Kyudo Notebook: Practice, Practice

It’s been a long time, and what can I say? The election. But while all that was going on, practice continued, we had some really good tutorials, a lot of great yumi conversation over the New Year holidays… One of the nice things about being in Japan is that US politics rarely come up. Some people ask, “What is the matter with you people?” But then, Japanese politics, Korean politics, Chinese politics… nobody seems to be having a very smooth time of it these days. Fortunately Kyudo is an oasis that never runs dry. Frustrating maybe, but never dry!

At a tutorial back in November, I was taught a different way of forming tenouchi, the important points being to keep the left hand completely relaxed into daisan, and to make sure that at that time (and from there into kai) the outer edges of the bow fit into the grooves in the hand created by (1) the tenmon line and (2) the inside of the third (distal) joint of the lower three fingers. Beyond that the hand is just receiving the bow.

It’s taken me quite a bit of time to learn how to do that, with many ups and downs. In addition, I was told that I am indeed overdrawing the bow. Part of that is because, while my usual bow is being repaired, the one I have is a little weaker so I feel like I need to draw it more in order to feel like I have the right amount of resistance. But… this isn’t the way! Instead what I’m trying to do is draw in a fairly (but not entirely) relaxed sort of way, and only once I reach kai, begin expanding left/right up/down. This harks back to something Usami-sensei would tell us in Nagoya, but which I didn’t really understand until now (assuming I’m getting it now): the need to sort of have some “space” or “energy” in reserve when you get to kai, otherwise there won’t be anything you can do and you’ll be stuck there like a statue unless you make some unnecessary movements to force the release.

And then… I’m learning the fine art of not shooting too fast while continuing to expand (rather than just waiting). This seems to come down to some fairly subtle mental practice, because sometimes it’s hard to recognize that I am, in fact, releasing on purpose. Usually the tsurune is a clue after the fact, but I need to comprehend it mentally/spiritually, by feeling.

I also had a chance to talk with one of the hanshi about mushin. He said, if I understood correctly, that you develop this simply by concentrating on the shaho-hassetsu. That one-pointed concentration, focusing only on what you need to be doing, seems to be the path. So I try to do that.

At the same time, I realized recently that I’ve completely lost touch with my breathing, so I’m trying to find that rhythm again. And kiza… yes… kiza. Over the holidays that was my teacher’s main complaint. I need to be able to sit that way and stay still, no matter what it takes. So… practice.

One interesting side-note about kiza is that recently our heating stove broke and we had to call a repairman. It was -18 outside so yes… we really needed the repairman. He got it working, but I noticed that the entire time he was working, he sat in kiza, as if it were the most natural and relaxed thing in the world. Half an hour… maybe an hour… and he was still in kiza. Very impressive! True, he didn’t have the ikasu move, and he was moving around a bit, fixing one thing, checking another, but clearly (a) I have a long way to go, and (b) it is possible!

We have another tutorial next weekend with a hanshi from Aomori, and I’m hoping to get more feedback. Winter is good for that.

Oh, also, I’ll be going to Kyoto again this year, so perhaps some of you will, too?

Posted in kai, kyudo notebook, tenouchi, tsurune, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: Arrow Lore

This past weekend I was in Tokyo for work, and a friend wanted to check out Hasegawa Kyuguten, a shop I’d never been to, and which is known for take-ya, so off we went. The idea was to drop in before moving on to another destination, but we were caught in a tsunami of arrow knowledge, and didn’t get out until late in the afternoon. In particular we learned about various ways that bow strength, arrow length, arrow weight, (bamboo) arrow wear over time combine with arrow stiffness, feather stiffness, type, and size… all the factors that need to be properly balanced to get things just right. Well, at least the equipment. The shooting (in particular the draw and, of course, hanare) are up to us.

But how to record all that? On the one hand maybe I don’t have to because there is a book, 「矢の知識」. If you click on the link (it’s to an Amazon page) you’ll see it’s not available online, but they had it at the shop. This is one of those books that has a sort of legendary status… I’d seen photocopies taken from it, but until now, never the book itself. Once it gets here (it’s big, so I mailed it) I hope to dive into it more. About 2/3 of it is photographs of birds and feathers.

One important point that I do remember from the marathon session is that, in the traditional view, what happens at the moment of release is that, essentially, the barbs of the fletchings “lie down” due to both their inherent flexibility and air resistance as the arrow shaft accelerates forward. Then at some point in the brief interval between the sha-i and the target, they rise back up. As you’d expect, while the barbs are lying down flat, they don’t contribute much to the stability of the arrow’s flight. It’s only as they stand up that they interact with the air stream and cause the arrow to spin around its long axis. However there’s a cost… when the barbs stand up, the increased air resistance causes the arrow to slow down.

This is where the stiffness of the feathers comes in. If you want the barbs to stand up quickly (or maybe not even lie down very much to begin with), you use feather that is stiff and perhaps a bit large. In this configuration the arrow’s construction will compensate for small errors in the shooting, such as a less-than-smooth hanare, so this is commonly what people in-the-know will use during taikai, shinsa, etc, when they want an extra margin of safety/stability. And indeed, it seems like most arrows are made like this. Certainly the turkey feathers used on aluminum arrows are quite stiff.

On the other hand, if a person wants the arrow to fly fast, and to be extra sensitive to errors in shooting (in order to make them visible, so you can learn to overcome them), they might choose feathers that are soft (so they remain lying down longer), and narrow. This explains, for example, why the fletchings on enteki-ya typically are made from soft feathers, and they’re much more narrow than in regular kinteki-ya. You can think of it as the difference between a passenger car and a highly responsive racing car. The first is comfortable, flexible, forgiving. The second does exactly what the driver tells it to do (for better or worse).

One recommended strategy was to start with relatively stiff feathers, then once you reach a kind of stability, switch to softer/narrower ones so that shooting errors will become more apparent. Then after you regain stability with those, you could try something even softer. And so on. I’m not sure how many people really do that, though. It’s psychologically difficult to give up stability once you’ve found it.

There was also something about the shafts and the shape. The most common these days are essentially straight, but at various times there have been variations: tapered so that the arrow is narrow at the front, thicker at the back (by the hazu), tapered the other way, or even tapered at both ends (chukurin). This, too, has an effect on flight and stability, as well as the center of gravity of the arrow. Also it was recommended that take-ya be taken in for a “tune up” every six months or so, especially at the beginning, to make sure they don’t warp, and to compensate for the wear at the forward end of the arrow caused by repeated abrasion as the arrow penetrates the azuchi.

Next time I go there I’ll try to record more of what was said.

There were some things that I’m still not sure about. For example, because my arrows are long, they also have to be heavy (or they’ll bend too much), and as a result I was told I really needed to be using a bow with a draw weight of 20kg or more. But my arrows fly just fine as it is, and my teacher sees no reason for me to jump to a stronger bow, so maybe this is just a case where a “rule of thumb” is only that, and there has to be some adjustment, plus or minus, for individual differences? Tempting to order another bow though…

Posted in equipment, kyudo, kyudo notebook, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: Introspection

It’s been a while, with that “work” thing getting in the way. I can’t complain because I volunteered for the task but the psychological/spiritual toll was more than I expected. I continued at the dojo — my oasis — but my mind was often elsewhere. I wonder if my teachers noticed a difference? Probably.

But in the time “away” I seem to have come through the other side of the “rock and a hard place” tunnel into a new sort of landscape. One key has been to pay scrupulous attention to avoiding any twisting in my body, while at the same time keeping the arrow parallel to the line of my shoulders (or the sanju-jumonji generally). Psychologically what seems to do the trick is to decide that the target is just a mark, while the thing I really need to concentrate on is internal… my body, the bow, and the various forces in play. Except concentrate without objective concentration: no separation between me, the concentrator, and me, the thing that is the object of that concentration. Words, words, words. As a 8-dan teacher recently told me, “You think too much. You don’t need to think.”

My bad habit.

It’s taken a couple of months for that to sink in, but it finally came to me the other night, while I was sitting with dojo friends at a dinner. For some time now my teacher has been telling me that I needed to develop  澄ます (sumasu) , kind of a tricky word that seems to imply a kind of clear-minded concentration. Kyudo literature seems to emphasize it at several different points during the shooting process, and one of the odd things I’ve noticed is that, when it goes well, there is no sense of time. It feels to me like my shooting is very fast, but my teacher approves, so it must not be. And indeed I’ve noticed the same thing in sitting meditation sometimes, when the period will suddenly be over and it feels like it just began. Maybe the same. Maybe not. Still working on it.

This weekend we have our local shinsa, so I’ll be helping. It’s gotten really cold here all of the sudden, and the wall is up at the front of the shajo, but it comes down for the shinsa, regardless of wind, rain, sunshine, or snow. It’s going to be a long day. I hope everyone does well!

Posted in kyudo notebook, mind, shinsa, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: Rock and a Hard Place

So the good news is that by changing how I think about what I’m doing, certain problems have vanished. By seeking fulfillment through shooting my arms no longer drop at the release, and I’m now shooting more or less the way I was a year ago, only better now (I think…) because the force is coming from inside rather than just a technical thing.

I’ve also found that paying attention to zanshin in other movements is a big help in maintaining a proper form. Uchiokoshi, in particular, seems to have a very clear and almost pleasant sort of zanshin if I wait for it. That’s the interesting thing… it’s not something created but which comes if I wait. Maybe there’s a pattern there that will be of value, but I’m not sure. In any case what that does is sort of “set” the tatesen, which helps keep the draw balanced.

Nevertheless, as the title suggests, there’s a problem. If I shoot without subterfuge, so to speak… without thinking about what I’m trying to do at kai, the shot seems OK and usually hits, but kai is too short and the bow drops through my hand at the release. Presumably I’m releasing on purpose, but it’s so subtle that I don’t really feel it. If I try to extend kai, in order to meet the demands of my teacher and search for the kind of zanshin I want, then the bow doesn’t drop through my hand, but the arrow misses and the shot is unbalanced.

I seem caught between these two. My guess is that in the process of extending kai I’m twisting up… uh… something… too tight somewhere, so at hanare all that twisting and tightness has to uncoil, which throws everything off. Perhaps I need to work more on both relaxation and on breathing?

Meanwhile the All-Japan tournament is coming up. This year at Meiji Jingu. I wasn’t able to get a reservation in time so won’t be going this year, but on the plus side it means I’ll be able to save money and do more next year. Maybe Kyoto again? Well, unless I buy something. So much temptation in the world…

Posted in hanare, hikiwake, kai, kyudo, kyudo notebook, mind, uchiokoshi, zanshin | Leave a comment

Kyudo Notebook: Details

In one way it’s hard to believe I haven’t written anything in three months, but in another it makes sense. Although I’ve been practicing regularly my mind has been elsewhere, either family or work. Time to get back.

What I’ve found is the importance of details and at the same time, very fundamental things. For example, checking dozukuri after each move to make sure I haven’t twisted or turned in some way. When you remember that, from 28 meters away, the difference between hitting the center of the target and missing it entirely is just a matter of shifting 4-5mm, it amazes me that I ever hit the target at all before. but I suppose we develop unconscious strategies and habits… errors compensating for other errors. These days I’m trying not to have so many errors!

One thing that seems to have helped is the decision that, after this many years, really, I’ve punched enough holes in paper, and instead of focusing that, what I’m going for, for lack of a better word, is fulfillment. I find that this changes the way I shoot to something larger and more expansive. I suppose it’s the difference between having a goal that is 28 meters away and having one that is huge. But still much to be done…

Posted in dozukuri, kyudo notebook, mind, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Kyudo Notebook: Broken String in Sharei

Just a quick note of something I learned at a tutorial the other day. Although normally in sharei, if  you break a string there is no fixing it — you move back to the honza and wait while everyone else finishes (which isn’t always trivial because you have to be out of everyone’s way)– this not necessarily true in the sharei in the second part of a shinsa for renshi, kyoushi, or (I guess) 8-dan. In that case it’s possible to correct the error and continue.

What I was told was that, for the renshi test, it’s OK to just have another string, and someone will restring the bow for you, but beyond that you’re expected to have a second bow (kaeyumi) already strung and ready to go. The teachers recommended that people testing for renshi do the same if possible.

So, just a note for future reference.

Otherwise things are going fairly well. One thing that has helped is making sure that the arrow is parallel to the shoulder line at daisan. Apparently I’d had it at an angle, which creates an imbalance during the draw. I got some other tips at the tutorial, but am trying to change only one thing at a time…

Posted in daisan, kyudo, kyudo notebook, shinsa, shitsu, yumi | Leave a comment

Kyudo Notebook: Thoughts on the Renshi Shinsa

I spent my last day in Kyoto sitting at one of the shajo, watching 1/4 of the people testing for renshi. When I got up that morning I halfway wanted to sleep in, then go sightseeing, but it turned out to be worthwhile, if a bit mysterious, to go back to the shinsa.

I don’t have my program with me but if I recall correctly there were about 700 people testing, divided between the four shajo, each with five hanshi as judges. Within the groups testing at each shajo, it seems like there was a full range of kyudo “ages” (years since 5-dan or 6-dan) from people taking the test for the first time to veterans with more than 20 years under their obi. As usual, there was a first round in which people used the normal shinsa timing (with hada-nugi and tasuki-sabaki). Then after a delay there was an announcement of those who passed the first round, which was then followed by a second round in which those who passed performed mochi-mato sharei.

Of the 175 or so people assigned to the shajo I was watching, a fair number [I’m being intentionally vague here] passed the first round, and about half that passed the second round. As I watched the first round I made notes about who I thought might pass, based on memories of other shinsa.

You have to make some allowances here. First, I’m not a hanshi, so in kyudo terms, I can’t see what they see. Second there is the viewing angle and the fact that nobody can watch ten people at once, so even physically, in an ordinary sense, I couldn’t see what those five people saw. And then, as you’ll see, I’m not even certain what they’re looking for, what the priorities are. So with those grains of salt, I thought two people would pass the first round, plus maybe a couple of others who I was on the fence about, usually because they shot well but maybe missed one arrow.

It was a surprise to see more pass that first round. At one of the recent seminars, the teacher (hanshi, 8-dan) said that in order to pass renshi you had to (1) make no mistakes, (2) beyond that be excellent. I thought, “since renshi is a teaching level you would want this person to be a proper model… you should wish that this person’s students will shoot the way they do.” The two people that I thought would pass were indeed among those who did, but several of the others, for example, shot very quickly, about one second in kai, and I thought, “They won’t want students shooting this fast.”

Since time in kai is more or less objective, this must mean that the judges were seeing, or valuing, something I wasn’t. There must be something extra these people had to compensate for what is, I suppose (possibly in arrogance), a bit of a technical problem. So it was very interesting. What were these people doing?

Looking back at video, the one thing that stands out to me is that, at the release, their left and right hands/arms went straight out, with no extra up or down, no extra left or right. In particular the hands never dropped below the horizontal line of the shoulders. This seems obvious by it can be a bit subtle because at the moment of hanare, the tensions built up in the body at kai will unwind in milliseconds, coming to a complete rest after about one second (you can tell if you watch 30fps video frame-by-frame). This means that people using a mirror to check their form at zanshin will not see the movement that occurs during that one second, but instead see things after everything has settled down, and in many cases that “ending” form looks pretty good.

But that first one second is crucial. People who passed didn’t seem to need much unwinding. Their hands and arms just extended out naturally into a good zanshin form, without requiring any compensating movements. Many others would, say, have both arms drop below the line of the shoulders, then raise their arms back up. Or one arm would go up while the other went down, then both returned to a supposedly good zanshin form. I wondered if, in a way, people had learned to force it?

Another common problem is that people open their left hand at the release. Most likely this is in “sympathy” with the right hand, and is an indication of an intentional release. With video you can see that most clearly with people who wince or blink at the release. If the wince occurs a split-second before the release occurs, they’re anticipating. Whatever brain signal is going out to trigger the release reaches the face/eyes first.

Mind you, I’m not being critical. In video I’ve seen of myself, I’ve done all of these things, often for long periods (and probably still do!). I’m just pointing out how subtle it all can be, that a lot happens in those 1000 milliseconds after the arrow flies, and that it’s all but invisible to the person shooting (although you might feel it, or see the result in the flight of the arrow, the tsurune, etc). But the shinsa-in can see it, and I suspect that’s why more people passed than I expected: those people had solved the conundrum of the release, even if maybe they had some other issues.

I have no idea if this is accurate, but it fits some other thoughts that have been percolating since my practice sessions shortly before, and while in, Kyoto.

As for the ni-ji shinsa, likewise when I watched, I honestly thought that nobody would pass. Everyone either made taihai mistakes or again, had that super-fast kai. But it turned out that several did pass, and as I thought over the differences, again it seems to me that the shinsa-in were either seeing different things, or valuing them differently.

In this case, I think what mattered most is whether people were able to truly act in harmony with the other members of their group. For example, in one of the sharei that I watched, people really were in harmony, better even than I had seen in some of the hitotsu-mato sharei for the kyoushi exam. So even though there was at least one significant taihai error, some of that very fast shooting, and three people only hit with one arrow, they passed. In another group, where the harmony was notably lacking, it seemed like one person did OK, but then failed because of a taihai error at the last minute. As a result, it seems to me that harmony counts for an awful lot and will offset other problems. It’s still possible for a person in a group that lacks harmony to do OK on technical grounds, hitting twice, etc, but a taihai mistake can still cancel all that out.

But again, I have no idea if these impressions are accurate. Next time I have a chance I’m going to check this out with teachers who act as shinsa-in, and see what the story is (if they will tell me). In the meantime, it’s just stuff to think about, and to practice. And in the end we need all of those things (clean/unimpeded release, harmony, technical excellence) no matter how long it takes, so there’s no harm done if I’m wrong. I suppose I’ll get my answers one way or another soon enough!

Two More Thoughts (Later)

If, in order to pass renshi, you need to make no mistakes and be “excellent,” what’s left for kyoushi and the levels above? I can only imagine (after a hint from one of the hanshi), that it’s the spiritual aspect. Technically you’re there. In terms of performance, there. But spirit… maybe that’s the work?

And then, I thought about some of the older people testing, still trying after many years. I wondered if allowances would be made for age and physical difficulties? It seemed to me that, with the exception of people who have no choice but to shoot rissha, no special allowances were made, but it was a small sample size.

Posted in kyudo, kyudo notebook, shinsa, Uncategorized | 3 Comments