It would seem that I was a bit hasty with my announcement that Kitamoto camp has become all soft and cuddly lately. I have now spoken to several people who have been to Kitamoto earlier (and in different years), and they all have confirmed that if it wasn’t for one thing it would be a pretty normal Kitamoto camp.
This one thing is Funatsu sensei.
Funatsu sensei seems to have made up his mind to do his best to turn this useless bunch of civilians that we are into ninjas within a single week, or apparently have us die trying. We had a small taste of what was to come in the first day, when we did some eight hundred suburi and then lots of kirikaeshi and oikomi across the hall lengthwise. It was hard, but there were pauses to stretch and catch one’s breath a bit – and as we are all at least 3. dan level here, it was nothing that any of us hadn’t been through before.
Yesterday, in the second part of the morning session, Funatsu sensei gave us 800 suburi again, done by sets of hundred each, and again we went through it without too much of a problem. As my shoulder is aching quite a bit, Funatsu sensei had excused me of doing them along, but I have in fact been trying to keep up at the back of the hall, doing it one-handed with my good left arm.
However, at the start of the evening session, when everybody lined up with their men and kote for some more kirikaeshi and oikomi, Funatsu sensei asked with a sly smile “why do you have all those things in front of you? You won’t be needing them.”
This didn’t sound good.
As we took out gear out of the way, Funatsu sensei announced that someone had asked him if we are going to do a thousand suburi some day, and a kind person as he is he could not possibly refuse – and so we were about to do senbon-suburi. Now, senbon-suburi is not simply a thousand suburi, it is thousand hayasuburi that is done in succession, without a single break. Those who have practised kendo will have a very good idea what this means, but for those who have not, here is a video that should give you an idea what exactly is hayasuburi. Going through a thousand of them takes about twenty minutes, by the way.
And so we had two leaders at the front to keep the count and off we went. At around the 500 mark, people started to have cramps. Some of them were taken away from the floor, while others were stretching and trying to get back to it. When we finally counted the last suburi out of the thousand, we were given a hearty applause by senseis who had been cheering us along all the way. Sato sensei then informed us that this was the first time ever that senbon suburi was done in Kitamoto camp, and added that it may in fact become a tradition from now on. So be warned if you consider coming ;).
It was hard, very hard, and I doubt if there were many among us who could have made it through alone. However, it was precisely doing it together that made it possible. A guy from Luxembourg that I know from several years ago came to me later and said that at one point he was about to give up – and then looked over his shoulder and saw me sweating and suffering at the back of the hall, despite of having been given a permission to just sit and watch, and then decided to go on.
This is actually a very good reflection on a broader point that relates well to all the martial arts, and to many different kinds of endurance sports in general, I suppose. I have never ran a marathon myself (and I doubt if I ever will), but I imagine that there must be something similar going on there. When you are completely exchausted, when every cell of your body tells you that there is nothing left, then it is seeing those other people around you in precisely the same state of desperate exhaustion that will keep you going. It is also related to another question that I have had many people ask me over the years – “why do people willingly subject themselves to such pain and suffering that is involved with doing full contact martial arts.” The answer is of course that the pain will fade and go away, but what you gain by having gone through it doesn’t. In the famous words from a Hollywood movie: “Pain is your friend, your ally” – and while we often inflict it to each other when training martial arts, there is a genuine sense of gratitude after the practice is over. You can often see boxers or MMA fighters hugging each other after the fight, and this is not just a token gesture. It is the same reason why in Japanese martial arts people bow to each other before and after a fight or practice. Pain is not simply an unfortunate aspect of doing martial arts, it is an essential ingredient.
Now everyone is in a survival mode here in Kitamoto, counting remaining hours of practice and simply trying to hang on. When in first two nights there was a lot of talking and beer-drinking late into the night, now everybody is trying to squeeze out every minute of sleep from the short pauses after breakfast and lunch. People wake up with heavy groans and limp along the corridors. The huge first aid box in the reception has become very popular. I have been taping several people’s shoulders and Achilles’ tendons myself. The hell that Funatsu sensei has been putting us through has had an interesting side-effect though. It has really welded us all together. People constantly inquire “how’s your leg doing” or “is your shoulder any better” and we all nod to each other with a knowing expression when meeting on stairs. And I am sure that when we meet ten or twenty years from now, we will remember at least the senbon suburi that we endured together.
There is just one more day to go, and I will try to make it through without wrecking my shoulder. However, the shoulder not withstanding I am getting into a pretty good shape here.