Memories of Okabayashi Sensei
by Robert Wolfe
Members of Itten Dojo have been blessed with opportunities to train with some of the most exceptional instructors in the world, and the late Okabayashi Shogen — founder of the Hakuho-ryu — had very deep impact on our dojo and influence on the individuals that met him. Okabayashi Sensei passed away in February, 2018. The final time we were able to train with him was in Detroit, in June, 2015. What follows are original reports of his visits to our dojo in 2000 and 2002.
On Monday, September 11th, 2000, the Itten Dojo was exceptionally honored to receive its first visit from Okabayashi Shogen, founder and chief instructor of the Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Hakuho Kai (which is based in Osaka, Japan). Okabayashi Sensei was accompanied by Ozeki Shigeyoshi and Robin Brown, branch chief instructors of the Hakuho Kai dojo in Fukuoka and New York City, respectively. Together they presented a fascinating and exhilarating introduction to some of the fundamental body mechanics and applications of the classical martial art of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu.
Okabayashi Sensei studied Daito-ryu under both Hisa Takuma and Takeda Tokimune, receiving from the former a kyoju-dairi and from the latter a shihan-level license, as well as a menkyo in Ono-ha Itto-ryu (Sokaku-den) kenjutsu. Believing that some modern branches of the Daito-ryu go astray by incorporating present-day body mechanics to ancient techniques, Okabayashi Sensei founded the Hakuho Kai in order to research and preserve the traditional forms of aikijujutsu.
The evening started with instruction in reishiki: the proper manners of standing, sitting, and bowing employed in the Hakuho Kai. Okabayashi Sensei’s requirements were very specific, and contributed greatly to many of the students looking like they knew what they were doing — at least for as long as they were sitting perfectly still...
As is typical with introductory-level seminars presented by Okabayashi Sensei or his senior students, the next topic was one of the hallmarks of the Hakuho Kai: bushi-no-hokoho (the body mechanics and method of walking that were employed by the bushi in ancient times). Unlike modern peoples, who walk with a swinging of the arms that places shoulders out-of-line with hips, the bushi were trained from the time of their first steps to walk with shoulders and hips in alignment vertically, allowing completely fluid movement and a sword to be drawn from any point in their gait. This manner of walking and avoidance of any “twisting” of the body has profound implications for technique. Okabayashi Sensei believes that adaptation of classical arts to modern body mechanics destroys a priceless heritage, and the Hakuho Kai is determined to preserve Daito-ryu in an unadulterated form.
From walking forward, we progressed to stepping backwards or to the sides, endeavoring to use gravity rather than muscle to initiate movement. To illustrate this principle, Okabayashi Sensei and Ozeki-san demonstrated a sword form involving a very quick attack from jodan, which is countered by shitachi dropping to his right-front corner and cutting uchitachi across the abdomen. The electricity which filled the air from the moment both men picked up bokken made this one of the most impressive exchanges of the evening.
Throughout the evening, Okabayashi Sensei taught us basic forms of movement that we practiced initially as drills, and then he demonstrated the applications of principles in specific techniques. We had, I think, 37 people training and several more watching, so the level of energy in the dojo was very high. Since the mat was pretty full, Okabayashi Sensei showed us ways of organizing the students such that all could practice safely while maintaining considerable intensity. The 2½ hour class just flew by, and all too soon it was time to bow-out.
After a round of photographs and an exchange of mementos, many of the students had an opportunity to speak with Okabayashi Sensei and Ozeki-san, and express their deep appreciation and indebtedness for what we had been shown. We also had a chance to chat with other notable persons in attendance: Chris Caille of FightingArts.com and Ozeki-san’s lovely wife, Mariko. Even though our guests faced a late-night, three-hour return drive to New York City, not to mention a flight back to Japan the next day, they seemed as reluctant as we were to leave the mat — everyone just wanted to savor the glow in the dojo.
This report is being written three days after the seminar, and the glow remains. Members of the dojo are still firing e-mail back and forth, discussing this technique or that drill, and a number of potential students have expressed serious interest in our Hakuho Kai study group (looks like James Mullins, the study group team leader, may have his hands full). Thank heavens for the monthly visits from Robin Brown — his guidance and active participation is making possible what would otherwise be an overwhelming endeavor.
Overall, I would have to mark this seminar as one of the most significant events in the eight-year history of our dojo, and I fervently hope we will be able to enjoy return visits during future seminar tours. To anyone considering attending a seminar with Okabayashi Sensei or his senior students I have only one thing to say: this is an unbelievable opportunity, absolutely not to be missed.
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On March 29 and 30, Okabayashi Shogen visited the Itten Dojo as part of his 2002 North America seminar tour. He was accompanied by Rod and Mitsuko Uhler, from Osaka, and by Robin Brown from New York City. Okabayashi Sensei, as founder and chief instructor of the Daito-ryu Hakuho Kai, stages these annual tours to increase public exposure to Daito-ryu and to develop and support the fledgling Hakuho Kai dojo on this continent. In a series of tightly structured and coordinated seminars, Okabayashi Sensei is laying a foundation upon which the North American Hakuho Kai instructor cadre is expected to build.
At the Friday evening session, Okabayashi Sensei presented three core attributes that distinguish the Hakuho Kai practice of Daito-ryu: proper movement (based on extensive, historical research into the ways the bushi were trained to walk and move); the use of gravity rather than muscular force in the application of techniques; and achievement of the synergistic effect that produces aiki (with attention to its predictable consequences in the opponent). Each of the three attributes was introduced with a brief lecture — in Japanese, with Rod Uhler translating — and then explored through a variety of drills and applied techniques.
When training resumed Saturday afternoon, Okabayashi Sensei led participants through several exercises that were highly meditative and might best be described as ways to develop awareness of and the ability to manipulate ki (life force). This section of the seminar was exceptionally difficult, and provided all students with startling insight to the degree of discipline and effort required to match the level of skill embodied in senior practitioners of classical martial arts.
Interestingly, Okabayashi Sensei also addressed the ki exercises in purely pragmatic terms, as a means to develop the ability to focus on more than one opponent simultaneously. For those who might doubt the existence of ki, or its relevance to technique, this twist provided ample motivation to undertake the demanding exercises. The next section of the seminar presented an overview of aiki-kempo, or striking techniques. These drills were practices primarily as solo exercises, but did crop up in some subsequent applications.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent on techniques from the Shoden, Chuden, and Okuden, chosen to illustrate that the core attributes addressed Friday evening remain consistent across all levels of training. Okabayashi Sensei was adamant in his assertion that unceasing focus on fundamentals is the only way to achieve skill in aikijujutsu. Prior to the Saturday session, a number of examinations were conducted, all with successful outcomes. Ron Trimnell, Mike Rozycki, and James Mullins (Itten Dojo Hakuho Kai study group) received kyu promotions of various degrees. In James’s case it was do-or-die, since the ikkyu exam was a gate he had to pass in preparation for his mid-April trip to Japan to test for shodan at the main dojo of the Hakuho Kai.
Out of town guests for the seminar included Medhat Darwish and two of his students from the Hakuho Kai dojo in Montreal; Hakuho Kai New York members Christopher Caile (webmaster of FightingArts.com) and Tara Fairbrother; Ron Tisdale, Julie Hamilton, and Jeff Cavenaugh from Philadelphia; Darryl Warren, William Hobbes, and Charles Fortier from Connecticut; and Amos Smith from Chicago. Dr. Mike Nickles also made it back from Long Island for the weekend.
As was the case with our first visit from Okabayashi Sensei, the seminar was a tremendous success in terms of both the content of the instruction presented and the enthusiasm with which it was received. Almost 40 people registered for one or both days, and there were more than two-dozen participants actually on the mat for each session. Everyone involved is looking forward with great anticipation to the next time we can train together.