Student Impression of Noble House Kenjutsu Dojo

I am a psychologist and therapist specializing in autism and severe behavioural disorders. In my work, I focus on methods that are based on research and proven to be effective. Perhaps because of this, I am very sceptical of the magic and mysticism that is sometimes associated with martial arts and I detest frauds, including those that are fooling themselves. I look for teachers who teach practical and effective techniques; who train safely and make students stronger rather than weaken them with injuries; and who behave with personal integrity in and out of the dojo. I have been with Noble House dojo since before sensei had any intention to accept students beyond a few of his friends from his workplace at the time. That was more than 20 years ago, but he was not my first martial arts teacher. After years of being fascinated by all martial arts, I started training seriously (karate and kung fu) in college in the mid 70’s. Later I had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of Patrick Augé (now the technical director the Yoseikan Budo International Federation for North America). He was an accomplished martial artist and a skilful educator. Moreover, Augé Sensei was also a practical man who insisted that techniques should work in reality, not just in the dojo. Yet he also insisted that practice should be relatively safe and injury-free. He demonstrated great integrity, never abused his students in any way, and insisted that his senior students not abuse anyone either. I trained and traveled with Augé Sensei 4-6 hours a day, 6 days a week as he went from community centre, to college, to university dojos until I eventually left for graduate school. He set a very high standard for what a teacher should be and will always be an inspiration to me. After a long break while I established a career, I started training again under the supervision of Kawahara Yukio Shihan (technical director of the Canadian Aikido Federation). We eventually became very close friends and I love him like a father. I grieve greatly for his passing. Like Augé Sensei, Kawahara Sensei was a very practical man with a very clear understanding of the difference between what works in actual combat; what may be useful as a training exercise; and what is nonsense or false. Though he rarely talked about it outside of his intimate circle, Kawahara Sensei was an avid student of history, especially anything to do with battleships and naval history in general; the Pacific war; ko-ryu; and traditional samurai life. He had experience with various styles of weapon and empty hand fighting styles and had done research in Japan and Taiwan before coming to Canada. So it was natural that I would seek Kawahara Sensei’s advice before really committing myself to training in a style of ken-jutsu. A person only has so much time and only one body to risk in practice and I did not want to waste either. Kawahara Sensei questioned me closely when I originally brought up the subject and gave me and a few other students approval to train at Noble House dojo. For many years he asked for regular updates, asked me to demonstrate what I was learning, and tested me while I practiced with him. The other students and I noticed that Kawahara Sensei and our ken-jutsu sensei often seemed to be teaching the same themes and emphasizing the same specific training principles as though they were collaborating in our instruction. Since both teachers had almost identical footwork, used the same postures, and knew many of the same basic kata, I felt sure that Kawahara Sensei had studied something similar in his youth. He always seemed very aware of what we were doing in ken-jutsu even before we told him, yet the two teachers were not speaking directly to each other at that time. Instead they each asked us to convey messages and questions to the other and we acted as go-betweens. Meanwhile Kawahara Sensei directed us to pay great attention to our ken-jutsu training, to take extensive notes, and to ensure that the art survived because it was too rare and valuable to lose. Later I moved away from Edmonton for a few years and wanted to open my own aikido school. Kawahara Sensei gave me permission to teach and was pleased that I would be teaching ken-jutsu as well. However he insisted that I make a very clear distinction between the principles and practice of ken-jutsu and aikido when teaching my students as he wanted the ken-jutsu to be preserved in as pure a form as possible. Every year Kawahara Sensei would visit me for 20 days and I would also spend most of the summer living at his dojo in Vernon. Though I was prepared to devote all my time to aikido during these visits, Kawahara Sensei insisted that my students and I continue our daily ken-jutsu practice and would often train with us. He was still very fast in those days.

I eventually moved back to Edmonton and resumed my previous duties in Noble House. Even as Kawahara Sensei became ill, he remained very interested in our progress in ken-jutsu. He visited us in Edmonton just so that we could train ken-jutsu together and met with our other sensei. The two of them spoke for a very long time and clearly had some unusual connections from back in Japan (which I cannot speak of here). Kawahara Sensei later said we were very lucky to have an authentic ken-jutsu teacher and that he wished he was younger so that he could be a student with us again. He dreamed that he might recover well enough so that we could play again together. But his body began to fail him more and more. Though he still talked about ken-jutsu with great interest and enthusiasm, Kawahara Sensei found it too frustrating to demonstrate anything but the most basic techniques. Instead a few weeks before his death, he asked if I and another student would teach some of the ken-jutsu kata he most enjoyed to his aikido students in Canada. When we arrived at his side just before the end, Kawahara Sensei’s first thought was to dictate a letter to our ken-jutsu sensei thanking him for everything. So after an endorsement from as great a man as Kawahara Sensei, what can I say about Noble House dojo? I am also limited by that fact that our ken-jutsu sensei is a very private man and prefers to tell his own story, and in person at that. So let me just say that Sensei is very particular about the physical and social environment of the dojo. He is also very particular about the manner and authenticity of training, while at the same time being obsessive about safety. In these matters Sensei refuses to compromise his standards despite inconvenience and considerable personal cost.

Sensei refuses any personal gifts and does not make any sort of financial profit from his students. One hundred percent of any money received for seminars and demonstrations are donated to charity as he believes a sword should never be drawn except for the good of the community. Sensei will not even accept a tax receipt for the donation. Meanwhile 100% of student fees go to defray the cost of facility rental and insurance, and each month Sensei pays the lion’s share of the expenses out of his own pocket. In short, he pays for the privilege of teaching us and preserving the art he learned from his own sensei.

With regard to social environment, Sensei expects us all to act as friends toward each other. There is no swearing in the dojo and people are expected to control their tempers at all times. Politeness and safety go hand in hand in a room filled with weapons. Though Sensei is a perfectionist about technique and is honestly critical when students perform badly, no one has ever been asked to leave the dojo because he or she is unskilled but rather because their rudeness, temper, or lack of respect of safety rules was not the type of behaviour one expects from a friend.

Though Sensei is a very strong-willed and determined individual, he is not trying to build a cult following. He always encourages others to think for themselves whether in the dojo or everyday life. He often leaves some matters to a vote even though he may not be able to convince us on those matters and so therefore loses the vote. Sensei encourages his students to train in other martial arts and to never take what he says at face value. He believes in the quality of his art and is confident the techniques handed down from the founder will prove their effectiveness in any test or experiment we may devise.

Finally, Sensei strongly discourages his students from making negative statements about other martial arts, teachers, or practitioners. He is especially careful about martial arts teachers who are dependent on their students to make a living and counsels us to “not break their rice bowl” by speaking badly of them. Similarly Sensei discourages us from defending our own art or dojo when others criticise us. In short, Sensei meets my demanding standards of a martial arts teacher and I am happy to work with him until either he or I choose to retire.

David