A taste of Japan in Canada with iaido

Photo by Richard Reader.

When it comes to Japanese martial arts, most people have heard of kendo or aikido. Less known, iaido is nevertheless interesting and beautiful to its practitioners. The Source met two iaido experts who also happen to be husband and wife: Martin and Judith Farncombe, respectively 4th dan and 5th dan in iaido, as well as one of their students.

When asked who introduced iaido to the other one, they laughed. They had actually both been practicing iaido before knowing each other and they met at their regular dojo back in London.

“I was looking for the men’s changing room but I took a wrong turn and saw Judith, which ended up being a very good turn,” Martin says, laughing.

After running their own iaido club for 12 years in London, England, the Farncombes moved to British Columbia 18 months ago and currently teach iaido at the Nikkei Japanese Cultural Centre at SFU in Burnaby. Judith, who has been practicing iaido for more than 30 years, took it up when she was living in England.

“I mainly started martial arts because I wanted to feel safe and when I discovered iaido, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” says Judith.

Although not a practical form of self-defence, Iaido does teach mental habits that can avert an attack as well as enable better coping mechanisms, says Martin.

Iaido vs. kendo

Iaido consists of a series of solo forms practiced using a katana – a Japanese sword used by Samurai. It is said to build character through physical and mental self-discipline. It differs from kendo, which is practiced against real opponents and uses bamboo sticks rather than swords.

“Canada has a longer tradition in kendo and it is more popular, but kendo does not teach you to handle a real sword or the spiritual side of handling a sword,” explains Martin.

Iaido, he says, is an individual practice similar to shadowboxing.

“Otherwise, you would kill each other,” adds Judith.

Good iaido looks easy, but it is not.

“There are about 60 forms in our repertoire that you can learn in less than six months, but you could spend a lifetime studying just one of them,” says Martin.

Iaido embodies minimalism in the Japanese style. To Judith, that’s the beauty of it.

“[It is like doing] zen meditation while moving,” she says.

A martial art open to all

Judith Farncombe, 5th dan, iaido instructor.| Photo by Richard Reader.

Sanjay Sharma, one of the Farncombe’s first students in Canada, turned to iaido for its spiritual side rather than the physical.

“Iaido is very much linked to the Japanese concept of bushido [samurai way of life], which develops your moral character,” he explains.

Sharma, who is a software engineer finds that iaido has a positive impact on all the aspects of his life.

“Especially stress control,” he says.

Although there are no rules stating that iaido is more for men, you generally see few women practicing it.

“It is only in the last 150 years that women have started taking up iaido. Iaido requires great elegance and control and women are generally better at this than men,” says Martin.

As for their students, the Farncombes were surprised to see that Japanese people were not very interested in learning this particular Japanese martial art. Most of their students are immigrants but not from Japan.

“We only had a Japanese student once,” says Judith.

Students can borrow a bokken [wooden sword] at the beginning but in time it is better that they get their own sword.

“[It] is surprisingly easy to find around here,” says Sharma.

Despite being a bit of a niche, iaido is becoming increasingly popular. Last summer Judith was involved in the first iaido seminar in British Columbia.

“Hopefully, it will soon be a biannual event,” she says.


For more information, please visit www.centre.nikkeiplace.org.