Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts

Monday, January 9, 2017

Practice In Japan

Yoshunkan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

 Practice in Japan has a different feel from training in the U.S.. In Japan, everyone is quietly intent on the training. There is no chatter, and not even much in the way of questions to Sensei about how things should be done. Keiko proceed with a smooth regularity. Everyone except the newest students knows how practice in their dojo operates, and they all work to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is not to say that everyone is already perfect - far from it. Everyone in the dojo is there to learn and train hard. Training time lacks the social element that is often present in dojo outside Japan. There is no extraneous conversation while training is going on. Before and after practice? Of course. During breaks? Sure. While actual practice is going on? Not at all.

It’s not that anyone is yelling or enforcing silence. Everyone is there for a reason and a purpose, and during practice they focus on it. No one has to tell them to focus. It’s not like the pseudo-military atmosphere I’ve seen in some dojo outside Japan, with the instructor acting as a drill sergeant, yelling at anyone who isn’t exactly in line. In most Japanese dojo, the discipline comes from within the students themselves, not from the teachers. I would be mortified if I were to be so out of line that anyone, fellow student or the teacher, felt a need to say something to me about my behavior.

Everyone who comes into the dojo has to learn the dojo routine, but no one is harassed while they are learning. New students are as quiet as senior students, maybe quieter, since they don’t want to risk offending anyone. Beginners are busy trying to learn the dojo routines and etiquette, so they don’t have much time to say anything.  Senior students are comfortable and at home in the dojo, so they they don’t need to say much.

Practice moves along at a rapid clip. Dojo in America often have a lot of chatting and talking among students, or at the other end, a rigidly enforced atmosphere of silence. Traditional dojo in Japan are quiet and focused, but lack the authoritarian feel of many large, modern dojo. You don’t see a lot of external discipline. Students are expected to know how to behave politely while they figure out the dojo customs. Teachers expect to be able to be heard and lead class without yelling.

For example, Iseki Sensei leads the jodo class, and everyone takes turn in the counting of technique repetitions while we’re working through the kihon (fundamentals) at the beginning of class. Sensei speaks loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the dojo, and no louder.

Kazuo Iseki Sensei. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

Once we finish with the kihon, Sensei splits us into senior and junior members so the seniors can act as partners for the junior students. This is something I don’t see enough of in modern dojo. The seniors use their understanding of timing, spacing and control to help the juniors get the most out of their technique and kata practice. The senior adjusts her speed and intensity to a level where the junior can practice and learn. The senior doesn’t spend much time talking to the junior; they are both focused on the training. If significant corrections need to be made the senior will make a brief comment, but that’s all that’s needed.

The teacher lets the students practice without a lot of interruption. Rarely will the whole class be stopped to make a point. The teacher will correct individual issues individually, and the rest of the class will wait for the pair being corrected to get back on track, or continue working on kata if the correction is taking more time than usual. Working with the juniors is not a sacrifice for the senior students. They are also working on the spacing, timing, and control for the tachi side.

Practice gets more interesting when Sensei has the junior members of the dojo sit down to watch while the seniors work together. This practice is intense, with the seniors working at the edge of their skill. The juniors don’t chatter while watching. They’ve learned well how to quietly observe somewhere else. They don’t have to learn that here. The seniors will all be working on different parts of the curriculum, as directed by Sensei. Sometimes Sensei will step in and act as the partner so the student can focus her  practice on a particular point. 

Traditional Japanese Swordsmanship

Through all of this the only time Sensei will yell is when he calls for a break. Most corrections are made at a conversational tone by Sensei. If one senior is helping another, the corrections are usually made at a whisper so as to not disturb anyone else’s training. The whole atmosphere is one of intensity and focus on learning. Even the juniors sitting at the side are quiet and focused on picking up as much as they can from watching the seniors practice. There is plenty to learn that way about footwork, timing, rhythm, and all the other details of the art. There is room for smiles and quiet laughter at mistakes and accidents.  Then it’s back to practice.

Talking would disturb everyone else in the dojo, and the last thing anyone in Japan wants to do is bother someone else. This doesn’t mean the dojo isn’t friendly and social, because all of the traditional dojo I’ve been in have been friendly and social. The students just recognize clear distinctions between training time and social time. The “friendly” is always there. People are genuinely concerned about their partners’ well-being. When training is over, people are very social. There are questions about how people are doing, jokes and laughter.  Often there is time for a drink together after training.

That’s after training. During training everyone trains. No one chatters or talks other than necessary. They just train. The focus is quite different from dojo I’ve been to elsewhere. Everyone shares the focus.  This is something I need to bring to the dojo where I train outside Japan.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why I Go To The Effort To Go To Japan

I am sitting in Los Angeles Airport waiting to find out if my flight is going to Tokyo today or not.  There is a budo retreat with one of the top classical budoka in Japan that I am privileged to have been invited to attend.  After deep negotiations with my family, I’m supposed to be on a plane flying there.  The opening is in just a few hours, so I’m going to miss that, but I should be there for the last 4 days of training.
                What could possibly motivate someone to spend a full day traveling to, and another very full day traveling back from, a martial arts retreat?  In the 21st century, unless you are in the military, the police, or providing security, the martial arts are basically a hobby.   So why go? Firstly, the training is incredible.  It’s not just that the head teacher is leading and sponsoring the seminar, it’s also that his senior students, who are now leaders in the art, are teaching us.   Secondly, it is the chance for me to spend several days doing nothing else, not distracted by the concerns of life (assuming work doesn’t get excited and call the international cell phone they gave me) and to stay focused on these ancient arts.  Some of the curriculum has roots that may go back 600 years.  This is a chance to immerse myself in not just the technique, but the mindset and living philosophy of the arts.
                Twenty-five years ago, these arts were difficult to find, even for Japanese living in Japan.  I first stumbled into their world by complete accident.    I was riding home after a haircut when I saw a guy grinding something on a huge grindstone.  I stopped to look at the grindstone, and realized he seemed to be grinding a sword!  About then the gentlemen looked up and invited me into his house for tea.  His name was Nakagawa, and he was a sword smith.  From there I stumbled into the world of Japanese sword arts and other classical martial arts.
                Now anyone can do a Google search and find a list of teachers and their dojo in Japan.  It still takes something extra though to get up and go to Japan, whether for a week or years.   One of the biggest reasons I go is that there are great treasures to be discovered.  These treasures are precious beyond price, and some of them disappear every year.  They are the great old teachers who have spent a lifetime studying their arts and who work hard to give what they have learned to their students.  I know plenty of  people who have 20, 30 40 years or more of training, but it pales next to teachers who have more than 8o years of active training, all of it with people who were great teachers in their time.
                On this trip I will get to spend time with a couple of these great teachers, both gentlemen of the first rank.  I visit and spend time with them whenever an opportunity presents itself.   This time I get to spend several days at a gasshuku with a great Shinto Muso Ryu teacher and his senior students, and then I will get to spend a day or two with my iaido teacher, Kiyama Sensei.  He’s 89 and has been doing budo since he was 5, when his grandfather started teaching him a branch of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu.   He’s been studying budo ever since.
These teachers aren’t teaching me just technique, though they do a lot of that.  They are teaching the deep connections among the techniques, the principles of the arts that generate the techniques, and the ideals of what the arts mean in life.  They’ve been living the budo path since long before I was born, and they are wonders at pointing out not just the path, but pitfalls along the way.  They’ve had lots of chances to make mistakes and learn from them.  If I’m lucky and wise and work hard at their lessons, I won’t have to make all the same mistakes.  I never get chewed out so badly as when they catch me making a mistake they are too intimate with because of personal experience.  I will stand and listen to them and hear the pain in their voices because they know the consequences of what I’m doing.  
                After a while at this training and studying and continually polishing what I am doing, disappointing my teachers becomes the toughest thing to endure.  These great gentlemen go to incredible effort to pass on their knowledge, skills and understanding to their students.  Once I understood how hard they worked to train me, I realized the most painful thing I could do was letting them down. Kiyama Sensei and the other great teachers I know aren’t getting rich by teaching students.  The best we as students can do to show our appreciation and take care of our teachers is to be there and help them when they will let us.  They teach out of love of their art and love of their students.  This is part of what makes them such great treasures.  
               So when I can, I get on an airplane and go visit them.  Life has moved me away from Japan but not away from them.  So I sit in airports and through delays. This time I got as far as L.A. and my flight was canceled, with no other flight available until the next morning.  I will miss a chunk of the gasshuku.  I’ve been grinding my teeth over that for 18 hours.  The training that remains will still be great, and I’ll get at least a few evenings with my teachers to talk and absorb as much as I can.  These treasures will disappear someday and I will be left with whatever I have been able to learn and absorb from them.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Training In Japan Isn't What You See In The Movies

I just came back from a wonderful visit to Japan.  I was able to train intensively in iaido and jodo, including 3 days with 4 or more hours of training.  Practice in Japan is like practice everywhere.  You go to the dojo, you dress, and your teachers kick your butt all over the room.   Then again, it’s not.  I attended a training session where there was one 7th dan instructor for every 2 students below 7th dan.  How often can you get that kind of attention?

There seems to be a popular image people have of practice in Japan, with everyone lining up with military precision and shouting “Oss!” at everything Sensei says, standing rigidly at attention all the time, and jumping at every command.  The reality is quite different, more relaxed and more focused and, frankly, more effective.  

Classical Japanese martial arts don’t require military style discipline, and they don’t need it.  Teachers in Japan of classical arts aren’t looking for overdone displays of rigid behavior and military-style behavior. (You do see this sometimes in school clubs and and arts such as karate  and Yoshikan Aikido that were popularized during the years when the militarists were running things in Japan). They expect students to already have self-discipline, and if a student doesn’t, the correct behavior is on display all around them.  The atmosphere is subdued and relaxed, but very focused.

In nearly 25 years spent living in Japan, or traveling there as frequently as possible for training, I can’t remember a teacher ever yelling at me.  It’s just not a part of how things are done.  Everyone trains hard, and we all focus.  It’s sort of necessary in arts where training involves your partner trying split you with a nice piece of oak.  We come in, change our clothes, bow together for the start of practice and go from there.  We’ll do the warm-ups together, but eing the leader isn’t much of a position.  Everyone takes turns calling out sets of 10 reps as we work through the various warm-ups and fundamental technique practices.

If Sensei has a correction for me, it’s done gently and my response is a gentle “Hai”.  No yelling or big displays.  Just demonstrate that you are paying attention.  Sensei walks over and makes the correction, sometimes with a little smile that suggests to me that I really ought to have figured it out on my own.  Corrections are quick and simple and low-key.  Kiyama Sensei will walk by and pat my butt if my posture is off.  I know what he means, so he doesn’t need to say anything else.

Fukuma Sensei spent an hour patiently watching me do kata over and over as he carefully corrected every aspect of what I was practicing.  We worked on posture. We worked on cutting technique.  We worked on foot position. We worked on how the movement corkscrews up and around to deal with the kaso teki.  He would demonstrate or explain a little, maybe move a my foot to where it should be or adjust my grip slightly.  Everything was done quietly, simply, without flourish or shouting or berating.  We were focused on what we were working on, and we didn’t have any side comments of off-topic conversation.  Everything was as focused and concentrated as we could make it, but in a relaxed atmosphere.  There was none of the barking like drill sergeants or the rigid postures of military recruits.  This isn’t the military.  It’s koryu bugei.  Your attention and focus are expected to be developed and refined as natural parts of your being rather than imposed from outside.

Truly worthwhile discipline comes from within.  It’s not imposed from the outside.  That’s the atmosphere in koryu budo dojo, and in the better gendai budo dojo in Japan.  At Jodo keiko the training is incredibly intense.  Your partner is genuinely aiming to hit you with a big piece of oak, and it hurts if you screw up and let him do it.  My partner on Thursday was a very nice 7th dan. His intensity as he approached for the attack was wonderful, and pushed me to meet it with an equal level of intensity.  Then the kata is over and we can relax.  Matsuda Sensei comes over to give me corrections. There are smiles and gentle, but powerful, corrections made.  Sensei shows me exactly what I’m doing wrong.  Just like at iaido practice, the instruction is low key, with great respect given and received by everyone.  The 7th dan I’m training with is powerful and intense, but never brutal.  There is no unnecessary violence and no yelling or abuse.  I show him how much I respect him, and he treats with just as much respect.  

Matsuda Sensei, who outranks us all, treats us with respect and what I can only describe as gentle affection.  This is not the image of a Japanese dojo that you get from movies and television.  He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t yell, and he never hits anyone.  When he approaches, he doesn’t yell.  He is quiet and understated.  He’ll set me up in a position and gently but inexorably show my why my stance or movement is weak.  Then he’ll move my foot or my hand to show me what I need to do.

There is great mutual respect within the dojo.  One of the great drivers for improvement, at least for me, has nothing to do with external pressure.  It is the respect that everyone shows me and the gentle affection I feel from my teachers.  I work far harder to not disappoint them then I ever would in a situation where it was all about external pressure.  My effort is the best way I can show them how much I appreciate their lessons and patience.  I’ve never seen them reprimand anyone.  They don’t have to.  The idea of doing anything that would embarrass them is horrifying to think about.  What more motivation is needed?

If you haven’t been there, classical budo training Japan probably isn’t what you imagine. It is tough and challenging.  Not harsh and brutal.  The dojo are actually fairly quiet because people are focused on good training and not yelling at each other.  Teachers and students are treated with respect and honor.  Oh, and the level of training is amazing.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why bother going all the way to Japan just to train?

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.