After spending an incredible day training and talking with Kiyama Sensei, on our Musha Shugyo, Deborah, Adam and I had a day without training planned, then we were scheduled to spend a day doing jodo in Osaka, a night at Mount Koya, and then training at still another jodo dojo in Osaka. Shiga is lucky enough to have one of the few remaining castles in Japan, so we headed there for our free day.
|Hikone Castle Donjon. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
|Hikone Castle Donjon. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
Hikone Castle was started in 1603 and completed in 1622. Many of the surrounding buildings have been lost, but the main castle donjon still stands, as well as the surrounding walls and gates. The castle sits on a natural hill, and the first gates are well before you begin to climb the hill. We had lunch within view of the castle, and then began climbing up the winding path to the top.
|Hikone Castle gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
Part of the defensive strategy was to make the journey up circle through several gates. An invading army would have climb the hill and at the same time get past numerous choke points where they could easily be attacked from above. At one point as we circled up the hill, we arrived at the bell just before the hour, so we are able to stand and hear an ageless sound that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
|Hikone Castle Bell. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
The next day we traveled to just outside of Osaka to the Yoshunkan Shinto Muso Ryu Dojo. This dojo is in the garden of I. Sensei’s home. It is one of most lovely private dojo I have had the privilege to train in. It’s not large but it is lovely and simple. I met I. Sensei though my jodo teacher, M. Shihan, and I come to train at his dojo whenever I can. I. Sensei is the kancho for the M. Shihan’s group, so as is typical in Japan, everyone calls him by his title, “Kancho.”
We arrived just after the beginner’s seitei jo class ended. A couple of the more senior students stayed around to help us train. Kancho said that M. Shihan was planning to come by the dojo later. In the meantime, he asked me what we wanted work on. Knowing it’s never a bad thing to practice your kihon, and remembering that Adam is still new enough to not be familiar with the basic format of training, I suggested we drill kihon techniques.
This turned out to be a good idea for all of us, not just Adam. I have been teaching a lot of kihon techniques, but I haven’t been drilling them in the same way M. Shihan’s organization routinely does, so while Adam was being overwhelmed by the intensity of practicing with some of I. Sensei’s more senior students, I got to work at remembering many of the important points for the uchi side. Uchi is always the senior. While shi practices the kihon, uchi received shi’s technique and controls the spacing and speed of the practice so shi will get the most out the training.
Adam and Deborah got a lot of good training, and I got some excellent corrections in how things should be done. Training is Yoshunkan is quietly focused. Kancho doesn’t yell at anyone. His training is intense but he is gentle about it. It is completely unlike the atmosphere in movies or stories of traditional teachers who yell or don’t say anything at all. Kancho made sure each of us was stretched, but the feeling was one of having a treasure quietly shared with you rather than brutal training. Fujita-san worked me hard in both the kihon and some of the kata that we did. Adam was sweating from the effort that was being pulled from him as he worked to keep up with the demands of his partner and to integrate the corrections from Kancho. Deborah and Adam were both my guests in the dojo, so I was really responsible for them. However, between my own practice and trying to keep an eye on Adam, I left Deborah to fend for herself. I wasn’t really worried about her though. Her Japanese is quite functional and she’s traveled to Japan numerous times on her own. She doesn’t need any help from me.
Adam occasionally got that deer-in-headlights look though. His partners were drawing him up and down the length of the dojo, making him work at each of the kihon techniques while also subtly changing the distance for each attack so he could learn to understand and read spacing as well as practice the individual techniques. He had plenty to work on. On top of practicing techniques he’s not really strong at yet, he had to try and understand the corrections he was getting from Kancho and the senior students. When the corrections were straightforward, his basic Japanese skills were up to the task. Whenever the corrections were more subtle though, he was quickly floundering in a sea of unfamiliar Japanese vocabulary. I tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but when things got too complex, I would bow to my partner and then give Adam some language assistance.
While we were practicing, M. Shihan arrived. He is a delightful man, about 5’2” (157 cm) tall. If you see him on the street, aside from his incredible posture and carriage, he looks like a fairly average Japanese man. When he starts talking about Jodo though, he lights up with an energy and enthusiasm that is incredible to see and feel. I know from experience that Shihan’s jodo is powerful and inexorable. There is no stopping it. We didn’t get to feel it this day though. He had a busy schedule but had taken time out to visit the dojo to see us.
He asked what we had studied at the gasshuku, and we described our training there. Shihan asked Deborah to demonstrate the Omote set, and for me to act as uchi. We worked our way through the entire set under Sensei’s critical eye. Neither one of us wanted to make the least error. Despite our effort, there was still plenty for Shihan to correct. His corrections are always couched in a way that makes you think about not just what he’s correcting. He asks questions as he corrects that make you consider why you do something in a particular way. In this way, working with Shihan pulls our technique and understanding of everything behind the technique upwards.
After commenting on Deborah’s Omote, and the way I was doing the uchi side, Shihan asked Adam to demonstrate a couple of the kata he felt comfortable with. Shihan gave his some corrections, but didn’t overload him. I know Adam came away from this practice with plenty to think about.
Shihan had to leave before the practice was over, but it was wonderful to see him and get some instruction from him. Before he left, we mentioned that we were planning to visit another one of the dojo in the Osaka area that he leads on Monday night. Shihan warned us he might not be able to make it, but encouraged us to go train.
After Shihan left, and we had bowed him out of dojo, we practiced for a while longer, focusing on the points Shihan had corrected. Eventually though it was time to wrap up practice and bow out ourselves. Kancho served some tea and we chatted a little bit before we changed and headed for the train station. We had plenty to think about while we rode the train back to Shiga.
The next day we headed to Mount Koya, or Koya-san as it’s known in Japanese. Koya-san is where the head temple of Shingon Buddhism is located. Founded in 819 C.E., Koya-san is a major pilgrimage site. It is a wonderful, peaceful area in the remote mountains of Wakayama. The only way there is a funicular train, and the only places to stay are temples. We stayed at Daen-In, one of the numerous temples there. The temple provided dinner, sleeping rooms, breakfast, and an early morning Buddhist service of chanting, bells and incense for the numerous pilgrims visiting the temples and graveyard.
|Buddha statue on Mt. Koya. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan|
We spent the afternoon and evening walking about the graveyard. The graveyard is huge, and no one knows how many people have been buried and memorialized there. Filled with moss covered graves and 600 year old cedar trees, it is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Numerous rich and powerful families from the last 1200 years of Japanese history have graves there.
|Mt. Koya grave. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan|
|Mt. Koya graveyard. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan|
A more recent trend is for large companies to have a grave site for memorializing all those who work at the company and have passed away.
|Yakult company employee memorial gravesite. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan|
|Nissan company employee memorial grave site. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan|
One of the most interesting graves was erected by the termite exterminators association. Buddhism teaches that no living being, including insects, should be harmed. The exterminators have erected a grave for the spirits of all the termites they kill, a place where the spirits of the termites can be prayed for and offerings can be made on their behalf.
|Memorial grave site for termites killed by exterminators.|
Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan
We spent the night in the temple, ate the wonderful temple food (all vegetarian of course), and attended the 5:45 AM service. After some more time wandering around the temples, we got on the train back to Osaka. We had Jodo practice that night.
At the dojo that evening, we arrived early, but several of the senior students and teachers were there ahead of us and practicing. We got changed and started warming up. H. Sensei was there with his wife, who is quite accomplished also. And while we were warming up, Kancho came in. He doesn’t train at this dojo usually, but some of the members were preparing for a competition the following Sunday, and he was there to help them get ready.
H. Sensei told me that M. Shihan had called and wouldn’t be able to make it this evening, but that we should please stay and train. We were happy to do that. Even without Shihan, there were a couple of 7th dan teachers and plenty of other senior students in the room.
H. Sensei is a very different style of teacher from Kancho or Shihan. He reminds me much more of the classic image of the brusk, severe Japanese teacher. We worked our way through the warm-ups, and H. Sensei focused on Deborah, Adam and I. As we were working on hikiotoshi uchi, Sensei started yelling at me. I’ve been reworking my technique, but it seems I’d let my attack angle flatten a little in doing so. Sensei yelled at me that I’d never be able to do anything with that weak technique.
H. Sensei asked me what I thought I was doing and made me work at it until he was satisfied. After he watched Deborah and Adam for a few moments, he decided that we would focus on kihon for the evening. He found partners for Deborah and Adam and started us drilling. He yelled at Adam. He yelled at Deborah. He yelled at me more than the two of them combined. He asked what sort of Jodo I was doing? He yelled that we would never be able to do anything with such weak technique. He yelled and kept us working hard.
H. Sensei is an example of a classic Japanese teacher. I don’t think he is constitutionally capable of being complimentary during keiko. You know how much he cares about you and your learning by how much attention he pays to you. Unfortunately for us, the only way he knows to express that is by being harsh. From the amount of attention we three got, he is very concerned with us learning to do it right. Which is what I want from a teacher.
If H. Sensei ever said anything nice about my technique, then I’d be really worried. If he, or teachers like him, see anything worthwhile in you, they will yell and hound and badger you to bring out the best that they can see. If he ever said something nice about my technique and then continued on, it would be the worst comment I ever receive. If he says something nice, it means he doesn’t see any reason to bother giving me corrections or attention. A compliment from one of these old style teachers is the kiss of death. The compliment is their way of dealing with someone they rate as a waste of time to teach. They can compliment you and walk away.
If they decide to invest time in you though, that’s the sign they see something of value in you. Deborah has been around Japan long enough to have encountered this style of teacher before, but I was worried about Adam. Adam is still a beginner in Jodo, so this was an intense experience without having a 7th dan teacher yelling at him from close range and making him do techniques over and over until the teacher was satisfied. Deborah knew the best course is to stay silent or just said “Hai Sensei” if a response is needed. Adam’s Japanese isn’t anywhere near to being ready for dealing with this. When things really got tough, he’d look at me and I’d give some translation help, and then we’d be back to practicing the kihon.
I never complain about practicing kihon. Nearly everything in Shinto Muso Ryu can be boiled down to the 12 kihon waza that Shimizu Sensei developed. The better your kihon are, the better every other part of your Shinto Muso Ryu will be. So we drilled kihon. H. Sensei had me call out the commands for practicing the kihon in the dojo to make sure I was doing that right. Somewhere along the line I had flipped a couple of the Japanese words, so I got excoriated for not even knowing the Japanese commands. As we worked through each of the kihon waza, Sensei made sure Adam and Deborah were getting it right. A couple of times he had Adam attack him with a sword so Adam could experience how the techniques should feel when done properly, which is always a worthwhile experience.
I noticed as the evening went on, Sensei’s demeanor softened quite a bit. Adam and Deborah persevered under his pressure. They took everything he threw at them, and they kept showing him their best effort. They never gave up. They took each correction and worked to integrate it into their technique. Deborah and Adam let Sensei yell and they just kept working. By the time we reached the break, Sensei could see that they were going to work hard. He started backing down the volume. He still got all over them for anything he felt was poor technique. He didn’t give up on them, but he was clearly less harsh. They had proved to Sensei they were worthwhile students who are mature enough to handle serious instruction.
H. Sensei let me know that he was still disappointed with me. As a teacher, it’s my job to bring everyone up to the level he expects. I got quite the lecture about that. We all learned. Deborah and Adam got to polish their kihon under the close attention of a high level teacher. I learned what my teachers expect me to be focusing on with my students. I’ll be changing my lessons going forward. Lots more kihon.
At the end of the evening, as we were bowing out and then sharing a post keiko cup of tea, H. Sensei had us introduce ourselves to everyone. Even Adam’s basic Japanese was quite appreciated. People were impressed that he serious enough about Jodo to travel to Japan to train, and to put in the effort to begin learning Japanese. With keiko over, H. Sensei returned to his normal self, which is to say he was very pleasant to chat with. Everyone invited us to come back and train again soon. We promised we would.
Training with H. Sensei can be tough, especially if you don’t know about traditional teaching attitudes in Japan. There is long tradition that being nice to students of anything will make them soft and encourage them to give less than their best effort. The traditional way was to never compliment the student. If you know about this, some of the traditional teachers don’t seem nearly so harsh. They can still be tough to endure, and sometimes they will make you want to break and run. They can really toughen you up though. Day-to-day trials are a lot easier. That boss that likes to yell and pound on his desk? He doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating after having a 7th dan teacher verbally flay you and then insist that you attack him so he can demonstrate the flaws in your technique.
Maybe there are some real benefits to that traditional teaching that I hadn’t considered before.