Ninja True: Bujinkan Iceland

I visit Iceland to share some Bujinkan lessons from training in Japan with Hatsumi Sensei. As you will see, I have made my own Icelandic saga and many new friends:

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Tsunagaru: Stay Connected!

img_20170507_122506.jpgA week ago, my last class with Sensei for this trip was another great one, with many insights to bring and to train at home.

Before we began, Hatsumi Sensei spoke about the new statue of Kannon that he acquired recently. More than a statue, it is a symbol. When Takamatsu Sensei stayed one year on the mountain, he trained under the guidance of a hermit. During this time he developed a strong connection with the goddess Kannon. He saw Kannon as the end of his mountain shugyō and a witness of the Musha Shugyō accomplished in the wilderness.

img_20170507_113629.jpgWhen Hatsumi Sensei saw this statue at his regular antique shop, he took it as a reminder of Takamatsu sensei’s story. For him, this statue placed at the centre of the Shinden symbolises the fact that we (he) have reached the level of Takamatsu sensei’s understanding.
The Goddess Kannon connects us (him) to the late Takamatsu Sensei.

received_10211601687830068Before we did the salute, Sensei facing the Shinden called me to give me a Ōmamori from the Amatsu Tatara. It reads “Amatsu Tatara no Hōken”. Hōken is the treasure sword that protects from sickness and evil. That was a kind attention.

Kannon, the Amatsu Tatara no Hōken, these are connecting us to our Life. And this is the same type of connection that we’re looking for in the encounter.

During class, Sensei spoke many times about the importance of Tsunagaru. (1) We have to connect to the moment, to the opponent, and to the fight. Mutō Dori deals with this quality of the connection.

At any given moment we have to be protected, in “security”. Sensei repeated that in the exchange we had to safe and secure: “Anzen”. (2) We can be Anzen because we do not fight, we play (Asobi – 3) with Uke, using our fingers, our understanding of distance, and our unwillingness to do anything to defeat him. “Master the Kokû” he added, “and never give the opponent anything he is expecting. We have to keep changing (moving) because life is about changing permanently. If you stop moving your body and your mind, you cannot change. If you don’t change, you become visible, when you are visible, you are “pre-visible”, and Uke can read your actions.

We have to learn hos to change. Then, I began to get very lost when Sensei added that “(he) cannot teach change.”
How then can we possibly learn to change when he cannot teach it?

He explained that it was impossible to teach because change is a natural human reaction that develops by itself. When we watch him doing things that we can hardly copy, there’s no learning process or structure to follow. The ability to change is what blooms from your training.

We see the permanent change when he does it, and maybe, one day, we will be able to do it. It cannot be learned; it comes from years of practice.

That understanding about change, connection, security being the result of years of practice, tied us (Tsunagaru) with his introductory speech about the new Kannon statue.
I have the feeling that Hatsumi Sensei has reached another plateau in the evolution of his understanding of Budō. At this level of Mutō Dori, we are only witnessing his level of expertise.

I wrote in a recent post that we shouldn’t copy his movements. I guess I was wrong because copying him is not possible anymore.

1. Tsunagaru: 繋がる, to be tied together; to be connected to; to be linked
Tsunagu: 繋ぐ/tsunagu/to tie; to fasten; to connect
2. Anzen: 安全, safety|security
3. Asobi: 遊び, 1) play, 2) play (margin between on and off, gap before pressing button or lever has an effect)

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Piano And Budō

A few years ago, Sensei said that if you wanted to control the opponent, only one finger was enough, or Yubi Ippon Jūbun.
In fact, since then, he has been insisting a lot on the piano-like manner with which we have to play with Uke, using only the tips of our fingers as if writing on a keyboard.
Grabbing is not the solution. When you grab Uke, you grab more than his mind or body; you create a fixed point of contact from where he can determine your next actions. The grip becomes a new Teko/Shiten. (2)
But when you use a series of Shishin Ken (3), using your fingertips as if playing a piece of music on Uke’s point of contact, you do not give him a start from which he can be reacting.
For the last classes, Hatsumi sensei has been repeating it. In the world of Mutō Dori, the use of our fingertips, running on Uke, touching him, but not grabbing him, prevents the opponent of beginning a counter movement. You do not stay long enough in contact on the same spot. Because you do not stop, Uke’s body is always “listening” to the input created and cannot make a correct decision.
Playing with the attacker is a significant aspect of Mutō Dori, which is why is why Sensei used the word “Asobi” when detailing the moves. (4) The definition of “Asobi” gives us a hint on how to “play”. It says “margin between on and off, gap before pressing button or lever has an effect.” When you understand this definition, you see how similar it is to the “Ishitobashi”, the skipping stone, of two years ago. (5)
Sensei explained that the spaces between the contacts of your fingers on Uke are those “air pockets” he was mentioning. The rhythm of the contacts on Uke’s skin, give the tempo of his demise.
Not grabbing firmly, but creating a rhythmic touch with your fingertips, allows Tori to overcome any intent of Uke. Uke is lost in plain sight as he cannot take a winning decision. That maintains him at the logical level. His only course of action is to follow Tori’s movements, and hoping that the control of his body and mind with the fingertips, will eventually stop.
A few times, Shiraishi sensei attacking Sensei with a sword cut, was stuck in mid air. Sensei was holding him only with the tip of his forefinger.
I guess it is time to go back to your keyboard training in search of this magic and playful way to control the fight. Mutō Dori is purely about controlling the situation.
  1. Yubi Ippon Jūbun: 指一本十分, One finger is enough
  2. Teko/Shiten: 梃子/支点, lever/fulcrum. That is one of the major concepts of the Kukishin Ryū and the Takagi Yōshin Ryū.
  3. Shishin: 指針, needle (compass, gauge, etc.); hand (clock); indicator; pointer; index . Shishin is often used as a name for a stabbing action of the pinky. But when you understand it, you realise that in fact, you can use any of your fingers for it. Thus a series of Shishin Ken as if playing the piano. You move from one finger to another.
  4. Asobi: 遊び, 1) playing , 2) play (margin between on and off, gap before pressing button or lever has an effect)
  5. Ishitobashi: 石飛ばし, skipping stones on a body of water

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Read Between The Lines

“Kyojaku Jūgo Arubekarazu”
One must not depend on strength or weakness, or softness or hardness.
It is a sentence from Toda Shinryūken Masamitsu, Takamatsu sensei’s uncle. (1)
And Hatsumi Sensei repeated it once again in his last class when he was explaining the importance of moving slowly without stopping. Some Bujinkan members misunderstand the “moving slowly” for softness. That is not the case. By moving slowly, you control the movements of the attacker.
When you fight, you are one, the Ten, the Chi, and the Jin are united. Your actions become holistic in the sense that you now move as a whole. (2)
You can achieve this unity when your expression of the Tenchijin is not “3” anymore, but “1”. Once you are “1”, you can achieve “0.”
This is how I understand the “Kyojaku Jūgo Arubekarazu.” At this level of no-waza, there is nothing; you emit nothing, you have no plan, you are surfing the waves of Uke’s intentions without thinking. If you depend on those dualistic concepts of strong/weak; soft/hard; fast/slow, you cannot be zero. The control of the space is not even conscious; it is there because you manifest it by nor trying to do anything. Later during the same class, Sensei referred to Fudōshin: the state of nothingness is part of the control you impose to Uke. (3)
The zero state of Fudōshin is only possible when you disappear to yourself. Having no intention yourself, Uke is alone, fighting his self.
He is the question and the answer. The more he tries, the more chances you have to control his movements and his brain and to defeat him. You are in control, only mirroring and completing his actions.
Henka means “change”, but as Sensei explained, the word “Henka” is, in fact, two Kanji put together: “Hen” and “Ka”. (4)
They both translate as “change,” but Hen means the beginning of change, and Ka, the end of change. They complete themselves, like in-yō. There is no duality, only completion.
In other words, when you apply “Kyojaku Jūgo Arubekarazu”, you understand that Uke’s change (Hen) calls for your change (Ka). Uke begins, you finish. That is the nature of the control of space that we learn with Hatsumi Sensei these days in class. Here at the Honbu, there is a lot to learn, if you listen carefully and research the hidden meanings of the words and expressions used by Sōke.
As Sensei says: “Ninjutsu teaches you how to read between the lines”. Maybe it is time for you to begin to read the invisible.
1- Reminder for the newcomers on this blog. No, Toda wasn’t Takamatsu sensei’s grandfather but his uncle. The misunderstanding goes back to the beginning of the Bujinkan when a translator mistranslated Oji (uncle, 伯父) for Ōji (Grandfather祖父). Once again it shows the importance of the correct pronunciation.
4- Henka: 変化, change; variation; alteration; mutation; transition; transformation; transfiguration; metamorphosis​. 変 = beginning of change; 化, action of making something, end of change

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Don’t Xerox The Master!

img_20170502_211510.jpgEach class, Hatsumi sensei speaks about moving “Yukkuri”, slow. This is different from training slowly. (1)

Training slowly: Study level/acquisition/Dōjō
Moving slowly: high-level/reaction/fight

Training slowly is part of the learning process, reacting slowly deals with actual fighting. When you train slow, you create new mental/body patterns that will be useful in a real fight. When you move slowly in the encounter, you stop emitting intention. Therefore it is easier for you to read the opponent and to adjust your reactions naturally to Uke’s attacks. Many practitioners, high ranks included, misunderstand this difference. We end up mimicking Sensei’s slow movements. And as we don’t have his many years of practice, if we only copy his slow moves, it will get us killed.

For years now he has been saying that he is teaching for the Jūgodan not for beginners. What he shows is Ura, if you copy his movements, you stay at the Omote level. Buying a black belt in a Budo shop doesn’t make you a black belt. What Hatsumi sensei shows in class is a result, not a process. Do not mistake the end result for the path. Stop copying, you don’t have the level for that! Moving slowly comes after many years of moving fast. The “no-waza” state he has reached is beyond our grasp. We are heading towards it, but we are not there yet. It comes after years of repeating the forms of the waza. There’s no shortcut. As I said many times here, in order to forget the techniques, you have to learn them in the first place.

Yesterday, Hatsumi sensei insisted on moving slowly. This is the secret of high-level taijutsu, he was insisting on the “yukkuri”, but he added that to be successful, one has to keep moving. We did several sword attacks from behind similar to train the Sakki feeling. Each time, the sword could not touch him because he never stopped. Turning his back to Uke, Sensei didn’t wait, he kept walking, and the blade was avoiding him like by magic. Hatsumi sensei insisted that if you stop, then you give a fixed point in space that the attacker can use against you. What we do is effective taijutsu, even if we are moving slowly. Senō sensei often asks us to move out too late and to be hit. Then to move a little earlier, then again and again until we can move slowly enough, and at the right distance, and with the perfect timing to avoid the attack. If you never get hit during training how can you possibly know how to fight for real? The truth is that you cannot.

Instead of repeating Sensei’s movements, you should listen to what he says, and build a training progression that will teach you how to do it. If you are a Bujinkan high rank, hopefully, you have studied all the Waza. You come to Japan, not to learn Waza but to bring back home new insights and new feelings, that you will train in your Dōjō until your next trip to Tōkyō. You come to Japan to bring back homework.

If you want to improve your knowledge of Taijutsu, stop copying and begin to listen.
Don’t copy the Omote, the visible, it’s a dead-end.
Listen to him, it will teach you the Ura of things, and help you improve your movements.


  1. ゆっくり, Yukkuri: slow, at ease, restful

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