A dozen or so pristine, white oak bokken lay upon a table near the entrance to the 2005 Memorial Day Gashuku training venue on Monday morning. They were adorned with the usual Ai Ki brand that most Iwama bokken come with, but in addition they had the Saito family seal inked in red and, in hand brushed characters, the name of Hitohiro Saito Soke. They were beautiful weapons, with the customarily blunt Iwama style end and the uniform heft able to withstand years of heavy training.
This was the first clue that Monday's training, the last day of our gashuku at Lake Tahoe, would be very different. As we sat lined up on the mat, about 200 students of Iwama Style Aikido from around the world, Bill Witt Shihan stood and began offering his welcome to Hitohiro Soke, who sat quietly in seiza at the edge of the mat. Witt Shihan remarked that when he began Aikido in 1969 Hitohiro Soke was just a youngster, but not an ordinary youth. He had already had years of training with O-Sensei himself, in addition to the instruction he received from his father Morihiro Saito. Witt Shihan concluded, looking toward our guest instructor, "our Aikido tradition is in the best possible hands." And with that he walked off the mat, leaving us to the instruction of Hitohiro Saito Soke.
After about ten minutes of Tai No Henko, I looked across the mat to see Hitohiro Soke holding his head, shaking it slowly. Clearly we were not getting it. He sat us down and began to lecture. First he declared that the finishing stance for Tai No Henko is the same one that we should have at the finish of a shomen sword strike. Immediatly I rememberd Tatoian Sensei's words form the day before, "your weapons practice should look like your tai jutsu, and your tai jutsu should look like your weapons practice."
He showed us how a wide finishing stance kept you off balance and prohibited you from having mobility in any direction. Next he said that the straight-up erect finish was weak, and he called up someone to demonstrate the lack of zanshin in this posture. He asked a woman to stand erect and extend her arms palm up as in the finish of Tai No Henko. He immediately uprooted her and she stumbled backwards, or forward, depending on the direction he took her.
Once again, he demonstrated the finish posture, perfect close hanmi, hips rotated back a little and cocked forward, shoulders facing the attacker, everything dropped into the hips, and arms extended and heavy. Just like a sword strike. He said, "if you don't get this right you can never do any techniques effectively."
Just like his father, he followed Tai No Henko with Morote Dori Kokyu Ho. Almost immediately he stopped us and began handing out "dames." He mocked our entry showing how nobody was turning far enough to face their partner's direction. It was no wonder the technique was not working. He showed how the stance after the entry was the same one as for the end of Tai No Henko. It seems that in Aikido certain themes tend to recur, which would make it simpler for us, if only we didn't work so hard to make things complicated.
Hitohiro Soke continued class with another few more kokyu ho techniques, the first of which is one of my favorites. From a two-handed front grab of the shoulders nage steps off to the side, assumes opposite hanmi, delivers atemi, and then ducks the inside shoulder while bringing the inside hip straight through as the head weaves through the gap between uke's arms. Once again that same sword posture happens and you raise the virtual weapon while facing your partner's direction. Even before the final strike uke just peels off you like a blanket in the wind if you do it right. But if you don't turn enough to face uke's direction he's very heavy and you have to use force.
The Ikkyo Ura waza he demonstrated had some subtile technical elements that made it much easier and more efficient. He went to some trouble to explain that merely dong a tenkan and dragging uke's arm through may work in some places (he mentioned a particular dojo here), but not in Iwama. He showed how you must continue to extend uke off balance after stepping toe-to-toe and simply strike down (without the swooping, wide circular throw) to finish. This detail is one that Tatoian Sensei has been demanding for years, and I had always thought it was a fundamentally different way of doing Ikkyo Ura that his deep commitment to Saito Sensei's Aikido allowed him to see.
After a break we all unpacked our ken and assembled outside on the blacktop to the east of the indoor venue. The sun was bright and a cool breeze moved through the tall pines. We focused on ken suburi, beginning with the sword strike that all of our Aikido is based upon. Hitohiro Soke reminded us of the Tai No Henko posture and he assumed it at the end of his sword strike. Sure enough, the two were identical. In the picture Saito Soke is demonstrating the proper way to thrust. Notice the precise hanmi.
As he demonstrated ken suburi #5, he drew attention to what the tip of his sword was doing. After each strike it flashed back to the rear as the sword moved through the alternating cover, and then as his body and hips rotated forward the sword snapped like a whip into the overhead yokomen strike. It was the image of coiling and exploding into the strike many times in a row. I imagined a light bulb at the tip of his sword and saw the pattern it drew in the air. There was a little looping figure at the end of the coiling process that marked the trigger of the strike, as the hip drove through. I tried to make my sword tip describe this figure. It felt pretty good; I was happy to think that something may have rubbed off on me during the day.
Over the remainder of class, Hitohiro Soke sequenced us through a few ken awase and four of the five Kumi Tachi. The ken awase were numbers 5, 6, and 7. I'd never done #6 before and fumbled a little on receiving the thrust until I realized that you just shuffle back instead of changing feet. During kumi tachi #3 he showed that uke tachi's first move to deflect uchi tachi's sword is really a preparation for a killing shomen strike. He demonstrated this with Vince Salvatore Sensei, dojo cho at Reno Aikido, and I was astonished at Hitohiro Soke's speed and precision. He was clearly having a great time carving us up.
I paired up with a young man, one of Hoa Newens Sensei's sons, and found a training partner of great maturity, patience, and stamina. I asked him if he did 1000 strikes with his father, and he nodded almost ruefully, "many, many times." I remarked that it was no doubt how he got so strong and he gave a laugh. His sword was always directly upon me and his spirit was beyond fierce. I cannot imagine a better training partner in a class with Hitohiro Soke.
After class we took pictures of all the participating dojos with Hitohiro Soke, and when this was done I hurried inside to see if there were any of the signed bokken left. Fortunately there were and I peeled off the money, grateful to have an artifact that would remind me of the memorable day we'd had training with the son of Morihiro Saito, the teacher of my teachers.
During weapons practice I took this picture of three of Saito Sensei's senior american students, Hans Goto, Dennis Tatoian, and Bill Witt.
Special thanks to Aviv Goldsmith Sensei and his students for their superhuman efforts organizing this gashuku and making it look easy.
technorati tag aikido