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Kūkan (空関): The Empty Gate

When I was asked for a theme for three upcoming Bujinkan seminars (details below) that I’ve been invited to give in April, the concept of Kūkan immediately came to mind. Kūkan is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the Bujinkan, and Chris Taylor, host of the Vancouver seminar, asked me to elaborate more specifically on how we’ll be approaching it…

When Hatsumi Sōke uses the word Kūkan in the Dōjō, it’s most often simply translated into English as “space”, but as is often the case when Sōke speaks, there is frequently a deeper sense than can be conveyed in a single word, and the translator is often pressed to succinctly express the full meaning of one idea as Sōke quickly moves on to the next. For instance, there’s another word that Sōke uses from time to time that’s also translated as “space”: Kokū. In both Kūkan and Kokū, the same character for ( 空 ) is used, which has the meaning of emptiness or void. When this character is pronounced Sora, it means “sky”. It can also be pronounced Kara, as in Karate ( 空手 – “empty hand” ).

But while both Kūkan and Kokū are often simply translated in the Dōjō as “space”, they have quite different meanings. Kokū refers to boundless, limitless space, space that has no borders or boundaries. This term thus often refers to the heavens, the cosmos – outer space. Kūkan, on the other hand, could in one sense be rendered as inner space – it refers to space that has borders or boundaries by which it is outlined or enclosed and by which the shape, dimensions / size, or range (distance) of the space are defined. The character normally used for the Kan of Kūkan is 間, which depicts a sun ( 日 ) in the space between the two doors of a gate ( 門 ). The doors define the space or interval that the sun’s light shines through. This character for Kan can also be pronounced Ma, and it is used in this form in another term often used in the Dōjō – the term Ma-ai ( 間合 ), meaning “distance”, the interval between two points.

In thinking about the theme for the upcoming seminars, however, I decided to play with the characters a bit. Instead of the Kan normally used in Kūkan, I thought of another Kan – the character used in the word for “joint”, Kansetsu ( 関節 ). This came to mind because the skeletal joints are an example of Kūkan within the body structure. The little spaces between our finger joints, for example, are what enable us to use our hands with a dexterity that wouldn’t be possible if our fingers were each formed from a single, solid bone. (Similarly, the links in a chain employ empty space for flexibility – and even a rope derives its suppleness EmptyGatefrom the small spaces between the strands of which it is composed.) This Kan ( 関 ) is used to convey connection and relatedness. Budō ni kan-suru ( 武道に関する ) means “related to Budō”, for example. So Kūkan written as 空関 has the sense of “related to empty space”.

Additionally, the character 関 literally means “barrier” or “gate” (a gate being a wall or barrier with an opening in it). Thus, Kūkan written as 空関 also has the sense of being “void of impediment or obstacle” in addition to the sense of relation to empty space, and it’s this idea that I’d like to get across in the Taijutsu techniques that we’ll be working on in the upcoming seminars. Creating space allows one to pass through obstacles without impediment, resulting in smooth, effortless, and efficient movement in the same way that one passes through the empty space in a wall created by a door or gate. An opening is an opportunity that may look like nothing – and it is! That’s what makes it useful. I sum up this paradox with the phrase Nai ga aru ( 無いが有る ), meaning Nothing (or more accurately, nothingness) exists. The theme of these seminars thus refers to finding and creating empty spaces, and using those openings to one’s advantage in Taijutsu. I look forward to seeing many of you in Stockholm, Brussels, and Vancouver!

Kūkan Ikkan!

Shawn Gray
Ryūun (龍雲)

160430 Seminar T-Shirt
~ Upcoming Seminars (2016) ~
“Kūkan: Nai Ga Aru”

Apr 16-17 – Stockholm (details)
Contact: Kent Thorén (email)

Apr 23-24 – Brussels (details)
Contact: Jan Ramboer (Facebook)

Apr 30 – Vancouver
Contact: Chris Taylor (Facebook)


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A Guide to Happiness – Kōfuku No Shiori(幸福の栞)

Kofuku No Shiori - JapaneseA couple of weeks ago I posted a few of observations about Kōfuku No Shiori on Facebook – posting a longer follow-up here at the suggestion of friends.

fuku No Shiori (幸福の栞), which translates as “A Guide to Happiness“, is a short text by Takamatsu Sōke. In seeing the Japanese original again recently, a number of things came to mind and I thought it might be good to post an English translation that will perhaps breathe some new life into this well-known and meaningful piece. Here’s the Japanese original:

幸福の栞
皆さん、互いに憂を捨てて幸福を得ましょう。皆さん、幸福は人生最高の満足です。悲しみとか不満とかを捨て、思い直すのも幸福です。災害、病害を前知して覚り改めることも幸福です。皆さん、幸福は眼前に持って居ります。これを掴むと掴まぬにより、不幸とも幸福ともなるのです。何人もお聞きになり、お尋ね下されて、幸福の栞を拾おて下され。
Let’s break it down and see what we can find …

1) 皆さん、互いに憂を捨てて幸福を得ましょう。

The first thing that strikes me when I read the Japanese is the use of 皆さん (“Mina-san“), which means all or everyone. It begins the first sentence, and you can see that it appears at the beginning of two other sentences in this text as well. This is interesting because it indicates that Takamatsu Sōke was consciously addressing a group of people – all of the readers. The original context may have been such that it was intended for his own students, or for a specific group, such as a group of Hatsumi Sōke’s students at the time. Nevertheless, when we read it today, we can read it as if it’s addressed to us, the readers, as well. Why is it significant that the text is addressed to everyone? The rest of the first sentence sheds more light on that, beginning with the next phrase, 互いに (tagai-ni), which means together, mutually, or with each other. The opening sentence ends with the verb 得ましょう (emashou), meaning to obtain or to attain, with the verb ending (~shou) being used to further suggest togetherness in the same way that we use the word “let’s” in English (tabemashou = let’s eat; ikimashou = let’s go). So, in writing about Happiness (幸福, kōfuku), the author isn’t simply saying, “Be happy”, he’s saying “Everyone, let’s attain happiness together.” That’s quite a significant difference. There’s more here, too. He also refers to the throwing or casting away (捨てる) of sorrow (憂, urei – also translated as grief, etc) in this same context of togetherness. An accurate rendering of the first sentence in English would thus be, Everyone, let’s together cast away sorrow and attain happiness.

2) 皆さん、幸福は人生最高の満足です。

Once again, he begins with 皆さん, Everyone, and simply states that happiness is the most satisfying thing in life (a more direct, literal rendering would be, happiness is life’s ultimate satisfaction).

3) 悲しみとか不満とかを捨て、思い直すのも幸福です。

Ultimate satisfaction sounds great, right? Everybody wants that! The author recognizes that it’s not that simple – human beings struggle with feelings of sorrow and discontent. The author urges us to find Happiness by discarding those negative feelings and taking another look at our situation. Sorrow (悲しみ, kanashimi) and discontent (不満, fuman) are pretty straight-forward to translate, and although 捨てる (suteru, used above as well) has a wide range of possibilities (such as “throw away, “leave behind”, “discard”, “abandon”, “dispose of”, etc.), I thought “cast away” fit well in this context.

What I found interesting here was 思い直す (omoi-naosu). Omoi is from Omou (思う), “to think“. Naosu (直す) is interesting here because not only does it have the meaning of doing something again (repeating something), but also because it carries the sense of “fixing”, “correcting”, or “repairing” something in the process. For example, in addition to having the sense of repeating something, Naosu is also commonly used to say things like “I’ll fix the chair” or “I’ll correct the issue”.

I’ve rendered Omoi-naosu as “re-thinking” to convey the sense, which I think is implied in the original Japanese, that Happiness is achieved here not only by simply looking back upon sorrow and discontent in life, but by actively choosing to discard sorrow and discontent and re-think (re-frame or “correct”) our perspective on our life experiences. I think Takamatsu Sōke is observing that Happiness doesn’t come from our external circumstances but from the perspective that we choose to take on those circumstances: Casting sorrow and discontent away and re-thinking is also happiness.

4) 災害、病害を前知して覚り改めることも幸福です。

Like the previous sentence, this one is simple, direct, and to-the-point in the Japanese. The first two terms are 災害 (saigai – calamity, disaster, or misfortune) and 病害 (byogai – disease or blight). Saigai can perhaps be understood as the calamity itself, and Byogai as the bodily effects of the calamity. 前知 (zenchi) refers to foreknowledge or anticipation, 覚り(satori) means understanding (but also with the sense of enlightenment or spiritual awakening), and 改める (aratameru) refers to correcting, rectifying, or improving – similar to the idea expressed by Naosu above. Once again, Happiness isn’t a product of our circumstances, but a product of our perspectiveAnticipating and correcting one’s understanding of the ravages of calamity and disease is also happiness.

5) 皆さん、幸福は眼前に持って居ります。

Again, 皆さん, Everyone. Again, short and to-the-point: Everyone, happiness is waiting there before your eyes.

6) これを掴むと掴まぬにより、不幸とも幸福ともなるのです。

There are a couple of interesting points here as well. The first is the use of これ (this) at the beginning. What does this refer to? Does it refer to happiness? It could, yes. It could also refer to the previous sentence as a whole, which gives a different sense to what follows: whether you grasp (掴む, tsukamu) this or don’t grasp (掴まぬ, tsukamanu) this. So the phrase could mean a) whether you grasp happiness or not, or b) whether you grasp the point of the previous statement (about happiness waiting there before your eyes) or not. Maybe they’re both the same thing. ;-)

Another interesting point here, I think, is the mention of 不幸 (fukou, unhappiness) as the alternative if you don’t grasp it: Whether you grasp it or not determines your unhappiness or happiness.

7) 何人もお聞きになり、お尋ね下されて、幸福の栞を拾おて下され。

I like the way that Takamatsu Sōke ends this piece. He doesn’t say, “There’s my advice, take it or leave it” or, “That’s the word on finding happiness, there you have it.” He encourages the reader to go out and find the guide for Happiness for themselves by asking (お聞き) and inquiring (お尋ね) of everyone (何人も). Ask others, get opinions, and find it for yourself: Ask everyone, inquire of them, and find the guide to Happiness.
I think these together form a pretty accurate translation of Kōfuku No Shiori:

Everyone, let’s together cast away sorrow and attain happiness.
Everyone, happiness is life’s ultimate satisfaction.
Casting sorrow and discontent away and re-thinking is also happiness.
Anticipating and correcting one’s understanding of the ravages of calamity and disease is also happiness.
Everyone, happiness is waiting there before your eyes.
Whether you grasp it or not determines your unhappiness or happiness.
Ask everyone, inquire of them, and find the guide to Happiness.

 

20151022_010046

‘Kōfuku’, by Hatsumi Sōke

 

Takamatsu Sōke led an adventurous life, but in hearing and reading stories over the years, “happy” isn’t always the first word that comes to mind – at least not when one looks at the external circumstances of his life. But as the wise Ninjutsu master teaches us here, it’s our internal perspective that matters. Looking back over painful or unfortunate circumstances, re-considering, re-thinking, and re-orienting our perspectives can allow us to lead fuller, happier lives. In a recent message I received from Shiraishi Sensei, he referred to ‘the study of Ninjutsu, which creates happiness’. I’m willing to bet that he’s read Kōfuku No Shiori a couple of times.


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Muto No Kyojitsu (無闘の虚実)

Greetings!

Back after a _long_ hiatus, with a brief post to explain the theme for two Bujinkan seminars I’ll be doing in January – Vancouver (Jan 4/5) and Houston (Jan 11/12). Maybe writing this will also spur me on to go back and pick up Path to the Heart of the Flower, a story that I began to write in early 2012. I also have some other ideas that I’d like to write about, but it’s hard to find the time. Thanks to those of you who keep asking me to write, as it helps to keep it on my mind and pushes it a little higher up on the priority list. :)

When the seminar hosts asked me about a theme for training, I thought back over some important things that Hatsumi Sensei focused on in Hombu Dojo Keiko this past year. The official theme of training as announced at the beginning of the year was Ken (劔), the straight, double-edged sword, but as often happens with Sensei, the theme had completely morphed by the second half of the year. In fact, we rarely used Ken at all in training for most of the whole second half of the year. I’m not sure the reason, but we somehow found ourselves doing a lot of Muto Dori (無刀捕り) work against both regular Katana (刀) and Bo (棒). Sensei continued to stress the central importance of Muto Dori throughout the end of the year, with much mention of the role of Kyojitsu (虚実) within Muto Dori movement.

Hell under the upraised sword . . .

Hell under the upraised sword . . .

I’ve always liked to cheer for the underdog. I like strategies and techniques that enable a physically weaker person to even the odds against a physically stronger person. That’s why I like Gyokko Ryu movement. Sensei emphasized the importance of this kind of movement a lot early in the year,  and especially at the Bujinkan Women’s Taikai in March. In fact, Sensei stressed that women’s self-defense was the last and greatest thing that he learned from Takamatsu Sensei, stating that this idea reflects the pinnacle of Taijutsu training. The use of weakness to defeat strength.

This idea is highlighted even further when the opponent has a weapon and the defender is unarmed. Facing a physically bigger, stronger opponent can be daunting enough as it is, let alone an opponent who’s trying to take your head off with a meter-long razor blade. Learning to deal with this type of situation is challenging for even the most skilled martial artists, which is precisely why Muto Dori should be practised with  proper Kihon (基本, fundamentals / basics), practised well, and practised often. The lessons learned can be applied not only to classical scenarios with swords, but also to modern situations where an opponent might have a knife, a stick, or virtually any other kind of weapon. Or no weapon at all – Muto Dori principles can just as easily be applied against unarmed attacks.

That brings me to the concept of Kyojitsu (虚実). That’s Jitsu (“fact, truth”) with an ‘i’, not Jutsu (“art, technique”) with a ‘u’. Different words, different meanings, different spellings. The word Kyojitsu is made simply by putting the Kanji for “lie” or “falsehood” next to the Kanji for “truth” or “fact”. False-fact. Lie-truth. How does this make any sense? This is a great term because the composition of the term itself teaches us about the nature of its meaning. That is, that its nature is illogical. By definition, it doesn’t make sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. Sensei often talks about common sense being of no use in a fight – that one needs to throw away common sense in that situation and adopt un-common sense. Fighting is crazy, and war is insane. Why should one human being want to harm another human being in the first place? Perhaps that’s the actually the root of the issue, but standing around philosophizing about it in an illogical situation will only get you cut down by that meter-long razor blade. There’s a time for thinking, and a time for doing. Standing unarmed in front of a sword-wielding attacker is not a time for thinking. People involved in serious accidents or other life-threatening situations often say that in the midst of the craziness, in the midst of the chaos, it was as if their mind shut off and they went on to auto-pilot. That is, they stopped thinking, and just acted. To many people, even the idea of stop thinking sounds illogical. How do you stop thinking? Not by thinking about stopping. Only by doing it. This concept don’t think, just act is essential to Muto Dori. To do this, of course, requires a lot of practise. Your body needs to know what to do when you put it on auto-pilot, and it learns what to do through repetition, training, and practise. A Gokui (極意, mystery / secret) of Muto Dori teaches this importance of doing:

振りかざす太刀の下こそ地獄なれ
一と足すすめ先は極楽

Furi kazasu tachi no shita koso jigoku nare
Ichi to ashi susume saki wa gokuraku

Hell under the upraised sword,
one step forward is paradise

... step in, and Heaven is your reward.

… step in, and Heaven is your reward.

So let me see, this angry guy is brandishing a meter-long razor blade at me, and you want me to … what? Stepping in might sound illogical (not to mention dangerous). On the spot, it might seem to make more sense to turn and run away (when in fact turning your back could be even more dangerous). This daring to step in, this stepping forward instead of away, this doing, is one example of Kyojitsu.

In thinking about these ideas, I realized that there’s a Kanji meaning “fighting” that is also pronounced “To”: 闘. One can therefore write Muto the regular way (無刀), which means “without a sword”, and one can also write Muto as 無闘, “without fighting”. (Wouldn’t you know it – the day after I realized this about these Kanji, I discovered the same use of it in Sensei’s latest book, Ninja Taizen.) This kind of wordplay is another example of Kyojitsu – first the word means one thing, and then it means something else. Or, you think it means one thing, when in reality it means another.

So this is the type of concept that we’re going to be working with at the two seminars I’ll be teaching in January – “Muto Dori – Muto No Kyojitsu” (無刀捕り:無闘の虚実). I guess you could also call it, “Head-scratching non-combative unarmed responses to armed attacks” if you like. :-) I hope this short article has helped to shed some light on the ideas behind the theme. If you’ll be in Vancouver or Houston during the dates listed above and would like to attend, please contact me on Facebook or by email at bujinkan@graydojo.org, or contact the seminar host directly via the Facebook page.

無刀捕りの極意は無闘捕りの得。
体術の極意は平和の道なりと知る。

The secret of Muto Dori is achieving a state of non-combat.
The secret of Taijutsu is to know the path of peace.
~ Hatsumi Masaaki Soke ~


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Path to the Heart of the Flower (V) – Back to Canada

Thanks to everyone who has continued to prod me to continue writing this blog! Life gets busy, and it’s always easy to find other things to do, but … here we go again. :)  (Yes, I promise I will eventually get to the end of this story! (Does it really have an end? Not sure about that one…) )

Last time I wrote a little bit about Karate training in Kumamoto and Kendo training in Hiroshima. Chitose Soke and Fujiwara Sensei were both amazing gentlemen who I’d learned a lot from in the short time I’d spent with them. In Part II, I wrote about my Karate training in Fukuyama with Kanao Sensei, who I continued to visit every weekend for training. In November 1990, he’d used his connections at the Fukuyama Post Office to make me “Postmaster-for-a-day” and weaseled me into being the poster-gaijin. A local TV station and 3 local newspapers came to cover the event. I discovered the old newspaper clippings in my closet and thought it would be fun to post them. :)

Postmaster4ADay3 Postmaster4ADay2 New Years Postmaster

By the time May 1991 came around, it was time to wrap up my time in Japan and head back to Canada. After many heartfelt goodbyes to the good friends I’d met, I got on the plane back to small-town New Brunswick and back to college. I flew from Narita to L.A. and then to Eastern Canada from there. My bags weren’t as eager to get back to Canada right away, and decided they wanted to go to Brazil from L.A. instead of back home with me. It was 2 weeks before I got my luggage back – and, thankfully, all of my Kendo gear was still intact. :)

I worked summer jobs landscaping and mowing lawns to pay for the coming semester at college. The year in Japan had taught me a lot – and one of the things that it had taught me was that I didn’t want to me a missionary. The missionary that I’d been assigned to work with in Japan was so uncultured and racist that it had turned me off completely. I decided to do one more semester at the small Christian college I’d spent 2 years at before going to Japan, and then head to the opposite side of the country to a bigger university with more options when that was finished. But before starting the fall semester, I was interested to see what Karate training would be like at my home Karate club after having spent nearly a year training in Japan. I made a habit of arriving early to class so that I could work on the material that I’d learned from Kanao Sensei before the class started. Not long after I’d been back, while I was reviewing one of the Kata I’d learned in Japan, a senior member of the club approached me and asked me where I’d learned it. When I told him, he requested that I not tell or show anyone else in the club what I was doing. You see, I was still a brown belt, and apparently what I was working on was 3rd-degree black belt material in Canada. Woooo. Wouldn’t want to upset anyone with that now, would we? Wooooo. I rolled my eyes and agreed to keep it quiet. I practiced that material at home in the backyard from then on – along with the Kendo bokken kata that I’d learned from Fujiwara Sensei.

The summer came and went, and I found myself back in the dormitory at college. I roomed with my best friend Jack, who had a habit of sleeping in. I had a remedy to help him with that – it was a bamboo shinai training sword that I’d brought back from Japan with me. It seems one’s shins can only take so much before one prefers to get out of bed. :) Oh well, at least it got him to chapel some of the time. Chapel attendance was mandatory. (Yes, it was a college, not a kindergarten.) By this time I’d been promoted to Shodan (1st degree black belt) in Karate, and started a training club at the college, hoping that it might help people with fitness and discipline, and help me to remember the material that I’d been working on as well. I have a feeling that it fizzled out shortly after I left. Rooming with Jack did have its perks though. Jack was a bit of a computer whiz, and had his computer hooked up via a 2800-baud modem (or something like that) to the phone line. A full four years before Internet service started to really take off in Canada, I saw a picture of a naked woman appear on the computer screen. Slowly, ever so slowly, one slowly-inching pixel-line at a time. I forget just how long it took the image to finish loading, but once it was completed, I wondered if maybe there was something to this computer-network thing after all. It was October, 1991. Nobody knew what a Facebook was. And luckily, none of the faculty found out about the image on the screen, or I might have been demerited, suspended, punished – or just sent straight to hell. :)

Anyway, that semester passed pretty quick, and I was off to Vancouver, 5,000km away on the other side of the country. Although I’d been dumbfounded at the size of Tokyo (around 25 million), Vancouver was still pretty big by Canadian standards, at around one-tenth that size. Still pretty daunting for someone from a town of 3,600. I knew no-one in the city, and found myself in a youth hostel trying to find an apartment and a job before my money ran out. I had no idea what the city was like, and made a quick, desperate decision to rent a place that I went to look at one night. It was furnished. Pretty shoddily, but it was furnished. The first night I slept there I heard a huge crash right behind the wall of my room at about 4:30am. I discovered that my building was literally right next to the port and there was a freight rail line that ran right behind the building. Two train sections had bumped together to connect them, which is what had made the crashing sound. The next morning, I walked out into the sunshine and found myself dodging used condoms and needles on the sidewalk. Apparently Commercial and Hastings wasn’t the best place to be living. I found a job at a local Japanese tourist gift shop while waiting for the summer semester of the Canadian Summer Institute of Linguistics to start. It took me about 20 minutes to walk to work, and on the way I’d regularly be propositioned by drug dealers and prostitutes. After I’d been there a couple of months, a Vietnamese gang broke into a place up the street and killed 4 people to burgle their house. I decided I should probably look at finding a better place to live. Around that time, I read a newspaper article stating that women between age 20-25 who lived in the few-block radius I lived in were 25% more likely to die of homicide or drug overdose than anywhere else in Canada. I accelerated my new home search and found a place in New Westminster. I didn’t see a prostitute there for a full 2 weeks, so it seemed like a much better place to live.

First Bujinkan SeminarDuring this time, I was of course looking for a Bujinkan dojo to train in. I figured a city like Vancouver must have a Bujinkan training group, and I found what I was looking for – a seminar advertisement – at “Golden Arrow Martial Arts Supply.” I was ecstatic – finally a real, legitimate Bujinkan dojo. I called the number listed and made plans to attend the seminar, which was held at a school gymnasium in White Rock, just south of Vancouver. I got the bus out to White Rock and was happy to participate. There were a lot of differences from what I was used to. The group hadn’t been going that long, so most of the students were still fairly junior. I’d been doing martial arts quite seriously now for over seven years and had recently come back from a pretty full-on experience in Japan. But when I looked at the kind of things that were being shown, I was intrigued and could see that this would be a very interesting art once one developed a bit of skill at it. I began to train with the instructor in his regular classes, continuing my Karate training in parallel for the first few months. I had committed a number of years to Karate now, and didn’t want to put it aside lightly.

I was approaching my Nidan (2nd Dan) grading in Karate, which was a pretty big deal. Grades work differently in Karate than in the Bujinkan. The two top people in my Karate style in Canada were both Japanese gentlemen – one was 7-Dan and one was 6-Dan. These were considered very senior ranks in our style, so even a 2-Dan wasn’t anything to sneeze at. But I was becoming disenchanted with the Karate training. I found the local instructor in Vancouver to be unnecessarily stern and overly formal, much more so than the Japanese instructors I’d trained with in Japan. I was forbidden to cross-train in anything else, even though the Soke (grandmaster) in Japan had encouraged me to train in Judo and Kendo in parallel to my Karate training. The training itself was very much geared towards winning points in tournaments, and they were strict about the contact rules – that is, you could easily get disqualified for hitting too hard. Our instructor would pair us up and have one person hold a pencil upright between his thumb and index finger. You had to hit the pencil and whip your hand back without knocking the pencil over – that would indicate that the strike was too hard and would result in a tournament penalty. It really seemed like nonsense to me, and this made it a bit easier to make the final decision to put down my Karate black belt and step out of my white uniform, and step into a black Bujinkan uniform and put on a white Bujinkan belt.

All the while I continued to dream of going back to Japan after completing my university studies. I was now enrolled at Trinity Western University (just outside Vancouver) working towards a BA degree in Intercultural Religious Studies with a Concentration in Linguistics. But most relevant to this particular story, perhaps, is that I was now training in a legitimate Bujinkan dojo that was connected to the Bujinkan headquarters in Japan. I found out that the Hombu Dojo in Japan was in a place called Noda – not Iga where I had gone looking for Hatsumi Sensei a year and a half before. The two places are actually about 500 kilometers apart. I had been way off. Next time I could get back to Japan, I’d be sure to be at the right place.


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Path to the Heart of the Flower (IV)

Finally, some free time to blog again!

In the last blog article I wrote on my early adventures in Japan, I related how I went to Iga in search of Hatsumi Sensei in October 1990, but didn’t manage to find him.

After not having found him, there was nothing else to do but return to Hiroshima and continue with my English teaching schedule. I also went back to my Karate studies, and continued pounding my fists into bloody hamburger against trees.

Back to Eikaiwa!

Back to Eikaiwa!

Back to Blood!

Back to Blood!

In December 1990, I had the opportunity to travel to the Chito Ryu Karate Hombu Dojo, located in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu. The Dojo was equipped with two bunkbeds, accompanying four people. When I arrived, there were two guys visiting from British Columbia, Canada, also staying there for training. (I wish I could remember their names after all this time, so that I could track them down. It would be fun to share stories again.) The Soke (Grandmaster) was 40 years old at the time. His father, the founder, had died in 1984. (From what I’d heard, an elder brother had been destined to continue the leadership of the style, but from what I heard, had been disabled in a car accident and therefore unable to continue with training. The younger son, next in line, had been in Tokyo pursuing medical studies, but was recalled to Kumamoto by his father to take over leadership of the lineage.) I stayed at the Dojo for two weeks, and greatly enjoyed the training. I was awed by the skill level of Chitose Sensei and his senior instructors. In the backyard behind the Dojo were two Makiwara punching posts. Wooden covers protected them from the rain, and on the covers were painted a Japanese character which is very familiar to my fellow Bujinkan practitioners. The character is pronounced “Nin“, and is the first character of the word “Ninja.” What was this character doing displayed so prominently at a Karate Dojo? Although sometimes understood in ninjaphile circles to mean “stealth,” the character is more widely used in more mainstream Japanese to mean “restraint,” “patience,” or “perseverance.” It was with these noble ideals in mind that we forged our minds and bodies in the daily training at Hombu Dojo. Kata, Kumite, and Makiwara training were all part of this. By perseverance and austerity in training the body and mind in the way of the Bushido ideal of the Samurai of old, we pushed our mental and physical limits beyond what we thought possible.

Makiwara with "Nin"

Makiwara with “Nin”

Aside from the training itself, there are a couple of memorable experiences from that time in Kumamoto. One was when Chitose Soke took the other visiting Canadians and myself out for a visit to Kumamoto Castle, one of the three premier castles in Japan. Scars from the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 (when Samurai warriors of Satsuma province rebelled against the imperial forces of the Meiji government) pock-marked the stone walls. It was an impressive edifice. Soke took us out for sushi afterwards.

Another memory was from one night when my two new Canadian friends took me out for a night on the town, Kumamoto style. I had never been out drinking in Canada before, let alone in Japan. I had no idea what kind of town I was in or where we were going. Before I knew it, we were sitting at a table ordering drinks, surrounded by very nicely-dressed ladies from the Philippines. I was from a farming town of 3,600 people on the Atlantic Coast of Canada. It took me a while to catch on that these ladies worked here. Anyway, we kept ordering and my two Canadian friends were on my left, engaging the ladies in deep conversation. Almost as if they’d met before. I felt a nudge on my right and turned to see what appeared to be two of the local Japanese bikers. They seemed friendly enough. The one next to me, I discovered through our broken conversation (my Japanese vocabulary was probably about 30 words at this point), did well in the local boxing scene. At least that’s what he told me, as he kept grinning and pointing to the biceps bulging out from under his cut-off denim vest.

I was starting to feel a little bit uncomfortable, but couldn’t really understand why. I started to think I should ask my friends when we were planning to leave. I turned to my left to ask my friend when we were going to get the check, and then felt a fist slam lightly into the right side of my face. My friend turned. “What?” “I think maybe we should go. This guy just hit me.” “Wait a second.” He turned to confer with the other friend. I turned to my right and smiled nervously at the two grinning Japanese guys wearing black leather. They looked like they were having fun. A moment later I turned to the friend on my left again. “What.” Again a punch from the right hit the side of my face. Harder this time. “Look man, our friend on my right here has now hit me in the face twice. We need to go, now.” “Ok.” My two friends stand up. Both of them were about fix-foot two. Sturdy Canadian farming boys. I turned to my right. The two Japanese dudes were gone.

We paid the bill and headed down the elevator. It came to a stop at ground level, and as we stepped out into the parking lot and the doors closed behind us, we found ourselves on the back side of a slowly-shrinking circle, on the perimeter of which were four or five tough-looking locals. The friend on my right made a quick beeline to the right, down an alley. I was close behind him. Closer than I normally am to other guys. We zig-zagged quickly through some alleys and eventually found ourselves with our hands on our knees, panting and out of breath, outside the Hombu Dojo “bunk room.” There were just two of us. The other Canadian friend was nowhere in sight. It was around 2am. We waited. We didn’t want to wake anyone and cause a scene. We waited some more.

After what seemed like at least 20 minutes, our friend loped quietly out of a side street and over to join us in the shadow of the Dojo roof. “Where were you?” “What took you so long?” “What happened!?” He told us that he didn’t see us bolt away right away, and before he knew it, he’d been surrounded. As the four or five tough guys closed in, one of them had pulled a knife. Our friend had a quick eye and saw the guy start to draw. He jumped on him and punched him to the ground, and then made a run for it. It took him a while to give them the slip and sneak back to join us at the Dojo without being found. We quietly slid into the Dojo dorm and into our bunks, glad to be alive. The next morning Soke asked us how our night had been. We played it cool and made like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He smiled.

The next day was the day he took us to Kumamoto Castle. On the way in the car he told us that he’d heard about what happened, saying he was glad we got through it ok, and apologized “for those with bad manners.”

Chitose Soke and 2 Canucks

Chitose Soke and 2 Canucks

Before I left Kumamoto to go back to Hiroshima for the New Year, 1991, Chitose Soke gave me some training advice for when I got back. Study also Kendo, for speed and timing, and also Judo, for throws and locks. I was a bit surprised to hear this. Martial arts masters aren’t always known for recommending that their students study other arts. Soke’s openness in this way really impressed me.

When I got back to Hiroshima, I asked around about Kendo training. There was a small Okonomiyaki bar in Hiroshima run by a young Japanese woman and her American (Seattle, I think it was) husband. He was very into Kendo, and was proud of doing it in Japan as a foreigner. He had photos of his shop and would brag about being a 3rd Dan, which I think he said was one of the highest ranks of any foreigner in Western Japan at the time. I have no real way of knowing whether that was true or not, but that’s what he’d say. He agreed to bring me along to his Kendo class and introduce me to his teacher, Fujiwara Sensei.

With Fujiwara Sensei

With Fujiwara Sensei

Lesson with Fujiwara Sensei

Lesson with Fujiwara Sensei

Fujiwara Sensei was a wonderful old (to a twenty-year old!) Japanese man who always had a huge smile floating across his face. He had a very soft, gentle manner and a kind way of speaking. For some reason he took a real liking to me and, in addition to selling me $1,300 of training gear for $300 and giving me a set of Hakama with both of our names embroidered in it, also refused to let me pay for lessons. This irritated the American guy who introduced me. Fujiwara Sensei had been his teacher for years, but he always had to pay for his lessons. I was unable to explain why Sensei seemed to like me so much. Maybe it was just because I was always so polite. I’d always greet him with the extra-polite, “O-kawari arimasen ka?” (“Has there been no change [in your health, etc.]?”) He’d always smile widely and say, “Hai, arimasen!” (“Yes, there hasn’t!”) My American friend was less than impressed. He’d pound the hell out of me when we were paired up in the Dojo and I would go home with headaches from getting hit on the head so hard repeatedly. I didn’t know what to do. I could not force Sensei to take the money. Out of desperation I would bring bags of fruit to the Dojo and force them on him. The Japanese students would laugh at this, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was never ranked in Kendo, although in addition to the regular Suburi and Randori training, Fujiwara Sensei also taught me 5 Bokuto Kata forms and 2 Shoto Kata forms. I seem to remember that these were for Shodan level, but my memory could be wrong on that.

Kenjutsu Lesson

Kenjutsu Lesson

As far as Karate ranking went, I went to Japan as a brown-belt. Kanao Sensei in Fukuyama wanted to promote me, but said that Chito Ryu had prohibited ranking of foreigners to Yudan grades (black belt grades) in Japan. Apparently some Japan-promoted foreigners had in the past gone back to their home countries and caused political problems by claiming their rank from Japan was worth more than a locally-given rank of the same degree. So I wasn’t promoted during my stay in Japan, but Kanao Sensei did teach me some very interesting Kata that made things interesting when I got back to Canada. ;-)

To be continued…


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