Monday, December 1, 2014

Moden Musha Shugyo Part 2: A Day Training With Sensei

The next stop on our musha shugyo 武者修行 journey was Kusatsu City, in Shiga Japan. The gasshuku wrapped up at noon, everyone headed back to the hotel for lunch, and then it was over. After walking around Kashima Grand Shrine with our friend Watanabe-san for a while, Deborah, Adam and I got the bus for Tokyo, where we caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) for Kyoto. Traveling by high speed train has airplanes beat for many middle long distances. More leg room, walk up and get on, no one assaulting you with lousy airline food, someone coming by with a lovely food cart offering any option you might want to purchase. The best way to travel.

Because of the time we spent at Kashima Grand Shrine, we got to the hotel late. At the hotel we discovered they didn’t have a reservation for us. After some work and a phone call to the US, we figured out that the travel agent booked us into a different location of the same hotel chain than he had thought he did. 15 minutes in a taxi later we were checking in to our hotel for some good sleep.

The next day we were planning to spend the whole afternoon training Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho with my teacher, Kiyama Sensei. Sensei turned 90 this year, and we were very much looking forward to seeing him and getting his corrections.  Since this didn’t start until noon though, we decided to hop over to Ishiyama Temple, a quite old and famous temple in Shiga. Founded in 749 CE, it’s said that Lady Murasaki began writing The Tale Of Genji there. It’s also one of the stops on the Kannon Temple Pilgrimage route. In the fall, it is famous for it’s beautiful maple trees, and since it was early November, we decided to see if they were changing.

We got out of the taxi and were greeted by the Nio 仁王 or Guardian Kings. Statues of these guardians stand to the left and right of the gate to every major temple in Japan. The fearsome warriors guard the Buddha, the bodhisattvas and their teachings from harm.  The statues are magnificent. We stepped through gate and entered the temple grounds. We were lucky, since the maple trees had started to change from green to brilliant red. A week later and the temple would be a spectacle of scarlet leaves, but we were pleased to have as much as we did.  Some years the color is gone by the end of October.

Ishiayama Temple Nio Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Ishiayama Temple Nio Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

It’s a strange sensation to walk paths and see sights that were written about a thousand years ago, but these are the same sort of connections we feel when we train in koryu budo. We are doing arts that have been passed down for hundreds of years and making deep connections to ways of thinking and being that originate deep in the past. Training in old budo styles isn’t about learning the newest, the most popular or the flashiest. It’s about making connections between the past and the present, and discovering within seemingly dusty, old kata the truths and wisdom that have kept people practicing them for generations and centuries.

Color at Ishiyama Temple Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

We climbed a long set of stone steps up to the level of the main temple buildings. Like all temples in Japan it is wooden. Age and the smoke of candles and incense has darkened everything.  The smell of the incense is permeates the building. The floors are polished smooth by the action of all the feet that brush across them every day. Like most temples there is no photography inside the main temple building. We offered prayers for friends and teachers, continued through the grounds.  The main building hangs off the side of the mountain, and offers a wonderful view through the trees.

Ishiyama Temple from below. Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Ishiyama Temple through the leaves. Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Next to the main temple, is a small room decorated to show how Lady Murasaki might have looked while staying at the temple and writing her novel. The contrast of this with the modern DVD player showing a video about a Lady Murasaki robot is striking, but also emphasizes how the past continues to connect to and influence the present. 

After wandering around Ishiyama Temple for a couple of hours, we caught a taxi back to Kusatsu Station where we were to meet Kiyama Sense. We got there and didn't see Sensei yet, so we waited by the bus stop where we usually meet him.  After a few more minutes and no sign of Sensei, I decided to check a couple of other corners to be sure he wasn’t in a car waiting where we couldn’t see. I didn’t see him anywhere, and as I was heading back to my friends, on a whim I dashed upstairs through the station. There was Sensei waiting for us. He laughed when I told him where we were, and we headed down to gather up my Deborah and Adam.

Sensei asked us where we would like to go for lunch before we started training, which began a very common, and somewhat comical, exchange for Japan. No one wanted to push anything on Sensei, and he wanted to make us happy, so we all danced around with gentle suggestions for a few minutes. Eventually we settled on a tonkatsu restaurant near the station that Sensei really likes. Lunch was excellent. One aspect of training in Japan that I have gotten used to, and perhaps finally come to peace with, is that around my teachers my money is no good. If I am with Sensei in Japan, I cannot buy him lunch, I have to let him do it. Instead of me showing my appreciation for his care, and expressing my thanks, he buys lunch for me. This was no different.

Sensei quietly arranged to buy lunch for us. I’ve learned not to push and try to pay.  It’s a different social dynamic than the one I grew up with in America. Sensei is expressing his care and responsibility for us. We are his students, and he is responsible for us. In return, we are responsible for always representing him wherever we go. Our actions are extensions of his actions. If we, his students, do anything, it reflects directly on him. He takes care of us and shows his concern. We show we care by making the effort to train with him, to truly learn the lessons he is teaching, and by truly passing those lessons on to our students. It’s a much tougher way to express our appreciation for everything Sensei gives us than just buying lunch for him. We have to really work at this. Just whipping out my credit card to pay for something doesn’t cut it. Today, Deborah and I were showing it just by being in Japan and bringing along one of her students to train with Sensei, showing him that we are working to extend his care to another generation of students.

So none of us protested when Sensei paid for lunch. We said “Domo arigatou gozaimashita,” bowed deeply and got ready to show him our appreciation at practice. We gathered up all of our gear (dragging around a bunch of swords and our training uniforms can be interesting in space challenged Japanese restaurants), and headed out. It’s Japan, so we had no trouble getting a taxi to the dojo.

The dojo is a beautiful building. As an American, I’m insanely jealous. Pretty much every town in Japan has a lovely, public dojo. The Kusatsu Budokan is no exception. For 550 yen ($5.00!),  anyone can rent the matted Judo/Aikido space or the beautifully polished wood kendo/iai/kenjutsu space, or even the sumo dohyo. American cities don’t have anything like this.  This space is amazing. The Judo dojo is has two fully matted competition areas. The kendo/iai space is huge, with easily enough room for 4 kendo shiai matches to be held simultaneously. Sensei had reserved the kendo/ia dojo for the entire afternoon, so we got changed and started warming up.

Sensei said his knees were bothering him, so he hadn’t brought his sword, just a bokuto for demonstrating particular points. He dressed in a lovely black hakama and uwagi, while we put on our usual, faded, blue, training hakama and keikogi.  We bowed in, and Sensei started running us through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. We ran through each kata several times, and Sensei made some corrections. Sensei reminded me of how great a practice session can be. This was one example of classic training.
Sensei stood at the front of the dojo holding one end of his bokuto (bokken), and he’d call out a kata, or just say “mo ichi do” (once more). Then he’d bang the other end of the bokuto on the floor, filling the room with a great wooden “thunk!” and we’d do the kata. I’ve been training with Sensei for more than 20 years, so I know what he expects to see from me. If I didn’t do it, he’d tell us to do the kata again. Usually I knew what I didn’t do right, and I’d try to do it without Sensei needing to explain.  Deborah hasn’t been training with Sensei nearly as long as I have, and Adam has only been at this for a little more than a year, so Sensei stopped practice a couple of times when wanted to make a point for them.

I felt a little sorry for Adam trying to keep up with us.  Deborah and I are familiar with the whole Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho system.  Adam hasn’t been at it very long, but he worked hard to keep up with us, even as we moved into unfamiliar kata. I was busy just staying focused and doing my best for Sensei. I suspect some of the many repetitions of the kata were for Adam’s sake, so he could see Deborah and I do the kata and then do his best to recreate what we were doing.  

Just before the first break, Sensei had us doing some of the Tatehiza No Bu.  Tatehiza hurts when you first learn it, and even after more than 20 years, it’s still not what I would describe as comfortable. Adam was trying it for the first time. I remember well trying to figure out how to maintain my balance while basically sitting on my ankle. I fell over a lot then, and Adam was having similar trials now. We worked on it for a while and then took a break for for some liquids.

We were all working hard. Drilling kata non-stop is tough, so the drinks were welcome. While we were getting drinks and catching our breath, Kiyama Sensei was checking out our swords, which we had laid down at the front of the dojo while we went out to the vending machine. His curiosity about his students’ swords was clear, and we were happy to have him look at them.  Sensei is quite a bit shorter than I, but he and Deborah are about the same height, so I suggested that her sword might be a good match for him. He said “Really?” and looked at Deborah.  She said “Dozo” and he pulled it out and tried the heft.

We all backed off to give him room, Sensei raised it above his head, feeling the weight and balance. He swung it down in a great arc into a dead stop. He swung it for a while, demonstrating the big swing and powerful hips that make his iai so incredible to watch.  Even at 90, with new knees that hurt some days, his iai is relaxed and powerful. The sword doesn’t waver or falter. The cuts stop with precision, as if he were burying the blade in a block of wood. Sensei’s legs were hurting him, but he swung the sword for about 10 minutes anyway. His motion was completely natural and he smoothly transferred the power of his koshi to the sword without any tension in his arms.

Eventually his knee started to really bother him. Sensei gave the sword back to Deborah and sent us out on the floor to train some more. Since Adam was still learning tatehiza, Sensei took pity on him and had us go through the Omori Ryu set from the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu. Sensei would call “Again” and thump the floor with bokuto until he was satisfied with how we did the kata. Then he would say “Next,” bang the floor with his bokuto and we’d do the next kata in the set. There were no pauses. We trained. Occasionally Sensei would make a brief comment, and the training would continue. It was intense, but not harsh.

This is great, traditional training. We didn’t stop to talk.  We trained. Sensei didn’t have to tell us to work hard. We each put everything we had into every kata we did. The last few years I’ve been focusing on Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but I got the definite message from Sensei that he wants me to start doing Eishin Ryu again too. He didn’t yell at me, but I could tell he was disappointed that I haven’t kept it up very well. I guess I know what I’ll be adding to my training.

When we were all dripping, Sensei called another break for liquids.  After that Sensei told us to review the standing kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. He called out “Number one,” banged the bokuto on the floor, and off we went.  We did each kata 3 or 4 times before we moved on to the next one.  Sensei stopped after that, came out and made some comments about how we could use our koshi.  Then we were right back at it. “Do the tachiwaza again.” We worked through those and we were getting close to 5:00 PM.  Sensei said, “Do Ippon Me Mae one more time.”  

We did it, straining to make exhausted legs and hips and glutes and lower back all deliver full power. Following an afternoon of almost continuous iai we were exhausted. That’s old school training. I know I’m guilty of too much talk when I’m running my classes. I need to be more focused. One thing I should know, but was constantly reminded of, is that improvement comes from training, not from talking. Sensei made very few comments, but every one of them was crucial to doing good iai. He gave us a few corrections, and lots of chances to practice them. It was a great example of how to run keiko.

After doing Mae we lined up and bowed out, first to the kamiza, then to Sensei, then to each other. The old saying 武道は礼に始まり礼に終わる “Budo begins and ends with rei. 礼 “rei” is bow, it is manners and gratitude and etiquette. Yes, we begin and end with a bow, and the bow is good manners and proper etiquette. What I feel most strongly when I bow at the beginning and end of practice though is gratitude. I am unendingly grateful to my teachers. Takada Sensei certainly had no good reason that I can think of to take on a loud, incomprehensible, and frequently uncomprehending, American. I will eternally be grateful to him for accepting me as an iaido student.

Kiyama Sensei was an iaido student with Takada Sensei when they were beginning, and after Takada Sensei passed away, he accepted me into his dojo. He has been very patient teaching this rather slow and thoroughly talentless, crazy gaijin his wonderful iaido. His willingness to teach me, and to reach across the linguistic and cultural barriers to do it has been incredible. He has shared the core of what he does, and more, worked incredibly hard to communicate it to me.  He has welcomed me a as his student more than I could have ever hoped.

For all of this and many more things, it is with gratitude that I bow at the beginning and ending of every practice. I bow with this gratitude whether Sensei is there to receive it or not. When I’m teaching or if I’m training alone, the same feeling is there. It means a lot though to be able to do it while Sensei is at the front of the dojo.

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