Little House In Ise

A Meeting on a Bridge
November 26, 2010, 14:43
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
He said, “Like what?”
I said, “Well… are you religious or atheist?”
He said, “Religious.”
I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
He said, “Christian.”
I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
He said, “Baptist!”
I said, “Wow! Me too!
Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
He said, “Baptist church of God!”
I said, “Me too! Are you original baptist church of God, or are you
reformed baptist church of God?”
He said, “Reformed baptist church of God!”
I said, “Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of God, reformation of
1879, or reformed baptist church of God, reformation of 1915?”
He said, “Reformed baptist church of God, reformation of 1915!”
I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

— Emo Phillips
(NOTE: I first read this as an Isaac Asimov joke but the only internet reference I could find was for Philips.)

The more similar two groups are, the more their tiny differences seem to matter. That said, I recently met a man who has managed to put aside some extreme similarity between groups. In the process, he has also had to lay his ego aside in a way that I found even more impressive.

In order to preserve this fellow’s anonymity I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that while browsing through an Aikido blog I bumped into some videos that contained a familiar face. In the videos the familiar face was a black belt of the Yoshinkan and the person who I was aware of had an Aikikai white belt. This was almost enough to make me believe that the similarity was pure chance but when I saw him I asked. Sure enough, he admitted that he was the guy in the video.

My curiosity kicked into high-gear and I quizzed him all the way to the bicycle rack where we parted. Though I am also interested in the circumstances that caused him to switch to Aikikai, they are his and not the business of this blog. My interest is technical. It has been years since I have had a chance to study with a student of Shioda Sensei’s lineage and I am fascinated by the prospect of his perspective.

Even given my belief that everyone we train with has something to offer, I almost missed this opportunity because of the guy’s white belt. I don’t avoid white belts, I just tend to seek out sempai to train with. Please read this as a sign of selfishness rather than petty elitism. Because of that, I have been missing out on chances to work with someone with significant and different Aikido experience just because of the silly white belt and my perceptions! I hate it when trip over my ego!

It is this man’s defeat of ego that has most impressed me. It turns out that the guy not only had a black belt but he was a fourth dan. He chose to go from fourth dan to white belt… in the same art. Though pursuit of rank is not my reason for being, rank progression does have its importance. Ranks are useful for setting goals, can be handy for guesstimating energy level at which you can safely work with a new partner and are a fine way to honor effort and accomplishment. To be honest, I don’t know whether I could put down my own rank and start over from zero in another branch of Aikido. This guy did exactly that.

Pushing heretics off bridges is getting harder every day.

Weapons Training at Honbu: The Kinjo Meiwaku Theory
November 24, 2010, 12:27
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In some parts of the Aikikai discussion of weapons training in can sometimes cause almost religious levels of dispute. I have heard very serious Aikidoka tell me that O Sensei “gave” weapons to Iwama but not to Honbu and that, in some way, proves the superiority of Iwama flavored Aikido. Without getting into the “what is better” or even “what is closer to tradition” arguments. I would like to propose a theory as to why weapons are not typically taught at Honbu.

Aikido Honbu Dojo (its official name) was built in Ushigome Wakamatsu-cho (later just Wakamatsu-cho). Despite the name (牛込:”ushi gome” means “crowded with cows”) the area was residential even when the original dojo was built. Now the neighborhood is packed with single-family residences, multi-story condominiums (called “mansions” in Japanese) and apartment buildings.

The residential Tokyo feel of Honbu contrasts strongly with the Iwama dojo which is nestled in a farming area slowly evolving towards being more residential. The neighborhood has many large vegetable patches, flower and traditional gardens as well as the occasional rice paddy and working farm. The area is also relatively thick with trees and the nearest neighbors are more than a stones-throw away.

Compared to Tokyo, Iwama is spacious and open. So much so that outdoor weapons training is not uncommon. The high ceilings and light fixtures at Honbu show that when it was rebuilt in 1967 someone had been thinking about swinging weapons. Even so, there is no space outside for students to do similar outdoor practice. If anyone were to do so the neighbors would be irritated and uchikomi (striking) with bundles of bound sticks or car-tires would certainly draw protests.

At the start of normal classes, which may be the loudest portion, the windows are closed to minimize disturbance to the neighbors. Also, in most flavors of Honbu Aikido there is very little use of kiai or other yelling. In fact, people who grunt or make “Ha” sounds are discouraged from doing so. Quite the opposite is true in Iwama where shouts of “Hap!” and “Ho!” are the norm especially during weapons work!

It is my contention that it was merely a matter of being a good neighbor that caused Honbu to go down a path of not teaching weapons extensively. Later, courtesy likely became custom then finally policy. There are still weapons requirements for testing at Honbu and one can occasionally see Doshu practicing suburi privately, so, it is possible to say that weapons are still an element of Honbu Aikido though certainly much less than in Iwama.

Based on this reasoning, there are clearly elements of modern Aikikai Aikido that are more closely linked with environment than with the philosophy or martial spirit of the founder. This then raises the question, what else? What other aspects of Aikido technique, teaching or logic may have been changed to suit differing environments?

More Sweat — Less Foam
August 11, 2008, 12:31
Filed under: Aikido, Expat | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A mob of world-class martial artists is generally what it takes to make me to speak in public. The Aikikai Honbu Dojo morning class is exactly that and they easily forced me to make an off-the-cuff speech. As a result, a nice French(ish) restaurant in the heart of Shinjuku was the scene of multiple crimes against the Japanese language. Luckily for all present, there was no karaoke involved.

The party was nice and the food quite good. Drinking and chatting with the various Aikido celebrities who frequent ichban geiko (一番稽古 : practice number one) was cool and revealing. Among the revelations was that two of the pretty young women of morning class are the daughters of a seventh dan shihan, morning class regular. I had wondered if they were sisters but it hadn’t occurred to me that they were more than figurative members of a powerful Aikido lineage. Aside from being a bad-ass (Nehru jacket, goatee and all), that shihan is a very proud father and, just recently, a grandfather. Oddly enough, these are not the sort of insights one picks up when being twisted and thrashed into a sweaty pulp.

I poured many drinks that evening. More than merely mimicking a Japanese custom, it also served the purpose of being a friendly conversation starter and ice breaker. Since working crowds is not really a great skill of mine, I only made it halfway around the room. However, I did pour for Doshu and chatted with him briefly. It was small talk but was nice to feel that he was making an effort as well. It didn’t occur to me until later that I probably should have asked him for an interview. Ah well… next time!

Near the end, Doshu addressed the crowd offering thanks to individuals and groups for acts of personal and organizational kindness over the last year and then he got to the good stuff — Aikido talk. OK, it was a party and he had a few drinks in him but he did offer one bit of martial wisdom: When on the mat, train hard and sweat, moving your mouth only makes foam. So, in a nutshell, he said, “More sweat — less foam”.

Mystery Solved — Revisiting Summer in Hell
June 11, 2008, 16:32
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: , , , , , ,

The first time I visited Aikikai Honbu Dojo was the day after the 45th All Japan Aikido Demonstration. The mat was packed with aikidoka from all over the world and the day was hot and humid. Even given the conditions, Doshu ordered the windows closed during practice. I had been told that he felt that students should “feel the seasons” when training. That may be true, but the real reason for closing the windows was more practical: he was being a good neighbor.

Though the Aikikai Honbu Dojo, in both of its incarnations, has been on the same spot since 1931 (the current dojo was built in 1967), the neighborhood has changed with the times. Most of the surounding buildings are mansions and so there are certainly many dojo neighbors who wake daily to the arrhythmic percussion of falling bodies. From street level, the thumping and thudding can be heard clearly so mansions at the same level as the training spaces must be almost as noisy as the dojo itself. Closing the windows is probably the nicest thing Doshu can do to improve life in the neighborhood but it makes for steamy classes.

Tokyo’s dripping summer heat has yet to start simmering in earnest but, for me, the best feeling of the season is breeze through my dogi on my bike ride home.

The Destroyer
April 3, 2008, 11:28
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

I’m not in the good old boys club. I’m neither good enough nor old enough and one out of three doesn’t cut it. Getting older seems to be working for me so two out of three may be possible eventually. As for “good”… that’s another story…

Since I’m not in the good ol’ boy group that Doshu regularly greets and jokes around with, the fact that he was very solicitous about my health this morning made me nervous. As my partner for the day and I were starting out, he walked up to me and said, “Be careful, I’m not sure why but, be careful.” It turns out I was training with a man Doshu has, apparently, nick-named “The Destroyer”.

Aikido has its fair share of jerks and Honbu is no exception. The Destroyer is the first one I’ve met here. He was definitely rougher than most people that I have worked with here but the thing that set him apart was his determination to make me fail. I don’t mean that he just fought techniques, he fought them in ways so that they could never be made to work without using significant force.   He then acted as though it was my Aikido that was at fault.

People who let their personality problems influence their training and Aikido are more than a pain in the ass, they are dangerous. Sadly, these people are not as rare as one would like. Usually these wastes-of-effort are just a few minutes out of my life and I can move on. At Honbu, however, you’re stuck with your bad choice for an hour. When it’s good it’s very good but the other way is true too.

Assholes are a fact of life and Aikido too. They are a big enough problem that I have been in seminars where the topic of “self defense” was presented with regard to dealing with jerks in the dojo rather than on the street. As with the infamous street, the secret to survival with a jerk is awareness. If you can avoid them in the first place, do so. If you can not, set you limits verbally and up front. If they pass your limits, walk away. Training as though your life depends upon it is a great philosophy but training with an untrustworthy nage really could put your health at risk.

During class, Doshu approached my partner a couple more times and cautioned him. Doshu pointed out that making a training environment that everyone could enjoy was his goal. From that point on my partner spent the class watching out for Doshu and only being an ass when he thought he could get away with it. For my part, since I didn’t trust him fully, I stayed soft and over-committed my ukemi so as to make sure that I was in control of every fall. Shihonage was my only real worry and, oddly enough, Doshu was nearby during that technique. Fancy that! So, from the health and safety perspective all turned out well. From the training perspective, not so much.

The nicest part of the whole thing was leaving the changing room and bumping into one of favorite teachers. He was looking into the dojo and scowling. “The Destroyer” was throwing someone around rather roughly. This sensei explained the nickname and its origin. He turned to me and in English said, “Don’t be bothered with him, he is stupid.”

Bad Ass Bio-Mechanics will Play with Your Head
February 26, 2008, 09:56
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

On my first day at Honbu, David, one of the senior foreign students
warned me not to practice in the corner of the mat to the left of the
shomen. That’s where all the really old guys do their stuff. He warned
me that the guys there play with your head as much as your body. I
laughed and filed it away as a cool saying.

Recently, one of the older (late 70s maybe?) students asked me
if I’d like to train with him. This fellow has been through multiple
knee surgeries and has had both replaced with metal parts. His knees
don’t bend and he can’t sit in seiza. He warned me in advance that he
does not do ukemi and we would have to go very slowly. Mostly I was
concerned that I would hurt the guy. I needn’t have worried.

He insisted that I go first, I think he wanted to see how I moved,
unbiased by his opinions of how technique should work. We started with
me slowly not throwing him and him slowly tossing me about like a rag
doll. At first it was pretty typical stuff until he made a sort of
Yoda-pulling-out-his-light-saber transition. He would drop me and
proceed to completely lock me to the ground. He insisted that I fight
all his pins… I now know what butterflies feel when added to a bug
collection. Aside from his wickedly effective pins, he also was able to
take my balance from a moment after contact was made. There was no
mystical Force at work here. The guy knew how to gently steal my balance
and keep control of it. He repeatedly showed me that the muscles in his
bicep were slack while preventing me from moving or escaping. For
kotegaeshi, he used two fingers on one hand to hold me down and the
other hand to ward off kicks.

After class, David, who had given me the very astute warning walked up
saw what was likely a dazed expression and said, “I told you! They mess
with your mind as much as your body!” He laughed at me and wandered away.

Fortunately, Patrice, another one of the foreign students, was hanging
out in hope of a little extra work. We threw each other around long
enough for me to feel as though I had not completely lost my way.

Shoshinsha Mark
February 20, 2008, 14:07
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

Shoshinsha Mark

The shoshinsha (初心者 : beginner) mark is green and yellow chevron used in Japan to indicate that a person is new at something. This originated as a mark that could be attached to cars so that other drivers would easily recognize drivers who were new to the road. Whether this actually works to reduce traffic accidents is anyone’s guess but culturally they have become a pervasive concept. I have seen newly hired cashiers at the super market with little chevrons on their name tags to indicate they are noobs. This is a culturally specific icon that I would like to see exported from Japan.

If you study Aikido long enough you will come across the idea of returning to shoshin or returning to basics/the beginning. There are quite a few interpretations of what this means but the one that I cling to is this. Even if you have achieved some level of success at something, don’t get cocky. Don’t let your ego swell as it will likely just get in the way of further progress. If you train with someone who is lower or even much lower than you in rank there is still a lot that they can teach you. To learn you need to actively look for what they can teach — as with anything. It may not be technique or ukemi that they teach you but there is something that can be taken away from most situations. I can’t claim perfection. My ego puffs up at the slightest compliment which usually causes my next techniques to look like a pile of ass.

A little shoshinsha mark on the end of my belt would be an ongoing, physical, reminder to _me_ that I need to return to basics, that I am a beginner. Practically, it might also reduce the in-dojo pile-ups.

There is a university gasshuku (合宿) being held at Aikikai Honbu this week. There were so many more bodies on the mat that we needed four ranks plus stragglers to get everyone in rather than the normal three (plus stragglers). Most of these folks were young, energetic, excited to be at honbu and raring to go. So there were a lot of really pumped up college kids moving fast and throwing bodies around. At one point, my uke threw me in such a way that I tripped, backwards, over another pile of four that had been created in a previous collision. There were no injuries but many apologies. It also was the origin of my idea to put a little chevron on the belts of people who are beginners and those who need to remember that they are beginners.

Happy rolling!

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