Scary! A Clumsy Tennessean, Sword in Hand, Attends the SMAA Europe Seminar

By William Kelch
This article first appeared in the "SMAA Journal" Volume 15, Issue 1
Scary!  A Clumsy Tennessean, Sword in Hand, Attends the SMAA Europe Seminar

The SMAA battodo seminar in London was eclectic, educational, and, in a pleasant way, intense. And this article’s title notwithstanding, I did no damage to anyone, including me, when I handled a real sword (sharp!) at the SMAA Europe Seminar, which took from Monday, August 24 to Saturday, August 29, 2009. (More about the article’s title later.)      

Monday the 24th was devoted to a one-and-one-half hour evening demonstration by the seminar’s teacher, John Evans Sensei, Nakamura Ryu battodo seventh dan. Tuesday the 25th through Friday the 28th consisted of five seminar hours daily from 7:00 A.M to 10:00 A.M. and 3:30 P.M. to 5:30 P.M. The seminar ended on Saturday the 29th after the morning session.

Evans Sensei has an incredibly broad background in the martial arts and martial arts-related disciplines—thus, the seminar’s eclecticism. A graduate in English literature from Oxford University, he studied yoga in India and lived in Japan 11 years practicing Kashima Shinto Ryu swordsmanship, iaido, kendo, Shindo Muso Ryu staff arts, and Mikkyo, an esoteric form of Buddhism.Before traveling to Japan, he had studied Shotokan karate-do and Tai Chi Chuan in the United Kingdom.

Evans Sensei studied in Japan with a Mikkyo yamabushi, a Japanese mountain monk, who used a training method known as Shugendo, “The Path of Training and Testing.” Please note that I mention these fields of study without really understanding much about them. But Evans Sensei does understand them, and this explains his deep knowledge of the martial arts, the Japanese martial arts in particular. Evans Sensei is an interesting, educated fellow, and I suggest going to Click (once only) on the video link that you will see at the bottom of the page. The video is a Japanese television program about Evans Sensei’s training in Japan. 

Each morning the seminar began with “abdominal cleansing” and breathing designed in part to accomplish tanren (“forging”). Our goal was to arrive at the integration of spirit and body necessary for success in the martial arts. This tanren was taught to increase access to the tanden. This is a natural center in the lower abdomen, access to and awareness of which is required to develop the energy (ki) essential to the practice of the martial arts. (Yes, tanren and tanden are confusingly similar, but different, words!) Exercise, stretching, and breathing were all used to gain a connection to the tanden. 

Though I think most martial artists have some awareness of the concept of ki and that the lower abdomen is involved with ki, probably few of them have been exposed in such detail to how ki is related to exercise, stretching, and breathing. I think I can say Evans Sensei’s yoga and Shugendo training influenced, as it should, his teaching. I don’t claim to understand everything he taught, nor do I necessarily embrace everything he taught, but I can say without qualification that I gained insight into the tanden. That insight is, I think, essential to the practice, the advanced practice at least, of any Japanese martial art. In other words, strictly “physical” martial artists, i.e., those who have little or no insight into the tanden, are not advanced martial artists. I am by no means advanced myself, but I do claim some very vague, but still useful, insight into the tanden. That insight has come from my always-insightful Wado Ryu karate-do teacher, Joseph Rippy Sensei, from exposure to other martial artists, especially at some SMAA seminars, and from Evans Sensei during his seminar.

Each day the afternoon session was devoted strictly to battodo. We engaged in four different kinds of sword-specific training. Misogi-tanren consisted of suburi (sword swinging) with a heavy practice pole (tanrenbo) emphasizing the integration of breathing and meditation techniques (misogi) that awaken the tanden. Kihon and kata involved stances, cutting techniques, and sheathings in flowing combinations (kihon) that were then used in set forms (kata). Kumitachi involved partners using bokken (“wooden swords”). The partners studied proper timing and distancing (maai) as well as specific partner forms (kumitachi kata). This might be called partial sparring because the partners simply performed specific movements, i.e., there was no “freestyle” sparring involved. Evans Sensei and his senior students demonstrated full sparring using kendo armor and leather-covered bamboo swords. Seminar students did not participate in the full sparring though we did practice striking fully kendo-armored Evans Sensei and his senior students with shinai. (Dare I say that was fun? No, I’d better not!) 

On Saturday morning, we did tameshigiri (test cutting) of straw targets. The tameshigiri evoked several thoughts in me.

First, I thought tameshigiri was fun! It was really cool to swing a sword and cut things with it! Second, I thought cutting was really difficult. Though fun, it quickly became apparent that smoothly, accurately, and quickly cutting with a sword is not easy. A cut that looks easy when done by a skilled swordsman is not easy at all! (As I’m sure you know, this is a constant theme in any martial art. What looks easy when done by someone very experienced is usually not easy at all.) The skilled and unskilled swordsmen were easily distinguishable. I fell into the latter category. 

But, finally, and this explains my choice of title for this article, I thought very seriously about how dangerous a sword is. Though we paid careful attention to safety, I still found the tameshigiri to be a scary enterprise. It was obvious just how quickly a skilled swordsman can slice people in half or decapitate them. That brought up unpleasant visions of a sixteenth century Japanese battlefield during and after the battle. With those visions in my head, I was torn between doing the tameshigiri because it was fun and not doing it because the sword was dangerous. In other words, I became timid. (Envision a sixteenth century Japanese battlefield in your head, and maybe you can understand why.) I did not want to injure anyone, including myself, on the last day of the seminar. (Even skilled swordsmen have been known to accidentally cut their fingers off.) 

I suppose the message is that, though using the sword can be fun, the sword must always be respected and never used carelessly. If you have a real sword in hand, keep your wits about you!

The pace of the seminar was perfect for me. Before arriving I had visions of dripping sweat for five hours a day, and maybe embarrassing myself by failing to keep up. Instead, while the seminar was intense in that participants were moving most of the time, the movement was not at a killing pace, and was sometimes punctuated by didactic moments that provided rest. That’s why I described the seminar as intense, but intense in a pleasant way. 

Finally, you should give some consideration to the Japanese sword arts, not necessarily to practice one of them yourself, but to, at a minimum, broaden your understanding of the Japanese martial arts. You might begin by simply watching at a dojo where swordsmanship is taught. You might attend an SMAA seminar that includes a sword art. For example, Nicklaus Suino Sensei’s SMAA “All Swords Day” Seminar in Ann Arbor in last July and Evans Sensei’s London seminar in August helped me gain at least a rudimentary understanding of the Japanese sword. 

Along the same lines, you could read a book or two. Nicklaus Suino Sensei’s The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship: A Manual of Eishin Ryu Iaido would be a good start, and in the fall of 2010 John Evans Sensei’s new book Kurikara: The Sword and the Serpent will be published by Blue Snake Books.

Both works can provide insight into two different approaches to using the Japanese sword, but they probably can’t match the understanding that you can get from practicing with these men, and other SMAA experts, at events like the SMAA Europe Seminar. If you’ve never been to a seminar sponsored by the SMAA, you’re missing out on a rare opportunity to see truly traditional Japanese budo practiced and taught at a very high level.


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