|Kiyama Hiroshi Sensei|
I don’t get to see my teachers nearly as much as I would like these days, but I got to visit Japan for a while in September, so of course I spent as much time as I could with my teachers and fellow students. The trip is always one of the highlights of the year for me.
Kiyama Sensei is 93 years old now, but you wouldn’t guess it. Even when I met him 25 years ago I would not have guessed at that time that he was 68. He had such a fierce and powerful demeanor that I knew him for quite some time before I realized he’s only about 5 feet (152 cm) tall.
My first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, introduced me to Kiyama Sensei. I vividly remember later running into Kiyama Sensei at the annual Kyoto Budosai. Dressed in formal montsuki for the enbu, he was a powerful figure. Walking around the grounds of the Butokuden with him, I was awed and very nervous because his demeanor was so very correct and commanding. I’ve encountered many powerful budoka, but very few convey the sense of power and command that he does. Many people put on their budo demeanor when they step into the dojo, and take it off when they leave, but Kiyama Sensei never completely sheds his. He moves,not with regal grace, but with solid grounded bearing that projects a stern and unflinching power.
Kiyama Sensei always has a something of that correct and commanding spirit about him. . In the dojo Sensei is one of the most powerful presences I have ever encountered. , but when he teaches kendo to elementary and junior high students he
is also a kindly, if gruff, grandfather figure who teaches his students how to behave in the dojo and how to approach difficulty with spirit and dedication. For me, visiting Kiyama Sensei is one of the highlights of any trip to Japan. Whether we get to do any training or not, I always come away from the visit having learned something and inspired to train more diligently.
This year my visit coincided with a kosshukai for training in the latest points of the Kendo Federation’s iaido kata. I had been hoping that the miserable heat and humidity that is typical of summer in the Kansai region would break before the kosshukai, but the luck wasn’t with me. The day Kiyama Sensei and one of his senior students picked me up at the train station for the drive to the gymnasium started hot and got hotter. The gymnasium is typical of gyms built during the Showa period, which means it doesn’t have any heating or cooling. The best you can do in the summer is open the few doors and windows and sweat it out.
Sweat is exactly what we did, even when standing still. I was worried about Kiyama Sensei in the heat, but he kept going, looking better at the end of the day than I did. He wasn’t teaching that day; instead he was there as the guest of honor and the senior practitioner in the area. Even though Sensei wasn’t officially teaching, don't think he didn’t do quite a lot of teaching anyway. Whenever the official instructors were busy working with other students, Kiyama Sensei would come over and make corrections to my cutting form and my movement, and I wasn’t the only one to get his attention. Sensei is always clear about what he wants all of us to improve on. In my case, he wants to see more koshi in my movement and more “sspaa!” in my cuts (don’t ask. Sensei knows what he means, and I’m pretty sure I understand him, but I haven't figured out how to describe it).
After we had spent the day training and sweating in the stifling gym, Kiyama Sensei suggested a group of us go out to dinner. There was Sensei and four of his students, two 7th dans and two 5th dans. We retired to a wonderfully air-conditioned restaurant with ice water and other delightful cold drinks. We talked about the importance of seme (sense of aggressiveness, the feel of the attack) in iaido, and how much more sppaa! I need to get into my cuts. The conversation found its way around to the fact that two of us are looking at taking rank tests in the near future, and what we need to improve to have a chance of passing. Sensei and the 7th dans chatted back and forth while I listened and resisted the urge to start taking notes on my phone.
|Christmas is coming! Share the Budo Bum around the dojo!|
This is the part of the visit that I was most looking forward to. I’ve been training with Kiyama Sensei for more than 20 years, and I still look forward to every keiko session. The informal conversations are special treasures though. Sensei will talk about his teachers and sometimes share stories about them or training when he was young. These gems fill out my understanding of budo in Sensei’s life, and help me understand how I want it to be a part of my own. With his 88 years of training, I can see in him the beauty, grace and strength that have come in part from that training. My goal is to achieve some fraction of what Sensei has become.
I can always sense Kiyama Sensei’s strength. When we get together in a relaxed setting, in a restaurant, at a coffee shop or in Sensei’s home, the feeling of strength and the grandfatherly care combine in a gentleman whose advice and insights I
treasure. He is a pleasure to talk with, especially about budo, and with the group we had, the conversation flowed along like a lively, little river. I won’t go into all the advice I got about my cuts or my posture or the dozen other areas of my iai that everyone took the time to critique. Sensei succeeded not only in giving me plenty of advice, but also in trimming my ego back to a healthy size.
While I was in Japan I also got to train with my jodo teacher, Matsuda Sensei. We trained together several times on this visit, and he worked me hard every time. Visiting Matsuda Sensei is always a compelling experience. He doesn’t keep his own dojo, but moves among dojo run by several of his senior students. Each dojo is unique. One is a karate dojo that is rented one evening a week for jodo. Another is an elementary school kendo dojo that can be borrowed on the weekend. The most beautiful one is a gorgeous dojo on the first floor of the teacher’s home. Training at any of them is thrilling. I get to work with a wide variety of Matsuda Sensei’s senior students, every one of whom pushes me in a different way. Matsuda Sensei’s senior students are 6th and 7th dan teachers in their own right, and they all can take me out to the edge of my ability.
The biggest treat for me though is being able to go out after practice with everyone. We practice specific techniques in the dojo. It’s a place of quiet respect for the seriousness of what we are studying. We’re busy practicing, which doesn’t leave room for conversation. After practice we sit down and ask those questions that we didn’t have time for in the dojo, and we deepen our understanding of things we thought we understood. Sensei is still Sensei, but he’s a lot more approachable over food and drink in the restaurant afterwards than he is during practice. This is the time to ask that question about seme or zanshin that’s been bothering me. In the dojo, with Sensei casually showing all the openings in what I was sure was a pretty good technique, I forget that he’s a truly wonderful person as well as a great martial artist. Talking with Sensei, and getting to laugh with him, is a fascinating experience.
I’ve known my teachers, trained with them, been scolded by them and gotten an occasional “OK”from them (that being the highest praise I’ve ever heard them give). And I have also gotten to know them as people over the last 25 years. They have shared their skills, their lives and their memories with me. They have shared themselves. The people you choose as teachers should represent a lot of what you want to become. You'll absorb a great deal more than just good technique from your teacher, so take your time when selecting one to make sure she is a person worthy of learning from. My teachers have shown themselves to me time and time and time again that they are gentlemen of the highest quality. Training with them is always exciting and enlightening.
Special thanks to my editor, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.