Sunday, April 15, 2012

The 24th anual International Seminar on Budo Culture

This past March, I was excited to attend the 24th annual International Seminar of Budo Culture. For those of us—shall we say “fascinated”—by the martial arts, this is an opportunity to meet and train with like-minded people from around the world. Every year, the International Budo University, in conjunction with the Nippon Budokan, hosts this seminar on budo culture and practice in Katsuura. From March 9th to the 12th, over a hundred foreigners met in Katsuura for the four day seminar. This year’s topic was the introduction of the martial arts in Japan’s school curriculum.

The International Seminar on Budo Culture is open to foreign residents of Japan who hold at least a shodan in some modern Budo art. Over the course of the four day seminar, participants have the chance to train with some of the world’s leading sensei in their chosen Budo. In addition, participants are encouraged to try styles of Budo they may never have experienced. When not training, participants attend a series of lectures on Budo history and modern practice. Because martial arts will become a requirement in middle school physical education this year, many lectures focused on the values of budo education. Other speakers addressed worries about preserving the principals of budo while teaching such short units in a middle school gymnasium.
For the majority of us, however, the lectures were somewhat counterpoint to our real purpose for attending the seminar: the chance to surround ourselves by other people who have dedicated their lives to the practice of Budo. It is sometimes hard to convey to a non-initiate the importance that Judo, Karate, kendo or one of the other martial arts plays in our lives. At this seminar, though, we all understood one-another.

Having grown up in Michigan, where you can tell the season by the type of hunting friends and family are engaging in, I learned to shoot bow and wander around in the woods with my father from a very young age. I therefore couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try out “Kyudo” or the Japanese style of archery. I was a little curious to see how the Japanese sensei would react to a visually impaired man picking up a bow and asking to shoot, but I was with a good group of friends who I knew wouldn’t even blink. To my great pleasure, the Sensei was delighted to have me.

Kyudo is practiced with the Japanese style of longbow or “yumi”. This bow, typically made from bamboo, is unique for its asymmetric shape. Tall—over two-meters when strung—the bow has two-thirds of its length above the grip and one-third of its length below. The longer, gentler curved top helps for distance when shooting while the shorter, more sharply curved bottom provides for greater power. Japanese arrows or “ya” are likewise bamboo and very long to accommodate the wide draw on the bow. Unlike western bows, in which the arrow rests on top of the grip on the inside between the bow and archer, the ya rests on the archer’s thumb on the outside of the yumi. Even drawing a Japanese longbow is different from a western style bow. A special, hard glove or “yugake” is worn to protect the hand. The first two fingers wrap around the bowstring and tuck into the pocket of the thumb. To release, the two fingers spring open as the hand is pulled back.
Ironically, hitting the target is not as important in Japanese archery as in western archery. Some would say, in fact, that hitting the target is a pleasing side effect of beautiful Kyudo. Kyudo is often linked with Japanese Zen and, therefore, is a meditative art. The aesthetic and focused procedure, correctly breathing, raising and drawing the bow is most fundamental to modern interpretations of this art. So why not give a blind man a bow and arrow?

The Kyudo sensei who taught our introductory seminar was excited to teach me the “way of the bow”. So much so, he asked me to please come again on the following day. I had already signed up for an introductory class on Sumo, however, and could not make it back for a second Kyudo lesson. When I spoke to the Kyudo sensei over breakfast our final morning at the seminar, he expressed disappointment that I did not make it for a second Kyudo lesson. He had, in fact, went and bought a beeper to place on the target so I could aim. I was honestly touched by his sincere and genuine interest in making the art more accessible to me.

As I mentioned above, the reason I could not attend a second Kyudo lesson is the fact I was learning some Sumo. As most people know, Sumo is the quintessential Japanese sport. Though we call it “Sumo wrestling” in English, it is much more a game of momentum and balance than is wrestling. Sumo “wrestlers” seek to unbalance their opponent using their great strength and weight. This is achieved by side-stepping an opponent, by dropping one’s center of gravity below their opponent or by using a technique to gain the upper hand. A sumo wrestler wins a match by pushing his opponent outside the “dohyo” (ring) or by forcing an opponent to touch the ground with something other than the souls of his feet.
In our short, introductory Sumo lesson we were taught some of the basic stretches and exercises Sumo wrestlers perform every day. The famous sumo stomp—called “shiko”—involves balancing on one leg while lifting the other leg sideways as high as possible. This position is then held for several seconds before dropping back to the floor and lifting the opposite leg. Shiko, we were told, is generally performed up to three-hundred times before a sumo practice and another two-hundred times after. Incredibly, we watched two sumo wrestlers perform “matawari”, in which the sumo wrestlers basically did the splits until they were completely seated on the ground and then slowly bent forward to lay their torsos and faces flat.
After stretching and a few other basic technique drills, we each got to enter in the ring with a sumo wrestler. Though the matches only lasted about 10 seconds, it was encredible to feel the sheer power behind the professionals. Not to speak overly much of my personal life here… but that sumo wrestler had the biggest pair of tits I have ever felt…. Ever. Absolutely. Encredible. Disturbing.

In my next entry, I will talk more about the Judo and Aikido training I did while at the budo seminar. There were some great people around, especially for Aikido, and I want to dedicate an entire entry to them.

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