By Paul Hibschman
I thank the members of the JAC for accepting me into the dojo and into their practice. I feel as if I have been around Aikido forever. Age has one advantage as it has allowed me time to observe and consider. For decades I have had a love affair with Aikido. I see it not as a martial art but as an aspect of life. There are endless ways to demonstrate this.
The spirit of Aikido is built into the architecture and art of Saetome Sensei’s main dojo, The Aikido Shobukan Dojo of Washington D.C. which is my home dojo and the Headquarters for the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba. It is the physical expression of Aikido.
I do not know how it came into existence, how it was found, refurbished, financed. It is in a dark, damp part of the city. It is a residential neighborhood mixed with some commercial use. All the houses are bungalows. Bungalows are wide, squat, low and almost mean looking buildings. They all occupy their lot from one side to the other with just a narrow foot path down one side of each. There is always a porch that goes all the way across the front and almost seems to be part of a fortress wall. The stairs are in the center and lead straight to the front door. The second floor is merged with the roof with its gables and pitches of various angles. Nothing seems to invite anyone to enter much less live there.
The entrance to the dojo is down its side footpath. There is only a small sign and light to show the way to the back. The back is a marvel. Some say it was originally a four-bay garage for repair of 18-wheelers. It is a grand space. The ceiling is somewhat over two stories high. The ally side is fully taken by the four floor-to-ceiling mechanical doors. They are made of narrow plates of hinged steel that are pulled up into great rolls by electric motors when the doors are opened. The walls were originally cinder block but are now almost all covered in various kinds of wood.
The entrance door is heavy wood, possibly handmade, probably, as part of Saetome’s art. Immediately inside is a large square room of wood. The floors are wood. All the walls are wood of an incredibly labor-intense design. There is the entrance doorway and the exit space. The rest is built-in benches. The benches have backs and so in all are about 40 inches high. Under the bench seats are pigeon holes and racks for – what – maybe a fifty to hundred pair of shoes. Two of the walls are solid walls. The other two sides open to the main room. I am not sure of the openings, but in my mind’s eye they are arched in wood and each arch is barred by vertical rounds of wood. It seems like all of it belongs in an English manor house or castle. From this shoe room there is a wooden path along the edge of the mat. This path leads to a small office tucked in the far corner and up against the house. There are stairs leading up to the house. I never saw anyone but the chosen few touch these stairs even to clean them. They are the inside start to Sensei’s private quarters – the whole house. There are stairs leading to the basement where there are changing rooms, racks, showers, toilets and more. The men’s part is three times the size of the women’s.
What I am calling the wooden path along the side of the mat-area is filled with sculptures made by Sensei. One I remember (maybe accurately and maybe not) is a very large piece of very polished drift wood. It is a natural hook. Its top was chained to the ceiling, a long chain. In the hook there hangs a large, covered iron pot. At various and somewhat random spots around walls are calligraphies by Sensei, some on wood, some on canvas. Some are huge and some small. Also, all around the walls of the mat-area are weapons. One wall is covered with hand-built racks about six feet from floor to ceiling for jos and bokkens. Every student was expected (at least nudged) to have his or her own set of weapons by mid rank. The non-personally owned weapons are spot marked and available from the school to all. The outside of the shoe room was for school-owned racks of vertical bos (ten-foot staffs). I saw these used only once in the years I was there. The main wall, the shoman wall, is again art in architecture and calligraphy by Sensei. Over the years various and few weapons were added to this wall. They are never touched, even to be cleaned. I would describe them as long pikes for footman to use against horsemen. I presumed they are gifts and are antiques. Their business-ends have hooks, short swords, scythes, spikes and the like.
The mat is canvas on cushioning on plywood on a floating wood floor. To make this, there are 2×4’s attached to the cement running north to south. Then there are west-east 2×4’s not attached to the lower 2×4’s (so floating). Next is the plywood and the rest. I was there long enough to rebuild the floor twice. The plywood would get splintered as would the top 2 x 4’s. Ukemi was not of the soft sort.
In his old age, Ueshiba taught that Aikido was budo but was also the spirit of spirit. It was to unit people with nature and people with each other to create a world of one nation. I have seen copies of films of him talking about this (subtext translations).
In everything he does, Saetome displays art that reflects the Aikido of his teacher. The humble shoe room is a simple example. It is immaculate, it is full of straight lines and right angles and screams of discipline and correct behavior, but it seems to flow with arches and curves and warm-wood tones. It is comfortable and inviting. It is a transition from one world into another. It is part of the early design when the school was almost unknown. Yet, it is large with the expectation of the use by many people.
Aikido is a blend of discipline whether in the straight lines of architecture or in the application of beginners’ techniques, a blend of art in a flowing and unitive way, and it is a blend of history as in the antiques and strict, old traditions mixed with a positive, simple and open sense of the future.
Sensei is famous for saying that in Aikido there is no need to attack or to retreat. It is formidable but it is calm. When hostile people confront the spirit of Aikido, they become confused and simply wind down.