Interview with Aikido of Kohala Founders Rikko and Kristina Varjan: Aikido, Hawaii, and Kazuo Chiba Legacy, Part I

Kristina Varjan found aikido after watching Koichi Tohei Sensei at a Manhattan high school while Rikko assumed the role as uke during his first-ever aikido demonstration. By the late 1980s, they found Kazuo Chiba Sensei, and enrolled in his Kenshusei teacher program. After four intensive years of aikido, iaido, and zazen, the couple emerged as certified instructors. In 1995, the Varjans moved to the Big Island, Hawaii, establishing their Aikido of Kohala and quickly integrating into the rich martial culture in Hawaii. Today, Kristina and Rikko Varjan took some time to talk about their time in aikido, the art’s history in the Aloha State, and the legacy of Chiba Sensei and his Birankai organization. All images provided by Kristina and Rikko Varjan. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Kristina Sensei and Rikko Sensei! Thank you for joining us!

Kristina Varjan: Thank you for having us.

Rikko Varjan: Glad to be here.

MAYTT: How did you first come to find aikido? What was it about the Art of Harmonizing Energies that ultimately made you stay with it for so long?

Rikko and Kristina Varjan in their Aikido of Kohala.

KV: I can start with that. You might have heard this with other interviews, but I started in 1975. I was in New York and in Paris as a dancer, and I went to a demonstration of Koichi Tohei Sensei at a local high school in Manhattan. I saw the movement and I was so impressed by it and his demonstration. The next day, at six-thirty in the morning, I was knocking on New York Aikikai’s dojo to take class. It was Luqman Hakeem Sensei that was teaching the six-thirty class and that was it; I never stopped after that. I went from there, studying with Yamada Sensei for many years and loving every moment. 

As a dancer, I had explored movement my whole life, so when I saw this demonstration, it changed my view on movement and interaction between individuals. I hadn’t had a lot of experience with other martial arts. I did capoeira for a while – that was while I was doing aikido. But somehow, the interaction between human beings just floored me with aikido; it seemed so deep and so different on many levels – on an everyday basis, how you interact with someone, how, on a spiritual level, you interact with yourself, how you interact with the world. It’s so big. It seemed bigger than anything that I had experienced before.

RV: I discovered aikido in a very interesting way; I saw it for the first time in 1969. I was living temporarily in Gary, Indiana while I was moving into an apartment in Chicago, Illinois and I was working there as a shrink, which is my other profession. I was driving home in Gary, and I passed the old movie theater where we would go to watch movies as kids, and I saw that there was some sort of martial art thing going on. I saw people rolling and falling. I had done karate and boxing back in the day and I love martial arts. I pulled over, went in, and there was this older Japanese man and two of his assistants. I went in and said I wanted to watch the demo. They asked for ukes, and I volunteered, and I got thrown around by this little guy. I was really impressed! [Laughs] I thought, “Wow! This is interesting! I love this stuff; it seems cool; I want to learn it!” I went back there a few weeks later, and they were gone! And I think they might have ended up somewhere in the Midwest, but I never found out who they were, and how to connect with them. I have looked at dojo websites in these areas, but no one is familiar.  Perhaps someone reading this interview will know a Japanese Sensei putting on neighborhood Aikido demonstrations in the Midwest during this time in the later 1960s? 

If so, please reach out to me so I can connect with them and thank them for initially contributing to my Aikido journey.

It wasn’t then until the early 1970s that I met Masahilo Nakazono Sensei in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was my first teacher for a brief period of time before going on to study aiki-jujutsu, and then later studying with Kazuo Chiba Sensei and going through his advanced teacher training program.

Having some martial arts background, I found that aikido reflected what I believed in fundamentally as a psychologist. For the past fifty years, it still is. Aikido continues to reflect these contextual relationships we have with each other in dynamic, harmonious, and peaceful ways. It is also budo. And it involves weapons training as a way to further understand and facilitate the development of our body arts, of aikido. So, aikido continues to encompass a way for me to change – it was, and is transformative in its potential. We encourage our students to embrace this as well.

MAYTT: I talked to someone else who was a therapist, and she said the same basic premise as you; where aikido is reflective of how you interact with people.

RV: As an aside, at one point we did a combination of aikido, psychotherapy, and Feldenkrais sessions. We offered something where students could, for example, do a six or nine-month program of aikido, therapy and functional integration movement sessions as a way to facilitate a unique personal change process.

KV: It was our Kenshusei program with a twist.

RV: Yeah, I like that.

KV: We suggested to some of our students: “You may not like this, but you should do it!” [Laughs]

MAYTT: Between 1989 and 1992, you participated in the Kenshusei program with Kazuo Chiba Sensei at his San Diego Aikikai. What led you to undertake such a rigorous program and how do you feel that experience has helped you better understand and transmit aikido?

KV: In 1989 I was already forty and Rikko was forty-four, so we were already mature adults. We had a family.

RV: And Chiba Sensei was forty-eight.

KV: I personally felt at that point in my life, my aikido had just come to a place where it wasn’t expanding, it was staying in a sphere of just where it was. I wanted to go further. When I asked Chiba Sensei to do the Kenshusei program and he accepted, I thought, “What have I done?” [Laughs] It was zazen, macrobiotic food, weapons, iaido, aikido, morning to night and with seishins – sitting meditation for nineteen hours. It took me further than I thought I could go. It took me further than I expected. My abilities, not just my physical abilities, of being able to go deep into yourself and explore a beautiful quality of connectedness with a martial art, but with other human beings. I’m getting back to that same kind of feeling that brought me to aikido – that feeling of connectedness. So, I think Chiba Sensei’s program was able to take aikido techniques and through total immersion, take you to a place where you became part of the art, not just practice the art. Sometimes it was very intense; sometimes it was overwhelming, but it was truly transformative.

RV: To your point about that, I remember at that time you had the opportunity to choose, either the development of the two dojos in Santa Fe and Albuquerque as chief instructor or go to advanced training in San Diego with Chiba Sensei. And for me, it was an opportunity to train with this amazing master teacher that I had only met a few times. I got to accompany you and when we got to San Diego, taking all the classes, I remember telling sensei I had an interest in the program, and he was open to it. He said, “Well, you’re going to drop everything else you’ve learned and start all over again.” because of my past martial art experiences. I was really excited and open to this. After retesting and training at third kyu, he said, “Alright. You can join the program.” Which happened in a few months. Rather intensive and rapid training – start as a beginner from fifth kyu in three months and put on a hakama, and now you’re part of the Kenshusei program. [Laughs] And then in a year, you test for shodan.

MAYTT: When did both of you meet Chiba Sensei?

KV: I met Chiba Sensei in 1975, six weeks after I started aikido. I went to London for a seminar – I just packed my bags, put my weapons on my shoulder. It was Chiba Sensei and Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei that were teaching the seminar in England. I should have known how intense it would have been for the Kenshusei program because this summer camp was amazingly intense. At that seminar, I definitely saw Chiba Sensei’s soul and how he was able to take you along with his intensity into the depths of aikido. I mean depths in a good way.

RV: I first met Chiba Sensei in the l980s. I think it was around 1985 or 1987 when the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) did their regional seminar – everybody coming together through all of the regions in Santa Fe in 1987. But I had gone to a couple of seminars, locally, where he came to the dojos in Santa Fe or in Albuquerque. He taught me how to do my first proper breakfall and I landed on his foot. [Laughs] That was my introduction to Chiba Sensei.

Kazuo Chiba (seated left) leading meditation at Aikido of Kohala in 2004.

MAYTT: Both are interesting ways you met Chiba Sensei. How did he compare to your previous instructors when you started learning from him consistently?

KV: I started with Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei at New York Aikikai. Whatever your reason for doing aikido, it was the right reason. He was the one who gave me the love of the art in itself, his movements were beautiful and effective, his inclusiveness was beautiful. I had seen Chiba Sensei a lot at the East Coast Summer Camps, so I had time to see him at summer camps, take classes at summer camps, and do more weapons work. So, I think at that point when I saw all these other added things, weapons, iaido and zazen, I thought, “Wow, there’s a wholeness to this that I want to incorporate into myself and my aikido.” I always kept Yamada Sensei close to my heart as my first teacher. Along the way, training with Chiba Sensei, I always let Yamada Sensei know what I was doing, how it was going, and go and train with him whenever I could when I was in New York or go to seminars with him. He was a very important part in my development in aikido.

RV: Chiba Sensei was very supportive of that.

KV: When we had our first dojo, Kohala Aikikai, I wanted to invite Chiba Sensei and Yamada Sensei. Chiba Sensei was very precise about inviting Yamada Sensei first and then he would come after. So, it was all very respectful all along the way.

RV: For me, I think having studied other forms of aikido styles and martial arts before going to San Diego in the 1980s, I was impressed with him as a martial artist and his wholeness about including the things that we mentioned about weapons, zazen; he encouraged us to be curious. He was so curious and very dynamic and very powerful. He was creative as a martial artist. He had that physical vigor, I guess you could call it, about practice. He was a pioneer. I saw this transmission he got from O-Sensei that he was giving us, and that seemed to be full of opportunity and deep potential to study with such an amazing artist and human being. I learned a great deal more than I expected about the teacher-student relationship. A profound sense different from my past experiences as a professor while teaching at the university…a freedom to learn, more holistic. 

MAYTT: Since you touched upon training; Chiba Sensei’s approach to training has been considered by many aikidoka to be hard, rough, and brutal. Would this be an accurate way to describe the training you experienced under him?

KV: I wouldn’t explain it like that. I would say intense. I would say martial. When you stepped on the mat in San Diego Aikikai or in any seminar or class with Chiba Sensei, you were committed. Not that you were literally living or dying, but he had an intensity that nothing else should be happening during that period of time. We never talked on the mat. Our focus was totally there.

RV: He was intense, dynamic, vigorous & rigorous.  He never hurt us. He expected you to let go and give it all, and so did he as well. There were people who found that intensity too much. He established a dojo with an advanced teacher training program in it. So, he had a regular membership with lots of students. And they practiced without that intensity that the teachers got in training. He would teach the beginner’s class. He was a very versatile human being in so many ways, and his aikido was adjusted to the group and to the individual.

KV: With Chiba Sensei, the closer, more connected you are to him as uke, the better. You don’t want to be pulling away. As soon as he felt you pulling away or trying to escape, he was right in there. So, I would say, I wanted to be as close as I could and follow as well as I could to stay safe. Like Rikko said, for some people, that was too intense on many levels. But I never felt Chiba Sensei was out to hurt anyone intentionally. If those incidents did happen, it wasn’t intentionally.

RV: People got hurt for a lot of reasons. People get hurt in martial arts depending on your teacher, the students, the environment, and the situation. But was he out there, intentionally hurting us or any of his students? No, not at all. That’s not what our experience was. For those first four years in the teacher training program, it was about making a commitment, that he asked for, to give it our all, our best, and be there and do it. And he, in turn, would be there for us. And he was, in many ways, in and outside of the dojo. He encouraged family, he encouraged children to practice this. Men and women. A great variety of people and from all walks of life. He was an exceptional teacher and human being in that regard.

MAYTT: How have you seen his approach to training change and evolve over the time you were with him?

KV: Well, he was aging. He was softening. But he never changed his view on intensity or his view on his vision and commitment – that never changed. Never. And his commitment to budo which for him, encompassed everything. It encompassed his health, his ability to eat well, expand our awareness with zazen, explore our martial sides with iaido. That never changed, his intensity to better oneself, to explore possibilities.

RV: Chiba Sensei was dedicated to his master, O-Sensei, and very passionate about aikido as he got from O-Sensei. He was giving us that transmission in his way to us as teachers in training, and to students and teachers within the aikido world. He had that passion, and it was infectious. You didn’t want to stop – he didn’t want to stop. He kept going; we kept going. And here we are – we’re still here…still learning. I think we got something that was very deep and very profound by his unique character as a human being and as a martial artist.

What goes along with that is something that we deeply believe in as we age. We’re older practitioners and we started young. There’s a concept called age-ing to sage-ing, and Chiba Sensei, though he didn’t say that, but he lived that way. As he got older, I’d say, he was even a deeper thinker and philosopher. He was a martial artist, a monk, an artist, a writer and an avid fisherman. He always enjoyed writing essays about so many aspects of aikido and its process, as well as about our training and our growth as aikido practitioners and professional teachers. He was able to express his thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively. He was incredibly absorbing and engaging both on and off the mat! He was all these things and so much more. And essentially very passionate about whatever he was doing.

KV: He also loved farming.

RV: Yes, that too. And a mentor too, with all of his students. He really challenged himself, explored his world, and he was a very good example, always encouraging us to go further.

MAYTT: I see. Throughout your experience, how has Chiba Sensei and his students interacted with the larger aikido community, especially those outside of his sphere of influence? Did he encourage forming bonds with practitioners from other schools, styles, and training methods?

The Kamiza of Aikido of Kohala in 2022.

KV: I remember one specific time when Morihiro Saito Sensei came to California at Bernice Toms dojo, Sunset Cliffs. Chiba Sensei closed our dojo, San Diego Aikikai, and asked us all to go and train with Saito Sensei. It was wonderful. He would also have us reading Saito Sensei’s weapons books. 

RV: He welcomed other students and other teachers with a very open-door policy in his dojo.

KV: If you came into the dojo and wanted to study for a long period of time and you had a different style, you really had to change your style and train the way we did. Otherwise, it would’ve been too dangerous, in that situation, don’t you think?

RV: Yes. Some styles just didn’t fit the way that we were training – maybe they were less dynamic or had different ukemi, so the connectedness varied.

KV: Different ukemi, definitely.

RV: Not to the technique so much, but the ukemi was the deciding factor in the way in which we practiced in Chiba Sensei’s dojo. We continue to practice and improve this kind of ukemi; raising your center, not collapsing, staying connected throughout the technique.

KV: And he really didn’t teach ukemi. You figured it out. So, it was a little different in that way. You had to figure out how we were fitting in with his aikido and with our developing aikido.

But, with the community, even more so with the summer camps, we would invite people to summer camps, specifically USAF senseis. We would invite Yamada Sensei, we would invite people from Europe, people from different organizations, and of course, Shihan from Hombu Dojo.

RV: Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei.

KV: Yes, Tamura Sensei

RV: Akira Tohei Sensei, Shibata Sensei, Miyamoto Sensei, Kurita Sensei and many more.

KV: He never said that we couldn’t go take a seminar or we couldn’t involve ourselves. He never didn’t welcome people from different organizations into the dojo unless there was an issue that had happened where they weren’t respectful. Otherwise, he was open.

MAYTT: I talked with Deena Drake, who’s currently in charge of San Diego Aikikai, and she said from her own recollection that she doesn’t remember much interaction with other outside aikidoka. I know she started with Chiba Sensei in the 1990s,

KV: That was when he was really trying to gather his students at the new dojo, keep them, and develop them as much as possible to his style. 

RV: And then he created Birankai International and all the various groups: Birankai North America here, and then around the world. He was, as Kristina was referring to, gathering his teachers and encouraging them to expand their training and develop their dojos in their communities.

MAYTT: Chiba Sensei founded his Birankai North America in 2000, after serving as the leader of the Western Region of the United States Aikido Federation for nineteen years. From your knowledge, what were the factors that led Chiba Sensei to pursue this course of action?

RV: I was president prior to 2000 of the USAF Western Region. And then Chiba Sensei, in 2000, created Birankai International and Birankai North America. He wanted to gather his students from around the world and encourage them to train and develop their students and their programs. He wanted to put his efforts in a group of teachers and dojos that wanted to go in the direction he was going in. This wasn’t a different school of aikido, but his style that he was teaching. So, this happened at that time, and I became the first president of this new organization; Birankai International and Birankai North America. I would say it was his opportunity to bring everybody together.

For seminars, around the world we would go, the two of us as emissaries. We would go to London, we would go to France, and we would be a part of seminars and do what we can to support everybody. So it was that kind of time where there were so many dojos and so many students that were following Chiba Sensei, he was trying to get them under one umbrella and encourage the energy of each other – different cultures, different countries that colored and influenced each other around the world so that things were never one set way. However, it was still keeping together what he got from Hombu Dojo and O-Sensei. He without doubt wanted to preserve that.

KV: Again, his aikido was a little different from Hombu – and so I think at that time in his life, he was realizing that he wanted to leave something that was him – really his aikido.

RV: His style.

KV: If you look at each Shihan that got sent to spread aikido internationally, they all had different flavors of their personality. I think it was a time, around 2000, that his aikido was evolving in a way where he wanted to have that style and his teachers to have that style.

RV: To your point about that, he definitely, because of his development of his style- his aikido incorporating weapons works and bokken, jo, zazen, and iaido – to learn how about the arts and how to improve it, his focus was to study all these things to improve aikido, not just to become a master of iaido or zazen. It was the practice and training in these various arts and incorporating them to enhance the study of body arts. So, around this time in 2000, he wanted to bring his organization together, to preserve it more, and work on further developing it for people who wanted to go in that direction around the world.

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.

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