This Week’s Demonstrations

Whenever we do martial arts demonstrations for schools, we always encourage the children to ask questions. This can have mixed results. At one recent event, for instance, a school teacher came up to us afterwards and commented that the students seemed to be going out of their way to ask the most ridiculous questions possible.

But this was not the case this week, when one group asked some quite insightful questions.

Bear in mind also, that these were babies. Not literally babies, but very young students; grade three maximum, possibly grade one. I cannot say for certain, as all children look alike to me. But they were all quite young for their age.

After showing some of our basic open hand techniques, one child asked, “If that is basic, what are your advanced techniques like?”

Another asked what if your attacker also knows martial arts; I may have made some inappropriate and disparaging remarks about karate, but it was a good question, nevertheless.

One wanted to know how we would deal with two attackers, one in front and one behind.

And my favourite question, or rather comment, was from a student who thought what we did was very much all about the timing.

It was a good day.

Plus there were baby ducks, hopefully asking equally intelligent questions of their adults.

At the end of the last demonstration of the day, a child gave me a flower.


Kai Cho




Poor Attendance

It is not unusual for at least one student a class to not attend for whatever reasons: they have to wash their hair, there is a football game on television that night, something I said to them the week before hurt their feelings and they have not yet emotionally recovered. But recently, of the four classes I teach each week, I had to cancel two due to lack of students and the other two were under strength, one having only one student in attendance.

After more than thirty years of teaching I still find this disturbing.

I have trouble understanding why any student would choose to do anything rather than train. Instructors, yes, I have no problems empathising when they do not want to turn up and teach, but students, no.

Over the years, however, I have stopped taking it so personally. I used to think it was up to me to motivate students to want to attend the classes; that if they were not there, there must be something wrong with either the content or the teaching.

Fortunately, I have not felt this way for quite some time.

There is enough hindsight to know the classes are always well structured, the content relevant and well taught, no matter who is taking the class.

So if a student chooses not to attend for whatever, lets face it, to me, irrelevant reasons, it is a reflection of their personal circumstances and not a reflection on the School.

I will probably always regard such decisions as short sighted and borderline crazy, and patiently wait for the day when they can see the Path.


What do you do if the bird does not sing?


Kai Cho



Shortcuts to Training: Are there any?

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a skilled martial artist? Have you looked at inspirational martial arts masters and thought “Is there a secret to their success? Is there a ‘shortcut’?”

Many martial arts instructors, if they are worth their salt, will tell you: There is no secret. Just train.

But that can’t be right, can it? Surely it is the mysteries of the East? Or perhaps it is the acquisition of a magic or hidden technique?

Worry no more! Here are three concise steps to a true ‘shortcut’ in becoming a skilled martial artist:

  1. Get out of your own way
  2. Be fully attentive during training
  3. Put in the hours

In years to come, you might even look back at this, and find yourself passing it on to your own students.

Happy training!

Tanwyn Sensei




Kirikaeshi is a regular part of sword practice.

Within our School it is means of practicing set counters for set strikes in rapid succession, in a controlled manner.

Recently, when teaching an advanced sword class, I introduced an exercise that takes this practice back to its bare essence. This was not yet another case of me just making things up as I go along, in order to stave off boredom whilst teaching. It was taught to me many decades ago by my teacher.

At the very moment of full commitment by uchitachi, shitachi reverses the attacker’s ki with an appropriate, but not predetermined counter of their own. No contact is made, but the effect on uchitachi can be devastating, if executed correctly.

While easy enough to demonstrate, this was difficult to explain to the students. Despite intellectually understanding what was required, (evidenced by their own realization when it all went wrong), they kept focusing on trying to physically counter the attacker’s strike.

No amount of simplification of the exercise made any difference, it remained, for them, a purely physical situation. That is not to say, they did not do some very nice and effective counters, it just was not the point of what we were doing.

Reflecting on this later, I had to question whether or not this kind of practice can actually be taught, or whether it is one of those things that you gradually learn to do unbeknownst to yourself, over years of constant training.

The exercise then becomes not a training practice, but more of a litmus test to indicate a student’s current level of understanding and development.

Not a great revelation, but yet another confirmation that the only real way to progress is correct and constant training.


Kai Cho



It’s part of training

Early in my martial arts instruction, whenever something happened that blocked my progress, I was given the following advice: “It’s part of training.”

Do you have an injury that is preventing you from attending class?  Has class been cancelled? Are you experiencing a plateau?  Have you had to step back and focus on the fundamentals to correct your technique?  Anything that requires you to remain committed to the art is part of training.

It is a call to look at the bigger picture.  One technique, one class, one moment is not success or failure.  It is only part of training.

O’Brien Sensei




Etiquette in our art involves saying “thank you” often.  We say it before class begins, after training with a partner, and when class is complete.  We acknowledge those who developed the art and we are thankful for new students who come to learn with us.

Gradings offer a marker in time to stop and be thankful to those who took part in the day, and to my teachers who prepared me for the grading.  The gift of understanding and guidance on a way is incremental, and it is worth looking back to see those who have been there with me.

Practicing gratitude over time becomes a habit and it is one of the most valuable things you can take from your training to your life.  Gratitude requires integrity and is a component of satisfaction, and happiness. 

It was a good day filled with many happy memories.  I was grateful to have gifted teachers and a talented training partner.  I am also relieved that it is over, but it is not the end.  I have plenty of opportunities to be thankful in the future.

O’Brien Sensei



More Doctor Who?

Recently we held our Autumn gradings which included two students doing their nidan syllabus for open hand. One of the highlights of this was their performance of kata; most of the lower ranks had never seen these kata before and it was truly a thing of elegance to watch. One of the yudansha performing the kata had, some weeks earlier, suggested I write something on kata and so now seems like an appropriate time.

In actual fact, it was the parallel between the TARDIS and kata that struck them, I believe they were inspired by my previous Doctor Who post, (or they would have been had they actually read it).

I did see a member of UNIT take out an attacker with a gun using kotegaeshi in an early Jon Pertwee episode recently.

More relevant to the TARDIS is that kata also, is bigger on the inside than on the outside.

To the uninitiated observer it is just as it appears.

To those who have access to its inner workings, it is an endless storehouse of wisdom and insight.

If used wisely and correctly it can transport one to undreamt of realms.

One can explore the hidden regions of a kata for the rest of their life and still not exhaust its teachings.

For most, however, it will always remain just a police box.

This applies not just to outsiders, but sadly, also to those students who fail to grasp the real purpose of their training.


Kai Cho



Suwari Ho Kokyu Ho

At the end of each open hand class we tend to finish with an exercise known, at least within our School, as suwari ho kokyu ho. It is a common warm down form used by many Aiki based schools.

When done correctly it helps students to re-centre themselves and it settles and aligns the ki generated by the class.

Uke becomes immovable through centering and relaxation, gripping with ki rather than strength.

Nage centres and extends ki in order to unbalance and pin the immovable uke.

When performed correctly, it is an elegant and subtle exchange of energies, honing both students’ skills and helps to integrate all that has gone before in the lesson.

Too often, however, it deteriorates into a competitive ego-fest.

At the lower levels, the competition is strength based, at higher levels it is ki based, but it remains competitive, nevertheless.

This is sad.

Competition has no role in our art.

That may sound odd in contemporary Western society where competition is one of the gods of behaviour and where martial arts has become synonymous in the mainstream mind with cage fighting and activities of similar ilk. Where, even in Japanese arts, Judo has become an Olympic event, the Way of the sword has deteriorated into kendo and there even exists the abomination that is sports aikido.

No, we are a traditional Japanese martial art and as such competition is anathema to our fundamental philosophy.

Students learn and develop through a process of forging not fighting. Uke and nage, shitachi and uchitachi, work together as honing blocks for each other, there is pressure, but not dominance and submission.

This is not always an easy concept for students to grasp; it involves letting go of much of their societally induced notions of behaviour.

But now, once my students have read this, their understanding will blossom, their behaviour will change, the suwari ho kokyu ho will be a joy to behold and all will be right with the world.


Kai Cho



On Making Weapons

I have been making my own bokuto for training since 2015 and I usually make two each year.  The process is similar for the other wooden weapons I have made, whether it is a tanto or naginata.  The first one I make doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it and with each iteration the results improve.

Perhaps the most basic weapon you can make is a jo.  Go to your hardware store, walk to the wooden dowel section and pick out a blank.  Take it home and cut it to length (approximately the height of your armpit), sand it down, and oil it.  Congratulations!  You have just made your first weapon.

What did you most likely learn?

  1. Commercially available wood sold at retail stores is light.  It is difficult to find a densely grained hardwood.
  2. The range of diameters available are usually too thin, or too thick, when compared to a jo you buy in a martial arts store.
  3. The grain is probably not straight and tight.
  4. Heartwood is ideal, but the available stock is mostly sapwood.
  5. Sanding the weapon is tremendously satisfying.
  6. The oil you apply can affect the surface of the wood and the ease in which is slides through your hands.
  7. It is a pleasure using a weapon that is made to fit your body.

In making my own bokuto, I get the benefit of training with a weapon that I made to my own specifications, and the deep familiarity that develops with using it is there from the first day.  I own every imperfection, but I also feel a connection with the details I put into the shape and balance of its movement.

My weapons are not perfect and invariably through use in training during the year, they develop cracks or start to splinter – rendering them only suitable for suburi.  This has forced me to use bokuto of different weights, lengths, and curves over the past five years.  It has given me an appreciation of how the weapon affects my maai and interacts with other weapons; which has given me a deeper appreciation for the sword as an extension of me.

Each year the design is slightly different.  Some of the changes are due to my understanding of the weapon and our art.  Others are due to the process of making the bokuto.  I start with an outline of the overall curve of the weapon and my desired cross section.  Then, I carve away parts of the wood to give me the weight and balance I’m looking for.  It is a very tactile process and I often swing the sword during the shaping process to get an understanding of how it responds.

Once the overall shaping is done, I move on to final carving with a knife and detailed hand sanding.  This is the point in the project when it feels like I am close to finishing, but I still have all the detail work to complete by hand.  It is all about how the weapon feels while I am holding it.  Is it comfortable?  Do the proportions make sense?  It may look fine but picking it up quickly reveals imperfections in the uniformity of the shape and whether it is the right scale.  Using a machine at this point could result in taking too much material away and it hinders my judgement.

Progress was slow this year. I picked out two nice pieces of reclaimed timber to use and they both had serious flaws and cracks only visible after I cut out the initial blanks. I had to go out and source more hardwood.  All the best timber suppliers had closed for the holidays, but I was able to find new  pieces to work with after an hour of sorting through wood at a retail store.

Sanding took twice as long as usual because I was too cautious and cut the blanks too large. The lesson for 2019 is: don’t leave so much fat to allow for mistakes. Trust that I can get it right the first time.

Joe O’Brien



Doctor Who Goes Forth

Despite the title, this particular missive has nothing to do with martial arts.

Its purpose is rather to pass on trivial information that, as far as I am aware, has previously gone unremarked.

Doctor Who, original series, season six, The War Games, episode one, Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, appears at first glance to have had a remarkable influence on the Black Adder Goes Forth series.

The sets used to portray the office in the trenches and the general’s headquarters are strikingly similar.

Major Barrington in Doctor Who looks and acts just like Captain Black Adder, sans the dry wit. Similarly, lieutenant Carstairs is very much George, but with an actual brain. The physical similarities and behaviour patterns continue to parallel with Captain Ransom, the Doctor’s version of Darling. General Smythe does not look like Melchett, but certainly speaks with much the same mannerisms.

All this could well be just coincidence.

Or perhaps somewhere, lurking in the subconscious of Ben Elton and, or, Richard Curtis, are childhood memories of The War Games.

Sadly, Baldrick is lacking from the Doctor Who version.


Kai Cho


Note Bene: early imperial Romans did not use chariots in battle.