Seminar with Takami Matsumoto Tanner sensei in Tallinn. Naginata connects the continents.

by Aleksandra Kivisalu

Two years ago, in the summer of 2020, in the midst of the worldwide depression caused by the Covid pandemic, the Estonian naginata team started training online under the guidance of Takami Matsumoto Tanner sensei, Atarashii Naginata Renshi.

At that time, every sports club and every dojo tried somehow to survive, somehow to remain active in between lock downs. Everyone’s mood was not the best. During periods of deep disappointment, I probably wasn’t the only one who thought that after the end of the pandemic, everything would most likely have to be started anew. Budo is the most vulnerable area, because even in the best of times there are not so many budo enthusiasts exist. In a word, when in the midst of a pandemic and decline we suddenly found a friend and mentor, Tanner sensei, it was akin to a happy rescue. She almost immediately made it clear that her first online consultation is not single case, that she sincerely empathizes with a small team in a distant, little-known country, which, without a real sensei, is trying to practice and develop naginata. After the first few online training a kind of remote training plan arose. Now most of our  online training have been recorded and are excellent training material for the Atarashii naginata and also are undeniable evidence of the  gradual improvement of our skills and the benefits of online training.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly when the idea to hold a real live seminar led by Tanner sensei first appeared. In one way or another we have been discussed with her the situation that we would like to train together in real life. However, our possibilities are limited. Two years ago United States, where Tanner sensei lives, seemed incredibly far away to travel. There is a whole ocean between our team and the teacher. For us, even going to training in Helsinki was already a huge event. It seemed very difficult to bring her to Tallinn from other continent at first.

Perhaps the seminar idea became very clear and motivated after several people in our team passed their first ever naginata exam. The exam was led online by the American Naginata Federation. Tanner sensei gave us an online practice right before the exam (and as always she had to get up very early because of the different time zones). Her encouraging words gave the students self-confidence. When everyone realized that systematic online training helps them to pass the exam, we all thought it is good idea to hold a seminar in person. We wanted to see our wonderful sensei and give thanks her personally for all she is doing for us!

We planned the year 2022, in the hope that by this time the normal rhythm of life will be restored and it will be possible to travel freely and organize events. Since then, this planned event has become a kind of reference point until that time has come finally.

We held our wonderful seminar on June, 18-19th and for two whole days had the good fortune to train with our beloved sensei, imbibe her wisdom and marvel at her mastery and passion for the naginata. Here it should be noted that the arrival in the Baltic country of such a sensei as Tanner sensei could not leave our Swedish neighbors indifferent either. They were instantly involved in the project and actively participated in the planning. And in the end, they even seized the initiative and were the first to hold a seminar with Tanner sensei, in Stockholm.

When Tanner sensei and her daughter Jamie arrived from Stockholm, I picked them up at the seaport. I was worried that what if I don’t recognize them? But they looked exactly the same as the image from the laptop screen. When we finally joyfully meet and looked at each other with curiosity, we were relieved that we were all exactly the same as we expected.

As we left the seaport, I felt a little bit embarrassed, because, for some reason there were no taxis available there as we head out to the apartment. It would be  annoyingly to overcome such a journey across the ocean and across the sea and then get stuck here. And then Tanner sensei noticed a rickshaw. I have never taken cycle rickshaws seriously, especially as an alternative to taxis. Moreover, in addition to passengers, a rather bigger amount of luggage had to be transported to the apartment! But this rickshaw-dude masterfully packed the three of us and our bags into a small cart, I’ll tell you he was just a Tetris champion. And perhaps in a past life he really was a rickshaw in medieval Japan??? Either way, it was a good sign. We reached our destination at great speed, got an adrenaline, feels ourselves little bit crazy and this little adventure dispelled the first awkwardness. After this, I did not leave the feeling that everything that happens has some kind of special nature of happy magic. All our plans worked, all the obstacles were not serious. Was it because of sensei´s wise and luck she brought with her to share? I am sure of it.

According to our plans, Tanner sensei and her daughter were supposed to stay in Tallinn for a week. Of course, this is a short time, but still we managed to organize some cultural program, so that Tanner sensei would have impressions not only about the seminar, but also about our wonderful city. By the way, I want to admit that I had not thought before that a few days for Tallinn´s sightseeing will not be enough.  So if You come here, keep that in mind (smiling emoji). We had a couple of days before the seminar and we managed to climb the fortress wall, walk along the tangled streets of the old city, beat the old bells in the bell tower of the cathedral, walk along the endless sandy  beach, of course, discuss the upcoming seminar.

Takami Matsumoto Tanner is a very brave selfless woman and a real wonderful example of how to bring people the culture of budo practice and of course, Japanese culture in general.  Personally, at this time when Tanner sensei was in Talllinn I felt like I am usually experienced when traveling to another country – culture shock.  Or it was like I read many books in a few days.  By the way, about books, Tanner sensei brought books with her. A person who travels the world with books in a suitcase is already worthy of all admiration. It is amazing. In the times of gadgets, digital information and fast scrolling of texts, it is very rare to meet a reverent attitude to a paper book. Tanner sensei gave me some books. One evening we spent reading, translating and reflecting on an interview with one of the Japanese kyudo sensei. Another day, Tanner sensei was teaching me how to make origami. Those were great moments! A kind of psychotherapy for me, who is always running and rushing somewhere.

Teaching and practicing naginata for Tanner sensei is the meaning and style of life. She plans all her vacations and off days so that she can participate in  naginata events or led an online naginata  courses. All the hardships of many hours of flights, getting used to an unusual time zones, acclimatization, long training and seminars – all it actually fall on to Tanner sensei´s shoulders. Students only have to come to the dojo and enjoy.

Before the official start of the seminar, we had an extra training planned on Friday evening in our small dojo, and all our naginataka came to it without exception! That was great! There has never been such a concentration of naginataka per square meter in the history of Estonia! I watched in awe as Tanner sensei heartily greeted everyone and thought over and over how great it is that we decided to hold this seminar.

While teaching us online for two years, Tanner sensei was, of course, very worried about whether she saw correctly how we work with naginata, because the screen distorts reality and the angle of view is also not the best. When directing training from a distance, it is difficult to control whether the kissaki is correctly placed on the center line, whether the height and angle of the hasuji is correct, whether the length of the zenpaku is sufficient, and much more. After this first training session together, Tanner sensei said with satisfaction that everything was pretty good overall. We rejoiced and already looked forward to the seminar with greater self-confidence.

Other students and I prepared thoroughly for the seminar itself, trying to make everything look professional. This time we even had national flags and a sponsor who provided sports drinks. The mood was downright festive, because the emotional side of the seminar, the joy of meeting with sensei was the main side of the event. Here, of course, we did not meet the requirements of budo and did not try to keep the impassiveness.

For the seminar, we rented a large hall, which, fortunately, is located next to our main dojo. This large hall belongs to a famous fencing club. This year, Estonian fencers won gold at the Olympics. It was especially pleasant for us to hold a seminar in the hall where champions train.

The plan of the seminar for two days was varied and included both cramming basic movements and learning some advanced techniques, as well as kyu shinsa and engi tournament. In our young federation there is no big difference between the levels and therefore at the seminar there was no need to divide the students into groups, everyone worked as one team. Tanner sensei’s instructions have always been clear and concise and very easy to follow. Tanner sensei was assisted by her daughter, Jamie, who despite her youth has a very high skill level and is a true companion for her mother. By completing tasks and changing partners, everyone of us had the opportunity to train together with both of them many times and it was very cool and I am glad that our guys were already at such a level that they could enjoy training together with highly technical mentors. Remembering my first participation in naginata seminars, I know that even my efforts to understand  everything, a lot of the valuable information like seeped through fingers like water, because there was not yet a strong base that could be supplemented and improved.

Now we can already adequately assess what a high level of an instructor is, be grateful consumers, so to speak. But we ourselves, are still learning to give back correctly: to open targets correctly, to guarantee stable accuracy of cuts and blocks, to control maai and synchronize in work in pairs. This is something that we, of course, will pay close attention to during our next independent training. My special attention also will take a sune cut, because quite often we do it too high, rather on the knee level, not on the shin.

On the first day, apart from the seminar  also some funny and memorable events took place. Someone was accidentally locked in a changing room during lunch. Tanner sensei prepared a list of participating pairs for engi using the Amidakuji (阿弥陀籤) – fun lottery method. A group of students got a little lost in the rain while looking for an restaurant  where we gathered to celebrate Tanner sensei´s visit in Tallinn. She shared some amazing and full of adventures stories from her life. I think she should write a book about her life and it will be such a bestseller! 

I would like to say a few words about the results of the Amidakuji  lottery. How it all works everyone can read for example on Wikipedia. The lottery distributed all the participants in pairs rather unexpectedly and evenly. That is, all pairs consisted of one beginner and one, let’s say, seasoned. That is, it was already a very interesting intrigue. How shikake-oji pairs will work together and what results they will achieve?

So, the whole first day of the seminar we gave all the best physically, polished our base and at the same time suffered from the heat. On the second day, the weather took pity on us, fortunately for us, it rained and the air became fresher. The second day required maximum intellectual effort. We all had to take exams, rehearse the rules of conduct during the competition and, of course, compete.

We passed the written part of the exam on the first day and Tanner sensei and her daughter double-checked our written work and gave their comments. Oh, it looked very strict indeed!

We conducted kyu exam with three examiners. Tanner sensei and Jamie were directly present and Mark Alexander Berghaan sensei, connected remotely via online. As a reminder, Berghaan sensei held a seminar in Tallinn in December, 2021. It was great to see the moment when Berghaan sensei greeted us online this time, because it was a greeting from a teacher and a friend. I saw that our naginataka were happy to see him, regarding him as “our sensei” too.

The kyu shinsa was done on the one breath. I can say, we held the breath  before the exam and and breathed out only after exam. 

 Kyu shinsa was a landmark event, a major test of our knowledge. In addition, for those who passed yonkyu, it means a new challenge ahead, a new stage of training.  Because for the sankyu  they have to do bogu techniques at the exam.  Maybe someone will smile, but here in Tallnn, we feel a small fear of bogu. Or even not so small?  So that is why the next exam, sankyu, for some of our students will be a really way out of the comfort zone…

After kyu shinsa, Tanner sensei and her daughter did a Tendo ryu presentation for us and everyone loved it.

And then engi tournament began. Every pair decided that oji should be a more experienced player. Of course, all the newcomers were worried and I even heard apologies in advance, like: I’m sorry if I will let you down. I just remarked to students, that of course, someone will lose, but the main thing is to compete to the end and lose with dignity, if it happens. I think my words were received with understanding and enthusiasm. Everyone was ready to compete. We didn’t have people who refused to compete. For our team, even exams are still a rather new and unusual part of naginata education, and we had never-ever held competitions before. A completely new and absolutely great experience!

Engi is universal competition. This is adrenaline, the opportunity to win. And in the same time it is focus not on the opponent, but on interaction with a partner, techniques and synchronization.

We are very grateful to Tanner sensei for her offer to hold this type of competition at the seminar. The competition also brought unexpected results, because one of the medal winners was a student who had been studying naginata for a little over three months. Engi brings out the best in naginataka. Engi teach us to treat every training companion as possible partner in competitions and to be able  to care about not only own successes.

During second day we even had 2 spectators, who watched us.  And after they said that it was very interesting.

The last part of the seminar was  both happy and sad. Happy, because we did all what was planned. We got the opportunity to see and train with Tanner sensei in person. Students passed the exams, winners got a medals, everyone got a cool experience. Who wanted ask a questions  – got an answers.  And sad, because time was running to the end, two days of the seminar were over. After the seminar,  when students said goodbye to Tanner sensei and Jamie Tanner, it was not something like a farewell at all. As if we were supposed to meet again tomorrow. I think, nobody wanted to go home.

Of course we will continue train with Tanner sensei online, like it was before this seminar. Now we have more constructive plans  what we should fix and polish to make our naginata skills perfect and it will be done more easily after seminar.

We are already looking forward to our next seminar with Takami Matsumoto Tanner sensei!

Sorry, too much thought and words!

I just wanted to bring you a story of our small event, because there is something instructive and adventurous about it. And we are really proud of that!  (smiling emoji) And I wanted to tell how important every moment is and that human time is measured in such details and emotions and moments  which will be remain forever.