Monday, 17 December 2007

Shomen vs. Chopping wood

There's a very good blog about aikido that discusses the basic attacks, movements and principles of aikido but, unfortunately, it's not in English. However, if you want to read technical descriptions as detailed as a work of a mechanical engineer it is worth finding a Hungarian friend and ask him/her to translate a couple of posts for you although I'll try to use the knowledge I acquire from there in my posts.

The point of this new post is that on that blog there was a description of shomen(uchi) and we commenters started to compare shomenuchi with chopping wood. Indeed, they are quite similar and one can be used to get better at the other. Both are supposed to be straight vertical cuts with an instrument that is about a meter long (katana vs. axe) and both cuts are intended to separate the left and right sides of something that was a whole just before the cuts.

There are some differences, however, and I'd like to discuss them as well as pointing out whenever connection between the two cuts can still be made .

To start with, the katana should be balanced in weight whereas the axe is heavier at its cutting end. The axe is stopped by the stand the block is on if your cut is too strong and since the point of stopping does not really matter as long as the block is cut into halves it is much more useful to have some weight at the end of the axe and make the rest of it from wood so you can cut hundreds. You should also be able to cut hundreds with a katana but all your cuts must be as perfect as possible otherwise you may end up in two parts on the battlefield. It is important to finish the shomen cut at around waist level for which there are several reasons. Firstly, if you have already cut someone from head to waist it is unlikely he will fight back. Secondly, as the blade goes deeper down in your test object :) its momentum will dramatically decrease and eventually it can get stuck in the object's bone structure and you, unable to get it out quickly enough, will end up being cut into two parts on the battlefield. So try to cut until waist level because then you can pull the sword out the easiest way as you just move (your hip) away from the target horizontally (which way you can use our strength most effectively). Then you will be able to take on the next attacking dummy quickly. Thirdly, if the dummy is quick enough and moves away from your straight shomen and your cut goes all the way until the ground your katana will get dirty :). On top of this, you will become unstable and might just stumble or fall ahead which is when the back of your neck becomes open and you end up in two parts, this way head separated from body, on the battlefield.

Another difference can be that you always raise your sword, and hand if it is shomenuchi, in front of you because this is the way when your face, and basically all your front armor, doesn't become open to a straight attack, e.g. tsuki (forward thrust), from your enemy. In contrast to this, you can raise your axe at your side, the wood won't attack you. This way you might manage the weight of the head of the axe more efficiently, too.

Chopping wood can show you how to keep your instrument straight. If the head of your axe is a bit sideways you will surely see and feel that it's not the correct way of holding it. A slight difference in angle from vertical can result in very low efficiency and we surely don't want that.

Chopping wood also teaches us to keep proper distance. As it's only the tip part, say the last 15cm, of the katana that is very sharp and extremely tough you have to reach your target with that part. If you are too far you will miss the target, if you are too close your cut won't be efficient enough and unnecessary short distances in combat are very dangerous, anyway. In parallel, if you have an axe and you are too far from the block your legs (/front leg) will be in danger, if you are too close you will get a good 'shaky' indication for not doing it properly not even mentioning that you can eventually lose the head of the axe or break the handle.

Chopping wood can improve your ballance, strength and if you do it long enough your shoulders should become more relaxed because if they are stiff you will get tired very soon.

One other advantage of chopping wood is that it also produces something useful (firewood) which shomen cuts with a katana don't (apart from improving skills).

Please note that I'm not saying you shouldn't practice shomen or shomenuchi often, it is still important, just that there is this chopping exercise that shows you different aspects of a straight cut, and to quote from Calvin's dad "it builds character" :).

An almost-real-world example for the usefulness of wood chopping is that of Heihachi Hayashida from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai). He is the one who is from the "Wood-Chop School of Swordsmanship," cutting up kindling in exchange for his meals. If he did it then it should surely be useful ;).

And finally, videos:

A katana cut (shomen. I couldn't find a proper shomen with a sword):

How not to chop...

Mixing the two ideas... (don't try this at home because it destroys your sword; never mix up two ways of cutting; don't do anything stupid :))

Please let me know if anything is missing, incorrect or, by any chance, very good :).

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