Phil Henderson, Experiences in Japan...


My master plan was to spend 2 months in Japan shortly after I had retired…  but how to go about it !

Initial queries with my sensei resulted in me contacting Sensei Fay Goodman (Nanadan Renshi) to organise my letter of introduction for the Genbukan dojo in Kobe…the dojo of the head of our Jikiden lineage… Oshita Sensei (Hachidan Kyoshi)

Finding a suitable 2 week escorted tour of the sights I wished to see in Japan involved some searching on the internet with Oxalis holidays “ Samurai and Shogun “ tour fitting the bill nicely.

So my tour date was fixed, my letter of introduction and training dates resolved, with flights arranged (and Air Emirates security informed about my sword !).

A suitable hotel booked over the Internet and then all systems go,  -  a shame about the plunging value of the pound against the Yen.

My departure date was 9th March, but the weekend before was the Masamune seminar in Birmingham, with Oshita Sensei in attendance. The seminar was a great success and I had the opportunity to speak with Oshita sensei about my visit….so with his telephone number in my diary and instructions to ring him on my arrival, I was all set to go ! 

After a long flight from Newcastle via Dubai eventually arrived in Kobe.

A bus journey into central Kobe arriving at the main Sannomiya station about 8.30pm…..luckily I had my clear instructions of how to get to my hotel (and had even looked at pictures on Google Earth) so relatively simple to get there….

After a couple of phone calls finally contacted Oshita Sensei and arranged to attend his Dojo on Saturday 14th at 9am for some training……

Three days to explore downtown Kobe. My guidebook had 2 pictures of Kobe, one a huge statue of a fish and the other the famous Port Tower….suffice to say I managed to find these 2 features as well as the Earthquake memorial Park (from the huge earthquake in 1995 which destroyed so much of this area and killed over 4 thousand people) These places were my first experience of Japan and made a big impact.

But Saturday came soon enough and I made my way on the number 92 bus to the dojo (thanks to Stuart Shirrif for his instructions) 

I was welcomed by Oshita Sensei waving me in cheerfully and telling me to relax….not very easy for me at that time, but over the next few weeks the dojo became my second home with many hours spent training.

Saturday was a full day training, along with 2 Japanese students, with a break for a Sushi lunch at Sensei’s home. Sunday followed on with an afternoons training with 2 other students and then I was given a key to the dojo…I could train throughout the week whenever I wanted…within reason ! so the routine began…weekday mornings up and off on the number 92 bus for at least one and a half hours practice….usually by myself, but occasionally Sensei would arrive and give me the benefit of his tuition….being taught by one of the greatest swordsman in Japan..amazing !

Evening sessions on a Monday at the Genbukan dojo, with a Thursday session at a nearby school run by Okumot sensei (one of Oshita sensei’s 7th dan students ) Friday night was a ride across town with Sensei and a visit to the University Dojo to train with the young enthusiastic students….  

One of the highlights of the first 2 weeks was a sunday morning meeting with another Oshita…Masatak Oshita a 7th dan in Shitoryu Shukokai Karate, as well as Oshita Sensei’s wife and Tula (a 3rd dan Finnish lady also visiting). With Mrs Oshita in charge we had a visit to the local Sake brewery followed by a lunch of Soba noodles and then off to the Oji sports centre to meet up with Oshita sensei. A big local seminar at the sports centre had sensei and students of many of Kobes dojos training together. Different schools of Iai, including Jikiden, Shinden and  Hoki Ryu et al with the Sensei teaching Seitei Iai…..So there was I in a group of six 6th Dans being taught Seitei by Oshita Sensei……another one off experience.

With the day of my organised tour fast approaching, I attended my last session at the Genbukan before staring my cultural bit of the visit…. A great training session with Seitei and Omori being covered.……a thumbs up for my training from Sensei was a very positive note to end on, and the  gift of a Dojo “furashiki” will always be a special reminder of my visit.

So 2 weeks down and 6 to go…my 2 week tour was now about to commence……

The bullet train from Kobe to Tokyo was a smooth journey at an amazing pace…… so smooth I fell asleep and missed seeing Mount Fuji !

But once in Tokyo the atmosphere was very different….a very busy city with tower blocks everywhere… no chance of finding my hotel….took the easy option and got a taxi. 

The next day had me venturing out into the big wide world… map suggested a shrine nearby, and I had no problem in finding the Tojiji shrine and yes the cherry blossoms had just started to flower !

A shame the weather was miserable with quite heavy rain-but after all, in the  Samurai films I have watched it always rains ! 

The Imperial Palace looked impressive from a distance even in the rain and my chance discovery of the “Japan Sword” shop was a real treat….as luck would have it the salesman talking to me was a 5th dan Jikiden, and gave me the full tour of the shop, including the upper floors where the really expensive antique swords and armour were stored….who needs a museum !

Later that day I met my tour guide Mari and the rest of the gang …..all four of them….Elizabeth and Yok Leng from Canada, Neil an American schoolboy on an exchange visit to a school in Osaka and his uncle Sanjay from India…a real International mix, but all speaking English.

The next two weeks were amazing, with wonderful experiences on a daily basis…..a walking tour of Tokyo including the Ginza district and finishing at the Meiji shrine was probably the longest day of all ……

We then ventured into the Japanese Alps and our first night was spent near the Onsen where the famous snow monkeys live…wild monkeys coming down to a natural hot spring…….just like a Natural history programme I had seen 2 weeks before I left England. Taking the natural hot Onsen myself at 7 in the morning was an interesting affair..especially as it was outside the Ryokan….luckily nobody else about …only signs of monkey poo near the water to suggest I should keep a watchful eye out for unwanted visitors. 

Over the next few days we toured the old Nakasendo trail…the old route from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) . A host of sights and experiences of old Japan.

Takayama and Shirkawa Go (a world heritage sight) were just two of the highlights….with shrines, temples and traditional food on a daily basis.

Moving onto Kyoto was another special few days…..and yes I did actually see (and photograph) a Geisha…..

The “Golden Pavilion “ temple was a classic guide book experience, but only one of about 2000 shrines/temples in Kyoto…so lots to do on my next visit !

A day out to Nara was bringing the tour close to it’s end….The Todai-ji temple did indeed look like the worlds largest wooden building, containing the worlds largest bronze Buddah….an amazing place even in the pouring rain (yet again!)

The tour came to a close all too quickly, with me leaving the group at Osaka and returning to Kobe on the afternoon of the 6th April, just in time to get sorted and off to the Genbukan dojo for training on the evening.

So another three and a half weeks left….lots of training with a few particular delights…..a number of one to one sessions with Oshita Sensei through the day….

Getting to know John Honistz Green from the dojo (ok from Scotland..but he could speak English !)…several interesting chats about swords and training whilst eating local delicacies…..

Thanks to John, a morning in Osaka at a sword exhibition/sale….with John giving me instruction on the quality of the various swords…so I can now appreciate those interesting marks in the steel of a blade !

Another trip to Kyoto was a must ….John had identified two temples I should see….my favourite being the “National Treasure” Sanjusangen-Do…..with 1000 standing statues of the Buddhist image of Kannon, this was an amazing sight…but no photos allowed inside the temple. That impressed was I, I bought the guide book. This is the temple where the annual Toh-shiya archery contest takes place, and is also near the site where in 1604 Miyamoto Musashi had his battle with the Yoshioka clan, and built his awesome reputation as Japans most famous swordsman.   

I decided a trip to Japan had to include a visit to Hiroshima, so another ride on the bullet train and another inspiring and very moving day ahead of me. It is difficult to describe what went through my mind, but it was impossible not to be moved by the Memorial Peace park in the city. The so called “Atomic Dome “ still standing as a reminder of how things had been on that fateful day in 1945.

Another must see was Himeji castle….a short train ride from Kobe and there it was…one of the most impressive castles still standing in Japan. Vast and, with perfect timing, surrounded by cherry blossom in full bloom. (another great photo opportunity)

Training progressed well. Daily sessions myself, trying to put into practice all that I had been taught by Sensei, were strengthened by regular sessions with the members of the dojo at the different sites in Kobe.

A particular challenge and thrill was the weekend away to the Uwajima taikai…an early start on the saturday morning saw me collected from the hotel by Oshita Sensei and then to the University where we met up with the rest of team Genbukan…onto the team bus and a 5 hour journey ahead. 

Training started at 1pm, and yes as I had expected amongst the three hundred competitors I was the only European……

I trained with over 30 Japanese 3rd Dans, under Morita Sensei (another friendly face after an introduction by Oshita Sensei) The session ended at 5pm, with a wonderful evening meal in a traditional restaurant with some of the Genbukan seniors.

Sunday was Taikai day……I had been shown which “court” I would be on, and I had my brochure indicating there were 32 of us in the 3rd dan competition. I was number 16…..   3 koryu and 2 Seitei were the order of the day….and ok I got knocked out in the first round, but I did get a flag, and the guy who beat me got to the final !

The really special bits were still to come…where else but Japan would I see almost 30 8th dans doing an Embu, not to mention the 9th dan doing a final embu on his own in the centre of the huge hall ! The demonstration of Tachi Uchi using swords was another highlight, and the day came to a close with the long drive back. The brochure with my name in it will be another treasured souvenir as well as the Tengui given to every participant.

But now into my final week…….another session of one to one with Sensei on the Tuesday morning…and a real treat…..a look at standing Oku forms…gave my knees a very welcome rest…fatigue, crock knees and a general lack of sleep were taking there toll........

A farewell meal on Wednesday with Sensei and Mrs Oshita as well as Mr Oshita and Pamela Parker (an American 6th dan just arrived for the Kyoto Taikai) provided a delightful end to my stay….some Sake from Mrs Oshita was appreciated the following week at the Darlington Dojo..a lot better than the stuff I buy from Tesco’s !

All in all an experience of a lifetime…amazing experiences, fantastic training and new friends.

In particular John……good conversations, good training and a new sword for me !so looking forward to meeting up in the next few months to keep my training going in the right direction and my enthusiasm bubbling nicely……..


Phil Henderson

4th Dan

Budokan Dojo.