I did it!
After almost a year of practicing kyudo (Japanese traditional archery), I took my shodan (black belt) test and passed. A year ago, all I knew was that I was going to start a two month kyudo course with a friend because I had free time in the morning and wanted to experience a different kind of budo. I imagined that I’d taste it, and move on quickly to something else, not giving much thought to pursuing it long or far enough to come to this point. I guess I didn’t take it very seriously at the time. Regardless, I took the course, continued on, went through the deepest pits and highest peaks of budo I’ve experienced yet, and I just kept taking the small steps that were in front of me. Now, I don’t know how long I will continue the practice, but as long as I’m living here in Toyama I will be chiseling away at myself through this wonderful practice.
As for the test, many of you may not be familiar with kyudo, so I’ll explain some of the details.
For a shodan test, you shoot two arrows in the formal procedure with 3 to 4 other people. This includes particular movements for entering the shooting area, shooting in turn with others, and leaving the shooting area. This process takes about seven minutes. It isn’t necessary to hit the target, but your arrows need to at least be relatively close to the target. From there, one’s technique needs to be at a certain level of proficiency. I’m not sure how to describe this, but you should generally be adhering to the basics. If you’re doing anything too strange then that’s not good. But you also don’t have to do everything perfect. What judges want to see is that you understand the basics of shooting and can put them into practice under pressure. What’s more important than this, is the taihai: entering the dojo, performing the right steps in the right order and timing, and leaving the dojo. Actually this is definitely the most important part, and probably where most people fail the test. It doesn’t matter how good you can shoot, if you can’t do the taihai correctly, you won’t pass.
There is also a written portion of the test. A month before the test, a sheet with about 20 different questions is revealed. On the day of the test, two will be decided by a local teacher and you will have 50 minutes to answer them in writing. Some of the questions are about specific numbers (distance to the target, distance from the ground to the center of the target, angle at which the target is tilted, etc), others are about the specific techniques of shooting (list the eight steps of shooting and briefly describe them, what is so-and-so technique, etc), and some are open-ended (Why did you start kyudo and what have you learned so far from the practice?)
The two that came out were: 1.) Why did you start kyudo and what have you learned so far from the practice. 2.) Describe the toriyumi posture. (The posture you are in when you are standing and holding the bow). These seem appropriate for shodan, as they are fairly easy to answer and concern some of the most basic parts of the art.
One interesting bit about the writing test for a gaijin like me is, do I write in English and Japanese?
What do you think I did?
For a while Sensei had been talking to me about the shodan test, but once the questions came out he came to me and said,
“Ahh, Zac, maybe you can’t take the test.”
“EH?! What do you mean?”
“Here are the questions for the test.”
I looked at them and said, “Yeah, so what?”
“Can you read this?”
“Let me see.”
3 seconds later …
“See! You can’t read it.”
“Well if you tell me what it means then I can remember it, no problem.”
“Oh, OK. But we need to have a day to go over this with Masami (the other person I’m testing with).”
“And so I have to write this in Japanese?” I said getting excited about the challenge.
“Of course not, just write in English.”
“Are you sure? I can do it in Japanese.”
“No, no, just write in English.”
“How are you going to know what I write?” (Sensei knows about 10 words in English.)
“I’ll know what you write.”
And so it was decided against my will that I would write in English. “Whatever, it’ll be easier. So, I’ll just write in English.” I thought.
If I were to write in Japanese, I could write some kanji (Chinese characters) for the test, but mostly it would be in hiragana (phonetic alphabet of Japanese). This is a problem for Japanese because there are no spaces between words, so what would result is just a long chain of hiragana, which is cumbersome to read. Kanji is used to differentiate words and such, without them, reading can actually be much harder. I could memorize the kanji for the answers, but Sensei thought that would be too much work. So English it was.
I sat down in the room with a paper and pen, read the questions, and finished writing in twenty minutes.
As for the taihai, I think I did it to the best of my ability, which is sufficient for the test. I made one very small mistake though. When beginning the exit of the dojo, you’re supposed to step with the right foot but I just barely started with the left, something I’ve never done before in practice (go figure). I corrected it immediately. Perhaps nobody noticed, but then there were five judges watching our every slightest move.
As for the shooting, my first arrow was high above the target. The arrow went higher than I’m used to, and a bit far off the mark for a shodan test. Generally the technique was OK, but the release wasn’t so good, which is what sent the arrow high. Regardless, I sat and waited for my next turn in the painful kiza sitting posture where you sit on your knees and the balls of your feet. Usually makes you shake with discomfort and pain. The purpose of the posture is to strengthen the backs of your legs, and your force of will, I suppose. My turn came again, so I stood and began the shooting process. All of the moments clicked in much cleaner than the first shot. When I was in the full draw, all was well and I took aim. My body put me into what I felt to be a natural position, but I noticed how high the last arrow went, so I lowered it just bit. SMACK! The arrow hit the target, and I began to exit the dojo (not without that first tiny mistake mentioned earlier.)
As I said before, it isn’t necessary to hit the target for the test, but damn it feels good. There are two other people who started kyudo in the same two month class last year as me and we’ve been companions through the whole process, taking the tests and going through the motions together. One of the friends and I hit the target in the test, but one didn’t. He knows it’s not important for passing the test, but you could tell he had a bad taste in his mouth. The difference in technique can be so minute in hitting or not hitting the target, and we all know it’s not important … but damn it feels good to hit the target.
I remember when I took my first black belt test in Hawaiian Kenpo and my Sensei explained what shodan meant. He explained it was only the beginning, and not a finality. When you look at the Japanese characters for the word (初段), 初 (sho) means beginner/beginning and 段 (dan) means step/rank. It’s a simple concept to understand: a blackbelt is not the end but only the beginning, but it’s completely different according to experience. This idea hits me on a much deeper level know, and I understand it much more than I did nine years ago when I took the Hawaiian Kenpo test.
The day after the test I didn’t go to kyudo practice and just rested. Probably lots of people take a week or so break after such a test. Maybe more. Maybe people just think about it. Maybe no one does. The next day instead of indulging in a longer rest, I went to practice just because I wanted to. I showed up and shot my first few shots at the makiwara (practice hay bail you shoot at before the target). Sensei came up to me and said:
“Congratulations on your shodan … but we’ve got to fix your tenouchi …”
Back to work! The path certainly doesn’t end at shodan. Instead, it really is only the beginning.