Nothing can replicate training in Japan; the immersion in the Japanese culture, the amount of training one squeezes into a trip, the practitioners your surrounded by – a few days changes your movement forever. The most important part of training in Japan is the opportunity to train under the best instructors in the world and Soke Hatsumi himself.
For all of us – Soke is the goal; we are all trying to understand and to grasp how Soke moves. And each of the Sensei in Japan attempt to breakdown his movement into terms the rest of us can understand. At the same time though, each of the Sensei take the principles of Soke and make it their own. It’s a bit like two different painters looking at the same scenery and then painting it to make their own – both paintings can be accurate, and beautiful, but they both can be unique. This is how martial arts work as well; while the principles are the same the movement becomes unique to the practitioner.
Depending on what you’re working on, you may gravitate towards one teacher more than another – just as you may prefer one painter’s style over another. I would caution though not too simply “pick one”; each of the teachers have their strengths and focus that is important – and to not train under one would be to rob yourself of potential insight.
So the question becomes – who to train under? What are the insights each teacher offers? Here is an opinion on the different teachers, and what makes each one unique and valuable. This is only an opinion, and as I learn more and gain understanding, my opinion may change – but at a minimum this can give you a starting point if you never have trained in Japan and may help you find something that the teacher offers.
Let’s start with the Grandmaster himself – Soke Masaaki Hatsumi:
Soke Masaaki Hatsumi
The leader of the Bujinkan and the person we can thank for bringing the art to us is Soke Masaaki Hatsumi. I won’t pretend to grasp the lessons of Soke’s classes, but I think I may understand what he’s doing. Soke is always teaching to the Shihan, the highest level practitioners. This makes it difficult for the rest of us who aren’t quite ready for those lessons – like someone who has studied high-school physics sitting in on a lecture by Stephen Hawkings on String Theory. Yet, there are valuable lessons – that if you pay attention – you can grasp.
What Soke is teaching are not techniques, but rather ideas – a philosophy rather than a kata. This is why he talks about feeling; he wants us to recreate the feeling of a movement, not necessarily the movement itself. There is one caveat to this however; we have to go through all those kata and learned proper technique before we can begin to understand the principles within it, and start to play with his ideas.
Soke also has a devilishly funny – and sometimes even a bit dirty – sense of humor. You can tell that he truly enjoys teaching and sharing the art. This might be why after he demonstrates something, he always finishes with “hai okay play”.
An aside: If you do get the opportunity to take a class with Soke, you will be pleasantly surprised to find out that in addition to being an amazing martial artist, Soke is also a very talented calligraphy artist. In fact if you bring a piece of paper Soke will draw something for you at the break in class. A word of warning though – Soke has a sense of humor, so if you try to get too clever, or just ask for anything – you might end up with a dirty picture (which is pretty awesome in and of itself).
Shiraishi Sensei is called “the Smiling Demon”; no matter what – he always has a smile on his face. Most western students traveling to Japan will notice – and appreciate – that he teaches his classes in both English and Japanese. You’ll also notice that he is often used as uke in Soke’s classes, and you can sense the deep respect and admiration he has for Soke.
Shiraishi Sensei is all about balance. This is characterized by his method of “foot work, spine work, hand work”, where there’s always a shifting of balance onto one foot before moving the other. There is also a rotation of the hips as you shift your balance, lending to the “spinework” aspect of movement.
Not only is this movement extremely stable, but it’s also very sneaky – it’s hard for the opponent to sense where your moving as you confuse their balance. You can also see Soke using this movement if you watch his feet, although it’s extremely hard to catch since Soke performs it so subtly. As Shirashi Sensei would say “good foundation training this makes”.
An Honor: Shiraishi Sensei is the Shihan that recommended me for my Godan – an honor that I hope to live up to. The day of the test, he was gracious enough to be my training partner for Soke’s class: “relaxing training for your test” he said. Of course, it wasn’t as relaxing as it was exhausting, for the simple fact that I wanted to do my best so he could enjoy the class as well (it’s not every day you get to train with a Sensei). By far it was one of the most rewarding classes I’ve had, since Shiraishi Sensei helped point out what I would normally miss in Soke’s movements – it was eye opening. For the whole story about that, you can read my post on Passing the Godan.
Arguably the most physically intimidating of the Shihan, Nagato Sensei has possibly the most fighting experience of the Japanese Shihan – as a former Judo teacher and Kickboxing Champion. However, he would say that his former training simply gave him bad habits he had to unlearn. He also has a very good sense of humor, and often will slip in a humorous comment here and there. While he takes the training seriously, and expects the students to the move correctly, he also has a very personable manner.
Nagato Sensei’s movement is remarkable in that he focuses on how to safely enter a technique. When initiating a technique, he is able to cover from just about any secondary attack, almost as if he is constantly setting a trap and waiting to see if the opponent takes the bait. A lot of his movements utilize distance to draw the attack out – throwing off the opponent’s balance, which aids in this method. This is often characterized by his method of recieving as if you were catching a ball: “if you can catch a baseball, you can catch a punch”.
Soke also does this in his techniques as well; in any technique he has already prepared for a subsequent attack and can move freely within the space safely. Interestingly enough, both Soke and Nagato Sensei have somewhat similar Martial Arts backgrounds prior to studying Ninpo.
An experience: When you take a class, there is a certain honor in being the uke (the partner) for the teacher – it’s a privilege. It’ also a rare opportunity to experience what it’s truly like when someone of such a high caliber performs a technique on you. It demands your focus and attention. I had such an opportunity with Nagato Sensei.
It’s hard to explain what it felt like; it was almost like being in a cage with a lion. It was truly intimidating. I was surprised at how gentle he was when applying techniques – and surprised at how quickly he could inflict pain with ease. After he demonstrated a technique – I couldn’t remember what he did, and would go back to my training partner and say “okay what just happened”. My brain was in survival mode at that point.
For fun, he then used me to demonstrate the proper way to punch a chin; he kept saying “not like this, but like this” giving me a punch while my arms were wrapped up. It wasn’t hard like he was hurting me or trying to knock me out – he was just testing me a bit as well as having a little fun. Afterwards, we took a picture together and shared a laugh when I asked if I could take a “funny one with him”. However, I promised him I wouldn’t publicly display it. And one thing is for sure: when you make a promise to Nagato Sensei – you keep it.
Someya Sensei is a direct descendant of a Samurai family, and it shows. There’s an air of seriousness to his class that demands your focus and attention. Although, when the moment lends itself, you’re likely to share a good laugh about something that comes up in class.
Someya’s movement is precise – like the edge of a katana; it’s impeccable. If you’re curious about the “correct form” of a certain kata – watch how Someya Sensei shows it. He seems to teach the most from what is “written” in the scrolls. He is, as you would expect, the weapon’s specialist of the group; whether he is teaching a katana or naginata kata, he moves fluid yet maintaining incredible control. This is not just with weapons, but extends to his taijutsu and body movement.
He also is very detailed in what he teaches – especially when it comes to weapons. There are many subtle things in a kata that are important to make the technique actually effective, and there is also a historical reason for the methods of the kata. And if you don’t pay attention to some of these details, the technique will fall apart.
An anecdote: One trip to Japan, a school from Ann Harbor Michigan came with us, and one of the teachers was telling a funny story about his heritage. He said “an Irishman will crawl through a mile of [excrement] because half way he’d look back and say to himself ‘might as well keep going – if I turn back now I still half the crawl the same distance and I’ll still get no potato'”. We then started walking towards Someya’s class at his school – a couple miles from the train station. On the radio it was talking about an incoming typhoon. Just so happens, we got to walk through the peak of it. Needless to say we were soaked by the time we arrived at Someya’s dojo – which was closed. We thought maybe we got the time wrong. So there we are laughing as the violent weather continues, hiding under the the roof on Somea’s dojo’s porch. Forty-five minutes go by, whensuddenly a beam of a flashlight comes from around the corner – it’s Somea Sensei. He takes one look at us and starts laughing. He goes over to Shihan Woodard and says quietly to him (in Japanese) “You know- there’s a typhoon passing over tokyo”. He had canceled the class, and was nice enough to call us a cab back to the station. While we waited, we talked and laughed, and got to get to know Somea Sensei a little better. That was our potato.
Last, but certainly not least, there is Noguchi Sensei. Noguchi Sensei’s classes are maybe the most exhausting, but also the most “playful”. Noguchi Sensei’s movement is all about manipulation – he plays within the space to manipulate the reaction of the opponent. As this is happening, he is twisting your spine and locking you off balance. It borders on magic: he can make you miss a punch with the movement of a hand as if it were a Jedi mind trick.
In his class it’s mind overload; there is technique after technique and variation after variation. We once counted the number of things he showed, and we lost count after 80! Yet, it’s also fun – there is always some laughter from both humor and surprise when he is showing a technique. His playful attitude and joy in teaching will keep you engaged. He also will walk around the class and show each group something – giving insight into a small detail you might have missed. And when he does, there is always a smile and a laugh – all without saying a word in English.
His classes feel the most like Soke’s in the format and speed in which you move on from one technique to the next. And all the things he shows – manipulating the opponent – you can see Soke doing as well in class. It’s as much mental as it is physical.
A feeling: When it came time to take the Godan test I was lucky enough to be tested by one of the Japanese Shihan – Noguchi Sensei. At the moment of the test, I can truly say I felt his intention when I rolled out of the way of the swinging sword. But it was a bit different than I expected: it felt like we were working together at the same time. I thought about how he likes to use dancing as a metaphor in his classes, and it did feel like a dance with him leading. He immediately came over and gave a warm smile and shook my hand as I sat in shock that I somehow passed. It’s a day I will never forget, and I thank him and Shiraishi Sensei for the opportunity.
Final Thoughts on the Martial Arts Instructors
Training in the classes in Japan was always a dream of mine. And each of the above teachers are truly amazing. There are other martial arts teachers at the Hombu Dojo as well. However, I haven’t trained enough in their classes to give any perspective – something I hope to correct by my next trip to Japan.
As I said at the beginning, I suggest training with all of them. Each one is highly skilled and will offer insight into the art and the movements of Soke. Hopefully this can give you an idea of the spectacular training that can be found at the Bujinkan Hombu in Japan. Until then – keep training!