On Sunday, November 15, 1998, my iaido instructor, Phil Ortiz and myself attended an all-day seminar on Shinkendo with founder Toshishiro Obata. The all-day session was part of a three-day "Super Samurai Weekend" held at the Saboten ryu Dojo*, an aikido group located in Colmar, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. It was the first time Mr. Obata has appeared on the East Coast. I attended at the invitation of Nathan Scott, a senior student of Mr. Obata's in California. Unfortunately, Nathan didn't make the trip "back East," but the Saboten ryu Dojo sensei, Keith Badyna, made us feel quite welcome. I felt it was an opportunity to possibly learn some new things, and to see for myself what Shinkendo was like. This report is based on my experience at the seminar and some follow-up email correspondence with Nathan.

The Saboten ryu Dojo is housed in a gymnastics studio, a converted aluminum-frame commercial garage or warehouse. The main floor is regulation size for gymnastics routines, thickly padded and carpeted. Except for the carpet, the padding is good for aikido, Saboten's major art form. I wondered how practicing sword work would do with carpet, but the padding was sort of nice under foot, as the day wore on.

Mr. Obata is a large-built man; not so tall, but stocky. He is fifty years old, and in excellent physical shape. He had been teaching all weekend (aikido and knife techniques, as well as some Shinkendo, before Sunday morning), but he still managed to do cartwheels and handsprings during breaks in practice; even, at one point, walking the length of the dojo on his hands. Saboten ryu students who had spent the weekend training did their very best to keep up with him, as I would have had it been me. As it was, the day constituted a fairly strenuous workout (I slept very well that night).

Throughout the day, I had an opportunity to observe beginning students, practice some of the techniques and see a public enbukai at the end of the day which featured Obata, Badyna (his chief student on the East Coast), and members of Saboten ryu Dojo.

In spite of the suggestion of flash and hyperbole associated with the designation "super samurai weekend," the session was all business; starting rather promptly at 9:00 a.m. Saboten ryu Dojo members wore white gi with their dojo logo (a small insignia) on the back and black hakama. Obata wore white gi and black hakama with no marking whatsoever. I have seen plenty of other dojo that don't have particular reputations for flamboyance where rigid, exaggerated hierarchy, multicolored gi and belts in rainbows of colors are much more common. Rather than something along the lines of a "ninja convention," I was quite comfortable with the setting, students and teacher as not being so different from my own.

The day began with warmups - most of which reminded me very much of when I began kendo years ago. Shinkendo is divided, essentially, into three levels: beginner, consisting of basic kata, intermediate, featuring more complicated kata that take longer to perform, and higher level practice, which includes the above, along with learning to cut makiwara with shinken. Practice also includes "kumite" - what we in our dojo would call kumidachi - partner forms with wooden swords for all three levels.

After warmups, the whole class (about 20 of us at its peak, though people came and went through the day) practiced kamae, basic cuts, and kata with Obata and Badyna leading. The kamae and cutting are fairly familiar to anyone who has done Nakamura ryu happogiri: kirioroshi, kesagiri, gyakukesa, ichimonji and tsuki. We practice a version of happogiri in our Dojo, though with some variations. For example, our kesagiri begins from hasso no kamae. Obata's version is also a diagonal cut, but from hasso, the swordsman first moves to jodan no kamae, and then cuts. Likewise, our wakigamae gedan no kamae is designed to hide the length of the sword from your opponent. Obata's similar kamae keeps the sword visible to the opponent, from which it seems easier to initiate a cut, but loses the function of concealment. The kata are strongly reminiscent of Toyama Batto jutsu. The footwork for kumite seems to be derived from aikido. As I understand it, Obata has a connection to all these sources. He confided to me that he had studied with numerous teachers, "getting ideas."

Shinkendo has sort of a "rough and ready" feel to it which is quite different from iaido. In particular, there seems to be no meditative aspect to it whatsoever, one of my primary reasons for studying iaido. Outside of Obata himself, no student present at the seminar had practiced more than two years; with most practicing a year or less, so it is possible there is a more philosophical component which was not brought up at this essentially beginner-level seminar. However, though more senior students undoubtedly have more finesse, I very much got the feeling that the intention of Shinkendo is to keep that sense of practicality regardless of skill level.

After kamae, renshu and kata practice, students paired off for kumite. Obata and Badyna made sure Phil and I were paired with some more experienced students so we could get a better idea of the techniques being shown. Shinkendo uses bokuto made from a Chinese wood which Obata called in, English, " wax wood". The bokuto are roughly finished branches covered with a light coat of polyurethane. Apparently, wax wood attracts insects which can hollow out the interior of a bokuto without the owner realizing it (rather dangerous for practice). Bugs aside, Obata pointed out to me that these bokuto , which he makes himself, are much more durable for the extended partner practice exercises he has developed. This is apparently true, since I noticed a day's practice hardly dented the waxwood bokuto, and I did not see any of them break. I wondered, though, if beginning students have trouble maintaining hasuji during practice since waxwood bokuto are not shaped like swords.

Kumite are arranged as repetitive exercises with students moving back and forth, or around in a circle, reminiscent (to me, anyway) of the long practices with fukuro shinai (leather-covered bamboo) in Yagyu Shinkage ryu. This means students can practice technique continuously. Beginning kumite featured footwork that was broadly exaggerated compared to our kumidachi, but subsequent exercises were more refined.

Obata emphasizes that practice should be enjoyable and safe - he is proud of the fact that no one has gotten hurt in all of his affiliated dojo. He often started demonstrations of kumite between two students with the words "ki o tsukete" ("take care"). He also emphasized that long, repetitive kumite practice should be done without full power, so people can practice longer to better learn technique. He told me, "Quality is better than quantity."

Actually, one of the most interesting moments for me during the seminar was when Obata illustrated this "softer technique" with me in doing one of the kumite exercises. We squared off and spiraled our way around the floor, doing a kumite technique I had only been introduced to that morning. He maintained regular practice speed, and his technique was accurate though he was not using full power. He had very good control of maai throughout, and I felt I could trust him in close-in practice. I felt like I had also gotten a taste of what higher-level practice must be like.

The curriculum is well thought out - Obata considers carefully why he teaches Shinkendo in the way he does, and what he expects students to learn from each exercise. For example one beginner-level kumite exercise emphasizes very wide taisabaki movement, a full 90 degrees off the center line to the right and left. The exaggeration, he explained to me, was to teach students to move and to improve their balance. In other words, he knows such wide movement is not really necessary in order to avoid an attack, the exercise instead is a teaching tool. As students advance in technique (he explained this, essentially none of the students I was observing were really at this level yet, so I have to take his word for it) their movement becomes more refined. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the organization of techniques and how it lent itself easily to teaching.

At the end of a whole day of intense practice (which included an hour-long lunch break), Obata again reviewed the kamae, cuts, and kata with the entire group. Then we had an hour break before the public enbukai, which began promptly at 4:00 p.m. During the "break" Obata hardly rested. Instead, he posed for photographs with dojo members and transacted business, for example, selling instructional videos and equipment he had brought with him to the Saboten ryu students.

The demonstration lasted only one hour (much to our relief, since we still had a struggle through New Jersey city-bound traffic ahead of us). The audience consisted mainly of families and friends of dojo members and the curious families of gymnastic students. A barrel full of rolled grass mats stood at the back, in readiness for what was to come.

The enbukai began with the youngest Saboten students showing the mawari (turning) techniques from aikido which make up some of the footwork of Shinkendo. Then Saboten members demonstrated beginner and intermediate level kata and kumite. Next, Keith Badyna demonstrated cutting some mats. He used a contemporary shinken for this purpose. (We had asked Obata if he was familiar with Hartsfield blades, and he was, but I don't know if this was one of them or not). For having only two years of instruction, Badyna showed an impressive level of cutting skill, though he had earlier confessed to us still being a novice at handling a live blade.

For the finale, Obata cut rolled mats, demonstrating techniques that have won competitions and for which he is probably best known. He did not in any way disappoint us - his cutting technique was excellent. The first kihon he performed utilized stepping back, rather than forward, with the cut. He explained that he taught this technique to students first to ensure no one would get hurt. He then cut multiple mats in sequence, and afterward cut one grass mat continuously about half a dozen times - each cut was perfectly spaced and at the exact same angle. Most interesting for me, though, was when he showed Shinkendo kata in conjunction with cutting the rolled mats. I did not have an opportunity to closely look at the sword he used for cutting, but it looked more like a katana than a contemporary shinken or gunto, and was beautifully, though subtly, fitted out.

After the demo, we quickly said our goodbyes, since we were worried about traffic (justifiably, as it turned out). Obata was very gracious, giving us photographs and t-shirts as souvenirs.

I was somewhat surprised to realize, after we arrived at the seminar, that we were essentially the only people from outside the Philadelphia area to attend, even though Nathan Scott announced the event on the iaido-l email list, and Saboten had a beautiful brochure made to advertise the weekend. I later had some email correspondence with Nathan regarding the event. It seems we are among the few iaidoka to have tried Shinkendo ourselves. Among other things he asked me what, if anything, I though iaidoka could incorporate in their practice from Shinkendo. Since this is an interesting question, I thought I would summarize some of our discussion, and my further thoughts, here.

When I began training in iaido, we spent considerable time on kumidachi. In accordance with our founder's philosophy that iaido without real technique is just "sword dancing," a lot of emphasis was placed on partner work with bokuto, and cutting. Currently, because of time and space constraints, mostly, emphasis is placed more on kata practice than kumidachi or cutting in our dojo. This is a criticism I have often heard with regard to iaido, that students learn to move swords around without actually using proper technique. We have been attempting, lately, to reintegrate more "practical" aspects of iaido training in our curriculum. I remarked to Nathan that Shinkendo's kumite exercises could be a novel way of reinforcing practicality of technique and maintenance of maai. This understanding, in turn, could deepen iaidoka's understanding of kata and kumidachi.

Obata publicly explained both before practice and at the beginning of the enbukai that in creating Shinkendo, he intended something different from kendo, which he said is often thought of as traditional Japanese sword technique, but it's not (because kendoka don't use swords), and different from iaido, which emphasizes kata but has no cutting practice (which is often said, but not necessarily true). He also emphasized that his style was different from kobudo forms which often use only bokuto. His idea is to teach students how to use real swords for their original purpose, which is cutting.

Unfortunately, it is possible that this publicly-stated position has induced some skepticism among practitioners of the above art forms with regard to Obata and Shinkendo. Consequently, most Shinkendo practitioners come from non-sword art forms. The truth of Obata's assertions is, of course, more gray than that. Kendoka, especially in the US and Canada, practice seitei iaido forms to better understand how swords function. Iaidoka (our dojo included) often use live blades for practice, and we practice cutting to check our technique. One of the intriguing things about Shinkendo is that, by synthesizing aikido, kenjutsu, batto jutsu and kendo into a system, Obata shows how interrelated these forms actually are, and how elements of them can be coherently woven together. Obata obviously owes a debt to his earlier, more traditional training. If this was more clearly understood, perhaps iaidoka and kendoka would have a better idea of what Shinkendo is about. Having further thought about iaido and Shinkendo, I would even be bold enough to state that Shinkendoka could also learn from iaido: for example if Shinkendo kata were practiced with iaito rather than with rounded bokuto, the chiburi and noto portions of the kata would be more clearly understood by Shinkendoka. In other words, there is fertile ground for open-minded students of both disciplines to learn from each other.

Altogether, attending the Shinkendo seminar was a valuable experience; and I look forward to meeting Mr. Obata again, and, I hope, some of his senior students, in the future. I would like to thank Keith Badyna and the Saboten ryu Dojo members for hosting the seminar and welcoming us, to Nathan Scott for his invitation and follow-up discussion with me, and of course, to Toshishiro Obata for making the long trip to the East Coast to show us Shinkendo. Thanks also to Ray Sosnowski for his assistance in preparing this article.

-Deborah Klens, Manager, New York Budokai

*Author's note: The term "Saboten ryu" does not refer to an established ryuha, but was created by teacher Keith Badyna as the name for his dojo.