Showing posts with label teachers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teachers. Show all posts

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.

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.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Martial Arts Instructors Should Learn To Teach

Let’s face an unpleasant truth.  Most martial arts instructors are lousy teachers. They may be great martial artists, but few of them know anything about the art and science of teaching. Teaching is not about how much you know or how much you can do.  It is what you can transmit to your student and help them to learn, do, and keep improving.  

When I’m looking for a teacher, I’m not looking for someone who is an incredibly skilled and gifted martial artist.  Those are great things, but they don’t have much relation to the person’s skill as a teacher.  If the best thing I can say about a teacher is that “They really know their stuff,”  stay away from that class. A great teacher might only be a few steps ahead of me, but they can get me to learn, grasp and internalize what I need to know to improve. A lousy teacher may be the most knowledgeable, skilled person in the world, but that doesn’t do me any good because they can’t transmit what they know.

The old saw “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” is a lot of hogwash. Teaching is a skill all it’s own.  Just being skilled at the subject you want to teach isn’t nearly enough.  Because teaching is a job like any other, you get the same range of skills and professionalism as you find in any other career. There are a few great ones, a lot of competent people doing a good job, and few lousy ones.  Unfortunately, we’ve all had an experience with lousy teachers when we were in school. That should motivate those of us who teach budo to avoid making similar mistakes.

Good teaching takes work. The classic approach of the martial arts teacher showing up, demonstrating something, and then counting off the number of reps as the students repeat the techniques over and over is not the best way to teach. We should know that from having done mindlessly repetitive drills when we were in school. Although it’s said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, that practice must be deep, mindful and correct. Good teachers are engaged with students during practice, correcting them where they need it. As my Dad says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Students learn what they practice. If they practice technique wrong, it will stay wrong.

I’m not the world’s best teacher, but I know some great teachers, and I try to learn from them. One thing that has rubbed off on me is that our brains have certain limits, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s part of the teacher’s job to keep those in mind when we are teaching.  The art of teaching may not be something we can master, but we can certainly use the science of teaching and learning to give our students the best teaching possible.

There are some basic things that we can keep in mind, regardless of the particular pedagogy that goes with our martial arts system.

Class size matters. We know this. Research on learning and education is pretty clear. If we try to make our classes too big, we take away from the students in a myriad ways.  It’s tough to see what’s going on in a big group unless you’re right in front of the teacher. There is no way the teacher can give each student the attention necessary to be sure that the students are correctly grasping the points being taught. Just because there is space in the room doesn’t mean you have to fill it with students. Don’t put more students in a room than you can effectively teach and instruct.

This next point is one I am constantly working on. Just as we can put more students in a room than we can effectively teach, we can put more lessons in a class than students can absorb. Our minds have a working memory capacity of 3 to 5 items. That’s it. If we try to teach more than that in one session, the students will not be able to hold on to the lessons. Once we get past our personal limit of about 4 main points, we start dropping things because our minds just can’t hold onto all of them. For me, this means that when I work with students, I can’t overload them with all the many important points in a technique or kata on the same day. It also means that I shouldn’t try to teach too many things in one lesson. To be most effective, I have make sure I pick just a couple of main points that I want to everyone to focus on for the day.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on koshi. If I want my students to retain the important points about koshi, I can’t go off and start working on how they use their arms when swinging the weapon or spend a bunch of time on metsuke. I have to stay focused the lesson. If I start throwing other points at my students, they won’t be able to remember any of the lessons later. I try to keep my lesson and corrections centered around 3 principle points for any class. For example, when we’re doing koshi, I work on proper alignment, driving the koshi with the leg, and driving the upper body from the koshi. That’s all. I work at biting my tongue and not correcting any other issues I might see. Those are for another day.

The same is true when I critique kata. Working memory is limited to 3 to 5 items. So I only make 4 comments. That way the student can hold on to the corrections long enough to get to their notebook and write something down. There is no point in giving a huge list of corrections when we know someone can only hold about 4 points in their head. If we overload someone, there is a good chance they won’t remember anything.

Once I’ve introduced a point, I make sure to give students enough time to explore it and try applying it in their technique or kata. That way they can practice and I can see if they really understood the point. If I didn’t get the idea across as well as I want (which is usually the case), then I can give the students some more help with the same point. I don’t go on to the next point until the first one seems pretty solidly understood.

One way to help students get what I’m teaching, and keep it, is to make them retrieve it. When I teach a structured class, I stick to that limit of 3-5 items. I also don’t fill the entire class time. At the end of the class I have the students review what I’ve taught so they are actively thinking about and remembering what we did. I want my students to remember and apply the lessons I’m teaching. If I just run through the lesson, I don’t know what they’ve gotten. By having the students remember what I taught and show it to me at the end of practice, I help them remember and retain the lessons, so they can continue practicing the lesson at home. It’s also a check for me. If the students don’t remember what I taught, or they don’t really understand it, that means I didn’t do a very good job of teaching it.

Every time I teach a class, I’m not only teaching the students. I’m also practicing being a more effective teacher. Not every martial artist is a teacher. That’s fine. But if you are teaching, your students deserve the best you can give them. By learning and applying some fundamental knowledge about how people learn, you can give your students much more. And if you really want to learn how to teach budo skills well, find a music or art teacher and learn how they teach skills to their students.  They know the science of teaching complex skills like nobody else.

Special thanks to fine art teacher and martial artist Rick Frye for suggestions and editing assistance.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Modern Musha Shugyo Part 3: Dinner With Sensei

Who is your teacher? Not just the person you see when she’s standing in front of the dojo leading practice, but the whole person. Where did she come from? What experiences shaped and transformed her? How and where and when did she start training?  Who is she really?

Do you ever talk with your teacher about  the experiences that shaped and formed her (or him)? Your teacher is so much more than just the person standing at the front of the room telling you which kata to do, reminding you to relax, stop muscling the technique, move from your koshi/hips/center, yelling at you to “Breathe!” and all the other standard lines that teachers have to repeat endlessly because we endlessly don’t do what they ask us to do.

Not everything we did on our Musha Shugyo was physical training. We had to leave the dojo sometimes. Budo is the martial way, but you are supposed to take what you learn along the Way and thread it throughout your life.  You shouldn’t leave the lessons learned behind when you bow and leave the dojo at the end of practice. The lessons and learning don’t stop when you leave the dojo either. If the dojo is best used for  physical training, there is still ample room for talk after you leave. Many lessons, traditions and histories can only be passed down through talk, so spending time on that when you’re not in the dojo can be wonderful.

After we bowed out of practice, we were supposed to go out to dinner with Kiyama Sensei. We went back to his house first, and sat down in the formal guest room.  Japanese homes are quite small, so traditionally people don’t entertain at home. If you get together with friends, you do it at a restaurant or coffee shop. The traditional home just doesn’t have the space for entertaining. I’ve known people who had homes big enough to entertain in, but they don’t usually entertain at home because they feel like it would be bragging and rubbing their good fortune in other people’s faces. Most homes have a small room that is kept particularly neat and clean ,where a guest or two can be received politely.

Deborah, Adam and I got our bags with our swords and clothes arranged and started to sit down, when  we discovered that Sensei had a surprise for us.  We were expecting to head out to a restaurant where everyone could relax together. Instead, Mrs. Kiyama opened up the shoji to the next room and invited us to come in. Mrs. Kiyama and her daughter Yamada Sensei (she’s a college professor) had prepared an absolute feast for us. They had set up their formal tatami room with a traditional, low table so that Kiyama Sensei, Deborah, Adam and I could sit around it on the floor in the traditional manner. while Mrs. Kiyama and Yamada Sensei served. This is the room with the family tokonoma next to the family butsudan where their ancestors are enshrined and venerated.  While we sat and ate, Mrs. Kiyama and Yamada Sensei served, which is a pretty traditional way of celebrating, but there was also the issue that the room wouldn’t hold any more than the 4 of us comfortably. 

The table was sumptuous. They had gotten some lovely sushi, but the homemade tempura was incredible. I’m a sucker for kabocha tempura, and there were piles of it. We did our best to show our appreciation for the wonderful feast, but we couldn’t do much more than put a dent in the mountain of food. It was wonderful. It’s traditional in Japan to say “Gochisosama deshita” after a meal. It roughly means “That was a feast.” In this case, it was absolutely true. 

After dinner we moved back into the usual room for receiving guests. We watched some  of Sensei’s budo videos and talked about important budo points. We also had a chance to talk to Sensei about his history. Sensei has been studying budo for 85 years so there is a lot of history to talk about.  He even got out some picture albums with photos going back to the 1930s.

Sensei showed us some pictures of himself from junior high doing iaido. In school at that time, during the Pacific War, all students studied budo. Kiyama Sensei seems to have been an overachiever in this area. He practiced judo and kendo and iaido and jukendo. He even had a couple of pictures of himself in keikogi and hakama with his sword. It was something to look at the fresh face of the 13 year old junior high student in the picture, and then look up, knowing that the same person was sitting across from me 77 years later. Just so you don’t think Sensei is monomaniacally obsessed with budo, he also showed us a great picture of himself dressed in his uniform for the school baseball team. He’s loved baseball for as long as I’ve known him, and now I know just how far back that love goes.

Like all able bodied men of his generation, Kiyama Sensei served in the Pacific War.  He showed us a picture of his unit, the only picture he has. After the war he continued  budo training, even in the years when Japan was rebuilding itself, when time and resources were scarce. The people who trained during these years showed extraordinary dedication.
Sensei has some wonderful photos that show him training in the 1950s with his teachers. The atmosphere in the dojo is clear. People are training hard but there are also many smiles. Sensei is still powerful, but his movements, as captured in the photos, are even more dynamic.

There are pictures of kagami-baraki parties with everyone pounding mochi and having a good time. Some of the teachers had huge, full beards that strongly reminded me of Oe Masamichi.  It’s fascinating to see them wearing hakama and montsuki in one picture, and suits and ties in the next.

Sensei’s pictures and the stories that go with them make him even more interesting, and his achievements as a budoka more impressive. Sensei has dan ranks in at least 6 martial arts that we know of. In 3 of them he holds 7th dan, including iaido. He also has a tremendous amount of experience in koryu budo ryuha like Shinto Hatakage Ryu, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Shinto Muso Ryu, none of which use dan ranks.

Kiyama Sensei sat with us, sipping tea and flipping the pages in the photo albums like someone’s sweet grandfather, which he is. Sometimes he was quite wistful looking at pictures of budoka and friends who have died, and telling us about what kind of people they were. The budo world in Japan is surprisingly small, and Sensei has been a active member of it for so long that he has met, and has a story about, nearly everyone of influence in modern budo in the last 60 years. 

Being able to see Sensei in different periods throughout his life and in different aspects of his life was a rare treat. It was fascinating to see pictures of Sensei’s teachers, fellow students and the other great budoka he has encountered in over 8 decades of training.

Hearing Kiyama Sensei talk about these people and his experiences deepened our understanding of Sensei and his art in ways we didn’t expect, and often still don’t understand fully yet. Sensei is much more of a complete person, and not just the imposing figure at the front of the dojo.  This was as meaningful and important for us as the intensive training we completed just a few hours earlier. Budo is a path, and here we were, gifted with a rare view of the route our teacher had taken to get to his current place on the Way.

Who is your teacher?  Is she just the rank certificates on the wall or the trophies in the window? Not everything we learn about budo happens in the dojo. Budo is a Way, and that way impacts and influences every aspect of our lives. Being able to have dinner with Sensei, to sit and talk while slowly sipping coffee and talking about some of the places in his journey along the Way of Bu was a rare and wonderful experience. We saw another side of Sensei, and another side of budo.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Laughter And Joy In The Dojo

                Budo practice is intense and serious business.  After all, we are practicing techniques for hurting and killing each other.  There aren’t many things that serious.  Practice is filled with opportunities for accidents where people get bashed with sticks, their arms broken from an overzealous joint lock, seriously injured or even killed by a poorly executed throw.

               The vision of grim,dour martial artists facing off with wooden swords, giant naginata and whipping kusari makes a lot of sense.  Pure focus on your training partner so you can understand her movement, and make sure you are not where the strike lands is important.  When someone is earnestly trying to hit you with a very large piece of wood, cracking a joke probably isn’t a good idea.  

               The only problem with this image is that it’s false.  Koryu budo dojo can be filled with laughter.  A couple of weeks ago I was at a big budo gasshuku, and we were working on some fairly advanced kata.  Some people had quite a bit of experience with the kata and others among us were learning them for the first time.  We were all working out details in the kata.

               This is not to say there are any huge surprises in the kata.  They still use all the same principles and techniques everyone in the group has been studying for years and decades.   The advanced part is the subtle interplay between the partners for control of the timing and spacing.  You’d expect every brow to be scrunched into furrows with the effort of concentrating on these subtle applications.

               Sometimes you’d even be right about that.  As the teachers demonstrated various points, everyone was silent and focused.  Then we’d pair up and start working through the kata, slowly at first, and gradually picking up speed as we felt more confident in the basic patterns.  That’s when the laughter started to break out.  People would be working through the kata and some bit would go sliding out of control just as the teachers had warned.  Our best efforts would result in slips and misses and we began laughing at ourselves.  We would take turns trying to do what the teachers were patiently showing for the umpteenth time, and as the kata again slipped out our control, we would begin laughing, and the teachers would be laughing along with us.

               When we are exploring something, trying to push our understanding of things, even in something as lethally serious as koryu budo, we are playing with the techniques and the principles and the timing and the spacing.  Whenever we blow the maai or the timing, especially when practicing with someone much more accomplished, that’s when the laughter and smiles will break out.  If I blow the spacing, instead of attacking the teacher with my sword, I am likely to find the tip of his sword just past the end of my nose, and a few feet behind that, a huge grin on his face.

               We’re working on figuring these things out.  There is plenty of room for playfulness in those moments.   As we try different ideas and approaches, working to grasp the points being taught, most of our ideas will fall short and it’s easy to laugh at our own attempts.  This is particularly true when an idea’s weakness becomes apparent part way through the execution and we can see why it won’t work, but it’s too late to stop.  You know you are about to blow it, and there is nothing you can do except laugh at the results as your position collapses.

               The smiles when we figure something out are big and gleaming too.  The kusarigama has bedeviled me for years, and honestly, I think it will keep bedeviling me for years to come. For all that, when I finally made a couple of mental and physical connections recently, I was laughing with joy, and my teachers were smiling along with me.  They were thrilled I’d finally gotten at least a little of what they have been patiently trying to get through my thick skull.  It was moment of happy celebration for all of us.  And then we dove back into practice and I promptly whacked myself in the face with the leather ball we use in place of an iron fundo on the end of the chain.  This time I smiled and my teachers laughed.  Not too hard though, because it seems to be a common hazard of learning to handle the kusarigama in our style. A little gentle laughter though takes some of the sting out hitting yourself in the face.

    Koryu budo is serious.  That doesn’t mean that practice has to be serious all the time.  Any good dojo, filled with solid, mature students and confident, experienced teachers, will also be as full of smiles and laughter as it is with with quite concentration and focused practice.  In fact, if you don’t see frequent smiles, and hear occasional laughter, I would be worried about the quality of the dojo.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Budo Teacher - Student Relationship

I write a lot about my teachers, how important they are to me, what they teach me and our relationship.  With a few exceptions though, you don’t see me using their names.  I wrote about a big Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku recently, and never said who was teaching it.  I don’t usually publish my teachers’ full names either.   That makes it difficult to check and see if I really do some of these things or if I’m just blowing smoke.

In the budo I practice, the teacher-student relationship is very strong, very important and central to the nature of the budo..  The classical ideal for relationships in Japan is that of the parent and child, and many aspects of the budo teacher and student relationship resemble that.  The teacher is ultimately responsible for what the student does and says in public, just as a parent is responsible for what a child does and says, and the student is expected to look to the teacher for direction and to support the teacher publically, even when there are differences of opinion.  This is quite different from the way teacher-student relationships work in the USA, where I grew up and did my initial budo training.
Everything I say and do will be seen in classical budo circles as a reflection on my teachers. If I’m behaving badly or making ignorant or foolish comments, people in the budo world will complain to them and ask about the kinds of things they are teaching me.  It’s my responsibility to be a good representative of my teachers, and to do nothing that might embarrass them or cause them problems.  If I say something, it will be seen as being authorized and approved by my teacher.  My teachers will be held responsible for cleaning up any messes that I make.  The classical budo world in Japan is small, and you’re almost never more than a couple of degrees away from someone. 

My teachers each took a risk in accepting me as their student, but they didn’t do it lightly or quickly.   No one makes you sit for weeks by the temple gate in a typhoon before they accept you as a student, but you don’t become someone’s student just by signing the roster and paying your monthly dues.  Wayne Muromoto has a nice story about people who go to a teacher but don’t get taught the real thing.  These people aren’t real students, the teacher doesn’t trust them, doesn’t teach them genuine art, and takes no responsibility for what they do when the leave.

When I came to Japan, I joined a great local Judo dojo, paid my monthly dues and went to every practice I could.  I wasn’t a student though. I was guest.  I wasn’t a student until I had been there at least a year.  After that first year I started getting invited to dojo social events and trips, and most notable for me, my name appeared on the dojo member board.  The teachers were taking public responsibility for me.  At that moment my status went from being another guy who trains there, to Yoshikawa Sensei’s student.  Up until then, if I did something stupid in practice or at a tournament, well, I was just a guy who was passing though.  After that, I was Sensei’s student and if I did something wrong, I wouldn’t be told directly.  Sensei would get chewed out for not having taught me properly and he would be responsible for the consequences of my actions.  I would only hear about whatever pain and embarrassment I had caused after Sensei had started cleaning up the mess. 

If things work this way in a gendai budo like Judo, they are even more intensely personal in a koryu bugei.  Koryu bugei are not openly taught public entities like Judo or Aikido or Kendo.  They are more like family treasures shared with just family and close friends whom you deeply trust.  It takes a long time to really earn that, and it’s not always an easy relationship.  The responsibilities and expectations can be quite high.  I have on occasion made mistakes which my teachers have taken me to task for, whether it is something simple like doing a poor job during a demonstration (I now hate and fear youtube.  Any mistake I make in public will be preserved and broadcast for eternity!) or something more serious such as how or what I am teaching.  I learned early on to be really careful about public behavior so I don’t embarrass them.  They worked really hard to teach me the ins and outs of navigating the budo world so I won’t embarrass them or anyone, myself included.

I first entered the koryu budo world by invitation of a sword smith, an artist of the first rank.  Knowing Nakagawa Sensei lead me to my first iaido teacher, who introduced me to others, where I encountered a Shinto Muso Ryu student who introduced me to her teacher who introduced me to his teacher, who accepted me as his student and who introduced me to his teacher who graciously welcomes me into his dojo as a student of his student.    There were a lot of introductions along that path, and many people who stood to suffer if I didn’t behave well and respectably.  Now that I have been accepted as a student, everything I do reflects directly back on my teachers.

The responsibility isn’t just a one-way street though.  As I said, if I make a mistake or cause a problem, I may not hear about it until after Sensei has started cleaning up the mess.  If I’m responsible for being a good representative of my teacher, he is responsible for teaching me well and taking responsibility for any problems I may cause.  The closer the student-teacher relationship, the bigger the responsibility this becomes.  Initially this responsibility is only within the budo world, but it can grow to include all sorts of aspects of life outside the budo world.  Teachers have been known to help people find jobs and arrange marriages and secure loans.  Teachers accept a lot of responsibility when they accept a student.

Just as the teacher accepts responsibility for the student, the student accepts responsibility for the teacher.  Teachers are not ultimate paragons of humanity.  They have been known to drink too much, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and engage in feuds, just like everyone else.  Once you have passed beyond that probationary period and are really someone’s student, that’s all your responsibility too.  If Sensei drinks too much somewhere and makes a mess, it’s his students who make sure he gets home OK and clean up after him.  If Sensei has a fight or a feud with someone, you are automatically included on Sensei’s side.

The web of relationships and responsibilities extend far beyond just the teacher and student involved in the core relationship and can have wide ranging impacts.  It’s no wonder teachers take a long time before they consider a student to really be “theirs.”  Students should really be spending that probationary period looking very closely at the person they are considering studying with as well, because the responsibility is a two way street, and just as the student’s public behavior reflects on the teacher, the student is judged by who their teacher is.

All of this is to say that, for the most part, I don’t freely publish my teacher’s names and contacts.  I have friends whose names have been used without their permission to gain access to their teachers, and I want to protect my teachers from people like that.  A fraud will eventually be discovered and treated appropriately, but it’s my responsibility to make sure my teachers don’t have to deal with one to begin with.  So if I don’t go putting my teachers’ names out there, please forgive me. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why I Go To The Effort To Go To Japan

I am sitting in Los Angeles Airport waiting to find out if my flight is going to Tokyo today or not.  There is a budo retreat with one of the top classical budoka in Japan that I am privileged to have been invited to attend.  After deep negotiations with my family, I’m supposed to be on a plane flying there.  The opening is in just a few hours, so I’m going to miss that, but I should be there for the last 4 days of training.
                What could possibly motivate someone to spend a full day traveling to, and another very full day traveling back from, a martial arts retreat?  In the 21st century, unless you are in the military, the police, or providing security, the martial arts are basically a hobby.   So why go? Firstly, the training is incredible.  It’s not just that the head teacher is leading and sponsoring the seminar, it’s also that his senior students, who are now leaders in the art, are teaching us.   Secondly, it is the chance for me to spend several days doing nothing else, not distracted by the concerns of life (assuming work doesn’t get excited and call the international cell phone they gave me) and to stay focused on these ancient arts.  Some of the curriculum has roots that may go back 600 years.  This is a chance to immerse myself in not just the technique, but the mindset and living philosophy of the arts.
                Twenty-five years ago, these arts were difficult to find, even for Japanese living in Japan.  I first stumbled into their world by complete accident.    I was riding home after a haircut when I saw a guy grinding something on a huge grindstone.  I stopped to look at the grindstone, and realized he seemed to be grinding a sword!  About then the gentlemen looked up and invited me into his house for tea.  His name was Nakagawa, and he was a sword smith.  From there I stumbled into the world of Japanese sword arts and other classical martial arts.
                Now anyone can do a Google search and find a list of teachers and their dojo in Japan.  It still takes something extra though to get up and go to Japan, whether for a week or years.   One of the biggest reasons I go is that there are great treasures to be discovered.  These treasures are precious beyond price, and some of them disappear every year.  They are the great old teachers who have spent a lifetime studying their arts and who work hard to give what they have learned to their students.  I know plenty of  people who have 20, 30 40 years or more of training, but it pales next to teachers who have more than 8o years of active training, all of it with people who were great teachers in their time.
                On this trip I will get to spend time with a couple of these great teachers, both gentlemen of the first rank.  I visit and spend time with them whenever an opportunity presents itself.   This time I get to spend several days at a gasshuku with a great Shinto Muso Ryu teacher and his senior students, and then I will get to spend a day or two with my iaido teacher, Kiyama Sensei.  He’s 89 and has been doing budo since he was 5, when his grandfather started teaching him a branch of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu.   He’s been studying budo ever since.
These teachers aren’t teaching me just technique, though they do a lot of that.  They are teaching the deep connections among the techniques, the principles of the arts that generate the techniques, and the ideals of what the arts mean in life.  They’ve been living the budo path since long before I was born, and they are wonders at pointing out not just the path, but pitfalls along the way.  They’ve had lots of chances to make mistakes and learn from them.  If I’m lucky and wise and work hard at their lessons, I won’t have to make all the same mistakes.  I never get chewed out so badly as when they catch me making a mistake they are too intimate with because of personal experience.  I will stand and listen to them and hear the pain in their voices because they know the consequences of what I’m doing.  
                After a while at this training and studying and continually polishing what I am doing, disappointing my teachers becomes the toughest thing to endure.  These great gentlemen go to incredible effort to pass on their knowledge, skills and understanding to their students.  Once I understood how hard they worked to train me, I realized the most painful thing I could do was letting them down. Kiyama Sensei and the other great teachers I know aren’t getting rich by teaching students.  The best we as students can do to show our appreciation and take care of our teachers is to be there and help them when they will let us.  They teach out of love of their art and love of their students.  This is part of what makes them such great treasures.  
               So when I can, I get on an airplane and go visit them.  Life has moved me away from Japan but not away from them.  So I sit in airports and through delays. This time I got as far as L.A. and my flight was canceled, with no other flight available until the next morning.  I will miss a chunk of the gasshuku.  I’ve been grinding my teeth over that for 18 hours.  The training that remains will still be great, and I’ll get at least a few evenings with my teachers to talk and absorb as much as I can.  These treasures will disappear someday and I will be left with whatever I have been able to learn and absorb from them.