Looking online before I left, I found only two aikido dojos in Taipei, one high in the forested hills outside of town, and another just a short walk from my wife’s family’s home in the Sung Shan district. That sounded great, so I took my lightweight gi and a white belt and walked over to the address early on the second morning, steamy streets after a warm June rain. I knew the intersection well, a kind of large roundabout near a favorite book and stationary store and across from a large market. The dojo was in a community center on the 11th floor, along with several other spaces for gymnastics, dance, and yoga. Problem was, nobody remembered a “he-chi-dao” dojo anywhere, and after several visits I always found the judo and taekwando rooms locked up tight. Nor was there anything on any of the schedules posted in the lobby downstairs.
So I hit the internet cafe and searched again. There were obscure references in some newsgroup entries from several years ago about a Li Sensei who introduced aikido to Taiwan after studying in Japan, and mention of a seminar in Europe or Singapore, but the address, if given, was always the community center. So I called the other dojo in the hills and spoke to their sensei’s wife (he was currently back in the States). She seemed thrilled that I might visit, but had never heard of any other dojo in town. (I never made it up there, by the way. Maybe next time.)
But I didn’t give up the search. After presenting my anoxia workshop at Tainan National University of the Arts and then returning to Taipei only to go south again vacationing with family (Mala Bay is a great water park in TaiChung, btw), I finally had the idea to have Snowy do a Google search in Chinese — by now the family had hooked up my laptop in the livingroom on my neice’s DSL. Bingo. I found the blog of someone in Germany that contained a picture, small and grainy, of a sign on the front of the dojo showing the address and phone number. Snowy called the number and spoke to the daisempai, a Miss Wang, asking first about Li Sensei, and then about classes. Has your husband trained before? Yes, he’s yudansha. From where? America, near San Francisco. Ah, aikido on the West Coast is very different than on the East Coast. Well. we have general classes on M-W-F at 7AM, but he can also attend the black belt only sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, also at 7AM. Great, it’s Tuesday afternoon and we’re leaving on Friday. It took three weeks to find the dojo, and now I have three days left.
So, at the crack of dawn I amble through the lanes to the main road and hail a taxi; it’s a 10 minute ride to the intersection of YanJi and ChungHsiao East Roads. The Starbucks on the corner is, unfortunately, still closed at this hour of the morning, so I walk three blocks to the dojo. Apart from the small sign that I saw on the internet, the building is a non-descript lobby with mailboxes and stairs leading up and down, sandwiched between a convenience store and an electronics business. There’s nobody around and the stairs leading to the basement are dark, but soon enough an almost Hawaiian-looking young man with the fluency of a long-term American education arrives and warmly takes me under his wing. We take the basement stairs, turning on lights as we go.
The dojo is modest size, with frayed tatami mats and peeling grey walls lit by florescent tubes. After taking off our shoes in the seating area we proceed down a hallway past the furnace and some storage cabinets to a shelf-lined dressing room. Other students arrive and dress and say hello politely. I wait in my gi on a bench near the jumble of shoes for the instructor to arrive. It’s Miss Wang, a petite woman who is second in command at the dojo and leads the general and beginner classes. My friend introduces me and I finally find myself on the mat with a wide range of beginners, young and old, about 12 in all counting my friend and I (three of us yudansha plus the teacher).
The class was fairly standard for a mixed general group, although the warm-up exercises were incredibly intense: we would touch palms to the mat and walk, shuffle really, with legs straight to the teachers cadence, or lay on our backs and then our fronts and raise head, arms, and feet just a few inches off the mat and hold the position as the teacher made rounds and corrections, counting and encouraging us. We must have done that a dozen times for almost a minute each and I must admit, although I’m in good shape and train almost every day, I was sore for about a week. As we sat after practice listening to the teacher talk about the universality of aikido, she asked me how long I had been practicing. And why do I practice? I reponded that it’s my life. See? she says to the group, nodding her head in agreement. And you, she says point to one young man mopping his forehead, you only practice to lose weight! The attention was flattering, but my head was swimming. We all said gracious goodbyes and I strolled across town toward home, taking interesting side streets and lanes all the way.
The next morning I attend the advanced class after first being introduced to Li Sensei by both Miss Wang and my new friend and guide. The Sensei, a quiet elderly gentleman, perhaps in his 70’s with sparse grey hair and a soft face, was drinking tea in his office. I bowed and we shook hands, his skin felt cool and dry as paper, and his grip was delicate. Once I had obtained his permission, I went to the dressing room and changed, this time only black belts. At the start of class the daisempai leads the bow as the Sensei enters and sits at one end of the mat. He then proceeds to call out commands as we continue the warm-up exercises. My guide of the day before warned me as we were getting dressed that this would be like no aikido I ever practiced before. It seems that Li Sensei had developed his own style that combined aspects of TaiChi, and this style was only taught to senior students above black belt. There were about 8 of us in the group, and after stretching I found I needed to sit out some of the warm-ups since they involved synchronized movements foreign to me, a bit similar to happo undo but more complicated and dance-like.
The main techniques were easily identifiable as yikkyo, shihonage, kokyunage, etc., but the execution was completely unfamiliar, not at all like either Iwama or Aikikai Hombu Dojo styles. The initial hanmi had feet very close together, knees flexed, with both arms raised and the rear palm sideways facing uke. The movements were very circular but with tight relaxed spirals, like a top the Sensei explained. His demonstrations seemed effortless with small steps, raising both his arms, and turning almost in place, projecting stoicly as uke demonstrated very polished ukemi.
All during the class the Sensie lectured in Taiwanese, and I understood none of it, but my guide helpfully translated in whispers as we were practicing together. He was obviously proud of his teacher and convinced that their Tai Chi Aikido hybrid was superior to other styles, and his enthusiasm was infectious, even if I couldn’t grasp the thread. Their movements were so different that I had trouble synchronizing with nage, often clashing and forcing my ukemi. And when my turns came I felt mostly ineffectual. The tatami had a smell of hay, and were slippery and unforgiving. They used no grabs at all which made iriminage practically conspiritorial, and their projections were extremely soft, a mere spinning and then dropping of the arms. I kept being told to use less force, less strength, and as time went on I seemed to get better but I never felt in control. Yikkyo started as in the old style with a direct entry, but immediately after a tight dizzy tenkan went straight down to the mat into an odd pin. Very hard to do with no force. Our Sensei has developed techniques that require very little energy I was told. That’s why they are only taught to yudansha. They are very subtle. That seemed true enough.
After class I asked if I could take a picture, and the students clearly wanted me to wait until after the Sensei had left. It seems that one reason they were so hard to find is that they wanted it that way. Old school for sure. Only those who persist will succeed, and they weren’t interested in advertising, though someone mentioned a website (here it is in Chinese). I was so sore from the first two days that I missed the third. But it was great to feel myself practicing in Asia, on old straw mats, with clearly dedicated aikidoka in a spirit of mutual respect, and O-Sensei’s familiar picture on the wall.