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It Had to Be Felt #35: Tomita Takeji: Cold Rain and Wild Strawberries
It Had to Be Felt #35: Tomita Takeji: Cold Rain and Wild Strawberries
by Ethan Weisgard
03-11-2013
It Had to Be Felt #35: Tomita Takeji: Cold Rain and Wild Strawberries

Tomita Takeji sensei is based in Stockholm, the beautiful capital city of Sweden, teaching throughout Sweden as well as other countries. He moved there in 1969 from Japan. Originally a student of Nishio Shoji sensei, he subsequently became a student of Saito sensei - actually his first Japanese uchideshi. Tomita sensei was also in Iwama during the final period of O-sensei's life, and was one of those who helped to take care of the Founder during his last days.

Tomita Sensei was a great inspiration for me, and my life -- both in Aikido as well as in other areas -- would not be the same were it not for him. I will be forever grateful for his teaching and friendship.. You may note that I mostly refer to him in the past tense, due to the changed nature of the relationship between he and I. Tomita sensei decided to part ways with Saito sensei in 1992 and create his own organization -- the Tomita Academy - which is not affiliated with Aikikai. Tomita sensei made it clear at this time that we should decide to be a part of either his organization or with Saito sensei. I chose Saito Sensei. Despite this separation, Saito sensei had a very close relationship with Tomita sensei -- he showed his respect to Tomita sensei until Saito sensei's passing in 2002.

Arrival in Sweden

The first Japanese instructor that was sent to Sweden was Ichimura sensei, also a student of Nishio sensei. Ichimura Sensei realized that he needed an assistant instructor to take care of the workload, and upon his request, the Hombu Dojo sent Tomita Sensei. Both Ichimura sensei and Tomita sensei were 4th dan at the time. After a while, the two Sensei had established groups of Aikido clubs throughout Sweden, based on their own affiliations. Tomita sensei taught the Aikido that he had learned in the Iwama Dojo, and this differed from Ichimura sensei's style to such an extent that it made sense for the two of them to have separate groups under their auspices.

The senior students who were connected to Tomita sensei from 1969 on were a group of very hard-working and dedicated people. Tomita sensei's first group was in Gothenburg, where Ulf Evenas and Lars Goran Andersson were running the Gothenburg Aikido Club. Tomita Sensei later on moved to Stockholm, where he established his own dojo in the part of Stockholm known as Ostermalm.

I became connected to Tomita sensei through Evenas and Andersson, who helped our aikido club in Denmark -- the Copenhagen Aikido Club -- create a close connection to the Swedish group of clubs that were training Iwama Aikido under Tomita sensei. The Copenhagen Aikido Club was led by Torben Kriegsbaum, now deceased. Other leading members and instructors at the time when I started training, in 1977, were Keith Olen Barger and Torben Dyrberg. Tomita sensei came to teach seminars in Copenhagen, and we often went to seminars and summer camps in Sweden to train under him. The Swedish clubs would host an annual summer camp in different places throughout Sweden, and these seminars were always a great opportunity to get to train with the Swedish aikidoka, who were levels above us from Copenhagen, as well as an exceptional opportunity to get to train under Tomita sensei for an extended period of time.

At the summer camp in Stockholm, we would practice weapons outdoors in the beautiful park areas surrounding the city. It was wonderful training in this hilly environment -- uneven terrain is a good challenge for your sense of balance and footing, and we would brace ourselves against the sometimes harsh Nordic climate that, even during the summer season, would consist of cold rain hammering down on us as we did our weapons practice. Wet jo do not slide very easily through your hands!

Tomita sensei was extremely skilled with weapons -- it was a true inspiration to see him in action: precise, dynamic, lightning fast and very elegant in his movements. His posture was very firm and upright. You could see him move smoothly and firmly to set up the body position for each strike or thrust. His zanshin was very clear -- he would stand rock solid at the end of each technique, both in bukiwaza as well as taijutsu.

The Iwama weapons curriculum was quite extensive even at that period of time -- and it has grown since then. We struggled to keep up to date with the full weapons curriculum of 20 jo-suburi, the Sanjyûichi (31) no Jo and Jyûsan (13) no Jo katas, the (at the time) 7 kumijo, the 10 ken-tai-jo, diverse jo-awase, jo-dori, and jo-nage and then ken: 7 ken-suburi, a myriad of ken-awase, 6 kumitachi and their variations, and tachi-dori.

Tomita sensei was a very giving instructor. Having become a direct student of Saito sensei myself, I understand how much Tomita sensei's teaching was influenced by him. Just like Saito sensei, Tomita sensei emphasized trying to get the student to understand the physics of the technique.

In terms of the Iwama aikido taijutsu techniques, Tomita sensei was both a great technician and teacher, hewing closely to the pedagogical foundations laid down in Iwama by Saito sensei. There, you learn to teach when you learn the techniques. The important points are made very clear during the presentation of the given technique, and good and bad examples are shown to emphasize each part of the form. Techniques are taught in kihon (solid) form first, then moving on to awase form (the same form as kihon but with flowing timing) and finally in ki no nagare form, where the initial taisabaki may change depending upon the attack, with more of a leading movement at this level.

Receiving Tomita sensei's techniques was always a learning experience. I was fortunate because he seemed to like using me as uke. He had very clean and precise technique, and he was a master at using only the amount of power necessary to make the technique work. He had the sharp, whip-like execution that was a trademark of Nishio sensei. As uke, no matter how dynamic the technique, you never felt that you were in danger of being hurt. He was very precise, and always showed respect to his uke. We who had spent much time training under him knew, however, how to read some of the warning signals that helped you prepare for some of the variations that were meant to show the more dynamic aspects of the given form. Tomita sensei would usually say "Mjukt og fint" -- he taught in Swedish, with a very refined Stockholm accent, to boot -- and this meant "Softly and nicely." We knew then that -- contrary to his verbal explanation - this was the one where he would crank it up a notch, so we were ready for it! We learned our high falls from an early stage of our aikido careers back then. But we never felt that we were pushed too far past our level of ukemi.

I had a feeling of never quite being able to get a full grip on him, unless he wanted me to, intending then to demonstrate that one should be able to move from a full-on grab or hold. His posture was very polished and clear. His kamae was with the rear leg straight, and with a quite wide stance, both in weapons as well as taijutsu. Tomita sensei's point with this stance -- in regard to weapons -- was that we, as students, should learn the form based on each attack being fully committed. A more upright stance, with the rear leg (knee) flexed, was more of a higher-level, defensive stance. He said that O-sensei used this latter stance because he always received attacks and defended against them, hence the more flexible position. We, as students, needed to learn the feeling of a dedicated attack, and the low, straight rear leg stance embodied this.

This defensive attitude as seen from O-sensei's form is actually a point that Saito sensei used in his teaching of his suburi, both jo and ken. In the 1970s, the suburi were taught with more taisabaki, where each strike or thrust would be done with a move off the line of attack; embodying a feeling of defending at the same time as striking or thrusting. From the mid 1980s and on, Saito sensei taught that we should execute the strikes and thrusts with a more straight-forward type of movement, thinking of them as an offensive form first, in order to learn how to deliver a correct, dedicated attack. Later on, you could then add a defensive taisabaki to enable you to use them as uke-jo or uke-tachi. Even so, Saito sensei was, by this time (1980s), always using a stance with the rear leg bent slightly. This feels to me like a more natural and comfortable stance, but I agree totally with the concept of learning the energy that is needed at first to create the dedicated attacking form.

I have very deep and fond memories and impressions from the first of Tomita sensei's summer camps I attended as a budding aikidoka, particularly the summer camp in Sweden where I was tested for 3rd kyu. In Scandinavia, the first high kyu level grade that is awarded. It usually took about three years to reach this level. We are allowed to wear hakama in Scandinavia from 3rd kyu (in Scandinavia, the first high kyu level grade that you are awarded), so it is a big step for us in our development. At the summer camp where I was tested, Tomita sensei spent much time making different groups among the people who were attending, to give us each the opportunity for specialized teaching. He took the beginners aside for one special class, and went into fine detail regarding many of the basic techniques, giving everyone specific, individual pointers. We also did a class with all levels attending where we did training wearing our regular clothes. This was a very interesting experience, getting a feel of what it was like to do the movements of the techniques in street clothes. Tomita sensei also did a class for people showing the specifics of atemijutsu: technical points about using the fist properly for punching, tegatana for striking, hiji / empi (elbow strikes), knee strikes, kicks and much more. For the advanced levels from 3rd kyu and up (for which I was allowed to participate for the first time), we did a class where he had us go through the 31 no Jo kata -- without our jo! It was a great way of learning about the proper body and foot positions. It also made you really put your ego away, because you began to feel a little bit silly, flailing away in the air without anything to flail with!

Early morning classes were for weapons training, following the tradition of the Iwama Dojo. We would meet and start with a morning run, heading into a beautiful forest area close to the seminar buildings. Tomita sensei stopped us in front of an old stone fence, consisting of loose stones piled on top of each other. He told us to find a stone of our liking and put it down in front of us. We proceeded to do a kokyu-ho exercise, hunkering down to lift the stone with a two-handed grip and bringing it slowly up over our head with an inward breath, for then to slowly lower it to the ground with the exhalation. It was a very special feeling doing this exercise in the early morning sunlight, in the middle of the beautiful Swedish forest landscape. We then ran further into the forest, carrying our bokken. We found trees that had branches we could use for tanren striking practice. After an hour's bokken training in this beautiful setting, we started our run back. Tomita sensei had us stop on the way back -- he had spotted some wild strawberry plants, so we had a short break to taste the delicious berries before continuing the run back to the camp. This training session has stayed with me ever since.

I am so grateful to Tomita sensei for all he has given me, and I hope that I have succeeded in conveying a picture of Tomita sensei, as a very inspiring teacher and a person who has always gone out of his way to try to give his students as much as he can, both in terms of the technical as well as the emotional and spiritual aspects of aikido. I hope that as many as possible will have the opportunity to get to know him, through participating in his training, either in Stockholm at his dojo, or at his seminars, both for his aikido as well as for the other many wonderful things that he can provide.

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 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.
Ethan Weisgard is one of the highest-level direct students of the late aikido master Morihiro Saito in Europe. He traveled to Japan for the first time in 1984 to live and train as a direct student of Saito in Iwama. He has returned more than ten times, including a stay of more than one year, to immerse himself in training.

Weisgard was appointed direct representative in Denmark by Saito personally. He has traveled throughout the world teaching the aikido taught to him by his master, teaching in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, America, Russia and even in the homeland of aikido, Japan.
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