In the “before times” some readers will remember that I ran a lightsaber combat club in Ithaca. To say that it was a lot of fun would be an understatement. Lightsabers are highly motivational. If you simply invite your friends (even your martial arts friends) to join you in the park for some sword work, no one shows. Except possibly the police. But if you hand them a lightsaber they will literally line up to work on Wudang jian. Such is the nature of life. We are all slaves to the power of myth.
Still, motivation can be an issue, even when wielding a weapon as iconic as the lightsaber. Because most people do not have large dedicated studios in their homes, lots of weapons work must happen outside. In the winter that means fun the snow, at least if you live in Ithaca.
For those who practice the traditional Chinese martial arts this is not a huge deal. Many groups meet outside all year long. Obviously there are some days when it is just too dangerous to practice outdoors, but I have done my fair share of taolu in the snow. It is a rite of passage.
This line of thinking was a hard sell for my lightsaber students. When was the last time you saw Yoda training in the snow? The Jedi, it seems, prefer the warm breeze of tropical, or at least temperate, environments. That is probably why the Sith were able to take them out so easily.
In an attempt to normalize the idea of year round daily practice for my students I turned to the idea of kangeiko. It is very common for Japanese martial arts schools (particularly Kendo, Aikido, Judo and Karate groups), to get together for a special session of “midwinter training” very early in the morning which goes for hours in literally freezing conditions. This sort of group suffering builds all sorts of admirable qualities that no aspiring Jedi should miss out on. And so the “Hoth Challenge” was born.
I would select the snowiest and coldest day in February and we would explore just what what you could do in the snow. It warmed my heart to see that the latest incarnation of Ithaca Sabers has decided to carry on the tradition in my absence. This weekend they are holding their own version of a kangeiko.
All of which brings me to the topic of today’s post. I recently ran across a pair of postcards in an online auction showing a high school martial arts club in the prewar period. There were two images in the set. In one we see a large group portrait with students outfitted both for Kendo and Judo. A number of coaches, teachers, local dignitaries and children in warm winter clothing cluster around them.
This was accompanied by an “action shot” in which Kendo matches are happening in the foreground while judo is being performed in the back of the hall on tatami mats. I say performed quite intentionally as the photo is staged so that everyone is in frame and no one is disrupting the shot, as would immediately happen in a real kendo match. A table holding what appears to be a stack of towels, and likely other less visible things, sits in the middle of the room bisecting the two performance spaces. This is exactly the sort of gathering where people might receive rank and certificates would be distributed.
Upon receiving these postcards I sent scans to my friend and fellow martial arts studies enthusiast Jared Miracle. He shares my interest in martial arts ephemera but has vastly more experience with the Japanese systems than I do. He quickly noted that this set of postcard showed the Yonezawa Industrial School’s (米澤南業学) mid-winter training (kangeiko) “general meeting,” and that they were labeled “Group 1” and “Group 2.”
It is always great to find a set of related images. What is even more interesting is that the Yonezawa Industrial School appears to still be with us today, marking a point of continuity. I also have to note that I just love the architecture of the school dojo. With that much open floor space and high ceilings, winter training would not involve nearly as much snow. Still, the Hoth Challenges has its own rewards.
If you are wondering what you should do on a snowy and cold February day, I would suggest grabbing your shinai, jian, or lightsaber, heading out to discover just how good your footwork is on live terrain. If you bring a group of students or friends, you might even find something more as well.
Ithaca Saber at the conclusion of its annual “Hoth Challenge.”
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.