Way of the Warrior

Gaku Homma found his domo on the range.

That sealed it.

Homma established his dojo, Nippon Kan, in Denver's Golden Triangle in 1978. He wanted to create a martial-arts school that focused on traditional Aikido instruction. Twenty-seven years later, that school has expanded to a compound located on Osage Street, one that includes not only the largest Aikido school in the Rocky Mountains, but also a cultural museum and Domo, a Japanese restaurant that's ranked as one of the best in the country by Zagat. Homma is known as a philanthropist as well as a chef and sensei; then-mayor Wellington Webb declared June 27, 1996, "Gaku Homma Day," in recognition of his humanitarian work. He's written five books on the subjects of Japanese country cuisine and Aikido.

"It's all been sort of an accident," Homma says in heavily accented English that even his students take years to fully understand. He wears a gray kimono and wooden sandals as he sips green tea in his Japanese garden, complete with a pond holding six-year-old red koi and manicured trees that he tends to personally. It is a place of peace, marred only by the occasional train passing by on the nearby tracks.

Emily Busch came to study Japanese but is now vice-
president of Nippon Kan.
James Glader
Emily Busch came to study Japanese but is now vice- president of Nippon Kan.
Denver's dojo in its early days.
Denver's dojo in its early days.

Aikido remains Homma's first love. In keeping with tradition, Nippon Kan offers a program that lets students train there as uchideshi. Over the past 25 years, hundreds of people from around the world have come to Denver to live and work with Homma.

Even in Japan, living at a martial-arts school is a rare experience. Many students who apply to be uchideshi have no real idea of what they will experience. "Everybody go to martial-arts school to be uchideshi, thinking maybe they go there, they're going to bow and hit gong. That's a movie," Homma says. He points his finger up toward the clear blue sky. "Uchideshi training does not go to this way. It's down to ground. How to standing to ground, and where we standing now here. So actually, very simple life."

A successful uchideshi keeps his expectations close to the ground. "I didn't come here expecting I'd learn how to kick everybody's ass or throw a person with my mind," says Jason Austad, who arrived at Nippon Kan this winter. "I knew it would be mentally demanding. I knew I would be in service to the dojo and the sensei."

He started his Aikido training at a dojo in California, then moved to Bismarck, North Dakota. The nearest dojo was a hundred miles away, in Fargo, so he tried to keep up his moves by himself and occasionally with other martial artists he met, but it was difficult. "It takes people to train in Aikido," he says. "You can't do it by yourself."

He read Aikido magazines and websites, which is how he learned about the three-month-long uchideshi program at Nippon Kan. Austad had friends in Denver, so when he came out to ski, he visited the dojo and paid a mat fee to train there for a few practices. "I was very impressed with everybody's Aikido and the other members who come here," he says. "They were so nice and so helpful. I just kept coming back."

He wanted to sign up to be an uchideshi, but he was too old. "They had a different age limit, so I wasn't able to be accepted," he remembers. Then, last year, he found out that the maximum age requirement had been changed to 35. Just under the bar, he applied immediately, attaching the required resumé detailing his education level, career goals and experience in Aikido -- although Aikido proficiency is the least-important factor when Homma selects who gets into the program. People come to Nippon Kan knowing no Aikido and still are admitted.

Nippon Kan has accommodations for ten uchideshi at a time. The rooms they live in are painted light blue, with a small window, a single bed and a rosewood dresser. A three-month stay costs $900, which covers the room, the instruction and two meals a day from Domo's kitchen. The fee is not refundable if an uchideshi decides to leave the program early, and many do. Only 30 percent of the people who start out as uchideshi make it to the end of the three months; one candidate quit after only two hours.

"We are not military base," Homma says. "No punish. Main policy is, welcome to anybody, but also, if you want to go, we not stop you."

When he didn't hear back from Nippon Kan for two months, Austad traveled to Denver to inquire about the status of his application. Finally, he was accepted into the program.

Two other uchideshi, a man and a woman, were in residence. The woman finished the program before he could get to know her; the man left after a week and a half. And other students didn't give him a particularly warm reception. "At first, people were distant or didn't say anything," Austad says. "I'm sure that they see many people go through the dojo and they don't last, so what's the point of investing time into someone who doesn't stay?"

In his book Aikido Sketch Diary: 365 Days, Homma offers a detailed description of uchideshi training. When a candidate arrives, he is told the dojo's practice times and little else. It is up to him to find his way around the dojo and things to occupy his time. This period is known as "hochi," and it tests the candidate's initiative. Though his contact with the staff is limited at this point, the dojo's senior students, the sempai, constantly observe his actions.

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