The 2023 World Combat Games were held in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) from 20 to 30 October 2023.
Review by Claudio Zanoni and Maria Esser who had the honour of being protagonists, for iaido, in this edition.
An Alternative Experience
by Claudio Zanoni
It all began with a rather unexpected phone call from the CIK president.
“Hello Claudio, I received a letter from IKF where, on Kusama Sensei’s strong recommendation, they invite you to perform an iaido demonstration at the World Combat Games in Riyadh.”
My initial response was, “Matteo, are you kidding me?”
Clearly not, as he then forwarded me the email. The problem was that the event coincided with the European Iaido Championships, which put me in a bit of a dilemma. However, considering Kusama’s request and CIK’s desire for my presence, I decided to forgo the championships for the first time in 23 years.
The preparation was a challenge, with fragmented information and airline tickets that were slow to arrive. The Evisa arrived at the last moment, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but in the end, they were asking me to perform Iaido.
Finally, everything fell into place. The program arrived, along with tickets and visas to enter Saudi Arabia. I realized I would have to endure a 32-hour round trip for a 5-minute demonstration… but that was okay.
Let’s skip the travel details. I finally arrived in Riyadh with Angela Papaccio, Maria Essers, and others, including the Canadian team.
We stayed at a luxurious hotel, although not without a few hiccups. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones who received all their luggage.
On Saturday morning, we had an early breakfast at 6 because we needed to practice for the demonstration. My demonstration partner hadn’t arrived, so we spent the morning watching Kendo warm-ups. Finally, we managed to prepare our demonstration. Kusama Sensei explained how we would perform it and which Katas we should showcase. I was assigned all the odd-numbered Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei.
The afternoon was free, and despite the fatigue and 38-degree heat (which we barely felt), I decided to take a walk around Riyadh. I stayed close to the hotel but couldn’t find a good reason to return for sightseeing, so I went back to the hotel to rest.
Lots and lots of Kendo, but I had the opportunity to talk to many different people from various countries: Japan, USA, Canada, China, Malaysia, New Zealand, and so on.
On Sunday, I had nothing to do. After the opening ceremony, I was in the official CIK uniform and watched the Kendo competition and demonstrations of Kendo, Iaido, and Jodo. The setting was unusual for our disciplines; music and lights are not typical components of our competitions or Embu, but in the end, it was more of a media event, live-streamed worldwide, so it was okay to have unusual elements.
Finally, on Monday, it was my turn for the demonstration. Calling it Iaido was a bit of a stretch. Due to religious reasons, we couldn’t go into seiza, so everything was a bit different. But, in the end, we just had to showcase our discipline, so we did it all standing, including the bow. Mission accomplished.
Despite everything, I received compliments from Kusama Sensei and even from two Kendo masters for my cuts, but come on…
In conclusion, it was four STRANGE days, but three of them were spent in close contact with Kusama Sensei, who managed to give me some guidance for my iaido and helped me understand some of the changes he had made and why. The Sensei never stopped thanking me, especially because he was well aware that I had given up the European Championships to be there.
An alternative experience, but certainly valuable and enriching, if not in terms of Iaido, then in the human factor. Spending time with different people from diverse cultures is undoubtedly enriching.
I would like to dedicate a few words to Edward Chart, who gave a sensational demonstration of Jodo. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that he practices without one leg and without a prosthesis. He has achieved the 7th dan in Jodo. In our conversation, he mentioned feeling somewhat unsatisfied because he’s currently only a 6th dan in Iaido. His unwavering determination is admirable and sets an example for all of us to follow.
At this point, it’s my turn to express my gratitude. First, to IKF for inviting me, then to Kusama Sensei for recommending me and taking care of me for three days, and finally, to all the participants with whom I shared this alternative experience.
My World Combat Games 2023 Riyadh Experience
by Maria Esser
I was invited to give an Iaido demonstration by the Japanese Kendo Federation (under recommendation by Kusama sensei) at the World Combat Games in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia.
I felt very honoured, but also a little scared. I am only a Godan Iaido and there are many more Iaidoka’s which are way better than me.
Katja Fleury sensei was also invited for a Kendo Kata demonstration and she convinced me to come along.
So, I did!
Unfortunately they made a mistake in my email address and I missed out on a lot of the information, luckily I could get some via Katja Fleury sensei or Claudio Zanoni sensei….
Until the last week, I was not even sure if I really was going, as I didn’t receive neither the flight tickets nor the Visa yet.
4 days before I left, I finally received my flight tickets. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same flight as Katja Fleury sensei, so we both had to travel alone.
Luckily for me, I met Claudio Zanoni sensei, Angela Papaccio sensei, Eric Tribe sensei and Edward Chart sensei at the gate in Frankfurt airport.
There was a welcome committee at the airport in Riyadh and we were brought to our hotel, the Youdyan. Very, very nice!
Next morning up early for an early bus ride (especially painted over for the World Combat Games) to go to a sportshall for training.
Under the guidance of Kusama sensei, Harada sensei and Hatakenaka sensei, we were instructed on how to perform the iaido demonstration.
The first Iaido demonstration (ZNKR kata 1 to 6) would be performed by the Japanese senseis. The second iaido demonstration would be performed by the female iaidoka, Pam Parker sensei, Debra Farmer sensei and me. We would show the ZNKR Katas 7 to 12. The third Iaido demonstration would be performed by Harada sensei, Claudio Zanoni sensei and Hunor Mihalik sensei. They would perform all the odd numbered ZNKR Katas.
I felt very lucky to get some teaching by Kusama sensei and Claudio Zanoni sensei!
That was the most important time for me. To spend time with these high Dan teachers and profit from their knowledge and experience.
On Sunday, Day 1 for the Kendo discipline started.
The sportshall was huge, with nice paintings of the different martial arts, dominated by kendo pictures. In the middle was the wooden floor for the Kendo competitions and the demonstrations.
We could practice in the warming up area, where there was also a wooden floor.
There was live streaming with 8 cameras, spotlights and music!
The Japanese senseis were the first to do the Iaido demonstration, so we watched (and filmed) carefully how they performed the demonstration, so we could do exactly the same as they did.
It was weird to be showed up to the stage by a volunteer under the spotlights and music. Not budo-like at all!
We had to come up together, do the standing reiho (not allowed to sit down). I stayed in the middle and Pam Parker sensei and Debra Farmer sensei went to the corners, so we made a triangle. We had to look carefully at each other, to perform the katas synchronised.
This was probably the reason why I was not nervous (maybe a little). Normally my heart is racing and my legs are like jelly. Now I was so focused to perform correct and synchronised iaido, that I felt quite confident.
After we were back at the warming up area, Kusama sensei and Harada sensei came to us with broad smiles and congratulated us with our performance.
We did it!
We could perform correct iaido and made the senseis proud!
That was our mission.
Relieved, I could relax now and enjoy the Kendo competitions and the demonstrations of the other Budo Masters.
I saw some very impressive demonstrations, like the Kendo Kata from Furukawa sensei and Higashi sensei in Montsuki and with swords! The calmness, seme and precision. Very smooth and fluid movements!
Also the jodo demonstration from Eric Tribe sensei and Edward Chart sensei (who has one leg!). Unbelievable how someone with one leg can show such nice jodo! He kept in balance all the time. Already not so easy with two legs!
There was also the Korean BonKuk Kumbub demonstration from Lee sensei. Unfortunately, I only could see a part of it, but it was dynamic, fluid and with a lot of zanshin.
In the Kendo Masters demonstration from Matsuda sensei and Tani sensei the shinai looked like an extension of their arms. The calmness, seme and zanshin was unbelievable.
Last but not least, the Iaido demonstrations from the other Iaido senseis. I still have a very long way to go to reach their level of experience. Very beautiful, correct and inspiring performances.
I was very happy to have gotten the opportunity to go to the World Combat Games in Riyadh and get instructions from the different Iaido senseis, which will help me on my way to improve my iaido.
I would like to express my thanks to the organisers of the Kendo Event (Mr. Takamori and Mrs Okuura, Alexander Irvine and Abdullah Alawadhi).
Kusama sensei for recommending me and guiding me during the demonstration, Harada sensei, Hatakenaka sensei, Pam Parker sensei, Debra Farmer sensei, Claudio Zanoni sensei and Hunor Mihalik sensei for giving me technical advice and guidance for the demonstration.
Angela Papaccio sensei for being the voice for all our concerns during our stay in Riyadh.
Katja Fleury sensei, Eric Tribe sensei and Edward Chart sensei for the company during the dinners and the sight-seeing in Riyadh.
Pam Parker sensei and Debra Farmer sensei for being so patient and helping me to give a nice Iaido demonstration all three together. I hope I can still practice iaido and travel when I reach the same age as you girls!