In February 1990 I went to Japan to train in aikido.
No, actually I went to learn kiatsu, a healing technique developed by Tohei-sensei, who founded the Ki no Kenkyukai school of aikido… because I very much liked the way that they trained us in “Ki”. I completed a year of the 2 year course in kiatsu, but it was very expensive, and demanded my time for 3 hours on 3 evenings each week, on top of morning aikido classes, 3-4 times per week, and a full time job. I decided that kiatsu was not for me, though I learned a lot from the year in which I studied it.
Back to aikido.
I began to train at the Honbu dojo in Shinjuku, where all the gaijin went.
At that time I already had my 3rd kyu grade – the 3rd of the 5 kyu grades before shodan, the black belt grading, so I wasn’t a raw beginner.
The other students were mostly students of the gakuin – the aikido school for gaijin, an intensive course (at a suitable cost) which more or less guaranteed a black belt from nothing in 2 years. The casual classes at the Honbu dojo were taught by the uchi-deshi – apprentice senseis – who usually were first or second dan students who lived in, and trained intensively, and were hoping for instructor positions and higher gradings, meanwhile taking the gaijin classes and fetching tea for the senior senses and doing other menial jobs.
It wasn’t a real dojo the way I understood it, with a sensei who you got to know and respect, who knew you and your strengths and weaknesses, and had a real interest in teaching you.
And – the other students, the Americans, the gakuin students, thought that their sankyu was better than my sankyu, from Spring Hill dojo, Brisbane, and thought they were qualified to instruct me.
It wasn’t all bad.
After the Saturday night class, a group of us went on to relax in one of the many Japanese eating & drinking establishments in Shinjuku, which I thought was several cuts above an Aussie pub with beer and nuts – sake flowed freely, and we enjoyed plates of tofu (no, not the sort of tofu you buy in a non-Japanese supermarket) with shaved ginger, and deep-fried shrimp (fried heads and all), and other Japanese delicacies.
But I wasn’t getting much from the aikido training, and the kiatsu training looked impossibly expensive, and I was about to give up, when one of my friendlier classmates suggested I try Tamura-sensei’s doji in Yokohama-shi, just 40 minutes and one change of train from where I lived. Now, 40 minutes might sound like a long way, but by Japanese standards, it was close. My contact told me that Tamura-sensei, who spoke English, taught one of the morning classes, at 6:30 am on a Tuesday. So I set my alarm for quarter to 5, and duly headed off to the train station.
I walked into that dojo at 6:20 am, bright and early…. and paused.
There were half a dozen Japanese men, all wearing Hakama (the black split skirt that you only got to wear at black belt level), and warming up for the class.
Any sensible person would have turned around and walked out, but after all that effort, to get to Japan, to make it to the dojo for a 6:30 start, I had to give it a go.
Looking back, I think that they were even more bemused than me. But they were incredibly polite, as only Japanese can be.
The class was in Japanese, but Tamura-sensei, who was accustomed to teaching gaijin (foreigners), explained everything to me in English. (So much for hoping to slip in unnoticed!).
I was assigned to Ito-san, a diminutive san-dan who spoke English, was an excellent and patient teacher, and unjustifiably self-effacing.
Lucky I hadn’t delayed visiting this dojo, because it was the last time Tamura-sensei taught the regular morning classes (he held a special class for senior students on Friday mornings, but it was a year before I was eligible for that one). However, Erikawa-sensei, a 6th dan, took over the morning class after that.
Erikawa-sensei spoke only a little English, but unlike most Japanese, he was able to use his limited vocabulary to communicate very effectively. He took me under his wing – this strange female gaijin, as large as most of the Japanese males, awkward and stubborn but willing to learn.
Under the tutelage of Erikawa-sensei and the students of the morning class, I trained regularly 3 times a week, sometimes four once I was eligible for the senior class on Friday mornings. I trained with them, got drunk with them at the end of year parties and the summer parties, and was awarded my shodan and later my nidan grading.
My Japan – it was different from most gaijin experience of Japan, even the ones who came to learn Aikido. My Japan – it was full of magical moments and wonderful encounters, learning about myself and this corner of the world.
So I’m forever grateful that I did take that step over the threshold that day, and continue on…