I went on a wild quest in Japan to find the birthplace of shiatsu. Can this master’s son fill his fathers shoes?
Shizutu Masunaga- Why he’s a big deal
Shizutu Masunaga invented shiatsu therapy. Obscure would describe the Oike Center (Masunaga’s clinic). A lot of shiatsu history took place there and Masunaga infuenced offshoots of other kinds of shiatsu such as Ohashiatsu and wastu. I recently made the pilgramage to Tokyo for an epic visit the birthplace of Shiatsu massage. To anyone interested in the history of shiatsu therapy, a quick background on why the Oike center is such a big deal.
Shizutu Masunaga revolutionized shiatsu. Master Namikoshi was the first to coin the term “shiatsu” which is translated as “finger pressure”. This finger pressure massage was based on Anma and Tuina which are the oldest Traditional Chinese Medicine based massages. Namikoshi branded and delivered shiatsu to the western world with his cool use of thumb pressure. A bit later, Masunaga came into the picture. He formulated specific treatments that blended concepts of western medicine, psychology, zen and enhanced the basic shiatsu technique that Namikoshi used. . Masunaga came came up with his own (extended) version of the meridian system. This is a HUGE deal. He discovered the the energy pathways used for thousands of years could be found in other places on the body. He created an “updated” version of our meridians which is similiar to our nervous system according to Chinese medicine. A new chart was drafted by him and used by thousands of therapists worldwide. He also was the author of many of the text books that can still be found in most shiatsu school programs all over the world.
Shizuto Masunaga invented the shiatsu technique
He introduced some pretty sweet moves such as massaging folks with elbows, knees and feet. He also taught therapists to work hard and be “shiatsu athletes”. He had boundless energy when he worked even into his old age and stretched people because it just feels good. He wore matching Adidas jump suits. Shizuto Masunaga was basically the shit. Shiatsu therapists aren’t known for their savy advertising skills so there was hardly any footage of Masunaga. But here is a rare video of him treating. Look at him go!…
Here is the (3rd Part) of a series of rare video clips of Masunaga Sensei teaching Zen Shiatsu to students during a trip to Canada.
Oike Shiatsu Center- really tiny and IMPOSSIBLE to find
Master Masunaga died in the 80’s and that was as much as I knew. I had no idea what he left behind as it remained a mystery. I was determined to find out! The curse of lack of time, marketing and self promotion plagues Oike. Out of all the places I travelled to in Japan, (including remote rural areas where no one speaks enlish for miles) this place was by far the most difficult to find. It took the help of 3 kind strangers, barging into a quiet office to beg for help and a heck of a lot of getting lost to find it.
FINALLY found it! Anyone expecting flowers, waterfalls, hot springs will be
pleasantly surprised. Yes folks, all those shiatsu books, posters and teachings of complete wellness came out of this mundane beige 70’s building. I would provide the address for you but there are no street names and building numbers are not chronologically numbered.
A sad looking elevator pulled me up. The office lobby The building and especially the elevator reminded me of your dad’s office is the early 80’s. The kind he got a “great deal” on commercial rent for and cared 0/10 how the place looked. It was beige, gray, functional and good enough.
I opened the clinic door and had visions of water features, hand crafted intense, Japanese flute music pouring through the hallway. I would open the door and a perfectly healthy looking admin staff would embrace me then in a hug after recognizing me as one of the foremost female practitioners in Canada. “Ah yes Sensei Kreitzer, we have heard all about you. Welcome!! Welcome!! (gazes into my eyes and bows in gratitude). “Let me pour you tea”
Back to reality… I creaked the door open and found no one. Literally the office was empty, silent and lifeless. Everything was a different shade of beige. I questioned whether I was in the right place ten times over in my head. Until I saw the man himself on the wall.
I took off my shoes and waited. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for as I hadn’t really thought about anything except for finding the clinic. There was only a little room with the texts that were printed in many languages. I myself studied them in college. There was a small kitchen. It looked very clean and efficient (like everything else in Japan). After a while of just standing around awkwardly, a man came out. He didn’t say anything, rather gave me the “What do you want” look. Borderline irritated. I excitedly told him that I was a shiatsu therapist from Canada and had studied and practiced Zen Masunaga shiatsu for over 10 years. He couldn’t care less and didn’t hide it. I dragged it out a little bit more- “I’m so happy to be here.” and “I came a long a way to find the clinic”. Birds were chirping. He seemed emotionless. “That’s my father” he said flatly. I had no idea who was running the clinic because literally none of my colleagues recently spoke of Masunaga’s
clinic. One keen senior therapist told me of his visit to the center when I first started my career many years ago. He let me know that it was quite small and when he went, he was treated by a female therapist. That’s all I knew. I had never heard of Masunaga’s son and had even tried extensively researching the clinic on-line and found nothing. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t believe him. This dude? Really? He also looked nothing like his dad. And his vibe was so lifeless. So exceptionally flat. Like a pancake. No, that’s too full. Like a piece of Japanese rice paper. “Do you want to book an appointment?” he coldly asked. At that point I snapped out of my over enthusiastic glee and realized I hadn’t planned anything beyond finding the place. Since my welcome party didn’t pan out, I figured, sure, let’s book a treatment. I had to wait 4 hours till it was my turn. “Worth it”, I thought. I excitedly approached Masunaga for a photo shoot. He really wasn’t into it but I laid on the pressure thick. He was about as excited as an overweight child being forced on a diet eating his first salad. Selfie time dude, whether you like it or not!
As I was about to leave, he motioned me to follow him. I was completely shocked… He was inviting me to observe him treating. AWESOME!
Observing Haruhiku Masunaga
The treatment room was very warm and I thought “how does anyone work in here. It’s sweltering!” There were 4 treatment stations in a medium sized room. There were no other therapists working while I was there. Each station was ready to go and neat. It reminded me of shiatsu training. Traditionally shiatsu is practiced on the floor and you learn most techniques there which never made sense to me because literally not therapist I know that has a busy practice treats on the floor in Canada. Especially since most of us incorporate acupuncture.
I had high hopes. He quietly worked on a female patient. I recognized these moves! He began by checking her hara. He massaged the meridians his father conceptualized. He used his elbow which his father brought to shiatsu.
He even used his knees to massage her hamstrings in a squat position. I noticed everything he was doing was just done once. He never focussed or spent more time on one area. Hmmmm, maybe she just asked for a tune up I thought. It was really great to see the master’s son still treating at the original center and using techniques we all learn in textbooks. I was so excited to have a treatment with Haruhiku. I was confident that this was going to be the massage of a lifetime.
Getting a massage from Haruhiko Masunaga
My turn! After a few hours I returned to the clinic to receive a treatment. When I walked in, Haruhiku was came to the door. He pointed to a closet and told me to get changed. I was horrified by what he was asking me to do. I saw an assortment of grandpa-pyjama outfits and picked the best of the worst. After having a good chuckle in the closet, I stepped out to get the massage of lifetime. This was bound to be the healing experience of a lifetime.
I entered the treatment room and it was empty again. Still several neat mats set up to receive clients but nobody else around for miles. I lay down at a station where there was a clip board. It was his file for me. It had all the makings of a typical shiatsu patient report.
Masunaga quickly entered. He got right to the work. Nothing was asked. No intake, no questions, nothing. I took the liberty of telling him that my shoulders where tense/painful. He nodded and moved on. He didn’t acknowledge my chief complaint. I thought, this guy must be such a gifted master that he doesn’t need to ask. He doesn’t need to follow the same basic communication all the rest of us dummies use. He’s on another higher level. He’s Masunaga for Christ’s sake! He palpated my hara (abdomen). This the method of checking the organ health. It’s a daily snapshot of how our internal organs are functioning. He went through the treatment using basic technique. At some point I realized it was totally familar. Firstly, it was the EXACT same treatement he did when I observed him working before on the female patient. Pound for pound, nothing was unique. I then realized it was the sequence that we had learned from the text book. Nothing about it was custom tailored to checking my hara or painful hara. He worked everything but nothing in detail. When he got to my shoulders, he breezed though them. There was something special about his touch. It was healing. His technique and the way he worked my body spoke of many years of doing the same thing. He was a shiatsu athlete and was agile. The pressure was not firm nor soft. It didn’t vary depending on what he was feeling. It was never adjusted based on the point. I had received much more incredible treatments by some of my collegues back in Toronto I thought. This is just “ok”. Not bad. Average. It went on like this for the hour. At the end something that has never happened in all my years of getting hundreds of treatments. I was exhausted. I have never felt as drained after getting any bodywork in my life as I felt after Masunaga’s massage. Never. I’m not adding a judgement to that. It was hard to get up. My body felt like cement. I’m fairly certain I the travelling around Asia caught up to me in that moment. I gathered my strength, got up and changed.
Haruhiku was waiting expressionless by his appointment book. He told me the cost softly. I paid the man. I realized that this guy had some big shoes to fill. Shiatsu to him was clearly a job not a passion. Just because someone is a master, doesn’t mean their child will be. Sigh. Look at John Lennon, Julian and Sean, case in point. I now understand why nobody had heard of Haruhiku. He was just another shiatsu therapist trying to make a buck. His dad just happened to invent shiatsu. Oh well, it was a fun experience. A women (maybe his wife) was in the clinic when I got up. I asked her to take one last photo. Haruhiku obliged but the distance between us signifies his annoyance with me at that point. I know, I know, it’s late and you want to eat and drink a beer. I felt it. It was a fun experience that I will never forget, even if the treatment was just ok.