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I Spent an Hour With a Shibari Bondage Expert—Here’s What I Learned

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  • By Misty Blue
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I Spent an Hour With a Shibari Bondage Expert—Here’s What I Learned

I didn’t know who’d be answering the door when I arrived at Seattle Shibari—or what would happen once I stepped inside. 

I Spent an Hour With a Shibari Bondage Expert—Here’s What I Learned

 

 

It’s more difficult than you’d think, to find a last-minute date to go see a man about Japanese rope bondage. Especially because I didn’t know who’d be answering the door when I arrived at Seattle Shibari—or what would happen once I stepped inside. 

 

I’ve always been ropes-curious, but also nervous. As in, can you get the BD without the SM? For right now, that’s where my curiosity lies, but I’ve never known who to ask, or how to make it happen. Enter Jonathan, a shibari bondage expert with a background in classical Japanese martial arts.

 

“Are you interested in ropes from the standpoint of tying, or being tied?” he’d texted the day before. “Mostly being tied,” I wrote back, immediately feeling a thrum of energy in my body. “But I’d like to learn a few things, too.”

 

He asked me to bring someone to practice on, but I didn’t want to bring a lover. Or any straight man currently married or attached. Or anyone who’d be potentially freaked out or triggered or judgy. So I settled on the wife of a good friend. Neither of us is attracted to each other, and yet there’s trust and affection. It seemed like just the right combination.

 

“Worst case,” I said just before knocking, "he’ll be a creep with too-long toenails and a rancid basement. Say the word, and we’ll make a run for it.”

 

“Deal,” she said. “My safeword is ‘red.’”

 

The door swung open to reveal a fit, clean-cut man with a winning smile, impeccable manners, and perfectly groomed toenails. He led us to a bright upstairs space with wide-open windows, billowing sheer curtains, and several wooden beams artfully hung from the ceiling.

 

Of course, I thought. It’s Japanese rope bondage. Aesthetics are everything.

 

 

Shibari isn’t an ancient art—but it’s tied to ancient traditions.

 

“My first introduction to rope bondage was more than 20 years ago,” Jonathan told us after offering us cool, fizzy water and cushions to sit on. “I was studying classical Japanese martial arts at the time. But that wasn’t about eroticism.”

 

Neat coils of jute lay scattered around us, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the heavy beams hung from the ceiling.

 

All the better to suspend you with.

 

“People sometimes think you have to know a bunch of fancy knots and techniques to be skilled at shibari. Or that you have to be trained in a mist-shrouded temple outside of Tokyo,” Jonathan said, laughing. “But that’s not necessarily true. You don’t have to do a ton of training, and you don’t have to suspend people from the ceiling in order for it to “really be shibari.” You just need to know some basic techniques.”

 

And then he went on to tell us about his background (which stopped just short of a mist-shrouded temple): 20 years studying classical martial arts, a minor in Japanese language, 7 years of shibari study—including twice-yearly trips to Tokyo, plus a deep, abiding interest in Japanese art and culture.

 

“Japan's a historically hierarchical society,” Jonathan continued. “So class distinctions were important. Imagine we’re back in the feudal period. There’s a samurai who's tied up because he was drunk and waving a sword around. Beside him there's a farmer who hasn’t paid his taxes. They're bound the same way, and the samurai thinks, "Well, this won't do. I deserve a more intricate knot.” So they began using more elaborate ties to distinguish crimes committed and social rank.

 

“Fast forward to the turn of the century. There’s an artist and photographer named Ito Seiu who really likes tying his wife. He's obsessed with bondage and the female form, so he starts studying old books, learning martial ties, tying up his wife, and creating paintings and photographs. That's really sort of ground zero for modern shibari. People think it’s an ancient art, but it really began in the early 1900s. Then skip ahead again, to the middle of the 20th century when underground S&M magazines become popular in Japan. They’re publishing pictures and writing stories, First I tied her, and then she became more and more aroused. And then I whipped her. So of course people begin tying for the photo shoots, and the art of shibari evolves even further. Skip ahead to five or six years ago, when Kinoko Hajime started making shibari art books. Now there’s this huge explosion internationally—even in mainstream pop culture.”

 

Of course I was listening—because who doesn’t like hearing about the history of erotic arts. But also. I kept looking at Jonathan, wondering How will he tie me? And what will it feel like to allow myself to be bound?

 

“So I had this background in Japanese martial arts,” he said, “and about seven years ago, I was dating a woman who asked if I could tie her up. Well, yes. But the ties I knew were dangerous and unpleasant. They’re not meant to feel good.”

 

So shibari ropes are meant to feel good, I thought. Who knew?

 

And that’s when he started studying shibari. “From the beginning, it was an artistic outlet for me. I get a lot of pleasure from creating something beautiful. Then of course there are the erotic and sensual overtones—the idea of erotic objectification.”

 

I shivered, wondering what would happen with the coil of rope lying next to me. What it would be like to consent to my own objectification. But I concentrated on keeping it cool, because I was there for Educational Purposes.

 

I was Doing Research.

 

 

Shibari is about connection and communication.

 

“Rope's an emotional thing,” Jonathan said, handing me a coil. “But in a situation like this—your friend is here, we’re not doing a scene together, we’re not having a sexual experience—how do I convey that emotional element? I want you to have a sensual experience. So I’m thinking, maybe you close your eyes, and I just tie you slowly for about five minutes? You can get a sense for what Shibari is, and how it might be different from the way you’ve conceptualized it?"

 

“Okay,” I said.

 

“What concerns do you have?”

 

“I'm sometimes shy with strangers, but I feel good with you.” I realized it was true, as I was saying it.

 

“How will you let me know if something I'm doing is making you uncomfortable?”

 

It took me a second to understand that we were having a conversation about consent. I immediately appreciated how clear he was. How clear he was requiring me to be.

 

“I’ll tell you it’s making me uncomfortable,” I said.

 

“You feel comfortable using those words?”

 

“Definitely.”

 

“Okay,” he said, moving from the seating area to the I’m going to tie you up now area. “I'm not going to touch your breasts or between your legs. I’ll tie your wrists together, and I might end up moving your hands up to your collarbone and wrapping rope around your body. How do you feel about that?”

 

“I feel fine.”


“Are you comfortable kneeling for two minutes or less?"

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay. Then I'm going to ask you to close your eyes.”

 

I knelt and closed my eyes. For a few seconds, nothing happened. I felt Jonathan’s body behind me, though we weren’t touching. I could sense his energy, could feel him breathing calmly. And then he reached around me and brushed a rope across my throat, giving me a feel for it. I heard the rope running through his hands and then he began to coil it around my neck. My hair was a tight squeeze in his fist. 

“That's a place to start,” I blurted, thinking something more like holy mother of god.

 

“I'm fine,” I said, to assure him (or myself?). But do people get nervous when you begin with the neck?”

 

“No,” he said quietly, his voice close in my ear.

 

I felt every pore in my body open up, as if on command.

 

 

Shibari Is About Headspace.

 

“You'd think a lot of people would freak out, having rope around their neck,” Jonathan said later. “It’s not something I’d recommend to beginners. But in my experience, people get very aroused. Or maybe they do get nervous, and that’s what's exciting about it.”

 

I nodded in a Very Intellectual Way so as not to broadcast the fact that I was clearly one of those people. Different time, different place, I thought.

 

“I think it elicits that response in people who want to have a submissive experience. So that's when the safety part comes in. The coil I made around your neck was loose enough that I could get three or four fingers beneath it. I was able to easily rotate it to create a sensation of touch. I didn't choke you; that’s not what it’s about. I just used it to gently move you.

 

“And while I was doing that, I was watching you. I wasn't looking at the ropes, I was looking at you. I'm looking to see: How do you respond when I pull the rope this way? How do you respond when I slowly move the rope around your neck?

 

I get a little wet, is what I didn’t say.

 

“What I think is really important for people to understand is that it's easy to exoticize foreign arts like shibari, which just means “to tie,” and kinbaku, meaning “tight binding.” But ultimately—though it’s a technical skill—shibari is really about a universal language of trust and intimate communication between two people. “

 

 

 

Shibari is about communication, not (necessarily) about pain.

 

Once Jonathan untied the rope from my neck, he kept me in a kneeling position. From behind, he brought my hands together, tying my wrists and securing them with a knot.

 

I remember his arms around me, and that he squeezed me a little, then stopped. He pulled my hands up to my chest, created an anchor point, and started wrapping the rope around my body. “Not following a particular form,” he told me later. “But creating even compression.”

 

As he tied me, I felt—strangely—more and more comfortable. Nothing pinched or hurt or rubbed or cut off my circulation. I’d wondered, going in, if I’d feel claustrophobic. I didn’t. I felt like was falling slowly, deeply into the bottomless well of myself. With my body restrained, I felt somehow released. Meditative.

 

“I didn't want to keep you kneeling for too long,” Jonathan told me, afterward. “I knew you were sitting in a position that was potentially uncomfortable, so that’s when I shifted you off your center. I moved you to a sitting position with your legs to one side. It wasn't accidental. I took you off your base, but I did it smoothly. That’s a way of establishing dominance. I'm moving you.”

Oh, I know, I thought.

 

As it was happening, it was like the fulfillment of a desire I’d never articulated: the state of being simultaneously objectified and cared for.

 

"Some people definitely like their rope painful," he said. "In a good way. We call it “semenawa” or tormenting rope. And we talk about good/pleasant pain versus bad/unpleasant pain. I prefer the term “intense sensation” to pain, because pain has such negative connotations. And because it’s more accurate.  Your nervous system ultimately processes most things as sensation.

 

“Generally, people have two different responses to rope. For some people, it’s very connective. Others just go whoosh, into a deep, interior state. Rope bondage can drop people into a different psychological space very, very rapidly. And that can be a profoundly intimate experience.”

 

“YES,” I said. “But at the same time, there was something tenuous. And that was interesting. Feeling off-balance, while completely trusting you.”

 

“Exactly. I wanted to introduce to you the feeling of being ‘contorted’; that’s the traditional word. I wanted your body to feel a little unnatural. That’s when I tied your foot and pulled that up some.”

 

“That part was so strange, but good,” I said. “Is he going to let me fall over, or am I going to be okay?”

 

“Especially with your eyes closed. But again, I didn't touch you. I was just looking at you the whole time. I wanted you to hear the rope coming through my hands. I wanted you to wonder, What's he going to do next? We didn't negotiate me manhandling you, so I manhandled the rope. And I conveyed that energy through the sound of my breath. That was purposeful. You're going to let me in while I'm doing this to you.”

 

“So then I tied your hair,” he said. “How did that feel?”

 

Hot as fuck, I said, but only with my eyes.

 

“Good,” said Jonathan.

 

 

There Comes a Point When You Just Give In.  

 

“People tend to really respond to their hair being tied,” Jonathan said, and no one on earth has ever said a more true thing.

 

After he tied my hair, he put the rope over a loop suspended from the ceiling and pulled. It’s a difficult feeling to describe: more like a scalp pull by way of the hair. From every angle, it felt good—and somehow connected to my bound hands, arms, body, and foot. There wasn’t one strand of hair that yanked painfully—and the lack of that sensation was a pleasure. The possibility and immediate release of a fear, maybe.

 

“I was watching your body language the whole time I was tying you,” Jonathan said when it was over. “Registering the way you responded. And for most of it you were sort of rigid—you weren’t nervous, but there was something.”

 

Um, me trying desperately to repress my sexuality?

 

“I tie people all the time, right? So I could feel some reservation. And I was waiting for the point at which you’d finally give in. It happened when I tied your hair. So again, it's not about the rope—it's about you. I pulled and I watched your face, and there was some subtle shift. Maybe the tension in your neck, maybe the angle of your head, whatever. But I could sense, Oh, now she likes it.”

 

Which, for the record, is the understatement of the century.

 

“So then I untied your hair,” Jonathan said. 

 

At this point, I was so deep inside myself that I lost track of where he was in the room. Once it was over, I had to ask him to tell me what happened.

 

“I came around to the front of you, and tied a square knot to the anchor point at your chest. That’s when you felt me slowly pulling you forward. There was this really wonderful moment when I felt your whole body sort of sigh. It was very beautiful. Just this sense of you being really present with me and the rope.

 

“And that’s what I was saying about communication. Shibari is about using touch and proximity and breath and eye contact and rope to create a link between you and the person being tied. It’s about feeling a certain emotional and psychological intensity traveling up and down the rope, back and forth between you. The body follows the mind, and the mind follows the body.”

 

Amen, Jonathan.

 

 

Shibari is edge play.

 

In the come-down after he tied me up, Jonathan pointed out that shibari can vary from really basic bedroom bondage, Hey, I want you to tie my wrists together, and that's super hot, to I'm going to hang you upside down by your ankles.

 

“That's risky and dangerous, even when it's done properly. If you want to go there, you do need a much more advanced level of training,” he said. “But as far as general technique goes, there's really only one element that defines someone as being skillful at shibari: the ability to control rope tension so it doesn’t loosen or tighten. The end. That's literally it.

 

“Creating even pressure is crucial for two reasons. First, it provides the feeling of being bound. And of course that’s a big factor in why people are here. They want to explore themes of trust and surrender. They want to (consensually) remove someone's agency, or give up their own.

 

“You saw that when I’m tying you, I'm not trying to hurt you. I’m not trying to shove you around—but I'm absolutely trying to make you feel bound. Because the experience of having slow, steady, consistent, non-oppressive pressure put on your body is really pleasant, whether you're wired as a top or a bottom. There’s a reason babies are swaddled when they’re upset.

 

“Which is just to say that people come to shibari for a variety of reasons—and usually it's never just one. They’re drawn to the visual aesthetic because it’s intricate and beautiful the same way bonsai and origami are intricate and beautiful. They think it’s hot to give up control to a partner, but they want to learn how to do it safely. They’ve been trying things at home, but someone’s arm falls asleep or someone’s uncomfortable, or something dangerous happens.

 

“People have the misconception that if they do everything properly, or they study hard enough, that it stops being dangerous. But shibari—especially once you get into suspension—is always edge play.“

 

“I can see that,” I said. “I trusted you completely, but I’d be really nervous to give myself over to someone unless I were really confident they knew what they were doing. Even with something as simple as tying my wrists.”

 

“I'm known, I think, as a pretty strict teacher. But so much depends on the details. They aren't useless. They're not random. Which is why I strongly believe that people shouldn’t learn shibari from videos. Sure, you can learn the knots. Do these three things to tie somebody's hair—but you can't learn to do it well unless there’s someone in front of you saying, ‘That's not quite right. You're going to pull their hair and it’s not going to feel good; watch, like this; let me show you; do you feel where it's uneven on the scalp?’ So I really encourage people to seek out qualified instruction. There's no board that certifies rope teachers, so you have to go by reputation.”

 

 

There’s a difference between consent and “good” consent.

 

“Good consent is informed,” Jonathan told me, when I asked him where people should begin. “I could ask if you want to get hung from the ceiling, and you could say yes. But if I don't tell you, ‘by the way, it's really dangerous,’ then I might have your consent, but not your informed consent.

 

“Good consent is revocable. At any time, you could say, ‘Hey. I changed my mind,’ and that’s fine.  

 

"Good consent is positive and enthusiastic. It's also time bound. Just because we consent to do some rope today, I wouldn't assume that you want to be tied later. I wouldn’t pounce on you at some party.”

 

“Which I appreciate,” I said.

 

But what’s also true is that I very much do want to be tied later.

 

Photo Credit: Stephen Dewhurst

Model: Mitsu

Instagram: @seattleshibari

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