The Christmas season has long passed, so this post is possibly a little out of date, at least if you are looking for present ideas. But over or not the season did make me think about giving and receiving and the gifts that I have been lucky enough to have come to me. Recently I wound up going through a lot of my kit. Around the same time I also made a bunch of chizikunbo, strung a couple of pair of partially made san bon nunchiyaku, made a pair of nunchiyaku from some broken pairs, did some repair work on a couple of tinbe, and started a couple of kuramon bo. As I was finishing the chizikunbo, I set a few pair aside as gifts. I’ve given a number over the years and many of my teachers and friends have been nice enough to say they really enjoy getting something they can both use and that I made for them. Putting them in with the rest of my gear, I noticed how many of the small weapons I had were in turn gifts. It seems folks who practice weapon arts, particularly if they make some of their own gear, love giving them as presents.
I have been making some of my weapons for many years. Until recently there wasn’t a decent source for some of our weapons, like sansetsukon (Shureido are excellent for our shorter form and for pair work, hard on the rotator cuff for the longer form.) as well as various hand loads, nagagama, tinbe and wooden seiryuto/paidao, among others. Some, like suruchin and kuramonbo are still pretty much unavailable. I can make weapons to the weight and size I want and out of material that will have the feel and properties I want, all of which actually makes a difference in training. While you should be able to use any version of a weapon if you need to, the techniques and mechanics function best with the weapon- weight, length, balance, etc.- that they were designed for. Indeed, changing the weapon can in turn change the techniques. Making them is a good lesson in understanding their properties. It also requires a decent understanding of them to get started, to know what you are aiming for. A number of my seniors and teachers, and my friends who train, also make their own gear. I’m sure the reasons are the same, and I will admit it is nice to work with a weapon you have designed and built, at least if it came out right. You know what it can and can’t do, how it will respond, and why. And making them can be fun.
It is also rather nice to work with a weapon someone else has made for you. They are often good weapons, and even better they sometimes come with stories. Looking over some of the gifts I have been given brought me back a bit, to when they were given. The people who gave them to me are friends, teachers, and fellow travelers. People I have been lucky and honored to know. And they’ve got stories. I think they say something, so I’ll share a few here.
1 These chizikunbo were Kimo sensei’s. A student of his was selling them for a while. Really well made, and the size and shape were worked out with sensei. He and I were training in the living room of an apartment I used to have. When I went to go dig mine out from under my bed he handed me these, which he had in his jacket pocket, and went to his bag by the couch and grabbed another pair. When were done he told me to keep them. The next day we had a great time doing a seminar with them. That weekend sometimes seems like yesterday instead of nearly three decades ago.
2 This set of sanbon nunchiyaku was made by Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei. He is my friend Mario McKenna’s teacher, the senior student of the late Minowa Katsuhiko sensei. He lives on Amami Oshima. I have stopped by to say hello and train a little on a number of my visits back to the island. He is a fantastic Ryukyu Kobudo and Uechi Ryu teacher, and I always leave with some new insights. He is also really kind and open minded. A senior teacher sharing openly with a younger practitioner of a different art is somewhat unusual, and great to experience. I remember him taking me out to his shed after training in his yard some with the sansetsukon. It was his workshop, with nunchiyaku, tonfa, and other weapons in process. His yard looks out over Naze harbor and the scene and the kind gift remind me of so many of the good things about Amami,
3 It is important to me to remember that so much of what I know in the arts has come from friends and training partners. This pair of chizikunbo was made by my friend David Nauss. He was a training partner for many years, an excellent karate and kobudo practitioner. He is also an excellent carpenter, and has taught me much of what I know about woodworking. In the early 90’s Kimo sensei spent some time doing chizikunbo with us. We didn’t have weapons to practice with but before our next training David went out, got stock, made a few pair, and gave them to us so we could keep working with them immediately. That next night it was just David, Mike Piscitello, and me in the dojo. We spent two hours jamming, grinding, and poking each other with them. We left with dime sized bruises all over, which lasted for days. I can still clearly hear the laughter, punctuated by groans and cries of pain, from that evening and the memory always makes me smile.
4 This suruchin was made for me by Yamashiro Kenichi sensei. I hadn’t seen him for a long time. We had chatted on the phone the day before about what we might do. When he found I didn’t have one with me he drilled the rocks and after he took me for a lovely soba lunch we stopped to get some cord and he finished it in his garage/workshop. After showing me some of the tinbe, tekko, and other things he had made we spend the day training. It was a fun afternoon- catching tree limbs and fence posts and hitting targets with the suruchin, working with the kuramon bo, throwing dirt with the guwa in his field. It ended with going through a bunch of kata in his dojo and then having a fantastic yaki niku dinner with his family. He had supervised my ni dan test with Matayoshi sensei in 1995, and we talked about training and reminisced about that and so much else and it was just a great day.
5 These ticchu were made by Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei. He gave them to me on a different visit to Amami, around 2011 I think. I had given him a pair of chizikunbo and we spent a really fun hour talking shop and comparing techniques for the two hand loads, and chatting about woodworking- he is an excellent craftsman. Sunset over the mountains, looking down on Naze harbor and the hills, was beautiful and he and his wife were so welcoming. I can’t help but think how lucky my friend Mario is to have such a nice and knowledgeable teacher.
6 These ticchu were given to me by Mario McKenna sensei. It was the late 90’s and we hadn’t seen each other for a while. We kept up a pretty lively discussion about training, among other things, on line and on the phone and we had been talking about training with handloads- chizikunbo, tekko, ticchu, and so on. I commented that I had never actually used a ticchu and he thought it would come pretty easily. I wasn’t so sure and we went on to other topics. A few days later they showed up in the mail, with a note suggesting I try them out. They were made by either Minowa sensei I believe, and he had had them for a while. They were a very generous gift, and are fun to work with.
7 This mugei nunchiyaku was given to me by Kimo sensei. Again we were doing a seminar, again he had some that were made by another student, most of which he sold at the seminar. This was back in the 90s. He had been using and demoing with this type of weapon for years, and I think he first introduced it outside Okinawa. Indeed, in Okinawa I never saw a pair used until about 20 years ago and I can’t help but wonder if students coming from the US or Europe and perhaps influenced by Kimo sensei inspired teachers there to do more with them. They do fall in with the quest for the “origins” of the Okinawan weapons that seems important to many Western practitioners, and the romantic “farm implements” genesis story. In any case, I helped him with the seminar and again he told me to keep the pair I was using at the end of the day. They often remind me of how much he knew about the arts, and how he was instrumental in introducing so many things here in the US.
8 These mugei nunchiyaku were made by Yamashiro Kenichi sensei. We were doing some variations on the standard nunchiyaku kata. I mentioned doing variations with the mugei and san bon nunchiyaku and he took out a couple of pair and we did a few techniques. They are certainly harder to use, though the variant techniques are not that complex. When we were done he gave them to me, which was rather nice of him. He has made a kata specifically for the mugei, and while I have never done it it looks pretty cool. One of the things I really like about Yamashiro sensei’s technique and approach is his breadth in the art. He has a vast store of knowledge and taken together with his excellent technique and deep understanding, his teaching in concert with Okinawan folk dance and music, his participation in and coaching for local competition, his understanding of his art in the context of Okinawan culture, his making his own weapons and other gear, his passing on what he was taught, and his developing his own take on the art and own kata, it points to a way of engaging with the practice that is far deeper than a quest for some “ancient secrets” or a better way to fight.
9 This kodachi was given to me by Shirasaka Kouichi san. He is a senior member of the Jigen Ryu. When I trained in the old dojo in the early 90’s he was one of my teachers. He is also an excellent chef, and ran a sushi restaurant called Satsuma for many years. I had my induction into the ryu in his restaurant, along with a few other new students. We had dinner, and got walked through the responsibilities of a mon-te, what was expected of us, and what training might be like. I was a little out of my depth I think, even though it sounds way more formal than it was. I may have been the first foreigner in the dojo, I am not sure, but I don’t remember any hesitation by anyone; I was welcomed and taught and still wish I had had time there to do more than brush the surface. Almost 20 years later, 2008 I think, I visited the dojo and after training we had dinner at his restaurant again, along with my wife and an old friend. It was a delicious meal. We talked about old times, had some shochu, and did some kata in front of the restaurant. As we were leaving he took this kodachi out of an umbrella stand behind the counter and gave it to me. He had had it for years and years and kept it there so he could practice when he was at work. It is hand made and while it doesn’t give me any additional knowledge or skill it does bring some nice memories and is a good reminder of how lucky I have been with opportunities and teachers.
10 These “crane’s kiss” were a gift from Liu Chang’I sifu. Look closely at the tips. The wood has a metal rod inserted into it; the tip is therefore a sharp metal point and can cut like knife. He had these made in Taiwan as a present. They have a special significance to me, as they demonstrate the changes that relationships can make in someone’s practice, as well as a little bit of influence I may have had on my teacher’s art. They are not “old” weapons in Feeding Crane, he added them. He would be happy to tell you that he got the idea from two places. The first was seeing Kimo sensei and me doing some work with the chizikunbo. I remember the afternoon. He was fascinated. In general he has no time for archaic weapons- they have no immediate function and he doesn’t see the point, except as entertainment. But he thought these were pretty cool. On his next visit he asked me more about them and we played some and I gave him a pair. His only issue with them was that he thought the tips should be sharper, to do more damage. Not long after that he visited Yong Chun village in China, where the crane arts come from. There is a statue of the founder there, Fang Qiniang. She is pictured holding in one hand what is probably, given the loom pictured behind her and the cultural significance, a silk shuttle. He saw her holding the implement, immediately made a connection and decided he would take that inspiration and include it as a weapon in his practice. He did some experimenting and after a few tries with different sizes and tips came away with a larger, sharper, and deadlier weapon. It can’t be used like a chizikunbo but it suits his personality and art perfectly, and the anthropologist in me, as well as the friend and student, loves it.
11 To come full circle, these are actual silk shuttles. They were given to me by the Nishi family. I trained with Nishi Ketsudo sensei when I was living in Amami Oshima in the early 90’s. (I also met Minowa and Yoshimura sensei then, but didn’t know them well.) He started training as a student of Sakai Ryugo. His wife’s family has been involved in the Amami silk business- weaving silk, designing and making kimono, yukata, and other things from it, and selling it- for generations. Her work is beautiful. One evening during a visit in 1995 we had dinner outside their home, where I was staying. After dinner some people took turns getting up to do kata, or local dance, or sing Amami songs. We had been talking about silk, and there were some tools on a bench just inside, among them some shuttles. I picked them up and used them to do a kata, I think it was seisan, extemporaneously modified to suit them. Everyone thought it was cool. When I was leaving the island a few days later Mrs. Nishi gave me these as a good bye present. It is hard to describe the generosity and welcome that family had shown to me when I was first living in a foreign country as a young man. While I don’t train with them much they mean a lot to me.
These shuttles, like many of these other gifts, remind me of the way we weave our lives, and how so many of those threads are gifts that we are given simply through the kindness of others. Sure, we do the weaving, decide on the pattern and the shape. But that cloth would be plain indeed without these threads, the things that are gifted to us. Things like friendship, knowledge, instruction, and an occasional small wooden weapon made by hand and given freely. These threads tie us, to tradition, and to change. They tie us to friendship, and effort, sometimes to confusion or conflict, maybe to inspiration, and to each other. They give our cloth some of its texture and heft. And hopefully, as time passes, we can gift of our own. If we are lucky, and attentive, and dedicated, we can add something more than a kindly given tool to the cloth of those around us.