I just came back from the Aiki Expo 2003 and I thought I'd write up some of my experiences from the event.
Last year, I decided to drive the 13+ hours it takes to get to Las Vegas but I thought better of it and actually booked a flight for Friday morning. The Expo this year had classes starting on Friday afternoon into the evening; last year, the classes were held only on Saturday and Sunday. Also different as far as scheduling went was there was a short period of time for lunch where, last year, there were absolutely no breaks in the class schedule. Each class lasted a bit longer, clocking in at 1.5 hours each with thirty minutes in between. Also, there was a two hour dinner break in between the end of training on Friday and Saturday and the demonstrations; last year, there wasn't much of a break and the demonstrations were held on Saturday and Sunday.
On Friday, I decided to go back to take a class from the instructor whom I "majored" in last year -- Kenji Ushiro sensei (7th dan, Shindoryu Karate). Upon walking into his class, I noticed a lot more people from his dojo; last year, he only brought his son and daughter whereas, this year, he brought about a dozen folks from his dojo of various abilities and levels. Ushiro sensei recognized me and proceeded to use me as "uke" for pretty much the whole class. I received more than my fair share of pressure point applications, throws, joint locks, strikes, and kicks; I almost had the wind knocked out of me at one point.
Throughout the weekend, Ushiro sensei continued to emphasize the necessity of developing one's "kokyu" which, although literally defined as such, didn't mean just "breath." Rather, Ushiro sensei also described it as sending one's "ki" through one's body in such a way that our natural facilities such as breathing do not get interrupted. When we do something that breaks our physical breathing, we're obviously doing something that does not lend itself to efficient and effective movement. In addition, when our intent is set upon doing "something" to our partner, whether it be punching the bejeezus out of them or just pushing apart their outstretched fists, there is a level of communication that occurs that enables our partner to read our intent and, therefore, counter it. In addition to "kokyu," Ushiro sensei also emphasized the need to use the "power of zero" or to move in such a way to neutralize the opponent's strength/power. This, to me, really meant movement combined with timing to efficiently go to a place where our partner feels that they have been defeated, even just from the movement/timing itself. I got to train with many of his students, all of whom were very courteous, informative, and good; one gentleman (who I believe is one of his senior students as he was one of the people in the very front for their Sanchin kata during their demonstration) gave me much attention during the first class. A very nice set of folks.
Another person whom I was interested in seeing this year was Tetsuzan Kuroda sensei (Headmaster, Kuroda Family Bujutsu). Succinctly, the man is amazing. In the class that I took with him, he first outlined the theories and principles he wanted to go over which included such things as "musoku" (not using one's feet), "juntai" (moving with the whole body in the same relation/shape with the rest of the body), and "ukimi" (floating body). The exercises that he presented seemed designed to allow the practioners to use their partner as a sort of feedback system so that they could recognize the presence or the absence of the above principles. Some of these exercises included practing "juntai" by sitting in seiza next to your partner (shoulder to shoulder) and "falling over" into your partner. If I used my shoulder to try to push them over, my partner would feel it and naturally resist; if I let my entire body move as one, it would be hard for my partner to register how to fight against it. Another exercise was to stand in a sort of hanmi then switch hanmi by bringing the back foot up first and then drawing the foot that used to be in front to the back. Here, a partner would sit and take hold of the calf of the front leg and the person standing would try to switch their stance. If the calf muscle "fires," then it is easy for the person holding the leg to feel it and keep it from being drawn back; if, on the other hand, the front leg presents no such observable difference, then it is easy to draw the foot back. Kuroda sensei demonstrated some of his iai and his jujutsu which were all incredibly fast, soft, and effective.
During one class over the weekend, I was sitting in the bleachers during Vladimir Vasiliev's class (Systema) when my teacher, who was also watching, said to me, "Let's go down and try this out." Vladimir was showing in that class how to escape from headlocks and other joint locks. He noticed that my teacher had gotten onto the mat, came over, and thanked him for participating and trying it out. My teacher then asked him to show him what he was teaching and Vladimir happily obliged. I also got to feel Vladimir a few times during that class including a minute or two where both my teacher and I were attacking him at once, trying to lock him up. Later, my teacher said, "There was nothing I could do to lock him up. As soon as I started to apply something, he just 'slithered' away..." Vladimir's timing, ability to see and exploit openings, and capability of transforming his body into some very interesting wave oscillations (to produce other openings that he could take advantage of) were utterly incredible. During one demonstration, he basically just put his foot into places where his partner would need to step, thereby already occupying their strongest place and causing them to fall; the timing, location, subtlety, and variety within this one or two minute demonstration was nothing short of breathtaking. All in all, I found Vladimir to be very effective in his art, an interesting teacher, and an approachable person -- always very nice to encounter.
Another class in which I got to pair up with my teacher was during Katsuyuki Kondo sensei's class (Menkyo Kaiden, Daitoryu Aikijujutsu). Kondo sensei came jogging over to our corner when he saw us training and said to my teacher, "Sensei, since you're here, I'll do a few special techniques!" He went back to further illustrate some points in the technique that he was doing (basically something close to hijinage/tenbinnage/hiji-ate), then came back to tell my teacher, "I wanted to show you a few special techniques but I've reconsidered since they're pretty difficult; but, here, I wanted to show them to you" and grabbed me to take ukemi. One was an interesting sequence going from something close to nikyo to yonkyo up to a mix between yonkyo and sankyo, then a throw, then a joint lock; I think it's sufficient to say that I was in enough pain that I wondered if I looked like a fish flopping out of water when he applied the last pin/lock with me on the ground... The other technique, he explained, was part of their set of techniques that existed in order for the art to be effective against people in other arts like karate; in this case, it was from a judo hold with my grabbing him on his shoulder with one hand and underneath his opposite side elbow with my other hand. He somehow released both of my holds, went behind me, and took a "cross" like grab with the hands crossing over behind me to hold onto the lapels while he broke my balance backwards; the result was the only thing holding me up with the lapels which were wound tightly up and around my neck -- a very effective choke. (It may also have been a strangulation but I wasn't too aware of what was going on as I was too busy tapping the heck out.) Kondo sensei also demonstrated these techniques on my teacher as well. We also practiced other techniques reminiscent of ikkyo, nikyo and yonkyo which, of course, I had to endure my teacher doing onto me. All in all, a very painful but educational class.
I also went to Ellis Amdur's "Art of Ukemi" workshop where we dove into his theory of, "There is no such thing as a back fall." His thought was that when we take a back fall, it should be an option that we _choose_ to take; in other words, we have to assess the situation and only take back falls as the very last option. We worked on the basic front fall where we fall forward onto our forearms with the hands basically creating a triangle (between the index fingers and thumbs) under our nose. We then used this to practice taking ukemi from ikkyo so that we got out of the habit of propping ourselves up with only our hand but, rather, using our entire forearm to absorb the fall. I do this pretty naturally as the ikkyo that's practiced here at my dojo has a very strong downward component. Ellis then had us work on his method of taking a back fall. Basically, if we were in a right foot forward hanmi and needed to take a back fall, rather than "tucking" the left foot behind and over the centerline to our right, we'd put our left on the left side of the centerline, keep "live toes" (ie left foot with the toes underneath and on the ball of the foot rather than with the instep touching the ground), rock back on the left foot from toe to heel, then go down by putting our rear end on the ground and rocking back. I think I do a version of this at times so this wasn't very weird for me. We then delved into taking a front roll and then spinning back very quickly to present our feet to our partner to keep them from continuing their attack onto our otherwise prone and open body. We then worked on how he would teach beginners how to do a front fall -- by having one person on all fours (hands and knees) with the person learning how to do a front fall over that person. He then gave us exercises to emphasize the landing position of a breakfall (one leg basically out straight with its foot pointing its big to towards the knee and the "foot blade" down and "scraping up" the ground, the other bent with its foot landing sole down). We then moved into not taking a front roll in the direction of the hanmi but more towards the perpendicular between our feet. Lastly, he had us work on changing from a front roll into a back fall at the last minute and vice versa. All in all, the principles that he presented were grounded in good reason and the exercises we did provided the ability to practice these principles quite well.
The only other class that I attended was that of my own instructor, one of which was the very last class. I had taken Ushiro sensei's class for the second-to-last class where, after that class, his son said that he might go and go to my teacher's class. We ended up with about six of Ushiro sensei's students at my teacher's class, many of whom had never ever taken any aikido classes before. (I had seen Ushiro sensei's son taking a class from Inoue sensei, though.) I got to work with most of them, sometimes translating what my teacher was saying into Japanese so they'd get a better feel for his explanations. My teacher also came around to talk to them in Japanese and to let them feel his techniques, too. Some of the techniques were already familiar to them as they had similar techniques in their karate system. At the end of the class, Ushiro sensei's son and daughter both said they now had a deeper appreciation for aikido and had a better feel for the reasoning behind some of the techniques and movements.
Also, over the weekend, there were 28 demonstrations from the main instructors as well as other people from aikido and other arts. I participated in two of the demonstrations -- one of my teacher and one of our senior student. I did a variable jo pattern exercise with our senior student wherein the pattern, although continuous, could go through different permutations of its six movements as well as freely switch sides, incorporate different targets, and generally be a fairly dynamic exercise; I mistimed a few of the movements, though, which was unfortunate. We also went through a couple of other attacks and ended up with a two person randori. My teacher started out with our senior student doing some amazingly quick and precise deflections/defenses with a bokuto from a shomenuchi bokuto strike. He then basically wiped the mat with the rest of us for a few minutes. As one of the other uke said, "I'm used to feeling him throw hard during our regular class, but he seemed like he was charged with electricity or something. As soon as I touched him, I was on the ground..." It was nice hearing from others that we had good demonstrations.
There were many other memorable "scenes" through the weekend.
Right before the second evening's demonstrations, Ellis came up to me and asked, "Hey, Jun, I have an interesting proposition for you." It turned out that his partner hadn't shown up yet and he was up fairly early in the demonstration schedule; Ellis wanted to know if I'd be willing to go out there with him with a spear (~8 feet long, I'd say), thrust at him, and then he'd show some basic movements with his naginata. Luckily, a few minutes after I'd agreed, his partner showed up. Phew...
In trying to find a place to eat on Friday for lunch, we ran across a ramen shop right across from the Amerisuites hotel. They were closed (since they opened at 11am) so we headed off to the Hard Rock Cafe right across the street. However, we did manage to go back to the ramen shop later that evening -- after having eaten dinner, once again, at the Hard Rock Cafe. We said our regards to Inoue sensei and his two uchideshi who were coming out of the ramen shop and walked in to sit next to Kondo sensei and his students. I wonder if the ramen shop (which sported a "Grand Opening" banner above its sign outside) will get this kind of business ever again. Hopefully, it'll still be there during the next Expo...
I opted out of going to the banquet on Sunday evening, mostly because of the price ($50+). I ended up going to the Las Vegas Strip to have dinner at the Bellagio, watch the water show there (twice), wander up and down the Strip a few blocks, donate about $10 to the Las Vegas dieties, and then walked back to the hotel. On the way there, my friend said, "Hey, let's take a look in the ramen shop to see if there's anyone we know there." I was skeptical since it was already around midnight, but we swung by. Turns out that there was a small group of people there setting up tables for an after-banquest ramen get-together. People who showed up included Inoue sensei and his uchideshi, Ushiro sensei and his students, Ikeda sensei, Clint George sensei, and others. At one point, Clint was telling me some pretty aweful pun jokes in Japanese -- the kind you might hear from 2nd graders. While Ushiro sensei was chuckling beside him, Inoue sensei leaned back to tap Clint on the shoulder and, with a smile on his face, told him a few more of the same sort of jokes! A little while later, Ikeda sensei ordered some sweet Japanese red bean buns (anman) for himself and others. Inoue sensei turned to me when he got his and asked me in Japanese, "Would you like half?" I considered for a moment and then said, "Hai, itadakimasu!" (Yes, I would!). He started tearing his anman in half, turned to Ikeda sensei, and said to him, "Aw, shucks -- he's taking half of my anman!" Ikeda sensei started to give me half of his instead but Inoue sensei said, "Oh, no need, sensei. He answered in such good spirits (kimochi ga yoku), I can't possibly deny him!"
I snuck into the "sensei lounge" that was set up in the dance studio for the teachers to sit down and eat some "catered" lunches there. I got to talk to Vladimir, Ushiro sensei, Inoue sensei, and others in that room which was great. At one point, Ikeda sensei asked me to take a picture of him and Kuroda sensei in the room with his camera. I saw one of Kuroda sensei's students taking a picture with an interesting looking camera so I asked his student what type of camera it was. It actually turned out to be Kuroda sensei's camera. Kuroda sensei went on and told me that although he had a camera with better resolution, he saw the Leica lens on this camera and he couldn't resist. He then spent the next couple of minutes extolling the quality of the lens and the camera's portability although it only had something like 2.5 megapixels as opposed to his other camera which as more than 4 megapixels. Funny to think that Kuroda sensei can be a gadget geek like me...
After the last set of demonstrations on Friday evening, one person came up to me and asked if I could read the inscription that Ushiro sensei had written in his book. Since I couldn't I grabbed Pat Hendricks sensei if she was able to read it. Since she wasn't able to decipher some of it, we then asked Ellis. Since he couldn't, we then went over to Mrs. Pranin who was finally able to tell us that Ushiro sensei had written something that could be translated to, "Respect others, have confidence in yourself." Japanese could be tricky, especially when it's written in script...
Pat Hendricks's son, Conner, came out along with four or five of her students for her demonstration. Conner, in a tiny little dogi, then threw some of her students in front of several hundred people, smiling and obviously having a great time.
During one part of the demonstration, Stanley Pranin had his daughters come out with flowers and birthday cakes for Yasuo Kobayashi sensei and Kuroda sensei. It was a nice sight to see these accomplished martial artists listening to several hundred people singing, "Happy Birthday" and then blowing out the candles on their cake.
Although I doubt many people will go up to people and say, "Damn, your demonstration totally sucked rotten eggs," it was nice to hear compliments on the ones I participated in.
It's always nice to meet people whom I've known on the Internet but have never met before. People whom I met for the first time "in real life" this year included Andy Sato from Aikido Association of America, "Kansas" Bob Tullman on Aikido-L, Chris Guzik on the AikiWeb Forums, Jake McKee from BudoVideos.com. And, of course, seeing other online folks whom I already know like George Ledyard, Ellis Amdur, Craig Hocker, Saill White, and Lynn Seiser is always a treat. I know there were others of you out there; I hope to meet you next time...
Unfortunately, there were some unmemorable scenes at the Expo, too. Since I don't want to send out my most critical gripes out onto a public forum, I'll just list some here which aren't specific.
The opening ceremony was anything but ceremonious. Rather, it was more a sense of "here are some logistical things to think about such as the fact you shouldn't use locks on the lockers in the dressing room." Also, there was no sense of closure as all we did after the last class was help with the mats; everyone just sort of dissipated after that. Of course, I didn't go to the banquet, but I'd wish a sense of closure could have been achieved without asking people to spend $50+ dollars.
I think there was just too much going on. Pretty much every class session had about six to eight possibilities -- four classes with the main instructors and up to four other "workshops" going on. Due to the variety, I think there was less mixing together of people. Maybe due to their not being a sense of cohesiveness, the weekend seemed very scattered -- as though there were no beginning, middle, and end.
The demonstrations were still too darned long. Every single one of the people who went up probably could have done some wonderful thirty minute demonstrations, but that wasn't the venue for such. I admired the folks who went up, did a couple of things for three to four minutes, then gave the space/time up for other demonstrations. When some of the demonstrations end up being twenty minutes long, I start to wonder about the person's motivations. Maybe in the next Expo, we can hope for one evening of demonstrations of around an hour or an hour and a half from just the main instructors?
Having an hour and ten minutes for lunch is better than nothing (which is what we had last year), but it still felt extremely short. Although they did have sandwiches on-hand, they were $8 each; I noticed a stack of sandwiches sitting there at the conclusion of each day. If you didn't pack a lunch or buy the sandwich, I daresay there weren't many other options within that small timeframe.
The classes were longer at 1.5 hours each which seemed to give the teachers more time to delve into more depth. However, with the number of people going to the classes and the low overlap of people from class to class for each instructor (ie most students didn't follow a single instructor around the whole time), most instructors seemed to have to reiterate a lot of their teachings from class to class. This was too bad since I'm sure some of the instructors could have taught much more in-depth stuff than what they were able to show.
Due to the demonstrations on Friday and Saturday evening running until about 10pm and 11pm respectively and with the banquet lasting until after 11pm on Sunday evening, there didn't seem to be much time for people to get together. Maybe having one evening off would be nice?
I was taken aback at some people's lack of etiquette during some classes, ranging from people sitting in the corner of the room with their back against the wall and their feet stuck straight out (even while the teacher was teaching) to people teaching other people on the mat when it was clear they weren't students of the teacher. Ugh.
I had brought some equipment in hopes of tracking people down to have some quick interviews with them, but due to the tight schedule (since I ended up training during every session), I was unable to do any. I know it's difficult to do but I wish there could have been a bit more time to allow more "social" interaction off-the-mat, too.
I wish people translating wouldn't put their own spin into their translations. Some people were very good about trying to translate as faithfully as possible; others said a lot more than what the original teacher had said. Although I'm sure people are trying to be helpful by doing so, sometimes the concepts get muddled in their trying to explain more than what the teacher said. Something for me to think about in the future when I'm translating, in any case.
All in all, I had a good time at this year's Aiki Expo. I encountered some interesting ideas from the people presenting and I was able to connect with more people than I was able to last year. With the attendance so much lower this year, I wonder if there'll be another one next year. I hear there were talks going on at the banquet which I missed which tried to allow people to discuss their thoughts on how better to hold the event next time.
I heard rumors that the number of participants this year was down by quite a large amount -- "half" was one word I kept hearing in regards to the number of people. Of course, this produced more classes with a "personal" touch where the instructors were able to interact with their students more, but when I see only a dozen people in Inoue sensei's class, I figure something is a bit odd. Maybe this is just an "off" year with many people figuring to take this year off and attend next year's Expo...
As such, do people here who were at this year's Aiki Expo have any thoughts they wish to convey? I'll be sending Stanley some of my own thoughts but I'm sure he'll be happy to hear yours.
In any case, having helped arrange several of these kinds of cross- organizational seminars and camps myself, I can only send my deepest regards to Stanley, his wife, his family, and everyone else at Aikido Journal for putting on this event. Stanley obviously has a grand vision for the future of aikido and has taken it upon himself to try to realize it; for that, I applaud his efforts and everything that has produced so far. The aikido world is richer from all of his work. Thank you, Stanley.