Aikido training in Japan

The Strangest Night

Last night’s training, or lack of training, has left me obsessing nonstop over its reasoning ever since; or maybe it was the lack of training.

What has been a very cold and snowy winter here in Toyama, warmed up drastically for about a week and a half convincing everyone that spring was coming early this year, but just the other day it dropped below freezing again, sheeting all with a layer of fresh snow. Luckily sensei called me just in time to pick me up before I set out on my bike for training in the next town over. I was feeling especially good for some reason, and so did sensei, so I asked him about his kids for the first time who are now in college, and he asked me about what I was going to do after I left Japan. These were good omens for the night.

We arrived at the dojo a little late to find Hosogoshi and Ii warming up, and a lone kendo-guy who is often there practicing adjacent to the mat making the strangest rumbling, gurgling, grunting sounds I have ever heard from a human. If he had a super-hero nickname, I bet it would be “Grumbling Thunder-Toad.” Within a few minutes of getting dressed, we began practice just as usual.

Sensei will demonstrate a move, and then we’ll all practice it on each other on both sides with about three rotations of everyone each. On only the technique we practiced, something happened that would change the rest of the night, along with a lot of our concepts about aikido and our training partners: Hosogoshi asked a question. Actually, it wasn’t so much the question, Sensei is happy to answer questions and continue with training, but it was Hosogoshi’s reaction that changed everything.

We were practicing a move where your partner grabs your wrist with two hands, and usually the partner’s intent is supposed to go straight into the person’s center. Hosogoshi felt like sensei was giving pressure downwards instead, and so he changed his position a little bit to compensate. Sensei called him out on it, and Hosogoshi gave his reasoning. Sensei gave his explanation. But when people usually say, “Ohhh oh oh oh, OK OK OK,” even if they don’t quite understand and just continue trying their best, Hosogoshi instead sent the feeling that Sensei was contradicting himself. Now, if you ask me, Sensei did sound like he was contradicting himself, and he was putting more energy downwards in the move than it seemed like he said we were supposed to, and his answer to this physical problem of doing the technique correctly didn’t seem like it was possible … but this happens all the time. Sensei will always try to explain techniques, but he knows well that he can’t explain a lot of them, and will conclude his explanations by saying that they can’t really be explained effectively and we have to learn them by just doing them and practicing. I don’t think sensei is particularly bad at explaining things, and he’s not lying, tricking, or cheating his students, but most of us cannot do these moves as well as him and don’t understand how it is he can do them. Hosogoshi understands this extremely well I think, but for some reason, he was expressing his confusion a little more obviously and antagonistically than usual. Sensei picked up on this and I think I could see him flip a switch in his head, and he started explaining something for a very very very long time.

After about five minutes, Ueno showed up and went into the dressing room. By the time she came out and started warming up, I started moving my toes around to bring back some feeling and couldn’t believe Sensei was still talking about this. In the early stages of his explanation, he was trying to show us how the move is related to a lot of other movements we do, how it’s related to kokyuu, and that we can’t bend our arm too much and must point it straight into the partner’s weak point by using our form instead of muscle strength. He said this is not only really hard to do, but it requires proper ukemi by the partner, which I personally am still very far from doing correctly. After about ten minutes or so, he would grab one of us and try and demonstrate something for about a minute or two showing us a problem, usually about how the technique is largely dependent on the uke (partner receiving the technique), looked at us for an awkwardly long pause, and then continued talking.

The funny thing was the reaction of Hosogoshi, Ii, and I. I was standing there just doing my best trying to focus on figuring out what he was saying in Japanese; eyes wide open and my head slightly forward staring at him, which is hard after about two minutes of intense listening for me. Ii is the type to be amazed at everything sensei does, so he would mutter sounds of approval and amazement at whatever sensei said. But after Hosogoshi realized that sensei was going to explain this until he got a certain absolute approval from everyone around even if they didn’t understand, he wasn’t going to stop. So, Hosogoshi does whatever smart kid does when they’re being lectured to and want it to end, which is say, “Yes, I understand,” not say anything else that could possibly make the person keep talking, and give just a small amount of the impression that the more the person explains, the more time they’re wasting. I think sensei picked up on this, stared right at Hosogoshi, and went straight to the heart of him … by continuing the seemingly unnecessary explanation.

About twenty minutes into this standing and talking, another member showed up and started getting dressed. Ueno was ready to join in, but was patiently waiting for us to resume practicing a technique. The conversation eventually evolved to the nature of ki and kokyuu, two very difficult terms to describe. Sensei was trying to show us that ki follows kokyuu which follows the base physical factors such as balance, speed, timing, and positioning. Hosogoshi was progressively seeming to get more annoyed from all of this because sensei has gone over these things many times before with us on Wednesday nights, Ii was acting shocked and amazed at everything sensei did, and I was just standing there trying to keep my focus on figuring out the Japanese and trying to see exactly what he was doing.

At the thirty minute mark, I think us listeners had finally broken down a bit, and knew something really strange was going on. Sensei is not stupid, and seems to conduct his teaching in a very conscious and directed way, and I think he realized that we realized some point was being made, though none of us knew exactly what, and I’m sure we were all thinking drastically different things. Sensei transitioned to admitting that he cannot explain these things in words, and they cannot be understood from books, but must be felt, and felt from someone who “has” the ability and technique. He started talking about his experience with his teacher Kobayashi Sensei and being an uchi-deshi (living at a dojo and practicing everyday), which was really interesting, but I really had a hard time understanding what he was saying. I think he was saying that the feeling of good aikido arises from constant practice, and he’s only really found it consistently with people who were uchi-deshi. Or maybe also that even people who were uchi-deshi didn’t really understand this concept.

Now, a lot of this is my own speculation. My command of Japanese is fairly limited, and I’ve only been training here for a little over a year, so my aikido isn’t even very good, but even more so, I’m sure I only see the tip of the iceberg of personal and emotional experience these people have with each other; especially between sensei and Hosogoshi. I think Hosogoshi is a shodan (first-degree blackbelt), but is preparing to take his nidan (second-degree blackbelt) in a month or two, and I get the impression that sensei doesn’t hand out dan grades very easily. Though he may not be the of the highest ranks that show up to class, he is by far one of the most skilled. Moreover, he is at every single practice, is always the first to arrive and last to leave … every single time. I remember the one time he didn’t show up all of us at practice were deathly worried about him. He practices hard, consistently, listens to what sensei says, never shrugs at practicing with lower belts, and fully embraces the idea of feeling your way through aikido with diligent practice. But sensei was doing something to him tonight. If this conversation about uchi-deshi is what I think it was, I expect Hosogoshi was pretty pissed, because we don’t have an uchi-deshi experience at our dojo, but Hosogoshi nonetheless tries to get as much aikido as possible. I’ve never seen Hosogoshi so … something … and while sensei become quiet just standing there, waiting for something, Hosogoshi began talking. He said, in an honest but un-Hosogoshi-like manner, that aikido is great because there is never and end, and it’s never perfect, and the only way to get better is just to do it. But sensei was not appeased.

Timewise, at about thirty or forty minutes, I realized how long this had gone on, and thought “Christ, sensei’s probably going to just start doing solo weapons probably and we won’t get a chance to practice the things he’s been ranting about for so long.” All the while, Ueno has been waiting freezing her ass off for about a half an hour, and the other member as well for about twenty minutes. I had certainly broken down, and just expected I was going to spend the rest of my life in that freezing dojo while sensei just continued to ramble on.

Then, a little over forty mintues he said, “That’s it, I’m done.” He left our conversation circle, bowed out, and started getting undressed. Sensei will often say important things and leave us hanging, and while he did this we all looked at each other, even more amazed by this than the fact he had just ranted for forty minutes. We didn’t really know what to do. Hosogoshi quickly realized something, and bowed himself out and began getting undressed. Ii looked around to see if anyone else wanted to do anything, and I guessed I had to follow suit because sensei was my ride home. Ueno and the other member who showed up quietly undressed from their gi’s they didn’t even use. I got changed very quickly and quietly, and to my dismay found that everyone else was only half-way done, so I just sat there quietly staring at the wall. Sensei was standing in front of us all undressing with an awkward silence, and he would look at us strangely, and I’m not sure exactly was going on, but it was awkward and I just sat quietly and kept calm. I expected an equally awkward ride home with sensei. The funny thing is, this whole time, he didn’t seem angry or really distressed, just more matter-of-fact.

A little chatter had started between some people while we were packing up, but when Hosogoshi finished, he said the usual “tsukaresama deshita” (~thanks for your hard work, goodnight) but then gave a deep bow to sensei and said a couple sentences and walked out … very unusual.

We all left, and I put my stuff into the back of sensei’s car and took my seat, anticipating an excruciating ride, but told myself I wasn’t going to say anything unless he did. To my surprise, after he started the car, he apologized for the night’s training and asked me if I understood what he was talking about. I answered, “Mmmmmmm, kind of but not really.” I told him that I knew he was talking a lot about ki and kokyuu, and that these things can’t be defined, and that we need to learn them through concepts like nantonaku (somehow), daitai (generally/roughly), and kankaku (feeling/perception). I told him that I know when I’m messing up, but I’m not quite sure how to fix it, and he said that that was great and no problem. I told him that when I practiced with people below me, I can very easily see how they’re screwing up a technique and he seemed very happy to hear me say that. I then said that I can’t really tell when someone better than me screws up a technique, and I mentioned Hosogoshi and sensei made affirming noises but wasn’t really saying anything. In the end of my own explanation of my experience in aikido, I said that I am trying, but I really don’t understand, especially ukemi which seems to be the most important part of aikido, and he exploded into assuring me, “That’s absolutley fine! No problem there. It’s when you think you understand that you start to have problems.”

Mmmm … well … I certainly know to never tell sensei that I understand aikido to stay on his good side. But isn’t he saying he knows something about aikido by teaching … and thusly falsely saying he knows something? Or does he really know something so it’s OK for him to say so? I don’t understand.

We had a good talk for the rest of the ride, and despite the strange night, and my ominous feelings considering Hosogoshi, I felt supported by sensei and my mood was greatly elated. I’ll reiterate again, this whole time, Sensei did not seem angry or upset at all of this, but very matter-of-fact.

We had training the following night, but no Hosogoshi. To not see him there gave me very ill-feelings in my stomach considering the night before. I wondered if that was it; did he quit? No, no way. He must just be taking a night or two off. Perhaps sensei was doing whatever it took to make Hosogoshi take a break without telling him to directly. It’s not unlikely that he could use it. Like I said, Hosogoshi is at every single practice, super early and always staying late. When I was warming up by myself before practice, he was going over something with Ueno, and then called me over very excitedly and said “Hey Zac, check this out!” and was showing me some movements. Strange. Sensei is usually very distant before practice, and seemed to be expressing more enthusiasm than before. A weight seemed to have lifted. Practice was good. But I had a very lonely feeling the moment we were excused from class, because I didn’t have the one of two feelings I always do at the end: either I go straight to Hosogoshi to practice more, or be slightly embarrassed because I want to go home right away instead of practice more with him. Well, I guess I’m going home now.

Next night, no aikido, and too much poker.

Next night, Saturday, aikido practice. No Hosogoshi. Sabishii, lonely.

Next day, snowboarding. Just after I was dropped off at my house with my board and gear and while I was searching my pocket for the key to my apartment, I got a buzzing call on my phone. Hosogoshi! I quickly unlocked the door, threw my stuff down, and answered the call. We said a few things about snowboarding (he’s almost as avid a snowboarder as he is aikidoka) but he then said sorry for not being at practice. I asked if he was just taking a break, but he said that he was done. I was both shocked, but also understood. He said something happened the other night at the Wednesday practice between him and sensei, and he can’t do aikido now. I said I thought it was really weird, but to be honest I didn’t really understand the nuiances of what happened. We agreed that we need to meet and drink together very soon, and then I’ll be able to find out what really happened.

The practices since have gone very well. More people have shown up, and sensei has seemed very much relieved of something; undoubtedly it must be connected somehow with what happened that Wednesday night. Also, sensei has been giving a lot more attention towards me, which makes me feel a lot of strange things. I really wish Hosogoshi was still coming to practice because he’s one of the best training partners you could ever ask for. Sensei’s enthusiastic attention towards me is like magic and leaves me uncontrollably enthusiastic myself. The other night I thought to myself I have never once, not once, done a technique perfectly, or even close to what I would call thoroughly acceptable. But, I feel like I’m making a lot of progress. I feel a little strange when sensei gives me more attention than other members of the same or slighly higher levels, but I also come to more practices and pay more attention to what sensei is doing than the other members. I get along well with all the members in class, but in a culture where “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, this bearded blonde kid might be drawing some attention to himself.

This post has taken a long time to write, and so it’s been one week since that very strange Wednesday night. I have a lot of time to think about it all, but am still left with more questions than answers.

What was sensei doing to Hosogoshi and the rest of us?

My answer is that he was teaching us a lesson.

What kind of lesson?

Don’t question sensei? No, that’s not it. Don’t do something other than what sensei says in class? Maybe. Don’t ever say that you “understand aikido.” Probably. Was he reaffirming his dominance to a student who may be questioning his authority? Something like that.

Why don’t people just say what they mean in this country?!

But this is less about differences between “East” and “West”, or “American” and “Japanese”. This is about following a path that is supposed to progress you somehow, and it’s about doing so with someone more experienced and skillful than you who is trying to show you the way. It’s not about ego, and it’s not about perfection. Perhaps it’s about following the path as best as possible, which ultimately means doing it by yourself. Perhaps sensei was challenging each of us to legitimize our lives and techniques by our own means.

If Hosogoshi wants to do more aikido, he’ll be back. I miss him already, but I know he’s doing what he must to progress in his own way. Regardless, I’ve got to get to practice tonight.

In the words of the great Warren G, “Tha game don’t wait.”

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2 thoughts on “The Strangest Night

  1. Hey! Thanks for listing me in your blog list. I enjoyed reading this post, although I was a little distressed by it, too. Sorry to hear you've lost a good training partner.

    My teacher has sometimes gone hard on people for reasons that I haven't fully understood at the time. It's usually in the person's best interest, but they don't always see it that way. I don't know if that applies to your situation, though.

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