Showing posts with label Sensei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sensei. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke



In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Makes A Great Dojo



I noticed that I’ve been writing about what things aren’t quite often lately. This is an attempt to write about what something is.  What makes a great dojo? The dojo is the center of budo practice, and finding a great dojo is tougher than you’d think, even in Japan. When we look for a great dojo, what are we searching for?

“Dojo” is an old term for a place where one studies the teachings of Buddhism.  When Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, this was used to describe the spot where the Buddha completed the path to enlightenment.  It was the dojo 道場.  the way place.  The word dojo therefore, was ancient when the Japanese martial arts instructors in the Edo Period (1604-1868) began using it to describe their training halls.  

The usage has drifted a long way from the original meaning of the place where enlightenment was achieved. The ancient Japanese applied it to mean places where the teachings of Buddhism are studied, and within Buddhist organizations in Japan, this meaning is still used. The meaning though wandered further when some Edo Period martial artists started calling their training halls “dojo.”  Now the word is commonly used throughout the world.

I’ve seen many gorgeous dojo in Japan, from the stately Butokuden in Kyoto, to the lovely and peaceful dojo at Kashima Shrine, to many small, private dojos that are delightful pockets of beauty. The longer I train though, the more I come to understand that a dojo, no matter how lovely, is empty space that we have to fill with life and breath.  I’ve noticed that both non-Japanese and Japanese alike will use “dojo” to refer to the members of the training group, not just the facility.  This recognizes that it is really the people who make the empty space into a dojo, not the designated purpose of the space.

Interior of the Butokuden. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan


It’s the qualities of the people and their relationships that make a dojo great. I had a discussion with a some friends about what they feel makes a great dojo.  A lot of the ideas were about the physical space and things that are nice.  While I agree that a beer fridge is a wonderful thing to have in the dojo office, I’m not sure it’s a necessary component of an excellent dojo.  I’ve had great experiences in the parking lot back of Sensei’s house, and lousy ones in gorgeous, dedicated spaces (with beer fridges!).

The things I look for in a great dojo are the people.  I find that if you’ve got good people, the physical space will get taken care of.  On the other hand, if the people and relationships aren’t good, the physical space won’t keep things together.

The number one item on most people’s list of requirements for great dojo, and what everyone thinks about first, is the teacher. Having a good teacher is important, because the teacher sets the example for everyone else of how things are supposed to be in the dojo. In a merely good dojo, the teacher can be anywhere from a competent technician to world class, but they will likely maintain a somewhat distant teacher-student relationship. The teacher never stoops down to the students level.

In a great dojo though, the teacher is more like a head student than a teacher standing above everyone at the head of the classroom dispensing the lesson.  These teachers are every bit as much students of the art they are teaching as the newest beginner.  They find a joy in polishing their own skills, and discovering new things about their art that is as strong and fierce as that of any student.  This joy in practicing, improving, and discovering new things about their budo, and the teachers ability to share this with the rest of the dojo is what stands out for me in the teachers at great dojo.  The teacher’s personal skill level is almost incidental.  It may only be a few steps ahead of the students, but that’s fine.  The teacher is leading the dojo on a great, joyous journey of improvement and discovery, not dispensing wisdom and correction from on high.

This sort of teacher demonstrates and establishes the critical respect and trust that, for me, has to permeate a dojo for it to be truly great.  Because these wonderful teachers are sharing a journey with the students, they naturally treat everyone as respected and important members of the dojo. In a great dojo, everyone is contributing to the activity of learning and discovery, from the most senior members to the the lady whose dogi  is so new you can still see the creases from the package. As hard as it is for beginning students to believe, they are critically important too.  They don’t know what’s supposed to work on them, so they only react when techniques really do work. In great dojos, that respect is there for everyone, regardless of rank or experience.  The teacher sets the example, and everyone in the dojo respects the teacher and each other deeply and sincerely.

I’ve written about the unusual trust that can develop between martial artists before. In great dojo, this feeling of trust is everywhere. Students trust the teacher and each other. In great dojo, people who can’t be trusted are not welcome to train. If someone cannot be trusted to treat their partners with respect and to protect their partners body and health as if it were their own, that person will be gently but inexorably rejected by the dojo. Members of great dojo are great people, though they never think of themselves that way. They trust each other and take care of each other.

That trust and care means that people watch each other and go out of their way for fellow students. Trust isn’t just about what we do with the techniques. It means trusting each other enough that we can pull each other aside if we see a problem developing and bring it to each other’s attention without engendering anger or resentment.  This really differentiates the great dojo from the merely good ones. There is always a sense of zanshin regarding the health and safety of all members in a great dojo.

I mentioned above a little about the value of beginning students in a dojo. In great dojo, all the students are seen as valuable, and are valued for the variety of knowledge and experience they bring to the group. Great dojo have members with a huge variety of budo and conflict experience. These dojo usually have a good share of students who train more than one martial art, and usually a sprinkling of law enforcement officers corrections officers and military veterans. All of these different sets of experience and viewpoint are valued and drawn upon in a great dojo. Great teachers and members of great dojo aren’t intimidated by people who practice other arts and have different experiences. They treasure such members for the variety of perspectives they bring to the dojo. Instead of ignoring everything that doesn’t fit within a narrow orthodoxy, these members will be called on to share their perspective, regardless of their rank in the dojo.  No art has a complete knowledge of every aspect of conflict, and law enforcement officers can bring one set of perspectives about violence, while students of weapons arts can bring valuable understanding of the real capabilities of weapons to dojo that practice arts that primarily focus on empty hand technique. In great dojo, everyone with expertise and perspective are will find themselves called on in class to share what they know, especially if it is different from what most in the dojo expect to be true.

This is the next thing I look for in great dojo, a ruthless desire to reexamine everything students and teachers think they know about their art. In these dojo there is no sacred orthodoxy.  Instead there is a constant search for greater, deeper, more complete understanding. Recently I’ve been in a number of Aikido dojo that are notable because they are inviting people from other traditions and styles to teach and share their arts, even when it calls into question they way things have been done in that dojo. These are great dojo. Their search for understanding and mastery doesn’t end at their door.  Instead of closing the door on anything that contradicts their understanding, they invite those teachers with different perspectives in.

Only training in one art, and never experiencing other arts and perspectives leaves you with a very skewed understanding.  No art is big enough to contain everything there is. I’m not saying you have to study everything. There isn’t time in one life to do that. Great dojo and great teachers realize they don’t have all the answers though, so they make a point to expose their students to a variety of styles and perspectives. Kodokan Judo includes some efficient techniques versus knife and sword. However, if you only practice them with people who aren’t experts in the use of those weapons, you won’t understand all the ways things can go wrong. A few hours with a qualified swordsman can clear up a lot of misconceptions about the real maai and speed of the weapon.

A poor dojo declares theirs is the only way, and discourages students from seeking other perspectives.  A good dojo acknowledges that other ways and perspectives have value. A great dojo makes sure students encounter multiple perspectives and ways of doing things by having them demonstrated and shown in the dojo so students can get a taste of them.

Great dojo don’t rely on just one teacher either. A great dojo may well have one exceptional teacher, but they aren’t limited to that teacher. I always love going to study in Japan. The dojo I am a member of there are filled with high level teachers. Imagine dojo where the median rank is 5th dan. This sort of dojo is quite common in Japan. At the dojo in Kusatsu, I can remember nights when there were four or five 7th dans and an 8th dan on the floor. I started iai in a little country dojo with two 7th dan iai teachers. The kendo dojo had 7 teachers with 7th dans in kendo.  This was in the countryside.

Great dojo develop depth and encourage breadth among their teachers. My iai teacher, Kiyama HIroshi, is 7th dan in iai, jodo, and kendo. He has lesser ranks in judo, karate, and jukendo as well. The other teachers in the dojo are 6th or 7th dan in iai, and most have dan ranks in at least one other art. If Kiyama Sensei can’t teach, the people teaching the class in his stead will all be highly experienced teachers as well. Great dojo have room for many people to be great. It is assumed that everyone can become great, and it’s expected that everyone will to the best of their ability.

This leads to the next element of a great dojo. No one is ever satisfied with where they are. There are no destinations in a great dojo. Everyone, including the top teachers, are still striving to improve their skills and understanding. Everyone is encouraged to keep pushing forward along the Way.  Any Way 道, including budo 武道, is a path, a journey. Great dojo always quietly remind all the members, beginning students and senior teachers, that the way doesn’t have an end point. Everyone is always trying to improve. When I train in Japan, the senior teachers will teach, but if you watch, you’ll see them quietly training as well. Omori Sensei, even though he was 8th dan hanshi and 90 years old, still trained every time he came to the dojo. He would often play with the kata at such a level that I had trouble understanding what he was doing. Seeing a 7th dan teacher ask her fellow 7th dans to critique her technique and accept their comments and work to integrate them into her kata is a marvelous experience. People may hit plateaus, but they always keep working, moving forward until they get off the plateau.


There are many elements that make up a great dojo, but for me, they are about the members of the dojo.  A big, spacious building with a beautiful shomen and lovely decorations, stacks of equipment, and a refrigerator stocked with beer is pointless if the people are arrogant and callous, unwilling to learn anything new or different, and indifferent to their partners’ health and welfare. A great dojo is filled with concern for everyone who trains there, from oldest to newest, and they are always striving to transcend their current level of understanding, even if it means giving up ideas they had thought incontrovertible.









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 22, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 4: A Castle, 2 Dojo and a Holy Mountain



After spending an incredible day training and talking with Kiyama Sensei, on our Musha Shugyo, Deborah, Adam and I  had a day without training planned, then we were scheduled to spend a day doing jodo in Osaka, a night at Mount Koya, and then training at still another jodo dojo in Osaka.  Shiga is lucky enough to have one of the few remaining castles in Japan, so we headed there for our free day.

Hikone Castle Donjon. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014



Hikone Castle Donjon. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014




Hikone Castle was started in 1603 and completed in 1622. Many of the surrounding buildings have been lost, but the main castle donjon still stands, as well as the surrounding walls and gates.  The castle sits on a natural hill, and the first gates are  well before you begin to climb the hill.  We had lunch within view of the castle, and then began climbing up the winding path to the top.  

Hikone Castle gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014


Part of the defensive strategy was to make the journey up circle through several gates.  An invading army would have climb the hill and at the same time get past numerous choke points where they could easily be attacked from above.  At one point as we circled up the hill, we arrived at the bell just before the hour, so we are able to stand and hear an ageless sound that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.

Hikone Castle Bell. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

The next day we traveled to just outside of Osaka to the Yoshunkan Shinto Muso Ryu Dojo. This dojo is in the garden of I. Sensei’s home.  It is one of most lovely private dojo I have had the privilege to train in.  It’s not large but it is lovely and simple.  I met I. Sensei though my jodo teacher, M. Shihan, and I come to train at his dojo whenever I can.  I. Sensei is the kancho for the M. Shihan’s group, so as is typical in Japan, everyone calls him by his title, “Kancho.”

We arrived just after the beginner’s seitei jo class ended.  A couple of the more senior students stayed around to help us train. Kancho said that M. Shihan was planning to come by the dojo later.  In the meantime, he asked me what we wanted work on. Knowing it’s never a bad thing to practice your kihon, and remembering that Adam is still new enough to not be familiar with the basic format of training, I suggested we drill kihon techniques.

This turned out to be a good idea for all of us, not just Adam.  I have been teaching a lot of kihon techniques, but I haven’t been drilling them in the same way M. Shihan’s organization routinely does, so while Adam was being overwhelmed by the intensity of practicing with some of I. Sensei’s more senior students, I got to work at remembering many of the important points for the uchi side.  Uchi is always the senior. While shi practices the kihon, uchi received shi’s technique and controls the spacing and speed of the practice so shi will get the most out the training.

Adam and Deborah got a lot of good training, and I got some excellent corrections in how things should be done.  Training is Yoshunkan is quietly focused. Kancho doesn’t yell at anyone. His training is intense but he is gentle about it. It is completely unlike the atmosphere in movies or stories of traditional teachers who yell or don’t say anything at all.  Kancho made sure each of us was stretched, but the feeling was one of having a treasure quietly shared with you rather than brutal training.  Fujita-san worked me hard in both the kihon and some of the kata that we did. Adam was sweating from the effort that was being pulled from him as he worked to keep up with the demands of his partner and to integrate the corrections from Kancho. Deborah and Adam were both my guests in the dojo, so I was really responsible for them. However, between my own practice and trying to keep an eye on Adam, I left Deborah to fend for herself. I wasn’t really worried about her though.  Her Japanese is quite functional and she’s traveled to Japan numerous times on her own. She doesn’t need any help from me.

Adam occasionally got that deer-in-headlights look though. His partners were drawing him up and down the length of the dojo, making him work at each of the kihon techniques while also subtly changing the distance for each attack so he could learn to understand and read spacing as well as practice the individual techniques. He had plenty to work on. On top of practicing techniques he’s not really strong at yet, he had to try and understand the corrections he was getting from Kancho and the senior students. When the corrections were straightforward, his basic Japanese skills were up to the task. Whenever the corrections were more subtle though, he was quickly floundering in a sea of unfamiliar Japanese vocabulary. I tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but when things got too complex, I would bow to my partner and then give Adam some language assistance.

While we were practicing, M. Shihan arrived. He is a delightful man, about 5’2” (157 cm) tall. If you see him on the street, aside from his incredible posture and carriage, he looks like a fairly average Japanese man. When he starts talking about Jodo though, he lights up with an energy and enthusiasm that is incredible to see and feel. I know from experience that Shihan’s jodo is powerful and inexorable. There is no stopping it. We didn’t get to feel it this day though. He had a busy schedule but had taken time out to visit the dojo to see us.

He asked what we had studied at the gasshuku, and we described our training there. Shihan asked Deborah to demonstrate the Omote set, and for me to act as uchi. We worked our way through the entire set under Sensei’s critical eye. Neither one of us wanted to make the least error. Despite our effort, there was still plenty for Shihan to correct. His corrections are always couched in a way that makes you think about not just what he’s correcting. He asks questions as he corrects that make you consider why you do something in a particular way. In this way, working with Shihan pulls our technique and understanding of everything behind the technique upwards.

After commenting on Deborah’s Omote, and the way I was doing the uchi side, Shihan asked Adam to demonstrate a couple of the kata he felt comfortable with. Shihan gave his some corrections, but didn’t overload him. I know Adam came away from this practice with plenty to think about.

Shihan had to leave before the practice was over, but it was wonderful to see him and get some instruction from him. Before he left, we mentioned that we were planning to visit another one of the dojo in the Osaka area that he leads on Monday night. Shihan warned us he might not be able to make it, but encouraged us to go train.

After Shihan left, and we had bowed him out of dojo, we practiced for a while longer, focusing on the points Shihan had corrected. Eventually though it was time to wrap up practice and bow out ourselves. Kancho served some tea and we chatted a little bit before we changed and headed for the train station. We had plenty to think about while we rode the train back to Shiga.

The next day we headed to Mount Koya, or Koya-san as it’s known in Japanese.  Koya-san is where the head temple of Shingon Buddhism is located.  Founded in 819 C.E., Koya-san is a major pilgrimage site. It is a wonderful, peaceful area in the remote mountains of Wakayama. The only way there is a funicular train, and the only places to stay are temples. We stayed at Daen-In, one of the numerous temples there. The temple provided dinner, sleeping rooms, breakfast, and an early morning Buddhist service of chanting, bells and incense for the numerous pilgrims visiting the temples and graveyard.

Daen Temple. Mt Koya. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

Buddha statue on Mt. Koya. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

We spent the afternoon and evening walking about the graveyard. The graveyard is huge, and no one knows how many people have been buried and memorialized there. Filled with moss covered graves and 600 year old cedar trees, it is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Numerous rich and powerful families from the last 1200 years of Japanese history have graves there.

Mt. Koya grave. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan
 
Mt. Koya Grave. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan


Mt. Koya graveyard. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

A more recent trend is for large companies to have a grave site for memorializing all those who work at the company and have passed away.


Yakult company employee memorial gravesite. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan





Nissan company employee memorial grave site. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan



One of the most interesting graves was erected by the termite exterminators association. Buddhism teaches that no living being, including insects, should be harmed. The exterminators have erected a grave for the spirits of all the termites they kill, a place where the spirits of the termites can be prayed for and offerings can be made on their behalf.


Memorial grave site for termites killed by exterminators.
Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

We spent the night in the temple, ate the wonderful temple food (all vegetarian of course), and attended the 5:45 AM service. After some more time wandering around the temples, we got on the train back to Osaka.  We had Jodo practice that night.

At the dojo that evening, we arrived early, but several of the senior students and teachers were there ahead of us and practicing. We got changed and started warming up. H. Sensei was there with his wife, who is quite accomplished also. And while we were warming up, Kancho came in. He doesn’t train at this dojo usually, but some of the members were preparing for a competition the following Sunday, and he was there to help them get ready.

H. Sensei told me that M. Shihan had called and wouldn’t be able to make it this evening, but that we should please stay and train. We were happy to do that. Even without Shihan, there were a couple of 7th dan teachers and plenty of other senior students in the room.

H. Sensei is a very different style of teacher from Kancho or Shihan. He reminds me much more of the classic image of the brusk, severe Japanese teacher.  We worked our way through the warm-ups, and H. Sensei focused on Deborah, Adam and I. As we were working on hikiotoshi uchi, Sensei started yelling at me. I’ve been reworking my technique, but it seems I’d let my attack angle flatten a little in doing so. Sensei yelled at me that I’d never be able to do anything with that weak technique.

H. Sensei asked me what I thought I was doing and made me work at it until he was satisfied. After he watched Deborah and Adam for a few moments, he decided that we would focus on kihon for the evening. He found partners for Deborah and Adam and started us drilling. He yelled at Adam. He yelled at Deborah. He yelled at me more than the two of them combined.  He asked what sort of Jodo I was doing? He yelled that we would never be able to do anything with such weak technique. He yelled and kept us working hard.

H. Sensei is an example of a classic Japanese teacher. I don’t think he is constitutionally capable of being complimentary during keiko. You know how much he cares about you and your learning by how much attention he pays to you. Unfortunately for us, the only way he knows to express that is by being harsh. From the amount of attention we three got, he is very concerned with us learning to do it right. Which is what I want from a teacher.

If H. Sensei ever said anything nice about my technique, then I’d be really worried. If he, or teachers like him, see anything worthwhile in you, they will yell and hound and badger you to bring out the best that they can see. If he ever said something nice about my technique and then continued on, it would be the worst comment I ever receive. If he says something nice, it means he doesn’t see any reason to bother giving me corrections or attention. A compliment from one of these old style teachers is the kiss of death. The compliment is their way of dealing with someone they rate as a waste of time to teach. They can compliment you and walk away.

If they decide to invest time in you though, that’s the sign they see something of value in you. Deborah has been around Japan long enough to have encountered this style of teacher before, but I was worried about Adam. Adam is still a beginner in Jodo, so this was an intense experience without having a 7th dan teacher yelling at him from close range and making him do techniques over and over until the teacher was satisfied. Deborah knew the best course is to stay silent or just said “Hai Sensei” if a response is needed. Adam’s Japanese isn’t anywhere near to being ready for dealing with this. When things really got tough, he’d look at me and I’d give some translation help, and then we’d be back to practicing the kihon.

I never complain about practicing kihon. Nearly everything in Shinto Muso Ryu can be boiled down to the 12 kihon waza that Shimizu Sensei developed. The better your kihon are, the better every other part of your Shinto Muso Ryu will be. So we drilled kihon. H. Sensei had me call out the commands for practicing the kihon in the dojo to make sure I was doing that right. Somewhere along the line I had flipped a couple of the Japanese words, so I got excoriated for not even knowing the Japanese commands. As we worked through each of the kihon waza, Sensei made sure Adam and Deborah were getting it right. A couple of times he had Adam attack him with a sword so Adam could experience how the techniques should feel when done properly, which is always a worthwhile experience.

I noticed as the evening went on, Sensei’s demeanor softened quite a bit. Adam and Deborah persevered under his pressure. They took everything he threw at them, and they kept showing him their best effort. They never gave up. They took each correction and worked to integrate it into their technique. Deborah and Adam let Sensei yell and they just kept working. By the time we reached the break, Sensei could see that they were going to work hard. He started backing down the volume. He still got all over them for anything he felt was poor technique. He didn’t give up on them, but he was clearly less harsh. They had proved to Sensei they were worthwhile students who are mature enough to handle serious instruction.

H. Sensei let me know that he was still disappointed with me. As a teacher, it’s my job to bring everyone up to the level he expects. I got quite the lecture about that. We all learned. Deborah and Adam got to polish their kihon under the close attention of a high level teacher. I learned what my teachers expect me to be focusing on with my students. I’ll be changing my lessons going forward. Lots more kihon.

At the end of the evening, as we were bowing out and then sharing a post keiko cup of tea, H. Sensei had us introduce ourselves to everyone. Even Adam’s basic Japanese was quite appreciated. People were impressed that he serious enough about Jodo to travel to Japan to train, and to put in the effort to begin learning Japanese. With keiko over, H. Sensei returned to his normal self, which is to say he was very pleasant to chat with. Everyone invited us to come back and train again soon. We promised we would.

Training with H. Sensei can be tough, especially if you don’t know about traditional teaching attitudes in Japan. There is long tradition that being nice to students of anything will make them soft and encourage them to give less than their best effort. The traditional way was to never compliment the student. If you know about this, some of the traditional teachers don’t seem nearly so harsh. They can still be tough to endure, and sometimes they will make you want to break and run. They can really toughen you up though. Day-to-day trials are a lot easier. That boss that likes to yell and pound on his desk? He doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating after having a 7th dan teacher verbally flay you and then insist that you attack him so he can demonstrate the flaws in your technique.

Maybe there are some real benefits to that traditional teaching that I hadn’t considered before.

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.