Seminar with Narita sensei in Netherlands

by Sabrina Semião

Once upon a time there was a Naginata seminar in the Netherlands…
Some of you (very few to be honest) know it, but serious health problems have unfortunately kept me away from the dojos for the last 4 years…. So this seminar was for me an official return to the practice of Naginata and was above all a test, to see if I was still able to follow and hold a naginata in my hand for 2 whole days after all these years. All in all, this seminar was a real return to the roots, an invitation to continue and a great motivation for the future.

Let’s set the scene before moving on to the essential.
Friday, March 31st, after an endless pandemic, 4 French people (3 from the South and 1 from Paris) braved the French strikes and took the road to Netherlands. 10 hours later, we arrived in Rotterdam under a windy wet cold weather… Luckily the rest of the weekend turned out to be much brighter and warmer (ok, quite frankly, not warmer and just Sunday – the aptly named!, but still, rain was over).
After so many years without being able to benefit from the teaching of a Japanese Sensei on European soil (damn Covid !), the four of us are full of hope and enthusiasm for this long awaited seminar with Narita Sensei. Having already had the chance to benefit from her teaching during an unforgettable seminar in Helsinki, I did not hesitate for a minute before suggesting to my friends to accompany me. Narita Sensei is an exceptional professor and has her own way of teaching and transmitting her knowledge. There is no need for endless explanations or useless dialogues, the demonstration by the example proves to be sufficient in itself. Never ambiguous, always accurate, even when the words are missing or the translation is hesitant. I can only thank her again for being such a “beautiful” person, full of candor, generosity and humility.

I can hear you growing impatient from here so enough blabbering, and let’s get to the point now.
This first weekend of April saw several hundreds of volleyball players and about thirty naginatakas sharing the sports complex of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. And as always, several nationalities were again mixed within our group: Dutch obviously, French, English, Belgian, German, Italian and I certainly forget some and I do apologize in advance for that. Different cultures certainly but a whole group animated by the same passion for this so peculiar martial art which brought quite a lot of curious looks and enthusiastic questions from our volleyball neighbors.

The international Naginata seminars can be summarized quite simply: naginata practice, naginata practice, more naginata practice and cheerful moments. Let’s pass on these friendly moments for now, unavoidable and without frills where we have pleasure to meet old friends or to meet new ones, and let’s concentrate on the seminar program itself.

So let’s start at the beginning.
Saturday, April 1st, 10am: beginning of the seminar
On a (let’s admit it) rather gloomy morning, the first naginatakas gathered in the sports complex. After the long-awaited reunion, we can take possession of the place and start the serious business. Shizentai and rei, warming up, gorei, uchi, taisabaki, kamae, shikake oji waza….. While we are executing the commands, Narita Sensei passes among the practitioners to correct the postures, to advise and explain individually the right stances to adopt, the right movements of the feet and the body. She patiently shows and waits for everyone to conscientiously reproduce the gestures as she has just shown them. Gorei and Uchi go on and on, as well as wise advice, and regularly a Shuugou is heard between these individual corrections. Everyone gathers around the Sensei to listen to her sharp remarks on what she has just observed and on the flaws that seem important to rectify.

After the Uchi comes the time of Shikake Oji waza. We end the morning on this technical note to continue it a little more in the early afternoon.
Here again, Narita Sensei takes the time to circulate between the pairs in order to answer their questions, to give advice and to correct possible mistakes. Once again, a Shuugou echoes regularly in the room so that all the practitioners can benefit from the advice given individually beforehand.
Narita Sensei handles the naginata with incredible dexterity and everything she shows, all the movements she tirelessly breaks down in “Slow motion” or with the help of her “Magic tape” as she loves to say, seems at first sight to be so simple to execute …. “Seems to be” being the key words in this sentence! The reality of the performance is quite different for us mere mortals. J
For the rest of the afternoon, it was decided to split the group in 3 in order to allow the ones to prepare for their grade (kyu), the others to practice the Federation katas (3 dan and +) and the last ones (all those who had a bogu) to sweat intensely!
So, while Mark [Berghaan] was coaching and preparing the kyudanshas for their exam of the following day, Narita Sensei was working on the federation katas with the 3 dan and +, and the bogu holders engaged in 45 frantic minutes of Uchikaeshi forward backward forward backward forward backward forward backward…… Ooops! Sorry my brain jammed! Followed by 20 minutes of Ji geiko.
Thus ended this first day in pain and sweat 😉

As for the evening, it was a festive one as our Dutch friends had of course planned a dinner so that we could spend more pleasant moments together, freed from our keikogi and hakama. All-you-can-eat Buffet and drinks at will to untie the tongues and to bring the people a little closer together. The strategy paid off as the atmosphere was excellent and the evening ended much later than expected, especially for the Belgians and the Frenchies who continued to confront each other “in friendship” over few more drinks and a game of “liar’s poker” at the hotel. Epic evening 😉

Sunday April 2nd, 10am: second day of the seminar
After a good night’s sleep, everyone is on the track for a short morning warm-up, and here we go again for a second and last day full of promises.
Happo buri and once again, Narita Sensei circulates among us and gives us advice individually and then collectively. Then Uchikaeshi without bogu, each uchi and uke broken down by the Sensei who positions herself in front of all of us, aligned behind her. We finish this exercise by picking a partner to perform several uchikaeshi repetitions.
A few kotai later, we resume the work of Shikake Oji. Narita Sensei wants to review the trickiest points.

She insists on a fundamental principle: the movement of the hips leads to the movement of the body and, consequently, to the movement of the naginata. It is therefore useless to use too much arm strength to execute the different harai and uchi.
Throughout the weekend, the notions of Zanshin and Seme are emphasized because they are essential. Indeed, Narita Sensei likes to remind us that in the absence of Seme or Zanshin, the action is empty and that this can be seen on the face and also felt in the movements.
The mochikae such as chudan, hasso, waki, must be done correctly in the center of the body… the positioning of the hands on the body… the art of sliding the naginata (kurikomi/kuridashi) naturally between the hands to be able to handle it quickly and in the most fluid way possible… the fact also that the naginata must always be positioned in a way to protect its carrier, the Ichizuki protecting the center… and the naginataka always alert and ready to strike again. And so on, and so on…
All these explanations follow each other and fit perfectly, in an indisputable logic.
Once all these points were discussed and explained, the Chef’s little surprise which stressed more than one of us: an improvised “Shikake Oji” Taikai.
Everyone chose a partner and then trained for a few minutes to perform Roppon-me, Nanahon-me and Hachihon-me.

The main idea was to allow everyone to evaluate each other’s performance and to understand the complexity of Shinpan’s work. All the pairs did their best, no one failed and at the end of each round, everyone had the opportunity to say which of the pairs they preferred. But beware, Narita sensei’s teaching at that moment was the following: if you make a decision, you must be able to argue in a clear and concise way why you feel that the victory should go to one couple rather than another. A simple mistake, however major, should not obscure the whole performance if it is full of zanshin and seme… And conversely, a flawless performance without any zanshin can lead to defeat because the whole thing will be devoid of real “intention”.
And so the morning ended.

After the lunch break, grade exams for some of the kyu and free practice for the others.
Once the exams are over, bogu! We have a few hours left to work on Uchikaeshi and waza in pairs and above all Narita Sensei puts on her bogu to allow each of us to cross swords with her during the last half hour of ji geiko. A wonderful opportunity to benefit from her advice on some Nuki waza that she has the secret of!
And it is on this new sweaty note that this last day ended.

Everyone gathered and lined up for the final bow. The end of the seminar was also extremely touching with a closing speech by a very moved Narita Sensei, almost in tears under the applause and the thanks of all the practitioners. Once again, proof of her extreme candor and humility.
A few warm hugs, a few selfies and the handing over of the last gifts to the sensei and we are all on our way out….
Last goodbye in front of the building for some and last evening in Rotterdam for the others.
Another seminar that is coming to an end… extremely instructive, as much from a human point of view as from the practice of Naginata.

And we’ll see each other again for the next dates, the next seminars or simply the next European Championships in Italy.
To all of you, it was a pleasure to meet you again and to have my naginata back! A special thanks to our Dutch friends and especially to Mark Berghaan for organizing this seminar. See you all very soon and many thanks again to Narita Sensei !