Monday, 12 September 2011

Open Minded

I started my martial arts training at the age of 5. Like most children who train my father took me down to the local club near home. It could have been any art really: Ju-Jitsu, Boxing, Judo, Aikido, the list is endless. It wasn’t the art that was important at the time, it was more to introduce me to some form of training, but the art was karate.

I continued to train and then started to enjoy the weapons that were sometimes taught in class. I was never interested in the history or where the art came from when I was younger; like most kids all I wanted to do was kumite and throw nunchaku around like a ninja turtle! Other people used to say why you don’t try another art? But I always had this closed mind that said: no, I’m a karate man, no other art will be able to offer me anything. How wrong I was.

Its only once you get older and start to read about the history and where the arts come from, especially the Japanese arts for me; that you realise they are all linked together. Kobudo training for when you have weapons or tools, Ju-Jitsu for throwing and joint locking on the battlefield and karate for the kicks and strikes of the farmers.

Unfortunately some people who have studied one art for many years seem to become close minded and hate the thought of standing in line, learning rather than teaching, kind of scared that they might be starting again. I’m a great believer in having a go at something else to help understand what other arts  are available and what they have to offer. Don’t dismiss an art until you have at least tried it and can say it’s not for you. To try something helps you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your own art and helps you to grow as a martial artist.

Everybody is different in size, shape and fitness level and there is too much information to learn everything from all the different systems combined. This would be impossible, but to at least have a go and try something, even if it’s just on a course or a few classes, opens the mind to new ideas.

I recently taught on a course with two other instructors. There were many different people training from all different arts. I was the youngest and least experienced of the instructors and I started by explaining to everyone what the day meant to me and that it was to be ‘open minded’ day: for people to try the different arts being taught and take from them what they wished. If they didn’t like them that’s fine, but at least they’d have given it a go.

So what am I trying to say is: be careful not to get ’stuck in a rut’. Teaching is not learning. Yes we learn from our pupils but there is no replacement for standing in line and learning yourself. It helps your own training and knowledge but also opens your mind to what other people do in their dojos. You never know, you might even enjoy it!

You can find out more about David's club by clicking:

Monday, 5 September 2011

Spare any change?

We all know that were living in tough times. Unemployment is high, were supposed to be out of the worst of this recession but I‘m not too sure we are. Everywhere we look prices are rising, food and fuel, and the cost of living is going through the roof. Work is also hard, myself I’m feeling the pinch being self-employed and the amount of money left in people’s pocket at the end of the week / month after paying all the bills is decreasing.
How does this effect the regular martial artist trying to run a club? Some clubs ask for direct debits, high training / grading / membership fee’s, and it really is starting to be a luxury to be able to train, but should it be like this?
I know some people have to made a living from teaching but most clubs are happy to break even and when you start seeing numbers dropping from your class due to the amount it costs to train what should you do? I personally have had to give up one of my weekly training sessions, and the only reason is because I cannot afford to go. The class was excellent but Its not just the training fee, there was fuel to get there, the evening I miss from work, licence fees, grading fee’s ect ect.. so there must be others in the same situation.
Have the boom days of the 80’s and 90’s gone when dojo’s where full to the rafters, 4 classes a night with 50 pupils in each! I was speaking to a old friend about this and he said ‘in the 70’s martial arts were only for the die hard, people who wanted to train no matter what, then in the 80’s and 90’s every street corner had a karate class. This was the Karate Kid or Bruce Lee era but now were going back to how it used to be, just the hardcore martial artists who will train come rain or shine. Is this a good thing?
I’m a great believer in share and share alike. I teach not for the money but the sheer buzz of sharing an art which was around hundreds of years ago and keeping the arts alive. It’s the same reason I stand in line and learn with others who have the same passion. I believe this is what people in the past would have wanted from all the traditional styles. I have been learning and teaching with some very close friends recently and we’ve all been sharing information and I’ve loved every minute but what about if it is your occupation? If numbers are down in your lessons, what should you do? I personally would like to teach a class of 3 or 4 pupils who want to be there and learn rather than a class of 20 who don’t but I do know that its not my profession. I have had pupils in the past who are keen to train but been going through a bad time, just lost there job and I tell them not to worry about the money, just come and train. I don’t know many businesses on the high street can afford to do that!
I’m a martial artist full stop. Is it my profession? No. Is it my hobby? No. Its part of me. Its my passion and my life. If I cannot afford to train, I train at home. If I‘m injured I still visit the dojo if possible or read about the history of the arts. I visit other peoples dojo’s to keep in touch and support others. I look online at websites, look at clubs in different countries. Every day I’m either teaching, training or studying, and why do I do this? Because the arts are part of me but I am worried about how financial difficulties will effect us all. I know we’ll all get through this but its something to think about.

You can find out more about David's club by clicking:

Now that's a knife!

I remember looking in the martial arts shops, or the weird gift shops on holidays and in town and seeing the famous 'Samurai Sword set - £49.99' with free stand!
I'm sure we all have seen them, or gone into some ones house and seen it balanced on the fire place, or on a window ledge, normally with the BT bill wedged behind it! 
One thing we never give any thought about is to how they were made originally. How they were made in the times of the samurai. Why is a katana so special? Why do we not have 'medieval swords' on the wall? Why do we always think about a katana being the true king of all swords?
There are many reasons why katanas are seemed to by 'mystique' and the best sword available but some facts speak for themselves. They are the only sword to have removable fittings and have not changed design in the last 1000 years. The wealthy samurai would buy different colour fittings for different occasions, going round town, into battle, different seasons. The katana became his shadow, his best friend. Whenever a blade was made it was signed by the maker, the polisher, the clan printed on, the town, and the date so the history could be traced back in years to come. Can't remember Little John having a Bo to the same quality!
So how is a blade made? Well we start our journey with a piece of steel. Steel is full of carbon which makes a cutting edge very sharp on a blade, but is brittle from side impact. If we was to remove all the carbon from the steel then it would make the steel more flexible so there was less chance of it snapping on impact, but the edge would dull and chip over time… so the makers came up with a system of making a inside core of steel with very little carbon to make the blade flexible but a cutting edge made of steel with the carbon in to keep a sharp cutting edge (like a kind of bi-metal blade) Not bad for 1000 years ago! 
They first started welding the two pieces together but later started rolling the two types together, so there were no joints. The sword maker started with a block of steel and heated it in a 'tatara' furnace, once heated they would hammer the molten into a block twice the size, then fold it over and weld the side together, cleaning the joints with steam on the anvil and quenching in water to avoid contamination. Standard steel has a carbon content of around 2.5% but once it is heated, hammered, folded and quenched it loses 0.2% of this. The process is then repeated till the piece of steel is left with roughly 0.5% of carbon left. This piece of steel will form the inner core of the blade.
The outer cutting edge the blade is then formed from a separate piece of steel but without the carbon being removed, the two are then folded and hammered together so it looks similar to a sausage roll! The whole blade is then ready to be shaped and hardened. The blade would be straight at this point and would look nothing like the curved blade we recognise today. The blade would then be coated with thin layer of sticky clay and left to dry, once dry a thicker layer of clay would be applied to just the back half of the blade to create a layered effect of different thickness clay, it would then would be heated back in the furnace. Once hot the blade is quenched to harden the steel and this is when the blade takes its curved shape as different parts of the steel cool at different levels due to the clay and thickness of the steel. 
The layers of the clay once removed leave a distinctive mark on the blade called the 'hamon'. This is where the blade has been at different temperatures. Sometimes you will see little bubbly, wiggly marks on the hamon called 'choji', this was a sign that bubbles had risen up the blade in the quenching period. This was a sign that the blade had been 'rushed' due to high demand during the times of war, it's not a defect of the blade though, just shows a different pattern. If you looked carefully at the rest of the blade you should be able to see the grain of the steel, it looks similar to the grain of wood running up and down the blade from the folds in the steel. The sword maker would also apply slight breaks in the cutting edge, these are called 'ashi' which would be designed like a fuse in a plug, a weak point to stop any cracks that might appear due to battling from travelling the full length of the cutting edge and destroying the blade.
Once the blade was complete it would then be sent to a polisher whose job was to make this lump of steel look like a katana. He started by hunching himself over a wooden water barrel and setting the lines in the blade with a course piece of stone, this took many hours of rubbing and washing the excess steel away. Once this was completed he then has to remove the scratches he has made with a finer stone, and would finish with tiny slithers of stone, glued onto pieces of paper to fine polish the blade. This process would take around two weeks of solid work to polish one katana. 
The stone used was taken from Kyoto in Japan and is limestone, the quarry what is used is running out fast and is charging upwards of £1000 for a stone today! Cheap polishes made are around £1000 a blade a polish from Mr Mujishiro, one of the top polisher’s charges around £5000. No wonder they are all riddled with arthritis at an early age! The fittings would then be added to a blade and it was then complete, ready for the samurai to take to the battlefield.
There were 5 main time periods and areas for making blades, all making different styles and designs:
Gokaden (blades made up to 1600's)
Yamato / Yamashiro (Made near Kyoto - made blades for noblemen)
Bizen (70% blades made before 1600's - curved near the tang)
Soshu (Wide and thin blades made near the Shoguns Court)
Mino (Average blades with even curves and hard edges)
Not also did the Samurai wear a katana, but up to the 1500's they worn a 'tachi' as well which was longer and worn upside down for use on horseback, the katana was easier to use when on foot so was saved for combat, a 'no-dachi' (shoulder sword) was sometimes used without a saya (scabbard) on the battlefield and the samurai would sometimes employ a peasant to carry this for him. A ‘Wakizashi’ (short sword) would be worn sometimes around town to show authority and was a samurai's way of saying ‘look at me‘. Wakizashi were often made from old 'Naginata' (spear) blades that had there wooden shaft broken, so not to waste the blade.
Sword Smiths prided themselves on the quality of there work and the blade spoke for themselves on the battlefield but when there was no wars being fought they had to be tested another way. They were often tested for sharpness on human corpses or prisoners. This is called 'Tameshigiri' (test cutting) If a prisoner got an idea that they would be used for this purpose they would swallow stones the night before so it would chip the blades if they were to be cut!
As you can see there is a lot of work, time, effort and history into making a blade and the ones I have described don't sound like the £49 set! These were proper traditional blades designed to be used and took months to make, all by hand, not the cheap ones from Spain everyone has now and that makes me think about an old saying from the words of Crocodile Dundee 'now that’s a knife!'
EDITOR'S NOTE - the cheap ornamental blades such as those costing £49 highlighted in this article are now illegal in the UK. Anyone caught with such a blade faces six months in prison and a fine of up to £5000.

However, legitimate historical katana are not banned, and neither are new katanas as long as they are made in the traditional methods by craftsmen. To import these weapons requires an importation licence from HM Customs and Excise. Only legitimate historical collectors - such as the Royal Armouries - and those practicing arts such as Iaido and Kenjutsu are permitted to import such blades and they must belong to a bonafide club and be properly licenced. These blades must be kept covered and out of reach at any time they are transported in public. 

You can find out more about David's club by clicking:

History - a big part in training

History…ZZZzzz… I hope I have not lost you yet! History is something that as a child most people take no interest in. I remember when I was a child turning up to class and the Sensei wanting to tell us about the farmers in Okinawa, the Samurai and how people lived and all I wanted to do was either fight or throw brightly sparkled Nunchaku around! 
As you get older, rounder and greyer you start to realise there is more to any martial art than beating each other up to a pulp and getting up the next morning! Your bodies can't withstand the type of punishment that they used to, so you are left with a gap in your training. This is when history becomes a big part in my training.
My late father used to spend hours looking at websites, reading books, speaking to people and I never used to understand why as a child but now I truly do understand the interesting part that it plays. I like most people started my training in one of the empty hand styles and as you progress through the system your hunger to learn something new and interesting grows so I turned my hand to Kobudo. Because I had learned my empty hand training in Karate, it made sense to follow my training down the same path, and I decided to learn how to use the tools that farmers would have used to also defend themselves with.
Again at first the only interest I had was learning new katas, learning how to fight with the weapons and when the next grade was but as a child you are blinded and don’t understand why sometimes you are doing something. Since then I have gone back and started to find out why the farmers ended up using the tools that they did for weapons, and why they never had weapons in the first place. My training took a turn from all physical to lots of theory and it is something I try to pass on to others in my classes and courses I teach.
So what is Kobudo? To find out now anyone can punch it into there computer search engine and find a list as long as your arm full of people's explanations but back in the day when I was watching cartoons and looking forward to PE in school we could only find out from asking other people or reading books. 
What I was taught is Kobudo was an art that the farmers of Okinawa studied which incorporated their tools to protect themselves, as the Satsuma Samurai clan banned any weapons to be carried, the roots were similar to that of Karate so the strikes are similar. I'm of an open mind so before everyone emails in with theIr stories of how it came from China, or a wandering Ninja Turtle I like to say that there could be many different places this could have originated, just like other styles history is sometimes clouded, but this is what as a student I was taught. The weapons used again would have all been tools. The Bo being a water carrying device, Nunchaku being a horses muzzle etc… but I will go through these in more details.
Are the people who taught us always right? No I think is the answer but what is important is as martial artists is that we are willing to change the way we train and if that means being open minded and wiling to do some research into what we were told as students then it can only make us better and more knowledgeable martial artists and in turn pass on the correct information to future students.
Questions are the best way to learn, ask questions but make sure the answers you get are correct, understandable and have a reason behind them. This is all about walking down a new path of training; this path does not need any gloves or swords, just a pen and paper, and an open mind.

You can find out more about David's club by clicking: