Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Year in Koryu

By Aidan O’ Reilly




So I decided to write something up to celebrate my first year practicing Koryu martial arts. Ideally, this will serve as an interesting catalogue that I can return to in years to come… As well being a glorious exercise in narcissism. Maybe it will also give me a little insight into how my little mind works.

So what are koryu martial arts? Koryu martial arts are not being explained to you now you smug git wherever you are, I know my audience and I should not have to explain this to you. You probably know more than me about the Meiji restoration and all it entailed for Japan, so let’s not go off on a history lesson. Koryu martial arts are old martial arts. Enough said there, really.

 The better question would be why am I doing koryu martial arts, for which a history lesson is completely necessary, because, well, that’s why I’m doing koryu martial arts. I have always loved history, I have a qualification in military history and strategic studies, so martial arts is right up my street. In particular, martial arts that preserve techniques that may have been used on the battlefield are of particular interest. So being able to learn specifics of feudal era combat, as well getting a bit of excercise, now that sounds pretty interesting. The other reason should also be pretty bloody obvious. Why am I learning martial arts that involve weapons and techniques that are wholly inappropriate for street defence and only focused on using swords, polearms and other weaponry to overcome a similarly armed and armoured opponent?

 That, children, is what we call a rhetorical question.

 If it isn’t absolutely bloody obvious why I am trying to learn this, then I don’t know how else to lay it out in front of you, other than to say swords are cool, bro. I hope in years to come, that I may be able to tell someone with confidence and with no input from my (oversized) ego that I am a swordsman. Just because a skill is impractical in the modern era, does not mean that I do not benefit from struggling to master it.

 So what are my amazing and subtle insights having practiced these esoteric arts for the slim expanse of a year? What delicate and meaningful understanding can I visit upon you?


 There it is grasshopper. You take that little kernel of knowledge and go freeze your ass off on a mountain somewhere thinking about it. I’m gonna stay here, maybe try and work on my cuts a little.

 Koryu martial arts are not easy. A more simplistic statement I don’t think I could possibly come up with, but it encompasses an experience that I have had so far that defines both the arts themselves as well as what is entailed in improving your skill both at them and, eventually yourself.

 I walked into my first Katori Shinto Ryu class having learned how to swing a sword in a jujutsu class, with a smattering of kendo and a couple of other arts that claimed to be knowledgeable on the sword. I walked out confused, with bits of my first kata and a vague idea that there was a lot more to this sword malarky than I had originally assumed.

 A short while after this, I began learning Jikishinkage Ryu, which took all the small suppositions I had originally been building in my mind, decorated them with neon lights, and superglued them to the inside of my eyelids.

 I will not say I had some moment of clarity. The clouds did not part. Enlightenment did not dawn on me like half forgotten memories of a drunken night previous coming into sharp focus. But I was aware after speaking to these people who had taken the time to work with me (more on them later) that there was much more to kobojutsu than circle motion exercises and tricks to catch your opponent unawares.

 To gain any level of skill was going to take practice, but it was also going to require a level of mental commitment I hadn’t been familiar with previously. I am familiar with a various types of physical exertion. I’m relatively fit, I still go out for a run the odd time. But I am not familiar with an exercise that requires my mind to stay sharp and focused on the task at hand for the duration of the time I am practicing. I like getting lost in exertion sometimes. This was not happening. I call it brain sweats, and my brain has been sweating a lot recently.

 There is more to write, but I realise I’m going on a bit. So I must put down a word or six regarding my teachers and how fantastically patient they are. I could wax on about how these people are knowledgeable, excellent practitioners of their art and good teachers (which they are), but the thing that strikes me most about these people is their down-to-earth, no bullshit attitude. The people who teach me kobojutsu are not trying to show me the deeper meaning of the universe, they are trying to show me kobojutsu. If there is some meaning to be found in such, I’m not going to get it from doing kobojutsu wrong, and damned if they are going to teach the thing incorrectly. I am deeply thankful for this. People often sell martial arts for more than they are, or as some kind of all in one package for spiritual balance. I’m glad that it’s been left to me to try and find that. If indeed I want it.

 I have written more than I wanted, which is a little annoying, I don’t want to act knowledgeable on a subject I have not learned enough about. Suffice to say, this will hopefully the first page on a long journey.

Thank you for reading.



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Filed under Budo Concepts, Katori Shinto Ryu, Life

Maki Uchi

For me a most interesting and enjoyable aspect of studying Katori Shinto Ryu is that there is always more to learn. Even just looking at one form you can always find nuances that you may not have seen before.

The system as I have learnt it is taught in layers. A beginning student is at first to focus on getting the stance and cuts right. The first kata of kenjutsu is learnt, and once the general gist of the form is understood, however simply, the real training can begin. When the steps become reactions, we move beyond working from memory, it becomes clearer, a little at a time, why the Kata is the way it is. There seems to be no end to this as such. Once you understand the Kata you can realize that there is another deeper level of understanding. In this way we can retain our beginners spirit and be constantly looking for what we may have missed till now.

2014-09-04 19.22.17

Although Katori Shinto Ryu is a complete Martial System we tend to focus on basics. The Kenjutsu must be understood {at a basic level}before studying the next weapon {bo}. After Bo is Naginata. I think there must be a good reason for this. Perhaps it is third as it contains principles found both in Ken and Bo and so by studying Ken and Bo first the student is better prepared for Naginata practice. The Naginata is longer than the bo staff with a curved blade on one end and a solid blunt end on the other. It is held in the middle and the forms usually contain both striking and cutting movements thus in a way it is a combination of both ken and bo. It is somewhat reassuring that so much thought went into creating these methodologies. Similar considerations can be found in most Koryu Arts. Each principle builds on the next, allowing the student to build a stronger base for their training continuously.


We train Katori Shinto Ryu, Monday 11am till 1 and Thursday from 6pm till 7.30. Extended training at least once a month.


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Learning from Mistakes

Every mistake, teaches us something.

Progress in Budo often doesn’t feel good and usually although maybe seen by others we mightn’t feel it ourselves so much.

Sort of a one step forward, two step back kind of situation. I had a student say to me recently that they feel they may be getting worse. This wasn’t the case at all. Actually the student has improved considerable and so I think about why the impression is different. I think I have figured this out, somewhat.

When One improves in Budo, they are then able to realize a great deal more mistakes they have been making. By improving we can realize where improvement is still needed and greatly lacking. As we become aware of our weaknesses we may feel put down. Its only because the mistakes seem new. But the mistakes aren’t new at all, the awareness is.

It is easy for a student to become frustrated by their own lack of experience. It should however be understood that the Dojo is a place to get things wrong. It cant be expected to get a technique right in one go, or even perfect in a hundred. We study movements thousands of times. With a good mindset, things will improve over time. A important thing is not to belittle ourselves or eachother. Self criticism is only useful to a point. I have seen it being more of a hindrance than a benefit to many people. Only when someone is secure enough within themselves can they use self criticism constructively.

With so many nuances in a technique or Kata, we can only learn in layers. When one principle is grasped, we can start to look at another. So it always feels like we go back to the beginning. And it feels new again. Relaxing is like this. There is always a little bit more tension. You relax completely, only to find another layer of tension underneath. There is no end to this {at least that I have found}.

I have had this feeling on a regular basis and although frustrating, I have learnt to embrace it. It may piss me off, but it’s very necessary. I might even like it…… a little bit. And this brings me to another point.

The importance of Kihon.

A part of training that may become evident after a year or so is that it is necessary to always return to the beginning. To the basics. If we try to progress only upward, the training may become very convoluted and perhaps due to working with the same partners who we used too it becomes ungrounded. There is a lot of this in Aikido. Large flowery techniques with little attention to basics. By only focusing on getting better, it can actually get very bad, very quickly. By always going back to basics, we can check that the techniques still work.


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A consistent challenge in training seems to be maintaining a balance between soft and firm. While it is pointless to block people from doing a technique {particularly beginners} it is necessary to have a certain level of intensity in training.

Been trying to explaining this in class recently. The grab used in Aikido must be balanced. Firm yet soft, soft but not weak. The important use of the grab is to enable tori to learn correct movement and Aiki principle. If the grab is too strong, it will be difficult for either partner to learn the movement. Saito Sensei describes the grip used in Aiki as ‘honest’. As in we should be able to prevent Tori from making illogical movement whilst allowing for freedom of movement within the limitations of rational Aiki practice.

grab me

The soft part at the base of the palm is where we keep contact. the little and ring finger grip across to the thumb, while the middle and index fingers stay relatively lax. Uke should gently extend forward but only slightly{kihon Keiko}, just enough to be able to feel the movements of their partner. After just a few months practice, the student should be able to feel where movements are coming from. For example if Tori’s movements is led from the shoulder it should be easy for Uke to reverse the technique or to do something else to show that this is incorrect.

That being said the intensity of the grib and/or any attack used should be relative the training situation. It may be necessary and beneficial to use a strong grip to teach a specific aspect. But this can get limiting very quickly if used to much. It is not possible to learn Aiki principles this way. It is helpful to teach correct body alignment and mechanics. But only in context to the rest of practice.

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