Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Traditional Winter Training

It's not quite winter yet according to the calender, but here in SE Michigan it's cold, it's been snowing, and it looks like it's going to stick around for a while. I had to clear the driveway this morning for what I am sure is the first of many repetitions. It's certainly close enough for me to call it winter.

Many traditional Japanese martial arts have or had a special winter training (as well as a special summer training). In some schools, this would be a week long training during the coldest (or warmest) week of the year. There are many variations of this.

When I trained in aikido we used to "end the year right" by doing 365 back breakfalls to finish our training off for the year. If you've done any back breakfalls, you'll immediately get an idea of what kind of effort this entailed.

Below is an excerpt from an article on the special training the author underwent. As usual if you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the entire article.
The Snow Shoveling Daoist
道士 の 雪を掻いて

Traditional winter training in Japan: The Kashima jodo gasshuku

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

I was surprised by the cold. I had been warned, of course, to bring extra clothing, to bring layers, tabi (traditional footwear) and, importantly, long underwear, but I had not been expecting its deep penetration, its constant thereness. Like an animal, after awhile all I wanted was to find something - a patch of sunshine on the floor, a hot can of tea - to warm me up.

For those unfamiliar with this martial art form, jodo (lit. "the way of the stick") is a method of non-lethal control of a sword-wielding assailant. Though its antecedents probably go back hundreds of years, jodo became a law enforcement method in the 18th century. To this day, the largest group of practitioners in Japan are policemen, who learn modern jodo tactics in addition to traditional training. In practice jodo involves kata that pits a pole 128cm long by 2.4cm in diameter against a wooden sword. Kaminoda Tsunemori is headmaster of a branch of Shindo Muso Ryu jodo, a very prominent teacher in the most-popular style.

After years of listening to Peter Boylan talk about Kaminoda Sensei's jodo gasshuku (which translates, roughly, as the now much-maligned expression "training camp"), held twice a year in Kashima, about an hour outside Tokyo, I was there. And it was all true - the spartan feel, the simple, hardy food, the long hours of all-consuming practice and the cold, cold, cold.

The 2008 winter gasshuku was held on February 9-12. Since the weekend included a holiday, the regular practice this year began on Saturday and did not end until Tuesday afternoon. We trained in mostly in Shinto Muso Ryu jodo, though also in related koryu budo - kenjutsu (sword partner kata), hojojutsu (rope tying) and for the advanced students, kusarigama (a ball and chain or length of rope attached to a hand-held sickle).

Though the gasshuku followed a set pattern laid down over the years (for a traditional outline, see Sosnowski 2005), this year's holiday schedule meant some variation on the theme.

A gasshuku is not a public training session. One attends by invitation only, and attending one is a privilege. Attendees are expected to keep up with the training, barring any illness or injury. No whining, no complaints; after all, everyone is a volunteer. The good part is that the cost is also low - profit not being the motive for holding an intensive session (a true mark, to me, of a traditional style, as opposed to a business-oriented one). Attendees are expected to be polite and helpful, cooperating with group chores and expressing deference to senior students and teachers.

As a first-time, unranked participant, I was on the very low end of this arrangement, so it was actually pretty simple to comply with all the rules and regs and deferential behavior, since I was oblivious to whatever political undertones such a large gathering can entail. And in fact, there was very little factionalism evident. Whatever people's differences might have been, they were not expressed here. Serious discussions evolved on differing opinions of technique or meaning. To a junior student to be able to overhear such discussions was like gold, but all talk would cease with the appearance of Kaminoda Sensei on the floor. At that point interpretation took a back seat to practice, regardless of rank.

I wondered beforehand whether I could handle the several days of training. I am not particularly young, and like a lot of people who have practiced martial arts for a long time, experience was being tempered with various, though minor, aches and pains. The word "gasshuku" implies intensity. Forget jet lag: my only concern was whether I could keep up with everyone else and not make a fool of myself in the process; or tear anything; or lose anything.

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