Paolo Corallini’s Traditional Aikido Dojo

Simone Chierchini e Paolo Corallini

We visited Paolo Corallini Shihan in his traditional dojo in Osimo and Corallini sensei described it for us, also allowing us to photograph the interiors of his sanctuary. His is a Dojo lovingly built piece by piece in honour of Aikido, a Dojo full of relics, memories, energy and inspiration. We share this exciting experience with you



Many years ago I bought this house because the ground floor, where we are now, had never been used. Even then I saw this place in my dreams as my future Dojo. In fact, I immediately started to make preparations for it to become what we see today. We were around the early 80s. I invited Saito Sensei for the first time in February ’85 and I already told him about this project.

The following year, the second time he came to Italy – it was in May 1986, the year in which I took care of his health – he came to consecrate this Dojo, which in the meantime had been finished in much less detail than we see today.

Tokoroma Dojo Osimo
Dojo Tokoroma, the “place of the soul”

On that occasion he slept in the room above which we will see later and consecrated this Dojo with a very beautiful ceremony, a traditional Shinto ceremony in which negative spirits are driven out to the four corners of the room, which is consecrated as a temple; a ceremony that I still remember with so much emotion. I wrote everything down to the smallest detail so as not to forget anything of what was a very important moment for me.

At the time I had already prepared the altar with three steps – three steps because Three is the number of spirituality, of the triangle, therefore the spiritual world. This is the tokoroma, which literally means tokoro, place, and ma, soul, the place of the soul, therefore the altar. Saito Sensei brought me this kamidana on that occasion as a gift for the consecration of this temple. He bought in Kasama, a town near Iwama that has now even incorporated Iwama, and most of the furnishings we see.

Kamidana Dojo Osimo
Kamidana, a gift from Saito sensei

The kamidana is the “abode (dana) of the gods (kami)”, and has three doors and five steps in front; inside there are the votive tablets that are dedicated to the Shinto gods, and images of the deceased loved by the family: I put O’Sensei and my father there. On top of the kamidana I put two trays and two candlesticks which have a very important history. In the year in which Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba died, all the furnishings of Aiki Jinja were renewed; at that time I was there and I contributed with my work together with other uchi-deshi to remove what was old and to replace it with new items and renovate the home of the second Aikido Doshu. The discarded furnishings were all stacked on one side of the Founder’s house.

Candelabri e Vassoi da Iwama
Candle-holders and trays originally from the Iwama Dojo

Obviously, I didn’t dare to touch anything, even if these things would have been thrown away, but Saito Sensei one day said to me: “Paolo san, come with me. Choose something and take it home to your Dojo”. I answered “You choose for me, Sensei, please. Just the fact that you touch them consecrates them”.

He chose these two candle-holders, whose peculiarity is that their base is octagonal, to symbolize the passage from the square, which is the material world, to the circle, the divine world. They, therefore, represent the tendency of man to want to rise towards the divine: when we move from the square, the first shape that is created is the octagon. Saito Sensei also chose two trays for me: on one of them there is written O-mi-tama, the great soul. It was one of the trays placed above the altar on which part of the Founder’s ashes and beard were kept.

Masakatsu Agatsu e Rastrelliere
Masakatsu Agatsu, the real victory is the one against oneself. Original calligraphy by Morihei Ueshiba

On the wall near the kamidana, there is a very important relic: it is a kakemono that bears authentic writing, drawn by the Founder. The writing reads Masakatsu Agatsu, the real victory is the one against oneself and it is signed Aiki Kaisho Tsunemori, or Tsunemori, the Founder of Aiki. Tsunemori was one of the three names with which the Founder used to sign himself, in addition to Morihei and Moritaka; Tsunemori was the name he used for his calligraphy. I was fortunate to be able to purchase this kakemono from a very important student of O’Sensei, Fukiko Sunadomari Sensei, the only woman who personally received the 6th Dan from the Founder; Fukiko was the sister of Kanshu Sunadomari Sensei and the monk Kagemoto Sunadomari. In 1986 I went to Japan and as soon as I arrived in Narita I was lucky enough to receive a call from Stanley Pranin, with which he told me that in the evening I would stay in Tokyo and that I would go to Iwama only the next day. Stanley asked me to help him interview Fukiko Sunadomari, who was already very old; he also told me that we were going to have the opportunity to purchase the Founder’s writings from her. For the occasion we went to an Indian restaurant; Stanley asked his questions and I took pictures and notes. Fukiko Sunadomari knew the Founder very closely and during her life she received many letters and several makimono rolls from him as a gift, testifying to the affection that bound them.

Fukiko had decided to sell five of these original calligraphies of the Founder and with the proceeds to build a small votive temple in O’Sensei’s honour in the Kumamoto, the city where she lived in Kyushu, southern Japan. She carried the makimono with her inside a beautiful silk handkerchief, as our ancestors did, and at the end of the lunch she showed them to me and I photographed them for Aiki Journal.

Kakemono Taisai

Kakemono Taisai

All these weapons are for me as many relics, but they are still used for practice: unquestionably, when I hold Saito Sensei’s jo I perceive a particular feeling, a particular responsibility, a bit as if it were King Arthur’s sword – it has the same charismatic value. Next are the racks for the weapons, which I had built in the image and likeness of those of the Iwama Dojo, of which they reproduce exactly dimensions and angles. Saito Sensei was very happy because he saw how much regard I had taken; over the years he gave me some of his jo and bokken, including a suburi-to, made for tanren, to strengthen the wrists. In addition, various bokken, such as this one made of sakura (cherry wood), which bears the signature of Saito Sensei and was his own.Once informed that they were for sale, I decided to buy one, another was taken from Pranin and a third was sold in America. I am not going to say now how much it costed me, but certainly a small fortune: I keep it as if it were a holy shroud, not only because the Founder wrote it in his own hand, but also because Masakatsu Agatsu, the victory over oneself, is the core of Aikido: overcoming our negative ego is the deepest message of Aikido, and also the least applied.

On the other side of the altar, there are two votive kakemono, produced on the occasion of the Taisai, the celebration in memory of the death of the Founder; the one on the left reads Takemusu Aiki, the other represents O’Sensei with the three jewels of Shinto, the sword, the mirror and the hara tanden; behind him, we can see the branches of the plant that symbolizes immortality, with all the symbolic value that follows.

3 Iwama kakemono
Original Kakemono inscribed by Saito Sensei

On this wall there are three original kakemono composed by Saito Sensei: they represent three periods of his pedagogy and also of the master’s way of thinking. In the first there is written Iwama Takemusu Aiki Morihiro, in the second Iwama Ryu; it dates back to the period when, behind my and Stanley Pranin’s insistence – we had asked Saito Sensei why he called the Iwama-style school, a Japanese city name and an English word – he decided to use the name Iwama Ryu. Except that, later on, he realized that the name Aikido no longer appeared in the Iwama Ryu denomination. Since what he taught in Iwama was the Founder’s method, the word Aikido had to appear in the name of the school, so he called it Iwama Ryu Aiki.

San ju ichi no kumijo
San ju ichi no kumijo

Below we have what are the 10 Commandments for me. When Saito Sensei came to this Dojo with Shibata Kinichi, one of his pupils from Sendai, and we shot the two videos numbered 28A and 28B of Aiki-jo and Aiki-ken which are still sold by Stanley Pranin’s Aikido Journal, he asked for rice paper and wrote in his own hand the division of San Ju Ichi no Kumiko into sectors as it is taught, and the same for Ju San no Jo kata.

Next to them, we have a scroll that was given to me by Saito Sensei and comes from the Temple of Atago, which is the sacred mountain overlooking Iwama, where the Founder went in the morning to pray and often also to practice. Saito Sensei accompanied him and took care of his safety, especially in the ascent to the temple, which must be done via 300 narrow and high steps; in footage from the last few years, Saito Sensei is seen pushing O’Sensei from behind to make sure he didn’t fall.

The scroll features the god Tarobo Tengu, the warrior god to whom the Temple of Iwama is dedicated, a temple significantly consecrated to the god of war and martial arts: O’Sensei went to ask for his protection and guidance for his teaching.

Ai Ki O Kami
Ai Ki O Kami

Then there is a very important object, which is not original but it exactly reproduces O’Sensei’s calligraphy Ai Ki O Kami, the Great God of Aiki, a concept very dear to the Founder. Here it is critical to note that the kanji is depicted as Leonardo’s man, a man who stands with his feet on the ground but tends upwards, towards the divine, therefore a person who becomes venerable, sacred, because he is not satisfied with his material dimension and tends towards divinity. The kanji depicting kami also presents a circle with a cross inside, which symbolizes the divine dimension, sacredness, righteousness and justice which are elements proper to the gods. Among other things, they also form a perfect Celtic cross.

In this showcase I keep my weapons Mokuroku: these are real treasures because they came out of use. For some time Saito Sensei wanted to perpetuate the ancient tradition of giving some of his students grades accompanied by Mokuroku, that is a scroll, in opposition to the modern certificate on paper. In this scroll, kept inside a light wooden box, on the back of which was written Ai Ki Ken Jo Mokuroku and the grade, Saito sensei wrote by hand which degree of weapons was released for, together with its entire program according to Iwama pedagogy. Saito Sensei did not make many of them, because he was criticized by the usual unknown, people full of envy and with a frightening ego who started the rumour that he gave these scrolls around for personal gain. These people never understood the historical and emotional, spiritual meaning that those Mokuroku have, a quite different one from the standard piece of paper.

Weapons Mokuroku

Saito Sensei took over two hours for each and worked in the middle of the night because he needed to do it without the sound of passing cars. According to tradition, he imprinted the mark of his thumb with ink so that half was printed on the scroll and the other on the ledger that remained in Iwama. The scroll must be read from right to left and contains the description of all the techniques for which the candidate had been examined and based on the demonstrated skill given a certain Mokuroku.

Around the world, there were not many of us to receive them, because Saito Sensei, after hearing the criticisms that were raised, was offended and never made more.

A few years before he died, Saito Sensei told me that he was convinced that I was a person who had done things for him that no one else had ever done: I had taken care of him and his family. So he decided to give me a special gift; I learned about it from one of his followers who accompanied him several times in Europe, Nakamura san, a dear friend, who said to me: “Look, Saito Sensei is making you make a katana forged following the ancient customs from one of the last three katana-makers who work according to the traditional Japanese method. This is a unique thing Paolo and is a demonstration of enormous affection.”

Katana Dono Saito Sensei
Katana gifted to Paolo Corallini by Saito Sensei

The day came: we were in Rome and during a seminar, Nakamura san called me and asked me to go to the Sensei’s room, because the gift was ready and he wanted to give it to me. Very excited, I entered his room, present Nakamura, I saluted and he offered me the sword, saying it was a gift from the heart; I was petrified and at the same time I was moved. Then he opened it and explained how to examine it, unlocking the habaki, then extracting the first palm of the blade, then the whole sword, then examining the edge.

Afterwards, he explained the history of the sword to me, told me who it was forged from and showed me the related documents. To bring the sword to Italy, a bureaucratic procedure lasting more than 5 months was necessary, because after the Second World War, when the winning Americans had stripped the country of many treasures, the Japanese government established strict rules that prohibited the export of original katana. Saito Sensei had to appeal to all his contacts and pay a significant sum of money to be able to bring my gift abroad.

Tsuba Katana Dono Saito
Tsuba close-up

Then he showed me that he had the tsuka covered in leather instead of silk because he wanted me to use it to demonstrate suburi. Unfortunately, this is the only thing in which I have not obeyed him, and here Francesco looks at me with regret, because the idea of carrying this sword around seminars, with the risk of it being damaged or stolen, has always given me a half hearth attack. One thing that I did not immediately notice, and that he as a true gentleman did not point out to me, was the importance of the mon engraved on the tsuba of the katana, the Saito family symbol.

He didn’t mention it, he only told me how to unsheathe the sword, how to clean it, how to tie it up once sheathed. He showed it to me once, then said, “Dozo!” and invited me to repeat what I had seen.

I tried, but obviously, I was so excited that I immediately got mixed up like a guy from a comic book and he roared with his characteristic powerful laugh.

Afterwards, Nakamura san told me about the Saito family symbol on the tsuba, so I ran to his room to see him; there he explained to me that this was something unique. He then told me that the Founder had given two swords to Saito Sensei, a katana and a wakizashi, while the only time Saito Sensei had done it, it was for me. The fact that he had put his mon on the tsuba in Japanese culture means to have such a trust that he could entrust his life and his name to the recipient of the gift.

Last time I saw Saito Sensei alive was a month before his death. He was already paralyzed from the neck down and was at home on an electric bed with a remote control to make him move and avoid bedsores. There were Ulf Evenas and me; he was waiting for us, he even had O’Sensei’s bedroom prepared for the two of us with futons and a kerosene heater. He received us in his room in the twilight, because even the light bothered him. He recommended me to get along with his other students, to stay close to Doshu, to try to be of help to the Aikikai. He explained that in the past he had also had very difficult moments in his relations with Aikikai, but that in memory of Morihei Ueshiba, his teacher, he had always remained faithful to the Ueshiba dynasty and always would have been.

Valigetta di Saito sensei
Saito sensei’s case

So he asked me to stay close to the Doshu, to remain in harmony with him and to give my support to the Aikikai, in order to preserve the traditional teaching of O’Sensei as he had done all his life, and also to expand the spirit of a true family. These things he asked me and Ulf and I took them as dogmas, like true commandments, three instead of ten.

Among other fond memories, I now want to show you the briefcase with Saito sensei’s keikogihakama, belt and other things that he left here in my dojo for when he was travelling in Europe. Knowing it was the last time I saw him alive, I brought it back to Japan to him, but he said I should keep it. He also had two identical bokkens brought to him, one for me and one for Ulf Evenas and he said he was sorry he could not give them to us directly with his hands – he, who had been the symbol of the perfect movement, was completely paralyzed. He said to us: “Make it always move as if it was me to use it”.

Simone Chierchini e Francesco Corallini
Saito sensei’s gear

Of all the symbols in my dojo, this is a very meaningful symbol. Saito Sensei’s briefcase is now a relic; it has travelled for many years around Europe and the world, and I behind him like a dog. The hakama is still as he folded it the last time and so it will remain ad aeternum, the hakama of a myth.

The last relic we are going to see is a kind of Grail. It is a jo that was brought to me as a gift by Saito Sensei in 1986: this is one of Morihei Ueshiba personal jo, that was in the eastern rack of the Iwama dojo, facing the kamiza. This rack has now been removed, but at the time there were still several jo that O’Sensei used daily.

Il Jo di O'Sensei
O’Sensei’s own Jo

As a sign of his affection, Saito Sensei decided to honour me with this gift; on this occasion as well, he told me to use it regularly to practice, but I am afraid to carry it around, in case it is stolen, so I only use it here in my Dojo. After I was given this jo, very few people have touched it, besides Francesco and me, but I am happy that you have it in your hands, as a sign of the instinctive affection I have for you.

When I hold this jo it is a bit like holding a magic wand: if one is not skilled, he becomes good at it, as if it moved by himself, as in the sorcerer’s apprentice…

Full Slideshow (38 photos)

Text by Simone Chierchini
Photos by Simone Chierchini and Francesco Corallini

Copyright Simone Chierchini, Paolo Corallini & Francesco Corallini ©2011
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited

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