Uchideshi Experience at Iwama Dojo

I recently ran across a documentary video about the experience of uchideshi (live-in students) in the Iwama Dojo when Morihiro Saito Sensei was still alive and teaching there. Watching the video reminded me of my own experience as uchideshi in Iwama and motivated me to write a short piece about it.

In December of 1987 I was dropped off in the dark of night by a taxi at the entrance to the long driveway leading to Saito Sensei’s home.  The dojo where O’Sensei taught for many years was a few yards further down the path. My first task, once settled in, was to notify Sensei of my arrival and give him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch, which, I was informed, was his favorite. Indeed, his eyes lit up when I presented that gift.

Life as an uchideshi was fairly simple. First, morning chores and then breakfast cooked by Hitohiro, Saito Sensei’s son and a trained chef. After breakfast we had weapons class only for uchideshi outside on a gravely area in front of the dojo. Because I was the newest uchideshi and the only one who didn’t know the 31 jo kata, Sensei spent one-on-one time with me each of the first three or four mornings teaching that kata. For the rest of the daytime hours we were at Sensei’s disposal to do whatever he wanted: raking the gravel area outside the Aiki Shrine, picking up leaves and branches, pushing a cart in a local festival parade, preparing the tables for a dinner honoring guests. On most days there was also time for rest, reflection and discourse with the other three or four uchideshi.

The evening class was a memorable experience for the newest uchideshi. This class was quite large, with many sotodeshi (outside students) attending. Sensei seemed to take pleasure in calling me up as demonstration uke, which was often for me to demonstrate how inadequate my technique was – a humbling experience. Hitohiro, Sensei’s son, also attended evening classes, and I remember the extraordinary power of his techniques. One ikkyo ura technique had me literally flying parallel to the mat.

My time as uchideshi in Iwama, although relatively short, was filled with memorable experiences and invaluable learnings. The primary takeaway lessons for me – not being an Iwama stylist – were the precision of proper footwork and angles that Sensei emphasized repeatedly. Also, the importance of weapons training in refining our empty-hand techniques remains an important lesson from Saito Sensei’s philosophy and my experience as his uchideshi.

Jim Graves, Chief Instructor