The Female Aikidoist's Guide to Hombu Dojo

In February and March 2016 I travelled to Japan for the first time. My main goal was to practice at Hombu Dojo as much as possible for one month and a half. Inspired by one of the young black belts at my Dojo back in Switzerland, I had started to plan my trip in 2015. During my preparation time (but also during my stay in Tokyo), I consulted Guillaume's article about Aikido practice at Hombu Dojo. For all matters concerning accommodation, subscription and required behaviour in and around Hombu Dojo it proved to be an invaluable pool of information! Of course I would not presume to have gotten through the first weeks without my share of "Faux-pas". Although some were probably due to my particular pre-condition: Not only did I speak only very basic Japanese, but I also held the rank of a 3rd Kyu only, and thus was basically an absolute beginner at Aikido. After a while though, it also struck me that being a woman (and a white belt at that) held in store a couple of extra-hoops to jump through (so to speak). I therefore suggest this (obviously quite subjective and personal) addition to Guillaume's already rather complete article.

Originally I had planned for only one trip to Japan. It was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I had just stopped working at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and was going to start a permanent Job in Bern (Switzerland). But, as a matter of fact, I somehow ended up returning to Japan for a whole month during July 2016, and another two weeks during the fall (during the IAF congress 2016 in Takasaki). This means that, over all, I ended up practicing and living in Shinjuku for a whole of three months in 2016. Of course, I am planning to return again soon. I may even apply for my black belt exam at Hombu Dojo in the future.

The Women’s Locker Room

Figuring out the rules of the tiny locker room hidden behind the pink curtains on the second floor, still seems to me the most difficult thing in all of Hombu Dojo. Of course I don’t know anything about the men’s locker room, as I have never entered it. So I wouldn’t know about any comparative value in my experiences. It seems important to know however that a lot of the social standing as a girl or woman at Hombu Dojo basically starts inside this very room.

  • Let’s start with what needs to be done before even accessing it: Announce yourself properly before entering the room by saying “shitsurei shimasu” (this means something like “I am being impolite now”). When inside the room, if not alone, continue by saying “ohayo gozaimasu”,konnichiwa” or “konbanwa” (according to the time of day).
  • The most important rule inside the locker room: Never take up too much space and always give precedence to senior women (the notion of senior is applicable in both, the sense of “more advanced in Aikido practice”, as well as in terms of physical age). I think this also goes for the rest of Japanese society, but inside this very confined space it is necessary to actually stick to it. So, don’t linger in front of the lockers for too long, as you are almost certainly in somebody’s way to access their locker (the room only measures about 8m2, including the lockers)!

changing room women 04The tiny females' changing room

  • Another good rule to follow is to avoid being naked for longer than necessary. Or at least know that Japanese women usually try not to do so. You will also notice that Japanese women usually even kneel down, facing a wall while changing. At least when changing tops. You can choose whether you want to follow that. I never quite managed to get changed entirely on my knees yet (wearing pants makes this somewhat difficult), but I am working on it.
  • Important to know: It can lead to somewhat grotesque situations if a Japanese girl / woman kneels down while changing and trying to hide her nakedness, and you walk around next to that in no clothes (i.e. your special parts will probably be at her exact eye level).
  • It is also a good thing to wear actual clothes when you go to practice at Hombu Dojo. Jeans and T-shirt will do fine, but wearing only tracksuit bottoms will make you feel a bit underdressed at some point. As you may already know: Japanese women (and men) are very attentive to being well dressed. Avoid wearing tank tops. Your shoulders should be covered at any time (also outside the Dojo).
  • If there is a free locker you can rent it for 100 Yen (and you will get your money back). If there isn’t, it is okay to leave your clothes in one of the available plastic baskets during practice sessions. Put the basket in a corner of the shower room, so that no one trips over it.
  • Don’t leave any valuables in the locker room, not because anyone would actually steal anything from there, but because you don’t want to be the person who announces a (possible) theft to the staff. It is possible to leave valuables at the front desk (if you ask politely).

changing room women 03

  • When you leave the locker room (for practice or to go home) you say again “shitsurei shimasu”, as everyone else does. You may then want to add “otsukare sama deshita” on leaving the locker room / Dojo to go home. It sort of means “you all did a great job, recover well now”. And of course you can always add “arigato gozaimashita” at leisure. That is never wrong.
  • During practice breaks you may leave your Dogi or Hakama to dry at the Dojo. On the top floor of the building (above 4th floor even) there is a drying room serving that purpose. It is however necessary to write your name very clearly on every item (if possible in katakana). It is also not recommended to practice in one dogi twice in a row.
  • Writing your name on your Dogi (and Hakama) is also necessary during class. The teachers then can call you by your name and will be much more likely to give you personal feedback!
  • The rule is (for women and for men): Wash your Dogi regularly! Else you may end up being laughed and talked about… and not in a good way. Also: Wash yourself regularly! For the same obvious reason. Of course, during winter months, taking a shower at the Dojo locker room can be quite a challenge, as it provides cold water only. There are two lovely sentos near Hombu Dojo. My favorite is Mannenyu, just off Okubo Dori.

The Hakama Question

Guillaume has written an in-depth article about the Hakama, its origin, and why we wear it. I suggest having a look at it before going further. At Hombu Dojo, women should wear a Hakama from 3rd Kyu onward. This is not only what one can read on the website of Hombu Dojo, it is also what staff members will tell you, when you sign up for practice at Hombu Dojo for the first time. Depending on where you come from this custom may seem slightly strange. Either because it demands anyone to wear a Hakama before having passed on to the black belt (Shodan), or because it asks women to do something other than men.

The reasons which are given for this rule at Hombu Dojo (and other Japanese Dojos) range from it being:

  • A matter of morals (i.e. it is not well seen to show your buttocks during practice as a woman).
  • More physiological reasons: Those would state that the wearing of a Hakama apparently has an influence on the movement of one’s center (i.e. binding the pelvis region with a Hakama supposedly is beneficiary for women’s movement, as their pelvis is constituted from different bone-parts and therefore by nature moves more “loosely” than a man’s). This may seem a bit exotic (and maybe even nonsensical) as far as reasons go. Especially if one sees how many women wear their Hakama much higher than men, in some cases just below the breast (click here to read an article on the origin and purpose of the hakama).
  • Of course there is also the obvious reason no one really talks about much: It does look and feel cool to wear a Hakama ☺ Apart from the first practice sessions, when your feet get caught in the extra-cloth, you are unable to get up, and you’d like to disappear instantly.

Whether or not a woman decides to wear a Hakama overneath a white belt is ultimately up to individual choice. No one will be thrown out of the Dojo for not wearing it. It is however good to know about the difference between the Keiko experience one probably has as a white belt without a Hakama and the practice experience one has while wearing this ominous piece of clothing. It has nothing to do with Aikido skills in any case! It is simply about the onlooker’s expectation, and their way to interact with people on the tatami. Most men and women at Hombu Dojo expect women to wear a Hakama from 3rd Kyu onward. So, if someone is not doing so, they will treat them with much kindness and (almost) touch them with velvet gloves… as they expect this person to be around a 5th or 4th Kyu, and still in need of some “tatami parenting”. I for my part didn’t wear a Hakama during my first month at Hombu Dojo (I was a 3rd Kyu then). I simply didn’t own a Hakama. Retrospectively I feel that this may have been a good thing for me to do, as I first needed to learn some of the movement and stepping techniques which are expected from all beginners at Hombu Dojo. And it felt at moments like I was starting to practice Aikido all over again. And yet, after that first month I attempted practicing in a Hakama for the first time. The difference was striking. Suddenly I was not the only one still looking for a partner at the very last moment anymore… and practice itself also became triple the fun. I suppose my partners weren’t afraid of my getting hurt anymore and therefore relaxed during practice with me. I ended up wearing a Hakama regularly when practicing at Hombu Dojo. Back in Europe I still don’t.

In the meantime, I also heard that an (unwritten) rule at Hombu Dojo is: When women start wearing a Hakama, they also should start thinking about attending regular class on the third floor (once in a while or more often). Of course, everyone decides for themselves when they feel at ease to move on to the next stage (or floor in that case), but I found it helpful to know about this.

The Rules of the Beginner's Dojo

(...independent of Gender or Grade)

The “rules” of the second floor Dojo are rather easy to learn. And they are also a bit more flexible than in the rest of the Dojo, I believe. So here goes!

When entering the beginner’s Dojo, you do so by the left hand door. The right hand door is for teachers only. Inside the Dojo you may not find the Kamiza-side of the room immediately, but then you will see that there is only one side with a picture of O Sensei on the wall. And even if the doors are within that same wall: This is the Kamiza-side!

aikikai hombu dojo F2The beginners's Dojo

When you enter the Dojo, you will bow (in the left hand corner of the doorside wall to be specific) twice, once facing the picture of O Sensei (i.e. the Kamiza wall), and once facing the window-side of the Dojo. As a white belt you then check to see whether any Yudansha are already in the room. If there are, you first bow in front of them briefly (one by one, always sitting down to bow in front of people) and then take a seat along the window-side wall. You will see people who don’t bow to the black belts first. But it is definitely well seen if you do.

The rest of practice at the second floor Dojo is fairly self-explanatory. One important thing to know (in contrast to the third floor Dojo) is that in beginner’s class there is usually a change of partner after each exercise! Not only (but of course also) after the teacher says “aite wo kaete”. Some teachers inform you when they don’t want you to change partners, by saying “aite wo kaetemasen”. It is usually also well seen to try to practice with as many different people as possible! Another important rule (applying to the rest of Hombu Dojo too): Throw and roll towards the walls during practice, and not towards the middle of the room! There are many people practicing, so do your utmost to avoid accidents. After class is over, everyone bows again to each(!) partner one has practiced with during this session. You then say: “Arigato gozaimasu. Mata yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” It means: “Thank you, and let’s practice again soon!”

Another particularity of the second floor Dojo is that you will sometimes be allowed to perform techniques on the teacher (teachers can thus give you better feedback). It is obviously really important to handle the teacher with as much care as you would treat a fellow Aikidoka. Even more importantly though: After you performed a technique on the teacher, you need to give the teacher the opportunity to perform the technique on you too! It is very impolite not to give the teacher the chance to do so. If there are a lot of students the teacher may waive his right to be attacked (as he needs to look at as many students as possible... in as little time as possible). But as a rule teachers will follow this code of conduct!

For western women practicing Aikido at Hombu Dojo (and in Japan in general) it may be a good thing to be aware of the different meaning which visual contact with the other sex may hold for Japanese people. It is possible for direct eye contact to be misinterpreted by your practice partner if they are of a (simply speaking) traditional Japanese background. Even though this may seem exaggerated, I have been in situations where I was glad to know about this cultural difference.

Women’s Class

Women's class (Tuesday and Thursday 6-7pm) on the second floor is, by some margin, my favorite class at Hombu Dojo. For various reasons… none of which has to do with my being particularly feminist or only interested in practicing with women! Far from it.

The first time I attended Women's class, I was clearly feeding my curiosity. I ended up a little surprised, and sometimes even slightly amused. Perhaps I was also still suffering from my first Japanese jetlag, otherwise some of it may not have held as much of the impact as it did. I do however remember it to be one of the best and at the same time most revelatory moments in my (very short) Aikido life.

Female Classes in the Hombu Dojo c. 1956

Women Class in the Hombu Dojo c. 1956

Of course it started with the realization that women's practice at Hombu Dojo is not taught by a woman. Having started out at a European Dojo where all beginners are taught by a woman holding the rank of a 6th Dan, this caught me a bit off guard. Luckily, I am in no way opposed to opening my mind to new ideas quickly. And the teacher responsible for this particular class made this even easier by his very clear and yet humorous approach. Not to mention his sheer endless patience.

Contentwise, a women's class is very similar to a normal class on the second floor. Except maybe for the number of students. During my first Tuesday class we were four students! And even though it was probably a very “slow” day (as Japanese universities were on semester break and it happened to be the dead of winter... when Hombu Dojo is a bit of a challenge regarding temperature), women's class is hardly ever attended by more than 10 people. Whoever has seen the beginner's Dojo on the second floor on a busy day like Monday or Wednesday around 5 or 7pm would barely believe this to be possible (usually there are around 20, sometimes up to 30 people attending). Of course fewer students also means more attention from the teacher. A great opportunity to catch up on basic stepping and techniques! But this isn't my main reason for liking women's class as much as I do. The best thing about these 60 minutes really is the incredible amount of extra-space on the tatami. It is the only time it doesn’t seem like a crime to attempt mae-ukemi on the second floor (if the teacher allows you to do so, of course!).

Whereas during normal beginner’s class, one bows again to each practice partner, after women’s class everybody forms a circle and collectively bows once towards the middle (as the next practice session usually begins right away and there is not even time to clean the Dojo).

Of course women are allowed to participate in ALL classes at Hombu Dojo. Depending on rank and skills the same rules apply for men and women. Women’s class is simply a place where women practice exclusively with women. And from what I have seen, it is definitely a place where an absolute beginner at Aikido (Japanese or Westerner) would be able to feel at absolute ease. Even if she were to be above 50years of age! However, I have also noticed that the techniques taught during women’s class on the second floor sometimes can be more complex and “daring” than the techniques taught during other beginner’s classes. The reason for this is probably also the additional amount of space available. And the teacher has more attention to spare for each individual’s safety.

Note: There is also a set of women’s classes at Hombu Dojo taught on the third floor (referred to as: Women’s Special Class). It is taught during work day mornings (Tuesday and Friday 10:30-11:30am). In order to attend this specific set of women’s classes you will need a special subscription (a normal membership of the Aikikai and a valid monthly subscription will not be enough). You need to inquire at the front desk to find out about the particulars.

I hope you will find some of this information useful. What was your experience of Hombu Dojo? Is there anything missing in this article that would be helpful to women visiting Hombu Dojo? Please comment below to share your point of view!

Many thanks to Rahel Bünzli for her suggestions

Catalina von Crayen
Author: Catalina von Crayen
Catalina von Crayen holds a Master's degree in "Body and Language" from the University of Lausanne and is currently working on a PhD project on the same subject. During her undergraduate studies, she began to study dance and authentic movement in order to complete her studies with a more physical perspective. Under the guidance of her dance teacher, and to improve her posture, Catalina began to practice Aikido at Aikidoschule Bern under Renata Jocic Sensei (6th Dan) and Dragisa Jocic Sensei (7th Dan). For a while, Catalina also practiced Karate Shisui-ryu under Marco Marffy Sensei (6th Dan). She is currently preparing for her first Kyu exam in Aikido. Catalina teaches languages and works as a freelance journalist.

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