June 18, 2010

The Ninja Diet

So, you've probably heard of the, 'Ninja Diet,' right? Genmai, brown rice, umeboshi, dried plum, Azuki beans and what not? Takes some getting used to, but good for you - healthy.

Don't buy it. The real Ninja Diet is fried izakaya food - karaage chicken with mayo the base of that food pyramid. Strange pizza concoctions - we had one with cooked pasta on it ... yes, pasta. Convenience store food during the day and ramen fit in between. And everything lubed with abundant amounts of beer, beer, beer - 'dai jockey' for the faithful, with braver travelers downing sake and exceptional super-soldiers, shochu, Japanese vodka.

Oh, and did I mention you're up all night? And going all day? Training, sometimes up to three times a day? And with the best in the world, no less. Men with such high ability, it actually pains the brain to study with them. You're spending way too much money that you remind yourself not to feel guilty about. Plus you're trying to get over jet lag. You're in a foreign environment with possibly little to no language skills. Maybe you can't read anything. So, you wind up choosing that same damn sour plum 'convenie' rice ball over and over, even though you're desperately trying to choose the 'tuna mayo' one. Your voice is shot from screaming into a karaoke mic. You have to scream because everyone else is screaming, because, well, Bon Jovi's "Wanted, Dead or Alive," just doesn't sound right unless everyone is screaming. Oh, and you're drunk.

Well, maybe not drunk, but you've had ten beers and you really want to fight Yakuza now, but only if you won't get stabbed. Or shot. Which nowadays, even in Japan, is uncertain. So, you grab the wall telephone in your karaoke closet as your mates are screaming out "Hotel California" and getting the pitch all wrong, which means another low score, and order the third round of beers even though no one is halfway through their current mug. And someone inevitably hits on the Japanese chick who brings the beers, even if she resembles Ernest Borgnine in From Here To Eternity, when he was actually pretty svelte.

The Ninja Diet is an adventure. Healthy? Good for you? Let's just say it makes you stronger. Or at least, let's believe that until we figure out a more sustainable (read smarter) way to enjoy it. It's Musha Shugyo, the quest, the pilgrimage, the journey we take with our fellow shugyosha to hone our ability and broaden our capacity. It's no vacation, but it usually is fun, even when some turn salty from culture shock or frustration. But it's all part of the diet.

The reason for the diet is simple. We're trying to lose weight; to shed the pounds of all our unnecessary habits, beliefs, and desires and reduce ourselves to the kosshi, essentialness, the kanjin kaname no kosshi, that which is of critical importance. But that, of course, begs the question, what is it that we should know as critically important? What is this Gokui, essence, of Budo?

Soke "told" us such at last Sunday's training when he spoke at the beginning of class - lectured, really. He said we needed to study history, as people begin to repeat it. Becoming surprised is because one cannot see far enough ahead, because we haven't looked far enough back, studying the trends and rhythms of human frailties that have led to so much suffering in the world. In other words, relying on the form only leads to its completion, but does not give us the tools to forge any new direction.

Once again he chided those who believe technique is the means to illumination and reminded us of the Gokui no uta, song of the Gokui - "In the world of martial arts, one should not stick to strength or weakness, softness or hardness; rather one should transcend physicality and understand the void, 'ku,' regarding the body also as empty." Training Budo with childlike selfishness is to believe in the power of its minutiae, the white noise that obscures clear transmission.  

Soke is imploring us to discover the right direction. He won't tell us directly, mind you - that's not good for us. We must discover it for ourselves. So, we trudge along the path as best we can, watching him zoom by on his jetpack.

The basics may be fundamental, but they are anything but basic. The Kihon and its waza are in fact the pinnacle of movement and technical prowess, not our most rudimentary forms. The most basic form we can provide to each other is not physical, it is the ability to recognize our purpose for studying Budo. Unless each of us can answer this question honestly, we obscure for ourselves the fundamentalness of truth so important to our own discovery.

When Soke mentioned the evolution of weaponry throughout Japanese history, I was taken by the fact that it mirrors the evolution of ethics as well. From the brutish and straight 'ken,' through tachi, and firearms, to the life-giving katsujinken, the katana became a symbol of valor, honor, and benevolence in a brutal land. Such is the metaphor for training itself.  
There are all kinds of concepts, principles, and techniques to practice and study throughout our training. But no matter how well we program ourselves with the material, none of it makes any difference unless we can apply it when it counts. But when does it count? How do we know when it counts? If we never ask ourselves the question, there's never any reason to give a good answer.

It seems to me, Soke's theme for the year, Rokkon Shojo, is a means to perceive training in a different light, from a different perspective. "The purification of the senses through laughter," is not meant, like so many other themes throughout the years, to concentrate on our physical training. It is to place our training into perspective, a context, from which we can discern its meaning.   

The Ninja Diet provides many ways to train - asobigokoro, a playful heart, Majime ni asobi, serious play, and shinobigokoro, the hidden, persevering heart. But to what end?

For so many years, Soke has directed us toward finding the means to express ourselves physically. Now, it seems he is asking us to understand life's most poignant question. A question that has befuddled philosophers, warriors, and scientists alike; a question that has been asked and answered and will be asked and answered again and again.


June 15, 2010

'Japan Download' with James Morganelli, June 26th, 2010

It's great to be back! The training in Japan was tough, but inspiring. We've a lot of work to do. So, let's get to it.

On Saturday, June 26th, 2010, I'll host a workshop from 1-5pm, at the Alfred Campanelli YMCA, in Schaumburg, IL, 60193. We'll be covering our recent Japan trip with stories, concepts, and some cool souvenirs, including some of Soke's artwork. The cost will be $40.00.

I'll also be relating what we learned in Japan with our training themes of the year - Soke's, "Rokkon Shojo" and our SGTI Dojo theme, "Shinobigokoro."

Please bring training swords - fukuro shinai and bokken - bo, knife, rope, and hanbo as we'll be working with a variety of tools. If you have a long sword of tachi length, bring that as well.

Come out and join us!



June 14, 2010

Just disappear a little ...

Well, we're home. It's been quite a week. We're tired, but I wanted to update as best I could before my head slams into the keyboard and I wake up Thursday.

Soke's class yesterday was great, profound even. He began with what seemed like 15 or 20 minutes of talk; talk about history, of current events, of the future of the Bujinkan, of what it means to study this art. He spoke of the evolution of weapons in Japan, from ken, to tachi, to ju (firearms), to katana. He touched on lots of stuff - difficult to process now, but I'll get at it this week. What struck me was so much of it included the macro view, not just of the art, but ourselves, and what it means to, "study Budo as a human being." He asked us to look deeply to discover the essence of Budo - it's human face - and not become stuck on the minutiae of techniques.

His movement was supple, light - Jiyu ni, with freedom. "Just disappear a little ..." he laughed as his uke seemed to thrust a bo right through him and then be thrown - bo and all - spectacularly. Sword, no sword, bo, no bo, weapon, no weapon, he moves with the very freedom of his consciousness, always in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time.

And at the end of class, when I saw Nagato sensei administer three Godan tests, I felt a dramatic shift in my perspective. The only way I can describe it is I could see him cut, before he cut. All of them passed.

It's good to be home. Me sleep now.

June 11, 2010

Kiss her with Ki

Spent the past few days training with Nagato sensei, plus we were supposed to have training with Soke Friday night. But Ninja masters get days off too, so Noguchi sensei took over. Still, we had a terrific class, with Noguchi running us through Gyokko Ryu kata at breakneck pace.

I trained with Darren Hovarth the other day, which if you know Darren, at 6'7", 280lbs, and wide as a bus, is like training with a polar bear, armed with a knife. Darren has been around for quite a while and now lives in Japan from his native Australia. Not only is he quite good, he's surprising light on his feet. He was good fun and very helpful, offering his thoughts on Chuto Hanpa and the perspective Soke is trying to convey.

"Anything is okay, as long as it works," Nagato said, a familiar quote of his. Sensei worked against kicks and at points disappeared on his partner when he slipped under his kick and spun behind to control him as the student crashed down in a heap, so surprised by Nagato's lithe movement and timing. Sensei just laughed. At another point, he turned away from the kick and sat down on his uke, arms crossed, yet still covering every point of attack and escape his uke could manage. Nagato sensei's size is deceptive and one might think it would be hard to fit it all into the moments he does, but just one training with him is enough to come away scratching your head.

He also talked about putting Ki into a particular strike, a shuto, as an opponent reaches for you. "Hit them like your Mom would hit you when she's angry," he laughed. "Put energy into it." And demonstrated in animated fashion. "But don't do this to your girl ... kiss her instead!"

June 9, 2010

A gambling man?

Tuesday night, Soke tossed attackers like dice. And once the dice were thrown, he sat on their faces, twisted their arms behind their backs, and generally made a mess of them. And he's not even trying. When he does try he winds up making Duncan Stewart do a front flip to keep his finger from breaking. "Hold them, without holding them," Soke was saying. Let them do the work. And he did, over and over again. Jutte, knives, swords, multiple attackers, it all came out. We even did some ground work from Fudoza and tied up our attacker, only to practice reversing the attack as well. The energy could not have been higher - it's 90 minutes of GO! By the end of the night I was beat.

I trained with Steve Olsen, long-time resident of Japan and another of Nagato's guys. Steve and I had great fun training, and not just because Steve is really good, but because training in Ayase with Soke actually allows us to move. Hombu is powerful to train at because, well, because it's Hombu. But with 100 people in the room, it gets tight. Ayase allows us all to breathe.

Earlier in the day we had the pleasure of training at Hombu with Someya sensei, the Bujinkan's resident sword master. Someya is particularly good at the form of just about everything. He took us through some sword basics and paired us with yari and naginata doing tachi techniques. Apparently, however, there are few, if any, actual techniques for tachi, because it's so old. Nevertheless, the training was great. He even set out some real swords and took us through a short history from the ken, straight sword, through tachi, han-tachi, and eventually katana, noting the differences between them.

One shinken he laid out was a tachi of very old design - the back of the blade was sharpened as well. He said it was a copy of the sword Japan's emperor has. I said, it must be expensive. He looked at me wryly. "Yeah ... it's expensive."

June 8, 2010

Good for what ails ya

A bright beautiful day was the setting for our first training with Nagato sensei. It was great to see him and we had a chance to chat. Unfortunately, I wasn`t feeling too well, but training, being training, cleared that up right away.

There were 70 people at Hombu - busy, but not so bad you couldn`t move. Sensei put on his signature show. He seems even lighter now than he was last year, his uke nearly floating in the space around him. Punches, kicks, grabs, nothing ever seems to phase him. His position is always guarded, and yet he keeps open his path of communication to the opponent so he`s always aware of him and the changes they are making, maybe even before they are.

Towards the end of class, he pulled our own Steve Kovalcik onto the floor and gave him what-for. I was happy to see Nagato choose him. Being uke is tough, as a recent late-night, deep conversation - all our late-night conversations here are deep when copious amounts of alcohol are involved - revealed. When training with a partner, I have always advocated honesty in training, meaning 'move or you will get hit;' not in a harmful way, just a real way - this is happening, deal with it. But that's between partners. When we step before Soke or the Shihan, who are demonstrating and elucidating points, we aren't to treat them as a peer, that would only endanger them, and us - more us. So, we treat them with respect, and receive from them the most potent form a lesson can take - direct transmission.

Yesterday, we had great training with Someya sensei and finished the day out with Soke at Ayase - it was all rock and roll. More on that later. Heading off to Nagato's class.

June 6, 2010

Stop. Collaborate and listen ...

Okay, so much to write. Not a lot of time. Yesterday we had a ton of training.
We kicked it off with Noguchi sensei with 9am training at Hombu. Noguchi sensei is great. He's personable, friendly, easy-going, and incredibly good. He breezed through pages of techniques from Takagi Yoshin Ryu, putting his own spin on the movements. As usual the lessons came fast and furious.

He emphasized 'karamaru,' to mix up and become one; like a growing plant that entangles itself with another, and demonstrated what he meant over and over, by blending with his partners in various ways - now he's sliding off your back, now he's rolling between your legs, now he's twisting you 180 degrees with just his head and neck around your arm. At one point, he wiped his face with a towel, flipping it into a partner's face - there was a bottle of ink hidden inside. Class only became more and more abstract, as he broadened and stretched each movement to a point where few had any understanding of where exactly to begin.

But that's one of the best reasons to train with the man - the challenge of seeing through to the principles at work, like fellow magicians trying to decipher his latest illusion. Terrific training.

Soke picked it up at 11am. He looked great and moved even better. Class started with his concern about training injuries, saying he was concerned, and we should be aware of the danger inherent in training. He was surprised more people had not been injured, given its nature.

Striking became the classes' theme, as Soke continually hit, punched, shuto-ed, and smacked all manner of uke around the floor. Most times his partners were unaware of where, how, and when they'd be hit and Soke incorporated weapons into this same feeling. Hanbo, sword, tachi, jutte, and shikomi
all shared moments with the man as he tried to impress upon us the particular and universal, and the point of their intersection. One uke said his fear of the tachi in Soke's hands opened up the space just enough for him to place it for lethal advantage.

He used a tea cup to cover and twist the fingers of one uke, unbalancing him only to drop him to the floor. He talked about Takamatsu sensei's thick fingernails, that could strip bark off of trees, and how he told him not to bother hardening his nails, as a weapon would be just as effective, and he demonstrated on a young Hatsumi using his pipe.

We finished out the day with Duncan Stewart. Dunc is a great guy, fun to talk to, and very good. He's fun to train with because he's excited to train - he's all over the floor, very creative, and yet is very cognizant of his Kihon roots, showing various incarnations of fundamental kamae and movements. He spoke about 'ikken hasso,' one strike, many changes as part of Soke's earlier teachings. 'Chuto hanpa,' half movements that leave uke with little or no ukemi, and 'yoyu,' 'catch and release,' like fishing with the opponent. All great fun.       

This morning we had breakfast at Mister Donuts - Donuts-san. I'm having my coffee, Mike's got some crazy pasta-pastry thing, Tomo's rockin' some Green Tea thingamabob and we're listening to Vanilla Ice sing "Ice Ice Baby."

It's official. I'm back in Japan.

Training with Nagato sensei today.

June 3, 2010

To the East!

So, I thought this year I'd ask Soke for something other than a Tengu.

Just saying.

We leave tomorrow - see you in Japan!