I’m one of those annoying people who often tells people they should make a trip to Japan to train in their budo. A lot of people wonder why anyone should bother paying all that money just to go train for a while. It seems especially wasteful now that so many top teachers from Japan make the trip to North America every year. In some arts like Aikido, there are top teachers living here that you can see every night in the dojo. So why bother with the time and trouble and money to haul yourself to Japan?
I’m in Japan right now, and I spent yesterday at an iaido seminar. I was the median ranked person at the seminar, which means that half the people out there training and learning with me are higher ranked than I am. I’m 4th dan. There were a lot 5th, 6th and 7th dans out there on the floor getting their butts kicked alongside me by the guy leading the seminar. Tonight I went to a completely mundane dojo for jodo keiko. At a regular practice, I will be at the mid level or below. Most of the students will 4th dan or higher. That’s a lot experience on the floor. Tonight I just made the cut for the senior half. Again, I’m a fourth dan, and that just got me to the upper half of the dojo. Above me were 5th, 6th & 7dans, while a 8th dan ran the practice and taught a couple of fairly new students.
Whenever I go to the dojo in Japan and train, in whatever art I can think of, this is the normal situation. The dojo membership will be filled with high ranks, so many of them that you can be sure you’ll spend most of your time training with very senior people. The dojo have so much depth that it’s hard for people outside of Japan to imagine what it’s like to train. I know small country kendo dojo where five or more 7th dans show up on most nights for practice. 5th dan’s aren’t considered high ranks. They are people who’ve just reached the level where it’s ok for them to start giving corrections to people.
That depth of experience in the dojo just can’t be matched. The skill and experience that surrounds you quickly pushes and pulls you to a higher level of performance. All of these senior people keep practice at the highest level, and they all work to push students higher. There are myriads of little details that a lone senior teacher outside Japan has to remember and try to reinforce by himself. Here, where you’re likely to have multiple 7th dans taking part in practice, no has worry about getting details and ideas across to everyone. The senior students take care of emphasizing all sorts of little training details and making sure beginners and junior ranks (up to about 4th dan in many dojo) learn everything they are supposed to. There are all sorts of fine details of behaviour and technique that you absorb without even realizing it dojo like this. Wherever you look there are senior students with outstanding form and skill doing the same thing you are. You look at them and you can see the way things should be done. The teacher doesn’t have to worry about making sure each students understands. The whole dojo teaches everyone.
It is an atmosphere that can’t be duplicated outside Japan yet. It takes a long time to build up a cadre of members at a dojo with that much experience. Trying to do it from scratch outside Japan is tough. Even in judo and karate, which have relatively long histories outside Japan, there are few dojo with this sort of depth to be found. It takes 30 or 40 years to build up this sort of dojo once you have a senior teacher. There is something remarkable about training with a group that measures it’s history not in years or decades, but centuries. Plus, it’s really cool to watch the 7th dans get corrected. It’s a reminder that no matter how good we get, we are all still learning.
Being surrounded by that level of experience means that you are breathing in lessons you aren’t aware you are learning. The atmosphere is so rich with experience that you can pick up subtle lessons without any effort. If you do put forth effort, the amount that can be learned in short time is remarkable.
If all you want is to learn how to fight though, there are plenty of new, efficient arts like Krav Maga out there that don’t come burdened with the history and philosophy of development and personal refinement that the various arts known as budo come with. On the other hand, if you are interested in the history of the art, the traditions that make budo what it is, and expressions and practices for refining yourself, then you should make the effort to train in Japan. The Japanese are no different than anyone else, there are wonderful people and there are jerks, just like everywhere, but the atmosphere in the dojo here is incredible, and it can’t be duplicated anywhere else yet. I really do encourage people to make the effort to visit Japan and train in the old dojos of their art. The experience is well worth the effort.