Before I describe my training at the Aikikai Hombu dojo in Tokyo, let me go over the couple of etiquette points I accidentally breached as mentioned in my previous post.
The dojo on the second floor where regular classes take place has two entries: one for women and one for men. The first one is right after the stairway while the second one is, logically, located in the men’s changing room.
I’m not sure how this happened but somehow I entered the dojo from the women’s door. Immediately, a student rushed to me and informed me of my mistake in Japanese. I could tell something was wrong but of course I couldn’t understand anything. The student then explained my faux-pas in English. I apologized and sheepishly retraced my steps to enter the dojo again, through the right door this time. Not a good start. That same day, exhausted but thrilled by a good 4-hour training, I was lacing my shoes in the hallway near the entrance when an old man pointed to a sign (in English, to add to my shame) indicating that walking in shoes was forbidden in this area. I politely expressed contrition again and left the dojo. Man, what a great first day at Hombu dojo anyway!
But let’s finally dive into what training was like! First off, I was very impressed with the intensity of training, which came mainly from the students themselves rather than any explicit directions from the teachers. No matter with whom I was training there would just not be any timeout; no pause to recuperate, just repeating the technique at hand again and again until further instructions from the sensei. This would also apply to more elderly students who, regardless of their age, would take pride in not taking any break and just go at it with unfaltering fervor. Therefore, although each class was ‘only’ 60 minutes, it was actually quite strenuous.
On a side note, I must remark that the mats were really hard, much harder than any mats I have ever been on. During the first class I got a bit excited and entertained a few high break falls that were not entirely necessary. I was immediately sanctioned with massive bruises all over my lower back. The fabric of the mats is also quite rough so it’s easy to catch a few burns if you drag your feet too much. This was great feedback for me as it quickly forced me to adapt my ukemi to protect my body and be able to attend three lessons per day as I originally had planned without injury.
I always remember a particular story from one of the senseis whose seminars I regularly attend from the time when he was training under Morihiro Saito in Iwama. During a seminar he was paired up with a student he had never trained with before. This student was massively built and seemed to be out to get him. After receiving a few strong techniques clearly aimed at hurting him, my teacher felt he was going to be left injured if this was to go on any further. To calm the ardor of his partner he applied a particular version of shihonage that, while not harming the student, knocked him out for a few seconds. Needless to say, the student was less zealous after that.
Even with this sensei’s shionage trick up my sleeve, I was dreading to encounter such badass partners at Hombu but everyone I met there was really very kind and a pleasure to practice with. Despite the language barrier, interactions were smooth. After all, it’s Aikido, there’s not much to talk about, only techniques to be applied. Even with a high intensity and strong intention to be effective, I never perceived any malicious intentions from any of my ukes.
Teachers, even the toughest, were also very nice. A lot of them would even try to adventure a few English words to get their message across. One even cracked up the room with a classic “Sankyo very much!”. In most classes the teacher would come to students and apply the technique studied for them to feel it. However brief, this was invaluable experience. I especially enjoyed the technique from Kobayashi Yukimitsu.
Previous part (2/5): An Awkward Registration
Next part (3/5): Techniques
Photo: Kohechi trail in Kumano Kodo (Ki Peninsula)