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?
KORYU MARTIAL ARTS ARE HARD.
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.