What follows is a review by Batman O'Brien describing his expereince of training at Myoken Dojo. Batman lives in Dublin and travels to Cornwall to train with us a number of times each year.
Who Needs Sleep When You Have Budo?
- What it is like training at Myoken Dojo -
By Batman O’Brien
B.A., N.C.E.H.S., Dip. Acu., Dip. OBB Adv., Dip. CPM, Cert Clin. Med. M.AFPA, M.ETCMA, M.C.Th.A.
Have you ever trained more than you slept? Over the course of a few days in January this year I was able to say yes to that question quite affirmatively. I was excited about this training trip, heading over to my Sensei's home in Cornwall, England to train in Jodo, the Japanese art of fighting with a 4 foot stick.
Jodo is an incredible art - and it was literally one of those surreal moments when I saw Jodo in action for the first time. It was two years ago, in December of 2014 at a martial arts event in Okehampton where I was training in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido, a style of Japanese swordsmanship I've been studying now for 8 years or so. Elena West was coaching a student in preparation for his 5th dan grading.
The Electric Art
It was simply remarkable. Electricity crackled through the air, as Elena West Sensei spun the Jo through a series of parries, blocks and strikes. In moment threatening, in the next freezing her partner with precise targeted thrusts to vital exposed points of the body such as the hip joint and solar plexus, before finishing the form with fast and precise strikes. The jo-saki (the tip of the jo) stopping a mere centimetre from her partner's face. I've never seen control or precision like that. Never seen such focus and intensity, such speed and precision and ferocity, yet done with such a relaxed body, unhurried in its execution. A controlled force of nature. And as my jaw hung open and a feeling of fear, terror and excitement rushed through my body I thought to myself...."Man, I would love to do this".
A few months after that West Sensei agreed to take me on as her student and I was training in Jodo. This was my second trip over to train with Elena West Sensei, ahead of training with her teacher, Ueda Sensei, one of the most remarkable Japanese exponents of Jodo. I'm nervous about appearing in front of Ueda Sensei, and desperately wanted to get more practice in with Elena West Sensei ahead of the seminar with Ueda Sensei.
But...and this is another wonderful thing about training with Elena, I get to train with her husband, Peter West, a 7th dan in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, one of the finest Iaido-ka's in Europe, and a man who has also very kindly taken me under his wing. The first time I had seen Peter West sensei's Iai was at that same seminar in December 2014. In fact I had gone to this seminar specifically to train with Peter West Sensei. And it was an experience like no other.
Razor Sharp Fluidity
I've been very, very lucky in my short time studying Iaido. My first teacher was of a high level when he first began working on my study of Omori Ryu and Eishin Ryu, and he introduced me to other great Sensei, and they were kind enough to teach me many forms, techniques, subtle and secret's of the style. But Peter West was a whole other level of ability. I'd never seen Iai like his, not until I saw his own teacher, Oshita Mizakazu Sensei a few months later. The level of fluidity, precision, power and skill was breathtaking. I'd just never seen that before. Not a single wasted movement, not a moment of imbalance, no expression of effort, just beautiful, lethal efficiency. Like a fine Nihonto (Japanese sword), Peter West Sensei embodies that perfect balance of art and lethality; the sharpness of a razor's edge and the suppleness of bamboo in the same way a well made a katana has that hard diamond sharp cutting edge blended seamlessly with a softer, more flexible metal that has made the Japanese sword a prized possession.
But it's far more than just ability West Sensei possesses. He is also a gifted and generous teacher, revealing to me the underlying and often surprising purpose of many of the movements I have been practicing for years without true understanding. He can bring a 400 year old form to life, and it evokes a childlike sense of wonder and awe in me with each revelation. And I'm certainly not alone in that experience as I see the same look of rapture and astonishment on the faces of this other students.
And so, between Elena and Peter, I and my training partner John got the benefit of one of one training with some of the highest ranked and skilled martial artists in Europe. The morning would be begin early with Peter West Sensei taking us through a rigorous and detailed examination of the Setei Iai (a set of sword forms as taught within the ZNKR - All Japan Kendo Federation) which I am only learning now, and the older Koryu forms that I have been studying for so many years. And yet, it's all as new to me as Setei, as West Sensei picks out the bad habits, errors of transmission and cross contamination of styles I have unfortunately picked up. We start at 6am each morning...and by 9am my mind and body are exhausted. The level of detail and nuance of technique is extraordinary. Never in my life did I think I would be lucky enough to be apprenticed to such a master.
A Budo Calling
And then, it's back to the West's home, where Elena has made a delicious breakfast, before a quick shower and off to more training. This time under Elena's watchful eye. Elena West Sensei is as extraordinary a teacher of Jo as her husband is Iai. I've never done Jodo before training with her, and she patiently breaks each posture (kamae) down, writing names and key points on a sheet taped to the wall of the school hall we train in. She moves us through at a rapid clip, bullet pointing each key aspect of posture and movement. But underneath her patience there is an intensity, a fire, a cunning behind the eyes deep in the spirit, a goal to create not just decent Jodoka but better martial artists.
Her explanations are in depth and fluid but she keenly detects the moment just before John or I would break and calls a halt to class. She quietly prepares a specific selection of tea and serves us a lunch of fresh vegetables, fruits and cheese. She talks then of her past, her history, of the different blends of teas and shares insights into her teachers and why she is so passionate about Jodo. And it is captivating. It's clear that Jodo is not simply a hobby or side interest, this is fundamental part of who she is. Training is like a calling to her, and with that comes a great responsibility not to fail her as a student.
We redouble our efforts and train through the basic kamae of both the sword and jo. Moving through drills to embed not just the intellectual understanding of the forms in our minds, but the feeling of these positions deep into the wiring of our muscles. We break again...and I start to furiously write in my note book. A few minutes later I'm a dozen pages in.
I take up my jo and sword again and West Sensei reviews with us the 12 basic movements of Jodo, the alphabet from which the poetry of the kata are written. She shows us the subtle hand positions and changes of sliding the jo through the initial strike to the head, Honte Uchi and its mirror Gyakute Uchi. Then our body posture is changed and she reviews with us the third movement and perhaps the most exciting and yet elusive of skills in Jodo - Hikkiotoshi.
This is deflection of the sword threatening you. It's all too easy to rely on brute force and just smash the sword - but doing so is inelegant and more importantly leaves you vulnerable. Performed correctly however the jo with no power used simply slides along the sword, sending both it and it's wielder flying. When it works it is indescribable. And that's how we finished our first day. Repeating Hikkiotoshi over and over again, starting slowly and building in speed and intensity as the fire behind her eyes grew, till West Sensei nearly threw the sword from my hands. I watched amused as she would later do the same to John - it's a unique experience to face her and nice to see from a safe distance ;-)
Then it was home, sweet soaked and breathing heavily to a family dinner with both my teachers.
The Mind Reels as the Jo Wheels
The next morning, Peter West Sensei woke us once more for early morning training and trained us even more intently than the day before, correcting the smallest of errors and sharing his secrets. I was left stunned as he revealed to me a secret movement and its explanation within the Eishin ryu (an intermediate set of koryu Iai) - I had glimpsed this movement but never understood it, and in that one moment, with a simple movement, my jaw dropped and I laughed with disbelief. Later that evening he would repeat this effect upon me by demonstrating in his living room some applications and older Okuiai techniques that I had thought long lost.
After that hard practice I wondered if I had anything left, my mind reeling, but Elena snapped me back into shape with our Jodo morning session where we progressed to studying the kata themselves, correcting the many mistakes that had crept into our practice since she had first trained us. Then she taught us two additional kata, bringing us past the requirements for the black belt syllabus and introducing us to the higher intermediate level forms. These are magnificent combining the previous forms with additional kihon techniques to create a vivid back and forth, the two exponents moving between strike and counter strike, parry and evasions. It is a remarkable experience demanding more than just technique but the ability to sense and develop unspoken communication with your training partner's timing and rhythm's.
At the end of that hard and final session she demonstrated some of the more advanced forms and highlighted the natural reactions produced by the pressure of her attacks and how these intuitive movements guide and shape the kata. Which of course only left me hungry to train more. But sadly it was time to go, one last dinner, a few hours of sleep and then a flight back to Ireland, to practice earnestly before we would appear in front of my teacher's teacher, Ueda Sensei. It was a weekend of intense training with two incredible teachers that not only shared their arts with John and myself but also their home and left us with an excitement and passion that had breathed life into hundred years old teachings and shared with us an example of how fulfilling a life dedicated to these practices is.