Aikido Summer Camp

Terrible at the time, but now a favourite memory


It’s traditional for Japanese clubs to have one or more camps during the year where all the club members go away somewhere and spend a few days focusing on club activities.

In the Aikido club this means going to Nagano prefecture (a 4-hour bus ride away from Tokyo), staying in a ryokan (traditional inn) and training upwards of 6 hours a day for five days.

But first, a small diversion: While downloading camp photos from the club camera, I also came across a whole lot of photos taken when we did Suica-wari earlier in the year. So here they are (finally).

Holding the sword the wrong way up was not a good start …
… but eventually I got the hang of it!
It wasn’t me that broke it, but yeah. That’s how badass we are.
Slightly bedraggled, but mostly triumphant

Now, fast forward a month or so to the camp itself.

Location

We trained in a gym rather than a dojo, which meant real tatami rather than springy mats on the floor. Tatami is surprisingly hard (well … hard compared to foam) so after 2000+ forward rolls we were all quite scraped and bruised!

We had to take all the mats out of storage and lay them out ourselves — as well as being hard, tatami is surprisingly heavy!

Training days

Days 2, 3, 5 and 6 all started with 6am training. This involved running up and down hills, with occasional stops to do crunches and kubi-age (neck training). Already pretty exhausting, especially when we hadn’t had breakfast yet.

The food was worth waiting for though — since we were staying in a sort of Japanese inn it was both tasty and plentiful. Apparently it’s a custom for senior club members to fill the rice bowls of the juniors and the duty of the juniors to eat whatever is put in front of them. This meant we all got either a lot of rice (from the kind seniors) or a vast amount of rice (from the other seniors)!

After breakfast was morning training — 45 minutes of fitness work (forward rolls, squats, ushiro-uke backward breakfalls or tobi-uke flying breakfalls) followed by an hour and a bit of practicing various techniques. We then had a short break before lunch (well, everyone else had a short break while we first years set out lunch) followed by more training in the afternoon.

After another short break it was dinner time. I should mention that before starting each meal we were required to sit in seiza (Japanese-style kneeling, which is particularly hard on the knees and calves) until told otherwise by the club captain. Usually we were allowed to stop kneeling and sit comfortably during the meal, but during the third and fourth days (when we played host to Endo-sensei, the chief instructor of our Aikido style) we had to stay in seiza for the entire meal. Thankfully it’s the job of first years to get up occasionally and pour tea for the seniors, thus giving our legs a little time to recover but it was still quite a sore experience!

After dinner we usually had a meeting of some sort and then (once we’d finished our allocated housekeeping tasks) it was time for bed. And another 5am wakeup call.

You may get the impression that I didn’t enjoy this much, especially if you know how poor I am at any sort of sustained physical activity. You would be right. However, I not only survived but managed to finish all the training without any serious injuries, so I’ve definitely discovered that my physical limits are a lot further than I thought! I know it’s nowhere near as hard as (for example) an army boot camp, but to me it feels like a real achievement.

This is yet another type of training —basically, the juniors are thrown by the seniors a set number of times (maybe a hundred, maybe more)
The final time we did that training, however, we were allowed to make the seniors do whatever we liked instead of the final throw. Some people did arm wrestling, dancing or thumb wars …
I decided to teach them some muscle exercises I find fun — some seniors were annoyingly good at them, but others were suitably shocked!

Rest day

Thankfully, not every day was a training day. On the fourth day (the middle one) we had a sort of rest day, which was actually great fun. We still had to get up at 5, but we did stretches instead of training. We still had a morning training session with Endo-sensei, but instead of afternoon training we visited hot springs. Sinking into an outdoor hot spring after two days of training has to be one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve ever had.

Chatting and drinking milky coffee (apparently the traditional thing to have after visiting hot springs)
In the bus on the way back — no idea what I was concentrating so hard on, but it makes for a cool photo!
We also bought souvenirs, and someone thought it would be a great idea to get a couple of foam swords. Half an hour later one was broken and someone had almost fallen down the stairs being chased with the other one

It’s days like this when the barrier between seniors and juniors partially breaks down and everyone becomes rather more equal, but the first year boys weren’t let off the hook entirely. We were surprised by a “luggage check” in the evening during which the seniors ruthlessly searched through our bags and “found” various (surprisingly explicit) items. With some of the quickest thinking I’ve ever done in Japanese, I managed to explain that the reason an adult DVD was mysteriously discovered in my luggage was that I wanted to improve my knowledge of Japanese culture. It might not sound like much, but it’s probably the first genuine (and deliberate) joke I’ve made in a second language!

This translates to “Box for enjoying your night”. I don’t know what it contains, but I can hazard a guess …

A couple more things happened that evening …

Firstly, the second year students turned the training hall into a haunted house completed with atomic bomb survivor, Japanese monsters, horror movie references and an alien
Secondly, each first year had to sing the school song, solo, from memory. This is me trying frantically to remember the words …

Weird things

  • It’s strange how much your mind impacts your physical performance. I was shocked when we did forward roll training twice in one day and could barely do any the second time, but the next time I knew it was a possibility, mentally prepared, and ended up doing a whole lot better. Interesting for me to discover such a radical example of mind over matter, especially since without thinking I wrote that as my goal for the camp …
  • Japanese guys rarely seem to smile in photos because “it looks cooler” to have a straight face. I don’t agree.
  • Endo-sensei comes across as quite a friendly person (to me) but everyone else in the club seems mortally afraid of him. Maybe it’s just because I’m a foreigner. Maybe his gentle corrections sound a lot harsher if you understand the nuances of Japanese. But it still seems bad for learning if everyone is too scared to ask questions