Today was quite a new experience. For a moment, I felt like I was part of the inner circle. Although I’m sure it’s not the case, it was a rare glimpse at the human side of the Sensei of Japan.

Foreign Correspondence Enbu

As I mentioned yesterday, Steve’s demo partner had to cancel at the last minute, so the demo we had before at class for NHK ended up being a demo we would do for the Foreign correspondence lunch – also being filmed.

Steve met me on the train, and we showed up with our gear. We entered a back room where all the main participants in the Enbu were getting ready. In the room there was Soke, Seno, Someya, Nakadai, Sakasai and the two of us. Talk about intimidating – we were the only non Japanese in the room. Even Steve said it was intimidating. Sakasai gave me a warm smile, which helped my nerves. I also saw Someya was still sporting the shirt I gave him! It was quite a feeling to walk in and see that, especially considering that Someya has such high expectations.

After one last cursory review of what I would be doing, Soke went to give his speech and we followed in tow. I have to say, it felt pretty cool in being in this procession of Japanese all dressed in our gi, and being the only gaijin (Steve disappeared to help a few guests).

We dropped off our weapons and returned to the waiting room to eat before the demo. While I couldn’t understand everything until Steve came to translate, it was nice to see everyone joking a bit and getting along. Seno said something pretty poignant: “What will go wrong with the Enbu…it’s when something goes wrong that the fun begins…” Steve then informed me that since we had a pyrotechnic (we were using a party popper to act as metsubishi), we would go last of the traditional demo. More pressure please!

We were then called to sit and wait for our queue to perform. Soke was talking about the Bujinkan and a few anecdotes of his past. Although I wasn’t nervous before, I could really feel the butterflies.

Seno and Nakadai went first. Their demos were simple and elegant. Next came Someya and I.

Someya Enbu

Someya talked a little about the kyoketsu shoge. Then he nodded to me to begin. The first cut went well, and then things fell apart. The idea was that he would strike the sword and it would drop. However it caught on the blade and was stuck. He gave it a yank and it didn’t come loose.

I knew if I dropped the sword, it would be hard for him to perform the loop. I cut again to buy time. He pushed me away. I used this moment to grab the rope with my left and dropped the sword so that we would be in the next position. He through the loop and it didn’t quite make it. I elected to go in for the kick and he ended it with a final stab. I did a back roll and flopped on my stomach to simulate my death.

The crowd applauded.

He then took a moment to illustrate throwing the leap, explaining how it works. I held the rope out and he nailed it. I opened and pulled on it to make it clear I was ensnared.

The crowd applauded again.

Basically everything that could have gone wrong did. I felt terrible and hoped I didn’t embarrass him.

Steve Olsen Enbu

After Someya demonstrated a few simple sword kata, Steve and I were next. Steve was in full control, but I made a few errors and left my self open when I shouldn’t have. We got a few loud blocks in which was great, but others I had difficult moving into it properly. It was not.my best display of swordsmanship. But then the climax came: he slammed the bo to the floor and I stepped on it to pin, ready to strike. He pulled the poppers out and bang – right in my face as planned. The crowd let out a small gasp of shock and amusement.

I then pretended to be blind as he moved in and pinned me perfectly as planned. We nailed the finish. And by we I mean Steve. Not bad without ever doing a full run through.

Then came plain clothes demos from other Shihan which were interesting, exciting and informative. I particularly liked the Shihan from Turkey who made his ukes yelp and groan while pinned. His light hearted commentary made the crowd chuckle.

Before I knew it, it was over. We returned to the dressing room and I apologized to Someya. He didn’t really acknowledge it. Sakasai laughed and said something to the effect of “you were really nervous! You did ok though.” I did my best, but I still think I fell short. Steve thanked me for helping out at the last minute, and I thanked him for inviting me to experience this. I got changed with everyone as Soke came in and said something to the effect of “good work” in Japanese. I enjoyed the last few minutes of this feeling of being a part of the inner sanctum. He did some painting and then he left.

I headed back to the train for Kashiwa, with mixed feelings of excitement for seeing this rare glimpse, yet dissappointment that I didn’t do better. It will be interesting to see how I feel in class tonight.

Soke Hatsumi Sensei

Pablo met me on the train for Soke class, and we were able to train together for our last class of the trip. Shiraishi Sensei greeted me and told me he wanted to give me a gift. I was humbled by his generosity. He asked me to meet him at his car after class. He is such a warm individual, and I truly appreciate our relationship.

Soke was on time today, and wasted no time getting things started. The class was small for a change, so there was room to move. In many ways it felt like a personal, intimate class. Most of the people in attendance were very high rank.

Soke seemed energized by the Enbu, as he demonstrated many concepts in a manner that was easier to see his movement. He illustrated how you can move in and press the opponent to control their whole body, and then release tension to break their balance. He then illustrated how Muto Dori is really the same as receiving a punch; going back and forth between a katana and a tsuki.

From here he showed kyojutsu to control his opponent; he moved into a position where a shuto would have been an obvious attack, yet instead struck with the elbow where his uke didn’t see. He was using the threat of certain attacks to control the uke, and utilized their reactions to create new openings. This allowed him to strike from a place the uke could not see, and thus controlled their ability to counter. In many ways, it was a bit of mind control.

He then moved on to utilizing only 1 finger to control the uke; as they reacted to pressure of his touch he would simply move to a new position and change direction – maintaining control over their balance. The more they moved the further their balance broke until they fell.

“It’s not a technique” he would say. While no one would argue that his superb technique gives him the ability to perform these feats, I interpreted as “don’t think of doing a technique” – something echoed by other Sensei here. What I believe Soke is trying to say is rather than attempt to replicate the movement perfectly like a memorized gata, simply observe the uke and see what is available. If they move in a certain manner that gives an opportunity, capitalize it, and see what new opportunities spring out from it. Again, it is like a dance where you are leading the uke – yet there is no predetermined outcome: they may react in an infinite possible ways – so simply allow them to and see where it takes you. It’s exploring the moment in the moment – not trying to reach a specific outcome.

I began to turn off my mind, and allowed my body to respond. Suddenly I could do much more than I could before. I didn’t overthink anything – I saw what Pablo gave me and I went with it. And many times, the outcome was similar to what Soke showed. Pablo to began to do this. Often, something we found in a moment would find it’s way into what Soke showed. We were beginning to find overlap – even if briefly – with what Soke was doing.

This is why I think those many years ago he became upset at me when he saw me taking notes: it’s not about replicating the movements he did per se – but rather flowing with what the uke gives you and exploring that moment. It’s about feeling the uke out, and leading them. To attempt to exactly replicate a movement instead kills it – and then it won’t work.

At the break he did a very nice gesture and presented a limited edition pen to those who participated in the Enbu. He recognized me from earlier: “Ah, Steven-san uke.” It was a small gift, something that he probably has a box full of in a back office somewhere. Never the less I was touched by the gift and that he had recognized me – it was the first time I have ever felt that I was no longer a nameless face to him. When I come back, I’m sure that will have passed and I will return to the sea of people that come here – but as Soke teaches it is the moment that matters.

Shidoshi Hamilton

Scott Hamilton is an 8th degree black belt in the Bujinkan, and travels regularly to Japan to train. In addition to being the owner and head instructor of Todai Dojo, Scott is also the CEO of a national manufacturing company. He has also received training in other martial arts, and in-depth modern weapons training.

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