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.
The alarm goes off at 5am. The room is pitch black and freezing cold. We have been sleeping in our long underwear and even with caps on and now get up and step directly into our gi. Fleece vest or jacket on top and so the day of an Iwama uchi deshi begins.
It is day two of our uchi deshi stay in Iwama. I have been to Japan several times before, but always during spring which is a lovely period with the cherry blossoms and usually a lot of nice warm and sunny days. With Hitohira Saito Sensei’s words in mind, this time I have decided to challenge myself and find out what uchi deshi life in the winter is like. So, February, I find myself in Iwama together with my wife Malou. It is her first uchi deshi stay in Iwama and as it turns out, we will be able to sum it up in one word: Cold!
The daily work begins. Priority one: get the stove burning and get the hot water kettle going. The morning chores are a daily routin to wake the body up and get your mind focused on the day ahead and the training to come. The Shin Dojo, which are the living quarters of the uchi deshi, shall be cleaned and organized, starting with your own living space. During winter there are usually not very many uchi deshi, but in spring and early autumn there will be lots and order and tidiness is essential. However, even if you are the only uchi deshi at the time, keeping yourself and your things organized is all part of your training. It reminds you to never be idle, that no one will do the work for you, that progress comes through hard work and being particular about everything, even small details and every day matters.
We sweep the street in front of the dojo and someone takes Sensei’s dogs for a morning walk. Wood for the stove is taken inside and any other additional work at hand is taken care of. When chores are done there is time for a cup of coffee or tea and maybe a small snack. No breakfast before morning practice.
Around six o clock it’s time to lock up the Shin Dojo and head for the training hall. The Tanrenkan Dojo is just a short walk or bike ride away. Once there, the routine starts all over again. The everyday life of an uchi deshi is all built around routines and the two major ones are training and cleaning. The third big part of your life is waiting. Training in Japan means staying alert, always being prepared, ready for action. It means having a schedule but still never being quite shure when training starts or when activities begin. Sensei may be early, Sensei may be late, yet he will always be right on time, which means you need to be ready when he comes.
This morning there is a lot of sweeping to be done. It’s been snowing heavily all night and the landscape is white and dead quiet in the dark morning hours. The dojo is freezing, zero degrees inside. We place out benches and pillows for morning meditation and then we wait….
When Sensei arrives we are seated in seiza, we bow and say good morning, ‘O hayou gozai masu’. Morning class starts inside with Sensei saying traditional prayers, norito, often combined with personal prayers – in blessing of the dojo and the students or asking for guidance from the ancestral spirits. After that it is time for meditation. Clearing your mind, breathing, relaxing.
By tradition, morning keiko (training) takes place outside and consists of buki waza (weapons training). This is the standard routin all year around, with the only exception if it is raining really hard. This morning we are working with the jo, the wooden staff. We start with the basics, suburi and kata, to get the body going and then we progress into partner practice, kumi jo. Sensei demonstrates and we practice. It’s really cold, hands are numb. Sensei is walking around kicking the giant pine trees to make the snow fall to the ground. He hauls great logs up and builds a fire. Through short instructions we work our way through the 3 first kumi jo. Sensei is quiet this morning, not many corrections, no harsh commands or grunting about lack in the basics. He seems to think that the cold is enough to deal with and half way through class he stops us and tells us to gather around the fire to catch some warmth. Sun starts to come out and we get back into training. It’s a beautiful morning and right here, right now is the core of uchi deshi life: there is only the moment, the moment of training, of living every movement, every technique to the fullest extent of your capability. Surrounded by giant trees, the morning sun on your face and the snow glittering in the fields, the uchi deshi literally steaming with heat and sweat from our focused and intense practice. This is shuren – committed practice. Conditions are severe but through that comes true progress.
Around 8 morning practice is over. Sensei leaves and we continue with another half hour of free practice. The uchi deshi prepare and cook their meals themselves on a rotational system and so whoever is on kitchen duty, toban, heads back to the Shin Dojo to prepare breakfast. The rest of us keep polishing on the details from this morning’s class before putting everything back into place in the dojo and then it’s back to quarters to sit down and have breakfast. At this point it feels as if you have been going for half a day. It’s only 9 o clock in the morning.
In Takemusu Aiki – M