Kenshusei Life: Friday | 研修生ライフ(金)

Friday training is unique in that it's the only day that happens at the Budo Centre. That sounds cool, and in fact there is a really gorgeous old style Japanese building on the grounds that's used as a training space. For our usual weekly visit however we train in basically a generic sports facility. We have to put down the mats before class and take them up afterwards which is a bit of pain but the Budo Centre is only 30 mins by bike which is more than reasonable considering the Hirakata journey on Wednesday. We will get to use the traditional building soon though for our upcoming international seminar so that will be something to look forward to. 

The nice thing is that the space is quite big compared to Nishijin so even if there's a lot of people it's comfortable. 

This class is an hour and a half, then there's a short break and then there's weapons class. This is separate to regular training and you have to apply to be in it because due to the obvious fact that it's a lot of people swinging weapons around, space is limited. This class can be either bokken which is a wooden sword or a jo which is a wooden pole. You've seen them in a martial arts film at some stage surely. 

Weapons class is difficult. There's a certain amount of transferrable knowledge but it really is a different beast. I speak from the point of view of a person who never did weapons until I came to Kyoto. Many dojos don't really go in to them too much.  

So we bash away at that for another hour. Usually some basic movements, some drills then some exercises and then maybe, just maybe we might do something that, well, looks cool I guess. I'm not sure what weapons mean to me yet so I'm quite happy to do the static exercises while I figure out if it, as head of animation in college, Keith Foran used to say; informs some other part of my training. Right now all it does is give my arms a serious workout, though it is getting more fun as I no longer have to think too hard about holding the bloody thing the right way or not drop it or something like that.

And then that's it for Friday. Then I usually get home pumped to do stuff then run out of energy right after I put my dogi in the washing machine and just lie on the floor instead. One more day to go!

Kenshusei Life: Thursday | 研修生ライフ(木)

Once you get home Wednesday night you know you're on a roll to the end of the week. Depending on your personal schedule, Thursday morning class is sort of optional. For those of us who attend every other scheduled class this is the one to take off and recover a bit. People who because of other engagements miss other classes in the week tend to go. Paul teaches it and he has a distinct following of beginners who enjoy his snail-pace classes. 

The other reason to take Thursday morning is because Thursday night is three classes back to back: kids, beginners and advanced. 

There's some mixed levels of both skill and will power in Thursday nights class. You also have your typical few 'old man' kids who are always tired or have a sore knee or elbow or really just find it all too much today of all days. The response to all of which is to just throw them repeatedly until they get genuinely tired and don't have the energy to put on the act.

Next is a basics class so we team up with lower grades and it's all very nice and polite. We don't want to scare anyone. Just do some basics techniques broken down into a series or exercises until everyone can more or less do it.

Then the lower grades go home and the higher grades thrash each other for another hour. The All Nippon embu at Hombu Dojo is coming up. It's a huge Aikido meet basically and each dojo gets to show off their stuff. Yoko-sensei has been working on Aikido Kyoto's demonstration. For this reason golden trio of Manyu-san, Daisaku and Hasegawa have been getting flaked around the place something fierce. Incidentally, Thursday night is the day we tend to get the most visitors, probably of the two-for-one value of the consecutive classes. Depending on where they came from, full power Yoko-sensei can be a bit of a shock to the system. 

As it gets warmer these high-intensity classes are getting tougher. The last twenty minutes are difficult to follow if sensei decides not to slow down the pace when all you can think about is if you'd rather juice or beer. Then we go back home, Thursday night is the night we rotate who makes dinner for everyone in the kenshusei house. Nearly the weekend now. Two days to go.

Kenshusei Life: Wednesday | 研修生ライフ(水)

This is the day we reach the peak of the training week. Today is more than four hours dojo time split between Nishijin dojo in the morning and then the epic journey to the middle of the suburban nowhere that is Hirakata, where the pace of training kicks up a level. We'll get to that later.

Zazen is 6AM again on Wednesdays. By the third day of zazen (keeping in mind I'm only a month into at least three years of training) my legs really have had enough of this pose and it feels like a tremendously long forty minutes. This is just an issue of personal perseverance. 

After zazen is a Basics class at 7AM. At this point of the week, Yoko-sensei often has clearly established a theme, it might be for example: a specific technique like irmi-nage or some detail that applies in general such as proper grip as ukemi. Having being aware of that makes it easy for us to take the ukemi and easier to help instruct other as now we've been doing this since Monday. It's part of the rhythm of the week that you get in to and it makes it easier. If you miss a day you really do feel it.  

After the basics class there's a brief break while the regular students head off and then we have a forty five minute kenshusei class. This is often a slot where Yoko-sensei will work with us individually on something, or for the more experienced people, be repeatedly milled off the floor. The atmosphere is different to regular classes. In a way it feels like a little reward for all the other things kenshusei have to do, which we'll come to another day. This week for example Yoko-sensei was interested in improving our breathing technique and the core. Here is when everything sort of pulls together, where the breathing control in zazen links in to the training which you do the rest of the day. These are the sort of "hmm" moments you sometimes get left with to mull over and feel a bit pleased by because people like things having meaning and puzzled because you are now deep in this mist of this other world far from normal people and left to fend for yourself. Much like the businessmen practicing their golf swings with umbrellas on train platforms, you might find yourself absently waving your arm in a shomen-uchi while cycling your bike. *cough*Daisaku*cough*

So then we cut to the afternoon when we head make our way out to Hirakata, which is seemingly a suburb of Osaka rather than part of Kyoto. It requires cycling to the train station, then get a thirty minute train, then get a taxi or bus from Hirakata station. It is an ordeal that we go through every Wednesday. There's something terrifically Japanese about the preservation of this ritual in the face of all good sense - more than half of the adult class are kenshusei and other people who came from Kyoto. Why do we do it? Well part of it is that Yoko started in Hirakata when she and Chris came back to Japan. Also, there's the kids class. Each kids class in the three dojo locations is different. The Hirakata kids really have it together. They usually display a good spirit and take instruction well. We have some very enthusiastic new kids in this class at the moment including a kid who looks small enough to fit in my rucksack. Even he, who's only been there a few weeks can roll properly, though if the pace picks up he tends to panic and resorts to just throwing himself sideways or backwards - a class beginner reaction.

Lastly is the adult class. The Hirakata Gymnasium mat space is enormous. This facilitates more dynamic movement, bigger ukemi, generally more bashing around, red faces and sweat. Yoko-sensei is usually on top form for Hirakata and again sempai are often seen, ideally at a safe distance, being mashed around at some side of the room. Basically for Hirakata, everyone is on fire. Unless you actually live in Hirakata and this is just normal training, then poor you having to deal with this swarm of aikido maniacs descending upon you. To summarize: Hirakata is high-energy - the summit of the training week . This gets you ready for Thursday night's higher grade class, and the long Friday and Saturday mornings which both include weapons training. Until tomorrow!

Kenshusei Life: Tuesday | 研修生ライフ(火)

Tuesday starts with 7:40 zazen, which is nice but can easily lead to being a bit too relaxed about getting up and rushing at the last minute. Tuesday is the day I most often don't have time for coffee and spend zazen just fighting to keep my eyes open.

Class is then at 8AM. It's another general class. It tends to be a pretty mixed bag depending on who comes. Sometimes we do some basic stuff, today it was practising sutemi throws which is one of the more difficult and dynamic ways of taking ukemi (which I talked about a bit yesterday). When done right it looks like the uke's body is a paper shape being effortlessly swung 180 degrees by the tori. My previous dojo didn't do this stuff so this is a steep learning curve and your basic ukemi technique has to be very very good or it's all just a disaster and doesn't look very cool either.

After that there's an open mat which I usually don't go to because it's slightly over my limit of what I can give at the moment. Today I went though because I had things to work on. Often tends to be people practicing for gradings. Yoko-sensei is often still hanging around on side and will occasionally impart some advice by shouting a precise instruction across the room at you.  

Then I come back to the dojo at 5PM for the kids class in English at 5:30. There's a class for kids under before kids sometimes I see the end of that. It's a whole different world to regular kids class. Daisaku teaches these mainly and he's very good at it.

Tuesday evenings are with Chris-sensei, Yoko's husband and friend of my teacher in Dublin. He's a great teacher and I always enjoy his classes. The kids in English class are a mixed bunch and there are days when they really hit a high or a slump. On slump days there's a lot of lying on the ground and taking as long as possible to stand back up again when thrown.

Last thing on Tuesday is Chris' Basics Class. It usually breaking down the moves into several parts and practicing them until it builds up to the actual technique. Like Monday morning, you spend most of your time with beginners, helping them though the actions. It's a good opportunity to sharpen up your technique and build confidence. 

Chris-sensei is very clear in his instructions and understandably occasionally gets frustrated when people automatically do a move Yoko-sensei's way instead. Some people say he's more difficult to follow than Yoko-sensei but I don't think so. Maybe because parts of his style remind me of Jean-sensei's back in Dublin. Maybe.

One week of Kenshusei Life: Monday | 研修生ライフの一週間 (月)

I felt the last post didn't go far enough to give a taste of actual kenshusei life so I've decided to do a week where I explain what the training involves.


First thing bright and early at 6AM on Monday morning: Zazen, seated meditation. My thoughts on zazen are that there are people who are suited to it and those who are not. The people who are into in talk about how it gives them a wonderful sense of centeredness that remains with them the rest of the day and things like that. For me the main point of zazen is to be seen to be making an effort and to use the 40 minutes to think over what I need to do this week, wonder how much the upcoming seminar costs, think about rearranging my website and so on. For zazen you're meant to sit in lotus position on the edge of a round cushion so you're seated on a tripod consisting of your knees and your bum. If you can't do lotus you're basically putting your weight on your legs which results in dead legs. You keep yours hands in the position shown above, and you gaze ahead at a space in front of you and try empty your mind. I still do actually try sometimes but it feels like a bit of a waste of time when I could be thinking about new colouring techniques.


7AM we have a Regular Class on Mondays. It tends to be mainly lower grades that come to this one. In situations like that we the kenshusei help sensei by pairing always with the lower grades and help them through the moves. You get some stuff with these guys that's way off the map and it can be a real challenge. Kenshusei are the ones who be Uke for sensei the most also. The idea being we can glean some insight from being thrown by sensei personally. You can, but feeling it and actually understanding what it was you felt are different things. When taking ukemi, you're trying to help sensei demonstrate the technique clearly which means being able to understand what she's going to do, follow her movement and take ukemi properly - that means 'receiving' the technique properly and taking a fall or a roll in a safe way. This can be nerve-wrecking especially when you're only occasionally called up and trying not to tense up in your desperation to please in front of a room of your fellow students can be the hardest part. 


After class on Mondays we have a kenshusei meeting with Yoko-sensei to discuss upcoming events, things that have happened or were brought to our attention during the week, appoint weekly tasks etc. Today being the week after Golden Week, there were lots of omiyage sweets to be had with our usual green tea. There's this one from Fukuoka called Hataka Toorimon which is absolutely amazing. I wish I'd saved mine because I think it would be amazing with coffee. It's like a western-influenced wagashi with white an paste in the middle with butter and cream, the outside has a wonderfully milky taste and soft cake texture. So good. 

A drawing of a Hakata Toorimon that doesn't convey how absolutely delicious and special it is one bit.

A drawing of a Hakata Toorimon that doesn't convey how absolutely delicious and special it is one bit.

Then we disperse to go about our days. In the evening classes are held in two places: the main dojo in Nishijin and in a Youth Centre in Fushimi. At the moment I'm in the Nishijin team of kenshusei so I help in the Middle Schoolers class. It's mainly for kids who have gotten too big for kids class though some lower grade adults attend too. The teacher tends to change a lot depending on who's free which makes it kind of interesting.

Aaaand that's all for Monday. Tune in tomorrow for Tuesday's schedule.