by Eric Oslund
Nineteen students convened at the property of Mark Larson at 9:30 a.m., on Friday, March 31.
From the moment they arrived, they would begin to rake the yard, sweep the driveway or pick up sticks. Each person preparing for the chance to learn from Larson, someone who has become well known throughout the aikido community.
He was the last American student of Morihiro Saito. Saito was the highest ranked aikido master in the world while Larson trained under him from 1993-2002, and the longest direct student of aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba.
Both Ueshiba and Saito have since passed, and Larson has taken it upon himself to carry on the teachings of his teacher, and his teacher before him. There are people around the world teaching and practicing the martial art, but he wants to make sure to preserve the practices in its original form.
“I know what I know and I want to share it with others, that’s all,” he began. “I’m not anymore special than anybody, but I know I knew Morihiro Saito more than anybody in the last five years of his life.”
Larson’s journey began back in St. Cloud, Minn. where he grew up and participated in a number of competitive sports for 17 years. He eventually went on to play hockey in the United States Hockey League and the NCAA, but got burned out and began looking for more.
As luck would have it, he saw the Steven Seagal movie “Above the Law” and was fascinated by the moves he was performing. After some research he learned that Seagal was using aikido, which was a martial art that did not have any competitions. That, along with the philosophy of aikido, just made it seem like a perfect fit.
He joined a foreign exchange program in 1992 through the Minnesota State College and Universities system (MSU-Akita) and moved out to Japan, the birthplace of aikido. Through word of mouth, he found a teacher, but he could not just go in and train off the street. He had to prove himself, and he was not about to give up.
“I’d show up at the door step and sleep outside, I wanted to show him how I was eager to learn, and you had to have an introduction, so it took some time,” Larson began. “Then he was like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’
“I slept outside in a blizzard in northern Japan. If the guy hadn’t opened the door I might have froze to death.”
He trained at the dojo for six months, but his first sensei soon referred him to another teacher. His teacher to be exact, Saito. So Larson made his way to this new dojo in Iwama, the birthplace of aikido, where he once again had to start at the bottom and work his way up.
In between training sessions, Larson would be on his hands and knees scrubbing toilets, picking blades of grass and doing a number of other chores throughout the day.
He was able to persevere through everything thrown at him, and before long he had earned the respect of his teacher. He was able to work his way up through the ranks over his decade of training and eventually became Saito’s right-hand man.
“I think I just paid my dues and showed that I was there for the right reasons,” Larson explained. “I persevered through the hard things. Scrubbing the crap, the garbage, picking the grass, and I just kept showing up, showing up.”
Saito took a liking to Larson and would take him with on all his trips around the world. The two became close, and when the day came where Saito’s time on earth had come to an end, it was Larson there by his side. He was the only one his sensei allowed to see him, apart from his family, and it was something Larson will never forget. His teacher had a message for him, and it’s what brought him back to the states.
“He got up in front of the world headquarters (Aikikai), people at the birthplace dojo in Iwama, all the guests, dignitaries, everything, and he said, ‘Mark, you and Shibata (who is another current aikido teacher still in Japan, and like Larson one of Saito’s students, who was 15 years prior to him) make brother dojos.’ He pretty much gave us the OK, like, ‘You guys are going to keep this going,’ which is pretty humbling.”
Fast forward back to present day. Larson is still working on preserving his sensei’s legacy and teachings, and is doing it with the help of another.
Bill Witt was the very first American student of Saito, and also trained some with Ueshiba, and he joined Larson in a seminar April 1 and 2 to help preserve their master’s teachings. They felt it was fitting to have Saito’s first and final American students work with one another and it was an event that was sought out by many.
People from across the country and around the world made their way to St. Cloud, Minn. to see these two teach. It was a great time, but not what Larson tends to focus on.
To him, the real teachings take place on days like that early Friday morning. A close, intimate setting, out in nature. There is just a different feeling in that kind of environment, one you cannot simulate in a large seminar.
Larson is now in the process of building a private dojo of his own on his property dedicated to doing just this. It will look and feel like the one he spent 10 years of his life training in, as he continues to carry on his sensei’s legacy. Until that is finalized, though, anyone interested in learning more about aikido – doesn’t matter their age, gender, skill level or anything – Larson can be found teaching Thursday nights in the Salk Middle School balcony starting at 7:30 p.m.
For more information on aikido visit:
www.aikido-shuren-dojo.com or ISD 728 Community Education