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On the Hot Seat


The Wednesday morning routine is now well established. The girls know what day it is when they show up at the breakfast table, just by looking at the clothes I am wearing. If I have on something with no buttons down the front, they know that it must be Wednesday ... archery lesson day!

As I am still just a beginner at 'kyudo', I feel that it would be quite pretentious to wear the traditional 'hakama' outfit. My fellow students at the practice hall, the 'dojo', seem to feel the same way, so we all wear casual clothing: sweatsuits, etc. Anything seems to be OK, as long as it has no buttons or other impediments to the free use of the bow. Our instructors though, both Akiyama-sensei and his younger assistant Ono-san, always wear traditional garb, and indeed, if I were to meet one of them out on the street somewhere, I would probably fail to recognize him, so ingrained is my image of the two of them in hakama.

From April, when our lessons started, right up until now, we have followed this pattern of dress, and it has come to seem completely natural. Occasionally one of the students will say about Ono-san, as we watch one of his demonstrations, "Kakko ii ne!", a Japanese comment I find hard to put into English, although the rather archaic phrase 'he cuts a fine figure' perhaps catches the feeling best. We have been rather envious of his appearance. Up until now, that is. For now, it is December, and the atmosphere of the dojo has changed. You see, our dojo is outdoors. And not only is it outdoors, but it is tucked away against the north side of the very large local sports centre, and no sunshine penetrates to where we stand. But the wind certainly does, even though the 'alley' down which we shoot is partially shielded by a row of thin trees.

So these days we no longer look at our instructors with quite the same envy as we once did, as we stand there bow in hand, bundled up in our sweatsuits, and sweaters. Even in these thick clothes, we are still not very comfortable, but we don't complain, not to Ono-san anyway, standing there with his arms tucked inside his thin kimono, trying to keep warm. He looks the very picture of 'zen stoicism'.

Given this situation, I was thus very surprised last week, on entering the dojo, to find that not only did an oil heater stand at the rear of the practice area, but an electric 'hot carpet' was also spread over the wooden floor. What heresy was this? Ono-san and a couple of the students stood around the heater in a circle, chatting and warming their hands, and next to them, on the warm carpeting, sat the rest of the group. Nobody was practicing!

I saw that they must have been doing some shooting, because the target area had marks and holes from their arrows, but everyone was apparently having a hard time getting motivated again. That stove and carpet were just too comfortable!

They had a bit of a good laugh at me, when after preparing my bow and shooting my first four arrows, I returned to the rest area and sat down, not on the carpet, but on the bare floor next to it, well away from the heater. Everybody called me over, "Come and sit here where it's warm!" But I wouldn't budge. I just laughed back at them, "No thanks. I'll sit over here." I knew that once I got settled down on that warm floor near the heater, it would be difficult to pull away and practice some more, and it would just feel even colder when I did.

But it wasn't only that thought that kept me off the carpet. Somehow, it just didn't seem right to be trying to make myself comfortable in that room, a room where a sign hangs prominently displayed on one wall - "No gossiping! No sitting cross-legged!" Presumably, we go there not to 'relax', but to 'challenge' ourselves a little. If one is so weak that one runs to a heater at the first hint of cold wind blowing through the room, does one really have the 'right stuff' for 'kyudo'? The stony-faced, steely-eyed Meiji era archer pictured in one of my books, would surely have turned his back on such an idea as being 'comfortable' while practicing.

I'm not trying to imply that I'm the type who would willingly stand meditating under a cold waterfall in the middle of winter. That's not me. But I do think one has to draw a line somewhere. Once a week, to spend a couple of hours in a chilly dojo, kneeling on a cold, hard floor, and then standing in an icy wind, straining to stop one's body from shaking as you aim at the target ... Is that really so bad? Is it really bad for me? I don't think so. Maybe it's old-fashioned of me, but I think that hot carpets and heaters have no place in a 'kyudojo'. I can well imagine the snide comment of that Meiji archer if he knew about them ... "Weaklings!", he would call us. "You think this is cold? Why, when I was a lad ...", and he would undoubtedly then relate some horror story about how his teacher had made him sit unmoving while a blizzard swept through the hall ... and how he had then stood up to shoot a perfect set ...

I suppose this is all rather silly of me. Does it really matter if we make our bodies comfortable while we study and practice archery? I can't say. But for my part anyway, I will continue to sit off at the side of that warm, inviting carpet. Let the others laugh, as they will. They may be warm, comfortable, and happy ... But I'll have something they don't have. I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that my slowly-developing archery skills are being gained through hardship, pain ... and suffering. I'm bound to be a better archer because of that, right? Do I hear somebody laughing ...?

Excuse me a moment, I've got to go and find a handkerchief ... ... "Achoo!"