I began training at Sugino Dojo in
Kawasaki, the dojo of the well-known Yoshino Sugino, in September of
1993. I'd been given the phone number and the address of the dojo by my
sensei in Calgary, who'd introduced me to iai three years previously.
My first day is one I will never forget.
Anyone who has ever tried to find a place in Japan armed only with an
address and an almost complete lack of Japanese can appreciate the
frustration I felt looking for the dojo. I spent nearly an hour
wandering the back streets of Kawasaki, withstanding the curious
attention of housewives airing out their futons. Eventually I asked one
of them, showed her my slip of paper with the address, but she just
shook her head and smiled. I was about to turn away but instead I asked
her, "Dojo? Sugino Dojo?"
Immediately her face cleared and she
nodded, smiling. "Ah, Sugino Dojo! So, so so..." She launched into a
verbose explanation in Japanese, but in the course of this torrent I
managed to get her to draw me a map and with that I was able to find
I came up to the door (one I'd been past
several times already), and knocked. The door was opened by a smiling
little old man who bowed and ushered me in. Sugino Sensei himself. He
beamed the entire time I was there, shaking my hand and bowing so often
I thought my back would give out from keeping up. He produced a TV set
and a VCR and fumbled with cables and connections. Flicked the on and
off button a few times but nothing happened.
It's comforting to know that even one of
the finest swordsmen in the world is just as confused by VCR technology
as I am.
He did get the contraption working
finally, and we watched (sitting on the tatami floor of the dojo) a
video of Katori techniques. Sugino Sensei watched my reactions closely.
I think he wanted to make sure I understood what this school was all
about, that it was not self-defense or beating people up or even a
sport, like kendo. When I nodded my enthusiasm his beaming took on an
even more euphoric quality.
I cannot claim to know Sugino Sensei very
well. My Japanese has improved dramatically since that day, but there
is still a major barrier to communication. In all my experiences with
him, however, he has been unfailingly kind, courteous and friendly. He
treats everyone the same way he treated me: big smiles and good-natured
appreciation for anyone who tries hard. I have never seen him show the
slightest sign of anger or irritation, not even when I clonked him on
the elbow when I mistakenly performed yokomen instead of yokodo. He
just laughed and told me to try it again.
Likewise, I will not claim to be more than
shakily familiar with Katori Shinto Ryu. I have learned a variety of
kata and study more all the time, but my understanding is purely
physical. I know what the moves are, but only very slowly do I learn or
figure out the reasons for them.
A typical training session at Sugino Dojo
runs about two-and-a-half hours. We begin with the double bow and
double handclap associated with Shinto worship, then practise
*maku-uchi men* in two rows facing each other.
Maku-uchi is the foundation stroke of
Katori Shinto Ryu. It is a straight cut to the head, but whereas shomen
uchi brings the sword first up to jodan and then back and forward
directly above the head, maku-uchi cuts from the side. From *seigan*,
or chudan no kamae, the front foot is drawn back until just before the
rear one, and the tip of the sword is brought behind the left shoulder,
the back of the blade actually resting on the left upper arm. The
wrists are crossed above the forehead, the left hand thrusting skyward.
The cut is made with the left hand, and the tip of the sword whips up
and around and down. This cut originated from the need to cut
powerfully while avoiding the crested helm that most samurai wore. A
cut from jodan is difficult because the crest makes it impossible to
take the sword back enough.
We practise maku-uchi for a few hundred
strokes, depending on the whim of Sensei, and then practise yoko-men,
-do, and a yoko cut to the feet whose name I've never quite caught. By
the end of this everyone is usually well winded. We practise the ten
basic kamae, and then break up to begin kata practise.
The kata of Katori Shinto, and in fact
Katori consists only of kata, are very long. The beginning set (four
kata, katana vs. katana), for example, number up to twenty separate
cuts or attacks for each side. The idea is that the student comes to
understand the many possibilities for dealing with a given attack by
working their way through a simulated combat where they are attacked
several times with the same technique, and learn different ways of
defending this technique, while at the same time learning the
Everyone practises with everyone else, and
the pecking order is not very carefully maintained. If the senior
student training with me makes a mistake, I feel perfectly comfortable
questioning him, and I welcome the questions of junior students (when I
can understand them). Nobody sits exclusively in seiza while waiting
for a turn (only two pairs can practise at once), but instead we move
about the room, laugh and complain about how hot or cold it is. There
are usually some children present, the grandchildren of Sugino Sensei,
who practise but also lend a touch of comic relief here and there.
Most of the training these days is handled
by the son of Yoshino Sugino, Yukihiro. We refer to him as Wakasensei,
"Younger Sensei." He is a burly, cheerful man who can nonetheless
frighten the wits out of any inattentive students (I can vouch for that
one personally) with his speed and the force of his technique. He also
has a habit of forgetting which kata he's teaching, which adds to the
general sense of laughter and camaraderie around the place.
I cannot emphasize enough how comfortable
and fun this dojo is. I remember going to the Yoshinkai Hombu Dojo in
Ochiai, and while I found the level of instruction there excellent and
the people were friendly enough, it lacked the sense of "family" that
Sugino Dojo has. Last week I joined the local summer festival and
helped carry a massive shrine around the neighborhood (to the lasting
agony of my shoulders) and in two weeks we're taking a tour of the
Kirin Beer brewery. We train rigorously, and are told in no uncertain
manner when we make a mistake (once I had my bokuto sent flying across
the tatami because I didn't withdraw it quickly enough for the fortieth
time), but nobody is ever "told off" or made to feel foolish by
anything except their own mistakes.
Katori Shinto Ryu Iaido is
characteristically powerful, direct and simple. I think the trademark
technique is suwatte-iai, sankajo: "Nuki-uchi no tachi." This kata
begins in iai-goshi (as do all the suwatte-iai techniques), and is
nothing but a straight cut to the head. The difficult bit, besides
whipping your sword out and cutting without lopping off an arm, is that
you have to spring up and make the cut in mid-air, landing just at the
moment you finish your cut. To see a proficient swordman perform this
Although I have learned many things in my
two years at Sugino Dojo, I know I have barely begun to acquire the
skills of a swordsman. The experience has nevertheless been an
astounding one, and I will always be grateful to the kind people at
Sugino Dojo who have not let the language barrier prevent them from
teaching me invaluable lessons on the sword, Japanese life and my own
character. I wish I could thank them appropriately.