On May 1st, 2007, I walked into the No. 2 Arena of the Tempaku Sports Center, in Nagoya, Japan. An elder gentlemen in a kendo-gi and hakama noticed me, politely smiled, bowed, and indicated the spectator seating with his hand. I sat down and observed Mr. Yagyu Koichi and another gentleman practice Sangaku En-no-Tachi, the quintessential form of (Yagyu) Shinkage Ryu. It was my first time to see Shinkage Ryu kata, and it was absolutely unlike anything I was expecting. I was especially impressed when the elder gentleman who greeted me practiced with Yagyu Sensei. Their zanshin, their intensity was amazing. They seemed ready to strike at any time. I was hooked, and after talking Yagyu Sensei and a few other long time practitioners, I resolved to join the Yagyukai, intending to attend the next practice on the 6th.
That practice never happened. On May 4th, 2007, Yagyu Nobuharu, the 21st soke of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, passed away. I have the dubious distinction of being the first deshi after his death.
It didn’t have to be that way.
From late April 1999 to early October 2000, I lived in Tokyo. Specifically, I lived in Ikebukuro and Takasago and worked in Shinjuku, all between 4 and 40 minutes from where the Yagyukai practice. Had I known that Yagyu Shinkage Ryu was still being practiced in Japan, mere minutes away, I probably would have joined. And perhaps my life would have turned out much different, as I probably wouldn’t have left Tokyo.
That wasn’t my only missed opportunity. In June of 2005, I came back to Japan to work in Toyota City, in Aichi Prefecture, about 40 minutes from Nagoya. I first became aware of the Yagyukai (and the fact that Shinkage Ryu was still a living art) in late 2005/early 2006. I considered joining, but decided to wait. My work schedule would only allow me to attend practice 4 times a month. I had only a few years experience in aikido, 10 years previous. Everything I read on Meik and Dianne Skoss’s excellent Koryu.com site persuaded me to wait. As I understood it, koryu bujutsu are not just for anyone. They require commitment, and time, and dedication. I had no letter of introduction or recommendation, no rank in any art to establish my ability to commit, and my schedule only allowed me to attend practice four times a month. I thought that there was no way I’d be accepted into the ryu. I figured I’d join after I’d gotten shodan in aikido, and found a job with a more amenable schedule.
In actuality, I needed no letter of introduction or recommendation, and no rank. The Yagyukai accepts all comers. Indeed, not even my time constraints would have been an issue. A few college students can only come to keiko during school breaks. It would have been a short time — Nobuharu-sensei first went into the hospital in early 2007 — but it would have been an opportunity to meet and learn from him.
At the Atsuta Jingu Embukai in October, I mentioned all this to a friendly sempai, how I wished I had joined earlier. My sempai‘s response was simply, “いいんじゃない？縁だから。” (“Don’t worry about it. It’s a matter of en.”)
En 縁 can be translated here as “fate” or “destiny”, but let me try to share the nuance. En accounts for all those events beyond your control that lead to something. You start chatting up an attractive lady in a bar, and later start seeing each other seriously, that’s in 因, the result of your direct actions. The fact that your two buddies just happened to be in town that day and in that bar, and decided to call you up and invite you out, that’s en — the indirect forces leading you into certain situations.
En also carries a nuance of connection. Your relationships with your family and your best friends are considered en. Another word for marriage is enmusubi 縁結び, the tying of en. The Japanese idiom for soul mates is akai ito — “red thread”. Two people connected at the wrist by an invisible, indestructible red string, pulling them together no matter what the distance. The red thread is a kind of en.
Shinkage Ryu has been a revelation to me. It’s like I found the very thing I was looking for, and yet I didn’t even realize I was looking for it until I found it. But an indirect chain of events and consequences led me here. Without those, I likely never would have been looking for Shinkage Ryu. Perhaps, had I joined in 1999, I would have been singularly unsatisfied, and left anyway. In some future entries, I’d like to discuss some of the outward manifestations of the en that brought me to this thing that fulfills me in a way aikido never did. No, I never had the opportunity to meet Yagyu Nobuharu-sensei, and that’s still to my regret. But perhaps, in the words of Negro League great Buck O’Neil, “I was right on time.”