Three most admirable qualities of people in Japan are politeness, tenacity and sense of community. On our recent trip to Japan, over a period of eight days traveling all around Tokyo, across Japan through airports, subways and train stations, malls, restaurants and busy streets not once did I see a single person ever be impolite to another person. I never heard a single car horn honk. In 90 degree heat and smothering humidity amidst massive throngs heading onto subway trains I never saw anyone become annoyed, impatient or disagreeable. Whenever an elderly person boarded a train a man would invariably stand up and offer his seat.
A friend and I walked down a major downtown Tokyo boulevard looking for a particular store in the sweltering heat. After a mile or so we realized we were not having any luck. We decided to ask an elderly man standing on the sidewalk if knew where the store was. He didn’t know himself, so he pulled a cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number and handed over the phone. His daughter was on the phone and, in very good English, asked what store we were looking for. We gave the phone back to the man who proceeded to walk us three blocks in the mid-day sun to help us find the store.
The flight from LA to Tokyo is eleven and a half hours and we arrived at Haneda Airport late in the evening. Around midnight we checked into Sunroute Higashi Hotel in Shinjuku, a very busy area of Tokyo. Shinjuku has over 300,000 people living in about 7 square miles (that’s over 40,000 people per square mile). Nearly 4 million people a day pass through the Shinjuku train station which is listed in the Guinness World Records as the world’s single busiest transportation hub.
It got light about four o’clock the next morning, so we were up by 5 to grab a quick breakfast at a convenience store on our way to a 6:30 class at Aikikai Hombu Dojo, the world headquarters of Aikido. Japanese convenience stores are pretty awesome because you can get everything there, including some moderately healthy food. Time was short so we broke a basic rule of Japanese etiquette and ate our breakfast while walking down the street. In our entire trip I never saw one other person (and there are a lot of people in Japan!) ever so much as drink from a water bottle while walking anywhere, much less eat while walking. It’s considered poor manners to eat while walking. Public trash receptacles are very few so you’ve got to take your trash with you. On a subway or on a public street I didn’t see even a gum wrapper on the ground.
Hombu Dojo, the world headquarters of Aikido, was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Tokyo was hot and humid this time of year and inside the dojo it was even more. They keep all the doors and windows shut and there are no fans or air conditioning. Once we put on our gi’s and sat down to wait for training to start we were already dripping in sweat. At Hombu once you pick your partner to train with you stick with them for the entire hour-and-a-half class. The first day class was taught by Mitsuteru Ueshiba known as Waka Sensei (“young teacher”) who is about 33 now. He is the great grandson of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. I had a twenty-something young Japanese male partner who was better acclimated to the humidity and the time zone than I was – and 25 years younger than me. He may have had gills to survive the humidity, I’m not sure. He held nothing back and after about an hour I wondered how embarrassing it would be if I simply passed out right there on the mat.
There were about 60 people in the dojo and each pair of partners has a space of about 2 tatami to train on – that’s about a 6 foot square. And everyone is competing for a limited amount of air. To make matters worse I happened to be training in the only spot in the dojo where the sunlight was piercing through a window like a laser beam. My head was a blazing torch of fire. But the purpose of Aikido is to train the spirit so I was not interested in giving up, quitting or slowing down in spite of it all. That first class Heather partnered with Chikako Bryner, our good friend and traveling companion, and they were definitely feeling the effects too as I could see on their bright red faces. But courage prevailed and they both trained hard to the finish. You don’t hear Japanese people complain or make excuses, a lesson we all need to remember. Everyone everywhere in Japan appeared to apply themselves to whatever they were doing with pride and diligence.
Etiquette is very tight at Hombu dojo as one would expect. One enters through a side door directly onto the mat, immediately kneels and bows to the shomen, then bows again toward the class. While Sensei is demonstrating students sit with utmost attention and are not even permitted to wipe the sweat from their face. Etiquette comes naturally for the Japanese, but not so much for American’s who might interpret it as slavish or unnecessary. On the contrary, etiquette is the heart and soul of Aikido practice and Japanese culture alike. One might say that Aikido itself is the embodiment of etiquette. One must conduct oneself properly regardless of the circumstances.
After training we all took a very welcome ice cold shower, dried off and immediately started sweating again. After a quick subway trip from Shinjuku Station through an ocean of people we were at the fish market having fresh sushi, literally the best I have ever had in my life along with homemade beer! You can really get used to this.
Later that day we went to visit the grave of our late teacher, Shoji Nishio Sensei. The cemetery was in a little village called Omiya. Every open space was filled with vegetable gardens. This is where Nishio Sensei lived. The cemetery was surrounded by gardens and large trees. The lady who drove us to the grave site with her young daughter was so sweet and kind. She gave us candies to enjoy and fans to use while we were visiting the cemetery.
Once the group arrived there was a cleansing of holy water over the grave stone and a small blessing. We each placed three burning incense on his grave, decorated it with beautiful flowers, and placed some of Nishio Sensei’s favorite sake on the tombstone. We all said “Kampai!” and drank our sake together in memory of this great man. He did so much for Aikido and our art and was such an elegant gentleman. Every bit of gratitude was given to him.
After arriving back at Shinjuku station we headed to the 12th floor where we were seated with an amazing view of Tokyo. We enjoyed panko (Japanese-style breadcrumb)crusted fried shrimp, scallops and crab claw. We headed back to hotel to showers and rest after a very busy day with our group.
The second day training at Hombu Dojo was with Moriteru Ueshiba, Doshu (“Master of the Way”). He is the grandson and living heir to the founder of Aikido. I partnered with Wantanabe Sensei, a 75-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon and the longest term member at Hombu dojo. He trained back with O Sensei! At 75 he did not show his age a bit and we trained strong for an hour-and-a-half. I think we both wanted to see who would give up first, but neither of us did. He was extremely complimentary of my Aikido afterward, saying “Very natural. Very good Aikido.” This was a great compliment coming from a prestigious gentleman. Doshu came around while we were training and said something to Watanabe Sensei. Afterward Watanabe Sensei said that Doshu said that he remembered me from years ago (it was 1987 actually) when he had visited California. Heather trained with a man in his late 60’s, Mori-san whom she said was very sweet. It seemed a little less hot today. Or maybe we’re just getting used to it.
Chikako Bryner and I along with Teruko Ishikawa were joined by Yoshida Sensei at Hombu Dojo today to meet with Masaki Tani, the Assistant Director of the International Department of the Aikikai Foundation. The meeting went very well regarding the formation of a new Nishio based Aikido organization in the U.S.
While we were meeting with Tani-san Heather and a few others in our group went to the local martial arts store called Iwata. They have beautiful gi’s & hakama there. We soon had to board the train to Toyama which is about a four hour ride. The countryside is mountainous and the train we are on goes through many tunnels. When we emerge the greenery of the countryside is stunning. There are row upon row of rice fields. Toyama is on the west coast along the Sea of Japan. Due to its climate and considerable rainfall Toyama is known as having the best rice (and sake) in all of Japan. During the winter it gets very cold there and can it snow more than 20 feet!
We stayed our first two nights in Toyama at the Tonami Royal Hotel – fabulous hotel with huge onsen (Japanese hot springs) both indoor and outdoor and a nice breakfast buffet. We would visit the onsen two or three times a day – very relaxing!
Next we went to see the The Buddha of Takaoka, a 52 foot high bronze Buddha, one of the three largest Buddha’s in Japan. Inside the building the walls were lined with sutras, statues, artwork, and a room with chimes for each astrological animal – you could ring your particular tone for good luck. My older daughter Olivia wrote a wish on gold paper that was then placed on bamboo for a yearly holiday where they burn the wishes and bamboo. At a little shop down the street we had refreshing matcha ice cream cones with a sprinkling of powdered matcha on top. Then we walked up the hill to a local castle and temple which was surrounded by a great moat.
The reason for our trip was to spend time and train with our Aikido teacher, Koji Yoshida. He took special time off to train with us each day we were there. He is a generous man with a great spirit and I treasure any time I can spend with him. We were all certain to stay focused and learn everything we could. At times while the group was training he would hand Chikako and I two shinken (sharp live-blade samurai swords) to receive special iaido training.
Every day we trained for 5 hours – from 2-5pm and again from 7-9pm. One evening, while I trained, Heather took off with the girls and several other women for kaiten sushi where a conveyor of sushi goes around the restaurant and you pick what you like for about a dollar a piece. Big fun for everyone, especially the girls and the ladies had a wonderful time talking. At the hotel everyone needed one more trip to the onsen!
We did so much walking and stair climbing on this trip that we were all pretty worked. We had to leave the Tonami Royal hotel after a couple days to go to another hotel closer to the dojo. It was sad to leave because the hotel, the breakfast buffet and the onsen were so nice. As we were leaving the hotel a maid comes all the way down from the 12th floor, down the hall and out to the lobby to catch one of the ladies in our group. “Sumimasen!” (pardon me!) It seems one of our group had left 8 cents sitting on a table in her room and the maid traversed 12 stories down to the lobby to be sure she got it. Only in Japan. By the way, in Japan you don’t tip for anything.
We were so close to the west coast that our journey wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to the shore. We took the Himi Line train from Takaoka Station in Toyama out to beach. For some reason the kids didn’t take their swimsuits, but apparently that didn’t matter because within a few minutes they were all up to their necks in the Sea of Japan. After they swam we all enjoyed some shaved ice.
Our experience in Japan was about as perfect as you can imagine. I left with a deepened respect and admiration for the culture and the people. It’s a ray of hope that there is a place in the world where people, in large part, have found a way to live with respect, dignity and harmony.