Some Thoughts, Experiences and Delights from Tokyo
by Annalise Bennett
Magic on the Mats – watching training (mitori geiko) Watching class at Hombu was a beautiful and challenging form of training. Early in the week my body gave me a clear signal that I needed to pay attention to my practical limits (migraine), and so I relaxed into my own pace for the week, watching nearly half the classes for the week. At the back of the main dojo is a beautiful section of wooden flooring. The boards are level with the tatami surface. There are no seats or cushions, so this wooden floor is where people sit to watch. The paper sign on the back-wall requests watchers to sit in a ‘polite’ posture, that is, seiza or cross-legged. Now, I confess, I struggled to always sit politely, especially once I was a little battered and bruised from the training. And yet, the harder it became for me to sit correctly, the more Zen this mitori geiko became for me. From these various states of Zen, there was a potential moment each day that took my breath away.
At about 5:45pm each clear evening, the setting sunlight would begin to shine through a window on the western wall. As it did, it would bathe the entire space in a vibrant orange hue as in a daydream. Gracious and energetic Aikido glowed in this magical haze for a mere ten minutes each day. Lines and edges became soft and blurred, and sound just faded away. The afterglow of this phenomenon had an interesting effect on me too. During the peak of the glow, the hazy light was so bright in my eyes on couldn’t focus on technical details, so I started to watch movement, almost like watching energy flow. Once the sun had set below the window and the glow had passed, I would often stay watching movement rather than technique for quite some time. It was almost like I couldn’t refocus my eyes to technical detail.
This way of watching didn’t last too long either, before the left half of my brain took control again and I started watching for details again, but the enrichment from the glow and afterglow were my most memorable moments of my entire Japanese experience on this trip.
During one class at Hombu I blundered badly enough to have the teaching Sensei chasten and correct me. As I was thrown by this Sensei during class I accidentally clipped his head with my elbow as I rolled past – for which I instantly felt terrible! Mid-air, by default I garbled “Gomen!”. As I finished the roll and turned to face him again, he stopped and looked at me.
‘Gomen’ is not something you say to a teacher. I would never say ‘Gomen’ to Doshu. The correct words would be ‘Gomennasai’, ‘Sumimasen’, ‘Shitsure shimasu’. Just ‘Gomen’ is impolite and can only be said to those of equal or junior standing.
You can perhaps imagine my horror in that moment. And it didn’t stop here. The teacher then stopped between techniques and lectured the entire class, first in Japanese, then in English, expanding on what he had already told me directly. During this lecture, beyond what he’d said to me at the time of incident, he continued on to say that trying to speak by copying Japanese language is a good thing – but certain attention must be paid to specific styles and phrases of speech. This incident had quite an impact on me. In honesty, I was mortified with myself to the point that I nearly lost all confidence to even attempt speaking in Japanese. But as I stewed on this lesson, I began to recognise the honour in it. How fortunate was I that I made this mistake with a teacher who would honestly and openly correct me – so that I could grow. It also curiously opened me to another spiritually impactful moment during the week. After class one morning, I was helping a local woman clean blood off the tatami, and we got chatting. I confessed I was the one who had said ‘gomen’ to that instructor but I then went on say that I was very grateful for the lesson. She was more surprised at my gratitude than I expected. She herself had an experience with this same teacher previously, which had left her very discouraged. As we discussed first my experience and then hers, I could see her beginning to understand what had actually transpired with much more clarity. She had asked a question about a technique, and had been given no direct answer by the teacher and had felt deliberately ignored. The very next morning, he had lectured the class about the subject of questions. She’d been left feeling chastened and discouraged, nearly resolving to never ask a question of him again. Yet by the end of our conversation, she had begun to see the lesson he had tried to teach, and outright acknowledged the flaw in her original question.
This incident and following conversation reaching for clarity became a crystal-clear memory and spiritual moment that I expect to remember for a long time to come. Firstly; pride in myself for giving myself an opportunity to learn a beautiful lesson, and secondly, in sharing that lesson, seeing clarity and peace spreading across features of a new friend. It warmed me to the very soul.
Women’s Aikido Class
On Friday morning, our last day at Hombu, I once again stayed after class to chat with my new Tokyo friend and to practice together. As chance would have it, we stayed so long that the next scheduled class began to approach – the “Women’s Class”. Until this moment, I had completely forgotten these classes existed! She kindly introduced me to some of the women who were attending the class, and asked on my behalf if I could join them for training. The women’s classes at Hombu seem to be on a different fee schedule that the main classes we Aussie’s were attending during the week visit, so I had to pay extra to attend this class, but it was worth it. All week my desire had been growing to see a beginner’s class at Hombu. The 3rd floor advanced classes had such concise demonstrations that it was a powerful test of focus just to see the attack, throw, and versions to be practiced. I wondered whether the beginner classes operated similarly, or if there were longer, more descriptive demonstrations. The women’s class gave me the answer, as the rank of the students training ranged from beginner to yudansha.
I found the class was gentle, warm and fun. And I mustn’t neglect to mention that it was also wonderful technical training, as every class I witnessed. The teacher during this class was much more descriptive in his demonstrations than I had seen at all in the advanced classes. I also really enjoyed seeing him nurturing and helping the beginners as he moved around the dojo.
Conversations with local and international Aikidoka
(a couple of my favourite moments)
Early in the week I trained with a lovely man from Israel. He wore an old black belt that had faded almost entirely to white, with just some tattered black edging. As I often do when encountering such magnificent belts, I complemented it, to which started an awkward and hilarious joke – as he responded by saying “I thought you were about to compliment my Aikido, not the belt!” Of course, his Aikido was also lovely, which I promptly complimented, and we became friends, training together many more times through the week.
He then went on to introduce me to a local Tokyo man and the 3 of us hit a cafe for a chat one morning. The man had originally lived close to Hombu and had trained regularly, but had now married and become a father. To better accommodate his growing family, they had moved far out of the city into a larger home. Where he now lived was a full 1.5-hour commute from Hombu, crossing a mix of buses and trains. He spoke how this new distance from Hombu had challenged him – as he lost most opportunity for his most favoured stress relief (Aikido). His stress had actually progressed to the point where, when we met, he was on a full month of paid stress leave from his job – and he was fully capitalising on using the time to get some extra training in, despite the commuting time and complexity.
At one point during our conversation, he mentioned he was really keen for his daughter to train Aikido too. Out of curiosity I asked him to elaborate his reasoning. For him, Aikido teaches women confidence and self-defence, marvellous skills for a woman to have in a still largely patriarchal society. He truly wanted this for his daughter, and I appreciated how closely it matched reasons some women have for joining Aikido in Australia.
A friend from Taipei.
At the completion of the women’s class, I got talking with a yudansha who turned out to be from Taipei. She’d studied in America and her English was flawless, so we had a really good chat. She was in Tokyo for a week due to work, and had scheduled her meetings to allow her to attend the women’s classes. I was curious to hear the reasons why these women only attended these women-only classes, so I quizzed her for her own. As anticipated, it was a “confidence thing”, but not in the shape I’d expected.
She had graded to shodan some years earlier, then a life event had stopped her training completely for a number of years. She had returned to training in recent times and now lacked confidence in her technique. She avoided training with men as she had the impression that men felt limited/held back and thus didn’t want to train with her. She’d also briefly tried the beginner classes which had also left her very uncomfortable. The beginners had mimicked her movements as she trained with them, and she was left feeling horribly lacking as they followed her even when she had done something quite poorly. Left feeling caught utterly in the middle, the women’s classes were the safest option, as the broader range of grades participating and the smaller class numbers left her feeling more supported and less likely to lead juniors astray. I felt her story was worth sharing here, as a very specific and fascinating example of why someone would attend the women’s classes. She was quite capable of attending the advanced classes, and had no fear of men. She simply wanted a safe space to re-familiarise herself with Aikido.
Ultimately, my entire time in Japan was delightful, challenging, and a complete and utter joy and honour. I met wonderful people from all over the world, while getting to know some fellow Australians a whole lot better too. Thank you!