It Had To Be Felt #48: Nakashimada Tamami: A Beautiful Gem
I first met my teacher in September of 1992. My spouse, Ria, and I were commiserating that we needed to exercise more. We were carrying a little bit of extra weight, we drank too much coffee and I still smoked cigarettes. We thought martial arts would be more fulfilling than the gym, and we knew that there was some aikido at our local community center. The next day we were there for a class. We began our training that night—one inescapable kotegaeshi, and I was hooked.
The dojocho, Nakashimada Tamami (her first name means ‘beautiful gem'—many of us call her ‘Tama sensei') was back in Japan that month, so we didn't get to meet her until several weeks into our training. With senior students leading each class, we poured ourselves into training that first month. We were energetic and enthusiastic, and our class mates kept saying "Wait till Tama sensei comes back—she's going to like you!" This was said in a fun way, but with a ‘you'd better watch out' feeling. We started to get a little nervous. Finally, she returned.
Not being one to judge a book by its cover, but having my expectations clearly set by my seniors, I was still a little shocked when a diminutive, smiling woman entered the dojo. Immediately the buzz and chatter in the room abated. She smiled and greeted us. It's difficult not to sound sycophantic but, truly, the entire dojo space was filled with her energy. During that first class, I had a chance to feel what my senior classmates were alluding to. I had never moved so quickly nor felt so frightened, at the edge of my physical abilities! I felt myself firmly grabbing her, and then having my structure entirely compromised. That feeling hasn't change much in 20 years, although I'm now more sensitive to it. Tama sensei, when grabbed, immediately reaches inside uke—she often calls this ‘plugging in'—and chooses the ideal vector to move, depending on what the technique calls for (omote, ura, tenkan ).
I was completely wasted after that class. She set the bar for me, the first of many times that she did so. As my ability progressed, the bar got a little higher. I remember many nights in the dojo thinking, "I hope there is a new person tonight," or " I hope it's really crowded tonight," so I would not get the majority of her attention for the full hour! Tama sensei's mantra was "the more ukemi you take, the better your execution of technique will be."
As the years passed, my spouse and I branched out, visiting other dojo and enjoying seminars with other aikido teachers. Wherever we went, we kept hearing what a great teacher Tama sensei is, and how lucky we were to be her students. From other's reactions, we could sense that we received very high quality and very intense training back home.
I eventually became more involved in the operation of the dojo, and helped Tama sensei with administration, seminars and instruction duties. I knew that she had been a student of Suganuma Morito sensei in Fukuoka, Japan, prior to moving to Canada, but I did not initially understand her devotion and loyalty to him. After returning from her annual Japan visit, she announced that we would be having a visitor to help instruct at the dojo. This was one of Suganuma sensei's longtime students, and we were told that he was being sent to help out with teaching duties. In fact, although unmentioned, he was coming to assess us and ‘clear a path' for Suganuma sensei. His classes were like a light going on! His teaching was very much what Tama sensei was teaching us, and, as we later found out, very much what Suganuma sensei was doing. The essence of lineage—truly passing on what you know—really clicked for me at that time. Later that year, Suganuma Sensei visited us for the first time. This year will make his fourteenth annual visit.
Tama sensei exemplifies a martial spirit. One day a man came up to us as we were waiting for the previous class to clear out of the dojo. He was projecting a clear and unambiguous bad attitude. He took a look at Tama sensei and myself, curled a little smile and asked who the dojocho was, saying, "I want to train tonight." Tama sensei calmly looked him in the eye, said she was dojocho, and that he could find somewhere else to train. He was certainly miffed at that response!
"You mean to tell me I can't train with you tonight?!"
"No, you can't. Please leave."
He turned and left. I was still swallowing back the adrenaline dump as I watched him go. I asked sensei why she would not let him join and she replied simply ‘bad attitude.' Although Tama sensei would take me to the edge of my abilities in the dojo, I realized that night that, she also cared very much for all of us, and would do her best to keep her students out of harm's way.
Sensei has mellowed a little over the years. I no longer feel that I am going to go through the mat when being thrown. . . so much. Each time I grab her, whether firmly or lightly, I feel as if I have attached myself to a heavy mass, a sort of ‘moving yet unmovable' object. Although she is less vigorous than the early days, she is as intense and much more subtle.
I had a chance to visit with Tama sensei this past weekend during our annual seminar with Suganuma sensei. While we didn't have time to sit and chat, I could see that she was hard at work, taking care of Suganuma sensei, finding beginners with whom to practice, training with visiting dojocho to show they were welcome and, of course, shedding a tear at the end of the seminar while explaining how grateful she is to Suganuma sensei. She is truly a beautiful gem.
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