Or, in other words, earning your stripes.
When I was 17, I was about to begin my senior year of high school. I had a fantastic junior year: I had studied bujutsu for 4 years now, had 2 varsity and one junior varsity letters on the swim team (swimmer and as a manager), and had really good friends. Life was very good.
In August of 1986, my father broke the news to us. He had been transferred by his company to metro - Atlanta, Georgia, and we would be leaving in a few weeks.
My world came crashing down. I had to say goodbye to all my friends, Sensei Koga, his wife, and his other students. (No, I was never alone throughout my training. And, yes, most of the students were Japanese.)
Everyone took this news extremely hard, but life doesn’t stop for anyone. And, I believe God has a plan, for His purpose, even though we don’t see it through the pain.
Sensei Koga’s last words to me were, “Always be ready for today.” Unfortunately, these were words I would soon forget.
We left Chicago, during the last week of August, and headed South. Loneliness, despair, and depression all encompassed me during my senior year at my new high school. I didn’t make many friends and life was generally miserable.
Fast forward to March, 1988. I’m a freshmen at Kennesaw College, as it was known at that time. I generally took classes in the morning and was home by 2. Unbeknownst to my family, I receive a call from Sensei Koga to meet him at the Sheraton – Atlanta Airport – Hotel. He gave me a date, time, and room. I was to come with my workout clothes on.
This lone event was a glimmer of light in my mundane life. I began training again as the meeting would be in two weeks on a Tuesday at 9 am. Forget school – this came first. WRONG! I may write about this later…
When I arrived at the hotel, I asked the counter attendant for directions to the room. My heart was beating rapidly as I briskly walked to what was a large, empty meeting room. As I opened the door, Sensei Koga, his wife, and five students greeted me. Imagine my surprise! I felt like I was dreaming.
After a few minutes of playing catch-up, Sensei Koga told his other students to get dressed. I was a little puzzled by this, but not worried. Sensei, dressed in his gi with hakama, took a seiza near the left-side of the room facing across. As the students walked in, they too were wearing gis with hakamas. They took their seiza positions on Sensei’s left side.
“What a great day for a workout.”, I thought. I sat seiza on the opposite corner of Sensei, facing the front of the room. This is custom for a student in jujutsu and Aikido circles. One never sits next to Sensei unless invited.
“Are you ready for today?”, Sensei asked me. My stomach began to churn as I feebly answered, “Yes.”
“Good. Let’s begin.”, he said with a gleaming smile. He seemed more confident in me than I did with myself. I was a fish out of water. I was gonna get the snot kicked out of me.
Sensei motioned for me to sit seiza in the middle of the room. He then motioned two students to attack (uke). As they approached at full speed, I managed to stand, and took one by his arm and throw him into the other. As they rolled, I turned around to see Sensei motioning the other three to attack.
The cobwebs were quickly removed as I took the hand of the first, twisted it back (Sankyo) and used him as a shield from the others. This worked until someone grabbed the back of my neck. I let go, of the previous attacker, and turned opposite the direction of the grab (to my left). When I did this, the attacker was left wide open as I grabbed the side of neck and threw him forward.
Two others came at me and managed to grab my wrists. I inverted mine, put pressure on their forearms, which sent both attackers to the floor. Another came at me with front and round-house kicks. As he got close enough, I blocked one of the kicks, pushing it sideways and grabbed his ankle, flipping him for a break-fall.
One more attack came as he was swinging his fists, at my face, a la boxing style. I sidestepped, and performed a technique similar to an iriminage (or clothes-line for you wrestling fans). The force caused the attacker to break-fall.
“Enough!”, Sensei exclaimed causing all of us to stop. By now I, and my fellow students, were profusely sweating and breathing hard. He gave us a five minute water break.
As I returned to seiza, Sensei came over to me with a bokken sword (wooden katana sword). He handed it to me with instructions to defend myself. If you study bujutsu long enough, the techniques with the bokken are very similar to the aforementioned jujutsu techniques. This time, however, Sensei would be the attacker.
The motions of the sword are an extension of the body and are very fluid. There are no sudden, quirky movements. Besides, with a katana blade, it only takes one slice and you’re dead. Thank goodness for wooden swords.
Our movements together resembled that of a well choreographed dance, but with swords. The cutting was met with a clash and clash met with a technique. Twice Sensei almost had me in a break-fall, only for me to step out of it. After a few minutes, he came down with the sword, from atop his head. I entered into his movement, avoided his cut, and cut him in the lower-belly.
Sensei smiled and gave me the biggest hug. “You earned this shodan.” Sensei then presented me with a black belt and gi. (The presentation was very traditional.) To me, it was a symbol of honor, courage, and a reward for hard work.
This day will be forever in my memory. From that day on, I was to never see Sensei Koga again. Two years after my exam, IBM moved Mr. and Mrs. Koga back to Japan.
For those keeping an interest in this story, the actual style I studied under the umbrella, ‘bujutsu’, is called, “daito ryu jujutsu”. You can find more about it, here.
Part 5: A Ronin Finds a Home
Side Note: Many of the terms I used are from Aikido, not Daito ryu. I will explain this later.