The Training Culture at the Aikikai Hombu Dōjō

William T. Gillespie cast aside all the enviable benefits and considerable comforts of life in Southern California to move to Tokyo to devote himself to intensively study Aikido at the Aikikai World Headquarters (1997). Currently a 6th Dan Aikikai, his martial arts adventures in Japan and beyond to South East Asia, Korea and even The People’s Republic of China became a fantastic journey of self-discovery and personal development that continues to unfold. Taken from The Traveler – Find Tour Way, Aikido Italia Network Publishing book-interview with WT Gillespie, here’s an interesting excerpt about what William thinks about training at the Hombu

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

“Could you describe for us the training culture that you found at Hombu Dōjō? At the beginning did you experience any difficulties to integrate? Based on your actual experience, what does it really take to become a good and effective deshi at the Aikikai Hombu Dōjō? We know it’s unlike any other dōjō in the world.” 

“Look, I’m not a deshi or a kenshusei but when I went to Japan I did try to copy that kind of lifestyle. I had a lot of money in the bank. I didn’t have to work. I was able to train two to five times a day and the only reason for two would be that I was helping Tony Hind teach someplace else. 

Tony Hind

“Tony ‘The Truth’ Hind… He’s an experience. To say about him ‘he’s a strong guy’, the reply would be ‘yeah and the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground’. It doesn’t quite describe the experience. He’s a person who boxed before he did Aikidō and he played first division rugby in Canada and was a winger, which means he’s ‘twitchy’: you know, fast twitch muscle. About 184 centimeters and about 99 kilos, so…. people found him difficult to train with on a regular basis. [Laughs.] Imagine that. Thanks to my Scottish side, I just got stuck in and trained with him and I thought: ‘This guy beating the stuffing out of me can be really good for me’. That and ‘F*** me that hurt,’ So I was helping him around Tokyo a couple days a week and then training the rest of the time. On Sundays I rested. 

“I had gone to Tokyo and Hombu twice before in 1992 and 1994, so I knew what to expect, to a certain degree. My first teacher was very fundamental. His fundamentals were along the lines of Kisshomaru Doshu. Furuya sensei had his ‘own Aikidō’ as well, which he would express in demonstrations. So, I wasn’t entirely unaware of what to expect. 

“I’ve seen many people come into Hombu for the first time. We used to call them ‘new meat’. They would come in, not being used to the hard mats, not being used to the fast practice and we’d pounce on some of them. If they were nice, we wouldn’t do that, but if they weren’t, then ‘clobberin time’. Although I knew what to expect to some degree, it was tough to train that often. However, it was a different time than now. The world’s changed a lot. Japan’s changed a lot and Aikidō’s changed a lot. One of the most difficult challenges for Aikidō now is the talent drain. When I arrived in 1997 (until I left in 2004), it hadn’t happened yet. There were still a lot of really strong, physically strong, people on the mats at Hombu Dōjō. The problem now is that you can only make the best pot you can out of whatever clay you’ve got. Or the best sword you can, out of the best iron you’ve got and all other ingredients and processes that go with it. Any one input slips and so does the quality of the output. That’s a genuine challenge now. 

WT Gillespie during his early Hombu Dojo days

“Then, I found Hombu Dōjō challenging in this respect. The students were very robust, like what you find these days in an MMA school or BJJ school or Judō. Also, now still, there are so many students, hundreds, and you do not know them all and that affects training. In my old dōjō, for example, because you’re kenshusei and because you’ve been there a while and it’s a smaller group, you tend to make accommodations for each other in training. This can happen. You know each other. You know each others technique. You know how to respond. You know not to push too far. There can be too much cooperation. 

“However, there’s a certain amount of anonymity at a place like Hombu Dōjō, which can be very big and very cold, which frankly I think is very good for a lot of the people that come from their home dōjō and feel very proud of themselves that they are something special at home. Then they come there and they find out they’re just not that special. They’re just another foreigner coming to learn.” 

“A wake up call.” 

“Yeah; it’s a good experience for anybody and I think I found those things a bit challenging and then of course I got there and in my first practice I got into a fight with a deshi (now a friend of mine). [Laughing.] He’s now a shihan. We got into a full-on fight in the back. We ended up wrestling on the ground with people separating us. [Laughing.] It was a different age. Your experience there may still depend on where you sit at the start of class. I mention this in the book. The mat’s big, right? What is it? Eighty tatami? Something like that? More? I can’t remember. In this corner, people were killing each other. In one corner, you had some more experienced teachers. For example, in Kisshomaru Doshu’s Friday night class you had people like Kato sensei coming in and others coming in to pay their respects and support the dōjō. That’s in the back corner on the left-hand side. On the left-hand side and toward the front? That’s a different kind of animal you were coming in touch with and all of us ‘crazy monkeys’ in the back in the right corner, you know, shikaku, the ‘death corner’, we were all by the men’s changing room. It used to be like that but it’s not like that anymore. So, you could sit down and bow in and have a really rough hour of ‘travel’, if you weren’t careful.” [Laughing.] 

Kensho Furuya in his L.A. dojo

“Depending on who you picked.” 

Correctamundo.” 

“The amazing thing is the mixture. If you actually want to train pensioner-style you can.” 

“Yep. Yes; absolutely. Absolutely. It’s not like people didn’t know what they’re getting into. You knew it, once you were there for a while. If you’re going at it with one of your rougher or stronger friends then that’s the way it was going to be, ‘no quarter given no quarter asked for’. Of course, you’d be appalled if you actually hurt the person. However, you trained as if you’re really going to get them. And, they’re really trying to get you. That’s the way we trained, at least the Aikidō as an applied martial art crowd. 

“It was funny; I was having dinner after BJJ and Aikidō class in Beijing (I did the BJJ class and then taught the Aikidō class at the MMA academy) with a friend, a big Canadian guy, Ken, that used to visit Beijing for business and do the BJJ classes. Turns out, he used to live in Japan and trained at Hombu Dōjō and we had mutual friends. So, after class, we go out with a South African friend of mine, BJJ brown belt, and Ken is describing asa-keiko, the 06:30 morning class, to the BJJ guy. He’s like, ‘you grab your friend as hard as you can and he throws you as hard as he can, four times in a row, and then your friend grabs you and you throw him as hard as you can, four times in a row’. The BJJ guy’s eyes are getting bigger and bigger, you know. He’s just laying on the ground and rolling and having fun, a laugh with his mates. Of course, it’s hard too but it’s not the same experience as getting slammed on the mat at 06:30 in the morning, on a cold winter day in Tokyo. On mats that are like concrete.” [Laughing.] 

WT Gillespie after receiving his 6th dan certificate by Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba

“That’s actually one of the things that not many mention but it’s possibly one of the biggest problems you have when you come from outside and you start training at the Hombu. The mats are so hard that it’s like falling on a concrete slab.” 

“Yeah, on concrete and then they’re like sandpaper. So don’t let someone rub your face on them. Often, there was blood on them after class.” 

Copyright WT Gillespie and Simone Chierchini ©2021
All rights reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorised is strictly prohibited

The Traveler – Find Your Way
Interview with William T. Gillespie
The Aiki Dialogues #4
by Simone Chierchini, William T. Gillespie

William T. Gillespie, the author of the book “Aikido in Japan and The Way Less Traveled”, is a pioneer of Aikido in China.
As the sign in his first Aikido Dojo in Los Angeles read, “Not even a million dollars can buy back one minute of your life”. This is why W.T. Gillespie resigned from a professional career as a trial attorney in Los Angeles, also leaving his position as an assistant instructor in Furuya sensei’s dojo.
He cast aside all the enviable benefits and considerable comforts of life in Southern California to move to Tokyo to devote himself to intensively study Aikido at the Aikikai World Headquarters.
Currently a 6th Dan Aikikai, his martial arts adventures in Japan and beyond to South East Asia, Korea and even The People’s Republic of China became a fantastic journey of self-discovery and personal development that continues to unfold.

Table of Contents
About WT Gillespie. Introduction. California. Good Old Days’ Stories. Japan. The Training Culture at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Furuya Sensei’s Helping Hand. Asa-keiko, the Morning Class. Balancing Life in Tokyo. Living With O-sensei’s Legacy in Japan. The True Greatness of Kisshomaru Ueshiba. The Yin/Yang of the Grading System in Aikidō. Searching for Aikidō Applied. The Aiki-body. Being an Aikidō Pioneer in China.