Week 2 in Nara, Japan. January. Wednesday night, 6:40pm: My stomach is rumbling. I’m a bit nervous. I’m wearing two layers of pants, and my big winter parka. Its 10°C but I’ve never felt as cold as I do here, even compared to the depths of Canadian winter. I dawdle a bit, delaying the short ten-minute trek from my dorm to my next new adventure.
As I walk in, a little boy in a white gi and blue belt scurries up the stairs. I take off my boots, lining them up neatly beside everyone else’s. I can hear the thumping of feet upstairs. As I enter the dojo, the Senseis look at me curiously. Bowing slightly, I introduce myself and ask if I may try out the class. In my hand, I fidget with a scrunched up piece of paper with handwritten Kanji – questions like “May I join your class today? How much is it?” Sensei realizes I’m not (actually) Japanese and motions to someone. A woman with long black hair wearing a Hakama runs towards me. Her name is Y…san and she translates for me in simple English. She has big eyes and speaks in a gentle, quiet way. I smile at her and ask her questions. She covers her mouth as she giggles. I like her already.
Before I know it, I’m practicing Shikko (the Samurai walk, a.k.a. knee walk) with a man named Y……san. His eyes are curious and bright, his whole demeanour brimming with positive energy and enthusiasm. He wears a white belt but is an incredibly good teacher, demonstrating each step carefully, showing me little details of what, why and how, at exactly the time I’m ready for them. A while later, I find myself practicing Ikkyo and Shomenuchi with a mother and her bubbly teenage daughter. Despite my “absolute beginners” Japanese, they’re playful and goofy and it cracks me up. Sensei comes around once in a while, gently correcting my hips, my feet, my hands.
Before I know it, my first aikido class is over. Two hours, gone in a flash.
By the time I leave Japan, this small intimate dojo, the people I met, and the memories I had are some of the highlights of my 3-month stay. The dojo heating up with warm bodies, winter air drifting in through open windows. Sitting in Seiza, watching the beautiful twirls of Hakamas as the black belts demo exercises for partner-work. The circular fluidity of the movements, harmoniously and meticulously executed. The meditative concentration of people here. The kids class before ours – energy, laughter, acrobatic flips, cute little faces and flushed cheeks, yelling “onegaishimasu!” and “arigato gozaimashita!” in out-of-breath unison. Finally, my small detour home, walking my new friends through the narrow streets of Naramachi. Moonlight and new experiences.
I’m lucky to have this life.