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Training at Hombu, May 2014

By Gerry Carpenter

My first day at Hombu was an amazing and unforgettable experience. I planned to arrive early for the Moriteru Ueshiba Doshu’s class at 6:30 a.m., but because I got lost, I didn’t arrive until his class had already begun.

Once I got on the right street, it was easy to find Hombu. With the first classes already well under way, the sound of ukemi coming from the second and third floors were the first giveaway. It was a humbling feeling to be in front of the building that I had seen pictured on the Internet. I was standing where Kaiso (O Sensei) had built his first dojo in Tokyo—where much of modern Aikido developed.

Entering the building, I was greeted by a member of the office staff who graciously accepted my membership card and day fee (¥1,620) and provided me with a receipt when I mentioned I would be returning again to train later in the day. (I learned later it isn't necessary to get a receipt, because they keep track of who has paid along with the attendance records.)

I removed my shoes in the foyer and left them in the hallway leading to the stairs. Normally, you place your shoes in cubby holes along the wall, but today all the cubbies were taken and there were several rows of shoes resting on newspaper on the floor. Being the day before the Embu Taikai (All-Japan Aikido Demonstration), there were many large groups in Tokyo that had already arrived that morning for Doshu’s class.  After leaving my shoes I went down the hallway and proceeded to the third floor.

At the end of the hall on the first floors is a large bronze mural of Kaiso. On the landing between the second and third floors, there is another bronze mural of the second doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. It is important to stop and pay respect to these two memorials when entering and exiting Hombu.

Before you enter the dressing room on the third floor there is a doorway that opens into the main dojo. This is the door through which the Doshu, instructor shihans, and women practitioners enter the dojo. With class already in session, the Doshu was demonstrating a technique to a crowded dojo. It was a very dreamlike feeling and hard to believe that I was really at Hombu and that was really the Doshu in there. (You should also bow toward the dojo when you cross by this doorway.)

Passing through the curtains into the men’s dressing room, there were a few people who were getting ready for the next class. I said hello to a couple of Russian guys who were getting ready for the next class as well. If you enter the dressing room while training is in session, it is important to whisper. One nice thing about Hombu is that everyone is so friendly. Whenever anyone enters the dressing room, they are greeted by “ohayou gozaimasu!” The welcome and friendly conversation makes it a real pleasure to arrive, especially between classes when there isn't a need to maintain the quiet.

Again, because of the large crowds (I believe about 160 were on the tatami that day), all of the lockers were already taken, so I ended up waiting for the Doshu’s class to end before I could get a locker. There are usually plenty of lockers, and they are very convenient. All you need is a ¥100 yen coin to lock it, and the coin is returned when you open the locker.

After getting dressed, I entered the dojo through the dressing room door. This is where all of the men except the Doshu (or other instructor) enter. Once inside, I kneeled and bowed toward the shomen, then I bowed toward the other aikidoka. Although there was still plenty of time before the next class, the room was already very full. I made my way around to the window side of the room, crossing behind people whenever possible, or bowing slightly to show my respect when I had to cross in front of them.

I had a few very strong feelings as I took a few minutes to stretch out:

1. I was actually in Hombu dojo and about to take a class there – another surreal moment.

2. I was right next to the statute of Kaiso. I’ve been seeing a picture of that statue since the day I started training.

3. The tatami in Hombu are really hard.

After a few minutes of stretching out and then kneeling in seiza waiting for the instructor to arrive (again, those tatami are REALLY hard and you feel it in seiza), class was ready to being.

The instructor for the 8 a.m. class that day was Irie Shihan. I really enjoyed his class. Irie Shihan speaks English quite well, so much of the verbal part of the instruction was given in both English and Japanese. This was a nice first introduction to me. He also had us change partners twice, so I had an opportunity to work with three partners. This is not common for the regular classes at Hombu where you usually stay with the same partner for the entire class. It was great for me because I had an opportunity to work with three partners, each of which provided me with a different experience.

Here are a couple of observations about training at Hombu. First, I didn’t expect the humidity to affect me as strongly as it did. Between the high intensity of the training and the humidity, you will sweat a lot. Plus, it is not appropriate to bring drinks into class. If you absolutely have to pause for a drink you would need to step out of dojo to do so after communicating your intention to your partner. Hombu instructor are very keen on what’s going on in the class, so he/she may ask what happened to the partner. It's best to make sure you are well hydrated before you go and have access to plenty to drink after training. There are drink vending machines everywhere, so that helps. I particularly recommend Pocari Sweat, which is a Gatorade like drink (only better). Per Sano Sensei, May is one of the best times of year to train in Japan (along with October).  I can't imagine how hard it would be on a visitor not used to the humidity to train there during the heat of the summer.

Second, the regular classes always seem to be very full, so you have to be particularly attentive to the people around you. There is no room for big, dramatic ukemi. It is very important to watch for others and take careful ukemi. One of my partners said that this is an important part of training Aikido, because it is meant as a defense against multiple attackers. Training in a crowded space helps you be aware of others around you.

When the class ended, we finished by bowing to the shomen and to the shihan. We also sought out each of our training partners for a bow and “arigato Gozaimashita”.

As I exited the dojo, I repeated the same procedure as entering by bowing to the shomen and to the others in the dojo before returning to them men’s dressing room. When exiting the building, it’s important to stop and pick up your membership card from the front desk.

Evening Class

My experience in returning for the evening class was much like the first, with one major difference. Sano Sensei, Jon Sempai, and I attended the Doshu’s class. This was my first of several times being instructed by the Doshu, and it was an incredible experience. Because of the lineage of his training, I believe this is the closest most of us will have to be trained by O Sensei himself.

This training had a level of intensity well beyond anything I had ever previously experienced. While there were participants at every level from kyu rank to high-ranking dans in the class, everyone seemed to put everything they had into it. It pushed me physically and mentally far beyond anything I had ever done before.

The Doshu himself was very gracious and friendly. He moved around the room after demonstrating a technique and would often take a few minutes to provide individual instruction. Other aikidoka nearby would often kneel and observe, but as soon as the Doshu noticed, he would smile and tell us, "Do not watch and rest please continue training." After the class was over, he posed for multiple photographs with groups who had traveled to Tokyo for training and the Embu Taikai.

Beginners Class

During the course of my training over the week, I also had the opportunity to try out one of the beginners classes. This is a great option, especially if you need to lower the intensity a little and train in a less crowded environment. The class I took had about 15 or so people and was taught by Sugawara Shihan. I was glad I took this class.

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I am very grateful to have had the chance to travel to Japan and train at Hombu. It was both memorable and rewarding. I look forward to another opportunity to do so as soon as possible. I assure you that any aikidoka won't be sorry to have trained at Hombu at least once and as often as possible.