Horse Archery, Shomogamo Shrine in Kyoto


Secrets of Systema Massage

Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a Systema class you will have seen at least some form of massage. Frequently described by its most senior instructors as a critical aspect of proper training, massage is used to encourage proper breathing, posture and relaxation.  With its practitioner’s use of everything from their hands and feet to wooden rods and even whips however, it can also be something of a daunting prospect.


I first meet Aleksej Sapronov while in Osaka with Daniil Ryabko for a two day seminar.  One of the foremost practitioners of Systema massage having learned directly from Mikhail since 2009, he is kind enough to talk to me while working non-stop for the whole of the event.  A stocky, rather intense looking man, he soon turns out to be friendly and approachable, with an infectious enthusiasm for his work, which he describes as an ancient Russian technique, for healing and rehabilitation.

His subject as we talk is a young man, maybe still in his teens.  I can see the pain on his face, hear it in his shallow, staccato breathing as Aleksej works down his spine with what appear to be a pair of horns.


‘You see this is hard, because not symmetrical’ he grimaces, as the horns sink impossibly into the space just above the young man’s hips.  Is he working with the spine?  ‘Not only spine…also the inner muscle, organs.  Everything is connected.’

I ask him if there’s any truth to the stories of relived traumas, intense emotional responses.  He nods.  ‘When the tension is released…sometimes there is much emotion.  Some cry, scream, laugh…’ – A conspiratorial look –  ‘some have orgasm.’

Putting the horns aside, Aleksej sets to work on his subject’s shoulders with short wooden batons, digging into the muscle there with deep, scraping movements.  The pain is almost tangible as we watch ripples of tension shoot through the prone body.  ‘See! there, the hands!’


As he works, Aleksej keeps up a kind of dialogue with his patient – ‘Your shoulders! the left one! relax here…breathe…don’t forget to breathe.’  Now he is working up and down the back with his fists.


The treatment ends with a series of light but somehow deep blows with a coiled whip, travelling from the soles of the feet to the shoulders and back again.  Finally, he lays it on the body and sweeps it lightly across, as if flicking away the last tension from inside.  ‘Now, he is empty inside,’ he grins, ‘he has nothing.’


Finally, Aleksej lays the whip on the man’s back in a curiously tender gesture, and leaves his patient to rest for about five minutes.  I ask him what hurt the most, and he frowns.  ‘The shoulders.’  What about the lower back?  ‘Yeah, that too!’


As he gets gingerly to his feet, I ask how he feels now.  ‘Fine,’ he tells me, and looks bewildered for a moment.  ‘Yes…very fine.’

The Power of Movement with Daniil Ryabko

In this two day event hosted by Systema Osaka, Daniil taught a series of exercises based around sensitivity, movement and working with the structure of the body.


Beginning with a typical warmup involving walking, breathing and stretching, Daniil added additional layers of work – first, guiding a partner around the room, then with their eyes closed, gradually minimizing contact as students tried to ‘sense’ their partner’s movement.  Finally, students allowed themselves to be taken lightly to the ground, sensing and following the direction given without resistance.  Daniil demonstrated that even with eyes closed, a partner was consistently able to track and follow his movements at close quarters.


From here, Daniil shifted his focus to talking about the connectedness of the body’s joints, how the body sources energy and movement and how this relates to breaking the opponent’s balance.  He emphasized the use of small movements to keep the opponent in a ‘zero point’ in which he is always trying to right himself and incapable of attempting any other movement.  Daniil stressed that this did not require him at any time to take the opponent’s weight.

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Daniil expanded this to include working with multiple opponents – leading to some great photo opportunities as students queued up to experience his movement first hand!

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Full gallery here


Abandoned Government Building

After a thorough search of the interior of the old onsen we headed back to the road and took a short bus journey to our second location.  As Florian finally began to open up about where we were going I realized it was a site I had seen before on a number of Haikyo blogs – an apparently disused government building sometimes called the ‘Institute for Labour Research’, although my guide was skeptical that anyone really knows what it was for.

Set back a little from the main road, the site is surrounded by trees and dominated by an unusual structure at the centre resembling an air traffic control tower.  In front of the entrance is a large circular opening above a vehicle entrance.  All entrances were sealed off with metal sheeting topped with barbed wire.  There were no signs on display and no obvious clues as to its purpose, although it was clear that someone had been coming to cut the grass and maintain the grounds.

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With Florian keen to stress that he didn’t ‘do infiltration’, we contented ourselves with a thorough examination of the exterior.  Balancing on a wall and peering through the windows to the left of the entrance I was able to see heavy boxes of files stacked almost to the ceiling.

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To the right of the main structure and through thick bamboo, I was able to scale one of the walls and gain access to the roof.  From there I could get quite a good view of the internal layout as well as a nice view of the surrounding mountains.

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I would have loved to drop down into the overgrown courtyard area but decided against it as I wasn’t entirely sure I could have climbed out again!

Many thanks to Florian at Abandoned Kansai for letting me tag along for the day.  Full gallery here.

Abandoned Hot Spring

My introduction to urban exploration in Japan came in November of last year when I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along with Florian, the man behind the outstanding Abandoned Kansai blog, as he revisited two locations to the south of Osaka.

We were already on a bus winding its way into darkly wooded hills when my guide told me our first destination – an abandoned onsen he cheefully referred to as ‘the deathtrap’.


Entering through an unboarded second floor window, we passed through a heavily vandalised tatami room and down some rickety stairs, past a bathroom that has collapsed into a sheer, three storey drop into a corridor of what must have been guest rooms.


On the next floor we found a small kitchen and sunken reception area.  Items were strewn everywhere, many of them still intact.  I had to climb down a completely gutted staircase and through a hole in the wall to get to the baths underneath.


Click for full gallery