by Tyl Dermine
In early spring 2023 I was visiting Ellery sensei as well as teaching and refereeing at the East Coast Naginata Federation Taikai. Before I delve into the details of the trip, I must express my deep gratitude to Ellery sensei and Ji for their warm hospitality and kindness. Their generosity and attention were truly amazing. It was a pleasure to spend time with them and strengthen our friendship over the course of this event. This is what makes the Naginata community so unique to me.
Visiting Manhattan for the first time was an unforgettable experience. The city is vast, and every corner is a different adventure. Though the cityscape is imposing, with tall buildings seemingly reaching up to the sky, it is also captivating. Every street and alleyway has a unique charm, and it is a photographer’s dream location. I walked from the Brooklyn Bridge and ended at the High Line, a pedestrian path that runs above the city streets. Even from up there, the buildings seemed to tower above me.
Ji picked me up from the hotel and drove me to Ellery’s house, which was located in a peaceful area. Ellery sensei offered his floors to all the participants from Canada, which was a wonderful gesture. Around 15 people were staying there, and the atmosphere was warm and friendly. It was inspiring to be part of such a supportive community, which had gathered to celebrate Ellery sensei.
The day before the seminar, I had the opportunity to chat with Alberto, also known as Cano, who practices Naginata in Puerto Rico. It was fascinating to learn about his special ability to anticipate his opponent’s moves through sound, as he is almost blind. He cannot rely on visual cues to execute attacks, making his Naginata techniques all the more impressive. Cano invited me to visit Puerto Rico the next time I am in North America, and I am looking forward to it.
The seminar began on Saturday with a solemn Iaido demonstration by Ji and his student Jeff Fulcher, held in honor of The Japanese Swordsmanship Society (Nichibukan) founders, Yamauchi sensei and John Prough sensei, deceased respectively 11 and 10 years ago. Naginata practice then started. The morning session was focusing on bogu practice and the afternoon on engi. Every group greeted the senseis warmly, setting the tone for a productive and enjoyable seminar. I was delighted to see Axel Norman, now a US citizen living in Connecticut, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. We practiced together, and it felt like we had been practicing together the day before. During the seminar, I shared some of the key ingredients (imho) needed to master shiais, and we practiced tai sabaki waza to create opportunities and avoid strikes efficiently. We also worked on the circle exercise to improve control of the Naginata, and decomposed hasso men and sune waza into steps to ensure a smooth and continuous motion. We finished with many uchikaeshi exercises with nuki waza and suriage, followed by jigeiko.
The afternoon session focused on katas, followed by a grade examination. The party on Saturday night was a lot of fun, with around 50 people in attendance, creating a great atmosphere.
Sunday was the day of the Taikai, which had a packed schedule with six different competitions. Engi kyu and dan took place in the morning, and in the afternoon, we had Shiai kyu women followed by men, and later shiai dan women and men. It was gratifying to see an equal number of women and men participating in the competitions. The enthusiasm of all participants was so nice to see. Maybe a bit too enthusiastic for kyu men shiais. It felt sometimes like they were rushing forward whatever the opponent was doing or whatever the distance. Proper shiai management, i.e. attacking only when real opportunities are created requires experience. Following the tai sabaki waza exercises might have helped them.
As I said goodbye to Ellery sensei and Ji, I felt grateful for their hospitality and sympathy. I would also like to express my gratitude to Ray for sharing the captivating story of ECNF’s past and to Gabriel for his contagious positive energy, which made the seminar even more enjoyable. Thanks to Manon and Yves for the nice discussions about shinpan done together during the competition.
It was a memorable experience to participate in the ECNF Taikai and to spend time with such wonderful people. I look forward to keeping in touch with them and to returning to the United States for more Naginata events in the future, at the latest at the world Naginata championship next year.