Born in the Aizu domain (Fukushima Prefecture),Sōkaku grew up in the time of the Boshin War. The second son of Takeda Sōkichi, a samurai of the Takeda clan who worked his farm and taught at a local school in a Buddhist temple. His mother, Tomi Kurokochi, was a daughter of Dengoro Kurokochi, a Yari and Kenjutsu master. It is believed that Sōkaku received his first martial arts training from his father who had a dojo on their property. Sōkichi was apparently expert in the use of both sword and spear, and had once been a sumo wrestler of ozeki rank. It is believed that Sōkaku was exposed to the teachings of Hōzōin-ryū Takada-ha and Ono-ha Ittō-ryū, schools of spear and swordsmanship respectively.
Sōkaku then left to go on a period of austere training where he travelled, fought and trained at the schools of many teachers, a not uncommon practise of the time. Reputedly, Sōkaku spent some time as a live-in student of Kenkichi Sakakibara, headmaster of the Jikishinkage-ryū and considered to be one of the most famous and skilled swordsmen of the era. Unfortunately there exist no known historical documents to confirm this relationship and so it is a matter of debate. What is known, however, is that Sōkaku engaged in many matches and duels with both shinai and live blades and was considered a swordsman of great skill in a period of time when such things were beginning to be forgotten.
With the outlawing of the samurai class and the prohibition against carrying swords (Haitōrei Edict) apparentally Sokaku decided to emphasize the empty handed, jujutsu oriented, techniques of his ancestor's art.These apparently were 'oshiki-uchi', or secret teachings of the Aizu clan, up to that point. These, along with other skills he had acquired, were combined to create an art which he named first 'Daitō-ryū jūjutsu' and later 'Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu'.
Sōkaku lived a somewhat itinerant life, travelling the length and breadth of the country giving seminars in martial arts to military officers, police officers and martial arts enthusiasts, often of high social standing. He left extensive records of those he taught in his eimeiroku and shareikoku - attendance and fee ledgers.
Sokaku trained in Daito-ryu under his father Sokichi. As for oshikiuchi he learned it for the first time from Hoshina Chikanori while studying under his mentorship at Tsutsukowake Shrine as an apprentice priest in 1876. In later years Sokaku would visit Hoshina often, including in 1898 when he spent some time at Ryozen Shrine in Fukushima prefecture, used as a dojo for esoteric practices by the Tendai Buddhist sect. There, under the supervision of Hoshina, Sokaku is said to have mastered the arts of divining time and space, the Mind's Eye and other magical powers, as well as the deepest secrets of oshikiuchi.
This is thought to have signified the formal transmission of Daito-ryu to Sokaku. Since that time Sokaku referred to himself as a practitioner of Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu and Ono-ha Itto-ryu swordsmanship. He began traveling around Japan teaching these martial arts and is revered as the "interim reviver" of Daito-ryu.
Taking over the role of headmaster of the art was Sōkaku's son, Tokimune Takeda, who established the Daitokan school in Hokkaidō to promote the art and renamed it 'Daitō-ryū Aiki Budō'. Tokimune is said to have contributed much of the teaching system which exists for the art today; naming and classifying the techniques and further simplifying the weapons component of the system. He emphasized the Ona ha Itto-ryu portion of the weapons curriculum over other elements that Sōkaku taught to some advanced students.
Sokaku's highest ranking students were Hisa Takuma and Masao Tonedate, both high executives of the Asahi newspaper in Osaka, whose own students established the Takumakai and the Daibukan.
Other important students of Sōkaku's were Yukiyoshi Sagawa, who some believe was the most talented of his early students, Kodo Horikawa (Kotaro), whose students established the Kodokai and the Roppokai, Kōtarō Yoshida, Hosaku Matsuda and Tomekichi Yamamoto.
Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu uses three main sets of techniques: jujutsu (hard); aiki no jutsu (soft); and the combined aikijujutsu (hard/soft). Hard techniques include strikes and kicks, soft techniques include joint locks and throws, and hard/soft techniques include combinations of both.
Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu emphasizes dealing with an attacker as quickly as possible with either a joint lock or a throw. The art is also characterized by strikes at deceptive angles and at pressure points in order to set up other techniques. Like many Korean martial arts, practitioners aim to use their attacker's momentum against them.