Firstly, a disclaimer. I am not very good at taking photographs. I am hopeless at evoking a mood or capturing a feeling with a camera – (unlike my Australian compadre, Joe Coleman - Joe is having his work exhibited in Barcelona soon, at the Casa Battló no less: good luck Joe!). So yeah, I am not very good but due to popular demand (2 people) I will be trying to include more of my shoddy photography in coming posts.
On Saturday, I attended the regional Kumdo tournament for the Gyeonggi area. This is a very large area indeed in terms of population, as it includes the capital of the country, Seoul; so there were 680 contestants in all, in various categories and age groups. I woke up at 6.30 am, had some breakfast (cornflakes + banana) and Mr Kim picked me up in his school bus at 7am with his son, “Blare”, who is also my pupil.
As you might have guessed, “Blare” is not Blare’s real name. I am not sure of his real, Korean name – this is the case with all the children that I teach. To make it easier for us poor Western teachers all the Korean children that we teach have a Western name. This is often quite comic in different ways: names such as “Janice” and “Brian” are incongruously applied to people that have never even heard of Coronation Street (THEIR LOSS). In a more obviously humourous way, there are names like “Jam” and “Mint” and “Lion” (who was previously known as “SuperLion” until “SuperTiger” left). I also teach someone called “Spongebob” who is an absolute clown.
So that’s why Blare is called “Blare”. Blare is about 16 years old, is slightly shorter than I am, is quite a slim handsome young fellow and is a cocky little…charmer. It’s quite difficult to teach him, as he and his sidekick Spongebob aren’t really at the age where they’re interested in gerunds and the subjunctive. But he’s nice enough and although it’s difficult to force the delights of the English language into his brain, the lesson is always fun. Blare practises Kumdo too, but I don’t practise with him, as he is more advanced than I am.
So we made our way to the dojo to meet the Master (5 mins drive from where I live). The Master was looking like a million dollars! He was wearing a slick business suit and a bold red tie and generally looked like he was on the verge of a major deal. A couple of young Kendoists piled in the back of Mr Kim’s people carrier with me and we set off again. All in all, 6 of the Master’s disciples were to compete that day. I was merely spectating, as was Mr Kim.
We arrived at the tournament centre (to the south-west of Seoul) at around 8.40am. We were pretty much the first ones on the scene and got the opportunity to have a look around. It wasn’t anything particularly interesting per se to be honest: just a big sports hall with a massive Korean flag and a stage at the end.
Other rival dojos began to walk in at that point and scenes of The Karate Kid began to make their way into my daydreams. I really hoped that Blare would win: he had only fought in one tournament before and had lost straight away. Mr Kim said that Blare was very angry after losing. I could believe it, from what I knew about Blare.
At this point the Master re-appeared! It transpired that he was a judge for the day, and all the other judges were dressed in the same swanky attire. The whole thing was beginning to take shape: a guide to the day’s events was handed out and we could see that Blare would have to wait a long time before it was his turn to fight: about 3 hours (1230pm approximately).
This gave me and Blare the chance to sit down and shoot the breeze about Kumdo. Watching the various contests (there were 4 going on at any one time) I had the chance to learn how the competitive side of Kumdo works. It’s essentially a best of three: you get a point for hitting someone on the head, the chest and possibly the wrists (not sure about that one). After you get a point, you restart by taking up the classic duelling position (facing each other 10 paces apart). Once you get two points: you win. You have to strike the said areas crisply, you have to shout at the same time (this is called ki in Korean, chi in Chinese and kiai in Japanese and is the proper channelling of one’s ‘energy’) and finally you must also stamp the ground with your right foot in time and in momentum with the rest of your overall energy and thrust. If you do not do these three things simultaneously the judges will not award you a point.
So the air was filled with the sound of small children shouting, bamboo swords upon bamboo swords and helmets and thuds of feet hitting the ground. As a Kendoist myself (I think I can say that now?), it was really great to have the chance to see different styles in action. Meanwhile, the tension was rising in poor old Blare as the time drew closer for him to don his armour and get out there. After pacing around for a little while he gravely put on his armour, did a few stretches and went off to the corner of the room where he was scheduled to fight, along with Mr Kim, who presumably was offering support and an opportunity for Blare to relax a little.
Unfortunately, I was unable to get any shots of Blare in action, but I will quickly summarise the duel: the other guy was a little shorter than Blare and looked more relaxed. When the fight started, it was apparent that Blare was looking for the perfect strike. He was pacing around and eyeing his opponent. Blare went to strike, a MORI! (a strike to the head). He missed. Not only did he miss, he overextended himself. The opponent saw the attack coming, stepped back, and smartly cracked Blare over the head, MORI!, as Blare was unable to retract himself from his attack with enough speed. The next point went almost exactly the same way and I knew it was coming: the sense of psychological pressure was palpable. It takes some guts and tenacity to pull it together in a situation like that and Blare’s lack of experience was no help at all in this respect. Blare’s tournament was over. We had spent approximately 6 hours waiting for this moment and it was all over in around 30 seconds flat: something which I am sure was not lost on Blare.
I saw Blare afterwards to try and offer some words of consolation. Blare looked up at me as he was furiously removing his gloves and simply said, in perfect English: “SHIT”. Mr Kim and I had a good chuckle at that while Blare continued to remove his apparatus with considerable rage.
Shortly after this, we left and went to a nearby restaurant for some beef broth with kimchi. As usual: very delicious food. We then drove home, Blare moodily staring straight ahead while Mr Kim and I exchanged some words of wisdom/consolation in Blare’s general direction. I’m teaching Blare tonight, so I’ll hopefully find out to what extent the concept of ribbing, or banter exists in Korean culture(!).
There is a delightful epilogue to this tale of woe: a few days after the tournament, the Master presented me with a gift: an official mug from the Kendo tournament. I couldn’t contain my delight at such a gift. The ancient and noble tradition of Kendo has lasted for centuries and endured across wars, continents, natural disasters and the impacts of a rapidly changing, modernising world. But if there is anything truly immutable, truly eternal and everlasting, it is surely the beautiful tradition of depicting any aspect of human existence on the side of a mug. Ancient martial arts can come and go; civilisations can be annihilated over night; and eventually, one day, the entire world will be wiped out, by a meteorite or perhaps a nuclear holocaust. But whatever happens, whatever befalls our world, at any point, you can be guaranteed that someone, somewhere is commemorating the occasion in the only way that makes sense: with a mug.
Finally, by popular demand (1 person), here is a song that has words. I came across this song from the excellent DJ History website: it features on a mix there by the French producer Joakim, whose albums seem to get worse as time goes on, but whose mixes seem to get better. The track is called “Gentle Persuasion” and is by the slightly obscure American Doug Hream Blunt, from the album also called “Gentle Persuasion”.