Know your weapon

The weaponry of Ryukyu Kobudo
The weaponry of Ryukyu Kobudo

The older I get the more I love Ryukyu Kobudo. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy my Karate-do practice, but not nearly as much as Kobudo. There is a wonderful depth and breadth to the art of Kobudo that I seem to appreciate more than Karate-do. It’s something that I can see myself practicing well into my old age. But, oddly enough, Kobudo is not any easy art to commit to and it is IMHO a much more unforgiving mistress compared to Karate-do. You see, in Ryukyu Kobudo, if you make a mistake you get hurt…seriously.

My own teachers, Minowa sensei and Yoshimura sensei, told me that you won’t really know the kata / weapon until you’ve made a mistake and sometimes that mistake can come at a price; sometimes in the form of an injury. Since there are dozens of kata and their respective weapons in most Kobudo curricula, then there’s abundant opportunities to “learn”.

I remember Minowa sensei in particular sharing this piece of wisdom while I was still living and training on Amami. He then showed me the long scar he had on his forearm from where he had cut himself many years ago with kama. I could tell he was still upset with himself about the injury decades later. I thought to myself that it must have been a hard lesson to learn. But little did I know I would learn what he meant only a few years later.

My first lesson came at the hands of Maezato no nunchaku. I had learned the basic pattern of the kata and was progressing alright, but for some reason (blame it on youth) I decided to speed up my performance. Well, as you might have guessed the results were not good. When I came to the last segment of the kata where you shift to a one-leg stance, and sweep down with the nunchaku, then immediately follow with a strike to the head, everything fell apart. Instead of a graceful, flowing technique, I managed to crack myself in the back of the head with the nunchaku. I immediately saw ‘stars’ and fell to the floor face first. Luckily for me, my technique was horrible and I was ‘out’ for only a few seconds. But in hindsight I probably gave myself a minor concussion.

There were other less painful lessons after that (cracked in the head with a bo, fingers wacked with tikko), but they all struck home the importance of ‘knowing your weapon’. However the most extreme lesson that I learned came near the end of my stay in Amami when I was learning Kanegawa no Tinbe – the shield and short-spear kata that is part of the Taira lineage of Kobudo. This time my mistake wasn’t youth and impatience, instead it was not being mindful of my weapon.

In the opening of the kata the shield and spear are held in the left hand. As I began the kata, I hadn’t noticed that the tip of the spear was jutting out slightly from the shield. The opening move requires you to crouch down, grab and then immediately rise back up with a strong pulling action. As I pulled my hand back and rose up, the back of my hand struck the spear impaling it! I felt the spear sink into my hand right away but kept doing the kata until the end. When I looked down at my hand it was covered in blood and there was a nasty gash. Minowa sensei wandered over, looked at it, and said, “That’s not bad. You’re fine.” Who am I to argue with my teacher, so I wrapped my hand in a towel and continued training. At the end of practice my hand hadn’t stopped bleeding and Yoshimura sensei suggested that I go to the hospital emergency room.

So I got changed, said good night to everyone, and hopped on my scooter and headed to the emergency room. After about 30 minutes or so, I was sent to an examination room and the doctor appeared. He asked me what was wrong and I showed him the gash on my hand. Naturally he asked what had happened and I was at a bit of a loss about what to say to him. So, I sort of danced around the answer. “I stabbed myself in the hand by accident”, I replied. It was true, I wasn’t lying, but the doctor didn’t go for it. “What did you stab your hand with”?, he replied. To which I sheepishly mumbled, “I stabbed myself with a spear”. The doctors eyes opened wide and he looked at me incredulously. So I finally confessed what had happened. He shook his head, took some notes, and then stitched me up. I’m sure he had a great story to tell his colleagues afterwards.

The next night at practice Yoshimura sensei asked me if I was alright and I told him that I had got my hand stitched-up at the hospital. Minowa sensei overheard and wandered over to us. “You needed stitches for that, really?”, he said, and then walked away. Apparently he thought that my accident didn’t warrant medical attention 🙂 .

Now I’m not writing this blog post to tell people that you need to get hurt while practicing Ryukyu Kobudo; absolutely not. What I’m trying to get across is that you must always be mindful in your Kobudo practice, not only for your own safety, but for the safety of your dojo mates. Accidents do happen in the dojo from time to time and this is unfortunate. But if they do, take them as a time to reflect on your own practice and what went wrong (or perhaps right for that matter). Take the time to know and respect the weapons you train with.