Showing posts with label Shinto Muso Ryu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shinto Muso Ryu. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Good Budo Is Simple. That Doesn't Mean It's Easy.


 
Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014


I had a conversation with one of my Shinto Muso Ryu students that was interesting. He was having a common issue with a core technique. He was trying to make the technique unnecessarily complicated. The technique (in this case Maki Otoshi) is difficult enough without making it complicated.
   
Good budo is simple. Every koryu I’ve had a chance to work with at all has been extremely simple.  Shinto Muso Ryu has 12 fundamental techniques. The more I practice and study them though, the more I believe there are only 2: a strike and a thrust.

The Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai I do comes down to drawing and cutting. Even the defensive movements such as suri age and uke nagashi are applications of the fundamental mechanics and principles of good cutting. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.  Cut down. Reverse the motion and suri age. Maintain the relationship between arm, hand and sword and move it to the side for uke nagashi. They are all one.

Kodokan Judo has an impressive list of techniques: 65 throws, perhaps a dozen strangles, and a number of arm locks. They all manage to express the principle of 精力善用, or “maximum efficiency minimum effort” as it is most commonly translated. The throws, all of them, from big throws like seioinage and kata guruma to subtle foots sweeps like  de ashi harai to the seemingly impossible uki otoshi all rely on the principle of kuzushi. The more I study, more I see kuzushi as a simple thing, rather than many different movements I was taught for achieving kuzushi when doing various throws.

Good budo is always simple. I can do all of the jo kata from Shinto Muso Ryu in about 20 minutes. The iai kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu can be done in a similar amount of time. The kenjutsu kata of Muso Shinden Ryu can be done in about 10 minutes. There is nothing complicated in any of them. Iai kata are all “draw and cut” or sometimes “draw and cut several times.”  Jo kata, no matter how advanced all come back to those 12 fundamental techniques.

A good question to ask is “Why is good budo always simple?” Simple has several advantages. First, it’s easier to teach and learn. For iai, if you only have one grip on the sword, and you always use the sword the same way, you can learn it much faster than if you have multiple grips and a variety of ways to handle the swords in different situations.

Simple is smoother and more stable. Short, simple, uncomplicated actions are smoother to carry out and leave less room for mistakes. Complexity creates weak points. If I’m doing sword and I have to repeatedly change my grip I create an opening every time I have to change my grip. There is a moment during each grip change when my control of the sword is weak because I have to let go to make the change. If my opponent attacks at the moment there is nothing I can do since I don’t have a solid grip on my weapon, and she will defeat me easily.  The same goes for footwork.  Judo footwork is stunningly simple and uncomplicated. We avoid doing anything complicated that involves crossing our feet. The whole time our feet are crossed, we are standing on one point instead of two, making us unstable and vulnerable.  Complex is weak because it has many connections or joints where it can be attacked. Simple is stronger because it has fewer suki, openings, to attack.

Good budo is based around a few basic principles and movements that can be deployed in an exceptionally broad variety of situations.  Good budo almost never focuses on principles or movements that can only be used in a very few situations. The focus is on making the broadest possible use of the fewest learned movements. That makes each system much more efficient and effective.

Simple systems are easier to apply and use. If I have to choose from dozens of very different techniques, the possibility of me mixing elements of two techniques and ending up with neither increases quickly.  With simple, consistent systems, the techniques are built on a single, common foundation.  This common foundation makes the elements of the different techniques common, which means that there is little to mix up or confuse between techniques, and flowing from one technique to the next is easier because the fundamental elements of all the techniques are the same.

Complex techniques open up another set of problems. Every additional step required for a technique multiplies the opportunity for making a mistake by an order of magnitude. The best techniques are as simple as possible, creating no extra space for mistakes and getting the job done quickly and efficiently.

Simple techniques are also just faster. A two step technique takes twice as long to perform as a one step technique.  A three step technique takes three times as long. The longer it takes to finish a technique, the more opportunity there is for Murphy’s Law to come into play. I don’t about know about anyone else, but I don’t want to give Murphy the least chance to interfere.

As my student was discovering though, simple does not mean easy. It takes a lot of work to develop the most fundamental skills. For me, the most difficult technique in Kodokan Judo is the first technique from the first kata people learn, uki otoshi. After 29 years, I finally feel like I’m beginning to understand it. It’s as pared down and simple as a technique can be. It’s also as difficult to do right as anything I’ve ever tried. My version of Occam’s Razor is “The simplest budo is the best budo.”


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kuzushi Is More Than Off Balancing


Kuzushi means “off-balancing.” Everyone knows that. It’s been translated that way for decades. Off-balancing must be an accurate translation of the word if everyone keeps using it. The truth is it’s a terrible translation.  Not the complete misdirection that is translating 柔道 as “the Gentle Way” but still pretty awful.

Kuzushi comes from the word “kuzusu 崩す” which according to the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary means “to break, pull down, tear down, knock down, whittle away at, break, change.” Judo is pretty clear about the process of throwing though, separating it into 3 steps that go kuzushi - tsukuri - kake. Tsukuri is roughly “making” and in this case is something like making the technique by getting in the right place. Kake is executing the technique. Kuzushi happens well in front of execution, so it can’t literally mean knocking something down in this case. We’re also not breaking our partner, so what are we doing?

My friend Michael Hacker likes to interpret kuzushi as “undermining the foundation.” For a long time, this was the best interpretation of kuzushi I had found. It’s quite a graphic and effective image. If you undermine the foundation of a building, it falls down under it’s own weight. If you can undermine the foundation of your partner, they will begin to fall down and all you have to do is direct your technique so they can’t recover.

I like this much better than the simple “off-balancing” that is the common translation. Getting someone off-balance is nice, but they can recover. From a tactical point, off-balancing is usually obvious to the person being attacked. If you subtly destroy the foundation of their stance though, they may not even notice that you are doing it. Often people can even be lead into compromising their own structure. If you can get someone to push or pull harder than can be supported by the foundation of their feet and legs, then you’ve undermined their foundation.

Undermining the foundation was my working concept for kuzushi for quite a while, and it helped me find the way to my current understanding. I’ve been working on a somewhat different way of thinking about kuzushi. I’ve found myself applying what I recognized as kuzushi not just when doing judo and aikido, but also when training in kenjutsu and jodo. At first it was just about getting someone off-balance or wrecking their foundation so they couldn’t resist my technique. In jodo, there are techniques where you attack your partner’s weapon, and if your attack doesn’t steal their balance for at least an instant and force them to take steps to recover, your technique has failed and you find a bokken uncomfortably close to your nose.

Then I started to envision the concept of kuzushi slightly differently. It was a combination of experiences from Aikido, Daito Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu Jo, and several styles of kenjutsu. I found that kuzushi worked well in all of them. And not just the happo no kuzushi that is introduced in judo. Often what is happening is not the big movements described in judo classes where you are drawing, lifting or driving someone’s center of gravity away from the support of their feet and legs. It is much smaller and subtler.

That’s why I like Michael Hacker’s definition of “undermining the foundation” even as I look for something that is simpler and more generally applicable. An experience with Jim Baker, an amazing Aikido teacher, got me thinking about this more. What he does in standing kokyuho practice is lock up your body starting at your wrist when you grab him. Without any significant motion, he then locks your elbows, your shoulders, all the way down your spine, and then he makes your knee give way. I’m not sure how he does the last bit, because I can only lock someone up through the shoulders with any consistency, but he does it to me without effort. I tried to find a video of it, but there aren’t any where you can see what’s going on.

Jim isn’t attacking the foundation. He doesn’t even attack the support structure of the leg until after the upper body is completely locked up. I realized this is similar to something I do in judo to setup some throws. Often I don’t try to break my partner’s balance. For some techniques I try to set my partner up so they are well balanced, so well balanced that they can’t move to defend themselves because they’ll start to fall if they do. Then I attack.

What Jim Baker and I are both doing (though he does it much more elegantly than I) is not off-balancing our partner or undermining their foundation.. We’re destabilizing them. All the way along when I do this in judo, my partner is balanced. If I let go without throwing, she’ll stay upright because I haven’t unbalanced her.  What I have done is make her unstable, so she can’t move without starting to fall. Jim Baker does the same thing. He makes your body’s structure, the bones and joints, lock up and become unable to adjust to changes as they are designed to.

The same thing can happen with crossed weapons. A good partner can move you into an unstable structure so that you can’t do anything to respond to her. Many kata in koryu are designed to teach how to do just that, drive you into a position where you don’t have enough stability to be able to respond to your partner’s attack, create a moment where you cannot move into a safe position. This happens a lot in the higher level kata of many classical systems, although they don’t usually call what they are doing kuzushi. It’s a great term for what is happening though. They are destroying their partners stability, making it impossible to respond effectively. In Shinto Muso Ryu there a number of techniques that are only really effective when they disrupt not only your partner’s weapon, but also your partner’s stability. Maki otoshi is a good example.


Each technique by jo in the above video disrupts and momentarily destabilizes the swordsman. The first technique twists his structure to the left and off his center. The second technique, a stop strike, drives the swordsman’s head and upper body back and slightly off balance, giving jo time to attack the sword directly.  The attack on the sword is followed by maki otoshi. Maki otoshi is actually a very soft technique that done correctly, as it is here, completely disrupts the swordsman to the right. The technique destabilizes him so much that he must take a step to regain some stability. This is good kuzushi.

Our bodies are loaded with flexible joints. We maintain stability by flexing the joints and moving. In budo, good balance and stability are not about standing statically upright. Good balance and stability are dynamic. That’s why counters work so well in judo. If you attack but I retain or regain my stability I can go from being thrown to throwing you, even if I’m already in the air. In a situation like that, even without a foot on the ground, I have a stable center that I can use to destabilize you and get you airborne.  When facing a stick or sword, you can maneuver and manipulate your partner so they aren’t stable enough to resist you.

Kuzushi can be off-balancing your partner. That’s not all it is though. Kuzushi doesn’t have to be big and obvious, pulling someone off their center. It can be smaller, rearranging their posture just enough to make them unstable even while they are still balanced, and unable to respond to what is happening.  If you make someone unstable, they can’t respond to what you’re doing, and have lost. That’s kuzushi.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Kaminoda Tsunemori Shihan







Kaminoda Tsunemori Shihan 1928 - 2015

I am working on an essay about the concept of on 恩 (pronounced like “own”). It has to do with obligation and indebtedness. The concept is one that is particularly strong for me right now because a great teacher, to whom I am indebted in many ways, direct and indirect, passed away recently. Kaminoda Tsunemori Shihan was 88 when he passed away last month, and he stands as one of the great budo teachers of the second half the 20th century and into the 21st.  

Kaminoda Shihan was a teacher of Shinto Muso Ryu Jodo and Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido. Born in Kagoshima in the third year of the Showa Emperor’s reign, 1928, Sensei grew up and came of age during the era when Japan was at war in China and Asia. In that era, like every other boy in Japan, he would have studied kendo and judo and maybe even jukendo as part of the school curriculum. IN 1955 though, he was accepted as a student of Shimizu Takaji Sensei, and began learning Shinto Muso Ryu.


Over the decades, Kaminoda Shihan mastered the jo, the staff of Shinto Muso Ryu, as well as the associated arts of Shinto Kasumi Ryu Kenjutsu, Isshin Ryu Kusarigama Jutsu,  Ikkaku Ryu Jutte Jutsu, Uchida Ryu Tanjo Jutsu and Ittatsu Ryu Hojojutsu.  Eventually he received Menkyo Kaiden, or “License Of Complete Transmission” signifying that he had learned completely the curriculum of Shinto Muso Ryu.  

At the same time Kaminoda Shihan was doing this, he also found the time to become 7th dan kyoshi in kendo, and 8th dan hanshi in both iaido and jodo from the All Japan Kendo Federation.  Any one of those ranks is impressive, to achieve all three of them as well as mastering the koryu bugei of Shinto Muso Ryu is incredible.  


I first had the privilege of meeting Kaminoda Shihan in about 1998. My teacher, Matsuda Sensei, introduced us at the big taikai in held in Shiga, Japan every year.  Already, I was indebted to Kaminoda Shihan, because he had become my teacher’s teacher. Thus, I am indebted to Kaminoda Shihan, as I am to all of the teachers before him, who worked and trained and polished Shinto Muso Ryu into the art I am receiving, and who also patiently and carefully taught the generations of teachers who have made it possible for me to begin learning Shinto Muso Ryu.

A few years later, for reasons I was never brave enough to inquire about, I received an invitation to attend a gasshuku that Kamindo Shihan sponsored twice a year. Shihan and his senior students, all Menkyo Kaiden themselves, would gather at in the countryside outside of Tokyo at Kashima Shrine to train intensively in Shinto Muso Ryu for several days.  I asked Matsuda Sensei about this, because training with another teacher is highly frowned up if you don’t have the understanding and permission of your teacher. Matsuda Sensei was more than gracious about this unexpected invitation. He said that Kaminoda Shihan was an exceptional teacher, and that any time I had the opportunity to train with him, I should seize it.

With such strong encouragement from Matsuda Sensei, I couldn’t wait to go and train with Kaminoda Shihan.  Training with Kaminoda Shihan was a wonderful experience. He was frighteningly fast and intense, and his precision seemed inhuman. He, however, was very human. After practice he welcomed all of our questions, and he was unfailingly patient with my poor Japanese.

Many of my fond memories are of the post practice gatherings in Kaminoda Sensei’s room at the gasshuku, as we all talked about the Shinto Muso Ryu and any questions we might have from the day’s training, or from some other source. It didn’t matter that we were all in sweats or yukata and ready to relax. If a question came up that required demonstration to adequately answer, Kaminoda Shihan would be up and demonstrating, moving us around the room easily with smooth technique. I was nearly twice his size, and yet Kaminoda Shihan could move me as easily as he did anyone his own size.  He enjoyed pointing out our suki, or openings, with a simple amusement and a big smile, especially when one of us thought we were strong enough to resist his technique. We never were.

Kaminoda Shihan wrote several books about Shinto Muso Ryu and it’s related arts. He was unfailingly kind and generous whenever someone asked him to sign one. He never just signed a book. He always took some time to think of something to say, and wrote it in his marvelous calligraphy.  I have several of Kaminoda Shihan’s books, and each has a thoughtful and beautiful dedication in the front.


Book dedication by Kaminoda Shihan  Photo Copyright 2015 Peter Boylan


I remember well going to a gasshuku Kaminoda Shihan was sponsoring, and arriving the night before.  When my friends and I arrived, Kamindo Shihan was the only other person there. He took us out to dinner and spent the evening talking with us about all manner of budo.  In fact, at every gathering, he was always patient about sharing his ideas and understanding of budo.  I don’t always remember the post-training discussions as well as the above dinner. After training we usually had beer and sake to accompany the discussion, and that may have sometimes clouded my memory.

My experiences training with Kaminoda Shihan are all vivid and clear in my memory.  His technique was crisp, clean and when he was teaching and training, just difficult enough to make you work to reach the level he was giving you, without being so far above you that you couldn’t get there.  That doesn’t mean it was easy or what you would exactly call “fun,” but training with him was an incredible experience that would push you to new levels. I remember the full throated fear that I was not going to be able to keep up with him, with his sword whizzing at my head much faster than I thought it should be. He always kept the speed just within what I could do, nothing I was comfortable with, but a level that I could manage if I dug down deep and found ability I didn’t know I had.

I only knew Kaminoda Shihan for a small part of his life. He had many accomplishments far greater than sharing a bit of himself with me, but that is what I know, and the part of him I knew.  I owe Kaminoda Shihan for all that he shared so freely with me, and for all the times he kicked my butt during training. There was never any thought on his part that I should or could ever repay him, and I always suspected what I now know, that there was never any possibility that I could repay him. The best I can do is to give away what he so freely gave to me, remember him to my students, make sure they know where all the things I give them came from, and let them know that they are part of a grand tradition that includes great men like Kaminoda Tsunemori.

Kaminoda Tsunemori  Shihan 1928-2015        
神之田常盛 範士
Kendo Kyoshi 1965                                         
 剣道教士 昭和40
Jodo Hanshi 1985                                             
杖道範士 昭和60
Iaido Hanshi 1992                                             
居合道範士 平成4
Taihojutsu Jokyu 1966                                      
逮捕術 上級 昭和41
Kenjuho Jokyu 1966                                        
 けん銃法 上級 昭和41
Kodokan Judo Sandan 1976                            
講道館 柔道 三段 昭和51
Fuji Ryu Goshido Nanadan 1984                    
 富士流 護身道 七段 昭和59
Shinto Kasumi Ryu Kenjutsu Menkyo 1971    
神道霞流 剣術 免許 昭和46
Shinto Muso Ryu Menkyo Kaiden 1972           
神道夢想流 免許皆伝 昭和47
Isshin Ryu Kusarigama Jutsu Menkyo 1978   
一心流鎖鎌術 免許 昭和53
Ikkaku Ryu Jutte Jutsu Menkyo 1978              
一角流十手術 免許 昭和53
Ittatsu Ryu Hojojutsu Menkyo 1978                 
一達流捕縄術 免許 昭和53
Uchida Ryu Tanjojutsu Menkyo 1978            
 内田流短杖術 免許 昭和53

There is more about Kaminoda Shihan at the Capital Area Jodokai website.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom




Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.


I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.


Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.


If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.


Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.


Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 4: A Castle, 2 Dojo and a Holy Mountain



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.

Daen Temple. Mt Koya. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

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 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.