Interview with Aikido of San Leandro Founder Patricia Hendricks: Morihiro Saito, Iwama, and the Legacy, Part I

Patricia Hendricks Sensei stumbled into an aikido class led by Mary Heiny in the San Francisco Bay area in 1974, quickly finding a teacher and lifelong friend in Stanley Pranin. They eventually moved to train at the Oakland Dojo – Aikido Institute – that focused on Iwama-ryu, propagated by Morihiro Saito Sensei. After a handful of students traveled to Iwama, Hendricks Sensei wanted to go, unknowingly establishing a close and ultimately lifelong relationship with Saito. She returned in 1977, opening a school in 1983, and has never looked back since. Today, Hendricks took some time to talk about her aikido journey, highlighting the student-teacher relationship with Saito Sensei, running a dojo while making time to go back and forth with Iwama, and her recent appearance at the 2022 World Games. Special thanks to Noah Levine for his assistance in setting up the interview. All images provided by Patricia Hendricks Sensei. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Hendricks Sensei! We are excited to have you here!

Patricia Hendricks: I’m happy to be here as well, and I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: Your first meeting with aikido was when you walked into a class Mary Heiny was teaching in 1974, later finding Stanley Pranin to train with in 1975. What was it about aikido that moved you to try out the class?

PH: Well, actually – I’m trying to remember – I was at Monterey Peninsula College (MPC). I was already interested in martial arts but my whole goal was to go to University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). I went first to junior college, MPC and I think the first person I met at the class was definitely Danielle Smith, she was there. She was like a blue belt – something like that – but higher rank than anybody else. There were, like, very high-ranking people and Mary Heiny was a sandan; maybe something like that. I joined the aikido class that was part of MPC, then she came and taught. And I remember this, something that she said – to me, you know how it is when you’re young, I thought she was really old. [Laughs] I thought she was way older than she was. And then I remember her saying, “Okay. You have to roll like a wheel.” And then she did something with me to make me roll. And then she went, “That was very good.” She was like a school mom. [Laughs] I only saw her really once or twice, but every now and then, she came for something. But then, Stan Pranin, I heard about the dojo, and I just started training there. Danielle was a big support. She was ten years older than me, so she was always looking after me. I just, right away, wanted to train all the time. Even though I was in school, because Stan’s dojo was close, I was able to train twice a day. I was just enamored with aikido from the very beginning. That’s how that all got started.

Stan was bringing Mitsunari Kanai Sensei at some point, and I think I took my second kyu under Kanai Sensei. So, I was taking tests and pretty soon, Stan was using me for uke a lot. Pretty soon he was doing that. [Laughs] They used to call me the “Evel Knievel of Aikido Ukemi” because I would line up three people to see if I could jump over them. Then I would, say, line up four or five. I don’t know why, but I was trying to do things like that. It was just for fun actually. There was one girl kind of my age, a few years younger and she was kind of there with me. Everybody else was a little bit older.

Stan was a great teacher for me – really good. So, then he was closing down the dojo actually and I was, coincidentally, going to go to UC Berkeley. He had already been there. I think he had done some sort of studies at UC Berkeley. When he went up, we found the Aikido Institute, which was the Oakland Dojo established by Allen Grow in 1970.[1] Someone else was running the dojo by the time we arrived. He was Morihiro Saito Sensei’s top student – I think he was fifth dan.

Patricia Hendrick (left) with Morihiro Saito (right).

I got into UC Berkeley, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was pre-med because my dad was a doctor but then I kind of switched to science. And then, all of a sudden, like everyone – about half of them – from the Oakland Dojo was going to Iwama. It was like this exodus to Japan. So, I said to myself, maybe I’ll take a year off school; I hadn’t done that. I went straight out of high school to college. So, I planned to take a year off and go to Japan. So, I went there. Bernice Tom was there and a bunch of other people. But small classes. The minute I saw Saito Sensei, I knew he was going to be my teacher and I just stayed there for more than a year actually. That’s how it all got started.

I was a teenager at the time, and I was the only female, mostly, in the class. There were no females, but everyone trained really well with me, and I could take ukemi. I liked taking ukemi. When I was in Japan training with Saito Sensei, I was paired with a rough partner who was kind of in a bad mood. We were in the winter. He was uchi deshi; I was uchi deshi and he broke my arm. I went to the doctor, and I had a cast put on and then I trained with just one arm. I didn’t stop training – I remember that. I just kept going. But my arm needed a lot of physical therapy for that, but I was young, so it kind of went quickly. I have a great story, and this is a true story – I couldn’t even believe this happened. I didn’t know I broke my arm. Shigemi Inagaki Sensei was Saito Sensei’s top student and came into the place where we usually eat and said, “What’s wrong with you? You seem like you’re injured.” I said, “I hurt my arm.” He picked my arm up to look at it and, of course, I let out a scream of pain. He said, “Who did this to you!?” He was like my older brother kind of thing. I told Inagaki Sensei that it was my partner and he chastised my partner. But Inagaki Sensei was tougher than my rough partner. [Laughs] He was injuring people all the time. There were so many injuries in the Iwama dojo at that time. And I think even at Hombu. It was a different era – it was the 1970s.

Inagaki said, “You’re going to come back with me, stay with my family, we’ll drink whiskey, and watch aikido videos.” That was his idea. So, we did and then I came back to the dojo. I barely slept but when I woke up, I knew something was really wrong. So, they took me to this doctor Tachikawa, who was a judo expert and a doctor. I’m sitting there waiting and this old blind guy, who was him, came out, and felt up and down my arm, examining it, seeing how bad it was. He said, “She’s from America and she’s the only girl at the dojo, so I’m going to take her on as a special case and I’m going to work with her.” He did physical therapy on me. He did acupuncture and all these electricity things that weren’t being done in those days, and he got me back to almost perfect. I never forgot that.

My partner continued to be rough, but Saito Sensei would go up to him and say, “If you train like that, the way you’re training right now, you’ll break their arm just like you did Pato’s!” He was guilting him. He didn’t like it that people were doing that. It was a rough time, but I got through it, and I was always able to take falls. Then Saito Sensei started using me a lot for uke. He took Hitohiro, Saito Sensei’s son – he and I were around the same generation, and we were kind of like brother and sister – and me to Rinjiro Shirata’s dojo when I was done my time as uchi deshi and he said, “Hitohiro, I’m going to use you the first day for bokken and the next day, I’m going to use Pato for jo.” He was always like that with us; he would do it half and half kind of thing. We just had an amazing time because there were temples everywhere. There were like a hundred temples on this property. Rinjiro Shirata was famous; a prewar practitioner, probably ninth dan. He was amazing. While we were doing this seminar, he and Saito Sensei would be training together. He and Saito Sensei were really good friends, and he was showing him weapons. I remember, to me, he was this really old guy, and was amazing. He had us stay in his house and really took care of us. It was just very special.

We had a bunch of parties. Back in the old days, you would sing these aikido songs, like “Hana no Michi.” There was this man’s song, and then there was this song that was general about the path of aikido. We were partying. Everybody was drinking all the time and I was trying not to drink so much! [Laughs] That was the beginning. And I left Iwama really inspired. I had come back to the States and the training partner who broke my arm had already come back too, so I came back to his dojo, and he used me, and we did many demonstrations together. Especially this one guy, Hawa. He joined the dojo after escaping Vietnam and he was also a really good uke, trained with Seiichi Sugano. He and I took a lot of falls for our teacher and lots of demos.

The martial arts world was different then. It was like we would get together with all these martial artists that would also do demos and they were grand masters. They’re passed away – Professor Wally Jay, Willy Cahill, who I think is still the coach for the world games; Dan Inosonto. We were just part of that original grand master group. It was like the Bay Area was this central place for most of the top Asian teachers; they came there. We had Nidai Doshu. We had Saito Sensei there many times. I helped some people host Saito Sensei in the 1970s. I remember he wanted to do some demo and when a previous uke got busy and he said, “Oh, I’ll just use Pato!” and I had no idea what he was doing; it was really complicated weapons stuff with falls. At first, I was falling on my jo, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I just went up in the air. And after that, Saito Sensei said to another one of his top students, “Oh, she was good. I can use her.” [Laughs] He was always using me for something. In those days, you never saw a woman uke – never. Bob Nadeau had Sue Anna – she was good but didn’t do any weapons. There were a couple of women here and there, but you didn’t see a high-ranking Japanese teacher use a woman. You just didn’t see that. Now it’s changing; it’s finally changing.

MAYTT: You first went to Iwama in 1976, correct?

PH: I got to Japan in September and then when I left, it was about the start of next year’s winter. I didn’t want to do another winter because they are so hard. There’s like one month in spring and one month in fall that it’s pretty good.

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that when you first arrived in Iwama and saw Saito Sensei, he was going to be your teacher. What were your other impressions of him when you first met him?

PH: It was bigger than life. He just seemed to know so many things. He had so many years with O-Sensei, for one thing and he was like a farmer – as was O-Sensei, so they farmed together. So, he was always growing something. One day, I said to him, “Well, I would like to grow something. Can you teach me?” [Laughs] And then he made this little plot with lettuce and tomatoes, which is really easy, and he had me do that. I was young so I sort of didn’t pick the lettuce in time or I did but I didn’t pick enough. Saito Sensei would be like, “You need to pick your lettuce! You need to get your tomatoes!” He was like Miyagi from The Karate Kid – he reminds me of him. One day, after I’d been there for five or six months, there was a light on this other building. We were in O-Sensei’s dojo training and then there was this big building and there was a light there. I forgot to turn it on – it was nighttime. I’d get up at five in the morning, turn the jinja light on and all this stuff. There wasn’t a lot of uchi deshi back then, so I was doing a lot of it. And then I see Saito Sensei looking out, looking at the light not on. [Laughs] He said, “You know, uchi deshi is not about technique as much as it is paying attention to all these little details. And if you don’t have that – for example, the light isn’t on [Laughs] – you don’t really have aikido.” It really stuck with me; it really did. I felt so bad.

There would be things like that that he would do, kind of being hard about stuff. Then, once you got it, he was good. Even if you made a mistake, he would say, “Well, try this.” You would do it and then he would go, “Oh, that’s good. That’s fine.” Sometimes he was impatient, but he had a lot going on. He was running O-Sensei’s dojo. When I met him, it was about eight years after O-Sensei passed away, so he was still grieving in a lot of ways. He had used to being with O-Sensei. he was able to do so much. He was farming, he was fixing the machines – we had all these old machines from O-Sensei, and half the time they weren’t working. Once in a while, because I had worked so much with my grandfather, I could kind of fix the machine in a way that he couldn’t. It was probably luck. After a while, he’d say to me, “Pato, you try it. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

Saito (left) applying a sankyo on Hendricks (right).

He was really encouraging. He was the right balance. From the time I met him until right before he passed away, he was pretty much the same with me. He always had faith in me – he had other students like that too. They were mostly men, and they were in Europe, Australia, or wherever. He had confidence in his students, but he was hard on other styles. He would get frustrated because he had a certain way that he had learned from O-Sensei and then everybody was going their own direction. Now, I was used to that because, in the Bay Area, I saw all these different styles, and I was part of the AANC, Aikido Association of Northern California with Doran Sensei and Bob Nadeau, and I just thought that’s how it is. I would go to Hombu every now and then, and then I saw that was all different, but sometimes it was a little bit too harsh. Even though I was young, I would say to myself, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to teach like that.” Sometimes the Japanese culture can be a bit punishing, so I didn’t want to do that as a teacher. I felt like my thing was encouragement. Even in Iwama, there would be people that would come, but I would just be sempai and my way of dealing with the uchi deshi was more compassionate. That was just my way. He was okay with that because I would gather everybody and say, “We’re going to do this project and clean everything and it’s going to feel good!” [Laughs] At first, they didn’t want to do it.

So, Saito Sensei, he was a mix. A lot of Japanese were afraid of him. A lot of the guys were so afraid of him because whatever he got from O-Sensei – O-Sensei was really fiery, really tough – he kind of got that from O-Sensei. Nidai Doshu was different. He was more scholarly and very calm. But Sandai Doshu, the one I kind of grew up with too, he’s a mix. He’s sort of athletic and very balanced in the way that he deals with the students. I feel Saito Sensei was too; it’s just that he can be kind of scary if you didn’t know him. For me, he was like my grandfather, so I didn’t bother with it. [Laughs] I would translate, and he would say, “Ask the uchi deshi if they have any brain cells working.” [Laughs] And I thought, well, that’s a hard thing to say. So, I would say to the uchi deshi, “He wants you to pay attention.” Then he would say to me, “You didn’t translate that!” and I’d go, “Yeah. I didn’t. I didn’t want to say that.” We’d go back and forth.

I remember this one group came from New Zealand and there was a lot going on at the same time and they entered through O-Sensei’s entrance, which is where Saito Sensei entered also. They were going up there through that entrance. I was busy so I shouted over, “Hey! Don’t go in that entrance. That is Saito Sensei’s entrance.” The guy just said, “Fuck you, bitch!” He really was terrible. Then I had to think, even though I am senior to him, I have to figure out a way to work it out. I let a day go by and we were there, eating. Most of them left and I said to him, “Hey, so about the way that I told you. I must’ve sounded kind of short.” Something along those lines. “But to tell you the truth, I just need help in the dojo.” Then he completely changed. Then, since he had a whole group there, they’d help me do everything! They were mechanical and all kinds of things. Then I just learned slowly how to deal with the uchi deshi. They were a lot harder than Saito Sensei; Saito Sensei was fine actually. When there were thirty people there, you can imagine that they don’t know what to do; they don’t know they need to take their shoes off here.

MAYTT: It sounds like you have a lot of stories and memories during your time with Saito Sensei. What others stick out for you as being the most memorable?

PH: Another time was when I was there later. [Laughs] There was a bucket outside, it had Japanese written on it, and everybody thought that’s how we washed our feet. I had just come back to Iwama. I was back for the day and was going to stay for a month. Saito Sensei – he had nobody to translate before I came there, so he was kind of frustrated, having trouble getting people to listen to him. They were all foreign. Saito Sensei looks out and says, “What’s with that bucket out there? What are you using that for?” I’m translating and the one guy goes, “Oh, we’re going to wash our feet. Saito Sensei was trying to contain himself. “Wash your feet? Didn’t you read what it says? It says, ‘For food only.’” Then he said, “There are many levels.” This is true; there are rags that you use to clean the jinja. There are the rags that wipe the tables. There are rags that are when you spill something or wash dishes, or you’re down on the floor, cleaning the most terrible stuff up. Everything has levels. He’s saying that and he’s getting madder and madder. When he would lose his temper, it was pretty bad, but I was kind of used to him, so I really didn’t care. Oka-san, his wife, comes past and Saito Sensei goes to her, “You know what the uchi deshi did?! They did this!” She goes, “Ahhhh, it’s fine!” He then went, “Ugh! This stupid bucket!” So, he took a jo and hit the bucket – he didn’t do it on purpose – and it went past Oka-san. She turns around and blows it off. She’s not afraid of him at all. Actually, he was more afraid of her, most of the time! [Laughs]

She was this little Japanese woman, and she would go off on Saito Sensei, “You’re not doing this! You’re not treating the uchi deshi right!” I would come there, and she would tell me all of the complaints and I was supposed to do something about it, but I never said anything to him. I tried not to do anything to get in between. She was strong. She was O-Sensei’s wife’s best friend. When O-Sensei’s wife passed – because they were all there together. Oka-san and Hatsu, they would do most of the gardening, most of the crops. I think Saito Sensei and O-Sensei did the rice and that was their only way of making money. They were poor – definitely poor. She had learned from O-Sensei’s wife all the things and she was so happy when I was there because there were things that females do. So, the wife of O-Sensei and the wife of Saito Sensei would do all the shrine things and put the vegetables on these things called sambos – you would put vegetables on these sambos and offer it to the Aiki Jinja. She taught me how to do that and I was so grateful that I could learn all that. But she was tough. When Saito Sensei would get in a bad mood, then she would come over.

I remember one time, Nidai Doshu was coming on December fourteenth, which is a day for a ceremony, and we were at the jinja training. I hear Oka-san say, “Hey! Oto-san! Did you get the fish for Doshu?” He liked this specific fish that I think O-Sensei ate. “Did you get the fish?” And [Laughs] Saito Sensei goes, “I’m not listening to that old biddy! Doesn’t she know that I’m –!” And he’s talking in Japanese, so no one really understanding him except for me. “I’m not going to listen to what she has to say!” So he finishes demonstrating and I see him thinking. He comes over to me and goes, “Pato! I gotta go get the fish!” [Laughs] “Can you take class for a few minutes while I go down to the store?” And he goes running off to get the fish! [Laughs] There were many times like this, and I thought, I know who runs things! [Laughs] And Nidai Doshu loved it when Oka-san was there.

Saito in the middle of executing a technique on Hendricks.

One time, when I was first there, Danny Russel was an uchi deshi. Russel is a person who was uchi deshi and soto deshi and he had this meteoric rise in politics. He got connected with Mike Mansfield, with the Japanese embassy, then he went on to work at the United Nations, then he was at a consulate, an embassy, when 9/11 happened, and he called all the consulates and kept them safe. He was the director of the security council for Japan and Korea. Then when Barack Obama took office, he became the director of all the countries. So, he always said that Saito Sensei was the reason why he could rise in politics in a good way. He actually told Obama many times about aikido. And we kept in contact. Every time Hitohiro and I would be together, Danny would try to make contact with us. He stopped aikido, which is unfortunate, but then his son did aikido.

Anyway, he was soto deshi at the time and Saito Sensei came in, lamenting, “Oh, I have to cut the grass. It’s going to take forever!” The grass was growing long in Iwama. I said, “Oh, I’ll do it!” “No! women can’t do that! You cannot possibly use the machine!” I was disappointed. He would throw me around and then there were other things he would say, “Oh, that’s not for women.” So, Danny said, “I’ll show you how to use it. Don’t worry about it.” The next morning, we got up early, he came over, showed me how to use it, and since Saito Sensei wasn’t around, I was cutting the grass all by myself for hours and hours because there was a lot of grass. And then I saw Saito Sensei towards noon going to the shokudo, where we eat. I was thinking, “Oh, he’s going to wait for me and then yell at me because I didn’t do what he said.” He comes out – this is the part of him that’s amazing; I was young, and he knew me only like six months, but he was with me every day – and said, “Oh, Pato. I made you soba [noodles]. I made you lunch. Thank you so much for cutting the grass.” That was amazing for an old, very traditional Japanese man to respond like that. Normally, they would say, “This is wrong! And I told you!” All that. I was really surprised. Then after that, he was okay with me cutting the grass and doing other things.

Another time, we had a big group and there were a lot of women, thank God. [Laughs] This was more in the 1980s and there were a lot of women that came. I was real happy. He had to leave and go cut some branches – do some kind of farm work – in the middle of class, and then we would come back. Or a phone call would come, but he was always there in class, so it was okay to do that. He said, “Well, you guys are doing sacrifice throws for the kaeshi, so it’s a little bit dangerous. All the girls go with Pato and then guys, you all train together.” I was like, “Oh my god. We’re not doing that.” So, he leaves, and I was sempai and I go, “Everybody! Change partners! Men go with women and women go with men. And if they can’t fall, you gotta figure that out!” He comes back after ten minutes. He looks around and I can see him thinking, “I know Pato did this.” He calls me up for uke for the next technique, he does it really good – he doesn’t try to kill me or anything – then he comes over to me, “The girls are doing fine.” [Laughs]

We just had this daughter-dad kind of thing that we had. I learned so much from him and then he was willing to change a little bit. To the very end, he was just great. He was a really good teacher, but most of them drink way too much. That’s part of it. I love the present Doshu, but I’m worried that he parties a lot. [Laughs] Because I hosted him in 2019. I had to take care of him the whole time and I felt bad because, “Hombu Dojo told me you can’t drink so much. Parties can’t go so late.” I felt that he was bored, but we took him to all of these touristy places, and he was happy with it. But the last night he wanted to do karaoke and stay up late, but if I let him do that, I’m going to get into so much trouble with Hombu Dojo, so I did a mix. Most foreigners are not so much. I mean, the Swedes can really drink. I have students in Sweden and Russia, and they drink a lot, but they know how to drink; it’s more for holidays and things like that.

One more story; in the 1980s, I went for about eighteen months. Went with my boyfriend at the time and we were uchi deshi together for two months. He wasn’t so high ranked but very talented. Saito Sensei took him like a son; it was great. Saito Sensei was always trying to be equanimical that Louis Jumonville, who was my top student, would have his own aikido – it wouldn’t be my aikido or something like that. But I never saw him do that with a woman, because, usually, if someone brought their wife, everybody would ignore the wife – I didn’t – and center around the guy. But he changed with that because I was saying that Louis needs his own path, but the wives do too that come here with their husbands.

Anyway, Wushu, the equivalent to Black Belt Magazine in Japan, wanted to interview Saito Sensei. There were a lot of foreigners there. He was using the big European guys because it was going to be in a magazine, and he only used Hitohiro and me only a little bit for the weapons. I said to myself, he’s not going to use me because it’s this magazine – but he’d always use me in class. He probably had to look valid to others. When it was all done – it was in the middle of summer when it was really hot – he said to me, “Pato, don’t change because you need to pour the tea.” They’re all kohai to me and now I’m pouring tea. So, I’m doing that, and the reporter starts asking Saito Sensei questions and he calls out to the guys, but they have already changed, “Come back! He wants to see some other aikido!” But since I had my gi on, Saito Sensei says to the reporter, “Well, I can use this skinny, little, woman to throw, but it won’t be the same.” He proceeds to throw me in everything imaginable for about an hour and a half. I almost died because it was really hot. There were ten foreigners that only had to take the next round, so they had to rest. I had no rest whatsoever, and you can see it from the pictures. There are a bunch of pictures. I look like I’m about to collapse, which I felt like. After that, I thought that none of those pictures would end up in the magazine.

About a month and a half later, Stan was there and asked me if I’d seen the magazine. I didn’t yet, but he had gotten a copy of it. Saito Sensei gets it and opens it up, closes it and puts it on the shomen. Stan was in class. I asked him what that was all about. He goes, “You’re in every picture.” Except for the one with me and Hitohiro together, I was in every picture. Stan said, “Saito Sensei is just going to have to get used to that.” Then, he got calls from all over Japan from his aikido colleagues, saying, “Oh! The word is, that you’re such a good teacher, that you can even teach this small American woman how to do aikido! You must be a great teacher to do that!” Something changed. Then for all the big stuff, like All Japan Aikido Demonstrations, he would choose me. I don’t know why; he just did that. He put me in films, he put me in books. I’m still not sure why he did that, but he kind of figured out that it was okay. I’m always scratching my head about it, why did he do that? Because he wasn’t doing it with any other woman. There were lots of guys that he could have used – and he would use them. I have a guy that takes falls for me that just came to my dojo about six years ago and it’s like a complete meld where I can really do my aikido with him. He’s about thirty. Has unbelievable aikido. He did gymnastics since he was two years old. So, I think I was like that to Saito Sensei, like he could just throw me in anything he wanted to do.

Saito (right) throwing Hendricks (left) during the 1994 All Japan Aikido Demonstration.

This year [2022] is the twentieth of him passing away. Hitohiro’s group in South America, last month, asked him, “Sensei, could you do a whole interview about Saito Sensei? We would like to publish it.” Hitohiro goes, “Yeah. You should ask Pato. She knows more than me. She knows my dad more than me.” [Laughs] They did a whole interview with me, and I haven’t seen it yet, but it might have been published in South America. Hitohiro kept going with me after Saito Sensei passed away. We would do things together; I would host him for seminars. He would change something on the ken tai jo that his dad did, just a small thing to add some interest to it. I would ask, “Where did you get that?” He would say, “Oh, I was watching one of your videos and I took it off the video.” He’s like that towards me but for me, I’ve never seen anybody do the weapons that Hitohiro does. But he’s sort of semi-retiring; I’m not sure what he’s doing. A lot of that generation seems to be going that way. I never expected Danielle to retire but I think I’m pulling her back. And your interview was good for her, because she has a lot to offer the world, it’s just they moved and then Monterey Dojo is still affected by covid. They’re very private now.

MAYTT: In May 2002, your long-term teacher, Morihiro Saito passed. What were your initial reactions and emotions upon receiving word on his passing? How have those in Iwama-ryu carried on his legacy?

PH: He passed on May twelfth. Here’s the interesting thing. I didn’t know that he had passed. We had gone there to say goodbye to him because he had cancer and the doctors said that it had gone too far. But, of course, he said to me, “Pato, I’m going to heal from this. You’re going to come back next time, and you’ll see.” He couldn’t say goodbye and I couldn’t say goodbye either. On the day – I have a pretty big garden in the back for California [Laughs] – I was gardening, and I saw Saito Sensei and O-Sensei in the garden, just in my mind’s eye. And Saito Sensei looked at me and said, “I don’t care how you cut the onion or how you cut with your sword, as long as you do it with awareness, I’m happy.” We’d be cooking and he would tell me, “You have to cut the onion this way!” Five minutes later, Hitohiro would come in and say, “Where’d you learn that? You have to cut it this way.” Then Oka-san would come in and show me another one. But I realized that for both Hitohiro and Saito Sensei, if I just said, “Well, Oka-san showed me to do this,” they wouldn’t have a problem. [Laughs] With the sword, he was very exact.

But he was in the spirit world with O-Sensei. There was a psychic in Iwama, I think she passed away, that Hitohiro went to. Hitohiro and I were both really spiritual, even from a young age. And Saito Sensei, even though he spent all that time with O-Sensei, he was an old-world kind of guy that it wasn’t manly to talk that way, so he didn’t, but I felt that he had it all inside. Definitely when he got older, he was doing almost non-touch throws and things like that – with me anyway. But he didn’t talk about it. So, Hitohiro went to this psychic, and she said, knowing nothing about aikido, “Oh. Your dad has a little old man sitting next to him all the time in the spirit world.” And she described O-Sensei. Isn’t that something? I’m sure he sat with other people [Laughs] but Saito Sensei was so close with him. They were just inseparable. He would say to Saito Sensei, “Your family is my family, and my family is yours.”

I saw that and I didn’t know he passed. Then late that night, someone emailed me asking if I heard about Saito Sensei’s passing. At the time, I didn’t feel anything at the time; I felt sad but also just a little bit relieved that he was out of pain. So, I was happy for him that he was in the spirit world. Then, I was seeing this Old World European homeopathist healer – she was amazing, I went to her, and she was checking me, “Every organ in your body is off. What’s going on with you?” I said, “My sensei passed. I thought I was good with it, but maybe it’s that.” “Oh, okay. I’m going to get some homeopathy. I’m going to put a few drops in your mouth when you lay down, and I want you to try to remember the first time you lost a male figure and how you felt.” Of course, it was my grandfather. I was remembering all this stuff about my grandfather and how amazing he was. He was just very quietly supporting me, like I knew he had my back with everything. Whatever it was; if I was going to take a spelling bee or do some sort of project, or a baseball game. Then she said, “Okay. That’s good with your grandfather. Now I’m going to do the next one.” I just fell apart. I was just crying and crying. [Laugh] I was trying to contain it because it was so much. She walked back in after about twenty minutes and goes, “Oh good! Now you’re processing. Keep going.” And she walked out. [Laughs] She was such an amazing person. Then that was it for me. Every now and then, like if I did a demo like the Aiki Expo.

I still ask him questions. I still ask him for protection on some political things. You just train and train and you’re devoted, but some people don’t know what to do with that or they’re jealous or uncomfortable with the kind of aikido I do. I have no idea. I try to stay back from it, but all of a sudden, that person doesn’t know me, but they have some strange feelings towards me. So, I always have his protection on that. Kind of like an angel in the background. Or I’ll call Danielle. Danielle is still my best friend and like an older sister. I’ll call Danielle when I’m having a hard time; she’ll call me when she’s having a hard time. But I’m like her quintessential little sister like that. She’s always so supportive; “You’re doing this more worldly thing.” She did a lot too before but, right now she’s taking a little bit of a break and I support that. It’s still an ongoing thing. I feel in my dojo, Saito Sensei is there, O-Sensei’s there. I feel that sometimes. I think I was feeling it today. We train in the park, Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was doing warm-ups with a student at the dojo, then went out and taught in the woods, and then I felt like, somehow, they were in the back just hanging around, just O-Sensei and Saito Sensei. I wondered about that, but now since I’m talking to you, it’s because of this interview that they know what I’m doing. Every now and then, they know and send support – something like that. It’s probably why I’m talking about them a lot! [Laughs]

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

[1] Allen Grow subsequently left the area while Bill Witt took over teaching duties during that decade.


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