Aikido training in Japan

Conversations With Sensei

Every Monday and Thursday we have aikido practice in the town where I live, Kurobe, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it’s in the neighboring town, Uozu, and I usually get a ride part way with Sensei. This leaves about fifteen minutes each way alone with him, and some pretty interesting conversations have come from these oppurtunities to talk one-on-one. Maybe by leaving a few anecdotes here, we can all get to know his character a little bit better.

He knows a few English words that he loves to use, and he actually knows quite a few words related to movements in aikido which has been really helpful at times. But for the most part, we are far from perfect communication. When speaking with someone in a foreign language that you’re learning, you’ll find some people that speak in a manner that is really easy to understand and communcate with, and others where it doesn’t even sound like the language you’ve been trying to learn. My sensei leans to the latter. After the first week practicing aikido, I stared at him in complete and utter concentration and confusion trying to pick up what he was saying. I thought if I could ever understand anything he says, I would have overcome and incredible feat in Japanese. Moreover, there’s also people that I can speak Japanese to very well, but there are also people that make it really hard. I’ll say a phrase in correctJapanese, but they’ll just look at me and say “huh?” (Actually it’s more like “hah?” in Japanese). After this happens, I get more nervous speaking Japanese, which just makes me sound even more stupid. So a lot of our conversations run like: I ask him a strange question. He goes, “hah?” I repeat with even worse Japanese, and then he tries to grasp the idea, and then speaks for about 5 minutes in incomprehensible Japanese. Then I say “oh oh oh” like I might understand. Over the past year and a half though, I have made a lot of progress understanding him, and we can communicate much better now, but I still miss a lot of what he says, and a lot is left up to my own interpretation.

Anyway, I find him to be a very interesting person and an incredible aikido teacher. He is about the same height as me, 5’7″ – 5’8″, and probably weighs about 170 lbs, but when I train with him he feels more like 6′, 190 lbs. Somehow he seems so much bigger in the middle of movement, and absolutley impossible to move. For the most part, he’s a pretty quiet guy, but get him talking abour martial arts, or a ridiculous story, and he won’t be able to stop talking. He executes techniques with an absolutley thorough strength with the utmost seriousness, but will burst into smile at any moment and loves making sound effects for movements during practice.

He is also a Buddhist priest. I was surprised when I learned this because he didn’t fit the extreme image I had of a Japanese Buddhist priest. I thought: shaved head, always in kimono, strict lifestyle, and constant prayer. But this is far from my sensei. He belongs to the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which is the most widely practiced sect of Buddhism in Japan. Certainly it is a very serious and spiritual occupation, but also very much a job with it’s own seemingly mundane practical matters. From my view, it seems a lot is concerned with maintaining a temple and dealing with funerals, but I really don’t know much about it to be honest. I’ve asked him many things about Japanese religion, but a lot of them don’t relate. I’ve asked him about yamabushi, mountain ascetics famous for possessing supernatural powers, and he says they’re all crazy. I’ve asked him about shugyou, (strict religious practices) like suigyou, (water austerities/sitting under a waterfall during the middle of winter chanting sutras) and he says that’s crazy. I’ve asked him about Zen, but his practice is very different. I’ve asked him if he practices zazen, seated silent meditation, but he said never. What he does do is practice the nembutsu. It is a mantra that goes: “Namu amida butsu” (I take refuge in the Buddha). This is the center and sole practice of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Though there are a wide varieties of ways to practice Buddhism, people in Jodo Shinshu believe that chanting the Nembutsu is all you need. According to this belief, we live in the “degenerate age”, where it is very difficult to practice Buddhism and live rightly, and we are very stupid, so we should practice a very simple and sure-fire way to progress spiritually. By chanting the Nembutsu, you are tapping into tariki, or “other” power, namely that of the Buddha. By chanting the Nembutusu, you are putting yourself aside, and gaining strength from the more powerful nature of the Buddha. I’ve asked my sensei how he practices, and he says he just “does it.” I was looking for a more elaborate explanation, but he wasn’t indulging very much.

What he did do though was relate this concept to martial arts, which I can understand better anyway. We were talking about aikido compared to other martial arts in the context of strength and competition. He mentioned that martial arts like karate, judo, and kendo are more popular because they utilize physical strength that many people already have, and legitimize it through competition. So if someone who is already physically strong begins one of these martial arts, they will progress very quickly and dominate competitions easier than their peers. For someone who is already strong, becoming “stronger” through these means really isn’t getting that much stronger. For those that are weak, earning rank and finding success in competition will notify them of change (which is great! Don’t get me wrong). But in aikido, using muscle strength will most often impede growth. In aikido, techniques can only be used effectively when bodily alignment, timing, and sensitivity are used. No matter who you are, nobody walks into aikido and just naturally does the movements perfect, especially those with great physical strength. As for rank, it is far from the point of training, but unfortunately always seems to pop up as some monster that gets in the way of true progress even in aikido where rank and competition is not emphasized. In my Sensei’s opinion, aikido is much slower and more difficult than other martial arts, but builds significant strength. This is a strength that anybody can use against anybody, and forces substantial growth within the individual. My sensei says that because he is weak, he practices aikido and recites the Nembutsu.

In fact, many of our conversations move towards the use, or rather non-use, of strength. The other night in the car, he was quieter than usual, and I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I asked him the most basic and complicated question you could ask about aikido:

“Do you think about ki often in practicing aikido?”

“Hah?”

“Do you think about ki often in practicing aikido?”

“Uhhhhh, of course. If you have kokyuu, you have ki.”

These are two terms used very often in aikido, but are extremely difficult to define in English. Ki can be defined as breath, but also energy, or spirit, or all-encompassing physical manifestation of life present in everything. Sometimes it can be used to described the seemingly “supernatural” abilities acquired in aikido, or just what happens when aikido is used effectively. Kokyuu, can also be translated as breath, but is a little different. I asked sensei what the difference was between ki and kokyuu and he repeated, if you have kokyuu, you have ki. For example, you find kokyuu in your waza (technique) when you execute the right timing, balance, and posture. If you do these things right, then you will be able to utilize ki. He said you must not use your muscles in a way that gets in the way of letting ki arise. So I asked him about his practice in Kenpo when he uses strikes. Don’t you have to use a lot of muscle tension to deliver strikes like punches and kicks that may get in the way of ki? He said he uses ki in his movements by making strong fluid relaxed motions with his whole body for each strike. He certainly has good retraction in his strikes, and they are snappy, but I would not describe them as snappy. They are fast, but the emphasis doesn’t seem to be on speed. It’s difficult to describe this because I haven’t phsycially practiced these with him, but we’ve had conversations and I’ve been able to watch him practice. Certainly in watching him, I see a big difference between his movements and others, and it could be attributed to his manifestation of ki. This notion reminds me of a training method one of my older teachers and training partners taught me: punching candles. He said he would practice striking by punching out candles. The funny thing about it, it is really hard! When I started, I would relax like he told me to, but after a few minutes of failing to punch out the candles, I started punching harder and faster becoming more and more frustrated, but that only made things worse. He would tell me it had nothing to do with speed or strength, and go up very slowly and effortlessly extinguish the candle in one slow sure movement. In my understanding now, it seems to be the use of ki in punching that one can extinguish a candle with a punch. (Though that teacher never mentioned the term “ki”.)

On another night, I asked him another very simple question which must have been a bit frustrating for him at first.

“Sensei.”

“I have a question about aikido.”

“OK.”

“Isn’t it hard to understand aikido in practical fighting?”

“Hah?”

“Isn’t it hard to understand aikido in practical fighting?”

“Uhhh … no. Why?”

“Well, for example, in karate, if someone comes up to attack you, you just punch them, and it’s over. But we don’t do that in aikido. We do lots of other strange things instead.”

My intent was to encourage him to talk about aikido, but I think this statement irritated him because he takes aikido very seriously and practices it precisely because he thinks it is most practical. He first mentioned that he’ll use strikes along with aikido movements if he wants to end an altercation immediately. He specifically likes an irimi movement with a cross. He says he’ll use these only if he has to in a “pinch” situation, but would rather not use them because they can be very damaging to him and the opponent. (Think broken hand and suing receiver) He practices aikido so he doesn’t have to use such inherently violent strikes. But this is the nature of physical confrontation, and is the most practical. Furthermore, any aikido movement can be executed in a manner to severely physically damage an opponent with large throws, destructive wrist locks, and the oppurtunity to insert a physical strike at almost any time. I asked him why we don’t train this aspect of aikido specifically, and he said that nobody would want to train with you. Also, it is impossible to practice this in a practical way without fully doing the techniques which would devastate your partner in one attempt. He said this is the nature of jujitsu, which is the more violent origin for most aikido techniques. Simply, jujitsu is the version of aikido where you focus on the aspects that would immediately and violently end a situation. But in jujitsu, you always have to stop just before you finish the technique (technically, this is the same in aikido when doing arm bars for finishes) and the uke (person receiving the technique) does little to practice. In aikido however, techniques are performed so that the end result isn’t necessarily a destroyed opponent, and the uke can practice consciously avoiding injury through the movements and surviving the attack. This perhaps is the “sophistication” of aikido in that it is conscious of the immediate and violent answers to physical confrontation, but seeks to practice a way to effectively avoid such an end, further refining physical sensitivity, conflict resolution, and mental activity.

I wanted to specifically ask him why we practice wrist grabs with the uke holding on to the wrist far longer than anyone would ever do in a live situation with an uncooperative partner, which to me seems to be the most impractical side of aikido, but we had run out of time in this conversation as we pulled up to the dojo.

My sensei seems to be deeply concerned with aikido, spending a great amount of time practicing and thinking about nature of physical motion, and yet he does not desire to be a “professional.” At first I thought that this was his aim: to build an aikido program that can one day replace his job and anything else in his life, but this if far from the truth. I’ve asked him about uchideshi, where students live with the sensei and practices aikido everyday in multiple training sessions, and he said he has, but not very much. He’s always had to work and has had a family, so this kind of experience is difficult to maintain. However, he said when he was practicing with Kobayashi Sensei (the originator of this style of aikido, Kobayashi Aikido) he said they would have an uchideshi experience about four times a year for a week at a time. He said this experience helped him greatly in aikido, but he wouldn’t want to do it all the time. In fact, he said he would never want to do aikido all the time. If he did, it would be boring. This is the same for Buddhism. If he was only a priest and practiced Buddhism all the time, it would be boring. So, he practices a little Buddhism, practices a little aikido, drinks a little sake, and enjoys his life.

Sensei is originally from Kyoto, and loves it there, but has somehow lived in Toyama for the past long chapter of his life. He hates cold, rainy, snowy weather, which Toyama is most famous for, and for some reason it makes me laugh when I see him complain about it. However, he hopes to move back to Tokyo in five or ten years to study Buddhism in graduate school and teach more aikido.

The other night I told him he should visit me in my home in Washington State someday, and he asked me the most Japanese of questions: “What food is good there?” I told him it’s remarkably similar to Toyama, and especially Hokkaido (where he was a fisherman for a while) and the seafood is really good in Washington, like salmon, crab, and oysters. He then explained to me the difference between the taste of ocean and river salmon: ocean salmon are generally younger and so they taste better than river salmon which tend to be older. “Onna mitai desu ne?” “Just like women right?” I laughed and agreed, and the conversation went on. The talk went on to other seafood and we started talking about kaki, oysters. So I said, “toku ni kaki wa onna mitai desu neeeee???

He looked at me with a disgusted look and called me a skebe, pervert.

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