For the novice, the variety of budo can be bewildering. Judo focuses on neutralizing opponents by throwing and pinning them to the floor. Karate emphasizes the concentration of all one's strength into a devastating blow. Jujitsu, a system devised by samurai, uses painful holds to force an opponent into submission. But if these seem too belligerent, there is another way—that of aikido.
Aikido's founder was Morihei Ueshiba, a compact man who drew on ancient jujitsu styles and began perfecting his art in pre-World War II Japan. It's claimed he once pinned a famous sumo wrestler to the ground using just one finger. While that may be something of a fable, it neatly illustrates aikido's core philosophy—overcoming opponents without doing them dire physical harm. As an added benefit, aikido is also effective training for strength, flexibility and posture. Today, dozens of schools, called dojo, continue Ueshiba's teachings throughout Japan. If you're planning to spend any length of time in the country, why not try it for yourself? To hit the tatami mats, you'll need keikogi, the pajama-like training wear (about $75), a reasonable degree of fitness, and, as Peter Rehse, a Canadian teacher of aikido in the city of Himeji, advises, "an open mind. Leave all your preconceptions of martial arts at the dojo's door." Check out these recommended schools:
Students stay on their toes when chief instructor, Tetsuro Nariyama Shihan, is teaching. The dojo, tel: (81-6) 6622 2046, is open daily, and offers guidance on technique as well as randori, a type of freestyle sparring special to the shodokan variant of aikido. It costs $55 to join, plus a monthly fee.
• KYOTO: Butokuden Budo Centre and Butokuden Gymnasium
When not echoing with the grunts and shouts of judo and kendo competitors, this grand 100-year-old wooden pavilion hosts classes in shodokan aikido. They are taught by the formidable Nariyama Shihan; tel: (81-6) 6622 2046. Enrolment fee is $55, plus monthly dues.
• HIROSHIMA: Hiroshima International Dojo
Join housewives and school kids as they perfect their joint locks and breakfalls at evening classes held in a spacious high school gymnasium, tel: (81-82) 211 1271. Three foreign instructors, including International Aikido Federation chairman, Peter Goldsbury, provide individual attention. Membership is about $16 a month, but classes are free to prospective students.
• TOKYO: Roppongi Yoshinkan Aikido Dojo
Housed in the suitably named Bodyplant building, this 40-mat dojo, tel: (81-3) 5772 2791, is run by two self-confessed "Tokyo lifers"—a Canadian and an Australian—each with 20 years of martial-arts training. Students study the yoshinkan style, which emphasizes aerobic exercise and mental discipline. Lessons (in English and Japanese) are about $16 for visitors and $10 for regulars.