Written by John Brinsley
"There are no new techniques in aikido. There is, however, discovery."
Miyamoto Tsuruzō Sensei, October 2019
Like everyone else, I have a little more time on my hands, so thought I’d start writing some of my recollections of 15 or so years at Hombu.
I began practicing at Hombu when I moved to Tokyo in January 1996. It took a while to figure out who was worth practicing with (not me), which teachers’ classes were more or less interesting, and what the general pecking order was. It would be delusional to say I was at the bottom – as a foreign shōdan who knew no one, I was nowhere near any pecking order whatsoever.
There are two options for training: Monday through Saturday or seven days a week, with an extra fee for Sundays. Because my work made it hard to know just when I could get to class, I signed up for Sunday as well. And that changed the trajectory of my training, because Miyamoto Sensei taught Sunday at 9:00 a.m.
One of the most popular classes was Saturday at 10:30 a.m., taught by Osawa Hayato Sensei. At least 60 people attended every week and it was easy to understand why. He taught a vigorous, interesting class, and even if you were out drinking late on Friday night, it didn’t take too much effort to get to the dojo by 10:15 a.m. Osawa Sensei had an almost artistic approach to his technique, and his movements were graceful and precise. Taking ukemi for him required flexibility, connectivity and speed, and could be challenging. But it was never dangerous. And then it was time for a leisurely lunch down the road at a tiny place called Kitchen.
Miyamoto Sensei’s 9:00 a.m. class Sunday bore little resemblance to any of that. He also taught Friday night at 5:30 p.m., as he still does. But far fewer people showed up on Sundays, often no more than 20 or 25. Again, no mystery why: along with the extra cost, the time was much less amenable if you’d been out drinking the night before. And Miyamoto Sensei almost certainly had been, so he was less amenable as well.
His class had much more of an edge to it than Osawa Sensei’s (or pretty much any other teacher except for Arikawa Sensei on Wednesday night, and Arikawa Sensei was something else entirely). Miyamoto Sensei at the time – he would’ve been 42 or 43 years old – had a particularly heavy, sticky way of doing a technique. He seemed to drill his body into his uke, bringing all of his weight to bear, operating from very low to the ground. He expected his uke to be springy, responsive and resilient. Then as now he often changed techniques midway through whatever he was doing, testing the uke and himself, experimenting as he went. He also used atemi. Not always, and rarely with students who weren’t in the ukemi rotation, but often enough. I have a distinct memory of watching Miyamoto Sensei teach on a Sunday morning and feeling as though I had discovered something new.
There weren’t many foreigners who attended the class. So he took notice of me a bit, then a bit more. I don’t remember when, but at some point I entered the ukemi rotation. And the more he used me, the more demanding it became. I became more attuned to his movement, more responsive to whatever he was doing, more able to take whatever he dished out.
Miyamoto Sensei always went out on Friday nights after class, and thanks to Didier Boyet, I became part of the group that went with him. Often we went to a small izakaya called Kitaichi, which no longer exists. At the time, Miyamoto Sensei was a heavy smoker, going through two packs of cigarettes in a couple of hours. I was tasked with going out to buy Mild Sevens for him and making sure to swap out dirty ashtrays. I sometimes had to take two showers after getting home before being allowed to get in bed.
On the mat, I could feel my aikido changing. What Miyamoto Sensei was drilling into me, I was trying to apply to my practice. I always did my best to follow every teacher as much as possible and do what they were doing. But my internal approach – such as it was – was coming more and more from what I gleaned from Miyamoto Sensei. He was so sticky, so immersed in responding to what his partner was giving him, so good at transmitting his power through his hips, and I tried to do that as well. Some of it was imitation, but it gave me a perspective from which to study and practice until it was just the most natural way for me to move. And it started on those Sunday mornings, when more than once I took ukemi while breathing the sake he’d drunk the previous night (or more accurately earlier the same morning). That could be unpredictable because for the first 10-15 minutes he might not be all that happy to be there. But it was satisfying to get my ass handed to me and get back up.
At some point in mid-1997, Miyamoto Sensei separated my shoulder. He was doing ikkyō ura, from shōmen uchi, and as he spun me to my blind spot, he swept my inside leg with his, putting me shoulder first on the mat. A few weeks later, when I came back on the mat, he asked, “you okay?” I said yes, and he went right back to using me as if nothing had changed.