This is a continuation from Training in Japan Part 2: Hotels/Lodging
Budo training in Japan! This is the main reason for going to Japan, it is a little like a pilgrimage to Mecca for members of the Bujinkan. Not only do we get to experience being in Japan, one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, we get to train with and learn from some of the greatest martial arts masters alive. All of my previous trips to Japan, I had the extreme blessing to be able to attend classes taught by Masaaki Hatsumi, the Soke of the Bujinkan. Now that he is essentially retired and has passed on the succession of the Bujinkan to the next generation of Soke, you may not get the chance to train with him, but you can certainly train with the Soke that have been chosen to replace him.
Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for use as a reference. It is based on my personal experiences. No part of this blog can be or should be taken as legal, medical, or other advice.
In this post, I'm going to cover how to find the dojo if you are not traveling with me, the cost of training, what it's like to train in Japan, what to expect, and things you should know before ever stepping into the dojo. But first, let's get an uncomfortable topic out of the way first. The politics of going to Japan without your sensei with you.
As stated in the very first blog post in this series, Part 1: Flights, it is not wrong to visit the dojo without your sensei. However, there will be some questions likely asked by whomever is leading the class you are attending. If you attend the class of our Sensei in Japan, who is one of the newly promoted Soke to inherit the Bujinkan from Hatsumi Soke, and he asks who your sensei is that you train with in the US, and you give him my name, he may grill you further about why you have visited his dojo without me. As I said in the first post in this series, just say that you are visiting Japan for vacation, and wanted to hit a few classes while you are there. That will be the end of it. Maybe.
Keep in mind that weird things have happened in the past, like people going to Japan and trying to get ranked up equal to or beyond their sensei back home. So, they are sometimes warry of such attempts. I know of some instances where a sensei in Japan realized a person was doing just this, trying to get promoted in Japan. This person had his own dojo, but was a lower rank than his teacher in the USA that he trained with. The Japanese sensei promoted him to the highest rank in the Bujinkan, not because he deserved it, but because he wanted to save the other sensei from having to deal with such a poor student. As expected, this person stopped training with their sensei in the USA, believing they had arrived at the end! As a result, in a very short period of time, their dojo fell apart because the training went down hill quickly and that person has passed into obscurity.
However, they do sometimes offer genuine promotions while in Japan. You have to be very careful about accepting these promotions while attending on your own. Sometimes rank is given as a genuine gift, sometimes as a test to see how you will react (as in the story from earlier), and sometimes it is to gain new students for themselves. There are a lot of politics involved with this and I don't want to dive too deep into this. Just look at it this way. If you know who your sensei at home is connected with in Japan, and that sensei promotes you, in all likelihood your sensei back home with honor that rank and congratulate you, after all, his/her sensei promoted you. However, if you attend a class with a sensei in Japan not directly connected to your sensei, and the sensei in Japan offers you a promotion, you need to be careful. If you accept that rank and return home expecting to keep training under your sensei, you might find yourself in the wind. After all, you just accepted a rank from a different sensei not directly above your own sensei. So, you will need to make frequent trips to Japan to train under your new sensei, or find another sensei in your home country directly under the sensei in Japan you accepted rank from. So, with that in mind, decide whether will you accept the rank, if one is even offered in Japan, or if you will turn it down. If you are one of my Deshi and you are promoted by my sensei in Japan (you know who that is, no need to name drop) then I will congratulate you and we'll all celebrate your promotion. If you are offered rank by another Sensei not connected to our dojo, you can politely decline, or you can accept the rank and you've found yourself a new sensei, Omedeto! (congratulations) You can certainly keep training with our dojo, but I will no longer issue you rank advancements. That will be the decision of your new sensei in Japan. There is more to all of this, but not that I'm willing to write about in this blog. I kind of despise the politics involved with all of this. You can ask me in person for further insight into the politics and how to avoid making mistakes.
Finding the dojo: Okay, with those internal politics out of the way, lets talk the fun part of training. But first, let's help you find the dojo! If you need to take the train to the dojo each day, get off the train at Atago Station in Noda. It is a short five minute walk from the train station. I've provided a map below using Google Maps. For some reason, the map has you leaving through the West Exit. It is much easier/faster to leave through the East Exit. Head straight out from the East Exit, turn left at the road, walk a couple blocks, turn left again down the second street on your left, walk to the end of the short street and you have arrived at the dojo. I've included pictures of what the dojo looks like when you turn down the street so you know what it looks like. The entrance to the dojo faces the train tracks, so you need to walk around the building to get to the entrance.
Entering the dojo: Once inside, (and if you want to be polite, bow once you enter the dojo through the front door, many foreigners do not do this so if you forget, you won't stand out) you'll immediately be in the Genkan, the lower area for shoes. You will see many small cubbies to your right to store your shoes in. Do not step up onto the wood flooring with your shoes. Take one foot out of your shoe and step your stockinged foot onto the wood floor, remove the other shoes and step that foot onto the wood floor. Pick up your shoes and put them into a cubby (on busy days plan to share a cubby with other shoes). Walk along the wood floored plank to the next area of the dojo. Do NOT step with your socks back onto the tiled floor of the Genkan! Once you are onto the next level of the dojo, you will see cubbies for back packs. This is the men's changing area. Yes, men change openly in this area. For women, there is a changing room with a door to change in and leave your backpack in. There is also a small changing area just for the Sensei of the class to change in (it sometimes also gets used as a storage closet! LOL), then there is a kitchen and the restroom. If you have to use the restroom, you must wear the sandals provided before walking into the bathroom. To the left is the main dojo training area. You may enter here, again, it is polite to bow towards the Kamidana when you first enter. If you don't you won't really stand out because many foreigners don't. Even the Japanese don't always do this.
Class Pricing: In Japan, you need to pay for class. For each and every class. Since the Hombu dojo experiences so many people coming and going, it is best for them to have a per-class price policy. The prices may have changed since I have not been back to Japan since before COVID-19. My last trip was 2019, then COVID hit and Japan shut its borders until essentially this year. Even though they opened their borders, there have been many restrictions for travelers. The last of those are supposed to be lifted this year in May! This is how the normal pricing goes:
Hatsumi Sokes Classes at Hombu: ¥3,500 (roughly $35)
Other Classes at Hombu: ¥3,000 (roughly $30)
Other Classes not at Hombu: ¥2,500 (roughly $25)
You will pay to whomever is collecting the dues for the class that day. This will not be the sensei teaching. The sensei never collects the class dues. Either look for a person sitting behind a small low table on the wood floor, or a person sitting on the mats with a pile of cash and a sign in paper in front of them. If you arrive early, before someone is collecting money, please be sure to pay as soon as they are ready to accept payment. Do not be that person who tries to get away training without paying.
Training: Training in Japan is awesome. You will get to experience a lot of awesome things, listen to great discussions, meet people from all over the world, and participate in a martial art nearly 1,000 years old. It is literally like participating in a living history. And, because there is no competition in the Bujinkan, the people you meet are usually awesome because they are like family, not your competition. However, do realize that not all practitioners are the same in the Bujinkan. If you go with me, you will always have plenty of people to train with because I usually go with a group of other people in our group of dojos under the Pacific Northwest Bujinkan Dojo Association. If you go on your own, you will need to find a training partner and hopefully it is a good experience. Sometimes, you might get stuck with someone you don't enjoy training with for one reason or another. Try to make the best of it, and find a new person the next class. If I'm ever training with someone I would normally rather not train with (that usually means someone doing their own thing and not training in what the Sensei of the class is modeling) I try to look at it as an opportunity to grow in one area or another. Even if that area is to grow in patience.
Training in Japan can differ depending on who is teaching class. Just be prepared to go with the flow of the class, Shizen Kon Ryu Sui! There are some things to note though no matter whose class you attend (and really, these kind of go with dojo classes even in your home country). Do what the sensei showed. Sometimes they will show something with different variations. Try to do what was shown, do the variations that were shown. Try to do what was said by the sensei and not only what you saw them do. Train relaxed. Training in Japan should be relaxed, copy the flow and movement of the sensei teaching. I've been in classes when the sensei specifically said to train relaxed, when you are the tori, play like a cat with a mouse. Then there is one set of people in the dojo who go crazy just sparring with each other. There is a time and place for Randori, Japan classes are not the time or place. Unless the sensei specifically says we are doing Randori, but I don't see that happening. I have never attended a class in Japan where that was said. The Japanese Sensei and Soke are trying to convey very specific concepts and techniques in their classes so we can learn them and take them back to our home dojos to train them further. It is at our home dojos when Randori can come into play. So, do not do anything resembling Randori in class. It is a clear way to ensure that the sensei will not come around to help you.
If you are really trying to do what the sensei showed, and doing it wrong, the sensei will come around and provide help to you. Try to do what he is correcting in your movement. I have been in class when the sensei went up to a pair of individuals training and showed them what they were doing wrong. One of those times, one of the individuals explained to the sensei why he was doing the technique the way he was doing it. Sensei walked away and never interacted with them again. That person's action essentially said, I am going to do my own thing, I don't need to do what you are showing. It doesn't matter if that wasn't the person's intention, he may have just been defensive for not doing what sensei showed. The sensei in Japan will not help you further if you don't act like you want to learn from them. Their classes are usually too full and the students too varied to waste any time further with someone like that. Another instance, sensei stopped class and said not enough people were trying to do the important points he explained in his first demonstration. He said we needed to be trying to do those things, even though they are difficult, because that was the focus of the day's class. Those who kept training the way they had been before, didn't get further help from him. Those of us who tried what he was showing, even if we kept failing at doing it, go the direct help from him as he walked around. So, train relaxed, do what the sensei showed, do the Gokui the sensei explained, and have fun.
Some of the sensei in Japan like to do a sit down conversation in the middle of class to give students a chance to cool down and learn from the sensei. If the sensei doesn't open class up to questions, DO NOT ask questions. Sometimes, the sensei will open it up to questions, if so, be very Japanese in how you ask questions. It will be appreciated by the sensei. What does that mean? Japanese people do not typically like direct questions, it is awkward for them. Essentially, if you ask an open ended question, that will generally be okay, because you allow the sensei to answer how they want to. But even open ended questions can be too direct. This is a hard balance. Let me give an example: in one class a person asked how to do a technique, but asked it quite directly. "Sensei, you showed the technique in one way, and in another. When is it appropriate to do which version?" Sensei responded in this instance, "I don't know. Next question?" And looked around for other questions. The person asking the question looked dumbfounded, like, how can you not know??? But, it was the way the question was asked that caused that answer. Do you see the problem with the question? Think for a second about it. The question implied that the sensei didn't teach it properly. A very Japanese way of interpreting the question he asked would be: You showed the technique two different ways. You didn't explain it well enough before, can you explain it better now?
In another class, a different person asked a similar question in a different way. "Sensei, you demonstrated this technique in different ways. I didn't understand at the time what the differences were. Can you expand a little more on them?" The sensei responded, "It is a case by case basis. You need to feel how the Uke is responding, and fit in the method that works best like fitting in a puzzle piece." Very different way of asking, very different response. Why the difference? The second student put the error on himself for not understanding.
Also, do not act like this is a conversation between you and the sensei. If questions are allowed, and you ask one, allow the sensei to respond however they choose. If you don't understand their answer, it is your job to figure it out. I've been in seminars here in the USA where a student asks the head sensei leading the seminar a question, then keeps asking for clarifications. I've not seen this in Japan, but it might happen sometimes. This is considered rude. Don't do it in Japan, don't do it in any dojo. Also rude is arguing a point with the sensei. You might disagree with the sensei on a point they are expressing, in class is not the time or place to hold that argument, especially trying to make sure you get in the last word on the point being discussed. And obviously talking to someone else when the sensei is talking is extremely rude so don't do it. One particular sensei in Japan will hold a lighthearted chat with some people in the dojo, this is okay to talk during if he isn't addressing the class as a whole. As soon as he addressed the class, you need to finish your conversation with your friend another time.
Other things to note: How does one know when classes are held? This is the funny thing about training in Japan. The class schedule can differ week to week, and the class times are only posted on a black board inside the dojo itself. This can make it difficult to plan ahead of time when to hit classes, and when to do tourist stuff. If you are going with people you know, and some of them arrived in Japan before you, they can message you a picture of the black board to see the classes for that week. If you are going on your own, join one of the many Facebook groups for Bujinkan students and ask if someone has a picture of the schedule for that week. No, it is not posted on the dojo's website. I think the Bujinkan official website is unchanged since I first saw it in 1998.
Shane Sensei is a licensed Shidoshi in the Bujinkan and member of the Shidoshi-Kai. He has trained in the Bujinkan since 1998 and regularly travels to Japan for training.