What was my light-bulb moment in learning shibari?

Posted on Thu, 11 July 2013

During interviews, I am inevitably asked how I learned shibari. Well, like a lot of people, I took a few classes, bought Midori's book and made the mistake of indiscriminately trawling the Internet for information guided by a complete lack of knowledge. Of course, you must remember that this was during the early days of the net when Windows was a novelty and we struggled with balls-achingly slow dial up modems. At this time, misinformation on Japanese bondage was pretty much the norm as we had almost no authentic points of reference as little exchange existed with Japan on the subject. Consequently, most of what we learned was diligently cut'n'pasted from one site to another and fiction became accepted as fact. Slowly, information began to seep through from Japan, for which I would say we largely have Osada Steve to thank. I certainly recall exchanging a number of emails with him that corrected a few of my misconceptions like the 'fact' learned that shibari used a set of equal numbers of ropes in '12 foot and 30 foot or 35 foot lengths'. It took a lot longer to learn in those days but it seems kinbaku, like SCUBA diving, has turned into something one can allegedly master almost overnight. A PADI diving course seems to cover in a day what was assiduously practised for months under the old BSAC syllabus. Whether such fast tracking makes for better divers and riggers is questionable. No doubt before long somebody will start handing out certificates of competence for suspension based on a multi-choice questionnaire and a couple of hours training :-(

I think it was around 2005 that my friend Ellie the Nomad called me to say there was a real live Japanese nawashi in town who was curious to check out the scene here and 'Could he drop by as I was running a class'. To cut a long story short, this turned out to be none other than Arisue Go with his model Taeko. I did not discover what he thought of my interpretation of shibari and teaching but I suspect that was more due Japanese politeness than anything. However, we were treated to what I believe his first kinbaku demonstration in the west in my own living-room. As you can imagine, we were stunned. It was that which made me decide to go to Japan and take some lessons with him.

Consequently, I booked a month in Japan with a couple of weeks in Tokyo for lessons with Arisue. Even at my first lesson, I suddenly saw the inkling of what I felt it was all about explode into clarity. Yes, it was all about how you use the rope and connection. Arisue amply demonstrated how he used it to create the very obvious bond with Taeko. Whilst I only understood his words with the help of translators, I instinctively understood what he was conveying with the rope. It is undoubtedly an universal language. This was the pivotal moment.

 There is nothing like seeing an experienced bakushi at work. I have been constantly surprised how much one unconsciously absorbs just by watching. Seeing Arisue at work showed a gentleness of touch and tenderness. On the other hand, Osada Steve tends to exhibit a different tying persona, often playing the 'big bad man' or, at least, a somewhat gruff or aloof persona. I often catch myself imitating his tying mannerisms after having spent a fair bit of time with him and seeing so many of his videos. When I watch Max from Copenhagen Dojo, I often feel I am watching Steve as he has picked up so many of his characteristics and he is so true to his style. Of course, one would expect no less than 100% authenticity from is most highly qualified Osada ryu instructor.

Since then, I have returned to Japan many times for tuition with Kinoko and Osada Steve and attended workshops with Yukimura and Kazami Ranki in the west. I can honestly say that these sessions have always left me realising how much more there is to learn. My development has very much exhibited a step-like pattern: I go for lessons with a skilled Japanese master and my learning accelerates massively. Time passes and I tend to stagnate somewhat until I have another of these sessions and each one is a shot in the arm. Of course, this is not to say that there are not some excellent western teachers but there is nothing quite like getting it straight from the horse's mouth. If you are reaching a plateau and your progress needs a boost or you are just need to consolidate your skills and move forward, I'd highly recommend a trip to Japan for some tuition as total immersion in the scene there will change your perspective beyond belief. For most of us, it is an expensive trip and can end up as a very big investment, even before you start chalking up lessons at 10,000JPY ($135 approx) per hour. Whilst one misses out on the joys of hanging out in Rappongi SM bars and Studio 6, sublime sushi, the beauties shopping in Shibuya 109 and trying to match up your underground map with the kanji on the ticket machine, the cheaper alternative is to get on one of the courses run by visiting Japanese masters. Over the past few years, these have become more accessible and frequent. The next one to visit London is Kazami Ranki, who starred at recent LFAJRB's. He will be here in early May offering a 5-day course and private tuition. Find out what the 'real deal' is all about.