“I’ve had tea many times with ninjas in Japan…” said my friend, Julie Brett.

“Seriously?” I asked. “Ninjas!?”

And so Julie told me the story of the time she travelled to Japan to study Bujinkan, a martial arts form with roots in Samurai and Ninjutsu.

My imagination conjured cinematic scenes of dark, focused eyes hidden beneath shadowed robes of the ninja, crouched on the roof of an unsuspecting victim, under the shroud of a moonless night. Trying not to sound too naive, I nevertheless pressed on and asked Julie if Hollywood had exaggerated these accounts into myths, and whether ninjas really were the obscured, dexterous mercenaries depicted throughout history.

To my surprise, she said, “Yes they were. Absolutely. They were rebels, spies, assassins… working between the different clans, unaffiliated, and at times working for both sides of issues.” I would later discover on my own reading that the ninjas aided the whispered tales of their terrifying demon-like abilities. Consequently, their enemies were encouraged to take fearful flight upon confrontation, saving many lives through abandoned battles.

 

[bctt tweet=”Martial arts is an amazing metaphor for life – the fight for a good life.”]

 

So what enticed Julie to make the long journey from Australia to enter the small Bujinkan Hombu Dojo in Noda, the home town of the organization’s founder, Grandmaster Massaki Hatsumi.

“I was attracted to the philosophies, but found them hard to understand. As I started to learn more of the practice, the philosophies made more and more sense. Martial arts is an amazing metaphor for life the “fight” for a good life.” says Julie.

The Bujinkan philosophies are centred around insights attained by previous masters through their martial arts. These wise words have become advice around which students strive to build peaceful lives in flow with society, the environment and themselves, while being guided into their own realisations through dedicated practice.

Julie spent a year in Japan during which time she attended classes. They were usually two hours long, spent in perfecting violent techniques in knife combat, sword fight and other traditional weapon attacks. Midway through each session the students would stop to sit on the old dojo floor for a cup of tea. “A tea break?” I asked, slightly incredulously.

It was more than a break, insists Julie. Surrounded by photos of old masters decorated with candles and incense offerings, the students discussed language, Japanese culture, travel, and training, even as they sipped green tea from lovely clay-work cups.

 

[bctt tweet=”Tea is culturally significant in Japan – It marks a time of quiet contemplation, reflection, and rest.”]

 

“The change from the training to sitting down together for tea seemed an almost comical contrast to a Westerner. Often, during the tea break, Hatsumi sensei would also paint with ink in the traditional style. One day I was watching from the side of the room, and he painted a flower and offered it to me. In that very touching moment I realised there are many ‘arts’ in Japan, and no matter what they are martial arts, the tea ceremony, or calligraphy, they share the same philosophy.”

Julie’s daily practice continued with risky fight combinations and the casual “ocha” or green tea. She talks about the realization that “budo” or the way of the warrior and “sado” or the way of tea were both held together by “do” or the way. They were joined in that common philosophy, one that states that techniques can be learned, but true mastery is found when one demonstrates perfect technique, naturally, in everyday movements, where the mind does not influence, and there is neither hesitation nor attachment.  

I was still surprised that their tea ceremonies were so casual, too unceremonious.  “Though the tea we had was just regular green tea in a casual setting, there were still reasons to having it as a part of the training, I believe. Tea is culturally significant in Japan, whether taken in the ceremony or not. It marks a time of quiet contemplation, reflection, and rest. In the casual setting the meanings of the tea ceremony aren’t lost, they remain, but in a casual form. It is a time out to balance, realign, and see insights together,” explained Julie.

I had imagined ninjas to be serious, contemplative warriors but this too was shattered by the stories surrounding Hatsumi sensei, amusingly described by Black Belt magazine as “wild, funny, unpredictable, and a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Obi-Wan Kenobi.” Says Julie, “Hatsumi was very playful, happy, lithe, graceful and energetic; at the same time technically impressive with his demonstrations to the point that it looked too easy, like magic. It was all real though, and pretty scary. One time he did a demonstration with a blunt metal katana: his demonstration partner swung at him with the sword and he dodged it, took control of the sword and the other person. When they finished he realised there was a hole in his t-shirt. He had stepped away at the very last moment with such precision that it missed his body by a hair’s breadth, but it got his shirt. He just laughed and said ‘Hai! Play!’ which he said after every demonstration, marking a short period of time where we would “play” with the technique. He just took it in his stride, with a laugh.”

Play? I asked. On the philosophy of play, Julie added. “The first step is to learn the technique, then you play with it until you find the insight in the moment where you do it “naturally”. That’s the essence of the “do” or “way”. Once you have learned the forms, you approach them with playfulness and Hatsumi had a lot of that. He was of course “playing” with the pathways between life and death though, so he was also a pretty intimidating guy too, once you realised how much power was hidden in the playfulness.”

The curious character of Hatsumi sensi seemed to affirm every story I’ve heard of the grandmasters. Hatsumi himself had been on a long journey to reestablish the Bunjikan practice. He was told about an aging master, Toshitsugu Takamatsu, who he had quickly set out to find. Takamatsu was the owner of a small unassuming tea house, which perhaps filled Hatsumi with a disappointed confidence as he challenged the aging tea sommelier, who, as it turned out, beat Hatsumi very easily. Takamatsu, later to be titled ‘The Last Shinobi’, agreed to take Hatsumi on as a student and the rest was history.

 

[bctt tweet=”I realised there are many ‘arts’ in Japan, and no matter what they are – they share the same philosophy.””]

 

 

My final surprise was the discovery that no ‘real’ ninjas exist today. The last was Fujita Seiko who served for the Imperial government; he passed away in 1966. People like Hatsumi are responsible for most of the research being done on ninjutsu to re-establish it’s ancient practices.

Experiencing my own Bujinkan epiphany, I reflected upon the correlation between the unexpected informality of their ocha breaks, and the spirited playfulness encouraged during the practice of serious techniques. In turn, this made me consider  the commonly suppressed light-heartedness of ceremonious traditions, many of which have lost their enjoyment thanks to society’s demand for solemn respect. A shared cup of tea seems to be one of the few things that allows for both tradition and an easygoing contentedness, partaken casually or formally.

 

Featured photograph shows Julie Brett while in Japan. On the right is the exterior of a Japanese dojo. 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Iam Mariahs husband & can add laughter and playfulness reduce stress. Ninjustsu like many things stereotyped, can be used incorrectly separately from the way as she pointed out in her article; IE: playing both sides as a spy.
    Whether religion or a fraternity, if you follow the laws rules & regulations of “the way” your life will benefit. Sometimes we do, what we have to do, to support dignity, and never give up. Not that we enjoy it, but it is just part of “the way”. True Martial artists are very well trained in many aspects of life, and are well balanced because they know “the way”. One example are the Japanese Police, who train even in ballet, as well, as Kendo .

    • Pip Stoneham Reply

      Policeman trained in ballet, how wonderful! Coming from a ballet dancer I can tell you the male dancers are very strong and dexterous, so this makes sense!
      I agree that some laws to live by, whether self imposed or expected of, brings a sense of direction to build a life around if the laws are true, just and understood by the follower.

  2. Pingback: When Samurai Went to War And Drank Green Tea – Tea Stories | Best Tea Blog | Still Steeping – The Teabox Blog

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