I woke up every morning at 5:30am to prepare for my training at Hombu Dojo. The morning classes ended at 9am and were followed by a six-hour break before the afternoon session picked up again at 3pm. This was followed by the evening session finishing at 8pm.
The first session of the day was conducted by Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba. Later classes were overseen by various Hombu Shihan or Shidoin, and a senior Shihan in the evening. All instructors (Sensei/Shihan) had their own styles, but I could see the principles at work were consistent.
Teaching by Hombu Shihan
All Shihan/Sensei focused primarily on breaking the Uke’s balance. Some taught triangular footwork with circular body movements, some taught projection techniques based on the law of the lever, etc. The instructors spent less time explaining the details of immobilization techniques.
It was evident that all Shihan were concerned about practitioners’ ukemi, highlighting the importance of protecting oneself and reacting properly to attacks. Proper ukemi can help Tori/Nage optimize his technique.
The techniques I practiced at Hombu Dojo were similar to those taught in Hong Kong. That said, I still learned a lot from the Hombu Shihan, Ushi-deshi and other practitioners. Their attitude, manners and spirit inspired me in a spiritual way and broadened my understanding of Aikido.
Attitude and Manner of Learning Aikido
Before the start of Keiko (practice), people entered the dojo from different entrances, with women entering from the door next to the Shoman and men coming in through the rear door via the male locker room. With the exception of the duty Shihan, all male Aikidoka, regardless of their title or rank, entered by the rear door, including other Hombu Shihan and Waka Sensei. I mention this to emphasize the respect commanded by the each instructor during training. All Aikidoka bow to Shoman and the dojo and sometimes bow to Sempai (senior Aikidoka).
The atmosphere was relaxed, with friendly chatting. Right before class, ushi-deshi will join in and nicely remind practitioners the class is about to begin. At that point, everyone lines up to wait for the Sensei.
During Keiko at Hombu Dojo, one rarely changes partners, although I managed to change several times. My partners were uniformly serious during training and never talked. Some of them had senior rankings, from 5th Dan to 7th Dan, but were still very patient with me and corrected my techniques without verbal explanations. They allowed me to carry on with techniques even when I appeared uncertain. Their main concern was mastering the points demonstrated by the Sensei.
Another huge benefit of the Keiko is the emphasis on ukemi (受身 – Receiving the technique). In particular, Shihan spent a lot of time teaching us ushiro ukemi (後ろ受身 - falling backwards). There is also the important matter of how to attack correctly.
I noticed that all of the practitioners basically had very good ukemi and were able to protect themselves despite practicing in a crowded dojo. They were also conscientious about surveying the area where they were practicing to make sure it was safe before throwing Uke. I felt assured that my partners were intent on having a safe practice that would allow everyone to improve and correct their techniques.
Another major benefit of the Keiko was the opportunity to act as Uke for the teachers. I was lucky enough to have Sakurai Shihan choose me as his Uke. On the 3rd Floor (the main dojo), this honor is generally reserved for Ushi-deshi. It was not uncommon for the teachers to circulate during the class, giving each person the opportunity to act as Uke. And if one is lucky enough, one may be selected to act as Uke while the teacher demonstrates a technique for the entire class. It was quite an experience to feel the power when being thrown by the teachers.
The Hombu training for beginners and yudansha is the same. To master the basics. yudansha can do fast and strong techniques. But that is only because they understand the basics. If one does not grasp the basics, one shouldn't train too fast or hard.
The focus wasn't just on applying techniques, but also on improving Ukemi so that the body gains flexibility coupled with strength. In practice, if Uke is not flexible and cannot keep the connection (musubi), tori can atemi and the technique ends. Flexibility and connection are very important during training.
Teachers take their role very seriously, clearly explaining the techniques and offering their advice on how to improve. They weren’t just introducing the techniques.They were also focusing on helping people make adjustments and avoid bad habits.
Any Hombu Shihan present at a class they weren't teaching would train just like any other practitioner. They were attentive to the specific movements of the duty instructor. I was deeply impressed by and respected their attitude, and believe that is how they became Shihan.
Another of the benefits I hoped to gain from going to Hombu Dojo was the opportunity to meet people and make friends. It took a while for this to happen. There wasn't a lot of talking during practice, and most people disappeared after the practice was finished. But gradually I made some connections with the other students (asking your partner’s name is a good start!), and as we practiced together I slowly got to know a few people. Going through the training together at the end of session also helped to strengthen those friendships, as you feel like you've helped each other achieve something.
I was honored to have had dinner with Sugawara Shihan and (a lady Sempai). Sugawara Sensei shared some of his stories about his training at Hombu and offered much encouragement.
In short, if you are considering training at Aikikai Hombu Dojo, and you can afford it and are able to commit to the class times, I say go for it. The experience was amazing and one that I will never forget.