Thanksgiving was last week, and we at Kiryu Aikido were immensely thankful: Andrew Blevins Sensei was in town for the holiday and taught Friday (a three-hour class!) and Saturday. There is never enough time with our great teacher, but we gleaned all we could in the short time we had on the mat with our Sensei.
At the end of classes both days, Blevins Sensei presented certificates of achievement for training milestone to students. “I want to recognize the long-term commitment to training,” he said. “We test twice a year, and that is important in its own way, but it’s the consistency and commitment to practice that are crucial to a student’s improvement.”
Here are the students recognized for attaining training milestones of 125, 250, 500, and 1,000 hours.
Cyrus B. – 125 hours
Greg J. – 125 hours
Bob L. – 250 hours
Charles G. – 250 hours
Les S. – 500 hours
Kara S. – 1,000 hours
“Each step is important as we work toward 10,000 hours,” said Blevins Sensei, “the hours of practice that some consider necessary to attain a level of mastery in any given endeavor.”
Blevins Sensei, thank you for teaching and spending time with all of us! It is such a joy to learn from you. We so appreciate your time and dedication, and for sharing your talent with us. We will continue to work hard and look forward to the next time we are able to practice together. Be well, Sensei!
On Saturday, 16 November 2013, Kiryu Aikido participated in the biannual Aikido testing in our dojo community, which includes Tanshinjuku and Doushinjuku dojos.
Thanks to Kei and Mariquita Izawa Sensei and the students of Tanshinjuku for hosting the test and for your welcoming spirit, as always. Thanks also to the Kiryu students who came to offer their support for others testing in this important milestone.
We had one student testing: Cyrus Blevins for 5th kyu. He did a great job and represented the dojo well through his preparation and commitment, which resulted in confidence, strong techniques, and zanshin. These are things I believe are hallmarks of the special spirit of Kiryu Aikido.
Every test is an opportunity to see students’ progress and the results of the work they have put in leading up to the test. It’s heartening to witness the growth and increasing abilities that students can exhibit when they practice over a long period of time.
A few things came to mind during the test, and perhaps the biggest take-away is that the elements necessary to have a great test also apply off the mat.
- continued and open-minded learning
- commitment for the long-term
Perhaps these can be summed up in one idea: how we practice is who we become.
During a test, we can only demonstrate what we have been practicing for weeks and months (and years). If we’ve been practicing diligently, and have accepted that true learning comes from a conscious decision to get of our comfort zone class after class, our test will exhibit the focus and spirit we’ve brought to every practice. If we’ve been just going through the motions, that will be reflected in our tests.
Neither is good or bad, either is a choice, but it’s undeniable that we are what we practice.
So as this test is wrapped up, and before we bow in to practice next week, it may be helpful to take an objective look at our own practice. What can we improve? What are our weaker spots and those that need more attention? What are our strengths that we can improve even more? How can we be better kohai? Better sempai? How can we get the most out of our precious time on the mat?
Kiryu Aikido is about strong technique, solid ukemi, and good martial spirit, and I appreciate the shared commitment we all have to these foundations of our practice. I believe also that the physical effort put forth on the mat can result in positive life traits that will take us far in whatever career we have. Focus, dedication, learning, commitment. After all, we are what we practice…and we get out of life what we put into it.
Omedetou gozaimashita (congratulations) to Cyrus-san and all the students who tested. Keep up the good work, and we’ll see you at the spring test.
To those who
Train and train;
Reliance on secret techniques
Will get you nowhere.
– O-Sensei, from “The Art of Peace”
A reporter from 303Magazine.com recently contacted Kiryu Aikido about writing a story about the dojo.
It features the deep life changes that are possible through a student’s commitment to practice as long as there is the unshakeable support of a talented and dedicated Sensei, strong Sempai, and a healthy dojo.
Here is a link to the article, “Fighting Back with the Art of Peace,” by Elle Groves.
After almost 10 years of teaching nearly every Friday and Saturday class, on September 28th, I regrettably taught my last regular class at Kiryu Aikido in Colorado.
Next week, I’ll be starting a new job in San Luis Obispo California, and looking forward to the opportunities and adventures ahead as my family and I begin a new chapter of life.
After the regular class ended, I wanted to spend a little time with each of my students individually. To commemorate this special day, I threw each of them in a farewell round of joyful jiyuwaza. Check out some of the photos at the end of this post, plus more photos and videos on Kiryu’s FaceBook page (https://www.facebook.com/kiryuaikido) and Google+ page (http://gplus.to/kiryuaikido).
I will continue to oversee the high-level decisions and management of Kiryu Aikido, which I created in 2003 as a place to practice safe, strong, serious Aikido based on traditional techniques, weapons, and a solid foundation of ukemi.
I’ve designated the day-to-day teaching, operations, and carrying forward of the Kiryu spirit to Les Steveson, Senior Instructor, and Kara Stewart, Instructor. Les-san has been my deshi since 1999, and Kara-san since 2006. I know they will do a great job in continuing our mission.
I will teach when I’m town visiting family or on business, and I look forward to seeing the dojo continue to grow and thrive.
by Kara L. Stewart
(This essay was written as a requirement for Nidan (second-degree black belt) test, November 2012.)
“You’re on a plateau,” said Blevins Sensei, as we stood outside the dojo before class one Friday night. “Yeah, it’s not a straight line and you’re making some progress because you’re a diligent student, but it’s still a plateau.”
He added, “You need to figure out how to move beyond where you are to get to your next level.”
This was not the answer I’d expected when I asked for my Sensei’s thoughts on how I could have more presence on the mat and bring my Aikido closer to his level. Even though I’ve only been practicing a fraction of the time he has, that is the goal I have: that my Aikido be as strong, clean, correct, and powerful as his. I want to carry on his lineage and share with others what he has shown me these past several years.
Plus, since I got a late start in my practice, I have this continual voice whispering that life is short and I don’t have a lot of time. I want to improve as quickly as I can because I may not have the luxury of decades of hard practice ahead of me. So every class, that’s my mindset—to do all I can to bring my Aikido to higher levels. That’s why I asked the question in the first place.
As I drove home after class that night, I examined my thoughts and feelings about what he’d shared with me. His answer had surprised me—or maybe it surprised my ego, which in turn surprised me; I thought I’d done a lot of ego polishing the past few years.
But honestly, I thought he’d acknowledge my hard work in every class and recognize my focus and intensity, and then give me concrete pointers on specific techniques and how to better use my lower center to my advantage.
But that isn’t what he said. Like all great teachers, he didn’t let me off the hook. Instead, he shone a light on reality and opened the door. It was decision time. It was up to me.
Was I going to listen, really listen, to what he’d just shared with me and choose the hard path—to consciously make changes and move out of my comfort zone (considering that my practice has never been comfortable) and continue up the mountain? Or would I choose the same path, accepting good enough as good enough, and be satisfied with getting the same results?
As I started thinking about how to move beyond this plateau, it occurred to me that plateaus are a symptom of a larger issue. There can be countless reasons for a plateau. Not training frequently enough, hard enough, or intensely enough are just a few reasons for plateaus, as well as taking a lazy or lackadaisical approach to training—such as just showing up and going through the motions, being content to drift toward improvement rather than work consciously toward it, or believing that one is proficient already and there’s nothing to improve.
The problem I was having, however, was reconciling the typical causes of plateaus with my perception of my practice. I rarely missed class, so it wasn’t lack of frequency. I left most every class with my gi drenched in sweat, so it wasn’t a lack of intensity. And I focused so hard most classes I felt my head would explode, so it wasn’t a lack of dedication.
So if I believed I wasn’t slacking off and felt I left it all on the mat, what on earth could I change? If I thought I was already doing all I could to consciously push myself toward improvement, what could I do differently?
I felt frustration rising inside me, although I knew that frustration had zero place in my practice and would only hinder progress. Still I wrestled with my perception of how I practiced and the seeming unfairness that doing everything I knew to bring a sharp uptick to my progress just wasn’t working…at least not as quickly as I wanted it to work.
Ok. Time to breathe.
I trust implicitly my Sensei’s advice and input, so I accepted the reality that I was on a plateau. I could see that there had been gradual upward progress because of the hours I spent on the mat, but it was still a plateau. I owned that. Now, what could I do to move beyond it?
After a few minutes of thought, I had my answer. I would do the only thing I knew how to do: practice even harder. While I thought I was at my highest limit of intensity, I knew there must be another layer of intensity I could access. There always is.
Through all my years as a student, from kindergarten through graduate school, studying hard was something I knew how to do. I knew how to push through the pain, how to suck it up and focus on the long-term goal, how not to give in to the agony of the moment. No surprise, then, that I brought this approach to my Aikido practice. It was my default, my go-to solution for most any challenge.
I asked my Sempai Les-san for help with my ukemi, because Aikidoka with the best ukemi have the best techniques, as Blevins Sensei has shown us. Les-san threw me in breakfalls after every class for months, increasing the difficulty of the throws over time.
And I focused even harder in class. I don’t think I smiled very much. After all, my practice was the most important thing to me, and I was going to do everything I could think of to gain another leap of improvement like I’d experienced before.
I saw some positive changes. My ukemi was improving and I felt my martial spirit was synching up on the outside with what I felt on the inside. But the harder and harder I pushed, the more I had to squelch the feeling of frustration that the resulting progress was not matching up with the level of effort I felt I was expending.
My ego consoled me by saying that of course progress now would be incremental instead of measured by feet or yards, and of course now progress would be smaller and take longer to see, but I knew this was just my ego making excuses to make me feel better.
For a few more months, I pushed. I made progress, but not enough to satisfy me. I pushed more.
Until one day, about six months later, I…simply…stopped…pushing. Like Forest Gump when he came to the end of his cross-country jog, it was simply time to stop running. Forest stopped, turned around, and walked off in the opposite direction. I thought that might be a good idea, too.
The day I stopped pushing, I realized something. My push for improvement meant that I was so busy mentally and so loud internally that I had little chance to hear the tips that Sensei was offering or to feel his technique through my ukemi when he was working with me. I recognized that while I thought I was listening with utmost intent, my mind was too loud to truly take it in.
I was also pushing in other areas of my life, juggling my full-time job with my freelance business and home-improvement projects. All this translated to little sleep and, now that I look back, chronic exhaustion.
It dawned on me that by continuing to push for improvement, I was forcing something that could not be forced. I was essentially the kid in the front row of class, shouting the wrong answer, louder and louder, over and over, with the belief that shouting would make it the right answer. Instead of quieting down, listening to the question, and giving a thoughtful response, I’d been living Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over in class and expecting a different outcome—and I hadn’t even noticed.
When I stopped pushing, I began listening to the voice that gently suggested that if shouting the wrong answer wasn’t making it correct, and if pushing wasn’t creating progress, then maybe something else might work better. Perhaps a completely different approach would have a better outcome. After all, as I’d seen, more of the same certainly wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be in my Aikido.
So I did my best to try an opposite approach. Instead of relying on my brain, I started listening to my body—feeling Aikido instead of thinking it. When I started staying in my body, things started to click. Letting go of pushing toward an outcome seemed to create space for changes to enter in.
They were small changes at first, but noticeable. The quieter I was mentally, the better I heard Sensei’s instruction and felt the nuances of his techniques. And the more rested I was, the quieter I could be.
During class, when my center went back up to my head and my brain engaged, I found that I’d miss things, forget things, or hear incorrectly. I challenged myself to stay as present as long as possible in each class, and continually let go of the default to try harder when something wasn’t going the way I perceived it should go.
By now, I’ve seen enough changes to know that this approach is working for me. It’s the route that will help me improve and allow my Aikido to go as far as it can. But it’s also a conscious (and more difficult) choice to stay present instead of defaulting back to a too-busy, too-loud mind. It’s something I’m now aware of all the time.
I also have learned that this tendency to push as a reaction to challenge was installed in me a very long time ago and I have to be on the lookout lest it reappear. During the next plateau, I’ll know that a different outcome will require a different approach, not shouting more of the same incorrect answer.
During this struggle, I shared with a friend my self-protective approach to life: to paddle hard to keep my boat upright in the rough seas of life. He had a different outlook, though, and I like his a lot better. Maybe you don’t have to paddle all the time, he suggested. Sometimes it’s OK to simply float down the river, working with the current and blending with where it’s taking you instead of constantly paddling against it. In short… not pushing.
So now before class, I take a few minutes and sit. I let go of the day, let go of expectations and outcomes, let go of what I learned in yesterday’s class. Then I bow in and do my best to stay present, stay quiet, stay centered, ready to listen and receive what Sensei is presenting. When my brain wants to kick in, I come back to center, again and again. When I stay in my body, I start seeing instead of looking and listening instead of hearing. I start paying attention—really paying attention—to the small details that result in the bigger picture coming into focus.
And of course, I still practice as hard as I can and my gi is still soaked at the end of most classes, but somehow letting go of the pushing has allowed space for more layers of learning. I also know that there are many miles to go on this journey, and I will never “get there,” but that’s part of the joy of practice and continuing to learn, layer by layer.
Thank you, Sensei, for helping me clear my cache so I could start seeing with fresh eyes and listening with an open mind, working with what presents itself right here, right now, on this tatami.
Arigatou gozaimasu, Blevins Sensei.
Pat Hendricks Sensei and Stanley Pranin Sensei Seminar
March 9-10, 2013, Las Vegas
In Search of Harmonious Ferocity
Kara L. Stewart
The concern that the martial spirit of Aikido is in danger of being lost in some modern-day interpretations of O-Sensei’s original intent and how to save it for future practitioners was the theme of this two-day seminar led by Pat Hendricks Sensei, 7th dan, from Aikido of San Leandro, and Stanley Pranin Sensei, 5th dan, author and creator of Aikido Journal, who also teaches in his dojo near Las Vegas.
Over the two days, about 30 students from several states gathered on the mat at the ParadiseRecreationCenter to explore several ideas: how can we be more effective in our Aikido, and what can we do to maintain and enhance the essential martial spirit of Aikido?
There were so many good tips and comments that it’s difficult to capture them all. I also believe that some were meant to be shared once at the seminar and then allowed to settle into each Aikidoka’s practice in whatever way makes the most sense for the individual.
That said, there were a few key points that I took home—and took to heart. It’s interesting how each seminar I attend is always good and there are always new things to consider and learn. However, for whatever reason (perhaps thanks to the seminar kami) these two days brought light to some of the very things I’ve been focusing on in my practice.
The Mark of a Great Teacher
To me, the hallmark of great teacher is, of course, how much they know, but it is also about how much they care and where their teaching is coming from: heart or ego. Hendricks Sensei is the world’s highest ranking woman in Aikido and her teaching is firm and demanding but compassionate. Pranin Sensei is a vast resource of knowledge about Aikido and his desire is to help others understand it better. Over many hours with students from all levels, both Senseis shared their gifts in a strong but humble way.
As he was describing some of the things we are aiming for as Aikidoists, Pranin Sensei paused for a moment and then found these two words: harmonious ferocity. As serious Aikido practitioners of this MARTIAL art, our attacks must be committed and delivered with the full intent behind the strike or grab. Our techniques must spring from the intent behind the technique, whether it’s to pin, throw, or otherwise control our partner. Without this full-on and unwavering intent (ferocity), while blending with what our partner is offering (harmonious), it’s just movement, not Aikido.
Hendricks Sensei discussed the notion of expression in our Aikido, which first I understood as similar to zanshin—continued focus after a technique. She illustrated expression in a few more techniques and explained that it comes from energy and focus within the person that is then expressed outwardly. A martial artist with expression continues the focus and energy of one technique into the next, and it involves the body as a unified whole.
Good expression is congruent—it reflects what is on the inside, and it takes time to develop. As Hendricks Sensei said, Aikido is based on relatively simple movements, but they must be practiced thousands of times so they become part of us and we no longer think about executing them.
At the end of both days, she reminded us to “forget everything you did today. Your body will remember.”
As a key component of Harmonious Ferocity, our intent is crucial to developing good, strong Aikido. Strike with the intent to strike, and follow through with the strike. Do a technique with the full intent of what the technique is intended to do (pin, throw, control).
I was Uke a couple times for Pranin Sensei and I thought I was bringing the biggest martial spirit I could muster. The actual outcome? Not enough intent or intensity. He helped me bring so much more to my intent and ferocity so my martial spirit mirrors on the outside what I feel on the inside.
Hendricks Sensei also told us, “Don’t be square.” When we’re attacking, don’t let our shoulders and hips be square to our partner, but rather turn our body so we are “narrower.” This is the true meaning of the word “hanmi”—half body—and it prevents our partner from reading our intent.
Don’t give up if a technique doesn’t seem to be working. Keep the intent and the intensity. Don’t muscle it or force it, but keep movement and flow and feel for an opening.
Dead Zones and Power Zones
Pranin Sensei demonstrated the dead zone (the areas to the sides of Uke’s outstretched arms where he can no longer see or reach Nage) and the power zone (directly in front of Uke where he has ample ability to see and reach Nage).
In all our techniques, we need to stay out of Uke’s power zone or get to the dead zone. Irimi Nage is a great example of getting to the dead zone. If we have to be in the power zone, limit the time there and get to a safer place quickly.
At the end of the first day, Pranin Sensei had time for three students to ask a specific question of a technique they were having trouble with. I asked about the Ura variation of Ikkyo or Sankyo, as I feel I often don’t have leverage because Uke is taller than me. In my case and the two other students who asked a question, our techniques weren’t working because in different ways, we had not taken Uke’s balance.
So somehow, find a way to break Uke’s balance and break his structure. One way is to use “hiccups” or variations in the flow or application of the technique to create openings. Another very important way to take balance is atemi—giving Uke something to think about and disrupting his focus. Kiai is highly effective as atemi. Hendricks Sensei and Pranin Sensei encouraged us to use kiai much more, with great intent.
While we want to break Uke’s structure, as Nage we want to keep our structure intact. We can tend to move body parts independently instead of as a unified structure. Our entire body, not just our arms or hands, needs to do the technique. As Blevins Sensei says, “Ki ken tai ichi.” Spirit/sword/body as one. That is the unified structure we want to bring to our techniques.
For example, when pinning in Shomen Uchi Ikkyo, bring Uke’s arm to the mat with our body as a unified structure. Pin using the weight from our center and go to the mat as a connected unit, not pushing down on Uke’s arm, going to our knees, then pinning. Stay connected to ourselves.
Hendricks Sensei shared that perhaps the biggest piece of advice she can offer based on her years of training is to relax. Stiff, tight muscles or forcing a technique do not work and do not allow Aikido to happen. Our goal is martial relaxation…that state of an energy-filled yet relaxed (but not limp) body that can move any direction and direct Uke’s movement as well.
When we are relaxed, we have so much more power and effectiveness. I saw this when I finally let go of the tension in my shoulders. Pranin Sensei said also to realize how much movement we have at our disposal—hips, elbows, arms, shoulders, wrists, etc. Even tiny movements can make huge differences in effectiveness. Aikido is about movement in three dimensions, so take advantage of that, and keep moving.
Both teachers emphasized martial relaxation repeatedly during the two days—it is crucial to achieving better Aikido.
As martial artists, we ideally are training to be aware of each situation and be ready to change course depending on what is offered (on and off the mat). As Pranin Sensei shared, each technique is fresh, new, and different. Even if we’ve just done a technique several times, never assume that the next technique will be the same.
This applies equally well to Uke and Nage. Uke needs to go with what is being offered and not assume to know what technique is coming. Nage needs to be able to change things in a second to adjust to the situation.
By the same token, the newness inherent in each technique can improve our Aikido if we take each as an opportunity to improve upon the last one rather than going through the motions of a technique, over and over, merely repeating a pattern.
Also, always keep in mind the element of surprise. We can use this to unbalance Uke with atemi or by changing the technique. We can also keep our practices safer by working with what is actually presented, not what we expect to happen. For instance, if Uke responds in a way that’s “not expected” based on the assumed technique but the partner continues with the technique the way it’s “supposed” to happen, injuries can occur.
Taking it Back to Practice
The seminar was a great opportunity to add a bit more to my ongoing learning and continual appreciation of the very sound idea
s that Blevins Sensei teaches—essentially looking at our Aikido from a different angle of the same
perspective. It’s heartening to know that we are part of a larger community that shares the same spirit and desire to keep Aikido based in its strong martial roots, with knowledge passed on from great teachers.
My sincerest thanks to Hendricks Sensei and Pranin Sensei for sharing their time, their hearts, and their passion with us, and to the new Aikido friends who practiced with me and shared these two great days.
May 26-27, 2012
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Over Memorial Day weekend, a few of us from Kiryu Aikido headed to Santa Fe to take part in a two-day seminar led by Patricia Hendricks Sensei 7th dan.
Hosted by Jerome Buenviaje Sensei and his students at Takemusu Aikido New Mexico, the seminar drew nearly two dozen students from dojos in Colorado and New Mexico. Perhaps the timing of the holiday weekend prevented more attendees, which was highly unfortunate, because this was a rare chance to train with Hendricks Sensei, whose strong, clean, powerful techniques underscore why she recently received her 7th Dan from Doshu at Hombu Dojo.
Over the four hours of practice each day, Hendricks Sensei shared her strong Iwama open hand and weapons techniques.
It’s very challenging to write about the technical specifics she taught, so this post will focus more on other aspects of the seminar. However, for each technique–whether open hand or weapons–she broke it down into pieces that were easier to apply and gave pointers to every student at some point over the weekend. Hendricks Sensei is demanding in wanting perfection and having high standards for quality Aikido, yet she is kind in her delivery and so willing to help.
She focused on a lot of basic techniques, and at one point she said that O-Sensei taught basics every class because they are so important. And just because a technique, like Tai No Henko or Morote Dori Kokyu Ho, is kihon (basic) doesn’t mean it is easy or that it doesn’t have many layers that take years to start to understand.
Part of the benefit of going to seminars, in my opinion, is to learn from another teacher and open our eyes and mind to how and what they are teaching. Brain fry is a natural result of doing one’s best to overcome ingrained habits and muscle memory to do the technique the way the teacher is showing it. It’s challenging, but that’s why we’re there–to learn and let go of what “we know.” Otherwise, why bother going to a seminar if we’re just going to practice the way we always practice?
We did about half open hand and half weapons, including techniques from Katate Dori, Ai Hanmi Katate Dori, Yokomen Uchi, Tsuki, and Ryote Dori, and weapons work with suburi, Kumi Jo, Kumi Tachi, and Ken Tai Jo. While we practice Iwama style weapons in our dojo, there are differences in kamae and suburi that make things fun (more challenges!).
Hendricks Sensei provided hugely valuable assistance with tailoring techniques for smaller people, and she also asked for questions, whether they were technique related or historical. After she answered each question, she thought of a way to have us practice that technique or idea. For example, the topic was avoiding injury, and she said that many students over the age of 70 train at Hombu every day, week after week, year after year. To illustrate this, she has us practice Kotegaeshi as if we were 70–flowing, moving, using our center. Another question was about the average class size at Hombu. Answer: crowded…between 40 and 100 students. So, we practiced one-mat techniques, using only one tatami for each Nage and Uke. You can get a lot of Aikido done in the space of one tatami!
Some additional food for thought from Hendricks Sensei:
** How to avoid injury, or to heal from injury, which seem more common the more you train and the more you progress: listen to your body. When it has certain areas that are prone to injury, what is it trying to tell you and why are you holding on to that pain? You can do a lot of work to consciously release that pain and let go of it. Hendricks Sensei said she had a lot of injuries in her early years of training but now physically feels better than she did back then. Why? Because she listens to her body and works with it and the lessons it is trying to teach her.
** Practice intensely in class…and then let it go. Forget what you learned in your head; your body will remember it.
** As soon as you tell yourself “I don’t get this technique,” you lose. Assume you will get it and do it well.
** Use the Four Elements in our training: Earth: ground yourself, solid, strength, will, commitment, intentWater: flow, movement, adjusting to what is presented Air: expansiveness, fill space
** See the situation from our partner’s perspective. Tai No Henko is a perfect illustration of this.
** Ground yourself, as Uke and as Nage. Sink into the technique. Kiai.
After the last session on Saturday, Buenviaje Sensei and his students invited everyone to a potluck at the dojo. The food was great and those who stayed had good conversations with new friends.
Many thanks to Hendricks Sensei for her gifted teaching and her generosity sharing her passion for Aikido with all of us, and to Jerome Buenviaje Sensei and his students at Takemusu Aikido New Mexico for their hospitality and welcoming spirit. We look forward to practicing with you all in the future!
Kara L. Stewart
by Charles Bland
(This essay was written as a requirement for Nidan (second-degree black belt) test, April 2012.)
After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.
– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1973)
An aikido sempai once told me what he knew of aikido had been learned through constant and persistent training. Getting through the dojo door and onto the mat every night is the foundation of Aikido practice. The founder made the same statement several times through his life. Aikido is learned through training and repetition.
Reading Suzuki’s quote about walking through the fog snapped the two ideas together into what has become my own personal motto for training: get on the mat as much as possible; improvement is often imperceptibly gradual.
After training for over 15 years, I don’t always notice changes to my practice from one day to the next, or one class to the next. However, I can often look back over the past year and note small improvements. Changes happen, but slowly over the course of months or years.
Even knowing that improvement is gradual and will happen with training, making the first step to get through the dojo door can be difficult some days. These have always been the times when I needed to train the most; I need to go to class, but am having trouble getting off the couch. When thinking back to past classes, I can’t remember a time when after training I thought, I shouldn’t have gone to class. Every training has benefit. The ones where I had a difficult time motivating myself to get on the mat even more so.
Good training is frustrating. Without the sometimes painful push to improve, practice is empty. That push may come from Sensei, or myself – usually both. First Sensei points out what I’m doing wrong. Next I think, no I’m not. Really? then, how long have I been doing that? Ten years or more? After going through the mental process of recognizing what needs fixing, I make the effort to change my technique and hope it sticks. Unfortunately my old habits tend to be stubborn and the process may repeat a few times before I can move on.
These small realizations are droplets in Suzuki’s fog. The idea that even though I don’t feel like training, it will be worth it afterwards takes time to sink in. Going through the frustrating process of finding and recognizing the mistakes I’m making in my techniques, then attempting to fix them so that the changes become permanent can be painful and some fixes take months. Later in class I’ll notice I made the change without thinking, and remember the reason I keep walking through the dojo door.
I’ve found that one bokken suburi no matter how well executed is not enough, nor is one hundred. Only after thousands of suburi does the form begin to reveal itself. Thousands of suburi, and thousands of hours on the mat eventually lead to a better understanding of Aikido, and I feel like my training is just getting started.
Aikido Kaiso No Chitazune (合気道開祖の地訪ね)
On my latest trip to Japan we had the wonderful opportunity to go to Hokaido (北海道). I have been to Japan around 14 times, and this was the first time I had been to Hokaido. I wish I had come sooner, what a great place. Our Aikido group was going up to this location for a few reasons. First, to visit and get a sence of Osensei’s live and get a glimpse into the area and history that is part of our Aikido heritage. Second, to visit some of the Aikido instructors, dojos, and expand our Aikido friends in the world. Lastly, to have a good time, good food, and get a little rest and relaxation in this beautiful area. In my last post we talked about our Aikido experiences in this area so will not go much into that in this post.
We started our trek from the Haneda (羽田空港) Airport in Tokyo. This was the first time I have flown from this airport so did not know what to expect. It is very easy to get to Haneda and did not take a long time. From Shinjuku we took the JR Yamanote line (山手線) to Hamamatsucho(浜松町). Here we transfered to the Tokyo Monorail (東京モノレール), and was a straight shot from there (20 min and approx 500 yen). To me this airport had a very laid back view and strangely felt relaxing. As this was not an international flight the security was lighter than the US. For example, we did not have to take off our shoes in the screening line, and we could bring liquids through (which was interesting as the security agent asked me to open my water bottle then took a good whiff of the water, not sure safe, but..).
We then go on our local flight to Monbetsu Ohotsuku (オホーツク紋別空港) airport. Quick flight and not many people on the flight. The stewardess was very curious why so many foreigners were going to Monbetsu and asked Izawa sensei a few questions. I guess they don’t get a lot of foreigners on that flight. We landed and got our bags.
In the lobby of the Monbetsu airport there was a huge stuffed bear which we all took a picture with (Russians and Bears). We were picked up by Ozaki sensei and took a trip into town. We took a nice drive up to the Monbetsu observatory (and local ski run) and got a nice veiw of the overall landscape. It was pretty nice to have mountainous terain on one side and the ocean horizon on the other. Probably an optical illusion, but the ocean’s horizon seemed to have a slight bend to it. We then drove into Monbetsu to have lunch (seafood) where we picked a few items from the freezer and they cooked for us on the spot.
Apparently Monbetsu is know for its drift ice. As it was summer of course it was a beautiful day, but we saw the ice breaking ship, and got a glimpse of the ice flow museum. Sounds like the ice is pretty cool to see and hear. We then went to Yubetsu (湧別町) to get settled in and get ready for practice.
After practice and before dinner we went to the local Yubetsu onsen (hot bath). These things are great. They have all the normal shower facilities (you need to shower and soap up before going into the Japanese onsen by the way!) and have a number of baths. There are two sides (one for men one for women) and each have a little different flavor of the garden outside and the baths themselves (which switch sides from men/women almost daily). Mostly they had two baths inside at different hot temperatures, and one hot bath outside in the garden area. Also outside they had a cold bath (12C) which was FREEZING. I got in and went under once and my brain frooze (no really it did!). After bath they have a relax area outside the baths and a restaurant too. A great deal for 500 yen (for the basic onsen).
A packed first day….
The next day we were asked by the local Yubetsu mayor Mr. Masami Harada to have a small visit at the city office. We showed up and there was also a reported from the Hokaido Shimbun/newspaper). We sat down and started with introductions. If you travel to Japan and may be meeting various people it is good to have a business card even if just your name and email address.
It is proper to receive the persons business card with two hands if possible, and take a look to read over its contents (right as you are receiving it). Then you can give yours and give your name and that it is nice to meet them. Do not put the card right into your pocket as can be considered rude. One way I have learned is that if you get a few cards of all the people you are meeting and put them out in the table in front of you in the relative positions where the persons are sitting. Then you can reinforce their names, and shows that you are making an effort. You can also put it away in a card case, etc).
After introductions the Mayor and Izawa sensei continued to talk a little about the area and also about why our group made the trip out to their area. As the newpaper reporter was there it made me think a little deeper about what was going on and how our group fit in. As most everyone knows the terrible earthquake/tsunami that hit eastern Japan is a very large concern to all in Japan and affecting all regions. The mayor (and I think the people in the area also) have seen a big drop off on tourism and visitors to the area from people from all countries. We talked a little bit about there is a lot of mis-information in the press and concern for safety and the reluctance for people to come over from Japan. They wanted to know what some of the views of Japan are in America and also why the group decided to continue our trip in light of the concern for Radiation, etc.
We talked a little bit about this afterwards and yes we are just individuals coming to Japan for our own reasons and cannot affect the world on a large basis. However, each of us really want to share our experiences in Japan (Tokyo/Hokaido,etc) in our own ways to help show the world what is going on here in Japan and that it is safe to travel in Japan. Of course one should do research on their own about where the unsafe areas are, but I do not think a lot of people know that Japan is a very large country (long wise) and many different areas and climates. The radiated area is but one area of Japan. This is one of many reasons I am writing this blog post and
doing my part in trying to help spread the enjoyment and excitement of Japan and its many beautiful and interesting sites! What can you do?
After our meeting we talked a bit about the different interesting sites and things to do in Yubetsu and other areas to enjoy the area. The bottom of the article has the clipping of the newspaper that came out the next day. Here is a little recap (sorry for the bad translation) of what the article says:
Aikido Kaiso No Chitazune (The visit to the origin of the founder of Aikdio) – 6 Aikidoist from the United States visited Mr. Masami Harada the mayor of Yubetsu village. The group led by Kei Izawa Sensei who is also the general secretary of the Interational Aikido Federation had just participated in the 49th World Aikido Demontrations in Tokyo. The group had come to Yubetsu village with Sho Ozaki sensei. They will be staying in Hokaido for about one week and will visit the (Yubetsu town) museum exhibit that displays Osensei’s Keiko Gi (uniform). This visit is to the museum that focuses on the pioneers that Osesei lead to this area. Izawa Sensei stated that he would like to attend the next years Aikido event with Aikido Kankeisha** (Associates), at that time he would also like to visit Yubetsu again. Mayor Harada responded to please promote Yubetsu to the work Aikidoists. The group with Ozaki sensei will have a public practice at the Yubetsu Budokan at 6:30 and is free to attend or participate to experience Aikido…
* Rights to Hokaido Shimbun, From June 2, 2011.
** The word Kankeisha was used a lot in the article. This was fun, because our host used this a lot in his speaking each day when we attended each event and people would let us in everywhere…
After our meeting with the Yubetsu mayor we went to one of the main attractions of the city which is the Yubetsu Tulip Park. This is a pretty big park that has over 120 tulip varieties and more that 120,00 tulips in total. All differnt types, shapes, colors, sizes, etc. Pretty impressive even though I am not a “flower” person. We took a small tram around the park, and then we took a nice walk around and enjoyed the scenery. I think this area is famous for Tuilips and almost every house, park, and building have a small tulip garden.
Right next to the this area was the Yubetsu Town Museum JRY . This was a pretty cool new looking building and a nice stop after the tulips. Here they have a lot of exibits and history on the area and its people. One of the main points of this was the introduction of the farmer soldiers. As this was very far away from the main areas of Japan the government assigned these farmer soldiers to the area (and others) to help protect and police the area. I believe these basically turned into the local police in the area in modern times. It was pretty harsh conditions and the people were tough to stick it out. The museum had a small area devoted to Osensei (it had one of Osensei’ Keiko Gi), and a little on his history in the area. What a good view into the lives of people in that time. I think gives us a good view into this time in Osensei’s life and hardships (I could be wrong on exact number, but I think I heard Osensei chopped like 300+ plus trees in one year by himself).
A side note, this is one thing I got out of this view into Osensei’s life. I think you see from the hardships of his life and in Hokaido that he continually showed his strong spirit and leadership in the town and also in the progression of Aikido. Through this hard training he achieved the insights and lessons to lead us in the path to peace and learning. By this I think we must also train hard and fight through life’s hardships on our own to grown into good people, leaders, and Aikidoist. It just not happen without this process (or at least most of us =) )
After the Yubetsu Tulip Town Park we went to the Takinoue Park. When going around this area there were large patches of these tiny pink flowers. This special area the people who run the area “encouraged” this in a large scale and a large portion of this hill side was covered in pink (not much green). It was a pretty cool sight (no, I still don’t like pink) to see. It was almost sureal and felt like watching a video. This was a great example of the “bonzai” effect in Japan, where in Japan they take natural forming wonders and expand them to these sureal areas. Almost like the Japanese gardens in Kyoto, but this was on a large scale on the whole moutain side. Something you should go see for yourself as the pictures don’t do it justice.
Later that night we went to the onsen again, and after the bath we had dinner with the mayor and some officials from the village office. We talked more on a personal note and got to know the people a little bit more. A fun dinner and learned more about the local people and customs.
The next day the newspaper article came out. As we were heading down to Engaru/Shirataki Village we were called by the Mayor of Engaru to meet with him. We went to Mr. Sasaki Shuichi and the Engaru village office and had a meeting/visit with him. This had the same tone of his curiosity in our trip to Hokaido and also his concern over the international view of Japan in the media. He expressed his concern that the world views all of Japan as not safe and we talked about some ideas we could do to help in our own ways. We thanked him for the visit and went on to visit Shirataki village which was Osensei’s home while he was in Hokaido..
We started by going to the Shirataki local museum. This had a lot on the farming and tools of the pioneers era. There was also a exhibit on Osensei and a little more on the details on his life here. There was a cool timeline (in Japanese) that had his overall life, but highlighted his time in Hokaido. There was also Osensei’s metal war fan which was pretty interesting (looked heavy).
After we stopped by a small monument to Takeda Sokaku and Daitoryu. Next we went monument dedicated to Osensei and his time in the village.
This was a beautiful and peacefull place out of town and in the middle of the mountains around us.
Across the street from the monument we went to the Aiki Shrine (Shirataki Aiki Shrine). This was a way off the road into the trees. Inside it was very interesting. On one side had wooden notes for each person who donated to build the original shrine and how much they donated. On the other side it had notes who dontated to fix the shrine’s roof. We talked a little about this before and what we could do to help get the word out and a vehicle to get donations to fix the Aiki shrine in Iwama that was partially broken from the earthquake. Maybe we can start small (like the Aiki shrine) to medium (spread the word to go to japan, and help boost people visiting again) and large (to slowly help Japan recover from the earthquake). Japan Kotowaza: Chirimo tsumoreba yama to naru “Even dust when accumulates can build a mountain”.
We then drove to a familiar mountain range that was the same range that was taken from the photo of Osensei in the same area (Looking for the original photo). Was nice as our hosts even gave us all a xerox of the picture for our reference). Lastly, we visited the waterfall which Shirataki name (white waterfall) was created from. We saw from a view from above and did not get a great view of it unfortunatelly. However, a very peacefull area.
We went back to town and took a small rest and reflect on our morning. This was our last night and we had open practice that night in the local Yubetsu budokan. After class we went to the onsen, and then had dinner with our host. We talked about all the great things we had seen and one, and also a little about Aikido and exchange ideas for the future.
The next morning we took the bus (bright and early 0700) from Yubetsu to Sapporo station (not bad for 4000 yen). This trip took 3-4 hours, but we had a great view of the mountains and the small villages in between.
In Sapporo (as we got in around lunch) we stayed in the Susukino area. This was the area where we went to lunch in the famous Ramen street “Kouraku Ramen Meitengai”. This street has like 10 – 14 ramen stores all right next to each other, and at the entrance to the street was a little guide sign that described each restarant and some distiguishing features between the different shops (soup thickness, noodle thickness, etc). We choose our restaurant and I ate the heavenly Miso Butter Corn Ramen. Ummmm. Ummmm. Yes was that good.
We went to practice in Sapporo that night with Fujii sensei. After practice we went to a local seafood/sushi restaurant. As we were so close to the ocean seafood and sushi is abundant in Hokaido. Also, compared to Tokyo the fish is a little fresher and not as expensive. We had a lot of different dishes and my favorite was the salt encrusted red snapper (Tai). This was a snapper fish wrapped in seaweed (kombe?), and a shell encrusted in salt. Wow, I almost want to eat more fish hehe.
The next morning we flew back to Tokyo. Exhausted, but what a great few days. I definately want to go back to Hokaido again. It is a little out of the way but worth the trip. You get a little different flavor of Japan (small village, more modern in a way), but you will not be disappointed.
My last note, on Aikido and Hokaido. Along with my other views of the hardships and how this process and experiences helped Osensei become who he was.I think Hokaido has another aspect that I found interesting. Most of the houses and buildings seemed to have more of a modern feel. Even the older houses (roofs, shapes, etc) did not have the same feel as maybe Kyoto has. It was definitely Japan, but still different. I think in one small way this pioneering aspect had a “modern” influence on Aikido. Osensei took his training and experiences in the older styles of martial arts and created this “modern” or “do” version of his martial art. Like Hokaido I think Aikido also has a strong Japanese feel, but expresses itself in a more elegant way. Not good or bad, just is.
Andrew Blevins, Kiryu Aikido
Special Thanks To:-
-Kei Izawa Sensei (from Tanshinjuku, Colorado); Thanks for guiding us on a great Aikido tour of Japan
- Our Aikido Group: Izawa Sensei, Kennith Furuya, Andrew Blevins (Me), Stephen Shaw, Kara Stewart, Kent Krumvieda; All pictures are Izawa senseis, Kents, Mine (the bad ones), and the group. Also for putting up with me for a week and a half =)
- Ozaki Sensei for hosting us and guiding us in Monbetsu, Yubetsu, and Engaru.
- Others: Yubetsu Mayor Mr. Masami Harada, Engaru Mayor Mr. Sasaki Shuichi, Mr. Shigemitsu Matsuda of the Yubetsu Board of Education, Mr. Masashi Kuboto (Ozaki sensei’s student).
(Article From Hokaido Shimbun)
* Rights to Hokaido Shimbun, From June 2, 2011.
I just got back from a very memorable trip to Japan. I have been to Japan many times now, but this time was special. Going with Izawa sensei and five other Aikido students we went to Japan to practice Aikido, to travel to Hokaido and see where Osensei forged his way through the harsh conditions in that area. I will be posting a few different posts on this trip and some of the great things we saw and discovered during the trip. This first post I wanted to start with our attendance of the 49th World Aikido Demonstrations.
This was held at the Nippon Budokan in the center of tokyo on Saturday May 28th, 2011. We arrived a little early to get good seats and get settled in. Izawa sensei and one of our group (Kent) went down to the floor for their seats, and Kent was there to help take some photos. We had great seats right behind the North side of the budokan. There were five different groups of mats set up in certain positions on the floor. We then had a program guide that stated which groups and/or Aikidoist would be doing a demonstration. It wsa very well organized and lasted about 6+ hours from beginning to the end. There were many different Aikido types and temperments and all were very interesting to see all the variations.
The day ended when Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba (植芝 守央) did his demo. What a great day. We met a lot of people and saw a ton of Aikido. A lot to digest and appreciated the opportunity to watch.
The next few days we went to the morning classes at Aikikai Hombu Dojo. The classes were all taught by Doshu himself. I really like how all the techniques has a common thread and we switched between a lot of different positions (Suwariwasza [both kneeling], Hanmihandachi [one standing one on the ground], and Tachiwaza [both standing]). I felt super lucky be able to take ukemi from Doshu during the class (from Shomenuchi Iriminage). Doshu was kind enough to take a picture with our group after class.
A few days later we headed off to the Monbetsu (紋別市) airport in Hokkaidou (北海道). We were picked up by Ozaki sensei. Ozaki sensei was the announcer at the World Aikido Demos a few days before. He has a great personality and really fun to experience our first trip to Hokkaidou. We went right to the his dojo in Yuubetsu (湧別町). We had a great class with his students and after class we all ate dinner together.
I will do another post about our really extrodanary experiences here and seeing the historical sites that were associated to Osensei.
The last night of our time in Yubetsu we practiced again. This time Izawa sensei was invited to teach a class and do a demo at the Yubetsu budokan. There were a lot of local people along with Ozaki senseis students watching and practicing. Another great time on the mat in Japan. We also had a lot of kids in this class and was fun to see them experience Aikido.
The next morning we took a bus to Sapporo Houkaidou. Once we checked into the hotel we met Fujii (藤井) sensei and went to one of the gym dojos (taikukan). This was a big facility and we had about 30 – 40 people practicing. It was right over a pool so had some good humidity . Fujii sensei taught the first class that night. He has very strong basics and was fun to watch, and even take some breakfall ukemi from him (shihonage). Izawa sensei taught the second class and we all had a great time doing this big Aikido. After class we went to dinner with Fujii sensei and learned more about Aikido in the area. Would be great to go back.
This was the end of practice for me on the trip. The rest of the group got to stay a little longer and train this week. I got home a few days ago and hope everyone is having good practice.
I will be posting more posts about the trip from different perspectives.