Saito Sensei – The Man Behind the Teacher

Entire volumes have been written on Morihiro Saito the “Sensei”. “Saito sensei – The Man Behind the Teacher”, an excerpt from “The Hermeticist – Interview with Paolo Corallini”, the book interview published by Aikido Italia Network Publishing, captures the warm humanity of Morihiro Saito outside the dojo. Enjoy some delightful anecdotes narrated by Paolo Corallini as an appetizer to his book


“There are so many stories that I could tell because every day with sensei was just a new adventure. I would like to share two or three private life experiences that I find particularly evocative. I wish to point out – as I have already done in many previous talks – that I truly thank Heaven, Fate, the Gods, that in addition to receiving teachings from Saitō sensei (even very special and private ones), I had the good fortune to live many personal moments with him of such an intimacy that sometimes, today, if I hadn’t the photos to prove it, I would say: ‘Was it for real? Did it actually happen or not?’

“For instance, Saitō sensei would sometimes tell me: ‘Paolo, let’s go to the onsen, the thermal bath in the forest’. He drove his Suzuki Vitara and we went to a natural onsen, only the two of us, where a very hot spring surfaced in the middle of the woods. We spent two days in a traditional ryokan, bathing in these thermal waters even in the depths of winter – the water being hot inside and the temperature freezing cold outside – and I didn’t feel a thing, because I was absorbed in his very presence. Then, in the evenings, we ate and drank together in our room, tempura and sake… but with real intimacy, like two old buddies. He talked and talked about his life story in the Founder’s shadow.

“Beside the waterfall there is a small Shintō temple and this very old house. sensei said: ‘We are going to spend two-three days here together and I am going to make you experience how we lived with the Founder, including the very tough times after the war’. We proceeded to unload the car, put away the supplies, the food and set everything up. Then he said to me: ‘Paolo-san, I’m going to make dinner’. I would like to stress that he cooked for us, he never acted as if he were the great master, a guru, and we his servants. On the contrary, it was he who served us, his students: beyond the technical magnitude of what he gave us, this was his human dimension.

“Before he settled down to cook he gave me an axe and said: ‘Paolo-san, go and cut two branches about this long’, and showed me the length of a bokken. ‘Cut two branches of about the same length and when you’re done come back here’. My friend Gianfranco and I went into the nearby woods and looked for two matching branches, cut them and removed twigs and leaves. I tried to smooth them out as best I could, as sensei instructed me to do. After a while I went back inside the house, I showed them to him and he said: ‘Hai, daijōbu desu! Yes! Okay!’, and asked me to put my keikogi on. I did as I was told and when he came out of the house – I was already outside – with his keikogi on and no hakama, he said: ‘See, I made you cut those branches as the Founder after the war once asked me to do. There was so much poverty around, and the Founder helped many poor families, so at times we even had to make our own weapons. Today I had you do it’. We first started with kumitachi, and then he said: ‘Now we’re going to do ki musubi no tachi!’

“With those two branches we practised ki musubi no tachi between the waterfall and Aiki-no-ie. It was a lyrical moment! What else could I possibly say… To be privileged enough to practice with him, but then to experience these private moments: it was wonderful!
“Once we were having dinner at a restaurant in Turin. There were about twenty students from various countries with us around the table and he never tired of thanking me. I was a bit embarrassed because, incidentally, I knew that the more he talked, the more others might grow jealous and feel envious. I would occasionally feel real negativity around me, therefore, just to soften the mood, I said: ‘No, no, sensei, I’m just your dog’. I said it in Japanese, because in the meantime I had learned to speak to Saitō sensei in his language. At that point he looked at me with a rather angry expression and said: ‘What are you saying? Being humble is all well and good, but being too humble can sometimes make you look…’ He intended to say ‘almost like a fool’. Quickly recovering from the blow, I had the presence to reply: ‘No, no, sensei. I just meant that I feel like your dog, a bit like Hachiko: because a person can betray, yet a dog would never betray his master.’

“There followed a few seconds that seemed to last an eternity, during which he said nothing. He wouldn’t take his eyes off me. Straight after he smiled broadly and said: ‘Kokoro kara arigato – Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

“Another really unique experience I would like to share is the following. One day Saitō sensei said to me: ‘Paolo, take your keikogi and a change of clothes for a couple of nights, because we are going to the Aiki-no-ie’. I was there with Gianfranco Leone, a very dear friend now deceased, one of my most faithful students and a person who meant a lot to me. I took my keikogi, a change of clothes and, once again in his blue Suzuki Vitara, he drove us all to the tiny house of the Aiki (Aiki-no-ie). It is located about five kilometres from the Iwama dōjō, at the foot of Mount Atago, where the Jinja is to be found. It was an old property of the Founder and it was very close – within 40-50 metres – to the famous natural waterfall beneath which you have all seen O-sensei, Kisshomaru sensei, Saitō sensei and other teachers being photographed while doing misogi.

“That said, I had a sense of veneration for him anyway. He spoke to me with great ease as if he were speaking to a close friend. He kept repeating how very grateful he was to me and never failed to mention that I had done so many things for him, how I had taken care of his health, how well I had treated him… He felt indebted to me, although it was really I who couldn’t quite convey my feelings of appreciation and devotion for this person.

Morihiro Saito Sensei and Paolo Corallini practise Aiki Ken in Iwama (1987)

“I’m now going to wrap it up with something amusing. When this practice was over, he said: ‘Go get ready, it will soon be time for dinner’. We got changed and before long he called out to us. In this old house there was an irori, a hearth, composed of a square of wood, embers and a large pot hanging down in the middle of the house. He was standing on the opposite side of that square and was stirring a steaming soup with a wooden ladle. Gianfranco and I were on the opposite side of the irori.

Gianfranco looked at me and said: ‘I can smell a certain odour…’

“For those who don’t know me, I haven’t touched meat of any kind for 47 years. I wouldn’t eat it even if you paid me to do it. Well, Gianfranco told me: ‘Hmm, I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight, if you are going to enjoy it…’

“There was a strange smell. I tried not to pay attention to it, to enter a state of ascesis to avoid thinking about it. And he, Saitō sensei, looking at me started to explain: ‘Tonight I have prepared a special recipe for you. You have to know that a long time ago, during our middle ages, when samurai, vassals, or high-ranking dignitaries were invited to the palace to confer with the daimyo, sometimes this kind of recipe would be prepared. It is made using a fighting rooster, a champion that was sacrificed to honour people of distinction. Today I have cooked this recipe for you’.

“I felt like dying, because I didn’t know what to do. He kept stirring, then at some point he picked up one of the bowls and poured a ladle of soup into it: ‘Paolo-san, dozo. Testo shite kudasai! Try it!’. He was looking right at me, I couldn’t even hide it… I called upon all my devotion for him, while the evil Gianfranco next to me whispered: ‘I really want to see now how you are going to manage…’ It was one of those tragicomical moments. Eventually I took the diced rooster bits and swallowed them whole… Hmm… He was like: ‘Is it good?’ and I went: ‘Oishii desu ne! Good!’ As I gobbled them down, I thought: ‘The sooner I can get it done, the better!’

“For an instant, I had forgotten what hospitality means to the Japanese. Seeing that I had finished the soup, Saitō sensei said: ‘Hai! Mo ikkai! Mo ikkai! More! More!’ So I ended up having to eat two bowls of it, with who knows how much beer, for his sake. This may be a bit of a laugh but it gives an idea of the extent of his sense of hospitality and respect. I had to make a small sacrifice, although I would have done much more for him.

“I could share many more stories but I will leave it at that, considering that you might want to know about some other topics as well.” (…)

Read the full book interview here

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

The Hermeticist
Interview with Paolo N. Corallini
The Aiki Dialogues #7
by Simone Chierchini, Paolo N. Corallini

Paolo N. Corallini has been practicing the Art of Aikido since 1969 and during his career he has held numerous positions in this art at national and international level. He is currently a 7th dan Aikido Shihan and the Technical Director of Takemusu Aikido Association Italy. Author of many conferences on Aikido and its Spirituality, he has written 6 volumes on this martial art.
A scholar of Eastern philosophies and religions such as Taoism, Shintoism, Esoteric Buddhism and Sufism, he loves the world of chivalric tradition in general and the Knights Templar in particular.
In “The Hermeticist” Corallini sensei brings the reader from Iwama and his meeting with Morihiro Saito sensei to the complex interweaving between the different pedagogies in Aikido; from his memories of the man Morihiro Saito to the future of Aikido and much much more, always presenting his learned and refined approach to the sense of what exists below the visible level of Aikido.

Contents: The Beginning of the Journey. Arriving in Iwama. The Man Behind the Teacher. What Is Takemusu Aikidō? A New Founder? Morihiro Saitō and Spirituality. Aiki-Dancers and Aiki-Bricks. Expressive Freedom in Aikidō. Harmony in Aikidō and its Adulterated Versions. The Future of Aikidō. Tips for Beginners. Supplement: Paolo Corallini’s Traditional Aikidō Dōjō.