Ever fantasized about picking up, packing up and heading to the birthplace of your martial art? Me, too! I haven’t done it (yet), but I recently crossed paths with someone whose deep dive into everything budo is, well, a most extraordinary one. Allow me to introduce Jessica Gerrity, a 42-year-old New Zealander and mother of three who resides in Japan and is living a grand martial arts adventure.
The first question is, What on earth are you doing in Japan?
Jessica Gerrity: If you mean what am I doing for a living, let me go down the list. I’m a tourism and PR ambassador for Saitama, the prefecture I live in. My job is to find interesting local places, traditions and craftspeople. I then conduct interviews and help promote the people on social media in order to raise awareness and interest.
For example, I recently had the pleasure of visiting a master of traditional sword making, Kawasaki Akihira. I spent a day interviewing him and filming his process of forging swords in the traditional manner. It was fascinating to watch — like time travel to a period when this craft flourished out of necessity.
At BudoJapan.com, I work as a budo ambassador. This means I get to visit different dojo and find noteworthy martial artists and budo-related activities and write about them in English. Then I write in Japanese for a quarterly magazine called Kyudo Nippon.
By the way, for readers unfamiliar with kyudo, it is the Japanese martial art of archery. Kyudo came from kyujutsu, which originated with the samurai class of feudal Japan.
Then I work on Japanese television and in other media outlets. I do narration and podcast appearances, produce content for radio, and make or help translate videos on YouTube, etc. I often talk about New Zealand but also cover kyudo and sports yabusame, an art which combines traditional Japanese horse-riding techniques, traditional dress and equipment with competitive horseback archery using the Japanese bow. I’ve become very passionate about Japanese traditional archery, and as a result, I help run a weekly dojo session.
When I’m not doing all of the above, I’m raising my three children, ages 13, 11 and 7.
How did you come to leave New Zealand for Japan — and how did you learn to speak Japanese?
Gerrity: I befriended a half-Japanese New Zealander on my first day attending classes at the University of Auckland. We became good friends, which led me to meeting her parents. My friend’s father is shihan Nobuo Takase, seventh dan in Aikikai, a technical director of aikido in New Zealand and head instructor in Aikido Shinryukan. My friend’s mother was, like me, a native New Zealander, fluent in both English and Japanese. About the end of our first year of college, I was invited to visit their family home in Himeji in Hyogo prefecture.
For me, visiting Japan was like traveling to another planet. It was an exciting juxtaposition of the old and the new. There were ancient castles next to skyscrapers, people dressed in kimonos standing next to business people in three-piece suits, and bullet trains zipping by people on bicycles. It took me just that one visit to become enthralled with Japanese culture. I returned to Japan every year for the next five years. When I completed my master’s degree, I decided I was going to find a way to live and work in Japan.
I interviewed in Auck land for a large Tokyo-based English-language school. They offered me an instructor position in central Tokyo, and I took it. With my visa and housing already organized for me, I set off. At the time, I had no Japanese language ability other than ohayo (good morning) and konnichiwa (good afternoon).
How did you become interested in the martial arts?
Gerrity: The first time I saw a martial art and felt the pull to participate happened a little over a decade ago. There is a big park in Saitama called Omiya Park. It is about 165 acres and famous for its Japanese red pines, apricot and cherry trees, a zoo, a museum of history and folklore, the 2,400-year-old Hikawa Shrine and several sporting facilities. There is also a kyudo dojo there. On the day I visited, I saw kyudo for the first time. It was love at first sight.
I was intrigued that there were a large number of women in the class, as at the time, I thought the martial arts, especially those using weapons, were a male-dominated activity. But here were all these women gracefully practicing kyudo. It was mesmerizing and calming to watch. I decided that I wanted to be involved in Japanese archery. But first I had to go home and Google the subject as I knew nothing of kyudo besides the obvious shooting of arrows.
At the time, my Japanese language skills were not what they are today — and coupled with the lack of local dojo information and website availability, I wasn’t able to find much I could understand. I spent several weeks talking to friends, strangers and even the city council, but all I got was a lot of shrugging of shoulders. During that time, I became pregnant with my second child, followed shortly thereafter with my third. So life sort of got in the way, but my interest in kyudo persisted. One day, I had a radio-appearance job, and in a conversation with the host, I found out he had a kyudo connection. I scored an invite to a beginner’s class only about a 30-minute train ride from my house — and here I am today!
What art or arts are you involved with?
Gerrity: I’m now a third dan in kyudo, and I go to practice five or six days a week for two hours per class. Three times a month for two-hour training sessions, I study and practice a 350-year-old form of archery called shihan mato. This is the art of shooting arrows from a sitting position.
Once a week I train for two hours with the naginata, traditionally an anti-cavalry weapon. I have my first grading coming up this year.
I’ve earned my shodan in archery on horseback and attend practice once or twice a month, as well as another monthly practice session using the naginata and nagamaki on horseback. The nagamaki is a long-handled staff that features a blade around 3 feet long on a pole that can measure from 4 feet to nearly 7 feet.
And recently I started to practice shuriken jutsu on a casual basis at the Ninja Information Center and Dojo in Asakusa.Thanks to BudoJapan.com, I have also tried battojutsu, kenjutsu and “samurai battle” at Castle Tintagel (similar to medieval weapons fighting), have participated in houjutsu (martial art of the matchlock), and tried traditional samurai armor (yoroi) and very rare activities like helping to cut the bamboo to be made into kyudo bows.
With all this knowledge you’re acquiring, what are your future plans? And what have you learned from your adventure so far?
Gerrity: I’m continuing the practice of kyudo and eventually want to earn the rank of instructor, which one can take an exam for after earning a fifth dan. I want to continue to learn and raise awareness of martial arts, Japanese culture, traditions and craftspeople in any way I can.
My take-aways from the training I’ve done to date — my life lessons learned — include keeping a beginner’s mindset and heart. All martial artists, no matter what they practice or where they live, understand that we are always learning, both in martial arts and in our everyday life. To keep an open beginner’s mindset, one has to cultivate an open mind and be open to learning new things, hearing new opinions and [discovering] new ways to look at performing techniques — and, likewise, living from day to day.
I’ve learned — and relearned — that in martial arts and in life, it is a fine practice to focus on being positive and striving for forward movement and self-improvement. I’ve learned that improvement, technical and otherwise, may not seem like a lot in each practice, but over time, all the effort can become significant and [lead to] noticeable progress.
My studies in kyudo especially have taught me the powers of respect and mindfulness, both for self and others, inside and outside the dojo. Kyudo is about attention to detail, taking things one step at a time and being equally mindful about one’s behavior. The practice has made me a better martial artist, mother and wife.
The idea of falling down seven times and getting up eight, that notion of not giving up on your dreams or practice or anything you’re interested in, is all the more powerful when you apply it to the martial arts and daily life. Setbacks and failures happen, but I have learnt to get up again and just keep pushing forward.
Lastly but very importantly, budo has given me the chance to build a community, another world away from my busy everyday life, like an oasis where I can just concentrate on my technique, my breathing and myself. This community I’m a part of is empowering and helps build my self-confidence and esteem.
I’d like to invite [Black Belt] readers, should any want more information on martial arts lessons in Japan, to reach out to me on Instagram at @jessintokyo or on Facebook at Jessica Gerrity.
Tom Callos has a seventh-degree black belt in taekwondo under Ernie Reyes Sr. and a first degree in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. To contact him on Instagram, use @tomcallos..
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