Kurai Dori: Taking Control through Skilled Footwork

Last Thursday, Chikushin Group held an event called Shochūgeiko (暑中稽古), which is a special training done during the hot days of summer. It took place on the beach in full training attire, which proved to be challenging. Due to the differences in training grounds, we were able to work on certain principles we would’ve normally not get a chance. One of these was on the lesson of kurai dori. For this article, we’ll look into the meaning behind this word, how it applies to martial arts, and how we approached this during this special training on the beach.

Kurai dori (位取り) means taking control over a situation through an advantageous position. This is a form of lesson that is found in many Japanese martial systems. It is easier to analyze this through a 1-on-1 scenario, where one person takes the high ground on uneven terrain, or has the sun behind their back. This directly influences the type of kamae (構え), or posture, one uses, accordingly. When both sides are on even grounds in the conflict, then it’s a matter of skill in one’s footwork and movement when fighting is unavoidable. This was part of the theme for our event on the beach, which made it an invaluable lesson for those who took up this challenge.

For example, one segment in the event involved running on the sand. While it sounds simple, it can feel sluggish as most people will drive their force downward into the sand. This makes us sink down abit while we won’t move as fast as we’d like to. However, to really move nimbly requires ability to carrying one’s weight in a way where each step becomes lighter. We put this to the test through drills where two people then run at each other with sword in hand, and the defender needed to evade an overhead cut from the opponent in order to successfully counterattack. Understanding the principle behind carrying one’s weight, which we call ukimi no ho (浮身の法) in our group, is vital for this.

Another point we explored involved taking the initiative while running towards an opponent with a sword thrust. For one was the idea of initiating this slightly beyond our cutting range while low profiling. If done correctly, we will connect with our opponent before he/she can strike us with their own sword. We looked at a few ways to make this safe for us in case our opponent is skilled enough to dodge. One was to use momentum from our run to keep going, for if we missed, we would be able to avoid any counter attack by running by and making distance that would be safe to stop and turn around to once again face the opponent. The other would be to dig our feet into the sand while initiating the thrust, which will not only ground us so we can stop early, but puts us in a position where we can quickly re-adjust and spring upon our opponent with a follow up attack.

In short, the concept behind kurai dori has many layers based on the type of area, type of ground, and so on. Exploring this while on the beach was very fruitful, as our footwork and movements where greatly influenced by the conditions one faces while on sand. Looking forward to future events that allow practitioners to getting a different perspective to the lessons we normally train, but from a different environment.

The Ura Behind Kata Geiko

Today’s post is regarding recent kenjutsu training done by Chikushin group. It is more of a reiteration of verbal explanations given to students during those sessions. I also express it here for the public to get an idea of how Chikushin group conducts kobudō training.

In our kenjutsu training we’ve been studying a set of kata that focuses on defeating a stronger opponent. Within this are a few kata that uses the scenario where the both you and the opponent are in tsuba zeri-ai (鍔競り合い), which means locking swords together by the swordguard. While dependant on the martial system and their philosophy, this can be a common occurance between two sword duelists where both sides close the distance and are trying to overpower the other. Similarly, this can be seen in today’s kendō.

Example of tsuba zeri-ai in a kendō match. From Wikipedia.

When looking at these particular kata as presented in our group, they present a scenario where the defender must use specific techniques to defeat their opponent who uses tsuba zeri-ai. However, before learning these, we must spend time understanding how to properly apply tsuba zeri-ai and win with it. 

In kata geiko (形稽古, practicing pre-set forms), the one who’s applying the technique as the defender may be viewed as doing the “true” style of one’s kenjutsu, while the attacker is not. This is actually not correct. In fact, we have to also study what is being done by the attacker, as it is very critical for the defender’s technique to work. In the case of tsuba zeri-ai, we initially study the finer details of this technique, from how it can occur when two fighters’ swords clash together, to how to properly initiate it ourselves. It is necessary to apply proper timing, leverage, and power in order to overwhelm another through this. In the end, tsuba zeri-ai becomes a tool in our arsenal, furthering our skill level. This is the ura (裏), or unspoken rules, in studying classical martial arts.

There are plenty of unspoken rules not only in kata geiko, but in many of the components found in classical martial arts. It is just more apparent when training in set forms during katageiko as-is, for if we only focus on what the defender is doing, we will only get a small piece of the puzzle. On top of this, one cannot properly defend against an attack that is not there. It is up to the instructor to ensure that students learn the ins & outs of every kata properly. This includes performing a real technique by the attacker role.

Again, in the case of tsuba zeri-ai, if the attacker doesn’t understand how to apply his/her technique correctly in order to lock swords together, the defender won’t be able to feel the pressure necessary in learning the proper rhythm to counter the opponent. It is the same as blocking a simple punch; if we don’t engage in repetitive drills ahead of time regarding how to deliver a punch with proper power, speed, and from an adequate distance, kata that involve defense against this won’t work.

To get an idea of how tsuba zeri-ai is applied in motion, check out our Chikushin Arts Instagram account. There, you’ll find the exact video posted recently from which the pics above were taken from, along with the complete outcome of the scenario that was demonstrated. On top of that, you’ll also find other kobudō-related pics and videos posted regularly to keep our Instagram account active.

Understanding Te no Uchi

A topic that often comes up no matter how long a person studies martial arts is what he/she should be doing with their hands during x, or how they should manipulate their weapon during y. These examples are generally related to te no uchi (手の内), which is an important area of training that is introduced to many beginners of martial arts, yet is deep enough in principles that even advanced practitioners continue to work on.

Te no uchi refers to how you wield a weapon in your hands. It is not limited to just how one holds a weapon, but goes as far as how to manipulate it, how to do certain strikes, how one’s hands change grips, how it is held based on one’s posture, and so on. You’ll hear this used for many weapon-based martial systems such as kenjutsu (剣術), kyūdō (弓道), sōjutsu (槍術), and so on. However, it is not just used for when you possess an object in your hand, for te no uchi is also used for hand-to-hand martial systems like karate (空手) and taijutsu (体術), for in essence even a martial artist’s hands are a “weapon”.

Let’s refer to the te no uchi of the naginata. One of the basic te no uchi often taught very early is keeping a consistent grip style with the right hand on top and left hand on bottom similar to wielding a katana. This is reminiscent to how it was used on the battlefield in the past especially in troop formation. Another te no uchi taught is how to switch hand positions, which is important depending on the situation and type of naginata being used. The following example below illustrate this when doing repeated horizontal cuts.

① The initial grip (left pic) is important, as it determines the te no uchi for the right horizontal swing.

② Finishing the swing, the right hand turns the naginata vertically (left pic), from which the left hand slides up and switches place with the right hand (middle pic). Through this a transition to a horizontal swing using the intended te no uchi can be established.

③ Finishing the left horizontal swing, same action is performed again, this time left hand bringing the naginata vertical (middle pic), then switching with the right hand (right pic). Repeat.

This is a step-by-step demonstration on how to achieve this switching of hands in order to maintain a specific reach with the naginata. Of course, as one becomes proficient, this manipulation will become smoother & natural. However, the overall execution of this te no uchi will still remain as long as it’s properly ingrained in the body.

Another scenario concerning te no uchi can be seen during kenjutsu, when two practitioners lock their katana together in tsuba zeri ai (鍔競合い). When the skill level between the two are about even, the one with the better te no uchi can get the upper hand. For example, it is advantageous to understand the moment when to push the opponent’s hands up through the use of one’s tsuka (柄, sword handle), or how to twist one’s hands to utilize the tsuba (鍔, sword guard) to push the opponent’s sword to the side in order to break through their defense, which is possible through the use of advanced te no uchi.

In ending, te no uchi is one of the basics found in Japanese martial arts that is learned very early in training. It’s critical that beginners practice this in order to progress in their respectful martial system. Yet, it is something that can not be forgotten and left behind, as it continues to define a practitioner’s proficiency even in advanced techniques. Thus, te no uchi is a fundamental skill that can be worked on even for a lifetime.

Learning from Coded Instructions

When studying kobudō (Japanese traditional martial arts), you tend to run into many terminology that are coded. This use of wording is a form of encryption to hide the true nature of said lessons or techniques from falling into the hands of a rivaling martial system in the past. In modern times, it is much easier to decipher such jargon due to the openness of martial knowledge by many teachers and avid students. On one hand, these coded words express a lot about the mentality of past Japanese masters based on the environment they lived in, as well as the culture they grew up with, which in itself can be lessons to enrich one’s training.

An example of coded description can be seen in this one line from a document I am currently translating called “Tsuki no Shō” (月之抄), which is a study guide for those who are training in the kenjutsu of Shinkage ryū Hyōhō (新陰流兵法). The line goes as the following:

水月にて 座ト太体之手字ニ身ヲひねり掛ケ 一尺ヲカカへて打へし」

To summarize the line, it outlines how to go about trapping an opponent’s sword. While everything is straightforward, what is not is the part that is in red, which is read as “suigetsu¹”. This is a very common, poetic word that is used within many different fields of interest throughout Japan’s history. A general translation for this would be “water & moon”. In Japanese martial arts it tends to represent the area near one’s solar plexus. However, in the line stated above this would be incorrect. Not to be translated literally, it’s actually interpreted as “when the moon is visible on the surface water”. When read during a description of a sword dueling technique, one would be perplexed as to why this rather flowery, out-of-place visualization is there in the 1st place. Fortunately, after conversing with those who study Shinkage ryū Hyōhō, as well as doing some research on my end, I’ve come to learn that this simple word is actually a coded word for taking proper distance.

Much of what is learned from coded instructions require proper guidance from an instructor, as well as a great amount of training which entails going through trial & error. Just because it is understood that suigetsu refers to distance, distinguishing the point when “the moon is clearly visible on the water” still requires experience. This can be applied to even to the basics of kenjutsu. Let’s take Jōdan no kamae² (上段の構え) as an example. Jōdan no kamae is a universal posture in many martial systems where a sword is held above one’s head. It is considered to be a very strong posture due to being able to deliver a lethal blow to one’s opponent’s head. On the other hand, it is also deemed the most vulnerable, as there is little defense offered for most of the body. Even with these points explained, there are still factors that play a part in how one can take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of Jōdan no kamae. At what range would you get cut if you assume this posture? When can you successfully strike down the opposition through this posture? Actively training and going through trial & error as you put these points to the test will usually provide an answer.

Within the kenjutsu of Kukishin ryū (九鬼神流) which my group studies, are also coded instructions. One of the 1st lessons students learn is the concept of issoku itto (一足一刀), which helps to understand the range where two people’s swords meet. Of course, it goes further than this, as students learn the proper footwork to advance or withdraw in regards to the reach of their swords. Another one can be seen in the kata called kasugai (鎹止). The name for this kata comes from a small interlocking staple-like bolt used to join two pieces of wood together when constructing buildings centuries ago in Japan. For this kata, the idea of “bolting down” one’s opponent is taken from this carpenter’s tool. Of course, the type of footwork, distance and angles required to make this happen requires proper explanation and demonstration in order to grasp this idea.

In conclusion, learning from coded terminology in Japanese martial arts can be a perplexing experience, even when guided by proper instructions. Yet, if one takes the time to understand the reasoning behind it, as well as make use of the visual representation that is part of the Japanese culture, coded instructions can help boost one’s training experience. Of course, this is a case-by-case matter, and depends on whether a practitioner is able to embrace such a manner of instructions.


1) Depending on the martial system, can also be referred to as mizoochi (鳩尾).

2) Depending on the martial system, this kamae is also referred to by different names.

Revisiting Measurements for Training Weapons

In a previous post from a few years back, I spoke about the importance of measurements for one’s weapons according to the martial system being studied. There, it was mentioned how necessary it is to wield weapons that have proper dimensions according to our body type when we are beginners. For this post, we will take this same subject and look at it from another perspective, where I discuss about the strong points of training with weapons of irregular dimensions in kobudō (古武道, Classical Japanese martial arts) as an advanced student.

PROCESS OF HANDLING WEAPONS OF UNCONVENTIONAL LENGTHS

When first starting out, a student is required to acquire training weapons that fit their body type in order to study the lessons correctly. After some time has passed where the student has become familiar with a particular weapon of a standard length, they should next come out of their comfort zone and handle one of a different length. Sometimes this can be impromptu during class, or other times the focus of the lesson can be placed on this point. There are many reasons behind this. For starters, to further understand the principles for said weapon, whether it be a sword or staff, one has to be exposed to conditions that teach us lessons that go beyond just the physical. Distance, timing, and positioning are just some of the principles that require being explored under not-so-usual conditions.

An example of bokutō (wooden swords) of different lengths

For starters, against an adversary with a sanjaku dachi (三尺太刀, a Japanese sword that measures about three feet), a rokushaku bō (六尺棒, six-foot stick) provides a great reach that allows the wielder to perform ashibarai (足払, leg sweep) from a safe distance. Yet, when given a sanjaku bō (三尺棒, three-foot stick), you won’t have the same advantage as before. Still, with further training and having a deep understanding of the principles of one’s art, you can still perform an ashibarai to defeat an opponent without getting cut down.

USING DIFFERENT WEAPONS TO LEARN SAME SKILLS

Sometimes the same set of kata for one particular weapon is used to teach how to use another weapon even if it’s a different size. This is another challenging point that can further support an martial system’s ideology across a different span of weapons. For example, some traditional schools in Japan have used the kata for the naginata as a means to learn how to wield the yari. Others have used the kata for the katana to understand how to utilize the kusarigama. each of these weapons have unique traits that provide interesting results, especially in the case of the kusarigama; a sickle with a flexible chain & weight takes a great amount of understanding and control if pitted in the same scenario where a katana would be used.

Next, there are those kata where one performs with a katana, but then later does it with a much longer sword like an ōdachi, or with a much smaller one like a kodachi. All three are categorized as swords, but with varying lengths. For an advanced student, one of the greatest challenges here is understanding the strengths & weaknesses of the weapon in hand, and how it affects not only the control (or lack of) they may gain, but also how their opponent will react based on how each weapon is manipulated.

IDEA OF ANYTHING AS A WEAPON

When an adequate amount of training has been put in, an advanced student should begin to develop the ability  to use anything that comes into hand. Looking the development of different martial systems in Japan’s history from the 1500s onward, many incorporated the study of multiple weapons in the form of sōgō bujutsu (総合武術, martial system featuring numerous disciplines). This not only encouraged bushi (武士, warriors) to be familiar in many different skills, but to be resourceful enough to use anything that they could get their hands on, including their opponent’s own weapon. The same mentality remains in various martial arts schools even today.

Many countries have very strict laws against carrying weapons, even those for self defense purposes. While it may seem impractical to study classical systems that specialize in the use of the yari, kusarigama, and so forth, this isn’t truth. Much of what is learned can be applied to common tools and items we find around ourselves everyday. An umbrella substituted for a sanjaku bō, a shovel used in place of a yari, or even a belt wielded like a kusarifundō are but examples of adapting one’s training for self-defense in today’s contemporary world. With a thorough understanding of the principles necessary for this through consistent training, it is possible to naturally use any common item in your environment as a weapon without getting caught up in small details such as being the “correct” length with the iaitō used in training, and so on.

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In conclusion, working with weapons of different dimensions during training has its merits for advanced students. This can range from handling same-type weapons of varying lengths to using a specific to learn another different weapon type. In the end, a student should be able to go past form & structure of a particular weapon and grasp a deep understanding of the principles behind what make it work. Achieving this, that student will be able to reach the outcome they so desire despite the length of said weapon being slightly off of what would normally fit their body type.

Attire and the Evolution of Martial Arts

Many organizations, groups, and clubs that study Japanese martial arts usually have specific training attires. Some, that are treated as uniforms, help to identify what is being studied, or the style/school everyone belongs to. Other attires may represent following a tradition  of strict rules, or modern schools that are more loose in structure. Training attire is more than just looks, but actually have an effect in the evolution of martial arts. For today’s post, I will focus on this point through the changes that took place in the martial style called jūjutsu (柔術)¹, which is the predecessor to today’s jūdō (柔道)².

FROM PAST TO PRESENT

The history of training attire is not as long as one would think. Before Japan’s peaceful times, there was no standard clothing one needed to wear. However, after the unification of Japan in the 1600s, there were several pushes for standardization. This is especially true once martial arts schools increased and, for the sake of business, having a modest sized student base was a desire.

A pic of Maeda Mitsuyo. Although he is renown as a jūdōka (practitioner of jūdō), his training attire is reminiscent of the shorter sleeves and pants those who trained in jūjutsu would wear. Screenshot from International Suigetsujuku Bujutsu Association.

Jūjutsu became a well-established martial system from the Edo period onward due to the peaceful, yet regulated society everyone was living in. Despite the shift from battlefield confrontations, martial artists at the time still needed to rely on skills to defend against attacks in town, or to use for work. Jūjutsu of old is recognized for throwing and restraining techniques, but also utilized strikes and weapons. As a system that taught bearing a mindset for effectiveness in a fight, the training attire also reflected this.

Around the late 1800s, as a more competitive approach was taken in martial arts, a man by the name of Kanō Jigoro³ took a chance to transform jūjutsu in a way where it could be more accessible to many without the risk of serious injuries from the more combat-focus techniques, such as atemiwaza (当身技). Taking the nagewaza (投げ技), gatamewaza (固め技), and ashiwaza (足技) from various koryū jūjutsu he either studied or researched, Mr. Kanō developed a new approach for engaging in grappling in a more health-conscious & sports-centric fashion, which he called jūdō. Training attire also changed to cater to this new system, where the sleeves of the jacket was made longer, the pant legs reached lower, and the clothing was made baggy overall. As a sport, the larger uniforms encouraged more frequent attempts to grapple and apply techniques. Thus, jūdō is a martial art that is actively trained in by both men & women, and young & old.

LOOKING AT TRAINING ATTIRE

From what can be learned from antique koryū scrolls, jūjutsuka (柔術家, meaning those who train in jūjutsu) wore a short-sleeve jacket. An advantage of this was to avoid having your sleeves used against you, where it can be grabbed for control or get you thrown. Also, their hakama (袴, wide-leg pants) was at times shorter, where it reached slightly above the knees, or just generally slimmer. This allowed for less restriction in footwork. In other scrolls, robe-like attire with no pants may have also been worn during jūjutsu training. This has a look of what would’ve been worn indoors or during hot days.

2 pages from a book called “Jujutsu Kenbo Zukai Hiken” (柔術剣棒図解秘訣), where jūjutsu techniques are demonstrated by those wearing a much older style of training attire.

From these old pictures, you’ll notice that while these martial artists shared the same style of clothing, these were not quite fitting to the word “uniform”. Each jūjutsuka’s training attire was very much the same as common wear, boosting different designs and patterns. This does illustrate a sense of practicality, where one learns how to utilize their skills in the very type of clothing they’d be wearing in case a confrontation does arise.

Later in the years, this style of training attire standardized around the Meiji period. The jacket was similar as before, but was more of what is called a dōgi (道着, training uniform), where it was generally white and used primarily for martial arts training. As before, the jacket is “han-sode” (半袖, short-sleeve) style. Instead of a short hakama, a simple short pants called “han-zubon” (半ズボン), which is similar to what was worn under hakama, became part of this new uniform. Still the same mindset for jūjutsu was retained.

COMPARISON OF THEN & NOW

While it’s safe to say that jūjutsu was the forefather of jūdō, make no mistake that they’re not the same. Jūdō takes a different approach, from how techniques are performed to rules. To say it simply, the difference is generally stated as the following:

  • Jūjutsu = kata geiko (形稽古)
  • Jūdō = randori (乱取り)

Although this is a direct statement, it’s not so cut & dry. First, let’s look into the specifics between the two. when studying older martial systems that specialize in jūjutsu, kata geiko is used to learn the techniques, timing, and under what types of situations can a person perform what through kata (形, forms). Movements are generally specific, while grappling techniques applied (with strikes acceptable to assist) in a way to prevent an opponent from escaping or even taking ukemi (受身, breakfall). On the other hand, jūdō uses a great deal of randori to practice and learn techniques in a more active setting between 2 jūdōka (柔道家, a person who practices jūdō) who are frequently going for a clinch. This type of training is great for the adrenaline-fueled matches found in jūdō competition. In short, the training that takes place in randori is much more free form, while kata geiko puts emphasis on precision under structured scenarios.

A visual comparison between jūjutsu and jūdō. Notice the shorter sleeves and pant legs for the 2 jūjutsuka (left) compared to the longer versions for the 2 jūdōka (right). Left pic is a screenshot from International Suigetsujuku Bujutsu Association, while the left pic is from Wikipedia.

While it is true that jūjutsu does have a great dependency on kata geiko, this doesn’t mean that randori, or some form of free play, isn’t used as a training tool. This can also be said for jūdō, for there are kata used to teach, as well as to publicly demonstrate, how techniques are executed. The approach for both systems are different, but not so one-sided.

Another difference lies in the clothing. When engaging with a training partner in jūjutsu, areas to actually grapple are limit. Students are often limited to grabbing the collar and jacket of their partner, as there are no long sleeves. While the bare arms can be seized, it won’t be firm grip. In jūdō, not only are the long sleeves of their jackets available, but one can get a firm grip and stay latched on. Also, with wearing long pants, a student can attempt many types of throws that go to he ground due to the legs being completely covered. For those who practiced jūjutsu in the past, this is not the case, for greater care in execution had to be considered in order to avoid bruising one’s knees and exposed legs while wearing short pants.

CONCLUSION

Here ends a short look at training attire and how it may help influence the changes that take place in martial arts. While the connection between jūjutsu and judo was used to illustrate this point, many other Japanese martial systems have a similar history where evolving with the times was impacted from the need to conform with the change in clothing.


1) Jūjutsu is generally labeled a a “grappling system”, but it’s a little more than that. In essence, it’s a hand-to-hand martial system that utilizes grapples, strikes, and (small) weapons. Due to Japan’s history of engaging in activities where one displays their strength through a wrestling-like fashion, grapples do play a larger role in jūjutsu.

2) Jūdō is a modern adaption of jūjutsu, which takes a more philosophical approach, and focuses on the development of a healthy body and refining the spirit. Note that the word “jūdō” is not a modern term itself, as its use can be found in a much older document called “Nihon Shinbu no Den” (日本神武の伝).

3) The creation of jūdō is a credited to Kanō Jigoro (嘉納治五郎). After studying the jūjutsu of Tenshin Shinyō ryū (天神真楊流) and Kitō ryū (起倒流) during his youth, Jigoro researched various jūjutsu systems to understand how to devise a new system that could be beneficial to all. In 1882, he opened up his own training hall called “Kōdōkan” (講道館), and introduced his unique style called jūdō.

Densho: The Importance of Note-Taking

The word “densho” is a common one which many who are involved in older Japanese martial systems are familiar with. It has a special place in many people’s minds to be a treasure of secret knowledge of how to do amazing techniques and invoke mystic powers. Did you know that you too can have your own special densho? It’s possible, as long as you bring a pen and notebook to class.

THE TRADITION OF DENSHO

The word densho (伝書) means “a document of transmission” in Japanese. As the name implies, these are documentations that contain information pertaining to a martial system. These were written on different mediums, like orihon (折り本, folding book), makimono (巻物, scroll), tojihon (綴じ本, binding book), etc., depending on the time period. Densho is not only limited to martial arts, other fields used this form of transmission as well.

There are different grades of densho. They can come in the form of listing (目録, mokuroku), varying levels of grading such as shoden (初伝) and chūden (中伝), licensing (免状, menjō), mastery (皆伝, kaiden), and inheritance (継承, keishō). Those that represent inheritance are generally designated to one or few people, as it contains more important yet private information, which generally wasn’t shown to anyone else. Those that inherit a martial system as a new successor have to maintain their particular tradition, and not only have the right to add content to it that they see fit, but can also edit and change original content. This is expected by successors to take the time and update the knowledge every generation if they want the system to stay relevant in each generation.

無辺無極流
Online presentation of sections from a densho of Muhen Mukyoku ryū (無邊無極流). From Bujutsushi Ryōshūi.

Contents of a densho can range from philosophy of said system, to technique names (plus descriptions, if required), lineage list, poems, deeper instructions, invocations, and so on. Reviewing public densho shows that this is a tradition many martial schools practiced for many generations. The same can be said for this generation as well. The difference is that while in the past generations secrecy was of utmost importance for many martial schools, much of the contents are shared between just about anyone nowadays, especially with the openness and ease of access the internet provides.

MAINTAINING A MODERN-DAY DENSHO

A student should take notes of what they are learning each day they go to train in their respective martial arts style. There are several points that are important for this. For starters, taking notes help promote active learning, since it will engage you to analyze what you have physically learned. Note-taking also helps to prevent forgetting the lessons you are learning. Along with this, one should review and ensure their notes are correct, especially through clarification with their teacher.

If you stick with a particular school or style for several years and train diligently, you’ll eventually learn much of the necessary contents. Through note-taking, you’ll be able to maintain your own “densho” of that particular style, as you jot down the basics necessary for structural development, forms, techniques, philosophy, and so on. If a person puts confidence into their training, and are serious about the martial system they are learning, this will be illustrated in the notes they take. Thus, their “densho” can compare to that which is a few hundred years old…at least in terms of practical use.

DENSHO’S LIMITATIONS

While it’s possible to make your personal notes just as valuable as many have done generations ago, it still will not outweigh the ones that are in the possession of a headmaster who oversees a martial system. The reason is because theirs represent the tradition that is in their hands to maintain. Along with that, there are contents of said martial system that are not, and should not be, made knowledgeable to just anyone, even to their own students. The exception to this are those who will be selected as the next successor, or possibly to those who will inherit the system themselves. This is nothing new, and has been common practice for hundreds of years. Not knowing these contents are fine, as there is a lot of weight to bear for those individuals given such responsibility.

Another thing worth mentioning is it is not necessary to write every single aspect of the art we study down. Other than information that represents the identity of the martial style one is studying, such as poems and stories of the originator of said style, it is seen as near impossible. One reason is that if one is active in their training, then notes are supposed to literally be just notes; your notes are to be an outline and a reminder of key elements of the art we study, but the full art should be ingrained in our bodies. For example, a quick look at our notes should be to remember the specific sequence of a form, or the name of a technique, which after briefly looked upon, we should be able to perform or explain near flawlessly. Notes cannot capture the entire feeling of a movement, or the intention for making slight adjustments in our techniques. If anything, it is important to understand the philosophy and principles behind the techniques of what we are learning, and retain those in our notes. This is how a densho can be made and retained. That way, a student won’t be taught to move in a mechanical fashion, or demonstrate techniques only in limited context.

ENDING

Densho is a means to pass down a martial system, which has been used for hundreds of years. It is an ageless method, and is used by martial arts schools in Japan today. By understanding its meaning, this is something that many students all over the world also do when they take down notes. Treasure your notes as something valuable, and in turn it’ll be a true densho with contents that can be passed down to future generations.

Nisshin Geppo in Martial Arts

There are many benefits in studying martial arts. While each individual has their own reasons for pursuing martial arts, everyone can gain in different ways if done long enough. In kobudō (Classical Japanese martial arts), which my group studies, we take part in many sessions of repeated drills, going through kata geiko, and engaging conditioning. The reason for this is to develop a mentality of “nisshin geppo”, an idiom of old in Japan that is still used with the advancement of society¹, which hints to how we can utilize what we are learning to benefit in the long run.

The phrase nisshin geppo is written with the characters as “日進月歩”, which translates as “steady progress, rapid advance”. In simpler terms, this phrase also stands for “self-improvement”, and how it’s written describes how we can do so. Self-improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but is something that we have to work towards on a daily basis. Each day we can get better at the tasks at hand or the activities we are involved in as long as we put time & effort in it. Consistency is the key here, for if we develop a regular routine, in time we can see growth in ourselves. Even if it’s not every day, a few times a week is also fine, just so long as there aren’t too many breaks in between.

nisshin_geppo
Writing of the word “nisshin geppo”

As an example, having long practice sessions in a curriculum is standard for kobudō. This, along with reviewing & challenging what we are learning, keeps us from becoming complacent and thinking that we are already “good”. We have to consider that there will always be plenty of areas for growth, and prepare to adapt to the unexpected. Such as when we are sick or tired, when walking on wet surfaces due to rain or snow, after eating, growing older, and so on. A martial artist being in a constant state of 100% is not possible, which is why one should be ready to accept that training can be a lifetime activity of continuous work. This is an interpretation of nisshin geppo. On a positive side, possessing such an outlook will keep an individual in top shape and help develop a high level of skill.

Outside of combat, martial arts can be used for self-improvement as a human being. From a least noticeable perspective, some skill sets are multi-purpose, which make them beneficial even in our normal daily lives. For example, in our Chikushin group we have a special exercise called “Ukimi no Ho”, which entails training in different methods of stepping. While it’s prime purpose is to develop better footwork when performing techniques both empty-handed and while utilizing a weapon, its overall benefits extend to improving our natural habits for walking as it can be applied at any time during our daily routines. Another example is “ukemigata”, the method of performing breakfalls. Greatly seen by does who practice grappling systems such as jūdō and aikidō, ukemigata is necessary for avoiding damage from otherwise dangerous throws. Outside of the dojo, ukemigata can help to develop a natural ability to avoid serious injuries in unexpected scenarios, such as slipping while walking on an icy sidewalk, or catching oneself if tripping over computer wires while at work.

By understanding the meaning behind the idiom nisshin geppo, it is easy to understand that the notion of self-improvement exists in many fields of activities. Those dedicated in kobudō also have the means to strive for constant betterment in themselves through training. For the martial artist who has patience and desire for this, then walking this path is not at all difficult.


1) While my wife (who is a native of Japan) and I discussed the word nisshin geppo and its roots being that of personal growth for people and the activities they engage in, she also pointed out that nowadays this word can be seen used widely in relations to the advancement of technology in Japan.

Training A Healthy Life: Body Maintenance

In today’s society, martial arts is considered a good way for developing a strong, healthy body. This is true, especially those that can be participated in by elders. Outside of the combat elements, however, there are several routines related to martial arts that are essential for taking care of the body. On their own, these routines can support and promote a long, healthy life. Coined as “body maintenance”, below is an explanation of several components of this, as well as tips from my own experience.

STRETCHING

A form of body maintenance is stretching, which is a basic routine essential for almost all types of martial arts. Called jūnan taisō¹ in Japanese, oftentimes this is reserved for the begnning of a traning session, where one stretches the arms, legs, waist, and so on in order to increase the flexibility in one’s muscles, and tendons. Stretching is vital as it not only allows a person to perform punches, kicks, and body movements required in given martial system, but can prevent serious injuries from certain joint and body strains or sudden falls one may get if their body isn’t supple enough.

Picture on the left, reaching both hands behind our backs, while in the picture on the right, front leg lifts.

In order to maximize one’s ability to stretch, there are other important segments to remember. One of these is loosening the joints up before doing deep, long stretches. This can be done by rotating one’s arms, swinging one’s legs, rotating the hips, and so on. Loosening one’s joints should be done with control and care, especially for beginners; excessive and/or overpowered limb and joint manipulation could lead to strains, tears, or severe joint injuries.

BODY MASSAGE

Another routine for body maintenace is body massages. In some martial systems great emphasis is placed on this, as massages can loosen and relax muscles, and promote good blood flow. Massages can warm up the muscles to prevent injuries during active times while training, such as muscle pulls. This is also true in sports. In my group, several basic massaging routines used include those that can be self-applied. This includes simply rubbing and pressing the muscles on the calves, forearms, sides, feet, and back.

Various ways to increase flexibility in the wrists

A unique way to actively massage the body is through light body strikes. Just like a regular massage, a practicioner can self-apply this all over the body using different parts of the hand, such as the palm or sides. While this gives you similar results to regular massages, light body strikes also works as conditioning for the body, for the impact toughens the skin and gets one’s body used to the striking sensation. One must also be careful to do this moderately and to one’s capacity, for striking too intensely can cause unforeseen damage.

DAILY ROUTINES

Body maintenance should not only be performed in class, but outside during one’s daily routines as well. Actually, it cannot be stressed enough about the necessity of doing this on a daily basis. For example, I personally did stretching up to 3 times a day while growing up, and this was outside of training. I would stretch once in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and once at night, preferably before going to bed. This routine has benefited me greatly over the years health-wise, as well as avoiding long term injuries. Of course, there are some guidelines to keep in mind:

Examples of ground stretches for the legs and body.

① Never stretch immediately upon waking up. Walk around abit and warm up the muscles & joints before beginning stretching.

② Do not stretch immediately after eating. For the afternoon, stretch before eating lunch, or save it for early evening after eating lunch.

③ If going to bed immediately after stretching, then stretch lightly and less vigorously. Stretching stimulates the blood and can wake up the body.

While stretching is a must before training, stretching after a training session is also important. After training sessions is good for loosening tight, fatique muscles, and improving blood flow. It should not be as vigorous as the before-training stretch, nor as long.

CONCLUSION

Body maintenance is an important, non-combative element in martial arts. It should be performed as much as the combative elements. Body maintenance can be achieved almost anywhere and anytime. For a martial artist, body maintenance not only can keep us healthy, but allow us to keep training in our techniques even when we get old, if done correctly.


1) 柔軟体操. Along with stretching, jūnan taisō also refers to movements and motor skills found in calisthenics.

Benefits of Overcoming Difficult Things

In classical Japanese martial arts, just about everyone runs into techniques, routines, or concepts that are difficult to handle. Like a very high wall, these may seem near impossible to overcome, whether it means adapting this particular thing into one’s repertoire or working on it for long periods until it becomes something natural to do. In some cases the difficulty is due to a lack of physical strength or coordination, while in others it’s a mental block. Then there are those cases where our lack of interest causes us not to proceed forward with that particular area of training. However, with a bit of drive, we can overcome such difficult things, as well as gain an overall benefit in our journey of learning the martial arts.

Examples of flexible weapons. Top left is a kusari fundō, bottom left is a kyoketsu shoge, while on the right are a kusarigama and ōgama. All are handmade training weapons which are light, fairly soft materials with no sharp parts.

A case that sticks out particularly in my own experience is the difficulty of using flexible weapons. In my younger days, I made a point to be as proficient as I could with all that was taught to me at my previous dojo. Yet, I was more inclined to not further my studies on such martial tools like the kusari fundō (鎖分銅, chain with weights on opposite ends), hayanawa (早縄, fast-tie ropes for restraining), and kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain with a sickle and weight on either ends). These types of weapons are much more difficult to use than non-flexible ones, and require more personal training time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn how to use them, it’s just that I saw no real value in doing so; other than twirling them, I couldn’t grasp any practical applications with them. Exaggerated images of using flexible weapons for lassoing was one of the dominant reasons for my personal mental block. Despite getting training in them, my notes and experience on flexible weapons were often pushed to the side to collect dust.

Many years later, I began doing research on the style of kusari fundō used in the martial system I was studying at the time. I also explored similar weapons studied in different martial arts schools and observed how these flexible tools were being used. Little by little I began to realize that my understanding of flexible weapons were flawed and misinformed. To correct this I continued with my research, sought out advice, and began retraining outside of my normal training regiment for several years. Focus on structured handling, and practical applications of flexible weapons based on classical teachings has given me a new outlook.

Pics from a past training session with a fellow buyu (武友, martial arts buddy). Working with a kyoketsu shoge (距跋渉毛), a unique tool that consists of a knife with a hook on the side connected to a rope with a metal ring on the other end. For training purposes, a handmade “safe version” is used. Also, instead of a rope, a plastic chain is used for strength building purposes.

For example, the use of kamae (構え, one’s posture based on the given moment) is critical in understanding where each part of a flexible weapon is at all times, which is an important fundamental that extends to every weapon one studies in classical Japanese martial arts. The image of mindlessly swinging them has also been eliminated from my mind, for I’ve learned that doing so is actually not the core principle for using flexible weapon, but something that serves several purposes, such as improving one’s control through furigata (振り型, practice of swinging flexible weapons in specific directions and under specific conditions) . While it was a difficult endeavor to make these adjustments, my motivation was reinvigorated, and I was driven to put great amounts of energy into the training of flexible weapons and learning them correctly.

Although my journey is far from over, I have grown as a person and am in a better place with handling flexible weapons I originally could not understand. Everyone encounters difficult things in activities they engage in, especially classical Japanese martial arts. My advice is to hang in there, seek help, and work even harder to overcome them. In time, you will notice results, one step at a time, and be more inclined to tackle any obstacles that may come your way.