Kuribayashi Sensei was great.
Kind of a big dude. Not fat at all, but big: broad shoulders. He was taller than me, but maybe not six foot. He’s bald, so it kind of gives him a Mr. Clean kind of aura. Also, his wrists were notable large, which changes a lot when you do techniques with him, both as uke and tori. He mentioned this about himself, and that it’s good to practice with different people to get used to different bodies. How should you hold someone’s wrists when they’re large? How about when they’re skinny?
Kuribayashi Sensei’s techniques were simple. This is something I notice about all great teachers. Many teachers will have their own flavor, favorite techniques, and maybe some special techniques that other teachers don’t do, but what is most important, especially when doing a seminar, is emphasizing the basics. His technique is good … no, excellent, because he minds the basics 110% percent. That means doing proper ukemi, keeping a solid stance, turning one’s hips enough in the right positions (correct hanmi posture), relaxing unnecessary muscles, keeping the spine straight, utilizing correct timing (especially not rushing through a technique), etc. Every great teacher I’ve watched in a demo does this, be it my own teacher, the doshu (head honcho in the aikikai hombu dojo and descendent of the founder, Ueshiba Morihei), or with these various other teachers I’ve seen. He didn’t do any special techniques, but rather emphasized the ukemi explanations given before by Oyama Sensei, and pointed out why the basics are so necessary in the simplest of techniques.
This is interesting and important to practice, no matter your level … I think.
What was special about Kuribayashi Sensei were his talks between techniques. His background is in physical education (I don’t think I’m using the right term exactly), and so a lot of his talks were about the specific properties of the human body.
Our human body is home to over 200 different bones and over 300 different muscles. When we move through aikido techniques, and life in general, it would be advantageous to move using as many as possible to achieve various tasks. When we jump up and down, we aren’t just using the knees and lower leg muscles, we are also using our upper legs and upper bodies and everything else to enhance the action and reduce the stress on the body. When we move in aikido, executing both techniques and ukemi, or when we do anything in life, we should strive to use all of our muscles and bones as one single unit.
Of those 200+ bones, 47 are in each hand. Along with all of those bones, are tendons connecting them together and with muscles, making our hands extremely sensitive to sensing the outside world. When someone grabs our hands or wrists, we are very sensitive to the amount of movement and strength the owner of the hand is employing. Vice versa, when we grab someone’s hand or wrist, we are aware in a second of that person’s use of muscle or movement. This is why we must relax our hands and arms while executing techniques, so that our partners won’t notice our movements. Furthermore, we often guide partner’s along the lines they are already moving in order to trick them into your technique. They are falling further and don’t react to your movements because they don’t feel them. Then, all of a sudden they have fallen into your technique and are defenseless.
This use of stealth is why people wear wear hakama (traditional pant-legged-skirt-looking clothing on the lower body), it’s to hide the movement of one’s feet. If an opponent can’t see or feel what you are doing, then they don’t know what is happening and you can move into the most ideal position catching your opponent unawares.
Again with the bone talk, the largest one is your pelvis. This giant bone is what we use to guide our movements and direct our partners where we want. By stacking the pelvis behind our actions, we are utilizing our greatest asset of stability the body can provide. By unbalancing another’s pelvis, we rob them of their greatest ability to gain control.
Aside from such theories utilizing the condition of the human body, Kuribayashi Sensei was a very friendly and funny guy. He liked to joke with the other practitioners and laughed a lot through the seminar.
He said one conversation you won’t hear in aikido is:
When faltering in a technique, you probably won’t hear a teacher scream, “Try harder! Push it!”
Instead, he said you’ll probably hear:
“Ganbaruna!” Stop trying.
When things get hectic in aikido, we need to relax, stop trying so hard, and think instead about what is going wrong and how we can fix this. In this kind of conversation, we transcend the limitations of our bodies and start using the greatest asset given to humankind:
Though he started training after O’Sensei had already died, he said people often say that he would change his techniques everyday. The technique he had done yesterday was wrong, weak, inferior. Today’s technique is what’s happening, what’s real, and what is built upon work done before. There’s no use in practicing what was done the day before, because today’s is better. Though we practice set techniques and may respect tradition for various reasons, tradition in and of itself has little affect on quality technique. If you can improve the technique, then you should.
It’s OK to change techniques, as long as it is an improvement.
This leads me to a point concerning the other teachers in the seminar from Toyama Prefecture. I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I do not hold ill-feelings toward anyone, but there are qualities to these teachers’ techniques that I believe are less than ideal for practicing aikido. By bringing light upon them, we ourselves can learn better about the nature of aikido and learning it’s principles.
The first teacher told us it was his 67th birthday on the day of the seminar and that he’s been practicing aikido for over 40 years. He talked at length about various stories in aikido in a very quiet voice that most people couldn’t hear. I think most people were aware that he was telling a personal story, but couldn’t hear the details, and were just waiting to do some aikido. One thing I remember him saying was that he often got confused with the varieties of different techniques when he was younger. To get caught up in this is confusing and a waste of time, and instead we should look at all of the techniques as one. I agree with this. But when we started techniques, I didn’t see any kuzusu (unbalancing the partner), and little regard for ukemi. Without these two, aikido is lost, and you’re just moving around with someone else. He used techniques that locked the muscles and went contrary to everything I believed to be aikido. I talked to my sensei about this, and this is why he can’t work together with such teachers. He seems to be happy doing what he’s doing, and has students of his own. I tried his techniques, and just don’t think they help mine. No offense, I don’t think what he is doing aikido, and it’s not for me.
The second teacher emphasized the connection between aikido techniques and the bokken and jo (wooden sword and short staff). I was excited about this, because it’s a very important part of aikido, and one you don’t see all that often. We use bokken and jo in our dojo, but not nearly as much as open-handed techniques, and for some reason I haven’t seen a lot lately.
He pulled out his bokken (wooden sword) and began to show us techniques with a partner. He was very fast, very controlled, stopping the sword just before the opponent, and moved around a lot. It was like a whirlwind of movement around the partner who would only move slightly. The partner would raise his sword and come down in the time the teacher had already cut him three times. It was mystifying; confusing and alluring. He would then show the related empty-hand technique, and have us practice that. The result, was a lot of people standing around getting stuck with the first movement.
“What did he do?”
“I have no idea!”
Some people got it, some didn’t. But all of us who weren’t familiar with the techniques spent most of the time just trying to unravel the movements he made. He would come over and correct mistakes, but they were difficult to remember, and couldn’t be replicated in a handful of tries. He then started showing us the execution of the technique while holding the bokken, and then had us practice with our own, which was helpful, and interesting at some points. Perhaps we should have done that more.
We kept practicing, and after a half hour I still wasn’t getting used to his techniques, and just saw flailing bokken movements at still-standing opponents. At one point, I started to practice the techniques with Kuribayashi Sensei (the point of such a seminar!) and found myself doing the right movements, but merely moving around in circles while holding his wrist as he stood there motionless starting at me. This is the sign of a failed technique. If you’re supposed to be manipulating your opponent, but instead are doing a lot of excess movement without affecting the partner, you’re just wasting time and leaving yourself open to counter attack. I remember apologizing to him:
“Sorry, I have no idea how to do this.”
But he leaned over to me and replied smiling, “I have no idea, either.”
This made me smile, and so we both struggled to find a way to unbalance each other through these strange movements.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe the two most important characteristics of aikido technique are ukemi (proper reactions to techniques) and kuzusu (unbalancing your partner), and this sensei’s techniques involved niether. Instead, we were left with an excess of unnecessary movements. As far as building technique, it felt like a waste of time, and I felt a bit embarrassed. These two incredible teachers from the Hombu Dojo came all the way from Tokyo to spend half of the weekend seminar listening to personal unrelated stories and trying to do aikido via defunct techniques.
“So this is what people are doing in the country when they say they’re doing aikido…” He must have thought.
In a way it’s true. What the teachers in Toyama said was that a lot of these techniques were the product of a past teacher. This past teacher had learned aikido, but mixed it with separate sword techniques, and in the end made his own. I can dig that. Kuribayashi Sensei even said we should change our techniques if we seek to advance them. But I do not believe these changes to be desired. Instead of effective methods of combat, they were products of an ambitious imagination, and became traditions to be revered. Perhaps there are museum pieces such as these that should remain behind glass unchanged by the turning generations. I remember reading such a statement in David Lowry’s books about the kenjutsu he practiced. The moment I read that was the moment I lost respect for his budo. That’s cool, I guess. But it’s not what I want to do. I want to practice techniques that improve my life. More specifically, I want techniques that improve my ability to work with outside forces in life. In other words, I want to sense my level of strengths and weaknesses by interacting with outside forces. My practice is not time to make me feel better about myself, but to learn about the world.
So yeah, enlightening experiences, though often at the hands of less-than-desired events. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to attend such seminars, and happy to do so with so many other enthusiastic members. We all came with the purpose of improving aikido, but each of us left with different impressions, none of which are better than the others. My impressions fit me just as others fit others. I say that my ambitions are motivated by a desire to improve my technique, and thus improve my life. Perhaps many others feel the same way, but react differently. Who are we to judge? I leave my impressions subconsciously and hope to rectify misunderstanding with effort. Forgive any mistakes, but I must put my foot somewhere.
For all of you budo practitioners, I wish you best and hope you may cross hands with many other partners. For those who have no interest in budo, I hoped you enjoyed the article!
Thanks for reading.