It Had To Be Felt #70: Nemoto Hiroki: "Plenty of Pain Wrapped in Kindness"
After the second or third time hearing from my friend about this extremely tough martial arts sensei, I thought I would finally check out the class. I was living in a city called Tsukuba. His name was Nemoto Hiroki Sensei, and he was then a 6th dan with the Aikikai. Nemoto Sensei would drive in from Iwama, about an hour away, to teach on the weekends. Nemoto Sensei actually started his training under O-sensei when he was very young. Then after a break to pursue other interests, he re-entered Iwama Dojo,and trained under Saito Morihiro until Saito Sensei`s passing in 2002.
I was a little intimidated in the first few classes because I hadn't taken any martial arts since I was very young, but I was able to relax in no time. Not only did I become comfortable, as time went on and other students went back to their home countries or moved away, Sensei called on me to be his uke more often.
I got used to sensei`s throwing style and learned how to take ukemifrom his direction. He has an amazing ability to adapt his technique to the level of the uke. When I first joined the class, he kept his technique strong, but he avoided any sudden movements that might cause injury. Later, when he thought I was ready, he turned it on full steam. Sensei has the ability to move his body as one unit, without wasting any energy through segmented movement, so when he comes through with an iriminage,it is with enormous power. I didn't feel very graceful with my ukemi; I felt more like a rag doll being thrown to the ground. Other students would sometimes try to avoid this by taking the fall before the throw was complete, but Nemoto sensei warned against this as he feels that it is important for both partners to feel the technique completely and fully.
I have never been injured by Sensei, but he really enjoys showing you how a good technique should feel, which usually involve a lot of pain. Sensei believes a technique should be effective, and to see it register on a student's face how a technique should feel, always brings a smile to Sensei`s face. Usually, the more pain that is shown on your face, the bigger Sensei`s smile.
Along with power, Sensei is also very smooth. Taking koshinagefrom him is effortless. He is always able to place his body in a position of perfect balance where you are in the perfect position to take ukemi.
Being on the receiving end of Sensei`s non-throwing techniques such as nikkyoand sankyo is definitely an experience. Whenever he has me in an nikkyoor sankyolock, I have nowhere to go to escape the pain. Instead, I go wherever he directs my body, not because I am being compliant, but because I have no choice. I remember once asking some Russian uchi-deshihow they were enjoying their morning training and their answer was a half-joking, but also half-serious reply of, "Every day he breaks us."
Then there was the seminar where Sensei demonstrated nothing but nikkyo, and nikkyo henka techniques. He called me up to be his uke over and over again. I was honored to take the techniques, but as the seminar went on my wrists really took a beating. The final technique was a nikkyo henka where you lock the opponent's wrist under your arms which are folded in front of your chest. It is very effective, and impressive when done quickly, so of course, that is how he demonstrated it. The second he slapped on the technique, a sharp pain, starting at my wrist, shot up my arm. This was not the good kind of pain. I was scared that something was broken. I bowed out quickly before someone could partner up with me, and went to a corner of the mat to see if my arm was ok. Luckily it was all intact. Nemoto Sensei`s joint techniques are so powerful, he really makes you feel like he broke you, yet he is always careful not to. His precision in this regard is amazing.
Sensei stresses the importance of proper technique and etiquette in the dojo but he is also very kind and understanding outside the dojo. I remember my first aikido seminar in Iwama when my Japanese wasn't yet up to par. I misunderstood what I was told, and thinking it was a ceremonial event, I showed up without my dogi. Sensei offered to lend me his so I could train. However, I was still a white belt at the time and he only had an extra black belt, so he suggested that I just watch and take note of the techniques. He did a similar thing for me one other time when I left my jo behind at a seminar, even driving back so I could pick it up.
I once had the privilege to accompany him as his helper when he went to do a seminar in Italy. During the seminar, he stressed the importance of paying attention and being able to anticipate what my duties should be during the seminar. However, when it came time to relax and have fun, things were different. One evening, when we were dropped off at the hotel we were staying at, he requested that I go to the front desk and ask for a corkscrew. We then proceeded to finish off a few bottles of Italian wine together while talking into the night about life, aikido, and everything in between. He is able to be very friendly, and open while still maintaining the image of a "Sensei."
Whenever having any type of get-together, either to celebrate a student's new dan grade or after seminars and demonstrations, Sensei encourages students to ask him questions about techniques, his time with Saito Sensei, or life in general. He enjoys talking about applying aikido principles in real-life situations. One of the things he talks about was the idea of awase, or blending with your opponent. He also manifests this principle himself. I remember one time when I was to be his uke for an event with another dojo. He wanted to do some heavy throwing techniques to make it look impressive, but two weeks before the event, I had to go in for emergency outpatient surgery. I wasn't about to let Sensei down so even though I wasn't fully recovered I was prepared to do it. To my relief, Sensei could tell that I wasn't fully up to doing full high falls, and changed the techniques to pinning movements with explanations after each one in order to allow me time to recover after each technique.
Nemoto Sensei is also famous for his solo training. He always uses any extra time he has to squeeze in some training. In his younger days, in addition to keiko, he would practice yokomenand tsukistrikes on a makiwara on the dojo grounds. The tsuki strikes were done the same way he taught in class, starting with one hand in front of your body like a guard position and the other hand tight against your side then extending your arm to punch while pulling your guard arm into your opposite side, similar to a karate punch.
There was also one tree at the Iwama dojo that had a hole through it, due to Sensei repeatedly practicing his jo thrusts against it. This would be quite damaging to the body if done to excess. Even Sensei himself has acquired some injuries in his quest to condition his body and test his limits (he has trouble fully extending one of his elbows). However, he always stresses the importance of fully extending the arm when doing any tsuki strikes, which produces more power and puts the wrist in a better position to absorb the force. Especially when using the jo, he emphasizes keeping the rear arm in tight and finishing the thrust so that you hear a slapping sound as your arm hits against your mid-chest.
He also taught me other ways to condition myself, like how to use my jo to practice yonkyowhile at home watching T.V., and how to cut a piece of bamboo in half so it could be used to practice sankyo on. With the jo, he would demonstrate from a standing position, putting one end on the floor with one foot forward. Using the same side hand, he would apply a yonkyo on the jo with the thumb and index finger pointing down. He would tell us to slowly apply pressure until the pain on your hand was a bit uncomfortable, then hold and repeat. It was also very good for getting a feel for the proper spot to apply yonkyo.
I also tried out his training method with bamboo for a while. You need to take a piece of bamboo that is not too long, but a decent diameter, about the size of a person's calf. You cut the bamboo in half lengthways. Then you take one of the halves (maybe give one to a friend) and using some padding, grip the bamboo so your fingers wrap around the cut ends of the bamboo and you can push your thumbs against the rounded end in a simulated sankyo. If you get a bamboo that is thick enough you should be able to apply a lot of pressure without breaking it. Sensei always used to tell us that he wasn't that strong and that he merely had studied the proper angles to make the technique effective. This was true, but anyone who has experienced his sankyo would also attest to the fact that Sensei has tremendous finger-and-thumb strength.
Sensei also told me about how for a time, everyday before work, he would run up Mt. Atago with a heavy bokken, then do suburiat the top before running back down. Unfortunately he is always one for pushing the envelope, and one time damaged his knees running up Mt. Atago wearing iron geta.
Sensei always finds some way to get in some kind of extra training, whether it is doing suburi, running, punching a brick while watching T.V. to harden his knuckles, or even thrusting his hands into a bucket of gravel to harden his fingers. He told us that he started using sand at first, then worked his way up to gravel over time. He has a passion for self-improvement and is always looking for ways to make things more challenging and push his body to the limit. Thus, when he built his own private dojo he named it, the Nishinkan, which translates into English as ‘New Day Hall.' He explained that you should regard every day as a chance to do something to train or improve upon your previous day`s self by a small bit. In the long run, this adds up something amazing.
Mitch Troop is a Canadian living and working in Japan, who has studied aikido under Nemoto Hiroki Sensei for the past fourteen years. He is a 4th dan through the Aikikai.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
Re: It Had To Be Felt #70: Nemoto Hiroki: "Plenty of Pain Wrapped in Kindness"
Nemoto Hiroki -- Detailed, Methodical, Rational
Nemoto Hiroki sensei is one of those few remaining aikido teachers who got to train with the founder of the art. He was born on the 23rd of July, 1950, making him 14 years old when he entered Ueshiba Morihei O-sensei's dojo in 1964. He only trained under O-sensei for one year, but how many teachers alive today can claim even that, particularly as their main teacher? I think there are not many left. Nemoto sensei is also a prominent student of Saito Morihiro sensei, under whom he trained from 1974 until Saito sensei's passing in 2002. Nemoto sensei was awarded 6th dan in 1992, and that was the rank he held in August, 2006, when I first met him. I was a white-belt at the time, and only got to train with him regularly for about half a year, but for what it's worth, here is my account of how it felt.
Salving up Bruises
My first impression of Nemoto sensei was formed indirectly, and served as one of my general first impressions of training in Iwama. After an edifying speech from Inagaki sensei, I was allowed to begin a brief stay as uchi deshi (live-in student) at the founder's dojo. One thing I noticed when I was introduced to the other uchi deshi, was that they were all salving up bruises on the insides of their forearms. "Yonkyo." one of them muttered, then, as if to explain, he said "Nemoto sensei."
At that time, Nemoto sensei instructed the daytime uchi deshi classes, and the Wednesday evening class in the Iwama dojo. He also taught in Tsukuba on weekends, and had his own personal uchi deshi, who stayed in his ‘Aiki House' accommodation in Iwama. They would train with us at the Iwama dojo during the week and with Nemoto sensei in Tsukuba on Saturdays and Sundays.
Patient and Powerful
The daytime practices were mainly bukiwaza (weapons techniques), and for the first time, I grasped just how deep, and complete, this system is. I was very grateful to Nemoto sensei for his patience, sometimes partnering up directly with me when I couldn't keep up with the rest of the class. When I finished my short stay as uchi deshi, I moved to nearby Mito, and was able to continue training with him once a week in his evening class in Iwama.
Not surprisingly, taking techniques from Nemoto sensei could be excruciatingly painful, especially yonkyo, which could leave a mark, but was never damaging. He always did it with a smile, and you could tell his intention was to make us stronger. Amidst the milieu of masters, it was hard to keep track of which bruise came from which master, but I figured most of those from yonkyo were probably from him. After a while, the bruises stopped forming, and I realised I could take the ‘good' (non-damaging) pain a lot better. I knew he had no intention of injuring me, and so I could safely find the threshold of what I could take, and at the same time, I could also tell that he already had a better idea than I did of where it was.
I later learned that Nemoto sensei had a special piece of bamboo he used to strengthen his fingers to apply pins. Sometimes his students would come to the dojo with their own fingers reddened from training with the jaribako -- a gravel-filled container which they would plunge their hands into. But it wasn't just about toughening up. Training was usually solid form, but in basic suwari-kokyu-ho, he had us do it with relatively low resistance, so that we could create the correct form. There was a consistency in Nemoto sensei's detailed, methodical, rational approach to training. He was so strong, but he never seemed to have to force anything. I had only started aikido a few years previously, and had no grading in the Aikikai, so I was not in much of a position to observe how he did this, but in retrospect I think he just had the same forging in solid form training as the other teachers.
Dancing with Sensei
Post-practice parties were not just about having fun and drinking. Of course, that happened, but I realised we were still training, even during these soirées. A term for bashfulness in Japanese is uchi-ki. ‘Uchi' is inside, and as I've come to view it, ‘ki' is energy viewed through the lens of intention. In the dojo, we were always told, "Ki o dasu!" ("Put out ki!"). Outside the dojo too, when called to sing a song, or make a speech, one did not hesitate. You didn't become uchi-ki. Also, no matter how festive things got, you tried to maintain alertness, proper manners and attention, and learn as much aikido from the shihans (masters) as you could. At my first shinnenkai (traditional New Year party) to welcome in 2007, I was compelled to perform a traditional dance with Nemoto sensei. I knew I would be terrible at it, but by then I'm pleased to say, I just did it. However clumsy it looked, I'm sure it was compensated for by Nemoto sensei, a skilled dancer whom I later learned was a regular face at the local festivals.
The Bottle Trick
Nemoto sensei had a trick which I think also gives some indication of his power, although it's not something I'd advise feeling directly. After training, he loved to hang out with us students in the ‘aiki-kitchen,' adjacent to the dojo. One time, we had just finished a bottle of sake, and he showed us the trick. He poured a little water back into the sake bottle then gave the open top a palm-heel strike. There was a splash, and the bottom of the bottle popped clean off. He picked up another empty bottle and filled that with a little water too. It was passed around everyone, and we all tried to replicate the feat, to no avail. It was still perfectly intact by the time it got back to Nemoto sensei, and we all had red rings in our palms from our repeated failed attempts. He beamed his typical smile, slapped the top of the bottle again, and the bottom popped off once more with a splash.
Later, I heard one of the foreign uchi deshi managed to replicate the feat. It was someone who practiced Bujinkan taijutsu, as well as aikido.
Hanabi Yori Aikido
I had my last regular class with Nemoto sensei in the founder's dojo on Wednesday, the 28th of February, 2007. As I recall, the phone rang during training, Nemoto sensei answered it, and then he just left. We kept training for a while, then Maejima sensei, the most senior attendee, realised he should take over the class. Of course, there was a lot of speculation about that phone call. Later, Isoyama Toshihiro sensei and Nagashima Yoshimichi sensei (both 5th dan at the time) took turns teaching the Wednesday class, until the slot was subsequently taken over in April, 2015 by dojo-chief, Ueshiba Mitsuteru sensei, who still teaches it to date.
Nemoto sensei's abrupt departure was not my last practice with him however, and we still saw him around at aikido events, the local festivals, and so on. Also, his uchi deshi still came to the weekday evening classes, and we would often compare notes. One time some of us went with Nemoto sensei to see the famous firework show in Tsuchiura, a city to the south of Iwama. I remember him telling us about how the yakuza would take over the stalls selling festival food as we walked to the park. While we were waiting for the rest of our group to come out of a supermarket with supplies, Nemoto sensei casually walked over to a concrete wall and started punching it.
In my short experience with Nemoto sensei, I don't recall him going into much detail about aiki concepts, or the founder's spiritual teachings, but he dropped the occasional pearl of wisdom. Later, while we talked with fireworks going off above us, he said that whenever people at work asked him about aikido, he always told them he was weak, and not very good at it. I think the general message was that only a fool advertises their prowess in budo, and this did make me think twice about writing about it here, but he deserves some recognition for posterity.
Suffice to say, we had a great night, although we barely looked at the fireworks. We spent the whole time talking about aikido. I called it "hanabi yori aikido," which is a pun on the Japanese idiom "Hana yori dango" ("dumplings over flowers") used describe those at cherry blossom viewings who prefer substance over aesthetics, and are more interested in the food. It was a good chance to ask Nemoto sensei about that call, and why he left. They say what happens in the enkai (drinking party) stays in the enkai, and I'm saying nothing here, although he was quite public about it at the time. (N.B.: It was no big drama.)
A One-Off Practice
I got to train with Nemoto sensei again in 2009, as a one-off, when I moved into Iwama after a year of long commutes from outside the prefecture. Watahiki shihan had found me a house that was only a couple of minutes' walk away from Aiki House. There was only one uchi deshi living in Aiki House at this point, a long-termer named Robin from Germany, who put in a lot of work helping build the Nisshinkan dojo, next door.
One evening, Robin joined us in the founder's dojo for Toshihiro sensei's class, and since it was Robin's birthday, a group of us went around to Aiki House later, to help him celebrate. Nemoto sensei joined us, and there was much merriment. When we finished up, we got invited to join Nemoto sensei's group for the morning weapons class the next day. The next day was actually the start of the Obon holidays, and since the founder's dojo was going to be closed, we agreed.
It was already late, and the morning class was at 4:30am in Iwama Budokan. But I had a guy named Enzo living with me, a much loved uchi deshi, who had moved out the founder's dojo, ready to leave Japan, after spending around two years training there. We were having ‘final' drinking bouts together almost every night. This preamble to the one-off practice is basically a clarification for the lack of clarity later on, and an indication of the kind of lives we deshi were living back then.
I recall Enzo and myself on a midnight beer-run to the 7-11 (open 24/7), sharing a ‘mama-chari' bicycle with our combined weight of over 200kg (he had lost a lot of weight as uchi deshi, while my skinny gene had finally stopped working). We drunkenly weaved through the paddy fields, giggling like schoolboys, until eventually the unfortunate vehicle buckled and broke beneath us. When we finally returned, the others had gone to sleep. We still had plenty of beer in the basket of the mangled mama-chari, so with the best of intentions, we woke everyone up, so they wouldn't miss out.
We finished up around 3am. An hour later, my phone-alarm went off. We got to the Budokan just in time for the 4:30 start, and I found myself the most senior in our small group. We did some unarmed techniques at the beginning, with Nemoto sensei applying pins to us directly. It was very interesting for me, because I hadn't trained with him in over two years. Last time I'd been 2nd-kyu. Now I was shodan. Based upon what I felt, my same feeling of trust remained, and I remember giving a lot of constructive resistance to nikkyo. It was a good chance to feel his solidity. Here was an Iwama shihan, not straining, not forcing; just applying relaxed power.
We used bokken for the weapons practice, and I was selected as Nemoto sensei's partner to demonstrate on. Just because I was sempai didn't mean I was the best choice however, especially compared to the long-term uchi deshi. For example, Enzo, my junior, had been teaching me the sword-work in my front yard while he stayed with me. But I had at least learned enough to get through the first kumi-tachi. Also, I was now a lot more confident translating Nemoto sensei's Japanese explanations for the others. He made a point about the initial cut uchitachi makes at the start. Like the other local teachers, he didn't do it as a slash, but more of an insert-and-exit. He described how in the past, there would have been armour, but the armour was held together with himo (cords), so the move was to poke inside, and sever them. I would compare and contrast this with Inagaki sensei's description of how people have ribs, so you have to insert the blade between them to puncture the lung and heart. Whichever it is, you don't slash. There's no time, and it won't do as much damage. It's just wasted movement. My feeling was that although the explanations were different, the results were the same.
If the Chance Arises
In 2013, Nemoto sensei retired from his job, which if I recall correctly, at that time involved installing cash registers in supermarkets. By this point, the small Nisshinkan dojo next to Aiki House had been completed, and, since Nemoto sensei was now free to teach every day, his students stopped coming to the founder's dojo in the regular evening classes. I do run into some of them when Doshu teaches however.
I got the impression that Nemoto sensei could be something of a feisty figure among the local teachers, and some of the things he did were not always met with approval by his peers. However, in the following years, I noticed Nemoto sensei came to more local aikido events, and in 2018, he was finally awarded 7th dan. I haven't had a chance to feel Nemoto sensei's power since the previously mentioned one-off practice, but I still see him around on the local scene, and remain friends with some of his long-term students. In this way, I still get an indirect feeling for his power, which becomes particularly clear through the changes in his newer students, as they develop kokyu skills, making them more and more interesting to train with.
Presently, Nemoto sensei is not in the best of health, although last time I saw him, I was pleased to see his typical smile still beaming as usual. I'm not sure, when or if he will return to full-time teaching, but if the chance arises, I would certainly recommend getting hold of him, or his senior students.
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