Monday, May 25, 2009

We no longer need a Dojo.

In the post Learning outside the dojo I said that with the information being available from so many sources you are able to learn outside the dojo. This begs the question do you still need to attend a dojo at all?

I have had the good fortune to visit several martial arts training venues in and around my home town over the last 15 years. Some have had a very traditional feel, complete with kamisa in the training area, sprung wooden floors and Japanese calligraphy on the walls to very informal, which are simply a hired scout hall with chairs piled high around the walls where you have to drag the mats out from under the stage when practicing throws or falls. I have even been told of a particular Ninjutsu school nearby where on visiting, the class consisted of watching a video and then practicing what they saw on the video. The students seemed satisfied with the result so is there anything wrong in doing things this way? So given the wide range of venues which are all considered dojo's do you really need to visit one in order to train effectively?

Well in my opinion YES! The dojo, irrespective of its fittings and furnishings is the primary place of instruction. The dojo environment, is where the student must be taught the basics of respect and discipline. It is also in the dojo environment that the instructor/sensei can impart* knowledge to the student. Sure, I am all for self study and believe I am sufficiently proficient in a variety of styles and techniques to learn from videos and books BUT it is in the confines of the dojo that these techniques move out of the theoretical into the functional realm. It is only under the supervision of an instructor that some techniques can be safely practiced in order to become part of the ready arsenal of the samurai today.

Take a very simple punch. This technique is found everywhere, from the pre-school play ground to the local pub. So everyone knows how to punch right... right? Wrong! clenching a fist and throwing it at someone else does not constitute a punch. Correctly rolling your fist will ensure you do not break fingers or knuckles when you make contact. Then all the aspects of keeping the muscles relaxed until the moment of impact. Rotating the fist and ensuring you strike with the first two knuckles and the fist horizontal, punching from the heal through the hip allows you to generate board breaking power. Do not tense the shoulders... I have just touched the surface of a basic Karate punch. What about the vertical fist used for the basic wushu punch... is this poor technique?

The dojo creates the required environment for this learning to take place. While training, your senior students and instructors can keep an eye on what is happening and correct a technique so that you practice a good technique rather than reinforcing bad technique.

But what happens if there just is not a suitable dojo where you stay? Ah, here is a real problem. One I am struggling with as I make plans to move to a new country. I would love to hear your comments and then I'll use these comments along with my thoughts on the issue to draft a post on Samurai Today. I look forward to hearing from you.

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*impart... This is a topic for another post, and I will visit it again later. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Learning outside the dojo

The Samurai never stopped learning. It did not matter whether he was improving his sword technique or practicing his calligraphy or spending time at the temple. He was always seeking more knowledge. Today there is so much information available that the modern martial artist has no excuse for not continually gaining knowledge. bulk of my knowledge of martial arts has been build up over many hours in the dojo. All the while picking up more bruises and bumps, striking makiwara or rehearsing kata. This is the way it must be. Or is it?
As an engineer I have spent the eleven years after my graduation continually learning about engineering, but not always in the class room context. Some has been research, some by working with other engineers, some by making lots of mistakes; bumping my head repeatedly and some from various publications and forums dedicated to engineering. I have even learned some engineering from watching discovery channel. Why should my martial arts be any different?

Musashi wrote in Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings): "It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way."

This can be interpreted as seeking knowledge not only in the sword, but in the book is the way of the warrior. Today we have vast resources at our disposal. We have vast libraries with many books on martial arts and history. You are reading this thanks to the Internet which also has many pages which have varying degrees of authority and are a source of learning. A google search for "Kenjutsu" came up with 292 000 pages while "Samurai" has more than 37 million. The information is available.
Here however you do need to be careful. Do not blindly believe anything and everything you find when searching the Internet. That is so important I am going to say it again.
 Do not blindly believe anything and everything you find when searching the Internet.
Most of the content is not in any way audited or moderated so it is very possible that it is of little value. But even identifying what is obviously false is a form of learning.

So apart from what my sensei teaches in class, what other sources of instruction do I use?
I'm very glad you asked. First and foremost, I read quite a bit. Many of the books I have I read many times over. I also enjoy watching films. Some old classics like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro have interesting lessons on character and history and the way of the Samurai. Yes Kurosawa san, the director of the films I have just mentioned was born into a samurai family. I also watch and re-watch some of the instructional videos in my collection. Video's like 'Crimson Steel' by Obata Toshishiro and Donald J Angier's 'Kenjitsu' series are full of great value. Lastly I use the Internet.

I find that reading a description of a technique in a book to be the most difficult way to learn, and this only really works when I have someone to train with me so we can try and put the words into action together. Obviously this will hold true for any written word, since it is very difficult to describe every movement and attitude of the body in the written word. The next is from videos. Here too there are varying degrees of benefit. I have seen some video's with very poor production quality; The artist stepping out of shot to reposition camera, and technical quality; The artists are not very skilled in the performance of the particular techniques. These can still be beneficial in that even seeing what someone does incorrectly may be key on perfecting the technique or helping me to better explain something to a student. It is also realistic to believe that even if a martial artists is particularly skilled at martial arts he may not present that well on camera. If you are able to look past this and still find value in a piece of video you have a great source of additional and differing technique.

Now comes a warning. Do not let what you learn outside the dojo distract from what your instructor or sensei is teaching. It is very disrespectful to your sensei and the other students to interject in a class with; "but Sensei... James Williams does it like this in his video." or "Don Angier said this or that." The correct response should you do this is to go outside and cut your belly - Harra Kiri! In the dojo you follow what your instructor does without any disrespect. If you would like to offer a different point of view or highlight a different insight then make very sure you have permission from your instructor before you raise it in the class context. It is probably best to discuss this in an informal setting before you bring it up during a class.

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If you would like to get your own copies of the videos I spoke about in this post. I really recommend them. You can get them by clicking the links below. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

James Clavell's Shogun TV Miniseries

There is a special on 'TV series' and James Clavell's Shogun DVD boxed sets are available for £16.98. This is less than half price. Not bad for nine hours of mini-series and one hour of special features. I bought this set a couple of years back and have watched it at least twice. It truly is a spectacle.
The complete collection of Shogun tells the story of John Blackthorne (Chamberlain), an English navigator who finds himself shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. Once rescued, Blackthorne becomes an eyewitness to a deadly struggle involving Toranaga, a feuding Japanese warlord intent on becoming Shogun - the supreme military dictator. Blackthorne is, despite his better judgement, irresistibly drawn into the turmoil and finds himself vying to become the first ever ‘Gai-Jin’ (foreigner) to be made a Samurai warrior.
You can get the Book Shogun for £5.84... or maybe even £1.05 if you are happy with a second hand copy. This is a truly great book. Here are some of the reviews:
'My bet for the most satisfyingly popular novel of the year . . . It has power, it has violence, subtlety and lots, lots more . . . Clavell never puts a foot wrong . . . Get it, read it, you'll enjoy it mightily' (Daily Mirror )

'SHOGUN is a huge exotic, blood-stained canvas of sixteenth century but still medieval Japan, rival warlords and proselytising Jesuits, geishas, seppuku, samurai with the death-with and a shipwrecked Elizabethan' (Guardian )

'Mr Clavell tells his story brilliantly' (The Times )

'One of the great page turners of all time' ( Good Book Guide )

'I can’t remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one. It’s irresistable, maybe unforgettable. Clavell ... creates a world so enveloping you forget who and where you are' (New York Times ) 

You might even consider getting both the DVD miniseries and the Book for £22.82, you will find the link marked "Frequently Bought Together" if you click on the book link.

I'm not sure how long these prices will hold, so if you come back to this page and the prices I have quoted in the text and the prices you see in the links are not the same, accept that you missed out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Training to be Samurai

Although I will never be a Samurai because I am not Japanese and have not been born into a Samurai family, I do train and work everyday in an effort to grow into the image I have of the samurai. On this road there have been several influences from various teachers and masters. To honour them and give value to the Samurai Today readers, I will, over the next few weeks talk about them.

The first person in this series is my sensei and friend Eugene Botha. I first met Eugene when I joined his Karate dojo in 1995 or ‘96. He is younger than I am but has a character and authority which makes it easy to learn from him.

I was always impressed with his knowledge of karate and his mastery of kata, but was really drawn to his abilities in kumite or free sparring. During sparring it became very clear that he is a superb artist, adaptable and confident without any of the arrogance which is sometimes shown in the Hollywood image of the Karate Master.

I remember one session probably around 1998 just before a long weekend where I was frustrated by my inability to defend against a particular technique. My frustration boiled over into action and I attempted to wrestle him to the ground with a bear hug. This was probably my most painful by most valuable lesson. Eugene sensei responded to my attack with several elbow strikes to the top of my head and shoulders to break my grip and then insisted we continue sparring. For the next, what felt like an eternity, he proceeded to strike my thighs with shin strikes every time I came near, a technique favoured by the kick boxers since if you can’t stand you can’t kick. Every time I backed away he beckoned me to come close. All the while with a wry smile on his face.

That long weekend seemed like an eternity as I was bruised and sore and couldn’t understand why he had treated me so harshly. The sparring of that evening kept playing over and over in my mind. What had I done to deserve such harsh treatment? I will not go back! Or I’ll go back and tell him that I will not return after the month has finished. After the weekend, my bruised ego had healed a bit and I had had a chance to rethink the events which had lead to the mild beating I had received. My anger had been replaced by a deep respect for this man whom I had disrespected by loosing my temper. Eugene had firmly taught me to manage my anger and frustrations and above all, never to show disrespect for your opponent/friend/instructor.

Eugene Sensei responds to a student who asks "Sensei, can I do this?" with an emphatic "Yes! You have just done it. It is not the technique we are training, but you can do it." All the while with the same wry smile on his face.

Eugene went on to become a Doctor of traditional medicine and runs a successful Body Talk practice. Over and above this he runs the I-Shin Do Ken Kenjutsu Heiho in Robin Hills, Johannesburg.

Eugene has always shunned the idea of chasing gradings preferring rather to concentrate on learning and personal growth. This has not stopped him from preparing the students who wish to grade for gradings. I was impressed by the fact that all his students who went to the area gradings always had excellent spirit and performed exceptionally well.

Of all the martial artists I have personally met he is by far the most versatile with an extremely diverse skill set which includes, but is not limited to, Kenjutsu, Jojutsu, Aikido and Karate. Eugene also has an appreciation of the true Japanese Sword; nihonto, and much of my interest and knowledge on the subject has grown under his influence. Many of the other people I hold in high regard and will talk about in future articles would never have even come up on my radar had it not been for the instruction I received from Eugene Botha sensei.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Features of the "Samurai Today" Blog site

I would like to show you some of the useful features on this website and how using them will help you get even more value from Samurai Today.
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    Monday, May 4, 2009

    Top five Samurai Sword Websites

    Over the last few years my admiration of the katana, and more specifically the Nihonto has grown. This has resulted in a considerable amount of bandwidth expended in research. ‘Research’ is a euphemistic way of saying that time I should have been working, I spent surfing the Internet.

    So here is a list of my top 5 websites to drool over the Katana or Samurai sword.

    1. Nihonto Australia - This website has a large selection of blades. The resolution of the pictures is not that great. Taking good photo’s of a blade which shows the features properly is not an easy task.
      My engineering mind rebels against their repeated errors of the length of the swords. They insist on giving the length in cm, but stating that it is mm a katana does not have a blade length of 68.3 mm.

    2. - The guys at have also put a lot of work into displaying the work of modern Japanese smiths. When I visited the site recently they did not have a lot of blades for sale, but their gallery is definitely worth visiting.

    3. Rice Cracker - this is not the most user friendly site to navigate. The high quality pictures showing hamon activity in detail are at least 3 clicks away. They do have very good quality photo’s which show the swords beautifully.

    4. Nihonto Antiques - Another site which is not particularly pretty at first glance. You can however find great pictures of nihonto with just one click. The pictures of the products on offer are very good with a rather nice montage for each sword.

    5. - The site appears very cluttered with lots of highlighted and coloured text on the home page. They do however offer lots of information on the swords they have on offer and have good photographs of the blades. My only complaint with this site is that they do not include prices on the site, but then again if you have to ask you probably can not afford it.

    If you have any other website you think should be added to this list please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

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    The Book of Five Rings

    It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. - Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Geshin