Now there’s an article title I never thought I’d write. As you might have seen from our Facebook updates, a group of very talented Samurai students from across the globe descended on Morzine a couple of weeks ago. In attendance was Master Kenji Shimazu, one of the most prestigious and coveted martial arts Masters in the world. Morzine Source Magazine had very special and rarely given access to Master Shimazu, thanks to Angela White and Damien McArthur at Morzine Retreats, who hosted the group. We took along Morzine based videographer Will Nangle and photographer Julia Monteoliva to capture this one-off, very special event.
Kenji Shimazu is 76 years old and began his martial arts training aged 15. He now leads the Yagyu Shingan dojo, based in Tokyo. Entry into the traditional art is by invitation only. Yagyu Shingan is an ancient tradition of ‘Heiho’, which translates as a strategy and tactics form of martial arts, with an emphasis on old customs, weapons and fighting in armour. It’s also known for its lethal intent – students of Yagyu Shingan are trained to assassinate their opponents in three seconds by attacking their neck whilst wearing full body armour.
In Japan, Kenji Shimazu is a national treasure with a huge following. How did the group end up in Morzine? His assistant Sarah Lappin explained…
“We have 28 students on our Morzine camp and there are approximately 100 students in the school as a whole. Morzine is a very inspiring place to train and the team at Morzine Retreats have been most helpful in allowing us to shape and develop the camp. We’ve been using the judo hall in Morzine centre to train, but today we’re lucky enough to have access to Montriond’s stunning Domaine du Baron with views over the lake. We’re delighted by the support offered by the local community and Morzine is a fantastic location for martial arts camps.”
Whilst Sarah has just one opportunity each year to train with Master Shimazu, she also acts as his interpreter. Which was handy, considering my Japanese linguistic abilities…
Sensei, welcome to Morzine. Are you enjoying your trip so far?
“My wife and I are delighted to be here in Morzine. The wet weather and the fog over the lake today remind me very much of Japan, so I feel very much at home in your beautiful village”
Describe to me what your art is about, and what it represents…
“The Shogun’s of Japan employed swordsmen to protect the lands of their feudal lords. In ancient times, Yagyu Shingan was taught to foot soldiers and the techniques of the art were kept secret for hundreds of years. We kept the techniques secret in order to protect our lords, otherwise our enemies could use them against us.”
You’re teaching these techniques now in your dojo. Is it important to keep them alive?
“I must teach everything I know about our art before I die. My generation of Masters are exposing the techniques to a very small collection of committed students to keep them alive for future generations. We don’t want them to disappear. It’s important for history that they continue to exist, but I only teach the techniques to students with a pure heart.”
How do new students join the school?
“Usually students come to us from a Karate or Judo background. They discover Yagyu Shingan and want to explore the techniques further and they are interested in the history too. My school is not open to everyone however – we are a small group, very much like a family, and there is a strict initiation process. I will assess the character of new students, and once I am sure they are of pure heart, I will conduct an entrance ceremony.”
Do you imagine that your art will gain popularity in Europe because of your high profile visits?
“I don’t want the school to become too big. I have small numbers so I can teach them well. If we are too big, we risk diluting the quality of our techniques and skills, so Yagyu Shingan is only taught to students initiated in the school. Also, these are battle techniques – they are for killing, they are not a sport. They should never be misused so I keep my group small and trustworthy. If our techniques fall into the wrong hands, they could be both harmful and fatal. Many of these techniques you see today in this hall, you will not see anywhere else.”
We’re here at the Domaine du Baron in Montriond. What are your thoughts on the venue?
“It is magnificent and very different to our training halls in Japan. The space is perfect for our training and the acoustics are excellent also. I am very tempted to try fishing in the lake!”
As Sensai Shimazu heads back to his group for their afternoon training session, we settle down to watch a stunning display of acrobatics, sword skills and strength. On the shores of Lake Montriond, it really is a surreal experience. That is until Sensai picks videographer Will for a demonstration. There’s a collective holding of breath as Sensei slams Will with all his might in the stomach. He’s a small fella, but he literally does pack a serious punch. Sensei then demonstrates a technique called ‘kowami’ – preparing and training the body to deflect pain and defend itself. Sixty seconds later, Sensei repeats his body blow on Will, who uses kowami and doesn’t feel a thing. It truly is astounding.
Back in central Morzine, despite the inclement weather, the streets are packed with the usual crowd of muddy mountain bikers and soggy hill walkers; they all have smiles on their faces. And it gets me thinking… if 28 martial arts students can be so inspired by our little corner of the Alps, and if world famous Masters are travelling here from Japan, what else can Morzine host?
Morzine Retreats can accommodate and host group events for up to 28 people in 2 great chalets right next to each other all year round. For further information and tailor-made packages, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Huge thanks to Angela & Damien at Morzine Retreats for setting up our interview
Thanks also to Claude Augras at the Domaine du Baron for giving the group access to train
Will Nangle of Nangle Videography captured the whole experience perfectly in his video
Thanks also to Julia Monteoliva for all the images used in this article.
Learn more about Sensei Kenji Shimazu and his school on their website.