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Kashiwaya Sensei: Living Legend

Updated: Jan 8

I had the privilege of traveling to Lawrence, Kansas last month for a Ki Aikido seminar with Kashiwaya Sensei and something dawned on me as I was watching him teach—I am witnessing a living legend.


Kashiwaya Sensei demonstrating a throw with a student. Image courtesy of Carrie Saunders.

The way people speak about the teachings and accounts of training with Koichi Tohei Sensei and Morihei Ueshiba (O Sensei) are akin to the way many Ki Aikidoka will one day speak about Kashiwaya Sensei.


KOICHI KASHIWAYA SENSEI


Kashiwaya Sensei was born in December 1949 in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, but his family soon relocated to Tokyo, where he grew up.


He began his Aikido journey in 1969 while attending Risshou University and, in 1971, met Tohei Sensei, then the Chief Instructor of Aikikai. Kashiwaya Sensei trained as Tohei Sensei’s uchideshi (live-in apprentice) and then was sotodeshi (in the early 1970’s). Over the next few decades, he would become a life-long student of Tohei Sensei.


Kashiwaya was initially hooked when he heard then Aikikai's Chief Instructor, Koichi Tohei Sensei's words—“If the mind moves, the body follows.”

A few years after completely his sotodeshi training, he relocated to Seattle, Washington, at Tohei Sensei's request, to assist Hirata Yoshihiko Sensei, with instruction and administration of Seattle Ki Society. He then moved to Boulder, Colorado where, in 1977, he founded Rocky Mountain Ki Society in Denver, Colorado, and then later, Midland Ki Federation. In 1983, Tohei Sensei appointed Kashiwaya Sensei Chief Instructor for Ki Aikido in the USA.


Kashiwaya Sensei currently holds the rank of Hachidan (8th degree black belt) in Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido and Okuden in Ki Training. He has Ki Lecturer teaching certification from Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido Kai, and is a certified judge for the International Taigi Competition. Kashiwaya Sensei conducts testing and evaluation for 25 schools member schools throughout the United States, as well as Brazil and Canada. Kashiwaya Sensei will be retiring at the end of 2023.


A LIVING KI AIKIDO LEGEND


Kashiwaya Sensei is already a legend in his own right. Stories of his teachings and trainings precede him throughout Ki Aikido communities in the United States.


Upon learning of his retirement at the end of the year, I decided I wanted to follow him to as many seminars as possible, to soak up his teachings while I can. I could have grief that I showed up late to the game and that Kashiwaya Sensei is retiring years before my own Shodan test or I can bask in the moment that I still get to witness him in person, and that I get to be one of the many fortunate people with their own Kashiwaya Sensei stories to tell. Last month, I chose the latter.

I was sitting on the mats at the White Schoolhouse, home of Kansas Ki Society, in Lawrence, Kansas, and it dawned on me while Kashiwaya Sensei was speaking, what a precious and fleeting moment in time I was witnessing.


ON BEING PRESENT


I have been training Ki Aikido in Boulder, Colorado for a year and a half and something my Ki training has given me is a greater ability to be present in each moment. To know the value of something I’m witnessing while I’m witnessing it, rather than years after the fact.


Kashiwaya Sensei teaching at the White Schoolhouse in Lawrence, KS

The seminar in Kansas was not my first time to meet Kashiwaya Sensei and train with him. Kashiwaya Sensei came to Boulder and Denver, Colorado, in September of 2022, to conduct black belt and upper level Ki Development testing, as well as teach a weekend seminar.


On September 11th, 2022, Kashiwaya Sensei tested my Sensei, Abel Villacorta, for the Ki Development rank of Joden. This was another moment in time where I was able to understand how rare of an event in my own Ki Aikido journey I was witnessing. My Sensei’s Joden test was the last test he’d ever be given, it was the last opportunity to ever witness my own Sensei test, my last (and only) opportunity to witness my Sensei being tested by his Sensei, and close to one of the last tests I would ever witness Kashiwaya Sensei conduct. Witnessing such a rare and special moment filled my heart completely, I knew while I was watching it what a special occasion I was privy to.



CREATING YOUR OWN MYTHOLOGY


A key part to becoming a legend is to create your own mythology, and I think anyone who is even peripherally acquainted with Kashiwaya Sensei can attest to his ability to do this.


During my visit to Kansas this past weekend, I watched as recent Shodan, Nidan and Sandan ranked aikidoka gathered for the traditional photo around the Ki sign with Kashiwaya Sensei.


There is always one line of people sitting seiza in the front row of these photos with their hands curled into a very loose fist and their thumbs hidden, resting on their laps. You can ask Kashiwaya Sensei why we hide our thumbs in group photos, but he won’t tell you. I heard we place our hands like this so you can’t see our fingernails. Every Ki aikidoka you talk to will have a different story of why we pose like this in our group photos. The odds that anyone will ever definitively know the answer is unlikely.


Traditional Ki Aikido Seminar photo in Lawrence, KS. Image courtesy of Carrie Saunders.

This is how you live on eternally in the hearts of people whose lives you’ve touched. You keep them talking and passing around stories and tales of you. All the better if the stories have a “big fish” quality and grow and morph over time, with various witnesses arguing over what really happened.


As I wrote this piece, my neck, shoulder and pectoral muscles were stiff and sore from “swimming” laps across the dojo in Lawrence, Kansas. For anyone who has never experienced this unique joy, it is when Kashiwaya Sensei has everyone move themselves from one side of the mat to the other using only the breast stroke, the butterfly stroke, the back stroke, etc. without the use of your legs. The visual effect of which looks like a zombie crawl scene out of The Walking Dead.


As we all stood around commenting on how sore we’d be the next day, you’d hear people chime in with stories of, “Oh, that’s nothing, Kashiwaya Sensei once made us swim laps across the dojo for an hour.”


These stories will never die. Kashiwaya may be retiring from his teaching career at the end of 2023, but he certainly isn't going anywhere. His teachings aren't going anywhere. And the mythology of why he does what he does or what crazy warms ups he once made your Sensei do will continue to thrive with same liveliness and spirit he carries around in his very being.


Kashiwaya Sensei smiles for the camera. Image courtesy of Carrie Saunders.

Bright, Authentic, Joyful Energy


Kashiwaya Sensei lives off the grid. I can't say where, because I don't know, because why would anyone know the exact whereabouts of a living legend?


During this most recent seminar, he was talking about how sometimes his electricity goes out for several days and he doesn't even notice until he realizes he can't make a phone call. He told everyone that if they ever don't hear from him it doesn't mean he doesn't love them or care for them or isn't thinking about them.


Without knowing him very well, I can feel the truth in that. Kashiwaya Sensei's spirit shines so brightly with so much joy and authentic connection.


While my Sensei was not able to attend the seminar with me this past weekend, Kashiwaya Sensei said to give him his love and it wasn't a passing thought, like something people just say, it was a genuine wish of something he was sending out to the Universe. I felt the love he wished to send in that moment.


HAVING FUN IN AIKIDO


I recently read a chapter out of The Way of Aikido by George Leonard on the subject of play, in which he says:

Aikido summons all of us, whether we do aikido or not, to play and keep playing from childhood to old age, to seek out the possibilities of play in every aspect of living––in what we call “work,” in love and sex, in relationships with family and friends, even in taking a walk around the block.

I feel deeply privileged to have witnessed the playfulness of Kashiwaya Sensei this past month. I had seen glimpses of his playfulness in September of last year, but in Kansas he was really in his element. Maybe because he’s about to retire or maybe because he felt at home in a place he’s visited so many times, being surrounded by so many old friends, but his seminar bordered on a stand-up comedy routine.


His play doesn’t strike me as being without purpose or something outside of his Aikido practice, but rather a vital part of it. I, myself, am prone to getting too serious on the mat. When I’m trying to figure out a throw I have a tendency to tense up and get overly focused on what I am trying to do.


One day, I was practicing on the mat with Evolene Premilieu Sensei (4th dan, Aikikai instructor, One Dojo) and I was complaining about how I wasn’t doing the throw right. With a completely straight face she said, “Well, you’re doing it right fifty percent of the time, and the rest of the time you’re doing it on your left.” I started laughing. And the next time I went to do the throw, everything moved so seamlessly and effortlessly that her and another sensei said, “Wow, that was great!”


The answer wasn’t for someone to make continuous micro-corrections to my technique, or to demonstrate the throw to me again, or any sort of verbal instruction, the answer was for me to let go and stop trying.

In Ki Aikido, relaxation is one of the four major principles to unify mind and body.


Laughter might be one of the quickest and most reliable ways to get someone who is tense to relax. The results are immediate. You begin to laugh and you immediately feel tension leave your body. I’ve noticed that aikidoka who have grasped this concept tend to have really “good” aikido insofar as there is such a thing.


Nathan Prucha Sensei of Boulder Ki Aikido has a tendency to tease me quite a bit on the mat, but again, like Kashiwaya Sensei’s playfulness, it never seems to be without purpose. The result of being able to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously on the mat is that I am able to be in a better state of flow with very little effort. Not only am I able to move better, but I also stop caring about if I am able to move better. The perfection of the movement ceases to matter. I believe that trying to be good at aikido can often be detrimental to ones practice.


Kashiwaya Sensei demonstrates with Mort Melman Sensei. Image courtesy of Carrie Saunders.

BEING GRATEFUL


We are very fortunate—and feel tremendous gratitude—that in Ki Aikido in the United States, our Chief Instructor for the last forty years, who is either Sensei (or our Sensei’s Sensei to most of us), fully embraces the practice of play.


Kashiwaya Sensei can be very serious when needed. I’ve glimpsed this side of him as well, but mostly he chooses to have fun in everything he does. If you take nothing else away from Kashiwaya Sensei's many decades of instruction, remember to find the play on (and off) the mat, within yourself.


Don't let your aikido journey pass you by without finding the joy. Remember, you are doing it right fifty percent of the time.


TRAING WITH KASHIWAYA SENSEI THIS SUMMER


The second to last opportunity to train Ki Aikido with Kashiwaya Sensei in person in the U.S. is happening June 15th - June 18, 2023, in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. Sign up at bit.ly/MKFteach. Early Bird pricing ends April 30, 2023.


Sarah Quenon training in Kansas

Sarah Quenon is a jewelry designer and Ki Aikidoka living in Boulder, Colorado. She has been training with Abel Villacorta Sensei at One Dojo since September 2021, where she also works as the administrative assistant. Sarah has trained as Sotodeshi under Villacorta Sensei for the past year.



Read more writings on Aikido by this author:

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