Trip of a Lifetime

The Trip of a Lifetime


Don Luukkonen

Chris Timmons, Travis Hirt, and I were recently invited to join our aikido martial art instructor, Mark Larson Sensei, and his family on a two-week trip to Japan.  Mark Sensei spent ten years in Japan studying under the supervision of elite aikido masters.  What I thought was to be a vacation with some training turned out to be the most difficult physical and mental test of my life.

Our flight goes off without a hitch.  We depart Minneapolis at 9:00 AM Friday, July 1st, and due to the long flight and time zone change, arrive in Tokyo Saturday at 1:00 PM.  By bus, train and foot, we arrive at our first lodging, a capsule hotel.  Mark takes us out for ramen and beer; then we shower and sleep.

Boot camp begins Sunday morning.  We attend practice at the World Headquarters, Hombu Dojo, taught by current Grandmaster Moriteru Uishiba, grandson of the Founder of Aikido.  Next we take a train to the town of Iwama, birthplace of aikido and location of the Aiki Shrine and Founder’s dojo.  We spend three days in Iwama.  Mark’s service to his late master, Morihiro Saito Sensei, is evident.  We are treated like kings everywhere we go.  Saito Sensei was the longest direct student of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba.  But training is strict and taught in Japanese.  Etiquette is drilled into our heads constantly.  Mark’s treatment of us is harsh and leaves me somewhat bewildered.

By Thursday, I am exhausted by the rigorous schedule, nightly parties and lack of sleep.  We say our goodbyes and leave Iwama, driving four hours north to Shiogama.  The trip is tiresome and Mark’s treatment of us stiffens.  We are told that this night’s class, our fifth in as many days, will be our toughest and most important of all.  We are not disappointed.  Our instructor is Kenichi Shibata Sensei, a long time student of Saito Sensei.  Unknown to Chris, Travis, and I, Mark asks Shibata Sensei to pound the crap out of us.  He is happy to oblige.  The session is grueling, but afterwards we all receive promotions in rank.  Sensei takes a liking to my dogi (uniform), so I give it to him.  In return, he gives his dogi to me, with his name stitched in the sleeves, no less.  Wow!  It is a highlight of my trip.

Friday we travel again, four hours further north to Akita where we spend the remainder of our trip.  The countryside here is absolutely beautiful.  The mountainous, tree-filled terrain is breathtaking.  We train again Friday and Saturday evening.

Sunday morning finds me depleted physically and mentally.  Takahashi Sensei, our host from the night before and holder of almost forty degrees of black belt in nine different martial arts, brings us to an onsen – a Japanese bath house with healing powers.  Here Mark reveals to us what we had guessed.  The first week was a test – a test of our skills, endurance and spirit.  We all passed.  We are told to relax and enjoy ourselves.  The rewards to come are plentiful.  The onsen rejuvenates me.  We stay there for hours.  It is awesome!

The rest of our journey feels much more like a vacation, though we stay very busy.  Our final two classes are at Kawabe dojo where Mark Sensei began his training in Japan in 1992.  Shigeru Kawabe Sensei, Mark’s first teacher, has also since passed away.  We visit the Sea of Japan, a Samurai village, a Zen temple and bask in the natural hot springs in the mountains.  Shopping is on the agenda for gifts and souvenirs.  The nightly parties also continue.  My study of the Japanese language prior to the trip pays off.  The natives are eager to help this foreigner attempt to speak their tongue.

Friday, July 15th, brings about our return trip.  It is brutal.  From the moment we leave Mark’s in-laws to the point where I step through my front door takes thirty hours.  Just one more test of our patience, endurance and spirit.

I found the people of Japan to be the most kind and generous I have yet encountered.  Along our journey we enjoyed the finest Japanese cuisine, beer and sake available.  We attended nine formal aikido classes at six different dojos, plus a couple of private lessons.  We met seven Shihans, or Masters (6th degree black belt or higher).  All of us received many wonderful gifts.  There were many other unforgettable experiences too numerous to mention.

My time in Japan was truly the trip of a lifetime.  It has changed me forever.  I now view the world in a different light.  The message I bring back to share:  Serve others.