I started my Aikido in a dojo, that was in SAFRA Bukit Merah. Back then the Dojo was a permanent room with about 30-35 tatami mats, real straw mats, seasoned from countless of absorption from slams and other bodily impacts. Because the dojo was a permanent facility in SAFRA Bukit Merah, it houses many fixtures, such as a weapons rack, to place all our Jos and Bokkens. There was a place for shoes, and a small corner for visitors sit on the carpeted floor and decided if our dojo was the one for them to join.
Before class begins we would mop the mats with cloths, after the class ends, we would mop the mats as well. to make our lives interesting would be one fo the senior belts, Soh. He would be at the pail, inspecting our cloths after we’ve squeezed them dry, or so we thought, no matter how dry we wick our cloths of water, he will still be able to get a few more drops out of it, just to prove that we didn’t squeeze it hard enough. Soh, would also haggle us to pay our fees, mark our attendance, take our gradings, put our footwear in order. Overall, he’s a really, really nice guy, superb Aikidoka as well. He is the strictest, nicest disciplinarian I’ve ever met.
Back then in the dojo, we students would have some time to do our own warm ups while we chatted amongst ourselves a bit, before the start of the class. and then chat a little after class, or practice some techniques on our own. the dojo had a sense of identity a place we can call out own, where everyone puts on their Gis for only one reason, to better ourselves in Aikido, through training and hard work. I can never forget the feeling of tatami mats, the smell of the straw, musky from absorbing the sweats and occasional blood from training.
Nowadays, with the aid of technology, a lot have changed when we speak of a ‘dojo’. gone were the tatami mats, as they were made of straw, hence hard to maintain and expensive to buy and replace. so thick foam mats has become the ubiquitous answer to the modern tatami. It is not that is not good, it’s just that the feeling is never the same. With the jig-saw puzzle design, placing many of these foam mats together can help to convert a ordinary place like a void deck into a training place. it has been a boon to many community centres who cannot commit just one room to be turned into an exclusive Aikido dojo. It has been a boon to many instructors unable to commit a fixed cost to renting a full fledge dojo, but still continue to practice the art simply but putting a few foam mats together.
Most students who has never experienced training in a proper dojo will not know the feeling of having a sense of belonging to a specific place and dojo. the dojo, in the Japanese sense, is a place of worship, very much like a temple. to cleanse the spirit and purify the soul. I don;t know much about that, but it cultivated in me a sense of loyalty and responsiblity. Because the dojo was permanent, so we have to be conscientious to make sure that it is sustainable for new students to join. We have to keep it clean and neat so that visitors can feel welcome. in short we treated it like our home because it was a place we need to feel comfortable training in. a dojo is simply not a place where you come and go. learn your stuff, pack your bags and come back some other day. there in that particular spot , you hurt yourself badly, the other place, you almost slipped because of someone else’ sweat. a dojo that stays, grows on you. Nowadays, the feeling has become more nomadic, mats joined together for class and taken apart after that, as if the dojo has never been there in the first place. how can such a dojo function as a place for spiritual cleansing? How can we students hand around after class to learn and experiment a few more tricks of our own?