Two months as uchideshi in Nippon Kan

By Thomas Fenderl

On the afternoon of October 31, 2005, I arrived at the bus station in Denver Colorado and reached after a short walk the back door of Nippon Kan. Jason, who had already been living there for a while, greeted me and showed me the building. The Japan House, the translation of Nippon Kan, is a cultural center with an aikido dojo, museum and restaurant, which was founded by Gaku Homma Sensei in 1978. I applied as a German student for 3 months of an intense (uchideshi = live-in student) program in the USA.

The first weeks were confusing. I had some aikido experience before, and used to practice in different schools, but being an uchideshi is nevertheless another story. After my arrival, I was left alone and did not get any chores. My offers to help the other two uchideshi or whoever were generally rejected. Therefore, I started to read Homma Sensei’s book “Aikido Sketch Diary – Dojo 365 Days”, which slowly helped me to understand. I stayed patient and watched what happened around me carefully. Some days later, I got my first tasks from the daily list of senior uchideshi Jason: the cleaning of the kitchen, bathroom and TV-room. As for almost all chores there was no manual or explanation. It is expected that one uses his own head. “Kufu” is a keyword and means something like “common sense”. But even with some cleaning experience I often meet new challenges, like in the museum where everything has to go back to its spot and must not be damaged, or facing the maintenance of different things.

In the beginning, I mentioned the Japanese martial art of aikido and of course I’m also practicing on the mat. It represents not the whole uchideshi life but it is an important. Homma Sensei himself was live in student of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. Nowadays, we practice for at least one hour daily on our own. Furthermore, there is a class only for us taught by senior members of the dojo, and we participate in every officially scheduled class. At Nippon Kan I liked to be on the bottom of the hierarchy because I had nothing to prove, which gave me the opportunity to concentrate completely on my practice. I was surprised by the variations in basic techniques from sempai to (sempai =senior student) and about different customs during classes. It is often difficult for me to copy things shown by the teacher but I get more and more used to trying new ways. After almost 8 weeks I was told to teach two classes. No surprise that I was nervous. However, I survived it and Homma Sensei helped me with constructive critique after class.

Nippon Kan is also a very traditional Dojo concerning events throughout the year. I consider myself very lucky to be uchideshi around New Year. Very special moments were the last practice of the year (Keiko osame), New Year’s Eve and the first practice (Keiko Hajime) of 2006. For all this the dojo had been cleaned thoroughly and decorated. On January 3, 2006, a big party was organized in order to thank Homma Sensei for his efforts. It was amazing, even if parties always mean lots of work for many people and also for the uchideshi.

Another highlight of my short time in the Dojo was a seminar with Maruyama Sensei, one of the aikido pioneers in the United States. Homma Sensei proved to be an excellent host for his guest from Nagano Japan and his attendants. We uchideshi did not get much sleep during those days because everything had to be prepared and cleaned. Jason especially was very busy because he organized field trips in the surrounding area and was responsible for transport. Finally, everybody was enjoyed the experience of having happy guests which was a great reward for our work.

An essential reason to come to Colorado was AHAN (Aikido Humanitarian Active Network) founded by Homma Kancho which works in Denver as well as internationally in Mongolia, Italy, Turkey and Nicaragua to mention only a few countries. Until now I’ve participated two times in the monthly Homeless Dinner. Homma Sensei distributes with his highly effective volunteer staff every third Sunday of the month around 300 hot dinners at the Homeless Rescue Mission. There were over 40,000 meals in the last years which I think is amazing. Another group of volunteers is preparing donated computers for an orphanage in Mongolia. The two examples are only a small part of the AHAN work and I’m proud to have the opportunity to help for a short time and to profit from the knowledge of Nippon Kan members.

The paragraphs above don’t show the whole of my daily life at Nippon Kan. I have to add that I sometimes help in the Japanese restaurant that is very interesting and often there are rather spontaneous activities. We went skiing in the Rocky Mountains because Homma Kancho gave us a day for that purpose, or sometimes he invites us to a Korean barbecue. All this shows how full of impressions life at Nippon Kan is. Accordingly, I’m learning very much about American and Japanese culture. I can study Americans at a Japanese restaurant or practicing an oriental martial art. My English improves and my aikido is growing as well. But sometimes learning is a painful process which becomes possible only through errors. At Nippon Kan, there are no direct orders on how to do anything. Correction follows only if things went wrong, and then often in the form of trouble. Furthermore, learning means to letting go of old habits and it is not easy to change an almost instinctive technique or break fall. I see this as a challenge to adapt to different styles as I want to, but sometimes it seems impossible to do or even to understand. Then frustration comes up. Success is often followed by true disappointment. Nothing is sure, everything is always changing. With this feeling approach every new day as uchideshi and I try to be as focused and aware of my surroundings as possible. This little report describes briefly how intense my time here is. My first two months were not always easy, but I don’t regret my decision for Nippon Kan in any way and strongly recommend the Uchideshi Program.

After Jason left some days ago there are only Mike and me at the moment. But soon there will be another uchideshi coming which presents an important challenge for us. We have to be good role models without teaching him. We are responsible for him getting prepared to run the dojo and take care of Sensei.