Photos of my six-day trip to Japan, including this event:
Request for your photos at the end of this report.
The Public Funeral of Saito sensei, a personal recollection.
Saito sensei's public funeral was held on a cool, only slightly humid Saturday and Sunday, June 22 and 23, 2002, in the Tomobe Funeral Hall, just north of Iwama, Japan. For those of us lucky enough to be there in person, it was a memorable experience.
Long ago, on a mat far far away…
When I first saw Saito sensei way back in the late 1970's, I was so new to aikido that I he made no lasting impression on me. The next time he came to California, I was more with it and had sorted out that he was my own sensei's (Bruce Klickstein) mentor and that there was this place called Iwama in the countryside of Japan that one could live near him and train everyday. Also, there were a lot of rules and it was a pretty Spartan experience. As soon as I made 1st kyu I went over for a month. Unfortunately that month was December and very, very cold. Saito sensei looked out for us and made his soba from scratch during a mercifully sunny day, and corrected our form during the bitterly cold mornings. I remember the first time I latched onto his wrist for tai-no-henko. That was one memorable wrist.
Time passes and now I'm in the Saito home, kneeling before the Kotsu-tsubo, a large, milk-carton shaped box, ornate in silver brocade, containing perhaps the bones from that wrist, as well as other bones and ashes remaining from the cremation a month ago. It was startling to be near the bones that moved the body that had been pounded to the mat by Osensei, and had trained and taught on the dusty grounds, stage floors, and the covered mats of a hundred aikido places. I'm fumbling through the Friday evening greeting to Hitohiro, who now sits at the low table where I'm used to seeing Saito sensei. He's very kind about conducting me through the ceremony of bowing and incense pinching. Looking at Saito sensei's photo behind the ashes box, I feel that connection with him, and it is strangely, eerily comforting to have even the bony residuals of his physical self so near, for just a while longer. I wish I could grasp that mighty wrist once more.
Dreams that Matter.
I've arrived in Japan earlier this Friday and within 10 minutes of arriving in the dojo have heard one long-time soto deshi's spooked out dream of Saito sensei. In the middle of the night of May 12th, he dreamed that Saito sensei visited him. He was up and saying "Look, I can walk now!". This dream occurred pretty much at the time Saito sensei actually passed away from the cancer which has stricken him down a couple months earlier, leaving his legs useless. Now, that is a dream!
Saturday morning as usual we cleaned the dojo. The silvery kotsu-tsubo had moved from the house into the dojo, along with his photo and some flowers. From time to time, Hitohiro would appear and someone would be kneeling before it and going through the bowing and incense procedure. I visit the local Hotspar convenience store, sanctuary and savior to uchi deshi for generations, and run by an eternally congenial crew. They've been part of the Iwama dojo experience of everyone and express their sorrow for Saito sensei and family.
That afternoon we are all in our suits or dresses. We are called out to the Aikijinja. Hitohiro appears in full black kimono and hakama and zori and strides by with this three sons. Two carry wood placards and the oldest easily carries the kotsu-tsubo in both hands. They arrive before the stone tori gate and large wooden jinja to bow and clap to the kamisama. Perhaps this is the last time Saito sensei will be physically near the jinja. It's a somber moment. Soon we are bused to Tomobe for the first day of the official Buddhist funeral procedure. I'm joined in this by aikido friends from England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey and some Slovak country, New Zealand, Australia, California of course, Florida and Virginia. Most of us have never experienced this ceremony.
Tomobe Funeral Hall.
The hall is overflowing with perhaps 500 somberly dressed people, except for one uchi deshi who only had a tan suit. However, he has a black armband constructed from a hakama tie, which is quite fitting. The kotsu-tsubo is in place once more, this time on the front stage along with about a thousand spectacular white or yellow Japanese chrysanthemums sweeping across the front. Saito sensei's large photo floats above. To the left is his gi and hakama, displayed hanging and regally floating before a black background. Left and right of the stage are two dragon's heads that Hitohiro carved and painted. Usually they are in his home's dojo. Two short rows of chairs are off to the right for the extended Saito family, who will be resplendent in black kimono, hakama, and one in monk's attire. Rows of chairs face this display. Out in the lobby, a full size photo of Saito sensei, in formal traditional attire, is flanked by informal photos of him and a wall of little planks with the names of people who wrote in condolence letters. They fill a large wall space. Next to this is a small dining hall with tea and sushi and snacks.
The actual ceremony begins and is quite austere and dignified. The Buddhist monks come in and drone away the highly rhythmic and rigidly parsed Japanese syllables. It appears they are reciting Saito sensei's cv, as I heard them mention aikido, the countries he visited, his address, family names and other titles such as caretaker of the Aikijinja, always a big point. This goes on for awhile and I count the flowers on the large alter. Appears to be around one thousand flowers. One for each black-belt level in the room, I muse to myself.
Next, each row of seated mourners comes up to the front to bow to the Saito family and Saito sensei's photo and kotsu-tsubo, and add a smidgeon of powdery incense to one of the bowls in the row. It takes about five seconds, but as wave upon wave upon wave of people goes through this, in silence, a sort of deep resonance happens. It's very dignified. No one is sobbing their eyes out. Yet, when I have my moment for this, it feels like a silent clap of thunder hits me, and I'm rooted briefly to heaven and earth and with everyone in the room. Then, I'm back in my seat to contemplate what just happened.
Koden and Soccer.
That night, those of us staying in the dojo gather around the shokudo television to watch the ongoing World Cup soccer game and wonder what happens in Day Two. We gave our koden envelopes of money for incense (and to offset the funeral expenses) and received our bag of green teas as an exchange. What more could happen?
Sunday is still cool and overcast. Yesterday's morning rain hasn't returned. We clean the dojo, and once more the kotsu-tsubo is placed on the dojo mat, facing outward to the garden. It is comforting somehow to have him nearby, even in this rather dissembled state. He must enjoy watching us going through the morning cleaning and running around. This is one group of experienced Iwama hands, that's for sure. We've all been here before, some for years at a time, and there is comfort in the feel of the hand towel on the shomen, the sound of the early morning birds, the crunch of gravel under foot, the smell of cedar on cotton mat.
Once more attired in suit or dresses, we bus to the noon ceremony in Tomobe hall. Now over a thousand people must be there. The really big names have arrived. There's Honbu's Doshu and retinue, including Fujita and others who must be original deshi as they are rather ancient. I heard later that Toei sensei was there. I sat across the tea and sembei table from Nishio sensei, and saw an unending stream of friends from my past arriving. It was hard not to get into a party mood for the joy of seeing so many, including my group from Tokyo, the Yoyogi-uehara aikido club which Hitohiro established over ten years ago.
Hitohiro's Funeral Speech.
This time, I'm not seated, and I'm glad because there are so many very old people who should sit down instead. I stand beside my training friends from the Yoyogi-uehara club as we listen once more the Buddhist monks cadences and drones, with punctuations of cymbals clashing and wooden bonks. Fujita from Honbu gives a speech, looking up at the photo of Saito sensei. I'm sure he said very good things about this man who gave him so much trouble over the years. The Doshu gave a speech, which I have the feeling was full of proper things to say. I wander outside. Hitohiro gives his speech. The tent pavilion with large video screens for the overflow is full, but many of us are also standing outside, and all are looking quietly at the building. The sound system is perfect. Hitohiro is talking about how he wheeled his dad from the house, across the street to the Aikijinja for what they knew was the last time. At this point, finally, he voice broke. The quiet deepened, white hankies started coming out of pockets. Hitohiro finished and we were done. Extremely moving. The hall quickly set up for food and drink, and a rather fevered party ensues.
We bus back to the dojo, slipped into our comfortable clothes, assemble before the dojo, watch Hitohiro expertly slice up three recently swimming Hamachi (Yellow Tail) fish and spend the remainder of the evening in a classic dojo party. Saito sensei is there, too, the kotsu-tsubo placed on the dojo shomen. I am glad he is present for his final dojo party.
Hitohiro did something I thought was really great. He publicly thanked Rei, the long-term woman uchi-deshi. Before everyone, he said the weekend could not have gone off as well as it did without her constant help. She looked stunned, but I know she was deeply moved by this so well deserved public thanks. Next, Hitohiro said he had never been to a party like this in his life. The international spirit of aikido comes down from Osensei, through his father, through him, and through all of us. He thanked us on hands and knees for coming here from all over the world. It was a touching and sincere moment.
Monday dawned sunny and warm. I know this because, as with each morning, I was up at 4 a.m. and long before anyone else, perhaps because I currently live at a mile high altitude, and at this sea-level I am heavily over-oxygenated. I felt like the air had turned into liquid. Perhaps this is how fish experience the water. I cleaned up the kitchen from what appears to have been an all-night party and cheered up a soggy and soddened former deshi. He'd elected to stay up all night for his 6:30 a.m. departure for Narita and home.
That afternoon, I took the trek up the mountain along with Aviv Goldsmith from Virginia, Wolfgang Baumgartner from Berlin, Mehmet Dogu from Turkey and Renae Murray from New Zealand. At the top is Atago-san, the town's own Shinto shrine. While buying jinja trinkets, the two elderly jinja men behind the window came out to talk about Saito sensei and the funeral. They looked pretty choked up and sad and gave us each a party bag with special towels, chopsticks and sake, a party souvenir, with the jinja name on them. Returning to town, I stopped by the Yamashita Bike store to visit the elderly Yamashita-san and his wife. He's taken care of the dojo bicycles for decades, usually charging nothing. We reminisced about Saito sensei, the funeral and we worried about Mrs. Saito, who is in the hospital. We hope she will recover from her grief and come back soon. I rejoined my three friends for lunch at the fine udon restaurant next door. The two ladies running the place also wanted to discuss the funeral, find out where we were from and wished us well. Everyone knew Saito sensei. It's part of being in a small town.
Final Farewell to Saito Sensei.
That afternoon I prepared to leave. As I walk the well-known and littered path to Saito's house, past the usual pile of corrugated tin roofing, the ever-changing garden, chickens and scattered tools to say my sayonara to Hitohiro, I feel more comfortable for this task than I did with Saito sensei. The house doors are open and Hitohiro is sitting around a table with other friends. Saito sensei' kotsu-tsubo is back in it's original spot, surrounded by the photo, flowers, candles, bronze bowl, and a pair of wild turning lightstands. It's congenial. Later, the bones will at last be taken for burial in the family site somewhere in Iwama.
Hitohiro conducted the weekend's events with poise, dignity, and genuineness. He's a really great teacher, and ready to keep the Iwama spirit going. It's a new era and it feels like it is going to be a great one.
I returned to Colorado to begin graduate studies in Japanese and East Asian studies. Two years from now I plan to return to Japan. Perhaps then I'll establish a dojo in the Iwama model, with Japanese and Gaikokujin (those pesky foreigners) training together.
I heard that the Iwama dojo would remain. The land is in the name of the former Doshu's wife, who is in good health. When she eventually passes away, Honbu may sell off the empty field but will keep the dojo because the parking lot next to it is needed for parking and the party during the annual April Taisai.
Well, that is the latest story regarding the fate of the dojo. I hope one day it will be rebuilt before it falls down and all the ghosts escape of Osensei, Saito sensei, and of thousands of former deshi. I suspect they would meet just across the street in the Aikijinja for more training, parties, and friendship.
July 7, 2002
This just in from the Aiki Journal online. I'm including it as a follow-up to the above.
To All those who have offered their condolences:
Letter of Appreciation
by Hitohiro Saito, Ibaragi Aiki Shuren Dojo-cho
On behalf of my family and myself, I would like to thank all of you who have sent telegrams, letters, gifts, and flowers of condolence on the sad occasion of the death of my father Morihiro Saito (Buddhist name: Zuishininshoutetsushitokukoudoukoji). It is my intention to follow, preserve, and disseminate my father's will from this point onward. I hope to continue to have your support and cooperation as before. Finally, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your participation in the funeral services and burial of my late father.
June 23, 2002
Ibaragi Aiki Shuren Dojo
PS. Request for informal photos of Saito sensei.
I'm creating a website: http://www.saitosensei.com
I am looking specifically for informal photos of Saito sensei, Hitohiro sensei, their families and kids Did out your old and great ones that you treasure and would like to share.
If you have a photo you'd like to contribute the Saito sensei website, please email it to me. If you have a photo but can't scan it into digital form, send it to me and I'll return it within one week.
Warmest regards to all,