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Traditional Japanese Martial Arts for Adults
SHU-GYO: A Japanese Rite of Passage

In October 2003, I was spending a beautiful, yet somewhat surreal, Thursday afternoon in Tokyo relaxing in the sun. I had been living in Japan for some time now and was preparing to test for my third degree black belt in the martial art of Aikido. I had been invited by my teacher or "sensei" to go to something called Ichikukai - a rite of passage of sorts that a select few Japanese men get to experience as they leave their primary education and prepare for the "real" world. Not being Japanese, I felt privileged to have been invited. A friend named Nobuyoshi Sasaki picked me up in his minivan and took me out for dinner. He treated me to katsukare, a deep fried pork curry dish. "Eat hardy," he said. "You'll need your strength this weekend at Ichikukai." 

I questioned Nobuyoshi about Ichikukai throughout dinner, but he was being noticeably vague and evasive in answering me. I wasn't sure if he was not supposed to tell more or if he was just screwing around with me.  He said that the name Ichikukai is made up of the characters for the numbers one, nine and the term "association," and thusly creating the phrase "19th association."  The organization was named such simply because it begins on the 19th day of each month. When translated into English, "19th Association" doesn't really sound menacing, but trust me, in Japan, this is a well known and in many respects a well-feared organization.  Of course, I didn't know why at the time.

Nobuyoshi is the son of Masando Sasaki, my sensei in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. Sasaki Sensei is also a well-known Shinto priest and in many respects, he could be considered the Japanese equivalent to Deepak Chopra.  Sasaki Sensei is now in his 80s and heads the Yamakage Shinto Kamifukuoka shrine in Fujiminou City, Saitama Prefecture. One day, Nobuyoshi will be expected to take over both his father's Shinto shrine and Aikido school. 

Upon finishing dinner, Nobuyoshi and I climbed back into the minivan and began our long drive to the Ichikukai "dojo" or training hall. Leaving the big city lights of Tokyo we headed west to the extremely rural parts of Tokyo.  During the drive I again attempted to get more information from Nobuyoshi about Ichikukai, but he just smiled and said, "Be patient." Eventually, we arrived at the Ichikukai dojo. It was essentially a two-story, barn-looking building about one hundred fify feet long by eighty feet wide.  Nestled in a rice field out in the middle of nowhere, the dojo was quite remote, and well isolated from civilization. 

It was now early Thursday evening. As Nobuyoshi and I walked through the front door of the Ichikukai dojo, I realized that my journey was about to begin and wouldn't end until Sunday afternoon.  Upon signing in, I was instructed to turn over all of my worldly possessions: watch, jewelry, wallet, everything, which were to be locked in a safe until Sunday afternoon. Somewhat reluctantly, I complied. Nobuyoshi and I followed the others to the main floor to observe a demonstration of what we were to experience.  Everyone who would be participating in the weekend training lined up along both sides of the hall decorated in traditional brown and white Japanese, "shoji" style screen doors. As I looked around, I noticed there were exactly twenty of us who would be staying for the weekend.  Mostly they were young Japanese men about age twenty and only one woman, also Japanese, closer to my age, which was thirty at the time. Some of the Japanese students were from the founding Hombu Aikido dojo (the dojo run by the founding family of the art of Aikido, which was different from the one I was training at with Sasaki Sensei).  There were also a few foreigners (not including myself). One gentleman was Israeli, the other German. We were seated according to age. The female seated to my right, since she was the oldest, and everyone else to my left. 

An oversized taiko drum suddenly let loose a low, reverberating boom commanding everyone's attention. We were then greeted by the head of Ichikukai and given a brief explanation of protocol.  Within a minute or so we found ourselves in the traditional kneeling position called "seiza" engaged in a rhythmic chant in unison to each other. "Toho Kami Emi Tame" we repeated over an over again for about 15 minutes straight.  The keepers and staff of the dojo, called "uchi-deshi," didn't seem terribly concerned that we knew what the words of the chant meant. I think they believed its significance would become apparent to us throughout the weekend.

The demonstration ended. "No big deal," I thought. We then said our good-byes to those who dropped us off. Nobuyoshi patted me on the back, a little harder than one might expect - I wasn't sure why he had done that. "See you Sunday," he said with a smile.  He left and the rest of us prepared for bed. We were given instructions that in the morning we were to roll up our "futon," or bedding, and prepare ourselves for the day by donning our standard Aikido martial arts uniforms.  However, instead of wearing the typical indigo bottom dress, called a "hakama," we were supplied with white hakama and white belts, regardless of our martial arts rank. White hakama are traditionally used for specialized, spiritual training. We were also told we would have just ten minutes to use the facilities, brush our teeth and be prepared. For what? We had no idea.  
“The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.”

 – Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of the martial art of Aikido

Although we finally turned in sometime past midnight, there was no way I could sleep. In addition to it being very cold, I had a strange combination of excitement and nervousness. It seemed as though I had just closed my eyes when the large taiko drum once again shook the entire dojo at precisely at 5am.  That very instant, two dozen of the uchi-deshi staff ran down the wooden hallway, threw open the shoji screen doors and burst into the room, shouting, stomping and rattling the entire dojo. They literally grabbed and pulled out of bed those slower to rise from their futons.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced although it did remind me a lot of a scene from the movie Full Metal Jacket where the drill sergeant woke up his soldiers by banging an empty metal trash can with a stick as he walked through the barracks. 

After our ten minutes to attend to physical morning necessities the uchi-deshi shouted, "Find your positions!" We quickly bowed into the formal training hall, knelt in seiza and once again found ourselves chanting "Toho Kami Emi Tame," just as we had the night before.  In each of the two front corners of the training hall was an uchi-deshi kneeling and shaking a handheld bell-like instrument called a "suzu." These two controlled the pace of the chanting.  We continued. After what I estimated to be about fifteen minutes (since there were no clocks and my watch was locked in a safe), I was already a bit tired, and to be honest a little bored.  I was looking forward to a break and to see what else we'd be doing all weekend. However, we didn't stop. Another 15 minutes went by... then another... then another.  Periodically, the tempo would change. Sometimes it was slow and steady other times the tempo sped up to a powerfully fast, almost euphoric pace. After about 90 minutes of kneeling and chanting with our eyes in the "mokusou" or three-quarter closed meditative position, I found myself sweating and somewhat hoarse in my throat. 

We finished the first session, returned to our makeshift bedroom and prepared for breakfast. I was handed a very small bowl of wheat and rice, two thin slices of "takuan" or pickled daikon and some warm water. I was hungry and not used to eating so little food. I longed for the deep fried pork curry I had enjoyed the night before with Nobuyoshi. Our break ended abruptly and we found ourselves right back in the main training hall in our kneeling positions and chanting the very same phrase, "Toho Kami Emi Tame."  The cycle repeated itself five more times that day with only periodic bathroom breaks or small meals. Nearly ten hours of chanting the same thing over and over again.  It was exhausting. And, it was still only Friday. I wondered, "What would be in store for us tomorrow?"

Saturday began exactly as the day before had. I was beginning to feel like actor, Bill Murray in the movie Ground Hog Day. My throat was sore, my knees were sore, but everything else proceeded exactly the same as it had on Friday.  Well, almost exactly. It took me a minute to figure it out. Twenty of us went to bed Friday night, but less than twenty woke up Saturday morning. No, no one had died.  Some people had left in the middle of the night! I hadn't even noticed. I guess I was far too tired to notice. I did wonder though, "How did they get home?" No one had cars or cell phones and the Ichikukai school was way too far out to walk back to civilization. Furthermore, I know they didn't have the opportunity to get back their wallets and other personal items. They must have walked for hours in the dark! I wondered, was it really that bad?

Within 10 minutes of the second day of chanting, each of us remaining was given a small "zabuton" or pillow to take some pressure off our knees. "Oh," I thought. "How nice of them. They aren't that bad."  Then one of the uchi-deshi, a Caucasian, formerly from the Belgian army, sat behind me and began slapping me with both hands, hard, on the back in rhythm with the bells and the chanting.   He growled, yelled and screamed for us all to chant louder, as an uchi-deshi began beating on the backs of each of us. I then realized why Nobuyoshi had slapped me so hard on my back when he left Thursday night.   It was a little joke of his. OK. I got it. Did I somehow not notice the backslapping during Thursday evening's demonstration or did they just happen to forget to include that part? 

The slapping went on for hours. On several occasions, the Belgian hit me so hard that he knocked me forward three feet. It hurt, it surprised me, but I still had to chuckle inside as I thought to myself, "This is going to be a long, long weekend."

The "training" (beatings, really) continued all day - nearly another ten hours worth of chanting and beating. Again, with only breaks for the bathroom and food and warm water to keep us hydrated.  During our meal breaks, the head of the Ichikukai would share with us the history of this eccentric form of training. A man named Yamaoka Tesshu developed this type of "kugyo," or rigorous, ascetic training in the early part of the 20 th century. Yamaoka was a famous swordsman and preservationist of the old ways of Japan. He had become increasingly concerned for the youth of Japan. He felt they were becoming terribly weak as Japan continued to Westernize. As such, he believed Japan's youth, needed an experience to toughen them up, so that they could build a strong society in adulthood.  Thusly, Ichikukai has earned a stern reputation and is often referred to as hell's dojo. It is often thought of as an equivalent to the US Army boot camp and is considered the most intense and rigorous training of its kind remaining in Japan. Today, it is both feared and respected. It is considered an honor to be invited to attend. Sasaki Sensei had felt it was appropriate for me to attend as a precursor to my san-dan test.

During these breaks, we also learned the meaning our chant, "Toho Kami Emi Tame." "Toho" describes the use of the sacred sword, a symbol of personal, inner strength. "Emi" implies a mirror for self-reflection, honesty, and an opportunity to look into our own soul.  "Tame" means a ball or sphere intended to symbolize eternal abundance of energy or spirit. These three symbols are of great significance within the Shinto tradition. 

Saturday's "training" continued as the day before had - more sweating, more chanting and more physical beatings. Then a small surprise. Someone slipped some honey into our water for lunch. A simple pleasure, especially since our vocal chords were completely raw from the chanting. In the context of our current circumstances, I couldn't believe how pleasurable and valuable this small gift was.  It helped sooth my vocal chords. They kept telling us that the chanting must come from our "hara" or naval center and not from our throats. Learning how to properly and efficiently expel air from our inner core, instead of from our throats may have even been part of the purpose of the training.  After all, how in the world do you create a sound without functional vocal chords? It was something primal, something innate - something profound I did not expect to discover within myself. Saturday ended much like Friday had except that instead of my throat and knees being sore, now my back was on fire from having been beaten all day long.  As I fell asleep that night (on my stomach, of course) I remember thinking to myself, "What in the world had I gotten myself into? And, I wonder if those who left in the middle of the night were somehow smarter than me?"

Exhausted, Sunday morning came all too quickly. We began once again with several sessions of chanting/beating. The uchi-deshi seemed to push us even harder.  They worked one of the larger, Japanese students exceptionally hard. At one point, the training became so intense that he passed out. In the late morning, my spirits were lifted greatly when I recognized familiar voices behind me.  It was Nobuyoshi and a half dozen other guys I trained with at Sasaki Sensei's dojo had come to "support" me. Sasaki Sensei was with them, also. Each took turns slapping me on the back giving the uchi-deshi a break. It was very much like the change of the guard at Arlington cemetery in Washington, DC.   However, my friends had a much better sense of timing than the Ichikukai uchi-deshi. My fellow Aikidoka (Aikido students) hit me on the back in such a way that it actually helped me expel air through my windpipe. When they hit me, I actually produced the sounds that were expected of me!  It was strange to realize that I actually enjoyed and benefited from having my friends beat me on the back. I know it may sound strange, but at that point it was a pleasure to have the assistance!

Around midday, each of us was individually whisked away to a separate room and underwent our own individual rite of passage - a private ceremony. I'd tell you what transpired during that time, but I'm afraid it is sacred and I am sworn to secrecy.   Some time later, I returned to the group and continued chanting. After everyone had completed the private ceremony, we had just one more session to complete.  

Everyone was excited to near the end of the kugyo training. We all tried harder to expel the sounds, as loud as we could muster. We chanted "Toho Kami Emi Tame" for a final 45 minutes, but this time we were each given a hand bell to ring in rhythm to our chant.  The combination of being exhausted, chanting harder and louder than ever and ringing the bell in time with one another created such a profound energy in the room that it really transcends an accurate written description.  The room was flooded with the sounds of chanting, slapping and ringing bells. Then suddenly... it was over. A final "norito" or prayer was made, our personal items were returned to us and then we were permitted to change back into our street clothes, straighten our rooms and prepare for "enkai," the post-training celebration.

As the oldest male, I was given the honor of addressing the group. With what little voice I had left, I thanked those who donated the food and refreshing "sake" or alcohol for our enkai in celebration of completing the training.  I also acknowledged my peers, our vastly different motivations for enduring the "training" and the commons bonds that were forged as a result of our shared experience. At that point we were all a motley-looking crew having changed back into our wrinkled street clothes and not having access to a shower, bath or shave for nearly four days. Nonetheless, I felt incredible. I had an unexpectedly large amount of energy, which didn't seem possible considering what we had all just gone through. 

Nobuyoshi drove me home to my wife. I wanted to tell her everything but, I was exhausted and could barely speak. My back was black and blue all the way from the base of my skull to my rear end. The combination of the rigorous training, lack of sleep, the diarrhea (I neglected to mention earlier) from the excessively salty foods and warm water caused me to lose I don't know how much weight. At home, I reveled in the simplest of pleasures: a good long bath, a nice, clean shave and a small home cooked meal. The littlest things seemed to bring me tremendous joy. I wasn't entirely sure what I had "learned" intellectually, but I was absolutely certain that my body and spirit had achieved something much more powerful than I could comprehend at the time. 

At Ichikukai I had been pushed way beyond what I thought was possible - enduring vastly greater degrees of pain, exhaustion, mental strain, and pressure than I ever had before.  One of the products of such an experience is that today, I feel much more compassion toward the suffering of others and had a greater desire to help others.  This has greatly influenced the way I teach martial arts. My wife has also noticed that I have become a much more compassionate person since attending Ichikukai.

I more deeply recognize not just that we all have strengths and weaknesses, but that often what we think are strengths are actually weaknesses; and what are often think are weakness are often strengths.  That it is not always the physical that gets you through many of life's tribulations, but the immaterial qualities and emotions that make us human. You can be exhausted, disoriented, have no voice, even have people endlessly beating upon you, and if you unearth an impenetrable essence contained within each of us, you can get through almost anything. This spiritual forging or "tanren" was the most valuable, most inspiring asset I took away from the experience; to find that no matter how much of yourself you give out you will always be refilled if you continue to put yourself out there in each and every life situation. Or, more simply put, the more you give, the more you get.

I'm not sure many non-Japanese would understand or find value in such rigorous training. Yet, the idea of having a hurdle, a threshold or some personal barrier that must be overcome, is something I value and attempt to reproduce at Castle Rock AIKIDO thousands of miles away from Ichikukai, in Castle Rock, Colorado. And, while I would never expect my students to go through Ichikukai (although I wouldn't discourage those who wanted to attend), I now look at how I might inspire in my students that same tanren that I discovered one very long weekend at that small barn-like building out in the middle of nowhere in Japan.