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.