Uchi-Deshi Life: Early Life at Aikido Shobukan Dojo


This is a part III in a series of posts on Uchi-Deshi Life written for a Japanese Publisher as a series of requests for more came rapidly. The first was an “Introduction to Saotome Sensei”, published prior to this one and has been read in fifty countries. Two additional sections not part of the original series are enclosed, and may be skipped, these are the grey (“Keiko”) and blue (“Missing Time”) sections and will remain in subsequent series for practitioners wanting more details of physical practices and spiritual challenges, respectively.

Early Life at Aikido Shobukan Dojo

At the time a caretaker lived at the dojo, Ivan Menjivar with his girlfriend, Janet Smith. Ivan was a tremendously talented student and Janet was studying East Asian Chinese Five Element Theory and acupuncture. We grew a friendship with each other, though I think in those times Ivan and Janet were mentors to me in daily life as well as dojo life. I started helping around the dojo, painting, scraping old finish off wood, oiling weapons, gardening, and a personal favorite was acquiring moss from deep in the mountains to distribute in the gardens. After some time, Ivan invited me to stay weekends to prevent the long commutes, and I gladly accepted. I used to sleep in the dojo’s tearoom, which is a beautiful space, very calm and serene. I used to wake up to the smell of cinnamon and spice because Ivan used to crack open the tearoom door and set a hot cup of tea just inside. This was the alarm clock to wake up and do chores, I never experienced this kind of care in my life, nor read about it, and always wanted to do it for someone else. This was the kind of behavior Saotome Sensei, the dojo atmosphere, and the students inspired, it was never demanded, ordered, or expected; everyone was inspired to human potential.

Roy Æ Hodges – Aikido Shobukan Dojo
(Provided by Sharon Hainsfurther)

Just after returning from work one day, I received a phone call, it was Ivan and he abruptly said, “can you move to the dojo this weekend, we are leaving,” it was so sudden. I was about to be hired into a special position where I had been working and had to decide. At this time, I had also been offered a position at U.S. State Department. Of course, the tension was high, I had three dreams competing at once. Where was I working? Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Yes, that’s where I worked. Between C.I.A., State Department, and living at Aikido Shobukan Dojo with an opportunity to train Aikido in a dojo that at the time was one of the largest and healthiest with Saotome Sensei as the chief instructor, which would you choose?

People thought I was crazy, and I most likely was. Of course, the dojo was chosen, Morihei Ueshiba’s stated mission of Aikido spoke to me greater than C.I.A. and State Department. Once this door was closed, it would never be open again, yet was not a tough decision; the decision was clear. I basically moved in with few clothes and few items, then met the dojo-cho, Peter Trimmer and under his graces trained nearly every session. There were about four keiko sessions a day at that time, including generous time before and after scheduled training, so one could train about six or seven hours a day, or more.

Missing Time: The Noble Search, Part II

While at the dojo, there was a very clear effort to connect to people. The visits to Boston were welcome, and the gentlemen, deserved of the characteristic of gentle men, had been wonderful. They lived like a family, and I still catch this body replicating some of the habits picked up from this environment. The care within which ingredients were selected, prepared, placed into small dishes, and organized in the small kitchen environment were nothing short of wondrous. Everyone worked together for meal prep, it left a very powerful impression. This was not what people had done when I was young. So many beings growing up were on separate clocks serving different industries: some were in recovery, some were not home. Here, things were different, everyone made an effort to prep together.

There was an extremely intelligent gentlemen with a penchant for leather who had traveled to bars, bald head of course, and was nearly the head chef; he did much cooking prep. There was another, a professor it seemed like, well versed in language and communication, and who loved antiques. These folks shared stories of the AIDS crisis and were an exposure to a suppressed gay culture from where I had grown up. There was a gentlemen that was more of a guest, then there was Wayne, the gentlemen who picked me up at the station. Wayne was, and still is, very respectful of the training at Shobukan and of Sensei. He was also intrigued by Aiki philosophy, never once questioned it, and saw that it had an effect on this body’s movements and speech.

Wayne was an inventor and repaired organs for many churches around New England. Fortunately Wayne brought me to empty cathedrals, churches, and recitals to hear organs, accompanying along, observing his skills in repairing the intricate pieces of these massive machines. He would become completely absorbed in his works. Access to such machines of great adoration required him and people like him to live compartmentalized lives; priests knew. It was more like priests protecting the angels at the gate from the parishioners in this time; such is the complexity of samsara.

So that’s how my life started at Aikido Shobukan Dojo. About a month or two after I had arrived, another student moved from New York City, Mike Rosario, he had been a student of Paul Kang Sensei in Bond Street Dojo and was, and most likely is still a very talented professional drummer. Sensei at first kept his distance, and over time would start dropping a story or a lecture. I did much work in the dojo including daily cleaning, gardening, electrical maintenance, lighting maintenance, and painting. Over time my responsibilities grew, and I took on greeting and signing up new students. I also created the dojo’s website and programmed a new membership management system. I acquired a Canon Digital SLR from part time work when these first came out and started taking photographs of the dojo and Sensei; he didn’t seem to mind, and Patty approved. Over time Sensei and I had developed a close relationship through shared interest in arts like photography, calligraphy, studies, design, and meditation. I started working with sensei on drafting ideas for improvements to the dojo, and we collaborated on them. Peter Trimmer and the board funded them, and Mike and I built them with occasional help; some of these improvements are still visible in the dojo to every member.

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan demonstrates natural body.
(Roy Æ Hodges, photographer)

Sometimes Mike Rosario and I were tasked with taking care of out-of-town guests visiting Sensei, driving them to/from airports, coordinating their travel around the city, and to/from hotels. The professionalism continued increasing every time. Though I use the term “uchi-deshi” now, at the time, Sensei was very clear in letting the world know that uchi-deshi was not possible, because to him, uchi-deshi are traditionally supported by a Sensei, and he could not commit to it. Sensei quite clearly would say that there are no more uchi-deshi, though behind closed doors things were different. One funny note about sensei’s guests, one day we went to Dulles Airport to pick up a friend of Sensei from Japan, either calligrapher and aikido instructor, Yamamoto Sensei (山本忠英), or an Ona-Ha Itto-Ryu instructor, Hideyuki Kaiwa Sensei. While we were waiting, we saw Takamiyama Daigorō coming out of customs with an entourage, so Mike and I were amazed and felt fortunate to study his body movement in the brief moments we saw him in person–very valuable. Now, this might seem odd, but when traveling with Saotome Sensei, things like this happen. There are so many stories, and a tremendous and wide range of keiko.

Keiko: Instantaneous Synchronization

During the first years in the dojo, Sensei taught things so quickly, that it left little room for slack in perception. That said, before seminars, Sensei did his best to make the “unit fit for deployability”. This is reminiscent of military efforts: the unit is medically conditioned, trained to rules of engagement in context, barracks are tidied, offices organized, vehicles checked and serviced, immunizations and medical records are brought up to date, and the unit entire is made ready, usually also preceded by company or battalion runs in advance of a brigade run (quite the accordion effect). The dojo received pre-seminar training, and Saotome Sensei during these sessions pushed dojo members harder than he would in a seminar. Conditioning presence, lead by re-establishment of martial qualities, Sensei built perception and intensity. These students, in advance, are collectively responsible for time signatures and rhythmic tempos of a seminar’s environment.

It was becoming apparent that Sensei’s skill had developed in not only the development of individuals, but also rapid synchronization of groups. Many students have noted that when practicing in Saotome Sensei’s keiko sessions that practice just feels “better”; things work “better”. Students would feel “on” when Sensei lead. It would be a mistake to say that these efforts of Sensei, one who has went before, are calculated, are planned, for it is not. It is also beyond heuristic. It is beyond planning, it is beyond winging it. When it was just Mike and I around Sensei, there had been many evenings were Sensei emphasized “not calculating”, “no calculate”.

Saotome Sensei’s messaging might have seemed outright heretical and irresponsible to tell a young impressionable being that should be partaking in calculating and planning for a future of independent living, yet it was straight at ancient wisdom. These instructions empowered motivation inclination toward meditative practices powerfully. Sensei so actively pointed toward meditation without relying on rituals. With exposure to more of Sensei’s life off the mat, observations private lead to practices public.

I lived at Aikido Shobukan Dojo for a just about a decade between 1998 to 2008. I remember the day I departed; it was extremely emotional for Sensei and I. Sensei gave me the greatest gift he could at that time, a lesson, and someday I shall demonstrate, yet it is a gift too early to share with some, because now it is now this body, speech, and mind’s gift to give to others. After departing the dojo, I made it a mission to go put what I had learned into practice. There have been many great things achieved and there are so many more stories, it is an amazing life, and I have met so many wonderful people. It is hard to describe the keiko during that decade, some students call the ten years before and ten years during, the golden years of the dojo. I, and all of us feel such gratitude and fortune that Saotome Sensei came to the United States. He has touched so many lives through his own experience with Morihei Ueshiba in so many parts of life, and many people in the world have changed their own lives through practice with Sensei. We all feel a bond with the Ueshiba family and the people of Japan.

Left to Right: Patty Saotome Sensei, Mitsugi Saotome Shihan (五月女貢),
Doshu Kisshomarou Ueshiba (植芝吉祥丸), Second Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba (植芝守央)
(Photograph Provided by Patty Saotome Sensei)

This is a third in a series of articles on uchi-deshi lifestay tuned for more later. For reprints into other languages, please submit a contact request.