Monday, March 7, 2011

The Quest for Iaido

It shouldn't be this hard. I live in a pretty good-sized city. It's not huge, but neither is it small. That's one of the things I've always liked about Syracuse - it's small enough that it doesn't have issues like traffic jams and the like, but it's big enough to (usually) have most of the services, entertainment, and businesses I want. Certain martial arts are a notable exception, however.

In Syracuse, you can train in a few different flavors of Goju-Ryu karate, from the traditional flavor of Syracuse Jundokan to the more Americanized version you'd find at Greg Tearney's. You can train in Kenpo at FiveStar Martial Arts, but it's pretty different from what you'd find at an Ed Parker-logo'd school. There's also Duncan's Chinese Kenpo, which is also its own animal (no pun intended). Sun Chong teaches Tae Kwon Do. There are at least two kung-fu schools - Syracuse Kung Fu and White Crane - both on the East side of town. Likewise, Aikido of CNY is over in that area, too. There's Tai Kai if you want Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And there's more MMA than you can shake a stick at, from LaVallee's to Carlos Tearney's Champions MMA to Curtis Tillman's and many, many others.

But that's pretty much it. If you're interested in other styles of martial arts, you're out of luck. There's no Shotokan Karate here. No Israeli Krav Maga. No Russian Systema. No Filipino Arnis or Escrima. And no Kendo or Iaido (much less the rarer Kenjutsu or Iaijutsu). In fact, the closest that you can find any of these is Rochester or Utica, and the latter city is a fraction the size of Syracuse.

I'm not going to try to guess why the Syracuse martial arts community isn't more diverse. It seems that a few schools in particular have been extraordinarily successful here - Tearney's and LaVallee's in particular - and it may be that that has something to do with it. I don't really know. I do know that I want to learn Iaido, and I'm having a hell of a time finding a local teacher. I followed a couple of local leads, but they dead-ended. That leaves me with a really solid teacher in Utica who isn't accepting new students at the moment, and another in Rochester about whom I don't really know much.

That's a shame, because I think Iaido is an absolutely beautiful, elegant art. It's the closest martial art to the practices of the Japanese Samurai, who were a unique and fascinating warrior class noted for the graceful strength of their swords.Iaido has no person-to-person combat, no sparring. From what I've seen, it's not much of a workout. Instead, it focuses intensely on the precise control and movements of the katana sword - drawing, striking, and resheathing the blade according to prescribed sets of movements. It takes the weapons of war and makes them beautiful. It takes the legacy of the Samurai, which was at times brutal, even monstrous (just as European knights weren't all chivalric protectors of the downtrodden) and makes it pure and clean. If I ever have the money, I'd love to own a high-quality katana someday, but if I were to do so, I'd also want to know how to hold it and use it properly (just as I wouldn't want to own a Ferrari if I didn't know how to drive). I want to embrace this ancient weapon of war and the movements that go with it. I want to feel the power of battle transformed into a quiet, meditative, even artistic act. I want to, and perhaps I will. But I probably won't be learning it in Syracuse.

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