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.