Aikido World Headquarters offers rare budo fitness

2006-02-27

Shihan Koichi Toriumi
Shihan Koichi Toriumi

A martial art can be a path to fitness and traditional Japanese culture as well as self-defense. As Aikido World Headquarters, Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward provides the best of both worlds: training straight from the source and an international milieu that rivals Narita Airport.

Aikido is a relatively new form of self-defense created by Morihei Ueshiba in the 1920s, after he mastered several classical martial arts. His unique training and philosophy is embodied in aikido, which means "the way of harmony." Its smooth spherical movements employ techniques to throw or subdue an opponent with superior control and a wide range of severity.

At Aikikai Hombu Dojo, Ueshiba's son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, succeeded him. He in turn passed the mantle to his own son, Moriteru Ueshiba, the current doshu who also teaches there daily. Since opening in 1931, it has grown to a five-story center sporting three training areas comprised of 250 mats. Its more than 30 classically trained instructors teach nearly 60 classes per week, including special sessions for women (for those who prefer it), beginners and children. An intensive 6-month academy is also offered twice a year.

In all, about 300 people train there a day, says Masaki Tani, assistant director. And over the decades, it has been a hub for practitioners from around the world. "More than 20 years ago the nationalities of most foreigners were those from the United States, France and the rest of Europe," Tani says. He adds about 20 percent of regular dues-paying members are non-Japanese but they can comprise up to half of some classes. "Now, we have many different nationalities that practice here especially from Eastern Europe, Iran, Bulgaria, Russia, South America, Spain and Argentina."

Aikido World Headquarters
Aikido World Headquarters

If fitness is your goal consider this: Regular aikido training will up core strength, stability and flexibility, as well as in the limbs and joints. Balance and posture can improve almost immediately. Add to that, effective self-defense techniques with control - to subdue or injure - that can offer all parties a chance to mull alternatives to the conflict at hand.

"Originally, aikido was created for fighting - so it wasn't intended for fitness - but in practice the effect is very similar to fitness exercises," Tani says. "It can serve as a base for many other sports and budo." At age 66, he has been practicing aikido for 40 years and trains daily: "We use every part of the body for integrated movement, not only the arms and legs. It is also important to keep steady deep breathing while training." Unlike many other martial arts today, aikido practitioners don't spar or compete.

"Aikido maintains the original idea of Budo," Tani explains, "things you can practice but not compete in. If we have a competition we must make rules such as not using certain dangerous techniques. Then you lose that original budo."

A one-hour workout usually starts with brief stretching exercises. Instructors demonstrate techniques with the help of a student, then the class pairs-up to practice. Partners trade off, four times applying the technique and four receiving it. "Ukeme," or taking falls, is as much a part of the technique as using it. (The pace of the exchange, which can be quite aerobic, depends on a pair's combined skill and energy level.) During the practice, instructors make their rounds to offer guidance, usually by applying the technique to various students.

Anyone interested in learning more about aikido and Aikikai Hombu Dojo can visit the dojo and observe a class. For details, visit http://www.aikikai.or.jp/index.html.