Welcome to Tanabe, birthplace of the world's most peaceful martial art

Story highlights

  • Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the founder of aikido, was born in Tanabe, Wakayama
  • Seiji Gomita, 75, is one of few aikidokas still alive to have studied with him
  • Gomita welcomes all tourists to his dojo, saying language is not an issue

Tanabe City, Japan (CNN)Seiji Gomita doesn't look particularly fierce.

A short, 75-year-old Japanese chiropractor of medium build, he appears to be armed with little more than a warm smile and friendly eyes.
But woe betide anyone who might mistake this kindness for vulnerability.
    We've barely been in Aikido Tanabe Dojo five minutes before Gomita has flipped our male travel guide over his shoulder onto the mat as easily as if he were an inflatable pool toy.
    Gomita is a practitioner of aikido -- "the way of harmonious spirit" -- an enigmatic martial art that involves no kicks, no punches and nothing in the way of aggression.
    Instead, the aikidoka, as the practitioner is called, receives an attack and harmlessly redirects its energy so that both the attacker and the defender are left unharmed. (See video on the left, courtesy of the International Aikido Federation.)
    Gomita's dojo in Tanabe City, Wakayama, is one of dozens around Japan and might be unremarkable if it were not in the birthplace of the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969).
    Even more remarkable is that Gomita is one of the few remaining aikidokas to have studied under Ueshiba.

    "Like a god"

    Gomita, speaking through a translator, tells us it all started when he was a child and witnessed Ueshiba -- or O'Sensei, as he's often called -- conducting an aikido demonstration at a local police station.
    "I was amazed that a man who didn't appear that strong could overcome so many officers," he recalls.
    "At the age of 13 I started learning aikido. By 14 I was given permission to join the Aikido Club, when I became a disciple of O'Sensei.
    "He died in 1969, when I was 29, so I had the privilege of learning from him for 16 years."
    Gomita's assessment of his time with Ueshiba is short but telling.
    "He was like a god," he says with a smile.
    Tanabe City, birthplace of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba.
    Ueshiba, the son of a farmer, left Tanabe at the age of 18, his work and studies taking him all over the country, from Tokyo up to Hokkaido and back again.
    Over the decades he honed his martial art and began promoting it throughout the country, setting up multiple aikido dojos in the process.
    As he neared death, it's said he offered his students one final lesson: "Aikido is for the entire world. Train not for selfish reasons, but for all people everywhere."
    It's a lesson Gomita continues to follow.
    Gomita says he visited the United States about 35 years ago in an effort to introduce aikido to the masses. These days, the masses come to him.
    Gomita still teaches aikido, six days a week, with his wife and son.
    He says he's welcomed people come from all over the world including foreign tourists who simply want to learn more about the sport.
    "Language is not a problem," he says.

    True victory is self victory

    Aikido is often referred to as the unification of body, mind and spirit -- a martial art unique in its philosophy that the safety of the attacker is as important as the safety of the defender.
    On the physical side, it's a form of self-defence that neutralizes the force of an attack through locks, holds and throws.
    The fact there are no punches or kicks has led some in the fighting world to scoff at its effectiveness in a fight against, say, a mixed martial arts fighter.
    After all, how can a martial art that forbids attacking stand against the skills of a trained karate or Muay Thai fighter?
    We asked Kei Izawa, chairman of the International Aikido Federation and an aikidoka since 1969, to explain its philosophy.
    "Even though aikido is a martial art, aikido's main purpose is not to defeat an enemy," he tells CNN.
    "Founder Morihei Ueshiba used an ancient expression -- 'masakatsu agatsu' -- which means, 'true victory is self victory.' He wanted to create a martial art that was based on harmony and love.
    "Aikido does not have competition and while it is everybody's desire to improve, we do not have the urge to egoistically improve to defeat a rival."
    This, he says, makes it an appealing activity for people of all ages, male and female, young and old, healthy or with disabilities.
    "Aikidokas frequently mention how they have applied their training on a regular basis outside of the dojo in many ways: to resolve conflict in a positive manner, to be more aware of options in difficult situations, to have a more relaxed physical and mental state and to improve when focus is needed," says Izawa.
    Kozanji Temple is located on a small mountain outside the city center of Tanabe.

    Visiting Ueshiba's grave

    Tanabe City is the main gateway for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage -- a series of trails heading across the Kii Peninsula to the three Grand Shrines of Kumano -- but it's also become a pilgrimage site for those wanting to pay tribute to the founder of aikido.
    Upon his death, Ueshiba's ashes were buried in a Tanabe cemetery overlooking the ocean at Kozan-ji, his family temple.
    "Ueshiba's family roots in Tanabe can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1867)," explains Kozan-ji Temple's head monk, Sogabe, who adds that many foreigners come to visit O'Sensei's grave.
    Another popular site for aikido fans is a bronze statue of Ueshiba, located in Tanabe City's seaside Ogigahama Park.
    It was erected as a monument to the 5th World Congress of the Aikido Federation, hosted in Tanabe in 1988.

    Getting there and around

    Tanabe City, located on the west coast of Japan's Kii Peninsula, is a 2.5-hour train ride from Osaka.
    There are a number of small hotels, inns and ryokans (a kind of Japanese bed and breakfast) in and around the city center.
    In terms of local dining, travelers looking for variety should head to Ajikoji, an entertainment area in front of the JR Kii-Tanabe station that's packed with more than 200 restaurants and pubs -- many with English-language menus.
    For more info on Tanabe Aikido Dojo, head to Aikido-tanabe.info. Classes take place Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 8-9pm. Visits must be booked in advance. The cost per hour is 1,000 yen ($8.81).
    Kozan-ji Temple is located at 392 Inaricho, Tanabe City.
    The local Tanabe City tourism bureau has put together a downloadable English-language map that includes both the temple and Ogigahama Park, where the statue of Ueshiba is located.