From Hombu to Tassie
The story of Tenchi farm mountain Dojo
Published in Aikido in Australia, Aiki Kai Australia National Newsletter, 2015
Part one: Japan
Walking onto the mat with 24 years of age not attracted to mainstream society or material temptations I felt the spark and knew with great certainty I had found something. Aikido had become my path and I soon went to the Aiki-kai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo as a young, enthusiastic 4th kyu. I had no contacts, no recommendations and not a lot of money but experience in travelling for several years through Asia as a Hippie searching for truth and good Hashish. Japan was organized and clean and very different from India where squatting Sadhus in the Himalayas or at the Ganges seemed to be patiently waiting for enlightenment to strike. India was about being, Tokyo while similarly crowded was about doing: no one waited, everybody appeared busy, motivated and full of purpose.
What an opportunity and privilege it was to train with the old Masters and their students. Doshu Kishomaru, Osawa senior, Tada, Okumura, Arikawa, Yamaguchi, Watanabe and some younger ones like Endo, Seki, Yasuno, Myamoto, Osawa junior and others. I trained once or twice a day, 6 days a week and it slowly dawned on me that I was a total beginner.
Through the hostel I stayed in the “Miki House” I got valuable contacts including my first jobs. I found work as an extra in a Japanese war movie called “the harp of Burma” and in various TV shows. The irony of a German wearing a British uniform alongside French and Israeli travellers did not get lost on me and I really appreciated this symbolic reconciliatory experience. A great job followed by work as a foreign English language teacher for children. Language teaching, both German and English in a variety of jobs remained my work during the 3 and a half years I stayed there. In order to get some income during a lull period I pretended to be from Ireland and therefore a native speaker because that was what all the language schools required. I said I had studied in the university of Heidelberg Germany, which was equally untrue but was a desperate attempt to at least partially explain my strong German accent. Once I started the story I could not go back and in one of my part time jobs it continued during my whole stay and kept putting me into embarrassing situations when real native speakers showed up and were introduced to me and stunned expressions appeared on their faces as soon as I opened my mouth.
Travelling from my hostel to Hombu Dojo took a while and I looked for motorized transport. Israeli friends did up mopeds and sold them. They went around the neighborhood looking for unused vehicles. When they saw one at a house they knocked on the door and asked if they could have it. Space in Tokyo is precious, the thing is not being used and does not run anyway so the owner often said yes. With a new spark plug in they sold it cheaply to me and I cruised to the Dojo with it, enjoying my newly found freedom and naively never even thinking about helmet or driver’s license until I was picked up by the police and made to come with an interpreter to see the inspector for my just punishment. An American Aikido friend came along to translate and got the full force of the inspector’s outrage about the foreigners not respecting Japanese laws. The policeman was obviously not used to speaking through an interpreter and did not seem to realize that I was the sole culprit not the clean cut, law abiding American from Wisconsin who later vehemently swore he would never come to the police with me again. I got a license, upgraded my transport to a scooter that was more reliable and eventually a fast motorbike and raced through Tokyo like there was no tomorrow without having to worry about parking, trains or traffic jams. It also allowed me to often visit parks and gardens in my free time in particular the beautifully landscaped Shinjuku Goen Mei or the green expanse of Meiji Jingu behind the famous Yasukuni Shrine and relax from the hustle and bustle of the crowded metropolis.
After several moves I managed to get a small apartment just around the corner from the Dojo which made going to training very convenient. The 8a.m. – 9a.m. class became my regular one plus another one if my work schedule allowed.
Trainings in Hombu were 60 minutes usually with the same partner. The hour had a constant flow and focus with not a lot of demonstration or explanation by the teacher with no drifting off or socializing whatsoever except for the very old students who took a breather by pretending to adjust their hakama or explaining some finer points to their receptive younger partners. In the humidity of the Tokyo Summer my Gi was sweat soaked after minutes and I often thought I was going to pass out which never happened but weighing myself in the change room before and after class I remember losing 2 kg in a single lesson. Eventually a 5th Dan who as young man had still trained with O’Sensei took me under his wings and we often trained another half hour after class. Remarkably in two years he never once commented or improved my technique and only occasionally laughed out loud and stopped me when I was being too stiff and tensed up. Without being able to properly talk to him because my Japanese was never got that good – I felt I had to work on my English- there was nevertheless a warmth and closeness between us that for me embodies an important part of the Spirit of Aikido beyond language, race or religion.
The years passed, I did my Shodan , found my place on the mat and enjoyed the social scene in particular among the expat Aikido community from many different countries. I met Jikou Sugano and Janina there and almost ran her over once with my bicycle as she recently reminded me.
I was friendly with a Canadian called Bill who was borne in Japan his parents being missionary there who I slowly discovered in spite of his European appearance was more Japanese than western and seemed to struggle with his identity. Once we wanted to go out on my bike but only had one helmet. Bill was not worried and tied a plastic bag around his head, which greatly amused him. A blind person could see it was not a helmet but a plastic bag my passenger was wearing but as I later reflected on it that was not the point. By wearing a symbolic helmet he made a statement saying something like I know the rules, I am not a rebel, I should wear a helmet but I haven’t got one. Sumimasen, so sorry! In him and in many other foreigners who stayed in Japan for a long time I saw the original attraction for the exoticness of the culture turn into its opposite I saw myself changing along those lines and I noticed I often preferred MacDonald’s to the cheap sushi trains. I started to feel crowded by regulations and predictability , missed spontaneity and freedom of expression as well as starting to develop a fear of earthquakes. I knew then the time to make a move was getting closer and decided to leave after reaching Nidan level. In the second half of my stay, I met Leah there , an Australian who became my first wife and the idea was borne to go to Australia to buy some land and start a Dojo after living in Germany for a year. Now the time seemed to be right.
Approaching my Nidan test was a stressful experience with massive self doubts. On the morning before the test I decided to go for a walk to calm my nerves which did not work at all because every time I turned a corner in the narrow streets of Waka-matsu cho , a group of policemen were walking right towards me. Unbeknown to me an unexploded bomb had been found in the rubbish bin of a children’s playground. In a bid reassure the population the government had thrown the police out in full force but it did nothing to make me feel any better. I shivered all the way to the mat until I saw Seki Sensei being on the grading panel and I relaxed because I attended all his classes. He knew me and used me as uke sometimes and I felt safe with him.
The gradings were tough on the knees with sitting in seiza for close to two hours. At that time a wave of black African students had arrived in Hombu. In order to legally stay and semi legally work foreigners usually went to a Japanese language school to get a cultural visa. The word had spread that Aikido also qualified for a cultural visa and was also cheaper than a language school. I could relate to their struggle for survival and I loved the color they brought into the dojo in more sense than one and on that day they were probably as nervous as I was. One of them even forgot to take his sunglasses off before stepping on the mat. This was their first ceremonial occasion in form of the grading on the advanced level of the Dojo. One of them who got up as uke and started attacking must have got a cramp and fell over dramatically only to get up immediately to attack again and fall again. Determination, willpower and true Samurai spirit seem to take over and he continued to frantically attack and fall over again and again. He seemed to be in some sort of trance oblivious to the bewilderment he created. It became clear he was not going to stop and Seki Sensei tried to get him to sit down. Not understanding Japanese, obviously he had not gone to a language school, he continued to drag his leg to the next attack only to fall over again and again. Seki called for a translator and a mature age beginner with Middle Eastern appearance felt his time had come and offered assistance. But instead of walking over to the traumatised African who by then was dangerously close to the tokonoma he chose to knee walk all across the mat . He was throwing his overweight body from one side to the other and moving forward in spectacular fashion making up for lack of skill with energy and enthusiasm, clearly revelling in his moment of glory and stealing the limelight of the young African before the situation came to a successful conclusion and calm and serenity returned. The rest of the grading certainly was an anti climax but I do remember Okumura Sensei, the senior Shihan, singling out the high quality of the Nidan test. I gave myself a rare pat on the back before I fell off the bike soon after and hurt my knee and my training did stop exactly at the anticipated time unfortunately for the wrong reason.
We invited our Aikido friends to a farewell picnic at a park near by if the weather was nice. It was an awful day but we thought we better go anyway just in case someone showed up. No one was there when we got there except for some English friends. Of course: a lovely day for a picnic, they said. Eventually the weather cleared and more and more friends came : There were no speeches and no farewells but a group of Aikido friends naturally and harmoniously enjoying each others’ company aware of a belonging and connectedness that is universal and ongoing. I look back to a wonderful phase in my life with gratefulness in my heart for exciting experiences and all those wonderful people I met. Grateful to the spirit of Aikido for a journey that gives me a direction and strenghtens my belief in the possibility of a life of peace, love and harmony with myself and the rest of the Universe.
From Hombu to Tassie
Part 2: A Small Island in the Southern Seas
Walking onto this land now known as Tenchi Farm was very similar in many ways to falling in love with Aikido. There was a sense of awe and wonder, of belonging, of homecoming and of recognition, a yes vibrating through my being in a very physical experience as I was trying to take in the beauty of the place while trembling with excitement. I looked at open grasslands surrounded by forests and mountains with views of the valley and a big sky, a mountain pony and a mule curiously looking on and I felt an immediate connection. After having lived on the island for years a forgotten memory appeared: sitting as a may be 13 year old schoolboy in an English class I came across the story of an early explorer. It read: a small island somewhere in the Southern Seas. That part of a sentence stirred my emotions and gave me a rush of energy, of warmth and of yearning before it faded away. I remembered it decades later and realized that this is where I was: on a magic island of a long forgotten dream. I loved the Aikido in Australia, sharing my hometown with Tony Smibert and training with him, with Andrew Ross and John Karas on a consistent basis has been a privilege that I have always appreciated. There was spirit, energy and solidity and anyone who knows those dudes knows what I am talking about. And I fitted right in there. However having come with the vague idea of building a Dojo and teaching Aikido in Australia like many of my expatriate training partners at the Hombu Dojo I felt my enthusiasm receiving a severe blow when I realized there was no room for professional Aikido in Aikikai Australia. Together with the turbulences and responsibilities of fatherhood and a new family instead of being in a centered space with a clear direction life felt like a cosmic tumble dryer and the homecoming to the blessed country had a fair dose of yin yang attached to it.
At a time of high unemployment I was lucky to land a job as a guide in the newly built luxury huts on the overland trek of the Cradle Mt. National Park. The way I felt about coming to my land was how I felt about coming to the island and the feeling magnified entering this park in the heart of the heart shaped island. While I spent 6 days at a time away from my family and Aikido practice, I loved that work. I observed walking through beautiful, pristine country how it changed people, just like training did, and how it was feeding my soul and those of my clients. While I had always loved the outdoors at the end of that period I became aware of a conscious connection with Nature and a call by Spirit.
When I returned from a 6 day trek onto my own land its beauty had not diminished. Quite the contrary I could see a glow around the place and the magic seemed very tangible.
The forest around the grandfather and grandmother trees was certainly a big part of it. Old gum tree giants from a time long before European arrival standing in a setting of mature musk understory next to a community of the tallest man ferns imaginable. A place easy to dream and to listen to the timeless whispering of the elements and of other worlds. I have always loved to bring people to this fairyland of forest that invites to be visited. A place that feels to many like a sacred garden, a microcosm of a beautiful, forested island and benevolent planet, a temple of Nature in which we sometimes gather to acknowledge the passing of a friend or loved one. We did a kotodama chanting there after Sugano Sensei left his body and were moved by the presence of his Spirit.
At the time I arrived in Tasmania the wood chip production was in full swing. It had become clear Tassie’s Native Forests could be very profitably turned into cardboard boxes. Originally the woodchip production was meant to clear the forest floor from saw log residue but soon turned into the main activity. While regular donations to both big parties were flowing, mild mannered politicians like role models for poorer nations removed all limitations to logging, granting concessions to companies who paid next to nothing for the public resource, pulping saw logs, craft timber and old growth supported by the tax payer through road building and tax concessions. The logging giants supported and financed grass roots organizations like the forest Protection Society which was later called Timber Communities bringing the old families onto their side and successfully portraying the conservationists as the enemies of progress and tradition. As a guide in the Cradle Mt, National Park I saw the day coming when visitors numbers would have to be restricted while at the same time places with similar wilderness values and irreplaceable landscapes were destroyed and put into pulp plantations with the help of a tax dodge called Managed Investment Scheme and the wildlife poisoned with 1080 to which we lost two dogs.
It was in this situation that the announcement came that Mother Cummins the mountain behind our place was earmarked for logging at an altitude of 800 m close to the alpine plateau. It was the official answer to the Lobby of the Conservationist to protect what was left of the slopes of the Central Plateau, the Great Western Tiers. When protesters, some of whom we knew, turned up at our house we welcomed them and soon our place became the headquarter for an intense 4 month forest battle. A small band of protesters grew to hundreds of people and a colorful tribal life started to unfold that had a powerful impact on many who took part. Around the logging area an exclusion zone was declared so an access through our place was created that allowed for ways to hinder the destruction of the old forest. Among the different, always changing and creative methods were tree sits and tri-pods to climb onto or lock- ons where people chained themselves onto vehicles or gates. Black wallabies we called protesters who ran through the logging coupe to interrupt the cutting and other forms of protests which mostly ended with calculated arrests. The protesters were a colorful lot from all walks of life with many different backgrounds but all united in their concern for the earth and the forests and in their fighting for the land as the tribal people did not so long ago. The campaign created lifelong connections and changed the life for many who took part. A high light was the big march of the women in their Sunday fineries with over a hundred of them being arrested but in that instance all cases were being thrown out on a technicality. I saw Bodhi’s and mine main role as holding the space and contributing to a calm and centered approach in what was at times very stressful situations. We managed to introduce a new attitude towards the police that took the personal element out and acknowledged that they had a job to do. In the Aikido way mutual respect grew, dialogue was civil and there were even contributions to the campaign funds coming from police wives. A very emotional time with log trucks driving through the gate camp, chainsaws going above our house and the sound of big trees falling to the distress of the people identifying with them.
The campaign was a success, however, in many ways. The loggers only cut half of what they had planned, with the media watching they logged selectively instead of clear felling and stayed away from the escarpment. For Bodhi and me, it was an honor and a privilege to host and meet so many wonderful people, camping and protesting here and speaking up for the land in a non- violent but powerful way and I felt raising the vibrations of Tenchi farm. When the logging suddenly stopped we invited the local sergeant to the party who was happy to come and jovially declared because of a head cold he could not smell anything referring to the celebratory joints.
The company celebrating in their own way gave each policeman stationed in the village a wristwatch with the number of the logging coup engraved in it.
Every house during the protest had a standard placard hammered in the lawn in front of it supplied by the local branch of the forest protection society assuring the world of its support for the forest industry. Every house had one except Tony’s, an old Dutch Indonesian, a veteran of the war of independence with amazing stories, a lovely man. He liked the local hippies and greenies and spent time with them. Soon after the protest he had a fire destroying the granny flat at the back of his house where he had visitors stay. I can still see the distant look on his face at the night of his fire as he walked around in a state of shock while the fire fighting was happening occupying himself with some meaningless rescue task.
Soon after the protest the owner of the forest next to us told us to remove our water pipe because he was going to develop the block. Developing was the word for clear felling and for putting in plantations. We got the shock of our lives when we realized the grandparent trees and the pristine forest around them was on his side of the unmarked forest boundary. The big old trees would be regarded as problem trees and dynamited, the ancient fern forest our garden of Eden would be bulldozed put into windrows and burnt to make way for the pulp plantation. A shockingly stressful time where the sacred ground of our forest temple faced a prolonged and real life and death situation. It showed us, however, how strong our connection, our feelings and love for that forest was. I had asked my brother at that time for a loan towards building the Dojo, which as it had always been for me, seemed just around the corner. Surveyors, contracts, boundary adjustment, mediation at court, lawyers fees, negotiations and eventually the purchase of the forest on our side of the mountain stream based on a generous loan saved the forest to our indescribable relief. While the Dojo had a big place in our hearts and minds there was never a question of sacrificing the forest for it because there was no separation between the Spirit of the dojo and the Spirit of the forest. Aikido and Nature, the Universe and the Human Spirit, the Ancestors and the Future Generations as Sugano Sensei in a recent meditation light heartedly suggested: take my first name and translate it in an international way. Seichi- it is one, it is all one.