with a bunch of other students listening to a teacher? Well the same way you have solitude in the woods actually. At the cabin you have to chop wood, build fires, charge the batteries with the generator, and all sorts of other things that occupy your mind, keeping the jabbering monkey-brain quiet.

It's this monkey-brain, this thoughtless thinking that runs in circles that is encouraged by the dozens of communication devices we interact with each day. A period of concentrated thinking will break these cycles and allow the brain to relax enough to actually get something done.

Sept 11, 2009

Any one who is interested in Japanese swords and other tools of the Samurai, should plan on a trip to New York City this fall.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art is having probably the largest exhibit ever, outside of Japan. Even inside of Japan it is unlikely that you could see everything that is going to be in this exhibit in a single visit.  Most of the items to exhibited are from different museums, shrines, and private collectors in Japan.  I think it is safe to sale that these objects have never all been in the same room together.

They are sending 213 objects over from Japan.  There are 214 objects in the exhibit.  There is one sword in the Mets normal exhibit that would be a National Treasure (Kokuho) if it was still in Japan.  There will be 59 swords on exhibit with 24! if then Kokuho.  There are 34 Kokuho in total in the exhibit.  In addition, there are 60 Important Cultural Objects, which is the rank just below Kokuho.  There are also 6 Important Art Objects, which is the lowest government rating.

There will be 18 suits of armor, several of them are Kokuho.  22 helmets, 25 Koshirae sets, 34 Kodogu (tsuba, menuki, etc).  The rest of the exhibit are other things that a Samurai might neec, i.e. Saddles and abumi, bows and arrows, flags, coats, paintings, boxes, etc.

There will be only about 150 items on display at one time.  There will be a rotation of about 60 items (no swords) at the end of November.  Plus for armor fans, the oldest known suit of armor which comes from the Okayama Museum, will only be on display for the first two weeks.  Then it goes back.  But, that  is its normal display time.  Okayama Museum displays it for 2 weeks every 5 years!

The exhibit is from October 21, 2009 thru January 10, 2010 (Met is closed on Mondays except if it a holiday)

The Met is located on Fifth Ave at 83 street + or - 2 blocks.

There is a catalog being printed in Japan.  The Met store and Yale Univ. Press will both carry it.  Hardcover is $65 and softcover is $45.  Amazon lists it at $40.95 with free slow shipping if you go over $100.

I have set up a web site with information including the complete listing of all 215 display items at


If you have any questions, I might know the answer, and I know who to call in the Met.

The name of the book is the same as the exhibit:

Arts of the Samurai: - Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156- 1968

John Prough

Sept 10, 2009
creativity Patterns

Do you turn off street lights when you drive or walk under them? Have you ever thought about someone and called them only to learn that they really needed you to call them right then? Or have you ever had a dream about someone and later found out that they had died?

Yeah, me too.

I don't think you should spend too much of your money trying to fix the slots or predict the winning lottery number, just think about the streetlights you've walked under and not turned off, or the number of times a day you think about some random friend or other who hasn't just lost their job, or how many dreams of your boss you've had in the last three weeks, without him getting even a sniffle.

Humans are pattern hunters. Recognizing the break in the pattern of the landscape helps us to avoid being dinner for Mr. Sabertooth. Figuring out that the moon needs to become full five times after the first snow before it's safe to plant the crops, keeps our bellies full and our village painter busy changing the population sign.

So we notice when the light goes out as we walk under the streetlamp, it breaks the pattern, it comes to our attention. After that we fill in the details because that's the other thing we do, we tell stories. We tell stories to the kids to pass down our memories along with our selfish little genes, and we tell stories to ourselves so that we remember where we saw that nasty great brute of a tiger... Tigers like forests burning bright when it's dark or something like that don't they?

With that we come to martial arts and photography once more because that's where I spend most of my time. (I think I see a pattern here.) The martial arts are pretty easy to link to our theme today. We learn by patterns. In the Japanese tradition we call them kata, a set of movements strung together in such a way that by memorizing and moving through them we can learn certain fundamental ways of fighting. We also use pattern when we're fighting with an opponent. When he jabs two times he follows up with a right cross so we wait for two jabs, slip to our left and hammer him with a roundhouse followed up by a left uppercut to the ribs. We break patterns of movement and of timing in order to throw the opponent off guard, to make him stop and think, to freeze him long enough to beat him.

We use patterns of our own to remove the need to think about our next punch, we jab twice, pause, jab again and follow with a right cross which usually nails our opponent because he's dropped his left in preparation for a roundhouse.

In photography we create and destroy patterns every time we take a picture. In traditional photography we follow rules of composition, we look for subjects that fall into certain angles and repeating chunks of visual information and we take advantage of that to create images that make people relax and feel good.

Or we don't, in which case we may break the rules of composition, or reduce the image to a single visual item which disturbs people long enough to make them really look at the shot. Think of a headshot on a white background. We assume that's what you do these days, and commercial photography schools will tell you to reduce the image clutter down to the subject, but when Penn and Avedon started shooting their floating heads in the middle of the frame they were shocking. Just the face, no background, no pattern to tell us the story? What's up with that?

Or we may, like Bernd and Hilla Becher, take a series of shots that at first appear to be the same thing, perhaps a post and beam house or a water tower. When we display these shots together in a group, our boring single photo becomes a matter of some interest to the viewers who start looking for breaks in the pattern. "Name three things that are different in these two pictures." Call it typology.

Make our white background blown out and combine it with a generic model's face that is photoshopped into blandness? Now you've got a Sears Catalogue shot that is totally forgettable. Or take a shot of a parking lot at night, one shot, no more, and you've got something that truly is too boring to look at. There's no pattern, there's nothing to spark a story in our minds, nothing to make us stop and look.

Is that art? Ah, there's the one thing that makes us stop to think, but if we can answer too quickly, it's pretty much a waste of space.

While the new photography tries to reduce pattern down to its basic unit, I also said that we destroy patterns when we make an image. We do that by destroying time, that ultimate pattern because what is time except the repeating movements of the universe. By taking a photograph we stop time, we stop the waving of the grass, the movement of the clouds, the passing of day and night, the aging of our grandparents. We break the pattern of our own families by freezing our children forever at age three, thus preventing them from having grandchildren of their own.

Can we do the same thing in the martial arts? Can we not only change the timing but destroy time itself?

What are the martial arts except a search for the timeless? We train for years to get to the point where those years are meaningless, to where we enter "into the moment" and all the falseness of time is revealed to us. We become, oh dear, "one with the universe" and see everything, all at once, and our connection to it. The martial arts, like other forms of meditation, can show us the timeless eternity of creation.

Or not. Pattern can be as much a blindness as a way of seeing. We can fill in the blanks where there aren't really any blanks, we can see another tree instead of Mr. Sabertooth and now we're part of the circle of life inside his stomach.

In the meantime, if you want to get creative in either photography or the martial arts, learn how to play with patterns, how to make them and break them, and how to use them to create stories in the heads of those pattern-recognition engines we call people.

Sept 10, 2009
Experiment The Goshingata iai experiment

Check out http://ejmas.com/pt/2009pt/ptart_taylor_0910.html for a bit of an experiment in whether or not we can learn iaido from a book. It's a text description of five kata I created to allow anyone to try.

Sept 10, 2009
History Swordsmanship by accident

A very popular statement about the old sword schools (koryu) is that a swordsman would use something on the battlefield, find that it worked well and then found a school or at least incorporate the technique into their own school to be passed along to students.

I have a hard time picturing untrained swordsmen fumbling around on a battlefield, trying this or that brand new technique to see if it worked. Seems to me I'd like to try out these new ideas somewhere I am less likely to die if it doesn't work, somewhere like a dojo perhaps, with bokuto or with a shinai. I think I'd also like to go onto a battlefield with some sort of training ahead of time, and I would further like to keep the accidents to a minimum thank you.

What I really believe is that a swordsman who is in battle would, if he had to use his sword, use it in a very conservative manner, keep the defences up and hope the other guy has the accident, slips in the mud perhaps, so you can cut him down.

Later, if said swordsman survives the wars and starts teaching, he may have relatively few techniques to pass along. Through the years and then through the generations of students after you would see a natural expansion and perhaps even a contraction of techniques as kata are added and dropped.

An example of this can be found in the Hyoho Niten Ichiryu which has a set of five two-sword techniques. At one point two additional sets of five kata were added by the headmasters of the school bringing the number to 15. Later however, these additional sets were dropped and so the official number has returned to 5.

This is the school of Miyamoto Musashi who was definitely experienced on both the battlefield and in duels so one would expect to see "battlefield tested" technique there. In fact I just read a piece which claimed that Musashi's two-sword style was spontaneously invented during one such duel when he pulled his wakizashi out of his belt because he needed it. Every piece of history and his own writings contradict this idea but it remains attractive to those who watch movies which seem to be set in a parallel dimension where random strangers on the street can suddenly break out in song, accompanied by an orchestra that seems to be hiding around the next corner in the alleyway.

Let's compare sword schools to sketching. If you are sketching to capture a scene quickly, let's say you're spying on the enemy and are sketching the castle defences, you are going to use a minimum of effort, a minimum of lines and a minimum of frills. Later, after you've won the battle you might take those charcoal sketches and embellish them, add some noble figures from both sides hurling lances or at least insults at each other, add some colour, maybe a few dramatic clouds in the sky. All this is done because there's time to do it, and because it may help to give the feeling of the day to those viewing it. New techniques, new additions to the picture are more likely to show up away from the "job" than when on it. You'll try out the new watercolour wash technique somewhere other than up the tree on the hill overlooking the fort.

Does that mean you won't ever find a sketch by a spy made with lemon juice or a finger dipped in strawberry jam? Of course not, and you may even find a technique that was "discovered to work" on a battlefield in a sword school, but that's not where the majority of artistic technique or sword kata are going to come from.

Sept 9, 2009
Practice Practice Styles

Peter Boylan wrote on iaido-l recently:

On of the things I've noticed is how little independent practice goes on in North America. Maybe it's just the dojos I have been part of in Japan, but we usually don't have everyone doing the same things at the same time.  Most iai practice time is spent working on your own, and the teachers come by and make corrections as the see fit.  Everyone in the dojo may be doing something different.  Until the end of course, when we all do Mae together a few times.

It strikes me that our practice style here may well be a reflection of how things are taught at large seminars, rather than how they have been, and are, practiced at established dojo in Japan.

I think Peter is right to note the seminar style of teaching, it's a reflection of the type of training most in the west experience. We tend to learn at large seminars from visiting Japanese instructors, and so this style of instruction is what we experience, what we assume is standard and correct.

It's also a function of the number of seniors you have in a class. Senior students can be left to practice on their own but beginners need a bit more attention. Free practice means a lot of running around from student to student correcting things. It's more efficient to do the mass instruction thing and say it all one time. After all, most folks at the same level of skill will be getting the same corrections. On the other hand, seniors just need a quiet word in the ear and to be left alone to fix it.

Typically a class in the west is an instructor who has knowledge enough to teach and students who haven't a clue. This is slowly changing of course and I suspect you'll see more dojo with free practice times, although perhaps never as much as you might see in Japan.

The western model of martial arts instruction in general is "paying for lessons" rather than "member of dojo" and who wants to pay for instruction without getting instruction? When you're all members of a dojo you will pay your part to keep it running, and be happy to come in to practice on your own, it's a way of keeping the space open and having an instructor to keep an eye on you. On the other hand, if you have the view that you have paid for instruction rather than for the space, then you have much less investment in the building itself, assuming that the instructor will take care of it when he is not teaching you.

Sept 8, 2009
Research Iaido-L Archives

While I'm thinking about it, a great place to do some research on iaido and other such martial arts is the archive of Iaido-L which you will find here: http://listserv.uoguelph.ca/cgi-bin/wa?S1=iaido-l&D=0

Iaido-L started in 1994 and is still around as a very low noise discussion group.

Sept 4, 2009
Training What's Good Iaido?

This is adapted from a post on Iaido-L I made in 1998. I found it while searching google  for something else. The discussion involved how one would grade an old school that was demonstrated if one had never seen that school.

I spent almost the entire iai class last night trying to pin down the key to what "good iaido" is as compared to "bad iaido". Mostly the idea was to figure out whether you were going down the right path or the wrong one in the absence of your sensei that is, if you don't have the wizened old guy with the stick behind you to whack your butt when you do it wrong, how do you tell if it's wrong or not?

Secondarily, how would you know good technique if you were seeing a school you'd never seen before, one that had a different theory of movement at its root.

Some suggestions from the class:

1. Have a picture in your head of what sensei does and go after that.

2. Hit all the key points in the movement (in seitei these are all written down and pretty easy to find).

3. What shows seme (pressure), what is without suki (openings), what's balanced, etc. etc.

4. What comes from good spirit, committed intent, is full of ki, etc.

So, all the way from "what you told me was good iai" to "spiritual practice" within 30 seconds.

We kept at it for a long time and eventually I think we more or less came around to this.

It's maximum efficiency with minimum fuss. What "looks like good iai" turns out to be "what is the most efficient way to do that particular motion".

We can argue that one over beers for a very very long time.

Now, as to judging other koryu from a panel. You've got a problem, you may not know the riai (functional meaning) of the movement you're looking at. For instance, Tamiya ryu has this really "strange" cut at belly height from the saya. Something not seen in MJER. You look at someone doing that from my perspective and it looks like a very badly done nuki tsuke. Once you know it's a cut across the belly, it starts to make much more sense, the wrist position is now justified and you can start looking to see if the cut was done to the proper target, with power, proper weight transfer at the right time, but you have to know the riai before you can judge it for what it is.

Or even more subtle, one sensei I know in my style of iai, but not my lineage, does a nuki tsuke where the intent is to just clip the opponent with the tip, good enough to open a nice cut and drop blood into the eyes for sure. We (same style) do the exact same movement but with a much deeper cut, so that a cut just using the wrist is "weak". What's good for one riai is not good for another. Both are of course "correct" for their riai. Which riai is correct is best left for beers and wings later. 

One of the sensei who was here for our Guelph May seminar made the comment that the senior people on the judging panels needed to "get out more" and see other koryu so they could judge them properly. I agree and I'm always looking, as much as I can, so I don't make too big a fool of myself passing judgements on what I don't know.

That said, should a student do Tendo-ryu jodo in front of a ZNKR Jodo grading panel? Should a Tamiya-ryu student do Tamiya-ryu as their koryu in front of a ZNKR iai grading panel? Hell yes. It's the panel's problem if they've never seen it before, not the student's. The panel has to deal with it.

A grading is your chance to say "this is what I do, you have to sit there and watch me, you don't have any other choice, here is my budo, what does it mean? SAY. How do you react to what I'm doing? SAY."

It's not called "challenging for a grade" for nothing.

I'm talking about what you should be doing in front of a panel at rokudan, not shodan. By the time you hit 6dan, if you're still worried about passing, about doing what the panel wants to see, or messing with their heads, you don't pass. At least you shouldn't pass.

Passing isn't the point, showing your seniors your budo is the point. They've been kind enough to sit and agree to watch, you must, of course, show them what you do. If you do something they don't know, they have to deal with it. That's the agreement. "ThAt's the rUles" as my little guy says.

So, as Bill Mears says, the panel may deal with it by looking at the basics, balance, poise, posture, metsuke. They may look from their own perspective, but that's not your problem (it really isn't, even if they fail you because of it). They may just ignore the koryu and concentrate on the seitei kata (not uncommon I'd guess), but then really look carefully to see if you took any of that strange stuff over into seitei. (If you did, you don't have a good grasp on either, your control isn't up to separating the body reactions.)

No matter what they do, they have to judge you as best as they can or they don't belong on the panel. We won't get into the political crap OK? If they are really good, they'll quiz you about why you do that strange movement, then next time they can judge you a little more deeply.

My argument is that with an understanding of the riai (if only the surface meaning) you can start to look at the efficiency and potential or real effectiveness of the movement. If it "looks good", ie. if it agrees with proper body mechanics for the situation, if it shows no openings, it's good. If it doesn't it's bad.

Just some semi-formed thoughts in a rush between getting the kids to bed and brushing my own teeth.

Sept 4, 2009
Articles EJMAS articles

There are a few new articles online at Physical Training http://ejmas.com/pt/ and The Iaido Journal http://ejmas.com/tin/tinsplash.htm with three or four from me at PT.

Sept 3, 2009
SDKsupplies Ahead of My Time

Once again I see I'm ahead of my time. In the Globe and Mail's Report on Business magazine I read that Walmart is now going to offer their stuff at whole dollar prices rather than at $XX.99 which is what I've been doing with SDKsupplies.com forever (forever being since I began the site). The idea is that the .99 thing only works when folks are buying one item and it works by making them think that the item has gone on sale. It doesn't work when folks are buying more than one thing, or when other prices that are not .99 based are clearly labeled "sale".

So the idea is that Walmart, which has "everyday low prices" rather than sales gets no value out of the .99, and by going to full dollar amounts they also get the boost that they are "being honest".

So there you are, SDKsupplies leading the pack once more. How far in front were we? Apparently .99 pricing has been around since the 1880's or some such.

Aug 31, 2009
Dollars Give It To Me Wholesale

These days I pay the bills by selling martial art equipment through sdksupplies.com, you can click the link above right any time to see the site. It's a strange business and there are some lines that you'd think I would be carrying which I just can't. Kendo equipment is one of those, there are just too few students and many of those have a real expectation that their equipment will come wholesale. This is because most of the equipment has been brought in over the years by their instructors directly from Japan. I'm not too worried about kendo equipment since it's like clothing, you have to carry a huge inventory and offer several different styles to suit everyone. Nevertheless, the suggestion that selling it for anything but cost is improper, is a bit off-putting at times.

What I have come to further understand, on listening to many customers over the years, is that martial art equipment should be dirt cheap and last forever. Dirt cheap I get, the big martial art suppliers in North America seem to be catering to kids with no money, they work on bulk and buy in the cheapest stuff they can find. It doesn't have to last since kids lose interest fast so there's little quality control. I don't try compete with these guys at the bottom of the market, I don't have the resources or the warehouse space. I also haven't a clue where folks come up with "lasts forever". Wooden weapons and uniforms do wear out given enough use.

All this led me to wonder how the cost of martial art practice compares with other sports. For instance, how does hockey equipment line up with kendo equipment? What are the average costs per year of iaido compared to fencing?

As an instructor I also field questions about the cost of martial arts instruction, and as an official with my organization I've had to explain more than once "what you get for your dues" to students so how do these costs stack up against other sports?

Being lazy I asked for input and several people were kind enough to respond. Here's what they had to say.

Neil wrote:

Initial investment: $275
   $200 for a set of beginner's clubs
   $75 for a bag
   Assume golfing in regular clothes & sneakers as most beginners do
   Most beginners don't take lessons but you might toss in another $300
Annual cost: $1365
   Assuming 1 game/week for a 6 month season:
   - $50 green fees * 26 games = $1300
   - 2 lost balls/game = $65 (assuming used balls)

Alpine Skiing
Initial investment: $1200
   $500 for beginner's equipment (skis, bindings, boots, poles)
   $300 for cheap pants, shell, fleece
   $100 for misc clothing (underwear, hat, gloves)
   5 group lessons @$60 = $300
Annual cost: $1750
   Assuming skiing once/week locally and 10 days resort, 5 month season
   - 20 local lift tickets @ $30 = $600
   - 10 resort lift tickets @ $75 = $750
   - 10 nights shared accommodation = $600
   - assume no extra spent on meals (cook in condo)

Initial investment: $645
   $100 for uniform
   $45 for bokken
   $500 for beginner's bogu
Annual cost: $340
   2 shinai @ 40 = $80
   $240 for YMCA fees
   $20 for CKF fees

Initial investment: $80
   $80 for uniform
Annual cost: $100
   $100 for dojo/Judo Canada/Judo Sask
That's my club, if you were at the YMCA club it would be more like $400/year

One notable difference is that with kendo, judo and other martial arts instruction is included in every outing, whereas with golf, skiing, etc it's an add-on that a lot of people don't bother with.

Mark wrote:

Cross country Skiing
   Avg 500$ + gas. Gets cheaper per person as more from the family

   Around $700/year for a 12 y.o.

Rock climbing
   When I was active 10+ years ago. Roughly $1500/year directly. Gas and
incidentals extra.

   1600$ for me. 1200 for my daughter.

Gary wrote:

Golf $1500 equipment/$500 membership
Alpine Skiing $1500 equipment/$500 lift passes
Cross country Skiing $250 equipment/ski-for-free
Fishing $2000 equipment (bamboo fly-fisher)/$50 licenses

Aikido $150 equipment/$360 membership
Kendo $1000 equipment/$360 membership
Iaido $1000 equipment/$360 membership
Karate $50 equipment/$250 membership


I asked about the startup costs for hockey to a coworker of mine who is a hockey goalie. He indicated that startup equipment costs for a hockey player would be in the neighbourhood of $500 (some used equipment) and perhaps $400 a year if you joined a league for rink rental, etc.

Goalie equipment costs to startup would be in the area of $2,000. Also of note, any decent goalie has started playing by age ten or earlier, and thus will be buying more sets of equipment as they grow up.


I am the head coach at Rain City Fencing Center in Bellevue, Washington (http://www.raincityfencing.com/) where I teach classes and lessons in foil, sabre, and epee. My students range in age from 8 to 66.

Our monthly class fee for beginning and continuing classes is $125, but that includes the use of all required gear during the class. Classes meet twice a week for an hour each class. Our monthly classes break down to about $15/hour. We offer a beginning equipment package (mask, jacket, pants, glove, plastron, foil, and equipment bag) for about $300. We don’t require that anyone purchase gear until they are ready to do so.

For fencers not in classes (our more advanced competitive fencers, and our adult recreational fencers) there is a monthly floor fee of $75. Individual lessons for competitive fencers (the traditional method of imparting high level technique and tactics) are $20 for approximately 15-20 minutes.

At the advanced (national) competition level, equipment costs go up radically, as most fencers use FIE-certified equipment (adding FIE to fencing gear is like adding Marine to hardware.) A complete FIE uniform (jacket, mask, plastron, pants, glove) and several weapons and body cords plus at least two lames can easily run $1200-$1500 and up. But at that level, it is the travel expenses that add up. A national level competitor going to five NACs a year could easily rack up $5000-7000 in travel and lodging expenses. And we haven’t even ventured into the world of European world cups.

So a recreational fencer could get by with as little as a $500 investment in gear (including the electric weapons and accessories) plus $75/month in floor fees, while an advanced junior competitor might be looking at $240-400/month in lesson fees, another $1500 basic investment in gear, and another $5000 per year in travel and lodging.

By contrast, I have studied Muso shinden ryu iaido and Shindo Munen ryu iaido for almost 25 years. I am still  using my first hakama. I am on my second gi. And I finally took pity on my elbows and bought an excellent, well-balanced iaito about 10 years ago. So my total equipment costs are about $1500 over 25 years. I also collect and study koto era nihonto which is how I got into iaido in the first place, but that is an expense account of another color entirely.



For kids - $20/month and $50/year for a new gi
For adults - $900/year plus $75/year for new gi

For kids - $900/year and $50/year for gi
For adults - not sure

John in NYC:

Yearly cost, once per week, for fees and equipment.
1st Year Iaidô   $1830
     Naginata    $1360

2nd Year Iaidô     $835
     Naginata    $845

3rd Year Iaidô    $835
     Naginata  $2045

These numbers do not include transportation to Dojo, Seminars fees, Shinsa fees, Menjo, meals, etc etc

So on the whole, I don't think I'm going to buy into the argument that martial arts equipment or fees are expensive compared to other sports.

Aug 6, 2009
Dollars You Get What You Pay For

Lately there has been much talk about competitive swimming, and specifically about the new suits that apparently take a second per 100 meters off your swim times but cost $600 and last less than 10 swims.

Parents are buying these suits for their kids.

At the same time as I've been reading these news stories I've been discussing fees for training in the martial arts on the Kendo-World forum. I made an argument that students should expect to, and should make sure that, they pay for their instruction. People believe they get what they pay for and so if they are charged nothing for their instruction they will believe it's worth nothing.

How do we get to the mind-set that we have about various activities? We will spend thousands on coaching, club fees and entry fees, not to mention buying $600 suits for swimming, but we expect to be taught a martial art for free, and to get all the equipment for wholesale.

We will spend big money to visit a life coach or to go on vacation to unwind for our mental health, but we throw pocket change into the collection plate at church on Sunday. Do we put a premium on spirituality fads and discount the old familiar practices in the church?

Is it marketing? Do we expect to pay $30 an hour for dance lessons and $5 an hour for karate lessons because the dance studios have better advertising? Or has the martial arts profession as a whole simply down-priced itself? There are no dance teachers (or fitness instructors) that I know that believe they have a duty to teach for free, or that being paid taints their profession, but I know plenty of martial artists who would be horrified at the prospect of charging money to pass on their instruction.

The same downward pressure on fees is happening in the photography field where a host of non-paid photographers are offering their work for free or for pennies in internet-based stock sites which is dragging down prices for the professional stock shooters. Weddings are the same, where there are dozens of kids willing to shoot for hundreds of dollars it's hard to charge thousands, yet think about how many wedding weekends there are in a year and how much you need to charge to make a living. Of course the absolute best example of this is the model portfolio business. It wasn't uncommon at one time to have a girl come in off the street and pay $800 for a shoot so she could go visit the modeling agencies. Then came the internet and sites that were supposedly set up to allow photographers to advertise for these models. The photographers would pay, and models would come on for free and hire the shooters. Of course what happened very quickly is that the amateur photographers flocked to the sites and started shooting for free and now it's the models who are charging.

But, you say, "You Get What You Pay For" and quality will out, the good photographers can still charge money because their product is better. You would think so, and at the very top end it's still true but overall the market is diluted and people are getting the expectation that photography should be free.

Back to the martial arts. In this case there's a very real stream of thought within martial artists themselves that those who charge fees to their students are somehow of less quality, integrity, spirituality or honour than those who teach "for the love of the art". You Get What You Don't Pay For? I know that doesn't make sense but I think that's one of the things that keep prices down or free in the martial arts. Of course we also have our share of amateur teachers who are like the "guys with cameras" who shoot models for free, but in a large number of cases we also have the top guys arguing that anybody who charges a fee to teach is somehow a fraud or at least a grubby capitalist.

Well and good if the general public believed the same thing but they don't. They still believe you get what you pay for and the martial arts remain some sort of sketchy back-alley activity along side the mah jong parlour. At best they're cheap after-school babysitting for the kids.

Aug 6, 2009
Creativity Tools, Techniques and Creativity

This is a double post, it's relevent to both my photography blog and my martial arts blog so it's up at both sites.

Quite often we want a new tool, a Holga camera, perhaps a custom made sword or just a new belt to put it in, and we can convince ourselves that if we only had that we would be awesome, our skills will improve and our creativity will shine forth. Sometimes we want a new technique, we want to learn how to do high dynamic range digital images, or the Dragan treatment on our portraits, or we may want to learn another obscure set of sword techniques which, we're sure, contain that one instruction that will let us understand all of it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting new tools and techniques but if you want to be creative, you have to understand that nothing is going to come while you're getting used to the new stuff. Creativity isn't flash and it isn't a gimmick. A really shiny blade with a red tassle hanging from the hilt won't make a good cut, but a new sword with a strange balance can certainly prevent a proper cut. The most unusual digital filter in the world won't make a good picture, alone it can only make one that looks strange. Yes it catches your attention, for about three seconds.

To be truly creative you need to be thoroughly familiar with your tools and techniques, they have to get out of your way. You can't capture a moment, either during a martial arts kata or during a photo shoot with a model, if you're fighting with your equipment and trying to figure out where the balance is. That could be the physical balance of the sword or the white balance of the camera.

In other words, don't look for new equipment to give you inspiration or solve a problem, instead ask what you can do with the equipment you have. You would be amazed at how much you can do with what you've got in your hands right now.

As for flash, there is a Japanese word in the martial arts called Kigurai. Lots of people try to define it as dignity, confidence, maturity, arrogance, and a whole lot else. It's hard to define but easy to describe and easier to know. It's the way a craftsman does a job, it's the way a master mechanic can walk into his shop, pick up the exact right tool and fix a car without any fuss whatsoever. It's the way a musician who has been performing for 20 years will play a solo with no effort, no flash, just a workmanlike solidity. It's the way a photographer will approach a new client and adapt his lighting equipment and camera to capture what they want, with a minimum of fuss and bother. It's the way a skilled swordsman will perform a kata with such ease and firmness that you are convinced you can do it too.Until you try.

The master mechanic, the musician, the photographer and the swordsman don't need racing stripes on their tools, they don't need to call attention to themselves while they work, they know their tools, they know their skills and they use them to create something different, something correct, something "right" each time they do a new job. It's the same tools, the same techniques, but each time the situation is different, each time the challenges are different, yet each time the solution is there at hand, the result is correct.

A beginner will say "if only I had this tool I could do this job".

Instead, ask "how can I do this job with the tools and techniques I have?" This is the first step toward mastery and creativity.

When you become thoroughly familiar with your tools and your art you will simply ask "what's the job?" and do it, even if it's something you have never done before. That's the true creativity of life-long experience. It's not finding a new way to do an old job, it's simply doing the job, new or old.


Sir, you could not be more correct.  It is the same in woodturning where folks "need" the funky new gouge in order to turn the perfect bowl.  Wrong!  To turn the perfect bowl you need to study a few bowls you like and then get turning...alot.
Well done

Aug 2, 2009
Learning Make it Your Own

I have said for years that students of a martial art will eventually have to "make it your own".

In a very real sense, the hachidan and especially the hanshi (or in other organizations than the ZNKR, the top top sensei) are the embodiment of the art, they neither innovate, nor preserve. They are the art. Where else would it reside? Where else is it? A martial art is something that is practiced, it doesn't live in books, in history, or even in the teachers of the past, but as a living thing. As a result those who are at the top are, in a very real sense, those who own the art. Stick around long enough and you will get to the point where you are one of the owners, it's a matter of practicing (and living) long enough.

On a more basic, and much earlier level of practice, many people think "making the art your own" is to add some sort of signature move. This is not what we're talking about, that sort of action in a beginner is the result of misunderstanding or an excess of ego. There isn't any room for signature moves or innovation for the sake of being distinctive in the martial arts, we leave that for the movies. Instead, the beginner should simply try to learn all they can with as little of their own interpretation as possible. As understanding grows, the student will start to find answers to questions that remain within the art and outside the realms of fantasy.

Given enough time in an art you will likely start teaching. As you gain experience you eventually come to a point where a student asks you a question and you answer it without hesitation, but immediately think to yourself, "is that right?" or "who told me that?" At that moment you realize you are going beyond what your instructors have given you because you are starting to understand the principles.

This is when you start to "own" the art, or perhaps a better way of saying it is that the art owns you. This is different than saying that you have your own art.

Eventually you hear one of your sensei telling you or someone else exactly what you "made up" to tell your student and you realize that it isn't really "your own" idea at all, but only that you are now swimming in the same sea as all your teachers and fellow students.

The art is the sea we swim in. As beginners we are learning to swim. We are told how to move our arms and legs, and we get from point A to B in the water. We get stronger and faster and think we're pretty good. Eventually we may find a different way to move through the water, we imagine that is "ours", that we have discovered something new. Our teachers smile and say "adjust your hand like this and see if that helps" or "try this way now". We continue to get better at moving from place to place in the water.

Eventually we start to notice that no matter what we do, no matter how we get from A to B, we're still in the same sea, and one day, when we are all grown up we understand that it isn't how we bash about with our arms and legs, it's that we can live in the sea that's the important part. We are owned by the sea and we finally own it in turn.

We have left swimming behind, nothing of swimming is "our own" or anyone else's. We are swimming, we swim. How can there be anything else?

Aug 1, 2009
Exhibition An exhibit on the Samurai, including very old scrolls of the Go Rin no Sho by Miyamoto Musashi is on right now in San Francisco.


Check out the website if you can't attend.

I actually have the 20 year old Go Rin no Sho translation done, for those who thought it would never see the light of day, but now I'm trying to work out photos and videos for the commentary!


July 19, 2009
Secrets Youtube videos

There are hundreds, if not thousands of videos going online to youtube each year, showing lots of the "secret" and rare koryu sword arts, as well as just about every other martial art imaginable. Many of these videos are shot at public demonstrations by non-members of the ryu and it is often suggested that putting these videos online for everyone to see is something that folks should not do. The argument being that demonstrating in front of a small crowd is different than having the demonstration shown to the whole world. At the very least, the argument goes, the camera operators should ask permission before showing the videos.

First, from a purely photographic point of view, I've got to point out that the filming of public demonstations is usually permitted under both copyright and privacy laws. There are a few countries out there that are starting to restrict the ability of photographers to shoot on the street but I hope that will not spread. These laws are mostly in response to complaints by celebrities that their privacy is invaded. The actual reason, I suspect, for such complaints is that these photos are valuable commercially, and I suspect the courts feel that celebrities, being those who make a living largely off their celebrity, should be able to control such images.

This has little to do with most martial artists, who don't make a living off their image or their art, and as I said, most countries still allow what happens in public to be recorded. It's public, it's news, it's a matter of interest to the wider population.... and so on. There are good reasons for allowing folks to film in public.

So, on to the martial arts demonstration that gets filmed and put onto Youtube. A public demo is public and the demonstrators can't be unaware that such things as video cameras exist in this day and age. If sensei is so old and out of touch back in the mountains of Japan that he doesn't understand such things, he's got to have students who can explain it to him. After all he somehow made it into the big city and to the demonstration without being hit by the horseless carriages. It would be nice for everyone to ask permission from everyone but that's not the reality of the world today, nor has it ever been in public demonstrations come to that.

I was recently at the Kyoto taikai for the ZNKR and they had koryu demonstrations the very first thing. I missed them, not being aware that the demos started so early, so it was nice to see some of these demos appear on Youtube where I could watch them. These demos were public and there were hundreds of cameras being used from the audience. They were not in danger of being missed by anyone involved. They were there and they were being used. It's no surprise to anyone that they are now being shown to folks who were not at the demonstration.

The very next day at the same event, during the second round of the 8dan iaido gradings the organizers came around and told the audience to put away the cameras. In this case I suspect the feeling is that seitei is not private (the first round, during which everyone demonstrated 7 seitei kata, was thoroughly filmed) but koryu could be, so don't film it. The challengers have to demonstrate their koryu so go ahead and watch but don't film. Fair enough, it's a ZNKR grading and not a public demonstration. The ZNKR would be perfectly within their rights to kick everyone out of the room if they so wished, it's a private event.

But in other places, if you don't want your art (or more likely, your performance of it) to be seen AND filmed, don't show it in public demonstrations where you have the choice. The reality is that video cameras are very small and portable and you will be filmed and it will be on Youtube.

A small reality check. One of the films I watched was put online three days ago, I have watched it three times and the count for viewers now stands at 106. There were easily ten times that many people in the room while the demonstration was being performed. Youtube may have the "long tail" but compared to the actual demonstration it's the "small crowd".

Kyoto Taikai 2009

Here are some of the hundreds of iaido demonstators, all of which paid an entrance fee to be at the Kyoto taikai. They were out 8 at a time continuously for hours, and the audience came in and out in a steady stream. Hundreds of hours of video must have been shot. 

July 11, 2009
Japan Pictures of Our Trip to Japan

You will find some photo essays on our recent trip to Japan at http://180mag.ca/0907/taylor/intro.html if you would like to check them out.

July 10, 2009
Practice Moron Tools

Still at the cabin, I just spent a large part of the morning messing around with the settings for this editor, with the manuals for the computer itself, and with all its possible configurations.

Now it's raining and I have to take everything back inside.

It occurs to me that this is similar to messing around with the sageo, my hakama and all the other things that I need to have for iaido, but I don't really need to mess around with.

Your uniform should be clean and in repair, your sword should be cared for, and safe to use. Beyond that there is no need for frills.

July 3, 2009
Thoughts Canada day

I am spending Canada day at the cabin. First time to do that in quite a while. My daughter is lying on the couch reading, my son and his friend are fishing by the lake and Brenda is sitting in the rocking chair with its missing arm taking advantage of the final rays of the sun.

Listening to CBC and their stories about Voyager, the guitar made of things from all over Canada I suddenly come all over weepy about being able to pass on my country to my kids.

This is not unusual, all things eventually get passed over to kids, to students, to someone, but I do remember my time as a 20-something, hitchhiking across the country (because I didn't have the money to do it any other way) to and from the West Coast. In the years that followed I managed to find most other places by meetings, seminars and occasionally, just a vacation.

I came over all weepy because my kids, barely into their teens, have an ownership of this country that I still don't really feel. They count Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Quebec City, Halifax and Fredericton as their own. They complain when they are away for too long, and they have their favourite places to visit each time they are there

I wonder how long that will last. I wonder how much longer cheap oil prices and cheap airline flights will allow them to be citizens of a massive country like Canada.

We really have no other way but flying to join this country together, there are no bullet trains from Toronto to Yellowknife. Days on the road or the airport is our choice. When I'm too long away from other regions of the country I begin to think locally.

The same thing happens in the martial arts organization I belong to, we have regions for the West and the East (OK Vancouver and Toronto as the organization was created, to reflect where the Japanese who were the major participants lived). These regions often tend to drift when we go too long without face to face meetings, there are just too many ways for phone calls and emails to be misinterpreted.

I think there's a reason why empires fly apart, and why huge countries are mostly empty, but for now, it's great to look at my kids and realize that they consider the entire country to be theirs by right, by inheritance, and especially by use. I wish the same for my national organization

July 1, 2009
The Man and the Position

I'm not a very formal guy, in fact I think I'm known as a pretty informal fellow. I often catch hell at seminars from folks who haven't met me, for not having a new top or not wearing an under-top or for having my collar folded under or... well you get the idea.

My students usually call me Kim, even in class.

All of which is just fine with me, as long as they know enough to act differently with other instructors, especially other instructors who don't know me well enough to forgive them for their rudeness.

But that's just me, just the man himself. On the other hand, I hold some pretty high posts in my federation and that is something else altogether. I may not mind some familiarity and healthy disrespect, but my positions are not subject to the same treatment.

That's something for students to keep in mind always, your teacher, your regional director, your President may be a pretty friendly guy and you may even feel that you can slap him on the back and share a big laugh. Why not? But never, ever forget that the position deserves your utmost respect.

This isn't hypocritical or inconsistent. The man is not the position for most of the day, but there are certainly times when the position is the man. During those times you should not, must not, will not act with disrespect. At that time good old Whatzisname becomes "sensei" or "kaicho" or whatever other title he is currently inhabiting. Anything less and you are declaring your contempt for your organization.

Keep those differences in mind, and remember always that the beginners learn from ALL their seniors. That's everyone who was in the dojo when they arrived. Make sure you teach them to respect the position even after they befriend the man.

Yes You Should Call Me Sensei

The same thing happens the other way around. Maybe you are teaching under another instructor who is far away. You've only been doing this stuff a couple of years but you're the guy in your area so you find yourself teaching.

Whether you like it or not, whether you figure you deserve it or not, let your students call you sensei. You don't have to make a big deal about it, but don't tell them not to call you sensei. You inhabit that position and if you won't accept the title you aren't fulfilling the role. If you figure you shouldn't be called sensei, you shouldn't be teaching.

There are responsibilities that come along with that title, things that are required for the role, and you must accept them. There are no benefits from that title, if you think there are you shouldn't be teaching. There are only duties. The duty to give your best at each class, to show up for class, to fight for your students in your organization, to defend your organization to your students.

Look deep enough into the role and you may find yourself paying seminar fees for a beginner who really needs to go to a seminar, or perhaps you'll find yourself in court, posting bail. You may find yourself being a marriage councelor or a math tutor. What you should not expect to see, is students buying you beer, painting your house or cleaning your garage.

June 21, 2009
Regarding your recent post on the Misuse of Technology, I've a couple of thoughts (if you've an interest).
  1. "They are using the video instead of their brains, as a substitute for understanding and remembering. "  Remember the line from the Wizard of Oz "I can't give you brains, but I can give you a degree."?  Your sentence is clearly the updated version of a classic line.
  2. Summary: I agree with using technology for practice and learning.  (I'm like you, with no resources in my area of the world.)
    • As mentioned previously, I'm working (remotely) with my Shinto Muso Ryu Menkyo Kaiden.  Videos of Shimizu, Kuroda, Kaminoda, Hiroi, Yoneno, etc. - all taken between 35 and 50 years ago but now on my iPod - are invaluable.  My Sensei, when first shown what I'd done, just shook his head, smiled and remarked "Do you know how useful this would have been when I was learning, and spending hours a day on trains in Japan?"
    • Since I'm in Belize, there's a lot of tandoku training.  While polishing specific techniques, it's nice to see the "definitive" videos when specific questions arise.  Yes, it would be nice to write down all the questions and research them later, or Skype immediately with Sensei, but that means polishing the technique is put on hold until then.  With the iPod I can get a fast answer, do some tuning, then research later for even more polishing.
    • All my above comments are about polishing existing techniques, not about learning something new.  That will be a challenge for the reasons you listed.
    • The above is all Jodo.  For my Aikido, I believe videos of something "new," given my experience of a couple decades, allows me the option of interpreting / incorporating the best I can, then trying it out on somebody to get some feedback (or connecting with my Aikido sensei for further info).  Which, I believe, is in parallel to your point about your jodo and iaido.
  3. Summary: I strongly disagree with using technology for training with a Sensei.  I think anyone whipping out a camera in the middle of a class should be shot.  Or manhandled. Or, at the very least, excused from class.
    • I can't imagine ANY of my Aikido instructors over the years, or ESPECIALLY My Jodo Sensei, would even tolerate a class being recorded without advanced notice and permission.  Even then, besides the rudeness factor, and other students that might not want to be filmed (yes, it happens, even in Los Angeles), there's the whole distraction = danger factor.  It's easy enough to get hurt while paying 100% attention during class; it becomes too easy to get hurt when you're distracted.
    • On the other hand, if the student is sitting OUT of the class while recording it (with the instructor's permission), I think that's fine and dandy.  I'd love to have a compendium of key classes for review, especially now that I'm a couple hundred miles, and at least one country away, from the closest Aikidoka (and further for the nearest Jodoka).
Love the blog; keep 'em coming.

June 13, 2009
The Misuse of Technology

I just put up a new article on Physical Training http://ejmas.com/pt/2009pt/ptart_taylor_0907.html that argued in favour of using technology to help you learn the martial arts.

There is a downside to bringing a camera to class, and that is when a student uses it as a substitute to paying attention.

What I mean is the guys who whip out the camera and start filming the second you start teaching something new. They are filming but not watching so the instant they put the camera down they are asking you to tell them what you just blasted well told them.

Even that wouldn't be so bad if they would go away and look at the video they shot before the next class, but they don't do that. They come back to class no better off than the guys who missed the class the previous week.

They are using the video instead of their brains, as a substitute for understanding and remembering.

June 8, 2009
The Joys of Beginners

You gotta love them, these beginners, and I refer to those students up to 4 or 5 dan. They are absolutely necessary to an instructor, but they can be irritating as all get-out.

From about shodan to about 4dan I was an absolute whiz at knowing names of kata, all the details of the variations, all the little fiddly bits of the techniques that can be written down and described. Hell I wrote manuals and produced instructional videos.

I noticed during that time that my sensei would often look at me and say "what's next?" or "what's the name of this kata" or even "really, it's the other foot forward? OK do it that way guys". I was sort of embarrassed that I knew more than my sensei but I never mentioned it and tried to keep my pride in check.

So now it's ten or twelve years further on and I find myself turning to my students and saying "how's this one go again?" They'd better know because I'm damned if I'm going to remember stuff they should be up on, stuff I could just go read in the manual.

Me, I'm concerned with other things these days, timing, distancing, the feel of this or that basic movement. The kata are becoming less important to me than the kihon, the basics. Sometimes I am content to do a single swing for hours at a time, just like I used to do as a raw beginner. Collecting kata just isn't as much fun as it used to be, it just means that much more delay before I memorize the dance steps and get to the juicy stuff.

Why did this come to mind? Well I just read a couple of comments on the net about a video that shows a couple of 8dans doing a kata. One fellow commented that they had mixed two kata up together. The second comment stated that since they were two 8-dans they likely did no such thing.

I looked up some other postings from the first fellow and he sounds like your typical expert, in other words a beginner who has all the moves memorized and at his fingertips. Since there isn't likely to be any video of him online to look at (there never is from the biggest experts) I haven't a clue if he knows anything about the art in question. However, he's right about the two 8-dans. I never noticed the first time I watched the demonstration but sure enough, they mixed two of them up, right in the same spot I, and everyone else in the universe who does that art, mixes them up.

But only a beginner would comment on it because it's completely meaningless in a demonstration. These guys absolutely know they mixed the kata up, you can see where they realize they've done it the instant they do it, but on they went and finished it up. Me, I was happy they continued on for a bit longer than they would have, I got to see the timing, the shape of the strikes, the distancing, the wonderful interplay of energy and communication going between them for a few moments extra.

The take-home lesson? Remember the last time you heard a 5-year old state something completely obvious and simple in a big voice of authority? Yeah, and we don't stomp all over your correction of our kata any more than we would stomp all over the little guy's statement. We'll put on our serious face and say "thank you for the correction", but consider that you're trying to teach your grandma how to suck eggs.

May 25, 2009
Sweeping the floor

As a beginner, at my very first class in Aikido in 1980, I found a push mop in the corner of the room and swept the floor. From that day to this I have swept the floor of whatever dojo I'm in if there is a handy broom.

A couple years ago I challenged my seventh dan in Iaido in a room that is huge. I arrived at the dojo very early in the morning, grabbed a push mop and swept the floor. It took about 15 minutes at a sedate pace and was a wonderful preparation for my exam. Sweeping the floor is a meditation, a way to settle the mind and body, a way to warm up, and most of all, a way to own the dojo.

If you clean it, you own it.

Somehow, in the West we have come up with the idea that the most junior student has to clean the floor, and they will compete amongst themselves to take the broom away from their seniors.

They should compete, but not because they are youngest and it's their job to do so, but because they want to own the dojo.

I was recently in the dojo of a hachidan hanshi, a menkyo kaiden of his art, and at the end of a day of training the wet rags came out. This 70 year plus teacher whipped my ass at running back and forth across the floor with his hands down and his butt in the air. It was a great communal exercise at the end of hard and serious training. A time for everyone to laugh and compete while cleaning the floor to get ready for the next class.

Go sweep the floor of your dojo.

May 24, 2009
The Invisible Man

An invisible man is only invisible to someone who can see. The property of sight makes being invisible possible.

I ran across a mention of the invisible man today and that thought flashed instantly into my head. In a very similar way a hurtful, spiteful, vengeful, irritating, annoying and otherwise man is only such to someone who can receive those things from him.

If you can't, don't or won't feel hurt, spited, venged upon, irritated or annoyed, the person acting that way toward you loses all power they may have had. It's that simple. Emotional harm can only be inflicted on someone who allows himself to feel harmed.

Physical harm is something else of course, and what we usually assume we're preparing for when we practice the martial arts, but budo can go deeper than that.

The difference between emotional harm and physical harm is that with the first we can receive the attack and have no harm, while with the second we must avoid the attack to have no harm.

But in learning how to avoid physical harm we must also learn how to receive emotional attacks without being affected by them. If we can be goaded into fighting, or distracted by rage, or thrown off balance by shocking language, we won't be able to perform our budo. On the other hand, if we can let emotional attacks pass straight through us we can avoid most physical confrontations and a great deal of the stress that will kill us more surely than a knife in the back alley will.

I have had little problem letting the immediate emotional attack pass me by over the years, but my problem has been the "secondary" attack, the realization that someone who is close to me is trying to hurt me or to "push my buttons". The words and deeds themselves don't bother me but the idea that someone I care for is deliberately trying to upset me has made me upset for decades. It is only recently that I have been able to start throwing off this secondary burden.

Unfortunately I still struggle with the "third person" attack where someone who is angry at me tries to harm a third party we both care for. I really can't figure out what to do with this one, and it still makes me upset. After all the third party is always an innocent bystander and I always feel that their pain is somehow my fault, even though I know they're being hurt by someone trying to hurt me through them.

Apr 5, 2009
Be Careful What you Read

I am trying to get back to writing the books I have had hanging over my head for many years but I have to be careful when I'm working on them at home. When I have a fast connection to the internet it's too easy to take a bit of a break and check out a discussion forum to see what's up.

Problem is, I often find my thoughts derailed by the egotistical ranting of experts, so much so that I lose all desire to write. I'm talking about those who have a little bit of an insight and then post over and over, hinting about some hidden knowledge they possess but won't share.

It makes me want to throw up my hands and go practice.

Now I do know better, I really do and nothing forces me to go look at the discussions online but occasionally there are some good thoughts that come up, and sometimes I can answer a question... sometimes find an answer.

The latest "revelation" that is slowly being dragged out of one of these experts is that in some sword schools a hit on a bokuto during a kata is actually not intended to be a hit on a bokuto.


I'm sure it will take another three or four days before our hero finally says it, and then he'll say it over and over again for months before disappearing again. He's had other secrets before and tends to follow the same pattern.

Just to set the record straight for anyone reading this here, kata are sometimes not what they appear, and you should instantly say "duh" when reading that. Here's an example, in Uchida-ryu tanjo there's a kata called kobushi kudaki which means "fist smashing". In it the defender is attacked by a sword cut to the side, the walking stick blocks the sword, then strikes down the sword and finally strikes the swordsman on the head.

What? Why is it called kobushi kudaki when we hit the sword and the head...

Umm. It's a secret?

There, I got that out of my system and can probably go back to my writing now.

This derailment from work doesn't only happen when I'm trying to write about martial arts. Looking at images on the net can prevent me from picking up my camera and taking pictures. It isn't that I see so much good stuff that I'm discouraged, it's that I see so much crap that I despair. What's the point of trying to do good work when it will only get lost in a sea of banality.

The fragmentary nature of the net also tends to disrupt any sort of linear thought development. An art project or a book requires a clean, clear mind which holds the main idea so that the work has a unified theme and the development of the ideas from base to conclusion. The net is just so much chaff flowing around in the wind, it gets in your eyes and between your teeth. You can't see, you can't speak clearly, you're just distracted and frustrated.

Better to go sweep the kitchen floor for a break while working on big projects. Late at night when you can't sleep and you're bored is probably the best time to surf the net.

Apr 4, 2009