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Yesterday morning I woke up at 5am after a night of deep sleep. I was concerned I wouldn't be able to sleep because my kyuu test has been the only thing on my mind lately, but somehow I managed to fall into a very deep sleep.
The day prior I trained at my home dojo, Tenshinkan, and then had a Japanese lesson with Fujii Sensei. She invited me to ride along out to Arlington Heights to the big Japanese marketplace with Garysan and Sachikosan. Garysan is a gaijin in her intermediate class and he was interested in practicing Japanese.
The four of us spent a fun afternoon and evening in conversation with lots of shopping and eating. Perhaps it was the immense quantities of food and Japanese candy I ate, but when I got home Saturday night, I was tired. I stretched, showered, stretched again and went to bed.
Back to Sunday. I woke at 5am and decided more stretching was in order. I did some warm-ups and went for a very short jog to get my head clear and my mind moving.
The city was cool and quiet. The air was very humid but with just enough chill to remind me that indeed, fall is here. I jogged through a couple of my favorite alleys because I like absence of trees. The birds weren't even awake yet but I came across a raccoon digging in a garbage can, a grumbling possum, and a flurry of squirrels running around gathering what they could.
Every creature was looking for something. I felt the same way.
Back at home I made some tea and ate a single dorayaki. I stretched some more (notice the pattern) and relaxed until I had to leave for the dojo. I'm not used to doing Aikido in the morning. Normally I train at night when my body has had the whole day to wake up. The test was at 10am, way early for me to be that physical.
I was meeting a fellow aikidoka at Tenshinkan for a ride down to Soshinkan at 8:45. With my shuffle loaded with music, I set out with my dogi bag and the hope that I wouldn't make any dumb mistakes on my test.
Soshinkan is a great facility. The shomen side of the mat is lined with smooth river stones. At the back of the dojo is a small sitting room with a fridge and some chairs. The entire entrance wall to the building is glass windows, so you can see all the traffic going by, and everyone can see you. Quite different from the single glass door of Tenshinkan.
We arrived around 9:30 and I quickly changed into my dogi and began stretching some more. Nobody told me to stretch that much, but I was so glad I did. There were no warm-up exercises before the test and some people actually tested cold. I can't imagine.
Four yudansha flanked the far side of the mat, as the testing committee. On the other side, three sat as the testers. There were easily 30 or 40 people on the mats, making it very crowded. It was the first time I ever did the opening rei touching someone on both sides with my knees.
7th kyuu went first to my delight. I was warmed up and ready to get it over with. At around 10:15 we were all called up. I think there were 11 of us testing 7th kyuu.
First we did the ki tests. Seiza, shizentai, orenaite. At some point they split us off into two groups to do koho tento undo and ushiro and mae ukemi. Then the groups got even smaller, no more than four people testing technique.
I wasn't in the first round of technique testing. I sat and watched and was amazed at how heavily many of the people were corrected. I don't think it was a bad thing, but the testing committee had a lot to say to them.
Then my round was called. I ended up on the door-end of the mats, directly in front of the testing yudansha, opposite the test committee. Erickson Sensei, my first Sensei, was right next to me watching.
The four of us lined up facing the shomen. The committee called for four volunteer uke. I couldn't see who was behind me. I didn't know who it was going to be. I closed my eyes for a moment, hoping for a Tenshinkan student I knew. Someone familiar.
We bowed to the shomen. Then we circled back to face our uke. I tried my best not to grin like an idiot when I saw who it was. Johnsan, a great yellow-belt, was to be my uke. We've trained together since I joined the dojo in May. The corners of his eyes raised a bit and he cracked a small smile.
At that moment, in my mind, flashing through it like a lightning bolt, I heard Toyoda Shihan's speech (one I saw on video in Japanese) about intention in my mind. Visualize the goal. It was something like "kanjite mae no suru" which roughly means sense it, feel it, experience it even before you do it. That way you can apply it while you are there in the moment. The feeling is hard to translate, but I felt it.
Sitting here writing this and trying to remember anything from that moment on is kind of hard. I can picture moments of the technique test in my mind, but I'm not sure what we started with. We did all three; omote and ura versions of katatori ikkyo, and two katatekosatori; kotegaeshi and kokuynage.
The nage next to me was using a lot of space. During one technique (cannot for the life of me remember which one) I was about to throw my uke but the nage next to me threw their uke into our space. I kept a hold on my uke, did a tenkan, and threw him in a safe place. I can't be sure, but I think I heard Erickson Sensei whisper "good".
The other nage were corrected by the testing committee a few times. Nobody said my name, so I'm taking that as a good sign during the technique that I was doing things right.
During the final kokyudosa, Johnsan and I were both sweating, breathing hard, and smiling. We finished, bowed out, and as we sat back down on the edge of the mat I felt good.
During the course of the rest of the higher kyuu tests, I kept a close watch on how the uke and nage were interacting. I learned so much by observing, but at the end of the test, almost four hours later, Bieszk Sensei closed with a few words that stick with me most. He said it's never done. Your best can be better. Toyoda Shihan always asked his students to push beyond their limits and their abilities.
I may not know much at this point, but a whole world full of things I never knew is barely starting to come into focus. The goal, for now, is to push myself until I can start to see.
Until then, with blurry vision, I'll be learning as much as I can by falling.