The First Lesson is Walking

It struck me a few years ago, as I practicing the first kata of omote-tachi -- the foundation of Katori Shinto Ryu -- that the very first thing a student learns is walking. Walking two steps.

Katori is not a practice in which one learns a technique and moves on to the next. It is an endless circle of practice, insight, and more practice. I have been doing these two steps for many years now, and I still feel that even just taking two steps backwards is a process more full of possibility than I could ever completely encompass.

The kata opens with the two participants facing one another, swords at the ready. The senior member (uketachi) advances forward, driving back the junior member (kirikomi). One step. Two steps.

That's it. Just two steps. If you're kirikomi, you just back up two steps and you're done. Hardly a sophisticated maneuver.

And yet, like everything else in Katori, there is much, much more going on here than can be easily seen.

First is ma-ai -- "correct distance". At the opening of the kata, before the steps begin, uketachi and kirikomi are separated by a precise distance -- just too far to reach each other without taking a step. Their swordtips just meet.

As they walk, uke pushes forward and it is the job of kirikomi to maintain ma-ai. Sometimes uke pushes quickly and sometimes he pushes slowly -- nevertheless, kirikomi must maintain the correct distance. After two steps back, their swords must still be in precisely the same relationship as before.

There is also timing to consider. It is uke's forward step that prompts kirikomi's backward one. Tong Sensei says often that swordplay in Katori Shinto Ryu is a conversation, an exchange -- as a junior student I found concentrating on these brief, simple steps a chance to establish that communication with my uketachi. A chance to listen, pay attention to what uke is telling me. One step. Two steps.

One of the ongoing lessons of Katori is that of listening. You must maintain, not just the correct distance, but actual contact with your opponent. Only by fully experiencing their presence, with all your senses, can you hope to attain mastery over them. You must be aware of their sword, their feet, their eyes, all of their intent and their spirit. From any position an opponent can launch a multitude of attacks -- the only way to respond correctly is by sensing them without preconceptions and allowing the correct response to come forth.

Without total attention, you cannot possibly succeed.

And so it has always struck me how, when I first began studying Katori Shinto Ryu, my first lesson was to do nothing more than walk two steps. And when I watch new students walking backwards, with so much of their attention just focused on "What's next? What's next?" I am reminded that just two steps can contain lessons that always need re-learning.

Photo: Jason Conlon