Grant's Trip to Iwama

I was very fortunate that my work decided to send me to Japan to train on a new Konica Minolta model printer. As it was a business trip I didn't have many spare days. My course started on Tuesday morning 300km from Tokyo, and finished at 6:00pm on the Friday. My flight back home to New Zealand was Sunday night so I had a little bit of free time to be a tourist. I asked Roberts Sensei if it would be okay for me to travel to the Iwama Dojo and take a few photos. He said go and take some photos, but take your dogi and do some training. I was a bit nervous about the training, but you don't say no to your sensei. It was such an opportunity I would regret if I did not do it. Roberts Sensei called Inagaki Sensei in Iwama, Japan and organised my visit.

I woke up really early on Saturday morning and caught the first shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo. Tokyo Station is huge and it took a while to find the Joban line. I sat on the train and sent emails to Sensei saying I was nervous and excited at the same time. He replied back saying not to worry.

Toyohashi to Iwama is about 400km. The station is now quite new and there is a monument to O-Sensei outside.

Iwama Railway Station


It’s a ten minute walk from the station to the Aki Shrine. There was no one there....just silence and it was a very calm and peaceful place.

I was not 100% sure where the dojo was and who was going to meet me. Then I saw a pebble driveway on the opposite side of the road which lead to the dojo. As I walked up Martin from Argentina greeted me. He was one of the three uchi-deshi, live-in students, Erika from California, Martin from Argentina and Noa from Israel.

I went to the supermarket on one of the dojo bikes and got a bit lost. Finally I found my way back in the 30+ degree heat. I was then told by Martin that Dohsu was taking the training that afternoon. Doshu is the grandson of the original Master. He is the head of the Aikikai Foundation, and treated with great respect.
There were going to be many people from the Tokyo Hombu Dojo as people come from far away to train with Doshu.

There was hardly any room in the dojo and you had to be careful where you fell. The Hombu techniques are different to what we are used to so I found it very difficult. Hirasawa Sensei took me under his wing and worked with me speaking only in Japanese. Megumi would translate some things when we both got confused. He was really good, and we had many funny moments. I did get gently thrown to the ground by Doshu (which is actually a huge honour). It was 30+ degrees outside and hotter in the dojo!



That night the four live-in students (me being the fourth) had dinner and a few drinks. It was a lot of fun and we went to bed about 10:00pm. I slept in the space beside the dojo, about a metre away from the tatami mats. It was really hot and it gets light very early (4:30am). I couldn't sleep, and would just gaze at the dojo and shrine and be amazed by the history. It was silent and very tranquil in there all on my own.

5:00am was wake time, and we swept the Dojo and cleaned the walls. After that we had some free time before training because it was a Sunday. I wandered around the garden and took lots of photos.


Inagaki Sensei arrived and was very welcoming. The temperature was rising fast so I was glad when we trained with the bokken and jo under the shade of the big trees. It was a very magical place to train as so many had done before me. There were two other beginners there so we were assigned a senior student, Toshiyuki Nomura. His English was very good so he would explain in English, and then Japanese. The training was very relaxed and much less stressful than with Doshu the day before. We finished about 9:30am. The sensei then left to see the All Japan Aikido Demonstration in Tokyo. 

Akimoto Sensei arrived and took the next class inside the Iwama Dojo. I received some good advice on techniques from Akimoto Sensei and his uke, Toshiyuki Nomura. We would train with someone and then train with the person next to you on the left. The explanations were in Japanese but you could work out things by watching carefully.

It was now 12:00pm, time for a quick shower and Toshiyuki took me in his car to the train station. Off I went on the train to Mito station and then took a bus for two hours to Narita Airport.

I now have lots of cool memories and new friends from Japan.

A huge thank you to our Alan Roberts Sensei and Inagaki Sensei as it would not have been possible without their support. I will work hard to implement the new things I have learned. I hope my story will inspire others from our dojo to also have the experience of a lifetime in Iwama.

Moral of the story; Never let an opportunity pass by!


Visiting Our Home Dojo ~ Yon Kwon

In September 2014, I went back to Japan to catch up with friends and family. When Alan Roberts Sensei heard about my trip, he suggested I visit Iwama Dojo, the famous dojo built by the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, and a mecca to the aikido community.

Iwama Dojo is in Kasama, a small city in Ibaraki prefecture. If you look at a map of Japan, you’ll see that Ibaraki is just above Tokyo. I was born in Tokyo and lived there for 37 years, and had been to Ibaraki many times - mostly to surf - but had never visited Kasama before.

On the 24th of September, I took a train from Nippori in Tokyo, to Kasama. It took about an hour and a half and I arrived at Iwama Station at around 6:30pm.

From the station to the dojo is only about 800 metres. But, as it was raining, I thought I would take a taxi. One-by-one my fellow train passengers got picked up - by what I presumed were family members - until I was the only person waiting.

A group of teenage boys loitered at the station with cigarettes and surly looks, and the sound  of boy racers revving their engines echoed around the small rural train station. It felt like a long way from Tokyo.
There were no taxis at the station when I arrived, and after waiting for about 10 minutes, I realized that a taxi may never come, so I decided to give up and I walked to the dojo in the autumn drizzle.

When I arrived, I was warmly welcomed by Irie Sensei. Irie Sensei lives in Tokyo and teaches at Honbu Dojo in Shinjuku, Tokyo. There is always one teacher from Honbu Dojo staying at Iwama Dojo. They stay for about five days at a time and their job is to teach a few lessons a week and run the dojo.

Irie Sensei told me they had just started the evening keiko - which is at 7pm every night - so I should get changed and join in.

Keiko - first night

The atmosphere at keiko was friendly and welcoming. It was the first time I had trained in Japan since I left my dojo in Tokyo in 2006. It felt nice to be able to communicate with everyone in my native language and to understand everything the instructor was saying.

We trained taijutsu in Honbu Dojo style. There were about 30 people training - mostly men, and two women. Five of us were uchi-deshi (live in students) - four of them from Brazil (3 men and 1 woman) and me.

After keiko we swept the dojo with brooms and wiped down the walls with rags.

Then I had a chance to talk to some of the other students. I met Carl, from England. He is married to a Japanese woman and lives in the area. I was really impressed with his aikido. There was another guy from Europe (France, I think) who also lives near the dojo.
I met Kurakawa-san, a Japanese guy who used to live in Kashima (about an hour away) but moved close to Iwama Dojo so he could train regularly at the dojo. He said he was doing casual work, fruit picking and working in rice fields. He kindly took me to the local supermarket to buy some food.

Back at Iwama Dojo, there was a backpacker-style communal kitchen where we could prepare food. We all prepared our food separately, and ate together.

Bedtime was 10pm. The uchi-deshi all slept in the dojo marae-style, on futons. Loud snoring started almost immediately and I struggled to get to sleep, so I moved my futon into another room to get away from the racket. It was just like the times I have stayed on marae in Auckland.

Second Day

5am is wake up time at Iwama Dojo and I woke up to the sound of roosters crowing from my phone alarm.

At quarter past 5 we started cleaning. We cleaned the kamidana (a small altar commonly found in houses in Japan and in dojo). We swept the mats and wiped the walls with damp rags. We opened the doors and windows to let in fresh air.

In my normal life I would be pretty grumpy if I had to get up at 5am to clean, but I was happy to do it here at this special dojo.

At 5:50am we all followed Irie Sensei outside and lined up to welcome Inagaki Sensei. Inagaki Sensei is the main instructor at Iwama Dojo. He lives nearby and teaches 4 days a week.

We all greeted Inagaki Sensei with: Ohaiyo gozamasu! (Good morning!)
I had been in touch with Inagaki Sensei via email while I was organizing this visit and he was expecting me. He greeted me with: “Yon-san desu ne?” (You’re Yon, aren’t you?) and he welcomed me warmly. Inagaki Sensei and Alan Roberts Sensei trained together at Iwama Dojo many years ago when Alan Roberts Sensei was living in Japan. Before I left Iwama Dojo Inagaki Sensei told me to pass on his best wishes to Alan Robers Sensei. “Yoroshiku otsutae kudasai.”

We followed Inagaki Sensei back inside and lined up in front of the kamidana, ready to begin morning keiko. After the formal bowing, Inagaki Sensei reached into his dogi and pulled out a piece of paper that was folded like fan. Addressing the kamidana, he began chanting norito - a kind of ancient Japanese ritual prayer.  

Hearing norito brought back memories of the time I spent working as a funeral director in Tokyo. I have never heard norito at an aikido dojo before.

Keiko started with everyone standing in a circle. This was new for me too - I have only ever experienced aikido training in the format of students lining up facing the teacher.

We began with some ankle stretching. Then we did 30 press ups with our knuckles on two small pieces of wood about the size and shape of coasters.

We did some wrist stretching - ikkyo and nikyo. Then we did kokyuho exercises holding our own wrists - I had never done this before.

We repeated these exercises five times: 30 press ups, ikkyo, nikyo, kokyuho. I have never done so many press ups at aikido.

Morotedori kokyunage was next. One student was tori and all the other students did uke one by one. This was different for me - I am used to doing training when everyone is in pairs. I really enjoyed training in this style because it was good to see other people training and learn by watching them.

We then did some bokken training.

At the end of morning keiko we swept the dojo, then from 7-8am was breakfast time. Some of the Brazilian guys were holding tablets up and talking in Portuguese - I guess to friends or family back home. Some people took a nap in Akaiheya (the building next to the dojo).

From 9 to noon was cleaning time again. We spent the whole three hours cleaning Aiki Jinja. Three of us raked the pebbles in front of the shrine.  We walked in lines holding rakes behind us. It was the first time I’d done this. I enjoyed this job, it made me feel calm and peaceful. The three of us worked together checking each others’ raking and making sure we were raking in straight lines.

The pebble raking took about an hour and a half. I spent the rest of the time raking up leaves from the grounds around the shrine.

Noon to 1pm was lunch time. Kurakawa-san kindly took to me to a local soba restaurant which is owned by Saito Morihiro Sensei's grandson. Next door to the restaurant is an aikido dojo owned by Saito Morihiro Sensei's son, Saito Hitohiro. I ordered zaru soba with vegetable tempura. I asked for “omori” which means “extra large”. It was delicious.

From 2-3pm was jishu ren - a training session with no teacher, just the uchideshi - 4 Brazilians and me. They only understood a few words of Japanese, and I don’t speak Portuguese, so we communicated in English. One of the Brazilian guys was an instructor, so we all followed his training suggestions. We mostly did bokken training.

After jishu ren, I met another Iwama Dojo teacher, Watahiki Sensei. We started chatting and he offered to drive us to Atago Shrine. It was about a ten minute drive from Iwama Dojo.

Atago Shrine has 13 wooden sculptures of tengu, a kind of legendary creature. Praying at this shrine is supposed to help protect you from fire. We all prayed in the usual shinto style: ni rei, ni hakushu, ippai (two bows, two claps, then one bow.) The Brazilians bought some omamori (Japanese good luck charms).
Normally when you visit a shrine in Japan you can’t go inside, but because we were with a local, Watahiki Sensei, they let us go inside and have a look around.

We got in the car again and drove for a few minutes to visit Fudounotaki, the waterfall where O-sensei used to misogi - a Shinto practice of ritual purification by washing the entire body.

I was too much of a wuss to get in the water, but one of the Brazilian guys did misogi.

On the way back to the dojo, Watahiki Sensei pointed out the house where Saito Morihiro Sensei was born and grew up. He also pointed out Isoyama Hiroshi Sensei’s childhood house.

Watahiki Sensei told me some stories about Saito Morihiro Sensei for example about his job working at the railway company. It was really interesting to hear these stories and learn more about the history of aikido, but I was also very busy trying to translate everything for the Brazilians.

Soon after we arrived back at the dojo it was time for dinner, then evening keiko with Inagaki Sensei.

After the evening keiko, Isoyama Sensei opened a bottle of nihonshu (rice wine) and shared it with all of us. It was delicious. Even though I had to get up at 5am the next day for training - and the Brazilians had to get up even earlier because they were leaving for Kyoto - we all drank a lot.

We stayed up to around midnight talking and drinking. I had a lot of fun.

Day Three

I got up at 4:30am with the Brazilians. They left after morning cleaning.

I did morning keiko at 6am. Carl was the instructor.

After training I had a shower, packed up my things and said goodbye to everyone.  Kurakawa-san took me to the station and I took a train back to Tokyo.


Kagami Biraki Speech 2014

Thank you all for coming along today to celebrate the official start of training for 2014. The origins of kagami biraki are obscure but one tradition associated with it is the covering of the sacred mirrors in the shrines over New Year which are then opened up at kagami biraki. The quieter time over the transition from one year to the next provides an opportunity to review the past and plan for the future. Kagami biraki marks the transition from introspection into action. As such,  I am going to use this opportunity to introduce some of my plans for the dojo in 2014, a year that is numerically significant as it marks the 20th anniversary of our dojo.

When I’m planning for the dojo I get to thinking about what it is that we practice here. Aikido is a paradoxical thing. Of all the budo, or martial-ways of Japan, it must surely be the one for which people hold the widest and most divergent views as to its appearance, practice, function, and purpose. My own opinions and practice have certainly changed over the years and I think it is important that my own students be likewise able to create and recreate their understanding of aikido. Change is an inevitability of life and, I believe the true purpose of aikido is in positively relating to change.

Transformation is a recurring theme in the Founder’s teaching. His stated goal for aikido was the transformation of the very nature of budo, from a tool to overcome others to a path to transcend conflict itself. He taught not just a philosophy but an embodied practice which he intended would forge more powerful and effective people.  As he says;

Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through the forging fire, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion.

Forging is not only a process of burning and beating impurities from the ore but also the combining of iron with carbon to produce steel which is not only strong, but flexible. In Japan, tanren, or forging, is a popular metaphor for the process of transformation. The term is used for both physical conditioning exercises and for seishin tanren, or the forging of the spirit.

The belief that facing hardship builds character is a strong one and aikido can certainly present many challenges to overcome, the fire and the hammer if you like. But it also provides a new way of perceiving and relating as well as a supportive community, the carbon that transforms iron to steel.

I have observed that a desire for transformation is the shared quality of all of those who persevere with their training in this dojo. The envisioned transformation may vary from person to person, and over time for each individual, but it is the possibilities that aikido offers for continued growth that keeps us going, especially when the path becomes difficult.

My role as a teacher is to facilitate growth in my students, to manage the development of the dojo and to pursue my own practice. Those of you who have been in the dojo for a while will appreciate the degree to which it has changed over the years, perhaps more than any other dojo in New Zealand.

Although change is potentially unsettling, as you can tell from the theme of this speech, I value the capacity for change personally, institutionally and societally. The challenge is to encourage and engage in change while still providing solid ground for individuals in their own process of growth.

Over the past year it has grown clearer to me that being specific about the primary values of our dojo is essential in  grounding our practice. After careful consideration I have chosen the seven values of integrity, excellence, commitment, responsibility, courage, clarity and respect.

I have also worked to define these values as clearly and succinctly as possible. They are posted here in the dojo, on our website, and I have emailed you all a copy so please take some time to consider them, ask questions if need be and, most importantly, act upon them in and out of the dojo.

From February there will be additional aikido classes on the timetable with a Wednesday class from 6:30 to 8:00. There will be a cycle of four classes over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with every fourth class being a weapons class, meaning the weapons class will fall on a different day every week.

I hope this will give you more opportunities and flexibility in your practice and especially  support you in developing your weapons skills as this is a characteristic and essential element of our aikido lineage.

Despite this being the official start to the year we have already had two weeks of classes and it has been great to see good attendance and lots of enthusiasm. I am going to work to keep improving dojo but a dojo is created by all of it’s members so I encourage you to keep working hard and having fun and forge something special this year.

Alan Roberts - Dojocho (18 January 2014)