Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lesson 26: Steady Improvement

I've been to four Wednesday classes so far, and the last one was the first time I felt like I did something right 3% of the time, which is huge. However, tonight after going to the regular Thursday class when it's open to everyone, I've noticed huge improvements. Perhaps a lot is changing underneath the surface. The more you practice, the wider varieties of practice you have, and the better people you practice with ... the better you get.

That is the root of my lesson tonight. Continue to read if you want to follow some of my rambling thoughts that seemed to be pouring out my head tonight.

The other night on the drive to a Wednesday class, I was talking with my Sensei about a very simple yet profound idea: The more you do something, the better you get. If you want to get better at Aikido, then go to every class. If you want to get even better, then practice by yourself at home. If you want to get even better, than incorporate Aikido into your daily life when you're "not" practicing Aikido. If you want to get even better still, read about Aikido. If you want to get better at Aikido, then you have to try sincerely. You are your own controlling factor for improvement in whatever practice you pursue.

This is something I think every serious martial artist must consider. Now, the problem I've always had, is that when confronted with this concept, my ego automatically forces me into this all-or-nothing mentality where I immediately assume that I want it all and to be the best possible. But such blindless devotion ultimately is not the way for me. Aikido is not the "#1" thing in my life. Martial arts are not it either. In fact, as many times as I've tried to make anything the "#1" thing in my life, it has turned out not to be it. It has been unavoidable and beneficial, but also really stressful. I have figured out though that martial arts and Aikido are at the highest of my lists, and I need a constant source of it to keep me happy. Actually, what I've figured out, that I need lots of physical interaction in my life. Lots of bodies, touching, falling, rolling ... big bodies, little bodies, fat bodies, skinny bodies ... lots and lots of genuine body interaction. "Fighting", "kicking ass", "defending myself", or "being the best" I guess are all great things, but none of them are "the reason" I continue to practice martial arts. I will surely continue my incessant search for reasons and legitimizations for practicing, but not for the goal of finding that one ultimate reason.

Rambling rant over.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lesson 25: Kimochi

Kimochi in Japanese can be translated as feeling, especially good feeling. You'd usually say "kimochiiiiiiii" when you get in an onsen, or get a massage. Earlier when Sensei was trying to explain kankaku (physical feeling), I kept on trying to say kimochi, but he said no, it's different. Tonight however, we were working on a movement, and he said I need to do it with kimochi. Jibun no kokoro kara kimochi wo tsukau: Use feeling from my own heart. This seemed like a strange phrase to use with context, but it was indeed very important. Along with what we were doing, in Internal Chinese Martial Art lingo, I think he meant that I needed to root better. Relax your body, drop your weight, and move with kimochi. Another demonstration he had was with his hand/arm on mine. When he wanted to move it down, he didn't push, but he kimochi'd his arm making it heavy and weight down on mine.

This is something I've experienced in training with other teachers be it Tai Chi Chuan, Hawaiian Kenpo, or Boxing. It doesn't seem to be the mark of a particular style of martial arts, but a common component reflective of a matured practitioner.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I love Japan

Being in Japan, especially in the random inaka (country-side) of Toyama, I've often been asked by Japanese, "Why are you interested in Japan?"
Apart from the, "I don't know, I just always have," I've always answered recalling a very real and genuine experience. When I was at the end of elementary school, I remember attending a performance of taiko drumming by Japanese that utterly transfixed my whole being towards the nation. Something about the calmness of the drummers, the power delivered through the drums, and the bold but mild colors of navy blue seemed to resonate very deeply.
However, just the other day, I realized I had an earlier memory that began my fascination with the country: Wolverine comic books. Not only is Wolverine the coolest comic book character I have ever seen, he is also one that apparently had episodes in the most far of east; Japan. I believe this is my earliest source of infatuation with Japan.
Interestingly enough though, in searching for pictures that match my earliest memories of Wolverine comic books in Japan, none of the images I've found are quite the same.
Who knows if this really is it...
or if there was something before...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lesson 24: Rolling With the Hips

Even though I've been going to every practice since I've been back in Japan, tonight was the first time in three weeks I've really felt I was at Aikido. Lately I feel like I've been carrying a lot of unneccessary bulls&%t in my head, and I haven't been practicing or learning at my full potential. But tonight something switched and I feel a bit back to a relaxed normal. The funny thing is that it had nothing to do with upping the enthusiasm or attitude. If anything, I walked into class without caring about anything in a bit of a dismissive fashion. After warm ups, I was more focused than I've been in a long time. It's kind of a funny lesson now looking back in retrospect: emotional or idealogical extremes seem to inhibit the full potential of learning and paying attention. Another thing that also helped was watching one of the new white belts repeatedly screw up so horribly. I had to hold back from laughing because he was pissing Sensei off so bad. But of course I sympathize because every single white belt has to spend time there, in fact, I very much still am, just not quite like this other new white belt. Noticing this helped me to relax and not make the same mistakes.

So tonight, I noticed Sensei talking with Hosogoshi, one of the other blackbelts, and he was saying to make his movements more beautiful and stronger by rolling your hips through movements. In all the martial arts I've been exposed to, strength is delivered from the hips through a relaxed body. Tonight this is what Sensei was pointing about, but with a bit more style building on basics. This is a serious connection made with other arts, especially the Chinese internal arts like Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing-I, and Ba Gua Zhang. When I practiced Tai Chi Chuan, we had a lot of solo drills attempting to connect the body through relaxed smooth motions with the hips. This will certainly help you in Aikido.

I imagine hula would do wonders as well.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Visiting 8th Dan

This week Sensei mentioned that an 8th Dan (8th degree black belt) was coming to visit, and we could join a training session on Friday at 1:00 if we wanted to meet with him. The only problem was I had school during that time. But because my high school is so close to the dojo and my Fridays are not very busy, I could manage to sneak away for an hour unnoticed and visit the dojo; which is exactly what I did.

To make things more interesting than this visiting Sensei being a 8th Dan in Aikido, was that he was also an 8th Dan in Kenpo! I learned that my Sensei here is a 3rd Dan in Kenpo as well, which explains a lot about his approach to the martial arts. His path is not just about Aikido, but about something much bigger.

I arrived at the dojo around 1:45 and discretely took a seat to the side to watch. Unfortunately I didn't bring my gi, so I didn't physically participate. Before arriving, I was trying to imagine what an 8th Dan in Aikido and Kenpo would look like, and similar to my experience with Tame the tea man, this visiting Sensei was far from some ultra-reserved sharp disciplinarian I envisioned. When I first saw him, he reminded me immediately of Masaaki Hatsumi, the current grandmaster of ninjutsu. The Sensei (I forgot his name, but I'll get it later and post it) was a short man of average Japanese build. He was probably about 5'5'' and weighed 130 lbs. As soon as he recognized my presence, he walked over to me with a hand in the air and a big smile introducing himself. I formally introduced myself in Japanese and then shook his hand exchanging smiles. He was a very kind man who teaches his life work of martial arts with enthusiasm, and probably loves to drink sake. Again, I don't know where the ultra-reserved sharp disciplinarian Japanese master is, but I have seen nothing of it while I've been in Japan, and find the reality much more interesting. If I had seen the Sensei just standing there, I would guess he would be about 50, but he moved better than most fit 30 year olds, and is actually 72 years old. This is an amazing testament to the effects martial arts training can have on longevity. To become an 8th Dan in Aikido and Kenpo takes extreme time and dedication, and this has given him great physical benefits.

Anyway, on to the training. There were only three other participants: my Sensei, Hosogoshi (best buddy black belt in class), and another guy who earned his black belt with my Sensei earlier, but left and has been training in Kenpo with another Sensei lately. A couple months back I met him at a barbecue and talked to him for a long time about varieties of martial arts. Everyone was dressed in their gi, but no hakama as it wouldn't fit the more Kenpo oriented training they were doing. I have to say, it was really strange to see Sensei and Hosogoshi without their hakama on.

There were long periods of talking, and then the three participants would practice movements for a few minutes with each other with comments from the Sensei. For the time I was there, they were working on irimi movement against snap kicks. As one partner would execute a snap kick, the other partner would move toward the opponent to one side with the opponent still facing the direction of the kick, and the person doing irimi facing the opponent's center square on. That is irimi. This is a very common movement in Aikido, and is present in many other martial arts. In my experience in Hawaiian Kenpo, this is seen in moving to a forty-five degree angle to counter an attack. But in Aikido, recently I have been practicing the lateral movement much smaller, and ending almost 90 degrees to the opponent with my center towards his. It was interesting to watch the varieties of movements executed by the participants. My Sensei did movements I have seen him do before, which he does very well. In class we usually do irimi and then step through the opponent with our shoulder which is very Aikido-like, but for practical reasons, Sensei says that if this happened in reality, he would do irimi and shoot a right cross right into the opponent's face. When he does this, it looks extremely powerful and effective, though I have questions about the rotation of the hips in this. When it was Hosogoshi's turn, his movements were very fluid and relaxed like a good Aikidoka should be, but he had trouble finding more practical applications because he doesn't have much experience in other areas compared to Aikido I think. As for the other guy, his movements were far too big, and when he loaded up to deliver a punch, his arms was crunched up and wrist limp, which in reality would result in breaking your own bones. From this I see the need to practice striking by making contact with pads or boards and not just practicing waza in the air or holding back with an opponent. Also, the potential drawback to internalizing such large movements that are prevalent in Aikido.

What the visiting Sensei had to say about this was that we must practice irimi with the smallest angle possible. This is made especially clear in practicing jo (short staff) movements. By using the smallest angle possible, we are using the least amount of motion and thus effort, and getting as close to the opponent as possible. The proximity made has great advantages for striking the opponent with punches, elbows, knees, headbutts, and also throws. This is where the Kenpo really came into view and dominated the training session. If we evade and make large movements making a big gap between you and the opponent, it is very difficult to end the confrontation. Nothing can happen when there is distance between you. When fights are physically ended, they are ended in close quarters. Here we find a great rift in opinions about the purpose of training martial arts. I think it's safe to say that in most martial arts, when there is confrontation, the desirable end is to end the confrontation (Interesting that in sport, the martial artist seeks confrontation in more matches). One possible view (probably used in Kenpo most often) is to end the fight with force; physically disabling the opponent with force. Perhaps in the philosophy of Aikido, force is not used to end a fight, but more so time or by successful evasion through executing throws and body manipulation. If that is the case, then space is good, and practicing striking is contrary to the aim. Perhaps if someone attacks you, with Aikido you evade the attacks until the opponent decides to give up.

I guess you have to find your own opinion of the best way to end a fight.

At one point while the participants were practicing, I talked briefly with the Sensei, and mentioned that I understand we should use as small of movements as possible, but it is difficult to manage because so often we practice such large movements in Aikido. The Sensei mentioned that these big movements in Aikido are beautiful in their grace and idealogies, but are not effective in physically ending fights. Take a look at the hakama Aikidoka wear, they look very cool and make the movements seem even more beautiful, but can be very inconvenient and impractical in physical confrontation. (I still want one though). Here I saw very clearly how dangerous it is to only practice Aikido. A couple nights ago, Sensei told me the goal of practicing Aikido is practicing Aikido. If this is your only goal, then only practicing Aikido is fine. But if you are seeking self-defense or a wider understanding of the movements of the body, one should supplement their training with another style. For me, that is incredibly necessary. I look forward to a time that I return to a broader training in different styles, but for now, it's just Aikido, Aikido, Aikido.

From this experience, I was able to remember my own past martial arts experiences, and that is very important. I should not forget all of the time I have worked on striking, and not submit everything to Aikido.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Training Self Sufficiency

I think that one of the most important things we do in practicing martial arts is training self sufficiency. Specifically in the martial arts, this usually means self-defense. This requires specific movements and techniques that are best learned from someone experienced who already has those skills and techniques. But somewhere along the path of the martial artist, perhaps it is easy to be distracted from self sufficiency, and resort to simple consumption of knowledge. I believe we should not just train to be given techniques, but train to develop our ability to find the answers (movements and techniques) ourselves. So we should not be lazy, blind, or unconditionally devout and thusly dependent, but instead, actively become independent.

Perhaps the next step can be found in solo meditation. Meditation does not have to be about chanting holy sutras for the purpose of being given enlightenment. (I apologize as that last claim was very generalized and full of potential falsities, but I think it is one view that is used as a practice and motivation for meditation.) Instead, I think meditation is about learning how to move throughout the world on your own. The idea of meditation seems to carry around the assumption that it gives magical abilities and insight that translates to everything you do. But just beacuse you read a book about Buddhism or chant sutras does not mean you will fulfill this abstract goal. By sitting quietly in meditation, one is able to look more clearly at the phenomenon in the world, and thus gain insight relevant to their life. Like martial arts, I believe meditation is about teaching yourself to be self sufficient mentally and spiritually. In that regard, by learning about yourself and your surroundings through meditation, you should be able to "survive" anywhere.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lesson 23: Painful Extremes

Ever since I was invited to the extra classes in Uozu, I've kept a very extreme frame of mind. At first it was confusing, last week it was at full force, this weekend it was almost unbearable, and now I'm trying to resettle myself very patiently. What I'm talking about is very vague, because it has too many causes and effects to name outside of just Aikido. The important part of this message in this blog though is, by having extreme frames of mind, one cannot relax or have fun, both of which are necessary for optimum development in Aikido. Ever since I came back from the States, I've been very strict with myself in Japan, and Aikido was at the top of the list. Aikido was the number one thing, the only thing, and if I didn't have that thing in a way that matched my highest of ideals, well then, it's all over. Such unwavering ultimatums led to a crash worthy of such a rigid structure. I love Aikido, and it certainly is one of my favorite things in Japan, but by trying to name it and worship it according to it's high title, I have made it something impossible and unreal. The effect such thinking has on my life is painful. The worst part about this in reflection, is I don't if I can stop such a progression of thought and feeling from happening again, even though I can say with confidence to myself that I do not want it to happen again . For, now I patiently and gently am trying to find a spot to make everything good again. Sometimes it seems like it takes more than just saying it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Haijin Giking

Lately, feeling a little burned out on biking and a yearning for the high mountains brought me to the peak of Shirouma-dake. Shirouma-dake (white horse mountain) is one of the highest mountains in the Northern Alps (2932 meters) and is located in neighboring Nagano prefecture. I've been eyeing this trip for a while, but because of it's distance from Kurobe and complications of transportation, I've been putting it off. Last week, after receiving maps and information from the vice-principal of my high school, who has a great interest in mountain climbing and biology, I gained the knowledge and confidence required for the trip.
First, I would go east to Niigata prefecture, and then switch trains south to Nagano. At Hakuba, I then took a bus up to the trail head. After six hours of travel (three of which were waiting at train stations), I was ready to begin the estimated 5 hour hike up to Shirouma-dake.

Hakuba is famous for being the location of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Last winter I went to snowboard and found the town full of strangely outfitted Japanese (80's neon pink, green, and purple snow wear) and more gaijin than I've ever seen in Japan.

This was a huge trip for me as it was the first time I have ever been camping by myself, and in an area I wasn't very familiar with. The time I had was very limited due to school and transportation, but nonetheless, I was there doing it.

At Hakuba town, it was a very hot day, but once I reached this part of the trail, heavy clouds and wind were sweeping down the mountains.

This was not a very fun part of the hike. An hour uphill on slippery snow and ice.

But as usual, the scenery was epic.

Periodically, the clouds would pass to reveal the jagged peaks that surrounded me.
I started the hike surging up the mountain with a great speed considering the trail and pack I was carrying, but for the last hour and a half, I began taking a rest after every 20 steps, then 10, then 5. Though it was only a 5 hour hike, any more and I would have had to change the pace considerably. Actually, I was able to make the trip 4 hours. Ever since hiking in New Zealand with Jolene and our friend Olivia, I've taken pride in slashing the expected times. This was no exception. Perhaps it's a little rough on the body though.

Ah camp. Here is Jolene's tent (thank you!). There were huts at the top, but to stay in them would cost around $75. Let me say that again ... $75! For a fricken wooden bunkbed! Camping was $5. When I checked in, I peeked inside to see what $75 luxury looked like in the mountains, and I shook my head in disbelief at this type of incredibly expensive phenomenon that is all too common in Japan.
After I set up my tent, I went inside at 5:00 to escape the bugs and declining temperature, and ate my peanut butter jelly tuna sandwich. At 6:00 without any company or books, I went to sleep.
This is perhaps the first time I really felt lonliness in Japan. On the hike up, I finally realized that 95% of my time in Japan is spent thinking about two things: Aikido, and Jolene. Here is the great dichotomy that blesses and tortures my soul daily. Aikido is the greatest mountain I have been climbing in Japan. But as I climb higher and higher, Jolene is farther and farther away, down below in some far off town. Thousands of miles away, practicing in the dojo, escaping to distant mountains, and burying myself in books about Buddhism, my mind is uncontrollably filled with thoughts of being back home. Being with the girl I'm in love with, my family, my friends, food and drink I enjoy, and starting a new unknown project and direction; these are the thoughts swirling round and round like a brewing tempest inside of my head. During the hike, my mind shifted between the polar opposites. "Yes, I must stay in Japan until I receive high degrees of blackbelts in Aikido. Only after that can I return home fulfilled." "No, what am I thinking? I have to go home as soon as possible to continue my life!" Each of these thoughts I believed genuinely, and they switched back and forth every minute. This is very stressful. Whatever, right now I need to go to sleep so I can start the return trip before sunrise.
I woke up 2 minutes before my cell phone alarm went off at 4:00. I ate another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, packed my bags, and headed to the peaks to see the sunrise.

It was glorious.

The mountains sat like islands above the sea of clouds that concealed the world of civilization below.
At the top, there was a Japanese man taking pictures of the sunrise. We began talking, and he seemed to be well experienced hiking in the mountains. I looked around at the panoramic view of the mountains, and spotted what I thought was Tsurugi-dake, "Hell Mountain" which I climbed with my brother and aikido buddies about a month and a half ago. I asked the man if that peak was Tsurugi, and he shook is head and said no no no, it's blah blah blah. I asked him if you could see Tsurugi from here, and he said no, it's too far away. "OK" I said, and a bit dissapointed started my return trip.
For the return trip, I would hike down along a ridge to Keyakidaira, the last stop of the Torokko Densha which is a train the runs through the Kurobe Gorge in Toyama prefecture. It is probably the most famous thing in Toyama and certainly Kubobe, and is worthy of such fame. My destination was far away though, an estimated 8 hour hike for healthy people in good weather. I was happy to be starting it so early in the cool morning temperature.

It's hard to believe the views from the peaks in the Northern Alps. As far as your eyes can see, it's all mountains.
This is Shirouma-dake below.

The sunrise and beautiful view gave me momentary bliss and peace, but as I resumed hiking, so did my thoughts. I took a deep breath and accepted that the next 8 hours coming down the mountain would be spent considering the decisions of my life. Yosh, let's go.

As soon as I stopped to take off some layers and take some pictures, the bugs swarmed me, forcing me into some strange monkey dance flinging my arms in the air. I can't even take a picture without a bug on the lens.
I couldn't stop looking at that mountain I thought was Tsurugi. It looks just like it. Was that man wrong?
Yes! It is unmistakably Tsurugi! The man who so confidently assured me it was not, was wrong. I pridefully stuck out my chest as I realized that I am beginning to know these mountains better than the Japanese who so proudly call it their home.

After two hours hiking along the high alpine mountain trail, the path soon descended into the forest. I was relieved to be in green again, but the path was extremely steep and hard on the knees. On such steep descents, it's easier for me to hop down them, which is very fast, but very hard on the body. Two hours later, I found a small hut and immediately went in to escape the sun, bugs, and take a well needed rest.
I ate another peanut butter jelly tuna sandwich and consulted my maps. I was relieved to find out I had made it a little more than halfway back in only 3 hours. That means if I didn't stop for lunch, I could return in 6 hours, compared to the 8 hours I was told would be the shortest possible, or even 12 hours if it was bad weather. Thoughts of beer and onsen at the end of the trail became more intoxicating.

Rested and back on the trail, I began hopping down the mountain. Perhaps it's not in a dojo, or some happy home that I belong, but on a trail in the forest.
From that point, it was a very long and arduous 3 hours, but just like I imagined, onsen and beer awaited me at the bottom! Above is a picture of the onsen, but regrettably, not a very good angle. For the sake of naked Japanese men, perhaps it's better that way.

Here is the Torokko Densha I rode through the Kurobe Gorge and back to happy civilization.
When I was buying my ticket, I had a choice between two kinds of seats on the train. I automatically voiced the cheaper one by habit to the train attendent, but then immediately said, "Wait! Actually give me the nicer one." There's no way I was going to sit on a backless bench seat crowded with Japanese people taking pictures for an hour and a half when I could pay $3 more for my own window seat.
It is an amazing route on the train through the gorge, and should be ridden by anyone who wants to see the natural beauty of Japan, but doesn't have the time to go hiking in the mountains.
There are many dams and monkeys on the way back ... and even a castle. Like always, I have no idea what such a thing is doing deep in the woods in Japan.
As I got off the last train next to the station by my apartment, I received a phone call from someone at the school office. As usual, my coworkers are mutually amazed and terrified of my solo mountain trips, and this phone call was from a very nice man in the admnistration office.
"Zac-san, are you OK?"
"Yes I'm fine. I'm walking home to my apartment right now."
"Did you climb Shirouma-dake?"
"Yes I did. It was amazing!"
"Sugoi! Are you OK?"
"Yes, but I'm really tired."
"Can you come to school tomorrow?"
"Of course. I'll see you tomorrow."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lesson 22: Small Things

Although tonight's practice was at the Kurobe dojo, there was only Sensei, Hosogoshi, Ueno and I. The advantage of this is that we do cooler stuff and get more reps with the most talented people in class. A pretty good advantage huh? With only a half hour left of class, one of the brown belts showed up. I decided to make tonight the night I ask a couple of very basic questions that have been brewing in my brain. It's funny that we are told about the very simple basics of a technique usually the first night their shown to us, but overtime, so many variations are shown, that one can forget actually what they are supposed to be doing.

For me, one question was where exactly do we project someone on shiho-nage? To the uke's center? To our center? Somewhere else? The answer is somewhere else. In the finishing movement we should be in aihanmi (a front stance where are shoulders are turned a bit and belt points at a forty-five degree angle), and the throw should be executed a little in front of your front foot. This correlates to ken (wooden sword) practice on the most basic of straight downward front strike, shomen.

Another question was about doing shomen with a ken when you're in a reverse(?) stance. While practicing the ken, at least at our dojo, you always hold it only one way: left hand at the bottom of the handle and the right hand further up a bit. If you're in a right stance (right foot forward), you are in aihanmi and it is very natural. But when you are in a left stance, it feels a bit awkward. I wasn't sure if in that case you have your hips square forward, or still in a 45 degree angle with the ken forward, making it more awkward feeling. The answer is you are still in aihanmi, making it seemingly more awkward. The same goes for working with the jo (short staff).

While we were working on a technique against a double hand grab, as an uke there was a point where I had my harms locked out completely straight, and Sensei immediately saw this and pointed it out. I said, of course, I know that, sorry. But he went on to explain at length about it. Honestly, it kind of pissed me off. One, because I let myself get into that position. And two, because he came off as assuming I've never known that before. I have been practicing martial arts for 7 years, and have been told this by every teacher from the very beginning. Again, I wish I hadn't got myself into that position, but when Sensei acts like I don't have any other experience, it gets on my nerves. He knows I have, but I never bring it up. Niether my language or my martial ability are perfect enough to show a lot of things immaculately, so I just don't bother. Whatever, maybe it's my ego, it just pisses me off and is one of the few times I just say "Ok yeah yeah I get it" to him to get to something else.

As for the brown belt coming late to class, I learned a lot from watching her ... as a bad example. She is a very nice girl, and has been practicing for a while, and even has good technique when things go well, but she has so much in the way personally. She is kind of ditsy it seems, but I can't help but think it's accentuated a million times over because of a lack of self confidence(?) She will make a simple mistake, Sensei will point it out, and she laughs and says she's really sorry, and then does the exact same thing again, over and over again. Each time getting more uncomfortable. She stops often in the middle of techniques when something doesn't go right, and finishes a technique usually saying sorry or that she screwed up. Again, she is very nice, and obviously wants to do better, but it does have the effect of disrupting practice, and really pisses Sensei off. Also, she comes late very often, and inserts herself awkwardly into practice at really inoppurtune times. To me, I feel kind of bad and sympathetic, but I've seen cases like this in every dojo I've been in, and nothing seems to piss off a teacher more than these things. I'm sure she's come a long way, and I look forward to training with her.

In Japan, typhoons are sweeping through parts of the country, but Toyama is one of the least likely places to have a real typhoon. What this does mean though, is that the seasons are changing, and it is getting cooler!!! This is the first week since early June that I have not been absolutley completely thoroughly soaking wet with sweat from practice. I don't have to drink four bottles of water during practice, and I don't feel like passing out either. When the sun is out, it is still hot and humid, but nothing like it has been for the past few months. I AM SO HAPPY! I've never been so happy to think about wearing a coat in my life ... except that one time I was freezing cold and really wanted a coat to keep warm.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lesson 21: Many Lessons!

Tonight I have three lessons. The first concerns ukemi. The second concerns the legitimization for the seemingly unorthodox or unrealistic way of practicing aikido. The third is just about personal things I learned about my Sensei. These are the most significant and specific lessons I have come across yet in Japan.

This first thought about ukemi actually came to me before tonight's practice, but is definitely worth mentioning. This relates to a post I made months ago about the proper foot position while performing a forward roll. The argument was between one method where the top of your foot is on the ground and it looks as if you're sitting on it, and another method where you roll onto the ball of your foot in a ready-like position. In post about this quandary, the conclusion was that the first option allows your body to relax more through the roll which means it is more smooth and puts less tension on the ankle joint. Also, it follows in the reasoning that when one performs a roll, the whole movement must be considered and one, and so stopping in the middle to assure the legitimacty of a position is not so important as to the whole effect. This is in retort to one who performs the latter position with the weight on the ball of the foot and reasons that it adds more mobility and readiness in the middle of the technique. If you perform a roll with the intent of looking back the way you came, which is often the case in aikido, then I believe the latter position is most desirable. But for purpose of performing a full roll forward, the first option is best for the sake of fluid movement.

The new revelation I had tonight concerns the question of which position is easiest to move from if stopped in the middle of the movement. Some arguments for the ball of the foot method are that when in the crouching position, it is much easier to get straight up and move forward. This is true. In the other option, it is much more difficult to get straight up into an erect position, but would you really want to do that? And just because it's easier doesn't make it better. What I mean is that in the crouched position, getting up from such a position requires solely thigh strength and puts a lot of tension on the knee. This feeling was emphasized in my body tonight because my thighs are more sore than they have ever been in my life from hiking in the mountains this weekend which says a lot concerning playing football, an emphasis on squats in weight training in the past, and doing Strengh Shoes; it is impossible for me to rise out of that kind of squating stance right now because I have to use such thigh muscles. Think about it. This is not "natural" or "easy" just because you can get up out of it faster than the other method. From the other method, perhaps you would eliminate the option of getting straight up out of the picture completely. From that position, (sitting on your foot with it's top against the ground) perhaps you would execute a technique from the sitting position (suwari-waza), or more easily, just roll again to one side or backwards, building momentum and thus making getting to your feet a feat (haha) that requires little self generated muscle use. I'm sticking with the sitting on your foot reasoning.

Next, is the reason for aikido's seemingly strange style of techniques. Specifically, a lot of techniques in aikido require the uke (partner, attacker, opponent) to maintain a grip on the wrist, long after it seems one would do so in an actual conflict. Well, for a combat-minded aikidoka, if the uke breaks the grip, then you use C.T.C.W. (closest target, closest weapon) and go straight to dismissing your opponent with a strike. Aikido techniques are not combat-inadequate because of the emphasis on maintaining a connection, because if the connection is broken, then you simply end it with a strike. That is what a lot of other martial arts practice. Opponent attacks, you neutralize and strike (or do both at the same time) and the situation is over. Aikido practice seeks to continue the movement past the striking immediate knockout. From here you can go many directions. Perhaps to follow the higher philosophy of never hurting an opponent, that you never resort to inflicting physical pain. In this case, if an opponent breaks the grip, then you simply step back, and wait for them to initiate again, and you move out of the way again. Perhaps you believe you are better training your body to adapt to change within movement. Perhaps you're learning to move with another body without using muscle-flexing strength. Whatever. There are many reasons for aikido's "strange" ways, but if you think it's not combat-effective, then just input a strike when the aikido rules are not adhered to. That's not breaking any rules of aikido, because there aren't any, and you are just making it more martial.

The true gem of this lesson was when Sensei showed me a connection between tenchin-nage and an uppercut-hook-cross combination he learned from Kenpo. If you start the technique from a wrist grab, you do the punching combination. If the opponent holds onto your wrists, then you can't punch them, but the move looks like an aikido tenchin-nage and the opponent is thrown. If the opponent lets go of your wrist, then the movement manifests as a strike, and the fight ends with the opponent knocked out. This is not just aikido or kenpo, but body movement with another person for a specific means.

The last things I learned were personal things about my Sensei. When I go to Uozu for practice, Sensei picks me up in his car at the Kurobe dojo, and we have a ten minute car ride to chat. Tonight I found out that Sensei did not get into being a priest because of his family. It seems usually such temple life is usually passed down through the family. However, Sensei choose this life, fairly late I think compared to the norm. Earlier, he lived in Kyoto where he was a tax accountant. I asked him if tax accounting was boring, and he said that if it was his money, it wouldn't be boring, but because it was for a bunch of rich strangers, it was boring. Duh. I learned that later on when he came to Toyama, he was working as a fisherman, and would go on 40 day trips to the Pacific Ocean on a huge boats for work. I have yet to make connections between all these points, but I have a lot more car-rides with him to figure it out. In the Japanese context, I would call him strangely normal.

This is only my second time going to the special Uozu dojo, and my aikido experience has skyrocketed to another galaxy. In the normal class, there is so little time with Sensei, so little time to talk, so little time to show application, so many varieties of reasons for practicing, and for the most part, practicing of the basic techniques; techniques you would find in the arsenal of any aikido dojo I think. Today on youtube I was actually watching a demonstration by the Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Doshu means that he is the grandson of the founder, and thus holds a special position in the aikido world. Anyway, in the 7 minute demonstration, all he did was the regular techniques, the same stuff you'd see in any dojo. He did them very well. Maybe perfect(?). But if I went to a demonstration from the Doshu and just saw that, I would be pretty disappointed. In the Wednesday Uozu class, Sensei shows us other variations of techniques that you don't usually see. They all have the core basics of aikido, but presented and manifested in a ... more nanto naku kinda way.

So there's also a Saturday Uozu class, but Sensei can't pick me up, and still says it's too far by bike. By now, I think he knows he should tell me straight up if he doesn't want me to come, and I think he would honestly feel bad about making me show up by bike ... so I think I'm going to make the judgement to show up anyway. I will consult Hosogoshi tomorrow, and make a decision.

My job is becoming increasingly more mundane, my paper image of Japan is becoming more 2D, my patience for daily Japanese conduct is getting on my nerves, and my mind is wandering to other places already, but goddamn, the aikido is unbelievable.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Missed Post

I just posted the most interesting experience I've had in Japan about a taveling tea man here in Japan, but for some reason it got put a few posts back as the last one in August... so check out "Tame-san" if you're interested.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lesson 20: Why You Shouldn't Use Strength

This is in reference to being an uke (the attacker). Nobody in my class ever approaches being the uke by stubbornly using all their strength to try and prevent you from doing a technique. If anything, it's me that sometimes unconsciously has done so. But perhaps with medium skilled and strength-using ukes, perhaps you could say the tori (person "doing" the technique) has a natural tendency to match that energy. Tonight we were working on a particular shiho nage that required a lot of body movement, and at one point, I was paired with two of the smallest girls(though very skilled blackbelts) in the class. When they attacked, it was sooo much softer than the other members of the class, that when I started doing the technique with my usual tempo and body use, I totally messed up. I could certainly throw the girls any way I wanted because they were being completely soft ... but that's not the point of Aikido! First of all, this excercise is not a fighting scenario. Secondly, if I did throw them any way I wanted and they were good uke, then they would manage out of it just fine. Practice runs this way because it is the most economic way to learn a technique according to Sensei. So when I was with these two girls, first I had to slow down so I could control my movement better, be sure I took responsibility for keeping a connection between us, and execute the throw exactly as I should because they were going to go any place I took them even if it was wrong. Due to the extreme softness by the uke, I think my technique was vastly improved as far as control and small details are concerned, which are a pretty important part of Aikido techniques.

In some dojos, beginners are asked to perform techniques against partners who do everything they can to resist the technique. If a student without the necessary skills is asked to do so, I would assume that 99.9% of the time they are going to rely on the muscle strength they have to execute the technique, which is a slow and cumbersome way to learn a technique. Sensei will ask me or other uke sometimes to use whatever strength they have, and that's perfectly fine, because he knows the angles and execution of the technique well enough to use the uke's strength against him. Aikido is not only about ukes and opponents just giving it to the tori. I can understand how that is so hard to see though without experience in the art and only seeing it from the outside. After 8 months of training, the softness is still revealing it's legitimizations.

Aikido is not magic or strength, it seems to be finding the right angle and position. This is also why we must work in Aikido with nanto naku (mentioned two posts ago) and kankaku (feeling). The exact point is going to be a little different for everybody, so we should train our bodies to quickly find the entry point we can use without muscle strength.

If you're always practicing straining your muscles in martial arts, why don't you google image some pictures of hernias and hemorrhoids and see if you want to keep taking those risks.

Without knowledge and skill which requires diligent practice, it seems antagonist energy matches antagonistic energy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010