These days it has become almost common to travel to Japan. Every year there is a larger number of Aikido students heading for the country of the Rising Sun. If you are among the lucky ones ready to go to Tokyo or you are just starting to think about it, read along and pack your training uniforms! If you can’t make it now, keep dreaming and hope for future opportunities
First of all we advise you to avoid travelling to Japan for training during the summer season, when the weather is extremely hot and humid – the rainy season goes from mid June to mid July. If you can freely plan your trip, take up springtime or autumn. Try to stay for at least 2-3 weeks to allow yourself to get used to the new environment and make the most of the experience. When packing your clothes, consider that the temperate climate in Japan generally corresponds to that in Southern Europe.
To access Japan, if you are planning to stay for less than three months, you will only need a valid passport. It is a good idea to shop around for good flight deals. Usually you will find “cheap” flights in the Travel supplement of the Sunday Times or on the web. The flight can be between 15 and 20 hours long, depending on the route.
Before you leave, we advise you to buy your Japan Rail Pass from your local travel agent. Of course they will look at you like you just landed from Mars, but I guarantee you it can be done! With your JRP in the pocket you will be able to travel the whole Japanese railway system with no limits (there is a 7, 14 or 21 days version) and save a lot of money. Public transport is a must when staying in Tokyo or visiting cultural centers such as Nara and Kyoto. Remember: transport is extremely expensive!
The Japanese official currency is the yen. At the moment 1000 yen correspond to about 10€ or 13$. Change your currency in yen at home. If you are bringing cash or travelers cheques with you, they must be in dollars. With other currencies you are going to have difficulties. In Tokyo almost every shop and restaurant is credit card friendly. When going make sure you are financially solid: your Japanese trip will hit your savings like no other travel before! The cost of daily life in Japan is very high, nearly twice what you are used to at home. On the other hand the possibilities to enjoy are almost infinite… and this is why you will want to make sure that you have plenty to spend!
Arriving in Tokyo
Don’t let your flight destination cheat you: it is not to Tokyo that you are flying to but to Narita, 70 km away from Tokyo. After collecting your luggage and going through the paper work with the custom officials, you will be presented with the problem of reaching the huge city. Don’t panic: almost every sign around you is bilingual, Japanese ideograms and English. Take a deep breath and head for the Tourist Information Office. Get a Tokyo map showing the Subway-JR network and ask for directions. They speak decent English! You can get a taxi (and spend half of your budget straight away!), or a bus (which is the handiest), or the Express Train Keisei Skyliner up to Ueno Station and then continue to your final destination with the Subway or JR (the cheapest way). I obviously decided for the last option and it worked out all right. By the way that’s how the locals travel from Narita to Tokyo: it could happen that you are the only Westerner in the entire train!
Together with transport, this is where most of your money will disappear: if compared to our standards, there is no cheap accommodation. Different categories of accommodation available include Hotels, Ryokan, Hostels and Gaijin houses. You can find a variety of hotels of different level. They are all out of your reach though, especially if you are going to stay for a long period (this does not apply to Lotto winners of course…).
A Ryokan is the beautiful Japanese-style hotel. The place is run in the traditional way: You will sleep on a comfortable futon, wear wide cotton yukata in your spare time, take a bath in the typical floor level bathtub (really hot, watch out!), taste Japanese cuisine, walk barefoot on rice straw tatami. Ryokan are dear but it’s worth it to stay a couple of nights to enjoy the traditional atmosphere they still retain.
Youth Hostels are definitely a cheaper option but if you are going for rock bottom cheap you should consider a Gaijin House, a place for foreigners, where you will meet with travellers from all over the world and possibly find company in your exploratory trips of Tokyo and elsewhere.
Lists of accommodation are available in the best Tokyo Guide Books (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc.), contacting the Japanese Embassy in your country, or surfing the Internet.
The most convenient, fast and cheap way of moving around Tokyo is the Subway network and the JR railway. They cover every part of Tokyo and cross several times, allowing you to reach almost everywhere from 5.30am to 1.30am. All stops have bilingual signs. They are clean and safe even at night.
We recommend you avoid JR and Subway at peak time due to the unbelievable mass of people crowding the carriages on their way to or from work. Trains are so full that there are special employees whose job is to push in the travelers and so allow the doors to close… They do it the Japanese way, politely, in fact they wear white gloves!
You will have to buy your ticket from the vending machines. Above each of them there is a list of possible destinations with the corresponding fee. In case of doubt pay the minimum fee and add the difference when you reach your station. You can also get around by bus. Bus signs are in Japanese only – so make sure you know already where to get off or you will get lost.
It is possible to avail of one of the many taxis passing by. This is an expensive option but a necessary one after 1am when JR and Subway end their service. A free taxi is recognisable from a red light showing on the windscreen. Do not try to open the door of your taxi to get in, if you don’t want to look like a fool: the doors don’t open from outside, the driver lets you in and out, after having paid of course! It is rare to find an English speaking taxi-driver, so it is a good idea to get somebody to write down your destination in Japanese ideograms for you.
Something that will strike a foreigner in Japan is that the habitable area is very small in proportion with the population. You can see that dramatically at Shinjuku or Tokyo Stations. Over one million people per day pass through Shinjuku Station, the one nearest the Aikikai Hombu Dojo….
Tokyo is a huge metropolis filled with modern colours and lights. It is composed by stratification of roads, subway crossings and railway lines where super fast trains could speed up to 300 km/h among skyscrapers, separated from each other by streets sometimes not wider than a couple of meters. It is possible to find a new skyscraper, built with the most innovative technology, right beside an old two storey timber house and they even look well together. Very often in Japan you can notice this incredible but harmonious mix of traditional and modern. In Tokyo you can first visit a 60 storey shopping mall and then take a walk along a stream, with everybody around you cycling and the local house owners getting to their place over a small wooden bridge!
Food & drink
In Tokyo you will find every sort of restaurant and food for all tastes. Prices range from astronomical to cheap. It is not difficult to find unusual and tasty meals to kill your hunger. All you have to do is not to be too fussy and give it a try. Menus are in Japanese only, which make the overall experience funnier and more adventurous, but numbered plastic models of what is available are shown in the shop window!
Aikido training in Tokyo
Aikido in Japan presents a very different picture from Aikido in Europe. There are more practitioners in Japan than in all European countries combined….
There are various Aikido organisation in Japan, the Aikikai the foremost among them, which appear to live in harmony. In 1968 with the co-operation and dedication of people from all over the world, Aikikai Hombu Dojo was rebuilt from its original wooden structure to a modern day concrete building. The dojo now stands five stories tall and includes three separate training areas totalling 250 tatami plus changing areas and offices.
Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba has his residence next door. About 15 instructors give regular lesson there, ranging from Doshu himself, Shihans like Endo, Arikawa, Kobayashi, to 4th and 5th Dans who are preparing to be full-time professional instructors.
Practice starts at 6.30 every morning with a class usually taught by Doshu. In the main dojo there are 5 classes daily, with each of the instructors scheduled to give particular classes. During my stay at the Hombu I saw a full range of styles. The variations are noticeable. I met many foreign students that practice at the Hombu Dojo. Some have come to Japan to learn Aikido and train at the Hombu, paying their way by teaching or interpreting their native languages.
The vast size of Hombu is rather daunting and some foreigners are put off by this, preferring the homelier atmosphere of smaller dojo up and down the country. Personally I sometimes felt hampered by being unable to communicate in Japanese and this was unfortunate. I recommend anyone who is considering going to Japan to practice, to learn a little Japanese conversation first.
Beside training at the Hombu, you cant miss the practice in Tada Sensei’s dojo, situated inside Gessoji Shrine.
Aikikai HQ, 17-18 Wakamatsu-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162
You can get there with the JR, Yamamote Line (nr 13 from Shinjuku), Shin Okubo stop.
Fee for one day of training 1500 yen, for one month 12000 yen.
Gessoji Dojo, Kicchijoji Hon-cho 1-11-26, Musashinoshi, Tokyo
To reach Tada Sensei’s dojo get the JR line (nr. 19 from Shinjuku), Kicchijoji stop.
Training schedule at the Gessoji Dojo is the following: Tue-Wed-Fri 6.15 – 7.15 pm & 7.30 – 8.30 pm, Tue & Fri 8 – 9 am