By Mark Berghaan
The last time I visited Japan was in 2019. That last time I had gone to join the Renshi exam that is hosted by the AJNF once a year. In 2019 I had been to Japan twice to practice Naginata as much as possible to prepare for the exam. I also had been the year before and my Naginata had advanced a lot preparing for the exam. However in 2019 I was not prepared enough causing me to fail the exam. I received feedback and started working on it. I wanted to return in 2020, but the corona pandemic happened and I waited until the next opportunity, while working on my technique. During the pandemic it was hard to practice shikake-oji and kata but I could practice with a mirror and was able to fix the necessary things I had received feedback about.
This year, 2023 it was finally possible to return to Japan and join the exam.
Luckily I was able to practice with Narita Sensei during her visit to the Netherlands a little bit to get me in the right mindset.
Since it had been a long time since I had been to Japan and I was sure I needed to fix many things in my techniques and attitude in the kata I had asked the Sensei’s to practice as much as possible. Luckily Imaura Sensei was happy to help as she had done during my previous visits and had made a full schedule for me to follow.
My first practice on the 24th of April was right out of the plane at Han-ai highschool where I was allowed to store my Naginata after my previous visit. Here I met with the current Naginata group of kids of the Han-ai Naginata club and their Sensei Wakimoto Sensei. The kids between 13 and 17 years old showed great fighting spirit and excellent discipline and motivation.
These kids progress very fast as they can practice nearly every day and have regular competitions and seminars to join.
It was nice to feel the Japanese sharpness and speed again.
The next day I woke up at 3 am so I decided to do some work and prepare for the written part of the exam. Later on the day I went to Han-ai again and did some bogu.
On the 26th I would wake up at 4 am giving me some hope that the jetlag was shifting to normal hours. Practice was at Tsurumi Minami Elementary school with Imaura Sensei and Wakimoto Sensei who I could practice some more kata with. The Sensei showed of her Naginata kids who showed excellent form even after a few months of practice.
On the 27th I woke up at 5 am. First practice of the day was with Imaura Sensei and a group of adult dan grade people at Tsurumi Sports Center. After this second practice was again at Han-ai.
The practice on the 28th was cancelled so I decided to go shopping for Naginata equipment. I went to Tennoji, Osaka to the Meirin store who had incredible and fast service and at a very good price. After that I went to Kyoto and met up with friends to have a walk around and dinner.
On Saturday the 29th I woke up at 2 am. This wasn’t good..The day was scheduled to have 2 practices with excellent Sensei’s. The jetlag was hitting me hard.
The first practice was with Imaura Sensei at Sumiegaoka junior highschool from 9:00 to 12:00.
However in the middle of the practice I was crashing with sleep and Sensei told me to go sleep in the changing room for halve an hour. Which I did. I needed to be sharp for the next practice.
The next practice was at 14:00 at Sayama dojo. Here instructors were Sakai sensei and Ohno sensei (Both Hanshi). I was able to practice with my friend Kinoshita Sensei who is a Renshi and with Yoshida san who like myself was preparing for the Renshi exam. Luckily I had recovered enough to have a good practice which had given me a good idea of the level expected for the exam. I needed to work hard to get there, but it didn’t seem impossible, this was good.
That evening I had the honor to stay at Ohno sensei’s house so I could join her the next day to go to the seminar in Wakayama.
I had a good night of sleep and we left early towards Wakayama, we were joined by Yoshida san and we arrived to see a very large group of Naginata people. Most of them were probably highschool and university students. The most striking were the teams from Wakayama and Osaka University who were absolutely incredible in fighting spririt and stamina.
The Wakayama seminar lasted the whole day and I was able to practice with Yamamoto Chio sensei and Yoshida san under the watchful eye of Ohno sensei and Miura sensei.
The level was incredibly high and I must admit it was an emotional experience seeing what Naginata looks like at that level. It’s just beautiful.
The next day I woke up at 5 again and returned for practice at Han-ai.
On Tuesday practice was at Sumiegaoka again, this time I didn’t have to sleep mid-practice, and I did some shikake-oji with the kids.
Wednesday and Thursday May 3rd and 4th were the days of the Osaka University Physical Education department Seminar. About 200 people joined and I was able to practice shikake-oji and kata all day with people preparing for the Renshi and Kyoshi exams. The people from Sayama dojo and Wakayama were also there and also Matsui sensei who had come from Yamagata to prepare for her Kyoshi exam. During the seminar I was able to practice with someone who could potentially be my partner at the exam, since she was almost the same age (she wasn’t). And we were helped by a very big group of Sensei from all over Osaka and surrounding cities. It was also nice to see some familiar faces again from my previous visits and international seminars.
After the first day of the seminar I could join a special evening practice for people preparing for the Kyoshi exam under the instruction of Fukuoka sensei from Nara. She was very powerful and impressive to watch. It started out ok, but after halve an hour my lack of sleep hit me and I could no longer concentrate. I decided to do mitori keiko for the rest of the practice, while almost falling asleep during it.
The next morning I checked out of my Osaka hotel and headed to Nagoya where Bucsis Sensei had organized a two day seminar just for the foreigners coming to the Renshi exam. For this seminar Yasui sensei had come to instruct us all and helped to put the dots on my i’s.
On the second day I left a bit early to work on my essay for the exam. I was quite stressed about it not being completely done and memorized so I worked on that the rest of the evening.
On the day of the exam, May 7th I woke up at 4 and could only think about memorizing the essay, so I worked on that until heading towards the Aichi budokan.
When I arrived at the budokan I already so people with Naginata outside finding shelter from the rain. We all went inside and registered for the exam.
We started with the written part. I was relieved to notice I could reproduce the biggest part of my essay within the allotted time and this took away most of my nerves.
Upon registration we had been introduced to our partner for the exam, so after the written test there was some time to practice together. I was extremely lucky to have a great connection with my partner who had been quite nervous at first having to do the exam with such a tall person. Out of the 22 people there she was definitely the smallest and I was the tallest. But our preparation went great and I felt confident that we would be doing well together. My partner agreed and she was ready to go for it.
We waited our turn to do the shikake-oji. It felt good, no major mistakes.
Next everybody had to do kata. We waited our turn. During the first kata we did I was the uchi side and when she started the tsuki, I felt like I did my best makiotoshi ever. I felt like we were on a roll. We continued and we made no major mistakes. We walked off the floor and behind the screen we smiled at each other and did a modest high-five.
I was confident I had shown my best Naginata and left with a relieved feeling that all I had worked for had brought me to this point. I however was completely overtired and went to bed at 21:00.
The next day, Monday the 8th of May, I went to Ebara to visit Narita Sensei and practice at an elementary school. There were people of all ages and I was happy to do some bogu. Narita sensei once again showed me the corners of the dojo in jigeiko (figuratively) and I got to do jigeiko with one of her highschool kids who will certainly be a great fighter if he continues practice.
On Tuesday the 9th of May, Narita sensei took me to Shubukan in Itami to join the Tendo Ryu practice. It was good to be back there and see so many familiar faces, among which Kimura Sensei, Tamaki Sensei and Zaitsu Sensei.
The day before I went home I had my final practice at Han-ai. It was nice to do jigeiko with all these wonderful kids. They have such a great attitude and fighting spirit.
On my way home I received the email with the list of people that had passed the exam. I was relieved to find my name on it. This had been a tough few weeks with all kinds of mental and physical challenges. Even the experience of the preparation has been enormously valuable and I feel I have learned and progressed immensely. I am happy that this time the results of the exam did not disappoint and everybody’s hard work preparing me for the exam paid of.
I feel honored and blessed to have received all the support, without which I surely would not have made the needed progress.
A big thank you to all the Sensei and all the people I practiced with. I cannot say it often enough.