Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Different Kind of Test

*Before we start here, I propose a challenge to readers. Read this entire blog entry sitting on your knees. Don't move, get up or change positions.*

I look out over a 28-meter expanse of green. The target looks so small and far away compared to the bound bail of straw I use for warm-up. It seems maybe even a bit farther than at my sensei's dojo. But it doesn't matter. Like every time before, the environment around me is so silent and empty that the one inside me seems to turn up the volume. Nothing else matters, I tell myself, now is now and everything that came before is meaningless. I focus on what is before me, on the bow in my hands and the important way in which I form my hands around it. I concentrate on each movement and make it as perfect as I am able. In between, I use slow breathing to control them.

I inhale for 6 seconds as I raise the bow high above my head and then exhale to relax my shoulders. I inhale for another 6 seconds as I draw the bow halfway and exhale again. Now for the hard part. As I go for the full draw, I push the bow and pull the string as evenly as possible to keep the arrow parallel to the ground. I pull my shoulders apart and stretch everything as horizontally and vertically as possible. I set my aim and hold it there as the clock ticks out the seconds: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ZIP! My arm flies back at the release so that now both arms are now outstretched parallel to the ground. I anticipate the satisfying POP! of the arrow piercing the target, but it doesn't come. Instead it burys itself into the packed dirt just off to the side. But that doesn't matter, I tell myself. I hold that pose for 3 seconds and then finally lower the bow, return my gaze from the target, and bring my separated feet back together. I take 5 steps back starting with the right leg, and then turn to the right and curve left to the dojo entrance. About a bow's-length away from the doorway, I turn to the left and bow slightly to the small Shinto shrine mounted to the wall above the judges, and then finally make my exit.

And so ends the judging for those seeking their kyu levels at the Spring kyudo test in Honjo city. Next would be those seeking dan levels (more advanced than kyu). There were only 4 kyu candidates including myself- most kyudo-ka start in the spring and test for kyu in the fall since school starts in the spring in Japan. That also means most students are ready to test for dan in the spring since they've been practicing since around that time the previous year. Two kyudo-ka were testing for their third dan. Tests higher than third dan are held in Akita city.
*kyu and dan in kyudo are proficiency levels (kind of like belts in karate). kyu start at the lowest level of 5 and count down to 1. After reaching first kyu, you can shoot for first dan which then counts up to 10. My sensei is sixth-dan. This system is used in many Japanese martial arts.*

My day started almost as any other weekend when I'd head to the usual dojo in Kisakata. Today, however, I was up a bit earlier since I had to wear the formal and complicated-to-put-on kyudo uniform to the test. As the Sunday before the arrival of Spring, it was finally above freezing, but still quite cold out. From Spring onward, I will start wearing the uniform to every practice. Rain fell lightly outside as Brad and I loaded my equipment into the car and set out for Honjo just north of where we live in Nikaho City. I regret not waiting to change after I get there as the tightly-sinched obi around my waist fights with my ribcage for room.

We're greeted politely by other candidates and teachers when we arrive , and I panic a little on the inside not knowing where to put my things and what to do next. I find an empty spot in the bow-stands to put my equipment. I set up my bow and take out my arrows and huddle around the large gas burners with everyone else to wait for the opening ceremonies. Most of the others are high school students who belong to actual kyudo clubs at their schools and I admire their encouraging attitudes and matching club jackets. Most kyudo-ka start in high school and some schools even have their own dojos. I notice some of them are hastily reviewing handwritten notes since those testing for dan have to take a written examination. I'm glad that's far away for me.

Finally, we're called into the dojo for opening remarks and greetings. Some of the students push open the sliding walls separating the dojo from the range. The rain has excalated to a storm and the wind whips through the surrounding trees. We line up according to our test levels and what order we would be shooting. An MC officially announces the start the of the Spring kyudo test and calls upon the highest-level kyudo-ka to make remarks. One of the other instructors reminds us of the procedure and the flow of the testing and directs us to sit off to the side to watch the opening shooting ceremony.

And thus begins the truly hardest part of a martial arts test. In almost all formal ceremonies and places like dojos that require a high level of decorum, people are required to sit in a style called seiza (正座). It seems simple enough- just sit on your knees with your legs under you. Everyone's done it before, but when most people sit in seiza, they change positions at some point without really thinking about it. Most people think it's quite easy. Brave challenge-takers, how are you doing? Try that for almost an hour. Kyudo isn't like western archery where you go up to the line, shoot your arrows, and leave. There's even more to ceremonial shooting. To give you an idea of how slow and calculating kyudo is, here's a video I took of one line of candidates testing for dan (or cheat and just look at how long the video is).

*You'll notice that when shooting, we sit in a different style called kiza (跪座). Instead of sitting flat on your legs, you flex your ankles up and turn the toes up so that the floor is in contact with the pads of your toes instead of the tops of your feet. MUCH easier on the legs and feet, but killer on your toes!*

As you can see, each line is about ten minutes. For the ceremony, the highest-ranking kyudo master comes out on his own to shoot first. There are a couple other things in the procedure that he must do, like pausing at the sitting line to remove the left sleeve of his kimono and other ceremonial bows and things. The pain in my legs started around the first ten minutes. After he's finally done, we have to wait for him put his sleeve back on, have his arrows returned to him and watch him leave. Then they prepare for the 4 other intructors to come out and do it all in line (instead of un-sleeving, the one lady instructor ties a special white strip of cloth around her shoulders).

After the first kyudo master went, a couple of the dan candidates got up from the line to exit the dojo for some reason and we were instructed to scoot over to fill the gaps. When I put my hands on the floor to hoist myself over, I realize with amusement that my palms are sweaty and that my legs are completely numb. I lean forward on my hands to take some of the pressure off them, and awkwardly push myself over. You know that pins and needles feeling when your arm or leg falls asleep? Multiply that times a hundred and you'll get what I felt when I allowed myself that small relief as I moved over. As the rest of the instructors shoot their arrows, I realize it's actually better to sit through the pain instead of trying to relieve the pressure every once in a while because every time I do, I get another wave of needles.

After they leave and we're finally excused, I lean forward on my hands to start allowing the feeling to return to my legs. Every nerve starts to yell with pain and I try moving my legs. Still hard to feel, but I can sense the movement so I assume it's okay to stand up. Almost at once the pain multiplies and I realize my feet are useless. They literally feel like dead lumps of meat stuck to my legs. The other candidates ask over and over whether I'm okay and as I start to wobble they race forward to take my hands. They insist I sit down in kiza, but I don't think I can without toppling forward into a face-plant. The pain continues to worsen and I start to panic as I wonder whether something is seriously wrong.

At this point, the students must have thought I couldn't understand them and start simply telling me gently in English, "Sit down." Nobody seems angry, but instead look concerned and a bit amused (let's face it, I looked rather silly). Finally, the pain starts to ebb and I muster the control to sit clumsily down on my toes. I sit there a while feeling completely embarassed. When I finally feel okay enough to stand, I carefully get up and hobble out of the dojo. The needles attack my feet with each step, but they go away rather quickly.
Pro tip: if one of your limbs falls asleep, move it as much as you can or walk on it. It'll hurt, but it'll also go away faster.

For all my Google-fu and poking around the internet, I can't find anything documenting any solid evidence as to whether sitting in seiza for long periods can cause any permanent damage. The only examples of seiza-related injuries are stories of judo and aikido accidents where practitioners broke ankles from starting matches or practice too soon after seiza before they have full control of their legs and feet. Kyudo doesn't involve any fast or sudden movements, but I urge other martial artists out there to practice caution.

So finally, after the practice runs and kyu testing, I huddle around the heaters with the other students and try not to think about the results. By now, the weather has cleared and the sunlight makes me feel more at ease. We chat a little and much to my surprise they start talking about ET and touching their fingers together and I impress them with my ET voice. There's a little girl there testing for kyu and she has no idea what they're talking about. They can't believe she hasn't seen it before and they say in English, "generation gap".

Some time after everyone finishes, they gather everyone together in the dojo again for closing remarks. To my dismay, the kyudo master says how poor our technique is and how we need to consult the kyudo teaching manual and practice more. Worried now more than ever, we exit the dojo and wait for the instructors to roll out the board where our results are posted. Everyone gathers round looking for their names and the results marked next to them. Many of the dan testers have the 'pass' mark stamped next to their names.

Beside the names of the four kyu testers are numbers written in red. Unlike the dan testers who pass/fail whichever level they applied for, kyu testers receive the highest rank the judges deem appropriate for your performance. Next to the little girl's name is a '5'- fifth level. Next to mine is a '1'- first level.

Elated, I show Brad the good news and then start to pack up my things. I'm surprised that the girl got only fifth rank since she actually managed to hit the target with her first arrow. However, I remind myself that hitting the target is very low on the list of things that are important in kyudo. Once we're ready, I thank the instructors and leave feeling very happy and very hungry.

Here is a link I recommend for those wishing to read extensively about kyudo as both a sport and artform. This is the website for the International Kyudo Federation (English):

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