There are some days I really love my job. Apart from banging my head on the walls in my lab because of some non-working experiments, I do get to travel a bit for scientific meetings everywhere in the world. It is nice because I also get to meet individuals as miserable as myself and we discuss the conditions of our respective failures. I can already hear you say "but what does it have to do with Aikido?" Let me explain...
I have recently had the opportunity to go to San Diego for one of these meetings and since the scientific schedule was not too tight, I obviously used my free time to go and train with Californian aikidoists. I visited the dojo founded by Kazuo Chiba Shihan, 8th dan Aikikai and former uchi deshi with O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba for seven years. Unfortunately, I had been told that Sensei would not be here during my visit since he was himself on a trip teaching close to my home... in Britain.
Never mind, from what I had seen on their website, there were enough high ranked practitioners in this dojo to provide me with some serious training. I knew I would have a hard time since I had already experienced training for a few years with Chiba Sensei's former students in England. In fact, mister Chiba had founded the Aikikai of Great Britain before moving permanently in the united sates in 1981. Following his departures, some students of his decided to set up an independent organisation from the one headed by new Aikikai delegate, Minoru Kanetsuka Sensei.
Although weakened by the 8 hours jetlag and a chaotic journey in San Diego's public transports that was worth of a Michael Palin documentary, I finally enter the doors of the dojo. Trining is not due to start before a good hour so I take the opportunity to shoot a few pictures and meet the uchi deshi who are currently working away on the dojo's garden. My thick French accent gets my instantly identified as the individual who bothered the club's secretary with quantity of emails concerning my arrival the week before. I finally step on the mat, ready for some serious practice. Mr Chiba's students in Brimingham were powerful but this lot brought the word to a brand new meaning. The initial question I had been asked by one of the students "how's your ukemi?" suddenly makes a lot of sense.
On the tatami, the atmosphere is quite serious, severe even, and the practice very rigorous. The class is run by Dave Alonso from the Tijuana Aikikai. The incredible heat makes me lack oxygen sometimes as the jetlag kicks in. After the first one hour class, the break is very welcome. The next hour will apparently be dedicated to Zazen. That is great news, I consider happilly this opportunity to get a bit of rest and since I have never practiced Zazen before, I appreciate the offer they make me to give it a go. For those of you (like me) who are unfamiliar with Zazen, it is basically about sitting still for one hour or so after reciting a few mantras. I know that besides covering myself in shame if I move an inch, I might get serious punishment in the subsequent training if I break my fellow students' concentration. I therefore do my best to ignore the pain running through my legs and hips, the pins and needles in my arse and this annoying drop of sweat tickling the extremity of my nose. I have one hour to meditate; that is, in my case; trying hard not to think about my life, my PhD thesis that is seriously starting to be overdue and all these crucial things.. As the final sound of bell rings, everybody quietly gets up. Having lost the use of my lower extremities, I do my best not to stumble like a drunken sailor while I go put my pillow back in the closet.
Fifteen minutes later, the next class begins under the instruction of Deena Drake [Deena is now in charge of the San Diego Aikikai since Chiba Sensei retired in 2010]. This one is dedicated to weapons. The style is very intense and the seriousness even more present. The work on the contact between the two bokken is very detailed in order to leave no opening to the partner, almost as if the to weapons were stuck together. The level of concentration reaches an unequalled peak so far.
As the class finishes, I almost feel like the mop used for cleaning the dojo; exhausted and without any shape. I am already seeing myself in my hotel room, crashed on my king size bed, looking forward to one of these huge pizzas they've got here in America; falling asleep in front of a "Law and Order" episode on telly. Things do not end up as expected as I get kindly invited to stay and share dinner with the students in the living quarters of the dojo. Since we have had very little time to discuss and get to know each other before training, I am glad to accept the invitation and also quite touched by the attention.
Things start extremely well as I get offered a chilled can of Kirin. As if sitting down during Zazen was not enough, we take place around the Japanese style dining table. As the discussions start, the atmosphere becomes very friendly and I am informed that tonight's dinner will be a traditional Mexican recipe of chicken in chocolate and spices sauce cooked by Miguel... oh boy...
This announcement strangely brings to my mind the notice board I have just read about dojo rules written by Kazuo Chiba sensei himself ,and particularly the passage about accepting the food offered and not wasting it. Well, the time I have spent in the dojo as been full of new experiences and this is one more of them. My mind protests at the idea of ingesting meat and chocolate at same time but my taste buds give their endorsement to this tasty meal. I am actually glad I get the chance to taste this. These people are absolutely charming and I feel very honoured and fortunate to have been accepted amongst them. For a few hours, we exchange our experiences about aikido, funny anecdtes and much more. A few times, my British expressions make everybody laugh as I get a bit tipsy due to the beer, jetlag and tiredness and let go some of the slang I learnt while living in the north of England. I also hera quite a lot about Sensei Chiba's teaching and I really regret not having had the opportunity to meet him in person this time. Although he is not very well known to the French practitioners, he is one of the very important characters of Aikido history as well as an amazing technician. As the evening comes to an end, I get offered a very welcome lift back to the hotel by one of the students (thank you very much officer Head...).
After a week of boring biology talks during the conference, some exhausting training and merciless sun, I head back to Ireland's tastefully mediocre weather, my head full of fantastic memories. I ghave had the chance to meet people that share the same passion as me about Aikido and who are very skilful practitioners and thoroughly nice individuals. This is one of the great strengths of our discipline as we can meet each other, train and get to know each other regardless of the differences of style (and culinary tastes!). Let this feeling be a reminder to keep in mind when dealing with other practitioners closer to our home but who might not share the same practice as us. If we judge and dismiss such and such style or person as it is often the case in our own country, it is perhaps because we have not trained enough to understand what the others are doing. If we can do it across thousands of kilometres and an ocean, we can certainly do it in our own backyard.
To go further:
Trio to San Diego part 2: Trip to San Diego Part 2: The Jiai Aikido
San Diego Aikikai website
(Original blog post may be found here