This article was written a few days after the passing of Morihiro Saito Shihan. The Tai Sai Festival, held April 29, 2002, was the last official public activity conducted by Morihiro Saito Shihan. With this article, I pay tribute to his final days.
By Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho
On April 23, 2002, I received a phone call from Japan. My presence at this year’s Aiki Jinja Tai SaiFestival on April 29 was being requested. Tai Sai is the grand festival held at the Aiki shrine in Iwama every year to honor the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Without hesitation I began to make plans to leave for Iwama, where the festival was to be held.
Attending this year’s Tai Sai Festival in Iwama was important to me for several reasons. The number one reason, of course, was my respect for the Founder of Aikido and my teacher, Morihei Ueshiba. For me, Iwama was an important part of my youth. To attend the Tai Sai festival again would bring things full circle in my life.
Another reason attending this year’s festival was important to me was that Iwama Dojo Cho, Aikikai Shihan Morihiro Saito 9th Dan would be presiding. Saito Shihan was the longest uchideshi of the Founder and has been keeper of the Aiki Shrine since the Founder’s death in 1969. The Aiki Shrine and Saito Shihan are symbols of Aikido’s history and heritage for Aikidoists around the globe. This year especially, as Saito Shihan battled a serious illness, I went to Iwama to support him. Saito Shihan took care of me as a youth in Iwama and has visited me in Denver on three occasions. It was my turn to humbly offer support.
For the weekend of April 27-28, I had already scheduled a fundraising seminar at Nippon Kan in Denver to raise money to support Nippon Kan’s Homeless Meal Service Program with the Denver Rescue Mission. When the invitation came, I postponed the seminar one-week and left quickly for Japan. It was not a difficult decision to make. The relationship between teacher and student is of the utmost importance to me. My teachers had called me. I had to go.
Accompanied by Nippon Kan president, Doug Kelly, I flew to Japan on April 27. Upon arriving the next day, we went directly to Iwama and made our way to the Iwama dojo compound. I headed to the dojo shrine and made offerings called kijo no hokoku in Japanese. Simply translated, this offering is made by one who used to live there, a formal way of saying, “I have returned home.” I then went to Saito Shihan’s bedside to say hello. Because I had visited Iwama only one month before, he was surprised and happy to see me visiting again.
The ceremony began at 11:00 a.m. the following morning. We arrived early while everything was still fairly quiet. The dojo grounds were beautiful in the early morning light, and we spent time quietly reflecting on the beauty and serenity of the surroundings. We also had a moment to pay our respects to Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba while he prepared for the day in the Founder’s former living room. We called out our morning greetings from the gardens outside the living quarters. As he stood to slide the glass door open, I could not help but flash back to an image of the Founder as he once stood at the very same place. Even though his schedule for the upcoming day would be extremely busy, he took a few minutes to say hello to us.
All of the sliding doors of the Aiki shrine had been removed for the ceremony. Not only did this allow the shrine to accommodate the people in attendance, it was also in accord with Shinto philosophy for the shrine to be open to be in communication with nature. The space occupied by the shrine is called thehonden. Originally the honden was simply a flat space cordoned off on the ground where offerings were made to the gods. Later, to protect the worshipers from the elements, a roof was erected over the honden space, but the structure remained without walls. Eventually walls and sliding doors were built, but like the ones of the Aiki shrine, the doors were built to be removed during ceremonies. Unlike Christian churches, which usually don’t have windows to the outside, thehonden is open to the elements of nature during prayer.
When the Founder first built the Aiki Shrine, he began with the okuden that housed the main deity. The honden was nothing but an empty space in front of the okuden. He called this space the yagai dojo, which means “the outside ceremony space.”
The priests in attendance this day were from the Omoto Kyo Shinto Sect, the personal religion of the Founder during his lifetime. As is common in Japan, the Founder also practiced Buddhism, and some of his ashes are kept at the family Buddhist temple in his hometown of Tanabe in Wakayama prefecture.
About 1,000 people from throughout Japan attended the Tai Sai Festival. The ceremony itself lasted about an hour and a half and ceremony culminated in an Aikido demonstration performed by Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. This special demonstration is called ho no embu or a demonstration offering.
After the official ceremonies and demonstration, it was time for naorai or the gathering together to celebrate with food, drink, and much communication. Under a crisp blue sky, people settled in small groups on picnic cloths throughout the grounds for a celebration picnic.
I was in the company of Akita Branch Shigeru Kawabe Shihan, Iwama Dojo’s, Shigemi Inagaki Shihan, and Hiroshi Isoyama Shihan. We had a chance to talk to Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba once more in a little more relaxed manner. Doshu asked me “Natsukashii desu ka (about Iwama and Tai Sai)?” This translates loosely to mean “Does all of this bring back memories of your days at Iwama?” We talked at length about Iwama in the Founder’s time.
Morihiro Saito Shihan attended the ceremony in a wheelchair. He also attended the naorai where students and friends came to visit him. He used a collapsible canvas chair I had given to him as a present in Denver three years ago. He said it was comfortable for him in his confinement. As we talked, he took out his pocket watch from the sash of his kimono. After studying it for a moment, he asked me if I would like to have it. Even though I was deeply honored and appreciative of the offer, giving someone one’s own watch implied that the giver is no longer in need of time. I politely refused the watch because all of us need as much of Saito Shihan’s time as possible.
The moment spoke volumes of unspoken sentiment. It was clear to me that Saito Shihan was moving towards his final departure, yet his grace and sense of purpose were prevalent. He said to me after a moment “Homma-kun, I have finished my duties…all of the arrangements for today’s Tai Sai festival have been taken care of. The grass has been trimmed, the bento boxes ordered. All is in order, even the weather today is good, making every thing perfect.” After pausing a moment, he continued in a low voice, almost to himself “This is the last”. He said this with a nod of acceptance.
I heard from family members, that the day following Tai Sai, Saito Shihan visited his family temple and his family grave site where he prayed. The day after his passing, mofuku (ceremonial funeral kimono) that had been ordered by Saito Shihan himself, were delivered to his wife and two daughters.
I have visited Iwama often since my days there as a youth, but I had not attended this festival and ceremony for 33 years. It felt like I had traveled a very long distance to be there again—not only physical distance but also in terms of time and the experiences I have had in my life since that time. When Doshuasked me if the festival brought back memories or if I felt nostalgic about Iwama, it was a difficult question to answer. Having been away for so long, I felt many different emotions.
Before coming to Japan for this visit, I had just finished an article about the Founder and his life at Iwama before he passed away. I used many photos taken around 1968. The small seedlings I remembered in the photos have now grown to full-sized trees and offer a shady retreat for those attending the festival. The tsutsuji or azaleas other students and I helped the Founder plant were now taller than a full-grown man and opened wide like oversized umbrellas. The fields I had once planted with potato and peanuts now were home to groves of cherry trees a foot in diameter.
Students from near and far gathered under the flowering trees to remember the Founder and to toast to each other’s health and happiness. It was a comfortable, natural scene. You could feel the true spirit of Aikido there amidst the celebration. There was no talk about Aikido politics, ranking, technique or differing philosophies. It was a gathering of pure heart and spirit. It is time now, I thought, for all of us to rekindle this spirit.
Today with a touch on a keyboard you can access hundreds of Aikido commentators and analysts. The world has become a much smaller place. In some regards this is a good thing. Today people from all over the world come to Iwama to train and live as uchideshi. People of different cultures, lifestyles, religions, and languages can visit Iwama and feel the spirit the Founder left in this place. The spirit of Aikido—love.
Since the time of the passing of the Founder, Saito Shihan has been with us to keep this spirit alive. We need to appreciate and understand what Saito Shihan has accomplished by preserving and passing along this spirit through his vigilant care. Still today, even in a wheelchair, Saito Shihan is here, presiding over the day’s events. All Aikidoists should be able to appreciate this.
We stayed in Iwama for two nights. On the morning of our third day in Japan, after bidding our farewells, we headed for Tokyo. The next day in Tokyo we visited Aikikai headquarters at Hombu dojo. We observed morning practice, which begins each morning at 6:30 a.m. When Doshu is in Tokyo, he teaches morning practice every day. Whenever I am in Japan I try to stop by and pay my respects to Doshu and to Hombu dojo. I have many memories of Hombu dojo while living with the Founder. Over the last 33 years things at Hombu dojo have, of course, changed. Leadership has passed first from the Founder to his son Kisshomaru and now to his grandson, Moriteru Ueshiba. Many years may have passed but my feeling of respect for Hombu dojo remains the same.
In the middle of practice, Iimura Shihan entered the dojo. At 77 he still emanates a powerful presence. His keiko gi was tattered with years of wear and had been mended meticulously many times with care. His hakama was worn white at the knees and also showed signs of painstaking patchwork. He slowly made his way through the dojo greeting students and guests alike with the most gracious and humble manner. He stopped by where we were sitting and formally bowing inseiza, greeted us good naturedly and thanked us for coming. His manner and attitude reminded me of the Founder. As a mentor to many, he oversaw practice, giving his support of ages and generations past. Watching him, I could feel the Hombu dojo I remembered. He embodied a graciousness that I remember from many visits during days gone by.
Without saying a word, Iimura Shihan spoke volumes with his manner and actions. His presence is an important example to all of us as students. As I watched him, I hoped the students on the mat were wise enough to understand what he was teaching. As Aikidoka, I feel it is important for all of us to return to the innocence of the practice of Aikido, to return to the spirit where our practice is from. It is not just academic pursuit I am talking about—the study of the history of Aikido is an endless task. It is remembering of the original spirit of Aikido.
In our lifetime, we have seen Aikikai created and the Aikido of the Founder spread to all parts of the globe. We must also not forget the first generation of the Founders students who served as pioneers for this cause. The world of Aikido owes these pioneers a great debt of gratitude.
I am the owner of a small independent Aikido dojo. I am not a member of Aikikai, or Iwama style Aikido. However, I will never forget my youth and my deep respect for what I experienced.
After the Founder passed away there was much political reorganization. At that time, I did not join any other Aikido organization. This still remains true to this day, 33 years later. With deepest respect for the Founder, I have focused on my own path, yet I have not forgotten my past or the roots of my experience. In this respect, I have been able to maintain a relationship that has enabled me to be invited to attend milestone events in the Aikido world such as the funeral of Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the inauguration of Moriteru Ueshiba as his successor, and this year’s Tai SaiFestival in Iwama.
Today many dojos have become independent. This is true for many reasons, whether political, philosophical, territorial or other. Whether independent or affiliated in some manner, we all practice Aikido. At this point I think it is more important to look at what is common to all of our practice than what is different. To reflect on where Aikido came from for all of us—an Aikido renaissance so to speak.
Those that I have encountered on this trip have inspired reflection on shugyo or (the path of life practice). Saito Shihan, even bound to a wheelchair, remained diligent to his purpose until the very end. This was the greatness of his spirit. At Hombu dojo, Iimura Shihan graced the dojo with his humility and kindness, truly sharing his gift of wisdom with the young people during their practice. Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, as the global leader of Aikikai remains diligent and positive, teaching morning practice daily.
For some, the practice of Aikido is no more than copying technique recipes. My experiences this trip reinforce to me that more important than technique is what we can learn from the lives of role models such as these. Each Sensei has such a gift to give, with their wisdom and experience.
As we were leaving Hombu dojo, we stopped momentarily by the office. Doshu was there and asked us if we were heading directly back to the United States. He gave us two posters of the 40th Annual All Japan Aikido Demonstration to be held later this May as a souvenir.
Aikikai has grown rapidly over the years into a very large, worldwide organization. It is so large that at times one might feel it has grown a little impersonal. This pleasant exchange with Doshuupon our departure reminded me of the “at home feeling” Hombu dojo had three decades ago. That tradition is still alive in this third generation of the Ueshiba family. With this spirit the future will be bright for the world of Aikido to come.
Nippon Kan Kancho