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?

48th All Japan Aikido Demonstration

Day by day for the last two weeks the mats at Aikikai Honbu dojo have grown crowded as Aikidoka from all over the world trickled into Tokyo. They have come to view and participate in the 48th All Japan Aikido Demonstration at the Nippon Budokan.

Unlike previous years, this time I attended only as a proud papa and spectator. My main goals were to watch my daughter perform (my son had a science fair) and meet Ueda Shihan from Ise. Since I went with my daughter we arrived about three hours after the event started and then spent the better part of an hour trying to find her again (I lost the whole group right away) I didn’t actually watch much of the demonstration at all. Once the kids were sorted out, I received a phone call from Sensei and met him in front.

Having seen fewer demonstrations this year than at any event previously, I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I would have liked. The few that I did take I’ve posted below.

After the demonstration, I met Ueda Sensei and the Mie-ken Aikidokai group at the Tokyo Prince Hotel — the one below the Tokyo Tower. After a bit of wandering we found a nice izakaya there in Akasaka. Over dinner, Sensei’s perspective and wisdom flowed with the beer. As usual, when spending time with him I felt as though I should have been taking notes. His ideas about Aikido, life and education are fascinating.

Two younger men sat with us at dinner and sensei quizzed them about the demonstrations. He asked the younger of the two, a new shodan, what he had been watching at the demonstration. The young man replied that he had been watching and trying to learn waza. Sensei responded that that he was crazy to try. Rather than waza, he said, manners and behavior of the uke were paramount. He said to watch how they bow. Remember how the give and receive weapons. He was especially adamant that just observing how the more senior teachers sat and stood should be food for thought.

Later on, when discussing education, sensei mentioned that he was now of an age that no one scolded him anymore and he missed it. His point was that when a teacher or parent scolds their child they are showing that they care. They are providing life lessons and, sadly, once a person reachers a certain age, the mentors in our lives seem to disappear. Becoming an adult capable of self direction and self correction is what growing up is all about but, even so, a friendly slap on the back followed by a “WHAT were you thinking when you did that?” is something that one eventually learns to miss. He told me that he hoped Doshu would scold me more.

The next day we stopped at Tully’s while his students attended Doshu geiko. He very kindly said that though we only meet once a year, it feels far more frequent than that. I agreed but do wish that I could speak with him more often. As always, I appreciated the time sensei gave me and I take his words to heart. I will endeavor to incorporate his wisdom in my life.

Kagami Biraki 2009 / 2009年の鏡開き
January 18, 2009, 22:28
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Family, Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This year, I participated in two Kagamibiraki (鏡開き) events. The first was held at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo on January 11th. Ueda Shihan, my teacher from Ise, and one of his deshi, Kan Ishiguro (soon to be a Honbu uchi deshi), came to participate in a national meeting of Dojo Leaders and Kagamibiraki.

That morning, when we arrived at Honbu for Kagamibiraki Keiko, we found most of the uchi deshi and many others outside in the parking area. They were pounding mochi in preparation for the events later in the afternoon. As usual, the uchi-deshi were busting their butts doing most of the hard work (mochi hammers are big and heavy) while older, more experienced members stood around giving sage advice.

Ueda Sensei had asked me to chaperon Ishiguro-san and so I offered to be his training partner. I also suggested that if he really wanted to have a good time he should grab one of the scary old men and train with them. He agreed and partnered with a very talented 5th degree black belt who is a morning class regular. They seemed to have a very pleasant (hardcore) time of it. The dojo itself was crowded with visitors from all over Japan attending that weekend’s many events. It was not quite as packed as during the All Japan Enbukai but falling was still a challenge. Class ended early in order to prepare for the afternoon and we went to lunch.

After lunch, we went back to the dojo and got in line for the Kagamibiraki ceremony itself. The line stretched about 70 meters down the street. At the front, the “cooks” were preparing oshiroko (お汁粉: a sweet bean “soup” with a lump of mochi). There were so many people attending that local high school students had been recruited to act as shoe valets. We took off our shoes in the entrance of the dojo and were given a receipt. The valets parked our shoes out in a grid marked on the concrete of the covered parking area. They were expecting between six and seven hundred attendees. On the third floor, it felt as though that was an underestimation. The dojo was filled wall-to-wall with people sitting seiza in neat rows. Uchi deshi wandered around asking people to leave their bags and coats in the locker room. We spent more than a half hour waiting for the room to fill and the ceremony to start. It was long enough for most feet in the place to be completely numb by the time the ceremony started (almost broke my foot trying to stand at the end).

Osawa Shihan acted as the MC and there were speeches by Doshu and other officials. Announcements of the Kagamibiraki promotions from shodan to hachidan were made and representatives received their certificates. There was only one hachidan announced and he came in person. After the announcements, Doshu gave a demonstration (in a very small area) that included tachi tori, jodori and san-nin gake.

After the ceremony was over, I escorted Ueda sensei back to the train station. When I returned to the dojo, I found that tables had been laid out and sake and oshiriko was being served. The second floor dojo was less crowded, this was where children’s kagami biraki was being held. Megumi, Ray and Kokoro were all there and had already eaten. The kids were very pleased with themselves as they had both received promotions (Kokoro to Jun 8 kyu and Ray to Jun 3 kyu). I grabbed a bottle of sake and made the rounds pouring for parents and then the shihan present. It was comfortable and friendly.

The next day, the Nihon Budokan held its Kagamibiraki ceremony. Kagamibiraki literally means “opening of the mirror” where the “mirror” is a pair of loaves of rice cake used traditionally as New Year’s decorations. The splitting of the rice cake was a way for upper level samurai to share their wealth with lower ranked samurai and the celebration was supposedly an important time for renewing bonds between warriors (that’s what the lit distributed at the Budokan said anyway). At the Budokan a small army dressed in Samurai era armor paraded and the Dai Shogun split the rice cake with a hammer and wedge. The Fuku Shogun had the more pleasant task of splitting the lid of a sake barrel.

After the ceremony, there were demonstrations of Kyudo, Judo, Juken (bayonet), Karate, Iaido, Shorinji Kenpo, Sumo, Naginata and Aikido. The Kyudo and Karate demonstrations were both spectacular and the Sumo demonstration was fascinating. The lethal precision of Kyudo was as beautiful and terrifying as ever. The practitioners made all of their 75 meter-ish kill shots while projecting cool control. The Karateka were as spectacular as they were brilliantly vicious and gave what I thought was the most exciting demonstration of the day. Since I have been blessed with many opportunities to see wonderful Iaido in the US, I was not particularly impressed with the Iai demonstration, it was merely professional and clean. The Judo demonstration was actually boring. It was clear that the intent was to present the most basic elements of that art as executed by masters but, to me, it seemed to lack a sense of love of the art. The Shorinji Kenpo demonstration was so energetic it was almost spastic and very difficult to follow. Sometimes, it seemed to be little more than a wild punch-fest. Juken was very disappointing with only the most obvious strikes and responses demonstrated. The Aikido portion was excellent with demonstrations by both Yokoto shihan and Sugawara shihan (yes, I am biased but they were good). I missed the Naginata demonstration because I was changing into my gi.

After the demonstrations, there was common practice with students of all arts on the floor trainiing at the same time. While this was fun and actually quite a good class (lead by Yokoto Shihan with Honbu uchi-deshi as uke) it was a little frustrating for participants who had wanted to watch the other arts training. I was definitely hoping for too much! 😉

Happy rolling!

3rd Floor Dojo During Kagamibiraki Party

3rd Floor Dojo During Kagamibiraki Party

Yokoto Shihan 横田師範

Yokoto Shihan   横田師範

2nd Floor Dojo (Kids' Kagamibiraki party)

2nd Floor Dojo (Kids’ Kagamibiraki party)

Ray, Sugawara Shihan, Kanazawa Shihan, Kokoro, Me, Suzuki Sensei

Ray, Sugawara Shihan, Kanazawa Shihan, Kokoro, Me, Suzuki Sensei

Kokoro's new rank Jun 8th kyu (pre 8th kyu)

Kokoro’s new rank Jun 8th kyu (standard 8th kyu)

Lined up at the Budokan

Lined up at the Budokan

Daishogun Kabutu

Daishogun Kabutu

Samurai vs the tub of sake ...

Samurai vs the tub of sake …

The army

The Army





Nihon Kendo Renmei Iaido

Nihon Kendo Renmei Iaido

Sumo -- the flexible big guys

Sumo — the flexible big guys

Sumo -- stare down

Sumo — stare down



Shorinji Kenpo -- Japanese Kung Fu

Shorinji Kenpo — Japanese Kung Fu

Shorinji in space ...

Shorinji in space …

Juken (bayonet)

Juken (bayonet)

Aikido Demo (I'm in the fourth row on the left)

Aikido Demo (I’m in the fourth row on the left)

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”.

30th Annual All Japan Youth Budo Demonstration
July 21, 2008, 21:43
Filed under: Aikido, Family, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

Ray and I were on the train at 9:00 Saturday morning and met the Honbu Dojo youth group at the regular spot beside the Budokan. After waiting outside for a while and then waiting inside for a while longer it was time to dress and have lunch. Bento and tea were provided and the kids went a little stir crazy waiting for the program to kick off.

After standing for Kimigayo (the Japanese national anthem), there were several speeches by local, national and organizational dignitaries. I didn’t think this opening ceremony lasted as long as others that I’ve been through but then again, I wasn’t sitting in seiza packed shoulder to shoulder with a zillion others — Ray might have something different to say about the length of the speeches. After the ceremonial opening of the event the younger Suzuki sensei lead the whole mass of kids in slightly abridged set of traditional Aikido warm-up exercises.

The fourth grade through junior high age kids were then shooed off the mat and first through third grade students had a full class including ukemi, shiko and a handful of basic techniques. There were two other similar classes with Wakasensei teaching the fourth through sixth graders (Ray’s group) and Kanazawa sensei teaching the junior high school kids. Energy level and sophistication increased with each age level.

After the classes ended the enbu began. Students came from all over Japan to demonstrate how their schools do Aikido. There were demonstrations with one student and one teacher and others with large numbers of kids executing kata in sync. It was quite impressive and I was please with the overall level, especially that of the older junior high school kids. They did a great job!

I also found the kids-will-be-kids atmosphere in the stands fun. At one point I noticed a group of about ten kids huddled looking as though they were doing some serious plotting and planning. On closer inspection it turned out that one of the kids had brought a DS Lite and everyone was giving him advice on how to play. So much for observing the demos 🙂 At the end of the kids section Fujimaki Shihan, Sugawara Shihan and Doshu all gave demonstrations. The pictures below should tell the story better than I can describe it…

Fujimaki Shihan says its time to start the next demo!

Wakasensei shows the kids how Ikyo Ura is performed at Honbu.

Fujimaki Shihan controls the centerline…

A dynamic entry into Nikyo ura (ouch!)

Sugawara Shihan demonstrates iriminage.

Staying inside…

Doshu’s kotegaeshi

Doshu setting up kotegaeshi

This one is always a crowd pleaser –especially when the ccrowd is mostly kids!

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.

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