Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A BIG Step

senri no michi mo ippo kara

a journey of a thousand steps begins with one

I learned this proverb just after I got to Japan, and it has been a mantra that has become incredibly personal. After a year, I've been taking it step by step, some big and some infinetisemally small. I think lately I've felt like I've been taking tiny little steps. But whether it's things switching to the polar opposite after reaching a maximum like the I Ching says, working hard has increased my luck, or it's even just a figment of my imagination, I felt a HUGE step last night at aikido.

In my last post I wrote about the frustration I had trying to talk with my sensei about aikido at the seminar we went to this weekend, and the phrase that unlocked a lot of the mystery was nanto naku. Sensei had said this, and I didn't understand, but he expressed it was crucial to the conversation we were having. So yesterday at school before aikido class, I investigated it's meaning.

I went straight to Terao Sensei (my favorite teacher at school who's English ability is amazing) and asked him what nanto naku meant in English. He said, "Mmmmmmmm ... sore wa muzukashii ne." That is really difficult. He tried to explain further saying that Japanese use it to explain something that isn't clear or doesn't have an exact meaning. Great, the Japanese word for something that can't be expressed. How am I supposed to understand that? Terao Sensei checked his electronic dictionary and it said that one possible translation could be "somehow." Something happened somehow. Mmmmmm, muzukashii ne. It is difficult isn't it. In a sentence in English, nanto naku could be used to describe, "She didn't know why, but today for some reason, she had a strange feeling." So nanto naku would be "for some reason"?

OK. Well, this word explaining something that can't be explained is becoming a little more clear. It seems to depend a lot on the context, which is not an uncommon situation in the Japanese language. Perhaps one of the qualities that gives it the fame of being one of the more difficult languages to learn in the world.

So I went to aikido and saw Sensei with a big grin on his face while he was cooling off in front of a fan in the dojo. He seemed happy with the weekend, and so was I. I got changed and quickly ran back over to him. "Sensei! I looked up nanto naku today and think I kind of understand it." He seemed very happy to hear of my efforts, and began giving his own example of nanto naku as it relates to our conversation the other night, and thusly aikido.

He began by telling a story about Kukai, a figure famous in Japanese Buddhist history. (As a disclaimer, I don't know much about Kukai, and my retelling of this story Sensei told is only from my own understanding of the conversation we had and a little knowledge about Japanese tales.) He had gone to the forest in the mountains and sat down. Overcome with the wonder of the place, he attempted to look in every direction at everything in the forest as clearly as possible to be able to remember such a beautiful place. But he quickly realized that this was impossible. He could not possibly remember every detail of every tree and rock. He couldn't remember everything exactly clearly. Here he used the word, hakkiri, which means clearly. Sensei was able to understand the English word for hakkiri which he told me, and together we could translate his story. Anyway, so Kukai could not clearly remember every detail in the forest by investigating every direction. Instead, he sat and gazed at his surroundings with nanto naku.

Get it?

In aikido, it is impossible to follow and remember every exact little detail in every waza all the time. And this takes into the account of all the different versions of aikido, which are as many as there are practitioners. Instead, it is important to practice aikido with nanto naku. If I could take a leap of translation here, in this case it seems to be like holistic, vaguely, and by feeling ... and somehow. Sensei said that a practitioner of aikido should not follow just the one way that their sensei teaches, but see other teacher's ways. He said everyone has their own strengths in aikido, and it's important to see the wide spectrum there is. Then, one can find their own aikido, by way of nanto naku.

Isn't this true in training in various martial arts? For me personally this couldn't be more accurate. I started martial arts by practicing Hawaiian Kenpo Karate, but from a teacher that would incorporate a lot of judo, ground fighting jujitsu techniques, muai thai, or anything at all that worked or seemed interesting. I then started practicing Tai Chi Chuan with a teacher who had originally started as a wrestler, went on to Tae Kwon Do, went on to Kaji Kenpo Karate, and now practices Chinese internal martial arts. After practicing Hawaiian Kenpo and Chinese internal martial arts, my time now in Aikido will eventually come to an end here in Japan, and I'll move on to something else. Even if I keep practicing Aikido somewhere else, it will be something else.

Instead of a teacher that professes that one should practice one art under one teacher their whole life, I have a Buddhist priest who promotes ideas of cross training and individualization. I am a very lucky gaijin.

Nanto naku.

This discovery of nanto naku and hakkiri felt like a lightning bolt from the Japanese language gods and for the rest of class I nanto naku-ishly understood much more than I ever have of what Sensei said.


Seriously, a bit of magic was surely involved. I think one practical explanation of this may be that I had gotten in the habit of not listening very clearly to what Sensei said when explaining techniques. When he presents a technique for us to practice, he does give a little explanation, but because I have a hard time understanding him, I just phased his words out and looked at his physical movements. This is good in a way, and surely nanto naku, but I have become a bit lazy in listening to Japanese sometimes. By making an effort to hear more clearly what he's saying helped me hear a lot more at practice last night.

In my last post I also expressed frustration in my limited two days a week of Aikido, and my desire to join the two more classes Sensei has in the next town over. It seems it's not open to beginners, and when it's come up before Sensei has always said it's too far for me without a car. Because this weekend I have obligations at school, I was going to wait until next week to seriously ask Sensei about joining. BUT! After practice tonight as we were leaving Sensei said ...

"So are you coming to class on Wednesday?"

At this I could have melted into the floor in an enlightened joy. Of course I was coming. We agreed that he would pick me up from the dojo in Kurobe in his car and we'd go together from now on.

A big leap in understanding Japanese. A big leap in understanding my Sensei's view of Aikido. And more time to practice Aikido with Sensei.

Now I sit at school, impatiently waiting for tomorrow night at 7 when Wednesday practice begins.


  1. Congratulations on your new found understanding.

  2. Hahaha!
    On another martial road trip with a Sensei!
    With a cold Beer and warm cup of Sake at the end of the journey!
    Ah, things are not so different from home, eh, Gaijin?
    What a great gathering at the seminar in the last post. I think I would have to pass on some of the food, like the fish eggs and whole squid. Then I would drink way to much.

  3. I thought that expression was, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a kid with a full bladder."