It only took 10 minutes to convince me that I wanted to become a ninja.
Scott Hamilton had a booth at a recent comic convention in Ventura, and since the convention was as under populated as the site of an imminent meteor impact, he was able to explain why it was that he had ninja stars, samurai armor and other seen-only-in-a-Kurosawa-film accessories to great length.
Hamilton, as it turns out, is a fifth degree black belt and shidoshi (teacher) of the Todai Bujinkan Dojo in Moorpark. Bujinkan, as he explained, is a combination of nine different schools of combat that can be compared to a cauldron bubbling over with the best bits and pieces of what makes martial arts work. Think ju jitsu, judo, taekwon-do; while separate styles, they share commonality in bujinkan.
I signed up immediately for a month’s worth of classes and imagined that within weeks I would be required by the state of California to register my limbs as weapons of mass destruction.
Bujinkan was founded in 1970 by Masaaki Hatsumi, a man who was once referred to as “the last living ninja” by CNN. Hatsumi himself was taught by “The Tiger of Mongolia” and spent 15 years training with him, learning the nine schools that he would later pass on to his students in the form of bujinkan. Though bujinkan is only 44 years old, the techniques have roots dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
“If it’s your first class, you’re not going to get all of this stuff correct on the first day,” said Hamilton on my first visit to the dojo, an understatement. He asks students what they’d like to learn upon arrival.
Kerega Melville and Scott Hamilton prax`ctice techniques of Bujinkan.
Photo by: Marj Domingo
“Throws,” says a student — one of six in that Tuesday night’s class. “Sword technique,” says another. “How to punch something,” I say. Chad Proctor, a two-year, green belt student, hopped up and immediately met the floor once again as Hamilton very carefully and slowly took him by the wrist, pulled and locked his arm down across his own chest, and flipped him like a windmill to the ground, as easily as one would push over a child and take his candy. After the demonstration, it was our turn.
This is the way of instruction in Japan, says Hamilton. At the Honbu Bujinkan Dojo in Noda, the master will demonstrate a technique and the students are expected to practice on their own, with little instruction after. With more than 1,000 techniques in Bujinkan, every session can be, and will be, something new.
“It’s kind of difficult to stay very traditional and make an actual living out of it,” says Hamilton of operating in this way in America. “Oftentimes the business will push the more traditional aspects out of the way. What makes this place special is that we really try to make it the traditional kind of format.”
Hamilton learned most of his technique from the original owner of Todai, Matt Woodard, a bujinkan master who founded the school in 2003 and then sold it to Hamilton in order to travel the world in a new line of work: private security. Woodard also adhered to the traditional method of teaching, a boon for Hamilton. Without the immersive experience, he may not have been prepared for his first trip to Japan.
Alone at the Honbu Bujinkan Dojo in Noda, Japan, and not wishing to come off as greedy for a new rank, Hamilton met another master, Noguchi-sensei, who told Hamilton that he was ready for the fifth-degree test on the same day he arrived. In Bujinkan, one can only be rewarded a fifth-rank black belt at the dojo in Japan.
To pass, a student must accurately predict a strike from a katana delivered by a master as he hovers over the student and successfully dodge it. In modern times, the katana has been replaced with a wooden sword so as to prevent accidental decapitation.
Hamilton succeeded on his first attempt.
The sword test is a perfect analogy for bujinkan as it emphasizes the use of the body as one fluid machine. On any given night, Hamilton may pull from any one of the nine schools. On my second night at the dojo, I was introduced to Kukishin ryu, literally translated into “The Nine Demon Gods School,” which focused on sword techniques, also known as bikenjutsu. As I flailed around with a wooden sword, I pictured myself battling great armies on a quest of some sort, until I took a whack to the wrist and snapped back into reality.
On my third visit, things began to click.
A black belt by the name of Winston Payne (no joke) was my first-hour partner, and Kevin Hunt came after. Hunt has studied martial arts for several decades and is himself a fourth degree black belt. Hunt says that he practices footwork sometimes while barbecuing.
“Ice is your friend,” said Hunt before he demonstrated a technique shown to us by Hamilton. As I throw a punch that would make Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja proud, Hunt steps aside, bends his knees and with a closed fist, thumb just slightly extended, he jabs me in between my hip and muscle, striking a nerve that I never knew existed. “That will stop you in your tracks.”
Hatsumi created the Tenchijin Ryaku no Maki (Heaven, Earth, Man Scroll) which pulls from all of the nine schools for techniques. In this way, at any given class, a student is studying from all nine schools at once — and the technique performed on me by Hunt came from a school that translates into “body fist.”
After Hamilton called us back to the center of the mat, Hunt took me aside, where we practiced footwork. Hunt says that the traditional way in Japan would have higher-degree students train new students, and I was appreciative of the assistance.
“It’s kind of a catch-22 because it could be a little overwhelming,” says Hamilton. “It’s definitely immersive. We kind of just throw you into it and let you experience it.”
They never talk about the years upon years of training that go into becoming a master ninja in the movies, and as a child of instant gratification, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But as I changed in the dojo’s break room, I noticed posters for the films American Ninja and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and imagined that some day, with enough practice, that could be me, only less turtle.
The promise at Todai Bujinkan Dojo, under the guidance of Shidoshi Hamilton, is that anyone can become a ninja — with enough patience, perseverance and perhaps an above-average tolerance for physical pain.
Todai Bujinkan Dojo is located at 6591 Collins Drive, Moorpark. For more information, call 532-1794 or visit www.todaidojo.com.