Hitohiro Saito: “Going back to Japan” by Renae Murray

Hitohiro Saito Sensei in front of Aiki Shrine, c. 1995. Photo by Sonoko Tanaka

“Saito Sensei ran hot on our heals and ready to teach those
of us crazy enough to brave the harshest season from distant lands.”

Going back to Japan is like going home. I remember the smells, the tiny houses, the narrow roads, the taste of Japanese food, and the fast rhythm of the language. I hit a hard landing in Narita, veering sharply to my right side, nearly ending up in the lap of the poor student going home for Christmas next to me.

The sun fell quickly and I had to make my way through the maze of railway lines back to Iwama. I knocked on the door, I felt scared, I wondered if Sensei had forgotten about my email, and even if Sensei remembered me. So many people have crossed through Sensei’s life, did my line of destiny make an impression deep enough? I inhaled the smell of incense deeply, its warm fragrance was a sharp contrast against the cold air.

I knocked, the smile on Hitohiro Saito Sensei’s face erased all doubts, he opened his arms and gave me a big bear hug!!! It was 9pm and he was dressed in a traditional royal blue yukata, and Hisako-san, his wife, led me to the Shin Dojo. It hadn’t changed since the funeral of his father, Morihiro Saito Sensei.

A long wood table speared through the middle with a wood stove desperately struggling to keep pace with the cold. After my futon was set up, on the mezzanine level, two students, Pedro from Portugal and David from Zurich, busily attended the stove in the old Yamabiko, the new shokudo preparing dinner. They informed me I would be allowed to sleep till 6:30 and would be exempt from walking the dogs for my first morning. Even though exhausted, I slept little, and was up at 6 a.m. with the first noises of the morning. We walked to the Tanrenkan dojo. It was my first visit, again the smell of incense was a perfume from heaven.

By 7am we were cleaning the dojo. Pedro asked if I knew how to vacuum. “Of course, I am a mum!” I wanted to start laughing!!! I vacuumed while David cleaned the intricate minefield of the kamidama, remembering the location of all the little pieces. I am glad I managed to escape a hopeless memory game. Pedro swept the outside, and wiped down the brownish black planks making up the front porch, and the tiny porch at the back for Sensei’s entrance.

The sun’s first rays were long and soft, and came through the single line of pine trees across the dried flax remnants of the rice paddocks. We put the plastic yellow boxes formally used for beer bottles in two lines to hold long planks of wood for sitting on, for the morning’s meditation. I did zazen many years ago, and all we got was a pillow on the floor. I was relieved to see we would be off the cold canvas covered tatami mat and on pink pillows with roses on them, something that looked like the curtains of my old house.

When Sensei entered it was “ALL ON”, just like the old days with Saito Morihiro Sensei. A no-nonsense straight-up knife piercing atmosphere. We all bowed in seiza, and Sensei lit candles on the Kamidama. When finished he bowed, bowed, clapped four times, bowed clapped four times, bowed clapped twice, intermitten with prayers to the kamisama. (Dont quote me on the sequence!!! I did my best to keep up!!! but in the end, all you can do is follow along). At the end of the prayers we sat on the planks, put our hands together and rubbed them, we then took this energy and washed our faces with it, and then our shoulders, stomach and legs. Sensei had the timer on, and the next 15 minutes, although cold went by quickly.

Next thing I knew it was over, and we repeated the hands chafing, the cleansing, more prayers, more claps, and then the quick instructions of grab your jo and run to the forest!!! The forest was across the road, and through the same rice paddocks that had lost their youth, I was warned to roll up my pants because any mud would incite Sensei’s fury. I ran as fast as any 42 year old woman, who had lost the prime of youth could!! I was slow and out of breath by the time I reached the forest. The cold was like razored icicles scraping the tissue off my oesaphagus and lungs. I could see how Sensei would love the forest. The trees at the front had been preserved to create an empty arena sheltered and protected from the vision of onlookers. Unfortunately, this same protection would create a prison of cold in the winter failing to touch the warmth of the sun outside its boundaries. The ground was covered with a layer of dried rice that had been raked into straight lines, this kept the ground dry and resistant to mud. Saito Sensei ran hot on our heals and ready to teach those of us crazy enough to brave the harshest season from distant lands. We bowed in, and started the jo suburi, then the first kumi jo. When class was over, we walked the narrow road back to the Shin Dojo.

I love the Shin Dojo. M. Saito Sensei built it in November of 1990, 3 months before my introduction in January of 1991. It is his dojo. He built it because there had always been rumours that the Iwama dojo would be reclaimed by the Ueshiba family at some stage, and it was his backstop should this occur. Eventually, the Ueshiba family did take back the Iwama dojo, but this was after his death in 2002. The Shin Dojo has three levels, the first, as I described, had the long table with the wood stove. Behind the stove to the left was the staircase, and under it a shower facility. To the right, a small room with a flush toliet. The back door held a passageway to Sensei’s house. On the second level, two rooms now being used as sleeping quarters for men and women. On the third, the Shin Dojo itself. The room’s kamidama at the far end, which we cleaned everyday by changing the water in the glasses in front of the two bottles of sake, and the water out of the vases with two sprigs of camilia branches. Three old photo albums sat to the far left shelf, and an empty black lacquer sword holder with an old Iwama towel on it for dusting. At the front entrance, four piles of futons, blankets, and pillows decorated the green plastic tatami mat floor. I loved the Shin Dojo. Halfway up the stairs a life size poster of Saito Shihan fooled me into thinking he was still alive on my first morning of awakening. Closer to the top another lifesize canvas photo of Sensei throwing (Paolo?) over the top of his shoulders. And to the bottom right of this photo, my wedding photo, that Sensei tacked up, nearly 17 years ago. I felt like Sensei was still there. This was his dojo, his pride and joy, and he lived there, I could still hear his deep bass voice calling my name, reminding me to never forget Iwama style Aikido, and to stay calm, he would help me through the storms.

On Sunday we had keiko, a major clean up, and then a party, that lasted all day, and into the night. Late Sunday night Ngaoko arrived traversing the countryside in the dark as I had done on Friday.Monday, the traditional day off, we spent cleaning and shopping. Tuesday afternoon, I felt a chill, and I said to Pedro, “Tonight is your test.” David started the grading with Jo and Ken Suburi, and then suwari waza taijitsu. The test continued into Wednesday night, ending with Jiyuwaza, a multiple person attack. Pedro also did jiyuwaza, and they both failed. It was a tough test, and Sensei’s standards were really high. I think it is hard to do one’s best, and forgive oneself to meet the criteria.

Wednesday was Christmas, and we trained as per usual, then Hisako-san surprised us with a chocolate cake!! It was strange being in Japan for Christmas, away from family. The only thing I didn’t miss was all the commercial hype, and let down to follow. I enjoyed being with Pedro, David, Ngaoko, and all the other deshi. I think it was really considerate to have a small party with a cake, it just shows how Japanese people will go the extra mile in terms of hospitality sometimes, and especially for non-Christians, and for a holiday that has no significance in general to Japanese society.

Training was hard, and cold, but I purchased a notebook, which I quickly labelled my “dame, pronounced “da may” (useless technique) book” It ballooned with my corrections, and I was happy Sensei was helping me. The trip is long, faraway from home, and expensive. And I had a lot riding on it. Not just for myself but for my students, who are like my children, who depend on me to feed them with the right information.

Saturday night, David tried again, and failed again. It was sad, but there is nothing one can do except listen and be supportive. David left on Sunday. I think it is hard for a young person to understand that rank and gradings don’t mean anything, and it is who you are as a person, what’s inside that counts, not what you wear on the outside that determines who you are, but maybe that is a wisdom reserved for us oldies!! At one stage in my training, Sensei said to me, “This is basic, if you can’t do this, you can’t wear blackbelt”. I honestly thought he was going to take my blackbelt away, and you know I wouldn’t have hesitated in giving it to him. It was only in hindsight that I can look back, and thank God, he didn’t!!!

The following week was much more dramatic. On Tuesday morning Pedro was speared in the head with a bokken.(wooden sword) I was training with Ngaoko when she stopped, and when I turned to look, Pedro was down holding his forehead. There wasnt much blood but the pain was obvious. Sensei took him inside and gave him a bandaide, but the hole was too much. Ngaoko and myself not knowing what to do, carried on with our training. Class finished, and Pedro was taken to a hospital. Four stitches, four hours, and 15,000 yen later, Pedro was a new man!!! Sensei stopped by later to check up on Pedro. Sensei noted that the sewing was good work and the scar would be small. I told Sensei that scars were very attractive, and he said, “tomorrow, I going to get a scar!!”. Sensei’s pretty funny sometimes. Accidents happen. Pedro was lucky.

New Years Day we had a special breakfast at Sensei’s house around 8:30. It was O’Sensei’s favorite meal of omoochi. It is a very chewy Japanese dumpling along with some pork in a miso soup broth. We also had a small amount of sake that was poured from a tiny tea pot, into a small saucer. I think it was part of a New Year’s Day ritual. Later Pedro would say in his silky voice with a Portuguese accent, “If Sensei says that we have to drink sake for breakfast, we drink sake for breakfast, !! After all what are we going to do? we can’t say no!!” New Year’s Day was amazing. We had a short morning keiko, and then a party at Sensei’s house that would last into the night hours. We learned that when someone leaves, we clear their dishes. When someone arrives we set the table. Many came with bottles of sake as a present, and then burned incense at the shrine in Sensei’s house for his father.

We had a long break of almost four days. On Sunday we had keiko with the soto deshi. We also had a trip out to a traditional Japanese bathhouse with one of the Japanese students, Oshi. After, we stopped at the archaelogical site of a Jomon villiage, which really rocked my world having studied these sites in my university days. There was also the progression of Japanese housing till you came to traditional samurai houses of the Edo period, which is why Oshi brought us there in the first place. I dont think that Sensei’s house was all that much different, except for the omission of a place for a horse next to the lounge area!!

On Tuesday training started up again. I think that Tuesday morning could very well be one of the happiest days of my life!! Saito Sensei asked us to put the meditation bench away, and it signaled indoor training. I thought maybe jonage or jodori, but then he went to the kamidama and lifted a silk pouch off of one of the weapons racks. He handed me a lavendar colour, and then a darker purple to Pedro. We did some simple sword cuts, and then a more complex partner kata. I looked across the room at Pedro. He is twice my size and half my age, tall, dark, ominous. It didn’t matter, I was floating in an other worldly dreamstate. The adrenalin was pumping through me, and that was it, total synchronicity. I think it was the most “At One” partner practice with weapons I have ever had. It was over too quick. I said to Pedro afterwards, “Are you shitting yourself???!!, I am totally shitting myself!!,” Pedro, completely calm but speechless. “So, you have done it before?” He answers “No”. I think on inside Pedro was shitting himself, but couldn’t express it. Later in the Shin Dojo he finally found words of joy.

That night Pedro received his san dan (third dan ) certificate. I was happy for him, he deserved it. I loved Pedro. I said to God everyday, “Thank you for sending me Pedro, to be uchi deshi with”!!

He was helpful, kind, and considerate.

At the end of the New Years Day party, Pedro came home to the Shin Dojo, completely drunk, and promised me that if I ever came to Portugal that he would pay for everything. Then he went into the toliet and spewed his guts out. But you know what?? I am going to hold Pedro to his promise even if he can’t remember it!! But I would also like to reciprocate the offer, if Pedro ever makes it to New Zealand, mi casa es tu casa.

When I look back at my time in the house, I think of two things. First the battle against the cold, the bitter environment of a Japanese winter. And second, the fight with myself to learn as much as I could in such a short amount of time. To honour the corrections Sensei took the time to make for me. I felt like it was my first time in the dojo all over again. But like I said before, I wasn’t there for myself. The thought of coming home to Sapphira, and Keenan, and making sure I had things right, so that when their time to come came, I can say with honesty, I did my best for them.

When I was young with no intention of ever being a teacher, I didn’t have the weight of preserving the integrity of a Japanese Art such as Aikido. M. Saito Sensei used to speak of it all the time when I was his deshi many years ago. Today when I think of it, I feel like there is this hardened steel inside of me. The folly and ignorance of youth, long gone.

Renae Murray

Wednesday I woke up at 6 a.m. Walked the dogs with Pedro. Went to the Shin Dojo, cleaned. Meditated, and went to the forest to train bokken with Sensei. Afterwards we had a short keiko with the shuriken. I felt a chill. I thought, if I am supposed to be home on Thursday, shouldn’t I be leaving on Wednesday?? I walked home looked at my itinerary, and screamed, Pedro!!!! This time it wasn’t Sensei waking us up for a party, it was me, in a total panic!!! I threw my futons upstairs, did a quick vacuum, packed, and rushed to Sensei’s house to tell him I made a mistake and I had to leave today. Hisako-san said she would drive me to the station. I gathered all my bags downstairs, and in walked Sensei from the backdoor for the last time. I immediately broke down in tears. “Oh, Sensei” it was all I could say. “Oh, Luna,” he mirrored, and gave me a big hug. “Rainen,” next year!! “Yes”, I promised.

My journey was over. Iwama is still the holy land, a pilgrimage of purification and endurance.

Renae Murray
Otaki Aiki Dojo
New Zealand


  1. Pat Zalewski says:

    Hi Renae

    Greetings from Cairns. Glad to see you are still connecting to Aikido. I hope all is well at the Otaki dojo and wish you every future success.



  2. Samuel Coe says:

    Great story I enjoyed reading it, if I studied Iwama ryu I would surely make the same journey.

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