The Iaido Journal  Apr 2006
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Sugino Dojo: Studying Katori Shinto Ryu in Japan

copyright © 2006 Corey Reid, all rights reserved

This article was previously published in The Iaido Newsletter in 1998 without an author's credit. We're republishing it here so Corey can get the credit he should have had 8 years ago.

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 the place.

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 counter-techniques.

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 is awe-inspiring.

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.

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TIN Apr 2006