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.
' 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.