NZ Aikido team awed by modern and ancient Japan

Training for the World Championships in the cool of the evenings, the New Zealand Aikido team spent their days exploring the bustling city of Osaka, learning about Japanese culture and taking in some of the region's more tranquil sights. Shodokan Aikido New Zealand's chief instructor and team coach Ian Box paints a picture of the trip. The team were helped to add cultural elements to their time in Japan with an Asia New Zealand Foundation Community Sports Grant.
People walking up steps leading to Fushimi Inari Shrine

A highlight for the team was visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha - a Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto

It was 6:30am and as the automatic doors of the terminal swished open, the heat of an Osakan summer hit us like a hot, wet towel. We had arrived in Japan.

I turned to the weary group behind me and said, "This heat is a harbinger of what is in store for the next twelve days." Smiles spread across their tired faces. 

Ninety minutes later, we arrived at Tennoji Station in Osaka City and made our way through a plethora of commuters toward the station's main concourse. The tiredness on everyone’s faces had morphed into one of awe.

"Welcome to Saturday morning rush hour. Imagine what it is like on a weekday," I said over my shoulder as we struggled past a group of uniformed high schoolers, the casters of our suitcases clacking on the ceramic-tiled floor of the station.

Over the next few days, we remained in Osaka; in the evenings practicing Aikido at the Shodokan Honbu dojo and during the day sightseeing in and around Osaka. Nara Park's Todaiji Temple was our first destination. 

People feeding deer in Nara, Japan.

In Nara, team members fed the deer with special deer waffles bought from a vendor

The temple is the home of the gargantuan Daibutsu -  wooden Buddha -  that overlooks Nara Park. It is said that the hundreds of tame deer roaming freely in the park are the "children" of the Daibutsu.

As we entered the enormous seventh-century building that housed the Daibutsu, Shodokan New Zealand members' jaws dropped at the sight of the gigantic statue towering over everyone.

In English, a nearby Buddhist priest explained that the construction of the daibutsu took many years of hard labor by sixth and seventh-century Buddhist priests. We all stood in awe, staring at this magnificent example of Japanese architecture and history.

When the priest finished his explanation, he bowed deeply and moved toward another group of foreign visitors. The team remained still for a few minutes, staring at the giant above them.

In one corner, a line of people stood waiting, and as we neared, I pointed at a small floor-level square hole cut in one of the tall wooden pillars that hold up the roof. "That hole is the same size as the nostril of the Daibutsu," I explained. "If you can crawl through it, you'll have good luck. I did it back in 1981." 

Two members, Ned and Jak, joined the line of luck-seekers while the rest of the group stood watching.

Ned struggling to achieve some good fortune by squeezing through a hole in a temple pillar

When his turn came, Jak made it through without a problem, but Ned was not so lucky. He is tall with a large, muscular body, and unlike Jak, who took a calculated approach to squeezing through, he didn't bother doing the math - which surprised me as Ned is a physicist at Victoria University.

As he moved further and further inside, Ned struggled, his legs kicking in the air. At one point, he stopped moving mid-hole. "Ned," I yelled, "Are you stuck?

I heard him laugh and reply, "I'm taking a break. It's tight in here."  His feet began kicking again, and after a few seconds, his head poked out the other side of the pillar. 

Sweat covered his bald head and smiling face as he twisted and turned until his shoulders were free. Once free of the hole, more than a dozen people watching erupted into applause. So loud were the claps and yells that the same English-speaking Buddhist priest came running over, imploring everyone to keep quiet. 

The next outing was with one of the dojo's Japanese members, who took the New Zealand team to Kyoto - the old capital of Japan.

Rather than visit the most popular tourist sites like Kinkakuji, the team went to Fushimi Inari Taisha - a Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto.

People walking through the gates to enter Fushimi Shrine

The team visited the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto

This shrine is famous for its one thousand cinnabar-colored torii (gates). We walked through the gates up the mountain, marveling at the complexity of the shrine's construction.

It is interesting to note that Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions in Japan. Most Japanese marry in a Shinto wedding but upon death have a Buddhist funeral. The reason: Shinto shrines do not have cemeteries, whereas Buddhist temples do.

After an incredible week in Osaka, the team traveled to the Nara Prefecture city of Tenri. Tenri was founded in 1954 and named after the religious sect - Tenrikyo, which established its headquarters in the town.

Tenri University Judo Dojo - a massive dojo with six competition courts on a sprung floor - was the World Sport Aikido Championships venue.

The New Zealand team was fortunate to be housed in one of Tenri University's dormitories only a 10-minute walk from the competition dojo. During each semester, the dorm houses trainee Tenrikyo priests, and as it was mid-summer, the university was in recess, so we had the place to ourselves. 

The Japanese organizers of the World Championships welcomed teams from around the world. There were teams from the Philippines, Australia, France, the UK, America, Brazil, and Russia, to name a few; it was a virtual melting pot of Aikidoka, sharing cultural and language differences. Friendships were made, and friendships were renewed. 

The Championships were held over a three-day period - two days of senior competition and one day of junior competition. This world competition was the first international competition to have New Zealand represented - a milestone, to be sure. 

Two women in mid bout, watched on by judges

The competition was the first time New Zealand teams had competed on the world stage

There were two main categories of competition. One was kata or embu, and the other was randori, which, like Judo competition, is free fighting.

The New Zealand teams did well in the first round of the embu competition but were eliminated in the second and third rounds. As for randori, the Kiwis lost in their first match to far superior Aikidoka (Aikido practitioners). It was, however, an excellent learning experience. 

The New Zealand members of the team gained much knowledge and understanding of Japan through their visit. They experienced the country's harmony, how people interact, and how they respect each other's privacy and space.

Also acknowledged and respected by the Kiwi team is how Japan's historical sites and customs are cherished and safeguarded. Some of them also picked up a few words of Osaka ben (Osaka dialect) and amused Japanese people when they used these words and expressions.   

Team members spoke about how they believed New Zealand society would benefit from learning a little about Japanese culture and have vowed to continue training and compete in the next World Championships. 

The Foundation's sports programme provides New Zealand sportspeople opportunities to grow more knowledgeable, connected and confident with Asia. Community sports grants provide funding for community groups travelling to Asia to engage in cultural activities.