We were informed that those testing for yon-dan would take ukemi for each other tomorrow. So, Muto-san (another old friend of mine) trained together for the entire class to reacquaint ourselves with how we moved with each other. I have to admit that our high, Colorado altitude training was cardiovascularly advantageous for me, but the climate of Nagasaki is just a tad bit more humid than Denver.
Iio Sensei was kind enough to offer me a guest room in his home during my short visit, which is only a five minute walk from the dojo. I didn’t feel like I would be intruding because Iio Sensei lives alone much of the time. He works in Nagasaki, but his wife of 25 years lives in Nishinomiya near Osaka. This arrangement is not unusual and, in fact, is common in Japan. Iio Sensei’s home is quite typical – a modest, 600 square foot condominium referred to as a 2LDK, which stands for “two bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen.”
We were up late Saturday evening drinking, talking of old times, and sharing our respective plans for the future. I was surprised and somewhat honored to learn that when I lived here I seem to have been the only student that regularly hung out with Iio Sensei one-on-one. Iio Sensei and I used to frequent a little ‘izakaya’ (or pub) to eat, drink, and chat with each other. I guess no one felt comfortable asking if Sensei wanted to hang out outside the dojo. Back then, I guess I didn’t know any better to not ask. Oh well, I guess ignorance and naiveté sometimes have favorable advantages.
Iio Sensei always talks about ‘shizentai’ or being natural both on and off the mat. He says that all a parent or a teacher can do is “ushiro sugata shika miserarenai,” which would roughly translate as “lead not by words, but by example.” It was great to see the shinzentai in his life; living totally in the moment, feeling no worries, completely accepting of whatever came or did not come. It was those simple times hanging out with him that meant the most to me. Iio Sensei did, in many respects, act in the capacity of a father figure to me.
After a good night’s sleep, I joined Iio Sensei for breakfast. All morning, we relaxed and continued our conversations from the night before. The dojo was “rented” for a few extra hours prior to the testing seminar scheduled to start at 3pm for those who wanted some last minute practice. I say “rented” because many martial arts dojo in Japan operate differently than those in the US. Students follow a teacher. They don’t necessarily belong to a specific dojo-business. Like many martial arts instructors, Iio Sensei rents a local municipal dojo several times per week to hold class in. Real estate in Japan is so prohibitively expensive that owning a facility, like the one we do in Castle Rock, is most often out of the question. This relationship is not unlike our previous one with Omega Gymnastics except that in Japan a municipal dojo is exclusively for martial arts. That is, many different martial arts programs use the same space at different times for their particular art.
Sunday afternoon was again hot like the day before. It was probably “only” 85 degrees with, again, 100% humidity. However, today we were blessed with a soothing breeze that rolled from over the hill of the Suwa Shrine.
Prior to the testing seminar, the mood was jocular and some of the more senior guys hazed the younger black belts by warning them about me being overly rough. They told them to be extremely careful because “you never know what he is going to pull out during randori. He’s irritable and very unpredictable.” I, of course, didn’t know about their gag until much later. I did, however, wonder why so many of the sho-dan seemed timid around me.
When I was training there in the 1990s, I guess I had built up a bit of a reputation for being extreme. They used to call me ‘keiko oni’ or training demon because I trained six days a week and ate, breathed, and slept Aikido. I pushed myself hard and I pushed the other students hard as well. However, it became apparently clear that those stories had been blown way out of proportion. Apparently, much like the childhood game of “telephone” goes, word got around fast that Iio Sensei’s American student was a mean, over-aggressive bruiser that liked to hurt people. I got a big kick out of this later that night at a post-seminar celebration.
Like we do here in Castle Rock, kyu tests were conducted first, followed by a shodan and a nidan test. Then, Muto-san and I knee-walked (shikkou) to the middle of the testing area and bowed to Iio Sensei. As is his custom, Iio Sensei had something to say about what yon-dan means and what he expected to see from me and Muto-san. He wanted to see each candidate demonstrate expansion and complete ownership of the dojo. To paraphrase Iio Sensei, he said “Pretend that you are not a student being attacked by multiple people in a foreign place, but instead, that someone has dared to attack you in your own castle. Pretend like you have the home-field advantage and that others not dare enter your space. Move expansively as though you own the dojo and that your presence, the dojo, and all things within it are at your complete command and control. Embrace the entire environment as though it was your ally. Breathe the dojo.” He used a Japanese word I did not know or recognize to describe this intention, but I was still able to deduce its meaning from his elaboration.
As my test began, fresh uke rotated with each new attack. Several minutes later I found myself with three attackers simultaneously. Then, in typical Nagasaki Kiwakai fashion, all fifteen of the yudansha (or black belts) attacked me in ‘randori.’ Iio Sensei always sees to it that you push beyond both your first and the second wave of exhaustion to see what you can pull up from deep down within yourself. I found that place within myself. It had been a long time since I had engaged so many attackers, but it was invigorating to say the least. I finished up the test practicing zagi kokyuho. My partner was none other than our good friend Matsuzaki-san. His big, warm smile was a very welcoming site after such an intense test.
Iio Sensei allowed me three minutes to catch my breath before I was to take ukemi for Muto-san as he began his test (which, of course, meant that I wasn’t done with my test yet). One thing I have learned over the years is that being exhausted is very much an advantage when taking extensive ukemi. I just imagined myself as the softest sack of potatoes I could be.
After the test, everyone quickly changed and headed over to the party room above Matsuzaki-san’s restaurant for ‘uchiage’ – a post-seminar celebration usually involving lots of drinking. Muto-san gave the initial toast to the group, then Wakasugi-san initiated the introductions of the newer dojo members to me. Wakasugi-san spoke of the spirit of our past training together. He also thanked me for helping to build the dojo and being an impetus for what it has become today. Since my departure thirteen years ago, the dojo has grown to about forty-five students and has seen at least three marriages and a handful of subsequent children all of whom were in attendance at the uchiage.
Next was my turn to address the group and reciprocate. I shared that had it not been for Wakasugi-san’s dynamic personality and continued commitment to Nagasaki Kiwakai it may not have grown to what it is today. We ate great food (cooked by Matsuzaki-san, of course), had far too much sake than was necessary, and some of the children (ages 8 and 10) even put on a spontaneous skit. To be honest, I didn’t follow it too well, but it seemed to involve someone getting stabbed with a knife. Go figure!
During the party I was let in on the gag that the older black belts were playing on the sho-dan. Indeed, the older black belts were quite shocked to see that my style has softened considerably over the years (I think that’s a good thing). I think they were surprised that such a big guy (compared to them, Japanese tend to be much smaller than Americans) could move fluidly and not like an elephant.
Iio Sensei then announced that all had passed their respective tests and he followed up with some general advice to the group on movement. He expressed how important it is to execute bigger, grander movements in each technique, to expand, not contract and to remember that Aikido’s power is found in the hips and pelvis, not in the arms. I couldn’t have agreed more.
Then the real party began. Wakasugi-san said some very heart felt things about training, spirituality, growth, Iio Sensei and the dojo. Honestly, my throat swelled as I viscerally connected with what he said and was profoundly grateful for being a part of this Aikido family. I then became lost for a few moments in my own thoughts. I hate the fact that I can’t live in two places simultaneously. I love Colorado, yet I missed Nagasaki terribly. I must simply make the time to visit more often. The party wound down around midnight and we began to say our goodbyes to those who had to leave.
Leaving Matsuzaki-san’s restaurant, Iio Sensei and I walked to our old favorite sushi hangout. When we arrive we were denied entry because a waterline had burst. So we selected a different izakaya to continue our celebration and talked more. Iio Sensei is quite practiced at this because socializing is a very important part of his business in Nagasaki. I, on the other hand, am not so practiced at the regular consumption of alcohol. We finally returned to Iio Sensei’s condo just after 2am.
I woke up early, thanked Iio Sensei for his hospitality and for the opportunity to test for yon-dan, then headed to the bus station for Fukouka. It didn’t really sink in until I had purchased my ticket and was waiting for the bus to depart, when I began feeling a tremendous sense of loss. Was it loss? Or was it just love and appreciation? Again, thoughts like, “Why in the world did I ever leave here?” ran through my mind. But perhaps, were it not for the distance between Japan and the US, I wouldn’t truly appreciate my friends, mentors and experiences here as much. Perhaps I wouldn’t experience these overwhelming feelings of joy as I do now. They say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But then they also say, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I think both may be true. Our feelings for something or someone may dissipate as those loved ones and loved places are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. However, absence does make the heart grow fonder. It’s just that we often don’t recognize that accumulation of that fondness until we once again reunite with those loved people and places. These seemingly contradictory epigrams are, in fact, complementary to one another – the very definition of a paradox!
It is said that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Iio Sensei appeared in my life at a very pivotal time. Spiritually, he provided me with everything I wanted to know and taught me everything I needed to know at that age. Indeed, I would miss him very much, once again. I rested my forehead against the cool glass of the bus, closed my eyes and just appreciated how fortunate a life I have had thus far. I may not be terribly close with my relatives, but I am so lucky to have such a large family spread out all over the world. I allowed tears of pride to come to my eyes as the hiss of the brakes let up and the bus started rolling. What a wonderful, albeit brief, visit with my Shisho.
The instant I saw my wife and her great big smile greeting me at the Denver International Airport terminal, I again felt those very same feelings of joy that I was having 36 hours earlier at the Nagasaki bus station. That is when I conclusively realized that my feelings on the bus were not of sadness, but of profound joy. They were not feelings of loss, but feelings of gain – feelings of tremendous personal wealth. I thought to myself that I have to try to remember that: “feelings of gain, not loss.” My whirlwind trip was over and much like an Aikido irimi-tenkan, the typhoon’s energy dissipated before ever reaching southern Japan, thus avoiding any adverse altercation with my second home back in Japan.
After our friend, Matsuzaki-san, treated us to his amazing tempura meal this past summer, he returned to Nagasaki and apparently informed my instructor, Iio Sensei, that Castle Rock AIKIDO had grown considerably, purchased their own building, and that I was still san-dan (or 3rd degree black belt). Within a few days, I received a “request” to promptly return to Japan to test for yon-dan (4th degree black belt).
It had been nearly five years since last I had seen Iio Sensei and I was excited at the prospect of returning for a quick visit. Juggling two wellness clinics here in Colorado, there was just no way to take much time off of work and make a proper visit out of it. This time, my spouse would not be able to join me. So, I chose to leave on a Wednesday and return the following Monday. That may not sound like too short of a trip, but that translates to about three days on the ground in Japan and almost three full days in the fuselage of a big metal bird.
I drove to Denver International Airport at 3am. My head was in a bit of a whirlwind not only because of the early morning hour, but because a major typhoon was expected to hit southern Japan – right where I was to be! If delayed, I may not make the testing seminar on time. Nonetheless, I actually slept soundly on the plane – possibly for the first time ever in my life. When I wasn’t sleeping or watching the in-flight movie (Kung Fu Panda, if you can believe that!).
Japan is made up of four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikkoku, and Kyushu (from northernmost to southernmost). There are also hundreds of smaller islands including the Ryukyu Islands (also known as Okinawa). Nagasaki is the most southern major metropolitan area on the southwestern tip of Kyushu Island. If the name Nagasaki sounds familiar to you younger readers, Nagasaki is one of two Japanese cities that was victim to the atomic bombs dropped in World War II – the other city, of course, being Hiroshima, which is Northeast of Nagasaki. Nagasaki is roughly eight hours by bullet train or 90 minutes by plane from the country’s capital, Tokyo.
I flew from Denver to San Francisco and then took Japan Airlines (JAL) to the city of Nagoya on the island of Honshu. From there I took a third flight to Fukouka Prefecture where family picked me up. We then returned to Kitakyushu City, which is roughly the same size as Denver, Colorado, but with twice the population (about 1 million people).
After spending two nights relaxing with my in-laws, they were kind enough to drive me to Nagasaki early Saturday morning. I was quite used to the three hour drive between Nagasaki and Kitakyushu because I had made this trip so many times in the 1990s. Along the way we passed some popular sites such as the Ureshino Onsen (‘onsen’ means hotsprings) and Omura Bay. I used to travel to Omura on Friday afternoons to get a little extra Aikido training at a satellite dojo of Nagasaki Aikidokai.
My relatives had never taken the time to visit Nagasaki’s tourist sites, so I felt privileged and simultaneously a bit odd as I showed my Japanese in-laws around their own Nagasaki points of interest! My mind chuckled as this experience trigger the memory of a Japanese newspaper article that had been written about me in 1996 describing how a young foreigner (or ‘gaijin’ – pronounced ‘guy’-‘jean’) was educating Japanese nationals about their own culture. A copy of that article is now hanging up in the lobby of our dojo in Castle Rock.
We visited the Suwa Shrine, a well-known Shinto shrine. Shinto is the predominant spiritual belief of Japan. I said spiritual belief because Shinto is more of a naturalistic philosophy than a theistic religion, like Christianity. In fact, it is not unlike the religions of Native Americans. Famous sumo wrestlers frequently visit this shrine.
I said good-bye to my family and headed over to Iio Sensei’s dojo to prepare for Aikido class. Iio Sensei’s dojo just happens to be located directly behind the Suwa shrine. This would be the last regular class before tomorrow’s testing seminar.
As was frequently the case when I lived in Nagasaki, I was the first to arrive at the dojo for the Saturday class. Spending a few quiet moments by myself in the dojo brought back many of my fondest memories. These were not necessarily memories of specific events, but more like comforting visceral sensations that I deeply associate with my very sense of identity: the very familiar smell of the dojo, the intense silence, and the comforting afternoon sun that radiated through the many large ceiling height windows. This dojo was the source of some of my happiest moments in my twenties. “Where had the past 13 years gone?” suddenly came to mind. It literally feels like I was just here yesterday. These were strange sensations I was feeling – a perfect, simultaneous blend of immense sorrow and overwhelming joy. Sorrow because I missed this place so much and joy because it was so wonderful to be back again. Today, Nagasaki was 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity. Much like old times, I began to sweat two seconds after changing into my dogi. To suggest that I was excited to train again with Iio Sensei was quite an understatement.
One by one, I was greeted by familiar smiles as well as many new faces. The dojo had grown considerably. Class started sharply at the top of the hour. Wakasugi-san, my friend and sometimes rival whom I have described in previous Sensei Corner articles, ran everybody through ‘junan taiso’ (warm ups) as Iio Sensei stretched out on his own in the rear of the dojo floor. Wakasugi-san then led us through a few ‘suwari-waza’ or kneeling techniques before turning the class over to Iio Sensei.
Since Wakasugi-san had to leave early to return to work, Iio Sensei selected me to take ukemi for him throughout class. He demonstrated basic techniques in his old, unique style that I knew so well. Falling back into the familiar role of taking ukemi for Iio Sensei was easy. It fit like your favorite martial arts uniform and was just as comfortable.