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Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai

Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai

by Dave Lowry

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Dave Lowry juxtaposes his singular experience as an adept student of kenjutsu (the art of swordsmanship) under a Japanese teacher in St. Louis with a riveting account of the samurai tradition in Japan. Intertwining tales of the masters with reflections on his own apprenticeship in the samurai's arts, he reveals in their time-honored methods a way of life with


Dave Lowry juxtaposes his singular experience as an adept student of kenjutsu (the art of swordsmanship) under a Japanese teacher in St. Louis with a riveting account of the samurai tradition in Japan. Intertwining tales of the masters with reflections on his own apprenticeship in the samurai's arts, he reveals in their time-honored methods a way of life with profound relevance to modern times. The result is a fascinating, singular autobiography. Lowry captures the sense of wonder and mystery that makes martial arts compelling to so many practitioners. Even those who do not practice martial arts will delight in this unusual coming-of-age story.

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1: Meeting with the Past

Surrounded by the pines that closed in his yard, the swordsman crouched motionless. His gray kimono and black, skirt-like
grew damp in the predawn mist, but his attention was focused on the drops of water that collected first on a branch above his head, then dripped to the ground with noiseless regularity. He seemed to be waiting for a particular drop, his expression reflecting a profound patience. The bead of water finally fell, and with perfect celerity, his right hand tore the samurai sword from its scabbard at his side. Still kneeling, he slashed a wide arc in the heavy, wet air,
stopping the weapon as abruptly as if it had struck some invisible barrier.
Then slowly, methodically, he pulled a cloth from a fold in his kimono and wiped moisture from the blade's surface, for he had cut through the descending drop, shattering it into smaller droplets that sparkled on the steel like diamonds in the morning's new light. While the swordsman continued the solitary exercises with his weapon, I wriggled farther under the handquilted covers my great-grandmother had patched together, burrowing to find a few more minutes of sleep.

Get your motor runnin'

Head out on the highway

for adventure

And whatever comes our way

Born to be wild

The music swelling from the alarm clock-radio by my head promised a heady freedom in that early autumn of 1968, but the blasting noise was also a reminder that I
had to get up and get ready for another day of junior high school.

Nothing in the morning indicated that the day would be different. On the long bus ride ahead, I would have to fabricate a believable excuse for not finishing a math assignment, already two days overdue. I would have to sit through eight hours of uninspired attempts at educating myself, hurry home afterward to stuff the bulky jacket and pants of a judo uniform into a bag, and then be off to practice at the state university gym. For a thirteen-year-old boy of the
Midwest, it wasn't a day—or a life, for that matter—too much out of the ordinary at all. In those days, judo was an unlikely sport for a Missouri boy,
but my adolescent passion might just as easily have been loosed upon cars, or stamp collecting, or girls. As it happened, I had always had interests both in things Japanese and in the avoidance of getting beaten up, so three evenings of my weeks were taken with the art of judo, learning how to fall and how to make my classmates at the gym fall.

In fact, what had been the only disruption in my life that year was becoming so much a routine that I hardly considered it outstanding anymore. Walking to judo practice, I would take a detour down a street near the university, where many of the professors lived. It was a street of monstrous old houses with towering ceilings and three, or even four, stories, a street where sounds much louder than the strains of Bach or Vivaldi were hushed by oaks and pines and maples,
as impressive in size as were the houses beside them. I walked along the quiet street until I came to a house nearly hidden by trees, with a front yard full of iris and lily beds that probably never saw the sun until all the trees around them were bare of leaves.

This was the house where a Japanese guy lived, as my judo friends had heard it, who was supposed to be an expert in swordfighting. While we were all intrigued by the idea of a modern day samurai living in the middle of the Ozarks, I was the only one persistent and impudent enough to find out more. I did it by going to the front door, knocking, and telling the Oriental woman who answered that I
had come to learn swordsmanship. What I noticed immediately about her appearance was that, even though she looked to be well into her fifties, her skin was creamy, like weathered ivory, and she had the most wonderfully slitted eyes.

"You must have the wrong address," she said. "There is no one here who teaches fighting with a sword."

That's not exactly the way it sounded. Her accent made the words come out, "You mus hava wrongu address. Dare isa noone here who teacha fighting wisa sword," and her voice stayed in the air between us, the way a note played on a fine piano will hang on and on if it's struck in the center of a big,
empty room. I think I might have kept coming back to that house, just to hear her voice. It was that pleasant. But from my reading I also knew it was a custom in old Japan for prospective fencing students to be forced to beg for instruction several times to insure their sincerity. So to listen to a voice that continued on even after the words were finished, to see if she knew something about "fighting wisa sword" that she wasn't telling me, and to prove I was as stubborn as any Japanese pupil might have been, I came back.
Three nights a week I went to her door to ask the same question and, without a trace of annoyance or amusement, the woman assured me that no one there taught fencing. I would nod and be on my way to judo practice. In nearly a month's worth of visits the only clue I had that I wasn't at the "wrongu address" was that she hadn't yet called the authorities to come and haul me away. It was not the most encouraging of consolations.

Just when our thrice-weekly exchanges had grown into a pleasant sort of game that I
was beginning to expect to last into the following spring and beyond, they stopped without the slightest notice. I was still trying to sleep through the radio's morning nagging—failing as usual; and still presenting novel excuses for not completing my homework—failing as usual. And, as usual, I stopped by the house on the quiet street to ask the woman with the creamy skin to teach me how to use a sword. This time, I succeeded. Well, partially anyway.

"You come back a tomorrow," she said, her voice lingering in that delightful way. "Mebbe dar be someone who can herp you."

change in the scheme of things it certainly was. As it turned out, I had no idea what a change it was going to be.

To the average Occidental, the Japanese martial arts are most often thought of in terms of
That's an understandable connotation, for those methods of combat are the ones most successfully transplanted from their Asian homeland. Collectively, they are known there as the
Japanese word meaning literally "martial ways," and indicating that judo, karatedo, and aikido are spiritual paths for approaching a particular way of life. The originators of the budo intended for them to be means of physical and self-defense training, of course, but also, and more importantly, the martial ways were meant to instill moral values in a practitioner, improve his personality, and make him an asset to society. Because of the insistence upon morality and virtue, these budo have produced some of the greatest thinkers and political leaders in the history of Japan, and they are often considered by the
Japanese to be the bright,
side of the country's martial spirit. If they are, then by the tenets of Oriental philosophy, there must also be a darker,
Surely this facet of yin is revealed in the nature of the

The bugei are the traditional martial arts of the samurai (as distinguished from the more recently created budo, or martial
rarely practiced anymore in modern-day Japan and almost completely unheard of outside of it. Superficially, they might look alike, but the budo and bugei are really quite different. The former are pretty much limited in scope to judo, aikido,
(fencing with bamboo staves), and
The bugei, on the other hand, represent a startlingly wide diversity. Almost a limitless array of techniques were codified into bugei, or "military arts," as that word can be translated.
for instance, is the art of binding an enemy with a short cord.
is the art of swimming and treading water while clad in the light wooden armor once worn by the samurai. Spitting needles into an opponent's eye
methods of deflecting flying arrows from his bow
even hypnotizing him into defeat
were crafts familiar to the feudal warriors of Japan, but as woodblock prints of that era still show, the samurai's favorite art was in the handling of his long, two-handed sword, by ways he referred to as
the techniques of the blade.

All of this was explained to me the next day as I sat at attention, eager and uncomfortably erect in the living room of the house on the quiet street. The man doing the talking was Japanese, slightly built except for the heavily muscled forearms he folded across his chest. In a polo shirt and slacks, he didn't look like my idea of a fierce samurai, but even when relaxed, his posture had a formidable bearing about it, as if he were capable of commanding respect by his bodily presence alone. Clearly, he was as old as the woman I'd met so often at the front door, yet just as clearly, he was not a man you could ever slap on the back and call "Pops." No way.

Without speaking further for a moment, he poured the steaming contents of a teapot into two cups on the table between us, and I took in the surroundings. The inside of the house was of a style I have to label as Gothic. I don't know a more apt description for the sort of place that has a minor maze of rooms and hallways and alcoves—so many that you wonder if the house isn't so much inhabited, as it is gradually explored. In the living room, braided rugs protected the floor's dark finish from the furniture: a plump sofa and overstuffed chairs that all looked to be as comfortable as the one I was in (even ramrod straight,
as I was, it's hard to sit
furniture like that). There were high bookshelves, and windows even higher, a couple of them opaque with stained glass designs. To my right yawned an enormous fireplace that could have accommodated more logs than a man might carry in both arms. Only a couple of wispy ink paintings displaying brushed calligraphy, and the books on the shelves, titled in indecipherable Japanese characters,
distinguished the room from any other of similar architecture and decor.

My host handed me a cup of tea and watched while I took a sip, trying not to grimace at its green bitterness. "Being a
a pupil of the bugei, is not something you . . . " he searched for the right word, ". . .
to your life. It means changing your life, almost in every way, to adapt to the bugei." As an afterthought, he added, "More is expected of a bugeisha than of an ordinary person."

He paused, sensing, I suspected, that his advice wasn't having much effect on the enthusiasm of his teenage guest.
he sighed. "We will give it a try, though,
In the meantime, I've forgotten to introduce me." He tilted his head fractionally and, with a hint of teasing, a touch of pretend grandeur, said,
"I'm Kotaro Ryokichi, of the Yagyu Shinkage style of the bugei."

I could never be so informal as to address him by his first name, or even as
Mr. Kotaro. To me, he would be Kotaro
"revered teacher," for I was on my way to becoming a martial artist now, meaning I would have to watch such things as manners and politeness. As
Sensei had warned me, more is expected of a bugeisha.

Meet the Author

Dave Lowry is an accomplished martial artist, calligrapher, and writer. He is the restaurant critic for St. Louis Magazine and writes regularly for a number of magazines on a wide variety of subjects, many of them related to Japan and the Japanese martial arts. He is the author of numerous books including  Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai, Sword & Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts, Clouds in the West: Lessons from the Martial Arts of Japan, and The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi.

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