What's in Takasaki city, Gunma prefecture? Nothing. Oh, well, a brand new big massive sports arena, and apparently someone with just enough sway within the Aikikai organisation to convince them to hold the biggest International Aikido Conference that happens once every four years there.
It's conveniently located less than a ten minute walk from the main station, as are all the budget business hotels. As a result, after a week I know the Takasaki train station more intimately than any station after more than a year of living in Kyoto city. So for a week my entire world was that which was within a kilometre of that station. It was a simple daily pattern comprised of a handful of basic elements roughly of equal importance: aikido, eating, laundry, bath, sleep.
Initially when I heard about the seminar I wasn't overly excited. It sounded like a massive pain to have to travel to and stay at some nowhere place at great expense, in order to spend everyday doing what I already do everyday, except more. A brief trip to and from Ireland where I had a less than satisfactory training experience gave me a fresh sense of perspective, realising that such an opportunity to train with world-class teachers for a whole week in one place within the country I live was a real privilege and so, I bit the bullet and went.
Well, I'm terribly glad I did. First and foremost, each day four different teachers had an hour slot. So I had four case studies per day of how to teach a class. The comparisons were very interesting, especially considering the there were hundreds of people on the mat each day, different levels who may or may not be familiar with any given teacher. Generally the Hombu teachers opted for clean basics: working on movement and techniques that generally anyone should be familiar with. With so many students of different backgrounds, while for us it was familiar, it was quickly apparent that not everyone has the best grasp of the basics and have come with different ideas and aikido histories so it was challenging to figure out how to have optimum training with everyone, one person at a time.
At the risk of sounding biased, from a teaching perspective I thought Okamoto-sensei's class was one of the most well-designed. She focused on the concept of shifting weight and movement, something that can be applied to many techniques and something for people of all levels to work on. While I thought this was easy to follow, (to be fair she had been practising this kind of class at home in Kyoto for weeks beforehand so I was very familiar with what she was trying to get across), it was clear that a lot of people weren't getting it, fixating instead on the form and trying to do "techniques" in a cart-before-the-horse sort of way. Also, it was a very good demonstration in creating rhythm in a class. It was snappy with very little verbal explanation and fun. This was especially welcome after the previous afternoon's class which was tedious lecture from Asai-sensei of the German Aikido Federation. For me this was the ultimate example of how to NOT teach anything ever: complaining endlessly that students these days don't watch properly and aren't hardcore, taking ukemi on concrete and whatnot like his generation is unsurprisingly not interesting or motivating. It also doesn't really take into account that the world has changed immeasurably in the last fifty years which was very irritating. A class, especially where people have given time and money to be there for is not an opportunity for soapboxing and nostalgia. There was absolutely nothing to take away as a student which was a huge opportunity wasted, but that's his choice. I can't remember if he showed any techniques at all. He also went over time, which I also think is unprofessional and left everyone with very little time to pack up and change before the facility closed.
We saw other approaches as well; foreign teachers sometimes seemed to have a cultish following in their own country where as when one looked at their actual Aikido, well, it's different, sometimes a bit too free-form for my liking. In any case, it's interesting to see that there is all sorts out there, though privately I felt snug and reassured knowing I would be returning to the warm cocoon of Aikido Kyoto when this was over. Which in turn made me kind of feel like a stuck-up kid from a fancy private school at an inter-school sports meet.
In training with so many people, it was interesting to work out how to move as the teacher instructed while also being aware of my training partner and how they were moving and reacting to try get them to move how I wanted without being forceful, to have the best possible training with each person, constantly negotiating through movement. Okamoto-sensei sometimes says to us: if you have something to say, say it through your Aikido. Particularly after sitting a few lecture-type classes I could really appreciate this idea.
Living in the isolated bubble of Takasaki for a week was also good training of living in the moment and not getting caught up in the past or the future. Just focusing on the task and the partner in front of me. It was also a fantastic opportunity to meet of Okamoto-sensei's international contacts. The teacher she visits in Australia, Christian Tissier-sensei and his students of course and other friends like Janet-sensei from Greece. I seem to be good at finding very niche interests where that it's relatively easy to get to know the whole international community in that area (like specialty coffee). Even with people from the other side of the world that you're meeting for the first time, you find you'll have a mutual connection somewhere. It's rather heartening I feel, to make those kind of connections. For me one of the interesting things about Aikido is it's about how something can happen out of a connection with another person. That energy that's created from basically nothing is really fascinating to me so naturally I like to broaden my network of like-minded people also. You never know when and how but magic stuff can come from connections so it's always worth having them.
Even with people I didn't actually talk with, once I had enjoyable training with a person, quite often that person would seek me out again another day. Until near the end of the week I didn't train with Aikido Kyoto members at all but being away from our routines at home but there also there was a sort of sense of unified spirit what made the experience worthwhile.
Here's a little comic I did of the basic daily schedule: