It Had To Be Felt #51: Isoyama Hiroshi: "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"
Isoyama Hiroshi began training aikido at the age of 12, in 1949, at the Founder's dojo in Iwama, Ibaraki prefecture. He trained over twenty years directly under O-sensei, surpassed only by the late Saito Morihiro.
I have had the honor, privilege and pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with this fine gentleman of budo throughout the past 12 years, accompanying him on his seminar trips to Italy and in my adopted home country of Denmark, as well as spending many pleasurable hours with him in Iwama. I have translated at his seminars and classes, something that has taught me a great deal. Isoyama sensei speaks English very well, but it is practical for him to teach his classes in Japanese when he is doing seminars, so that he can concentrate his attention fully on the waza and the deeper points of a spiritual nature. I have not only benefitted from his vast knowledge of aikido, but also in terms of reigi /reishiki (formal behavior)-- an area that is of great importance to him, and due to his influence, to myself as well.
I went to Iwama for the first time as uchideshi in 1984. As a long term student of Saito sensei, I had seen Isoyama sensei, but had not made his acquaintance personally until after Saito sensei's passing in 2002. Isoyama sensei would bring his own students, members of the Jieitai (Japan Ground Self Defense Force), to the Iwama Dojo for special seminars. His students were a hearty and enthusiastic group of practitioners! During my first stay in Iwama, one of these groups arrived for an intensive weekend seminar. As Iwama uchideshi , and therefore students of Saito sensei, we were told that it was optional whether or not we participated in these special classes. Since we uchideshi also had mandatory morning weapons keiko under Saito sensei and general class in the evenings, as well as chores in the morning and afternoon, we chose to opt out of the special classes. Another element that factored in to our decision might have been the fact that the special training classes had an apparent ferocity to them that was like feeding time in the lion's den, with ganseki otoshi (Isoyama sensei's trademark throw, where uke is bridged, face-up, on the shoulders of nage) as the main meal!
Ferocity aside, the Jieitai group was a wonderful bunch of gentlemen. At the after-keiko outdoor dinner at the dojo, one of the English-speaking Jieitai members introduced us to the wonderful phrase "Let's drink too much!" They also very kindly showed us how to accomplish this as well!
There was a morning run scheduled for the next day, with both the Jieitai group and the uchideshi taking part. The run was to take us up the local peak -- Atagosan -- after which we were to do jo training at the Atago Jinja (shrine). Those readers who have visited Iwama will remember that the long and winding road up the mountain is tiring enough, but then there are the steep stone steps the last part of the way, the stairs one sees Saito sensei helping O-sensei up in the old film footage. An abiding mystery is how many steps there actually are. Everyone I know who has tried to count them has lost track (or passed out). Approximately 300 is my closest estimate, but it feels more like 3000. Running along with our new-found Jieitai friends, jo's in hand, chanting "Aiki—Faito (‘fight')" in cadence, all the way up the ‘stairs of death,' was a memory of a lifetime. Arriving at the top and training jo suburi and kata under Isoyama sensei's guidance in front of the Atago Jinja in the early morning light, in the same spot where O-sensei and his closest deshi had done special training, was truly magical.
I was not to have direct experience with Isoyama sensei, however, until my first trip back to the Iwama Dojo, after Saito sensei's passing. Now called Ibaraki Shibu Dojo, I was received very kindly by Isoyama sensei. It was a slightly sad feeling, returning to the dojo that had given me so many wonderful memories, but being greeted so warmly by Isoyama sensei, Inagaki sensei (second in charge at that time) and the other main instructors of the dojo made me feel safe and secure, with the knowledge that the amazing spirit of this historic dojo was intact.
Most of my hands-on experiences with Isoyama sensei have been during his seminars, while translating for him. He would sometimes bring me up as uke to demonstrate a point that required someone who knew what this point was to be (having a background in Iwama aikido, and understanding Japanese were prerequisites for this). One of Isoyama sensei's main areas of focus is the martial aspect of aikido. This means being aware of such important things as ma-ai (correct distance ), suki (openings in either your own or your enemy's defenses), atemi (‘body striking') and harnessing and utilizing ki / kokyu ryoku (kokyu power). One of my most vivid recollections is when Isoyama sensei called me up to demonstrate a point about ma-ai and tai sabaki (body displacement). He showed a slide-step entry against a choku tsuki (straight thrust) jo attack. He slipped in expertly to my left, blind side and executed an atemi that made perfect ‘semi' contact with my "men" (read: mouth!). I managed to check my forward thrust right at the point of ‘semi' contact, leaving me with an interesting, tingling sensation in my lips. Atemi had been served!
Contrary to what many observers might assume, I have never been afraid while taking ukemi for Isoyama sensei. He is very adept at judging the limit of his uke, and working within that level. It is important to remember that his frightening, trademark ganseki otoshi throws that one can see on Youtube from his demonstrations are applied to his own students, who are extremely well-trained and very used to receiving these throws. Watch carefully and you see his uke falling very adeptly. I think these film clips should come with a caption stating "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"
In many ways, Saito sensei and Isoyama sensei resemble each other: both in stature—powerful, compact build, large powerful hands, and very strong legs—as well as in personality. Both were very strong personalities: outgoing, sharp-witted, extroverted, and so confident that they didn't let their ego enter into their performance of techniques. They ‘were' the technique. Without posing or posturing, they just let the waza shine by itself.
Both men had the kind of natural strength built up through a lifetime of hard training and working outside—farming, gardening and everyday country living. Nonetheless, neither he nor Saito sensei ever felt like they were using physical strength or power. Their techniques felt strong yet soft. Isoyama sensei, however, has a more kind of explosive energy in his performance, that comes in ‘bursts,' but not so that he loses the smoothness of his timing.
Isoyama sensei's kuzushi (‘unbalancing and control of his partner') also manifests as a kind of power burst, but this control is always smooth—he never creates the kind of disconnect that I have felt from other sensei on occasion. He frequently cautions: "Don't stop!" It seems that, in the Iwama tradition, many people have mistakenly copied Saito sensei's pedagogical presentation of a given technique in ‘stages,' where he would show the different parts of a technique in a step-by-step manner, and made this ‘choppy' timing their basic form for the waza. However, if you observe Saito sensei's performance of a technique, it was always smooth and dynamic, whether it was kihon (‘basic') or ki no nagare (‘flowing ki'). It was only when he was teaching the forms that he broke the technique into parts. This choppy style of performing the waza has become a bad habit amongst many of us from the Iwama tradition, in my opinion. I could see that Isoyama sensei would often address this point at seminars, always emphasizing that once you start leading uke, you shouldn't stop until you have finished the technique. So there was always a feeling of very controlled flow throughout Isoyama sensei's techniques, strong and determined, but not painful.
When receiving a technique from Isoyama sensei, one feels as if being sucked into a vortex: powerless and controlled. It doesn't feel like he is using strength, but there is a very strong feeling of energy. It feels like he has turned on a generator within himself and cranked up the juice. There is a very energized feeling to him when he starts his technique, as if you can almost hear the buzz from the power generator.
I have not heard him speak directly about ki or kokyu ryoku in any major way. In general, the Iwama teachers, especially Saito sensei and Isoyama sensei, didn't verbalize that much regarding ki / kokyu ryoku. But they demonstrated it! (Inagaki sensei is different, in the sense that he does try to explain about these inner workings. I will write more about him in another column). However, as Isoyama sensei demonstrates the correct form, using tegatana correctly, with the hand-blade leading strongly through the entire technique, his visual example very strongly exemplifies the use of kokyu—and thereby the channeling of ki. He is a very clear example of this internal energy—showing a very vibrant and tangible outgoing energy from the beginning to the end. His zanshin (‘remaining mind') in each technique , exemplified from the very beginning of each class by tai-no- henko and morote-dori kokyu-ho, shows the importance of this concept: keeping the final position of the technique while letting your energy continue to surge forth after the actual physical motion has finished.
It seems that there is a sort of default understanding of these energy concepts inherent in the Japanese culture, and especially within its budo segment. There is nothing mysterious or mystical about the idea that there is an internal energy source found in this world / universe, and that we all have it in a basic sense. Learning to harness it, and channel it takes certain outer techniques to get to feel it. And it seems like all those whom I have felt among the Iwama sensei group have a strong feeling of this energy. It also seems that they learned to not use strength by first learning how to use it, and thereby learning how to avoid using it.
This is also clearly evident in the situations when you are being held and you are asked to try to do your technique. Holds (wrist grabs and the like) are, if properly trained, a high level aikido technique in themselves. Being held in katate-dori by Isoyama sensei was humbling. I was not able to move! He was able to hold me totally, and I did not feel that he was cranking on his grip in any way, shape or form. His grip felt soft and firm, and he had complete control of my center. No matter what technique I attempted, he kept my center locked up. I could feel that he was keeping a connection to my center, and ‘reading' my movements through his, adjusting to my different attempts to find a point of kuzushi, with no external movement whatsoever. This was a fascinating experience—a strong and soft, powerful grip, indeed!
Since I am of a vertically challenged physical stature, I am not that impressive a human specimen to be used as uke for demonstration purposes. I know that there are others out there who have had much more hands-on experience with Isoyama sensei than I, and I sincerely hope that they will share their experiences with us in this respect—I can call out to Kevin McNeely and Carl Thompson, who both have had extensive, hands-on training with Isoyama sensei, to start with.
But my "IHTBF" experiences are just as meaningful in painting a picture of this fine gentleman of budo, because they give an insight into a man who has trained extremely hard throughout his life. I think that the old Iwama Dojo was the exemplar of hard training back in the day, and Isoyama sensei along with Saito sensei, were the epitome of this.
Isoyama sensei is a great example of what walking the path of aiki leads to. Going through the physical training stages, from gotai through jutai to ryutai / kitai ("static/hard" body to "flexible" body to "flowing/energic" body) also leads one through the same stages on a spiritual, developmental path. Anyone who sees the old photos of Isoyama sensei from his vigorous younger years, handlebar moustache et al, will have a rather clear idea of the strength and power he embodied.
Among the most important aspects of training with Isoyama sensei are his memories of his youth, and specifically, his training with O-sensei. One of his most important memories is the story of his first meeting with O-sensei. He explains, always with a tender tone in his voice, that O-sensei greeted him with the etiquette and countenance that one would usually only use from one adult to another, and not towards a 12 year old boy. When Isoyama sensei came to meet O-sensei to ask permission to become a student, O-sensei used a polite level of Japanese with him, and performed a very polite, seated bow when greeting him. This was definitely not normal etiquette for an adult toward a young child, and especially not a master of budo towards a fledgling student. This kind spirit that O-sensei showed to Isoyama sensei left an indelible impression on him, and one can tell that the idea of treating people properly and politely, with no thought as to the individual's status or age, is something that Isoyama sensei practices at all times. He is always very polite and courteous, to everyone he meets, unless they break etiquette—then you will see a sterner side of this proper gentleman!
Isoyama sensei makes a very strong point of people sitting properly during classes. Woe betide those who sit with their arms folded while listening to his instructions. If you have not heard a proper kiai before, you can count on hearing one then! But this is actually general ‘body language 101'—folding one's arms is a classic sign of creating a ‘barrier' between oneself and the other party, a basic sign of arrogance in most cultures. Oftentimes people aren't aware that they are sitting this way, but I guarantee you that you become aware of it, if caught doing so during one of his classes!
Isoyama sensei sometimes talks of the very rough training that took place in the Iwama Dojo in the olden days. He states clearly that he is not proud of his behavior from this period of time. I respect him so much for speaking about this subject, and admitting that his earlier ways were not the best. Even so, he is teaching us all an important lesson, beyond espousing a gentler way of practicing aikido. I believe that it is part of the path of training, this forging stage of gotai (static/hard form). At that time in history it was quite brutal, I believe. But there is a saying in Japanese: "Bushi no nasake" meaning the ‘benevolence of the warrior'. This phrase embodies the concept of accepting the responsibility that comes with the acquisition of the strength of a warrior, and to use this strength correctly. Isoyama sensei is a perfect example of this spirit
Isoyama sensei moved through that rough and tumble stage of training and onward. His spiritual awareness grew along with his martial skills. He often reminds us during his teachings, that if we do not try to study and live the spiritual teachings of O-sensei along with training in the physical aspects of the art, then all the hard work that O-sensei put into creating his art of Aikido will have been in vain.
From the very first time I met Isoyama sensei, I have felt a great connection with him. He has a wonderful sense of humor, and he is great at teasing people and making jokes, both in Japanese as well as English. He is a charming and enjoyable person through and through. He has a commanding presence, without being intimidating—you know that you are in the presence of a very important person when meeting him, but his charm and warmth make you feel at ease.
Copenhagen Aiki Shuren Dojo
Ethan Weisgard is one of the highest-level direct students of the late aikido master Morihiro Saito in Europe. He traveled to Japan for the first time in 1984 to live and train as a direct student of Saito in Iwama. He has returned more than ten times, including a stay of more than one year, to immerse himself in training.
Weisgard was appointed direct representative in Denmark by Saito personally. He has traveled throughout the world teaching the aikido taught to him by his master, teaching in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, America, Russia and even in the homeland of aikido, Japan.
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 #51: Isoyama Hiroshi: "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"
I first met Hiroshi Isoyama Sensei in the aikido founder's dojo on Thursday the 10th of August, 2006. I had just moved back to Japan, having previously lived in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture for a year. For this stay in Japan, I really wanted to make aikido the focus and so I sought out employment close to former Iwama Town, which had just been absorbed into Kasama City.
Welcome to Hell Dojo: The Feel-Good Dojo!
I spent my first days as an uchi deshi (live in student) along with seniors Si Thu Naing and Maung Maung Thant, both from Myanmar who at that time were ranked second dan, as well as Tadahiko Mori, then a local shodan. The temperature was in the high 30s and it was very humid. I was warned that these were "Hell Dojo" conditions. They gave good reports of Isoyama Sensei, but cautioned me that he was a stickler for manners. Despite this, I was almost late for his class after falling afoul of the "uchi deshi trap" on my way back to Iwama from nearby Mito, despite knowing about it beforehand. The Mito Line branches off at Tomobe and I had asked an elderly conductor at Tomobe Station if I was on the right train. I was, but he insisted that I was not, so I wound up at Shishido, not Iwama Station. The next train back was not for an hour, so I embarked upon a long sweaty run to Iwama, which is not a comfortable thing for a Brit like me in the middle of a stiflingly hot and humid Japanese summer. Luckily, I met an elderly farmer who had trained with Osensei. He drove me right to the door in his tiny truck.
And so I arrived in the stifling heat, sweating badly even before training as I pulled on my training suit. I entered just ahead of Mori and there was Isoyama Sensei. Much like Inagaki Sensei, whom I had already met, Isoyama Sensei seemed larger than life, very different in the flesh from his photo. It took me some time to realise that I was actually bigger than this compact elder sitting in seiza before me.
I greeted him in Japanese and bowed just outside the genkan. My first mistake!
"Don't bow there!" Isoyama Sensei chided me in English. "Bow here!" he said, pointing within the genkan. My fellow uchi deshi, Mori followed suit as I moved properly inside to present myself and we both did kneeling bows.
"Don't bow like that!" Sensei scolded Mori, and he proceeded to correct him on the way he was bowing. I was somewhat relieved that it was not just me; even native Japanese folk were getting corrected for their etiquette. I began to understand that there were different expectations depending upon what one had been shown so far. I had already been in the dojo a few days and had just shown that I had a bit of the language, so I felt Sensei put more pressure on me to absorb the reigi saho (etiquette and manners).
Isoyama Sensei always says "It's okay if you do something wrong because you don't understand. It's bad when you understand something is wrong and you do it anyway." He applies this to the forms of his training as well as manners. Once I realised this, it was easy and I never felt any sting from his corrections. Everything was being taught to make us better and the forms of martial deportment related to everything else, including movement in a martial situation. Sensei made it clear that in order to learn to apply power correctly, we must learn correct movement. Basic to that is correct posture. Correct posture is born out of a correct spirit, a correct mind.
By the end of that first training session, I felt that Sensei's forthright corrections were all rooted in genuine concern for us. He was strict and the training was austere, but the general atmosphere was always jovial. In particular, sensei made it especially clear that we should respect each other as a matter of safety as well as good budo habit and these habits should translate into our daily lives. For ukemi, it was just as important that the thrower should throw in a way that is safe for the person being thrown. Isoyama Sensei said it was easy to injure an opponent with aikido training techniques, but throwing someone so as not to injure them is more difficult and more important.
Although I was not always the best choice as translator (and Sensei could speak good English anyway), I think I was still often chosen to translate precisely to make me better. Sensei made sure that points on etiquette and safety were especially clear to any guests at the dojo. I would translate that the meaning of practicing the aikido weapons is lost if it is not built upon the basic rules for how to handle them. Sensei emphasised that this kind of thing is what should be learned before practicing the ken or jo and that the meaning disappears if you just wave them around. He said the same principles apply when doing taijutsu.
While we were expected to do shugyo (austere training) and extend our limits every time, it was always counterbalanced with warnings of "muri shinai yo ni" ("don't overdo it"). Sensei was full of expressions I still struggle to translate on the spot such as 「苦は楽の種、楽は苦の種」"Kuro wa raku no mi, raku wa kuro no mi" ("Comfort is the fruit of hardship, hardship is the fruit of comfort").
The training could be gruelling, but it never broke us, always leaving us feeling stronger. There was a great feeling of camaraderie among students. Si Thu Sensei called it the "Feel-Good Dojo". My fellow kayoi deshi (commuting student) Kyle Giovanni said: "I don't have any dreams. I'm already living it!"
Being Thrown by Isoyama Sensei
Before going to Iwama, I confess that I did not really know much about Isoyama Sensei. I did not even know that he had trained Steven Seagal and I had not seen any of his spectacular demonstrations. Therefore, the first time I learned that he did a technique called "ganseki otoshi" was the moment my feet almost touched the ceiling when I received it. I should point out that I was a white belt, with no grade in the Aikikai. Sensei landed me perfectly, softly and flat, like a large rug. It was as if he could feel the wave of surprise going through me and use it to protect me. In the beginning, Sensei would sometimes laugh at me when I accidentally fell for him, falsely anticipating what he would do next. I soon learned that I could trust him. I noticed right away that he would bridge the elbow for certain kokyu techniques, but my arm was always okay afterwards. Over time, Sensei increased the dose of power he put into it and my joints always seemed to hold, not only with Sensei but also the other students. Once, he suddenly stopped mid-technique a fraction before launching me by my elbow and asked me if I was okay. I said I was and it gradually dawned on me that this practice was cultivating something that made it easier to withstand. In all my time with him, from the summer of 2006 up until last Saturday afternoon, he has never injured me.
Sensei takes it very seriously if anyone does have an injury. One time we had a huge Chilean-American come to the dojo named Enzo Telleria. It was his first time to do aikido and due to his weight at that time, I wondered if he would crush himself whenever he fell. Isoyama Shihan was particularly careful with him, but one day Enzo was practicing ukemi alone before training. Enzo rolled badly and sprained his shoulder. Sensei made a point of personally taping Enzo's shoulder for him before every practice until it healed. Enzo went from strength to strength, getting down to a healthy, but still powerful build. He ended up staying for over two and a half years, most of it as uchi-deshi, gaining shodan and helping Isoyama and Inagaki Shihans show aikido to the Emperor of Japan among other adventures.
Back in 2006, Isoyama Sensei was Acting Dojo Chief and taught the Thursday evening class at the founder's dojo as well as running his own dojo in Fujishiro. Training began then as it does now, with extensive jumbi undo (preparatory exercises), including elements of the makko ho, nishishiki-undo (mainly variations on hifuku undo) and chinkon on gyo. It was particularly tough in the Fujishiro dojo in the middle of Japan's hot and humid summer and I remember getting to the end of the preparation and wondering if I would be able to do the rest of the class. (I did, but I was considerably lighter by the end. Running back to the station in that heat to make the train to Iwama for morning keiko was a killer.)
Next is tai-no-henko, always starting with the basic form and only later progressing to ki-no-nagare. Sensei sometimes compares it to Japanese calligraphy and one time I remember feeling grateful for a rudimentary knowledge of some of the terms. Sensei had me translate how the kotai (solid), jutai (soft) and ryutai (flowing) forms are like kaisho (solid, blocky script), gyosho (flowing script) and sosho (abstract, difficult-to-read script). You cannot go straight to the latter without ingraining skills from the former. Sometimes, for the benefit of any English-speakers present he has used the analogy "Type, handwriting, signature!" Sensei always has a theme to his training, so if we attack katate-dori, we might do nothing but practice from that attack all night, or we do various attacks, but focus on one technique for taking them.
Isoyama Sensei uses anyone to demonstrate but only shows versions requiring difficult levels of ukemi from uke using those who are accustomed to it. In the early days it was usually Si Thu and Maung Maung, who could take anything, but sometimes Sensei would say "Ooki hito no baai…" ("In the case of someone big…") and call out the larger foreign students such as Kyle, myself and later Enzo. In more recently years we have had the likes of Erika Rose Sensei for "Se ga hikui baai..." (When they're short...").
Grabbing Isoyama Sensei is something that never fails to impress me. Before coming to Iwama, I had been fortunate to train with a number of aikido teachers who had a solid feeling to them that made them difficult to resist, but what I get from Isoyama Sensei is completely off the scale in comparison. It is not just good structure, body-placement and angles, but something else, making him feel like an immense boulder, while being completely relaxed, free and fluid in his movement.
Right away, I had my ignorance of what was meant by "kokyu" blown to bits. It soon became clear that all of the teachers and students here, many of whom had trained with Osensei, were talking about something else and the cultivation of kokyu-ryoku (sometimes translated as "abdominal breath power"), was basic from day one. Breathing is part of it, but it was not what I had thought. That breathing seemed to come naturally through the training and I think the use of kiai helped. Sensei also has some breathing exercises that he encourages us to do, but the tanren (forging training) he does for kokyu feels like it goes right to the bone. It conditions both the mind and the body, so you never let your intention get trapped in a limb and resorting to localised muscle groups. We are always warned about metsuke (viewing the whole opponent) and not allowing our awareness to pool in one place. Sensei often refers to the seika tanden as the source of kokyu power. With Isoyama Shihan in particular, when I first grabbed him, I felt it was off the scale. Although I was much bigger than him, I simply could not stop his movement, no matter how hard I tried. When Sensei grabbed me, I found that I could not move my whole body. Beyond a few other teachers in Iwama, the only time I have felt anything like this was a few years ago when I visited the Aunkai in Tokyo and got hands on with Minoru "Ark" Akuzawa Sensei.
Isoyama Sensei demonstrates all of the levels of practice, but emphasises the basics. In ki-no-nagare the great rock disappears, I find myself grasping air and it is almost like I am being pulled, but there is no magic and the rational principles of movement remain the same. Sensei always finishes the training with suwari-kokyu-ho. He has a way of practicing this that I feel is particularly good for building kokyu power. I like Isoyama Sensei's general teaching style, always with a clear goal, first showing us how to get to it, next guiding us there and then putting us in situations where we have to do it ourselves. He often asks for questions at the end, giving us a chance to reflect on what we did.
Throwing Isoyama Sensei
As I understand it, proper resistance is part of the tanren (forging training) for kokyu-power in paired practice. As an example of "proper", you have to be a fool to lean in front of someone's fist to stop them raising their arm during a grab. Both practitioners are doing aikido and building good budo habits on either side of paired or multi-person kata. I saw plenty of visitors get a resounding clonk on the head if they stooped while grabbing Isoyama Sensei.
Isoyama Sensei often switches roles with people while teaching, giving us a chance to feel the attack from him too (and also to correct us if we are having difficulty). If your shoulder is too high, or you are kinked somewhere, he usually shuts you down then switches the roles back again and does an emphasised version of what you just did to show the problem. Sensei always expects a sincere attack and meaningful resistance. Particularly in the early days, I had red marks on my hands from where I'd been gripping him and the other seniors. I also could also have sworn that my wrists were getting hairier and the bones thicker from the pressure of getting grabbed in return. One time Sensei was teaching kaitennage and he was concerned about the way some of the seniors were taking ukemi. He told me to throw him and I remember getting into position, ready to throw, but then he suddenly looked up to make a comment. It was a small, casual movement, versus all of my strength and I almost got launched into the air by it. "This is what some of you are doing…" I tried again, but it was like throwing an anvil, meaning I simply could not move him. Then suddenly and ironically, the person who laughed at me for diving when I first arrived allowed me to throw him. He did a normal, silent, rolling ukemi then let me get him into position to throw him once more. The same thing happened again as he said "but you can also do this if you are thrown strongly…" and suddenly he took all my effort and used it to fly into the air in a tobi-ukemi, again landing silently. My friend and sempai Maung Maung was filmed by a visitor one time showing his own way of doing the silent, high ukemi and it has become quite popular on YouTube. Isoyama Sensei himself did not break it down that way (Maung Maung learned that pedagogy from Miles Kessler), mainly focusing on basic rolling and making his students pick it up from being thrown.
The Feeling Felt through Others
Especially in my first few years we had lots of guests at the dojo, often outnumbering the locals. In the beginning it was pretty tough for me and I knew never to judge a book by its cover, or rather an aikido practitioner by their build or belt. Sometimes we had young women in brown belts I called "the ninja ladies" who would stun me with their power. They turned out to be Isoyama Sensei's students from the women's class in Fujishiro. They were tiny compared to me, but I would end up struggling to move, then flat on my back with them screaming a kiai and finishing me off with a strike pulled just short of my face. They were actually very friendly, despite their ferocity.
Up until the Great Tohoku Pacific Earthquake, most visitors were fellow foreigners and there were plenty of giants among them that I struggled to move, even if they did not have kokyu power. There were also plenty of Isoyama Sensei's military students, students of Saito Shihan and others who did have the goods and they were fun to train with. I never knew who the famous ones were until after I had pulled some kind of gaff, later getting prodded by fellow students saying things like "Did you know that was Larry Reynosa?"
It Had to be Seen
The majority were great people and I have made many friends over the years, but every now and again there would be someone who came with the wrong attitude. Isoyama Sensei took on all comers, but I only ever saw him handle challengers kindly in my opinion. One time he played to a particularly hostile crowd of visitors that hissed criticisms and disapproval as he demonstrated. He used them freely as uke and threw them with a smile. One guy was determined enough to stop morotedori kokyunage that he locked down, straining with all his might with his head in front of Isoyama Sensei's fist. He got the usual resounding rap on the head and thrown anyway for his trouble. Sensei resumed his explanation, commenting on how it is better to ingrain attacks that do not leave openings, but his opponent, instead of bowing and going back to the line-up, reached up, grabbed Sensei's hakama and pulled him onto his bad leg. It was the only time I ever saw a challenger get Isoyama Sensei (by then already in his seventies) to the ground, although he dealt with it quickly and laughed it off. To my knowledge, Isoyama Sensei has never injured his students or any genuine guests and I will say that he has a high success rate of not injuring challengers.
Taking Isoyama Sensei's Atemi
I thought I did well never to get that rap on the head by Sensei over quite a few years, then one time during the nijikai (second party) of the New Year celebrations at the dojo, an American named Mark Hughes, who stayed as uchi deshi for just under a year, got me into a hilarious situation in which I took several blows to the head from Isoyama Sensei. Mark was a former student of Bruce Bookman, very strong already and he picked the training up fast. However, by his own admission, Mark described himself as "the dumbest smart person I know" and I often ended up helping him when he got into trouble. This time he walked into the dojo in which aikido was born, with what looked like soot on his socks. There was a trail of black footprints on the hallowed tatami leading right up to where he sat down. Everyone laughed it off and we had it cleaned up in no time. Watahiki Sensei told Mark to go out again and turn the water off to Osensei's room, since Doshu had left. When Mark came back, he did exactly the same thing again, leaving yet another trail of sooty footprints. It caused a little mirth then Watahiki Shihan joked "Kaaru! Nagutte!" ("Carl, punch him!"). Mark jokingly lined up his head and I gave him a little tap.
"Kaaru! Not like that!" boomed Isoyama Shihan.
I tried again but to no avail: "Did it hurt?" Mark was asked.
"No!" Mark replied.
Sensei beckoned me over.
"Like this Carl!"
I lined up my head and…
The blow resounded around the dojo.
Sensei then gave me some pointers on how to do the strike. I had another go. The sound Mark's skull made was not quite so impressive.
"Not like that! Like this!"
Some people cringed as Mark took a beautifully sonorous blow. Then I had another try, failed to impress and again…
It was my turn. This continued for a while.
Mark would later comment "I remember him hitting you too to show you how to do it. You didn't do anything wrong, and I found it pretty hilarious that you were sampling punches to the head like you might a tray of sashimi. Nodding and complimenting on the feel of it. Good times."
After a few more rounds of playing the skull-bongos, I had the right sound.
Sensei then asked us again if it had hurt. We both answered no. That was the point. We had the spectacle, but we did not get hurt when striking the way he had shown.
Sensei then indicated Mark's head again and said "Now, this is where you strike if you want to kill him."
Good Memories, Good Friends
After the IAF Congress in Tanabe in the summer of 2008, Isoyama Sensei had long overdue surgery on his injured knee. He also retired as acting Dojo Chief, succeeded by Waka Sensei and Inagaki Shihan took over his Thursday training slot. Although Isoyama Sensei remains as an Executive Advisor and retains his teaching post, practice with him in the founder's dojo is now only on special occasions and Inagaki Sensei has replaced him for many international seminars. As such, I cherish each and every practice and do my best to attend them. Sensei still teaches, or at least observes quite regularly at the Fujishiro Dojo. Eight years on I still feel like I am living the dream. The years do not seem to have touched Isoyama Sensei who remains a very astute man. Only his knee surgery seems to have changed things; Sensei will still teach suwariwaza, but while standing, while we do them kneeling as normal.
When Ethan Weisgard Sensei egged me on to respond to this column, I had some misgivings about doing the whole kiss-and-tell, especially regarding someone who is still one of my teachers. However, when I mentioned it to Isoyama Sensei directly, I knew it would result in an interesting conversation about internal strength and aikido. He clearly considered it to be an important issue, so here you have another written account.
I would strongly recommend going for the real thing. Isoyama Sensei has always encouraged us to try other teachers and other martial arts. How else can we know if what we are doing is any good or not?
I will finish with another fond memory. I went down to the Fujishiro Dojo for Isoyama Sensei's early morning practice with my friend Giles McCabe of New Zealand. The practice itself was as I have described and good fun. Sensei was kind enough to drive us back up to Iwama, so that we would be in time for the later morning practice there. As usual, we enjoyed asking Sensei many questions. This was not long after the Great Tohoku-Pacific earthquake and Sensei told us that through aikido he had made lots of good friends around the world. Sensei told how many of them had shown concern and offered to help him in the wake of the disaster. Giles and I both speak reasonable Japanese and that was the language of the conversation, but Sensei suddenly said in perfect English "Carl, you are my good friend. Giles, you are my good friend. Please make many good friends."
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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