I just got back from a seminar with Mitsugi Saotome sensei (8th dan, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba) and I thought I'd write up some of my thoughts about it.
It was the first time I'd been to Musubi dojo in Claremont, California. I arrived at Ontario Airport in a tiny plane that sat perhaps 45 people after a short stop at Los Angeles airport. A friend of mine here said that I might be able to walk from the airport to the dojo, but I was happy I checked MapQuest before heading out; the dojo turned out to be about 9 miles down the road. Instead of hiking for the rest of the afternoon, I shelled out $21 for the taxi.
is located within a block of what seems like a bunch of office buildings. There was some "VirtuaLab" thing a few doors down which I wasn't too sure if it really existed. Next to the dojo is where Aikido Today Magazine and Arete Press are located.
Because I arrived a few hours early at the dojo without a car, I was allowed to leave my bags in the dojo. After eating a quick lunch and noticing that it was getting pretty cold, I asked if I could be let back into the dojo to wait until the seminar started. I was surprised, frankly, when I was told that I couldn't since registration didn't start until 6pm but I was welcome to sit in the ATM office until 5pm when the office closed. I made sure that they were asking me to sit outside for an hour in the dark before the seminar started and one of the people there said that he couldn't make any exceptions since the dojocho weren't there. Luckily, one of the dojocho called up and asked to have registration open at 5pm so I was able to sit on their sofa for a while before some of my friends from the Bay Area arrived. In any case, I thought this was a somewhat surprising reception for an out-of-town guest.
The dojo itself is quite spacious and nicely decorated. I believe I counted out about 135 tatami for their mat space, although that was a quick calculation. They have a lot of calligraphy done by Saotome sensei on the wall which was wonderful to view. Although they have a nice garden outside of their roll-up bay doors, I wish they had kept those doors closed during training because the Friday night practice (which started at 7pm) and the Saturday practice were pretty darned cold; many people with whom I spoke reflected my thoughts that although the garden was beautiful, we would have appreciated more heat during weapons practice.
I was warned by the flyer that Musubi dojo sent out that the seminar would focus on Saotome sensei's two-sword training. As I had done this a few times in the past during various summer camps, I was actually pretty prepared for what we did over the weekend.
We went through some of the basic stances and movements of training with two swords. Because we held the shorter shoto in our left hand, there were different movements for different sides. During the paired exercised, for example, because the shoto had a distinctly shorter reach than did the longer daito in our right hand, we would often use the shoto as a kote "pin" and then strike uke in the head with the daito; the same movement on the other side would often just have the daito coming out to strike uke in the head.
The basic principle that I got in working with two swords this weekend is that, very often, offense and defense are combined in one movement. As one sword deflects defensively, the other sword at the same time is making an offensive strike or thrust.
What was really nice about the way Saotome sensei did over the weekend, though, was that he also taught some empty-handed techniques that correlated very much to the two-sword exercises that he was teaching. These were a whole lot of fun, of course, and included a lot of fun atemi-based techniques as well as some leg sweeps.
The highlight of the weekend on the mat for me came at the end of class on Sunday. Saotome sensei came and chose five people to come attack him with bokken, randori style, as he defended with two swords. Perhaps he liked the way I was fumbling around over the weekend with the two swords ("Oh -- I guess I shouldn't be holding the pointy end") but I got to be one of the five people called up. (Three of the other four people called up were one yondan and two godan. (I don't remember the other person at all since I was focusing on Saotome sensei.) Why _I_ got called up, I have no idea!) The interesting thing about the randori was that I didn't have time to "wait" for him to come around to me. By the time I had a "clear shot" at him, he had already zeroed into me and was sucking me into his defense. I believe we all died several times in the brief randori, but it was quite an experience.
The seminar concluded with Luis testing for shodan, Jim for sandan, and Yvon for sandan. All of the tests went wonderfully including a hammed up performance by Phil from Temecula when Yvon was asked to show what and how he would teach a beginning student on the first day of practice -- without using words. I have to say that it's the first time I've ever seen anyone on a test pantomiming putting a nail through his partner's feet to tell them "Don't move your foot!" Congratulations to the three of them who all passed.
I was able to meet up with a lot of good friends both from the area and outside which was wonderful; you know who you are. I also met John at the Claremont dojo who admitted he was a lurker on the List. As always, it's nice to meet people who are on the List, although I wish they'd stop lurking!
All in all, I had a great weekend in Claremont.