He slams into the practice mat for the eighty-ninth time. An integral part of Aikido training is ukemi, learning how to receive a blow and take a fall. So Jason Austad gets up for the eighty-ninth time and faces his attacker -- who slams him to the ground again.
Then another attacker steps up.
Ninety-one. Falling can be tiring even once, and Austad is not a young man anymore. At 35, his body takes twice as long to heal as it did when he was twenty. Ninety-two. Exhausted, he lies on the mat a second, gazing at the lights on the dojo's ceiling. But not for long. Through sheer force of will, he gets up again to face his attacker, to take the throw again and again.
A hundred throws. This has to be the strangest graduation present ever.
Gaku Homma's father, a high-ranking officer in the Japanese army, was held prisoner in Indochina after World War II. Even after his release, he was prevented from holding a government job, and his family was very poor. But he gave his son a rich legacy: He'd practiced Aikido with its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, and when Gaku Homma was a teenager, he went to practice Aikido as an uchideshi -- a live-in student -- at the famed Iwama dojo.
By the mid-'60s, only Ueshiba, his wife and his maid were still living at the dojo. Homma would draw Ueshiba's baths, help with the gardening and prepare the breakfasts of congee (rice porridge), mochi (sticky rice cake) and fresh vegetables picked from the garden. He was the last uchideshi Ueshiba trained before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 86.
A sickly child, Ueshiba had practiced martial arts as a way to improve his constitution, spurred on by his own father's stories about how he was related to a prominent samurai. When he saw his father beaten by thugs dispatched by a local politician, Ueshiba redoubled his efforts. By the time he was a young man, Ueshiba was a well-known martial artist; bare-handed, he bested a military officer wielding a kendo sword.
Ueshiba joined the army after the Russo-Japanese War and remained a soldier until his father died, when he moved his family to Hokkaido. While teaching martial arts at the royal military academy, he started studying Omoto-kyo, an offshoot of the Shinto religion that believes in beautifying the world through art. Ueshiba's conception of budo, or the way of the martial artist (as opposed to bushido, the way of the samurai) began changing. He now saw that the true budo was a way of peace.
Ueshiba grew disillusioned with the government, which was persecuting followers of Omoto-kyo, imprisoning them and destroying their shrines. So he taught martial arts to Omoto-kyo devotees at the same time he taught their oppressors.
Finally, in 1942, Ueshiba retreated to Iwama and built the Aiki-shrine. It was here that he developed the more humanitarian philosophies of Aikido. On the day that the Japanese surrendered, Ueshiba told his students not to fear, for this was the dawn of the age when the true Aikido would emerge -- a peaceful form of martial arts that was a humanistic reaction to the violent events of Japan's past.
During the post-war occupation, the Shinto religion lost popularity and martial arts were banned in Japan. Aikidoists continued to practice, but they made an effort to prevent Aikido from looking martial. To quell the suspicions of occupation forces, they practiced weapons work in secret, using wooden hoe handles or soup ladles. But as Aikido developed under Ueshiba, the roles of the aggressor and the victim were almost interchangeable; in fact, they would trade places in training so that both would throw an attack and receive it. They needed to feel empathy for each other.
After Ueshiba's death, former students split off to create their own schools and organizations. Yoshinkan Aikido, which is popular with the Japanese police, focuses on rigid basic movements and solo kata (sequences), while styles like Ki-Aikido feature softer, more flowing techniques and concentrate on developing spirituality. The largest Aikido organization in the world is Aikikai, led by the descendants of Morihei Ueshiba. Although there's no unified philosophy of Aikido, most who practice the art today identify with a commitment to peaceful resolution and self-improvement through Aikido training.
By the mid-'70s, Homma was teaching Aikido to U.S. soldiers at Misawa Air Force Base. When their tour of duty was up, so was his commission -- and he decided that this presented an ideal opportunity to bring his knowledge of Aikido to his students' home country. Homma's timing was perfect, since the films of Bruce Lee had created a martial-arts craze.
In 1976, he bought a $400 van through a community newspaper he picked up in San Francisco's Japantown. It didn't have registration papers, but it was his ticket to exploring the vast land of America. Traveling with some of his students, he decided to let fate decide where he would open his dojo. "If this car die, we stay there," Homma told them.
Driving through the Rocky Mountains killed off the van. His students offered additional incentive for Homma to settle here, he recalls: "They say, 'Sensei, there are lot of women's colleges in Denver.'"
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.
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.
"We never go, 'You do this, this and this,' never. You are prompt, you organize, and just leave alone," Homma says. "Not teaching is also teaching."
More than anything else, though, hochi is designed to help the uchideshi candidate remove his "backpack," the metaphor Homma uses for a person's expectations. If a candidate continues to speak of his past or thoughts for the future, he is left alone longer. "Too much people carry backpack, the other stuff," he says. "Dreams, or ŒI want to do.' First job here, how to take off this person's backpack. Make them kind of empty, no anything."
At the end of hochi, the candidate is brought before the sempai for a stern interrogation -- the sakurei, or confirmation of will. This is a traditional initiation, and the exchange is carefully planned in advance. The sempai point out the candidate's flaws and wonder openly about his ability to be an uchideshi. If the candidate becomes defensive or blames the sempai for not giving him enough attention during this initial period, it will ruin his chances of staying on. According to the book, the sympathetic sempai always tries to convince the others to let the candidate continue despite his shortcomings and offers to take responsibility; this sempai will inevitably be the one the uchideshi bonds to -- if he stays.
If he does, the practice schedule is grueling. "For me, the most difficult thing was the physical training every day," Austad says. "Being 35 doesn't mean I get to take time off when I don't feel up to it. I don't heal as fast as I used to."
An uchideshi is required to practice by himself for an hour each day, and then an afternoon class specializes in weapons and their relationship to open-handed movements. Homma has continued Ueshiba's study of weapons relationships, and the bokken (wooden sword) and jo (wooden staff) are important to Aikido. "It all comes from weapons work and the sword," Austad says. "The line between defense and offense is blurry. If you stop a person before they attack you, is that necessarily self-defense?" The underlying premise of Aikido is not to stop your opponent's energy, but to flow with it and redirect it. Though there are some competitive forms of Aikido, Nippon Kan and most other dojos do not engage in sparring.
After the class, the uchideshi practices with regular dojo members from 5:15 to 9 p.m. every night, although he's occasionally called away for chores. "I'm always learning," Austad says. "Sometimes in the beginners' classes, I'll help other beginners learn. I'm a little more advanced than they are. But generally, I'm learning and working with people who are more advanced than me."
Although he'd achieved a sixth kyu ranking at his previous dojo, Austad started at Nippon Kan as a white belt; the ranking system varies between organizations and dojos. But total training immersion improved his Aikido quickly. "It is like a tsunami wave," he explains. "It starts out small, and you add things every day. After a while it begins to grow. Being uchideshi, it grows a little faster -- or a lot faster, depending on the student."
Austad brought an acoustic guitar with him to the dojo, but he's never had a chance to play it. "There's kind of a general outline of chores that are to be done every day," he points out. "And it's just general, like the museum needs to be cleaned, it needs to be dusted, it needs to be mopped. The dojo needs to be cleaned and mopped and swept. The foyers, the office and bathrooms, each day has a specific task. I often have several tasks to do. If something breaks down, I fix it." Homma doesn't drive, so the uchideshi often chauffeurs him in Nippon Kan's pickup as he does errands around town.
When the restaurant gets busy, the uchideshi may be called on to help out -- busing tables, cleaning dishes, aiding the waitstaff. Homma pays them "beer money" for their work. "All uchideshi need spending money, a little bit," he says. "They make too much money, they're going every night somewhere."
The uchideshi aren't restricted to the dojo. Some attend college classes; a few even hold down part-time jobs. They sightsee around the city, go out for a few beers after their chores are done. "We drink, we eat, we go play," Homma says.
But mostly they work. At Nippon Kan, practice doesn't end at the mat; every duty is an integral part of the training. Scott Roney, who went through the uchideshi program after his discharge from the military last year, wrote about the relationship of restaurant work to Aikido: "The kitchen area is small, yet when the restaurant is at full capacity, it is crammed with employees moving about to prepare food, fill drinks, wash dishes, and take out orders. Although space is limited, everyone seems to naturally avoid collisions and move around to stay out of each other's way. Just as Sensei explained, it does not take special technique or premeditated thought to move off-line or blend with others. People already have this capacity innately within themselves."
During training, uchideshi learned to recognize this capacity.
"I think one of the biggest obstacles to people being able to get something out of the program or not is people who are willing to let go of their own preconceived ideas," says Emily Busch, vice-president of Nippon Kan. "To let go of their own ego for a little bit. To say, 'Okay, I'm not number one here for a little bit. I'm not going to be able to do what I want, when I want.'"
Busch came to Nippon Kan in 1985 for Japanese-language classes, thought it would be fun to try Aikido, and fell in love with the art. She's helped translate some of Homma's books and expanded Nippon Kan's dedication to community service. Although she's never gone through the uchideshi program, she says she feels like one.
Some people coming to Nippon Kan think uchideshi training will make them into martial arts superstars. "With Steven Seagal first movie, Above the Law, lot of people coming," Homma says. Prospective uchideshi and even regular students would arrive with their hair in Seagal's trademark ponytail, wanting to learn how to break a person's wrist with a flick of the hand. "His Aikido is not Aikido; it's not," Homma says. "This is not to demean him personal or kick him, but people looking at movie get bad reality. So they come to here, then they go, 'This is not Aikido.'"
"It got so bad we had to put a sign on the door saying, 'If you are here because you've just seen the most recent popular movie, please think again about it,'" Busch says. "'This is probably not where you want to be.'"
On the opposite end of the spectrum are potential uchideshi looking for spiritual enlightenment. One new-ager had a particularly hard time adjusting to the program and began making unreasonable demands. He wanted to spend most of his time in his room meditating instead of practicing. "He had incense and little bells and decorated his room with little rugs," says Busch. "He said, 'I can't come to the 5:15 class because I eat my macrobiotic meal at 6:30. Oh, and I'm here to be enlightened.'"
Homma was having none of that. "I said, just go," he remembers.
While spirituality is intrinsic to Aikido, it's not attained through constant meditation. "There's no doctrine here," Busch says. "There's no 'You are going to study this, we teach this, this is the spiritual aspect, here's the book.' There's none of that. This is not a religious place."
"Some people think, 'This is stupid. Why I do this?'" adds Homma. "Not Japanese rice -- 'I want eat hamburger.'"
"Americans, especially, want everything spoon-fed to them," Busch concludes. "'Give me the answers! Give me everything!' That's not how it works here. Here you do it yourself."
Gaku Homma not only learned martial arts and cooking in his Japan, but he also worked there as a museum curator. The dojo's museum, adjacent to the garden outside Domo, is filled with items that he collected in his homeland.
Most of the displays reflect the lives of peasants -- the tools of fishermen, farmers and mountain men in rural Japan. They feature scythes instead of swords, snowshoes and boots made of rice straw instead of silk kimonos. Homma believes that the Japanese emphasis on elite arts was largely to prop up self-esteem after the war.
At the center of the museum are three cases of sakezuki, the cups that kamikaze pilots toasted with before flying off on their final missions. They are displayed more as a warning than a glorification of Japan's imperial past, an example of the martial spirit twisted for a violent, calculated end.
Homma points to a black-and-white photograph in one case. "That boy is maybe sixteen years old," he says. "They used to add methamphetamine to the alcohol. They would fly their planes into the ships with their heads just buzzing."
Homma insists that martial arts don't make people; people make martial arts. And he lives by that maxim. "What is important is not martial art -- this martial art good or bad. Who make martial art is humans," he says. "Here's a cooking knife. You can kill people with it. But Mom cook for me with same knife. Sometimes kill people, sometimes make happy people."
In 1996, Homma wanted to open a cooking school, and he moved Nippon Kan to a bigger space on Osage Street. To open a cooking school, though, he learned he needed a licensed commercial kitchen -- so he decided to open Domo instead. "We not have that much money for kitchen, so, okay, how about restaurant?" he says. Although he had no restaurant experience, he'd learned country Japanese cooking from his mother, and he'd prepared meals for Ueshiba. "Open-day morning, we still make menu," he remembers.
Domo has been such a success, Homma's never gotten around to starting a cooking class. Instead, he keeps expanding the restaurant's space and hours.
Nippon Kan's humanitarian efforts have also expanded. In 2001, Homma started the Aikido Humanitarian Active Network, creating relationships with dojos around the world. Because Nippon Kan is independent, students from diverse branches of Aikido are welcome, and Homma maintains close relations with many Aikido organizations. Whenever he leaves the dojo to conduct a seminar, he donates his fees. Homma recently went to Italy to teach a class that raised money for the mentally handicapped. "My policy is, if I make money, I left it there," he says. "Everything."
All of the extra space at Nippon Kan -- from a trailer in the lot next to the dojo up to the restaurant's coolers -- is filled with refurbished computers donated by the community, all neatly bundled with monitor, mouse and keyboard. AHAN will send them to a school in Mongolia that it sponsors. Austad was responsible for making sure the computers worked. "Our uchideshi are very much a part of Nippon Kan's community-service projects," Busch says.
One of Austad's first tasks as an uchideshi was setting up a friendship-building tournament with another martial-arts dojo. He also assisted in preparing meals for the Denver Rescue Mission -- chopping vegetables, transporting and serving the food -- which Nippon Kan has been doing once a month since 1991.
Learning organization and administrative skills is an important part of uchideshi training. "Lot of organization make lots of money," Homma says. "I don't like that. Must be original to martial art instruction. Dojo not so much business. If a business, like me, another business, not martial art. Then go all over the country. Good model, example to other martial artist."
Homma describes his dojo as a family-run hamburger stand in a world full of Burger Kings. But that's enough for him. "I have an okay now restaurant," he says. "I can eat."
Jason Austad makes it all the way through his uchideshi training. In three days, he will head back to Bismarck and a job painting houses. But first, he must past one last test.
"At the end of my graduation class," he says, "Sensei made me do a hundred break falls, which is a lot of break falls." Homma selects ten students, who each throw Austad ten times. "By the end, I'm so tired that I don't care what they do to me."
After Austad's last fall, Homma presents him with a certificate of graduation. "It's not like a diploma you get from university," Homma says. "You put on resumé, cannot get job because uchideshi training." The class gives Austad him a warm round of applause -- a stark contrast to the ambience he initially encountered at the dojo.
Then they retire to the restaurant for food and sake. Homma brings out a jo staff, signs his name to it and hands it to Austad. "That's the icing on the cake," the uchideshi says. "I don't think that he does that very often."
"Successful uchideshi lifestyle, very successful people," Homma explains. "I not say because uchideshi experience change their life, no. Already before, they have this kind attitude."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Those who complete the uchideshi program are welcome at the dojo at any time. Nippon Kan will also send them to Higashi Naruse, a village in northern Japan with which it has a cross-cultural exchange, for three months. "They get to see traditional Japanese life. It's very calm, very pure there," Busch says. "People who graduate from the program have the opportunity to do that, which is pretty special."
Austad plans to make the trip next winter, when his painting business slows down.
While most uchideshi leave after three months, some stay on. The longest period any uchideshi spent at Nippon Kan was five years. "Finally I say, better you go out of this dojo. Go back to life," Homma remembers. "Just very simple life, actually. But now, because training means something special, lot of people understand like that. Lot of people employed, lot of headache.
"So once in a while, go back to original ground and have all foot touch the ground, not stand on toe reaching for something new."