Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords. Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).
Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon. Mistakes happen. Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).
We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people. There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.
The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here? Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.
I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.
We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements. The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away. Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.
In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary. This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face. With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down. Ok, so that stalls teki. The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut.
The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack. If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides necessary cover for my skull. When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.
Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy. After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem. The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.
My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head. When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder. This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.
There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it. It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head. Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.
Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice. I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.
Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata. Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.
If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.
Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment. This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.
Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.
That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently. We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.