105. Traditions in a Traditional Art


A New Year decoration in the tokonoma of a tea room, including a woven lobster, pounded sheet of dried abalone, persimmons on a stick, pickled cherry, kep, charcoal, citrus, uncooked rice, and fern leaves, all symbolizing themes and concepts for that particular tea group.


One of the characteristics of traditional martial systems, in particular the koryu of Japan, is the emphasis on traditions. That would be almost without saying. After all, “koryu” means “old style,” so quite naturally the older martial systems retain not only martial techniques from the past, but surrounding traditions, concepts and mental concepts from the past.

Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a very big plus or a very large negative. An aficionado of very modern eclectic martial practices might look at all the surrounding traditions as useless relics of a dead past, of little practical use for modern applications. Lest I sound harsh in my depiction of such an attitude, I can understand it, if your main purpose in studying martial arts were for ringed sports competition or pure “self-defense.” It can also put a damper on enrolling new students if you told them to give up the form-hugging Spandex tights, surrounding mirrors and New Age mumbo-jumbo in lieu of the boring discipline of white keikogi and the silence of a dojo without sound system blaring out the latest Euro-techno pop music.

Most martial arts “studios” in America run somewhere in between the two extremes of strict traditionalism and Spandex and tights modernized fight club (or exercise spa). For such studios,  I would like to offer a nudge in the direction of tradition. Or, at the very least, give them something to consider, which might set them apart and offer something different from every other studio that offers cardio kickboxing, kiddie ninja classes, MMA, karate and “jujitsu” classes around the clock.

For me, what attracted me to the koryu was the entire package, wrapped around tradition. I had gone through several more modern systems, such as judo, karatedo and aikido, with side trips to other systems of Japanese and Chinese origins. Technically and sportively, they all had something to offer, given their strengths and limitations. What I found, however, beguiling in the koryu were the traditions. I had developed a reasonable dexterity in athleticism in those arts, and a certain amount of knowledge conceding the “self-defense” aspects. I enjoyed the training and conditioning. Yet, what I found more compelling was the deepness of the traditions in the koryu. That’s just me, so if you still enjoy a modern shinbudo form, hey, that’s great. Whatever rocks your boat.

And, over the years, I’ve come to a relaxed conclusion that traditions can be found within oneself, if you look hard enough, and within your own respect for the lessons of the past. Within different koryu groups, too, there are different levels of adherence to tradition. By the word “tradition,” I mean not only the forms, the practice and the regime, but also the surrounding events, ceremonies and rituals.

I’ve practiced with a koryu group that really didn’t stand much on traditions outside a very, very traditional practice environment. You practice, you go home. That’s about all that was demanded of you. It was indicative, perhaps, of the attitude of the main teacher. In addition, it seems the more a koryu becomes “modernized,” forming organizations, board of directors, and governing agencies, etc., the less it becomes like a familial, clannish and coherent cadre. So idiosyncratic traditions are cast by the wayside.

It has been my very good luck, however, to have ended up in a couple of groups that have kept surrounding traditions alive. What I find is that by keeping such traditions vibrant, they help to create a sense of group unity that enhances the training and the longevity of student participation.

At this time of the year, my thoughts turn to the traditions of the Japanese New Year, celebrated in general by Japanese society and also in particular by traditional koryu dojo. Perhaps some of the traditions can be celebrated and become part of your own dojo?

In Japan, New Year’s is one of the biggest holiday festivals of the year. The end of the old and start of a new life is not just cause for celebration and partying, but also for self-reflection, family get-togethers, and treks to temples and shrines for blessings.

A koryu dojo will close its doors to allow its members time to attend to family, work and friends’ parties. The bonenkai is a characteristic of Japanese organizations. It’s usually a dinner or luncheon party where you get together, ostensibly to remember the past year and wish each other luck, prosperity and happiness for the coming year. You can have bonenkai for work, for a club, for, yes, your dojo. And why not have a bonenkai, as it will fit right into the party atmosphere anyway that we Americans have for the New Year’s?

Other traditions from Japanese culture may be more esoteric, but they can be fun, and can also lend a sense of how even modern traditions, like aikido, can be embedded as part of Japanese cultural practices that can be shared and nurtured outside of Japan.

For example, on New Year’s Eve, traditional families would visit a Buddhist temple to pray, and to wash away the ills and troubles of the old year. When I lived in Japan, friends and I visited Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto at midnight and it was as busy and crowded as a Tokyo subway. Visitors crowded the sub-temples of the sprawling religious complex to receive blessings from Buddhist priests chanting sutra. We climbed up a rickety ladder to get a chance at ringing a temple bell, the sound of the bell and our offered prayers were supposed to wash away the 108 ills of our body and mind that had accumulated over the past year. The ringing of the bells on the last night of the year is called Joya No Kane.

Early New Year’s morning meant a visit to a Shinto shrine, called Hatsumode. We went to Kamigamo shrine in northern Kyoto and then braved the crowds at Yasaka shrine in the downtown district. Again, as in our visit to Daitokuji, the crowds were as tight as sardines in a can with visitors seeking blessings for the New Year. We washed our hands and rinsed our mouths with water drawn from a spring, to symbolize purifying our inner and outer selves. (Speaking of which, I’m drawn to some similarities in practice between, of all things, Shinto, early Christian and older Jewish traditions. Certainly some of the symbolism, such as water to purify (baptize) may be universal, common denominators. But some other particular symbolisms and traditions are very odd, and very strange indeed that they are quite similar. But I digress…) Then we entered the inner shrine area and cast coins into an offering box to ring the bells and receive our blessings (again) for the New Year’s.

There are other family and folk traditions that are also observed by traditional families and institutions.

At the entrance to a house or business, a kadomatsu is placed. This is a decoration made of aodake (green bamboo, to signify resilience), matsu (pine, for evergreen, or long life), and branches of cherry (sakura; for beauty). Together, this triad creates the triad of sho-chiku-bai (pine-bamboo-cherry) that is a sign of auspiciousness of the highest order. As far as folk tradition researchers can discern, the kadomatsu arose from folk beliefs that the pine and bamboo arranged near the entranceway was meant to channel the spirit of the New Year’s spirit to enter the house and bless the household members. Different prefectures and villages in Japan had their own versions of the kadomatsu (literally, “Gate-pine”), so if you can’t make it out of green bamboo or can’t find a nice pine branch, that’s quite alright. Traditions change from era to era, geographic location to location.

In Hawaii, the early Japanese immigrants couldn’t find green bamboo or the bountiful pine of their native country. My parents’ generation therefore used the branches of the ironwood tree, since they resembled pine needles, and tied them with rope to the front porch of their wooden plantation houses. A few decades ago, a crafts education group that I was working with decided to revive the kadomatsu using the atypical three-bamboo style. Three pieces of bamboo of varying heights, cut at the top at an angle, were lashed together with rope, then Norfolk pine (imported from the US Mainland) were inserted at the base, along with noshi (cut white paper). An assembly process was developed so the kadomatsu could be sold en masse as a fundraiser for the group. It proved to be hugely successful as local Japanese Americans, and then nearly every other ethnic group and all sorts of large and small businesses, latched on to this as a fun tradition for the New Year’s, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. Pretty soon, all sorts of groups were making kadomatsu as a fundraiser, including Boy Scout troupes, private Christian schools and Christian churches. You never know where a tradition will take you.

Oddly, as the tradition grew, self-styled kadomatsu “experts” originally trained by the original crafts group, emerged, to teach people the “right” way to make a three-bamboo style kadomatsu. Friends from the group and I laugh at this development, because our own research led us to discover that there is no “right” way to make a kadomatsu; every location in Japan had their own symbolism, their own style.

So if you can’t make your kadomatsu quite like what you see in examples online, that’s quite alright. As long as you get the right symbolism, that’s quite alright. After all, the original Japanese immigrants used branches from the ironwood tree, which isn’t really a pine. That was all they had, so they altered tradition to fit their environment. You can place a kadomatsu on the side of your own dojo front entrance, if you have a permanent location. Or, if you are renting space, perhaps you can place it at the entrance or near the front kamidana at least for your first training of the New Year.

Back in my childhood, we had a large extended family, enough to have mochi-tsuki at my house. The entire Muromoto clan, its relatives, and any number of friends were invited to come to pound rice into mochi, or rice cakes, to place in ozoni soup, to offer at the altar, and to stuff with sweet bean jam as a New Year’s sweet. Wooden mallets were used by the men of the household to pound the rice in a stone-and-cement mortar, and the women would shape the hot, glutinous rice into round shapes for the mochi. Alas, those years have passed, a lot of my father’s generation have passed on, and my own cousins are far-flung all over the world, so the sheer manpower is no longer available. But families still pound mochi in Hawaii, if they can assemble enough family and friends, and if you have someone who can remember how to do it (there’s a trick to discerning when the glutinous rice is cooked long enough, and when the rice is pounded just right, and how to shape the mochi), that it can also be a tradition for the traditional dojo.

While most mochi are made into edible, palm-sized pieces, larger ones are made to be stacked, one on top of another, as an offering at the altar. This setting is called kagami mochi, or “mirror” rice cake, since the mochi are so large they resemble the old-style round Japanese mirrors; or kasane mochi (stacked rice cakes). This is an offering to the gods (or God, if you are monotheistic), although after the gods have partaken of it, one can cut the big mochi apart and use the pieces for the ozoni soup.

The kasane mochi is part of a larger decoration in the family tokonoma (alcove) or, in the case of a dojo, the kamidana. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you want that decoration to be. A citrus fruit would be placed on top of the two stacked kasane mochi, called a daidai (this is a play on dai-dai meaning “generations upon generations”). Not having this fruit, which is native to  Japan, Japanese in Hawaii use a tangerine, or mikan, which is about the same size and flavor.  Other decorations adorn this basic setup. For example, you can further decorate this arrangement with dried persimmons (a play on words for “joy”), woven yarn lobsters or shrimp (the bent back of the crustaceans signifying longevity), and so on. A tea sensei I know would decorate his alcove with a mound of raw rice, topped by three cut pieces of cylindrical charcoal, tied together, with a single pine branch sticking up from the middle. This signified the importance of the hearth and kitchen in the tea house. Budo dojo may, perhaps, include some wooden dogu  in the decoration.

Before the old year’s end, there is the O-soji, or “Great Cleaning.” The New Year should be welcomed with a clean heart and clean room, so in dojo in Japan, great and small, members will clean up the training hall, wiping down the tatami, changing the paper screens, and so on.

The first practice of the New Year’s, after the brief New Year’s hiatus, is also a special one. It’s the first practice of the year. So it’s usually time for a kagami biraki ceremony. The term means “mirror opening.” In ancient Japan, on New Year’s Eve, the mirrors were covered over due to superstitions about it being unlucky to see one’s face at the turn of the year. You weren’t supposed to gussy yourself up, either, and were supposed to spend the time in austere quietness, praying. (Well, so much for THAT tradition, even in Japan!)

When the mirror was uncovered, it meant that the world is going back to business as usual. Hence, the kagami biraki celebrates the passage of the New Year’s and the beginning of all things, including training. For a dojo, this could mean a short ritual ceremony in front of the kamidana, and/or an embu by all the members, demonstrating their techniques to the Gods or God as a kind of supplication. Or it could mean simply “hatsugeiko,” the first training of the year, in which you perform 100 men cuts or gyakutsuki, or ukemi, as a kind of ritual cleansing act.

And food! And drink!

Along with the offering of kasane mochi at the altar, there is usually a bottle of very high quality Japanese rice wine, or sake. After the ceremony, the bottle can be opened and members can partake of the omiki (ritual rice wine) to celebrate the New Year’s. Herbs can be added to the sake, to make what is called otoso, a supposedly healthy concoction. (One year, a student tasked with the purchase of the sake picked up a sweet cherry liquor; for him, Japanese wine was Japanese wine, but be aware that there are many different kinds of “Japanese alcohol,” from sweetened liquors to shochu (what I call Japanese moonshine), to amazake, to a whole bunch of really weird, fermented drinks whose provenance I can only guess at. What you offer at the altar should be high quality Japanese rice wine.)

Over the New Year’s, besides the ozoni soup and mochi rice cakes, there are various other traditional foods served. New Year’s is a time for toshi koshi soba; “Good luck for New Year’s buckwheat noodles.” After New Year’s Eve there is a plethora of foodstuffs called, collectively osechi ryori, food that can be eaten cold, so that you don’t need to reheat them on the stove (from a tradition when New Year’s was one of the few times that the women of the household didn’t need to work and cook all the time). Many of the osechi ryori dishes are sushi style, with vinegared rice, or pickled vegetables and fish.

One of the traditions in Kyoto includes giving a kasane mochi set to your teacher, especially if the teacher is in a traditional art, such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or flute (and, of course, koryu budo). This was a way of thanks to the teacher, who could use it for their altar, and then consume it afterwards. This tradition probably arose from a time when white polished rice was quite rare and expensive, and so giving rice as a gift was considered very respectful of one’s teacher. Maybe rice may not be that appropriate in the West, but a small thank you note, or a gift or present to thank your teacher would be a nice tradition to start, wouldn’t you think?

These are but some of the observances of one traditional holiday of New Year’s in Japan. Many of the rituals are practiced by the koryu dojo I am attached to in Kyoto, or by my family or the tea ceremony group I belong to. Other events, rituals and ceremonies are also observed throughout the year, such as Setsubun, Dolls’ Day, Children’s Day, and so on. The private grounds surrounding the budo dojo I attend in Kyoto has several varieties of cherry trees so when they bloom in the spring, it is a beautiful sight. This has given rise to a special spring embu outside the dojo, under the cherry trees, just in time for the cherry blossom viewing season. The embu is followed by an afternoon picnic under the trees with copious amounts of liquor, much friendship, laughter and fun, and a karaoke sing-along.

Traditions, after all, are not just about serious, deadpan disciplined rituals. They are also about celebrations of shared training, of shared hardship, friendship and fun. Ritual and traditions are part of being human, to celebrate the steady passage of time, and to help give structure to an organization and the people in it.

Done with the wrong attitude and the wrong way, of course rituals and traditions can be stiff and boring, meaningless and empty. Done with heart and soul, rituals and tradition give body and depth to a traditional dojo that non-traditional, business-like, “no-nonsense” eclectic martial arts training centers can only envy but never duplicate.

6 thoughts on “105. Traditions in a Traditional Art

  1. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to reading this closer to the turn of the new year. The level of detail and explanation of what the practices symbolize is much appreciated. It brings back memories of my time in Japan and explains a lot of the mysterious traditions that I never had the thought to ask about.

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