As my wife and I sat and watched, he cuts makiwara that are standing around him, one at a time. He is a master of Iaido, a style of Japanese swordsmanship. His sword moves in smooth motion, as though it is just moving in the air with nothing else in its way. But the barely audible thuds of falling pieces of makiwara remind us that he is indeed making the cuts.
We were visiting the master and his dojo, blessed with a rare opportunity to see the art of Iaido with our own eyes.
This all came about because my wife became acquainted with the master’s son through the internet. As a Martial Artist with great interests in many related things including the Japanese swordsmanship, I was really excited to have this chance to see the art in person and meet the master who practices it.
I think it was a little over an hour from Tokyo by an express train. When we arrived the local train station, we were picked up and taken straight to his home by the master’s son.
The house was big. And it is a traditional Japanese style house. I find something very comforting about the sight of the house. Maybe it’s because one of my childhood friend in the neighborhood used to live in that kind of house. I spent countless hours there back in the days.
Shortly after the arrival to the house, we were lead to the dojo. The dojo is practically next to the house. I was told that it was built by the master himself.
Inside the dojo is large. It has dark-colored, wooden floor…one of the best for practicing many styles of Martial Arts in my opinion…with similarly dark-colored wooden walls. When I go through the entrance, I was greeted by a smell. A smell of sweat? I am not sure. Maybe it would’ve bothered other people, but it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it added further to the atmosphere, I thought. Close to the entrance was small section of tatami for sitting. I remember something like that when I was practicing Kyudo, the Japanese archery.
As I take my shoes off to step in, I feel my tension and excitement builds up.
And we meet the person we came to see for the first time. He greeted us with a smile.
He was dressed traditionally in hakama. I believe he is 60-something. His posture is better than many young folks now a day, and his movements are crisp. He is very polite and soft spoken, yet he has the strong presence. Honestly, I should’ve dressed better than in T-shirt and jeans. That’s one of several regrets I had in this visit.
He led us to sit at the tatami section. There, we were served cups of tea. I must have looked rigid. I was told I can sit relaxed.
He had one of his student there with him. He tells us that this student decided to learn under him “for some reasons.” Call me crazy, but I think I would, too, if I were living there.
The student was the first one to show us his kata, a form. He has several makiwara placed around him. Makiwara is a bunch of straws tightly wrapped around a bamboo, which is used to simulate the consistency of a human limb. As he moves, he cuts them one at a time in a sequence with the Japanese sword he holds in his hands.
The master himself showed us another kata, with a new set of makiwara around him. His sword moves as though there is nothing in its way. His movements are not fast, but very fluid. There is no wobble in his sword. He is in total control.
After he finished, as I am taking all this in, something I didn’t expect happened. He asked me, “Do you want to try?”
Excuse me? Are you serious? Boy, am I glad that didn’t actually come out of my mouth.
I hesitated. Would I want to? Absolutely. How often do I get a chance like that? But part of me asks: is it a polite thing to accept such an offer? I looked at my wife for a guidance. She gave me, “Why don’t you?” look (or so I interpreted it) back. I stood up, as I try to control my excitement and nervousness.
He handed me his own sword that he was just using. I take it very carefully. I have held a stainless sword before, but holding the real Japanese sword is a new experience on its own. It felt very light for a long piece of metal that it is. Perhaps the carefully crafted balance of the blade makes it feel that way. It’s not quite as shiny as highly polished stainless blade I had held before, confirming that it’s not made of some cheap metal.
And he taught me basics: how I am to stand, swing, and move with it. He tells me to make sure to move my leg back as I swing downward, so I won’t cut my foot. That’s good to know.
As he watch me try to swing the sword as he showed me, he points out that my stance is not right. It seems I am standing in a Taekwondo stance that I am so used to. The stance he wants me to do is somewhere between front stance and back stance.
I should just shut up, listen and do as being told, of course, but somehow I opened my mouth and rumbled about why I stood that way. Who cares? He certainly wouldn’t. In fact, that’s exactly what I tell students not to do when I teach at a Taekwondo class. That just shows how nervous I was. I deserve a knock on my head (or hit on my stomach) for this one.
After going over the movement a few times, I stood in front of a makiwara.
I brought the sword over my head, trying to remember everything I was just taught as much as I could. Then I swung the sword downward…or rather, directed the sword to move that way.
Did the sword just went through the makiwara? I felt virtually no feedback or resistance of an object. I slowly repeated the motion at the same makiwara few more times, as I was directed to do. It was still the same. It was certainly not what I expected as I cut an object with the consistency of my arms and legs. I felt great respect toward this piece of work, and unknown men who crafted it…and some sense of fear toward the able swordsman who wield it at will.
After this experience, my wife and I showed him a small piece of what we practice. My wife performed poomse Koryo, and I did Kumgang. It was awkward in many ways. Not only we weren’t in a Taekwondo dojang, we were in our street cloths. And I can’t say that it was my best performance of the poomse, especially after very minimal warm-up. It wasn’t much, but it was our way of showing our appreciation for his trouble. I wonder what he thought of them…
Then we went back to the main house…to our surprise, he had sushi dinner ready for us. I am not sure if we deserved all that hospitality. And all we had for him was a couple of poomse performances and cans of Yuengling lager, imported straight from Pennsylvania by us. It wasn’t much at all, but I hope he at least enjoyed the beer.
We talked about Martial Arts over the dinner. It was really good to know that a master like him still exists, who tries to continue to teach the traditional art in this era, where the cards are stacked against it. I really can’t thank enough for the whole experience, and I hope I’ll have another opportunity to visit him again.
Some time after we returned to the States, I saw a documentary about Martial Art. I see this competition-winning kata that involves throwing a sword and catching it. Another person took the non-sharpened side of the blade of his sword and moved it right around his neck in a part of his routine where he span around while swinging his sword.
Call me chicken, but no one will ever find me doing that. Not after seeing and experiencing what a real Japanese sword can do.