The Moon

Sensei talked about how the moon’s disk changes from night to night and that we can henka like the moon. It comes and goes, and it’s a little far away, somewhat like taijutsu.

Here’s Glenn Gould’s henka of Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. He was a curious person, insisting on always using his creaky piano stool, audible in recordings, and disdaining applause as “evil”.

太刀 The Tachi

Hatsumi Sensei told us last year to bring a tachi to training in 2010. Tonight he reminded us that although 太刀 tachi, 剣 ken, and 刀 katana are all translated to sword, each of these close arms are in fact different things, and he is now teaching us.

What distinguishes these different blades, as Hatsumi Sensei tells us, is the era in which they were developed and used.

To appreciate swords better, I visited the 刀剣博物館 Token Museum in Tokyo, which houses ken, tachi, katana, tanto and other sword fittings, many of which are national treasures.The museum is not very big, and only the most essential points about the blades are indicated on the labels in Japanese only. The receptionist handed me an English language pamphlet with essential information. However, the beauty of the blades and the elegant sword fittings speak for themselves.

The association that runs the museum has also revived the tatara, the ancient tradition of producing the kind of steel, called 玉鋼, tamahagane, or treasure steel, used in sword production. The furnace is a joint project of the government, the sword preservation society, and Hitachi Metals have run the furnace since the 1970s, and the Hitachi Metals website chronicles its history in great detail in the Tale of the Tatara.

What distinguishes the way a tachi is used? I’m looking forward to this year’s training as we look back to the elegant curved blade that was first forged in the 12th century.

明けましておめでとうございます。I wish all my fellow budo-ka a very happy Year of the Tiger, 2010. 頑張ってください。Keep going! 

礼儀 Reigi Courtesy

Courtesy, 礼儀 reigi, is ingrained in the Japanese way of doing things. The word 礼 rei, means everything from giving thanks to saluting someone. When you visit a shrine or temple, you put a little money in the offering box. It’s a symbol of giving more than a payment.

The second kanji, 儀 gi, means ceremony. Japanese culture is very ceremonious, and you may wonder, do Japanese people ever relax? But manners have a high value with most people in Japan. I think you will set your dojo mates at ease when you observe proper reigi in the dojo. It means that everyone is sharing a common language of gesture. If you don’t know exactly what to do, don’t worry. People here see your foreign face and they know you don’t know. Careful observation and listening reveal a lot. This is part of 空気を読めること, kuuki wo yomeru koto, or reading the atmosphere. If you can anticipate what someone needs to hear or observe to be relaxed, then you have a key to open the door of learning the budo, too.


When you walk into our Hombu Dojo, or any dojo for that matter, place your shoes in the genkan carefully, and point the toes to the door. This makes for a graceful exit when you leave. You can bow before you step onto the mat. You may think, why bow to empty space and to no person, but this お礼 orei, or giving thanks to all the people who have preceded you.


Japanese culture is all about being 綺麗, kirei which is a word that connotes cleanliness, purity and beauty. My keikogi was out in the sunshine yesterday and there is a fresh tshirt in my bag. In the hombu dojo, my Canadian training partner straightens his gi jacket and I catch the scent of the 香袋 kobukuro, a sharp, spicy incense packet that he keeps in his training bag. My gear bag, which I place on the wooden floor of the dojo, doesn’t get placed on the mats. Mats are for training on, and ought to be kept clean. You might have placed your bag on the floor of the train, or set it on the ground when your hands were full, so it’s not clean.


Sensei makes a gesture to indicate he wants me to be uke, demonstrating the technique. I bow my head,  “Yes, please!”. When Sensei is done demonstrating and explaining, I bow my head again. When sensei comes around to show me again because I’m not getting the point of the movement, I say thank you and bow.


When you do the technique the first time, I say nothing. We each take a turn. Didn’t work the first time? Don’t fret, you’re practicing. If you can help me identify some tweak, a tipping point, a dangerous 突き tsuki, I’m grateful. But my teacher is right there. If we get really stuck, I put my hand up to ask sensei, but more often than not, because he is attentive to his students, he will likely notice and come help us out.

There is an expression in Japanese, 「親しき仲にも礼儀あり」,”good manners even amongst friends.

No women’s budo

There is no such thing as women’s budo.

There are women in budo. There is budo in women. But a human being is a human being. Hatsumi Sensei has impressed upon us the concept of 才能魂器, sainoukonki, which means we need to work with our minds and talent, our spirit and our capacity to develop this budo. Does budo have anything to do with a man’s sexuality, his masculinity, or his physical size or strength? No. So why should a woman’s sexuality, femininity, size or strength be a detriment to her budo?  Budo isn’t about being masculine or feminine, soft or hard, weak or strong. We push our knowledge, talents, spirit and capacity no matter our size, sex or shape.

Keep going!

photomeijigateA few times week, I walk the grounds of 明治神宮 Meiji Jingu, the grand shrine in central Tokyo dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

The emperial couple were famous poets who composed about 130,000 poems in the classical Japanese form, waka.

Emperor Meiji was born mere months before Commodore Perry’s ships arrived in Japan. He represents the modernization of Japan, taking the recently unified states of the Japanese islands form a closed feudal society, to a modern country capable of economic power in a global economy. Here is Emperor Meiji:






As clear and refereshing

as the rising sun –

Thus might it always be

With the human heart!

Empress Shoken was a powerful, forward looking woman. She championed social welfare organizations like the Red Cross. She was a child prodigy who had mastered Japanese and Chinese literature at an early age. She introduced a court edict which required the wearing of western attire, since, she believed, Japanese traditional garb was outmoded. She wrote:






If you consult your inmost heart

And still need feel no shame,

then let the people of the world

Talk on as they please.

At the 内苑 naien gate, for 100 yen, you can get a fortune paper with a waka poem on it written by these two prolific and wise poets.

I often look in at Shiseikan, the martial hall on the grounds of the shrine. Shiseikan has a school of Aikido and battojutsu. In the reception hall, a massive screen has kanji characters as tall as I am reading 武神, bushin, or warrior gods. I asked a senior Aikido practioner, why is there a budojo on the grounds of the shrine? She told me that the shrine authority wishes to preserve important traditions of Japan, and that the Aikido and battojutsu practiced there are protected by the gods. 

Meiji Jingu is about looking back, to respect tradition, and looking forward to imagine what will be. Budo and the sprit from which it came has its roots and protection at this shrine. The shrine preserves these traditions for the future.

Meiji Jingu celebrates Japanese traditions in October and November, showcasing budo, mounted archery and other arts. The big day for budo is November 3rd, 文化の日 bunka no hi, or Culture Day, which was Emperor Meiji’s birthday.

A 先輩, sempai, senior was beside me today in training. I struggled to interpret what Hatsumi Sensei was showing us, and kept looking at sempai. What could I steal from him, stealing from Hatsumi Sensei? My 相手 aite, partner, is awesome to train with – so balanced, really hard to throw, and quite strong. I felt like I sucked at the waza.

I kept looking at sempai. What possible meaning could I derive, how could I get the better of my worthy opponent?

After training, my sempai took me aside and told me something . I struggled to understand what he was saying. Sometimes it’s not my comprehension of Japanese that slows me down. It’s my comprehension of meaning.

He was telling me something about dealing with a balanced opponent. He said something about not using power. Yet he crushed me to the mat when he did the waza on me. What?! This guy has never even talked to me before…

And then I got what he was saying – that sometimes, the waza as is doesn’t work. You have to henka. Everybody, “every body”, is different and requires the freedom of a different approach.

After we bowed out, he demonstrated on me what he was saying.

Why did he bother sharing with me? He’s got a generous heart. And he didn’t worry about my lack of comprehension of his message. He just kept going. He didn’t agonize over whether I’d get the message or not. He didn’t assume whether I had heard this before or not. He just understood that I needed to hear it in that moment.  

Right on, sempai. And thank you.

As far as I can tell from what Hatsumi Sensei does, it is not a method, but an approach. A method is a prescribed way of doing things. His budo is an approach – chaotic, free, thoughtful, problematic, steeped in history and myth, and based on a shared 基本 kihon of the 9 schools collected together under the Bujinkan banner. He gives you room to do what you’re going to do, either adopting or adapting what he does, or completely ignoring his message. He doesn’t prescribe. He shows.

These days, I put in about 6-8 hours a week into training – with Hatsumi Sensei, my sempais and friends – and practice – on my own, or practicing with people. My budo, if you watch me, isn’t that remarkable. I’ve only been training in Japan for seven years.

But the insights I gain about the process of learning and teaching, of acquisition of language, meaning, efficiency of movement, space and timing are precious and are part of my everyday life. When something really resonates with me, I  integrate it into my work or personal life.

Budo, for me, is also a tool to learn about knowing. What is real and what is merely an artifact of individual or collective anxiety?

For me, it’s a message about patience, too. So often, I want to take my partner down right away, anxious to get “there”, but if I take my time, breathe, and have some patience with the waza, and my own ability to comprehend,  I learn a more efficient way to get there alive. It brings to mind  the Japanese proverb 「急がば回れ」, isogebamaware,  The fastest way home is the long way around.

It’s a long trip. I like it.

A theme that came out of that session was the importance of three “hearts”, 残心 zanshin, 不動心 fudoshin, and 無心 mushin. Each of these words ends in 心 shin, a word which encompasses heart, mind and spirit. 

The first character of zanshin means remainder or balance, and together the two characters conveys the meaning of always being ready to follow through and attack again, always alert and ready for the next thing while maintaining good kamae. When you attack your partner, you need not only the intent to connect and move him, but also the intent to attack again.

Attacking is not a one-punch deal. You keep attacking and defending while protecting your center on two axes – your spine is the vertical, your hips are the horizontal.  Correct attacks, proper distance (don’t punch short, don’t punch over your center, don’t punch wide, and don’t track) and good defenses of your own tsuki are vital to help your opponent do the technique and feel where the technique is efficient and effective. We train both sides when we stay alert and ready for the next attack or defense in good kamae.

Fudoushin means being immoveable and imperturbable. No matter what happens – a physical attack, a snide comment – or where it comes from – an external force or your own mental state – you keep going.

Mushin, literally no-mind, refers to both the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and to innocence. Mushin is neither the feeling nor rational thought. Nor is it the negation of these two modes. It is a freedom to move while not hanging on to any one movement, moment, intention or emotion. An untrained, “innocent” person, early on in the dojo, may move with no thought and spontaneously and freely move. As we continue in our training, we may get stuck in the feeling and technique, focussing on the subtle places of tension and slack or obsessing on perfect technique. It takes practice in zanshin and a lot of determination to develop fudoshin in order to get back to this no-mind place.

Vancouver August 2009

I only had a week for the trip home as the Obon summer holiday is peak travel time (airfare is out of my price range) and I had to return to some obligations here in Tokyo for September.

The trip began with crashing the gracious Amebushi – Rain Warriors dojo on Vancouver’s east side. These guys train rain or shine outside in the park. Their Thursday night session is for basics led by C. When we were done, on short notice, I asked if anyone wanted to train the following morning, and was surprised and impressed to have four takers. Despite the threat of rain, all four came to training and we put in two hours working on ukemi, receiving ichimonji, being free with our hands (not holding on like grim death), and attacking.

Saturday, Amebushi , Namiyama and Momijiki Dojos and friends came together for a three hour training session. I brought my “homework” from Hatsumi Sensei’s training – the rope theme. Staying connected to your opponent with or without weapons. Most of the movement we worked on came from receiving ichimonji. How, you wonder, can you do a three hour session on just 一文字 ichimonji? Receiving attacks from swords, kicks and punches turns one into three right away. When you start doing different directions, 八方 happo, front, back, inside, outside, and even down, you have 15 different ways to move. Concentrating on this one kamae meant that we could look at the ropey part in detail.

I sometimes suck at the use of the actual rope. I like using it, however, because it challenges my kamae. Put the rope in my hands and I agonize over my own errors in movement. Take it away and suddenly it feels a lot easier.

steven picSaturday night was more training. Namiyama Dojo walked through the wandrewmikeoods into to a secret clearing and we trained with mutodori until the stars came out. The biggest adventure was walking out of the clearing back through the woods with no moonlight, dense westcoast canopy blocking out the light, and no lights with us. The guys know that route well, but it was still impressive to be led out on a winding, hilly path and over bridges at a good pace in complete darkness. One of the highlights, pun intended, was spotting a bioluminescent fungus at the foot of a tree. No, I didn’t lick it.


oma and IThe last few days of my trip, I stayed with my 82 year old grandmother, Margareta, known to family and friends by the German endearment “Oma”. Oma is a tough, intelligent, big-hearted, practical woman. She raised six children in two countries, speaks four languages, is a master baker, capable homesteader, needleworker, charity volunteer, and always surprises with her insights and ingenuity. The last few years she has downsized the baking and gardening, and spent a lot of her time globetrotting; earlier this year she went to Jordan and Israel with her church group, this winter she’s off to Panama, and next year, she wants to come to Japan. I told her, she’s got to be ready for the training, so each morning we did 柔軟体操 juunantaisou, stretching, with a mix of yoga stuff and isometrics that she routinely does. Oma is in her tenth year of recovery from cancer. She has amazing strength from her faith, family support and sheer power of will. She’s my inspiration.

Thank you to everyone who came out to train, and to Bill, Colin, Steven, Mike and Davidd for being such tough opponents and kind hosts!