Sunday, 12 March 2023

Reigi - is it just about bowing?

Recently, we have had a few new people try our old-school, Japanese martial art; Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.

For us, this is rare. We don't strongly advertise, my sensei prefers that people search us out. We are known in the local community as those guys who swing swords around on week nights, especially in the darker months where the dojo lights highlight our presence in the neighbourhood. We train out of a karate dojo so families and students of karate classes sometimes see us as they pass through as well. Other than a website, that's it for advertising.

So when people turn up to train, they have usually done a little bit of research on what we are all about. Even then, sensei is straight-up with them. He tells them that our training is relentless but issues no belts and new people start with basic movements they must repeat over and over again. We prefer people who have at least accomplished a black belt in another martial art but we make exceptions based on character and commitment.

Two of the new folk are father and son. They are continuing to train despite the grind, they have been with us for a few weeks and its nice to have new bodies on the mat. However, as a senior student of the dojo, I have a job to do - to set their reigi right.
Ellis Amdur (an author I am a big fan of) says this, "Martial arts are a laboratory for real life, not ‘real life’ in themselves. Through martial arts practice, we learn how we respond to force, how to deal with less than perfect training partners, and how to react to things that we are taught, that don’t seem to make sense. We are expected to bow to each other, to our teacher(s) and to such things as a photograph of a teacher, a scroll with some words or the name of a deity, even though we don’t do that in real life. (And regarding this last phrase, there is a Biblical commandment against bowing to idols)."

For people new to the Japanese martial arts, this can be weird. Bowing, especially to pictures of dead people and scrolls, is strange to a Westerner. In TSYR this is even stranger as more archaic practices must be adhered to that come from a time when Japan was a feudal society.

Years ago, while I was still training at my aikido dojo, we had a woman who really enjoyed training with us. She felt empowered and was learning quickly. Then one day she walked in and said to my sensei that she had to stop training because her husband discovered she was bowing to a picture of Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of the art) and as they were Christian, this had to stop. Christians don't bow to false idols.

Unfortunately, we lost a good student due to cultural differences.

This etiquette (or correctness) is called reigi in Japanese. A large part of reigi is the bow, but it is not everything. There is more to it. In TSYR, when you become a deshi (student) you take on the responsibility of representing the kai (martial school). You must behave in accordance to kai rules and not put the school in disrepute.

Reigi helps determine social hierarchy in a dojo. There is a strict vertical authority with the headmaster of the school at the top. Juniors should be respectful of seniors and seniors should treat juniors in a manner consistent with the best interests of the kai. This means being considerate and nurturing when needed, or telling them the rules when they don't know them or break them.

The social climate in a koryu dojo is a subtle one. No one is barking orders and counting out repetitions. Students watch their teacher and their seniors carefully, watching for cues on how to behave. This leads to a natural situational awareness. Students will go about doing small chores if they need to be done, before and after training. They look for what needs to be done, they don't get told what to do, it is expected they will watch and learn. I had a junior student take a mop bucket out of my hands the other day and said, "I'll get that." He removed one chore from me. He was showing his willingness to contribute, I didn't ask him to take the bucket from me, in fact, I was quite happy to do the chore. His action spoke volumes about his character though. This is important. The students who sit about while others look to the cleanliness of the dojo won't last long with us.

Takamura sensei had this to say on reigi, "Acceptance or rejection of proper dojo etiquette can expose a student's dedication or shortcomings to a sensei. The student who refuses to embrace reigi is not suitable for continued training because he ultimately views his own opinions and desires as superior to the aims of the ryu."

So, let me take you back to talking about the father and son who have joined us recently. The son, by the way is about 20, so they are both adults. I noticed that the son came to the dojo last time without wearing shoes. He walked in off the street in bare feet. For us, that is a problem. This means he is walking the outside filth onto our mats. Up until this point, both father and son have been respectful in everything they have done. The father, in particular, has had experience in another martial art and often bows in acknowledgement of a comment or when greeting us. The son knows to bow onto and off the mat. It wasn't till they were leaving that I also noticed the father walking barefoot to his car. As a senior student of the dojo, I had to put this right. So I called the father over and told him that I noticed he was not wearing footwear outside. He said, "Oh, they are in the car." I then explained to him the importance of keeping one's feet clean until entering the dojo space. He accepted it and went on his way. If I was to not bring this up, then I would have been at fault, not the father and son. They may not have known any better, but I did and had to address it.

People think they are coming to our dojo to learn how to fight with a sword. They are coming to do so much more than that in a Koryu bujutsu. They are coming to sharpen their minds, develop situational awareness and dedicate themselves to an alien way of being and thinking, from a time that held the group cohesion above an individual's needs. Some Westerners can accept this while others cannot. I guess, at the end of the day it comes down to how bad you really want to be a part of this old martial tradition.

Train safe!

Saturday, 29 October 2022

Kata training is hard.

No matter how long I work at kata, I still come away from the dojo feeling like a beginner. It happened again just the other night. Lately, I have been working on Chuden (middle curriculum) kata. Some of these are new to me, others I may have done a few times before but I don't know them as well as the Shoden kata. So I found myself struggling away, trying to perform the correct movements while maintaining certain TSYR principles of body mechanics and posture. As you would expect, I was failing at both. 

Samurai Jack dueling with the Scotsman.

Just to be clear, kata training in koryu bujutsu is usually a two person affair. One-on one. This is different to the solo forms you might see in another martial art, such as karate. This means you are always working with another person who may be stronger, faster, shorter or taller than you. 

Look around the internet long enough and you find people talking trash about kata. In my opinion, this is often from a place of ignorance. There is a place for this kind of kata training. There is certainly room for other types of pressure testing and competition but there is also room for kata training. 

In its current form, the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu curriculum involves 346 forms. 346 different kata to learn. Kata hold the riai, or underlying principles at the heart of combat. These principles reveal themselves in layers. In TSYR, the kata are divided into omote, ura and henka. Omote function as the orthodox teaching form. These set the foundation of a student's skills and principles. Ura allow a student to delve deeper into the principles of the forms. Finally, henka represent application of kata principles. This stage should only be developed once the omote and ura have been thoroughly explored.

It is a frustrating experience. But it is suppose to be. My kaicho, Tobin Threadgill sensei, says that kata are not so much fighting techniques but rather a set of principles we are trying to internalise. Kata molds you from the outside in, both in body and mind. 

What does this mean for day-to-day training? Well, just when you think you get the hang of even some of the most simple kata, something changes. It may be that your sensei now wants you doing the movements with better internal dynamics. It may mean it is time I performed the movement under more pressure from uchitachi. This could be an increase in speed, or power or both. Perhaps uchitachi changes the tempo or timing of some of the movements. Can I still match them? Perhaps uchitachi comes in using his best coordinated attack, with good structure and near perfect alignment. Does my technique still stand up to that? Can I still take their balance? Can I still move efficiently around my own spine when the pressure is on. Can I still remain calm under the changing dynamics? 

Ultimately, kata training teaches resilience in the student. The fact that it may seem like you are not making progress or feeling a lack of achievement must be overcome if you are to continue training. 

The old masters had it sorted. They were looking to train the student's mind as much as the body. 

So whether this kata training is something you do or not, hopefully you get an idea about where one koryu bujutsu student is in his journey.

Train safe! 

Monday, 6 June 2022

I'm still here.

I haven't written for a while. There is a reason for this, I have started a podcast. It felt like a natural progression from writing blogs. I still have to put a script together but I can also have conversations with others! 

My podcast is called Musha Shugyo: A Warrior's Journey. On this podcast I investigate the mindset of warriors both past and present. This involves me talking about some of my own ideas, having conversations with interesting people and doing the odd book review here or there. I am enjoying the process immensely. The podcast community appears to be a cool group of people as well. I have made contact with other podcast hosts and have shared ideas and conversations about topics that interest us. The podcast has been going since the start of the year and has received over 500 downloads. 

So does this mean I stop blogging? No. This space is for my own thoughts on my martial journey with both Aikido and TSYR. Think of it as a martial arts diary. The podcast has a different focus.

Okay, where are things at for me right now? Well, so far, this year has been a strange one. Due to Covid restrictions, my work has been rather stressful. Unfortunately, this impacted my health for some time and I found I couldn't train without problems. It turned out I had some issues with my nervous system which seems to be under control with medication. The good news is that blood work has come back negative for anything nasty. The medication has allowed me to get back on the mat and I am both teaching Aikido and training in TSYR at my full capacity again. 

On the up-side, I made contact with my Aikido sensei and he has managed to get my dan certificates organised, these are now up on my wall at my dojo. Its nice to show the parents of my students that I actually have credentials. 

My shodan and nidan certificates.

My student numbers dropped over the last two years due to Covid-19 restrictions. It has always been a small group with the biggest class being 5 children. However, my youngest daughter and a boy from the local community keep on training and as of last week a third student is on board. I have found the biggest challenge to keeping students where I live is high school. The kids grow up and go off to high school, find some new opportunities and drop aikido. 

Still on aikido, my podcasting took me to the Coromandel where I had the opportunity to interview a pioneer of aikido in New Zealand. David Lynch started the first New Zealand aikido dojo in 1965!  It was great to talk to a man in his eighties who still values his aikido training. 

So I am keeping busy around work and family. Hopefully, I will still blog but probably not as often as I used to, as podcasting shares some of my time now.

Train safe!


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Shu, Ha, Ri

 There is a concept in traditional Japanese training that consists of three stages - Shu, Ha, Ri. It can not only be applied to martial arts training, but flower arranging, the tea ceremony and many other disciplines that take a long time to acquire. It is a complex concept with many layers and I am still learning much about this idea. Recently Miles Kessler has organised a series of interviews with prominent U.S. budo teachers to discuss Shu, Ha, Ri. I highly recommend watching these discussions as the insights provided are fascinating. 

You can find those interviews here: Shu, Ha, Ri

Today, I will make my own meagre attempt at explaining the three stages but please take what I say with a grain of salt. I am still finding my way on the martial path and do not have the years of experience that the men Miles interviewed have. So, as I often do, I will use two books to help me clarify my ideas. The first book is the Student Handbook of the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Kai by Tobin Threadgill Sensei. The second is Kodo: Ancient Ways by Kensho Furuya. 

Kensho Furuya describes the three stages of learning as such: Shu means the protecting stage, in other words, the form or shape of the technique must be preserved or protected. The second stage of training is called ha and this relates to breaking the form. At this stage the basic form is broken into its many applications. The third stage is called ri, the student forgets the forms and masters the formless technique, leaving the old ideas behind. In other words he has fully matured in his training. 

I find Furuya's definitions a good starting point but they feel incomplete or too simple for me. After listening to the gentlemen speaking with Miles Kessler I can see there is much more to it than what I have written so far. 

My understanding thus far is this: 

Shu is where all students start, learning the basic forms. In martial arts this will be, where do I put my foot, my hands, which way do I turn? Until a student can get some competence in the basics, he or she can not move on. In Threadgill Sensei's handbook, an article by Takamura Yukiyoshi explains this concept further. Takamura Sensei explains that without first devoting oneself entirely to the mastery of the omote (surface ideas, obvious movements) of the kata, the student is destined to remain forever a beginner. To embrace the kata the student must resign himself to a series of repetitious movements. This can feel boring, tiring and sometimes the movements seem random. However, the kata are designed to test the student on many levels. The correct repetition of the movements are training important ways of moving, they are developing muscle memory and building a foundation. The beginning kata are also testing a student's concentration, tenacity and devotion to the art. The kata are not just challenging a student physically, but mentally as well. Once a student can execute these kata at a satisfactory level, they can move on.

Ha is where application can be applied. In Aikido this might be the myriad versions of Ikkyo applied to different attacks. In classical training it is finding the applications or bunkai within existing kata.  Takamura sensei says, "...ha is the first hint of creative expression allowed the student." He goes on to say, "This is when the student is encouraged to consider any response to failure within the pure kata." Takamura warns instructors that this stage in a student's progress is fraught with dangers. On one hand, the true potential of a student can start to show through and this can be satisfying for the teacher but instruction must still remain structured and core principles adhered to. Failing to do this can cause a divergence from the founder's teachings and what the student is doing is now something else. 

Ri is a hard concept to define and I'm still not sure I understand it fully. In Aikido, I see it as spontaneous technique. The student has embodied the techniques and principles of the art and now simply responds to threats organically without thinking. This can be demonstrated most clearly with Aikido randori, where the aikidoka is set upon by multiple uke, each trying to ensnare or pull down the target. Even under this sort of pressure, if the student has arrived at ri, he or she will move appropriately and calmly to neutralise any attempts to down them. Takamura explains ri as the intuitive expression of technique that is as efficient as the prearranged form but spontaneous. For some people, this level if intuition is beyond them. 

Now we have some definitions for the three stages. It looks to be a linear progression from shu, to ha and finally ri. However, my own experiences indicate that it is not the case. This is endorsed by the speakers of Kessler's interviews. I was out in my private dojo today and I found myself practising the first sword draw I was taught, some nine years ago. Repeating the sequence over and over, trying to get it a little better. Despite knowing other cuts now, here I was back at this first cut. I was back at shu. Many stories, including those about Takamura sensei tell of exceptional sensei and practitioners going back to the basic movements. However, we return to kihon (basics) with an experienced eye. Perhaps even with a different perspective than when we were first introduced to the movements. I was taught how to apply ikkyo from a single wrist grab many years ago, but I don't do it the same way after all this time, it may look the same outwardly, but I know I move differently inside my body, I think differently too, my intent has changed. 

I can also be at different stages of shu, ha, ri in different kata. When I am taught a new kata from the TSYR curriculum, I can find myself back at shu - learning the movements. So depending on what I am working on I could be at shu, ha or ri (theoretically, of course). Imagine the progression as a self-perpetuating cycle, where each stage informs the next but you can move backwards and forwards depending on what you are working on. 

At the time of writing this, Threadgill sensei has yet to voice his opinion on this concept with Miles Kessler. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. 

Train safe!

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Be the Warrior in the Room

 The heading of this post comes from a quote by Matt Larsen - the Director of Combatives at the US Military Academy at West Point. He spoke with Joe Saunders on the Managing Violence Podcast. I find this expression interesting. What does he mean by being a warrior in the room?

Is this the only concept of a warrior?

Its a fascinating concept "the warrior". The simple definition of a warrior is a person engaged or experienced in warfare. However, as Matt Larsen says in his interview with Joe, "the proportion of a country's population that makes up its military is significantly smaller than in ancient times." (I am para-phrasing here). So does this mean only those people in the Armed Forces are warriors? 

This requires us to define a warrior in our modern day setting. Matt Larsen believes a warrior is someone who can protect others or keep them safe. So what does that look like?  Does it look like the large, muscular guy standing in front of his girlfriend?  Is it the person who trains week after week in their chosen martial art? Is it the person who has trained in First Aid, in case it is needed when they are out and about with family and friends? Is it the person who has taken a Defensive Driving Course so he or she is a better driver and is more likely to perceive threats on the road while transporting his or her family?

It could be all of the above if the motivation is to protect someone and keep them safe. Now, motivation is important here. This is not about ego. If you go to the gym to get that fit, strong physique to impress a member of the opposite sex, you are not showing a warrior mentality. If you are doing hours of practice in your martial art only to obtain a black belt and prove you are better than everyone else, you are not showing a warrior mentality. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with having those motivations, but don't call yourself a warrior. 

In this day and age, a true warrior is a person that is going out of their way to keep innocent people safe. Members of the Military, Law Enforcement, Emergency Services - These people are warriors. A friend of mine is a paramedic, to me, that man is a warrior. He intentionally seeks to help others and keep them safe. You might think that is a bit lame to hear but think about it for a minute. You don't need a weapon to be a warrior. 

Of course, we are not all in those professions. Can we still be the warrior in the room? Well, that depends. Often the warrior in the room appears in a moment of crisis. He or she has always been there as a friend, or a workmate or even the stranger on the street. You wouldn't know they are a warrior until a situation calls for them to act. It could be anyone. It doesn't have to be the athletic twenty-something. Let's look at some examples.

A car accident has just occurred. Some people will drive on, pretending not have noticed. Others will stop, flick their hazard lights on and call the emergency services. Others might cautiously move up to the cars involved to see if they can help. Those who saw the accident but chose to ignore it are not warriors. They were not seeking to protect or keep others safe.

What about this scenario,  A training mate has a hideous accident one night on the mat. He severely dislocates his elbow. He is in a lot of pain as the nerves are stretched beyond their normal length by the odd shaped elbow. What does a warrior do in this situation? Someone might get on the phone to an ambulance. Another person might try and make the guy as comfortable as possible, maybe placing a punching pad under the injured elbow to ease up the pain. One of your buddies might be cracking jokes to keep the guy's attention off the elbow. The fourth guy is outside ready to signal the ambulance to the right entrance. All of these guys are being warriors. They are trying to protect their friend. 

A final scenario. Your teenage daughter comes home and explains how a boy at school is making lewd comments and trying to hit on her. This makes her uncomfortable. What would you do? You could find out the boy's name and contact the school to alert them to the problem. You could give your daughter advice on how to deal with the unwanted attention and see if she can sort it out on her own terms. You could confront the boy and threaten him if he doesn't leave your daughter alone. What is the best option? Again, this depends. It depends on the type of person your daughter is. It depends on the severity of the boy's comments and actions. A warrior wants to protect and keep people safe. If the boy's unwanted comments can easily be put down by your daughter's strong rejection or firm boundaries, then confronting him and thumping him is not keeping people safe. In fact, it could land you in more trouble and take away your options for protecting your family in the future. 

So what's the take home message in all of this. If you want to be the warrior of the room, be prepared to act to protect or keep safe those you value or love. To ensure you can do this proficiently, train accordingly, in whatever pursuit you see fit. Learn to improve your situational awareness, take a First Aid course, stay mobile and fit, keep practicing your martial art.  Speak up for yourself but more importantly speak up on another's behalf if they can't. Drive considerately and appropriately for the road conditions. We are not professional soldiers but we can still protect!

Good luck and train safe!

Monday, 8 February 2021

Connor Burke and Yamashita Sensei: Book review

 I am currently re-reading a five book series put out by the author, John Donohue. The series follows Connor Burke, an accomplished martial artist and Asian historian living in New York. The reading experience is light and the books are relatively short, anywhere from 270 to 300 pages long. I would categorise the genre of the books as crime thrillers. 

The first book - Sensei - introduces Connor and his sensei, Yamashita. They are pulled into a police investigation involving a serial killer who is methodically killing off high ranking martial artists. The story combines the exotic world of Japanese martial arts with the pragmatic drudgery of detective work. 

Deshi, is book two. Connor's brother, an officer in the NYPD, enlists him to decipher a strange message left by a murder victim. The message leads Connor to the samurai heritage of a mysterious martial arts sensei, the foreboding world of a Tibetan clairvoyant, and finally the wilderness of an elite mountain temple. 

Book three is called Tengu. The book gets its namesake from a renegade martial artist who has named himself after the mythical mountain spirits of Japan. The Tengu mourns the vanished prestige and cultural heritage of Imperial Japan. He, like the terrorists he trains, believes the West is responsible for destroying the spiritual essence of a once-great culture. 

The fourth book is called Kage. In the unforgiving landscape of the Southwest of the USA, Connor Burke works to piece together the mystery surrounding Westmann - a deceased writer - his work, and a cryptic manuscript that has captured the interest of rival smuggling gangs. Burke's only hope of solving this mystery is to call upon the aid and guidance of his teacher, Yamashita. That won't be easy. 

Enzan: The Far Mountain, is the fifth book of the series. Connor is asked by a wealthy and prominent Japanese family to retrieve their daughter from a Korean drug dealer. Connor reluctantly accepts not knowing the dangers of doing so. He accepts the mission to protect his old sensei from harm but gets in way over his head. 

The reason I am reading this series again is due to the author announcing he has finished writing his sixth book in the series, Keppan: The Blood Oath. In fact, he posted on his Facebook page on the 21st January a picture of his computer screen with the finished document. So I imagine we still have some time to wait as it goes into editing and publication. 

John's books captivated me because he manages to interweave pop-culture crime stories in with traditional budo values and uses the protagonist to show the tension and complexities that arise from the mingling of these concepts. The author has been training in the Japanese martial arts for more than 30 years. He has trained in aikido, iaido, judo, karatedo, kendo and taiji. He has dan ranks in both karatedo and kendo. John has a Ph. D. in Anthropology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For more on the author and his works, check out

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Licenses, gardens and the dojo.

 This post is going to be a bit of a rambling one. Lots of things have occurred on my martial arts/Japanese front lately that I would like to reflect on. 

First of all, Tobin Threadgill - the kaicho of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu - has released a list of names of kai members who have gained various levels of teaching license. This is the first time he has done this and the current pandemic has brought this about. Normally, he would offer licenses in person as he travelled the world. Obviously, this is not possible right now so he has followed a traditional approach that other budo follow whereby after the Japanese New Year (nowadays celebrated on January 1st), names of people are released who have gained promotions. This usually occurs around Kagami biraki (Opening the Mirror ceremony) on January 11th. 

It was quite a large list, the kai has over 200 members as far as I know and by far the largest group of license recipients were people who have obtained a chuden (second tier) teaching license, my instructor, Chris, included. Two other members of the Oceania group were granted a Shoden (first tier) teaching license, bringing the total number of licensed instructors in our area to five!  It also means we have two study groups becoming branch dojos. This is great for the growth of our area and the kai in general. 

What is even more exciting is that our two most senior instructors, Brent from the U.S. and Marco from Portugal, have been granted one scroll each from the Jodan (third tier) license. This represents their combined ability to teach the entire technical curriculum and is very important in ensuring the koryu can be fully transmitted. 

This weekend, to top it all off, Chris and a few of us from the Hamilton dojo are travelling to Auckland to train with those members there. It will be a good way to start the year and consolidate the NZ group. 

Closer to home, I have begun extending the Japanese garden. I felled three small trees which dropped leaves all year around. I was constantly removing the leaves from the existing Japanese garden, not to mention my gutters blocking up on the house. It was a relief to drop the trees and this gave me an area to extend the garden. 

The new area cleared for planting.

Once I had conditioned the soil by weeding it and adding fertilizer, I covered it with weed matting. The next decision was what to put in it. My elderly neighbour use to be a rock hound when she was younger so has many rocks in her garden. She had mentioned that I could use some if I needed so I went to talk with her and chose a rock she was willing to part with. 

The rock is actually petrified wood and the texture on this piece is amazing! I am very lucky to have such a generous neighbour. The rock is placed in the prestigious position of being the first part of the garden a visitor sees when they arrive in our driveway. Once the rock was placed, I went to a local nursery to buy plants. Two azaleas went in as well as some native ground cover plants called Pratia "Blue Stars". My wife had bought me a Griselinia plant which is a native New Zealand shrub. At the Hamilton Dojo we use this plant in place of Sakaki on either side of the Kamidana. Up until now I have been using artifical Sakaki leaves in my own dojo, but I can now use Griselinia. I have planted this shrub near the back of the garden.

Plants going in. 

One space remains in the garden for my feature plant. In each section of the Japanese garden, I have a taller specimen. In the first section I have a miniature Japanese Maple, in the second, clumping bamboo. The third section is exposed to strong winds so I am thinking of either a dwarf pine, Japanese Plum/Apricot or weeping cherry. Unfortunately, the last two plants are not available until our winter (June/July) so I may have to wait to completely finish the garden. As with the other sections, the empty spaces will be filled with white river pebbles. 

The final piece of news I have is that my friend Jules has finally pushed me into renovating the genkan of my dojo. Its been five years since the dojo was built and I have not done anything significant to the genkan. So recently the two of us took the walls back to the framing, removing the old sections of wall that still remained. Then we started to plan what we needed for new walls including insulation and lighting. 

Jules hard at work pulling the old wall lining down.

We also removed the old oil-stained carpet that was on the floor (the last owner was a car enthusiast) and Jules took it all away. I recently purchased some new lighting that I hope to put up when we line the walls. 

Above is a photo of the lighting I purchased. The black set of three LED lights at the top and the single at the bottom are what are going into the genkan to replace the standard fittings. 

So as you can see, it has been a productive month and there is still plenty of work to do. 

Stay safe, everyone.