First time I’ve been to Japan it was in 1989. Later, I revisited Japan 8 , maybe 9 more times.
It was an unbelievable, an unbelievably upspiriting experience for me. No, no, it wasn’t. It was a dream come true. It was my Sensei, Kumagai Kenji Shihan, who invited me there.
Fresh out of college, I was also just out of the Army, doing my military service. But there was no direct flight from İstanbul to Japan so I had to transfer to another flight from Singapore.
Then I got there and we left home with my sensei, Kumagai Shihan to train at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo. Whaled out of Shinjuku Station East, we walked for about 20 minutes. Someplace, Kumagai Shihan pointed at some place along the road asking me if I recognized the inscription. I could only discern the kanji for Aikido on a white marble post just about a man’s height. We took that street. There were a couple of souls in front of a building ahead. But recognized one in a flash, that was Kishomaru Ueshiba as I knew him from his pictures. Kumagai Shihan steered me in his direction and introduced me to him. I bowed. Mumbling something, the doshu was as if he was daydreaming.
During my very first visit to the Honbu Dojo I had a chance to train with many great masters, who have departed by now. Then, I get to thinking after some 30 years on, which one of those senseis, those masters, have left a bigger mark?
Shihans teaching at Honbu Dojo at the time never revealed their technique to anyone other than their own handful of ukes.
Many loved Yamaguchi Shihan, for example. But, why, I don’t know, I was not so happy at all with his classes. Sure, I always did my best to attend to his classes. But for I was used to practice the techniques that had a definite beginning and a clear-cut ending, his style was out of my grasp. He’d just grasp his uke’s fingertip and flip him/her all over but never lost connection. Or maybe he’d do the ‘Eridori Nikkyo Ura,’ one of the staple techniques, but instead of bridling his opponent with his hands he’d do it with is torso hands dangling on his sides.
As I said, for me, this was a technique hard to embrace. May be I just wasn’t ready to understand.
Ichihashi Shihan… with such robuts a body incommensurate with the finesse of his soul. He also had a high-pitched voice. I knew him before for he came to Turkey way back. Maybe that’s why during classes he came and treated me personally. He also invited me over to tea a couple of times after class. There was this café close to Honbu Dojo, Dahlia, we used to sit. We did our best to exchange despite his infinitesimal knowledge of English. And despite his physique reminiscent of Roman columns, he was chivalrous.
Sasaki Shihan was a Shinto priest. He was a man of god. It was tirade, his lecturing during training. And he spoke Japanese, for sure and I listened blank. It was good when it was warm but when it was cold, and for no aperture at Honbu Dojo was never closed, including emergency exits, my sweat always froze on me. I’d count the time until his diatribe was over so that I could train and warm up. Then, I had another chance to get to know him better at Shodo (Island) Shima. He took interest in me. Asked questions. Tried to get to know me. I can’t say that they got along well with my sensei Kumagai Shihan, but he was nice to me. He gave me a couple of his own calligraphy and I hung them at the shomen of my dojo in Levent (İstanbul), which a capablefriend of mine stole from me as we moved. I knew who it was but couldn’t say nothing because I was ashamed to do so.
As we were having this conversation with Sasaki Shihan, accompanied by university students, he asked me who I was. ‘Who are you?’ I told him my name and that I was from Turkey. He looked at me. ‘I Sasaki. Sasaki human’ he said. He was meaning to say being a human preceded other traits.
He had very strong arms. But what impressed me the most were the hymns he chanted as part of the Shinto ritual before he commenced class. His voice would so multiply inside the dojo that it made me feel like the ceiling could collapse.
Doshu Kishomaru was so little even for many a Japanese. During class, he’d get lost sometimes. I bumped into him a couple of times during class, without knowing. Practice was spacious at 6:30 AM but the class on Friday night, it was almost impossible to swing the techniques around for it was congested. Morning classes, it was mostly the Japanese. Training on Friday night, most were non-Japanese.
Another thing about training with Kishomaru Doshu was that other teaching shihans would join, too. If you were lucky you could fish one.
What impressed me the most, despite his age, was that his voice never undulated after he performed the techniques; I never saw him short of breath.
Another Aikido celebrity that everyone knew and I’ve gotten to know at the Honbu Dojo was Fujita Sensei. Interesting that he actually was not a Shihan, which contrasted with his European image. He did not teach. Although he was introduced as the ‘Aikikai Secretary General’ he held no such title. Then, years later, I attended one of his classes during an international event in Sofia. I wouldn’t say I was much impressed.
Osawa Shihan was one of those senseis I respected the most in Honbu Dojo. Osawa Shihan teaches at Honbu Dojo today, and his father, Osawa Shihan Sr. used to conduct the 6:30 AM training on some days. He was so old and so thin that he was almost afloat in his dogi. He wouldn’t demonstrate techniques other than a couple of fundamentals. But I was apalled.
These senseis, long gone, have thought me and it’s been some 30 years already.
I cherish their memories with utmost respect and gratitude.