Gasshuku: a word that brings both joy and terror. Joy because of the amount of keiko to be had over a weekend, and terror because, well, the amount of keiko! I have been to a number of gasshuku at different dojos during my time in Japan but it was my first time attending this particular gasshuku. I was already a little concerned because the sensei who beats the tar out of me on a regular basis would have me at his mercy (that word is not in his vocab by the way) for two days, but I didn't know how much trouble I was really in until people started rifling into the beers before we even arrived at the dojo!

Our destination was Masakizaka Kenzen dojo in Yagyu-cho. Yes, that Yagyu. Yagyu-cho, or Yagyu-no-sato, is a remote village in Nara that was the home of the legendary Yagyu Sekishusai Munetoshi, founder of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. Masakizaka Kenzen dojo is located on the Hotoku temple grounds, which houses the graves of the Yagyu family. The dojo itself was built in 1965, imitating Yagyu Jubeis Masakizaka dojo. It is partially constructed from an old estate moved to Yagyu-cho from Kyoto. [*You can read more about Yagyu-no-sato at Kenshi247: http://kenshi247.net/blog/2008/11/24/yagyu-no-sato/ ] After arriving, we spent the first hour or so cleaning. First all the futon, blankets, and pillows we would be using were hung out in the sun and the bugs were removed (lots of bug). Next the entire dojo was cleaned top to bottom. We cleaned the floors (whole building) in the traditional manner by running the length of the floor on all fours, pushing a damp rag with our hands. At this point I was already pouring sweat, and my legs and arms were burning. I was completely exhausted already.

After some stretching and warm up exercises, we spent the first couple of hours going through the finer points of kata, in order to understand the precise timing, movement, and intent behind each technique presented in each kata. Next we put on bogu and after plenty of kirikaeshi and basic uchikomi, we conducted drills with the same techniques only this time committing and following through at maximum speed and power. There was no forgiveness for adjusting the range of motion and such to be more suitable to "bogu keiko". Granted we didn't go down on one knee while practicing nuki-do but the techniques were performed in the exact same manner. There was no differentiation made between kendo-no-kata and kendo in bogu. At the end we lined up for jigeiko with the sensei and it was time to apply both the mental and physical understanding of the techniques we reviewed in an actually bout. I was murdered several times over; sent to the floor, shinai sent flying, no holds barred beaten on like a worthless dog. However in the few, extremely brief, shining moments I managed a few suriage-men, suriage-kote, nuki-do, kote-do, and nuki-kote without thinking. ::BONG:: Somehow through all the pain and aguish in my head, I realized what a truly gifted teacher the sensei who organized this really is. Keiko was absolutely brilliant.

Bogu off, down to the bath for the usually homoerotic bonding session mixed in with jokes about removing my tattoos with abrasives, and then dinner. We ate until our bellies were full, and drank until our faces were as red as a baboons arse. At ease and ready to pass out I thought this was the end for the day. Wrong. Everyone was back in their sopping wet keiko-gi, drawing straws to decide whom they would be paired up with for that evenining's kata shiai. "How silly? Boozed up and tired people swinging bokuto at each other, let alone in shiai format", I thought. It got serious though. Everyone was relaxed and performed wonderfully. The audience decided who was the best pair of the two performing. The point was to match unlikely partners so they would have to adjust their kendo and to get us to really watch for and understand what made good and bad techniques, instead of looking for superficial faults like someone not holding their bokuto at a 45-degree angle.

Stinking like rotting garbage once again we (actually only my kit smells like garbage) dove into the rest of the booze (not even making a dent by the way) and had a little pow-wow in which each individual explained their take on keiko and their goals. Half way through I realized we were breaking down the barriers we create, in order to take a new approach to everyday keiko.

Sensei finished the evening with a short lecture and some pointers concerning todays overall performance, and everybody got some well-deserved sleep. Well, everybody except for me, because I slept next to the loudest snorer on the face of this planet. I listened to the rain and when the sun came over the mountain I went for a short walk on my own, returning as everyone woke. We put away the futons and prepared the dojo for arrival of the head priest of Hotoku temple who would be directing us for an early morning zazen session. The priest, who also is a knowledgeable kenshi, gave us an informative lecture about the importance of being mentally and spiritually strong, and melding of Zen and the sword. 30 minutes of zezen followed by breakfast and we back in our bogu repeating the drills and jigeiko from the previous day. Only this time things clearly went smoother despite being sore, completely exhausted, full of food, and oh yeah HUNG OVER!!!

After keiko we cleaned the dojo, ate lunch and returned so much stronger than when we arrived. On top of the great knowledge we received, we created a lasting bond with each other that had no regard for rank and seniority. That there is the joy portion of the word gasshuku, and why I wouldn't miss it for the world, no matter how terrifying the training may be.

*Pictures up soon.