When Charlie was heading to Melbourne to learn some new techniques for her PhD, I decided to tag along for a bit of a holiday and to practice being a kept man ;). Andrew Sunter got wind of the trip and after some discussion the Melbourne 2004 Budo Tour was born.
We decided to visit our aikido friends as well as some of the senior instructors we had come across in our training -- whatever their style might be. Staying near Latrobe University left us a fair way out of town, but the 86 tram gave us surprisingly easy access. The travel time was a good chance to practice nikyo to amuse ourselves and entertain the other commuters (only kidding, but endless aiki chat, anyway).
After meeting Andrew at the airport on Wednesday morning (Charlie arrived earlier in the week), it was straight to where we were staying and then on to Joe Thambu Sensei's Yoshinkan dojo for some daytime practice. [Andrew: three hours from the airport to the mat. We can do better next time!]
Andrew had met Joe Sensei while training with the Kufudokan in Sydney, and I had attended one of his Restraint & Removal seminars at David Dangerfield Sensei's dojo in Queensland some time back. Thambu Sensei's dojo is a full-time facility in Thornbury that has been fitted out beautifully, complete with a traditional entertainment area, wonderful mat space, showers and more.
Although Yoshinkan aikido is famous for being one of the more martial styles of aikido (and for training the Tokyo riot police), I found the practice to be very safe (for all of its intensity) and the students to be quite friendly. It was a good chance to tune up my falling skills with some of the best in the business and experience some of the precision of movement that Yoshinkan is known for.
On our second visit to the dojo we were fortunate to be able to participate in some traditional Yoshinkan kihon (basics) and Andrew got a rainbow of bruises to prove it. Joe Thambu Sensei led an exploration of ikkyo and irimi nage, helping to round out my understanding of these (like you ever really understand them). [Andrew: We also learned a great throw from a standing nikyo (Sensei said this is a "Joe Thambu Special") and a nice jo nage variation, going the other side (for us) for tsuki kiri kaeshi.]
After class I was fortunate enough to spend time talking to Joe Sensei, I am particularly grateful for his advice about what I learnt from him. He said it is very difficult to remember what is learnt unless I take what was taught and incorporate it into the way I do aikido. Oh yeah, the change room features a washboard style floor and if you spot some $1 coins through the gaps, they're mine!
Thursday night we visited the Aikido Yuishinkai dojo in Newport. It was only one-and-a-half hours by public transport, though considerably quicker to get home thanks to a student, Andrew, and his brand new Monaro. [Andrew: Thanks again Andrew!] Charlie joined us for training after a gruelling day in the lab growing e-coli. Newport dojo is relatively new, so the sight of three yudansha at the door was a welcome one. It was also a great chance for us to catch up with Colin Staples Sensei (ex-Brisbane) who was instructing that night.
Saturday was to be our aiki-marathon with three classes in three styles at three locations. Alas, Charlie and I slept in, and so it was left to Andrew to do the morning class at Catherine Schnell Sensei's Ryushinkan dojo in Hawthorn. Charlie and I managed to make it to the second class of the day at the Newport, an Aikido Yuishinkai seniors class. With Colin Staples Sensei and Jez preparing for dan grades in Byron Bay, this was a chance for us all to blow out some cobwebs with some vigorous tanninzugake practice. Well, that was the plan anyway. What started out as clean, crisp, discernible technique degenerated over time into something less clean and crisp as enthusiasm gave way to the limits of our fitness. Andrew also demonstrated kaeshi waza on occasion (much to nage's disappointment) to get a few extra turns at being nage. [Andrew's note: too fat and too slow to take ukemi so had to do something.]
All too soon it was time to head into town for Kiva Sensei's Aikido Kokikaiclass. Kiva has a dojo in Little Bourke Street, well known to outdoor enthusiasts as an area over-populated with adventure stores. We headed into the Columbia shop (Charlie sporting her Columbia jacket from a recent trip to Canada) and out the back upstairs to the dojo. We were a little late but Kiva made us all very welcome and we were soon on the mat. The dojo is home to a number of MA styles as the BJJ leaseholder sublets it out. Kokikai and Yuishinkai both have roots in Ki Society but of course have developed in different directions. It was great to be training the same techniques (by name at least), yet find them different enough to require a rethink of some cherished waza, and learn some new variations as well.
On Sunday we returned to the dojo at Newport where we were invited to teach some of the recent developments in the Aikido Yuishinkai syllabus. Andrew taught the Lightning kata, a kumitachi for jo and bokken. I followed up with some flow drills leading into jo nage, including a kaeshiwaza and a counter for nage.
Monday morning we visited Catherine Schnell Sensei's dojo in Hawthorn. Andrew made full use of the workshop-type class atmosphere to study shomenuchi ikkyo suwari waza led by Catherine Sensei: an exploration of this technique examining uke's role and effect on applied technique. [Andrew: Some very thought-provoking stuff on the nature of uke's attack. I also got to work on my morotedori sayu undo.]
Relegated to the bench with a temporary injury, I found it fascinating to watch. After class we shared a coffee with Sensei and heard a little about her self-defence classes and her experience in other arts.
After an afternoon nap we ventured out to find the Clifton Hill Aikikai dojo to see David Brown Sensei. Armed with a street name and knowing it was located in an old church, we warmed up for class by exploring three other churches in the street before finding the dojo. Dave Brown Sensei started class with a shomenuchi sayu undo stretch. This proved to be the theme for the class, exploring a number of techniques arising from variations on the basic exercise.
Tuesday morning was a pre-dawn event, even beating Charlie out the door to catch a tram and two trains to visit Stan Schmidt Sensei at his Melbourne home for some private training. Stan Sensei is the Japan Karate Association's (JKA) chief instructor for South Africa and spends some months in Australia each year. We got together to look at common ground between our arts and along the way Sensei taught some of the Philippines-based knife arts as well. It was a real treat to spend the better part of the day with such a generous, kind-hearted and senior instructor. We made a number of visits to the local milk bar for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat as a respite from our training.
[Andrew: The milk bar was run by Paul, a great guy, and his wife Elly, a body-sculpting champion after only one year of training. They're helped out by a gorgeous young dancer called Ella. It was interesting to observe Stan Sensei interacting with the people in the cafe and the other customers: always open and friendly and interested in what people are doing. He always seemed to end up talking to people about their successes rather than their problems.]
[Andrew's comment on the training: Stan Sensei had obviously thought out what he wanted to do with us in the time we had. IMHO, he wanted to give us a taste of the essence of his understanding derived from 40 years of karate practice. We did some deceptively simple footwork drills and striking drills. These emphasised the development of speed and power through relaxed movement. Sensei demonstrated how a light and relaxed 'tap' became a penetrating strike with the addition of forward hip movement using correct footwork and/or hip rotation. One of the techniques we practised was ushiro geri. I later discovered that this was one of Sensei's trademark moves and a subject of extensive private research. As a young man competing in Japan, he once back-kicked his opponent into the crowd! (When I mentioned this to Sensei later he simply said something like "Oh yeah, I used to have an OK back-kick.")]
[Andrew: I had visited Stan Sensei the previous week and we had discovered our shared use of yonkyo: karateka through striking and aikidoka through more lingering stimulation. We got to talking about osae waza, ikkyo through gokyo, and Sensei expressed a desire to return to South Africa with at least the rudiments of those principles. Needless to say Stan Sensei picked them up almost as soon as he saw them and couldn't believe we were serious in our frantic tapping-out. (Apparently he has already started passing these on to the "early birds" who are enjoying them immensely -- I suspect "early birds" is the misleadingly gentle name for the hard-core early morning training for JKA SA instructors.) So our training session went like this: a quick blast of striking essentials, a quick blast of knife technique, a quick session on osae waza and then back to striking and round again. We learnt some truly wicked knife-taking techniques for some pretty nasty attacks. I still cringe every time I think of the "fillet the forearm" technique for knife-on-knife defence, but I'm very squeamish. All up I think we got to spend about 6 hours with Stan Sensei that day either training or talking budo.]
We finished the day with what I think is Stan Sensei's favourite exercise: reverse punching to the point of contact on your partnerÅfs solar plexus. Here you get to develop your reflexes by holding your hands up about face height and trying to deflect the punch. How successful was I? Well, sometimes my hands had even moved when contact with my ribs was made. [Andrew's comment: forget the hands -- I thought I did OK if I blinked before, rather than after, Sensei hit me.]
On Wednesday the budo tour concluded, starting with a lazy breakfast, followed by a trip to Dave Brown Sensei's workshop where he makes violins, shakuhachi and, more recently, the bokutana (a bokken comprising a wooden katana in a saya). We were treated to an illuminating discussion of aikido and how the shapes of our most basic exercises spontaneously counter any attack until a finishing technique presents. Some principles were explored in a small area of the workshop amid wood shavings, partially built or repaired violins and a pot of glue precariously placed.
All in all it was a fantastic trip, a much-needed holiday from work, and a good chance to spend time with Charlie (even though she tried to run away from me for two weeks). It was also the first real opportunity Andrew and I have had to get together outside of national seminars. It was great to get to know each other better and spend time chatting about the art and reflecting on each of the classes we attended. The aikido training was excellent. Leaving behind the responsibilities of our own dojos, strapping on white belts (most of the time) and striving for beginner's mind within a kaleidoscope of new footwork and concepts was a great chance to examine our own aikido critically. I reflected after the second day that a "close the gap" theme was emerging as a significant area of study for my next six months or so of training. This was confirmed over the following week by a number of instructors. Of course, added to that list is "keep seichusen" (the centreline), and "enter with confidence". Finally, Dave Brown Sensei's concepts are beginning to permeate my consciousness as I gain some understanding of what he is trying to teach. I am reminded of something Yoshigasaki Sensei said "your aikido will only improve when your concept of aikido improves". Metaphorically, I'd better leave the white belt on a while longer.
Acknowledgements We would like to thank the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and the Federal Government for funding Charlie's investigation into mechanisms of the scabies parasite, thereby providing the impetus for a couple of budo bums to follow her south for the winter. The Qantas frequent flyer program is Dr James's carrier of choice. Yes folks, it is possible to use those points to get flights approximately when you want to fly, though you may have to fly business class while your partner flies cattle class. Note to self: it is difficult to follow the way of harmony when this happens. A big thank you to the instructors and all the students at the dojos we visited for sharing your aikido with us freely.