“Saito Sensei did not disappoint and I knew right away
that I needed to experience life at the dojo in Iwama!”
As I sat quietly in seiza next to Saito Sensei’s bed, with Rie-san translating his words, a mixture of emotions ran through me. How could it be that Saito Sensei, a mountain of a man who seemed so indestructible, be so ill and stuck in bed? He will somehow beat this cancer and come back on the mat to teach, I thought.
As Sensei spoke, I could see Rie-san out of the corner of my eye fighting back tears. We had heavy hearts, but Sensei did not complain – he was more concerned about what was practiced during morning keiko (class), and he seemed pleased to hear the report. He looked at me and said, “Daniel san, suburi, suburi, suburi.” Even from his bed, Sensei was still giving directions on the chores to be done around the dojo. I took this to heart, and today I still stress the same point to my students.
I remember thinking how privileged I was to be there, one-on-one with Saito Sensei, in this very personal and private moment. Even though cancer had ravaged his body and caused paralysis from the waist down, Sensei still radiated that unique energy and looked amazingly strong.
He also insisted that I share some juicy red strawberries with him. Tatoian Sensei had brought boxes of strawberries all the way from California; Sensei really enjoyed those strawberries! I was tasked with helping Rie-san, who was head uchi-deshi at the time, to refill the kerosene heaters at Sensei’s house. One day as we were refilling the heaters, I heard Sensei querying who was there – Rie responded, “I am here with Daniel san”, and that’s when Sensei said “bring him inside!”
How did I come to be here, worlds away from my tiny island home of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean? Essentially, I arrived in Iwama through a zigzag of adventures and misadventures; I guess you could say I took the fast track to adulthood by becoming a father at the age of 18. Although parenthood was the result of an impulsive and irresponsible moment in time, it set me on a challenging course to be a responsible father and provide for my family. My ex-wife’s family had migrated to Melbourne, Australia, and they convinced us to join them in the ‘promised land’ to provide a brighter future for our family. Armed with a high school diploma and no formal college education, we arrived in Melbourne in the heart of winter with fifty bucks in my pocket. Three days later, I was on the 5am train to my first ‘grown-up’ job working 12-hour shifts in a Toyota factory. The factory was dark and cold, and during my 15-minute breaks, I would nestle up to the nearest fluorescent wall light to absorb some heat. Occasionally, I would close my eyes and think of my teenage friends and brothers and sisters back in Mauritius, soaking up the sun.
I had been planning for a career change to law-enforcement and had been spending my nights studying for the entrance exam to join Victoria Police. I successfully passed the entrance exam and also got a job offer with Corrections Victoria. In 1989, I was admitted into the Corrections Department Training Academy and began my career in law enforcement, it was a fulfilling and rewarding career, and I was given the opportunity to work in different groups within the Department of Justice in Victoria. It was there where I met someone who had been practicing Aikido at Michael Field Sensei’s dojo in Fitzroy. At first I was intrigued by all the bruises that he had on this wrist, which I later found were ‘Yonkyo’ bruises! I had been practicing Martial Arts since the age of 12 and spent most of my early years practicing Shotokan Karate where I reached dan level ranking. I had no idea what Aikido was… I don’t recall any Aikido schools in Mauritius.
I did not know it at the time, but the Aikido dojo was to be the catalyst for my next ‘sea-change’. When I visited the Aikido dojo in Fitzroy, it was an immediate fit; I remember participating in a Tuesday introductory class and wanting to sign up right away. Ullana Twain, who was the front desk person and a Nidan in Iwama Aikido, told me to go home and think about it before committing, but I insisted and signed up right away. I began training at Field Aikido and eventually became one of the instructors. I began teaching regularly in 1998 and was put in charge of one of my Sensei’s dojos with another instructor. The dojo was also where I met my second wife, Astrid.
The first time I got the opportunity to train with Saito Sensei was in 1995 when he came to Sydney to teach a seminar. I had no hesitation in registering for that event as I had heard so much about Saito Sensei from my Sensei Michael Field, who was a direct student of Saito Sensei in the 70s. I had no doubt that it was going to be an extraordinary experience. Saito Sensei did not disappoint and I knew right away that I needed to experience life at the dojo in Iwama!
I was uchi-deshi in Iwama during a difficult time; Saito Sensei became ill and bed ridden. I think that all of us had hope that Sensei would bounce back and make a miracle recovery. I remember asking Jordan Kramer, who was a long time student of Saito Sensei, and a physician at San Francisco General Hospital, if he thought that Sensei had a chance to recover, but the look in his eyes said it all.
I suspect that everyone was in disbelief that Saito Sensei who seemed indestructible could be so sick. During that time, many of Saito Sensei’s long-time students came to Iwama to pay their respect and in a sad way, to say “Goodbye!”
I got the opportunity to meet many famous instructors who I had only seen in books and videos. Bill Witt Sensei, Hans Goto Sensei, Denis Tatoian Sensei, Pat Hendricks Sensei, Paolo Corallini Sensei, Ulf Evenars Sensei, Daniel Toutain Sensei – just to name a few. It was as if it was meant to be that I would meet all those amazing sensei(s) in Iwama.
Astrid and I were about to move the United States; she had just finished her Ph.D. and was headed to the U.S. to accept a postdoctoral position at a large biotechnology company in the Bay Area. When we relocated in April of 2002, I was welcomed in every dojo with open arms. I opened my dojo Aikido By the Bay in August that same year, and received amazing support from Witt Sensei and Goto Sensei. I am still in regular contact with my first Aikido Sensei Michael Field, who still teaches at his dojo in Melbourne.
Today, I am committed in my mission to teach Aikido as Saito Sensei left it. Aikido has shaped many lives and Saito Sensei has had a significant impact for many, in a recent conversation with Field Sensei, he stated: “We take Aikido for a perceived benefit, that is usually insignificant to what we actually receive.”
That certainly rings true for me. Through Aikido, I made lifetime friendships, met my soul mate, and even got the discipline to go back to school and finish college.
We are very sad that Saito Sensei is gone. But I guess this is life and we have to be grateful for having had the gift of being in his presence; getting to hold and carry a little piece of his spirit. Perhaps it is our duty from having known great people to carry on their spirit and keep teaching what we learned from them, and become the next mentor.
“Death is a commingling of eternity with time; in the death of a good man, eternity is seen looking through time.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Thanks to Heather Millar for her editorial assistance in the preparation of this article.
For more information about Aikido By the Bay, or training, please visit our webpage or on our Facebook page. Our Dojo is dojo is located in Belmont, located halfway down the San Francisco Peninsula between San Mateo and San Carlos.
The Dojo is located at the following address: 390 El Camino Real, Suite F (Gold Medal Martial Arts), Belmont, CA 94002