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Gathering Moss in Auckland

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #108 (1996)

Six months ago I resigned from the airline job that had enabled me to make regular trips to Japan but also prevented me from devoting myself completely to my dojo. As the number of students had increased to around a hundred and the classes to four per day, it was becoming impossible to do justice to both the dojo and the job, even with my son’s help.

Furthermore, Ken was having his own difficulties trying to reconcile his love of aikido with the need to earn a proper living and it was necessary for him to stop instructing and go out into the “real” world.

So here I am, a full-time aikido instructor in Auckland, just as I was thirty years ago: I have turned full circle.

To date we have not really regarded the dojo as a business in the usual sense and have poured our meager capital into creating an aesthetically appealing environment in which to train, recently enhanced by the beginnings of a traditional Japanese garden. This non-commercial approach was well and good when we could afford it, but we may now have to become a bit more businesslike, since we have no other source of income.

The garden is an asset, of course, and the cost of creating it has been vastly less than it might have been and certainly only a fraction of what such a garden would cost in Japan. This has been due to the incredible amount of co-operation we have had from friends, students, and supporters both here and in Japan, and even complete strangers—like Patrick Stokes.

Portentous Phone Call

It was one of those odd, portentous encounters: Patrick, a young Kiwi architectural student who had spent a couple of years in Kyoto getting hands-on experience of Japanese gardening, rang me out of the blue a couple of years ago and said that he understood we had a Japanese garden and was keen to help us maintain it, just to keep his hand in. I explained that he had been misinformed, that we did not have a Japanese garden, but that we would dearly love to create one, and would much appreciate his help.

One thing led to another and Patrick introduced me to his mentor, Yoshinobu Kubo, a master gardener in Kyoto and I got to know him well on subsequent trips to Japan. Kubo-san was planning to take his family and staff to Australia on a company excursion, and I did my best as a Kiwi tourism promoter, with a slight personal bias, to persuade him to alter his plans and bring them to New Zealand instead.

Thus, one fine day, we had fifteen traditional Japanese gardeners wandering around our back yard talking ponds, waterfalls, and where to put the moss. They had only a week in the country, so there was no time to do more than inspect the site and give us their advice, but they did so with a contagious enthusiasm and we knew this was the start of something big. The group then took off for a tour that we had helped them organize.

I had thought that people involved in something as traditional as Japanese gardening would make fairly conservative tourists. It turned out, however, that most of the staff were quite young and they wanted “adventure.” In less than a week, in addition to more conventional sightseeing, they did bungy jumping, parachuting, scuba diving, horse trekking, kayaking, and “black water rafting,” which consists of floating down a subterranean river, in pitch darkness, through glow-worm caves, while suspended in an inflated truck inner-tube. They also managed to visit the hot spring resort of Rotorua, Lake Taupo, (“bigger than Singapore”) and Coromandel Peninsula, which features some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world. Several young women in the group were just as active as the men, but also found time to shop for sheepskins and “All Blacks” rugby jerseys.

Mr. Kubo and his staff had a great time in New Zealand and when I asked him a few months later to come again to help us get the garden started, he did not hesitate and came down with his senior assistant, Mr. Konishi, a 60-year-old equivalent of a shihan in aikido terms.

The Treasure Mountain

My first step was to fly them down to the Takaka Hills near Nelson, in the South Island to look at some unique marble outcrops on a friend’s farm, a weird moonscape littered with hundreds of natural rocks in an amazing variety of shapes that had been forced out of the ground by volcanic activity. They were like Henry Moore sculptures but were over three hundred million years old. The Japanese gardeners were impressed and spent hours clambering around photographing and measuring the rocks. They nicknamed the area “Takara Yama,” the “Treasure Mountain.” In Japan such stones would fetch thousands of dollars each, and we contemplated starting an export trade, but there were problems of possible breakage during shipment and also a limit to the number that could be taken from the area for environmental reasons.

A select few stones were earmarked for our garden before we flew back to Auckland to start what turned out to be four days of intense but very productive activity. We rounded up a dozen volunteers from the dojo and temporarily suspended evening classes while the Japanese garden “senseis” were here. It was just incredible what was achieved in four days: a pond the size of a swimming pool was excavated and lined with heavy rubber sheet and surrounded by rocks in various sizes and shapes, some of which weighed nearly two tons.

We had already collected some unique rocks from various parts of the country and supplemented these by making quick trips to local quarries and a granite and marble firm. In the selection and placing of rocks the Japanese were in their element, and to watch them working together, deciding which way to place each stone, so that its “face” was to the front and its “head” upright was to witness a skill carried to the level of an art. They were like a couple of aikido masters in action and they made a tremendous impression on our students.

Though they did not speak English, Kubo and Konishi soon established a rapport with our members and even offered some of them jobs in Kyoto.

We had to use a large crane for some of the lifting, but more traditional methods involved slinging a large rock from a pole carried on the shoulders of two or more men. In trying to compete with the Japanese at this I actually gave myself a hernia, but our younger members reveled in the work and, at the direction of the experts, moved enormous stones around by this method.

It was humbling for me to see the great physical effort put in by so many friends, to create an authentic garden for our dojo. All of this following from a chance telephone call from a young man who had made the mistake (?) of thinking we already had a Japanese garden. This sort of thing really makes you think.

The garden project had a clear goal and had to be completed within a limited time frame, but when it comes to getting people to train in aikido day in, day out, with no clear goal and little material reward, one wonders if it is possible to harness the same creative energy?

The “Sinking Ship”

I had some doubts about this when the “Year of the Rat” began with a “sinking ship,” scenario for our dojo. A group of regular students left us to train elsewhere, and a number of others simply did not return from the year-end holidays, having presumably given up aikido.

Those who have read my previous articles questioning, among other things, the need for personal loyalty to a sensei, will not miss the irony of this. Our student turnover was suddenly not as low as I had boasted. And, not being as “non-attached” in the Zen sense as I would like to be, this caused a certain amount of disappointment and even self-doubt. Apart from the business angle of losing “customers,” there is the frustration of feeling that one’s time is spent trying to teach aikido to people who will never actually continue for long enough to learn it.

Never having done so myself, I do not know exactly why people give up aikido, and when they leave without giving a reason or bothering to say good-bye, one is left floundering in a sea of disillusionment. Well, for a day or two, anyway.

Before long, and provided one keeps training, a more optimistic perspective emerges. In my case it was perhaps only right and proper that our dojo membership should plummet soon after I had written my AJ article boasting of a low turnover and criticizing the aikido grading system, organizations and practically everything else that smacked of form rather than substance, of vanity rather than humility. I sense the “sacred cows” grinning at me as they chew their cud.

And so they should, as I opened my mouth too soon and too wide. Nevertheless, “nothing fails like success,” and another useful lesson has been learned.

And for every few who have left our dojo there is at least one individual who has stayed on and from whom one can draw inspiration. Like John, the 69-year-old, who joined us four months ago and has been coming every day ever since—twice a day! And Kate, who joined us at age eleven and immediately showed she had done her homework by pointing at O-Sensei’s picture on the wall and telling me (before I could tell her): “That is Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido who was born in 1883 and died in 1969.” Her pronunciation was perfect, too.

Kate turned thirteen the other day and told me that she had no thought of giving up aikido as it made her feel “centered and calm.” How many kids could show that kind of maturity at that age? We adults could learn a thing or two from her example.

And one must not forget the half dozen individuals who have trained with us regularly for several years and still wear white belts, thanks to our “no grading” policy. Seeing their unselfish and enthusiastic way of welcoming and helping newcomers makes me feel privileged to know them.

Of course, one encounters all kinds of individuals on the mat, including those with massive physiques that one would never see in a dojo in Japan. Mostly these are “gentle giants” only too willing to learn, but now and then you will get one who stubbornly refuses to be thrown by other beginners or to understand the cooperative training system. One such character, who claimed to be an “ex-ninja” and was singularly ugly in both appearance and manner, said it all when he declared: “I am not used to people falling for me.” I should imagine not.