I moved to Seattle in the autumn of 2016; in doing so I decided to continue my current martial arts practice of Yin Cheng Gong Fa and Jiki Shinkage-ryu, even if that meant a bit of travel and a lot of solo practice. I have been lucky enough that a Hobyokai colleague lives in Portland and a Yin Cheng Gong Fa colleague lives in Bellingham, both not too far away to visit periodically.
From 2005 to 2014 I actively trained in Katori Shinto-ryu under students of Sugawara Tetsutaka, who was a kiyoshi in the main line of the art before leaving to run an independent organization. His version of the art is popular in some Aikido circles, and I was introduced to what at the time was a small group that practiced his approach to kenjutsu at Capital Aikikai by Bob Galeone, my teacher in Gao Lineage Bagua. Over the years, I learned a large portion of the curriculum they taught, and received their first rank (mokuroku). After my mokuroku, I began training in Jiki Shinkage-ryu on the recommendation of a long-time budo colleague of mine, who was learning Yagyu Shinkage-ryu at the Hobyokan.
I initially studied Jiki Shinkage-ryu because I was intrigued by its connections to Chinese martial arts, interested in practicing a sword art that influenced Sokaku Takeda, and curious about what sword arts associated to Katori's sister shrine in Kashima were like. It was an arduous practice, and brought its own benefits to my distance, posture, timing, stability, and power. A side-effect of this exposure, however, is that the more I practiced Jiki Shinkage-ryu, the more I questioned Katori Shinto-ryu. At first I thought this productive, having more than one perspective on budo can be useful.
In Katori, a primacy was placed on speed, and while in initial phases of training precision and ma-ai was emphasized, many practitioners lost a sense of timing (hyoshi) and advantage (sen) and center line. So much focus is placed on these latter ideas in Jiki Shinkage-ryu that I was unable to simply turn that part of my training off. By simply not yielding when a partner failed to take center line, the progression of the kata could be slowed or stopped. Skilled practitioners, and there are several in the group, could adapt smoothly, so I knew in principle the pedagogy had a sound core, but others got flustered and confused. It was frustrating to me, and I wound up attending practice less and less. I began to question the wisdom of walking two paths simultaneously, attempting to learn two separate classical arts as well as the Chinese Internal martial arts. At first, I thought maybe I could keep a Shinto-ryu practice going, not worry about becoming a teacher, and just practice the kata at my own speed. I attended a Friday night open mat one more time, thinking I could still join the open workout, if not maybe the formal class. I got feedback by someone I still count as a friend that he didn’t think the super-fast training had a purpose. At least I did not feel totally alone. That same evening, when working with another student, in the role of uchidachi (again), when I slowed down the kata a bit and focused, they got flustered and asked:
Shi: “Why are you looking at me like that”
Uchi: “Looking at you like what?”
Shi: “You are scaring me.”
My first reaction, thankfully kept to myself, was that I was uchidachi, and wasn't it my job to provide intensity to the practice? Also, why are you talking during the kata? Keep in mind, this was a reaction to a kamae, not doing the kata too fast, too hard, or haphazardly. I realized, without using verbal kiai, I was expressing some of the focus I had learned in Jiki Shinkage-ryu. And it was utterly incompatible with my junior partner's practice of Shinto-ryu.
That was my last paired practice in Katori Shinto-ryu. I decided my time was better spent doing more with less. In subsequent years, I focused on Jiki Shinkage-ryu and also wound up learning some of the older kata of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. Initially, I continued to practice Katori Shinto-ryu on my own, thinking if I ever moved somewhere a mainline or Sugino group practiced, I could come back to the art. Over time, I began practicing Shinto-ryu with a Jiki feel to it, and felt it improved my example of the art. However, I realized while Shinto-ryu was quite interesting, I didn’t really need it in order to have a complete approach to kenjutsu. Being exposed to Shinto-ryu has its benefits, from the perspective of understanding some of the components of swordsmanship that Shinkage-ryu attempts to counter or encode the essence of, depending on one’s perspective on the art. But I am not sure that benefit implied I should spent time on Shinto-ryu when I could be practicing Shinkage-ryu or Bagua or Taiji instead. More and more I began thinking in terms of a single way of cutting, a single way of movement.
I believe one should cultivate a practice that is not insufficient and not superfluous. So, a long story to explain why now, in Seattle, not far from a major nexus of Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu in the United States, and far from others who practice Jiki Shinkage-ryu, I am not inspired to pursue Shinto-ryu. It is not just my former group or former teacher, or the challenges in approaching a different line of the same ryu to practice. Handing in my mokuroku and focusing again on basics would be the simple part.
Jiki, however, is another story. As strange as it looks to outsiders, as utterly fatiguing its practice is when done with vigor, it has radically changed my understanding of classical Japanese swordsmanship.