Contributed by Dan Rubin, Boulder Aikikai
Appears here with permission; this review first appeared on www.boulderaikikai.org.
The third film of the "Samurai Trilogy" ends with the duel on Ganryu Island between Miyamoto Musashi and his rival, Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro, on the beach, thinks he has his famous rival trapped in the water, until the sun begins to set behind Musashi. The sunset blinds Kojiro, allowing Musashi to gain the fatal advantage.
Too bad for Kojiro that he hadn't attended Mitsugi Saotome Sensei's bokken class at Boulder Aikikai's 27th Annual Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies. Kojiro would have learned how to use his hand and arm to shield his eyes from bright sunlight as he engaged his opponent with his sword.
In fact, both Kojiro and Musashi would have benefited from the many classes taught at the week-long 2007 summer camp near Aspen, Colorado, July 22 through July 29. Four renowned shihan of aikido and karate traveled from near and far to share their knowledge with 225 students from across the United States and around the world. The beautiful Colorado Mountain College campus, the great weather, the recreation opportunities and a training schedule that was filled with options made for a camp that went by too fast.
A week can only touch the surface of studying with Mitsugi Saotome shihan from Myakka City, Florida, Frank Doran shihan from Redwood City, California, Kenji Ushiro shihan from Osaka, Japan, and Hiroshi Ikeda shihan, chief instructor at Boulder Aikikai.
It's hard to believe that Saotome sensei celebrated his 70th birthday this year. He seems as fast and athletic as a 20-year-old. After practicing judo in high school, he began studying at an aikido dojo when he was about 16 years old. His teacher was the late Seigo Yamaguchi sensei. Soon, Saotome sensei began studying at Hombu dojo and eventually became an uchideshi to O Sensei, whom he served until his death in 1969. In 1975 Saotome sensei left his senior teaching position at Hombu Dojo and came to the United States, in order to help spread the message of aikido. He heads Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, and teaches by invitation at his Aiki Shrine dojo in Myakka City. Saotome sensei is the author of three books: Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, Principles of Aikido and Aikido: Living by Design.
Doran sensei was introduced to aikido in 1959 when he was a U. S. Marine Corps hand-to-hand combat instructor, and had the opportunity to go to Japan and study directly with O Sensei. He says that while many students want their teachers to take them to the end of the path, O Sensei did no more than point in the direction his students should travel. Doran sensei has compared aikido to a mystery novel: "It's not until I turn over the last page that I'm going to know how it ends." He teaches at Aikido West, his dojo in Redwood City. He also teaches aikido at Stanford University, and at seminars in the United States and internationally. He heads Division 2 of the California Aikido Association.
Ushiro sensei has been the guest instructor at summer camp for the past three years. He began his study of karate while in college and, upon graduation, moved to Osaka where he began his apprenticeship in Okinawan karate under Nikichi Zaha Sensei. He remains in Osaka, where today he teaches Okinawan Shindo-ryu Karate and is an electronics engineer. Ushiro sensei is the author of Kata: The Essence of Bujutsu Karate and other books.
Ikeda sensei is chief instructor at Boulder Aikikai, where he teaches during the week. On weekends he is often teaching at seminars across the United States and around the world. Saotome sensei was his aikido teacher in college, and in 1978 he followed Saotome sensei to Florida. Two years later, Ikeda sensei moved to Colorado and founded Boulder Aikikai. He also operates Bu Jin Design online catalog, selling uniforms and equipment for various martial arts.
"Ze" - exactly as it should be
The symbolic kanji for this year's camp is Ze, meaning "perfectly precise" or "as it should be." As explained in the camp newsletter that students received at check-in, this kanji was chosen "to symbolize the quest to bring our movement and form into alignment with the evolving truth within ourselves, that we may find our heart, our own perfect movement, and through these, the heart of budo."
All four shihan contributed to that quest.
Saotome sensei began by reminding students that they are studying the use of their weapons, that is, the parts of their bodies. Whether the body movements are large or small, he said, the movements must be clean, precise. But moving with only the body is not enough. Uke is a human being, and nage is communicating with uke. So nage must use the mind as well as the body. Saotome sensei illustrated this with a simple exercise. Uke extended both fists toward nage, at shoulder level, arms straight. Nage walked forward and placed her palms against uke's fists and continued moving forward. If the connection was "conflict touching," that is, with strength, uke was not pushed back. But if the connection was "harmony touching," with ki and kokoro and mind, uke was pushed back. Saotome Sensei explained that nage must touch not just uke's fist, but must touch uke's heart, his spirit.
When one looks up "precision" in the dictionary, one finds a picture of Doran sensei. He stresses particular body movements, always explaining and demonstrating the reason for every movement. For example, he reminded students that "the movement of the foot determines the movement of the hips and the center." And he taught many techniques by showing how they would work if nage were holding a sword. He stressed the importance of training the same way whether holding a sword or empty-handed. Doran sensei has a unique ability to teach with a minimum amount of talk. He is able to explain and demonstrate, to point out student errors, even to make jokes, without saying a word; this encourages students to watch his movements carefully.
Ushiro sensei stressed precision through kata, specifically sanchin, literally the "three battles" kata. He emphasized that if a student practices sanchin kata the student's power will definitely increase. But solo practice is not enough, he said. The student must then practice against a partner. "If you follow this advice," he said, "you will be able to see what your teachers [Saotome sensei, Doran sensei and Ikeda Sensei] are teaching you." Ushiro sensei had students test themselves by pushing against four students lined up; all four were pushed backward if the first student was pushed back with ki, but not if the first student was pushed with strength. Ushiro sensei also explained that when taking ukemi, students should not throw themselves in breakfalls, but rather should wait for nage to throw them; throwing oneself leaves uke weak when landing, whereas a student who has been thrown lands strong, with ki filling the body.
Translating for Ushiro sensei was Jun Akiyama of Boulder Aikikai.
Ikeda sensei stressed precise movement at first contact. The very first thing that nage must do is to take uke's balance. "Your partner must go right away," he said. Ikeda sensei demonstrated this in every technique, but also spent time explaining balance-taking by itself. He taught how nage, by moving internally, can affect uke internally, and thereby take uke's balance with little or no physical movement. Without movement, uke has nothing to react to before losing her balance. In his last class, after the previous night's party, Ikeda sensei joked that while the younger students were dancing with great energy, the four shihan sometimes appeared to be standing still, but they were "dancing internally."
Ikeda Sensei, the host of Boulder Aikikai's summer camp, also dispensed wisdom from behind the "Aiki Café" espresso cart, where "Barista Ikeda" made coffee and conversation with the large number of students who needed an extra jolt or two of caffeine throughout the training day.
Returning to camp this year was Ms. Ikuko Kimura of Japan's Dou Magazine (formerly Aiki News), researching another article with notes, photographs and tape-recorded interviews of students.
Those who have attended Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies know about the 6:30 AM before-breakfast classes that start one's day with a bright-eyed look and a terrific appetite. This year, these classes were taught by sensei Duane "Pee Wee" Jones (Sarasota Aikikai), Yuki Hara (Chicago Aikikai), Cyndy Hayashi (Aikido West, Redwood City, CA) and Jude Blitz (Boulder Aikikai).
And once again the "focus" classes in the small dojo were crowded with students who wished to spend time on a specific, narrow topic. This year's focus classes were taught by chief instructors and senior students Lee Crawford (Aikido Northshore, Kirkland, WA: kihonwaza), George Ledyard (Aikido Eastside, Bellevue, WA: aiki principles), Ron Santichen (Boulder Aikikai: kuzushi), Julian Wong (Tai Chi of Victoria, British Columbia: chi kung), Troy Farrow (Boulder Aikikai: bukidori), Wendy Whited (Inaka Dojo, Beecher, IL: irimi), Darren McKee (West Seattle Aikikai, Seattle: koshinage) and J. Akiyama (Boulder Aikikai: ukemi).
There were evening classes, too, on Tuesday and Thursday. These special evening classes were taught by Kevin Choate sensei (Chicago Aikikai) and Neville Nason sensei (Aikido West, Redwood City, CA).
On Wednesday evening, Jim Alvarez sensei (Aikido of Livermore Shin Rei Dojo, Livermore, CA) presented a demonstration of tameshigiri (test cutting with the sword). In addition to studying aikido, he studies the sword art of Shinkendo under its founder, Toshishiro Obata sensei. After Jim explained and demonstrated the method of cutting the straw targets, several of the senior students who taught classes during the week stepped up before the large crowd and attempted cuts, displaying great courage along with varying degrees of success. And Ushiro sensei followed by making several cuts, too.
Recreation and relaxation
The shihan did not teach classes on Wednesday. It's a day off for them and for students who want to take advantage of the many recreation opportunities in the Rocky Mountains. Students and teachers went hiking or horseback riding, sightseeing in Aspen or Glenwood Springs or in other mountain towns. Others went bicycling or fishing or went rafting on the Colorado River. And a large number of students attended one or both of the aikido classes offered by senior students that day. Tracy Alpert (Boulder Aikikai) taught the morning class and Tres Hofmeister sensei (Boulder Aikikai) taught the afternoon class.
And as close as camp was to Glenwood Springs, many students and teachers could not resist car-pooling to the world-famous hot springs outdoor pool on Monday and Saturday evenings. Natural hot springs keep the pool at a relaxing and therapeutic 104 degrees. Some followed up their hot therapy with a cold one at a nearby micro-brewery and pub.
On Friday night everyone attended the camp party at historic Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs. The dinner buffet lines moved quickly and the entertainment was jovial. This year's theme was "pirates and ninjas," and students decided which they were, based on a personality test distributed earlier in the week. Al Krever (Arizona Aikido, Phoenix) stepped up to the microphone to tell pirate-and-ninja jokes and to introduce the shihan and students who came comically dressed as their characters -- Troy Farrow adopted the persona of a "corporate pirate," and spent the evening on his cell phone making rogue deals and firing employees. Then the local DJ took over and for the next couple of hours the dance floor was packed. For those not dancing, the outdoor bar was the place to cool off with warm conversation in a great atmosphere.
Connecting, till we meet again
The last class came on Saturday morning, as each shihan took his turn with last words for the students, about half of whom left for home that afternoon, with the remainder leaving the next morning. The end of camp is always marked with heartfelt good-byes and wishes for safe journeys. For many students, summer camp is about friendships as well as about aikido. Some will see their friends at other events during the coming year, and others will wait to see their friends when they return to camp next summer. For still others, the wait and distance may be longer; this year, students attended camp from ten foreign countries: Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Nicaragua and Turkey.
But even more than friendship, and as important as training, summer camp is about connections. It's about connecting with the four shihan between classes or at the hot springs pool or at meal-time or the party. It's about connecting with other students from around the country and around the world, some of whom are themselves well-known highly ranked aikido teachers. When students return from summer camp, their dojo-mates are likely to feel an energy from them that goes beyond improved aikido skill, an energy of someone who has spent the past week in the world aikido community.