鬼ごっこ Onigokko: Let's Pretend We Are Demons

鬼ピキ photo by w00kie
One summer day we were having our normal class in the park when something interesting happened. As we were stretching, we watched a team building exercise that some company was doing in the same park as us. There were a lot of pretty women working for this company, so most of my students were riveted.

They began a game of tag. They used the entire park. Most of them were athletic, so it was a very aggressive and and fast paced game. At one point one guy came to stand next to us. We were all lined up on the periphery of the field watching this game. I realized immediately what he was doing.

Hatsumi Sensei tells us that "a person who understands play has life's greatest treasure." He says that in Kukishin-ryu this idea is taught as 鬼ごっこ onigokko (demon play) which is a children's game of tag. In this game the "oni" chases down the other children. As they are caught, they are "infected" and turn into oni. Until they all become little demons!

In 2011, there was a world record setting onigokko game played in a Toyama stadium. There were 1566 participants. It only took 7 minutes for all of them to be caught and turned into oni!

I said hello to the guy standing next to me. I asked him what company he worked for. He said TOMS shoes. I knew this company because my wife likes them and they are popular in the U.S.. I said, so are you hiding over here with us? He smiled and said he was just resting.

We watched as all the workers  ran around the park and got caught. Turning each into another demon. This guy had a great strategy. No one was even looking for him among our group as we stood there watching.

Finally the demons ran out of victims. As they searched the park their attention turned to us. The guy said to me, "I better run!" He took off and sprinted around the park. He dashed between his pursuers until they finally caught him.

Later when I got home, I looked up TOMS Shoes to see where their offices were, since I knew they must be nearby. It turns out that this guy with the great strategy of hiding out with us was the founder of the company, Blake Mycoskie. That day he definitely showed a good understanding of "play."

The Gift of 神輿 Mikoshi

東松山のまつり photo by w00kie
How can I ever support this heavy beam on my shoulder? That's what I remember thinking when I looked at the 神輿 Mikoshi. I was intimidated by the size of it. Of course I was only 10 years old.

When I was growing up, my best friend was Japanese. His mother invited me to go with his family to a festival. Suddenly I was being conscripted to be one of the 担ぎ katsugi or Mikoshi bearers! I didn't understand at the time what an honor that was.

In Japan, not only is it an honor, it is somewhat of a civic duty to carry the Mikoshi. Hatsumi Sensei inherited the 34th Soke of 戸隠流 Togakure Ryū in 1958. He says that in that same month he carried the Mikoshi along the street.

Someone found a Happi coat for me and helped me put it on. My friend's mother also found a karate kid looking head wrap that she tied around my head. Then they lead me over to the Mikoshi where it sat on the saw horses...

I looked around awkwardly at all the strong men who were doing calisthenics, preparing to lift this small house and carry it through the streets. They were all strong looking and Japanese. I was a skinny red headed white boy. I had no idea what I was going to contribute to this effort, but I thought I would try my best.

Even though I felt out of place and had no idea what was going on, the men were very welcoming. Suddenly, they all crouched underneath the beams. I found a gap and pressed my shoulder into the wood. I was preparing to grunt and heave when the whole thing seemed to fly into the air with a shout.

I was left nearly hanging from the beam! The men were all taller than me, so they hoisted the mikoshi onto their shoulders and far above my own shoulder. I looked around confused about what to do. They all encouraged me to stay in my spot. I pushed up as hard as I could with my palms.

Next thing I know we are lurching down the street to the trill of a whistle from our guide. He would give long notes to start or stop us from moving and short beeps to keep us in rhythm. We round a corner and and into the large crowds gathered along the parade route. I had no idea we would have this large audience.

Suddenly I felt so proud. I felt proud of my friend's Japanese heritage. I felt proud to be included. No one I knew in my community had ever even heard of sushi back in those days, even less Mikoshi.

Japanese people were thought of differently back then in my hometown. My Grandfather fought against the Japanese in WWII. His brother died on Iwo Jima. I could say more, but those times have past. I personally felt like a bridge between these two worlds in that moment.

That was truly a gift from the kami inside of the Mikoshi.

How to Read the 徴  Shirushi Taught in 口伝 Kuden

Hachiōji, Tokyo photo by LaPrimaDonna
One morning during training, Hatsumi Sensei gave us an interesting 口伝 kuden, explaining to us the nature of the footwork we were using. He told us,
"There's a reason for this movement of the feet. You're leaving footprints. And it's actually an indication (徴  shirushi sign;  indication;  omen) You're leaving a warning or an indication."
Sensei wasn't just telling us about footwork. He was talking about a larger idea. And this idea is that there are subtle signs and hints everywhere for those who are awake, aware, or sensitive to them.

You could take this at the surface meaning. For example, a hunter can see signs of his prey as he tracks it. So he follows the tracks to catch dinner. Yet someone who is not a hunter would never notice these hints. Or if you were thirsty, the signs would mean something different. You might follow the animal trails that lead to a stream.

But the meaning Sensei was leading us to, was that there are signs left for us by those who have gone before. These are everywhere in the Bujinkan. You find them in what is taught and not taught. They are in the kata. In the kuden. In the densho.

Here is an interesting example: In 九鬼神流打拳体術 Kukishin Ryū Dakentaijutsu there is a kuden:
切紙  急所説明 48穴当込みの場所 , 口伝
Basically it explains the 48 openings for kyusho when striking. But the hint that it leaves us is obscure. It calls this 切り紙 kirigami which is the art of paper cutting.

If you aren't familiar with this art, it is a very advanced craft similar to origami where paper is cut to create artistic expression of nature and life. But the method and rhythm of it is uniquely Japanese. This is a hint.

Another hint or meaning for kirigami is the esoteric notes and oral teachings transmitted from teacher to student. Here the text itself is being cut so that its meaning shifts and is shaped by the teacher. Anyone who has trained with Hatsumi Sensei can attest to this feeling.

Sensei will never just give you the surface meaning of a text. The meaning becomes fluid and dynamic in the moment much like the changing image of paper as it is transformed by kirigami. As Hatsumi Sensei teaches, the 要 kaname of his teaching transforms to suit the moment.

That morning, as we shuffled around trying to emulate Sensei's footwork, we were following in the footsteps of Bujin and the warrior spirit of our ancestors.

The Kaname of Ninja Biken with Peter Crocoll

Peter Crocoll Opening a Door

I went to Coconino National forest for Peter Crocoll's annual campout. We were up at 7500-8500 feet in elevation in the mountains and the forest was beautiful. After our long drive from Los Angeles, I set up my tent quickly so that I could enjoy the wonderful mountain air and scenery.

After a chilly night under the stars, I took a hike early in the morning. I lived in Arizona for most of my life and spent a lot of time hiking and camping all over the state. Returning to this air, this sunlight, this open sky… always feels like coming home and speaks to my body and spirit on a deep level.


Peter's training topic for this event was "The Kaname of Ninja Biken." Training in this mountain terrain connected us to the origins of Togakure ryu in the mountains of Japan. I cannot convey all the details here in these notes. But I will present some impressions.

In the morning, we filled the air and kukan with a swarm of shuriken. The use of shuriken and 目潰し metsubushi is a tactic closely linked to ninja biken. This serves to more than compensate for the length of the 忍者刀 ninja-to by filling gaps in perception and rythm of the opponent. He will never know where to defend and the tip of your 忍者刀 ninja-to becomes just another stinger in the swarm he cannot possibly escape.

Peter then connected the shuriken with sword kamae from Togakure ryu. After a review of the basic kamae, we used these kamae to cut and launch shuriken at our opponent's. Very difficult to do this without gaps in your own movement as you search for shuriken on your body. For me the trick was not to go fumbling for them, not to search. But rather to find them or discover them in the movement. They just appear in your hand as you move.

Peter then focused on kamae no waza with 一之構 ichi no kamae. I discovered early on that it was crucial to control the space with the tip of your sword. If you know how to achieve this, from the initial kamae you have already won. Then as you pressure the uke's arms with your blade, the tip presses into his center.

Peter spoke about the important goal in Togakure ryu is not killing or winning, but survival. That may be why it is still with us today, whilst other ninja schools have been lost to history. One tactic of this survival is finding the "hidden door." This can be the hidden opening on an opponent or in a troop formation, but it is also the hidden door of your escape route. Even if you know where this "door" is, you still have to be able to open it!

Next we looked at 正眼之構 seigan no kamae and 中段之構 chūdan no kamae. For me, the kaname of these all involved the control of space, or rather, connecting in the space so that you may live. As Hatsumi Sensei has said, 中段之構 chūdan no kamae is like kukan no kamae, where the mind and body  "are" the space and the space protects you.  This feeling has interesting connotations that led into our night training.

Saturday Night training

Nighttime in the wilderness of these mountains is exhilirating. We had a bright, nearly full moon, and I could deeply appreciate this idea from Hatsumi Sensei: "There is no village on which the moon does not shine, the moon lives in the mind of the gazer." - from Ninpo and Mu: Waxing and Waning Like the Moon

After some quiet and meditative stealth walking through a moonlit meadow, Peter helped us explore our "other" senses by connecting to threats from our periphery and from behind. At first, I fell into the trap of relying on mechanics.

I used tricks that I know to extend my peripheral vision and relied on sound as a warning device. I also focused on the sensation of absence or presence. This is like when you sense that you are alone, or that someone else is near. The problem with these methods is that they are often too slow. By the time you react, the threat is upon you!

I decided that this was a poor way to use the richness hidden in the dark forest surrounding me, and opened myself up to a larger experience. I cannot explain in words how to achieve this, but it is directly related to the experience of the godan test. Once I connected to the space in this way, I had wonderful results.

After this we had a wonderful campfire courtesy of my friend and twisted firestarter Brian. Brian is well aware of current geopolitical dynamics, and he will never be obsequious. We laughed and told stories late into the night.


I crawled out of the coziness of my tent into the chill morning air. I went for a quiet hike to watch the birds and do some light rock climbing. I had a enjoyable breakfast with my friends. Normally the mountain air drives my appetite, but this trip all of my meals were light for some reason.

Peter began training this morning with a quick review of the sword kamae. Then he went further into kamae no waza with 下段之構 gedan no kamae. I was reminded of something that Paul Masse and I discussed recently about the idea that "enlightenment is at your feet." Hatsumi Sensei says to assume this kamae with that feeling. Then the kick in this waza is like kicking open a door for your escape. But that door was always there at your feet.

Peter  transitioned to 八方秘剣 happo biken with 飛龍之剣 hiryu no ken and 霞之剣 kasumi no ken. With both he really emphasized this idea of escaping and highlited this necessity by having us face multiple attackers. The flow of these two kata naturally encircle the opponents in the space in a way that they become entangled. If you disappear into the mist of kasumi, they will be fighting each other or only emptiness.

Now, as I begin my week back in civilization, I have that good exhaustion that leaves me refreshed in spirit. I want to thank Peter and all my friends in Arizona, as well as my own students for sharing this experience in the mountains. We are so lucky to have this ninja heritage that connects us back through the mists of history and place, to the mountains of Japan. Hatsumi Sensei's generosity in sharing this gift with the world is really humbling.

Of Note: Shout out to Eight legged Sal, my Aphonopelma chalcodes tentmate.

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