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.
Since coming to Toronto, I had heard rumours that the Royal Ontario Museum held an exceptional array of Japanese swords in its archives, unavailable to the public. Finding a way to get a look at those swords has been on my mind for years now, but thanks to some very well-connected friends, Toronto Kenjutsu was privileged to go behind the scenes at the ROM and examine some of its many treasures.
The rumours were well-founded. We stood around in stunned amazement as tray after tray of fabulous works of art were presented to us. Swords of the like I never thought I’d get a chance to look at, much less handle (after very stern lessons on proper handling of priceless artifacts), lay before us in stacked rows. It was truly an amazing experience.
One day was not sufficient to go through all the treasures, but we found plenty to marvel at. There were gorgeously detailed koshirae, classic katana and a number of very strange swords, difficult to classify but fascinating to consider and wonder about. We passed them around, our hands encased in thin gloves to shield the ancient artifacts from our skin and its oils. There were swords that had been made for battle, and many bearing signs of heavy use (though whether on the battlefield or just getting thrown around by an incautious owner, it’s hard to say), and then there were some in breathtakingly perfect condition. And not only swords; we examined daggers and spearheads and other edged weapons.
While not everyone finds the Japanese sword AS compelling an object as most of us do, there’s no denying the elegance and beauty of these artifacts, and the careful detail that goes into them.
This little moth pattern appeared on a kurigata — the little knob on the sheath to which the cord is attached. It’s no wider than your little finger, and yet so much care was lavished on it. We saw item after item like this, until the mind could scarcely take it all in.
But this attitude, of attaching importance even to the smallest of details, is paramount in our practice. The angle of the feet, the line of the cut — if these are not understood and performed to the most exacting standards, the sword will not cut. More importantly, if the mind is not fully present, and not truly aware of all these tiny details, then opportunities slip away, and vulnerabilities are not seen or attended to.
It’s not that there is only one ‘correct’, or ‘perfect’ way to perform the kata. But as I practice, as I strive to attend to every conceivable detail (and Sensei is always able to find yet another detail I am not attending to), I learn to open my mind to what is truly in front of me. To let go of my preconceptions and prejudices and see clearly that which is actually there.
This last illustration came from a massive sheath — carved from a single piece of ivory that can only have come from an elephant’s tusk. It was covered all over with carvings of this sort of detail and delight. Full of samurai pursuing each other, swinging swords and naginata, on horseback or on foot, beautiful images of fighting men in poses and stances that we practice to this very day.
We will never use our arts for the same purpose they did. We will never kill or face death at the end of a sword. But the wisdom those long-ago men learned in that violent, terrifying fashion still serves us today.
We are very grateful to the staff members at the ROM for accommodating us and making this visit possible. It was honestly a dream come true for all of us, and we will always remember that day.
If there is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, or at least, I’ve never recognized it as such. That may say more about my powers of observation than anything else, but while I’ve been astonished at the beauty of some blades, and some cuts, it wasn’t perfection I was seeing. Any piece of steel forged by hand will have irregularities in it. Connoisseurs of Japanese blades seek out irregularities and celebrate them. Smiths strive to produce just the right irregularities in just the right places, to elevate the steel, to display its natural character or to create a specific effect in the viewer.
A beautiful blade is not perfect. My sword, pictured here, is hardly perfect. The afore-mentioned connoisseurs will probably point out that it’s not particularly beautiful, either, but never mind them. But I do love my sword, and I have grown to appreciate the beauty it has more and more over the years.
When I watch Sugino Sensei perform the kata of Katori Shinto Ryu, I don’t see perfection. I couldn’t possibly imagine how it could be improved, but I can see that his version of the kata is different from his father’s. It’s different from Ishida Sensei’s, or Iwata Sensei’s. It’s of course different from Otake Sensei’s as well. All the great masters that I have had the privilege of observing have performed the kata differently.
Those differences appear to me now like the grain in the steel of my sword. Subtle (or not so subtle) variations, all of which work together to make the steel strong and beautiful. If the steel had no grain or flow to it, it would be mechanical and lifeless, but Katori flows through its students, moving onwards from one to the next, and nobody does it ‘perfectly’. Everybody’s version is irregular somehow.
Through practice, those irregularities can be constrained, or directed, but if they can be eradicated, well, it doesn’t seem to be happening in my case. But just as a great swordsmith brings out the natural, inherent character of the steel when forging a sword, perhaps steady practice in Katori can do something with my own natural, inherent character.
We spent a portion of a year-end afternoon washing the mats at Toronto Kenjutsu. It was a good chance to reflect on cleanliness and renewal in a dark time of the year.
Miyamoto Musashi warns us against spending too much time keeping everything looking good:
“Do not overvalue the things you have.”
“Do not become obsessed with having splendid weapons.”
And martial arts tales are full of disreputable characters in grubby robes who turn out to be great masters.
And yet, cleaning and maintaining my space and possessions helps me to clean and maintain my mind. Scrubbing the mats, restoring their shine and luster, helps me to come to the dojo with my mind clear and unclouded. Not to mention that a couple of hours in physical labour with good friends is a fine way to spend an afternoon.
And a fine way to look back on 2010 with thankfulness. We were invited to demonstrate at Haru Matsuri at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center, a great honour for us. Our practice expanded to two classes a week, and is still going strong. We traveled to Sherbrooke to study with Sugino Sensei. And Såzen Sensei came out for a wonderful weekend seminar that students here are still talking about. New students joined, and our little community has grown over the year. 2010 was very exciting. We wrapped up the year with a bonenkai party at Jigan Dojo, a great chance to visit with other Katori Shinto Ryu practitioners around Southern Ontario.
This past year had many great moments for Toronto Kenjutsu. Now that our mats are clean and shiny, we look forward to 2011 in anticipation of many more!
The most important truths in life are few, and yet so hard to set down in words. This is why literature endures, century after century. Each generation, each society, has to find new ways of expressing the same truths. There are many paths to learning these truths — literature is one that has long held value to me. Likewise, swordsmanship. There are deep truths buried in the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu — but expressing those truths is almost impossible.
We had another lovely visit with Sozen Sensei this past July. A gifted practitioner of Sugino-style Katori Shinto Ryu (he holds a fifth dan in the style), I know Sozen Sensei from Japan, where we practiced together for years at Sugino Dojo. This year, instead of working on one kata after another, Sozen Sensei spoke of the differences between “principle” and “technique”, and we spent the weekend exploring the myriad techniques that arise from the principles of Katori Shinto Ryu.
For example, an early move that must be learned is a way by which uketachi (the partner who receives the attack) may receive an incoming cut from kirikomi (the partner who initiates the attack) in such a fashion as to not only deflect the blow, but place his own sword in position for a thrust, forcing kirikomi to retreat. The principle is simple enough — bring your sword down in time with your opponent’s, the tip directed at his center. Actually performing it is not quite so simple, of course.
And even when it is performed correctly, the purpose of such a move is not always obvious. “If both our swords come down together, ” a beginning student may wonder, “why does kirikomi retreat and uketachi advance?”
Katori is a style in which what is seen is not always what is happening. The principle — the action that is practiced over and over again until it becomes automatic — is not in fact the technique. We practice the principle in the kata, because in the principle is the simplest truth that must be manifested in that moment. Match the timing, keep your tip in the center. You need not know what you are doing at this point, but if you simply practice it again and again, the techniques that are available in this principle will begin to reveal themselves.
Strike the enemy’s sword down. Cut the wrist. Lean in and cut the throat. Slide back and thrust in deeply. These objectives, these desired results, are all techniques, and in any given manifestation of the principle, some techniques may be possible and others may not be. It is impossible to know ahead of time which technique ought to be used. But the principle is always valid.
When we practice the kata, at times these techniques may spontaneously arise, and this is fine. But we should never lose sight of the principles themselves, and we should always return ourselves to these simplest truths that Katori reminds us of. Maintain one’s center. Understand the lines of engagement. Manage distance.
Katori is so rich, so full of meaning and depth, that I could never imagine mastering every possible technique. Sometimes I discover a new technique that opens doors throughout my mind. This happened in July, watching Sozen Sensei demonstrate some of the techniques hidden inside hakka no tachi. He pointed out the similarity between one movement and the basic cut of Katori Shinto Ryu, maki-uchi, and I had a sudden moment of revelation. I could only laugh as astonishment flooded me. Hidden inside this kata lay the most basic principle of Katori Shinto Ryu, and I now see it everywhere. What was once a matter of technique has become the flowering of a single principle.
It’s impossible to share these insights. They cannot truly be transmitted through words, but that makes them more, not less, important. Our words are a technique. A novel is technique. A cut to the wrist is a technique. The wisdom that lies behind the cut, the novel, or the words — that’s principle.
Great instructors like Sozen Sensei are able to reveal the principles to their students, and share in the boundless techniques that arise from them. We are very fortunate to have such people join us in our practice.