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This has been one of my best training trips ever, full of profound insight and realization. As always, it connects to the teachers here and Soke himself. Here is a few closing thoughts on the teachers, Soke and the art itself.
I’ll begin by saying that I think all the teachers are right and have varying degrees of insight to offer. Here is what my understanding of them is now:
Shiraishi often says that he is an engineer and that ask an uke for Soke, he has a deeper insight. I believe he is correct in many regards. Essentially, I believe he analyzes how he is affected by Soke, and then reverse engineers what could possibly have caused that reaction in a very methodical way. This is most likely where his method of foot work, spine work, hand work comes from. It is not something he is visually observing – if you watch the two there seems to be little correlation. However, what is happening to the uke is most likely the reverse – hand work, spine work, foot work.
Affecting the hand affects the spine and hips. If the hips are affected then so too are the feet, as well as most importantly the balance. Reverse engineering this, you would then determine that Soke first moves his feet (which you can often see), then utilizes the turning of the hips and spine, to subtlety affect their hands/shoulders/etc. This is then transmitted into the uke and suddently, you can recreate this method of balancing breaking. This is of course is over simplified, but it shows where the foundation of his method of training comes from.
This is why he tends to teach in Kumiuchi – it creates a stronger connection and makes it easier to learn. It’s simplified so that the student can start to understand how their connection to the uke affects them.
I agree with Someya Sensei in that everything stems from the Ryu-ha; it is the root from which everything has grown. The only reason why Soke has such a deep understanding and crazy ability in moving the way he does is because he drilled the Gata until they were internalized. He no longer had to think about how to move – it became “natural” for him. Afterall, he didn’t suddenly wake up one day and was amazing – it took alot of work to move so effortlessly.
If we truly want the answers to how to move the way Soke does, we must start with developing our technique in the gata. While Soke might not be doing a “technique”, the technique developed by studying gata enable him to do so. To disregard the gata would be to remove the foundation of which higher concepts are built upon. We must strengthen the root in ourselves if we expect to grow.
This maybe why Someya has such high standards – it is indeed a harder road to travel. But in taking the harder road, we enable ourselves to reach a higher level of understanding. And maybe he sees too many disregarding that road, instead opting for something easier that in the end is weak – a house built on sand.
While I didn’t get much direct contact with Ishizuka Sensei, I got to experience the product of his training through his senior students. The old school approach and emphasis on proper technique has lead these students to develop a deep understanding of the subtlety of proper technique. With impeccable form, and a relaxed body they utilize their full body to transmit the energy of a strike into their uke. It is a long hard road, but the results are truly amazing.
What Nagato does in class is give everyone a jumping off point. He illustrates the key concepts of utilizing distance and controlling openings to move around the uke. “Change distance or change angle.” He is illustrating that once you get the distance and angle correct, the rest is simply looking for opportunities to defeat the opponent.
In the beginning this means replicating the example. But once you can follow along and understand the reason for his angles, his hand switches, his overall movement, then the way he receives and enters into a technique is simply looking for ways to control and defeat the opponent. He makes sure he’s in safe place then simply sees whats available. Hence, you should “never do the same technique twice.”
Seno is in essence subtle precision. The reason he allows so much time to do a technique is to find that one small spot that with just the right angle and pressure destroys the uke’s balance while creating openings. He is a surgeon.
While we may think a half inch difference or a few degrees of angle difference might not matter – are too small or insignificant – to Seno the ramification and differences are huge. This is reflected in his slow methodical teaching, finding the sweet spot to create the opening, lock up the uke, and destroy their balance. And once things speed up, the precision pays dividends.
Much of what Soke shows and does is similar to what things Noguchi Sensei breaks down in class. Noguchi Sensei tries to illustrate from the gata certain principles that Soke utilizes in his movement and method.
He utilizes the whole body to control the balance of the opponent as he dances around his uke. Many things he showed, such as using the positioning of his body to pin the outstretched hand of his uke is something Soke did in more than one occasion. I also saw overlap between his movement and the other Shihan, created a convergence of methods of movement.
He too is creating a bridge – a connection between the gata and higher levels of movement. He breaks the gata apart to study each individual moment through many different henka until the gata slips away and only the ideas remain.
Sakasai is an important first step into understanding higher levels of movement. It was first described as kihon; but it’s different than the kihon you would get in Ishizuka or Someya Sensei training – it’s the next layer on top that creates flow in technique.
With simplification of movement, and adjustment of timing, suddenly you get a deeper realization of how the movement can flow and become quite fast and effective. It’s a new look at the same gata of the ryu-ha, maintaining principles yet taking it to new possibilities of application.
Furuta Sensei breaks down some of the unorthodox methods of controlling an opponent utilizing his body. He is able to trap and pin limbs, and moves in towards the opponent in a manner that is both effective and intimidating. He uses his positioning to effectively tie up the uke while they struggle to maintain their balance, disguised as very nonchalant movement.
Rob Renner Sensei
Rob has used his understanding of body mechanics and observations of where the Sensei and Soke converge to develop a guide for movement. It is extremely practical and helps decode movement. His “Budo Code” deconstructs the key overarching concepts that make techniques work. He also makes sure to verify these things under full resistance, ensuring what is taught is practical against a non-compliant opponent. Effectively it is a short cut to the realizations that come from training the gata for so many years.
Once you get a little bit of understanding, suddenly you can begin to see why what they do works and how to get better at it. You also appreciate how many things are at work simultaneously, and how much work it must have taken the Shihan to figure it out in their own way.
While I don’t necessarily 100% agree with replacing ryu-ha training with this method, nor all of the implications, I do see it as a valuable connection between studying kata and understanding the higher level training happening. Just one class has indeed improved my overall taijutsu, and I plan on training more with him next trip.
Steve Olsen Sensei
While Steve doesn’t have a class per se, I find I learn quite a bit from him every trip. I also find that regarding the art we both have a similar view and mindset.
Steve has great technique, and believes that everything stems from the ryu-ha. He also has a good relationship with the Shihan and with Soke, giving him an overall understanding of the organization.
Matt Woodard Sensei
Matt was of course not on this trip, but this trip has made me appreciate him even more as a teacher. I hadn’t realized just how much he prepared all of us for this kind of training. He gave us bits and pieces of everything so that when we got to Japan, we would be prepared to learn. Most importantly, he gave us our base by focusing on Kihon. That strong foundation is what has enabled me to reach the level of understanding I have, and without it I wouldn’t be here today. I was quite lucky that I started my training with him.
My understanding of concepts and the Bujinkan as a whole has started to blossom. If we look it at is as a path to follow, we understand how Soke got to where he is now:
He began by studying the gata to perfect his technique (Someya, Ishizuka). He started to drill deep into it to understand all the subtlety to make it effective (Seno). He broke them apart to understand why each component was important (Noguchi). He analyzed how it affected his opponent (Shiraishi). He made it flow (Sakasai). He closed possible openings in his movement (Nagato). And he started moving unorthodox ways to confuse the opponent (Furuta).
The convergence is becoming clearer as each Shihan serve as a lens of Soke. Each one is trying to communicate what they feel is important in their eyes in the art and Soke. And each has significant overlap, while also having unique insights.
If we are to understand what Soke is teaching, then we must view it through as many perspectives as possible in order to see the whole. Each Shihan, both Japanese and Gaijin, have a piece of that puzzle. In order to get a more complete picture, you must expose yourself to all the training available and see what emerges in the overlap.
I look forward to sharing what I have learned in class with everyone! Can’t wait for the next trip!