A Day in the Life of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, April 1968
by Gaku Homma
The following article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Gaku Homma Sensei of the Nippon Kan in Denver, Colorado, USA.
The Memorial Remembrance of the passing of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba is coming soon. At Hombu dojo in Tokyo, on April 26, 1969, the Founder passed on to heaven.
The week before, I had returned to my hometown of Akita in northern Japan. That was the last time I was to see the Founder. I was eighteen years old. The announcement of his passing reached me in Akita and I started out immediately for Tokyo. For me at that time, even one way train fare was beyond my means. My family had been very happy that I had finally returned home, so I really couldn’t ask them for enough money to leave again once more. Finally, with the stubborn courage only the young possess, I hopped the night train for Tokyo without any ticket at all.
At that time in Japan, most long distance travel was done mainly by train. The unreserved cars were always jammed with bodies, boxes, trunks and cases. It was easy to elude the ticket master in all the chaos as he came to collect tickets. As far as getting out of the station went, if you looked carefully on the floor and under the seats, you could usually find a ticket that someone had lost. Remember that technology and security thirty years ago was not anywhere near what it is today. It was in this manner that I returned to Tokyo for the Founders first memorial service.
For years I have heard of dojos that mark this anniversary with Memorial Seminars. For me it is a day of quiet prayer and reflection. As we come upon the 33rd anniversary of the Founders passing, I would like to share with you some of my personal memories of living with the Founder about a year prior to his death. My sister has saved the notebooks I kept during those years, so I still have detailed information about his daily routines. I even recorded what the Founder ate on a typical day, which I will share with you at the end of this article.
In 1968, at the age of 85, the Founder slept in a new addition to the Iwama dojo living quarters. His wife Hatsu slept in the next room. Off the main room to one side was a tiny room where the maid Kikuno slept. The room that served as my sleeping quarters on the other side of the dojo no longer exists, having been demolished after falling beyond repair with age. Except for the four of us, no one else lived in these quarters at the time. Unlike Iwama dojo today, there were few gasshukus (aikido camps) to fill the dojo with a bustle of bright-eyed students from afar.
Saito Shihan and his family lived in a different house next door. At that time, Saito Shihan’s family did not own a restaurant or other businesses, only a family run laundry service. In those days, outdoor plumbing was the convention and the families’ outhouse stood adjacent to the house. Posted outside of the outhouse was a makiwara (a wrapped padded post used by karateka for punching training). During a seminar Saito Shihan held in Denver one year, he told us that when he was young he used to practice karate. I asked him why the makiwara was posted outside of the outhouse. He told us that as part of his personal training regimen, he would hit the makiwara ten times each time he went in to use the facility and ten times each time he came out.
In 1968, the land between the Iwama rail station and the dojo was forested with chestnut trees and thickets of bamboo. In April the chestnuts would bloom, releasing a strong smell of chestnuts into the air. Bamboo, up to four inches in diameter would sprout everywhere, sometimes in the middle of the dirt-packed streets. Native to the area were also peach trees whose blossoms added to the décor of spring. Today, houses and shops have replaced most of the chestnut trees and bamboo forests.
When the Founder was at Iwama, he taught most of the evening classes at the dojo. Evening practice started at 7:00 pm. which he instructed after having dinner at about 5:00 pm. The Founder usually did not take his bath in the evenings. He usually took his bath first thing most mornings. Because of his age, the Founder’s diet was simple. He always took his meals together with his wife Hatsu. The couple seemingly enjoyed their meals together, and the Founder was sometimes playful. With his chopsticks he would pick up a morsel of food and place it on his wife’s plate. “Omahan tabe yoshi” (here, you eat this) he would tease in his local Kishu dialect. She would playfully pick it up and place it back on his plate exclaiming, “No, you eat this”. It was a sweet banter between the two. Even though the Founder’s diet was a simple one, he also occasionally enjoyed “modern” foods such as curry-rice. The Founder used to comment that the curry was good roughage, and made for a healthy bowel movement.
The Founder and his wife took their meals in a room located directly behind the dojo altar. The room was sparse with a wooden floor. A small table about three ft. by two ft. with collapsible ten-inch legs was set up for every meal. The four of us ate our meals together. The quarters were close, and I found I had trouble being able to eat in a relaxed fashion, being so close to the Founder as he ate. Kikuno and I always sat formally with our backs straight, executing our best manners.
In one corner of the small room was a tiny sink about two feet by one foot wide. The sink had a single faucet that ran only cold water; the only hot water in the living quarters was heated by hand before serving. The Founder also used this sink to wash his face and brush his teeth. Accommodations were simple in Iwama, the single cold water sink serving as both kitchen sink and wash stand. Next to the sink was a small propane gas burner where the simple meals were prepared.
Today the accommodations of the third generation Doshu, Morihei Ueshiba’s grandson, are a far cry from the simple and rustic accommodations the Founder lived in. In the old days, there was of course no television or radio. The Founder usually retired to sleep before 9:00 pm. each evening. In April, the nights were sometimes chilly, yet the Founder refused to use an electric blanket. He claimed that the electricity in the blankets made him itch. (As I reflect now, this may have been a symptom of his liver condition). Instead of using an electric blanket, Kikuno the maid used to get into the Founders futon before him to make it warm. While Kikuno warmed the futon, it was my job to massage the Founder’s feet or to sit in seiza by his head and read out loud to him from the Omoto Kyo text; Rei Kai Monogatari.
The Founder arose every morning before 6:00 am. If he did not take a full bath, he would wash his face in the wash stand filled with boiling water tempered with cold water from the faucet. His toothbrush was made of pig bristles, and he used salt or a white powdered toothpaste to brush with. One of my duties was to collect his dentures and set them out on a small dish for him. I don’t think there are many people in this world that have seen the Founder without his dentures in. After setting out his dentures, my next task was to assist the Founder as he washed his face. With a fresh clean towel tucked into my belt on my right side, I would kneel behind him at the sink to hold the sleeves of his kimono back behind him. This was to ensure that his kimono sleeves did not get wet. I kneeled down behind him because I was taller than he was. If I were to stand behind him, he would bump his head on my chest when he stood up after washing.
If the Founder was to take a full bath the next morning, my day started differently.
On bath days, I would wake up at 5:00 am. to start the wood fire which heated the water for the bath. The bathhouse consisted of an enclosed, raised wooden platform fitted with a large iron pot that was filled with cold water. A fire was lit from the outside of the bathhouse directly under the pot. As the water heated, the bottom of the pot would become too hot to stand on. The pot had a floating wooden lattice that was used to stand on, or one would wear geta (wooden shoes) into the bath! In Japanese these metal bathtubs were called goemonburo. Originally the word refers to a famous burglar named Goemon Ishikawa who was boiled alive in a metal pot as punishment for his crimes. Even in the 1960’s, goemonburo were common in most households. Today very few still exist. In a freshly made bath, the water is sharp and a little painful. To soften the water, the maid Kikuno would enter the tub first to “massage or knead the water”. This is called yumomi, in Japanese.
After the Founder entered the tub, it was either Kikuno or my job to scrub his body down. The Founder had once been a muscular man, so at his age, his skin hung loosely around him. Without using soap, I would lightly hold his muscle downward and scrub his skin in upward strokes with a hand towel.
As I tended the fire, it was not allowed for me to sit idly by. As the fire burned I would sweep the pathways in front of the dojo and the shrine with a large bamboo broom. Usually in the middle to the end of March, the pathway to the Shrine would be covered with fallen cherry blossoms. When the blossoms fell, I did not sweep the path in order not to disturb the natural beauty of the scattered blossoms. At all other times, I would make sweep marks with my broom in an orderly pattern.
As the Founder made his way up the freshly swept pathway, his footmarks were the only ones to be seen. Once in a while, children would scamper playfully through my freshly swept path as they played before school. This would infuriate me as it made it look like I had not attended properly to my duties. Symbolically it was important to sweep every morning to clear away any bad luck or bad spirits before the Founder began his morning ceremony of prayers. The Founder’s formal kimono and hakama were already laid out for him as he finished his bath. It was also my duty to assist him in dressing for the ceremony that followed.
Rain or shine, the Founder attended to his daily morning ceremony. If it were raining, Kikuno and I would hold an umbrella for him to walk under. Kikuno and I of course did not get umbrellas. Holding a small tray called a sambo laden with three small dishes; one containing salt, one containing rice and one containing water, the Founder headed briskly down the path to the Aiki Shrine. His step was sure and vigorous and his balance perfect as he grasped the sambo before him. You can tell in the photograph above that his hakama snapped crisply with his walk, it was difficult to believe at times like this that he was 85 years old. I always thought it curious that at times when I accompanied the Founder to Hombu dojo in Tokyo that he walked slowly and almost feebly. As I reflect now, I think that he was just pretending. I wrote an article on this over twenty years ago for Black belt magazine, but that is another story for another day.
As the Founder neared the Aiki Shrine he would pass under the shrine gate or tori. As servants, Kikuno and I were not allowed to pass directly under the gate so we would walk around the gate to the right and hurry on ahead to open up the shrine. We would unlock the shrine door on the right side of the honden (main building), enter, and rush to quietly open the front sliding doors to the shrine for the Founder. Once he had entered the honden, we would quietly shut the door behind him. On the opposite wall behind the shrine was another sliding door which we opened to reveal a view of the okuden, which was a smaller structure that housed the main shrine. Before finding our places near the shrine entrance, we would light candles. The Founder usually spent about twenty-five minutes praying at this morning ceremony. Once a month there was a special ceremony called Tsukinami Sai. This ceremony lasted up to one hour, and the shrine was adorned with offerings of fruits, vegetables, dried foods and fish. No animal products were ever used as part of this special offering.
During the regular daily ceremony, Kikuno and I sat as still as possible in seiza with our heads bowed deeply to but not resting on the ground. This position was painful on the knees and quite tiring to maintain. At my age I didn’t understand what the prayers the Founder recited meant, so remaining vigilant was a struggle. Only when the Founder used a jo in an offering of Jo no mai or jo movement was my attention focused. The jo he used was the length of a regular jo, but it was sharpened at one end. It looked like a length of a spear that had been sliced diagonally with a sword. If he did not use a jo, he would sometimes use a shaku, which is a flat, wooden paddle-shaped instrument used in Shinto ceremonies. He would perform movements with the shaku as if it were a tsurugi (a sword of the gods according to Shinto lore).
After the Founder finished his morning prayer at the Aiki shrine, he would return to the front yard of the dojo where he would stop to pray at a hokora (small shrine) dedicated to the god Ushitora no Konjin. This god was a personal god for the Founder, which he always carried with him. When his travels took him to Hokkaido, he carried this god with him and dedicated a new shrine called the Kami Shirataki Jinja, in the Shiratake Village he founded there. Although it sounds like the Founder was carrying with him something tangible, it was not; it was the spirit of the god he carried.
To conclude his morning ceremony, the Founder would then stand erect, holding his shaku, and look directly toward the sun. No matter if it was a clear day, or the sun was obscured by clouds, he would raise his face toward the sun and stare directly into it. He would offer prayers to Amaterasu O Kami, the Shinto god of the sun. I found this somewhat amazing, and sometimes tried to copy his actions. I was never able to stare directly into the sun for long, it was too bright for my eyes to stand. I have grown to think that the powerful gaze the Founder possessed came from following this ritual on a daily basis. After this, it was time to prepare for breakfast.
Today at the Iwama dojo, a parking lot and the uchideshi kitchen stand where the Founder’s vegetable garden once was. This garden was planted for the household’s consumption and it was tended to carefully. After finishing his morning ceremony the Founder, still dressed in his formal kimono and hakama, would head for the garden. In April there was young nira, nanohana, daikon and kabu ready to be thinned. The Founder would examine the plants carefully and tell me which ones could be pinched off for that day’s side dishes. We were not harvesting the plants, it being only April, they were too small. The seedlings needed thinning however or needed to be pinched back so that the remaining plants would grow strong. I remember the Founder teaching me that after pinching off some of the nira, one should step on the remaining plant and then douse it with water left over from washing rice. This would ensure a healthy regrowth.
Morning breakfast consisted mainly of congee (a soft rice porridge) with mochi (pounded sticky rice cake). He loved mochi and sometimes ate it by itself, but it had a tendency to stick to his dentures, so on most occasions the mochi was cooked with the congee to soften it. The side dishes consisted of the new fresh vegetable leaves picked from the garden and prepared very simply. The Founder did not remove his formal kimono and hakama before he took his breakfast. For him, taking of this meal was part of his morning ceremony.
After breakfast, it was time to assign morning chores and errands for me and Kikuno to attend to while the Founder rested. A few blocks from the dojo, the Founder owned a rice garden. Tending to this garden was one of my daily duties. Never knowing when the Founder would call me and Kikuno for Aikido practice, I always wore my keiko-gi top with my work pants, just in case.
If it was a nice day, sometimes the Founder would sit by an open window and read his newspaper in the warmth of the morning sun. Or, on especially nice days, we would slide open the doors to the dojo, and the Founder would lay down on the dojo mat without his hakama, and take a nap in the sun. The second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba said in his biography, that he had never seen the Founder when he was not sitting formally in seiza. At Iwama, the Founder I knew took naps in the sun like an ordinary elderly man.
Even when he was sleeping, we kept our eyes and ears open, and always knew where he was, and what he was doing. If he were to call, we would drop whatever we were doing and run to assist him. Kikuno used to say that I even slept with one eye open! We lived at attention, twenty four hours a day.
If he was feeling well, the Founder would call us for Aikido practice. Dressed in his kimono, he especially enjoyed practicing suwarewaza—shomen uchi ikkyo, and standing ai hanmi katatetori iriminage omote. He instructed us in timing as uke.
Having had breakfast at about 9:00 am., the Founder did not eat lunch. Kikuno and I however would be ravenous, especially after practice, and would eat leftovers from breakfast. We would make extra portions for breakfast to insure that we had enough left over for lunch.
In the afternoon, the Founder engaged himself in different activities. In the springtime, I remember the Founder and his wife Hatsu planting peanuts in the garden. Hatsu was almost bent in half with age, but she still was very skilled with a hoe. She would form the rows for planting deftly wielding the hoe before her. My job was to add fresh compost to the rows to make them rich for planting. The Founder would follow, flipping peanuts expertly into the fresh mounds with a flip of his thumb and forefinger. As I think about it now, his skill at planting peanuts came from the many years he homesteaded in Hokkaido and the years he coordinated the garden planting and harvests with the Omoto Kyo.
Usually, once a month, the Founder would visit Hombu dojo in Tokyo. If it was to be a long visit, he would stay for four or five days. On the mornings he left for Tokyo, he would finish his morning ceremony a little early. In spring, we would bundle up freshly picked daikon leaves, nanohana, nira, and shungiku to take on the journey. After finishing breakfast, we would take a taxi to the station. Even if we were running late, we always arrived at least half an hour before the train was due to arrive. Sometimes we arrived a full hour before departure. Iwama was a small town with a small station. Only the local train stopped at Iwama. To catch the express train to Tokyo we had to change trains at a larger station down the line. I would carry the Founder’s leather doctor bag that was given to him during a trip to Hawaii in one hand. On my back was the bundle of fresh vegetables tied into a cloth furoshiki. I always walked in front of the Founder to protect him from harm’s way. Once in a while, when we changed to the express train I would have trouble finding a seat for the Founder to sit in. On these occasions I would pick a student in uniform that had already found a seat and “convince him” to give it up for the Founder. I was pretty good at “convincing” in those days! Anyway there are a lot of stories about traveling as otomo with the Founder, but those too are for another day.
At that time, there were no uchideshi living at Hombu dojo. I want to make that clear. The only person living at Hombu dojo was Mr. Mitsuo Tsunoda, who served as maintenance man and caretaker when the Founder visited. He did not practice Aikido.
Recently I have seen advertisements for instructors who claim to have been Hombu uchideshi under the Founder at that time. This is not true. For at least three years before the Founders passing there was no one living at Hombu dojo. Anyway, the Founder did not live at Hombu. The only Hombu uchideshi were students of the second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and were salaried staff students.
It has been thirty-three years since the Founder passed away, and I am now fifty-two years old. My perceptions then and now have obviously changed with time. I see now a wider view of my experiences than I did when I was so young.
I had the great fortune to be a part of the Founder’s life in more ways than just through Aikido. For that reason, my memory and view of him is different than most. I watched the Founder when he went to Hombu dojo in Tokyo. There, he was the “company president” or CEO, and he acted like one on those occasions. At Iwama, I witnessed the private life of the man named Morihei Ueshiba, a kindly aging gentleman who took naps in the sun, and planted peanuts with ease. I think the real Founder was the one I knew at Iwama.
The Founder has been a very special person in my life, and very influential in the direction my life has taken. I have now been living in the United States for over twenty-eight years. In all of these years, with my own dojo to tend to, I have never held a “Founder’s Memorial Seminar” or any other commercial event to commemorate his passing. For me it is a very private time of reflection.
A couple of weeks ago I received a flyer advertising a “Founder’s Memorial Seminar” from another dojo. The flyer had a passport size photo of the Founder that you could peel off and keep in your wallet as a souvenir. It kind of reminded me of a scratch and sniff perfume ad in a glamour magazine. The photo I recognized. It had been taken in May of 1968. I was with him as his otomo when the photograph was taken. It had been taken as the Founder arrived at Hombu dojo and was being greeted by his students. He was dressed formally as usual in his kimono and Mr. Tsunoda took the picture. I still have one of the originals.
The only picture of the Founder I have in my dojo, is the one that hangs in the dojo altar. The only reason I have a picture of the Founder is to show students what he looked like. I have never used his image in any way for commercial reasons. I knew him personally, and it would be against my pride to do so. Those that use his picture did not know him.
As Aikidoists we need to think about the origin of this art we practice. We need to go back to a simpler understanding of Aikido, an Aikido renaissance if you will, to not forget our way.
As soon as this article is translated and complete, I will leave for Japan to visit Iwama’s Aiki Shrine for the Founder’s annual memorial ceremony, Tai Sai. With great appreciation, I will go and pay my respects to the Founder. I will bow my head down to him to pray. It is a pilgrimage to my past…and to my future.
All rights reserved. Article and photographs reproduced with the permission of the author Gaku Homma Sensei.
Founder’s Springtime Menu Sample
Mochigayu (Rice congee with pounded sticky rice cake)
Four parts water to one part rice. Let rice soak overnight. Over a high heat bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook slowly for about thirty minutes. Cut mochi rice cake into bite size pieces and add to congee while cooking. Add a pinch of salt to taste.
Nanohana (Rapeseed leaves), Horenso (Spinach), Shungiku (Early spring chrysanthemum leaves) Ohitashi (Boiled and chilled vegetables)
Choose one spring vegetable and pick fresh leaves. Bring two parts water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Add vegetable leaves and boil about thirty seconds until the leaves change color. Rinse immediately in cold water and gently squeeze out excess water. Mix greens with shaved katsuobushi (dried bonito), and a few drops of soy sauce. Toss with chopsticks. Squeeze out gently any excess soy sauce and serve chilled.
Nanohana or Horenso no Goma Ae (Rapeseed leaves or spinach mixed with sesame miso)
Prepare vegetables as above. In a mortar and pestle grind together black sesame, miso paste and mirin (cooking sake) until sticky. Toss mixture and vegetables with chopsticks and serve chilled.
Nira no Shoga Ohitashi (Boiled and chilled Japanese leek with ginger)
Japanese leeks are completely different than American Leeks, but are available in most oriental markets. Prepare vegetable as above. In a mortar and pestle grind ginger and mix with a few drops of soy sauce. Toss with nira with chopsticks. Squeeze out any excess soy sauce and serve chilled.
Niratama (Japanese leek with egg)
In a saucepan add a small amount of water, katsuobushi, shiitake mushroom or niboshi (dried sardines). Bring to a boil and add nira. When nira reduces down, add a pinch of salt, and slowly add one beaten egg. When the egg is cooked through it is done. Tofu can be added as an option.
Shungiku Tofu Ae (Chrysanthemum leaves with tofu)
Wash chrysanthemum leaves thoroughly. Boil in four parts water for about thirty seconds until the leaves change to a strong green color. Rinse in cold water and squeeze out excess water. Cut in two inch lengths. Wrap a block of tofu in a cotton cloth and squeeze out all excess water. In a mortar and pestle, add tofu, miso, sugar and peanuts (peanuts optional). Grind to make a paste. Mix tofu mixture and shungiku with chopsticks and serve chilled.
Miso soup is usually served with every meal.
Nira, baby carrot leaves, daikon leaves, spinach, tofu, age (deep fried tofu), wakame (young kelp), and tororo (shaved kelp) are just some of the ingredients that can be added for a springtime taste.
Condiments for every meal
Small flat sake cups of black rice vinegar and sake as a dip for side dishes. Chilimen Jako (Dried baby eels, a crunchy source of calcium). Vegetable pickles.
Dishes for Special Occasions
Asazuki (Sweetened sticky rice)
Soak sticky rice and grind in a mortar and pestle until milky. In a saucepan boil slowly bring to a boil stirring constantly until sticky in consistency. Add rice vinegar and sugar to taste. Fold in mikan (Japanese tangerine) slices for color and taste.
Kamaboko Imo (Steamed salmon and potato fishcake)
Boil potatoes with the skin on. Wrap potato in a cloth and twist until the skin pops open. Peel away skin and discard.
Marinate salmon with equal amounts of salt and sugar for a few hours. Chop salmon with a cooking knife and grind lightly in a mortar. Mix with potato.
Grate Yamaimo (Japanese yam) in mortar and mix with potato and salmon. Add a small amount of flour.
Knead and form into ball. Steam until cooked through.
(This was a dish the Founder survived on in the early days pioneering in Hokkaido.)
This menu sample is not eaten all in one sitting. Each meal would have only one or two side dishes at the most. The side dish portions for the Founders meals were quite small, only a few spoonfuls. An entire meal would equal about one cup of food if measured together.
This sample menu is not made of exact recipes. In those days we did not use measuring cups or spoons so it is difficult to describe exact amounts. I still make some of these recipes today in my own restaurant. For home use, all of the ingredients are available today in Oriental markets here in the United States.