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

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

MAYTT: That is an interesting start. In 1995, you founded Kohala Aikikai and Aikido of Kohala on the Big Island of Hawaii. How did you come to found this dojo? 

The Kamiza of Aikido of Kohala in 2022.

RV: We started our first dojo here in 1995. And it has two names for different reasons, but they are one in the same.

KV: We moved from New Mexico to the Big Island of Hawaii.

RV: We have family and friends that are living here from New Mexico, so we fell in love with it, first of all. I just remembered this: our good friend from New Mexico was the karate instructor here in Kohala – this is the north end of the Big Island. And so, we would come and stay with him. He would be teaching karate classes at the local gym and, as his friend and guests, he would have us teach aikido in his dojo at the community center. We loved it – we were well-received, got in touch with the history of aikido on the big island and throughout Hawaii. That time was part of a synergistic process connecting with people and martial arts in Hawaii. And we fell in love, of course, with this place, the people, the culture, and the stimulating environment. We bought land and decided to move out here, opening our first full-time dojo after coming out of the Kenshusei program.

KV: So, the building that our dojo has been in for 26 years is a Buddhist temple, it’s a Shingon Buddhist Temple. O-Sensei’s family belonged to the Shingon tradition of Buddhism. When we saw that there were no other dojos in this little town, we were in the right place at the right time to be part of this community. And traditionally, temples here in Hawaii have often been connected in ways to judo, karate, and aikido, and typically held classes in their community centers.

RV: For example, during the 1950s, Koichi Tohei Sensei introduced aikido to folks on Maui.

RV: But judo and karate before that.

KV: That connection has always been really nice here.

KV: We would visit other temples around the island, meet other martial arts teachers, and look for mats to borrow until we purchased our own. We did have rugs and a few gymnastic mats that students could roll and fall on. [Laughs]

RV: Our dojo is in the temple’s community hall and is part of four connected buildings established in 1915. The community hall is where weddings, celebrations, bon dances, and births were celebrated in a typical Buddhist community hall. Next door is the Buddhist temple and the monk’s cottage and community kitchen next to that. So, we live on the grounds here. We’re the caretakers and teachers here. So back in 1995, we met the monk then, and he still is the Buddhist priest here. I remember asking him if we could open an aikido dojo here. We had mentioned the history and connection of the founder of aikido, O-Sensei, and his family having belonged to a Shingon sect of Buddhism. The priest would rent us the community hall but would not take any fees for renting the dojo space. So, we had to struggle with that, and in the end do as much maintenance of the entire property as possible. So, we decided that for the following two years, we would not charge membership fees for the community. This was a reasonable exchange for him, and people got to practice aikido for free and help with the care of the temple. We slowly convinced him to take money after about two years, and then more when we became more familiar and established. So, it’s developed over the years and now we take care of each other, but that’s how it started. It’s all very synchronistic. Two years ago, we received a large grant by a local historic foundation to repair and restore this 100-year-old temple!

KV: So, the community here in Kohala is diverse, and comprises many cultures in addition to Hawaiian culture. Many Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, and Chinese families came and settled here in the mid-1800s. These families came here to build the irrigation waterways, and to work in the sugarcane plantations. So, there was already the groundwork for temples and Buddhism coming to the island, and having the martial arts associated with the temple’s made sense.

RV: We would have students coming in after taking a few classes saying to us, “I got this from my auntie.” “I got this from my uncle.” “Look at this, this is a picture of my grandpa driving O-Sensei around in 1962 when he came here!” Then someone else would bring in a poem that was signed by Koichi Tohei Sensei that he wrote in the 1950s on the back of a napkin. Then someone would come in with a picture with about fifty or eighty people on the mat with O-Sensei in the middle when he came to the gym near here and did a demonstration. [Laugh] So we would gather all this memorability and this history, and it just kept growing – the recognition, the affirmation, and the support that mutually was going back and forth between us and the community and what we were doing kept growing in a natural, organic way. No ads, it’s all word of mouth. Very low key, and it continues to be like that. It’s doing aikido on a south pacific island in this environment, and the peoples from different cultures that inhabit each island – very special.

MAYTT: It sounds like you have a really nice, interconnected community there!

KV: It is, and we’ve started to get back together after Covid with training and seminars. 

MAYTT: When you both became instructors at Aikido of Kohala, how have the new roles and responsibilities that come with running a school impacted your perspective on aikido?

KV: For me, it just expanded my awareness of individuals and how you really have to look at each individual person and how they’re absorbing the art. Just like in dance or Feldenkrais work that I do with students or expressing the type of movement, it may change from sharing that with one student to another to another. And being flexible enough to not expect everyone to do everything the same way. So, I think having a student body really helps you expand that ability and keep your own way of teaching available and flexible.

RV: I think that from the beginning since 1995 when we opened our dojo, we had good models with Chiba Sensei and other senseis that we knew and were exposed to, both on the mainland and in Europe as well. I think coming to a small South Pacific Island that was diverse in cultures, we did our best to integrate where we were coming from and what we trained and learned in aikido to what was going on here and to embrace the people and their cultures here. It matched and it made it a nice transition, being part of this Shingon Buddhist temple and being an integral and available part of the community of – maybe then – about 5,000 people or less. Now, there are maybe more than 6,000 people here. And so, I guess the roles and responsibilities of running a dojo in this community and culture felt pretty much like doing it in New Mexico, in some way, but much richer here because of the broad and various cultures.

KV: It just goes to show you how big aikido is. How big the heart of aikido is if you reach people from all over the world, and also in a small community where that diversity is able to express itself and expand to the needs of different diverse communities.

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

MAYTT: Hawaii is the midway point between East Asia and the United States, creating a vast and diverse community of martial arts. How have you seen aikido grow in the Aloha State and who do you feel have been major proponents of the art in the state?

KV: Here on this island, there are about five or six dojos, maybe seven. But three major ones: Aikido of Hilo on the east side of the island with Barbara and Bob Klein Sensei’s. They have had their dojo for thirty-five years and they’re directly connected to Hombu Dojo. They’ve been representatives of aikido on the island for many years. Then Sharon Gilbert and Bill Stockton Senseis in Kona on the west side, which is another big dojo.

RV: And then we’re on the very north end.

KV: It’s like a dynamic triangle made on the island. And then there are smaller dojos that are offshoots of Barbara’s and Bob’s and Sharon’s and Bill’s. But they are the main ones.

RV: We’ve been doing friendship seminars for forever, back and forth. And we’ve been attending each other’s seminars.

KV: For twenty-five years, it’s been this big community. We would go to seminars on other islands, and train at other dojos that are not at all Birankai dojos.

RV: At least every year, for example with the Klein Senseis on the Hilo side of the island, they would always have a Hombu Dojo guest Shihan teach for a long weekend.

KV: Suganuma Sensei has been here on the island many times from Fukuoka, Japan. Doshu has been here. Waka Sensei has been here. I don’t think any of us ever miss any of those seminars. It’s such a treat. 

RV: O-Sensei when he first left Japan, the first place he arrived on was this island which was on his way to Oahu where they had just built and dedicated the Wailai dojo in his honor in 1961. So, there’s a long tradition. Shihan would come to Honolulu and then stop here or the other way around because there’s always this interchange of teachers between Hawaii and Japan and that dojo that was built in honor of O-Sensei when he came here that one time.

MAYTT: You bring up the friendship seminars. How are they received amongst the different styles of aikido?

KV: I think they’re very positive. I mean, when we’re teaching, people are doing what we’re doing for technique or ukemi or whatever our instruction as being Chiba Sensei’s students. And when Barbara or Bob Klein Sensei’s teach, it’s very Hombu style. Or if we’re doing weapons, it may be more Iwama style, and then we can pass on Chiba Sensei weapons to them.

RV: It’s clear from the very beginning, twenty-six years ago when we came on the island, that there’s a respect in going to each other’s dojo and following what the teacher is teaching.

KV: And learn from each other.

RV: And not do what we just do at our dojo. That’s just been the way. It’s been this cooperative, collaborative spirit and that is, for us, also reflective of what we got from Chiba Sensei.

MAYTT: I am glad there is that level of respect between everybody.

KV: Everywhere, you do find politics everywhere in the aikido world. I’m a believer in learning; it’s a lifelong commitment. That’s how big aikido is and if we stay within the confines of our own, we become limited. Opening up to other things; I might not change how I do something, but I want to explore and experience it. 

RV: Because it might contribute to an interesting experience or a significant change in our growth process. We can value both how we are similar and appreciate how we are different.

KV: What’s the old cartoon? There’s two or three aikidoka on the mat and one of them says, “This is how ikkyo is done.” The other goes, “Well, that’s not how my sensei does it.” [laughs] You have to let that go and keep learning from each other.

MAYTT: What would you say was the defining characteristic of Chiba Sensei both on and off the mat?

RV: How passionate he was about aikido, number one. Number two is his openness and his commitment to training teachers, for starters.

KV: I think also his openness to women becoming teachers and women opening their own dojos, where, sometimes I felt the other shihans maybe didn’t pick that up as early as Chiba Sensei did. Maybe now they’re catching up. I feel like he had a respect for women that really encouraged them to advance in the art.

RV: We mentioned his physical vigor, but he was so sincere and authentic in his practice and teaching. The fact is that when we came into being his students, he was already a legendary pioneer and artist in the world, so we were very honored to be in his teacher training program under his tutelage. I found out, “Wow, this man is so curious and so dynamic, and so committed to what was transmitted to him from O-Sensei to us.” It was very much an honor to be in that position with someone like that. So dedicated; so passionate. I loved that he was such a thinker and writer and philosopher as well, and the integration of the different dimensions of study – zazen, iaido, and weapons, diets and fasting, healing. He didn’t stop in what he was exploring for himself and what he could offer for us. He invited Buddhist monks from Japan to run week-end seishins for us which started from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. It was phenomenal – hard to do, difficult and challenging. But all these various things that he did, for example, doing demonstrations; “Alright, we’re going to go demonstrate for a group in San Diego!” and then we would be doing suwari-waza on the concrete in front of some organization. We had some very thin beach mats for taking breakefalls and doing suwari-waza for an hour. It was so challenging, so fascinating. Also, he embraced families – kids, our family. At one point, we had our two daughters there for part of the four years. He was very supportive of that and I respected that so much about him

MAYTT: With all that in mind, how do you feel Birankai North America has sustained and furthered his legacy since his passing?

KV: In many ways, Birankai has created endowment funds, and scholarships; the Mitsuko Chiba Endowment Fund that we had for about six or seven years [as of 2022]. That enables students to go to seminars and train if they can’t afford to go and help students go to summer camps. We helped raise monies for Mrs. Chiba’s family for different things like traveling to Japan, when sensei passed. 

RV: The continuing exchange of teachers in Europe and around the world where there are Birankai dojos and supporting teachers to come to camps and seminars and providing funding and getting donations for helping out dojos. Just in our small organization, we have about 500 members in Birankai North America. It varies from four to five hundred and we have roughly about fifty dojos, and 100 of them are certified teachers. So there’s a big presence of what Chiba Sensei contributed with the development of Birankai in North America. And we’re continuing with this.

Rikko and Kristina Varjan in their Aikido of Kohala.

KV: He developed the Shihankai with Shihan from the United States as well as from Europe and we’ve been custodians of his style and the art that he passed down to us. So that’s continuing; that’s our job to bring future generations to give them the experience of who he was and what his style was like, what he believed, and passed those things on to keep aikido alive with different viewpoints.

RV: I think to that point, that he made it possible that teachers outside of Hombu Dojo would be recognized as master teachers, as Shihan.

KV: And also, that we continue and keep firm relations with Hombu Dojo. That was part of his request, that he definitely wanted. He was very connected with Hombu Dojo and Doshu’s family, and he believed that his teachers were to keep that good relationship which we do to this day.

RV: Hombu official recognition of the Shihankai continues. We really work hard to get that support and we are continuing that relationship to support the Shihankai. It’s really important. I think that is a major contribution.

KV: Now that Japan is open, we can finally get there again! [Laughs]

RV: [Laughs] That’s right. And take that six-thirty morning Doshu class!

MAYTT: How have you seen the aikido community view and remember Chiba Sensei since his passing? How do you personally remember Chiba Sensei?

KV: He’s with me daily. He’s with me every time I pick up my bokken or my sword or sit zazen.

RV: He’s an integral part of our martial art of aikido. He’s been our mentor. He’s one of the few mentors that we’ve had in our lives. Given that we are living a long life, we’ve had the opportunity to have good teachers, and want to be good examples of teachers to our students. And he gave us that frame of reference. This was a way that we found acceptable; a beautiful way to mentor students, and to do it to our liking as aikido teachers.

KV: When you think of your life and what you’re passing on, I think he would be happy with what he gave us all. He probably didn’t think that he finished it all – that there was of course more – but I think he would be happy with passing on what O-Sensei passed on to him; of friendship, connectedness, and bettering yourself through an art – though a martial art, through budo. I think if you talk to any of his students, you’ll feel that these are essentially the main points. And luckily, we were able to be there and be able to get something out of that teaching, but I think he was also teaching himself, which is what he truly believed in. This is what O-Sensei wanted it to be – have aikido all around the world.

RV: And it was vigorous, and we liked that. And we have our version of how we incorporate that in our life. So, we found a teacher where that matches up with his passionate self and creativity and, who embodied these attributes as a teacher and as a person. It fit for us. It was what we were looking for, so we found our teacher. Now we are doing our best to be an example for our students. We’re very fortunate that we’ve had this relationship and these experiences.

MAYTT: Final question; what would you consider to be the top three contributions Chiba Sensei made to the aikido community, and why do you feel those still have such a great impact? 

KV: The top three…well, I think integrating body arts, weapons, iaido, and zazen and putting together a capsule of these different elements that contribute to making aikido the best it can be.

RV: Within an advanced teacher training program – the Kenshusei program. That’s totally unique, at least for our purposes. And maintaining this close relationship with the aikido world headquarters, Hombu Dojo.

KV: Still being his own person and yet still being connected to Hombu, whose aikido is a little different but was able to do what he wanted to do and still be part of the whole.

RV: I would add another one: he brought teachers and students together from all over the world in a major way. People would come from Europe and study six months; people would come for four months; I mean, people would come for four years, five years, seven years, – people would give up bigger commitments to come and be there for some small or large amount of time. So, if you were not his students in San Diego, but came to our seminars and summer camps at times from year to year, we were able to meet new people from all walks of life and cultures and with various aikido styles. This was a big mix when that happened, and I think you don’t find that always. Chiba Sensei was open and encouraging to students who wanted to learn more about aikido and themselves. That was definitely who he was in the world of aikido.

KV: And he left some wonderful articles and writings of his that are very profound as a contribution to this art. His publications are just amazing.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to join us! This was a great conversation.

KV: Thank you for doing the interview with us.

RV: The pleasure is ours.

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

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


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