Uchideshi at Nippon Kan

By Arturo Alvarez Kawai
December 2008

I arrived to Nippon Kan dojo in Denver on a cold rainy night. It was the last night of March, but you could hardly tell it was already spring. When I left it was hot and it hadn’t rained for at least a month. It felt like another city, the dojo looked different, and I would like to believe I had changed, too. I had spent in Nippon Kan the last three months but certainly felt like it had been years.

To be honest, life as an uchideshi wasn’t quite what I had expected. Of course I knew it meant intense training and a lot of work, but before I started I thought the work was going to be limited to that on the mat. Cleaning the Japanese Folk Art Museum, sweeping and vacuuming the premises, scrubbing the toilets, picking up garbage around the building, assisting in school field trips that arrive to Nippon Kan every now and then, watering the beautiful garden and helping to trim some old trees or to plant new ones are all just some of the many chores you might have to complete during your time as an uchideshi. And that’s just before starting the four to five hours in average of daily training.

As soon as I arrived I was told that the newest uchideshi is always the lowest ranked student, the last link in the chain. Back home I was a lawyer, and as such I was used to wear suits, write contracts, prepare lawsuits, go to court, meet clients and, most importantly, have a secretary and an assistant at my disposal. In Nippon Kan I was a janitor: a janitor who practiced Aikido during his spare time.

But if you are willing to leave behind many of the comforts you take for granted on your daily life, even for those short three months, you might get one of the most gratifying rewards one can get. Your Aikido technique will improve, sure, if you work on it, but you will also learn that true Aikido is far more than practice on the mat. Because just as Aikido is always performed with partners, your life always develops around people. And that is probably the one treasure I took from Nippon Kan and hopefully will always carry with me: The people I met there.

It’s been only a few months since I officially finished the uchideshi program and I still have to understand many of Homma Kancho’s teachings, but that is part of the process I suppose. Anyway, they say that “once an uchideshi, always an uchideshi”, meaning that every time I return to Nippon Kan they will expect me to clean the museum, vacuum the hallways, scrub the toilets, pick up the garbage, water the garden . . . The last link in the chain. I sincerely look forward to it.