This time we arrived to Iwama on 26 February. Since Morihiro Saito sensei passed away, this was the second time I went to Iwama together with my son Kaj. During our trip by train from Narita airport to Iwama we noticed that snow was covering the ground. Even though I have been to Iwama several times before at this time of the year I have never seen so much snow.
At our arrival there were six uchi deshi from Portugal, Argentina and Italy. During the next days all of them left and my son Kaj and I were the only uchi deshi for some days until the first group of gakusei (students) from Mito university arrived for their spring gasshoku. At the universities there are Aikido clubs and as a tradition they go two times every year , in spring and autumn, to Iwama for about a week of intense training for the purpose of strengthening the relations within the group and sometimes as a preparation for Dan testing. This training camp away from their ordinary Dojo is called gasshoku.
It continued to snow and some days ice was covering the water glasses on the kamidama. In the morning there were only 2-3 °C inside the buildings. The wood burning stove at the ground floor of the Shin Dojo came to a lot of use. Later further uchi deshi arrived from the USA, Australia, Czech Republic and Italy.
Our day started at 5:00 am with walking some of Hitohiro sensei dogs, cleaning around the restaurant and the Shin Dojo. At this time of the day many inhabitants of Iwama start their day and we usually met some neighbours, when walking the dogs. At about 6:00 o'clock we went by bicycle to the Tanrenkan Dojo for in- and outside cleaning and preparation for the meditation. Hitohiro sensei arrived usually at around 6:50 and after Shinto prayers we had about 15 minutes of sitting meditation. The morning meditation was joined by the uchi deshi, gakusei and some of the soto deshi. After that we went to a nearby forest for ken or jo practice. The focus during bukiwaza was on basic suburi, correct hanmi, low hips and centered and strong cuts. We practiced even kumijo and kumitachi, but most of the time was spent to improve the basics.
Even after many years of practice I feel that it is still very important to improve the suburi and to stay in Iwama is an excellent opportunity to do so.. Hitohiro sensei showed some variations for the fourth kumijo and the 31 count kumijo I had not seen before. After showing them to my sempai Lars-Göran Andersson it turned out that already Morihiro Saito had used some of this variations during the mid-seventies. The ken or jo practice lasted for one hour followed by practice of shuriken kata and target throwing. Throwing the shuriken is as difficult as Aikido. It is however nice to have another way for practicing zanshin, dropping the hips and a relaxed however precise technique.
At around 9:00 am we returned to the Shin Dojo and the restaurant for breakfast. Hitohiro sensei used to have a restaurant business during the eighties, but now this business is closed and the uchi deshi have access to the complete restaurant kitchen for preparation of food. This is a big improvement compared to the kitchen belonging to the old Dojo. At 10:30 the next keiko started with either tai jutsu in the Tanrenkan Dojo or bukiwaza in the forest. After that we hurried back to prepare some lunch in order to get ready for the next keiko at 14:00. The 10:30 and 14:00 keiko were special keikos for the students and they had prepared a schedule with the techniques they wished to practice during their week in Iwama. These keiko were for uchi deshi and students only. In the afternoon we also practiced tanren uchi (bokken cuts on a car tire in a wooden stand) as Hitohiro sensei had told us to do 200 each day.
The first time I saw a arrangement for tanren uchi was at ”Karlstad Aikidoklubb”, but it is not so common in Sweden. In Iwama tanren uchi has always been practiced in order to improve many aspect of suburi, like the grip of the bokken, hanmi, correct use of the hip, balance and other details, which are difficult to get feedback on when only cutting the air. At the Shin Dojo we had some free practice in the afternoon when no gakusei groups were around. At 16:00 we walked the dogs again and prepared the dinner. Evening keiko was at 19:00 for one hour followed by 40 minutes of free practice. During the taijutsu practice focus was on awase and the connection to the use of especially ken. Gone are the days when techniques were done with pure power.
Even though Morihiro Saito never used excess power when throwing his uke, many of his students, including myself, did maybe not realize that we caused a ”collision” with our uke due to a powerful technique however imperfect feeling for awase. Hitohiro sensei made it very clear that one (I) should work on a very good feeling for awase and do not hide the lack of it with the use of power. At around 21:00 we returned to the Shin Dojo to finish the day with a dinner and a shower before entering the futon at 22:00 or 22:30 for a short nights sleep.
On Sundays we had both bukiwaza and taijutsu practice in the morning and the rest of the day we were free to do what we liked to do. On Mondays we had our ”day off” and we were allowed to go to Mito or other places we wanted to visit.
Before we went to Iwama I was wondering how it would be not longer being able to practice at the old Dojo of O-sensei, where I have been two times as uchi deshi for Morihiro Saito sensei and one time for Hitohiro Saito sensei.
It became however clear that the atmosphere of a Dojo follows by the people and not the building. Many of the sempais I have met during my previous visits like Sagitani-san, Sanno-san, Shigemi-san, both Suzuki-san, Yamaoka-san and Toyota-san are now praticing at the Tanrenkan Dojo. The practice is sincere as it always has been , using strong attacks and kiai. However a gentle component has been added. All of the strong people are now working on the improvement of awase. This has been a valuable experience for me, adding a new dimension to the practice of both bukiwaza and taijutsu.
Hitohiro sensei is a dedicated teacher and like his father he expects that the uchi deshi do their utmost to practice according his instructions. Even though being strict during practice he is also a warm and friendly person always trying to improve the students as well as his own skills. Iwama Shin Shin Aiki Juku, which is another name Hitohiro sensei uses for his new organisation, where juku (also meaning high school) stands for a wider use of the principles of Aikido not only restricted to Budo.
Hitohiro sensei's sister is a master of the art to dress in a kimono as well as chado (the art of preparing and serving Japanese green tea). She was so kind to take the time to show the female uchi deshi how to dress in a kimono and to introduce all of the uchi deshi to Chado. This was an interesting and new experience. Due to the excellent practice and the friendly and warm atmosphere created by Hitohiro sensei and his family both within and outside the Dojo we would like to return to Iwama as soon as economy, time and health allows.
I returned back to Sweden after 3,5 weeks and my son Kaj stayed until the end of April. Next time I will try to visit Iwama during April as well, when the temperature has reached a reasonable level.