Before travelling to the conference, I decided to seek out an aikido venue in which to train whilst there. Finding a venue turned out to be an adventure in and of itself, for it appears that aikido in the long shadow of Tomiki-sensei in the United States is somewhat cantoned up. This goes back to my earlier comments about the confusion between terms like "Tomiki aikido" and "Shodokan aikido". I'm not going to follow that line of discussion here, but simply point out that it led me to a variety of disjoint answers to the question, "where can I train?"
In the end, and after several quite helpful e-mail exchanges with people from JAA/USA and other organisations, I found a Tomiki Aikido club at the University of Baltimore's Athletic Club. With e-mailed instructions from Jaime Williamson in hand, on Monday, 26 April, I set forth to find the University's athletic club and its aikidoka. The University's club practises aikido according to the principles set forth by Aikido America International, which is apparently a parallel to JAA/USA that aligns itself more with Waseda University's aikido practises than with those of Shodokan hombu.
I was travelling around Baltimore by hire car, since it is nearly impossible to navigate around any American city using solely public transit. I was fortunate enough to have been given a car with satellite navigation. All I needed to do was to plug in "1420 N. Charles Street" and it whisked me away to the University campus. Alas, the directions were so straightforward that I arrived just over an hour early! I had to find a place to pass some time, so I drove around aimlessly looking for a coffee shop.
And, wow, did I find one! All I saw was a sign saying something about coffeehouse, so I stopped in to Red Emma's Bookstore & Coffeehouse, an anarchist/communist bookstore situated not far from the University campus. It was hilarious walking in and then realizing that I was probably walking in to one of the more radical bookstores in that part of the country. So, I enjoyed it by having a nice latte, browsing the truly unique collection of books, and departing. It did occur to me that maybe the police were photographing those who went in and out of the place... But I digress.
At the appointed hour of 6:30 PM, I arrived at the club and found Jaime with no problems. After changing into my dogi, I met the other people with whom I would be practising that evening. It was a wonderful group. Remembering that I was, at the time, a freshly-minted 8th kyuu (the lowest kyuu grade in the Shodokan system), I was working on extremely elementary things. My goal for this trip was to practise zempo kaiten ukeme ("forward rolling breakfalls") from a standing position. It turns out that I had a real fear of doing rolling breakfalls, and it took quite some time (far beyond this one trip to Baltimore) to get over that fear. However, the good patience and help of the club members went far in helping me get there.
What were my impressions of this Tomiki aikido system? The taiso and the exercises were, in my opinion, quite different than what I had experienced at our Shodokan club. However, it is clear that there is a common source of, and a common heritage between, the two strains of aikido. No matter how you look at it, the aikido that Professor Tomiki developed is very elegant, and its stewards have done a good job in developing it.
But aikidō has given me a new opportunity: now, before I travel, I look for shōdōkan aikidō venues in which I can train whilst away. This has been fun and, frankly, quite enlightening in a number of ways. After all, I started this blog precisely because I wanted to share my views about the venues I've visited and the great people I've met along the way.
As of this writing, at the end of 2006 and at the close of only my first year of practising aikidō, I've been a visitor to dojos in Wales, Scotland, Australia, three places in the United States, and two places in Japan. I plan to write more about these places and the people in them, but, for now, I'll simply say that visiting these clubs and meeting their members has been a fabulously rewarding experience. If you practise aikidō and you find yourself "on the road", like me, don't miss out on an opportunity to train!
But, I suppose I should say that it's through travelling that I have also found out some of the less desirable features of aikidō:
- there seems to be a needless splintering-up of shōdōkan aikidō, some preferring the term "Tomiki aikidō" and others preferring to emphasize the links that Tomiki-sensei had with Waseda University;
- in some parts of the world, shōdōkan clubs don't follow shōdōkan hombu's grading syllabus, which can lead to some awkward moments; and
- kyū grade uniforms (obi colors) are not globally uniform, which can cause some confusion and, potentially, extra expense
- every dan grade I have met is willing to go out of their way to help kyū grades attain proficiency in the art
How did I find this place?
My selection of club was not, shall we say, the most scientific -- it was mainly based on "location, location, location". However, because I wasn't sure that aikido (or, for that matter, this club) was really for me, I first came to watch a class and learn about the members and the class structure.
What I found was a really fantastic group of people from all walks of life who were interested in fitness and self-improvement, but who were not, in any sense, trying to come across as the next Steven Segal or Jet Li. That was encouraging to me, because the mere thought of going to a martial arts class was a bit intimidating. I had many negative preconceptions about the kind of people I'd find at such a place, but they all turned out to be incorrect.
What kind of training do we do?
Our club devotes two days a week to basic aikido training, which focuses on a standard set of exercises that is common to all levels of aikido, plus kata training, which refers to prearranged sets of movements that are usually done with a training partner. Two other days each week are devoted to more advanced free-play, or randori, training. In addition, once a week we hold an hour-long weapons course, which concentrates mainly on the use of wooden Japanese training swords ("bokken") to emphasize the many principles of aikido that have their origin in sword arts, such as kendo.
Our club includes men and women of all ages, and we have separate kids sessions for youths from ages 5-9 and from 10-16. Whether you're interested in aikido for personal development, for self-defence, or as a way to simply increase your level of physical fitness, you're welcome at our club.
I want to try it, but what should I wear?
You can wear something long-legged like jogging bottoms on your first visit or two, to check it out and see if you like it. If you want to turn up regularly, you should buy a "dogi", which is clothing made especially for martial arts.
In shodokan aikido, we generally wear the same kind of uniform worn by people who play judo. Called a "judogi", this clothing consists of a top and bottom of bleached white cotton, slightly heavier in construction than that worn by people who practice karate. The trousers are padded and fully gusseted to give you the best possible range of motion.
Although you can buy dogi at many martial arts stores, it's best to first check with your instructor about whether your school can provide you with a uniform or, if not, what's most appropriate to buy.
Fast forward to May...
Eventually, May rolled around, and by that time I'd been involved in aikido less than three months. On Friday afternoon, five of us from our club travelled from Paddington station in London through Newport in South Wales to our ultimate destination: the town of Abergavenny, Wales, where we were to be put up in a bed & breakfast, named Ty'r Morwydd, that caters to groups.
On Saturday, we made our way to the dojo in the (relatively) nearby town of Skenfrith. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by lots of aikidoka from all over the UK, plus some from abroad. And, gulp, I was the only ungraded person there.
But, I must say, it was an excellent experience. Still at the stage where I was completely self-conscious about the fact that I didn't know [insert the name of whatever was being taught at the time], Skenfrith was great both for my aikido (total overload) and for my ability to socialize with other people who were interested in the same thing (lots of interesting people from all over).
Special mention to my friend Keith Harry who, then a 5th kyuu, laid on one of the most effective shomen ate I'd ever experienced to date. We were in the midst of an ukeme drill, where whoever was at the head of the line had to throw everyone in the line as quickly as possible using straight shomen ate. After everyone had circulated through, the head of the line changed to the next person. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Anyway, everyone in the line was a dan grade, except yours truly. So when I was next in line to be thrown, Keith turned and threw me before he realized that I was not one of the dan grades. That's to say, he didn't "take it easy" on me. That was the moment when I gained confidence that my ukeme worked!
Hills and dales and Skirrid
Skenfrith is a beautiful place nestled in the hills of south Wales. The dojo we used for the course was a small church with an all-wood façade, the interior of which had been removed of seating. The floor of the main hall was covered wall-to-wall by the type of thick tatami mats found in judo dojos. What's more, the location was situated almost immediately adjacent to the ancient Skenfrith Castle, which added a bit of colour to the setting.
The course was actually divided up between two dojos, one in Skenfrith and the other in the nearby town of Monmouth. This latter venue was made from a ball court inside a modern sports facility there. While it didn't have the same charm as the more historic Skenfrith venue, it did provide a bit more space.
One of the natural in the local area is Skirrid Hill, also known by its Welsh name, Ysgyryd Fawr. On Sunday, after the training sessions had ended, but before the evening's dinner, a small group of us (including fellow clubmate Sonia, shown in the photo running to the summit, a mere hundred metres away) decided to join in a run up to the top of Skirrid Hill.
Okay, for all but a couple of people it was more of a "fast walk to the top" than a run. But, in any event, the view from on top of that landmark hill is worth the effort: on a clear day you can see as far south as the ocean ports around Newport, and you can get a good view of all the surrounding towns. If you go up there, remember to take a good jacket, as the wind is quite stiff year-round.
Back in the 1980's, a close friend and mentor suggested that I look into something called "aikido". He, himself, is a former karate-ka who believed that aikido would be good for me -- not only for my general fitness, but also to help me feel more comfortable with myself. Although I didn't take up his suggestion at the time, he gave to me a copy of Gozo Shioda's well-known book on aikido entitled, "Dynamic Aikido". Alas, that book sat on my bookshelf for years.
For years, that is, until late 2005 when, spurred by overwork and office stress, I decided to pick up that book and read it. Sure, it's easy to read a book about sports -- there are thousands of them at any major book retailer. But I was in a mood to act. And this book really moved me, not because of the specifics of aikido, but because of its gracefulness. It really looked like something I could once again sink my teeth into.
You see, it had been over 10 years since I had seriously participated in any sport, and my passion at that time was racing bicycles (road cycling, to be specific). Unfortunately, road cycling takes an extensive time commitment, one that modern work-life seems to not allow me. Cycling also requires roads (preferably uncongested ones), and that's quite a tall order for someone living in central London.
But, what do you do when you are interested in something like aikido, but you don't know where to go to find it? I haphazardly started searching on the web for dojos, completely oblivious to the idea that there are many different styles of most martial arts (aikido is certainly no exception). I eventually found the website of the British Aikido Association which, at that time, was the home for all styles of aikido in the United Kingdom, and from that website I discovered that voila! there was a shodokan aikido dojo a mere two blocks away from my office in London.
And so it passed that on the 8th of February in 2006, I found myself at London's Central YMCA learning how to safely fall backwards onto tatami mats. I've been falling ever since and, thank goodness, I see no end in sight.