Newbury Ninja - the story so far...
With the dojo shrinking (unlike my waistline) I have been thinking a lot recently about why and when I started the dojo here in the wilds of West Berkshire.
At the time I was training in Reading under Gary Murgatroyd and travelling to deepest darkest Slough to train under Alex Bradley. The only problem was Gary would teach at weekends and I was more than likely working shifts, and Alex had to cancel training at times. To try and get more regular training I decided to start a club in Newbury and asked one of Garys black belts, Leo Kiernan, to come and teach. Looking back, I asked a lot of Leo to travel to Newbury on a regular basis and teach for me, but he did. For that reason alone, I am indebted to him. Leo continued to teach until I managed to get Shodan, and then due to work and family pressures he could not travel to Newbury anymore.
After about 6 months I decided to re-open the dojo. I had a few very useful conversations with Clive Elliot, who runs a successful martial arts business in the area. He was very helpful when it came to organisation and syllabus development. One of the main reasons I wanted to re-open the dojo was I still wanted to train, and I couldn't get to Garys weekend classes. I also decided to start teaching children. This was a bit of a leap, as not many UK dojo were teaching children. So I had to develop a syllabus, a belt system for the children to be motivated and add some fun elements. In 2004 we opened the proverbial doors of Bujinkan Newbury Dojo.
So, with no objection from Gary, the dojo was up and running. Initially there were around 15 children and about 8 adults training. This gave me enough students to try and figure out what I was doing. I learnt the techniques by using what I had learned, trying to show it to students and trying to answer questions which I would not have previously considered. As you can imagine it was interesting, challenging and frustrating at times in the early years. Gary did manage to visit a few times, but the majority of the time I was left to my own devices. Much to the dismay of some students I think! So, to supplement my training and knowledge I made an investment of buying, I think, around 13 VHS Hatsumi videos from Quest. Each of the schools that had been done, the weapons ones as well. I would spend evenings watching these, practicing and taking notes. Then my poor students would endure me trialling them in classes.
As the years passed I got better - and I also changed my instructor. Gary could not make it over and I could not get to him as I was working mainly weekends and was a single dad at this point. I heard of Marc Moor of Budo Warrior Schools, and with everyone's approval started to train under him. Marc was (and still is) based in Gloucester, and he was able to do the occasional visit. But, once again we were mostly left to our own devices - in fact I started to call it the Newbury effect. For some reason we seemed to be just a bit too far from higher graded instructors to make regular visits. To be honest that was ok, it meant I had to work things out myself, which led to a deeper understanding of techniques.
In 2009 I went to Japan with Marc and underwent my Godan test. The sakki test, where you have to sense intent and avoid an unseen strike with a padded shinai. I managed to do this on the second try at the Budokan in Tokyo, having not quite got it at the Honbu the week before. Back home the dojo continued to grow, we did national martial arts expo's and I started to write articles for Combat magazine. I was intent on raising the awareness of the art, as there seemed to be little or anything being published at that time.
I was awarded Jugodan in 2018 by Hatsumi sensei, which is an honour and a responsibility to carry the spirit of the Bujinkan forward. There is always a few wry smiles when someone says they are this grade as it is commonly interpreted as 15th Dan. An impossibly high grade - in other arts.
However, there are two key things to consider. The actual translation of the grade is 10th dan at the 5th level, not 15th dan. A distinct difference. The other issue is that in other well-known Japanese arts the highest is 5th or 8th dan, so 10th seems dubious. But this is a different art, with many aspects the other arts do not consider or teach. Being a different art, is it so surprising there are different numbers of dan grades? The way I look at it, Shodan you know the basics, Godan you can adapt the basics and have an instinctive level of movement, Judan (and above) you have trained enough to be able to give insights to the movements and understand the principles behind them.
Coming up to date with the dojo, the pandemic and the restrictions that resulted in 2019 - 2021 took people out of the habit of training. It also brought new pressures and a new way of looking at how people spend their time and money.
The numbers at the dojo dwindled. I had stopped teaching children a while before this as I was finding it was not something I enjoyed or was able to achieve at a high standard. We had been through having our own space in an industrial unit, but dwindling numbers meant this was not financially feasible. So, we were back to renting space in community halls and a local judo club. The pandemic reduced us to one session a week, and numbers were an issue. There are days now where there are not enough to make training an option.
We are now at a crossroads. The numbers are borderline to keep the dojo going, and with the impending impact of the economy, this may not improve. I have always said so long as people want to train the dojo will stay open. At a seminar recently I was reassured (if that's the right phrase) that I was not alone in this, and many dojo have 10 or less active members. I have also invested quite a bit of time and money into this, so to just stop now would be a waste.
The dojo will be here, but in what format I cannot say. If we have to go to outdoor free training to keep it going we may, I'm not ruling anything out. But regardless, we will keep going...