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This is a journal entry from January when I took my girlfriend to Saito Hitohiro Sensei's dojo for the first time last month. She had never trained aikido -- she had only watched one training session, in America, at Hans Goto Sensei's dojo (http://www.baymarinaikido.com). The first entry is my journal entry, the next is hers. Remember this is all our own interpretation of things -- her understanding of the world of aikido is, so far, somewhat limited and as such she sees things in a very black and white fashion. Any constructive criticism is welcome. Criticism that is less than constructive can be mailed directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
PS - though we've both had trouble making it to training on a nightly basis, we're training as much as possible and she's still enjoying herself immensely!
At keiko, we did the starting ritual of tae no henko (kihon and ki no nagare) and morotedori kokyu ho, then a morotedori henka waza, then straight into ikkyo for the rest of class. I'd never seen Hitohiro Sensei with a brand new aikido student. The fact that it was a foreigner with no japanese language ability added to the grandeur of the moment. . . and that it was my girlfriend just blew my mind. It was spectacular. I've seen Hitohiro Sensei annoyed, angry, indiffirent, and, on occasion, I've seen him in a good mood, bordering on buoyant. Tonight was a buoyant night. He seemed in a very good mood.
Alicia was lucky enough to be paired up with Miwa-san (a 5th dan woman in her late 20s or early 30s who will be conducting seminars in Germany this year) and Mai (a newly minted shodan and the girlfriend of my fellow American, Fred). Both of her partners speak passable English and were able to help her get started. Sensei may have rearranged training partners so Alicia would have this choice selection. Tae no henko went by without incident -- maybe Sensei was deciding how much to influence her on her first night of training. As keiko progressed, however, she was getting more and more of Sensei's attention. We were doing suwari-waza ikkyo. Everything was kihon. It was really good to get back to basics, again. That's another thing I like about the way we train...
Sensei helped explain kokyu to Alicia, and when he started talking, everybody went quiet (of course). I think I warned her about that ahead of time, but I should have reminded her again -- when Sensei talks, everybody listens. So there she was, with Sensei giving her an explanation of kokyu and how one has to pay attention to the whole body, doing 2,3,4 things at once at all times, with an audience of about 15 watching them. It was great.
Later, after talking to Alicia about suwari-waza kokyu ho, Sensei said something that struck a chord in my mind -- I think I remember hearing something similar from Tatoian Sensei, Noel Sensei or Goto Sensei or all of them at separate times. It was the idea of coming to class with an empty head. He said not to worry about remembering the techniques. He said this to Alicia:
"Don't worry about remembering everything you heard tonight. It's better to forget everything and come to train again tomorrow with an empty head ready to learn everything like new and then forget it again the next day. Knowing it in your head doesn't matter. Train with an empty head and your body will learn the movement." I didn't take notes and didn't write down the translation but that's the gist of it.
On the drive home, Alicia was very excited. She was, dare I say, bubbly. "Did you see how he threw me?? It was like nothing and it didn't hurt at all!" I saw! "I wanted him to throw me again!" I remember those same thoughts going through my head at Traditional Aikido of Sonoma. It was my second or third class at the dojo (I had been in the SSU class for a couple weeks already) and we were doing morotedori kokyu. Tatoian Sensei was making a face and shaking his head a little bit but then grinned and asked me to grab his arm. All vim vigor and vitality, I grabbed his arm with all my (pitiful at the time) strength and found myself flying through the air to land flat on my back almost ten feet away from where I was standing, Sensei standing where he had been, that grin still on his face. That's how I got hooked. . . and here was Alicia thinking and saying the same thing I had on that day.
Maybe she's hooked maybe she'll stick with it. Whatever she decides to do from here, I'll always remember last night's training.
On Wednesday afternoon, when Bryan came home from work, we got to talking about gis, within the hour we were out and about in Mito searching for a sports shop that would have my size. In a whirlwind minute we had agreed that there's no reason to wait to start training and decided that that day was as good as any. If we were successful in finding one, and if Sensei allowed me to begin, then I'd start something I have been wanting to do for a long time, and in the best of places to start.
Last summer, as I searched for classes to fit my already overloaded schedule, I saw that SF State had aikido, but the hours didn't work for me at all. Dojos around the Bay Area also offered classes but as much as I would have liked some background in aikido before coming to Japan, the scheduling was simply impossible. Bryan had talked to Sensei about the matter of me starting fresh in Iwama, and in the fall he had approved.
We had luck at the third store we went to, and bought my first gi. I think there's something to be said about being outfitted - be it for SAR, or ballet, or reenacting, it serves to get me into the spirit of the activity. We set out for Iwama to see Sensei before the class begun, and ask permission. I had met him once before, and he remembered me and allowed me to begin training.
We got to the dojo about half an hour early, I changed and, very reluctantly, stepped onto the numbing-cold mat. I started stretching, instinctively doing yoga and ballet moves - I thought how silly I must appear in a cardboard stiff gi absentmindedly doing a pliť. More and more people arrived, the blackbelts wearing hakamas and a few young boys wearing the white gis and white belts, like me. They all stretched and practiced moves in the very graceful and controlled manner I've seen Bryan do. Maybe it comes from studying with Hitohiro Sensei, the purest form of Iwama aikido. Back in the States I'd noticed how differently Bryan moved compared to other students - a deliberate strong stance at every step.
As the time for class to begin neared, the more advanced students took the places on the mat facing the front, the newer students behind them. When Sensei entered we all bowed (from the kneeling position in which we were in) and followed the commencement ritual that Bryan had briefed me on. Sensei demonstrated a move and instructed the class to begin - there was, what seemed to new eyes, a chaotic moment in which people milled around hurriedly searching for someone specific. I'd been tipped off to pair up with Miwa-san (I'd seen her work with a beginning student and was impressed with her patience and instruction), by the time I saw her she already had a partner, but Sensei also saw this and asked her and Mai (our friend) to work with me.
The three of us started off in the corner, with Miwa-san and Mai practicing first and then allowing me a turn. I studied their steps and the movement of their arms, but as soon as I was facing Miwa-san and ready to begin, I went blank. What had seemed somewhat simple ('step forward and grab her arm at the same time') had an extremely complicated train of movements attached to it (keep your weight centered, your feet like this, grab this way and not that, stay relaxed, etc....). We kept going through a few moves, my performance throughout was what I think of as 'beginner's struggle', throughout Hitohiro Sensei kept watch over the class, and, I noticed, on our corner of the room.
All of a sudden Sensei started speaking, and the room went quiet. I stopped and looked up too. Fred (Mai's boyfriend and also our friend) translated for Sensei. I was listening, applying what I was hearing to what I had been doing, when I started to suspect he was making reference to correcting the mistakes I had been making. He finished and allowed the class to continue with their practice. About five minutes later he gave more instruction, this time I knew he was referring to me. All of a sudden Sensei came towards me and sat down in front of me. He motioned for me to strike at him, I did. He blocked my advance and demonstrated the finer points of using your attacker's force to repel. The next time I struck (by request) I blinked and found myself on my back beside Sensei - he had very gently flung my, I almost giggled! It took me a second to process the speed and facility in which I had ended up in a disabled position. This is why people study here, and from this very man. I could not believe he was talking to me and taking the time to teach me this.
I've done a few things where all of a sudden I come to the realization that there's something special about that moment. This was definitely one of them. I was half a world away from where I grew up, even further from when I was born, sitting in a dojo trying to learn and understand and absorb as much as possible. Hitohiro Sensei was talking and looking right at me, explaining this amazing art. This was the place and the man that people from all over the world come to see; put their lives on hold and come to perfect their styles. Many people who go are already blackbelts, studying aikido for years, and there I was on my first night with Hitohiro Sensei sitting right in front of me. The room was completely silent and though I did not glance about, I could see that all the faces there were fixed on Sensei and what he was teaching me. I did not know whether to be embarrassed for the attention I was receiving, I wondered if this was how it was whenever there was a new student there. I felt completely honored and appreciated his patience and kindness in explaining the methods.
The evening was absolutely amazing, I'm sore from getting tossed about (my landings are less than graceful) but I want to go back. I'm glad I didn't wait any longer to train, I'd like to make the most of my time in Japan.