On Thursday afternoon, we piled into a rented Ford Expedition to make our way down to San Francisco. Our cargo included a few duffel bags stuffed with gis, a couple of suitcases, and about 400 pounds of mat covers. It’s the last item that raises the occasional eyebrow. Mat covers? What on earth are those? Simply put, they are large pieces of sailcloth material that cover the mats we use when we train. Mat covers serve two purposes: first, they provide a more comfortable training environment; second, they hide the fact that you have green mats on one side of the room, blue mats in the middle, and some sort of greyish color in the corner. There were seven of us, ranging in age from teenager to “old-enough-to-have-a-teenager-for-a-child.” We were excited: we were heading to San Francisco, California, to see Sensei Maruyama, the founder of Kokikai Aikido, at a gathering known as Fall Camp 2005.
When most people think of martial arts gatherings, they think of massive tournaments a la The Karate Kid. They think of gymnasiums filled with screaming friends and family members, of combat, of trophies. Fall Camp, and Kokikai Aikido in general, is not like that. In Kokikai Aikido, our primary strategy is to acheive victory through quickly and suddenly causing our opponent to lose both balance and posture. (If this strategy is unfamiliar to you, stand on one leg, lean forward, and then try to punch something. You’ll find that it is very, very difficult to do.) No, most Kokikai Aikido gatherings come in the form of seminars, taught by a highly-experienced instructor. Some of these seminars are taught by Sensei Maruyama, who founded Kokikai Aikido. These special events are called camps, and it was to one of these camps that we were headed.
As many people know, the drive from Seattle to San Francisco is not a short one. It’s roughly 850 miles, and you have the Siskyou pass to consider along the way. We were fortunate: although the weather got quite cold, the passes were clear and the only difficulties we had resulted from a tremendous amount of fog as we headed over the passes; a fact that made the trip all the more surreal at 2:00 in the morning. We stopped over for the night in Grants Pass–just long enough to catch a few hours of sleep; we had to be in San Francisco by 3:00 Friday afternoon to ensure the mat covers were set up on time.
When we arrived at San Fransisco… well, it is difficult to describe what is like arriving at a Camp. For me, it is like coming home, even though I may hardly know anyone else there, and have not been to San Fransicso in over 10 years. But when you arrive, you see more than a few friendly faces, and the enthusiasm for the weekend is so evident that it’s impossible to ignore. Fall Camp is a more regional event than other Camps–most of the people who attended were from Northwest and the Southwest; Victoria, BC; Seattle, Washington; Durango, Colorado; Alberquerque, New Mexico; Tempe, Arizona; and many others. But there were a few folks from other parts of the United States: New Jersey, New York, and so on. One of the interesting things about Kokikai is that it often only takes one Camp to make an impression. There were people that I remembered that I had only met once; and people who remembered me the same way. One of the even better aspects of camp is that you can become instant friends with anyone and everyone. Within five minutes of our arrival, I was talking with another aikido practitioner as if we had known each other for years; when, in fact, we only had just met. The atmosphere throughout the entire weekend was intense, lively, and friendly–attributes that were magnified when Sensei Maruyma stepped on the mat.
When I got into martial arts, my impressions were built on the action movies I kept seeing in the theatres. Based on those impressions, I assumed that the founder of a given martial art would be cantakerous, aloof, and brutal with both his words and his techniques. Sensei Maruyama blows these impressions away. He is lively, friendly, and with a fantastic sense of humor. Don’t misunderstand–his martial arts skills are incredible, and he takes his and our own training very, very seriously. But I often think of him like your favorite teacher in high school. You know the one I mean: friendly, fun, and inspiring; complemented by an unmatched dedication to their area of expertise. This is Sensei Maruyama.
It would be impossible to convey in words the entirety of the Fall Camp experience. The only way to really understand the impact of learning new ways of doing martial arts techniques is to get on the mat and try them out. This is one of the most amazing aspects of Kokikai Aikido. In class, we don’t just blindly follow the teachings of one person; instead, we are asked to analyze, think, and understand why certain moves work and certain ones do not. I often liken the experience to being a graduate student in Chemistry. In high school Chemistry, you are given a set of experiments, and you are expected to do those experiments and only those experiments. At the graduate level, you conduct your own experiments, with the guidance of a professor. Kokikai is the same way. To be sure, we have a deep reservoir of experienced instructors to aid us in our training. But, for the most part, we are encouraged to conduct our own experiments to see what works, what doesn’t and why.
There are so many experiences that I could share about Fall Camp. But one of the most important ones had nothing to do with technique. It was the fact that, for the first time, Aikido Kokikai Silver Firs was recognized as a dojo in its own right. We had a great presence at this Camp, and people recognized me through my students, and recognized my students through me. We made a powerful statement: that Sensei Bannister’s (my Sensei, and chief instructor at Aikido Kokikai Seattle) efforts to bring Kokikai to the Northwest has been successful. This statement was further verified by the fact that so many of my students tested for their first brown belt. This is a significant acheivement, both from an individual standpoint and a dojo standpoint. For the individual, it marks the final stages before blackbelt, where the student is getting their first taste of internalize their knowledge of their techniques, adapting them, and customizing them to make them their own movements. For the dojo, it represents a sustained, dedicated effort to our training, and brings us to a new stage not only in more advanced training, but in helping beginners as well. This last point is perhaps unusual, but nonetheless true: at brown belt, you have trained long enough that you can really start to help new students. I certainly can’t wait to see new students benefit from some of the more senior students on the mat–especially since, when our club started four years ago, we had only beginners.
When Fall Camp ended, all too soon, the six of us piled back into the Expedition and made our triumphant way home. The car was filled with an energy I cannot describe. We were a team, a group of friends, a strange sort of family bound by a simple dedication to a beautiful and powerful martial art. It was an amazing feeling, that here we were, a group of people with perhaps very little in common, except for the fact that we wanted to practice Kokikai Aikido.