I started training in the university judo dojo in Western Michigan University’s Oakland Gymnasium. But I was really looking for tai chi. Now don’t laugh too hard, but from what I could find in Kalamazoo Michigan at that time, I thought judo was the most similar to tai chi. Back then there was no internet and no YouTube, so most of the information I was relying on was bad martial arts movies and descriptions from books. I didn’t have the first glimmer of understanding what I was getting into.
Judo was offered as a physical education course at the university. I showed up for the first class not really knowing what to expect. The classes were taught by Earl Bland and Robert Noble. It was a university physical education class, so it was filled with young, healthy students, most of whom didn’t know any more about what they were getting into than I did. I don’t remember much of that first day except that I bought a judogi and after class talked my friend Frank into coming to class because the teacher said everyone was welcome, whether they were paying for the class or not (I’m pretty sure the university administration would have had a stroke if they’d found out the teacher was inviting people to attend without paying for the class!).
I was more comfortable in the dojo than anywhere else on campus. It had been a dance room decades before and had mirrors along one wall. The mats were ethafoam sheets with a green canvas cover stretched over the top, with two competition areas marked out on it. You could always spot our people at tournaments because our dogi had a green tint from doing groundwork on the green mat cover. I took my first steps on the budo path there and I am still friends with many of the people I trained with at that time.
The atmosphere was relaxed and light. We learned how to fall down safely, and learned to call the act ukemi. We learned how to throw each other, how to do the arm locks, strangles and pins of judo. We had a great time, and we kept showing up for the classes for years after that first semester. That dojo was my favorite place on campus and I spent more time there than anywhere else except perhaps the cafeteria. Every semester a new crop of beginners would show up for the first class, and Frank, Sam, and other friends that I made stuck around. We became the seniors in the university club. I hadn’t taken up judo looking for a competitive sport, but for the first time in my life I found one I enjoyed immensely, even if I was no better than average.
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When I moved Japan a few years later, I discovered a lot more of the variety that dojo can come in. I trained with the local high school judo club in the high school dojo, and I joined a nearby adult dojo that trained in an old gymnasium. The high school dojo is pretty typical for Japan. When I was introduced, the entryway had a bunch of faucets and under each one was pot of barley tea, chilling for after keiko. The dojo was a lot larger than the one in college was, but only half of it was covered in tatami, the traditional style mats for judo. The other half of the room was a smooth, wooden floor filled with people in kendo armor swinging bamboo swords and screaming. There were at least four kendoka on the floor for every judoka on the mats. The judo club was small, about eight kids, but they trained five or six times a week, and most had been doing judo longer than my four years. I learned a lot from them.
The old gymnasium, where the adult group met, was all that remained of an old elementary school. The school was long gone, but the gymnasium was serving as a community gym. People used it for kendo and volleyball and other things. On Sunday evenings a group used it for judo. This was a few train stops from my apartment and the closest group of adults doing judo. That the gym was an old elementary school gym meant that it wasn’t heated in the winter or air conditioned in the brutally hot, humid Japanese summers. The mats were old-style tatami with canvas over it. Over time, the tatami had become compressed and compacted until it had only slightly more give than the wooden gym floor we put it out on each week. It was remarkable how fast my ukemi improved when I started getting thrown on this. At the end of practice, we didn’t do a cool down. Instead, we picked up all the mats and stacked them behind the stage at one end of the gym.
It was the antithesis of a modern dojo, and was totally lacking in comforts and conveniences. No showers, no locker rooms, no changing spaces. Even the toilets were in a separate building. It was a great place to train though. Everyone was there for the judo. When I first moved to Japan it was the only place I felt truly, 100% comfortable. I spoke very little Japanese, but my judo was pretty fluent, and I knew most of the cultural cues around the dojo. I was certainly lowest-ranked student in the room, but I was welcome and comfortable and they worked me over hard every week.
Sunday night practice started with a class for the kids, and was followed by an adult practice for all of us who had made it to adulthood and still wanted to get thrown around. After bowing in and warming up, all the adults would line up on one side of the dojo, and the senior high students who stuck around to train with the adults would line up facing us. We lined up by rank, so I started out on the far end of the mat. Every week we would start with uchikomi practice (throwing practice without actually throwing) and the junior side would rotate around the mat so they trained with many different partners. After a break we lined up again for randori. This time both lines rotated so we ended up training with both junior and senior people. After that, it was open randori time. Anyone could ask anyone else to do some light fighting. Of course, the younger guys idea of “light” was different enough from what the seniors in the dojo thought of as light to make some of the practice interesting indeed.
Eventually that old gym lost its roof in a typhoon and had to be torn down. We moved to training in an old dojo attached to a Hachiman shrine for a few months before we settled in the very new, very lovely community center. I still practice there when I go to Japan. It's a beautiful new building, and a pleasure to practice in, but it just doesn't have the atmosphere of the old school gymnasium. The people are the same though, so the feeling on the mat during practice is much the same, with the added bonus that my feet don’t go numb in the winter during keiko.
Dojo can be anywhere, literally. I’ve trained in parking lots and backyards and on the grounds of shrines and temples and churches. Maybe the most interesting location for dojo is Hotani Sensei’s jodo dojo in Osaka. It’s on top of an office building. Not the top floor, but a separate building that sits on the roof of the office building and is strapped down to prevent it blowing away in a typhoon.
There are a few dojo that stand out as iconic. There is a wonderful dojo attached to Kashima Shrine that I have had the honor and pleasure to visit on a number of occasions.
Then there is the grandfather of dojo, the Butokuden in Kyoto. It was built in 1895, and the builders seem to have wanted to create the most impressive dojo possible. They succeeded. The columns supporting the roof are massive, and the whole building has been polished and worn with use to a lovely patina that feels neither old nor tired, but alive with the energy of the people who have trained there.
That is the essence of a dojo. It’s not the place. It’s the people training and studying there. For me, dojo space is sacred. A dojo is a place for putting aside my ego and everything I think I know so that I can learn and grow and polish what I am. It’s often said that “you should leave your ego with your shoes” when you enter a dojo, and in good dojo, everyone does. A dojo is a place to study the Way. Whether the Way is Buddhist, Neo-Confucian, Taoist, a mixture of all of these, or something else is up to the students who study there. The important thing is that we are all there to learn and grow.
I have fond memories of many dojo. There was the one above a fish monger’s warehouse. Another in an old side building. Hotani Sensei’s on that roof in Osaka, and Iseki Sensei’s on the ground floor of his home. I can’t count the number of school dojos I’ve trained in, nor the number of gymnasiums I’ve been in for tournaments. The Kodokan in Tokyo has a gorgeous and thoroughly modern dojo on the 7th story of its massive building. Then there was the parking lot in back of Hashimoto Sensei’s house where we would practice and try to avoid sliding too much on the loose gravel scattered across the asphalt.
What I remember most about all of these dojo is training with the other students. At every dojo I’ve been to I’ve been welcomed warmly. It is the people who make each dojo special. Each has honored me by letting me join them and train with them. We’re all there to learn and grow, and we’re all there because we want to be. This makes any dojo a wonderful place to be. The physical location is a distant second to the gathering of people who are there to train and grow. That always makes space sacred. Even old gymnasiums and parking lots.