How far is too far – July 22, 2016

By Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

How do you learn distance? I mean Musashi talks about it all the time, and yesterday was pretty much nothing but frustration all around because I couldn’t get across the distancing in one of the less practiced kata we do. After calling the class because it was definitely beer o’clock I worked out how to sneak up on it so wasn’t as depressed as I could have been.

Just how do we teach distancing (and of course timing which is bound up with distance)? We start with awase, with matching swords. At every kata we start and end with that distance, and we name it, issoku itto, one step. Seeing it year in and year out, students should eventually start to understand just where it is. We set and start from this distance quite a lot in the jodo kihon, so again, this is training the eye to recognize this interval.

Why this space? Beginners hate it, “I can’t get over there to cut your head in one step!” Not now you can’t. That’s the point, I can cut you but you can’t cut me, this is the transition distance, this is the edge between life and death, be like Granny Weatherwax and learn to find this edge where you go from safe to oops. Know your limits. Eventually you will be able to cut from there so suck it up and try. Later you will start to understand that distance and realize that it isn’t painted on the floor. This distance changes with you, your partner, the weather, the time of day… that’s when you find Musashi’s string and yardstick, that hara to hara connection that turns on the red light in your head which says “dangerous distance here”. Or perhaps the green light that says “go”!

During the kata themselves the senior side, the uchidachi, sets and controls the distance so that the learning side can do that technique. Assuming uchidachi knows the interval and sets it consistently, shidachi absorbs it gradually, kata by kata. Eventually, this conscious measuring of inches and feet (cm and dm, sun and shaku) goes away and, ideally is replaced with “oh, target!” The distance becomes “where do I have to be to reach the target”. Issoku itto has taught you to feel that distance in your gut, your feet take you there, all is good. It’s kata so the distractions of feints, timers, judges and getting smacked on the head do not exist to distract you from the real job of getting the right distance.

All this can take years, there is no formula written down to read, no distance to be told and remember, in fact, there is no changing of this combative distance at all. The distance is that place and that time (interval seems to be a good word to describe the combination) where you can strike your opponent, hopefully without being struck by him.

Ai uchi is a thing, you both strike, you both die. It’s often where training stops but it’s not something Musashi thought was a good idea. In my head it seems to be “that place in the training where the best you can do is die expensively”. It’s about four years in, these days, or if you’re practicing each and every day, maybe about the time when you send the kids out as cannon fodder while the real work is being done by the professionals around the other side.

Sometimes that’s the end of it for training. It’s pretty good, not shabby at all to be able to get ai uchi consistantly, and it’s impressive if you can slip to the side and win with it. There are a LOT of kata that are two people striking from the same interval and arriving at the target at the same time but with one shifting slightly offline to create a hit and a miss. Think hasso hidari in Niten Ichiryu. Timing also is adjusted in many kata to accomplish the hit and miss, as is seen in the Jodo movement of “ai uchi” where the jo and the sword start attacking together but the jo takes the centerline and gets there first. “There” being the place where tachi’s face is about to arrive. These are ai uchi timings and are not to be scoffed at. They are not easy.

But wait, there’s more! There are the intervals where we cut short on purpose, as in the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Tsumi Ai kata of Tsubame Gaeshi. The short cut (or the cut to the target that is slow enough that uchidachi can step back and slip it) opens shidachi’s head to attack. It’s irresistable, “look he’s swung and missed and his head is open!” Of course, uke nagashi and the final strike of the kata reveals that shidachi has a good sense of distance and timing and it was all part of the same, compound attack.

That’s where we were last evening while doing Ryusui Uchidome. Uchidachi begins to attack, shidachi puts up a chudan kamae which prevents the attack but just as the attack is about to change, the chudan is opened up, revealing the head as target. Uchidachi cuts to the head but shidachi slips back, then sweeps the attacking sword outward with the shoto and cuts the head with the daito. This kata, and any kata, can be done 1-2-3 but the name would indicate it ought to be flowing. That means testing and tickling around that edge we talked about earlier. It means putting your face in the meatgrinder and then pulling it out again as someone flips the switch. Too soon, too late, too far, too close and it’s too bad.

This, like the idiot I am, I was trying to teach ippyoshi (all at once) last evening as the last kata of the class and as something most of the class had never seen before. Didn’t work. What a surprise, I had gone too far down the chain too soon. You can’t ask people to put their faces in a meat grinder when they are still trying to figure out which foot should be in front when they do it. This is the selfishness of the instructor working on stuff in his own head while using his students to test it.

Never mind, I figured it out and the 1-2-3 version will be done this weekend at the seminar.

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