How My Journey Began

It was January 1980, a grey wintery dawn, and as the plane touched down at Narita Airport I knew that the next twelve months of my life would be nothing like the martial art training I had experienced back in Australia.  In my mind I envisaged a picturesque rural setting - maybe even with a Temple nearby - and a small number of solidly built practitioners practicing combat techniques on the soft brown earth... just like I had seen in the books. 

After being processed through Customs, I got on to a bus and headed for Tokyo.  It was a warm relaxing ride, and I immersed myself in watching the passing scenery. It seemed to be a constant string of small towns and rice fields… separated briefly by small steep tree-covered mountains.

As I left the bus station I took a short walk to the nearest underground railway station.  My first destination in Japan was to be a small Hotel in the centre of Tokyo.  My first impression of the city was that it was very Western, and very crowded.  I was aware that Tokyo had roughly the same population as the whole of Australia, but I couldn’t understand why they all seemed to be walking the streets on the same morning I arrived.  Culture shock started to set in.

Dealing with the hordes of commuters in the huge underground railway station was such a ridiculous affair that I actually found myself laughing in disbelief.  It was like a sea of people engaged in a short-step-shuffle.  Getting caught in it was like having no will of your own… I was literally swept along the main corridors of the station, quickly trying to read the English signs on the platform gates.

Eventually I boarded a crowded train, and hoped that the hundreds of Japanese commuters that just pushed me on were sure that this was the right train for me.

Being taller than everyone else, I checked the route-map on the wall.  Satisfying myself that I was indeed heading in the right direction, I relaxed and took stock of my situation.  As I looked around I felt sorry for the business man whose face was being pushed into my armpit.  I thought to myself that deodorant was definitely going to be an advantage in getting these people to accept me.

As the train pulled into the station I wanted, I began to make my way from the centre of the railway carriage towards the door. It quickly became obvious to me that this move must be planned for well in advance.  As I tried to get to the door, the sudden influx of even more commuters, made getting off the train somewhat like a salmon swimming up a waterfall.

I finally got off though... but it was three stations down the line. I panicked a little at first, but then I caught another train going in the opposite direction. This time I stood near the door, held on tightly, and tensed my body against the influx of people who got on and off at each station.  

I eventually found my Hotel, then spent most of the day walking around and looking at the sights. In the afternoon I telephoned Nagato Sensei, who was a senior student of Grandmaster Hatsumi. I had been writing to Nagato Sensei for about twelve months, and he had a good basic grasp of American-English.  When I told him where I was staying, he said that he would meet me there in the early evening, and we would go straight to my first class.

Although I didn't know what Nagato Sensei looked like, when I saw him come through the door, somehow I knew it was him.  He was a big man, and he walked with a relaxed confidence. Our eyes met, and he walked straight over to where I was sitting.  He looked around the foyer and said "Well you'll enjoy staying here for a year.. very nice."

I was dumb-founded. I couldn't afford to live in a Hotel in the centre of Tokyo for a year.  I couldn't afford staying there for a week.  But being brazen and somewhat naive, I said to him "I thought that I might be able to stay with some ninjutsu students for a while... or maybe live with you."  He looked at me with a wry smile, paused thoughtfully, then said "OK let's go".

It was later that I discovered that he was living in a house outside of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, and although my request was impudent by Japanese standards, he thought I would be able to help him with the rent.  Fate had smiled upon me.

Carrying my backpack, I followed him along the streets.  He didn't ask me any questions, and I wasn’t sure what to ask… so there was no talking.

We walked to an underground train station, caught a series of trains, then walked some more.

Eventually we arrived at the Mita Sports Centre, somewhere in Tokyo.  At the entrance he greeted a few students who were obviously waiting for him.  He explained to them that I had come from Australia to learn Ninjutsu, and they each looked at me and bowed politely.

We all paid our entrance fee, and walked up the stairs to the changing rooms. A few more students were already there, chatting amongst themselves.  We got changed into our uniforms, then everyone paid Nagato Sensei their fee for the class, and we walked into the training area.

It was a huge area covered in green tatami mats.  There seemed to be several small martial art groups already training. There were a couple of Karate groups, a couple of Jujitsu groups, an Aikido group, and a Kempo Instructor who was giving a student a private lesson.

We walked to the corner of the room where two more students were already doing a warm-up stretch. One of them was a young man from South America.  I said "Hello", and he introduced himself.  He spoke English and a bit of Japanese, and told me that he had come to Japan to study a few different artforms.

After a while, Nagato signaled for our group to kneel in ranks. Everyone clapped their hands, said a Japanese Prayer, and bowed in a formal greeting.

Then we did five block-and-strike techniques to warm-up. Compared to my past martial art training, they seemed to be very risky defences.  It was several years later that I discovered that they were actually just exercises in basic blocking, striking and kicking.

What followed next was rolling. Nagato Sensei took me aside and said "Watch". He did a forward shoulder roll, then said "Now you." I did my best, but speared my shoulder into the floor. Nagato Sensei just looked at me and said "Not like that", then walked away. I wasn't be able to roll comfortably again for several weeks.

The class soon progressed on through a series of unarmed combat patterns. Sometimes there were brief explanations in Japanese… but no translation into English for the two foreigners.

After about an hour, Nagato Sensei instructed the group to get their Hanbo (half-staff), and he led us through a few defences against grabs and strikes. Again, there were brief explanations in Japanese, but no translations in English.

Finally the class drew to a close, and Nagato signaled for our group to kneel in ranks once again. He spoke to the group in Japanese for about ten minutes, then everyone clapped their hands, said the same Japanese Prayer again, and bowed to Nagato Sensei in a formal thank you.

As everyone got to their feet, I approached Nagato Sensei and asked him what he had spoken about.  In response he asked if I had brought any books on Ninjutsu with me... I said I did... and he said "Just read those."

Outside the Sports Centre there were polite goodbyes.  However two students stayed behind, and together we all walked to a nearby Noodle Stand for a hot supper.  Nagato talked with the students in Japanese, and I quietly ate my noodles and took in the atmosphere.

After about half an hour, everyone went there separate ways, and Nagato Sensei and I took a series of trains to his house in Saitama Prefecture.

The next morning I awoke to a cold clear day, and  wondered what sort of training I would experience... basic techniques, or traditional body conditioning?

After a breakfast of Miso-paste soup, Nagato Sensei showed me his collection of Soldier of Fortune magazines, and highlighted an article about a mercenary that he had known.  His name was Micheal Echanis, and he was an Hapkido black belt who had written books on his expression of the art for military personnel.

Echanis thought that Nagato Sensei would make a good mercenary, and invited him to undergo training in modern weapons, then join him on a mission. Nagato Sensei thought about it, but politely declined.  A few months later Echanis died in a helicopter crash during that mission.

After that story, Nagato Sensei left me to sit in front of the heater and read the magazines. He disappeared upstairs to study for his Diploma in Bone Setting.

In the afternoon we walked to the Supermarket to buy some Dolphin meat for dinner. And after that, Nagato Sensei wanted to play some chess.

Later in the evening he took me to meet a couple of his friends who wanted to practice their English conversation on me. Then it was back home and into my sleeping bag. The traditional martial arts training routine that I expected never actually eventuated.

The next ninjutsu class I experienced was a few nights later.  It was at an old Aikido Dojo, somewhere in the suburbs of Tokyo There were only about eight students who attended that class, and the training schedule was the same as I had experienced at the Mita Sports Centre.

That was my schedule for the next six weeks... until I moved out into my own apartment. I attended two ninjutsu classes each week, and during the day I practiced what I could remember, read my books, went shopping for groceries, played chess, and occasionally spoke English with Nagato Sensei's friends.

I did try to ask Nagato Sensei lots of questions while I lived with him, but I ended up being reprimanded for asking too many questions.

Naively, I expected that a Master would be knowledgeable in every aspect of the art's history... combat, stealth, weapons, poisons etc.  But I soon came to understand that practitioners (even Masters) were prompted by Grandmaster Hatsumi to just study whatever subjects interested them.  Consequently, my constant questions to Nagato Sensei often embarrassed him, because he didn't always have the answers.

That was my first big lesson in the Japanese student-teacher relationship : Don’t ask too many questions… if the Teacher has something he wants you to know, then he’ll tell you.  

After a month or so I started looking for a job to help finance my stay.  Through an ad in a newspaper for foreigners I got an interview with a small steel-cutting company.  They specialised in manufacturing oil-drilling pipes and machinery, and were trying to branch out into the markets in Singapore and Texas.  They needed someone who could design a comprehensive new business brochure, communicate with companies in Singapore and Texas, and also teach their company directors some conversational-English.

Well I got the job, and the first thing the company did was help me find a small apartment (in Tokyo) just a few train stops away from the office.

The day came when I had to leave Nagato Sensei's house and as I put my backpack on hsaid that he would come to the train station with me.  But instead of walking, he slowly rode his bicycle about ten feet in front of me.  This made it a bit hard to ask a very important question: how to say in Japanese "Excuse me, is this the train to Tokyo?" 

At the station we said our goodbyes, and I thanked him very much for the opportunity to live with him for a while.  Although I hadn't learnt any of the things I thought I would, I did learn something about the Japanese student-teacher relationship... and also how to make Nagato Sensei's favourite soup.

After a series of train rides, I eventually found my way to the office... and the President of the company then drove me to my apartment.  Once we arrived, he visited the other tenants in the block, introduced himself, apologetically told them that a foreigner was moving in (?)… then gave each person a gift of sweets.  was overwhelmed by his support and generosity... but little did I know that I was now a 'company man'... in a way, the company owned me.

During the next ten months I gained some very interesting insights into the structure of Japanese business.  I worked in a suit and tie, and was given a desk in the Director's office.  Like the other employees I never got paid for working overtime, and I did whatever jobs  were necessary… even unloading machine parts from trucks. I was expected to attend meetings with other Japanese companies so that I could be shown-off, and also learn about the structure of Japanese industry. I also attended Hostess Bars when the company entertained executives at night. And I even had to chauffer the President around on a regular basis. 

Apparently it was somewhat of a status symbol to have a westerner working for the company.  My presence highlighted the fact that they were now doing business 'overseas'... and the President often delighted in getting me to say a few words in Japanese for the amusement of executives from other Japanese companies.

Although this was a little demeaning at times, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit the many small factories that under-pin Japanese industry, and I especially enjoyed seeing the huge robot factories that operate 24 hours a day.  

Overall, the job was a low paid, but very educational experience. I even went on the company's annual one-week vacation with the President, his wife, the Directors, and all the other office staff.  For me, that was a very strange concept. 

During this time I continued to attend Nagato Sensei's classes every week... and the structure was always the same.  All the students would arrive early and stretch. Then everyone would kneel in ranks for the opening ceremony.  We would do the five block-and-strike, followed by rolling techniques.  Then Nagato Sensei would take us through a series of traditional unarmed combat patterns and variations... and we would finish with some Hanbo techniques against unarmed or knife attacks.

As the months passed, I wondered when the real ninjutsu training would start... the exotic weapons… the stealth… the survival techniques?  But it never happened. 

The only experience that came close was one night after class.  Someone must have asked Nagato Sensei how to throw shuriken properly.   He produced a deck of cards and demonstrated the proper way to throw.  Then everyone was given a few cards each, and started throwing them across the room.  That was the only lesson in shuriken that I received while I was in Japan.

When I thought about it later, I realised that there wasn't really anywhere that modern-day practitioners could practice exotic weapons, or study things like stealth and rope traversing.  Japan was a small overly populated country where having a garden was considered a luxury.  And it was then that I understood why Nagato Sensei had told me to read my books on Ninjutsu... they often included photographs and information on those traditional subjects. So I continued attending classes, practiced at home, and read my books.  

Then one night Nagato Sensei told me that we were all expected to travel to Noda on the weekend to meet with Hatsumi  Sensei.  I wasn't told why we were going... I was simply told to meet him and the other students at a particular train station.

So on the appointed day we met quite early, and took a train out to Noda City in Chiba Prefecture. I followed Nagato Sensei as we walked through the narrow streets to a house that was full of ninjutsu practitioners... including quite a few Western faces. 

At the time I didn't realise that a foreigner could travel directly to Noda City and train with the Grandmaster and the handful of other Masters who lived in the area. Nagato Sensei had never mentioned the possibility to me.

However, after talking to the Western practitioners for a while, I discovered that only one or two of them had jobs (teaching English), and the others who were living there could only afford to stay for a few weeks at a time.  Because jobs for foreigners were scarce in Noda, and I had written in my letters that I intended to stay in Japan for a year, I had been directed to attend Nagato Sensei's classes in Tokyo.

After a while of talking and getting to know each other, we were suddenly told that the kyu-grade practitioners (Japanese and western) were to assemble in a room for a talk from the Grandmaster.  We quickly moved into an adjoining room, and the Grandmaster began his talk, which unfortunately was all in Japanese.  Like the other westerners, I just patiently sat there while the Japanese practitioners listened intently. 

When the Grandmaster's talk was over, everyone bowed and left the room.  I talked a little more with the other Westerners, but all too soon Nagato Sensei told me that it was time to go.

That was my one-and-only exposure to Grandmaster Hatsumi during my first visit to Japan. However I did make some contacts that would be helpful when I returned to Noda in the years to follow.

Back in Tokyo my training continued as usual.  But towards the end of the year I arrived one night to see a new face in the group.  His name was Robert Bussey, and during the next ten years he would become known as America's "King of Combat." 

Robert (Bob) was from a town called Fremont, which was just outside of Omaha Nebraska.  He had been a professional martial arts Instructor there for many years, and his trip to Japan was his second visit.  Like me, he had been directed to study under Nagato Sensei.

Bob and I quickly became friends, and when it came time for him to leave Japan, he invited me to visit him in America.  Because the laws were different there, and Fremont was a town surrounded by woodlands, he was able to study a range of skills that included:

• stealth and camouflage

• water stealth techniques

• rope traversing

• traditional weapons such as shuriken (throwing stars), kyogetsu shoge (hooked-knife and ring), kusari gama (sickle with weighted-chain), tekagi (hand-claws), blow-gun, and throwing nets

• and also contemporary weapons such as handguns and automatic weapons.

Not surprisingly I found Bob's invitation to be very attractive, and there and then I decided that my next trip overseas was going to be to America.   END  

 

 
Copyright 1981-2008 © Wayne L. Roy.
All rights reserved.