Decided to write down my experiences because time is passing and naturally memories fade.
1. I saw Saotome sensei on two different occasions before I ever touched him. I think I was visiting the bay area while living in Japan both times, and they were just my dropping by to observe a seminar class. The first was at Aikido West. Karl was uke. For one technique, something happened that has always been difficult to explain. I saw what was happening right in front of my eyes. It was something like shihonage or koshinage. The bizarre thing was, and is, I don’t know what happened. Paradoxically, I could and could not recognize what was done. And it was only one ‘throw’ so the moment was very ephemeral. Somehow I knew it wasn’t a fluke, like I spaced out or something. Instead, I attributed it to Saotome sensei himself. The other thing was, I walked away with my first impression of sensei, which I still hold, namely that his aikido is beautiful yet dangerous/scary. The second was at Tam. It was a sword class. I was sitting on a bench, positioned directly behind sensei. Partner (Bill) came with shomen-uchi. Saotome sensei raised his sword almost straight up, and though there was no contact, partner missed, off to the side. This was done multiple times. I could somehow see that there was more than met the eye, that there was some very subtle timing and that sensei’s sword wasn’t simply going straight up. I was very excited to see this, because I knew only I could see it. Everyone else was watching it from the side. I was partly excited for future opportunities because I knew there would be many ‘hidden’ things in sensei’s aikido.
2. Around 2000, I flew from Japan to Colorado to attend Boulder Aikikai’s summer camp. I was excited to meet Saotome sensei for the first time. I remember saying this to Wendy Palmer, who told me to stick by her because Saotome sensei knew her for a long time and so it would be more likely he would stop by and work with us. It may have happened but I can’t remember if it led to his working with me. I also remember working with Kevin Choate, who was completely overwhelming for me at the time. The technique at the time was just stopping mune-tsuki. At some point during our practice, Kevin suddenly starts running off. I was completely bewildered. I was like, “Did he hate practicing with me that much? Do I go chase after him?” So I tentatively followed him, and I spot him squared off against someone, ready to punch. As I get near, I see Saotome sensei walking around the room, noticing Kevin squared off against him, giving a small smile, and facing him as if to say, “Okay, go ahead”. After that, they went at it a few times. This is more a memory of Kevin and Saotome sensei’s relationship than anything. Finally, in one of the classes, Saotome sensei was throwing around a couple of the younger guys. He gestures toward me, and I get myself together because I know this could me my one and only chance. I strike with shomen-uchi and it was a very simple throw, like seoi-nage. But the thing was, when I stood back up after falling, I was 3 – 4 meters away from sensei. I had no sensation of traveling far, nor of being accelerated or thrown hard. I doubted my senses, but I couldn’t imagine sensei throwing me then stepping back a few meters. I must have really been thrown a few meters. This lack of sensation was, and has been, captivating for me.
3. Over the course of about 2 – 3 years, while I was practicing at Boulder Aikikai, Saotome sensei kept repeating to me the same comment. “You must be ‘sunao’.” “You can’t do aikido unless you are ‘sunao’.” “You must have a clean ‘heart-mind’.” I really thought on this hard, almost literally everyday. I made very little headway. After more than 2 years of this, I decided I’d try to ask him about it verbally. There was a seminar at Tam and a Saturday party at Wendy’s house. At the party I mentioned to her I was trying to figure out how to talk to sensei. A short time later, she leads me into a small room where sensei is resting on a sofa by himself, says, “Sensei, this is Dan Nishina and he’d like to talk”, and shuts the door on us. After a moment of awkwardness, I decide to get to it. I start, “Sensei, you’ve told me it’s important to be ‘sunao’ for the past few years. I’ve really thought about it. Everyday.” Unexpectedly, I start to get emotional. I think it had been really frustrating not to make any progress on this point for so long. I remember his starting talking about having majored in mechanical engineering in university and also something about a balloon. I don’t remember but I have the impression he said something briefly about ‘sunao’ meaning ‘having a clean mind’. I did walk away with the clear impression that he listened to me and also saw how I had been sincerely struggling with his advice. That impression was the main thing. Maybe it gave me hope.
4. At one seminar at Tam’s temporary location, I just happened to be called up for mitori uke. We’d been doing kicks that day so I thought that there was no way I’d be called up, but there I am, with Saotome sensei gesturing for a front kick. I was a bit wary so I consciously went medium/medium-fast. What I remember vividly is, extending my foot out for the kick and feeling that everything slowed down. My consciousness was still at regular speed, so in my mind, I was thinking, “Why is everything going slow?” It didn’t feel sluggish or drowsy or strange in any way, just slow. And sensei had the easiest time doing whatever technique he did.
5. At one of the last seminars I went to at Missoula, we had weapons class in some elementary school gymnasium. It was sword class. Saotome sensei had a clear open space in the middle in which to demonstrate. He did a lot of suburi, with a lot of movement, lots of twirling and turning. And at the end, he says, “Go ahead”. But this was a really crowded gymnasium. Just for a brief moment, I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he see how crowded it is? how crowded it’s going to be for us people who don’t have this big open space all to ourselves like you?” Just for a moment. And then, I realized, that’s exactly what he knew. I felt like I got his message. And so I went full speed, just like him, with lots of turning and cutting, just like him. The point was that you need to see everything yet move with no hesitation or analytic thinking.
6. Once at a seminar at Boulder, there was one of the rare occasions sensei did basic form. We did katate-dori kokyuho. I remember thinking to myself, “This is gold. I just have to feel this for myself, at least once”. And I got just once chance. Visually, I think it looked like a slightly stiff kokyuho. But feeling it, it was like experiencing a straight line. I was gathered very perfectly and softly into a straight line. I don’t even remember the specifics of how I fell down.
7. I think it was after the little episode at Wendy’s house and talking for a bit about ‘sunao’, I was a bit gratified to get a different piece of advice from Saotome sensei at Boulder Aikikai. He simply said to me, twice that day, “Don’t use hanmi”. This was really puzzling because I had trained well while at Hombu to practically embody hanmi. But this lasted a brief moment and I started to try to do almost everything without hanmi, keeping my feet even or only slightly staggered. I felt I could see the underlying message, which was to not be trapped in, or limited by, using hanmi. Now, later on, with some more insight, I can see it is also to physically use my body and body weight more subtly than just by crudely using hanmi and leaning, driving, etc. with my legs.
8. It was a bit cringe-y, this episode, but kind of funny nonetheless. At the Saturday party of a Missoula seminar, I happened to be talking with Jun, and at some point Taku came over, I think maybe for a second time to talk with me about some personal problems he was having. So basically there’s us three Japanese guys sitting in a row. Saotome sensei walks over, and I think starts to talk to Jun about the seriousness of knowing what one wants in life, etc. (I think the back story here is Saotome sensei being disgruntled about Jun not jumping on the bandwagon and acting like a deshi.) So Saotome sensei was getting angrier and more heated until he goes and slaps Jun across the face. I can’t remember if it was me or Taku next, but I didn’t get the brunt of anything. The comment from sensei to Taku was something about being strong and trying hard, and Taku started breaking down and crying, and got a big slap upside the head. I got a big slap down on to my head. The whole slapping thing repeated once or twice and became kind of a show, I felt. Taku was probably in no state to realize this and Jun was the main focus so he couldn’t really look like he wasn’t anything but serious. In my case, I just tried to maintain a poker face while thinking, “I’m just here to complete this slapping routine and I can’t escape …”
9. During one of the seminars at Boulder, probably on lunch break, it happened that Saotome sensei and I were the only ones just inside the front door. He says to me, “Do you know about ‘kan’ sight? And regular, ‘ken’ sight?” He proceeds to write these on a scrap of paper. At the time I had been working translating Endo sensei’s material and there was considerable talk about ‘kan’ and ‘ken’ ways of seeing. Saotome sensei didn’t say anything out of the ordinary, but his bringing it up like that at that particular time was astounding. Actually, I held myself back from asking if he’d seen Endo sensei’s DVDs, but judging from how his relationship is with TV, it’s pretty doubtful that he would sit down and watch some aikido DVDs.
10. During one of the seminars at Boulder, on lunch break, Saotome was sitting by himself in one of the chairs in the front desk area. I had a question in mind that I wanted to ask him, namely how to handle when you start to do katate-tori tenkan and if the person is holding on to you strongly, then it feels like a yonkyo with their knuckle at the base of their forefinger. Saotome sensei is sitting down in one of the chairs and I’m standing by him, grabbing my own arm to illustrate what I’m talking about. He sticks his hand out, and I realize that he’s going to show rather than explain. And he’s not one to show something many times or at length. So I decide to really go at him with my knuckle. My knuckle didn’t find anything to go against. I couldn’t even get a strong grip. Almost the opposite, the rest of my arm and consequently my body started to conform to him such that instead of only the forefinger side of my hand, my entire hand seemed to be trying to grab him. I’m sure my eyes bugged out. The exact opposite of what I was trying to do happened, and I don’t know how.
11. When I visited Missoula with Mayumi from Japan, at some point (I think it was the last lunch we had with everyone because it was a receipt that sensei wrote on) sensei starts to draw what looks like a triangle, circle, and square. Actually, it’s a square with a circle inside, divided into top and bottom by a line. He shaded in the bottom half of the square. I remember him talking about shu-ha-ri and asking me if I knew that there was a dark side to it. Honestly, I don’t remember any details after that. I do have that piece of paper in my wallet, still, though.
1. At the first Aikido Bridge seminar, I think at the very beginning of his maybe second or third class, Murashige sensei called my up for uke. I was feeling kind of psyched because I had reached a nice level of competence training with Ikeda sensei and I knew Murashige sensei knew I was friends with his son, Teru. Anyway, it was for katate-tori tenkan. I remember grabbing him and this big, unexpected whoosh feeling. My rear leg actually went flying the opposite way, the opposite of what you’d expect, and I completely crumbled. Completely soft, baffling power. I didn’t feel any force but I was moved so much.
2. The other times, maybe a total of 5 or 6, that I felt Murashige sensei, it was just softness or nothing, and a sudden crumpling, sometimes whiplash. I remember thinking, wow, there’s someone else who is in the same realm as Saotome sensei, based on that feeling of nothingness when grabbing his arm.
3. I hung out with Teru and Murashige sensei in their dorm room at Boulder Aikikai’s summer camp. I was on the team of providing food and snacks for the instructors, but they had brought their own instant rice and curry and invited me in to have some. Murashige sensei talked about some trippy stuff. Like how he likes to close his eyes because he can see stars and the night sky. He asked me if I saw Saotome sensei that morning, and shared his observation that Saotome sensei was always forward on his feet. From that point, I noticed O-sensei, Nishio sensei, and a couple of other people who we might call “masters” standing in the same way. I might have shared about Ikeda sensei bringing his senpai from university to Boulder Aikikai, and his emphasis on training the big toes. For whatever reason, Murashige sensei started affirming, yes, the big toes are very important. And this somehow segued into his talking about the “other center”, the center of the back, between the shoulder blades and slightly lower. This last concept of center has been heavily informing my research since then.
1. My earliest interaction with Tamura sensei was one of the times he would just drop by one of the classes at Hombu after it had already started. I knew he did this but he was completely off my radar. Also, this was in the days when I had bad vision and I never wore glasses, so facial recognition wasn’t something I could do. I recognized people by their posture and way of moving. This time, it was a morning or afternoon class. I was practicing near the front/right door with Sakurai-san, suwariwaza shomen-uchi ikkyo. Right in the midst of this, an old guy comes over and looks like he wants to join us. I notice how late in the class it is, but sure, whatever. When he kneels down and attacks, his shomen-uchi is just his pointer finger, not a whole hand-blade, and it swings down and ends in front of my nose, not over my head. I didn’t even register this as a shomen-uchi the first one or two times. After I did recognize that this was his attack, I start to do a go-through-the-motions kind of ikkyo. He shakes my hands away, apparently demanding I do it again/better. At this point I’m irritated at this strange attack and expectation. I try one time grabbing his finger but he shakes me away and doesn’t let me do it. I then do something I normally reserve for standing work, just trying to get some kind of response and give-and-take. As he strikes, I move a bit to the inside and hit him lightly in the head/face. This happens a couple of more times with no progress in our interaction. Finally he just seems to give up and does the go-through-the-motions ukemi. After class is over, Sakurai-san comes over to me and says, “You were angry, weren’t you?” I reply, “I suppose so. That was too weird.” Then she says, “Do you know that was Tamura shihan?”
2. Later in time, when I was much closer to Miyamoto sensei and I could see that Miyamoto sensei was close to Tamura sensei. One evening, very close to my moving away and back to the US, Tamura sensei was visiting and Miyamoto sensei convinced him to lead. He ended up using Namba-san mainly and basically all the foreign regulars, including me. I remember sitting there chanting in my head, “shomen-uchi ikkyo, shomen-uchi ikkyo…” because I knew this might be my one chance to feel Tamura sensei and that technique, for me, embodied the biggest paradox of aikido as it should be the biggest clashing of forces. I got what I asked for. I made sure my strike was straight and true but also hard. As for the ikkyo, there was no feeling of “against-ness”, clashing, or being pushed down. It just felt like I was being made, very naturally, to fall in the form of ikkyo.
3. I joined them for sushi after that class Friday evening. It was early in the dinner but I already had some sake and was out of it. Miyamoto sensei often used to talk about needing to have a questioning mind (“疑問を持つ”) so drunk me thought it was a normal word to use in conversation. So I came out and said, “Tamura sensei, I have something I want to ask. I question your aikido!” I wanted to then say my main point but I was busy getting slapped in the head by Miyamoto sensei and Tamura sensei saying, “Who IS this guy?”