Facing Godzilla – Part Two of Sensei Jekyll and Sensei Hyde

I was already a seasoned uke when Chino sensei came and asked me to demonstrate with him. I’d participated in tens of performances and had plenty of experience with a wide range of instructors, some of whom held higher rank than him, were more aggressive and stronger.

Seemingly, I had no reason for concern besides the bitter past experiences I shared with him, two years earlier, when he partnered up with me during my senshusei course.

“You’ll be all right,” said Mustard sensei, the head foreign instructor. Robert Mustard sensei had replaced Payet sensei a few weeks before the beginning of the second Kokusai Senshusei Course.

“We’ll see the day after tomorrow,” I sighed.

“Why? What happens the day after tomorrow?”

“Chino sensei wants to have a practice.”

All through the day I thought of the upcoming practice and demonstration. I analyzed the few occasions in which I had taken his uke in class, remembering how strong and ruthless he was, so focused on his performance that the welfare of his uke came secondary to being punctual, centered and powerful. The best example of this statement would undoubtedly be during one early morning session when Chino sensei was the main instructor and the dojo was packed with students and teachers alike.

The first ten minutes of the class were dedicated to warm ups and practicing the basic movements with partners. When this was over, Chino sensei cried, ‘Yame’, and everyone dropped to their knees, everyone apart from the few students who ran to face him, eagerly competing to become Chino’s uke. The first to reach him was one of the four women who had participated in the first kokusai senshusei course, a woman in her late thirties,

She took her position in front of Chino sensei and they bowed to each other. He called out the technique of the day, Katate Mochi Hijiate Kokyunage. It is a throw in which the uke holds the wrist of the shite and the latter moves to align himself with the outstretched arm of the uke, one hand holding uke’s wrist while the other arm is attached to the elbow, creating tension on the joint as the whole body drives forward, a move that forces uke to quickly rotate his shoulder and roll forward or else, risk his elbow being snapped in two and his forearm and collar bone, maybe even both, being shattered.

The two dropped to seiza and demonstrated the Suwari Waza variation, (performing while moving on the knees), which is the hardest variation on the uke since it is rather difficult to react quickly in such an awkward position. He reached out his arm and she grabbed his wrist without hesitation. He gave a few explanations before smoothly moving to the side, fully stretching her arm out in preparation for the throw. A few more words and he launched forward, so swiftly and forcefully that she had little chance of catching up with the move.

She began to roll forward but the brutal execution caught her in mid motion. A loud cracking sound was heard as her collar bone snapped dead in the middle while she rolled forward. It did not stop Chino sensei from completing the technique with perfect Zan-Shin, (end of the throw focused and with fixed posture).

The brave uke maintained her composure as she slowly rose off the mat and bowed to Chino sensei. Silence reigned in the room as she held her dangling arm and graciously excused herself from the hall. Needless to say, it took months until she returned to training at the dojo. But she did return.

*

During lunch break I went through everything that had happened between Chino and me in the past. The first thing that came to mind were the unpleasant training sessions I’d experienced with him during my course and the year long disconnection that followed, where we did our best to avoid one another on the mats, in the kitchen, the office and even when we randomly bumped into each other in the corridors of the dojo.

When I became a member of staff our relationship improved slightly. The ice broke when Chino sensei, at one of the senshusei dojo parties, suddenly approached me with a bottle of beer in his hand. The party, as was customary, took place in the center of the training hall where tables, set in a long row and covered in white cloths, offered snacks and beverages. The seating was arranged according to hierarchy; Chida sensei at the head of the table, followed by the teachers according to their rank and then the senshusei.

The pattern of all aikido parties is determined by the level of alcohol consumed by the participants. They start with rigid, formal and polite speeches and toasts, the first delivered by the head master, then his next in command and then a few others, the atmosphere gradually relaxes and there are already whispers, chuckles and even loud remarks.

When the speeches are over and the guests starts to mingle and socialize, students and teachers getting up from their seats, beer bottles in hand, approaching others, gesturing to their victims to finish up their drinks and quickly topping up the empty glasses. Needless to say that no longer than twenty minutes after the initial toast, everyone is completely intoxicated, disorderly, loud and in many cases, very rude.

“Why do they do it to themselves?” I feebly asked David after the first party we attended.

“To loosen up,” he explained while holding my upper body over a bush, a bush I decorated with the contents of my stomach.

“Loosen up?” I wretched. “How can getting drunk in such a short period of time be considered a form of relaxation?”

“Because it’s the only way they know how to break the rigid boundaries of their hierarchy. When drunk, they open their minds, talk freely with their superiors and even speak about their emotions. Hey, stop leaning forward or you will end up with your head in your sick!”

We used to do that a lot in those days; me, getting almost senselessly drunk, while David, patiently helping me through the process of rejuvenation. David, who was far more mature and wiser than me despite the similarity in ages, somehow knew how to avoid the over drinking at the parties, a technique he tried a few times to teach me and that I failed to learn.

“It’s too complicated,” I complained.

“What’s so complicated about not being an easy target?”

“I guess I’m just girl who can’t say no.”

True to my system of complacency, I had already consumed quite a few drinks by the time Chino sensei approached me with the beer. He smiled, his eyes red and his face flushed, and gestured for me to finish my half empty glass. I was quick to obey.

“Oh,” he observed. “Gadi san can drink very well.

“Thank you, sensei,” I said while tightening my chin against my chest, keeping the belch at bay. Chino sensei smiled and reached forward with the bottle. I held the glass with both hands as he refilled it.

“Gadi san became stronger,” he pointed at my arms then at my chest. “Aikido made you bigger.”

“Not as strong and as big as Chino sensei,” I said and he frowned in return and placed the bottle on the table top.

“Not big,” he said and ran both of his hands along the sides of his body, sliding the palm against the fabric of his tight suit from his chest to his waist line, like a model demonstrating the perfect curves of her body.

“Smart,” he concluded and looked deep into my eyes. “I’m smart, not big.”

“Sure, sensei. You’re very smart.”

An awkward silence followed, then we both smiled, bowed and he moved on.

*

“You worry too much,” Tessa said when we had dinner together that night.

“Not that surprising considering the circumstances.”

“What circumstances? He’s just another teacher who’s going to throw you around.”

“Have you forgotten everything that went on with him in the past?”

“Not forgotten, simply moved on.”

“But that guy can be a real monster. A Godzilla by all accounts.”

“Well. You know what they say about Godzilla, don’t you?” she chuckled.

“What’s that?”

“That Godzilla is just a sweaty skinny man in underpants hiding inside a silly rubber costume.”

“Chino sensei wears no costume.”

“Nonsense! All martial artists wear costumes.”

“Funny shit. I never saw anyone dressed up in the dojo.”

“You’re all dressed up, white suits, black belts, wearing tough expressions and carrying yourselves as if you’re the most powerful people on earth.”

“So what are you saying?”

“That you shouldn’t worry. You’ve faced stronger and tougher instructors before and come out without a scratch, sometimes even more complete than the person throwing you. Now snap out of it and figure out how to handle this sweaty little monster.”

Part One  Part Three

A Lesson In Salt And Pepper – Part 2 of The Confrontational Instructor

 

Less than an hour after I spoke with Payet sensei he came into the Sho-Dojo and asked me to follow him.

“Where to, Sensei?”

“You’re having a private conversation with Chino sensei.”

Without further explanation he motioned me to follow. I jumped to my feet and walked behind him past the office, my heart racing in my chest, various scenarios filling my brain as I tagged along. We walked by Kancho sensei’s room and I visualized myself ending up inside, being reproved by the master for my insolence before being expelled from the school. When we got close to the kitchen, I saw myself sitting inside, alone in the corner of the room while all the teachers smacked me about. We walked past the kitchen and for a moment I wondered if Payet sensei was leading me to the door that opened to the roof, the perfect place for an epic battle with Chino sensei

“Here we go,” Payet said when we reached the teacher’s room next to the kitchen. He opened the sliding door and waited for me to enter. The calm, civilized setup that greeted me threw out all my expectations. Chino sensei was sitting on a pillow on the tatami , his legs hidden below a square shaped table. He drank tea from a small light-blue colored cup and looked relaxed and peaceful. He nodded in a courtly fashion as we entered and waited for us to sit down. Payet sensei sat between us.

Ocha?” Chino sensei asked and reached for the tea pot. Both Payet sensei and I declined politely. Chino sensei began to speak, addressing me in his high pitched voice, never looking into my eyes, maybe trying to keep it formal. He spoke slowly, and after every couple of sentences, politely paused, attentively watching and listening to Payet sensei as he translated, as if making sure the full meaning of his words were properly conveyed into English before moving on.

“Chino sensei apologizes if you feel hurt by his way of training,” Payet sensei translated. “But he says you mustn’t take it personally, that he would train in the same manner with anyone else in the course.”

They waited for me to indicate my understanding and then Payet sensei ushered me out of the room.

“That’s it?” I asked Payet sensei as we walked along the corridor.

“I guess so.”

“But how does that solve anything?”

“I don’t know.”

And since I didn’t know the answer either, nor did I know what Chino sensei had discussed with Payet sensei prior to our conversation, I was left with no other alternative but to stick with my original plan, intending to challenge him to a fist-fight should he continue to behave the way he did.

Mori sensei must have felt I was in a combative mood the past couple of weeks. He never said it directly but I could tell he knew something was wrong by the topic he chose for our evening discussion.

We were sitting in the kitchen, having dinner after a long tiring day.

“Do you know difference of karate teacher and aikido teacher?” he asked in his broken English.

“I don’t know, maybe the fact that a karate practitioner focuses on strikes while the aikidoka on locks and throws?”

“That is technique. Another different point?”

He stared at me while stuffing a spoonful of rice and curry into his mouth. He always liked eating curry and rice that you bought at the convenience store, the kind that comes in sealed bags, that you warm by throwing into a pan of boiling water.

“Well?” he asked when I failed to come up with an answer.

“I don’t know,” I said and he smiled and reached out for the salt and pepper shakers. I smiled as well, knowing that a lesson in ‘Salt and Pepper’ was about to begin.

Although Mori sensei was only in his early twenties, he possessed maturity and insight beyond his years. It could have been attributed to his upbringing, since he was the son of a Shinto priest, but I suspect his wisdom was a natural quality, a gift he was born with regardless of his religious beliefs and his parents’ dedicated nurturing.

Mori sensei, who spoke English almost as poorly as I could speak Japanese, used the ‘Salt and Pepper’ shakers to demonstrate certain points he was trying to make. The last time he had used them was at the beginning of the course, after I told him, with all the zeal of the first few days, that I would never leave Japan because my goal is to become great in aikido. He gave his take on the matter. It went something like this:

“Salt is life,” he said and took the pot in his right hand. “Pepper is aikido.”

“Life and aikido,” I nodded. He seemed pleased that I understood. He then placed the pepper pot to his left and began to advance toward it with the salt pot in his right, tapping it on the table as if taking small steps.

“Some people try and get aikido,” he said. “They walk to aikido, only want to be great like Kancho. But I,” he pointed at himself. “I do this.”

He lifted both pots and now they were moving together, side by side, in the same direction as before.

“Aikido walking with me,” he smiled.

“Like a friend instead of a goal?”

“Yes, like best friend – not goal.”

It was a lesson that gave me a down-to-earth perspective. Now he placed the salt pot on a line he had drawn on a piece of paper.

“This is cow,” he said and pointed at the salt pot.

“OK, cow.”

“Line is road. Cow stands in middle of road. Not moving, but sometime kick back with leg. Very danger.”

“Middle of road. Kick back. Very danger.”

“Good. Now this is karate teacher,” he said and lifted the pepper pot, advancing with it towards the salt and then stopping. “Karate teacher want to cross road but worry about cow. What he do?”

“I don’t know.”

“He study cow,” Mori explained. “Practice timing and block of kick. When ready, he try to cross.”

“High risk but reasonable. Can he overcome the cow?”

“Sometimes success but sometimes cow wins,” Mori laughed.

“I see, but what can the aikido teacher do differently if he must cross that road too?”

“First he do same,” Mori nodded. “Practice timing and block of kick. But he never cross the same. Aikido teacher avoid the cow.”

“But how can he?” I pointed at the salt. “The cow is still in the middle of the road.”

“He can wait for cow to move from middle,” Mori smiled. “Or he can go around.” He lifted the pepper pot and moved it in a wide arch around the salt and across the path he had drawn on the paper.

His wise words made perfect sense but gave no clue as to how to deal with Chino sensei, the obstacle that stood in the middle of my road.

“To stay in this course I will have to be the karate teacher,” I whispered to my self as I lay down on my futon that night. “I can’t avoid Chino like the aikido instructor.”

But my image of the karate instructor was very different from that of Mori sensei who spoke of learning the timing of the kicks in order to block them. Who I was thinking of was Oyama sensei, the man who established Kyokushinkai Karate, the one who gained international fame for fighting bulls in the arena.

“If he could easily subdue bulls, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to deal with one problematic cow,” I concluded and laughed loudly, the sound echoing, bouncing between the walls of the empty Sho dojo.

The internal tension mounted inside me as the week came to an end. I was so stressed that Friday evening that I could hardly sleep that night. The next day, at the beginning of the Saturday morning session, my legs shook as I stood to attention and waited for Chino sensei to arrive. He never showed up – instead, I got Mark Baker sensei for the entire lesson and for the afternoon session as well.

I felt relieved, but I didn’t raise my hopes that the ordeal with Chino sensei had come to an end. After all, I hadn’t seen him the whole day; he could have been unwell or maybe had to go and teach at the private dojo of the main sponsor of the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo.

However, when Chino sensei failed to show up the following week and the week after that, I began to think I knew the reason for his absence.

“You’re going to drive us all insane,” Tessa warned me after I spent an entire weekend speaking of the matter. “You can’t really tell why he stopped training with you. You’re wasting your time.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s not that complicated,” I shook my head at her. “Chino sensei doesn’t train with me for the same reasons that drove him to have that bizarre audience with me.”

“Really?” she smiled at my knowing expression.

“Really,” I nodded. “I must have said something that scared, so to speak, the cow inside him out of my way.”

“Funny,” she sighed and placed her hands on her hips. “I was also thinking of the story of the cow but came up with another conclusion.”

“Yes?” I narrowed my eyes at her.

“I was thinking that since he is an aikido instructor you must be fulfilling the other part of that equation.”

“Are you suggesting that I’m the cow?”

“Do you see anyone else standing in the middle of your road to progress? Anyone else who wants to pick a fight, apart from yourself? ”

“I should move on.”

“Mooo,” she laughed and gave me a kiss.

As it turned out, Chino sensei never trained with me again for the rest of the course and he never disclosed his reasons. The only certainty I was left with from the whole experience was the realization that I had to improve my game, to get stronger and sharpen my uke’s performance to the point where no one else could harm me.

Part One

Crystal Clear Path – Part Three of Total Disaster

Payet sensei raised his eyes from his meal as I entered the kitchen. He studied my troubled expression for a moment, nodded when I bowed to him, then returned to his food. He had no way of knowing what troubled me on that fateful day since I had never discussed the topic with him. Even if he did somehow know or guess I was troubled, he had no way of knowing I might approach him about it either.

I observed him for a long moment from the other side of the table, wondering how I should tackle the issue, but he was already ahead of me.

“What seems to be the trouble, Gadi?” he said calmly without lifting his eyes from the plate:

“Trouble?” I replied while shuffling on my feet, my voice trembled, tainted with a slightly high pitched sound due to my distress.

“You look and sound stressed. Care to share?”

“Now? While you eat?”

“Sure, why not? Lunch is the best time to digest food and words.” He looked up and smiled. “Go on, better start before the next class begins. I need to teach.”

“I’m lost with my studies of aikido,” I said, and with that innocent sentence, a flood gate lifted, and a stream of frustration that began to gush from my mouth. “I feel like I know very little and understand even less,” I continued, “despite the fact I’ve been training, four to eight hours daily, for the past year and a half.”

“That’s a lot of training,” Payet sensei nodded.

“Which makes it even worse. I’m at the point where I can recognize and perform each and every technique on the syllabus. In fact, my head is full of aikido information and yet, none of it seems to improve my abilities or bring about a deep understanding of the art.”

I took a breather while he finished chewing his last bite. He glanced at me, and I interpreted his silence as a cue for me to continue, so I began to talk again, recycling the same complaint, but from another angle. When I finished, I felt deflated, choked and very miserable. He sighed, cleaned his mouth with a napkin and stood up.

His eyes captured mine as he stretched to his full height, making sure he had my full attention. Then he slid his body into the kamae position—the basic fighting stance of Yoshinkan Aikido.

“This is my kamae,” he declared mysteriously after maintaining the position for a few seconds.

Speechless, I stared at him, completely taken aback by the mesmerizing execution of the move. His transition from standing at attention to the fight stance flowed beautifully from his core, his body effortlessly travelling on the imaginary plane that extended from his back foot to the tip of his fingers and beyond, toward me, through me and far beyond. I could actually feel his energy, even though he stood a few feet away.

“Find your kamae,” he concluded, and with that, the lesson was over.

*

I had finally found my one liner, that cherished phrase that would send me on the right course to excellence. I say “found it,” rather than “thought I did”, due to the reaction it emanated from every cell in my body and every corner of my mind.

The genius of his words slowly dawned on me as I aimlessly stared through the window of the kitchen and thought of everything I had learned, heard and knew of the basic stance.

  • A representation of my center and balance.
  • A reference point for every move I take—be it the basic movements or the techniques.
  • A tool to sense and act upon other people’s balance and center.

Simple!

Elegant!

Brilliant!

In fact, Payet sensei words made so much sense that I felt entirely stupid.

“How had I missed this all-encompassing and vital information?” I shook my head in bemusement. “How had I ignored what was there, right in front of my eyes, the whole bloody time?”

During the next aikido session, I paid extra attention to my kamae—aware of the way I moved in and out of the position, and tried to sense its relationship to the techniques and to the kamae of my partner. I also observed the kamae of other students, and was fully attentive when watching the kamae of the instructor who took the class.

The conclusion I ended up with was alarming. I realised Payet sensei’s lesson was totally useless without knowing the correct way in which to grasp that vital information.

“Find your kamae!” the words tumbled inside my head, their truth taunting me, driving me insane with frustration.

“Find your kamae! Find your kamae!”

I was completely engrossed in my contemplation as I left the training hall, so much so that I did not realize someone was standing in the middle of the hallway, blocking my path.

“Careful!” I heard Mark Baker’s warning and saw him jump out of the way.

“Sorry sensei,” I apologized, and he chuckled while studying my expression.

“I’ve seen this pained look before,” he said. “What’s bothering you, Gadi?”

That is how I ended up with the second most important lesson I’d ever had.

*

“So you know what you want to achieve but you don’t know how to achieve it?” Mark summarized after I stated the problem I faced.

“Exactly,” I nodded. “I’m completely at a loss here.”

“Well, at least you’re not alone with this problem.”

I was taken aback by his words.

“You too?”

“Yes. Why do you look so surprised?”

“Because I was sure you knew all there is to know about kamae and its applications.”

“I could only wish,” he chuckled, “but even if I did know everything there is to know about kamae, that’s not the point.”

“So what is the point?”

“To learn how to teach yourself: not just kamae, but any subject. If you aren’t able to do that, you’ll be condemned to stay here forever, waiting for someone to feed you the information, information that you’ll find near impossible to adjust and fit to your individual self. On the other hand, if you learn how to teach yourself, you’ll gain the ultimate freedom. You won’t need anyone to tell you how and what to learn. All you will need is one word or one pointing finger. Basically, all you’ll ever need is an inspired idea, and you can do the rest by yourself. What?” he raised his eyebrows at the wide eyes that stared at him. “Why do you look so confused?”

“Because I don’t get it. How can one teach himself the ins and outs of something he doesn’t understand?”

“By knowing how to tackle the information he desires to learn,” Mark said and pointed at the training hall. “We both know the info we seek is presented there, right in front of our eyes and for quite a few hours everyday. The question is how to grasp it and make it your own.”

“Indeed, how can anyone do that?” I asked and added. “Can you do that?”

“You’ll know once I can,” he smiled mischievously.

“How’s that?”

“Because the moment I know how to teach myself, I’ll be waving to you from there,” he pointed at the entrance. “Wave, and then move out and away.”

*

The two sentences I heard that day became my new obsession, tightly grabbing hold of my conscious and not letting go. The words rang within my skull as I walked, worked, trained and rode on the train. Even when I went to bed at night they kept prodding at me, keeping me awake for hours, not leaving even when sleep finally found me, relentlessly occupying my dreams.

“Find your kamae!” the inner calling demanded. “Learn how to teach yourself.”

Unfortunately for me, knowing what was needed was virtually impossible to apply without further guidance. Luckily, I didn’t need to wait long and, the following week, as I stood in kamae during class, I saw Payet Sensei approaching.

“If you want to feel the center you must bring your elbows in,” he said. “A little more, yes, a little more. OK. This is good.”

And he walked off, leaving me to struggle with the awkward position of my arms. But even as I stood there, all twisted limbed and with an upper body that felt as taut as a wooden board, I smiled to myself, knowing that the technical application he had just instructed me was in fact the first physical exercise on my quest.

Squeezing the elbows in would teach me how to relate the arms to my center. No less important—it would serve as the first clue on how to teach myself. To dismantle the whole to its particles, and to study each part thoroughly before moving on. In other words, to try and capture the essence of kamae through practicing kamae was very difficult. It was easier to break it apart and learn each particle.

“Pinocchio?” I heard the voice of Chida sensei and it pulled me out of my deep meditation. He came to stand a couple of feet away, his eyes on my kamae, a smile pasted on his face.

“Yes, sensei?” I frowned.

Choto katae, neh, (A bit tight)?”

“For training, sensei.”

“Good training,” he nodded, still smiling, and touched my arms. “Like wood. Like Pinocchio.”

His smile faded when I continued frowning, although a faint reminder of jest lingered at the corners of his eyes.

“Come and see me when the class is over,” he said.

“Yes, sensei.” I bowed, my ears burning with shame.

*

“Was Chida sensei mocking my efforts?” I wondered to myself as I sat and waited for him in the Sho dojo. “Can’t he appreciate what I’m trying to do here? Could it be that Chida sensei honestly believes the elbow-practice was not as useful and as inspiring as I thought it was?”

I sighed and looked at the door, hoping that when he appeared he might elaborate more on the subject. A minute passed, and suddenly the door opened and Chida sensei stepped in. He held a small electric heater in his hand. He placed it on the floor in front of me.

“It is broken inside,” he said and handed me a screw driver. “Fix,” he ordered and walked off.

I don’t think I bowed when he left the room, I was so confused by his strange request. I stared at the heater for a second then went down on my knees for a closer inspection. After all, my father was an electrician. I could give it a go.

First I gave it a full external inspection, hoping Chida sensei was wrong and that glory would manifest itself as a redundant malfunction. But everything seemed fine. Chida sensei was right. It was broken inside.

“Dismantle the whole to its particles, and study each part thoroughly,” the inspiring thought about the kamae soon came to my mind. A smile spread across my face. Chida sensei was not mocking me but in fact driving me to do exactly what I was doing during class. Without hesitation I picked up the screwdriver and moved inside.

What happened next I can’t fully recollect nor explain. The only images filling my memory are a haze of flying screws, scattered pieces and a blend of colorful wires that twisted and turned like snakes all over the broken and disemboweled structure, the empty metal shell that once was a heater.

“Idiot!” I cursed myself. “The fact that your father is an electrician doesn’t automatically qualify you as anything!”

I smiled miserably when Chida sensei arrived an hour later to monitor my progress.

“It’s broken inside,” I whispered faintly and he smiled and asked me to wipe the sweat from my face. He then sat next to me and took the screwdriver.

“No point to break down to pieces,” he said as he began to put everything together. “If you don’t know how to put everything back in place.”

From there he moved on to explain how as an uchi-deshi he had to learn how to fix everything, but I wasn’t fully listening to all the details, my mind had been captured by the red alert sign he had just placed in front of my face. A red sign that was a good lesson in electronics and also applicable to aikido.

“Don’t break down what you can’t put together again.”

Chida sensei, in his own special way, was trying to warn me to be very mindful of the process I took. And to remember that ultimately, the objective is the bigger picture, a working heater and a full range of techniques in aikido.

Fifteen minutes later the heater was fully revived to its glorious past. He plugged it into a socket and we both smiled as a second later, it started to warm up.

 Part Two  Part Four

The One Liner – Part Two Of Total Disaster

I didn’t find David’s words as amusing as he did. But they did cause the idea to arise that perhaps, just perhaps, I was wasting my time trying to comprehend Kancho’s aikido by walking in Chida’s steps, that maybe there was a more suitable path that I should take.

Naturally, the best course of action would be to cut out the middle man, and learn straight from the source, from Master Shioda Gozo himself. However, this was impossible since the only time the Master taught was the black-belt class on Thursdays—which was far too advanced and complex for me to fully understand.

Research seemed to be my only recourse, and I sought guidance from the past, renting, borrowing and buying every video of Kancho sensei that I could get my hands on, reading all of his works that were translated in English, and recollecting things I had personally heard him say or that I was told he had said.

What struck me as amazing was how close he was to the stereotypical image of the old martial arts master, a man that could, with a word or gesture, change the course of the lives of those who crossed his path. There are many famous stories to support this claim but I will use a couple less familiar examples, events that I viewed and experienced for myself.

One of those ‘one liners’ occurred a few weeks after I finished the senshusei course, on a day when Kancho sensei, during an exclusive lesson about the deep meaning of the art, used such a ‘one liner’ to enlighten the students as to why it is risky to give too much meaning to the shape of our aikido postures. He began by asking two of his senior instructors to step forward and face each other in kamae. The instructors he chose were known for the grace and beauty of their postures.

“You see,” Kancho laughed, after letting us marvel their kamae for a minute or two. “When you over dwell on the shape of your aikido, you inflate your ego. An inflated ego stinks!” he concluded, a repulsed expression decorating his face. Although I felt sorry for the instructors in question, I appreciated the lesson he was trying to convey. My priorities changed from that day on, no longer preoccupied with how my technique looked and instead focusing on the way it felt.

The other incident occurred in my second month at the Honbu Dojo, during one of the many general classes that I used to take. In the general class, the most popular practice at the dojo, the training hall would be divided into two sections, with the beginners practicing in front of the wide mirror while the advanced students took over the rest of the hall.

Most students on the beginner course were very friendly, Japanese and foreigners alike, but there was one young guy who seemed to be in desperate need of company. His outgoing and non-conformist attitude, which stood in absolute contrast to all the Japanese I had met up to that point, immediately drew my attention. He seemed to notice my curiosity and began to hang out with me during the breaks between the classes.

I nicknamed him ‘Elephant Boy’, after learning he was the son of an elephant trainer with a travelling circus. He was seventeen years old.

Elephant Boy couldn’t speak much English but he showed a lot of enthusiasm trying to convey his few words in a language I might comprehend, using hand gestures and comical facial expressions in order to create fully formed sentences. The more I got to know him, the more I realised his behavior was not outgoing, but simply rude. He demonstrated little to no respect for his fellow students, played pranks on his elders, and worst of all, showed complete contempt to all figures of authority – meaning the instructors.

Paradoxically, the instructors seemed to ignore or turn a blind eye at Elephant Boy’s behavior. They only reproached him when he became extremely loud and disruptive during class, but it was clear he cared little for their words. I was quite shocked to learn he lived at the dojo.

“Are you an uchi-deshi, (live-in student)?” I asked him one evening, and he burst out laughing.

“I am, but I’m not,” he said and added in a whisper. “Want to have some bieru with me?”

“What?”

“Bieru,” he said and pretended to hold a glass to his lips.

“A beer?”

“Yes,” he nodded excitedly and pointed at the clock on the wall, lifting nine fingers in front of my face. Finally, he pointed at the fire escape exit.

“Meet you downstairs at nine?” I asked and his face brightened.

“OK!” he cried while jumping up and down on the spot, his hands clapping. “OK, OK.”

I wasn’t overly keen to socialize with him, but was curious to learn about his circumstances, of how he had become part of the dojo, part of the magic I was so eager to touch.

I waited in the shadows of the exit and watched Elephant Boy sneaking down the stairs. His face was bright red, as if over-cooked in the shower. His whole body radiated spicy aftershave, the kind you could smell from miles away. We shook hands and walked toward the main road where he suddenly stopped and stood beneath a streetlight, pointing at himself. I studied his dress code. He wore tight jeans, worn out leather shoes and a tucked-in shirt that was buttoned all the way to his chin. His hair was drowning in gel and neatly brushed to the side. All in all, he looked like a total geek.

“Good?” he beamed at me.

“Very good,” I smiled back.

“OK. Let’s go.”

He led the way to the nearest convenience store where he asked me to buy a couple of cans of beer. He was very specific and wanted only the Sapporo beer that came from Hokkaido.

“Arigato,” he said and opened one can right outside the store.

Kampai!” he cried when I opened my can. We banged cans and he began to dance and sing:

“Ho, Ho, Hokkaido, Hokkaido -ho, Hokkaido…”

I recognized the song from the advertisement on the television. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing.

When the song was over, he motioned me to move along. As we walked through streets, I finally got a chance to learn a few things about him.

“Why are you an uchi-deshi?” I asked.

“Because I hit teacher,” he smiled.

“Teacher? What teacher?”

“At school, before I come here. It made my father very angry. My father is a Yoshinkan Aikido shihan for a long time. He talked to Kancho Sensei for me to be uchi-deshi.”

“To teach you some manners?”

“Manners?”

“Make good boy out of you.”

“Good boy?” he pointed at himself and laughed again. He stopped in front of a gaming arcade and went in, heading towards a specific machine. He pushed his way through the young men and women who filled the narrow spaces between the machines, growling at those who didn’t step out of his path as quickly as he wished. He reached the far corner of the arcade and stopped.

“My machine,” he said and dropped a hundred yen coin into the slot. The machine came to life in an outburst of flashing lights and loud music. An animated, sleazy looking female figure filled the screen, pouting her lips and reaching forward with her slender arms, tempting us to play a game of strip poker with her. Elephant Boy wailed in delight, and began to press the buttons on the machine.

Most of the Japanese customers had moved away from our immediate area. I couldn’t blame them as I wanted to move away from him as well, feeling uncomfortable with his obnoxious attitude. Still, his position in the dojo intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more.

“Did you meet Kancho Sensei?” I asked and had to repeat myself twice before he answered.

“Not meet, but I looked him. Very ojiisan, (old man), neh?”

He seemed amused by the horrified expression on my face. He chuckled and returned to the game, clapping when his cards won the round and the lady on the screen had to drop another layer of clothes.

“Do you like aikido?” I asked. He stopped playing and sharply shifted his gaze toward me. He was frowning.

“Me?” he said. “Me like aikido?”

“Yes, you.”

“I hate aikido!” he declared, loud enough for the whole block to hear. “And I hate my father too!”

His words wiped away the glow that I found in his situation, and suddenly, all that I saw in front of me was the hooligan that he was—a small-time ruffian who couldn’t appreciate the amazing opportunity he had been given. I remained with him for another hour before I could excuse myself and walk to the station on my way home. I promised myself never to hang out with him again.

In the following days, I tried to keep my distance from Elephant Boy but continued to observe him from the side. His behavior became worse, and he seemed immune to the warnings, threats and punishments that the instructors inflicted upon him. The situation continued to deteriorate and then, one Saturday afternoon, Kancho Sensei stepped onto the mats.

Master Shioda, despite his illnesses and old age, occasionally came to observe and participate in the training. He would arrive fully dressed in his gi and hakama, watch his instructors at work, walk around the floor, help and socialize with the students, and sometimes even take part in the training.

There was nothing to suggest that his intention was any different from usual when he came to the class that afternoon. I remember training by the mirror when he arrived, bowing at the entrance, the whole class dropped to their knees at the sight of him, eyes on the ground as to avoid accidental eye contact. A junior instructor aided the master as he left his slippers by the edge of the mats and sat in seiza. For a second he meditated, his gaze far and distant, maybe cutting through time and space as he took in the pictures of his predecessors on the opposite wall. Or maybe he was uttering a silent prayer to the kami of the shrine that was set above the pictures on a high shelf. Master Shioda then turned to bow at the students and the instructors.

The class resumed, but the atmosphere had changed. There was a palpable tension in the area in which Kancho stepped, students stretching their backs as he approached their positions, performing with stern expressions, perhaps hoping to impress the master with their extreme zeal, to the point where he would stop and demonstrate his magic touch on them or on their partners. In the rest of the hall, the students trained, but with far less focus and intent, their eyes kept wandering off, following Kancho Sensei wherever he walked.

The only exception was Elephant Boy. He stood and snarled in contempt at the display of respect the attendants demonstrated towards the master. He became louder and far more disrespectful than usual, especially so when Kancho Sensei came closer to the area by the mirror.

Master Shioda nodded to himself as he observed us practicing the shihonage throw. Like everyone else, I became very aware of my posture when he walked past me, holding my breath as he shuffled slowly to the other side, to where Elephant Boy stood. I frowned when I realised the young ruffian was unusually quiet, a mischievous glint in his eyes. He stood with his back to Kancho Sensei who had his eyes on the students to his left. Elephant Boy’s body tensed when Master Shioda was just behind him. He waited for a second and then, without warning, jumped around and faced Kancho with a wide grin. He stretched his body to its full height, towering over the master and blocking his path. His mouth opened, maybe to laugh, as Kancho stared at him for a second in complete disbelief.

However, the sound of Elephant Boy’s rolling laughter never rocked the hall because Kancho, as quick as lightening, extended the index finger of his right hand and shot it forward, poking Elephant Boy right in the throat. The power of the blow caused his eyes to bulge, the air trapped in his lungs. He collapsed to the floor a second later, coughing and choking.

As for Kancho Sensei, he only shook his head and moved around the youngster as if nothing had happened. The class continued while Elephant Boy spent the next half hour on the floor. Needless to say, from that day on he demonstrated caution and respect whenever dealing with his elders.

Part One  Part Three

In the Name of the Center – Part Four Of Total Disaster

I was so preoccupied with the position of my elbows that I could hardly think of anything else. It was most frustrating to realize that placing them in the center line of my body was a gigantic task. The main obstacle was the tightness in my shoulders, a serious lack of flexibility that kept dragging the arms back to their resting position by the sides of my body.

I spent a few days battling my disobedient shoulders, but to no avail.

“You’re losing your mind,” Tessa observed as I cursed and scolded myself loudly while trying to cook dinner with my elbows tucked in.

“I am not.” I declared. “I just need to find a better system.”

“A better system?” Tessa raised her voice when, a couple of days later, I came up with a new plan.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, the smile fading from my face. “Don’t you think it’s a great idea?”

“How can lying on your shoulders all night long qualify as a great idea?”

“Because nearly third of the day is wasted on sleep.”

“I wouldn’t call sleep a waste of time. Last I heard it was quite healthy.”

“Healthy or not, it’s a mental state that is completely out of my control. I suspect that all the good work I do on my elbows goes to hell during sleep.”

“How’s that?”

“How else would you explain the fact that every morning I wake up with rigid shoulders?”

“Maybe because you go to sleep with rigid shoulders?”

“No, I don’t. When I go to sleep my shoulders are far more relaxed after all the day’s practice.”

She continued to try and deter me from my plans, but there was little hope for that.

“Whatever,” she sighed. “I can tell your mind is made up, so do as you want, you stubborn man. I just hope you don’t cause yourself permanent damage in the process.”

My plan of action was simplicity itself – to sleep on my side with the full weight of my upper body pressing down on the shoulder joint, forcing it to rotate forward. I started with the left shoulder, which was the tighter one.

“How is it?” Tessa asked when I woke up the following morning, my left shoulder squashed to my face, the arm tucked below my body.

“It’s fine,” I said, although I couldn’t feel the limb.

“So get up and let’s see if your flexibility has improved.”

“In a second. First I want to lie here for a little longer and analyze the drill. I want to make sure I don’t miss a thing. Why don’t you get on with your stuff, and I’ll be up in a second.”

Only once she had left the room did I dare to roll off my poor arm, and begin panicking properly. The first minute was quite worrying as there was no sign of life from the shoulder downwards.

“Come on!” I cried and desperately poked it a few times with the index finger of my right hand. “Don’t do this to me, baby. Please. I never meant to hurt you. You’ve got to believe me, baby. Please wake up. Please!”

A second later I dropped back onto the bed and started to hyperventilate, my mind gripped by the terrible thought of an unpromising future as an Aikidoka.

“The one armed master?” I suggested but shook my head against that tiny ray of hope. “Nope – it would never work.”

My thought process was cut short when unpleasant prickling sensations began at the tips of my fingers, as if some tiny creatures were stabbing at my skin with needle-like blades. From there, the sensation quickly spread to the rest of the hand, each poke, like the bite of a zombie, waking a victim soon to join the bloodthirsty army of the stabbing dead.

I held my breath as the army mercilessly hacked its way past the crossing of the wrist and up the forearm, through the elbow and to the waiting shoulder.

“Baby, you’re alive!” I joyously cried then swiftly wiped the smile from my face when the door opened and Tessa popped her head inside.

“Really?” she asked.

“What?”

“Did I hear what I think I heard?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you don’t, ‘Baby'” she nodded with a smile.

*

  After the limb returned to normal functioning I began to analyze the results of my experiment. I got out of bed, rolled my shoulders a few times, attached the arms to the side of my body and stood still to attention, stretching my spine. When I felt relaxed and centered I slid into kamae, both elbows squeezed in. To my delight I found that the range of movement in my left shoulder had slightly increased.

“Fantastic,” I whispered, careful not to raise my voice, worried that Tessa, who was busily preparing her painting gear in the other room, would hear my cries of jubilation. “Don’t worry, Baby,” I said while patting the right shoulder. “I won’t forget you. You’re next in line.” I decided that, until both shoulders were nicely relaxed and flexible, I would alternate sleeping on top of them every night.

All through the day, I marveled at the genius of my act. I realized it had double advantages, that it was not only productive from the elbow’s point of view, but also allowed me to spend my waking hours on other topics that needed desperate attention. Time use has never been more efficient.

It took nearly two weeks for me to gain the necessary flexibility to comfortably place both elbows on my center line. With my upper body relaxed I moved my focus to the lower limbs, determined to line them up on the same imaginary central plane on which I had managed to position my elbows. As it turned out, I didn’t need to go through the same extreme measures that I had taken with the elbows.

“What are you doing?” asked Mark Baker sensei as I stood in kamae in front of the wide mirror. His deep voice echoed through the vast training hall, pulling me out from my deep meditation. The morning class had just finished and there was half an hour break before the next lesson began, the best time for self-training as there were hardly any students around.

Mark listened when I explained my goals and donated a few technical details of his own.

“Align the legs tighter, big toes planted on the ground, and let your inner thigh muscles squeeze toward the center,” he supervised as I practiced. “That’s right, now let your belly sink downward. Yes, a bit more, keep going until it touches the inner part of your front thigh.”

His instructions captured my senses, my body absorbed by the physical manifestation of his words. When he left I stayed and trained for a little longer, trying to register everything he had said while the memory was still fresh. I worked systematically, standing in kamae and correcting the position of the lower body, making sure the limbs were positioned according to the new information. Then I added the upper body, stretching the trunk, extending the arms, lining the elbows and spreading the palms. A sense of euphoria descended upon me as I realized I had never felt so centered in my life.

“This is incredible,” I whispered and could hardly contain my excitement. “Now I’ve got all the parts to shape a perfect center.” I was all smiles as I left the training hall and burst into the kitchen, opening the fridge and taking out the rice-balls that I had bought at the convenience store. The hunger I felt was overwhelming but not surprising since it was a common reaction I had whenever stimulated by knowledge.

“Take it easy,” I told myself as I tore the plastic wrapping, and covered the rice-ball with a sheet of dried seaweed.

“Yeah, right,” I smiled and inserted half of it into my eager mouth, hardly chewing before swallowing, chuckling to myself and nearly choking on the pickled plum that was embedded in the center of the rice-ball. When I finished with the first rice-ball I moved on to the second. I munched on it with nearly the same enthusiasm, washing it down with water, then swiftly returning to the dojo for a few more minutes of practice before the lesson began.

*

I gradually sensed how the adjustments I made to my kamae were starting to pay off. Physically, I could easily place my arms and legs on my center plane, my weight and muscles projecting forward on the imaginary line that extended from the tip of my fingers to the front. The physical changes had a positive effect on my senses too; it sharpened my focus, improved my sense of unity and helped me connect with my training partners in a way I couldn’t feel before.

“It’s simply amazing,” I told Tessa after a particularly successful day of training. We were sitting on the roof of our guesthouse on white garden chairs. We were having cold drinks while watching the sunset.

“Yes, it is…” she nodded. “The way the smog mingles with the light of the dying sun is truly amazing.”

“I was referring to the way aikido has changed for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I feel like a blind man that has suddenly regained his eyesight.” Without a word of warning, I placed my glass on the floor and jumped to my feet. I began to shuffle aimlessly around with my eyes closed, my arms extended in front of me, occasionally bumping my shoulders against the water tanks that covered most of the roof’s area. Then I stopped moving and dramatically opened my eyes wide, smiling despite the frown on her face.

“Now that my world is full of light, I can actually see what I’m doing,” I whispered mysteriously. “Actually see, rather than treading aimlessly in the darkness, carefully trying to feel my way around.”

“Oh you can see, can you?” she narrowed her eyes at me.

“I can.”

“Then how do you explain that?” she pointed at the puddle by her feet, a puddle that surrounded my up-turned glass. A quick glance at my wet right shoe explained everything.

“Did I do that?”

“Yes, you did, my enlightened being, and amazingly enough, you did it after you opened your eyes.”

“Your shoes are wet.”

“Well observed, but don’t be fooled by the wetness on the outside. Trust me, it went all the way through to my socks.”

“Sorry.”

“So you should be. I tell you, Gadi, sometimes you seem to be much more centered with your eyes closed.”

Little did I know, at the time, how right she was.

Part Three  Part Five

Fungus and Chopsticks – Part Five of Total Disaster

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“What’s up?” Tessa sighed as she lay on the futon and watched me pacing the narrow space of our room, four steps from one tin wall to the other.

“You’re driving me insane!” she said but I ignored her warning and continued walking, stepping over her legs with every second step.

“Final warning!” she said and before I could react, she threw a shoe in my direction, sharply hitting my shinbone. The pain shot straight to my head.

“What’s wrong with you?” I cried, and leaned down to rub the aching limb.

“Oh, good morning. Nice of you to wake up. I’m sorry, but I was sure you were sleep-walking.”

“With my eyes wide open?”

“You could have fooled me. So, what’s going on, Gadi? And please don’t tell me it’s something to do with training.”

“It’s something to do with training.”

“I asked you not to say that.”

“I had no other choice.”

“So what is it my little fluffy aikido bunny? What’s eating at you? I thought everything was going well.”

“It was for a while.”

“And?”

“My progress seems to have hit a brick wall.”

“Maybe you’re just tired. Some rest might do you a world of good.”

She pointed at the futon, but I shook my head.

“I’m not tired. I’m frustrated.”

“Frustrated because you moved too fast?”

“What does that mean?”

“That perhaps information is like food that needs time to be digested and processed. Eat a lot, too fast, and you might end up with indigestion.”

“No!” I cried and dropped to my knees in front of her.

“Some space please,” she said, and pulled away, leaning with her back against the wall.

“Do you remember how I told you that having a centered kamae is everything in Aikido?” I said. “That it is the place from which we sense our partners and perform the techniques?”

“How can I forget? You have basically chanted ‘Find Your Kamae’, ever since Payet sensei spelled it out for you in the kitchen at the dojo, words that sent you on your recent quest.”

“Exactly,” I nodded and stretched my arms out with open palms, not far from her face.

“You see the wide gap between the palms?” I continued, my voice loud, and my eyes burning with insane desperation.

“Oh I see, you mad dog. What about it?”

“This gap is how far I was from being centered before Payet sensei enlightened me. Closing that gap became my sole purpose in life, and for the past few months, all I did was work painstakingly on that goal, slowly but surely making progress until it finally closed up.”

To emphasize my words I moved my arms toward one another until the palms met in the middle.

“Bravo,” she said and began to clap. “Happy ending, everything is good.”

“I wish it was that simple, but to be honest with you, everything is far worse than it was before I started.”

“Why, baby? You were so happy just a few days ago.”

“I was. I really thought I’d sussed it out until I began to realize that finding the perfect center is actually impossible for me to achieve. You see, when you get into the finest of details, in order to have a perfect center, there should be a perfect balance between the right side of the body and the left. Every limb, muscle fiber, bone and joint should be lined up exactly on the center plane and operate as one, exerting equal strength, flexibility and coordination.”

My palms moved away from one another, the gap between the arms widening at a swift and decisive pace.

“Poor baby is back at the starting point,” she whispered and ran her fingers through my hair. I ground my teeth, and shook my head in annoyance.

“I wish I was,” I said as my arms passed the point where I had begun the demonstration and continued to move apart, my shoulders aching from the strain of overstretching. “I wish I was at the beginning when I still thought there was hope for achieving such physical perfection. I was happily deluded for a while, but not anymore. Now that the impossibility of the task has hit me I’m totally lost.”

“Poor, insane, baby,” she sighed and I miserably nodded at her words, deflated and feeble as I finally dropped and lay still on the futon.

*

Despite my complaints and sense of desperation I continued to try and achieve the ultimate center with a perfect balance between the left and right sides of my body. Trying. . . although knowing I would never succeed. As it happened, what solved the problem was another enlightening moment in the kitchen during a lunch break.

I was washing my dishes while David was finishing his meal. We were talking casually when the door opened and Chida sensei stepped in. He was limping and mumbling to himself in Japanese.

“Is everything alright, Sensei?” David asked as Chida Sensei sat heavily across from him, placed his right leg across his left thigh, and started nursing his foot.

Chida Sensei, a master of the art, had notorious feet due to two special qualities. The first quality was Chida sensei’s ability to keep his feet attached to the tatami as he glided around the dojo and performed aikido techniques, the most perfect demonstration of suri-ashi that was ever seen. The second was the fact that both feet were coated in an unbreakably hard shield of fungus, white as flour and quite shocking to see. It made David drop his spoon and rush to the sink, trying to cover up his wretching.

 

“It’s not suri-ashi but sorry-ashi,” I overheard a Canadian beginner whispering after observing Chida sensei in action. “I bet that dry fungal coating is what makes him slide so perfectly— as if he is roller skating.”

“Are you OK, sensei?” David asked, this time with his eyes embedded in the sink, as if waiting for me to finish my dish-washing. “Can we do anything to help?”

“I stepped on a piece of glass at home,” Chida sensei said, David translating. David was a keen student of the Japanese language – so very unlike myself. On hearing David’s words I quickly dried my hands and rushed to Chida sensei’s side.

“Are you sure it was glass, sensei?” I asked after carefully inspecting his foot. “The skin is intact, and there’s no blood.”

David translated and Chida sensei smiled and explained:

“It happened more than a week ago. I thought there was nothing inside but today, suddenly, it started to hurt.”

I nodded as I watched him touching and examining the foot. He looked deep in thought.

“Maybe you should see a doctor?” David suggested and Chida sensei frowned and lifted up his head.

“What?”

“I said maybe you should see a doctor,” David repeated. Chida sensei looked horrified.

“No,” he vigorously shook his head. “I don’t like doctors.”

Both David and I wore puzzled expressions as we watched him return to analyze his foot.

O hashi,)chopsticks),” Chida sensei at long last exclaimed, without lifting his eyes, like a surgeon ordering his team of nurses. David rubbed his chin and his eyes widened, probably as baffled as I was as to where this line of thought was going.

What surgical procedure was he about to perform?

Was he going to dissect his foot with the tip of a chopstick? Or even worse, was he going to eat it – skin, fungus and all? Dreading what was about to follow, David handed Chida sensei a pair of black chopsticks. Chida sensei shook his head without looking at David.

“The disposable ones,” he said. “These ones are too rounded.”

We searched for a few seconds until we found a bag full of pinewood chopsticks, each pair neatly encased in a paper envelope. I handed one to Chida sensei, and he slid the chopsticks out, took a jagged knife and began to saw at it. We watched him cutting both square ends, placing each slice to the sides of his invisible wound, then wrapping the wooden structure with a long sticky strip of plaster.

“Very good,” he complimented himself as he stood up and walked a few steps.

“Good, Sensei?” David muttered and Chida sensei uttered a few words, smiled and left the kitchen.

“What the hell did he say?” I asked. David exhaled loudly before answering.

“He said he had achieved his objective. And his objective was not an operation, but rather walking free of pain.”

*

I must admit that the procedure Chida sensei performed on his foot did achieve his objective. He continued to walk on his chopsticks for a few days until the pain was gone and he could detach the weird structure. I guess there wasn’t a piece of glass embedded in his foot after all, but a minor infection.

However, this incident made me reassess my desire to acquire perfect balance between the right and left sides of my body. After all, if my objective was to grasp the concept of the center, just like Chida sensei’s objective was to walk free of pain, then assuming I should have a perfect physical center in order to do so, was as wrong as assuming Chida sensei had a piece of glass embedded in his foot rather than an infection.

Such an assumption could divert one from one’s goal, sending one on the wrong course of action or even worse, ending up with an unnecessary operation.

“But what about Chida sensei’s heater lesson?” Tessa asked when I told her about my new enlightenment.

“This is different,” I explained. “A heater is a physical device that needs all of its components to be properly aligned and adjusted in order to work. But the center is a sensual concept above all, and as such, the physical components are far less meaningful.”

“So what’s next?” she sighed. “And please don’t tell me you’re going to start sawing chopsticks and sticking them to your feet.”

“Chopsticks are for foot infections. I need to find the right tools for my problem.”

Part Four  Part Six

Teaching Myself – Sixth and final part of Total Disaster

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Something bizarre and wonderful occurred during the morning session with the kokusai senshusei (‘foreign instructor course’). There was nothing to indicate that anything out of the ordinary was about to happen. It was just another day at the dojo. I was standing at attention, observing Jacques Payet sensei, the foreign head instructor, as he demonstrated a technique on Mark Baker sensei, his second-in-command.

Standing at attention was a common practice when teaching at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo. The unwritten rule stated that, unless a teacher was demonstrating or physically assisting a certain student, he or she had to stand at attention on the edge of the mats: out of the way, quietly observing the session, like the guards at Buckingham Palace, minus the funny hats, healthy paycheck and the tourists who pester them throughout the day.

It is by no means an easy task to stand motionless for a prolonged period of time, especially when one must maintain a fixed, straight posture. The lack of circulation causes the legs to feel heavy and the feet to hurt. Soon after, other joints and body parts, those which are ever so slightly unaligned, but normally go unnoticed due to a constant shift in position, start to ache.

To throb. . . .

To disturb. . . .

To agonize until they reach a pinnacle of pain, and start to scream and beg, demanding you either run away and never come back, walk to the nearest student and correct him for a mistake he hadn’t made, or at least implement some fine adjustments to your posture, such as gently shifting your weight from leg to leg, slowly rotating your lower back and even flexing and stretching your fingers and toes.

As it was halfway through the class, my physical agony was already peaking and I had to summon all my self control in order to try and remain fully focused and alert. I did my best, but found it unusually difficult due to an excruciating pain in my lower back that felt like a burning blade twisting between the vertebrae.

Feeling the need to do something, I implemented relaxation techniques that I had learned in yoga, closing my eyes, stretching my spine and focusing on my breathing. I visualized the air as a bright blue vessel that travelled from my lungs to the sore spot, using the breathing pattern to bestow calm as it reached the source of my pain, dispersing tension as it moved away. It took a few minutes, and then, the pain diminished. Inspired by my success, I let the brilliant blue vessel sail to the edges of my trunk, soothingly overriding all discomfort. I inhaled and the brightness expanded away from the borders of the flesh, up through the top of my head and to the heavens, down from the bottom of my spine and merging with the earth.

It felt as if a straight beacon of light was supporting my body, attaching my feet to the ground and at the same time, serving as a perfect launching pad should I decide to move around. I smiled to myself as it suddenly dawned on me that I had never felt so centered before.

I continued to indulge in the enchanting experience until Payet sensei called an end to the lesson.

*

I was grinning to myself as we sat in the kitchen, eating breakfast and sipping a cup of coffee. I hardly spoke to anyone, showing little interest in the conversations around me, completely consumed by my thoughts about my earlier discovery. It was only when Payet sensei, who had seemed troubled throughout his meal, started speaking, that I was briefly diverted from my contemplation.

“What did you think of zee lesson?” he asked Mark who sat next to him. “Do you think they understood the points I was trying to make?”

“About the center?” Mark asked.

“The center and how to move from zee hips,” Payet sensei said. “I sometimes worry my English is not good enough for them to understand.”

“Oh, they understand,” Mark smiled broadly. “But if you don’t mind me saying, sensei, maybe you should stop using the word ‘fixation.’ It’s a word that’s used, in many cases, to describe perverted intentions.”

“But that is not my intention,” said Payet sensei with an innocent expression. “I only try to demonstrate the focus and intent they need when moving from zee center.”

“I fully understand your point, sensei, however…” Mark jumped to his feet and stood in front of Payet sensei in kamae. “When you say ‘fixation’ and move your hips in front of the seated students, some might get the wrong idea.”

Mark thrust his hips backwards and forwards in a rather sensual manner. Payet sensei silently observed, then his eyes widened behind the glasses and he burst out laughing. Everyone joined in apart from me. There was the blue light again – this time visualized through the center of Mark and his comical gesture.

“So no more ‘fixation’,” Payet sensei concluded when the laughter died out and Mark sat down.

“Exactly, Sensei.”

They returned to their meals, but I continued to gape at the place where Mark had stood in kamae. I nodded to myself, silently enjoying my new realization.

“Plenty of work to do,” I whispered.

“Did you say something?” Mark asked.

“A personal debate,” I answered and Mark chuckled in return.

*

The blue light became my obsession during the following days. It was present when I practiced, walked, rode on the train and even as I lay in bed before sleep, the light projecting from my forehead to the ceiling. It seemed like there was no limit to the way it could be applied. It taught me endless lessons, brought fresh ideas into my mind and at the same time, freed me from the shackles of frustration that had bound me for such a long time.

I learned how to connect the spine to my limbs, and how to connect my limbs to the center of my training partners. It also made me very aware of the line on which I moved, and the planes through which power was applied on me or by me. In my inspired mood, I created tens of training methods.

‘Power walking,’ for example, was one of my favorites, a drill not only enjoyable, but practical too, especially when maneuvering through crowded places. I deployed it on numerous occasions as I came off the train and walked the underground passes of Shinjuku station, drawing an imaginary line toward my desired exit and then charging forward, my back straight and my eyes focused on my goal, keeping to my path, my intent parting the hordes of people that ceaselessly crisscrossed the tightly packed space, like Moses parting the Red Sea.

“I found my center!” I joyously declared to Tessa and handed her a steaming cup of coffee. We were sitting on the floor of our tiny, tin room. Tessa had just returned from a vacation in England, her suitcase lying on the floor beside her. She politely listened as I recounted my discovery of the blue light, and how I had used it to capture the concept of the center, her eyes closing occasionally. She must have been exhausted from the long trip, and from the devastating effects of jetlag. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t contain my excitement.

“Hooray,” she yawned when I finally finished.

“Hip hip hooray,” I nodded. “Chida sensei is an amazing teacher.”

“Chida sensei?” she asked. “What’s it got to do with him?”

“Didn’t you listen to my story about the way he healed his foot?”

“With the chopsticks. I remember. Still, I don’t understand what the blue light has to do with him.”

“It has everything to do with him. Without him I would probably never had thought of finding a new way to grasp the idea of the center. You would’ve come back and found me standing on my head, hanging from a tree or doing some other crazy thing in order to find the perfect physical balance between the right and left side of my body.”

“I seriously doubt it.”

“What do you mean?” I frowned. I was getting quite annoyed by this stage.

“Look,” she sighed. “I know how much you respect your teachers and how much credit you like to give them for everything you achieve. However, in my opinion, you sometimes give too much weight to them and very little to yourself.”

“How’s that?”

“Let’s go over your experiences and you will see what I mean, starting from the moment Payet sensei stood in front of you and inflamed your imagination. Now if you think about it, all he did was stand and tell you to find your kamae. You did the rest! You were the one who decided what he meant, and you were the one who figured out the way to do it. Honestly, sometimes one phrase can be very significant, but only if it falls on the right listener.”

She took a sip from her coffee while I contemplated her words.

“Don’t you agree?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Up until now I thought the genius was in the words he chose.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “The penny, so to speak, would have dropped anyway because you were so eager and tuned in for an answer. Your story of Chida sensei and the chopsticks is yet another perfect example. The man came into the kitchen and fixed his foot in a rather silly fashion, and you built a whole theory just by observing him at work. Now I have no doubt in my mind that what he did was very creative; however, I believe you would get the same ideas and benefits from observing anyone else performing something in an unconventional way.”

“Hey, Gadi, why you are you looking so miserable?”

“I don’t like you putting my teachers down.”

“I’m not putting them down—rather, I’m putting you up, silly.” she smiled. “But that’s not all.”

“Not all?”

“Well, I know you place a lot of weight on your achievements regarding your center and kamae, but I think that maybe you’re missing out on two vital points.”

“OK. Name them.”

“The first brings to mind Mark Baker, and what he told you a few months ago, that the main goal of studying is finding a way to teach yourself. I think what your stories really suggest is that you have actually achieved that goal.”

Her words shook me to my core. I sat and stared at her as the sequence of events went through my mind, so overwhelmed and absorbed by my own thoughts that it took me a while to realize she was waving her empty cup of coffee in front of my eyes.

“Hey,” she said. “Don’t you want to know what that second point was?”

I smiled.

“Yes? What else did I miss out?”

“That both enlightening experiences, with Chida and Payet, happened in the kitchen.”

“And how’s that significant?”

“Because I’m starving. Why don’t you go and make us something to eat. Maybe something amazing will happen. You never know!”

Part Five

 

Winning with Ukemi – Part Three Of Sensei Jekyll and Sensei Hyde

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I sat on the roof of the guesthouse and took a sip from the beer bottle, deep in thoughts over the upcoming training session and demonstration with Chino sensei. Technically, I had no doubt in my mind that I was more than ready for him. I was in great physical shape and there was nothing he could throw at me that I didn’t experience before. The only downside was the unpleasant previous experiences I shared with him as those could very well weaken my spirit, allowing negativity to turn me feeble and hesitant, destroying my instinctive reactions and shatters my natural flow.

It was something I could not afford as it contradicted my goal of reaching the very top of the performers’ ladder. Such objective could only be achieved by being clear minded and completely relaxed in the face of any challenge and every adversity.

Chino sensei had to demonstrate to the best of his abilities regardless of my emotions and doubts. He needed to look as sharp and as strong as he ever did, preferably even better than he did before.

I sighed and looked up; staring into vast emptiness of the moonless night, the place where the orange glow of hectic city mingled with the darkness and created a barrier against the light of the stars.

“A barrier,” I whispered and took another sip, thinking of the mental barrier that might hamper my efforts to exercise the most important qualities of the art of the uke – the devotion and dedication to the performer.

Devotion and dedication meant the uke could read every movement of the Shite, (Tori), in advance, tuned in to finest shift to their constitution, be it in slight change of posture, facial expression, or even in the way they inhaled and exhaled.

A good example, although somehow extreme, can be seen in the uke of Gozo Shioda sensei, namely, his Uchi Deshi. In order to become his uke, the new Uchi Deshi had to undergo preparation training where they would dedicate themselves to the lower grade teachers, obeying their every command. They would hardly ever sit, standing in attention and serving the senior instructors with food and beverages, fold and wash their clothes, prepare their slippers as they stepped on and off the mat and taking their uke.

The first contact the new Uchi Deshi had with Master Shioda would be as his servants. They would be there as he ate, moved about and went to the toilet, each function described with a specific procedures they had to follow, systems that sometimes took months to learn and perfect. A good example would be the bath, where he would demand they would know the specific water temperature he desired without the use of a thermometer, and, to detect when he would want to get in and out of the water despite the fact there were two sliding doors to separate the bath from the place where the Uchi Deshi waited.

Such training developed almost a supernatural level of awareness to his every need and move. And he would check and recheck their abilities, sometimes even toying with them.

“He always tries you out,” told me Mark Baker, who took over the position of Master Shioda’s chauffeur when Neshida sensei quit and left to Hokkaido.

“Example please,” I begged as we sat in the kitchen.

“Like when we go and eat at a restaurant,” Mark elaborated. “I would sit across from him, just as we sit now, and be totally absorbed by his action, especially when he finished his meal, knowing that the moment he wants to leave, he would simply get up and head to the exit. My eyes would focus on him as he casually conversed with me or just sat with his back straight in complete silence. Then he would suddenly lean forward, like so,” Mark demonstrated, shifting toward me and placing his hands on the table, using them as levers as he slowly lifted his buttocks off the seat.

“At the sight of this movement I would jump to my feet and he would look at me, smile, like a naughty boy, and sink back onto his seat.”

Mark leant backwards and chuckled.

“He would do that quite a few times at every meal.”

Needless to say that by the time an Uchi Deshi got the chance to actually take uke for Master Shioda, they would approach him like puny mortals who are about to interact with the all mighty divine, wide eyed, tuned in and focused, occasionally over reacting or exaggerate their performance in order to demonstrate their devotions and dedication.

There was another element which Shioda sensei tended to use in order to further stimulate his Uchi Deshi into action, an element that is commonly used in religion and other such institutions in order to implement devotion and zeal in their disciples. The fear factor – the fear from the unknown, and in our case, the fear from the pain he might inflict on you, from his disappointment of your performance, from his rejection and even, from losing your position at the dojo…

Many teachers tended to try and implement the fear factor on their uke but since they lacked the mystical aura that surrounded Master Shioda, their focus was on pain and on the worries of uke from the physical damage that might be inflicted upon them.

I remember how once, at the beginning of a training session with Mark Baker sensei, a man who was on friendly terms with me off the mats and yet, who tended to wear a fierce and intense expression as soon as we exercised together, I smiled at him, while we stood in kamae and asked him:

“Are you trying to scare me, Mark?”

He looked astonished for a second, and I remember thinking that perhaps I might have went too far this time, disrespecting the boundary between ranks and putting to shame the unwritten rules of conduct at the dojo. Then he smiled, the deep frown gone from his forehead. The session that followed was the best we ever had, free of tension and ego, flowing, connected, and manifesting the purest expression of the techniques.

Fear might have been a tool that the teacher used but it could not be an option if I wanted to be fully committed and engaged in the coming demonstration. I had to overcome myself, drive away the terrorizing memories and not allow fear to take hold of me even if Chino sensei wanted to use it.

“Take charge of the situation,” I whispered to myself and although it might sound like an absurd statement since my role was being on the receiving end, the person who reacts, absorbs and follows the actions of the head performer, I believe it is more than a feasible truth.

A good example to the amount of control the uke has over the outcome of the performance is in plain sights on many of Master Gozo Shioda’s demonstration. There were countless occasions in which I observed his uke, men much younger, bigger and fitter than him, avoiding bumping and crashing into his frail body and instead, throwing themselves around in the most incredible fashion, in fact, doing it so masterfully that to the innocent eye it might look like the master was the cause to their falls.

“Artistic,” some would suggest.

“Magnificent,” other will observe, and:

“The man is undoubtedly a magician by all accounts.”

There are other examples to justify my claims for the uke taking charge of the situation, personal examples, like the numerous times in which I helped instructors maintain their equilibrium after an over zealous throw, keeping the connection to their body with my locked limb, pushing toward them in order to help them keep their perfect postures.

I even once, cheekily I must confess, wanted to judge my ability to exhaust Robert Mustered sensei by asking him to throw me around as hard as he can; counting on the fact that being younger and fitter might ultimately give me the upper hand. He crashed me and beat me for a few good minutes but I managed to survive and in the end, he had to call the session off. I took charge of the situation and luckily, without any broken bones or a concussion to report…

*

I was still clueless as to how I will handle Chino sensei when I went to bed that night and when I woke up in the following morning. But there were few things that I was certain on. I had to clear myself from fear and worries and in order to do so, had to take charge of the situation today, on the day of the practice with Chino sensei.

When he finally came to get me, on the break between the first and second morning sessions, I still had no idea what I would do. However, and despite the fact the training will commence in a few seconds, I was very confident that the answer will present itself soon enough, perhaps because I knew from past experiences that when I saturated my mind with a problem it always gave rise to the solution.

I followed him to the mats, we bowed to the shrine, bowed to each other and he asked me to attack with a Shomen Uchi strike. I raised my hand over my head and when I brought it down with the chopping move, I was consciously focusing on being as calm as I could get. He led me to a kotegayshi throw and it went very smoothly. The next couple of throws, Shionage kozushi, and UdeGarame, were also flowing and incident free moves.

I exhaled in relief, knowing I passed the first test, that now he knew my arms were relaxed enough for him to perform all the locks he wanted. It was a comforting thought but I wasn’t fooled by my success, aware it was only the beginning.

Next we moved to a few kokyunage throws and again I harmonized with him to perfection. He nodded his approval but remained expressionless. He asked me to attack with Katate Muchi, wrist grab, and mixed kokyunage with a variety of arm locks and added some Iriminage throws. Again, it was going very nicely.

“Doing well. All this worry was for nothing,” I thought and then sensed how he was gradually investing more power in the throws. I managed to keep my composure and with each technique the power grew until the situation turned a little risky. I began to suspect that perhaps my calm reaction was the reason for his aggressive behavior.

“He is trying to break me,” I thought and at that precise point, he suddenly performed an outrageous Koshinage, a hip throw that was so high and powerful it caused my body to flail ungracefully in the air then crash in a loud thud on the tatami. I remained splattered on the floor, lying stunned for a second that felt like an hour long.

“Hold it together,” the thought rang in my head, as if trying to encourage me against the fear and worries that started to get the better of me.

“One more throw like this and I’ll end up in the emergency room. One more and I’m done…”

I was about to lose it all together when it suddenly hit me, like bolt of lightning from the heavens, or perhaps like a head splitting strike from the ground – a solution so simple and elegant that it twisted my lips in a tiny smile.

“Bloody genius!”

I wiped the smile from my face and jumped to my feet. I stood in front of him with a deep frown decorating my forehead, shaking my head, as if displeased with myself.

“Can we do it again, sensei?” I asked.

“Again?” he said, and now he was also wearing the frown.

“Yes, please, and if you don’t mind, stronger this time. I am not satisfied with my ukemi. I think I need a stronger throw to do it better.”

He rolled his eyes and nodded. I took a second fall, an iron grip on my wrist, noting how he hardly bent forward when he hauled me over his back, stretching to his full height as he pulled away and brought me down.

I jumped back to my feet, ignoring the pain and the ringing in my ears.

“Can we do it again?” I pleaded, my twisted expression demonstrating my discontent. “Harder if you please. I’m not there yet.”

I could tell he was putting all he’s got in the next throw, my body smashed like the titanic on the iceberg as it hit the floor. I tightened my lips, shutting my mouth against the urge to scream. Instead I jumped back to my feet and for a moment I stood before him, head tilted to the side while holding my chin. I felt his eyes on me. He looked completely bemused when I asked him to do it yet harder.

But the next throw was nowhere near as strong as the last one. He was losing it but I wasn’t going to let him off my hook. I wasn’t done with him. Not just yet.

“Again please?” I begged and he looked less than happy to comply, knowing as well as I did that he have already reached the pinnacle of his abilities. However, he did comply.

Once.

Twice.

And…

“Never mind,” I sighed after the third attempt. “Perhaps another time.”

I looked at him, standing straight and calm, as if asking him to move on. But he seemed like he had already lost his will to continue.

“Enough for today,” he said and we bowed at each other. I watched him as he bowed to the shrine and moved up the few stairs that led to the corridor and to the door of the office. Only when he was out of sight did I allow myself to drop down and nurse my agonized flesh, tears in my eyes, a blend of pain and joy.

It was the only session but as I predicted, it was more than enough. When the day of the demonstration came I was more than relaxed and he seemed calmer then ever.

It was a pure display.

A truly wonderful performance.

Part One  Part Two

כור אייקידו- הבית של יושינקאן אייקידו בישראל. אומנות לחימה יפנית הדוגלת ביצירת הרמוניה פנימית וחיצונית ובפתרון עימותים בדרכי שלום. בהדרכת סנסאי גדי שור, בעל דרגת דאן 6 ביושינקאן אייקידו

ברוכים הבאים לוורדפרס. זה הפוסט הראשון באתר. ניתן למחוק או לערוך אותו, ולהתחיל לכתוב.