This article first appeared in the St. Cloud Times, on September 26, 2002. Reprinted with permission.
Mind, body & sword
The book was resting on a shelf in the B Dalton Bookseller in St. Cloud during the Christmas of 1991.
Mark Larson bought it, and quickly, “Aikido for Life” became his most valuable possession. He read the book, highlighted it, made footnotes.
ñI wanted to learn everything I could about Aikido,” said the 31-year-old St. Cloud resident and 1989 St. Cloud Apollo graduate. ñBut I wasn’t in the right place. All I had was this book by a man named Gaku Homma and it didn't say too much about him.”
So Larson moved to Japan to find the heart of Aikido. Unfortunately, he didn’t know Japanese, and the supposed-translator he was with knew little English.
ñAfter two months, I finally was able to get across to him why I came to Japan,” Larson said.
The translator happened to be involved in Aikido. The following day, he introduced Larson to his master. Larson showed him the book he bought in St. Cloud.
Cue Twilight Zone music. It turned out Gaku Homma, the book’s author, would be arriving at the training facility the following day.
ñNowhere in the book did it say where he was from, it just said he was living in Denver, Colo.,” said Larson, who lived in Japan until July. ñIt was like destiny. I knew I was in the right place.”
Aikido in Sauk Rapids
Larson believes he is again in the right place, albeit a different hemisphere.
The fourth-degree black belt in Aikido is pursuing his master's degree in teaching English as a second language at St. Cloud State University. He also is hoping to create a transcontinental pipeline with his knowledge of the Japanese martial art.
Aikido will be offered at classes beginning next week at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School.
ñIn Aikido, the common goal is to purify your mind and body,” said Larson, who lives with his Japanese wife Yuko and their children Taiyo, 2, and Grace, 7 months. ñIt’s not just the art students are learning, it’s finding what you like to do and finding what fits you.”
Aikido was founded by the late Professor Morihei Ueshiba (pronounced Mauree-hay Ooh-ay-she-buh). It is a self-defense system that has no tournaments or competitions. Instead, the curriculum consists of a series of body movements, particularly wrist holds and arm leverages. Practices also use a wooden sword called a bokken and a wooden staff called a jo.
ñRarely do you initiate the technique on someone else,” Larson said. ñIt’s more of a restraining technique, which teaches self-discipline.”
Developing a strong mind and body, finding meaning in life and and forging human relationships that transcend politics, race, religion and viewpoints are the goals of Aikido.
ñTechniques are designed to be applicable by people of any size or strength in their life,” Larson said. ñIn Aikido, you can start at any age and do it as a child or elder, as a big person or small person, as a strong person or weak person.”
Heart of Aikido
Larson gained his knowledge by training under Morihiro Saito (pronounced Mauree-hero Sigh-to). Saito, who died of cancer May 13 at the age of 74, trained under Ueshiba for 23 years and devoted more than 50 years of his life to the martial art.
ñI'm third generation lineage for Aikido," said Larson.
He has plenty of accolades. Six times Larson participated in the All Japan Aikido Demonstration — the nation’s top demonstration held once each year. He also earned the Most Valuable Practitioner Honor at the 2001 Air Self-Defense Forces Aikido Camp.
There are 10 degrees of black belt in Aikido but no one alive has reached the tenth degree. And Larson has no plans to pursue one.
ñThat would take ceaseless training,” said Larson, who is now fluent in Japanese. ñAikido is not about that. It’s about looking into the precision of a technique and the process. Not just the end result.”
Meant to be
Bold steps were taken, both figuratively and literally, for Larson to fully immerse himself in Aikido.
To adapt his feet to the freezing hard rubber floors of the Japanese training halls, called dojos, Larson visited the birthplace of Aikido in Ibaraki, Japan.
For one day a month for 13 months Larson would meditate directly beneath Aiki Falls. That meant standing barefoot atop a large rock in shorts for five minutes while icy-cold water spilled onto his head, chest, back and arms.
ñIt’s the first minute that will kill you,” he said. ñBut it helped me become one with nature.”
He almost died in nature after arriving in Japan.
During his first winter there, someone dropped Larson off outside the dojo on a blistery, snowy evening. Not until the car had left did Larson realize that the doors to the facility were locked.
With hardly any money, he had nowhere to go.
ñI laid down in the outside entryway of the dojo to stay out of the cold wind and used my bag for a pillow and fell asleep,” Larson said. ñI thought I was going to freeze to death.”
Fortunately, a man inside the dojo had noticed Larson lying outside. He brought Larson inside the facility and gave him a tutorial session in Aikido.
ñSomehow we were able to communicate,” Larson said. ñFrom that day on, I was able to sleep at the dojo on weekends and train.”
The man who rescued him was named Shigeru Kawabe (pronounced She-garroo Ka-wa-bay). Kawabe eventually introduced Larson to his master, who was Saito.
ñIt was unbelievable,” Larson said. ñI was given an opportunity to do Aikido under the person who learned from the founder. It was meant to be.”