Change is the only constant in life. Since we were founded back in 2008, Toronto Kenjutsu has changed its home a few times. It’s always a disruption, but there is always value in “shedding your skin”. Such moments give us a chance to think about what we really want to carry with us, what’s most important to us, and what we can afford to leave behind.
In 2016 Toronto Kenjutsu said goodbye to the Eight Branches Healing Centre, where we have been for seven years. Eight Branches is a beautiful space, with a lovely energy to it, but it was not really designed with Katori Shinto Ryu practice in mind. A small dojo, with potted plants and some beautiful wall decorations, was simply never going to be a great place to practice, especially with the longer weapons such as the bo and the naginata.
In the past few years, as more and more students have graduated to such weapons, the limits of the space started to cramp our style.
I am pleased to say we have found a new home.
Starting in November of 2016, Toronto Kenjutsu will be practicing at the dojo of Naka Ima Aikikai, run by Sensei Greg Angus. Greg Sensei has been very welcoming to our practice and with his enthusiasm, along with the wonderful warmth of all his students, we are looking forward to training in their beautiful dojo.
Our new schedule is similar to our old schedule:
Monday at 9:00 PM
Wednesday at 9:00 PM
We may add other times if the scheduling works out with Naka Ima. Fees are not changing — students who wish to practice join the Naka Ima dojo and are able to practice Aikido as well if they wish. We are very grateful to Greg Sensei and his group for accommodating us so readily.
Our hope as we begin this new phase in Toronto Kenjutsu’s life is that we will have brought along with us everything needed for proper practice and learning, and that maybe a few of our bad habits have been left behind. At the very least, we won’t have to check over our shoulders every time we pull the bo backwards!
I can remember very clearly having an enormous revelation while practicing at Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki, doing yoko-men strikes in time with a partner. It was a long time ago, but the realization remains burned into my memory. I realised that I was trying too hard.
Because what I remember is realizing that every time my sword came down, my partner’s would already be in position. I was coming in second every time.
Clearly I was starting too late, not paying attention or something. I told myself I had to start sooner, get a jump on them, so I could catch up. I had to try harder. More energy! More!
At which point I noticed that my sword was rising up first. I was starting well before them, and yet I was finishing after. How was this possible? I vowed to catch up.
Faster! Faster! Obviously I was going much too slowly, so I poured on all the energy I had. I’m sure I was panting and heaving away as I worked as hard as I could, flinging my sword around with all the speed and energy I could muster. Trying so very very hard.
At some point I sort of gave up and just tried to watch and see how they were doing this. And all I could deduce, in my breathless exhaustion, was that three things were undeniably true:
Their sword began moving well after mine did.
They moved much more slowly than I did throughout.
Their sword finished well BEFORE mine.
I never really understood what was happening. It seemed impossible. But I can see it now happening to the new students at our dojo. When we practice our cuts, I can see that I start after them, I go slower, and I get to the finish before them. All I can tell them is that they’re trying too hard. Doing too much.
I think that so much of my learning in Katori has been about learning to do LESS. Less movement, less speed, less effort. When Sensei tells me to turn my hand, he doesn’t mean, “AND turn your elbow, and lift your shoulder, and twist your hips, and take a deep breath, and maybe jump half-way across the room.” He just means, “Turn your hand.” If I could just do the one thing he wants me to do, and not all that other stuff my body and my brain insist has to go along with it, I’d be much further along.
Learning to just do one thing at a time seems far more difficult to me than learning any particular technique.
But then I’m probably trying too hard.
Photo from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Obviously.
One of the most startling experiences I had at Sugino Dojo was being asked to perform the uke (senior) side of a kata for a new student, showing them the kirikomi side in the process. I had only just learned the uke side, and I assumed someone had made a terrible mistake. But I was assured, and then commanded, and so I did my best.
I don’t really remember how it went, but I remember the struggle to recall what kirikomi was supposed to do, while my body was doing the uke motions. It was as though the kirikomi, which I’d learned before the uke, had just completely flown out of my brain. I would just stand there, knowing I should tell the new student what to do, but utterly devoid of any notion what that should be.
Of course we were surrounded with senior students and instructors, so there was no danger of me leading the poor novice astray, and I am quite sure I learned a good deal more than he did in that practice.
I’m sure I learn best when information is brought to me through a variety of channels: explanations, demonstrations, notes, challenges, and so on. Each new “channel” seems to provide yet another facet of the kata to my understanding. And of course it seems true that everyone has their own ways of learning. I know lots of Katori people who take detailed notes on the kata; I never have. I know people who ask lots of questions, and really investigate and come up with theories about how the kata work. I rarely ask questions, but mostly because despite what you’ll probably think if you meet me, I’m actually quite shy.
But showing things to others, watching them struggle to learn, and finding new ways to explain it: this has been a rich source of learning for me. It feels like a whole new part of my brain is being engaged, and I almost have to learn everything all over again. Like turning over a coin to discover a whole set of images and meanings on the reverse. Same coin, new meanings.
One of our more junior people at Toronto Kenjutsu was recently asked to lead a novice through a new kata, and watching him struggle to remember one side while trying to perform the other reminded me of those days in Kawasaki, and made me grateful for all the different ways of learning Katori provides.
Photo by Parent Géry. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported License.
This past year was one of great growth and deepening enjoyment in the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu. It marks my 20th year of studying this ancient form, but in many ways I feel like my journey has truly just begun.
Many of us at Toronto Kenjutsu went through dramatic changes in our personal lives, but our steady practice in Katori Shinto Ryu continued, and we welcomed new members over the course of the year. I’d like to look back at a few highlights.
Once again our good friends in Quebec welcomed us for a five-day intensive seminar with Sugino Sensei. It is always such a great time — we have come to love our spring trips to Sherbrooke to practice both our French and our Japanese. It’s hard to say which is worse, but we appreciate everyone’s patience.
And the opportunity to join with so many other practitioners of Katori Shinto Ryu is of course a great joy. Not everyone does the kata the same way, and learning a little alertness does us good!
Thanks to our friends at Mochizuki Aikido once again for being such generous hosts, and of course to Sugino Sensei for coming all this way to help us.
And in another annual tradition, we welcomed our Katori friends from Norway, Såzen and Sigurd, as they joined us for a weekend seminar at Jigan Dojo in St Catharines. We all enjoyed the beautiful weather and enthusiastic teaching of our visitors. It was very hot in the dojo but outside on the grass was perfect!
It’s easy to get too comfortable with the solid footing of the dojo mats — we always relish the opportunity to attempt the forms on a less-reliable surface. The occasional thistle patch was maybe a little too much, however.
But at least outside we don’t have to worry about whacking the ceiling with the longer weapons!
We are very grateful to Såzen and Sigurd for their instruction, and of course to Wiens Sensei at Jigan Dojo for hosting the whole affair.
Sugino Dojo Visit
Three of us went to Japan this fall to visit Sugino Sensei at his dojo in Kawasaki. I had not been back to the dojo for 20 years, and the neighborhood had changed so much that I nearly couldn’t find the place!
But we made it eventually, and joined Sugino Sensei and his students in practicing Katori Shinto Ryu. There were visitors from all over the world alongside us, making for a very international experience. Everyone welcomed us in as friendly a fashion as can be imagined, but on the mats the practice was fierce and uncompromising. Just as it should be!
Meeting old friends after 20 years, and discovering that the connections forged through practice never really die out, was an emotional experience for me. I am still struggling with the very same techniques and issues that I struggled with back then. Everyone was very patient with me.
Sensei even suggested I come back next year — to help clean the mats!
It was an eye-opening trip for us all, and everyone remarked upon our return that our practice had jumped up a notch, so I’d like to believe it wasn’t wasted effort.
Thank you so much to everyone at Sugino Dojo who worked so hard and so patiently with us. It was a joy to see you all.
2013 feels like a year of real growth. Not just in technique; while I learned many lessons on the mats, it feels like the biggest changes came elsewhere. I uncovered new (well, new to me) truths about teaching, and got reconnect with people who formed an enormously important part of my life. I also learned how little I’ve changed in twenty years — I remain shy and uncertain in new situations, but I overcame some of that with determined effort.
And Sensei showed me this picture, taken nearly twenty years ago at Yasukuni Jinja, when I was first living in Japan and studying at the Sugino Dojo. Everyone in this picture, of course with the exception of Sensei’s father, and young Motoyuki, is still practicing Katori Shinto Ryu, still learning, still growing, year after year.
Thank you, Sensei, and everyone else carrying forward the traditions of Katori Shinto Ryu. I look forward to a grand 2014, and another 20 years of practice!
Of course great teachers open us up to ourselves. Their observations and their wisdom enable them to put before us our own failings, and their examples show us a path to improvement.
But great students can do the same. A simple question from a student often shines a surprising light on some gap in our own knowledge, and forces us to consider our opinions and beliefs more closely. This happened to me recently, about a Japanese text I’ve loved for decades.
There’s a passage in a book called Hagakure (Hidden Leaves) wherein the author (Tsunetomo Yamamoto) recites four vows he has always maintained with himself:
Always be of use
Honour your ancestors
Never be out-done
I read Hagakure in William Scott Wilson’s translation from Kodansha. I read it long before I’d ever gone to Japan, and much of it went over my head then. But the four vows have stuck with me ever since. They have proven solid principles for me to base my decisions on.
So I thought. Until one of my students asked me about that last one, “Never be out-done,’ and what it meant.
And I didn’t have a good answer.
I wanted it to mean something. I wanted to believe in Tsunetomo’s wisdom. But I didn’t have an interpretation of that statement that I could get behind. I couldn’t devote myself to the idea that I had to be better than everyone else, for example. Even my best skills, like quoting A. A. Milne, or admiring Spitfires — it would be trivial to find someone better at these things than me. I hadn’t even thought about it, however, until I was asked and couldn’t answer.
Then my wife and I were watching some behind-the-scenes material about some movie, and it made me very uncomfortable. Not the content itself, but the images of people being creative, building something out of their love and enthusiasm. That night, I really wanted to be creating, rather than watching others be creative. I struggled with a sense of inadequacy — these people were doing such amazing stuff, and here was I, just sitting on the couch watching them.
Watching them out-do me. In that moment, I had my answer. I am out-done when I react to other people’s efforts with despair and surrender. But if I instead take their example as inspiration to myself, as a new target for me to shoot for, then I cannot be out-done.
It’s got nothing to do with who is better. There will always be someone better than me, in every possible arena. But “Never be out-done” doesn’t mean “Be the best” — it means responding to another’s excellence with the determination to strive just as hard as they. The outcome may depend on factors I can’t control. I may not be as skilled as others. But I can always choose to apply myself positively. I can choose to never be out-done.
A statement I’d accepted without even really thinking about for decades suddenly has all-new meaning and potency for me, because of a student’s question. If a teacher had come along and lectured me about it, I doubt I would have had such a moment of understanding and inspiration.
In May, our headmaster, Sugino Yukihiro, came to Canada for a five-day intensive session in Katori Shinto Ryu. About sixty people came out to practice daily! Our French-Canadian hosts at Mochizuki Aikido were very gracious and the event was a wonderful chance to practice under Sensei’s watchful eye and learn the many bad habits we’ve picked up.
Toronto Kenjutsu’s parent dojo, Jigan Dojo, had a great achievement at this event as the instructor there, Dennis Wiens, received his ni-dan grading from Sugino Sensei. Congrats!
Sensei drilled us of course on all the basics, stances and cuts, every day, and we went into detail on the basic sword kata, as well as the bo and the naginata. There were plenty of great meals and conversations, of course, and the whole week wrapped up with a wonderful celebration at the acreage of one of our hosts. Sake and barbecue and bonfires!
Thanks to the wonderful people at Mochizuki Aikido for hosting this terrific event, and of course we are very grateful to Sugino Sensei for sharing his time with us.
Throne of JS
Toronto Kenjutsu was asked to demonstrate at a Toronto technology conference called “Throne of JS” — it was a samurai-themed event so the organizers wanted a touch of real samurai tradition.
It was our first time demonstrating as a group so we were a little nervous! The venue was a little strange but the crowd really enjoyed the show and once we got over our jitters we had a blast. Everyone was very nice to us and nobody got hurt! Some of our sword tips came a little close to the spectators but it all worked out in the end.
Sensei Såzen Larsen Kusano is a Buddhist priest from Norway who I met long ago at Sugino Dojo. He spent many years studying under Sugino Sensei and is now a 5th dan in Katori Shinto Ryu. He comes out to visit just about every summer and this year was no exception.
The “Såzen Weekend” is held at Jigan Dojo’s beautiful St Catharines facility, and when the weather cooperates as it did this year, we get to practice out in the sunshine. People come from all over Ontario and Quebec and some folks came from as far away as Pittsburgh to join us with Såzen Sensei. Working with so many different practitioners from different “strains” of Katori Shinto Ryu is a wonderful opportunity to explore and deepen one’s understanding of this ancient art.
Såzen always brings a great perspective on the functionality of Katori. He is experienced in many martial arts and can reveal subtle details in every facet of Katori’s techniques. He is also an accomplished guitarist and our annual dinner is always a musical feast! Lots of sake and delicious home-made Japanese food made for a memorable evening.