June 25, 2009

The philosophy becomes the physical

We learned an awful lot in our short time in Japan. But such is the nature of this Budo, nothing is held back, all is freely given, so long as we are prepared to embrace it.

The Bujinkan is a physical philosophy. Physical training is geared toward eventual realization of the art's philosophy of Ninpo - no easy task, which is why we are continually told to train and 'keep going,' train and 'keep going.'

We can see the Shitenno moving toward this concept of the, 'floating world,' the illogical logic of experiencing and communicating the highest levels of this Budo. The Taijutsu of the Shitenno and some Shihan is definable: they are always in positions of safety, have no openings, their movements cautious, precise, clinical. For them, the kukan is a shield as impenetrable as any made of iron. But as wonderfully able as they are, they have not travelled so far ahead as to be absent from our vision or comprehension.

But Soke's Budo is another matter. Having travelled beyond the horizon and out of sight, his movement is illusory, becoming whatever we believe it to be. Soke's Taijutsu is not that of his Shitenno and Shihan, it is not cautious and clinical, it is brazen, with openings one would think could be exploited, but cannot be. His precision lies in the formation of opportunity; the creation of boundless good luck.

He does not try to use the kukan as shield anymore, it is automatically so for him. He has penetrated an opening of his opponent and wrapped himself in the very intention that seeks to harm him. This kukan that is now his shield is inside the mind, spirit, and will of the opponent. Soke has flipped the physical philosophy all of us have been training, and for him the philosophy itself has become the physical.

Just like the Shinobi of feudal Japan, whose legend tells of changing the course of history through their application of pure intention alone, there is now no separation between Soke's will and his actions. He moves where he wishes, when and how, seeing through the challenge of each moment, making it inseparable with overcoming it.

I have to laugh as I write this, because as I try to define Soke's Taijutsu, I become just another of the long list of those who seek to categorize him (even the uncategorizable is a categorization). The mere fact that each of us sees something different when we try to comprehend Soke's Taijutsu, leads me to understand just how powerful it actually is; having been "defined" by so many for so many years is evidence of its enigma.

Perhaps Soke's power to challenge what we believe to be the truth is a clue to the essence of his own ability. Isn't it funny that, just like training, there are no real answers here for us, only what we can discover for ourselves.

Japan 2009

The gang ...

Steve Kovalcik and I (me with my best Yngwie Malmsteen)

Steve and my student Scott Zaleski, now living in Gifu, Japan

Richard and Joris, Steve's students

Scott and Mike Govier

The hotel room

First Sunday

Soke's kakejiku: Saino Kon Ki

Soke's Momotaro

After training with Duncan Stewart

Around town

At a local Izakaya

The cutie Scott was hitting on ... and on and on and ...


Paying the piper


Shuriken. Two shuriken.

An old friend, Gabe Logan

One too many? Or not enough?

The Big Buddha

Nagato Sensei

The Big Man

A personal gift from Nagato Sensei to Mike

Training with Nagato Sensei

Noguchi Sensei

The Boss

Me and the big, well ...

With his new Pink Panther slippers, Mike can finally get good

June 23, 2009

Jet-lagged thoughts

I arrived home yesterday, overtired, but happy to be home. Tomoko and I are already making plans to return this year, see her mom, and hopefully do some travelling and training, of course.

I'm still processing everything we learned over our short, but meaningful trip. Hatsumi sensei is on the frontier of this Budo and he is calling us to join him.

At every class, he admonished us to lighten our touch and sharpen our senses; to communicate with the opponent through their intention and use that connection as the "rope" to tie and bind any advance. I have often said, Taijutsu is as boundless as our imagination, but Soke is showing us Taijutsu in the realm of the non physical. How do we imagine, what we cannot imagine? Is this the "floating" world Nagato sensei spoke about?

We'll all just have to, "keep going." Maybe I can put some coherent thoughts together this week and get some photos up as well.

In the meantime, please join us this weekend for a workshop and review of our Japan experience. We'll have Soke's artwork on hand, a few good stories, and some great training. Tomoko will also be joining us for some much needed Makko Ho. Check out the training calender for details.

June 21, 2009


It`s Sunday night here in Japan and tomorrow we leave for home. We`re ready. These past couple of days have been hectic, but great fun and profound for me.

Last night, we went to Nagato sensei`s training where he used me as uke. His movement has become so light, even more so since last year, I mentioned it to him and he said, "I`m getting old," and smiled.

"Make (your opponent) look like a fool," as he changed positions and directions, techniques and tactics. "Usually I say don`t copy me. But you need somewhere to start, so imitating me is okay."

As we bowed out he looked at everyone, "Always be ready for a fight. And when it comes, don`t hold back."

After training, our last celebratory toast as a group at a local izakaya was a little prophetic. Steve, one of my oldest students, in from England with two of his own, said he hated to leave in the morning and miss the last day of training with Soke, "Everything always happens after I leave." Steve was right.

On our final day of training, Soke was late and Noguchi sensei started us off working through the Kihon Happo. Good fun. When Soke showed, he marched onto the floor in yellow socks and began. He kept changing his uke from one to another, proving that the more things change the more they stay the same. And then he pointed at me. After I punched at him I don`t remember much. I wound up on the floor and he was digging into my face with his nails. I couldn`t move, or fight back, and didn`t want to. "Can you move? Can you move?" Rhetorical. "What`s the feeling?" he asked after letting me up. An octopus. A giant octopus wearing yellow socks slowly squeezing away my life.

When we broke for kukei and everyone lined up for Soke`s caligraphy, my student Mike and I agreed we`d ask for the themes of our dojo, "Asobigokoro," playful heart, and "Tsunagaru," connection. Soke banged them out with customary flair and looked at me, "Do you know the real martial arts?" Soke has never asked me a question like this before and I wasn`t sure how to answer. "I hope so," I said. He smiled.

Soke seemed even more energetic after the break. He let loose with swords, hanbo, bo, even shikomi, a bo with a concealed chain. "Be playful (using asobigokoro)," he said. "Stay connected (using tsunagaru)." Mike and I couldn`t help but smile at each other.

After bowing out he looked at everyone, "The core of the Bujinkan is strong. There are people around the world doing strange things. But as long as the core is strong, the Bujinkan will be safe."

As he passed me leaving, he stopped and spoke to me about the status of the Bujinkan and it`s future. He ended with, "Everyone is very good - this will help protect us."

The day and this whole trip has been inspiring for us all. It`s the reason we come.

Oh, and "/s" ... I put my damn plaque up.

June 19, 2009

Return of the Pink Panther...slippers

Last night we had another great training with Soke. As soon as he showed, we got right to it.

He began tossing one of the senior students around - his slight movements concealing a raw power that was difficult for anyone on the receiving end to describe. A good deal of head shaking took place.

After a particularly slippery exchange with a bo staff thrown back on his Uke, Soke said to use the, "inspiration of the moment," when moving against the opponent. Try not to get locked into moving only on a single path, for it becomes difficult to make changes.

When he opened his Uke to a variety of strikes, he commented that concentrating on form allows it to rot. Just like food, rotten form is no longer useful. If one`s spirit is not infused with their Taijutsu, it is no longer fresh and has no life. This was one reason he chose Saino Kon Ki as this year`s theme.

He went on, saying each and every movement need not be effective as long as they are all connected, just like the theory of rope to connect with the opponent and use them as if tying a rope. But actual rope need not be tied into a knot to be useful; the rope`s natural state allows it to bind with or without a completed knot. Such is Taijutsu with an opponent.

Ultimately, this year`s `no theme` theme is one of creation and creativity to work on whatever we would like.

After the bow out and handshakes to training partners, Soke slipped into a pair of Pink Panther slippers and said good night.

We`ve our last training with Nagato sensei tonight and Soke tomorrow.

June 18, 2009

Illogical logic

Yesterday we trained with Nagato sensei and Noguchi sensei and we're still trying to make sense of it all.

During our session yesterday with Nagato, he pulled me aside and we spoke about training. He called Budo illogical, but said it had to be trained in a logical way, which was my job. He also talked about the 'floating' aspect of Budo, an element often spoken about long ago. It was an amazing conversation - difficult to iterate. I hope to clarify some aspects of it with him before we leave.

Noguchi sensei was terrific fun, going through many of the Koto ryu kata. His ability to move outside the box is incredible. The fact he's smiling and laughing the whole time as he dumps you to the floor in ways that defy explanation is inspirational.

Today, after a visit to my 'sword guy' in Tokyo and showering him with money as the guys ordered blades and padded his retirement, we trained with Nagato again and had another great time. He pulled out canes, knives, hanbo, and even worked in a little sword, focusing on various kamae, like Ichi no kamae, and Seigan no kamae.

Tomorrow night we've another class with Soke.

June 16, 2009

Teaching to make mistakes

Tuesday was a big night of training and Soke covered an awful lot.

Before Soke arrived, Noguchi sensei got us started with some subtle and slippery moves. Once Soke showed, it was all business.

He first moved against a strike, sliding just outside the attacker's arm, keeping very close. He talked about using the elbow to assist in control. When his Uke tried to describe the feeling, it was "kanji nashi," without feeling. "Don't try to make a copy (of my movement)," he said. If copies aren't made of the right stuff, they're garbage. Instead, use the connection of the opponent to tie them up like a rope.

When folks got up to demonstrate, he commented on Taijutsu's SHU-HA-RI, the beats of its movement. The RI signifying the aspect of space or leeway in one's technique.

What I found most interesting was when he described actually moving in the kukan, "I am teaching you to make mistakes," he said with a smile. "You are not simply moving against the arms and legs of the opponent, but something else..." Often it is the 'perception of control' that is enough to actually control the opponent - "Sometimes one finger is enough." To move like this takes "yuki," courage, or to be like yuki, snow - it was unclear, even for the translators.

Soke commented he wanted everyone to be able to take ukemi with weapons, not simply fall down wearing them. He also said to make certain you train safely, caring for the well being of your partner/opponent.

Soke mentioned an aspect of his upcoming book and how the samurai and their Budo came from regular people. The samurai were the bodyguards of the wealthy landowners, whereas in England, the landowners were actually the knights.

A student of ten years also took the Godan test; Noguchi sensei administered. After he was hit the first time, Soke said, "You must forget yourself. Wait for Noguchi to give you the sign. He will send it." After the second hit, he said, "You still have some aspect left of yourself. You are trying to pass. Don't try to pass." He was given a third chance, but was struck again.

We'll be training with Nagato sensei and Noguchi sensei today.

June 15, 2009

Nagato sensei

Monday was our first training with Nagato sensei and it was a treat as always. There was only about 20 of us, enough to fill the dojo, but not enough to make it hard to move.

He began in typical fashion, choosing someone from the group to get us started. This initial question posed is actually an opportunity to ask a question of him; a physical question posed in the language of Taijutsu. I wasn't chosen yesterday, but suspect I will be soon.

Sensei's movement is his own. Of course, each of the Shihan have their own brand of Taijutsu, but Nagato's is so tactically efficient, cautious, yet brutal. We worked against a set of punches and moved in various directions always taking advantage of superior positioning.

"Make him feel like he can hit you," he said at one point - a heavy theme in my own dojo. He even said let the opponent get a piece of you (to help him commit to the attack).

After a break, Nagato got more creative, throwing his Uke by dropping beneath him and throwing him with both feet. He demoed with me at one point, pitching me over the top and hanging onto to me so I couldn't get away. In the ensuing flurry, I felt the sides of my head get slapped repeatedly. When I sat up I asked Mike my partner, "Was that his feet?" Everyone laughed.

Scott, another of my students now living in Japan, commented off-handedly at how hard the training was. "It's not hard," he said loud enough for everyone to hear. "It's easy. It's only hard if you think it's hard."

We'll see him again Wed, Thurs, Sat, and hopefully Sunday.

After Nagato's class we went out for dinner, planning to train with Oguri sensei that evening. I believe Oguri is Hatsumi sensei's very first student.

We marched back to Hombu in an avalanche of rain; big fat drops poured on us. We were soaked by the time we arrived. Oguri sensei was there, probably wondering if anyone would show. With only a handful of us there, we started class.

Oguri sensei is quick and nimble, able to find obscure positions from which you can do little, but lose your balance and fall over. Kosshijutsu was the focus of the evening and he demonstrated various ways to use the opponent's anatomy against him with muscle grabs, kyusho, and handholds. All very interesting.

The rain kept up all through training. I went home in my gi pants.

Soke teaches again tonight.

June 14, 2009

Sundays with Soke

Had our first training yesterday morning with Soke. He looks and sounds great. He opened by speaking to the theme of the year, "Saino Konki." Saino is ability, kon (tamashi) is spirit or soul, and ki (utsuwa) is vessel or container. The way these elements blend together refers to each person's capacity for growth both in training and spiritually for our lives. He said no one has ever reached this level in training.

Before class started, he also made vague reference to next year's theme, "Roppo shujin" or something close to it. It refers to the 6 senses or the sixth sense and laughter. It was not clear and said almost in passing.

Training was the usual effortlessness we have come to know and respect of Soke. He moved against swords and sticks and turned them against his opponent with brutal results. He continually talked about not "wanting" to take the sword away from the opponent and spoke about wrapping the opponent up in the "rope" of their own intention. Great to see him in such terrific form.

We also attended Duncan Stewart's class. Duncan is from Australia and teaches a small class at Hombu on Sunday afternoons. We worked Ukemi, Taihenjutsu, and Taisabaki with much form and structure. Very interesting on several levels.

On another note, this morning we ran into one of the guys at yesterday's training. But he was on crutches with his leg wrapped from his toes to his knee. He had blown out his knee last night at dinner; had to be rushed to the hospital and was about to call for flights home. He needs surgery. Yesterday was his first day of training since arriving. It was a good lesson for us.

Today we'll have our first class with Nagato sensei - looking forward to it.

It's overcast and rainy here.

June 11, 2009

Forward Japan

From the 12th through the 22nd of this month, I'll be in Japan for training with several of the boys. I am going to try and update the blog as often as I can. Wish me luck.

The forecast calls for rain, but we have a big week planned, so stay tuned!