The beginning of Atarashii Naginata in Estonia can be considered as the year 2017, when the teaching of this beautiful martial art began. There was a dream to start teaching Atarashii Naginata and create a naginata team in Estonia. But we had to start from scratch, because there was and still is no naginata sensei in Estonia.
Finland is the closest country for Estonia where Atarashii Naginata can be studied. Each winter, in the Ki-Ken-Tai-Ichi ryu dojo the competitions named Iwatomo Cup takes place in Helsinki. These are unique competitions because each team must consist of contestants representing 4 Japanese budo areas: kendo, iaido, naginata and jodo! These are very exciting competitions. At the Iwatomo Cup in February 2017, we met the honored Mari Paasonen (JAP / FIN), Atarashii Naginata yondan. Mari Sensei was a naginata judge in this competition and thanks to the help of Darja Litunenko (RUS) we got acquainted with Mari Sensei. It was such an important moment in the opening story of Estonia’s naginata. Mari sensei was surprised when we asked for her approval to start teaching Estonian students, but she didn’t hesitate for a second and agreed.
Since we started from scratch, we had agreed to organize several seminars for beginners in Helsinki and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and introduce Atarashii Naginata to the widest possible audience. This is what we did, however the first-year results in Tallinn were very modest. Ordinary people in Estonia know little about Japanese culture – very few if anybody have either heard about Naginata or Naginata is too exotic and strange to them. There were quite a few enthusiasts, and as Atarashii Naginata requires training partners, their absence was a major problem. During the first year, Naginata training sessions in Tallinn were very rare. Effective moral support was that we knew that we were always welcome at the Helsinki dojo. We knew there was a teacher and friends!
In two years, a peculiar tradition emerged when Estonian naginata enthusiasts go to Finland, Helsinki for training. We try to attend Mari Sensei trainings at least once every 2 months. This is extremely important as it provides knowledge, skills and understanding of both the purpose and context of the exercise and provides the brain power to continue training in Tallinn on your own. Without hesitation we could not get anywhere without Mari sensei in Helsinki.
Helsinki can be reached by boat from Tallinn. The 80 km sea route between Helsinki and Tallinn has never been an obstacle in history, when Estonians and Finns want to trade, learn from each other, compete or visit friends and relatives. The ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki takes 2-2.5 hours and the return ticket costs 20-30 euros. However, whether it is 2 or 6 hours of training, it takes a whole day – the ferry to Helsinki usually departs at 10 in the morning and returns home around midnight. Apparently this training day has become a kind of Zen experience because we enjoy every moment of it and we always look forward to it.
Trainings in Helsinki take place on Sundays. The usual naginata training lasts 2 hours. Before we go, we ask Mari sensei what kind of workout she plans to do and if it’s needed to bring a bogu. Fortunately, our Finnish naginata friends allow us to kindly use their naginatas and we do not have to bring our naginatas, which will make our trip to Helsinki much more comfortable.
Just prior the naginata training session, there is a kendo training session in the dojo and when it finishes, kendo enthusiasts always wish us to have a successful training session, which also creates a good feeling for us. Many people in this dojo know that Estonians specifically come from Tallinn to train naginata in Helsinki. Many of them remember how it all started, as some Estonian naginata enthusiasts came to Japanese martial arts through kendo. We are treated like ours and we feel at home. As the Finnish naginata students enter the dojo, we warmly welcome each other to see what’s new, what progress has been made and what the plans are. Training begins with warm-up exercises followed by a traditional line-up and welcoming ritual. Training topics are always different and depend on what sensei deems necessary. When we were completely beginners, the tasks were also for beginners. From basic techniques to more advanced exercises, we always start by repeating basic knowledge. At the last joint training session on March 8th, one of Mari Sensei’s best students, Teemu (Ikkyu), gave a short presentation on zanshin, kamae and uchikaeshi. After that we could ask our questions, which we tried to answer together and if we got in trouble then sensei helped. We always have a list of questions that come up during training. In Tallinn we train independently and it is very common that we are not sure or do not know how and why some exercise is done or we forget some concepts or some ritual seems incomprehensible.
During the first hour, we polish our foot work, make happoburi – slow and fast. Particular attention is paid to correct mochikae. Mochikae – plays a key role in both katas, uchikaesh practice and sparring. Mari sensei always mentions that a mochikae should be done at least 100 times in each workout. There is a mirror in dojo and Mari sensei always sends us to do some exercises in front of the mirror. It may also happen that the initial training plan changes as needed. If sensei sees that some of our gestures don’t fit anywhere, we’ll be dealing with the problematic gesture more time.
For the beginners, it is customary to overestimate their skills, which can seriously hamper their development. Fortunately, we also see for ourselves that it is common for Europeans want to succeed in the shortest time and effort. What we really like is that our sensei is a true Japanese who, with patience and without haste, teaches us to delve into the details and commit to the learning process to understand the infinity of the process. Both the Estonian and Finnish culture in the Helsinki Dojo are in close contact with the Japanese culture, which creates a special and unique atmosphere in such international trainings.
In the second part of training session, we put on a bogu and train in pairs to put our skills into practice. It’s always a very exciting and dynamic part of your workout. And of course, hard too! Our dojo in Tallinn is 3 times smaller and in Helsinki dojo we need to use all our strength to train well and to cover long distances back and forth several times. And those techniques, which seemed easy in the home dojo, immediately become difficult under the critical eye of sensei. Mari sensei always looks closely at how we accomplish our tasks, notices mistakes, and then deals with each one individually.
Finns are very good companions for training. They are very constructive and also fun. Someone might think that Finns are relatively phlegmatic, but that is a complete myth. We also like that our Finnish friends are very reasonable and positive, they don’t show off and treat us as newbies. It helps a lot to focus on the learning process and stay in a good mood all the time.
At the end of the workout, we take a group photo and socialize. It seems to us that our visit is as important to the Finns as it is to us. We are all bound by a love for Japanese culture and martial arts. After training, we go out to eat and socialize. On the way back to Tallinn we are tired, but also happy and maybe a little sad that the day passed so quickly.
The last joint training on March 8th was special as we were preparing to participate in annual festival of Japan culture J-Zone in Tallinn, where we were supposed to give a presentation of Atarashii Naginata together with finnish friends and Mari sensei. Due to the virus outbreak the event was postponed, which is sad but good thing is that next time we are even better prepared for the event to attract more people to start practising naginata.
That’s how our Atarashii Naginata training takes place. We train in Tallinn as well as in Helsinki, meet new people and meet old friends. We are happy and grateful to Mari Sensei who, step by step, teaches us beautiful martial art. Undoubtedly, the journey we take by sea from Tallinn to Helsinki and back can be called an integral part of our way of budo.
By Aleksandra Kivisalu