This is the second part of the interview with Jelana Vrzić 6th Dan Aikikai. In the first part Vrzić sensei shared with us experience of training aikido in her Belgrade and in Italy in the 1980s. Her passion for aikido and for travels took her to Japan, but 1990s and 2000s have brought different reality and in the second part of the interview you can find out about those times.
Sincere thanks to Jelena Vrzić for all help and for allowing me to reproduce pictures from her personal archive. All images remain the property of the owner.
SA: In the first part of this interview we got acquainted with your adventuristic nature and your love for travel and aikido which took you to Japan. Before we start talking about the trip to Japan, which is the biggest adventure of all, we would like to hear some more stories about the travels to Italy?
JV: Besides the great desire to learn as much as possible about aikido, we also had the pleasure of learning about the new cultures and people. We never had enough money to pay for a hotel, let alone all inclusive one. We had to manage on our own. We travelled by train and changed means of transport, we brought sandwiches and other sustainable food. Drago would take homemade ham which was sent to him by his uncles from Lika and Slavonia. My aunt used to make strudels for us and vegetarians would bring almonds and walnuts.
Drago Bogdanović and I went together to Milano in 1981 for the first time. We went for the sensei Fijumoto’s seminar which was held in a convent, so it wasn’t possible to sleep in the dojo. We had a problem to find an accommodation since I still wasn’t 18 at the time. We finally found a simple bed and breakfast which agreed to take in an under aged woman accompanied by a man (since it is illegal in Italy).
Anyway, we were greatly impressed by Milano. It is a splendid city of great architecture with the Great Cathedral, numerous shops and ancient culture at each and every corner. It was all brand new for us, something sparkling we didn’t have in Belgrade. So we used the day for sightseeing and window shopping, and we went practicing aikido in the evening. When Fujimoto sensei started his own dojo, that’s where we slept. We cleaned the dojo after the training, laid our sacks and the whole place was ours.
SA: It was very usual at the time to smuggle jeans and other clothes, especially from Trieste. Did you ever feel a temptation to do it?
JV: (laugh) I don’t know what to say, except that I never again bought any piece of clothes in Belgrade. It was all cheaper, unique and of better quality in Italy. It was so more beautiful to do shopping there. Crossing the border was a great adventure. Smugglers would wrap lots of pairs of jeans around their waists and hips, fixed those with plastic bags only to put on dresses on top of it. When there was a great coffee shortage in Belgrade, all available corners of train cars were filled with coffee packages. We would travel by train from Milano at night. The border caught us sleepy, and, all of a sudden, you feel stage fright. You’re worried about being searched while border officers are watching you tensely: ‘What have you got to declare?’
It was 1985, I think, when Drago was gifted a katana with scabbard and wooden hilt by Domenico Zucco, which looked like a bokken. We hid it among our other bokkens and jos and, as usual, we had to explain at the border those were wooden tools for practicing. Border officer wanted to examine them and he took the katana. Fortunately, he didn’t understand that there was a blade in there, but he gave us a good chill. Otherwise, we would probably be in trouble.
We usually travelled by train at night from Milano to Venice where we took a direct train to Belgrade. We used to wait for it a couple of hours. Once, we didn’t buy any food or make sandwiches, so we walked around Venice hungry at 4 in the morning. I remember the fantastic smell from bakeries whose doors were locked. And then, on another occasion, we witnessed an incredible firework during Venetian carnival. There are many different memories.
SA: You mentioned Domenico Zucco before?
JV: Yes, Zucco Domenico. We are still very good friends, but, unfortunately, we don’t see each other often. I used to secretly watch his warming up before trainings and his interpretations of Tada sensei’s showings. 1990’s was the time when I couldn’t come to Italy because of the visas, and Japanese senseis stopped coming to Yugoslavia. At the time, Domenico used to hold seminars in Belgrade, bringing the new energy. He hold a rank of 7th DAN, and is a member of the Italian Aikikai.
Drago and Domenico are of the same age and same rank, and Drago and I used to travel together a lot, so we often used to keep company with Domenico. Both of them are great enthusiasts, and both of them used to be ukes to Tada sensei. They used to passionately share impressions about it. I remember Domenico being very sad if he wouldn’t be taken as an uke often enough. We shared strong emotions both in dojo as well as out of it. After two or three weeks of practicing for 7 or 8 hours a day, at 40C, we felt exhausted, so we would lay on grass, after we would drink anything we could get a hold on. You might say we used to be brothers in arms, as well as in revising everything we learned in training. We, also, used to share simple things – a meal and the travel. We didn’t often take enough rest. Instead, we spent our evenings in sightseeing of the cities we visited. There was so much to see which we didn’t want to miss. We used to exhaust ourselves to our very boundaries.
SA: Who else of the same generation of aikidokas in Italy is still an active practitioner?
JV: Along with Zucco Domenico there are Piero Villaverde, Mimma Turco, Roberto Foglietta, Pasquale Aiello, Auro Fabbretti, Carlo Raineri, Rino Bonanoo, Luigi Gargiulo in his generation and also Franco Martufi, Roberto Travaglini ( a Roberto Foglietta,s student) and Donatella Lagorio in mine. They are the people dedicated to aikido and its practicing.
In the first generation of Tada sensei’s students, there was late Giovanni Granone, who was the Chief Editor of Italian Aikikai magazine, which he also founded. He was a dear friend of mine who told me many stories about the aikido beginning in Italy and also about Tada sensei’s starting years in Italy. There was also Paolo Bottoni who was a teenager at the time. He was maturing with the Aikikai together as an official photographer at seminars. He published book of legendary photos for the 50th Anniversary of the Italian Aikikai. Giorgio Veneri was also one of Tada sensei’s students in Italy. He was the main character of the International Aikido Federation (IAF). He organized the Florence seminar – and that’s how we met him. He was a retired Math professor and a communist, so we had all the privileges and the seminar fee discount. He was wonderful. Many of the people from the first generation of aikidokas are no longer with us.
In Rome, we slept in Dojo Centrale. It was really special because all the participants slept on the tatami, except for those who took children with them and slept in tents in the yard. We would wake up in the morning with all others around and greet each other with ‘Buongiorno’. Tada sensei used to have quarters upstairs from the dojo and we were able to see his windows and the moment he leaves, switches off the light and comes downstairs. It was the sign to take seiza.
I’m really close with the people from that generation, but we see each other rarely. Some of them left aikido, others are grand masters now and not allowed to be childish as we used to. I’m doing my best not to give up on being a child (laugh)
SA: What else can you tell us about aikido life in SFRY in 1980s?
JV: A significant part in development of aikido at the time had the summer camp in Krk, Slovenia, held by Fujimoto sensei. Those camps were visited by aikidokas from all the clubs in Yugoslavia, as well as many from Italy. In this way we were training together and making friends with each other for a whole week.
SA: The next logical step was the travel to Japan in 1991. What did it look like at the time? The plan A was to go via Moscow?
JV: I graduated from University at the time. Since I was promised a steady job, I left the Faculty of Sports, which I entered after the graduation. However, that never happened and, since I had nothing better to do, I decided to go to Japan. I was 28 and I couldn’t speak English very well. I knew even less about Japan, but I wanted it so bad. My heart desired to find out the way they do aikido in Japan and in Hombu dojo, but above all to see the dojo where Tada sensei practiced (Gesoji dojo).
Before 1991, I think none of the Yugoslav aikidokas, except Ljuba Vračerević maybe, travelled to Japan. I know Jovica wanted to go, as we all did, but I was the first to dare. At a Belgrade seminar I told to Fujimoto sensei ‘Sensei, I’m going to Japan. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there, I’m staying indefinite time.’ So, he asked: ‘Are you staying with anyone there? Have you got any reservations?’ When I answered negatively, he told me: ‘You’re crazy. I wouldn’t dare!’ I told him that it was a question of my samurai development and, later, he gifted me an Interrail ticket for all the trains in Japan during two weeks. Intercity transportation is very expensive in Japan. For example, a ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs 200€ to 300€ today. So now you can understand how valuable gift it was since I could use the ticket to travel around Japan on any train for two weeks!
Since I wasn’t busy and had tons of adventurer spirit, I wanted to go to Moscow so I could start my journey on Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok (which takes three weeks), where I would embark a ship to Yokohama and then take a train to nearby Tokyo. In the beginning of the 1990s, Ante Marković was the Prime Minister, and we were in a very good financial situation, so such a journey was affordable.
However, people in Russia weren’t in such a good situation. The Soviet Union was falling apart. There were much misery, anarchy and famine. I was welcomed in Moscow by an elderly lady, who was an acquaintance of my father’s friend and to whom I delivered a package of food. At the time, foreigners weren’t able to buy a train ticket in Russia, so I was supposed to meet an another lady who was supposed to get me the ticket, but she never showed up. I spent a few days with the lady who welcomed me and when I realized that I had no chance of buying the ticket, I went back to Belgrade. I took a plane to Narita (the international airport in Tokyo) via Copenhagen.
I arrived to Tokyo in the evening. I will never forget that evening. It was the end of March and it was raining. I got off the bus from Narita to center of Tokyo (Shinjuku). I got kicked out of taxi three times because I couldn’t speak Japanese. At the time very few people spoke English in Japan. Finally, I found a taxi willing to take me to Tokiwa hotel (whose address was the only one in Tokyo I had). Unfortunately, they didn’t want to take me in there because I had no reservation. I spent the whole night wandering from a hotel to another since none of them wanted to have a foreigner without a reservation. It was raining and I was walking looking for an accommodation carrying around 60 kilos of baggage in my hands, on my back and around my neck. Wheeled suitcases were quite a rarity in those days. To make the story worse, I slipped and fell down to my knees. I was reminded of the moment every time I looked down at my black and blue knees and every time I did suwariwaza on hard tatami in dojo.
After many hours of searching, I was offered a help from a young man. He knew I wasn’t able to differ usual hotels from those which, in fact, were bordels, despite their names. However, he wasn’t much luckier, so, around midnight, he honestly said: ‘All is left for me is to offer you to sleep at my place. I live with my brother, his wife and children. We are from Korea. Otherwise, I have to go.’ It was a tough decision, regardless of the young man’s kindness. To go with a stranger to his apartment in a foreign city was a great risk. It would be very difficult to find me since no one knew where I was. My hosts and I were all very worried and we all spent the night in a very light sleep. Still, after two days I was able to have a shower, to have a meal at a table and to stretch myself on tatami. It was a genuine Eastern hospitability.
SA: You went to Hombu dojo first thing tomorrow. What was training like in Hombu at the time? Were you the only foreigner or there were more of them?
JV: There were several foreigner uchi deshies in Hombu dojo at the time. I remember a Canadian and an American, others were Japanese. I think Sensei Tissier left Hombu dojo a while before that.
I was lucky to have the first training in Japan with Yamaguchi sensei. However, the first impression was quite the opposite. When I entered Hombu dojo and gave my yudansha card at the reception desk, I asked about the first next training and the sensei holding it. The young man working at the reception desk (one of the uchi deshies) pointed at the person standing by the desk. It was a middle-aged man in a cloud of smoke, who was drinking coffee and speaking in a hoarse voice as if from the belly of the earth. The receptionist said: ‘The training will be held by Yamaguchi sensei’. Still, Yamaguchi sensei showed incredibly deep knowledge on tatami and he did aikido wonderfully. When I asked about the accommodation after the training, they sent me to the hotel I checked first after my arrival. I only needed to give them the password ‘aikido’ to get an accommodation since the owner was a member of Hombu dojo (laugh).
SA: Who were the teachers giving trainings in Hombu dojo in those days?
JV: They were some of the best teachers in the world. There was Osawa sensei senior, who was the head instructor in Hombu dojo while Osensei was still alive, then Tada sensei, who was still teaching in Hombu dojo at the time. That’s when Kishomaru sensei was still alive and was giving the first training in the morning. I knew Yokota sensei from Belgrade and Milano, who was the best uke in the world at that moment (he was doshu Ueshiba Kishomaru’s uke). There were also Watanabe sensei and Masuda sensei, as well as many others who were Osensei’s direct students and who possessed great knowledge and experience.
Ueshiba Moriteru was still a young man at the time, in his thirties. When I came back to Hombu after 14 years, he approached me, asked me about my residence and whether I was in Japan for the first time. When I answered that I was in Japan in 1991, he laughed and said: ‘Oh, I was still a young man then!’
SA: What was the difference between aikido here or in Italy in comparison to the aikido in Japan? How did Japanese treat foreigners?
JV: There weren’t many foreigners visiting Hombu at the time. People didn’t use to travel as much. The ticket to Japan was extremely expensive. I remember paying the two way ticket around 1500 Deutsch marks ( approx. 1500€ today). Very few people flew there.
It is a very interesting sequence in expressing welcome in Hombu dojo. At first, the oldest among them, those who were probably in Hombu since the day it was founded, approach to get to know you during exercising. Next are elderly ladies, and only afterwards, when your level and skills are noticed, you get approached by preeminent members of Hombu dojo. I spent great deal of time practicing with Fujimaki Hiroshi sensei, who just started as uchi deshi to Hombu at the time. We both had 3rd DAN. I also practiced a lot with Irie Yobunoshi sensei. I knew him from Europe since he was Tada sensei’s student. Both of them posses 7th DAN today and are instructors in Hombu dojo. Also, I had the opportunity to see Osawa Kisaburo sensei and his son, Osawa Hayato, as his uke. Osawa Hayato sensei is an instructor in Hombu dojo today. There were many young, perspective aikidokas in Hombu then who are instructors today. It was all very magical.
On the other hand, Tada sensei showed me very warm welcome in his dojo. I also received great hospitability from all of his students. I had the honor of giving a training in Namoto Yun sensei’s dojo (8th DAN). I knew him from Italy, where he used to live and sustain a dojo in Florence.
Accommodation in Japan was very expensive. There weren’t any hostels or the internet, since there were no many tourists, so they weren’t needed. Japan used to be very reserved to foreigners and there weren’t any signs written in Latin letters. Absolutely everything was written in Japanese letters – hiragana, katakana or kanji. It was all the same to me, I couldn’t read anything. It was really hard to find my way around. I think I did it all relying on lucky guesses and the sixth sense.
SA: I have to ask you – what did you eat the first time you came to Japan?
JV: By the time I came to Japan I had already stopped eating meat, so I was frantically thinking about the content of packages with funny letters. I was completely certain that the only food without meat was chocolate and milk, so that was the only food I ate for the month and a half which I spent in Japan. I wanted to stay much longer, but I paid the hotel about 6000 Deutsch marks (about 4 plane tickets), so I decided to leave Tokio, use the Interrail ticket and spend following two weeks in sightseeing Japan. I went to Kyoto where I used to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to walk around Kyoto and other nearby cities – Nara and Hiroshima. Japan is really incredible and absolutely spectacular in comparison to any other place I’ve ever seen.
SA: What has left the greatest impact to you when it comes to aikido in Japan?
JV: The greatest difference is noticed in approach. It is a great challenge to withstand an hour practice in Japan. It is a genuine proof of stamina. A training in Hombu dojo (an hour long) is more intense than any European training.
I have travelled to Japan 7 times since 2005. I spent six weeks each time and I had trainings every day. Every time I was in Japan, there was a day or two I couldn’t train – whether it was Sunday, or there were no seminars or embukais held by Tada sensei. So, it’s safe to say that I’ve spent a year of my life training aikido in Japan.
I always try to attend all the trainings in Hombu, which is five hours a day and could also be up to six hours with training in downstairs dojo (there are upstairs dojo for yudansha, and downstairs dojo for students in Hombu dojo). However, it is not unusual for the downstairs dojo to be visited by hakamas and the difference is in a more detailed explanation. In the upstairs dojo only 5 minutes is spent on explaining during the whole training and it is not usual to change the partner. There are no bows between the techniques – it is simply started and lasted the next hour. It feels as if we lived a whole life with our uke during a training – starting with the getting familiar with each other, discovering each other’s knowledge, all the way up to synchronization, finding each other’s boundaries and kokyu ho at the end.
SA: You visited Japan again earlier this year. What’s the difference in aikido today and aikido in 1991?
JV: We do aikido differently today. In those days, we did aikido more toughly – and this goes for the students, not masters. Aikido today is more sophisticated, so uchi deshies and people visiting Hombu dojo don’t show their physical strength, but skillfulness through tenderness. It is something I fully support, because it is getting more towards the main aikido philosophy – non-contrariousness. Aikido is non-confrontational art and the philosophy is the one of peace and love, sophisticated contact with others through which we reach the harmony of movement. Aikido in Hombu dojo is getting there more and more every day. I’ve had the opportunity to observe the changes through the years since 2005 and I’ve noticed some with instructors in Hombu as well. Miyamoto sensei did intimidating aikido, but today the softness of his aikido is really impressive. It looks scary, but, in fact, it’s mighty tender.
SA: I suppose that impression which Tada sensei and Fujimoto sensei left in 1980s was incomparable to the one of Hombu dojo after 20 years of experience?
JV: Tada sensei is almost 90 years old now, and I’ve been seeing him in the last 40 years. When I came to Gesoji dojo earlier this year, I was impressed by his speed and softness in his aikido. He demanded me as his uke for a whole training. His aikido is an unbelievable combination of softness and strength.
Yokota sensei is also impressive. He has a style of his own. I’ve known him for decades. I could say he is also a friend. He is an appealing man, as well as master, absolutely unique. It is ‘what you see is what you get’ with him, in and out of dojo. He’s a man of great energy and the potential of his center is pure explosion. You simply fly and you don’t get hurt.
SA: You came back from Japan in 1991, when a very ugly period was starting in Yugoslavia. What was doing aikido like in those days?
JV: In order to understand the situation in Serbia today, we need to go back to the period before 1991. In those days, we only needed to pay the fee in one club to be able to train in all others. True, there weren’t many clubs. Pinki (Njegoš Đaković) and Tašmajdan (Velibor Vesović) were opened in 1980 and 1981. We all went to train and help the beginners in both of those. Mirko Jovandić also had a dojo, but we used to meet him on Fujimoto sensei’s seminars or in Italy.
We were a very compound group in 1980s. After the trainings, we all went to cafes and shared everything. There were also quarrels, we’re all only humans, but we also knew who was in charge. Fujimoto sensei was the technical director. It was the rule to meet each other on his seminars, even though we don’t see each other in the meantime. Seminar time was the moment for taking first kyu and DAN examination.
Wars and sanctions in 1990s excluded train and plane trips from Belgrade. We had the Budapest airport as an alternative where you could get on a van to Belgrade and vice versa.
Fujimoto sensei held his last seminar in Belgrade as a technical director in 1995. In the following two years none of the Japanese shihans wouldn’t come to Serbia, so no one could take any exams. Then we had a suggestion from Dragiša Jocić, who has been residing in Switzerland for many years and cooperated with Ikeda sensei. We asked Ikeda sensei to be our technical director, which he agreed with the condition of Fujimoto sensei’s approval. That’s how our cooperation with Ikeda sensei started, which, unfortunately, didn’t last for long, since he became ill.
It was really hard to travel abroad in 1990s. I stopped going to Italy for 7 years. Since I didn’t have a steady job, so no one could guaranty that I would get back to the country, I wasn’t permitted the visa. The only contact with outer aikido world we had were the Ikeda sensei arrivals. Still, I felt trapped since I wasn’t able to travel. We were only able to travel to Hungary, which wasn’t the part of the European Unionat that time, where Ikeda sensei also held seminars. Zucco Domenico also took all my invitations to hold seminars for several times, proving himself as a true friend.
SA: People didn’t stop practicing even during wars and bombings?
JV: I think the craziest situation was when we went to the Kopaonik in 1993, during hyperinflation. I believe it was the second worst hyperinflation in the world’s history. It was a completely unthinkable situation today, when all the supermarkets were completely empty, except for couple of articles no one needed on the shelves. The solution were the cheques since the inflation would null its every value. It was really hard time to get any food. For a short time coupons were handed out for buying elementary food (like sugar, flour, milk) and there were queues everywhere. I drove Citroen Dyane at the time and went to all the supermarkets to find any food we could take to seminar.
We went to “Mašinac”, on the Kopaonik, whose manager was an ex aikidoka, Milutin Karaičić. We couldn’t buy any food there, except blueberries, but to pay for them in Deutsch marks, since Yugoslav dinar wasn’t worth a dime. I remember buying tons of pasta and stashing it in the room. I managed to find some candied fruits, since there was no sugar, and we used it and pasta for desert. It was almost uneatable 😄 We took lots of kids with us and one of the parents partly sponsored the food. The whole seminar, with the fee, the trip, accommodation with food – it all cost 5 Deutch marks (around 5€)
In those days, the Serbian Aikikai presidency took care about organizing trainings and seminars for all clubs in Serbia. It was really incredible situation where we were doing our best to keep aikido alive in the country which was falling apart. A summer camp on the Durmitor was organized a few years in a row, where we trained outside on the tatami we brought from Belgrade. The trainings were mainly held by Velibor Vesović, Njegoš Đaković and me.
The bombing started while I was in training in a small dojo I had in my small apartment (34m2). Parents in panic called to inform us about the news, worrying how their children will getting home. However, after some time, in spite of the extraordinary situation, the life came back to its own track as well as the trainings in every club.
SA: What about 2000s?
JV: The democratic changes came in the 2000s, but we were still in need of visas and we weren’t able to travel freely. I remember embassies demanding around 30 pieces of documents for visa application and me taking a full folder to one. We managed to organize a trip to Slovakia in 2004, for the Slovakia Aikikai 10th anniversary celebration. That was the year when I finally managed to go to Italy.
Today, numerous instructors from abroad visit Serbia. However, I’d like to mention Michele Quaranta sensei, who is Ikeda sensei’s successor and who has been unselfishly sharing his excessive knowledge and experience for almost 20 years.
SA: And the best for the last – what’s the secret of continuity in aikido?
JV: People must be aware of their own desires when on tatami and satisfied with their doings. The greatest problem is created when someone, who, in fact, desires competitions which comes with karate or boxing, strays into an aikido dojo. Aikido needs to be a part of the soul and our everyday life. Aikido philosophy demands implementing its postulates in the way we treat each other and our environment – for we are all a part of the same Universe. We have to respect the life in each and every form.
At times when I’m in Belgrade, there is no more important thing than being in the dojo training. The only thing that has changed over the years is the position – from being a student to the one of being the teacher. Training fanatically was extremely important for me because of the experience in judo when I missed trainings for the solidarity with a friend of mine. If she hadn’t gone to the training, I wouldn’t have come either, and vice versa. That’s the way to stop coming to training at all. Knowing that, I swore never to miss a training when I started doing aikido.
When we enter the dojo, we need to feel whole. When I train, I don’t need anything else – I don’t feel hunger or thirst. I don’t feel hot or cold, either – I only feel aikido and its magic. The magic of contact, movement and the feel of unification with uke’s energy.
That’s the only way to hold out and be in love with aikido and the whole world forever. Aikido is the philosophy of love for the whole world. No matter how tired we are, we will feel rejuvenated after every training we do, for aikido is the regenerative force.
SA: That’s the way to train for more than 39 years?
JV: That’s right! Let’s meet next year to celebrate the 40th anniversary and do aikido together.