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.