So here I was, May 1985, half way round the world on a train surrounded by dozens of archetypal inscrutable oriental faces, and bound for a place I’d heard many stories of since I’d begun Aikido 4 years earlier. Here I was heading for Iwama, having arrived by ship in Yokahama 5 days earlier.
Before I started from Tokyo I’d memorized the Kanji name for Iwama so as to be sure of not missing the station, but in the event I didn’t need it as the station names had also been Romanized. It’s 5pm as I alight from the train, and amongst the dozen or so Japanese faces, also homeward bound, I see two other “strange” gaijin faces. They spot me and introduce themselves as Rod and Garnet, both Canadians, who have been studying Aikido in Iwama for 3 years. As they walk me the half mile to the dojo we chat and they pass on a few tips that may prove useful in helping me survive the first few days there. One of the most crucial is to keep my wits about me when Saito Sensei is about, as he has a reputation for being unpredictable, and that life in the dojo is a little like being in the army, you don’t ask questions unless invited to (even if you could)! When we arrive I am introduced to the current uchideshi at the dojo, almost all foreigners: 6 New Zealanders of which 4 are women, an Australian, a young Californian, Pat (now quite a well known teacher in his own right…. Patrick Cassidy), and 2 Japanese deshi.
I don’t have to wait long for my first meeting with Saito Sensei, as at that moment he rolls up on his bicycle and gives me a brief but friendly interrogation via one of the uchideshi as interpreter (did I have a good journey, what grade am I, etc). He doesn’t seem surprised at my appearance there, which is a mild relief (Stan Pranin of Aiki News had given the required introduction some weeks earlier on my behalf). As he heads off with a big grin, my rucksack is put in the small tatami’d room by the dojo and I’m briefly left to settle in. But not for too long as there is just time for a guided tour, which includes a run down on the “rules of the house”, of which there seem to be “several”!! Many seem to be related to the cleaning of the dojo, as it’s a very important ritual at the beginning of the day. It’s important to use the correct zoikin (cleaning cloth) for the shomen, and also the weapons on the wall, the correct broom for the dojo tatami, only the proper dustpan and brush for Sensei’s entrance to the dojo (through which we must never enter), the rakes used for the regular morning clearing of the fallen leaves from around the Aiki Jinja (the Aikido shrine), etc, etc. As I’m shown around I notice the kiwi fruit vines, and red Azaleas outside the dojo entrance, which add a welcome splash of colour, there are the old tyres in their makeshift wooden frames on which the big tanranouchi bokkens are used to cultivate power and focus, and here and there piles of wood and cuttings, apparently from some yet to be finished uchideshi job (something I would become very familiar with as a budding uchideshi!). The dojo itself is a very traditional Japanese style wooden building with wooden screens and tiled roof. At one end is O’Sensei’s own room which still has some of his possessions in it.
By this time it is fast approaching 7 o’ clock and more Japanese are arriving for evening keiko (practice), so I swiftly change for my first practice, pausing only to take note of the one and only cold shower in the changing area. There are about 20 aikidoka this evening, with the greater proportion being black belts of varying levels, and a few Kyu grades, both male and female. Two of note are Saito Sensei’s son-in-law, Umizawasan (a very solid guy), and Nemotosan, a compact but athletic 5th Dan who Sensei often favours for his demonstrations. After we have bowed in (you do your own warmups), Sensei always starts with Tai-no-henko and Morote-dori-kokuho, and then takes it from there. The first partner you have is the one you stick with for the whole of the lesson, so people tend to make a bee-line for their favoured partner. Tonight I get one of the Kiwi ladies, Maria, a well practiced blackbelt (who I think drew the short straw to baby sit me on my first session!). The practice is quite energetic and intense, with Sensei doing what he does best, i.e. focusing in detail on the development of a particular technique and its accurate execution, followed by possible variations in attack and response. As the newcomer for the evening I am the recipient of a number Saito Sensei’s famous “dammes” (= bad/not right), his way of pointing out a short coming. (Fortunately as the weeks passed these became fewer and fewer, partially because of my improvement, and also aided by the fact that the dojo often had at least one or two new faces showing up, so it was their unhappy privilege to “take the heat”…today it was my turn!). At the end of the hour (1 hour morning, 1 hour evening, plus any extra individual practice you care to do), I am happy to finish this – my first lesson. The mats I find are pretty hard, in that they’re the traditional straw tatami, under a modern plastic finish, and also I find that I’m prone to mat burns (which I take a few weeks to toughen up to).
It had been a long day, however it wasn’t over yet as Sensei announces that, as several people are to leave very soon, there would be a sayonara party for them in the shokodo (kitchen/dining room), which would also double as a welcome party for me. I just have time to change before joining the party with my present for Sensei (the inevitable bottle of whisky!). My first meal in the shokodo. It is here that the uchideshi share the cooking of their meals, and have the use of a fridge and basic cooking facilities and where they can sit at the long trestle tables and wooden benches to eat, socialize, learn Japanese even, etc. It was here that Saito sensei famously threw out a TV through the window in a fit of pique, presumably when some unfortunate uchideshi transgressed and got caught “red handed”. I notice that there is no longer a TV there now!! Sensei has done all the cooking himself, and tonight it’s the Japanese version of Spaghetti Bolognese, with Sensei’s own version of Bolognese sauce, and of course beer, shochu (a spirit drink made from sweet potatos -sitting between wine on the one side and whiskey on the other in terms of inebriation factor), whisky (Nikka Red I think it was) and some sake (my preferred tipple I think). There is certainly plenty to eat and it’s very good too. This is just as well, as it’s frowned upon to leave anything on your plate that Sensei has cooked, and that tends to go for the alcohol too! The only way to leave the table is with both plate and glass empty it seems.
Sensei tells his stories, again with the obliging help of an “educated” deshi, and of course there has to be the “sayonara nikkyos” for those leaving the dojo. This entails the victim receiving a nikkyo simultaneously on each wrist, (which puts them on their knees) whilst being fed a generous dose of whiskey/beer etc and is accompanied by much merriment from those fortunate enough to be mere spectators at this dojo ritual (but their turn will come!!). Saito Sensei’s face bursts into a huge grin at these occasions. At about 10-00 he takes his leave of us, and slowly the other Japanese drift off home, leaving only the hard partying uchideshi to carry on. I make my excuses too, and totter off to the dojo where I set out my futon for a well earned night’s rest. I’m happy to see that I’m not the only one to have called it quits for the day, as there are already a couple of sleeping forms on the mat, we do have to be up at 5-30 am tomorrow after all! So, sweet dreams till day number two.
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