Sunday June 11th, 2000

Sunday Afternoon at the Budokan

On the street that runs along the western side of the Heian shrine there is a large, dark Japanese-style building. This is the Budokan. If you wander past in the late afternoon you can see groups of highschool students cycling through the wide entrance gate wearing navy blue hakama (a type of trouser-skirt) and holding long covered objects. Some of these students are aikido or kendo players but others are practising the lesser known Japanese martial art of 'Iaido' (pronounced Ee-eye-doe).

'Iaido' roughly translates as 'the way of iai', 'iai' being a system of practicing swordsmanship techniques. Dating from the Edo period (1600-1868), Iaido was the technique all Samurai had to master. This is how they managed to draw their swords so amazingly fast as the enemy approached from behind, like the type of moves you would see in the action scenes of a Kurosawa film. Iaido, is now a ritualised solo art, involving no external enemy, but combat with oneself. It doesn't have a huge following, compared to other martial arts, but it is the solid base of many NHK TV period dramas. Actors, looking imposing in traditional costume and threatening to slice their enemies in half, are all using the techiniques of Iaido, to varying degrees of profiency and authenticity!

Unexpectedly, the most memorable aspect of watching Iaido is the range of sounds produced. Not blood-curdling yells or disciplined staccatto outbursts, but the swishing and sliding sounds. At the Budokan the sound of hakama hissing as the Iaido practioner gathers speed for a 'cut' or 'parry' and the sound of tabi (split toe socks) gliding across the smooth wooden floor, have a kind of climactic rhythm.

Iaido is also a very elegant practice and seems imbued with respect and formality. Like many Japanese customs there is a lot of bowing involved (especially to the sword), and the utmost respect and deference must be given to the teacher or master.

These days the highly practised movements of swinging the blade to shake off the blood and wipe it clean is not an absolute neccessity like it was during the more violent parts of the 17th and 18th centuries. Most modern practioners are aiming for skillful and concentrated movements which reflect their dexterity and dedication and ultimately, the harmony they have with their sword.