Showing posts with label keiko. Show all posts
Showing posts with label keiko. 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.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Budo Thoughts During Jet Lag

 
Teacher, Friends And Peers
Photo copyright Kumiko Yamada 2015


I wrote most of this while recovering from my most recent trip to Japan.

I’ve got jet lag. I was lucky enough to spend the last two weeks in Japan visiting friends and teachers, but now I’m home and until my body adjusts to the different solar schedule, I’ve got a few hours in the middle of the night where I’ll be awake.

Jet lag gives me some time to think about things.It’s always great to visit everyone in Japan, and these past two weeks were no exception. I have been going to Japan to train for 25 years. I still see myself as the young guy who just started. All around me in Japan I can see how everyone there has aged and changed. I’m not the young guy without a clue anymore. Kiyama Sensei turned 90 this year, but he still has the most powerful koshi I know of.  Inoue Sensei hasn’t changed much. He was a 7th dan with smooth, strong iai when I started, and his technique has gotten smoother with time. There are a number of folks around who hadn’t even started iai when I moved back to the US from Japan, and they are already 5th dans.

Budo is a path that goes on and on. It’s not just a solo path. We travel the road with our teachers and the other students around us, and the journey will continue even after we no longer can. For ourselves, we journey along the road seeking skill and maturity. For our students, we are part of the road itself. My teachers have formed the bed of the road I’m journeying on. Particularly early on in my journey, they were the road. If they branched left, so did I. If they turned right, I followed. Their direction was fundamental to how I saw budo and what parts of it I was able to explore.

As I’ve gained in experience and understanding, I have more ability and freedom to explore the path of budo and all the side roads that branch from on my own.  There are exciting and flashy trends that turn out to be little more than swamp gas. You can get completely lost trying to chase them down. Of more value are the simple things. Just going to the dojo and training.  Having a partner who trusts you and herself enough to attack so that you do get hit if you don’t move properly.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp

These are important parts of the journey.  There are many Ways that don’t require another person. Shodo and kado (calligraphy and flower arranging) leap to the front of my mind. No on is required to make shodo or kado practice complete.  The practitioner need never share her work with another person.  The calligraphy and the flower arrangement are complete even if no one else sees it.

Budo isn't a solo path though. All budo, even iai, is about interacting with the world. Our teachers and partners are important parts of the world, often providing immediate feedback on the quality of work. Our greatest adversary is always ourselves, but it is through practice with our partners and teachers that we find the flaws within ourselves to be addressed. That’s one of the tough things about having good teachers and peers on the path. They won’t lets us ignore our own faults. They point us towards faults we would happily ignore, and help us improve beyond them. This is never fun, but it is one of the great things about good budo practice with good teachers, good partners.

Not all budo training and learning happens in the dojo. Photo copyright 2015

Learning to fight without learning anything else is a fool’s path. Along the Way of budo training, there is a lot of learning beyond just the techniques. We won’t get that without our teachers, without our training partners. One of my students, an accomplished teacher in his own field, has been critical in helping me recognize and start dealing with some of my own weaknesses. He can sense when I don’t take some aspect of training as absolutely seriously as I need to. He also happens to have a brilliant eye for spotting issues with an individual’s structure. He is a wonderful companion for all of us traveling on this particular path.

I wouldn’t have made any progress in budo without my teachers and partners. They’ve taught me, gently and sometimes not so gently, about timing and spacing and ukemi and so many other things. Budo is an endless path, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without my teachers and partners. Thank you.

Monday, December 14, 2015

What Are You Training?


I know many people who scoff at the idea of budo for personal development. They see dojo training as strictly a means for honing technique. They laugh at all the mamby-pamby talk of personal development.  For them, Budo is strictly a place for becoming a better fighter. Which is exactly why they are completely wrong.

Marc MacYoung recently wrote

The act of physically killing someone is easy.
What is hard is having the judgment to know when to do so or when not to.


Yes, you’re learning how to use techniques. That’s fundamental to the process. You have to learn the stance and postures first. These are are your alphabet. Only after you’ve learned the alphabet can you learn to spell whole words. Once you’ve got your basic postures, stances, grips, etc, you can start learning techniques.  But learning techniques is like learning to write individual words. There are lots of people who can spell, but like many people I deal with by email, still can’t write a coherent sentence.

Budo doesn’t really start to become budo until you’ve got enough control of these basic building blocks that you can begin assembling them into simple sentences. In judo these look like the Nage No Kata, with basic attack and response patterns.


Even in the relatively simple budo sentences of the Nage No Kata, complexity starts sneaking in. There are techniques that require multiple steps to set up. Others are attacked, blocked and the defense is circumvented. Start with a simple sentence like “He attacks me with his fist.”  Learn to reply with “I drop and throw him.”  Simple budo sentences. Like simple sentences in a grammar school reader, are not very interesting.

Once you start learning to put together stances and techniques, you can have a conversation. Mark Law talks about this a little in his book FALLING HARD. Judo randori, or any kind of sparring, is a chance to have a budo conversation where questions are posed in stances and techniques, and then answered with other stances and techniques.

Just like in writing class, even after you learn spelling and basic punctuation there is a lot to learn about creating sentences and then paragraphs and stories in the language of budo. Early on we don’t have too many words in our budo vocabulary, so our sentences aren’t very subtle or interesting.

As we progress along the Way, we learn to choose more and more precisely appropriate techniques. We learn that uchimata is probably not the best technique for us to use on the goliath at judo, but that it works pretty well on the guy close to our size. Against that small, fast lady, the one who’s always catching us with taiotoshi, we’re going to need to polish up our foot sweeps.

We have to learn to recognize these things. The same is true in weapons training. The best technique against the tall, strong foe may be entirely inappropriate against the quick, light one, and the techniques that work in those situations may be utterly ineffective against someone short and solid.

Then, just like at dinner with the family, we learn that sometimes the best reaction is none at all. When we train, we have to consider that not all threats and attacks are equal.  I spend a lot of time working with students getting them to make serious attacks. Often I can see that what they think is a serious attack won’t reach me. I can stand there and watch them swing. Their bokken whistles by me. I’ve learned not just how to deal with an attack, but how to distinguish between something that will hurt me and something that won’t (I’m a slow learner, so I got hit a few times before I figured out the real difference).

Knowing the difference between an attack that is dangerous and one that can be ignored isn’t just about technique.  Most of the attacks we deal with in life aren’t physical. They are attacks on our mind and ego. If you never train anything but physical technique, how will you develop a spirit sturdy enough to ignore attacks on your ego?  Are you learning the control necessary to ignore verbal attacks that don’t need a response of any kind? That’s budo too.

What good is all this budo training if you never train anything but technique? Without training the mind and the spirit you will be a servant of the techniques, applying them without discretion (sounds like most brown belts in randori).  You have to have control and discretion about when to use which technique, and when it’s best not to use any technique at all. If all of your training is about how to apply the techniques, you risk applying one when you shouldn’t.  In the US, that can put you in jail very quickly.

Truly mastering techniques means that you control the techniques. You decide when a response is necessary, and when it isn’t. You decide what level of response is appropriate and which technique meets that requirement. You decide when a situation is escalating so you can leave before you have to decide what level of response and which technique is most appropriate.

This means you have to work on the mamby-pamby stuff too, not just the cool techniques. You have to learn to self-control, to know that some attacks can be ignored because they won’t hurt you, and that other attacks should be absorbed and ignored because the damage that reacting would do is worse than the damage the attack will do. Do you learn these things? They are part of the strategy of applying martial arts training. Learning the techniques is just the first step.  Learning when not to use them is a lot tougher.  To be able to know when not to use a technique, first you have to do the tough work of training your mind and spirit to be greater than your ego. If you thought that iriminage or uki otoshi were tough to master, try mastering your own ego.

Are you training technique? Or are you training you?


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 5: Saturday With The Seventh Dans


After 2 weeks of Musha Shugyo around Japan, we all wrapped up our vacation time. Deborah and Adam made their way back to the United States, while I stayed in Japan for a couple more weeks of work. Even though I was working, I was able to get back to Shiga for Saturday keiko with Kiyama Sensei and some of the other students in his dojo. On this particular Saturday evening, there was a lively aikido class going on in the matted dojo next to the kendo and iai dojo. When you’re doing something as quiet as iaido, aikido sounds remarkably noisy.

This week the class was small. It was Kiyama Sensei, a couple of his 7th dan students, and me. It’s fun, because I get to address everyone in the room as “Sensei.”  It’s intimidating because I’ve known I. Sensei since I started iaido.  He’s one of Kiyama Sensei’s students, and he was already a 7th dan back when I started. W. Sensei got his 7th dan sometime in the last few years so he’s been around a lot longer than I have too. Both of them were dressed in nice black keikogi and hakama. It was great to see them and chat as we all got ready for practice.

Just in case you think the previous keiko was unusual, this keiko was almost exactly like the one with Deborah and Adam. Kiyama Sensei stood at the front of the dojo, called out kata, banged his bokuto on the floor, and we did it. First, he had us do the Kendo Federation Seitei Kata. These are the standardized kata created by a committee of senior members of the Kendo Federation to use for doing rank testing. The nice thing about them is that everyone does the same kata the same way, so it's possible for people who train a variety of koryu iai systems to be ranked in a comparable manner. We started with number one, “Mae” and worked our way through all 12 of the kata. Sometimes we'd repeat a kata a time or two, but we moved through them steadily.

The new spin this time was that after we had been through the 12 Seitei Kata, Kiyama Sensei asked me to demonstrate the first kata in front of everyone. This was almost as stressful as taking my last rank test a couple of years ago. These guys have all been highly ranked since before I started, and they've been watching me since my first day in the dojo. They know all my bad habits. I took a deep breath, or two, possibly three, and started in on the kata. It didn't feel too bad, but I'm know I have plenty of room for improvement. When I finished I was expecting Kiyama Sensei to detail my various weaknesses and mistakes. Instead he caught us all by surprise and asked I. Sensei and W. Sensei to give their comments. I received some insightful and subtle critique of my technique. There was plenty to work on with this alone. The way it was given to me however was very different than I’ve been accustomed to being addressed. Both teachers started out by saying that what they were talking about was something they were working on. Then they told and showed me how I could apply the lessons they are working on in their own practice to my iai. Instead of it being straight teacher to student, these were more like fellow travelers on the Way sharing their discoveries and understanding. We are all Kiyama Sensei's students, but this was a first for me.

After that we worked our way through the Omori Ryu and Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata sets from Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. I was nervous but after the previous keiko with Kiyama Sensei most of the kata came back to me quickly. For those I didn’t remember, I had two excellent models to follow. All I had to do was just slow down a little more. Sensei had us repeat each kata several times, but we didn’t stop for any long explanations or major corrections. Practice moved forward smoothly and solidly. Kiyama Sensei would say “Again” or “Next,” the bokuto would go “Bam!” and we’d do the kata.  A few times Sensei made a comment to me or to one of the other students, but mostly we just pushed ourselves along. There is something about training in such a high quality atmosphere I can’t really describe. I learn so much just from being there. I can learn without knowing what or how I’m learning.  Everyone I see is doing the kata at a much higher level, so I can absorb ideas about the iai just from seeing them practice. The atmosphere is fabulously loaded with knowledge and skill, It would be difficult not to pick up things by osmosis.

Somewhere in there I know we stopped for a short break and some tea. In case I haven't mentioned it, tea is ubiquitous in Japan. All the vending machines are loaded with green tea, black tea, sweetened tea, genmai tea, hot and cold. We all had some tea and relaxed and talked about kata we weren't quite comfortable with, or other issues we feel we are having with our iai.

The most startling thing that occurred happened after we finished working through the Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata. Sensei asked me to demonstrate the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu for everyone. Sensei has only taught Shinto Hatakage Ryu to a couple of people who have shown great and persistent interest in it. I’m sometimes amazed that over the decades more people haven’t asked Kiyama Sensei to teach Shinto Hatakage Ryu. This treasure sits in front of them. Sensei's teacher used to demonstrate it regularly, and Kiyama Sensei has demonstrated it occasionally at embu so everyone in the area recognizes it when they see it. Yet no one asks him to teach them. It comes to me demonstrating this for students who do beautiful Eishin Ryu, but for whatever reason never asked Sensei about this.

I demonstrated the Seiza No Bu, and then Sensei told us to do it together. So I would do the kata and these two highly ranked seniors followed me through the Seiza No Bu. I was intimidated before, but nothing like this. Now there was no room for me to goof up. On the other hand, I. Sensei and W. Sensei are so good, and have such solid fundamentals that they had no trouble picking up the general shape of each kata. Once they saw the shape, they could duplicate the kata with precision. The fundamentals don’t change. You have to have great koshi and relaxed movement.  So I demonstrated and my seniors followed along.

Kiyama sensei always wraps up keiko in the same way. He takes us back to the beginning and we do the very first kata, the one we started learning iai with. We didn't finish with any of the fancy kata from EIshin Ryu, or one of the exciting ones from the Shinto Hatakage Ryu we'd just done. We returned to the simplest, most fundamental of kata. We did the Kendo Federation’s first kata, Ippon Me Mae a couple of times to close the practice. It's the simplest kata, so if there are any issues with your fundamentals, they stand out the most when you do it. The not so subtle lesson is “Don't forget your basics.”

After that Kiyama Sensei said “Owarimasho.” We all moved closer to Sensei and the the front of the dojo where the shinzen is. One thing that I had to adjust to when I started with Sensei is that he's not very concerned with all the outward signs of rank. For iaido, we don't line up in any pre-arranged order. No one runs to the right or the left so they can sit in proper rank order. We just gather in to Sensei and sat in seiza. Sensei turned towards the shinzen and we all bowed to the kamiza. He turned around and we bowed to Sensei, which was moving for me. All my gratitude went into that bow. I won’t see Sensei again for months. Then we students turned to each other and bowed our thanks to each other for the good practice.

As we were changing, caring for our swords and folding up our hakama, Sensei came over to talk. He reminded me that, on top of the other things I. Sensei and W. Sensei had commented on, I still need to make sure my koshi is correct and that I put the power from my koshi into my movement and my cuts. He had other suggestions for I. Sensei and W. Sensei. I think they have drilled proper koshi until they’ve reached the point that they would have trouble trying to figure out how to move without good koshi.

It was great training with Sensei, and as always, saying farewell at the train station is tough. I’d much rather stick around and train with him than head to back to work. I had picked up many good points and plenty of guidance for my practice, but I really wish I could have stayed longer. Every practice is great, but the ones with Sensei are treasures. That moisture on my cheek as Sensei drove away from the station was from the rain. Really.

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.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 1

Musha Shugyo 武者修行is an old Japanese term for the practice of leaving one’s home and traveling around the country to learn from people, engage in challenge matches, grow, and perhaps even establish oneself. Rennis Buchner has a great article on musha shugyo over on Acme Budo. The past few weeks I’ve been on a modern version of the musha shugyo, visiting Japan, training with some great teachers in different dojo, and getting my butt thoroughly kicked along the way.

Even in the old days, musha shugyo were not endless rounds of intense duals. They were as much or more about learning and trying to find a job as anything else. Buchner’s references from various Hoki Ryu records provide a much more balanced and realistic view of what was happening than the popular myths. Sadly, my journey was not about finding a job teaching budo somewhere in Japan. There just aren’t many jobs for staff budoka anymore. Today a musha shugyo is a journey of hard training, deep learning and mental and spiritual development. For these purposes, our journey was a wonderful success.

I set out with a friend and one of her students to attend a private gasshuku sponsored by the teacher of one of my teachers, as well as to visit several dojo of my sword and jo teachers. Along the way we also squeezed in a few sites and experiences from around Japan. Budo is not just what happens in the dojo, and we didn’t want to miss the rest of the experience that is Japan.

Our first destination was the Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku, sponsored by the teacher of my Jodo teacher. This private gasshuku is a regular event, held at an incredible dojo space in Kashima Japan, next to the grounds of one of the largest and most famous Shinto shrines dedicated to budo. The Shinbuden is a privately operated dojo space that anyone can rent. The dojo space is vast, with enough floor space to run at least 3 kendo competition areas and 2 judo competition areas simultaneously. Walking into the vast hall the first time is intimidating. It’s huge and the room echoes with your voice. There are couple of enourmous taiko drums used to call people to order, mark the start and end of meditation, and to beat out the rhythm for group practice. When the dojo is filled with budoka screaming out their kiai the sound is incredible.



Shinbuden interior during practice. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2014


This year the head teacher couldn’t join us due to health issues, so we had to settle for three of his top students, all of whom are not just menkyo kaiden in Shinto Muso Ryu, but are also highly ranked seniors in other arts including iaido, aikido, and judo. No one was really settling for anything. We had more instructor power than we could handle.

The training was not the harsh, brutal training often depicted in movies. We trained hard, but thoughtfully, with an emphasis on really grasping and understanding what we were doing. The goal was to establish a solid base of knowledge in each participant so they could continue to grow and polish what was learned during the gasshuku after they returned to their home dojo. Training was katageiko and we drilled one set of kata for three days. Contrary to what you might think, this wasn’t abusive or boring.  It was fascinating. After going through the same group of kata so many times, and being able to see even the most senior student in attendance getting corrected on numerous fine details, I have pages of notes to implement into my training when I finally get home.

We lined up in two rows, with senior students closest to the kamiza and wielding bokuto (bokken). Sensei called out the kata and we did it to the best of our abilities. Then the three teachers corrected people on various errors, and we did it again. I received plenty of correction on everything from foot placement to timing to fundamental positions. It was great. The teachers would come over, take my partner’s place, and then we’d do the technique. They would show me quite clearly where my flaws lay. One teacher in particular took great, good-humored, pleasure showing how he could cut off your leg or head with his bokuto to demonstrate to you just how weak your position was.

The training wasn’t just in the techniques of ryuha however. We learned a lot about being members of the ryuha as well. A ryuha isn’t just a set of techniques and kata. Ryuha are ancient traditions. The youngest of the koryu budo are a mere 150 years old.  The oldest go back to the 15th century. With more than 400 years of history, being a member of Shinto Muso Ryu is much more than just learning a few techniques. The ryuha really is a sort of family society, and the gasshuku emphasized this for all of us. The hotel we stayed at was much more traditional than modern. Meals were traditional Japanese style, and we helped with everything. Members would show up early and serve the rice, tea, and miso soup for each other, preparing the table in an exercise that emphasizes each person’s membership in the group.  This is part of how the group bonds. Since this was our musha shugyo, we made sure to be there and help out. We traveled halfway around the world to be a part of this group, and working together supporting each other is part of the shugyo.

A word about shugyo 修行 might be in order. Shugyo can be anything from simple training done sincerely to ascetic exercises performed for spiritual or religious purposes.  Within budo, practice is viewed as both training in the techniques of the system and developing students spirit, heart and mind. For my friends and I, and for everyone at the gasshuku, both aspects were fully present in our training. The technique training is clear, but the spiritual side was there too. We learned to not be put off by failure, as the teachers had us repeat techniques until we could get them right. We learned to endure fatigue and sleep deprivation because the socializing with the teachers could go late and cut into the amount of sleep we got. Sleep was already a precious commodity for my friends and I because we were suffering from jet lag. In previous years I’ve gone to the February gasshuku and learned to endure the suffering of training in the huge, drafty, unheated dojo, so the November chill felt like a warm spring by comparison. By the end of the third day we were also battling sore, achy muscles and a few bruises from strikes that missed their targets and thrusts that were a little too successful. At the gasshuku though, none of this was anything to complain about. That too was part of the shugyo.

The last couple days of the training we covered some less frequently emphasized pieces of the curriculum, which was as much fun as it was frustrating.  Because these parts of the system don’t get practiced as often, you were likely see someone (like me) stop in the middle of a kata because he couldn’t figure out how to get from where he was to where he needed to be. The fun came as we laughed at our mistakes and felt great when we finally got something right. I actually managed to do kusarigama without hitting myself in the face with the fundo consistently for the first time. I also got it to wrap around the sword correctly a few times.  Now I just have to practice it several million times more to get it down.

Katageiko 形稽古 training is not the harsh, abusive training you sometimes see depicted in stories of old Japan. It’s a cooperative effort. The attacking side provides just enough speed and energy for the learning side to be able to learn.  Sometimes this means we seem to be moving in slow motion, and sometimes it means we stop with a laugh as we make a really silly blunder.

As I mentioned, the Shinbuden Dojo is next to the grounds of the largest and most famous Shinto Shrine related to budo in Japan. Outside Japan the Katori Shrine is better know because of Donn Draeger’s books, but inside Japan Kashima Shrine is far more famous and popular as a pilgrimage site.  Kashima Shrine is old and huge.  The grounds are filled with a forest dominated by massive cedar trees that range up to 600 years old and over 2 meters in diameter.

Headed Out Kashima Shrine Gate Copyright Peter Boylan 2014


During the gasshuku, we took a morning to visit the shrine, received a blessing and performed a hono enbu 奉納演武, or demonstration presented as an offering. There is a fabulous old dojo on the grounds of the shrine where we all demonstrated our skills. The dojo is magnificent. It dates from the late Edo period, with beautiful cedar pillars surrounding the dojo floor. On one side is a statue of the Meiji Emperor, who once visited the dojo. The floor is lovely, pale wood, polished smooth the by feet of everyone who practices at the dojo, and those who come only for hono enbu.

This hono enbu was a demonstration by the ryuha, so we all took part, from the newest student demonstrating kihon waza to the senior teachers demonstrating kata at the highest level of skill and ability. It was a honor to be able to view the demonstration, and an even greater honor to be able to take part. The ryuha is more than 400 years old, and joining it is not like taking up Judo or Aikido. You don’t just show up at the dojo, pay your dues and become a member. Like many ryuha, you start training, and at some point the teachers and senior members may decide that you are worth accepting into the ryuha. Membership is less a privilege and more a responsibility. At any enbu, the responsibility is to represent the ryuha in a dignified manner appropriate to the situation and to demonstrate one’s best technique and behavior. Sometimes this means sitting in seiza until your legs fall asleep. If that’s what’s required, you do it and you don’t complain.

Following the enbu, we got into the hotel bus for a short ride to the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden, to whom many of the most famous martial ryuha in Japan trace their roots. Born in 1489, he lived during one of the most tumultuous eras in Japanese history. Warlords were tearing the country apart in their quest to become lord of all Japan. Everyone had an army and skilled warriors were in high demand. He is said to have learned Katori Shinto Ryu and then founded Kashima Shinto Ryu.


Tsukahara Bokuden's gravesite.  Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Tsukahara was born in Kashima, and our hotel was nearby his reputed birthplace. His gravesite lies a little ways out of town 50 feet up the side of a mountain. A recent landslide caused the hillside below the grave to collapse and the town reinforced the hillside. We walked quietly past the graves below and climbed the steps to Tsukahara’s grave. I still find it remarkable that the grave of someone so influential in the world of martial arts remains a peaceful, unspoiled place of quiet and repose. As is customary during a visit to a grave in Japan, we each lit a few sticks of incense and said a quiet prayer. Tsukahara is one of the most significant and influential people in the development of Japanese sword arts, and the chance to pay respects to someone who had such influence on something as important in my life as my budo practice is a quiet wonder.




Offering Incense at the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden Copyright Peter Boylan 2014


After the gasshuku wrapped up, as part of our musha shugyo, my friends and I went back to Kashima Shrine to learn a little bit more about the shrine and it’s history. Kashima Shrine dates back to before the Heian Period (784CE to 1185CE) and has a rich budo history. The deity of the shrine is Takemikazuchi No Kami, who is a kami of martial arts. In Japanese legend, earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish under the earth, and Takemikazuchi No Kami is said to subdue the catfish and prevent earthquakes. His shrine covers acres and acres. It takes a good 20 minutes to walk from one end of the shrine to the other, down wide forest lanes surrounded by the massive cedar trees. The greenery is remarkably peaceful, and it is easy to imagine the Japan of a thousand years ago when most of the country was forested like this.

The path at Kashima Shrine. Copyright Deborah Klens-Bigman 2014.
Yes, those little specs are people!


Kashima Shrine Guardian Copyright Peter Boylan 2014









You’ll notice that the Shrine Guardians in the
Kashima Shrine Guardian Copyright Peter Boylan 2014
pictures  are holding large Japanese bows. This is because the bow was the chief weapon of the samurai for at least a thousand years. The sword didn’t become the primary weapon until the Tokugawa government enforced peace on the nation and made the wearing of two swords the prerogative and symbol of the warrior class.

Although there are two wooden shrines, the forest seems to be the real shrine, dedicated to the natural spirit of Japanese kami. Of the shrines, one is quite old, and was the main shrine until about 100 years ago, when it was relocated and a larger shrine dedicated in its place.

Old Kashima Shrine Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan
The setting around this shrine is quiet and dark, even during the day. The forest blocks out most of the sunlight. The roof is covered with bright green moss, and you feel its age. People walk up to the front of the shrine, toss a few coins in the offering box, clap, bow and make their prayer.

The new shrine is beautiful, but it feels new. This was where we had received the shrine’s blessing a few days earlier. Receiving the blessing can be a tough experience because you have to sit in seiza for about 20 minutes during the ceremony. Even for many Japanese this is difficult, since they spend their days sitting chairs in now too.




New Kashima Shrine building Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Though we hear much of wabi-sabi, the old shrines in Japan were brightly painted, and that tradition is still visible under the eaves of the main shrine at Kashima. The bright orange and green wall surrounds the Inner Shrine, and the bright colors used to paint the Inner Shrine are clear under the roof.

After spending a peaceful couple of hours wandering around Kashima Shrine, we gathered up our luggage and headed for the Kansai region of Japan for the next stops on our musha shugyo.