Uchi deshi ( 内弟子) or uchi no deshi literally means ‘inner student’ and refers to a student who make the commitment to immerse him or herself totally in training. It means living in or nearby the training quarters, dedicating yourself only to training, the chores of the dojo and your Sensei. The idea is to let go of everything – everything revolves around training. You can do this for any length of time. It is the ultimate training experience.
I remember reading somewhere, Hitohira Saito Sensei speaking about uchi deshi life and training in Iwama. In a typically Japanese understating sort of way he said that being an uchi deshi in Iwama means being close to nature and living in accordance with the seasons and harmony of the changes of nature. This means, he said, that during summer you will experience a bit of heat and during winter you will experience a bit of cold.
After every meal, again it’s cleaning routine: The dishes should be done, wiped dry and put away, the floor should be swept and everything in the kitchen put back into place.
Unless Sensei have any working projects, days are usually quite free for the uchi deshi to spend with their own activities. That’s not to say that you can go where ever you want. You are an uchi deshi, you are not on vacation. Dojo comes first, Sensei comes first. Of course you may take a day trip to nearby Mito or do bike rides out in the country side, but you need permission from Sensei or his wife. Most people spend the days with personal activities, like writing training journals in order not to forget important points that Sensei has made during practice or simply to remember all the exercises and techniques that we have done. You also have plenty of time to read and of course you constantly talk about different aspects of the training, sharing ideas and experiences. Some spend their time trying to learn some Japanese, some do their laundry and whoever is toban go to the supermarket for groceries and use the day to prepare lunch and evening meals. Sometime during the day it’s a good thing to organize some free practice and then maybe get some rest before evening routine starts.
Evening keiko starts at 7pm and again it’s back to routines. In good time we head down to the Tanrenkan and start the cleaning procedure: sweeping inside and outside, bringing in water from the well, tending the plants and bushes and – waiting….
Evening training means tai jutsu, empty handed training. Mornings are generally just the uchi deshi but in the evenings Sensei’s local students, the soto deshi, have finished their jobs and come to train. Evening classes are always a physical challenge. They are hard, heavy, focused and super intense. It’s 60 minutes of hard work with brief pauses only when Sensei demonstrates the next technique. There is no talking, no stopping, no wasting of valuable training time. It is 100% focus.
It’s cold, really cold. The thermometer in the dojo shows zero degrees and the waiting is agonizing. You have to be in seiza in good time before Sensei arrives and at this temperature sitting on the floor for any length of time is a good test of your ability to clear your mind. When he arrives, we bow and greet him ‘kon ban wa’, good evening. Class is about to start.
Beginning of tai jutsu class is always a turmoil, more or less so depending on the number of students in class. As is tradition in any Budo discipline, the students are seated sempai wise. Meaning the most senior students are seated in front and to the right, with seniority decreasing the further back and to the left in line you come. This is a very simple system that means any one can step into a dojo and immediately recognize who the most experienced students are. Of course any uchi deshi (or other student for that matter) who are totally committed to their training wants to train with Sensei’s most experienced students. This is even more important since the traditional training routine means that the person you bow in to is the person you will train with the whole class. Thus, everyone is waiting for the magic words and then awaits a moment of chaos when everyone race for their intended training partners, sometimes literally climbing over the back of others. You need to get up in front and bow. There is no such thing as tapping a senior student on the back. That would be really bad etiquette.
This is a cold winter night in February, which means the dojo is not exactly crowded. Still we are some 10 or 12 people. Sensei starts class demonstrating tai no henko as always and then, ‘hai douzo’ ‘go ahead’, and we race to get our partners. I manage to get one of the senior students, which means I am in for an hour of some really hard work, there will be no short cuts, I won’t get anything for free but it will be a valuable class giving me my moneys worth. Reminding me of the reason why I am here. As it turns out, tonight will be all about shiho nage and by the end of our class I am not ashamed to say I am totally wringed, like a wet cloth.
Class finishes at around 8pm and everyone helps out to clean the dojo. Then, just like in the morning, you find a partner or go into small groups for another half hour of jiyu keiko, free practice. The toban head back to cook the evening meal. The general etiquette in jiyu keiko is that you work with the material from the class you just attended. Maybe Sensei emphasized something he wanted you to pay extra attention to, maybe you or someone else had problems with a certain aspect of a technique or movement and got corrected. Maybe you have a test coming up and need to work on your material for that. These will be specific things to work with during free practice, generally being much less intense, giving you time to discuss different aspects of the training and being more slow and detailed in your study of the techniques. Free does not mean ‘do whatever you want to do’. As always in a dojo, the seniors hang around to help out, to give advice and to correct on the details.
The cold is not an issue during practice. Keiko is so intense, it just takes you a few minutes to get really warm and to get your body going. By end of class you are soaked with sweat. Soon after keiko is done though, the cold hits you quickly and in order to stay healthy and not contract any injuries it’s quickly back to the Shin Dojo to get out of your wet gi, get a hot shower and put some dry clothes on. Uchi deshi life in Iwama is inevitably hard on your body and in order to get the most out of your stay you need to stay as fresh as possible, taking care of your body. Your body is your instrument, if you fail to take care of it you won’t be able to commit fully to your training. Also you will be of no use as a training partner or as a recourse in the dojo, only slowing things down.
Night time comes. The uchi deshi gather in the steaming kitchen, everyone tired but happy after another long day, looking forward to some food and some relaxing conversation. ‘Itadakimasu’ – let’s eat. Not everyone coming as uchi deshi are experienced chefs, but we all cook to our ability and at this time of day normally everything tastes great.
After dinner we wash up and clean the kitchen. Some go directly to bed and some stay up, maybe have a couple of drinks and just talk. There are always stories to be told, words from Sensei to be considered, questions and problems that needs discussing and solving. This is also part of uchi deshi life – living close to unknown people with different back grounds and different kinds of experiences. There is much to learn from them and maybe you can learn them some. Apart from being a very physical experience, the uchi deshi is also an emotional one, living for weeks on end side by side with people, sharing hard training, thoughts and sometimes personal problems with them. You will inevitably grow close to one another and you are not likely to forget someone you have shared uchi deshi life with. Good or bad.
Night time. Bed time. I hit my futon. The heater is on, still the room is already cold. Right now I don’t care much. I am really tired after a long day and my body craves the rest. It’s well after 11 and in just six hours the alarm will sound again. Malou is already asleep, exhausted by the focus and all the first impressions it means to be an uchi deshi for the first time.
And so time passes. Hours turn into days, days into weeks and maybe weeks into months depending on how long your uchi deshi commitment is. Every day the same routine, every day is the same yet never the same: the techniques change, the weather changes, the seasons change, your mood changes, Sensei’s mood changes, people you have come to grow found of leave and new people arrive. Your body will ache with the strain of severe training. Your mind will falter and be filled with questioning, for the same reason. Some days you will feel happy, strong and invincible, enjoying every second and just wanting more. Some days you will feel slow, heavy both in body and heart, home sick, questioning your motives and choices, feeling as if all kind of progress is lacking. It’s life distilled: everything is clearer, more intense and more direct. Your job is to receive as best you can without complicating things, reminding yourself of the reasons why you are here: to put irrelevant thing aside, to commit fully to your Aikido studies, to move yourself out of your comfort zone and submit yourself to the ultimate training challenge. To be an Iwama uchi deshi!
In Aiki – M