I just got back from a seminar with Mitsugi Saotome sensei (8th dan, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (http://www.asu.org)) in Missoula, Montana and I thought I'd share some of my experiences from it.
One of the reasons why I wanted to see Saotome sensei again so soon after the Summer Camp in the Rockies (http://www.boulder.asu.org/seminars/2000/sc2000.html) was that I had a good time training and talking with him then. The second reason was that I had never been to Missoula before and thought that it might be nice to go to a "new" dojo (for me, at least) and train with people whom I didn't know.
I hopped onto a Delta flight from here to Salt Lake City where I met up with Wendy Whited sensei of Illinois and had a nice chat with her about teaching methods in aikido (amongst other things) while waiting for our plane. "Big Ed," one of the students of Aikido of Missoula (http://www.aikidomissoula.com/), picked us both up and showed us around the town a bit before dropping Wendy sensei off at the place where she was staying and back to his place where I was staying.
Missoula is a small town nestled right up against the mountains of Montana and is quite beautiful. I hear the city where I live was like this 25 years ago and I have reason to believe it's true. Trails for hiking and mountain biking are accessible minutes away from town. The downtown area seemed like a four or five block area off of which the dojo resides about a block away. Interestingly enough (for a lack of a better term), Aikido of Missoula is situated in the Union Hall building right above a bar and an adult book shop. Right down the hallway is the New Party headquarters who seemed to be having some kind of meeting on Saturday night.
The dojo itself is a very wonderful space. The kamidana (http://www.aikidomissoula.com/Graphics/Aikido1.JPG) is made out of very beautiful wood and integrates the windows behind it into its design. The mat is a nice, firm canvas -- a surface that I personally like the most out of all of the other surfaces on which I have trained. There is a row of chairs along the righthand side of the dojo for visitors to sit in, and the back door opens up to let a good amount of airflow, especially if you manage to train near it!
The seminar itself drew about 80 people from many different places including Billings, Helena, Seattle, and other dojo. The number of participants made the mat a bit crowded, especially the dressing rooms. However, as long as we all watched out for each other and didn't go around throwing people down where you might fall onto someone else or get stepped on, things were pretty good.
Saotome sensei was in great spirits throughout the weekend and was in top form. Some people call him a "magician" in that he doesn't reveal his "tricks," but this weekend he was quite liberal at showing some of the more subtle details of his aikido. He repeatedly showed us some of his motions when he saw that we weren't doing them in the way that he showed.
One special treat for me was the fact that he taught two bokken classes over the weekend. Saotome sensei's bokken work is amazing to behold and goes beyond simply going over forms and movements. Rather, we worked on subtle changes of intent, timing, and distancing. Although he kept saying that what he was showing was "simple," I believe that simple things needn't be easy... I was fortunate enough to be able to work with George Ledyard sensei of Aikido Eastside (http://www.aikieast.com/) who helped me along with my bumbling weaponswork. I'm glad I remembered which end of the bokken to hold... Because Ledyard sensei is one of Saotome sensei's longtime students, Saotome sensei frequently came over to show us more personally the subtle details. More often than not, he seemed to be amused (sometimes laughing) at what I was doing (or, rather, what I wasn't doing) and seemed to be happy to let me see what he wanted.
We also went over a lot of empty-handed work, too, of course. Rather than focusing on the step-by-step movements of where the hands and feet should go, Saotome sensei focused more on how we carry ourselves in our techniques. For example, having tense shoulders, arms, and hands will translate to a feeling of aggressiveness and blocky movements. We worked quite a lot on the kokyu movement and experimented with it for a lot of different attack including katatedori, hijidori, katadori, shomenuchi, yokomenuchi, and mentsuki.
Saturday night, the fine folks of Aikido of Misosula went and put on a wonderful potluck party at Doctor James's house. The house itself was interesting for two reasons -- it was in the shape of a dome and it also housed a real bobcat downstairs. All in all about 80 people managed to come to the potluck party, eat and drink a lot, swap stories, get massages (of which I partook in a 30 minute massage for my shoulder and back), and generally have a great time. I think people are probably still eating leftovers from that party...
Sunday was a special day with three tests -- Eve and Patty for shodan and Kundan for sandan. It was evident that everyone testing had worked very hard for this day. The tests all went well and everyone passed. Saotome sensei received as a dojo gift a beautiful longsleeved shirt made by one of the dojo members, Holly. We all went out to eat at the Iron Horse afterwards where I had some pretty interesting conversations about Shingu and aikido in general with Clint George sensei from Helena, Montana.
As a personal aside for myself which turned out to be yet another special treat, Saotome sensei right after the test commented on how one should continue to maintain a relaxed yet effective hanmi even after the throw. He beckoned me to go up to demonstrate the different between having a hunched posture during a technique and maintaining a clean, good hanmi. He threw me into an effortless kotegaeshi that, after I flew through the air, landed in a breakfall, and got back up, I was probably about fifteen feet away from him. He also threw me a few more times into hijinage and another kotegaeshi, too. Hey, this was my first time being thrown by Saotome sensei -- quite fun!
All in all, I had a wonderful time at Aikido of Missoula and am very much planning on going back some time. The people at Aikido of Missoula including their head instructor Raso Hultgren sensei really put on a great seminar. I also had a good time meeting people from Helena, Billings, and Seattle; they were all a friendly bunch of people and fun to train with as well. I especially would like to thank Ed for being a wonderful host and sharing all sorts of wresting stories; Ed, I owe you a few muffins and some coffee the next time you pass through here...