Training in Japan with Hatsumi Sensei
Known as the first American Ninja, An-shu Stephen K. Hayes is recognized as the person who started the worldwide ninja boom in the early 80s. Recently, while in Japan on business, I had the opportunity to train with An-shu Hayes’s original ninja teacher, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, the 34th Soke (grandmaster) of the unbroken 900 year old Togakure Ryu lineage. The Bujinkan, the Devine Warrior school, as Hatsumi sensei’s organization is known, teaches a more traditional style of ninjutsu than the Self-defense system that is To-Shin do. However, the underlying principles of Taijutsu (gravity body movement) are the same. Being 84 years old, there are rumors of Hatsumi Sensei’s imminent retirement, so I knew that this might be my one and only chance to train with the Grand Master of 9 ancient martial lineages.
I had arranged to attend a Sunday morning session that was to be taught by Hatsumi Sensei personally. We took the train from Tokyo and after a couple of changes arrived in Noda (the Hombu location) early enough to walk to the dojo and get situated. We followed the map to the dojo, however upon arrival we sensed that something was not quite right. After a hasty communication with some friends back in the US, I realized we were at the old location, which is now the Bujinkan education center. It was at that moment that an elderly gentleman with purple hair pulled up and emerged from the back of a sedan. He looked at me and smiled, waved and then disappeared inside – IT WAS HATSUMI SENSEI!! His driver approached us and I asked in very poor Japanese where the dojo was. He explained that the new Hombu dojo was about a mile away. So, we set off on a hasty hike to get there in time for class
Arriving in time for class, I quickly found my sponsor Paul Masse and asked permission to join the session. Dai-shihan Nagato Sensei (one of Hatsumi’s senior students) was teaching. I was introduced to a couple of guys from the UK and we quickly settled into training. We were working on moving outside of a punch, controlling the uke and disrupting his balance. After about 10 minutes or so-we were just getting ready for another drill, when there was a hushed parting of the students. Hatsumi Sensei had arrived. He shuffled onto the mat and in an instant someone threw a punch at him. He moved effortlessly and the punching hand was in his. One of the Hombu Shihan (Main School Teacher of Teachers) was translating and explained that you must control the hand to control the body. Sensei moved again and his uke gyrated in multiple directions. When Sensei stopped the uke was frozen in an almost impossible position. Hatsumi Sensei spoke again and the translator explained that he now owned him and could decide whether to control or destroy the attacker. Fortunately the uke lived on to attack again. The next ½ hour was much of the same- Hatsumi sensei would pop out do something incredible and then shuffle off saying one word, “Train.” Each teaching moment was brief and concise. As an advanced practitioner, I was looking for the hidden lesson in his movement. It was hard to catch, but it was there. I was able to gather so much information from simply watching his movement and ability to own the center of his uke.
There was a break during which time Hatsumi Sensei painted and would draw kanji for some lucky few people. After he and his Shihan had some tea, training continued. We worked on Mutodori (empty hand against sword). Predictably sensei’s alignment, distance and position was perfect. He moved at just the right time to just the right place with a level of effortless, that some people a quarter of his age could not achieve. Again the lessons were in his movement not the drill or kata.
When class was over, I approached and asked if I could get a picture. He was all smiles and nodded, “hai!” As I left I was filled with a sense of both excitement and awe. I had trained with a living legend and had had the opportunity to observe him move and teach. I do not know how much longer he will be teaching but I am so glad I had this opportunity. As I write this I understand that Dr. Hatsumi has just been released from hospital after a brief stay. He is at home resting and expected to be back at the dojo in a week or two. I wish him well and a speedy recovery.