Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Choosing the Katana

Among the archaic weapons that laced the epic duels of feudal Japan none epitomized the greatest contest more than the katana versus the jo or the short wooden stick. The story of the meeting between the sword wielding Miyamoto Musashi and the jo handler Mus Gonnosuke still etch vivid scenes that remain in my mind. Musashi lost that duel. The elegant, hard-edged, and sharp katana was defeated by the simplicity and balance of the jo.

Wielding bokken to practice movement based on the sword 

I once questioned the outcome of that duel. How can a weapon made of steel with razor sharp edge be defeated by a blunt wooden stick? What are the strong points of each weapon and what disadvantage can one have against the other? Which one would I actually choose if I were to be in a duel set in feudal Japan?

It is hard to choose between the katana and the jo. Both weapons possess elegance and versatility. The manner by which they are wielded are different yet in my study of Aikido, a martial art grounded in the movement of both these weapons, I’ve come to learn certain similarities. Still, they do posses certain advantages and disadvantages over the other.

The katana is made of steel, forged and formed by master blacksmiths. It’s made of a material most definitely stronger than wood and Japanese masterful craftsmanship makes it no ordinary sword. It is made to perfection. It is light and can be made to deflect and cut at the same time. Its razor sharp edge can cut through wood and human bone and its point is just as lethal if not more. A learned swordsman wielding a katana is a deadly force. Still, it is a one-sided weapon; it has one sharp edge, one sharp point, and usually rests on the left hip so that the right hand will be the one to control it with the left hand used for delivering power from the very end of the hilt.

The jo on the other hand is a considerably longer weapon thus having advantage over reach. Its well-balanced construction allows both ends to be made to thrust and deliver powerful blunt edge strikes that can quite easily crush or break bones. The power of the jo also lies on its versatility to be used symmetrically.  That is, it has no preference from which side of the body it’s going to come from, which hand to use for control, and which hand to use for power. A master of the jo can hold the entire length of the weapon at any point giving him a flexibility of attacks and defense that becomes harder to anticipate. 

A martial art based on the use of sword and jo techniques; Aikido emphasizes deflection or redirection rather than blocking or stopping movement. Needless to say there is a way to deflect the cutting edge of a sword. A jo is useless to block a katana but it can deflect it. With the greatest advantage of the katana, that is its edge, nullified by skillful deflection, the jo gains the upper advantage. It’s not hard now to imagine why Musashi lost to Gonnosuke.

Every technique is based on sword movement 

That said, would I choose the jo? No. I would still choose the katana. It would be for the reason that it’s not an ordinary weapon. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into its making and the mere fact that it remains sheathed until there is no other option but to draw it out makes it elegant and a civilized weapon. The question about winning the duel still looms. There is a bigger chance of losing if I choose the katana over the jo but I’m not saying I’m ok with defeat. Perhaps I’m saying I’m willing enough to struggle against the odds. I’m saying, yes give me that beating but I won’t give up. I choose the katana, win or lose.       

Monday, December 19, 2016

Which do you prefer?

Which do you prefer, short powerful bouldering or long sustained savvy lead climbing? It’s a question some of us might have been asked more than a couple of times and it’s probably one you’ve used yourself as kindle for conversation with climbers you’ve just met. It’s not one of those ranked high in the list of opening gambits you dish out after short introductions though. Might be best reserved after a few exchanges in belays or after a few times switching roles as spotter and climber. 

It can be used whether you guys are lead climbing or bouldering. It’s up to you how to mash it up. You can also throw in leading questions too. You can ask, “Do you also lead?” or “Do you like bouldering too?” There are many permutations to this line of questioning. But fear not because there is only a limited number of ways that it can be answered. When asked for a preference there can only be: “I prefer bouldering,” “I prefer lead,” or “I like both.” To which you can spin off your own preference or just ask the old reliable “why” and just follow through.

It takes a bit of sensitivity to pull it off, however. You have to think about the timing, the place, the mood, or the grade of the sport route or the boulder problem. Remember the point of the question is to give a warm welcoming vibe but not too much that you sound like forcing the issue or being creepy.

So, what do you prefer, bouldering or lead climbing? I like both. I wish I could have done more bouldering though during the last trip to the north. There’s simply too much still waiting to be discovered in Ambongdolan and Camp 3 along Kennon Road. In the meantime there are just photos to remember the place by. At the same time I’m looking forward to tons of lead climbing in the following days.  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Hello Kyoto

July 7, 2014.  Running half asleep is something I’m familiar with.  It’s the simple task of putting one foot ahead of the other repetitively while one eye is shut and half the consciousness is still dreaming.  Sometimes for brief stretches of unobstructed paths I can close both eyes and take a short nap while running, that is about ten to fifteen full strides between blinks.  I have yet to take that to the next level, maybe go for a full minute. This happens when I’m forced to get out of bed very, very early in the morning out of intense need to keep to a strict running routine.  It was exactly what I had to do the morning of the day we were scheduled to visit Kyoto University.  We had to leave earlier than usual to make the long train ride from Osaka to Kyoto.   

We met up with Professor Kazu at the train station and walked together to Kyoto University where he gave a presentation of the current studies he and his colleagues were doing. They conducted a field research in the typhoon Haiyan struck regions of Tacloban and were in the process of studying material resiliency and reaction to violent wind movement during typhoons.  Together with the U.P. College of Architecture, data from the experiments would be used for design applications for the purpose of assessment and the redesign of facilities for sustainable typhoon resistant structures in the Philippines.

Shortly after the presentation we visited the enormous wind tunnel testing lab housed in one of the buildings inside the campus.  We were given the chance to experience typhoon wind speeds by standing in direct path of the windblast coming from the massive turbine.  Our hair wafted with the generated wind deforming the skins over our faces.  It was amusing until I realized the business of studying typhoons is something we Filipinos should be conducting ourselves.  Nothing was mediocre about the lab.  It screamed serious and as we moved on to another section of the facility my deepest thoughts rested on why something so simple was still impossible to do in the Philippines.  

They showed us a huge projectile gun shooting off, in a controlled manner, wood, rock, and metal replicating loose materials blown away by wind during a typhoon.   It shot objects onto walls and barriers made of materials based on actual field studies in Tacloban.  The campus was equipped to the teeth with the tools needed for such research.  The UP College of Architecture and Kyoto University promised to work together in hopes of coming up with viable solutions proven by solid data aiming to amplify the resiliency of future structures against typhoons in our region. 

After the staggering and impressive display of precise data collection we relaxed our academic minds with a visit to the temples in the area.  We walked up Kiyomizudera Temple or roughly translated to English as “Pure Water Temple.”  Kiyomizudera rested on top of a steep approach that overlooked Kyoto from the Higashiyama district, a busy street lined with shops and restaurants that serviced all those who visited the temple for centuries.  

The main feature of the temple was the high wooden stage jutting out from the main hall. The stage rose 13 meters from the ground and was a construct of pure wood.  There weren’t any metal joiners, nails, and bolts.  Everything holding it together were made of wood, perhaps some already centuries old.  Eight to nine other buildings at the Kiyomizudera were undergoing renovation during our visit.  In the coming decade it could be expected that these would be completed and the entire complex of temples would generate an even greater impact and leave indelible impressions on all those who would visit.


A hefty sushi dinner followed after and we had to walk around the area to help our stomachs settle the large meal.  Another of Tadao Ando’s works was in the next block and so we again were able to experience his signature concept.  Ando’s works plays with the huge contrast of the heavy and the light.  He uses heavily grounded concrete construction allowing views and light from the outside to seep into Zen-like pockets of spaces within the building.  The simple angles of construction of Tadao Ando’s work are very minimalist.  They are almost sterile, evoking calm and peace.  It presented a huge contrast to the shopping district next to it with narrow streets and façades adorned with an impossible number of signs, colors, and designs rendering the place confusing with an explosion of detail.  

The streets of the old district were pedestrianized and were protected with uniform roof covering.  The place teemed of people scurrying for trinkets, food experiences, or services. We melded with the crowd and explored the place each on our own pace.  Time ran perceptively fast in such a setting.  It's a Peter Bosselman theory.  It wasn’t long before I found myself walking alone.  With the deepening darkness, the time ticking fast, and the looming early wake-up call the next day for our flight to Fukuoka, it would seem that I got lost but I honestly did not.  It, however, came at an inconvenience to all and so with all sincerity let it be written that I humbly and reverently apologise.  It does come with a priceless story however, something that I can foresee being told or at least remembered over and over.  There was worry and anxiety on Tong’s face, Guiab’s worried haste to look for me, and the unsettling wait at Starbucks with Professor Kazu not knowing what went wrong.