It seems like stating the obvious but Japan is very traditional. This is something you feel strongly wherever you are there. From the salarymen hanging out in bars late at night out of loyalty to their boss to the strict etiquette of public baths (onsen), everywhere in Japan you can feel this invisible power regulating the tiniest details of society. After visiting Miyajima I even read that deaths and births are not permitted on the island to preserve the purity of the Itsukushima Shrine. Interestingly, those ancestral traditions blend somewhat perfectly with the cutting edge technology that makes Japan one of the top world economies, like two sides of the same coin.
As you can imagine, I was feeling rather anxious to visit the Aikido Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. Aikido is deeply rooted in the Shinto religion, the oldest source of Japanese culture and traditions, so there was something almost sacred about visiting its headquarters in Japan. Beforehand I had read a lot of about the etiquette at Hombu Dojo (I recommend this very good guide by Guillaume Erard if you are planning a visit) and I was terrified to break one of the rules listed there. And, of course, I did and not only one.
As fate would have it, I arrived late for the first class I wanted to attend. Silly me, I took the subway in the wrong direction. Amazingly it was the first time it ever happened to me in Japan since I had arrived 3 weeks ago. I scrupulously followed the instructions from Google Maps but, as weird as it sounds, there was an error. Long story short, I arrived at the dojo at 6:45 AM when the class was starting at 7:00. To complicate things, the registration didn’t go easily.
My dojo in Amsterdam belongs to an Aikikai organization but has no direct connection with the Aikikai in Japan. It doesn’t register kyu ranks with the Aikikai and, cherry on top, I never even received an Aikikai membership number. I had read on the site aforementioned that this wouldn’t be an issue: I could just register at the Aikikai at the Hombu Dojo like a total beginner. But the employee had a different idea: “You cannot train here if you are not from an Aikikai school”. I turned pale. No aikido in Japan! That couldn’t be. I heard of Aikido politics before but never thought this would ever concern me – after all, aren’t we all practicing the same martial art? I never encountered anything like that when I was practicing Judo. There was one style and that was it. Sometimes I think that this undisciplined diversity in Aikido stems from the lack of objective appreciation, a negative side effect of having no competition. Not that I would ever defend introducing competition in Aikido, but it would be nice to be able to differentiate between show ponies and work horses. This reminds me of the scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai where the characters are testing samurai candidates by sneaking up on them and trying to hit them with a big wooden stick. Imagine testing Aikido senseis like that! Anyway, I pleaded my case as best as I could, trying to explain that my dojo was the real deal, Aikikai and everything. Obviously, I refrained from mentioning anything about Iwama as I knew it would have done me in. Finally, the employee reluctantly agreed. I quickly filled in the form to register and paid everything, the membership and the classes for the day, but it was now already 7:05.
I showed my phone to the employee to express my concern about my untimeliness but he just shrugged: ‘don’t worry it’s fine!’. Not a problem for you, I thought, but what about all those heads that will turn in my direction and shake in disdain. ‘But… are you sure?’, I hesitated. ‘Sure, just go’. I thought I would really start to get on his nerves (especially after the awkward registration process) so I just went upstairs to assess the situation. The sensei was already on the mat and the class was about to bow in. Nope, I thought. I just turned around and shamefully came back to the clerk. ‘Sorry, I think it’s too late, I will just come back for the next class at 08:00’. At this stage I could see from the disappointment in the employee’s eyes that I had burned all the bridges between us. My first encounter with anyone at the Aikikai and I blew it. ‘Ok’, he finally said, handing me at the same time the fees I paid for the day. I didn’t ask why he couldn’t just keep the money and let me come back later, although it was burning my tongue. Later, I understood though: you pay the fees for the day when you first come. If you attend multiple classes, you just tell the employees that you already paid for the day. Had I come back at 8:00 later that day and told the new employee (they change often) that I already paid, it would have lead to another awkward interaction. In a way, he did me a solid. On that I just went to have a coffee at the nearby Tolly’s, still wondering whether I would finally get to train in Aikido today.
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Photo: The great Torii of Miyajima (Itsukushima), Japan