Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dousugi: In Search of Giant Cedars

This is part two of a quest to find Dousugi, giant cedar trees in the mountains near my home. You didn't hear about part one because I never finished the blog post for it; perhaps in documenting these adventures, I cannot recount every exciting detail and thought I experience, but rather highlight some of the main parts. This is part two because part one was a "failure." I went off with my shoddy gaijin maps written from hearsay, made many side trips, got lost, and never made it to my goal of Dousugi. However, what I did find last time, was another gateway to the mountains where I can follow trails and unknown roads to my desire's end. And ... are you ready for this? ... I saw my first wild BEAR!!! After I had reached my limit and turned around giving up on Dousugi that day, I rode my bike about 20 minutes back towards civilization and stopped at a campsite to eat my lunch/dinner. Just after I packed up and saddled up on my mamachari, I looked over towards the woods and saw the big black furry mass that was a bear. It noticed me at the same time, and immediately lumbered into the woods as fast as it could. I got a great look at it for a few seconds, and only about twenty meters away too.
Anyway, this is part two. I was to make no side tangents until I reached my goal. Since my last attempt at Dousugi, I had also made some serious upgrades to mamachari-do. As a matter of fact, mamachari-do has evolved beyond it's name, as one of my upgrades was a new bike; a mountain bike. It's a little sad, and a lot less comical than me on the granny bike, but the new form is appropriate for my missions. With the mamachari, I would just run it to the ground about 1000x faster than I would if I just kept it within the city limits. Also, I bought hiking boots, a quick-dry t-shirt, and waterproof shorts similar to board shorts which are absolutley necessary to keep me from being soaked and stinking the whole time I ride. These were all seriously needed upgrades, and today I felt the benefits.
My quest for Dousugi took me to the neighboring town of Uozu, and then along a river into the mountains. The buzz of the highway I usually take to Uozu is a bit off-putting, but once I got on the smaller road to the mountains, the huge trucks and buildings are replaced by infrequent small white farming trucks and expansive rice fields.

I soon reached the campsite (where I saw the bear last time) and stopped to refill on water. One of the attendents of the post was an older man who quickly started a conversation with me. I told him of my escapades two weeks earlier, but then, he took me inside to show me some maps and give me some very valuable information. I had one of those light-bulb moments where things that seemed too large and separate, in fact became very small and perfectly connected. I saw a map that connected a lot of seemingly disparate information, and I basically realized the potential for penetrating the local wilderness. I have goosebumps thinking about it as I type, and curse the infrequency of my weekends to take these trips. Anyway, today was Dousugi, and I was off.

During one of my breaks from riding, I dismounted and noticed a large strange flowing movement going on in a nearby puddle. I looked closer to find hundreds of small tadpoles squirming about. It reminded me of a toddler's t-shirt I had found in the dollar stores here that said "Happy froggies love the rain", and had a cute cartoon frog on it with a big smile in the rain. I tease Jolene often about this, as she's not as fond of the rain as I am, and constantly have my eyes open for larger sizes.

The path to Dousugi takes you off the main paved roadway and on to a gravel road, littered with very large stones that have fallen from the cliff side. If I wasn't biking around these large stones, my eyes were glued to the surrounding forest looking for more bears. However, much of the wilderness in mountainous Japan seems much to steep for a bear. Japan may not have the tallest mountains in the world, but they have got to be some of the steepest. My mind did however, think of areas in the world that have big cats in the forest. I could imagine how easily a gaijin like myself could be pounced upon by say a cougar or a jaguar, and to be in such country, one had better keep an eye out, or have prayed to their guardian spirits.
I soon reached the area where I thought the Dousugi (large cedar trees) would be and looked around to admire the forest. At that moment, I saw some very familiar, but very strange foliage from branches that looked like those from a cedar, but much bigger and brighter green. I then realized, I was staring straight at one of these giant cedars. At this point, I realized I hadn't quite made it where my map had told me the Dousugi were, but I was certainly seeing one, and immediately left my bike to search out these cedars on foot in the woods.

Holy crap, these are strangest and largest cedar trees I have ever seen. Most of them were growing around/atop huge boulders, and were twisting in several directions.

They all had younger newer sprouts that had turned into large cedars of their own from the older base of a single cedar, but sometimes it was hard to tell how large the base was. It was not simply one straight standing tree, but the winding twisting incalculably large base of one that became several at the top.
I apologize for my confusing explanation, but I honestly am blown away by these trees, and a bit at a loss for words.

I tried sitting in the crook in the largest one, maybe to close my eyes for ten minutes to feel myself in such an awesome presence. But after 60 seconds, I looked down at my ankles to find a swarm of mosquitos. I thanked the mosquitos for urging me on my way, and on my way I went.

Walking back down to the path, I was amazed to find so many of these giant cedars that dominated this area of the forest. The twenty biggest cedars I had ever seen in my life were all growing together in this grove as gargantuan beings. I wonder how long they have been alive for? Certainly before any samurai or shrine.

As I mentioned before, the mountains around me were far too steep to climb, so most of my adventure into the mountains was side by side with rivers, which are remarkably numerous and eerily misty.
Here is a small shrine, not so much for the giant cedars, as for another strange natural wonder.

This is a rock whose name, which is roughly translated by Gaijin himself, snake stone. It is famous for the large black stripe running across it, as it resembles a snake or dragon. Pretty cool and strange; two words that I often use to describe Japan.
Apparently, I had not yet made it to "The" dousugi, and what I found, I found because of my off-trail vagabonding into the Japanese wilderness. So, onward. Wait, probably not this way, though it looks enticing doesn't it?
It seems you can usually drive a sturdy car all the way to the base of the Dousugi, but at this time, the road was blocked to cars, as there were too many rocks in the road from a landslide.

Ah, here we go, on the correct path to Dousugi.

Tadaa! THE Dousugi. Well, this is one you see in the pictures on pamphlets, and the one highlighted on this trail, and certainly amazing ... but I think I found a bigger one earlier on. Mmmmm, not sure, and I guess it's not important, but it makes me thankful for my trailblazing tendencies.

Well, the road goes on, but alas, this is as far as Gaijin will go today. The setting sun and a grumbling belly beg Gaijin to head back to civilization. Sure, time to head home, but not without a sushi dinner and hour at Kintaro onsen.

This country provides a curve of experience as steep as it's mountains, and weekly I find new lows as well as new highs. But each substantial high seems to get cooler, and stranger. Regardless of living in a rarely trodden area and possesing relatively low language skills, I am constantly asking more strange questions and pushing the limits of what I can find here; and by kami, they are paying off. The more I push with genuine effort forward, the more this mysterious flower unfolds.

Back to school to grade term final English essays, but also back to my maps to plan Gaijin's next foray into the Japanese wilderness.

How I Survive in Japan

This is my secret to survival in Japan: shipments of food from home! Thanks to my absolutley lovely and amazing girlfriend, I received this in the mail the other day in the form of three packages. I love a lot of Japanese food, but I also can't stand a lot of Japanese food. I approached it at first with blind enthusiasm, but it has waned to critical realism.

Take my lunches for example. Along with a few other teachers, I order my lunch from a delivery service which supplies a bento everyday. It comes with a medium sized portion of rice, usually about three small vegetable dishes, and maybe two very small meatish mains. I can always count on the rice, the meat mains vary a lot, from vegetarian hamburger patties, to fried chicken, to squid tempura, which I can usually take down well, except when they're not filling its just dissapointing. And then there's the vegetable sides. They are usually pickled, always unknown, and often not eaten. At first I would it eat all with the bind enthusiasm I spoke of earlier, but soon it transformed into just eating them as fast as possible to get them down to fill my stomach. Now, I will often open my bento, eat what I can, and simply walk to the store for something else mediocre. When my girlfriend Jolene is here, she makes and delivers a lunch everyday, which makes me fat and the other teachers jealous. When she's not here, I go back to the order lunches, lose weight, and enthusiasm for meal time.

I have adjusted some to the foods I don't like, but that's for suckers. I survive with these shipments of food from the States.

If I could focus on the highlights, check out the giant box of Annie's macaroni and cheese; the best shite on the planet. Also, on both sides of the macaroni and cheese are two packs of Ravensbrew coffee, my favorite coffee in the entire world for sure. I'm not sure how available it is throughout the US though because it's brewed in Alaska. You can't see them really, but there are also tortillas and taco mix. If only a blue cheese bacon cheeseburger could be sent from the Westsound Cafe, it would be complete.

Thank you and I love you Jolene, for keeping me fed from across the globe.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lesson 10: Aikido With Injured Heels

This weekend I went camping in an amazing spot in the mountains of south-western Toyama, but at night when I was stumbling my way through the forest to my tent at night barefoot, I happened to cut both my heels open. The picture is of my right heel, which bears the worst of the two cuts, and the left has almost the exact same cut, but of a lesser degree. I propose that bears are not the most dangerous thing in the Japanese wilderness, but Jameson; or maybe just a gaijin with Jameson.

Anyway, I was wondering if I should go to aikido tonight with the injury, as I had a difficult time walking today, but a chain of decisions were made that brought me to class on time with my feet taped up. My bandages stayed on, and my cuts themselves were not big problems. I found it easy to simply walk on the balls of my feet all day and practice aikido such, which wasn't that bad for a while. In fact, it made me so happy that I didn't hurt the balls of my feet, which seem to be a much more important part of the foot. However, I noticed my hip muscles starting to hurt as it seems they were taking all the strain from doing aikido on the balls of my feet. I couldn't really relax at all during techniques, and couldn't sink my weight. Also, it was by far the most humid of nights for aikido, and while I'm not sure about all the scientific details of sweating so much in humid weather while doing strenuous physical excercise, but I know it makes it damn hard to concentrate. When sensei was demonstrating techniques, I'd be staring at them trying to figure it out, but when it was my time, I had absolutley no idea what was going on.

One of my best friends in class had just crashed his bike last week, and was tending wounds of his own, and certainly everyone in class was feeling the hot summer training. It might sound a bit corny, but that is what training is made of. Maybe its not the most important part, but it is a crucial part to understanding martial arts, and even more so: yourself. I've probably said this a million times while comfortably relaxing and drinking tea or even beer, but I can't stand on my feet, I'm dehydrated, and still sweating beads just sitting in my room as I type right now, and I can say this comment with full enthusiasm. I'm not usually one that would promote training through injury, but I think I made the right decision in playing through this one. I do have the benefit of two days off of aikido though.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lesson 9: Don't Always Be the First to Leave

For those that ARE always the first to leave training, this concept may be a shock to you. But for all you others that have stuck around after it seems like nothings going on, then you understand what I mean.

Tonight, Sensei was a bit late, which is unfortunate because we don't get important practice and teaching from him, but sometimes it seems we get a few more reps in and can have fun experimenting when he's not around. It was a really hot night tonight, and the bugs come straight for the flourescent lights in our gym, so it was a sweaty night mopping up the bugs from the mat with our gis (uniforms) and faces.

Anyway, when he did come, I assume he was in a fabulous mood, because he spent the whole time with one of the new white belts who was getting special attention. This is totally fine because I even got that treatment when I first came. As practice ended, we all went to help close the windows and doors. Some people were talking, some were headed straight for their water, but I was the awkward gaijin kind of just looking around dumbly, when sensei came up to me and said "Let's practice some more."

I went straight to the floor to bow and then we got started. He was going extremely fast and hard when he was the tori, so I was flung about and did what probably looked like sloppy uke. And when it was my time to tori, I fumbled was fumbling quite a bit. Now, at this point, you can either slow down completely to get it at your speed, or fly through it to keep the pace. This is an important quandary because if I had slowed down completely I could see sensei's enthusiasm deflate, and hear him say "Oh c'mon just do the fricken technique." And yet on the other hand if I rushed through, I could here him say "You're screwing up the whole technique by going to fast." So, in the split second I had, I decided to go 90% of the direction towards the speedy method, and though it was sloppy, I put my heart into it, and did OK. It's at these times you're essentially naked in front of the sensei to be judged, and I wonder what he thought.

The real gem out of this experience though was that he started teaching me high falls! This is something I've been extremely anxious to start, been waiting for my introduction to it, and actually was specifically thinking of the high fall today. We did quite a few, and by the end I got a few "OK's" and the official OK hand gesture, which is enough to put a huge smile on my face. This was the highlight of my time, and if I had rushed out today, I certainly wouldn't have had the oppurtunity. In fact, I'm sure if it was my habit to rush out, sensei would never think of taking me aside to show me this. Though its usually uneventful, late, and unintelligible Japanese conversation to me, I usually hang around to show respect, try and practice listening to Japanese, and see if anything exciting happens.
Also, tonight when we were leaving outside, I talked with one of the senior students about fireflies in Japan and phospherescents in the States, which was most certainly just as important as all the throws done in the dojo.

For all you white belts out there, I recommend you're not the first to leave.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cultural Confusion

Here are just a few of my daily experiences as an American caught in cross-cultural jokes and miscommunication with Japanese.

1.) I was looking for one of my coworkers whose office is located in the library of school. Because it's a little out of the way my presence there is a bit uncommon. But the librarian is a really nice lady that I like to chat with in Japanese when I drop by.

"I'm looking for Kobayashi Sensei, is she here?"

"No, she had to go to the post office."

"Oh OK. It's been very hot lately hasn't it?"

"Oh yes, it's so hot."

"It's hard for me to sleep because it's so hot sometimes. In fact, I need to buy a fan to keep me cool at night."

"Eh? Oh no! Don't do that!"

"What? It's bad to have a fan to keep me cool at night?"

"Oh yes, please don't do that!"



"Why is it bad? Because I may get sick from being cold?"

"Ummmmm, no."

"Because it wastes electricity?"

"Ummmmm, no."

"Oh oh oh, it's dangerous?"

"Oh ... Ok."

"Ummmm ... Ok."

"See you later."

I was genuinely worried that she reacted the way she did when I mentioned I wanted a fan to cool me at night, but it seems my questions were futile. When I ask strange personal questions, things usually degenerate into confusion, and dissipate to "Ok, see you later."

2.) I had gotten a haircut the night before, and as I walked into the office first thing in the morning, I was expecting many random comments about my haircut. First, Terao Sensei, my favorite English teacher, looked at me shocked and said in English:

"Oh, Zac-san, did you get a haircut?"

"No Terao Sensei, I got all of them cut?"


"I said, no, I got all of them cut."

"I don't understand."

"You asked me if I got A haircut, so I said no, because I got all of them cut."

"I don't understand."

"I got ALL of them cut."

"Oh ... hahahahahaha."


"Is this a normal expression in English?"

3.) One afternoon I was frustrated because in one of the classes I teach, there is a student who rarely turns in his homework. Terao Sensei sensed my frustration and asked in English:

"Is everything OK Zac-san?"

"Yeah, it's just this student. He rarely turns in his homework and it's pissing me off."

"Oh, do you want me to do something?"

"No Terao Sensei, it's OK."

-Terao Sensei turned back to his desk, and I decided to say:

"He's just lucky I don't take his balls." As I motion a slicing motion towards my groin.


"Yeah, on my island, if you don't turn in your homework on time, we cut off one of your balls. In fact, most men my age only have one ball. At your age, your lucky to have any left."

"Haahahahahahhaahhaha, you must have lived in a very strange place."

"Yes I did."

A few moments later, I was venting more steam about the amount of papers I had to grade. So Terao Sensei turned to me with a completely straight face and said:

"I suggest you take half of them ... and throw them in the trash."

I couldn't help busting up right there. It was one of his funniest jokes to date.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lesson 8: Triad of Gaijin's Aikido Approach

Tonight I have realized that I have three important concepts that I have been pondering lately that are now greatly contributing to growth in aikido.

1.) Just go to training! Consistent practice is most important. If you go half the time thinking its OK because you train REALLY hard the few times you go, then you're missing the infinite potential that lies in what happens subconsciously when you are practicing regularly. If your practice consistently goes in waves, where for one week a month you just fall out of training, then you're missing the benefits of self-discipline that aikido can give its students. Go to training consistently, and do your best to relax and have fun. Since I've been doing this, I get into the rythm of practice a lot faster, even if I'm not so enthusiastic at the outset.

2.) One movement. I've finally gotten used to flowing through the technique even if I don't have every little detail down. I've found techniques just magically falling into place a little bit when I try to do a technique through constant motion. It's taken a long time to realize how much aikido depends upon the constant flow of the uke. Once you stop, the opponent loses his momentum, which is your power, and you give him a chance to initiate his own attack. Just keep moving. I found that towards the end of training sensei has built up the techniques to fairly advanced ones that are a brain scramble for most white belts, but lately I've been able to catch on to them much quicker because I try to flow through them instead of focusing on each individual movement to perfection. Flow through and it can become magic.

3.) Pay as close attention to ukemi as possible. When you're being thrown, be present for every movement. When the best black belts are being thrown, look at them instead of the uke, and they will show you the greatest gems. You're not only just missing half the time of your practice if you're not paying attention to uke, you're missing a lot more, because as your uke skills go up, so do your tori. I'm not sure it's necessarily true the other way around.

I'm actually feeling the benefit of these three principles, and that makes me a less frustrated aikidoka.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: "Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai"

After reading "Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword," and "Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai", I have started somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the writings of Dave Lowry. Here, I hope to shine light upon those parts of "Autumn Lightning" that I find so interesting and appalling.

Dave Lowry is an American who first practiced Japanese swordsmanship in his early teens, and eventually moved to Japan to continue his study of the Shinkage ryu. Half of "Autumn Lightning" is stories from his experience learning swordsmanship in his teens from a Japanese family, and the other half is stories from feudal Japan concerning the Shinkage ryu tradition. I enjoyed this particular format, as one is able to get a historical perspective on Japanese swordsmanship, as well as an American in the 20th century learning it's traditions.

I would say that the best part about his writing concerns his stories of the Shinkage ryu in Japanese history. In this book, they happened to focus primarily upon the originator of the style, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and the Yagyu family that developed it in its early years, particularly Yagyu Munenoshi and Yagyu Munenori (author of the amazing book, "The Life-Giving Sword").
Mr. Lowry freely adds dialogue to the vague historical facts in order to illustrate the stories better, and I think his artistic license is warranted and is the highlight of "Autumn Lightning."

I was also happy to read his explanations on the emphasis of timing and use of the waist in the Shinkage ryu of Japanese swordsmanship. Furthermore, Mr. Lowry's constant focus on the concept of Zanshin was a great underlying theme to his study. This was best explained through the stories of his Japanese teacher in St. Louis, and of the stories of the Yagyu family.

These qualities aside, I have many issues with Mr. Lowry's writing. Let's take a look at this excerpt here, which at first, explains the allure of the Japanese sword which I wholly sympathize with, but he then goes on to make unwarranted claims lifting the Japanese sword above all other forms of weapons in military history in the world.

"As with other tools crafted to make wars, a cult has grown up around the katana, the long sword of the samurai. Tales are told, as they have been for centuries, of swords that leaped from their scabbards of their own volition to save their owners in times of danger ... Even if these stories and legends are discounted, the lengthy history and intricate lore of the katana give to it a certain air of awesome mystery, heightened by its terrible beauty and the undeniable fact that the sword forged by the Japanese smiths during the feudal age eventually reached a degree of perfection unmatched in any weapon before or since."

What? The "undeniable fact" about the katana's "perfection unmatched in any weapon before or since"? He lists no sources or proof for this bold claim, that could and should offend a swordsmith or practitioner that wields a different blade than the katana. In fact, a great article debunking the mystification of the katana can be found here, The author points out the practical weaknesses of the katana, and the strengths of blades that were forged in medieval Europe. I understand Mr. Lowry has great appreciation to the katana, but to make claims like this are absolutley unjustified and unprofessional.

Here is another excerpt that should offend martial artists who don't happen to put the Japanese arts on a pedestal to be exalted above all else. Here he is discussing "settsuku", which is body connection, as it relates to the punch of a boxer and a karateka.

"The difference between an attack that has settsuku and one that lacks settsuku can be seen when comparing the punch of a karate expert with that of a boxer's. The boxer is conditioned to use his arms in swinging hooks and jabs, so he punches at weighted bags and does all sorts of excercises to make his arms as muscular as possible. The karateman in contrast, is encouraged to strike from his hips, so he concentrates on developing his whole body to work as a unit. As a result, the boxer's punch stuns - the karateka's shatters and kills."

Judging by this comment, it would seem that Mr. Lowry has never watched a boxing match, read any material about boxing, talked to a boxer, or watched one train. "The boxer is conditioned to use his arms in swinging hooks and jabs", of which the power is generated from the waist and hips! "... so he does all sorts of excercises to make his arms as muscular as possible." All sorts of excercises? Like what? If this was true then boxers would only lift weights, and look more like body builders than the lean and toned fighters they are. And, "the boxer's punch stuns - the karateka's shatters and kills." Oh really? So really in a boxing match, all the fighters are doing is temporarily stunning their opponents with their strikes? And each punch delivered from a karateka has the power to shatter and kill? Technique and specifics aside, I can only imagine this blasphemous section was written intended to give the reader an image of the difference between fighting for sport and fighting for your life, but even so, is that really where your intent should be if you're training in karate? Shattering the bones of your opponent? This is just heinous in every way. Boxing is every bit as technical as other fighting arts, and shouldn't be unjustly disrespected to uphold the mystical quality of Japanese arts.

My next problem stems from a difference in attitude towards proper training in the martial arts. Mr. Lowry made his stance clear in his his book, "Bokken", but elaborates further here in "Autumn Lightning":

"While a throw in judo could be adapted to the practitioner's body or style of attack once he had learned it well, the techniques of bujutsu, as a historically true legacy of the past, had to be preserved precisely as they were taught. As much as possible they had to be practiced as they were centuries ago; to do otherwise would be as unthinkable as sawing the arms off a windsor chair to make it lighter to move about."

This focuses on a good question martial artists practicing traditional styles need to ask themselves: should we make personal changes and innovations to the style, or should we unquestionably adhere to the teachings given? It is clear Mr. Lowry believes the latter. Due to my experience, I would have to prefer the former. In order to practice a traditional art, I believe you need a highly experienced and skilled teacher, who can give reasons and examples for following the art as is, and is very different than just making things up on your own and still calling it a particular style, which I wouldn't agree with. I don't like Mr. Lowry's analogy of the windsor chair, but in fact, I think it illustrates his stance well. It seems Mr. Lowry is training to preserve a style, who's beauty is found in the history and tradition, similar to relics of old that belong in museums. It seems that is where Mr. Lowry's practice and teachings belong, in a museum of sorts at which we can view the past. This however, is not how I would like to experience traditional martial arts. Traditional martial arts are legitimate because they have been practiced for so many years, and because they have been IMPROVED UPON and INNOVATED over all those years. For a style to improve, which is always possible, creative innovation and individuation is needed.

This relates to a comment I had read a while back concerning the Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan. The author wrote something to the effect that the Yang style is Perfect, and any "improvements" are futile, as the masters had included everything in its purest form in the form itself. To me, this is absolutely false. First of all, how do you know that? Secondly, why would you want to simply conform yourself to an "art" where creative contribution is not appreciated?

This becomes quite a tricky subject, that is often at the core of many Japanese opinions on how to practice the martial arts, and at the core of Bushido, the way of the samurai. Mr. Lowry writes, "Being a bugeisha, a pupil of the bugei is not something you ... adapt to your life. It means changing your life, almost in every way, to adapt to the bugei." This quote and philosophy are surely linked to the discussion above, but its elaboration belongs in another post in the future.

Amid the wonderful stories, and atrocious fallacies Mr. Lowry writes in "Autumn Lightning" there is one particularly shiny and glorious gem, where he puts in his own words, the supreme ultimate underlying principle of his style of Shinkage-ryu. This is one of the best explanations of the connection between Zen philosophy and martial arts I have ever read.

"Drawn from sources in Asia so ancient that no one could possibly have traced their roots, the principle was profound, yet of perfect simplicity. According to that principle, if a man's mind is crowded with the ten-thousand incidentals that threaten to hurry their way into our consciousness every moment of life, then inevitably he will find himself concentrating on one or another of them, and at that moment his thoughts - and actions -are stopped. However, if he is able to diffuse his consciousness, allowing every bit of input to pass in without focusing on any, then his mind flows with a constancy and celerity that makes his motions utterly spontaneous; appropriate. Whether he is drinking a cup of tea or cleaving an enemy's head in half with a sword, he will be in accord with the movements of the universe itself. Of course, when a swordsman kept himself so receptive, his mind calmly centered, then he revealed nothing of his mind to an opponent. His strategy was kept hidden, in the shade, so to speak. It was this philosophy that gave the ryu its name and its exponents such awesome reputations as bugeisha."

Only from emptiness, can we see the world as it is, and act with true personal expression. That is art, that is Bushido, that is transcendence for mankind. It is not just swordsmanship, but every single experience we have in this universe.

In conclusion, I believe Mr. Lowry's faults are so only because of a deep love and appreciation for the discipline of Shinkage ryu he has studied. Perhaps he loves his art too much, and thus shuns all else in the world that speaks of martial topics. I share the same fascination with the katana that Mr. Lowry has, and so I can enthusiastically enjoy many of the same stories and concepts that he writes about. But perhaps I will choose not to put my head so deeply in the hole-in-the-ground that is traditional Japanese swordsmanship.

I leave you with a provocative quote Mr. Lowry puts at the beginning of his book from Ronald Tanaka.

"I've been taught to expect a certain precision in human relationships. In aesthetic terms, this means that one can't expect to have both beauty and comfort. I assume you understand."

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Gods Have Spoken

This is what can happen when you ride your mamachari (heavy-ass, one-speed, rusty, granny bike) in the rain.

I have developed an addiction to exploring the mountains, forests, and untrodden roads in my area of Japan, Niikawa, on my mamachari, and so as the weekend approaches, I have planned multiple options of exploration this Saturday. The rainy season has begun in the Sea of Japan side of Japan, and it will probably rain everyday for a month. As my interest in exploration is peaking, how could I cancel due to rain? I couldn't, and in fact, I planned a trip that would work just fine in theory. I planned to go to Dousugi, which would take me to the neighboring town of Uozu, and into the mountains following a riverbed to a spot that is famous for giant cedar trees. In my hometown in Washington State, there are glorious cedar trees, so I have a special affinity for this tree. I think they are especially beautiful in the rain, and as the road would be mildly flat, this would be the journey for this weekend.

Tonight, I went to the hyaku-en shop (dollar store) to buy a poncho and wide brimmed hat in anticipation of heavy rains. I went, and reluctantly bought shoddy gear that wouldn't last more than 20 minutes in the type of rain I would experience, but I thought little of the limitation, and was glowing from my optimism and enthusiasm to persevere. I would ride for about two hours in the rain with a dollar-poncho, no matter what ... and like it.

Well, I came home, practiced the ken and jo (wooden sword and short staff) for an hour, took a shower, and saddled my bike to meet my favorite person in Japan, Terao Sensei, who is one of my coworkers, for dinner and beer.

It was raining. Not pouring, but definately raining, and I was on my way at a medium pace to our usual meeting spot for yakitori. The side-walks here have a part about a foot wide that is different from the rest of the side-walk, as it is has straight lines, which can easily trap a bike tire. In the rain, my front bike tire got caught in the grove, and sent my bike tire skidding as I was about two feet from a wooden stand up sign. My bike had turned and was skidding straight towards this sign, and I shifted my weight so that the bike collided with the sign but my body would fall slightly over and to the side of the obstruction.

I found myself half underneath the bike, to the side of the sign, and lying on the ground while my front tire was spinning from the impact. One of my first reactions was to look around to make sure no one had witnessed my blatant act of gaijin madness. Cars were passing, but no pedestrians were there to see. Next, I got up, put the sign back in its place (it had no marks of the incident luckily), picked up my bike, and resumed my trek to the restaurant with a straight face and steady heart.

The gods had spoken: I was not to ride my mamachari to Dousugi tomorrow if it was raining.

My front basket was greatly distorted, and the part that connects the light to the frame and tire was bent as to interfere with the spokes when the wheels turned, but really, no serious damage was done, and it can be fixed. My left paw has a few scratches, but no bruises, sores, broken bones, or inflating brains. I will not be going to Dousugi on that mamachari tomorrow, but why would I anyway if I can't even ride safely on the sidewalks in mild rain for fifteen minutes?

What makes me most happy about this, was my ability to maintain zanshin! At the instant my bike hit the groove and went out of control, my vision shot straight to the impending danger, the sign, and my body began to react to the inevitable crash. I saved my body, and made impact with the ground in an amazingly pleasant way. There was no emotion or negative thoughts that entered the situation, I basically saw the situation, reacted, and proceeded on my way. "What about my bike!? I'm going to be late?! I'm never going to go on a trip tomorrow! I'm so stupid! The bike is so stupid! The rain is so stupid!" No, none of that. I did make sure I wasn't too publicly embarrassed, but that was the only sign of ego to stain the experience.

I'm so happy I trashed my mamachari. I now know limitations to the bike, the effect of certain terrain, and that I can on some level react subconsciously to physical confrontation.

And I get to read more aikido books tomorrow.

Or find a way to get to Dousugi in the rain ... on another mamachari ...

Time to drink beer and restrategize my battle plans.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lesson 7: You Are Doing It

I spend probably 90% of my aikido attention on thinking about concepts and dreams, and maybe 10% on actually doing aikido movements. This isn't necessarily bad, because I think about aikido a lot; when I'm bored, when I'm excited, and all throughout the day. But it can interrupt and distract your actual practice when you bring all of those other thoughts into the movement. I found myself very distracted at times during tonight's practice when I was screwing up a movement. I would think "I'm doing it wrong", "when I become a black belt it'll be fixed", etc. No matter your level, when you're doing an aikido technique with a partner, you're doing aikido. It may not be as good as others around, but you are doing it. By being stuck in your own extra-special anomaly world, you're not only robbing yourself of the experience of what's actually happening, but you're also robbing your partners of that moment as well. These moments are special and precious! The point of aikido is to see the moment for what it is and react accordingly, not thinking about two moves ahead when you're supposed to throw the opponent. I want, and thusly somehow expect that one day I will have practiced aikido for 80 years and will be a 10th dan whose written many books and won acclaim, but what if I don't make it there? Is that OK? Screw all that. I'm a dude practicing aikido, which is the same as being a dude in the future doing aikido. Just do it and have fun. Success and failure are your own arbitrary judgements, not the law of the land.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lesson 6: More Ukemi

I mentioned it in my last entry about ukemi, but I've been told to ukemi farther again tonight. I got it when I do it with a partner, but when we were warming up doing ukemi (rolls) by ourselves, my sensei pointed out to me that I needed to go farther. I didn't really understand it until he pointed at my lead hand when I put it down before my roll. Tonight I was putting it down at the same level as my front foot which makes my ukemi shoot more straight down, which can be dangerous and doesn't get me very far. Instead, now I'm going to start reaching farther out to make this more effective.

Also, for uke (partner receiving the throws) sensei also pointed out that I was breaking the connection when my wrist gets turned while I'm grabbing his wrist. He kept saying something about power or strength, and so I started flexing or trying to remain stiff during uke, but that was so far off. In fact, this along with the ukemi correction he gave was in Japanese I couldn't understand, and at first, I was left having no idea what he was saying to me, which was incredibly frustrating! Because he says it, I try to correct it, but incorrectly, and then we have to finish the technique with me not understanding and the help he's so eagerly trying to give me is a bit wasted. It wasn't until after class, when I grabbed someone else that could possibly translate, and I found out about these two things. So anyway, about breaking the connection, it's not that I need to flex or make it hard for the tori, but I need to maintain my grip on his wrist. If I don't maintain that grip throughout, the connection is lost, and the tori cannot effectively do the technique.

This is a very important quality to aikido, but one where I start to lose my understanding of practicality with certain techniques. If this was a real attacker, I highly doubt he'll hang on the wrist for so long, especially if I don't even do it in class unknowingly. But, I perceive that things aren't so obvious, direct, or combat effective in the beginning stages of aikido, and so I will proceed on being a good white belt and doing what I'm told, but also supplementing it with a lot of reading and keeping my eyes open.

As for progress, tonight I received my certificate for my first test that I took over a month ago: nanakyu. It had been so long I just assumed you didn't get a certificate until shodan, but look at this! Pretty cool I think. The calligrapher who wrote it even put my name in romaji characters. Onward and upward Gaijin!

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Karate-do is awesome, I love aiki-do, and I would even like to try sa-do, but I have found my true calling ... mamachari-do! The "-do" we are speaking of here is placed at the end of certain words and means, "the way" or "the path" and is pronounced "doe". It is commonly seen in martial arts like karate-do, aiki-do, ju-do, kyuu-do, but can also be in other cultural arts like cha-do (the way of tea). This "-do" denotes a spiritual path one can undertake in a specific art to cultivate themselves. To many foriegners, it may be desirable to study many "do"s to be a talented person in various fields, and even in ancient Chinese martial arts, one ideal was to study many other subjects to supplement martial arts like calligraphy, literature, tea, etc. However, generally it seems to me that the Japanese traditionally admire someone who undertakes only one art fully. I think that has some importance when discussing the meaning of "do". One art is not better than any other, and in the grand-scheme of things, they really aren't anything at all. But, these various "do" can be used as tools to reach higher planes of existence. By having one art, you can concentrate all of your effort for one goal.

Mamachari: heavy-ass, one-speed bicycle, with at least one basket and a bell. AKA, granny bike. It also helps if it is rusty and the brakes sqeak revealing diminishing effectiveness.

Mamachari-Do; this is my spiritual path.

When I came to Japan, I had two primary goals. One was to train in a traditional Japanese art. I would have taken tea ceremony or flower arranging if it was the most available, but I have been lucky enough to find what I really wanted, aikido. The next goal, was to travel around Japan and see as much as possible. When I asked my ALT predecessor here in Kurobe at Sakurai High School if she had travelled much around the area of Kurobe, or even Japan, she said no. I was very dissapointed. I ask other Japanese, and am culturally disappointed at their lack of knowledge of the various regions of their own country. I was going to be different, and explore everything from the tip of Hokkaido to the southernmost reaches of Kyushu and Shikoku. Well, though there certainly are trains connecting the whole of Japan, it didn't take long to find out that they can be extremely expensive, confusing, and time consuming. It is not so easy. Generally, for me to take a trip to Hokkaido or Kyushu, it would cost about $200 one way on the train system. Narrowing it down to a smaller and closer region, to go to Tokyo and Kyoto, it's about $100 one way. Then, down to my region of Hokuriku, it can be down to $30 or $50 one way to the farthest reaches like Fukui-ken. As the possibility of me traveling was getting smaller and smaller as regions go, I now arrive to my current traveling status: Niikawa, the area including the surrounding towns on this side of the Toyama-ken. Taking the regular JR trains in the region only drops you off in the middle of each town and city, and to take the smaller local train, it can be extremely slow and a bit expensive, and will only take you to smaller town centers. Walking, well, things are a bit too far to just walk. So, the mamachari is my preffered means of transportation. I was given my mamachari by my predecessor immediately upon arrival, but I looked at is disdainfully for a month, and thought it would be silly to ride. However, I soon realized it was just foolish to force myself to walk everywhere. 20 minutes one way to the grocery store, 25 minutes to my favorite bar, 40 minutes to the train station. My biggest and most time consuming travel experiences were limited to these locations, which is pretty lame. Once I finally jumped on my bike, the euphoria hit me instantly, and ever since then I have been flying all around Niikawa, weaving through the streets and popping tires from going off curbs to fast.


In a small town called Kamiichi, which lies a bit closer to the mountains and towards Toyama city, I had heard of a temple with a waterfall that buddhist monks sit under in the coldest throws of winter for spiritual cleansing. I hadn't heard of it until recently, which means its not among this biggest of attractions here, which means that it may still have elements of less popularized locations that I find enticing. At school I asked the social studies teacher, who is also a buddhist priest, and he gave me some very vague information about it in Japanese that was particularly difficult to understand. But I had names of places, and a sense of direction for these kinds of things, and the next free chance I had I was off. That happened to be this weekend.

For those that are determined to proceed with this post, make sure you have the time, and your favorite internet browsing beverage at hand, because you are about to start an adventure that took me up several mountains in search of castle ruins and hidden towns. You may want to stop reading if you do not enjoy epic adventures across foreign lands and deep into the soul. For those that continue, thank you and enjoy!

Friday night we had stayed up late playing poker, and I had the idea to wake up casually the next day and start my trip after noon sometime. But that Saturday morning I woke up around 8:30. I looked at the clock, got a drink of water, and tried to convince myself to get more sleep. But I couldn't. Despite feelings of grogginess, something was forcing me up. For years I have been trying to get up earlier to do something "productive", usually in the form of martial arts or traveling, and in this case, it may be a sign of its fruition. I talked with my parents on skype for a bit, and around 10:45, it was time to go. On my last bike trip to Unazuki, I had talked to my mom on skype before, and it is becoming a bit of a pre-adventure ritual that seems to help me on my way.

Into the increasingly hot and humid early Japanese summer, and through the rice-fields I cruise!

Here is a picture of the dojo where I practice aikido from the backside. On my way towards the mountains.

There are small rice-fields connected to the majority of houses all throughout Kurobe, but once you start heading to the outer-reaches, the houses become less and the rice-fields become much bigger. If you're heading to the mountains, you can see wide rice-fields in amazing terraces. This is a picture of an Obaachan (old woman) working the fields. I was able to get a lot of good shots like this today. But I have to admit that I passed-up many oppurtunities due to an uneasiness I have about taking people's pictures. Perhaps this is one thing that will forever keep me from photo journalism. The thought of traveling to third world countries and taking candid pictures of the local people just turns my stomach. So here in Kurobe, I would be cruising down these small roads between the rice-fields with blonde hair, shorts, sunglasses, on my mamachari; all of which are about as rare as I am in Kurobe. So my presence was usually always noticed, and so my pictures of such instances are pretty rare.

When I head from my apartment towards the mountains, I'm starting to find a routine of routes I take, and this time I came across a park I had visited many months back. It was closed at the time, but now it was open, and I discovered quite a gem hidden in Kurobe.
I think these are cherry-blossom trees, and if I'm right, this place must explode in pink wonder during hanami; cherry blossom viewing season.

With a huge sloping hill and wide grassy lawns, this would be absolutley ideal for beer, lounging in the sun, and frisbee. Or even cheap snowboarding during winter? I couldn't believe my eyes when I found this place, because like all of the most amazing parks in this country, they are somehow hidden and tucked away, and thus very hard to find without prior knowledge or an adventurous spirit. I am 99% sure no other gaijin in the area know about this. Maybe I can open it up to them. I have no idea what this is, but it looks very Japanese to me, and very cool. More interesting Japanese park structures. I'm really going to miss this when I leave someday. So much quality and individuality put into each and every park that hardly anyone visits. Certainly more than just a bench and a barbecue.

Back on the road. I have a loooong way to go. My last trip to Unazuki was the longest yet. One way with no stops it would take between one and one and a half hours, but this one to Kamiichi would easily be twice as long. However, it was in a direction I had never been on my bike before, so I knew there were going to be a lot of side-trips. Actually, this is an important thing to know about me when I go somewhere new. When I explore, I tend to go uphill, towards any enticing distraction, and get easily turned around. I am coming to believe I have quite a nose for these interesting paths, but that has little to do with staying on task. Beware travelers accompanying Gaijin.

For instance, this tunnel is certainly not going to get me to Kamiichi ... but how could you not go through!? Always towards the light at the end of the tunnel right?

Ah, just as I thought, an overgrown road to nothing! This does give me a great happiness as I become nostalgic of my home on Orcas Island, where such roads are more common than those regularly used. From here I turn around, and find another way. Oh, what's this? "Please ... blah blah blah ... blah blah blah." I'm sure it's something really important, but I can't read it. That sums up a lot about my kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese language) proficiency. I can read some things, but if it's important, I can only tell the overall message it's trying to convey. This says to please do or do not do something. Whatever. I'm just a silly gaijin anyway. I have yet to find myself in trouble with authority and claim no Japanese language or cultural knowledge, while playing the silly stupid gaijin card. This was an awesome downhill cruise; that led to some generic industrial compound. I would have to ride my mamachari all the way back up. If you somehow skimmed over my description of a mamachari earlier, I mentioned it was a "heavy-ass, one-speed bike." If you haven't had the experience of riding such a bike uphill, well, it's a bit taxing. And yet ... this is all part of mamachari-do! Ying and Yang, for every up there is a down, and each with their own qualities. It is a philosophy of self-sufficiency, and there are no escalators or lifts to carry such a practitioner up hills.

Wow, uphill on the mamachari in 80 degree weather is awesome! This is part of the euphoria of physical suffering that comes from such a spiritual practice. At this point, I couldn't be more wet if I had jumped in the Pacific Ocean. I was swimming in sweat all the way to the top. Upward and onward.

Ah, rest at the top of this level was sweet. Here is a view of the lowland area where Kurobe and it's neighboring towns rest. Just beyond is the ocean, and a bit further, you can sometimes see the Ishikawa peninsula stretching out across the ocean. However, on this kind of day, it's a bit too hazy to sea. I'm not used to such effects, as the summers where I grew up were not humid at all. Is this lack of visibility due to humidity? I'm not sure.At this point, I have certainly gone uphill towards the mountains, but slightly in the opposite direction of Kamiichi, which requires me to go parallel with the ocean for a couple of hours. But I know that I'm on the right path to somewhere because of this bear warning sign. Follow these and you'll find cool spots.

Ah! This is a beautiful sign! In mamachari-do, this is a reward of sorts for you hard work. 7% downgrade runs make that inchi-by-inch uphill peddaling worth the while.

With the rice-fields, towering mountains, and bear signs, it's easy to forget that you're in a fairly industrial part of Japan. In fact, the home of YKK, as well as other large industrial and technological companies such as this Panasonic one. The parking lot was fairly full, which meant there were thousands of Japanese pounding away towards an over-worked lifestyle for national commercial success. It makes me cringe, and so I pedal on.
Here ends Phase One of the journey, and the beginning of another: Matsukura Castle. A castle? I know enough about traveling in Japan that if there is a legitimate castle around, everyone knows about it and it will be the focus of many tourist pamphlets. I've never heard anything about such a castle in tiny po-dunk Niikawa, which only means I must inquire.

The road become little more than one lane, and wound upwards towards the mountains in highly forested areas. I had no idea such a place or route existed, and slowly I realize there is much more to this area than I had never known. Where would this road go? Why is it here? And what am I doing on this mamachari in such hot weather up seemingly endless winding roads? I'm supposed to be going to Kamiichi anyway, and this was not the way.

About 30 minutes of snail-pace upward struggle finally revealed signs of civilization, and a potential end to my search for this unknown castle.

There were no more signs in English about a castle, but at this point it seemed to be about the 8 kilometers the first sign had told me. The road wound up to this small village. Again with the questions: What is this place? How come I have never heard of this? What are the people doing here? Before this trip I was under the impression that human settlement in Niikawa was limited to the main towns like Kurobe that went across the coast. But now I am seeing when you go away from the ocean and towards the mountains, there are many more small anonymous towns. I followed the signs which Ithink signified the main attraction of the town, maybe the castle, and it lead me here. The castle? It was certainly a center of sorts, with some cultural importance, but it was locked, and I was there to ponder to myself, if this was a building on the remains of a castle, if I had followed the right road, and what the sign said above the bike in the picture. Exhausted, I sat on those steps, and let the frenzy inside of me settle in the silence of this early-afternoon.Unknown towns surrounded by unknown forests in unknown mountains. I felt as though I was in another world and I had only slightly strayed from the borders I call home. I wonder if any gaijin had ever sat on these steps as I had. I wonder how many Japanese who lived ten minutes away by car even knew this place existed. Everyone could marvel knowing the second highest mountain in Japan was in the mountain range that was so close, but other than that, little attention is put in this direction. Metaphorically speaking, It seems everyone gets to the lodge at the base of the mountain and cries, "We made it! Look at us! Hey honey, take a picture of me. Wow, this is definately going to be my profile pic on Facebook. Man, I need a soda. Ooh, look, thise vending machine's hot dogs are only $10. Geez, I'm really tired, let's get home before Idol is on." I grew frustrated with this thought. All I could think of were the limitations of the stupididy of mankind. Why? In this Age of Information, if something is important, then it will have its own entry in Wikipedia and will have a website. Therefore, one should go to it and take a picture with it. Perhaps older "savage" civilizations were right when they thought a picture would steal something's spirit. Perhaps the most amazing people and things on the planet were hiding in such mountains. Perhaps it requires effort and determination to find something special. The cultivation of spirit requires work and individual discovery. I looked at my mamachari and smiled.

I began my departure from this town, but as I was headed out, I thought I could spend the 60 seconds it would take to cover the breadth of the town on my bike. The end of the road led to a small shrine, which actually, was one of the most intricate and beautiful one's I have ever seen.

This is but only one of a few intricate carvings on the shrine. I could only imagine the time and skill needed to make such a beautiful carving. It was not in some gift shop to be marketed, but on a shrine in this far-removed town.

I rarely perform the Shinto ritual which is often done at such shrines, but I believed it would be appropriate here. Really, its a few claps and bows, not much to ask for. Though the large and more popular temples in Japan are of Buddhist origin, I love these Shinto shrines the most. There are many in every town in Japan, and rarely visited.

It was time to leave this place and resume my journey to Kamiichi. The half hour I spent pedaling up to this location, would now reveal an epic downhill flight!

Half-way down I noticed a small bridge and path into the woods. I stopped to inquire, and found a wondrous overgrown path to somewhere. This is precisely the kind of adventure I like most. However, I only looked and appreciated it, as today called for something different. Maybe next time.

Here ends phase two: Maybe Matsukura Castle.

I glided down the hill that was so menacing before, and was blessed by the wind that blew my hair back.

And yet, at the bottom of that hill, was the beginning of another.

I uttered an explicative common to such instances, snorted sweat and snot out with a gruff, and began another ascent.

In Japan, many police and construction signs are marked by cute little woodland animals such as raccoons, frogs, monkeys, and moles like this. I think it has quite a different connotation than ... pigs.

At this time, I had made some progress towards my goal, and found a sign for another potential side trip. Ruins of Masaguta Castle ... only 1.9 km? Sure! My optimism was beaming from a recent downhill section. Here begins, Phase Three: Ruins of Masugata Castle.

What looked flat from the sign, soon shot upwards through rice fields. This would be a 1.9 km straight uphill. More sweat, more pedaling. At this point in the journey I have developed quite a technique for getting up these hills which sends my torso bobbing to each side of the bike each time my foot completes a pedal. Hunched over the handlebars on my bike, I can see my fleshy lungs from the inside, filling, emptying, and my heart surging blood to keep this organic engine pumping. All of these separate gears of organs and powering limbs urged on by the spirit of mamachari-do.

Signs of the castle! This must be one of the chariots Niikawa samurai rode in 15th century feudal Japan.
Soon I reached the top of what I could see, and found evidence of attractions. This marker, a covered area with picnic tables, and maybe one of the only drinking fountains in all of Japan. In Japan you can easily find vending machines with a various assortments of drinks, yet a drinking fountain is really a rare sight.

I dismounted my mamachari with an authority that accompanies the premonitions of a victory of sorts, and started up a path to the ruins on foot.

Here it is! The ruins of Masugata Castle! Wow, these trip is really redefining my idea of what a castle can be.

Oh wait! There is a samurai! Let's ask him.

He muttured something unintelligible from an ancient language, so I turned around to gaze upon this mountain spot. Something called me toward the forest and I started walking where there was no path. All I could think of was how exciting it would be trail blaze through such mysterious territory, when all of a sudden, a crash from the woods made me shriek and leap, and I looked over to see some medium-large black figure leap away from my direction into the forest. What the f*&^ was that!? Seriously, it was definately not a deer, and I'm pretty sure not a bear. In fact, it looked like a huge pig. Wild Japanese boar? I don't know, but I became very nervous about being alone in the woods and quickly biked away.

A glorious downhill glide brought me back to more ricefields and flat land.

The difference between Tokyo and Kurobe is, that when you walk down the street in Tokyo, you see tall sharp businessman headed towards the most profitable and serious of endeavors, and when you walk down the street in Kurobe, you see ojiisan and obaasan (old men and women, think image of elderly grandmothers and grandfathers), all of which are afflicted by the most distortioning of hunched-over backs. I wonder as to the transition period between the 40 and 50 year old black haired straight backed Japanese, to these more horizontal than vertical ojiisan and obaasan. Well, it's clearly from working the rice-fields there entire lives. This is extremely hard work, requiring you to wade knee deep in water while you're hunched over placing thousands upon thousands of seeds into the mud. In modern Japan, the young adults flock to the cities for business oppurtunities and dreams of eccentric city life, which leaves work in temples and fields for those of generations past. What is happening to this part of Japanese culture? Who will tend the temples and fields when these toiling wonders of the old ways are gone?

Maybe the streets will be lined with abandoned granny wagons? What? This is weird. Earlier I had climbed this hill and passed an obaasan on a similar vehicle, and now coming back, I find it abandoned on the side of this one lane road. With no sign of it's rider, I wonder if like Yoda, she disappeared into the Force.

By this point, I had probably only made it a third of the way to my goal of Kaimiichi, and had already spent 4 hours climbing three mountains to castles that didn't seem to exist. Time to get some Ramen, and get on the road.

With my goal being the Buddhist meditation waterfall that I think is called Nisseki-ji near Kamiichi, my notion of its location was a bit too foggy, so I bothered some locals in a barbershop for directions. An old man grumbled something, and who seemed to be the wife took me outside and revealed the way. "Arigatou gozaimashita!"

Pedal gaijin, pedal, pedal, pedal. Hot sun burning skin. Legs tired from mountains climbed. Body leaking sweat and quickly depleting vital fluids. Pedal, pedal, pedal.

Kamiichi! I eventually arrived, and found that there were a quite a few different famous sites, so I followed to the signs to what I thought would lead me to Nisseki-ji. But along the way I saw a sign for something else that had a cool name, and the path lead upwards into the woods, so I would have to make just one more detour before the climax.

This was definately one of the most appealing of roads I had been on so far. It's not so often in this area that you have large forest immediately off the edge of the road, but here it was, and the afternoon light beamed through the trees for a mystical effect.

This was a steep hill, and my legs were so tired I had to resort to walking my bike most of the way. Up this hill, to what? The name was interesting, but I wasn't sure exactly what it was. All I knew is that it had the kanji that read "Dai" which means great or big, and that was enough to pull me up the hill.

Well, this is what I came to, and it sure looked a lot more castley than anything I had seen before. The doors at the base were locked, which was a pity, but I investigated the building from the outside as much as needed, and admired the viewpoint. Patience was dwindling for the end of the journey, but the idea of a downhill cruise through the woodland road gave me a surge of excitement. Next stop, Nisseki-ji ... or whatever it is I'm going to find.

I followed the signs down the main road all the way to it's end, where it became a small one lane road into the woods and up a mountain. Here, there was only a small building that smelled of onsen, and a few cars parked outside. I walked around the building and came back to the front to read the kanji: Nisseki-ji. This is where buddhists come to pray?

I walked inside, and it looked more and more like an onsen. As I entered, a small old man shuffled around and went behind the main desk. We both looked at each other confused. Our conversation began in Japanese:

"Is this Nisseki-ji?"


"Is this an onsen?"


"What's further up the road?"


"Umm, are there any temples?"

"There's nothing up there."

"What's up there?"


"This is an onsen?"



"Oh. ... Do you want to enter the onsen?"

"Uhh ... Yes, but later. Not yet. Ummm ... I'll return."

Confused looks, a few bows, and a few thank yous. I went outside to gather myself and try to figure out what was going on. This was certainly not a place where buddhist monks come in the winter to pray under a waterfall, and it must be around here somewhere. I have found that often old men in this country are by far the least reliable source for such information. So I decided to proceed up the hill on the one lane road a bit to see what I could find.

I pushed my bike up the hill, and found two signs. One pointed to something in one direction that led up for 2 km, and the other way was something that denoted a temple that was 10 km up. I decided it was too far, and started back down the hill. Then 10 seconds later, I told myself I had to go up and see. Then, 20 seconds later, I changed my mind again and stopped and sat on the ground to think.

My clothes were drenched with sweat while I was still having a continuous flow of sweat from my pours. My arms looked red and my face felt burnt. I had no more water. I certainly could not bike up any more hills, and at the least would resort to pushing the bike. It was almost 5:00 and I had been riding for about 6 hours. The next possible point of attraction that could maybe be the temple I was searching for was probably the one another 10 km up. And if this would end up like the rest of my escapades, I would find nothing resembling a temple. What more could I ask for than an onsen to mark the climax of the trip. And so with that, I crawled upon my bike and floated down to the onsen, to meet the old man once again, and enter the onsen.

When I got inside to change, I took off my clothes and looked in the mirror to find quite a sight! It was me, but greatly distorted by the trip. My face was very burnt, except where my sun glasses were, and my neck and arms had become so red compared to the rest of my body which hasn't seen the sun since last September, and I had what was the most amazing farmer's tan that has ever been found on my body. From the sweat and wind, my hair shot up into a flat top, making me look like Guile from Street Fighter, and I stunk very badly. The old man I asked questions of was probably too shocked by this gaijin to communicate effectively, and I got more strange looks than usual when I got in the onsen.

As a matter of fact, this has become my second favorite onsen to Kintaro, though it was very small. Something of the ambiance, and perhaps my experience, made this an especially nice onsen trip. I actually liked the sensation created from the burn on my arms reacting in the sulfurous water. One Japanese man attempted to talk to me, but I had absolutley no clue at all what came out of his mouth, and so I said some key phrases I've learned to use in such situations to keep a conversation going though I understood nothing.

After the onsen, I drank a bottle of water, a bottle of lemon vitamin water, and a bottle of cold oolong tea from the vending machine, and began to muster what it would take to make the straight road back to Kurobe.

Like most trips, I always forget that I have to get home, and so I was left with what ended up being another hour and a half ride up and down a few hills to my home in Kurobe. I had much to reflect upon. What had I seen today? Maybe two ruins of castles, some outlook tower, and paths to things I don't know through towns nobody knows exists outside of their small populations? What would I tell people when I get back? What really happened?

As a matter of fact, I met with a few other friends to play poker that night. They laughed at my burn, and couldn't believe I rode my bike to Kamiichi. I tried to explain that it was much more than that, and I had followed paths into the mountains to castle ruins and found towns they've never heard of. But they just laughed at the raccoon eyes made from my sunglasses, and wondered why I was crazy enough just to ride my bike to Kamiichi. To them, nothing existed beyond two streets from the main road.

I can't wait until Monday when I still have a sunburn on my face and I probably have realistically over one hundred Japanese people ask me about what happened to my face.

I drank a lot of beer, and lost a bit of money at poker. We watched some of the World Cup. I was a content gaijin.

What are we to make of such experiences? How could anyone understand their significance? Most of my friends here know I do aikido, but they certainly don't know how important it is to its practitioners. I haven't told anyone in this country about my blog. I have different activities I do with each friend to satisfy different facets of social interaction, but it seems rare to find one quality friend these days.

This journey is mine, and only my own two legs will get the pedals going on my mamachari. Mamachari-do is as serious as any other Japanese art, and I look forward to continuing it's training. But for now, I must rest, be an assistant language teacher at a high school, find a way to get some food and pay bills before payday, and practice aikido. Such is the ebb and flow of a gaijin on the path.