On March the 3rd 2011 I left my house for the airport. I was heading to Tokyo, Japan with some members from our Dojo (Tommy, Lisa, Albert and Jay) to sit Iaido exams. It was to be my first trip to Japan as well as my Shodan exam. My emotions were a mixture of excitement and nerves. I had always wanted to visit Japan since starting Kendo, but I was nervous about my exam.
What struck me immediately about Japan was the way people communicated with each other. Not just in the way they spoke, but how they moved and their body language to each other. Everyone appeared to be aware of everything around them at all times.
The first day we were up early to travel and meet Ito Sensei.
After a long train journey and a bus trip, we arrived at the first Dojo. From the outside, the building looked like a block of offices. Inside the space was very small. On the 5th floor we arrived into the dojo. I was amazed at how small it was. In Hong Kong we have big halls in sports centres. We took off our shoes and were told where to change. In the changing rooms everyone had left their bougu and hakama. The smell was wonderful!! We changed quickly as it was very cold! The practice room again was very small. But it had a very different feel about it compared to a Hong Kong dojo. I really felt like I was entering somewhere very special. There were pictures on the walls of kendoka young and old. A basket of bokutos were in the corner as well as a practice target made of tyres. There were even marks on the ceiling made from shinai’s during practice!
I think because I could see others’ belongings there from past practices, this place felt alive and full of energy. It made me stop and think very carefully about Rei before entering!!
Ito Sensei took us for a four hour practice that morning. It was very hard work, trying to remember all that I had to focus on and trying to improve each kata. I never thought Iaido could be such hard work!
We left, had lunch and went back to the hotel for a rest. That evening we had another practice at a Police Station with Ito Sensei.
The practice room was bigger, but again the bougu and equipment from others were there. There were many people practicing judo, and other martial arts. At this practice there were many other people who were also sitting Iaido exams. This was another four hour practice. Each kata was beginning to improve slowly, but I still had much to remember.
During this practice I noticed that everyone moved quietly but quickly, with awareness to others around them. Kishikawa Sensei always teaches us to be aware of our space and what we are doing in the dojo. Although I was also doing this, I still felt ‘clumsy’ compared to the others’ seemingly effortless movements.
After practice we had dinner, went back to the hotel to prepare for the next morning’s practice, which was to start early.
The dojo we visited the next morning was amazing. Again it was very small, but obviously well taken care of. There was a lovely springy wooden floor, with windows high on the walls. I noticed on the walls there were panels that would open for air in the summer. But this morning was very cold indeed, so no need to open these. Shomen in each dojo had a beautiful shrine, and this dojo was no exception. Everyone was very mindful of Shomen. There was a sliding door on one side which was the special place for Sensei to change. Again there was a practice target, as well as boguto’s. Upstairs we could change. Layers of cloth were pinned against the walls separating girls from boys. I could see all the bougu placed neatly ready for the next practice, and the hakamas all hanging up.
This dojo looked a lot older than the last ones we had visited. I could imagine in the summer it would be very hot, as I saw no air-conditioning. I tried to imagine what Kendo would be like here, and I think it would be very hard. I started to feel a great deal of respect for those who practice here. It is a long way to travel, I am sure the dojo floor would have to cleaned before and after practice, and the weather conditions sometimes would be harsh.
We had a very good Iaido practice here. But during this session, I really started to feel a great deal of connection with Iaido that I had not felt before. Ito Sensei had told me to try and ‘feel’ what I am trying to do during the kata. I was beginning to feel something very different. There were people sitting 3rd Dan and watching those individuals I could really see their feeling for the kata. I came away from this practice quite emotional but happy with my practice.
We had an early dinner and early to bed as the next day was our exam.
On our exam day we were all very nervous! Tsuchiya Sensei and Uragami-san were both there to help and support us. In the end all the members of the dojo did well and passed.
But I think this exam for me was harder than a kendo exam!
During a kendo exam, we can release any nervous tension through kiai and we are moving a lot physically. Iaido is all about control and doing no unnecessary movements. Each kata must be executed well with correct posture, poise and feeling.
I found this very difficult to do with shaky legs and hands!! Tying my hemo onto my hakama during my exam was hard as I could feel my hands shake. But after my first kata, I felt more relaxed.
On my journey back to Hong Kong I was able to reflect on my time in Japan. Although we were all nervous, we were all able to support each other. I feel closer to those members now, and it is a good feeling.
But more than anything, I have come to deeply respect Iaido. Practice before the exam was hard. I had never felt Iaido as physically challenging before, and this has remained with me. I now understand the reason behind the kata that I practiced, which for me brought them to life, in a way that had never felt before. It also has for me brought the relationship between Iaido and Kendo closer. I feel more aware of what I am trying to do in both, which can only be a good thing.
I loved the dojo’s we practiced in and understood what Kishikawa Sensei teaches us about Rei before entering a place of practice, as well as in all that we do. But in Japan the atmosphere of the Dojo encourages us to think very much about this.
Apart from passing an exam, I also brought back a wonderful experience that hopefully will only help to increase my understanding of what we are doing. I still feel very much like a beginner, but by using the experiences I gained in Japan I feel more mature towards both Iaido and Kendo practice.