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
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
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,
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
(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
(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
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.
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:
- Only people who have actually taken ukemi from the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
- Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
- Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
- If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
- Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.