REIMEI JUKU—A Saotome Brainchild
I arrived in Japan in August of '82 with letters of introduction from Saotome Sensei each to a teacher, colleague, and student of his.
I ended up training with his student, Kuwamori Shigeyuki, regularly. Kuwamori had been a Uechi-ryu karate YONDAN at 19, and I got the idea that Saotome had set up this dojo, Reimei Juku--The Dawn Academy, especially to train against Kuwamori and hone his technique against a karate player. There are stories about Saotome coming into to teach his classes at Honbu with his face all black and blue from training outside the headquarters. Mary Heini told us a story at her 2004 seminar in Miami about some karate fellow coming into Honbu once and challenging Saotome (she couldn't recall what he looked like, but it might have been Kuwamori.) He evidently bloodied Saotome, who proceeded to continue against the youth right there in front of his students and peers. That's something I really admire about Saotome: his honesty about training, and how he has successfully imparted that to his students. The way Kuwamori finishes the story, Sensei "showed me his power."
Kuwamori lived about 20 minutes by commuter train from the Tokyo loop. Suzuki Shigeru took me there and introduced me. Shigeru, another Saotome student, spent a number of years teaching aikido in Chicago. He had actually been the heir apparent for Saotome but had to return to Japan due to health problems, so he was conveniently there to meet me at the airport when I arrived in Japan: He went to Narita airport, and I went to Haneda, about three hours away.
TRAINING AT REIMEI JUKU
I stayed with Shigeru my first couple of days in Japan and rendezvoused with him after work one night for my introduction to Kuwamori. We arrived at Kuwamori's strain stop, Oizumigakuen, and started off for the dojo. But Shigeru had not been there for a number of years, and we had to call Kuwamori to pick us up. This made me less embarrassed when I had to do it the next time, too.
Class had begun, but I was still welcomed onto the mat, and I began my training in Japan. They were very polite to me that night and did not push me too much, sussing me out gingerly. After class, we sat down to green tea, the Reimei Juku members laughed over old times with Shigeru--he and Ikeda Hiroshi, now of Boulder, Colorado, had both trained there before following Saotome to the States--and we took our leave.
The "aikido" at Reimei Juku did not look like aikido you expect; no SHIHO NAGE, no KOTE GAESHI--none of it. If we ever did technique, it was largely by accident. One time a couple years into my stint there, I grabbed Kuwamori's forearm in resisting him, he always worked out with us, and he put me down with a NIKYO laughing, "Oisashiburi!"--"Long time, no see!"
I learned after training in Japan for a month, that I had passed probation. I hadn't know that I was on probation. As Kuwamori would tell me later, when I first showed up on his doorstep with Sensei's letter of introduction in hand, I'd only represented a nuisance to him. His dojo was next to his house and admittance by invitation only (he actually did refuse people entry). But I didn't complain when they knocked me down, and I listened intently and tried to do what he told me when he offered advice, so I got the go-ahead.
We began class with stretching mostly, a pretty traditional beginning confounding the term "warm up", of course, and then went into TENKAN, which always struck me as funny. Kuwamori shared Iwama's Saito's scorn for "the way they do things in Tokyo", i.e., Honbu. "It's dance" he'd say dismissively. But TENKAN he held in high regard. Once when I was late to class and had an off night, he explained that the reason was that I'd foregone doing TENKAN and just worked in to where everyone else was.
I recall being corrected repeatedly on TENKAN. I'd been taught to scoop as they do (quite effectively, thank you) under Yamada. Kuwamori wanted me to extend my hand out as if cutting UKE's lower belly. I noticed that Nishio taught TENKAN this way, too, explicitly denouncing the scoop as giving aikido a bad name as martial art, a point beyond my current understanding.
TENKAN was quite painful to practice at Reimai Juku. Kuwamori, and even more so his younger brother Yoshiaki, had ferocious grips. Trying to pivot really ground the bones in your forearm, and I went home bruised just from this. But for the first few months I was there, Kuwamori incorporated an exercise to prepare me for training there: After bringing UKE around with TENKAN, NAGE would drive a punch into UKE's stomach. Kuwamori was not satisfied if I simply let him crush me, he wanted me to drive my belly onto the fist. It is a useful exercise because you can use UKE's punch as ATEMI against him simply by doing this, driving into his punch. There is also the very real possibility of injuring the wrist by bending it back. We did this uncomfortably often punching each other in the stomach. But I could never drive into Kuwamori, his punch was just too devastating. For the first months, and even occasionally after that, his punches would knock the wind out of me, and I would need 20-30 seconds on my hands and knees to recover.
RYOTE MOCHI (two hands holding one) was another humbling. I seldom got to complete any technique against it and never with Kuwamori or his brother. They would drive your elbow into your center like a sword. It gave your legs quite a stretch because you'd go all the way to the mat trying to get ahead of their attack. When I tried to return the favor, Kuwamori would shake me off like a puppy. He wanted 110 percent from your attacks but he would twist his arm sharply in throwing you, and it put enormous torque on your joint. No one ever tried to hurt me deliberately, but I injured my wrists with this practice. Kuwamori's brother also had a problem wrist and wore a brace on it for the entire time I trained there. I loved the spirit and training at Reimai Juku, but some of it was hurtful in this way.
Another attack we worked regularly was KATA DORI/KATA MENUCHI. Fine motor techniques like NIKYO were out of the question; the attacks were too ferocious, and you would be splattered while you tried to manipulate UKE's hand. To this day when I do a NIKYO against a shoulder grab I believe I'm doing it only by the grace of my partner. That's why I often mime a knee to the groin before trying something more "aiki". Kuwamori emphasized TAI SABAKI with these attacks, but I don't think I ever successfully completed a defense against them. No one gave quarter, and I'd just get crushed--or punched--to the mat.
Next we'd move on to strikes. We began with SHOMEN UCHI. Kuwamori and his brother are the only aikidoists I've trained with whose SHOMEN UCHI I feared. IKKYO against them was like trying to stop a pallet of concrete blocks from falling off a forklift from beneath the pallet.
I remember how proud I was in this training for a while. What would happen with most engagements is UKE would attack SHOMEN UCHI and NAGE would try IKKYO unsuccessfully. The two bodies would be locked into something like an A-frame. With one of my partners, a spirited individual named Inagaki, I was able to twist into OGOSHI and toss him. I was only able to do this for about three weeks, however, before he managed a counter. I was never able to do anything against his YOKO MENUCHI, however. That little guy threw a YOKOMEN like a cranky gator whipping his tail at you: It didn't feel like UKEMI, it felt like your arm being splashed. Awesome.
With effort I learned to crush a couple of fellows in the dojo that way, but when I hit Kuwamori full bore on it merely creased my forearm and whiplashed my wrist. He didn't even need technique, I'd go to my knees from the pain alone. I couldn't win with that guy.
In three years training I only managed to hit him three times, and one of those was by accident. Each time, he put on a game face and said, "Good." There was never anything like retribution. The sincerity of the dojo is one thing I really liked. You see the same attitude with most Saotome people.
Like Inagaki above, Kuwamori and his brother went right through me with YOKO MENUCHI, too. When I'd first arrived there and wasn't yet initiated into "The Reimei Juku Way", I pulled a fast one on Yoshiaki, the brother. Tired of simply being crushed and thrown backward onto my back time and again, I entered ducking. Yoshiaki was caught by surprise, let out a little yelp and spiraled himself down into his HAKAMA like the Wicked Witch of the West. That was the only time I was able to do that. I caught Kuwamori turning away to hide a grin.
Yoshiaki had a Jekyl/Hyde thing about him. Personally, he was warm and very shy. When Kuwamori was away, he wouldn't even lead class, Inagaki would do that. But when he was training, he was a different person. He careened in at you with a punch and crush you, and then before you had even gotten up, he'd be bearing down on you again Merciless.
I surprised Yoshiaki on another technique once. For a year, I took the standard issue Reimei Juku UKEMI for TSUKI--I fell down. When Kuwamori or Yoshiaki came in with a punch, there wasn't much to do but hit the mat. They came in like locomotives. When I punched them, they would punch through my punch and down I would go again. I never got brave enough to take Kuwamori's punch, he would--and had--ripped a man once (he showed me the scar from the surgery to repair him), but I didn't get the same feeling of power from Yoshiaki's punch, so one day I took his punch standing and threw one back into his solar plexus knocking the snot out of him (it perched for a moment on his upper lip). That was a very satisfying moment, but again, it only happened once. Thereafter we'd stand pounding on each other, and I'd get the worst of it. But I didn't fall down for his punches anymore. This was one big benefit of training at Reimei Juku, I learned to take a punch. It gave me enormous confidence for IRIMI.
I stopped training at Reimei Juku after three years due to chronic injuries. My wrists had been savaged by Kuwamori's torquing and, scarier, my back was starting to give me problems--remember the A-frame IKKYO above? When I explained why I was leaving, the other members tried to dissuade me by pointing out that, "All members have same pain." Misery loves company, I guess. I didn't take enough consolation in that to continue.
REIMEI JUKU AND "AIKIDO"
We had a guest visit once to observe. Kuwamori had come to his attention with a letter he penned to Aiki News belittling aikido and essentially challenging anyone to a match. I walked back to the station with this fellow after class, and he opened up on how disgusted he was with Kuwamori: "That's not aikido--that guy would kill you and think nothing of it." It was an interesting perspective because I'd been loving the training and feeling like the dojo really cared about me, my well-being, and my progress. I had felt more comfortable taking the punishment there than I did training at Honbu.
I kept hearing about how erratic folks could be at Honbu, and how you could easily get handed your head; which would one day come to pass. I had arrived late to train with a friend and ended up with the last guy on the mat. I didn't know who he was, but it was obvious from his sauntering grayback strut that he was someone. It turned out to be a Honbu SHIHAN, a man with a fearsome reputation whom I had never heard of. As I had been trained to at Reimei Juku, I gave him my all attacking, and it was for naught as he tossed me around like a doll. During the class he was actually rather gentle. But then we sat down for KOKYU DOSA, and I easily threw him over, much to my own astonishment. He came up smiling, so I figured he was magnanimously proud of my effort as Kuwamori was when I got one over on him.
Then I threw him over again. He didn't come up smiling this time. He put me down into a cradle pin and gave me a shoulder injury which has lasted all my life. Harmony and personal development indeed. I have spoken with many folks since then who have had similar experiences with the man. If this is The Way of Harmony, then harmony means something different for the Japanese than it does for me.
Reimei Juku forced me to practice that value much admired by the Japanese: NANAKOROBI YAOKI—seven times down, eight times up. There was always Kuwamori, and his brother to crush you in whatever you did, and nothing to do but get back up and try again. It also helped me to "melt" into the mat quickly because you would get put down so fast.
The training hardened my body. I was able to take punches in the abdomen (we aimed for the solar plexus when punching each other), and my forearms could take almost any blow with hand or leg. The regular static practice also served to build center.
But what I most liked about Reimei Juku was the cheerful egalitarian nature of training. There was no kata with predefined "winners" and none of that SEMPAI/KOHAI nonsense. When we could put someone down, we did, as UKE or as NAGE, and there were never hard feelings. In all my time there, I never saw anyone anger. There was only enthusiastic camaraderie. Kuwamori has "a small idea of aikido" as Shigeru put it (whereas Saotome has "a big idea of aikido"), and I do not share his contempt for the rest of the aikido world. But I had great training there which gave me a great foundation to proceed onto more subtle and refined work.
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