Kiryu Aikido Japan Trip, May 2015: 53rd All Japan Aikido Demonstration

Nippon BudokanBy Kara L. Stewart

What’s octagonal, holds nearly 15,000 spectators, and showcases an annual springtime demonstration of more than 7,000 Aikidoka in 90-second displays of their dojo’s techniques and spirit?

Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan (日本武道館), rising 140 feet high, was originally built for the 1964 Summer Olympics Judo competition. Located in Kitanomaru Park in the center of Tokyo, the Budokan is used primarily for competitions and demonstrations of several martial arts, including Judo, Kendo, Karate-do, Aikido, Kyūdō, Naginata, and Shorinji Kempo, as well as concerts and sporting events.

Andrew Blevins Sensei and three of his students (Les Steveson, Kara Stewart, and John Purvis) had the great honor to participate in the 53rd All Japan Aikido Demonstration as part of Yasumasa Itoh Sensei’s demonstration with his dojo, Aikido Tekkojuku of Boston. Blevins Sensei was also a Nage in the demo, while Les-san and I were Ukes.

And that was just the beginning of an unforgettable two-week trip to Japan that took us from the bustle and bright lights of Tokyo to the quiet mountain town of Takayama and other places along the way.

Hello, Tokyo!

We arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport at 5:00 pm on Thursday, May 21, and ran into Itoh Sensei’s group in the JR Rail Pass office. After handshakes and introductions, getting our JR rail passes and Suica card for non-JR trains, and taking the Narita Express Shinkansen (bullet train) into the city, we didn’t get settled into the Toyoko Inn in Shinagawa — our home for the next four days — until around 10:00 pm. Of course, we headed to a neighborhood izakaya (pub) to say Kanpai! and celebrate our arrival and all that lay ahead for the next two weeks.

That meant quite a short night…because we would be attending Doshu’s 6:30 am class at Hombu the next morning. Being an hour’s train ride from Hombu, we met in the lobby at 5:00 sharp.

Practice at Hombu and Demo Prep

There were probably 60 students on the mat for the morning class. I was excited to recognize some faces from when I trained there in 2011. For the next hour, we practiced Shomen Uchi techniques, such as Ikkyo, Nikkyo, Sankyo, Irimi Nage, and Kotegaeshi.

A different teacher taught the next class, and since there were fewer students on the mat, we could take falls and even did some more dynamic Ushiro Ryote Dori techniques.

After the second class, Doshu very kindly allowed our group an hour to practice the demo together. While we’d all seen an animation of the order and flow of the demo, we hadn’t had a chance to all practice together. That opportunity really helped answer some questions and smooth out the demo overall.

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Our demo would be only 90 seconds from the opening strike of the taiko drum to the ending boom, and we clocked the demo in real-time at about 87 seconds. Perfect.

When everyone was changed, we headed over to the Budokan to get the lay of the land, take some pre-demo group photos, and talk one more time about logistics and planning for the next day.

Tekkojuku_outsideBudokan

People had different plans for the afternoon, and our group plus Steve Norwood from Izawa Sensei’s Tanshinjuku dojo in Colorado, went to the Edo Tokyo Museum. It’s very well done — several floors of history, dioramas, and exhibits, and right next to the sumo training district, Ryōgoku (両国), with the sumo stadium, sumo stables, and chanko restaurants elbowing for space. The national sumo championships were that weekend and we tried to get tickets, but of course the events had been sold out for months. We consoled ourselves with a peek through the iron fence to see some sumo competitors taking pictures with their adoring fans.

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Dinner for us that night: Shabu Shabu (swish swish, which is the sound of rare beef being swirled through simmering broth and vegetables). Les-san showed his natural talent with the required technique. I think he has great potential to be a Shabu Shabu king when he retires from his other job in a few years.

53rd All Japan Aikido Demonstration

This is it! Today, we’ll be joining more than 7,000 other Aikidoists from across Japan and around the world to participate in the joy and community that is Aikido.

Because the doors of the Budokan don’t open until 10:00, many of us met for breakfast at the hotel before heading over. We arrived at the Budokan in good time, which meant we got to wait in line in the shade – nice. Itoh Sensei handed out the official program, and there it is: all our names in katakana under the アメリカ (America) header. In fact, we are the only group from the USA participating in the All Japan Aikido Demonstration, and only one of five non-Japanese groups. I feel everyone silently vowing to do our best to represent our country, but more importantly, to support Itoh Sensei in having a great demonstration.

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Itoh Sensei wanted us to get to the Budokan early so we could get good seats in the stands from which to watch the demos before and after ours. We settled in and prepared to take in the huge event for a couple hours before it was time to change into our gi’s and hakamas prior to our time slot.

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The stadium started filling up and it’s time for the 53rd All Japan Aikido Demonstration to begin! At the reverberation of the first taiko drum strike, five groups came quickly onto the color-coded mats and began their demos. Every 90 seconds, the drum sounded. Finished groups bowed out, new groups bowed in. Over and over the scene changed, yet there was both continuity and differentiation with every new set of demos.

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Finally it was time for our group to go change and then come back to our seats for a little longer before going to the holding area on the stadium floor to line up and wait.

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And finally, it’s really time. We head downstairs and line up. Last-minute instructions and directions shared among the team; our group surrounded by hundreds of other Aikidoists coming and going from their own demos. It’s loud, it’s chaotic yet controlled and organized.

Are we nervous? I can only speak for myself, and perhaps speak of similar emotions held by Blevins Sensei and Les-san. After all, we are of Kiryu Aikido. We are how we train, and Kiryu trains with focus and diligence and calm presence, training every class with martial spirit. Doing Aikido is what we do. The crowds don’t matter; they will fade away as soon as the taiko drum sounds.

I’m focused, honored, humbled, and filled with gratitude, but I’m not nervous. As we walk onto the floor and wait on the sidelines, I look up at the thousands of lights in the octagonal ceiling. Just a few words whisper in my head: Thank you, life, for bringing me to Aikido.

The taiko drum sounds and we trot onto the mat, quickly bow in seiza and begin. First, we all attack Itoh Sensei with Yokomen Uchi from the right hand. He throws all of us in different techniques, then Joji Sensei takes the center and throws three Ukes. Blevins Sensei is next and throws three Ukes: I’m his first Uke and Steve Norwood is his third. Les-san is thrown by Christian-san.

A few more throws by Itoh Sensei, and we all take our end positions and line up for our final bow from seiza. The drum sounds, and we exit the mat.

アメリカ’s demo is finished.

How’d we do? If the hugs, smiles, and back slaps were any indication, it went well.

Itoh Sensei’s linear and angular structure of the demo was unique and very effective. It showcased his years of devoted training with Kanai Shihan and his unmistakable techniques. I believe the demo honored his teacher as we were hoping to honor Itoh Sensei by doing our best for him.

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Post-Demo Celebration

After the demo, Itoh Sensei’s good friend Shin Ikesue made dinner reservations for us all at a lovely Chinese restaurant for an after-demo celebration. Little did we know that Shin-san also paid for the entire dinner.

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As Shin-san shared with me, Itoh Sensei was very kind and helpful to him earlier in his life. He will never forget that, and he wanted to honor Itoh Sensei through his kindness to all of us. We did not deserve it; his generosity was his expression of thanks to Itoh Sensei. It was a special evening, and the camaraderie of two dear friends was evident.

It made me think of ways I can honor my dear friends by helping others as an expression of thanks for those who have helped me along the way of life.

Doshu’s Sunday class

On the Sunday following the All Japan Aikido Demonstration, Doshu graciously teaches a free class for all who have been involved with the demo.

While I thought Friday morning’s class was full, Sunday’s 10:30 class was packed. I estimated at least 100 people on the mat, which was great for even more spatial awareness and flow amidst other pairs. A few times, I had that sense of a still center surrounded by swirling energy. I can’t describe it in words, but the feeling was wonderful.

We practiced Katate dori techniques, including Ikkyo, Nikkyo, Irimi Nage, Shiho Nage, and even some hanmi handachi. Class had a great energy and the pervasive feeling of joy in a shared experience at the Budokan.

Capturing the Memories

I will always remember the days leading up to the demo and the demo itself. As Blevins Sensei shared with us, “Of all the people who practice Aikido in the world, how many have the opportunity to participate in the All Japan Aikido Demonstration? Not very many.”

He added, “And it’s because of the Aikido community fostered by Izawa Sensei and the relationships that Kiryu Aikido has been able to develop and nurture because of him that allowed us to be able to participate. That’s really what Aikido is about.”

Kiryu Aikido sincerely thanks Kei Izawa Sensei and Tanshinjuku dojo of Colorado, www.aikitsj.comand Yasumasa Itoh Sensei and Joji Sensei and students at Aikido Tekkojuku of Boston, www.aikidotjboston.org for the opportunity to be part of this event and sharing experiences in Japan. We look forward to continuing to train and practice together, appreciative for the great dojo relationships and community we share.

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