“I gained a greater appreciation of Japan and its culture”
Michael Owen, a Senior Engineer within the Building Services team in our Leeds office, has trained in the Japanese martial art of Aikido since 1999. Here he tells us his experience of taking a break from engineering to spend two months training amongst the Aikido Masters in Japan.
I joined Waterman in January 2015 after having enjoyed 11 years in Building Services Consultancy. I completed my MEng Electrical Engineering degree at UMIST in Manchester and throughout this time trained in Aikido, a Japanese martial art that utilises circular movements to blend with and redirect opponents’ energy into a variety of throws and joint locks.
I have always been interested by Japan and in 1999 I was introduced to an Aikido club in South Manchester. After graduating in 2003, I moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne where I joined a new club with links to others in Europe which allowed me to attend courses in Paris, Strasbourg, Freiburg and Augsburg. This helped me attain the grade of Shodan (1st black belt grading) in 2007 and attend a course with a Japanese Master, Kimura Sensei, in Brussels who inspired me to visit Japan so I could study Aikido.
In September 2008, I took a six-month career break with the aim to spend two months in Japan and train with Kimura Sensei in Osaka and at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, the World Headquarters of Aikido.
In Osaka, when not training with Master Kimura, I spent my spare time visiting neighbouring cities including Nara, Kyoto, Himeji and Hiroshima. For these journeys, I used a Japanese Rail (JR) Pass to utilise the world-famous Shinkansen bullet trains (which were superbly spacious, clean and smooth) and made travelling vast distances through Japan very easy. JR Passes must be bought outside of Japan, but offer massive savings, and I would definitely advise purchasing one.
I was staggered by the generous hospitality of the Japanese. Whilst in Osaka, I met a friend’s Japanese acquaintance who unexpectedly took me on a 250Km road trip round Shikoku Island instead of a simple lunch. Here I experienced a Tempura meal whilst kneeling on traditional tatami mats before visiting the Ritsurin Garden, one of the country’s most famous historical gardens, which offered an interesting comparison between traditional Japan and the high tech, high-rise city of Osaka.
After two weeks in Osaka, I headed to the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo for one month where I completed fifty Aikido training sessions and had the chance to witness the many Aikido Masters who teach there. Of particular interest was the class of the Doshu, the head of the Aikido Foundation and grandson of the founder Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. The classes hot and humid conditions were challenging, but I found this time beneficial and particularly enjoyed being able to witness the different Masters’ contrasting styles.
Whilst I knew a few basic Japanese words, such as “ohayou gozaimasu” (good morning), “konnichiwa” (good afternoon), “sayonara” (goodbye), I decided to sign up at the Iidabashi Japanese Language School to try and integrate myself a bit more. I managed to learn most of the katakana symbols (one of the Japanese writing systems). Although I made slow progress, these lessons were really useful as I learnt how Japanese sentences are put together, as well as phrases such as “so re” (that one) which proved invaluable when ordering in restaurants.
When in Tokyo, my eating habits tended to be based around my Aikido training. I found a popular restaurant chain called Matsuya which served low cost rice and beef meals that were easily spotted by their bright yellow signage. These were great for tourists as you ordered at a vending machine that included a full colour picture of each dish so you’d know what you’d be getting. Most restaurants included pictures on their menus or had models in the window to make ordering food much easier, however looks can be deceiving, and on several occasions I ended up with something that I wasn’t expecting; like when I thought I’d ordered a Coke but ended up with a cold coffee!
I tried to soak up as much of Tokyo as I could by visiting iconic Japanese locations such as the Tsukiji fish market, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Roppongi and the Imperial Palace Gardens. However, it wasn’t until the last week of my trip when a friend from the UK came to visit me that I gained a greater appreciation of Japan and its culture. We travelled around Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo where we stayed in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, which was a completely different experience to the hostels I was used to staying in. We also watched Sumo in the City of Fukuoka and it was amazing to see the flexibility and power of the giants within Japan’s national sport; it was even more surprising to see the locals doing an emergency stop in their cars just to give a lift to a Sumo Wrestler afterwards.
After two months in Japan I then travelled on to New Zealand and, whilst it was nice to be back in an English-speaking country, I missed the 24-hour way of life in Tokyo, the never-ending vending machines and having “Irasshaimase!” (Come on in!) shouted at me each time I entered a shop. Nothing quite compares to the friendliness of the Japanese!