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Today I will discuss about the art of shaving.I am not joking about the art part of this activity most men need to engage in it daily. Yes, I am very serious that there is an art to the handling of a razor.If you happen to use an electric razor then this may not apply as well as a regular blade razor. One high ranking western sensei commented after he heard about my idea, said that “Shaving is only shaving and there is no art in it”. I am afraid he does not understand the depth of the art that could extend to small actions such as shaving. Here is a photo of my razor (left).It is a popular brand and an inexpensive two blade razor. I do not know how long you can keep using the same razor but a friend of mine told me his razor lasts barely one month before he tosses it. Believe it or not, mine lasts for more than two years (yes “years”) and I suspect that is probably longer than the time of most if not all of the readers. The razor I am showing here on the left is more than a year old now and is a little dirty but it will continue to give me a nice shave at least one more year. My beard is stiff and coarse so my razor gets normal use. I use the same razor for a long time, certainly not because I am stingy. I do throw one away, but only when it stops giving me a good shave. Any razor can last that long if you use it correctly. Needless to say that I am not sharing the art of perfect shaving so that you can save money. I am sure that may not motivate you enough to read this article. Then, why am I doing this? Let me tell you that the techniques that are used in a perfect shaving are connected to the core concept and the techniques of martial arts, certainly including karate. Now I hope this statement will capture your attention. My claim may be difficult for some of you to believe right now so I ask that you continue to read till the end of this article. At the end you can decide if what I am telling you makes sense or if it is a bunch of BS.
Obviously the razor I have is something I bought in a common drug store and it must be very similar to the ones you use. So the difference is not the tool itself, but it is the method or the technique that is different. The first secret of perfect shaving rests in how you hold a razor. Pic 1 (left) shows a standard holding method which I suspect similar to how you hold yours.The way I hold my razor is shown in Pic 2 (two finger method, below right). I hold the end of the handle only with my thumb and the index finger.This is an expert holding method and I know it will be very difficult for you to get any shaving done with this method. To start the perfect shaving lesson I recommend that you hold the razor as depicted in Pic. 3 (three finger method, below left) where you will hold the end of the handle with your thumb and the middle finger and put a small pressure on the back of the handle with the index finger. Once you get used to this method of holding the razor, believe it or not, you will have a better control of the razor with this method. Just try it!
Before we go into the actual technique of shaving, let us look at other arts and physical activities that are both Japanese and non-Japanese. Here I wish to elaborate the correlation of the holding techniques between the razor and other tools.
The first one is the Japanese writing brush.After looking at some of the artistic Chinese writing I am sure you agree that you will see an art when you look at the brush writing with beautiful strokes (an example on the right).
So, how do you hold a brush? Onestandard holding method is shown with Pic A. You keep the brush vertically and write the letters. The holding method here is similar to how you hold a pen or a pencil so you are not surprised with this. However, when you go into more artistic or sophisticated writing an artist may hold a brush in the way shown with Pic B. Isn’t this similar to the holding method of a razor I suggested earlier? Interesting, isn’t it? （Pic A left, Pic B right)
Many of the readers probably like Japanese food such as sushi and tempura, and you may frequent Japanese restaurants. There you have an option to eat with a knife and fork or a pair of chop sticks, hashi or ohashi.
Pic C Pic D Pic E
The degree of skillfulness with chopsticks seems to indicate how much a person likes the Japanese food. If you are a first time visitor you may have to resort to a crude method (Pic C) so you can eat (survival mode, I guess). Eventually you will develop the skill of holding a pair of ohashi in an acceptable manner (Pic D). Take a look at another photo (Pic E); this is a photo of a Japanese tempura chef, a professional in the art of Japanese food. Notice that he holds the very top part of the chop sticks. We just saw the way to hold a brush pen and here is a way with a pair of chop sticks. Wouldn’t you agree that to do a fine job with a small tool it is better to hold it at the end and work it from the end? I hope so but it is ok if you are still not fully convinced. You can experiment with a pair of chop sticks, a brush pen or a razor. They are all cheap and very common so the experiments are easy to do.
While you are experimenting with these small tools I want to move on to other tools that are somewhat larger and heavier. As I am trying to tie this subject to the martial arts let’s look at a Japanese sword, the katana.
Now I confess that I have never learned Iaido or Kenjutsu. Thus, I am not an expert in this matter. However, I have trained with Kobudo weapons such as Sai, Nunchaku, Tonfa, etc. thus I know that the fundamental method of holding a weapon is similar. Here is a photo showing how to hold a sword. Notice the front hand (photo right). Pay very close attention to the thumb and the index finger. As you can see they are not holding tightly, a key point. By the way, do you remember when you first learned how to make a fist when you joined a karate club? If the instructor taught you correctly he must have told you to start bending the little finger first and tightly, then the ring finger then middle finger (see hand photo, left). After those three fingers are held tightly you will bend your index finger last then complete a fist by placing the thumb over the index finger lightly. I hope the instructor told you to squeeze the little finger and the ring finger tightly but not so tightly with the middle finger and even loser with the index finger and the thumb. Of course, this is a fist you make at kamae or yoi. When you punch an opponent or a makiwara you will tighten all the fingers but only at the impact time and the fist will be held loosely again after the impact. The concept here should be similar or the same when handling a sword. Hold a sword tightly with the little finger and the ring finger. The middle finger is here to give support. The index finger and the thumb are used for managing or handling the sword. If you are a kenjutsu or iaido expert and if my understanding of a sword holding is incorrect please let me know. However, I assume I am correct as that is the way in my kobudo training.
I want to bring in another interesting fact with a very popular sport called golf. The photo (right) shows how to hold a golf club. I am not an expert in this sport either. I suspect some of the readers may be very experienced in it and they can tell me if what I am saying here is correct or not.I understand that you are supposed to hold the club tightly with your left hand but not as tightly with the right one. As you can see in the photo, you are to hold the club ever so gently with your right hand. Take note that your thumb and the index finger are positioned very similarly to the right hand that holds a sword (photo shown earlier). Is this a coincidence? No, I don’t think so. Though the motion of the arms are quite different between those two arts (I am daring to call golf an art as it can be), the basic concept of holding the tools, a sword and a golf club is the same. This suggests an art of swinging a long object in a precise manner requires the same physical positioning and control.
I believe the basic concept of holding other long objects, such as cue stick (billiards), a violin and cello bow must be the same or similar as the mechanism of our body is the same no matter what activities we may do (see the photo left). Here the little finger is not used much to hold the bow as it is not heavy. I suspect it is used more for a balance and the control of the bow. If you are a violin or a cello player maybe you can send me your comments if my understanding is correct or incorrect.
As the golf swing is totally different from a sword handling let me bring out another art (?), Chopping wood or cutting. I believe this will be an excellent comparison as its mechanism quite resembles that of sword cutting. The wood cutting activity is not very popular in the warm regions of the US such as California but I understand that it is a very popular and important part of normal life activity in the cold countries such as Canada, Norway and Sweden. I love to hear feedback from those who chop wood regularly after reading my article.
So here is the tool, an ax (right). The weight distribution is different but its average weight is closer to a real sword than a bokken (wooden sword) or shinai (bamboo sword) used in kendo. A while ago I had thought this might be an interesting subject to investigate if there is any co-relationship of this activity to kenjutsu, the art of Japanese sword. So, here is what I found. The wood cutting I am discussing here is not used to cut down a tree but to chop a large wood piece into the smaller pieces for a wood burning purpose.After identifying the tool, we need to discuss how to hold the tool which is a part of the art and I have mentioned this before. It is important as it will help you get the best or, should I say, the most efficient cut by holding the tool correctly. What do I mean by “best” and “most efficient” cut? It means you hit the center of a wood piece every time and cut it in one strike. Of course, you will not miss any chop as it is a waste of your energy. “Best” also means that you will not get tired even if you continue to cut the wood all day long and moreover the efficient activity does not give you a sore back, shoulders, legs and arms. If you can do this then you can say that you raised this activity to an art level and it will no longer be a chore but something you will enjoy doing. OK so you understand the objective. Let’s go back to holding an ax. Some people hold it above a shoulder like the photo above. The stance shown in the photo right is called hasso no kamae, one of the main kamae in kenjutsu. So, you may want to believe that holding an ax in a similar way is the best. I am sorry but I do not believe that is the case for chopping wood.
It is very obvious when you think of how you will cut the opponent with a sword. The typical sword cutting line is diagonal. Why? Obviously it is better to cut one’s neck than hit him right on top of the head. So, in most tameshi giri (cutting demonstration) you see the bamboo stick or a bounded straw stick positioned in a vertical manner and the demonstrator cuts it diagonally (Photo left). But do they not have a tameshi giri with the sword cutting straight down? Yes, in fact at one of the shrines in Japan, Nakamura Jinja, a demonstrator cuts a cinder block (Photo below right).
OK if you cut it straight down how would you hold a sword? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you hold it straight up above your head. In one of the famous kenjutsu styles, Jigen ryu (popular in Kyushu), they practice the sword swing by striking a log like we punch a makiwara. The only difference is the log is held horizontally (Illustration left) while our makiwara is up vertically as you know.(Note: this kenjutsu training method is believed to be the origin of makiwara that was invented in Okinawa.) Now notice the position of the sword in the drawing (left) as it is important and I wish to go further on this particular subject. If the kamae of kenjutsu is in this manner, am I suggesting that we should hold an ax in the same way? Yes, that is exactly what I am proposing. I know it is a daring proposal as I am not a sword expert but also have never studied kenjutsu in my life before. In addition, my experience in cutting wood is very limited. Then, how can a person of an amateur background in these fields like myself propose something like this?
Am I just guessing or BSing? I certainly hope not. I am quite confident about this and I am explaining how it should be performed from the understanding of kinesiology as well as the budo requirement that demands the most effective body movements. What do I mean by the most effective body movements? It simply means a technique must not only be fast, powerful and accurate but also it must also be most energy efficient. In other words, swinging a sword only with a brutal force is not considered a budo approved movement. The beauty or the art part of kenjutsu comes from an efficient body movement that utilizes the minimum amount of muscle power leveraged by the help of gravity and balance/off balance mechanism. I have already written a separate article on balance/off balance mechanism under the title of Unstable Balance so I will not go into this area at this time.
Here let us look at some of the examples of the inefficient or poor wood cutting techniques. First, look at the photo on the right and compare to the illustration above; how a Jigen ryu sword practitioner would hold a sword. Very similar, isn’t it? Let’s examine this guy’s kamae on the right. The stance is good as the feet are placed about a kiba dachi distance. However, holding position of the ax is not the most desirable as it is not held straight up and the handle is leaning backward. Why is this bad? From this position he needs to lift the ax to the highest level before he can bring down the ax to the wood which is an unnecessary move. He needs to use the muscles of the shoulders, back, arms and all other related body parts. Therefore, he needs to hold the ax upright like a kenjutsu drawing (earlier illustration). This is a very accurate drawing as it shows the man holding his sword vertically. The sword itself is quite heavy despite it is not top heavy like an ax. Holding it vertically like this is most efficient.
If you look at the next photo, Pic F (a young guy on the left), you quickly realize why this kamae is not in accordance with budo method. You can easily guess that this person will run out of his energy after 30 minutes of wood chopping. In addition he will probably wake up next morning with soreness in his shoulders, arms and back. OK what is wrong with the guy in Pic G (below)? It is obvious as you can guess he will have a sore back. As he chopped he leaned his upper body forward. He was in fact too far away from the wood piece. He used lot of his arms, shoulders and back muscles to bring the ax down. After one hour of this exercise he will have a bad pain in his lower back and possibly in his right shoulder when he gets up the very next morning. Let’s look at Pic H (a lady with a hat). How is she doing? She is doing much better, isn’t she? I assume at her kamae she had the legs stretched and she brought the ax down using its weight and she went into a shiko dachi as the ax hit the wood piece. Comparingher to the man in Pic G her right arm is much closer to her body (good point #1) and her hands were closer to each other (good point #2). Of course, I do not know if she held the ax straight up at her kamae but her chopping action is much more effective and energy efficient. If she did not bend her back that much I would call her wood chopping art an expert level. If she continued chopping all day she will have the pain in the lower back the next day. In addition, her feet are pointing outward (shiko dachi) which means the falling energy would dissipate to the other direction instead of focused to the target, the wood piece. Apparently she is not a Shotokan practitioner so unfortunately she did not know the benefit of kiba dachi.
In the photo (Pic I on the left) you can see an excellent kamae with a naihanchi stance (a bit shorter than kiba dachi) with the knees slightly squeezed inward and the ax handle seems to be held up very vertically. The hands are held with some distance but I assume she will bring them closer as she drops the ax down. Yes, she will almost literally drop the ax as she will not use too much of her arms and shoulders muscles when she chops the wood piece. In other words, what she will do is to just let the ax fall towards the wood piece. During the process she will use her hands and arms only to guide the ax so that it will hit the wood piece accurately. The photo on the right (Pic J) shows exactly how you want to drive the ax through the wood by bending your knees deeply as you can see in this photo. You notice that the wood cutter’s stance looks like an excellent kiba dachi. You also notice that his back is not bent forward too much and that his hands are held closely together. I can assume he just did an expert level of wood cutting by leveraging the gravity of the ax. As a result he used a minimum amount of his strength or his energy. Using this method he can probably cut the wood pieces all day long without getting ever tired and he will not have any back or shoulder aches the next morning.
When you become a real expert you can get down to this depth shown in Pic K (on the left) and use the full gravity of the ax as well as the body weight. Look how straight his back is. He will not have any backache afterwards for sure. He can continue to chop all day long without getting tired. Of course you must have the strong legs to do the expert level of Pic K but most people can develop their technique to Pic I and J level.
What do you think of this method? If you regularly cut wood I would like you to try this and get back to me if this method made any difference in your activity.
The budo method of efficient moves can apply to almost all the bodily functions in our daily life. I suggest that you will re-evaluate how you walk, sit, drive (read my article of “Jidosha Dojo”), play golf, play any musical instrument, etc. and see if your moves are in accordance with the budo method. Wouldn’t you agree that most of the time we can tell if a driver is an experienced one or a student driver by looking at the way he sits and holds a steering wheel?
We have digressed a lot so let’s go back to the art of perfect shaving. You heard that the method of holding a tool is important. You saw the pictures of how a razor can or should be held but you would wonder if this is the end of the technique. No, I have not covered the actual technique of perfect shaving yet. Holding a razor correctly is only a start.
Finally, let me explain the shaving method. Not to disappoint you but it is quite simple. You remember that you need to hold your razor very lightly with two or three fingers. Now here is the secret. You will go over your face with it like you would pet your face with a feather. It almost sounds like a commercial. In fact, there is a company with that very name that produces razor blades for the older type razor (right). Using “Feather” for the company name, I suspect that the founder of that company must have known how to shave correctly. However, you may complain that you can’t shave your beard well if you do it as I explained. That is true but that is exactly what is expected. The idea here is not to chop the beard from the root with one stroke. You are expected to go over the face surface many times and to cut the beard little by little in a gradual manner. Why is this necessary?Both shaving methods; crude or artful will give you a shave but the artful method will not cut your face. After shaving have you ever had to put the pieces of tissue on your face to stop the bleeding? I suspect you have. Now is this a big deal? It should be if you claim yourself a martial artist. I do not know about you but I consider it as a part of self-defense. Maybe my definition of self-defense is much broader than yours but it includes preventing or avoiding all accidents from a simple shaving cut to a serious car accident. I also include avoiding sickness and illness as a part of my self-defense objectives. From this perspective, a perfect shaving will not draw blood and moreover it will not give you a skin irritation or a rash after shaving. If you shave close to your skin with much force the blade will shave not only your beard but also your skin. Even if you do not shave off your skin the root of your beard will be pulled with your shaving action and that causes an irritation as your face skin is very sensitive. You can check this by applying some after shave on your face. If it burns your face skin then you shaved too hard.
Even if you do not agree on the self-defense part, just think of a consequence of having the cuts and the rashes on your face daily. I certainly think that will age your face skin much faster. I guarantee that a perfect shaving will help you stay looking young and healthy. It is up to you to decide if this benefit is good enough to motivate you to learn the art of perfect shaving.
This is about a small mystery that some western instructors have wondered about in the past, so I want to share my thoughts on this unique point in Heian Shodan.
The question is the 4th movement, migi jodan tate mawashi kentsui uchi. No, I am not talking about its bunkai. The question is why we do not have this technique after the first gedan barai, the first movement. In other words, some of these western instructors thought an identical technique of jodan kentsui uchi was missing between move #1, left gedan barai and #2, right chudan oi zuki. By having this technique here Heian Shodan would become truly symmetrical and complete, wouldn’t it? So, was this technique forgotten or taken out by mistake? Let us check the old textbook, Funakoshi’s Karatedo Kyohan 空手道教範. I am sure you will find the same result; this “missing” technique is not there. Let us check Pinan Nidan (our Heian Shodan) in Shito-ryu and Shorin-ryu. I find that the questioned technique is not there either. We must conclude that this kata was created that way by Master Itosu 糸洲 (in the late 19th century). If this is the case, then there is a bigger puzzle. Why did he purposely skip or neglect a technique there and made this kata unbalanced? A hint is the key word of “symmetry”. This is a very western concept of beauty, correctness or completeness. On the other hand, in Japan, believe it or not, we consider it totally opposite.
The Japanese people do not consider symmetry and perfectly balanced geometry correct or beautiful. They even consider them wrong and ugly. I know most of the readers will have an issue with my statement and perhaps disagree with it.
Let me show you some examples.
Pic 1 Pic 2
One of the Japanese arts that has been exported to the world is Ikebana 生け花(the art of flower arrangement). Picture 1 is not a diagram of kata enbusen. Would you believe this is from a textbook of Ikebana? It is to show the basic structure of the flowers or how they should look when they are arranged. Pic 2 shows the actual flowers and the arrangement and you can see the arranger has used the off balanced and unsymmetrical format as instructed in a textbook. I do not know anything about Ikebana and I have never taken any lessons but I can explain to you why this must be this way as I know the mentality or the sense of beauty the Japanese perceive. We know that nothing in nature or anything natural in this world is symmetrical. In other words, anything that is symmetrical is artificial which the Japanese consider imperfect and not pretty. Ikebana, the flower arrangement is an artificial decoration using the thing of nature, the flowers. Of course, the flowers themselves are beautiful and the flower arrangement, the artificial deed, must not destroy or decrease the beauty. To keep the beauty of the flowers the Japanese choose to arrange them in an off balanced and unsymmetrical way. Does that make sense?
Here is another example. Take a look at the tea cups below. Another famous Japanese art is Sanoyu, the traditional tea ceremony.
Pic 3 is a tea cup used in Sado 茶道. See how the shape is purposely uneven and not round and far from symmetry? Even the design or coloring looks almost like it was done with some errors. I do not have the price list on this but I am sure it is as expensive if not more than a perfectly shaped Royal Worcester tea cup shown in Pic 4.
Pic 3 Pic 4
The concept of beauty is the same. We cherish what is natural and not artificial or perfect looking shape. I am not comparing the beauty here or who (Japanese or westerners) are right or better. I am simply showing you the different concept of the Japanese that is deeply embedded in their hearts and even in their life style.
Here are two photos of kimonos. One on the left has a general design of natural scene. The flowers on the left and right sleeves are designed differently. Look at the design of the photo on the right. The imbalance or difference between left and right is very significant. I believe this concept is quite different from that of the western world particularly that of the traditional concept.
Interestingly, the ukiyoe 浮世絵 (photo below) the artists of the Edo period (17th and 18th centuries Japan) such as Utamaro and Sharaku had much influence on the western artists who are classified as the impressionists of the 19th century.
Some of these famous painters include Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Pissaro, Gogh and many more. The academic painting method was to draw as accurately as it is perceived by a painter but the impressionists “violated” the rules as they put more emphasis on the feelings and the impressions they get from the real objects and scenes. I assume, these painters came to realize that it was impossible to copy the reality perfectly with their brushes. The Japanese artists knew this for many centuries and they perfected their impressionist painting style in the Edo period.
I can go on and show you many more examples from the Japanese culture but let me share with you only a few more examples that are much bigger than a flower arrangement or a tea cup. When you visit Japan many of you wish to visit some exotic Shinto shrines as they look very Japanese and the pictures of yourself ina gi in front of a shrine looks great (though the Japanese visitors may not appreciate it). Almost all of you are not visiting there to pray but just to marvel at the beauty of the structure and maybe the famous statues of A-un 阿吽. I would say this is a perfect example of showing the concept of ying and yang. A-un literally means an inhalation (阿) and exhalation (吽) of breathing. The term is also used in Shinto and Buddhist architecture to describe the paired statues common in Japanese religious settings, the Nio 仁王 (photo right) and the komainu 狛犬 (guardian lions, left).
The concept of A-un is very interesting and deep. If you wish to learn more, read on this subject in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-un
The concept of imbalance or unsymmetrical extends to the concept of building a large structure such as a shrine. Here is a blue print of a shrine that was built more than half a century ago (Pic 5). The main part of the building is symmetrical but you can tell the whole building is not as you take a look at the structures that extend to both sides of the main building. The right structure is completely different from that of the left. Let’s take a look at a blue print of a church (Pic 6) and see how it is planned to be built. Here is one from Saint Thomas More Church in Darien, Connecticut. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that the Japanese shrine’s name is Dairen and the location of the Church is in the town of Darien Connecticut. The similarity certainly stops there. If you can find the original photo on the web, you can expand the blue print of the church. Even from the photo below you can see that it is beautifully symmetrical. The right side structure is almost a perfect copy of the left or vice versa. The only difference is probably the restrooms (one on the left is the Men’s and the one on the right is the Women’s).
Pic 5 Pic 6
Now, do you agree with my conclusion for the imperfection of Heian kata that it was placed on purpose?
I can almost feel how Itosu felt when he created Heian Shodan more than 100 years ago. It would had been a very boring kata if it did not have that one particular technique, jodan kentsui uchi. In other words, that move was a little spice to this kata. In fact, you will find, if you examine Heian closely, that some of the key techniques are being practiced only on one side (for instance, chudan nukite in Nidan and Sandan). You will find this not only in Heian but in all kata. You may want to review all the kata you know from this perspective and you will discover that none of them are perfectly symmetrical. You would probably think, “OK I understand the concept of the beauty by the Japanese people, but this is karate kata. Shouldn’t the kata being designed so that we can practice these techniques on both sides?” This is true, isn’t it? Your puzzled thought is understandable but the Okinawan masters had the answer. Master Itosu and other masters created kata purposely unsymmetrical to remind us that the students must practice gyaku kata (mirror image). Unfortunately, the practicing gyaku kata has not been exercised by all Shotokan dojos. In my dojo all brown belts are required to practice gyaku Heian kata and one of those kata will be required at their kyu exam. I also ask the black belts in my dojo to practice gyaku kata of all 16 Shotokan kata. Tekki may not be too challenging but try Bassai dai and Kanku dai in a mirror image. If practicing gyaku kata is not a part of your training syllabus, wouldn’t you want to include at least gyaku Heian kata and get the most out of these kata?