Arts © Robert Cole
Sensei was the real McCoy. Older, charismatic. He
knew all the major Japanese movie stars
personally. He knew all the roots of all the
martial arts styles. He knew the myths and legends
and the famous poems and legends with which they
were associated. I could tell you about the
Phoenix and the Dragon, but that's another story.
We were all in our 20s and 30s (just like you).
Sometimes Sensei would get frustrated and show a
draw we weren't doing quite right. Sometimes, when
he did this, he might miss his return - showing
his age and showing us his state of practice. The
students would sort of, - look at the roof.
How awkward. After all, Sensei was older.
Then there was a time with the SHINAIs...
Class was out on the floor stepping through the
evenings chaotic bustle. Everything relaxed and
Everyone was trying that SHOMAN thing where you're
stomping forward taking quick hits as if to an
opponent's forehead. 45 degrees behind to 45
degrees front. Slapping the floor with each hit.
BANG - BANG - BANG
When you do 10 or fifteen of those, brother,
Well, everyone's huffin' and looking pretty weak.
Suddenly TAKAHASHI jumps up and does 70 of them.
Faster than you can think.
Everyone just stood there.
It came time to play with the SHINAIs. 2nd
head-student was wearing the armor because he did
KENDO besides our IAI class. We were instructed
about hitting the wrist. Each student, one after
the other, would cautiously approach 2nd student
and at some strangely varying moment pop over and
slap the glove. 2nd student dutifully putting up
with it all.
During prelims, I noticed 2nd student pulled a
guard of the forehead, a kind of natural reaction.
- Just jerking that TSUKA up quickly. I also
noticed a block he'd make by twisting his wrist to
the right so that the base of the "blade" would
block a wrist attack. No one else bothered
noticing this because it was not part of this new
instruction for us.
Somehow, TAKAHASHI SENSEI needed to show us some
urgent point, and put me up as an opponent for his
explanation to the class.
We faced off and I edged slowly in.
Mr TAKAHASHI was telling the class how to strike
the wrist. When he went for the strike, I twisted
my wrist to block...
and stopped his blade
Before my elation could overtake my surprise, he
attacked with uncounted hits in unknown
milliseconds, breaking my SHINAI apart and out of
The nail hung half-broken from my shaking thumb.
But I kept smiling! - Boy, did I smile.
|The Phoenix and the Dragon
The Phoenix flies over the water. Myriad brilliant
from its surface.
The Phoenix sails lazily over the waves,
their mirrored reflections ignite his
He pretends to be unaware
- as his shadow runs after him. Trying to
keep up. Scurrying like a badger.
In the deep is the Dragon...
The Dragon is curious.
The Dragon knows it's the Phoenix, but the Dragon
can't help himself. Curiosity is the SUKI of the
The Dragon is transfixed
...maybe it's not the Phoenix...
The shadow moves hypnotically. It's silence is
thunder as it roars
across the rippling veil above.
His curiosity becomes unbearable and the Dragon
for that dark form - fluttering across his
eyes. - It's just across the
and as he reaches out...
The Phoenix grabs him up!
The Phoenix and the Dragon concerns a form about
Your arms are extended straight out to the side.
You are the Phoenix. Your blade is sticky. Your
forearms are sticky. Your shoulder is sticky.
The flat of his blade will stick to you. You can
trap his blade and hold it, even at full swing. He
cannot move it.
It will stick to you and you will have him.
Makoto phones. He tells me he's going to have
sword exhibition at the Cherry Blossom Festival in
Japan Town that next week. He needs an associate
for proper explanation to the people.
I, of course, haven't done sword drawing for about
two years and explain I'm completely out of shape,
etc. This doesn't matter because he is completely
out of shape too. That's why I must help. It's OK
because nobody'll be there anyway. Just two rusty
"Just do some SHOMANs" is how I remember his
SHOMAN is an IAI (sword draw) cut where the blade
is brought in a full swing directly over the head.
It is the most powerful cut and practicing it
makes the most powerful swordsmen.
"1000 SHOMAN a day"
"If you do 1000 SHOMAN a day, you are strongest
swordsman. This is oldest rule."
The sword starts from an extension all the way
down the back, parallel with the backbone. The
shoulder blades splay, your elbows arc toward the
sky. Your stomach muscles grab your chest. From
the side, the veneer of sword steel swinging a
broad swath through the air appears like the shell
of a snail. Wider in back and pulling tightly to
The arms twist the handle as if ringing a towel.
You exert full pressure, with the spirit of
lifting a Sherman Tank to save your child. - After
all, your life's supposed to be on the line.
Five of these and your wondering when the purple
dots 'll stop whirling.
I remember doing many when I did sword, but now
I'm out of shape.
(Still, you're going to be on stage, pal. - Time
to start hump'in!)
So I practice. I practice all day. I practice all
week. I practice so much a certain part of my
forearm distends abnormally. - And hurts
By show day, my arm is weak. My arm is painful. My
form is shaky - literally.
I have driven into the city. I am in my HAKAMA and
GI, sitting dutifully in the mad crush of a
vibrant and frantic San Francisco Cherry-Blossom
Festival. Bright color and excited children swirl
across the eyes. There is no let up.
Finally Makoto arrives. His martial arts gear is
different. His friends with the Japanese theater
group have supplied him the full bearance of a
seventeenth century RONIN. The print of his
tattered garment is brighter than these kids'. -
Headband. Hair. - This guy LOOKS REAL!
We set up and a crowd gathers. - A large crowd
gathers. The old, the young, women with babies;
other martial artists. Shop keepers.
I whisper, "I'm out of shape." Makoto whispers
back, "it's OK, me too." - I kind of give him a
nod, a kind of questioning nod. (I'm kind of
questioning all right, - what am I doing here?)
But Makoto needed my help. He'd have to have
gotten up here without any help. Without any
support. He started me on sword. - Esprit de
corps! We'll make it through this.
Makoto does a long bit to the swelling audience
about the Samurai, the martial arts, the martial
tradition, modern keepers of the flame, etc. And
then turns it over to me for the first
I fumbled my draw and felt my face redden at the
close of my first shaky cut. I remember the
snicker that crept to an old man's face enjoying
Lots of fun! - And I only had three more to go.
One was so-so, the rest...
Lots a fun.
Finally it was poor Makoto's turn. I tried to tell
myself the pressure was off a little, maybe we
weren't actually there. Maybe there wasn't this
sea of faces. Maybe they would all watch him
Makoto may have said something. His body
disappeared into a small metallic ball. He did
three or four, maybe four or five cuts - and a
clean return within one second.
The old man's face lit with pride.
I was stunned.
( - I was
- I didn't want to be here
We were to trade places. And as we passed, our
eyes glanced right to each other and I heard the
whisper, "Three hundred a day."
|SPEED2: REVENGE (2)
One of the fun things you can do at sword
demonstration is offer to cut an apple off the
head of a three year old. To prove the mother's
fears unfounded, I'm supposed to stop Makoto,
suggesting we first use a styroform head as a
test. Of course, the styroform head eats it.
We didn't have styroform at this Cherry Blossom
demonstration but a total stranger took the
toddler's place in stiff seizan and full
confidence. Makoto'd been great but this was mind
boggling. Makoto and I just looked each other but
kept straight faces. This demonstration was
proving full of surprise. Makoto declined the
man's kind offer, but what with enough bananas and
apples, and Makoto's - HEIGHTENED SKILLS - we
Makoto had told me we were to appear twice. The
second was to be in two weeks at the Festival
weeks... in two weeks, there, buddy)
We bid smiling farewells. In two weeks. We'd see
each other in two weeks.
Did I practice?
Luckily I had the perfect place, a pre-Victorian
church with twenty foot ceilings. Built in 1868 by
the Druids, it had two floors, each a large room
with a large empty floor.
- Two DOJOs!
I only needed one.
Two weeks. Night and day, flashing steel and KIAI.
A slapping of the floors. A great slapping of the
floors. The air pulsated, the windows shuttered.
Spouse gained resolve but the cats left.
...And spouse started
But I got good. I got REAL good.
I could smear the horizon with both hands. Clean
returns with both hands, - smooth as glass.
I cut a candle so both sides were left burning.
...And I got fast. I got REAL fast.
I worked up three KATA. Two were carefully tame.
But the third...
In the third KATA, I am attacked by eight
opponents. This of course requires two swords.
(- Eight opponents require two
Let's see, how did that go... I'm attacked from
the front but a second attacks from the right.
This doesn't require two swords, but a third comes
from behind. His sword gets clasped by the guard
of my short-sword and he is led through with his
momentum, pulling him further than he allowed.
While pushing him, sword guard to sword
guard on a line at the left, I step around to the
right and cut his back. Then the rest of them
attack and of course that's when the action really
begins. The audience will be impressed. The
audience will be REAL impressed.
Makoto WILL BE impressed. That old man will be
I'm impressed. Spouse is impressed
...but the cats - are gone.
Nothing matters, for the day of SWEET REVENGE has
My mind is calm. My spirit is boundless. My energy
contained. Smooooth. Ready.
We drive to the city.
I wait again in the still festive but now
noticeably exhausted wane of the yearly party.
Paper and liter stroll on marble walkways while
people chase after voices and echoes. Through the
clutter and clatter I see Makoto running up.
N-O-W. Now, IT'S MY TURN.
He's dressed in a suit and bounds the stairs.
"Ah, so sorry, called off." And runs away.
The void. Used or held. A
world. Or a point.
The void of the Five Elements,
Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, Void.
Void was the aether of the
Greeks; and of Europe. It is the Black
It is the pull of things not.
The void was in the crevice of
the swordsman's palm. That place between the Five
Thousand Places of the hand. That malleable cleft
between the Five, each of a thousand, lubricated
with the Void. A place of no place.
"The Void will swallow your
opponent. Swallow him up."
- The words of Sensei.
The void is also in the end of
the sword pommel, the "KASHIRA." What was the butt
of the sword handle is now a ring, - opening a
hole to the end of the world.
"It will suck him in."
His words were clear and stood in the air for
They are in the air still.
When that moment of blinding
violence comes, in the bright color of crisp
morning, your placid mind serene before the
ghastly display of scream and steel, power and
death, his sword will fall into the Void. - In the
pommel of your sword.
There is no doubt.
There on the pommel, or on the
handle between the pommel and your fingers
- he will be swallowed up.
There is no doubt.
But this is not the point of
this form. The point of this form happens
somewhere else, and without it, there is no
point. - And without it, there is failure.
There are the secret words. The
secret words that evoke the mind. That bring the
What were the secret words? The
cadence put, the inference plied in those few
mumbled syllables. Mumbled in the moment...
Pulled from the Earth, a
universe explodes in a surge before one's eyes.
The bluest sky.
Stretching from the horizon,
the whitest little clouds like snow flakes, catch
Numbing color cascades. The
mind is enraptured. Lives and earth gently caress
as time is undone. The vision overtakes all
worlds, its simplicity without bonds.
The rich brilliance of color
This is the moment. Only
through this "Way," from these words, in this most
delicately graceful, and long awaited now.
Only here can life be this way.
A coveted beauty. A
A secret beauty.
An evocation of greatest human
power, lucidity and art; hiding in the words.
Awaiting this time. Waiting in secret.
- These are the words of
Yesterday I was visiting a gal-friend (if I can
call her that) who owns a small espresso spot
under an awning covered outdoor stand on the outer
main drag of the down town area.
The down town, at this time, has its unsavory
elements. The unsavory side can weigh upon the
But this is a great gal, with a nice place - that
draws a bright and cheery crowd.
We were attempting conversation between the
regular flow of nab-and-run coffee enthusiasts. A
newer blue truck stops about a hundred feet away.
A guy jumps out and runs up. The car pulls around
to the exit, its driver has nervous, darting
expressions; but stays in the car.
The guy before us is lean, dressed in unwashed
clothes. His skin seems taut and dark. Yet his
conversation has an odd misfitting friendliness.
He is "talky". He says he has to watch her, - he
must see if she makes cappachino good enough - his
has to be just so. He wants to know how her coffee
machine is holding up. He asks about business. He
thinks she will do good at this location. He is
looking around to the right, and to the left.
I step around and check the license. It's out of
state and a steaming cup of coffee sits in the
He leans over the counter, looking to the left and
to the right. Something is in his pocket. He puts
his hand in and out of his pocket. His talk is
designed to keep us following his conversation.
I position myself so that I can try whatever I
might have to if he pulls a gun out of that
pocket. I will try to crush his windpipe with a
quick blow if I'm allowed the time. Otherwise, it
will be wrestling with a gun.
I look him up and down and think to myself, "this
guy will probably kill me."
He is standing by the door and asks if I'm the
guard. I say "no, just a friend."
|When I was first
collecting, I was for a time also a student of
Iai, the art of drawing the sword from its
scabbard. One afternoon I tried my hand at sword
testing. One should never try such a thing but I
felt myself of good form and my Iaito sword was
appropriately old and tired.
For my purpose I set up a sawhorse with several
layers of foam-matting taped about the center
The object of sword form is cutting. Not
slicing, not hacking, not chopping. Cutting, - as
one would a steak. Developing a flawless cut
with a sword is quite actually an art.
My attempts at art that day were repetitive.
Again and again, - I found the sword
testing me! Although satisfied with my form,
after an hour the cuts remained similar.
The top layer had a one foot long cleft. The
second, ten inches.
The third - eight, the forth - six. The fifth
layer of foam displayed a four inch cut, the
length shortening to naught in the ninth layer.
Finally I tired. An hour and a half had passed.
Setting the sword down I found myself interested
in a SUKESADA WAKIZASHI short sword. A fairly
well-mounted piece with a strong Tsuba or sword
Nonchalantly, with little effort, I took a swipe
at the foam.
All layers of foam, the center support, stand-legs
and the nails that held it together were cut in a
clean swath not differing in kind from a knife
From this we can understand two points:
First, a sword might be thought of as comparable
to a musical instrument. It has a number of parts
held as a laminate which can behave together as
one unique and well-planned structure,
transferring the energy of the swordsmans' stroke,
magically. If the forging or structure design were
lacking, the sword could fight itself or even fail
and break apart.
Second, just as a diamond impregnated rock-saw
slices through rock, the "tempuring" in Japanese
sword blades imbues their YAKIBA with a hardness
several, or perhaps many, times that of any
material likely to be encountered. To these, all
things became naked and vulnerable.
The balance of structure and stature of
manufacturing art found in some Japanese swords
created weapons capable of truly astounding feats.
Swords in destiny of legend. Swords of such innate
value from genius of plan and manufacture that
personal circumstance has continued to fire our
interest these many centuries later.
|YAMATO RYUMON - TOKIWA GOZEN - The Lady
MINAMOTO YOSHITOMO joined the still obscure TAIRA
KIYOMORI in the 1156 HOGEN War against his own
father and 7 foot giant brother, TAMETOMO - who
could catapult spears with his bow.
YOSHITOMO was in support of GO-SHIRAKAWA, Emperor
TOBA's legitimate choice over brother, SUTOKU who
refused to quit his temporary reign - demanding
his own son raised.
A winning success at the HOGEN War was the
beginning of KIYOMORI's great TAIRA influence.
KIYOMORI's lack of graces stood when he put
YOSHITOMO's father, MINAMOTO
TAMEYOSHI to death - there in the face of
YOSHITOMO's plea to spare him.
As a result, three years later, YOSHITOMO banded
with FUJIWARA NOBUYORI against the TAIRA in the
HEIJI War. NOBUYORI's career had been scuttled at
the behest of Imperial secretary, MICHINORI whose
influence was solely his wife's nursing and
puppeteering of Emperor GO-SHIRAKAWA.
The secretary was found hiding in a cave and put
to death. NOBUYORI took the reins of government,
but returning TAIRA KIYOMORI set his capable son,
SHIGEMORI against the rebels and crushed their
insurrection. NOBUYORI was beheaded and YOSHITOMO
died in flight. An obvious and permanent end to
the great TAIRA rival and last of the MINAMOTO.
Normally, when one kills a father - and then kills
his son, one hastens after loose strings...
On the death of her husband, MINAMOTO YOSHITOMO,
TOKIWA GOZEN fled with her three boys, one an
infant, to the hidden serenity of RYUMON in the
YAMATO foothills, - finding the blank face of fate
...her only companion.
TAIRA KIYOMORI, the most powerful head of the most
powerful family in Japan, scoured the country
...he had to have her
But his rants fell on empty eyes - and silence.
With the arrest of her mother, TOKIWA surrendered
And KIYOMORI released her mother - and allowed her
her sons. Her silly sons.
She had him a daughter ...before bowing away.
And her sons...
that last little trickle of
- They expunged his line from this earth.
TOKIWA - The
Lady Eternity - notes on the
YOSHITOMO was the favor. It is a story of a
superior man, who was envied by TAIRA KIYOMORI.
Everything, intellect, charge and his woman. In
support of an Imperial dispute, they were allies
against many of YOSHITOMO's own. A real battle of
beliefs, of rights and wrongs, pitting members
within families. KIYOMORI was more into social
climbing, than conscience. When battle #one was
done, YOSHITOMO's father was at KIYOMORI'S
descretion. He had him killed, in the face of his
helpless and heart-broken son, YOSHITOMO.
This put them at complete odds, and as it
happened, a failed power-grab gave the life of
YOSHITOMO and allowed KIYOMORI to chase for the
last prize of YOSHITOMO's life, his wife - who ran
and was gladly hid, at complete peril, by all who
When her mother was taken, she had a choice -
leave this life, that sweet nectar, -or submit to
this man, who had killed her husband and love, and
the whole of their family. She was as alone as any
human has ever been. She had her two young boys
and an infant son in her arms - and her choice.
So that they might live, she surrendered herself.
The boys were separated and sent off. TOKIWA had
KIYOMORI's daughter and was able to slide away, in
time - when it wore off for him - as she
knew it would.
Her sons grew to destroy every drop of TAIRA blood
and took the complete power and future of Japan
for the Samurai class.