kenshusei life

Aikido Do-Nots

In training aikido nearly everyday for over two years I just thought I'd like to summarise some things I noticed. It's pretty typical stuff for novices but if you carry these things on to black belt you run the risk of looking silly at best, to making your partner think you're trying to start a fight at worst. Of course I know also that I'm not perfect, and I by no means am pointing down at anyone from a high horse. Things like pulling can be subtle and hard to notice by yourself, and we've all caught ourselves not quite in hanmi when we should have been at some stage. So yeah, let's just remind ourselves, shall we?

Basics of Holding

Just hold the arm normally. Some people have this weird tendency of holding exactly on the wrist joint and then squeezing. I don't know what you think you're doing but please stop. In extreme cases the holder seems to loose sight of the bigger picture entirely and focus solely on statically clinging to your arm like a limpet.  

Related to this is when people literally hang off you/lean on you. No. If you do that, you're giving up your balance entirely. It's too early for that. I mean if you're ready to fall over by yourself nage doesn't actually need to throw you, just get out of your way as you topple like lumber. The importance of learning good ukemi from early on is really evident here. 

Distance: Again, even as uke, you should have some sense of self-preservation. Standing too close to nage, all bunched up really doesn't do much for you in that regard. It's hard to connect from the centre that way and hard to react. Remember the objective isn't to latch on to the person for dear life. You're meant to be the attacker. Don't put yourself in a vulnerable position. 

Pulling and pushing: Happens as tori and uke. Rather than go for the opponent's centre, again become obsessed with the arm and try to move that. Really unpleasant. Pushing is the same. Sometimes the pull you on top of them. Do you want me to fall on you? Okay. I don't see how that's a win for you though. This is a really tricky one though. Most people who push and pull right up to advanced level aren't actually aware of it. Sometimes it's really obvious, sometimes only one side can feel it. Seemingly I pull when taking ukemi from shihonage sometimes and only on one side. Still working on that. Pushing only on the arm and not taking the centre is also really common on ikkyo etc. Something to watch out for.



Ah yes. The classic face ukemi. I dunno. Do you want your face rearranged like a Picasso painting? Rather than come forward from the centre, sometimes you have people willing to sacrifice their face. Totally unnecessary if you bring your whole body forward and you're more stable and a better position to react. 

Not in hanmi: Common especially if the uke follows around from an irimi-tenkan, the arrive to stand squarely in front. Totally exposed. Well within kicking distance. Think about it. Again, even as uke please have some sense of self-preservation.

Take ukemi before nage has even done anything. This especially drives me crazy in crowded dojo: when you're taking care to not hit people on either side of you and suddenly your uke just randomly repels themselves away from you in dramatic roll/backfall. If you want to do that please go do it in a field by yourself. Otherwise, please at least try to stay connected. It's not always that easy I know, but please try. Of course if nage is pulling or going ahead it can be really difficult. That's why it's interesting though: with the two sides giving their best and being sensitive to the other side you can make really interesting discoveries. First though it's important to be able to protect yourself with good ukemi and it's also great if you can build you a trust relationship to give each other feedback. Then everyone improves.

That's about it for now. People who don't do aikido will have been entirely lost but thanks for following along anyway.

All images are property of Robin Hoshino and not to be used with out permission

The Escapist

As a devoted Monocle consumer I awaited my copy of The Escapist with a sense giddy anticipation, ready to bask in the “sunshine on paper” as it was described on Monocle radio, and at the same time with an inward sigh thinking that’s probably as close to a summer holiday as I might get: aspirational window shopping from my utilitarian accommodation of the kenshusei shisetsu, a world away from the Nice Things and Beautiful People usually fill the pages of a Monocle publication.

At that time I had forgotten that, in a sense I was already living The Escapist dream. I escaped the nine to five about two years ago, first getting by somehow while having all sorts of food-centered adventures in Dublin, now, I’m operating even further outside the normal framework. Indeed if I chose to I could phrase my current situation rather grandly: an aikido practitioner living in the traditional, machiya-lined northern part of Kyoto city on a intense training program to become a professional martial artist. I could curate my photo uploads to snaps of the Budo centre’s traditional-style training hall, the Kamo river, leafy temples and tasteful cafe interiors (and in fact for the most part I do). None of this really speaks anything of the financial uncertainty, the utilitarian dojo-owned share house designed by the ergonomically illiterate, or the strict training schedule which makes up the greater part of daily life. It’s living the dream, but the dream is actually tough going. Meanwhile, all that nice cultural stuff just sits in the background out of focus - Kyoto becomes a fishbowl where you just go around and round in the same circles week on week while the heat steadily rises and then remains trapped by the surrounding mountains.

This unseen, unglamorous daily reality is taken to extremes once the summer sets in proper: shedding litres of sweat in a tatami lined box with about twenty other people, throwing and taking falls, trying to aim your landing a few centimetres away from the visible print of someone else’s sweat drenched dogi. Any exotic thrill of living in Kyoto for martial arts is soon lost in that unforgiving heat bog of a city where temperatures sit at 35 degrees Celsius. The mere act of bowing in at the start of training produces visible beads of perspiration and in the time you’re not dragging yourself up from a pool of your own sweat after taking break falls over and over again in the dojo, your main preoccupation is laundry and the efficient rotation of dojo wear.

So when The Escapist arrived I was more than ready to be invited to feel the breeze of Beirut while lying on the floor my room underneath underneath the air conditioner. As it happened however, I got a slice of the real deal - to take my own journey that was very much in the spirit of the magazine. 

A few days after the magazine arrived, due to carelessness on my part, my travel arrangements to an eight hour aikido seminar in Odawara were voided. At first I was furious at myself for losing out on 2000 yen overnight bus hell; due to spending most of our time on unpaid training, we kenshusei are generally in a perpetual state of poverty. This rules out flashy options like the Shinkansen, but, when I talked with the others I was reminded that August is the season to buy a Seishun 18 ticket in Japan. For about 10,000 yen it can be used for five journeys on any local train. A nice feature is that multiple people can use the same ticket (each counting as one of the five journeys) so, with two of my fellow kenshusei, we bought one to take the train from Kyoto to Yugawara, a stop before Odawara, our final destination. This was due to it being cheaper to stay in Yugawara and travel forward on the day of the seminar. 

Last year I Inter-railed solo around Europe, and as such I have Passing Time on Trains down to a fine art, but I was surprised at the how fluidly seven hours passed with two travelling companions, homemade cake and a game of shiratori - though the latter was abandoned between trains after about an hour. There were many changes of trains but while they looked like an awful lot of work as a list on a timetable, in reality were very smooth and easy. 

Once we arrived in Yugawara it was already dark and most places were closed, but so delighted were we to move our legs the fifteen minute walk Google maps lead us on was very agreeable. We found ourselves at a non-descript street near the edge of town where there was a Teishoku-ya - a place to get a set Japanese style set meal for a reasonable price. Having lived in Kyoto about six months now I’d become sort of desensitised to the splendour of all the shrines and temples, though walking through this new environment, I was struck anew by the pleasure of being in a beautiful place, in this small seaside town south Tokyo of all places, somewhere I didn’t know existed until the week before. The small town atmosphere with a hint of the sea - in the air but also in the pointed reminders of the sea level at where ever you looked, the streets lined with paper lanterns for o-bon and the black shape of the mountains - totally different to Kyoto - somehow more open. 

At the Teishoku-ya we had a simple and delicious meal of rice, miso soup, grilled fish, a little salad and chawanmushi to the comfortable backdrop of mindless evening television. From there we contacted our ryokan owner who came and picked us up. What initially seemed like an exemplary gesture of Japanese hospitality was soon evidently more of a necessity as we rode the car up a steep winding hill devoid of any illumination. 

The ryokan was old, it seemed like it might be a converted care home - the layout was strange and the owners were insistent on the use of the elevator for a journey between floors of about ten seconds by stairs. It’s selling point was the ‘mikan bath’ which was literally a big Japanese style bath filled with citrus bobbing about on the surface filling the bathroom with steamy zestiness, was a new and slightly surreal experience. There was also a coveted rotemburo - outdoor bath which we were entitled to use for a half an hour. Being the unlikely trio of an Irish woman, a Japanese man and a French man, it was delicately agreed the fairest way was to divide this time into two fifteen minute slots with me going first. Rotemburo against the clock is not exactly the gently restorative experience Japanese people get dreamy-eyed over, but it wasn’t unsatisfying.  

The room was somewhat more equipped than your average European budget hotel, what’s considered the essentials in hospitality and how it varies from place to place is always interesting. Here, it seems one cannot get by without a hot water dispenser, lacquer box with full Japanese tea set, low table with big plush zabuton, in addition to the tv and hairdryer. Our futons were laid out already on the immaculate tatami. A huge window faced down on the town towards the mountain and though it wasn’t visible at the given hour, in the morning we woke to a spectacular vista, which is just what you want when you wake up in a strange place.

In the morning we had a leisurely stroll along the citrus tree lined mountain road, then took another quick soak in the baths before getting ready for an intense weekend of sweating it out on the tatami. Sitting in the wooden lined bath by myself at seven a.m. facing an unfamiliar mountain range which was vibrant in the August morning sunshine, I perused an article about Perth and felt a deep sense of pleasure at how I had come to be here, a how happy coincidence and lack of both money and expectations opened the door to an overall richer experience than the most obvious travel option. To recall the actual seminar only draws up a hazy blur of people, litres Pocari Sweat and even more actual sweat, it's the memory of the unexpected journey with two unlikely companions that lingers sweetly: sunlight citrus and the sea, and will remain something to treasure.

Aikido Doodles

I can`t remember why but I was doing aikido drawings for some reason. As Aikido consumes more and more of my life these will likely become more frequent, as well short comics about things that amused me. Also hakama are fun to draw. They`re also amazing pieces of clothing if you examine how they`re made. In general Japanese clothing is ingenius imo, It`s generally quite practical, comfortable and looks great. 

Kenshusei Life: Saturday | 研修生ライフ(土)

Finally we get to the last day of the training week. There's a zazen at 8:20 which some people go to, then class with Chris-sensei starts at the agreeable time of 10AM. Saturday is always a good day because, being a day off a lot of sempai are able to come and it's fun to train with them and you learn a lot. With so many people who have been training together for a long time, there's a good atmosphere. The format is for Chris to go through some techniques, basic stuff that people need to know for gradings and end with randori, which is also tested. Randori is where the tori starts at one end of the mat and the uke, usually about three people are at the end of the end. At the call of "hajime!" the uke go to grab the tori who has to throw them. It's a test of timing and judgement, that you go through the attackers and strategically throw them so they stay spaced out and you don't end up crowded. It's a lot harder than it looks.

Last class of the week is another weapons class, this time with Chris-sensei. Like on Friday it can be bokken or jo. Chris and Yoko have different styles of teaching. Chris is more likely to get annoyed at us for not being able to do what he's showing, which manifests itself in jovial insults. I guess it's that Irish blood. 

When that's over kenshusei do our weekly appointed dojo cleaning and then that's it till Monday. So there you have it. One week in kenshusei life. There are other things that kenshusei have to do, such as keeping the inside and outside of the dojo tidy which involve the unexciting tasks of sweeping up leaves and toilet cleaning. On golden week we had to repaint the dojo, Hasegawa has the added task of fielding all e-mail that comes in, with the help of Pierre, if it's in French. Pierre is in charge of dojo maintenance, us newbies are in charge of dealing with guests when Paul isn't there. So far I haven't been as on ball with this I need to be- one moment of hesitation where you wonder if this person is a stranger, or just a member you haven't seen before is the moment you are judged in the eagle eye of one of the more experienced members to be not doing your job at all and at warp speed they appear beside the visitor, pamphlet and newsletter in one hand and zabuton in the other. Just another thing to work on. Three years, people.

I've tried to give a clear account of the week without being exhaustively detailed and boring people but if you have any questions or would otherwise like to express your thoughts having read this series of posts, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

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: 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.

Kenshusei Life

Last month I returned to Kyoto to become a kenshusei. What's a kenshusei you ask? Good question. I'm not really sure myself. Kenshu is basically learning on the job. Except Aikido isn't a job - the "do" at the end which is common at the end of names of Japanese arts is 道 meaning "path", implies some greater, character building journey than paid employment. You're basically devoting your life to learning your chosen path. Basically. You still need to eat and pay your bills so I'm going to take a moment to make clear that I am very much open for business on the freelance front. For the next month at least I will humour pretty much any project for the sake of establishing a work routine. 

Okay with the call for work out of the way, let me introduce my fellow kenshusei, as you might be wondering what kind of curious creatures wind up doing this kind of thing. I drew this as a sort of commemoration thing for our first get together, however there's now a copy in the dojo with our names on it because Yoko-sensei was very amused by it. 

Left to Right

Paul: a Colombian man living in Kyoto ten years, recently became a buddhist monk so when he's off at the temple we call him by his monk name Hosen-san. Will be going back to Colombia soon to open a temple and dojo. Yes you read all that correctly.

Nadine: Jamaican short term kenshusei. Used to live in Kyoto, came back for a three month visit. She's a very cool lady all around. 

Jun: another short term, a year or so, Japanese guy living in America over ten years. Back in Japan temporarily due to visa stuff. Suffering bad reverse culture shock, I actually thought he grew up in America at first, he's so Portland, Oregon but he's only been there since nineteen. 

Daisaku: Actually raised in America and the youngest kenshusei, younger than me by a few months. He's been doing Aikido since he was a kid. For him its the only path in life and out of all of us he's the one most actively moving towards going out on his own as a teacher. Built like a little bear.

Sayaka: The littlest kenshusei you might think, but she's deceptively strong. Not that you really need to be strong in Aikido. She's still working nearly full time as at a clinic. She became a kenshusei just before me. In a long distance relationship with a guy who used to go to my dojo in Dublin. 

Hasegawa: Is the closest to being a normal Japanese person, and as such is the only kenshusei absolutely everyone calls by his surname. His first name is Wataru, which is a cool name and one of a long list of reasons he'd make a great manga character. Other reasons include being the most aethetically pleasing person to see take a throw and owning four cats despite being allergic. 

Robin: that's me with my crazy bed hair look that inevitably comes from repeatedly taking break falls and rolls. 

Pierre: French guy who teaches in the French school. Everyone talks to him in English and then is somehow surprised that he's still not speaking any Japanese a year in. He's the sweetest guy. Always noticeable in a dojo group photo because there's sunbeams radiating out from his head. 

So there you have it. Bunch of nutters.