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Sensei Bows First, A Trip to Japan October 2008

By David Kolb

A long flight with a small child was something we had put off for as long as possible but we finally bit the bullet and headed to Japan to introduce Emiko to the family. This was my first time since 2005 and even longer for Naoko.

Through sheer coincidence the timing of trip coincided with the International Aikido Federation Congress and the opportunity for some budo proved too hard to resist.

We headed off from the Gold Coast to Kansai on 8 October fully equipped with meals, juice, nappies, milk, extra clothes and toys for the trip. Thankfully the flight proved uneventful. We made it through the airport and took the familiar trip on the limousine bus to Toyonaka and Shosenji.

We received a warm welcome from Mama san, Tamayuki, Akiko, Hiroyuki, and the latest addition to the family, Yoshiyuki. Shimamoto Sensei by this stage was already in Tanabe attending the IAF Congress as a representative for the All Japan Aikido Renmei.

Our plan for the following day was to take it easy before heading into iaido training at the Shudokan Dojo at Osaka Castle the following evening. The idea was for Naoko to come along with Emiko to be introduced to Obayashi Sensei and our other iaido teachers.

Prior to the trip I had arranged to buy an iaito from Igarashi san at Nosyudo and have it delivered to Shosenji ready for use. My cunning plan to save the hassle of carrying an iaito fell apart when we arrived to find the sword had not been delivered. A call from Nosyudo confirmed my worst fears when told it would not arrive until Friday, keiko was Thursday night. Anyway Tamayuki came to the rescue with his somewhat battered heavyweight iaito.

My iaido plans were to go from bad to worse. We had written to Obayashi Sensei a few months earlier with a view to arranging some extra training. He replied that unfortunately he was working in a hospital but would see me at regular practice. When I rang to check if all was ok for that evening Sensei’s mobile was answered by his wife who told me that he would not be at training because he was actually in hospital!

Plans for a family outing were shelved and I headed off to Osakajo alone and met Ikeda, Mitsuyuki, and Yamamoto Sensei who assured me that Obayashi Sensei’s condition was not serious. That was before I found out that there would be no class on the following Tuesday, making this my only chance for iai practice.

In the end I had a good one on one session with Yamamoto Sensei, first time out with the borrowed iaito and all. I got a lot of pointers and did not draw the ire of Ikeda Sensei, who doesn’t miss much. So all in all it wasn’t too bad. Of course the iaito from Nosyudo arrived the next day, but no real need to take it out of the box, was there?

I remember that Tamayuki had a laugh when he heard our plans to take Emi to the zoo at Tennoji the following day. I don’t think I have seen so many kids in one place before. Suffice it say we were pretty tired by the time we got back to Shosenji.

Keiko that evening should have been taken by Tamayuki but he had to head off to the Doctor to check up on a recurring fever. Leaving me…. to take the class, luckily it was a beginner’s session, it seemed to go okay.

Next morning, Saturday, it was up bright and early to join the Shosenji road trip to Tanabe for the IAF Demonstration and Seminar with Doshu Sensei. It soon became apparent that nothing was going to be left to chance that weekend. Names were checked and rechecked upon boarding the chartered bus and we were soon underway. We hadn’t even left Toyonaka when the first (still hot) beers were cracked open.

Anyway it was about a 4 hours trip including pit stops to get to the Kumano Shrine where the big demonstration was to be held. We had a bento lunch at one roadside stop and by chance met Aiura Sensei who spent a few years living in Sydney.

Shimamoto Sensei was waiting for us at the outdoor demonstration area and we had a while to wait before things got underway. I ran into Darren Love from Brisbane and also Mick Mullins from Darwin who had made a big impression dropping into Shosenji on his way to Tanabe for the big seminar that had taken place that week.

Also waiting for us at Kumano was Rudd van Ginkel, head of Sensei’s organisation in Holland, Sho Ryu Kai. Over the years I had only managed to meet Rudd san once before, so it was good to see him again.

Things finally got underway with a Shinto ceremony and a seemingly endless round of speeches. Straight after Sensei’s demonstration, the Shosenji crew nicked off to our hotel in Tanabe. The evening schedule was all planned out, dinner, meeting, see off Sensei, bath, party, sleep in that order. Prior to dinner Sensei gave us speech and reported on issues discussed at the Congress Meeting. After dinner there was a series of party games until it was time to see Sensei off to his separate hotel.

I shared a room with the other foreign guys including Dave, an American juggler and performance artist who proved to as loud asleep as when awake.

Next morning (Sunday) it was off to Doshu Sensei’s class with about a thousand others. Joining the who’s who of the aikido world was a far cry from my normal Sunday practice at Wynnum. The class was good but being standing room only, there was zero opportunity for ukemi.

After training, Sensei invited Roman Hoffman from Poland to join the group. We stopped for lunch at the waterfront at Tanabe before heading back to Osaka. Along the way detailed plans were made for a seminar and party to take place on the next day’s public holiday for some special guests, Philip Lee Sensei and a group of twenty or so from Singapore.

Like the road trip, the seminar and party were planned like a military operation. In addition to aikido, Mama san had planned to give the guests an introduction to zen namely tea ceremony and zazen. While things were getting ready our old friend from Brisbane, Gotaro Kitayama rolled up. It was great to see him again.

We were all on standby to meet the guests and there was a bit of consternation when they were held up somehow. Anyway they arrived and it was up into the temple for a modified tea ceremony served by the dojo members including Yano Sensei. We then had a snappy zazen before heading to the dojo for the seminar.

Training kicked off with a welcome speech and introductions from Sensei. “This is Philip Lee Sensei from Singapore. He’s head of Shinju Kai and has 40 something dojos and thousands of students”. “This is Rudd van Ginkel head of Sho Ryu Kai in Holland”. “This is Roman Hoffman President of the Polish Aikido Federation”. “This is David Kolb a friend of mine who is a policeman from Australia. He’s got a big dog called Chobi. One time a burglar broke into his house whilst he and Chobi were asleep”. There you go.

Shimamoto Sensei was typically all class during the seminar. He wowed everyone and then invited Lee Sensei to teach a few techniques. At the end he gave a memorable talk.

Most people are aware that in formal reiho the junior person bows and the senior reciprocates. Shihan explained that the word sensei literally means someone who precedes you and to his way of thinking the sensei should lead the way and bow first. He formed this idea whilst working as a high school teacher. Part of his job was to meet students as they arrived to check their uniforms and so on. They would naturally bow to him. After a while he became dissatisfied, realising that they only bowed out of fear of being punished if they did not, making the ritual false and insincere.

One morning he decided that he would greet the students by bowing to them first. At first they were surprised, but in no time there was a complete transformation in the relationship with them all being able to relate to each other respectfully as human beings. Since that time he has applied that approach in all of his dealings with others. I’m sure anyone who has had anything to do with Sensei will attest to that being the case.

The class was followed by a party in the garden. One of the highlights was Dave’s juggling and magic show. We’d gone from tea ceremony and zazen to drinking beer, wisecracks, and juggling burning stuff in the space of a couple of hours. Very Shosenji and totally cool.

The party wound up and the special guests departed in time for the arrival of the ramen van. Gotaro was as excited as a little kid, it was pleasing to see that he hasn’t lost his appetite. After going through all of the food on offer at the party he was at the front of the queue for a feed of ramen before heading home.

The following day we took it easy. We all went out for lunch and then in the afternoon Rudd, Roman, and I went with Tamayuki to his class at a culture centre in Namba.

We had time to kill so we stopped off at Meirin Budo store in Tennoji where we had a chance to check out the swords on sale.

The class at the Culture Centre turned out to be pretty big. We got burnt by Tamayuki again with Rudd and I being persuaded to teach.

Next day (Wednesday) we packed up our stuff and headed up to Hokkaido so that Naoko’s parents could get their hands on Emiko.

No sooner had we arrived than we headed off on an onsen and zoo roadtrip to Asahikawa. Heaps of exotic animals but Emi got the biggest kick out of patting the dogs in a farmyard display. On the weekend we had a big family trip to Noboribetsu for more onsen.

After the weekend we took Emiko to a photo studio to have her picture taken. Came out pretty good.

After that I made an overnight dash to Sendai where I met up with Nagayama Sensei for some jodo. It was a daunting experience having not practised for a couple of weeks to jump straight in and perform kata with Sensei. We managed two pretty solid sessions devoted to Ranai. Following Sensei as he did the kata in solo form in front of the mirror made me realise what a total klutz I am. Hopefully some of what he taught me will sink in.

I headed back to Sapporo. Naoko and I then had a free day whilst her parents did the honours looking after Emiko. Getting cut loose in Sapporo, we naturally headed straight to Kinokuniya bookstore and had lunch at our favourite ramen place. On the way home we headed for our final hit of Mr Donuts.

All too soon we were bidding goodbye and heading back on the big journey home.