Ever since I began training in the martial art of Ki Aikido (more formally known as 心身統一合氣道, shinshin touitsu aikido) in Oregon, I was always curious what it would like to train in a dojo in Japan where the training (稽古、keiko) was done in Japanese––though rather than merely a curiosity, I guess you could say it was a dream of mine that I longed to achieve.
While I had heard there were opportunities to train in Japan with high-level senseis once you get your black belt (初段, shodan), I still have a long way to obtain that. Fortunately, I also heard that it was possible for anyone to request permission to train in a dojo in Japan by going through the proper formal procedures, so I decided to attempt this a few months before a trip to Japan.
My senseis were kind enough to go through the process with me, which consisted mainly of sending an email to someone from the Ki Aikido organization in Japan who coordinated with the sensei of the specific dojo (道場) I requested to train at.
I was lucky enough to be granted permission a few days later. I am not sure how often, if ever, people are declined from such a request, but I think the fact I had trained consistently over the last year and a half was a plus.
A few weeks later, when I was in Japan on a trip my family, we went to check out (下見, shitami) the dojo two days before the Sunday when I had scheduled to train. After having difficulty finding it (iPhone GPS never seems to work well in Japan), we asked an old man who soon lead us to the dojo: it was off a nondescript side street in a less populated area of a major city, near a few small restaurants and residences. The dojo had no dramatic signage to distinguish it from the rest of the city; the name of the organization was listed plainly on a label as if it was any other business. There were also no windows visible from the front to indicate a martial arts dojo was anywhere inside.
Two days later, I must admit I was fairly tense as woke up in the morning and made preparations before heading to the dojo from our hotel. I was not only concerned about whether I would be able to communicate effectively using Japanese in a training environment, I was also worried whether I would be able to fill out the necessary forms. As a precaution against the latter, I brought my wife with me in case some difficult paperwork came up.
I arrived around 30 minutes before class was scheduled to start, and shortly after the main sensei arrived. He spoke a word or two to me in English, but I immediately started talking in Japanese and described how I had arranged to train in this dojo today. My Japanese, though surely not perfect, was good enough to convey this and to make him switch back to Japanese for the rest of our interactions. (Several days later, I realized that when introducing myself, I had only used my first name. While this was enough to identify who I was, to be more proper I should have used last name followed by first).
I was glad to hear that he had been informed of my arrival, and when I inquired about the paperwork he said he had already filled out everything for me. All that was required was the training fee and insurance fee that I promptly handed to him in cash. The initial communication––the most difficult part I was most concerned about––was now over, and I could relax a little as I prepared to begin the hour-and-a-half training session.
One of the other people who had come to train showed me the bathroom and the men’s dressing room, the latter being little more than a small space cordoned off by an accordion partition.
I quickly changed and headed out to the main tatami area where training occurred. It was much smaller than the space I usually trained in, long horizontally with a curtain at the far end. The training space extended right up to the walls, with virtually no border. When someone eventually opened the curtain, I was a little surprised to see that little was visible except the side of an adjacent building only meters away. Both the size of the dojo and the view out the window was consistent with my idea of Japan: cramped and narrow.
A few minutes later, people gradually began to trickle in onto the mat. A majority were male and in their 30s or later. Overall, there were around 15-20 students who trained with me. After class, I learned that this was an abnormally large class size, and on typical days the class was smaller. I think the larger class could be attributed to the fact it was a holiday week and more people had time to train.
As I observed one of the younger students who entered the mat after me, I realized a matter of protocol that I had been totally oblivious of: each time someone came onto the mat, they bowed first to the front of the dojo (正面, shoumen), then to the picture of Tohei Sensei (the founder of this style of Aikido), and finally then bowed to the other members who were already on the mat who bowed back towards the newcomer at the same time.
After seeing this custom I soon followed suit and did as the others did, but I was a little surprised by this because in America things were done very differently The only bowing that I was used to was at the start and end of class, and that was initiated by the main sensei.
Around five or ten minutes before class started, the main sensei came to sit next to me and introduced himself. Though we had already exchanged informal introductions outside in the hallway before entering the dojo proper, I realized that formal introductions were required in Japan, so I took his lead and introduced myself again. He then proceeded to ask me a few questions like what sorts of goals I had and if I had any specific techniques (技, waza) that I wanted to practice. Frankly, I wasn’t well prepared for these questions, so while I did my best to answer it would have behooved me to think about these things ahead of time. The sensei also asked me how I learned Japanese. I really appreciated him spending the time to have this little conversation with me before class began.
During this time I asked him typically how long it takes to obtain a black belt in Japan. The progression pace he described was a little faster than what I was used to in America––and I had been expecting that based on what I read online––but to be honest it didn’t bother me much. I’ve learned that knowledge about ki principles, posture, and skill in doing techniques is far more important than the color of your belt or ranking. (By the way, I also learned that in Japan they only use white, brown, and black belts).
I also asked a few questions to confirm the pronunciations of a few Aikido terms in Japanese. For the most part, these matched up with my expectations. However, it was a surprise to hear that the attack we call munetsuki in America is actually termed munatsuki in Japanese. (Also, as I thought, the vowel in the “tsu” part is omitted.)
Class started in a way similar to what I was used to, though the warm up routine was fairly short, and we didn’t do any of the 合気体操 (aiki taisou) warmup exercises. We proceeded through a series of ki tests and eventually transitioned to a few wazas.
Overall, both the instruction and movements themselves were very similar to what I had been taught in Oregon. This was surprising, but also comforting since it made me feel that whatever I learn in America can be used in Japanese dojos without having to re-learn much. Some of the instructor’s examples were very Japanese, for example in one case he used the example of a delicious gyudon (beef and rice bowl) to illustrate a certain point, whereas in America perhaps a hamburger or other traditional food would have been used. The main sensei was generally quite casual and used a lot of informal language in his explanations, even getting a few laughs from the crowd.
Given the large number of people per area, performing some of the techniques was a little challenging, and on at least one occasion I bumped into someone. While I appreciate the larger space that I train on in America, I also appreciate how training in a small space hones one’s sense of understanding who and what is around them.
Of course the language itself was completely different, but since I already had an idea of the concepts involved it was easy to follow along. Also, I think the fact that I just read a book on Aikido (in Japanese) may have helped me as well. While there were a few awkward moments where I was confused as to what was being asked of me, I would say a majority of the time I was able to follow along without issue. The few people I worked with directly were very kind, explaining things to me in detail as needed to make sure I understood. Also, similar to the classes I attended in the U.S., the main sensei worked with me a few times to deepen my understanding of the technique or test involved.
There were a few expressions I learned, like 本体 (hontai) that was used to describe a part of the body (apart from the hands or feet), andすっと (sutto), which was used to describe doing something quickly. Also, 気にする (ki ni suru) was an expression that I already knew, but in the context of training it was used to mean focusing on a certain body part. When the person working with me asked me to put out my hand, instead of saying something like 手を出してください (te wo dashite kudasai), he said 手を出してもらって (te wo dashite moratte). This made sense given the context that the gesture was part of a flow of actions in a ki test. Furthermore, in a situation where the expression “left hand” would have been used in English, 左腕 (hidari ude) was used instead. This literally means “left arm”, and actually makes sense since the whole arm was involved, not just the hand.
The class had a fairly relaxed pace with the sensei giving us several minutes to try each exercise, and there wasn’t anything involving vigorous physical exercise or forward/backward rolling. I tend to enjoy high-intensity classes, but this slower-paced routine was actually good for two reasons: getting injured during a trip (when I was already a little tired after over a week or traveling) wouldn’t have been fun, and also because the heavy emphasis on ki tests involved a lot of verbal explanations that served as good Japanese listening practice. I gathered that this type of routine was chosen partially because of the high person to mat space ratio. Even when two advanced students had practiced briefly before class, there were a few times when space was insufficient to complete the technique (or a roll ended with one person practically against the wall).
When class ended, the main sensei announced that it was cleaning time, and after thanking him again for allowing me to participate, I asked how I should help out to clean. Whereas in my dojo we use a large broom before class, in the Japanese dojo the entire class helped out: a few people used handheld vacuum cleaners starting from one end of the mat, and the rest used wet towels and began wiping the mat from the other side, moving gradually across the mat until the two groups met in the center. With a small mat size and a large group of people, this only took around 5-10 minutes to complete.
Once class ended, we had other plans so had to leave the dojo fairly quickly, but I said a few more words of thanks and everyone nearby bowed to me politely.
Though only an hour-and-a-half session, my training experience in Japan had many memorable moments that I am sure to remember for years. While it made me eager to train in Japan again, ironically it also reminded me how great my training in Oregon really was (both facilities and teachers). Even though many of the principles of Ki Aikido can be described using English or Japanese, I feel that ultimately the most important things are more felt than understood, and hence can easily cross cultural and language barriers, at least with the right type of instruction.
This experience also helped to build my confidence in my Japanese ability in a martial arts training environment. Though I clearly have much to learn, it was satisfying to be able to participate in a training session that was fudan-doori (普段通り), which means “as normal”, essentially without any modifications from the usual routine.