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Old 10-19-2007, 08:19 PM   #1
John Ruhl
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Bokken symmetry

I have a question about the nature of Aikido bokken practice, which I'd love to hear thoughts on.

I've read many times that Aikido empty-hand techniques are to some extent derived from weapons work, and that weapons work helps our empty-hand technique. I've certainly come to believe this in my own practice. However, our empty-hand techniques are always done "both sides" (left and right), while the bokken kata I've seen or done (which is not a lot, and all ASU) is done "right handed", ie with the "right hand on top" grip on the bokken.

Does anyone practice bokken kata "both sides", and if so have you found it helpful, especially in its benefits for your empty-hand technique? If you don't practice "both sides", is there a reason that you think it wouldn't be helpful or is unnecessary?

thanks,
John
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Old 10-19-2007, 11:49 PM   #2
akiy
 
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Here's an old article that Rocky Izumi wrote on this subject:

http://www.aikiweb.com/weapons/rock4.html

If others have thoughts or information, it'd be great to hear them.

-- Jun

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Old 10-20-2007, 01:14 AM   #3
Josh Reyer
 
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Re: Bokken symmetry

I am left-handed.

I think Mr. Izumi came off a little strong in the article that Jun posted, but then I don't know what kind of posts in what kind of thread he was replying to. I've seen some threads in different forums where lefties get a little strident regarding the right-hand bias in Japanese sword arts, and perhaps it was these kinds of posts that caused him to use such terms as "stupid" or "idiot".

For what's its worth though, in his book "Duelling with O-sensei", Ellis Amdur describes one of his aikido teachers, Yasunori Kuwamori, as practicing bokken cuts on a tire both right-handed and left-handed, to "balance himself out".

When I was learning Iwama-style aikiken, I often practiced suburi both left and right handed. Left-handed was so much more satisfying because I could cut straight. I was told the left-hand was for power, and the right hand simply lightly guided the blade. Which is much like in baseball: the off-hand pulls the bat through the strike zone while the dominant hand controls it's course and angle. This was particularly strong in the aikiken style I learned because the hands were brought down to the hara first, and the blade then followed, snapped into horizontal position. Like this.

But kata, of course, were always done right handed, and I often wished I could be allowed to hold the sword left handed. It didn't really seem to me like it would matter. Unlike kendo, cut and defended with either foot forward. Still, I practiced kata in the orthodox manner.

Now, however, I've taken up a classical sword tradition. Again, it's right hand over left hand. Again, at first, I quietly wished I could do things with a left-handed grip. Only now, I'm being taught to cut with the hara, not with the hands, and dropping the hands down ahead of the kissaki is big no-no. And, wow, it's an amazing difference. I haven't reached the point where I can do it at will, yet, but when I do do it, hands and tip of the blade reach their respective destinations at the same time, the cut is straight, and I don't even feel my hands and arms.

I think a lot of aikiken has been influenced by kendo cutting, which often seems to use the hands-dropped, blade-snapped-out type cut. But surely aikiken is meant to be done with the hara, not with the hands...

Josh Reyer

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Old 10-20-2007, 08:10 AM   #4
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Being a practitioner of Aikido and although we practice ken and staff techniques, we are not sword or staff practioners. Instead we use the weapons side of Aikido (the Aikiken and Aikijo) to develope our taijutsu. To me (as taught to me by my instructor) Aikiken and Aikijo should be employed with usage on both sides of the body, since this is because empty handed techniques are used on both sides of the body.
The majority of the time when we do weapons work we use both hidari and migi hanmi when using the ken (also sometimes when do partner practice). Although the times when we have done Kashima we have only done the techniques on the one side (that being the right hand side). This to me is showing the differences that exist between traditional japanese sword and that of the Aikiken.
Just me two cents here.
Wayne
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Old 10-24-2007, 10:04 AM   #5
John Ruhl
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Jun - Thanks for the link; I'd read that a while ago, and it is certainly relevant to the question of "why do we do it this way?". Here though I'm interested more in "what is good for modern training" than "why was this done historically"? Even without the issues of ones clothing and interference when walking or mounting a horse, I can imagine that it might be more productive to practice all the time on one side, rather than 50-50 split between left and right, if you're really interested in winning fights with a sword. However, I don't think that's why we're doing bokken work.

Josh and Wayne, thanks for the interesting info. Wayne, do you actually switch your grip to "left over right" for some of your akiken practice?

-John
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Old 10-24-2007, 10:36 AM   #6
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Re: Bokken symmetry

John,

About 70% of our Aikiken practice (mainly the suburi though) is practiced using both right and left handed grips. Although usually it can just be the first few suburi but we can expand further into them, with both hand grips.
Hope this answers your question.
Wayne
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Old 10-24-2007, 11:20 AM   #7
Will Prusner
 
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Quote:
Miyamoto Musashi, Sword Saint; wrote:

I have not followed the paths of other men. I have lived without the benefit of a teacher and by my own devices I became the master of myself, and therby master of the sword and brush...

It should be mentioned that without the assistance of a teacher many roads become open to a practitioner, some on the correct path, some on the incorrect path...

This is a very difficult road to travel and not many are made for it. It is frustrating, confusing, very lonely, certainly frightening and it will sometimes make you think you do not have much sanity left to deal with the everyday surroundings of your world.
I agree with him.This coming from the guy who developed his own style for using two swords at once. It's evidence that you can do whatever you like with your training (and do it well), with a warning/disclaimer.

I have watched some of Nishio's videos where all of the techniques demonstrated empty-handed are explained using the bokken and jo.
Nishio has some exquisite (In my limited opinion) sword technique. His form with the sword always looks, to me, like correct sword form, and has surprised me, in certain techniques, demonstrating exactly where (in an empty-handed technique) the sword cut is coming from, when I had wrongly assumed that it had originated elsewhere. Definitely very enlightening if you can locate.

Personally, I'm right-handed, and for now am content to hold the sword the traditional way. For strength training i choose to use weights and resistance equipment which I feel has less possibility of negatively affecting my muscle memory as far as wielding a Japanese long sword goes.

I'm glad you asked this interesting question. Thanks

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration...

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Old 10-24-2007, 11:38 AM   #8
Joseph Tutton
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Musashi insisted that one train with the long sword in the left as well as the right hand. If one's right hand is injured, must he die?

He also insisted that the Way is to wield the sword with one hand. Can one not hold the horse's reins and still cut? Can one not use both his swords?

Musashi wore his swords in the traditional manner, but he was not a traditional fellow. All that matters is to cut down the enemy.

Ueshiba O-Sensei would anticipate an attack with a weapon in either hand or with weapons in both hands.
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Old 10-24-2007, 01:15 PM   #9
John Ruhl
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Re: Bokken symmetry

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Joseph Tutton wrote: View Post
Musashi insisted that one train with the long sword in the left as well as the right hand. If one's right hand is injured, must he die?

He also insisted that the Way is to wield the sword with one hand. Can one not hold the horse's reins and still cut? Can one not use both his swords?
Joseph -

Indeed, the question of right-left symmetry came to me while reading the Book of Five Rings, in particular his discussion of his one-handed sword wielding.

I guess one can ask the related question "Have you trained with one-handed sword techniques, and has that had any obvious benefits for your empty-hand training"? Personally, though, I'm happy to work on two-handed bokken techniques for a while.

-John
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Old 10-24-2007, 09:31 PM   #10
Joseph Tutton
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Re: Bokken symmetry

John,

I have only very recently begun to study Aikido, but I have always trained with the bokken left-handed and right-handed, one-handed and two-handed, so I cannot answer your question as to any obvious benefits to empty hand techniques.

Joseph
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Old 10-30-2007, 10:55 AM   #11
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Sword grip

Certainly, there are many sword techniques including a left side guard, also techniques done with the sword either in the left or the right hand - but I think that it is hard to find a change of the two-handed sword grip in traditional sword arts.
As far as I know, the sword is always grabbed with the left hand behind the right one. This is related to the common sword guard position, where the left foot is behind the right one.

I don't know if the basic sword guard has led to the sword grip, or the other way around, or neither. I think that all fencing prefers a right-sided guard, probably to protect the heart, and to extend the most able hand (for right-handed people).

I have asked myself many times if the sword grip order of the hands has something to do with their differences. For example, most of us are right-handed, and maybe the manoeuvers needed of the front hand in a two-handed sword grip would be awkward to do with the left hand - whereas power cutting and such, where the back hand is used, is not too complicated for the left hand to do.

Anyone knows?

Stefan Stenudd
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Old 11-06-2007, 08:47 AM   #12
Keith Larman
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Well, ask most in koryu sword arts and they'll tell you that the distinction is moot. You don't cut with your hands let alone your arms. You cut from your hara. Even the draw/single hand cut in iai involves both arms. One drawing the sword while the other "draws" the saya backwards in sayabiki.

Then once the blade is clear of the saya you use both hands. And the cut does not come from one hand or the other -- it comes from the movements of the hara appropriate to the cut. Which brings us right back to aikido and moving from the center. So one side vs. the other is really not an issue. And since Japan is a rather conformist society and a variety of social norms rule most behavior, the sword was always worn on the left side. Which allows people to walk among themselves, move in groups, etc. with a full, reasonable expectation of where the sword is, how to avoid "bonking" the other fella's sword, etc.

And in Japan there are no such thing as left-handed people... At least not for long.

But seriously, of my friends and customers in the sword arts the issue of handedness just makes them groan. It's usually something asked by someone new who insists they need to do everything on the other side. Or should do it in both hands. Those with experience tell them that the very focus of the question is misguided and misses the bigger picture that you use both hands. So one side is as good as the other. And since everyone else uses the left side to wear, right hand above left in usage, well, you might as well do the same.

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Old 11-06-2007, 09:37 AM   #13
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Re: Bokken symmetry

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So one side is as good as the other. And since everyone else uses the left side to wear, right hand above left in usage, well, you might as well do the same.
On the other hand: Isn't that the kind of reasoning that every right handed society has used for demanding of left handed people to adapt?

Also, I still wonder if there is a reason for the choice of hand positions in the sword grip. If so, it is probably to the advantage of right handed people.

Stefan Stenudd
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Old 11-06-2007, 10:04 AM   #14
Keith Larman
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Re: Bokken symmetry

I think you're missing my point. Those who want to do it "gyaku" often use the argument that it is easier for them because they are left handed. The truth is that all the movements involve *both* hands. And both actions are equally important to proper form.

Frankly most right-handed people have serious trouble with proper sayabiki with the left hand. So maybe I should argue that we *should* wear them on the right side so I can use my right hand to do sayabiki properly (something after years I still fight with my left). I'd love that as the proper angle, flow and movement of a good sayabiki greatly affects the smoothness of the draw, the rate at which I can get the sword out, and even the power I can generate in the cut as you "open up" your chest with both arms as you complete the draw/cut. All those back muscles come into play and body alignment becomes critical. I would find the whole sayabiki part much easier if I could do it on my right as I'm strongly right handed. Of course then the hand holding the sword would be wobbly because I'm right handed... What's the expression -- 6 of one, a half dozen of another?

There is no advantage to "handedness" with cutting done properly. But having everyone in class with their saya on the left and everyone turning in the same direction during kata practice (which would not be the case if we started reversing grips and wearing) would be a mess and confusing. People going in all different directions... Then there were the social norms about bumping into saya or "knocking" saya as an invitation to a duel.

There is a heavy cultural bias towards right handedness in many cultures, Japan very much included. But it is simply not much of an issue when it comes to swordsmanship. This has been hashed out many times, in person and on many fora over the years. Most experienced with the sword just shrug and don't argue any longer because it really isn't a big deal. You use both. Or if you're focusing on your hands you're not focusing where you should -- your hara.

On the other hand if someone wants to do it with their hands reversed, more power to them. But if you look up at Josh's post about learning proper cutting techniques you'll find that the issue isn't which hand is where, it is learning to cut from your hara. Focusing on one hand vs. the other might help someone fix a problem in their form, but both hands are critical, even with so-called one-handed draw/cuts (which are in no-way really one-handed). You can of course do it however you'd like. And as a training exercise I can't imagine there is any problem with doing that. But most aikidoka I've seen have horrible form in terms of traditional norms of cutting style -- they'd clunk the sword into their target, often missing, often with zero power as they've dropped their hands to the bottom of the cutting form before the blade has even hit the target.

Search e-budo and Swordforum.com on their forums. You'll find some discussions of the topics there. Like I said, it has been discussed many times.

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Old 11-06-2007, 10:39 AM   #15
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Quote:
John Ruhl wrote: View Post
I've read many times that Aikido empty-hand techniques are to some extent derived from weapons work, and that weapons work helps our empty-hand technique... However, our empty-hand techniques are always done "both sides", while the bokken kata I've seen or done is done "right handed"...

Does anyone practice bokken kata "both sides"...?
Something interesting here is that in Daito-ryu, there are many techniques that are only practiced one-sided. Some are only executed towards the right, and some are only executed towards the left. Carrying a sword in your belt (and/or facing an opponent who's carrying one in their belt) restricts the way one can move.

--Timothy Kleinert

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Old 11-06-2007, 11:29 AM   #16
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Another quick thought since I'm on-line replying to e-mails...

Most don't realize this but properly mounted swords are not totally symmetric.

For instance, tsuka on well done koshirae are usually a lot more complex than what you see on modern reproductions and even on most iaito. A proper tsuka will have a high quality piece of samekawa lined up such that the Oyatsubu ("emporer" nodes or the larger central nodes) end up on the omote of the tsuka one or two diamond openings down from the kashira. A quality shitaji for the tsuka will have a small "ramp" built to push those nodes up oh-so-slightly and a recess after it for the tie-off "presentation" knot to be done in the ito. Properly done this creates a very nice "palm" swell for the left hand near the kashira and is a sign of a very well done tsuka. I've yet to see a production sword with that level of attention to detail, but on good mounts you see it all the time.

Another thing to look at is kurikata placement on the saya. I've never seen one done backwards. No, I take that back, I saw a photo of one a guy did who decided to start making saya but who knew nothing about Japanese swords. Anyway, the kurikata goes on the side that will allow the sword to be worn edge up thrust through the obi on the left side (which means you're drawing with your right hand). The kurikata "pokes out" enough to prevent the saya from sliding down and out of the belt. If you were to wear your sword on the right you'd either have to deal with a large protruding object digging into your hip bone and the very real posibility of it sliding out of your belt *or* have a saya made with the kurikata on the opposite side.

I suppose someone could have a special saya made with the part on the other side. But I've never seen one.

Just fwiw.

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Old 11-07-2007, 05:34 AM   #17
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Hand positions, anyway

Quote:
Keith Larman wrote: View Post
I think you're missing my point.
I probably am. Maybe you're missing my point, as well?

Of course, the center of cutting, as of every movement in budo, is tanden. Still, I am curious as to what might lie behind the choice of the hand positions in the sword grip. I bet it's based on right-handed preferences.

Surely, right-handed people want to draw the sword with the right hand - in spite of problems with sayabiki. And they would want to grab the tsuka close to tsuba, in order to have a trustworthy grip, and power for an immediate one-handed strike. The right hand makes the choice, and the left hand adapts, so to speak.
That's my guess.

I hope that I don't offend anyone by speculating on this subject.

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Old 11-07-2007, 07:45 AM   #18
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Re: Bokken symmetry

So, Keith... I ran to one of my old swords and looked. I had no idea that the tsuka was created like that, but wow it fits the hand well. I am left handed, and I can't imagine doing swordwork gyaku. Aside from historical contradictions, my noto is good for one of the reasons presented, I get to do sayabiki with my dominant hand. It also makes my drawing smoother and more powerful.

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Old 11-07-2007, 08:27 AM   #19
Timothy WK
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Re: Hand positions, anyway

Quote:
Stefan Stenudd wrote: View Post
Still, I am curious as to what might lie behind the choice of the hand positions in the sword grip. I bet it's based on right-handed preferences.
I think this is obviously true. It's the same reason European swordsmen would often carry their swords on the left. I'm not convinced that alone warrants going gyaku, for the reasons mentioned by others.

But interestingly, Sokaku Takeda---who was known for his swordsmanship before he began teaching jujutsu---was reportedly just as adept at using his sword with either hand. He supposedly would swap hands in the middle of a sparring match to confuse his opponent.

Some have speculated that this ability might have contributed to his amazing body skills. (Or maybe he could pull this off because of those skills, who knows?) I guess it's possible to use Takeda's example to argue that Aikido-ka should practice with both hands.

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Old 11-07-2007, 09:17 AM   #20
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Re: Hand positions, anyway

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Stefan Stenudd wrote: View Post
I probably am. Maybe you're missing my point, as well?
Oh, very likely -- it's not an uncommon event for me...

I'll be the first to admit I'm a total sword geek -- it is an occupational hazard since I've been obsessed with the things for decades. And working on them as a full time job for the last 7 years has really allowed me to wallow in excruciating detail. It makes me happy but I'm sure I come off way too strong sometime when I get talking about it. Kinda like a Trekkie discussing the Kobayashi Maru thing where Kirk... Sorry, got off track...

I think it might help to look at the evolution of the weapon from prior versions to understand why it is on the left. The uchigatana style (worn in the obi, edge up) had evolved from earlier tachi forms. Tachi were worn with hangers and was worn slung lower, outside the belt, edge down. Most argue this was to facilitate a one-handed draw while on horse-back. Also, the edge down and lower orientation allowed an easier draw while not lopping off your horses head (a good thing). So I suppose you could argue that dominant right-handedness was a good reason for wearing the tachi on the right side. And used as a "Calvary saber" the sword would be more of a one-handed weapon. So maybe left side wearing, right hand drawing made more sense given that environment.

Remember that they had 400 years of tachi before the uchigatana style began to gain popularity. Each handachi mounts (literally "half tachi") looked very much like tachi mounts, but instead of hangers would have a kurigata for wearing the sword in the obi because appearing about 600 years ago and very soon tachi were being shortened and remounted as katana. And since the tachi had been worn on the left side I'm pretty sure it was a "natural thing" at that point to continue with the same side.

Of course there is a completely distinct discussion when we talk about improving our aikido by what we do with the bokken. I have some very strong opinions on that matter myself. I think many peoples' aikido could be greatly improved if they also improved their form with the bokken. And to me that doesn't mean switching hands -- it means learning to cut correctly in the first place. Many in the Japanese Sword Arts look down on aikiken because often the cuts look ineffectual. It is often an eye-opening experience to hand an aikido student a real sword and put them in front of a soaked tatami. After a few "thunks" into the target they start to learn that they have to change their cutting form to actually use the weapon correctly. And if they do sometimes a light bulb goes on and it filters back into their aikido. So to me, doing it on both sides for many would just mean doing it poorly on both sides. Shoshin ni kaeru -- return to the basics. Improve the cut. And I've been working on that for years personally. And I'm still working on it just on the one side... Maybe someday I'll be good enough to try the other side... But I kinda doubt it...

Just my opinions...

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Old 11-07-2007, 12:45 PM   #21
Stefan Stenudd
 
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Sword art basics

Quote:
Keith Larman wrote: View Post
I think many peoples' aikido could be greatly improved if they also improved their form with the bokken. And to me that doesn't mean switching hands -- it means learning to cut correctly in the first place.
I totally agree with you. Like you, I'm not interested in trying a reversed grip - sword art basics are indeed difficult enough as it is. And I am quite convinced that aikido students would benefit tremendously from studying the sword arts as they are, not through aikiken misconceptions with a bokken.
I was fortunate to study for Nishio sensei, who stressed this repeatedly.
I even dared to develop a simple system of sword exercises for aikido students, aikibatto, for the purpose of making them try the sword sort of closer to its own reality. But alas, the sword is certainly a lifetime study, as well.

Stefan Stenudd
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Old 11-07-2007, 12:57 PM   #22
John Ruhl
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Re: Hand positions, anyway

Quote:
Keith Larman wrote: View Post

Of course there is a completely distinct discussion when we talk about improving our aikido by what we do with the bokken. I have some very strong opinions on that matter myself. I think many peoples' aikido could be greatly improved if they also improved their form with the bokken. And to me that doesn't mean switching hands -- it means learning to cut correctly in the first place. Many in the Japanese Sword Arts look down on aikiken because often the cuts look ineffectual. It is often an eye-opening experience to hand an aikido student a real sword and put them in front of a soaked tatami. After a few "thunks" into the target they start to learn that they have to change their cutting form to actually use the weapon correctly. And if they do sometimes a light bulb goes on and it filters back into their aikido. So to me, doing it on both sides for many would just mean doing it poorly on both sides. Shoshin ni kaeru -- return to the basics. Improve the cut. And I've been working on that for years personally. And I'm still working on it just on the one side... Maybe someday I'll be good enough to try the other side... But I kinda doubt it...

Just my opinions...
Keith -

Thanks, I think you are probably right, learning to cut correctly on one side would be more beneficial than learning to cut equally incorrectly on both. Certainly I would love the opportunity to take a few cuts as you suggest and get that feedback.

-John
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Old 11-07-2007, 04:11 PM   #23
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Re: Bokken symmetry

Quote:
Michael Ellefson wrote: View Post
So, Keith... I ran to one of my old swords and looked. I had no idea that the tsuka was created like that, but wow it fits the hand well...
Yup, most folks I point that out to usually light up when they hold a good tsuka as compared to an average production piece. It is just one of many small details that go into the craft. Folk always wonder why top notch work is so expensive. Most of that money goes into the time it takes to do really tiny, subtle things really, really well. I could carve and fit a core to a sword in an hour or two if I was just trying to get it done. But usually it takes me a day or two to really do it well. Such a huge difference in time for such small end results. There's the "gross" overall approximation. And then there's the elegant "attention to detail" version. Most find it difficult to tell them apart until things are pointed out. But once you begin to see the differences it becomes obvious.

Kinda like a lot of things I suppose...

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Old 11-07-2007, 04:16 PM   #24
Keith Larman
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Re: Hand positions, anyway

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John Ruhl wrote: View Post
Keith -

Thanks, I think you are probably right, learning to cut correctly on one side would be more beneficial than learning to cut equally incorrectly on both. Certainly I would love the opportunity to take a few cuts as you suggest and get that feedback.

-John
Yeah, recently I invited the chief instructor and a few other senior instructors of our HQ Dojo over to my house for a cutting session. I had about 60 tatami all rolled and soaked. I started things by giving some safety information and basic ideas about safe cutting practice. Then I let them use my sword and work it out with the real targets. It was a really good experience for everyone (and it is fun as well). We're talking about expanding it for our senior students at some future date on a more formal basis. It really does illuminate problems with your form. And it helps you understand issues like how well a sword cuts and why power is no substitute for form.

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Old 11-07-2007, 07:25 PM   #25
Bronson
 
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Dojo: Seiwa Dojo and Southside Dojo
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Re: Hand positions, anyway

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Keith Larman wrote: View Post
Yeah, recently I invited the chief instructor and a few other senior instructors of our HQ Dojo over to my house for a cutting session. I had about 60 tatami all rolled and soaked. I started things by giving some safety information and basic ideas about safe cutting practice. Then I let them use my sword and work it out with the real targets. It was a really good experience for everyone (and it is fun as well). We're talking about expanding it for our senior students at some future date on a more formal basis. It really does illuminate problems with your form. And it helps you understand issues like how well a sword cuts and why power is no substitute for form.
So, any chance of bringing this to next years summer camp? I think it's a great idea. I had the opportunity to do (attempt really) a small amount cutting in my short stint in iaido ...enlightening to say the least.

Bronson

p.s. I can bring a stand and could probably scrounge another one

"A pacifist is not really a pacifist if he is unable to make a choice between violence and non-violence. A true pacifist is able to kill or maim in the blink of an eye, but at the moment of impending destruction of the enemy he chooses non-violence."
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