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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.

Reader Comments (1)

Nice story!

December 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterOthman

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