I arrived in Japan on March 30th 1986. I had been training in Yoshinkan Aikido under Kimeda Takeshi sensei in Toronto, and had achieved the rank of sandan. One of my seniors, a close friend, had gone to Japan six months before, and encouraged me to go as well as I wasn’t doing anything earth shattering. What decided me was when he said, ” Takeno sensei is nothing less than spectacular”.I asked Kimeda sensei for his permission to go, and he wrote the necessary introduction letter. After getting my finances together, off I went. I figured that within a year, I’d get strong in Aikido, learn Japanese, make some money and eat great sushi – that one year plan turned into nine and a half.
After arriving in Japan, I stayed at the New Hotel Otani, Tokyo’s most expensive hotel, for four days (another story), and then put on my suit, gathered up all my gifts and my introduction letter, and went to Musashi Koganei to visit the Honbu dojo. My friend Alister, with David Rubens translating, introduced me to Takeno Takafumi sensei. A young uchi-deshi made me a cup of tea (the only time that ever happened in nine years!!).
Takeno sensei sized me up and asked me about a few Canadians who had come before. I said I knew them, but didn’t what they were presently doing. He then said something I’ve never forgotten: “Aikido is very difficult, but very interesting”. It’s only now after all these years that I can see how right he was. Out of respect for him, I use those same words at every seminar I teach, and my own students hear those words a lot.
Takeno sensei read my letter of introduction and said that he would have to check with Kancho (Shioda Gozo sensei), but he was sure it would be fine if I stayed at the dojo for a month. I said “WHAT!!!” Apparently Kimeda sensei had blind sided me, and asked permission for me to stay for that period of time. I had specifically asked him not to request that, as I had been advised that the dojo was super-strict. If I stayed there, it would be really hard to get a job and my own place. I told David Rubens that I didn’t want to live in the dojo, but he told me that if I refused, it would be going against my teacher’s wishes, and that would not be good. To make a long story short, I went from the New Hotel Otani to sleeping with six uchi-deshi in a common room.
That night Alister and I attended my first kuro-obikai (black belt class) conducted by Kancho. We lined up, and the senior teacher calling out “Bango!” We all counted out our number, so he could know how many people were there. It seems silly now, but I was very glad I said my number correctly, which conveys how much spirit and tension was present on the tatami — at least as far as I was concerned. I was so hyped up!
When Kancho entered the dojo my first thought was ” he is so tiny ” After his introduction, we proceeded to work on principles of his technique. My friend aptly named this the “magic class,” because no one could do what he was doing. More than that, it seemed to me that nobody had any clue as to what he was doing. I can honestly say that I still don’t.
I formally entered the dojo the following Monday, and began my month. I was there during a golden era for Yoshinkan. Having the opportunity to tell my experiences, I will do my best to keep it real, but as Ellis has said, “it had to be felt.”
Kancho Shioda Gozo
Shioda Gozo was the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido. When I was in Japan, he was a magical figure treated with the greatest respect. I never took ukemi for him for a basic technique, and cannot consider him my teacher, however much I would like to, because he never gave me any direct instruction. Instead, during regular training, he would watch you and then call Takeno sensei over, who would relay his remarks.
It was understood during the black belt classes that only the uchi-deshi took ukemi for him. Kancho would nod his head, and the uchi-deshi would spring up to be his uke. It resulted in some interesting jockeying for position. I wanted desperately to feel his technique, and had no doubt that I could have beaten all the deshi in standing in front of Kancho, but I knew my place.
Nonetheless, it was always a treat during the kuro-obikai, when Kancho would come around and watch you attempt what he was showing. My partner always could resist my movements, but incredibly, when Kancho adjusted your stance, aligned you properly and kept his hand on your hip or shoulder, it worked! I guess I could say I felt his technique through someone else.
Even more incredibly, Kancho would touch my hips, and my uke would start to fall. He would then take his hand away, and uke would stand back up, then he would put his hand back on my hip and uke would start falling down again! He did this to me many times, and I also saw him do it to everybody else. Once when he did it to me, I looked at him, as if to say, “What the hell did you just do?” He pointed his finger at me said something that I didn’t understand, broke out laughing and walked on to the next pair. I have a video where I was working with the smallest Japanese woman on the planet, and I couldn’t budge her. When Kancho touched me, she went down. The best part was that when he touched her, she splattered me: a mystery.
I got the opportunity to be Kancho’s uke when the headquarters changed to the Ochiai dojo in Shinjuku, By this time Kancho knew who I was, and didn’t have to read my dogi to say hello!
I was part of his entourage in Toronto for the first Yoshinkai Aikido Exposition in 1990. He watched my demonstration, and also saw me take ukemi for Nakano sensei. Perhaps because of that, I was invited to be his uke in his demonstration. When we returned to Japan, I would sometimes take ukemi for him in the Kuro-obikai. It was a different experience each time.
- Sometimes he would apply a technique, and it would be totally painless. At the same time, it felt like you had a ton of bricks on your whole body, and you would fall down.
- Other times, I didn’t feel a thing. I would grab him, and then I would be on the ground, not knowing how I got there.
- Sometimes I would grab him, and then he would start talking to the people training, but I daren’t let go. When I started to get tired and relaxed my grip, he would give me a fierce look, and I would try to grab powerfully again, and then BANG! I was on the ground.
- I have had the experience where I grabbed his hand and one of the senior uchi-deshi grabbed my hand, and then Kancho did something and I felt something go through me and the uchi-deshi fell down! I really thought to myself that there was no way that was possible. But he did it twice: simply amazing.
I only took his ukemi in freestyle techniques once, during a demonstration for the Japan Martial Arts Society (JMAS). I don’t exactly remember the day, but I remember Kancho saying, “tanto.” I grabbed a wooden knife, and got in front of him first. I remember standing there, thinking, “What the hell do I do now?” I just started to attack, and he threw me effortlessly. He was talking to me the whole time, saying things like, “Watch out. This is dangerous! ” It was wonderful. At one point, he slammed me with a hand thrust to the face and there was no pain whatsoever, just a feeling of correct movement. Apparently the demo is on tape and I would love to see it.
The most interesting thing Kancho used to say during demonstrations was that his uke’s liked being thrown by him. He could be quite severe with his deshi, and I always thought, “They like that??? ” But I can say with my hand on my heart that when Kancho threw me, it was wonderful feeling. Another mystery I suppose.