Friday, October 29, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Instead of planning lessons like some may think I should be doing, just five minutes ago in an empty classroom, I finished reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

I am not making a "review" of it, and I don't even know if I can recommend it to anyone. At such a strange moment in my life that is occuring right now, to have had this book come into my existence is just dumbfounding. I am greatly humbled, comforted, and maybe a bit terrified of the honesty that it contains. Truly unexplainable. I even feel now as I write this that I am somehow doing the work a disservice. Perhaps some disjointed thoughts will satiate my desire to express something about the effect of this book:

-predictions, answers, and judgements are dishonest?

-immediately after finishing it and walking through the halls and seeing familiar faces, I cannot intellectually grasp exactly what is happening?

-there is only one and it is everything?

-quality is a direction?

-quality is a combination of care, intent, and freedom?

-most people trick themselves into thinking they don't know?

-I want a motorcycle?

Is this worth your time to read? I am only writing this entry because compared to the other events that I have written about, this book is one of the most significant. To not have it in my blog would be to limit the blog itself and the understanding of the readers significantly. I have to write it as much as I need to eat again.

Anything beyond moment-to-moment experience is the fickle clouds of our imaginations.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Into the Fall

In a matter of a day, here in Toyama, Japan, the temperature has dropped 10 degrees celsius, and boy can you tell. My heater air-con has come on for the first time in 6 months, I immediately have switched to wearing a long-sleeve shirt and thermal long johns when lounging in the apartment, getting out of bed and out of the shower in the morning have become chillingly painful, I can see my breath while I eat breakfast, and the high mountains are finally capped with snow. Oh and of course the leaves are starting to change; it's only a matter of time until this whole country explodes in red and yellow leaves. This sudden drastic change in the weather is a little shocking, but intoxicatingly refreshing for me. Fall is my favorite time of the year and we're just getting started here. In a matter of a couple months, weekends will be filled by flying down snow slopes on a board, and weekdays will be inside the chilly bin of a dojo we have. Tanoshimi.

Tonight Sensei couldn't show up to training, so it was another night on the bike for 40 minutes to the next town. When I showed up, just minutes before when we usually start, only Hosogoshi was there warming up. If you're used to training with more than a few people, showing up to train with only one other person can be a strange sensation. But at these Uozu classes, where numbers are significantly less and Sensei can't always make it, it's not so rare. This is a wonderful oppurtunity for training. It's not a time to call off practice because there's only two of you. It's not a time to shrug because you have to be with one person the whole time. It's a time to train as hard as you ever should, and give everything to this one person. In return, you should get the same dedication, and in the end, what you have is a wonderful experience that has brought you closer to that one person. When I notice how close the hardcore people are in my class, I know it's because of many nights of one-on-one training that have happened throughout the years. Tonight, however, people soon trickled in, and by the end we had five people.

Speaking of "fall", I can feel myself improving a lot on ukemi (being thrown). FAR from really good, but improving. Just improving in ukemi, thoroughly benefits my other skills in aikido. This is something beginners should pay strict attention to if they want to progress at their full potential I think.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Foldings in the Katana

As of Oct. 21st I have been in Japan for one year. Also, I just read that the original release of Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo happened 25 years ago. Mario and I are almost the same age. Sometimes it's fun to see the timeline of it all.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Some Snipits

I've been going to lots of Aikido lately, but haven't been posting my "Lessons", but here are a few snipits of information you may be interested to hear.

So, for Wednesday class in the next town over, I usually meet my sensei close to home and he gives me a ride. But last week he said he was going to be late and couldn't pick me up. I said alright, and that I'd see him tomorrow for the next class, and hung up the phone. Then I said to myself, "Wait a minute. I can ride my bike to class." And so I was off for the 40 minute ride, which really isn't much compared to a lot of people's regular commute to martial arts classes. When sensei showed up, he was impressed that I rode my bike, but mostly because I took matters into my own hands and took responsibility for showing up to training.

Also, the past week I've been getting more approving nods instead of irritated scowls from sensei when we train, which gives me goosebumps of excitement.

After that Wednesday class, there was a black belt who showed up I've only seen once before, many many months ago, but after class sensei gave him a certificate qualifying him as a black belt in kenpo. He then went on to give a long talk about something about black belts, but unfortunately, this is one conversation I couldn't really understand. The only bit I got was that, it seems in universities, kenpo classes are very popular, and a lot of the time students will train for the four years they're in college and become 2nd or 3rd dan (degree black belt). Obviously, my sensei scoffs at such a phenomenon, and I think he was explaining it's connection to tournaments and sport fighting. Perhaps there's a lot of politics involved. This reminds me of a talk I had with sensei a while ago where he said that in some other martial arts, the goal is winning matches in tournaments, but the goal in aikido is practicing more aikido. I think this is very interesting, and makes me realize that aikido fits me better than martial arts focusing on competitions. Though I have no problem with competitions, and I do believe them to be great learning tools; as long as its prioritized along with other considerations in the discipline, and not automatically chalked to the top.

Lately sensei and a couple other black belts have been throwing me harder and allowing me to do high falls. (Check the picture above for a visual impression of a high fall). After class, Hosogoshi showed me about 10 different variations for practicing high falls for about a half hour. Unfortunately, I don't think my tatami apartment would handle my solo practice very well, but you can be sure I'll be there after every class on the mat flinging myself in the air.

Ever since sensei met with the 8th dan in kenpo and aikido about a month ago, he was encouraged to have a short "mokso" session after class. This mokso session is just taking a minute after class as we line up in seiza (traditional sitting position), close our eyes, and try to soak in the night's training. I'm surprised we've been doing it consistently for a month after every class, because sensei always seems to feel weird about it, or at least a little reluctant. After last class he was asking people if they liked it, and of course didn't receive any solid answer. But it's funny that some martial artists would consider it paramount to training, while others seem to have to force themselves to do it. Personally, I enjoy it.

Lastly, I have an opinion about getting-on in Japanese society. Japan is famous for it's emphasis on being "polite", and in being so, I think many foreigners come to Japan trying to be as polite as possible in order to fit in. But instead, I'd recommend doing what is appropriate. Japan surely has it's own emphasis on being polite, but to say that one always tries to be as polite as possible in Japan is very far off. Just because saying "Doumo arigatou gozaimashita" is the most polite way to say thank you, does not mean you should say it while delivering a deep bow to everyone you pass. Just do what's appropriate if you want to fit in (which is an oxymoron for gaijin just to let you know).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blind Faith vs. Faith by Feeling

This post is motivated by an ever-present curiousity of Bushido, recent studies of Buddhism, and immediate readings of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence" by Robert Pirsig.

I've always been interested in religions, but for my whole intellectual life, I have been thoroughly dissatisfied with the family of doctrines of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; all of which put such a large emphasis on faith. But what is this faith? It doesn't seem to make sense logically, and apparently, it's beauty is found in it's denial of logic. The farther removed from logic this faith is, the more whole-heartedly you're supposed to believe in it. I've continually tried to make returns to stories of the bible, and one time it took me straight to the story of Abraham; a man who is told by God to take his newborn son to a mountaintop and sacrifice him. The moral of the story is Abraham's faith? Because he was willing to kill his newborn son because he was told to do so by the God he had such faith in, he is rewarded by not having his son killed? Aside from any philosophical tangents you can go on which could be interesting, I can't believe this is preached to a people, and and afterwards they're told to try and foster this "blind faith" in God.

With an equally powerful enthusiasm, but in the other direction, I have an avid fascination with Bushido, drawn somehow by it's sense of honor, discipline, and self-sacrifice that seem to be inseperable from the term. There seems to be something admirable about the image of a samurai's strength that is attributed to such concepts. But for some reason, I've persevered through mountains of explanations of Bushido that seem to foster the same "blind faith" that I've found in the story of Abraham.

A samurai (and his family) is supposed to give his life to his lord. No matter how greedy, lascivious, wrathful, or apathetic the lord is, the samurai must honor his every whim. In fact, if the lord is not happy with his servant, he may ask for the samurai, and maybe his family too, to commit ritual suicide. These warriors were taught at an early age to never question authority ... not a word, look, or perceived thought. And I shudder to think how many millions upon millions of samurai in the history of Japan have been thrown to their deaths at the whims of their belligerent lords.

I've read many sources on "Bushido", but unfortunately most are only far-removed impressions by enthusiastic foreigners (haha, maybe this is one you're reading right now), but for possibly the most credible source, I'd recommend "Bushido: the Soul of Japan" by Inazo Nitobe. In this book, I found some of the gems I was looking for initially when searching for some quality in Bushido, but to be honest, it was philosophy/belief that I had to tease out with my own Reason.

In my eyes, the true samurai serves the universe.

I have a feeling that statement doesn't communicate very much though.

As opposed to the blind faith mentioned above, the highest ideals of Bushido is in the unwavering search for Truth through "right action."

I believe one does not inherently and consciously exhibit Truth through right action initially, but must search for this ambiguously described honesty through feeling. To have one teacher that can give it all to you may be a nice idea, as well as some in-born natural ability towards Truth ... but I think they play small factors in the infinite-scale of feeling. By searching with feeling, we may not be able to label or even explain our search effectively to others, but that is not required. Instead we have a progression of events based on one's feelings of the right direction. One's feelings of the right direction may manifest in numerous finite things or abstract thoughts, but they all have a certain effect and orienting on each individual agent, and thusly, must be carried out as individually as the person they grace.

I think this is the core of Buddhism. I think this is the ideal of Bushido. I think this is why I shudder at sources that call for "blind faith". And this is how I will walk my life: with as much honesty to my feeling as my actions can reflect.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where is My Head?

Lately all of my interactions with people have been a bit off, and at practice tonight, I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn't follow anything, I feel like I didn't recognize anybody tonight, and maybe I'm making it up, but I think people were noticing and wondering what was wrong with me. It wasn't horrible, and I ended up laughing in the end at either how silly I must look or how I exaggerate these things sometimes. It just feels as is if someone is making gravity pull 1 degree of a difference. I wonder if it will ever go back.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

an Ode to my Teachers

Your martial technique impresses me less than the lives you have lived.

Martial proficiency is reflective of the journey, not a standard to worship.

Never compromise your stance,
but sometimes your stance is compromised.

Never fight force with force,
but sometimes you must use force.

On the path one must move forward.

Maybe one day there will be no path.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Aikido's Effect on Tai Chi Chuan

This is actually a really random picture. I google imaged "tai chi chuan cloud hands" and found this, and I don't see any tai chi chuan in this picture. I'm posting it as my model of bad tai chi chuan from a first impression.

Anyway, for the first stint of almost a year in Japan, I practiced my tai chi chuan form very consistently as I was practicing aikido, and found a lot of new things, but ever since my trip back to the States two months ago, I've probably done the form only three times.

Well, tonight was one of them, and I felt huge differences. If anything, huge incongruities between my form and the ideals of tai chi chuan. Generally, there were two very big things that stood out.

First, the relaxedness of my shoulders and weight of my hands. I found a huge disconnection between my root and the weight of my hands, which concentrated the stress of my arm movements in my shoulders. I easily corrected it and was able to put a huge emphasis of weight on my joints of elbow and wrist instead of unconsciously flexing my shoulders. After I was able to quickly fix this problem, my movements started looking much different, especially in "brush knee." In the past of I've seen brush knee done by having the rear hand move forward with a limp wrist which actually looked really impractical, but to do it the way I had before with a more slapping motion flexing the wrist back, I feel a huge disconnection between my arm and my body, and a slight flexing of my shoulder and wrist. By doing the slightly limp wrist method, my shoulder is relaxed, there is an emphasis on the base of my palm, and a better connection with the rest of my body. This feeling confirmed further experience I have seeing people performing pi chuan in hsing i with a limp-looking wrist which always seemed weird before, and makes me question the emphasis of flexing the wrist so the fingers point upward while walking the circle in ba gua zhang.

Second, is my arm being to far out of place across my body, and putting a huge strain on my shoulder making the movement in fact very weak. The is best seen in applying peng. I found my arm far too low and across my body to ever do anything more than a good shoulder hit. With my arm in such a position, I have to move my body far back to get my arm in front of me without using my shoulder, or move the complete opposite way and continuing my arm further back (which strikes me as a very "aikido" thing to do). I have to admit, I couldn't find a really confident and comfortable peng, and see that in order to answer this question fully, I'd need to ask someone with substantially more experience.

Both of these clues are profound experiences, but only experiences to one with a relatively small amount in Chinese internal arts. Because I have some experience, a critical mind, and the desire to self correct, I make these observations in true honesty, but without proper "legitimate" claim.

I feel that aikido has directly affected these realizations. It's funny that when I had epiphanies like this while training in tai chi chuan, it was because I did the form unbelievably slow, and that is not the case in aikido. I never practice aikido movements as slow as I have in tai chi chuan. I think it has more to do with the fact that a lot of techniques in aikido just will so obviously not work unless their done "perfectly." Furthermore, when I do a technique with sensei and don't do it perfect (99.9% of the time), he makes it physically very clear that it wasn't right; which by the way is something I am ever grateful for. In addition, I think training with a lot of highly-skilled women will also make these small but crucial mistakes more obvious. In aikido when I execute a technique on one of the advanced women, they will fall every single time, but it will be blatantly obvious that I used primarily muscle strength instead of proper technique.

One could assume that I'd be making much larger progressions in tai chi chuan by practicing tai chi chuan rather than aikido, but this short hiatus has yielded some pretty substantial results. It's just body movement anyway, right? I've pretty well done away with moves that are effective because they are "this art" or "that art." Body movement is body movement, and I'm into using the least amount of effort to effectively do what I want. So that is the focus of this investigation.

Tonight I also realized that having free hair tonic is crucial to a good onsen.

More Sake, Less Aikido

This weekend I went to Hiroshima for a sake festival, and I realized that although I have been absolutley shocked/amazed/elated/satiated to be invited to Saturday aikido training, I haven't been once. When I started going to extra practice on Wednesday, sensei was still hesitant to lure me to Saturday training because he can't give me a ride, and feels bad to make me bike 45 minutes to the dojo. But last week, he asked another student if they can give me a ride to Saturday practices. I was unbelieveably flattered to hear this comment from sensei especially considering his usual demeanor. I am certainly capable of biking to practice, especially on a Saturday. But even now with the help of a ride, I wonder if I'll ever make it on Saturday. At first, I was making bike trips to the mountains, and for the past month, I have been exploring new faraway places in Japan on the weekends like Fukui, Osaka, and Hiroshima. This upcoming weekend, there is an event I have to go to keeping me from going to training, and am already lining up trips to faraway places on the following weekends. Either I am an idiot for passing up this rare training experience in Japan, or I'm glad that I realize aikido isn't the most important thing in my life, and am taking advantage of this rare oppurtunity in Japan to see it's full spectrum of cultural differences. This Saturday, instead of dressing up in my gi for aikido practice, I frequented tents displaying Japan's wide array of famous sake as soon as I could empty my cup.

An empty cup is no good if you don't fill it anyway right? Especially if you already paid the $20 entry fee.


Genuine experiences from a gaijin in love with aikido and exploration.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lesson 28: Interesting Conversations

Every Wednesday I am picked up by my sensei in his car and we drive for about 15 minutes to class in the next town over, Uozu. This is a very valuable time for me to ask questions. I try to take advantage of this time by asking serious questions about aikido, Buddhism, and my sensei's experiences, and I even try and do some extra reading before-hand to prepare a question. But lately I've been running out of questions concerning these serious topics. Also, sensei's a fairly quiet guy. He will always answer my questions, and loves to talk about budo, but he's also the kind of guy that isn't used to starting conversations. I haven't tried just sitting through the whole car ride waiting for him to speak, but I don't want to either. So lately, I've been bringing up things that just come to my mind while we're driving.



"Do you like sushi?"

"I love sushi." He says as we pass a sushi restaurant.



"Do you like yakiniku?"

"Yakiniku is OK." He says as we pass a yakiniku restaurant.

I've found that food really is a magical conversation topic. By asking about sushi, I found out that my sensei worked as a fisherman for a few years, making trips from Toyama, around Hokkaido, and down the east side of Japan. If I want to find the best salmon for sushi, then I should go to the Pacific side of Hokkaido. But of course, these conversations can be a bit dull.

Last night as we were on the highway, we passed my favorite onsen, Kintaro, which I have learned my sensei also frequents. At that moment I remembered a curious happening that occured last Sunday night while I was there.

"Oh, sensei."


"Last Sunday I went to Kintaro."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah, and I saw a really strange person."

"What do you mean?"

"I saw someone that looks just like Yakuza. He had huge tattoos all over his shoulders and chest and back."


At that moment I saw sensei's face light up and he was immediately interested in my story, which is in fact true. In my many trips to Kintaro, I've only seen one other Japanese with a tattoo, but it was only a medium sized black and white one on one shoulder, and wasn't quite as extravagant as the large and colorful tattoos yakuza (Japanese gangster) are known for. But this weekend, I finally saw one that was definitely legit. He was a stocky guy, maybe in his late thirties, with a bald head, goatee, and huge tattoos (similar to the ones in the picture shown above). In front of Kintaro, there is a HUGE sign saying "no tattoos", but this man was blatantly walking around without any sign of trying to hide or be extra discrete. The people around didn't make any fuss, or seem to give obviously disapproving looks. In fact, at one point, he was laying outside next to one of the pools, and a cleaning lady walked right by him without saying a word.

Kintaro is a very nice onsen by Japanese standards, and seems to draw a crowd of local regulars as well as hotel guests. Usually it's very quiet, and full of older men. Kintaro is not played up as a tourist spot, or a family destination. It wouldn't surprise me that the onsen tolerates one or two tattooed yakuza who quietly come in during the last hour on a Sunday night. Or maybe it was a huge deal and the hotel as well as the patrons were really upset with this incident. To be honest, I couldn't tell.

Sensei brought this story up after class and everyone was very interested to hear about the experience. A couple of the older members shook their heads and said dame, "very bad. "
I jokingly asked them if they had tattoos, at which they replied "No no no," and laughed.

On the way home, I told sensei that I have been drinking a lot of Tateyama sake lately, and that I was headed to a sake festival in Hiroshima next weekend. I have learned that sensei loves to drink, and every night he has some Tateyama sake, which is named after the famous mountain in Toyama prefecture and is very very tasty. Perhaps this is the cause of his growing belly which is a bit larger than most people would expect for a guy who does so much kenpo and aikido. Anyway, at this comment he brightened up again and he couldn't subdue the large grin over his face.

I will ask many more serious questions about aikido and Buddhism during our car rides, but if I have a story about yakuza or sake, I will definitely remember to bring it up.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Lesson 27: Master of Yourself

Earlier today I read a very provocative post from that has stuck with me all day long. The blogs' author practices Isshinryu Karate-do, and this post is even about kata, which in many ways is a very far practice from my outward practice of Aikido, but the message is vital to anyone seriously concerned with martial arts. The author says kata serve as a "blue print" for our fighting techniques, but in order to make them real we must apply them to real life:

"If you truly want to protect yourself in a violent attack then you MUST take the blue-
prints and morph them into those tactics that will allow you to protect yourself."

The conclusion of the author's post is what really got me though:

"How many of you actually sat down and wrote out your philosophy, which dictates your
path, and a plan to follow in training/practice? If you have not then you have made an
error in judgement, do it now. How many of you have figured out and written out your
strategies and tactics? Just a couple of questions to get you thinking for if you have just
been going with the flow as it comes moment to moment then you may be missing focus
and direction and allowing someone else or some program dictate it all, is this good for

Tonight looking around the dojo, a lot of black belts that haven't been around lately showed up, and a few of them commented on my progress. It's been a while since I've seen them, and at such a low level as I am at, such progress is just really noticeable because I've gone only from horrible to bad, but it made me think about the way I approach martial arts and the way many people do in world who only show up two days a week and only practice Aikido. There are many many differences, but one of the biggest I have noticed seems to be a kind of tunnel vision on what they're doing. Because I've had talented instructors in different avenues of the martial arts, have been practicing for a while, and read extensively, I have a lot of my own experiences and opinions to bring to my martial arts experience, as opposed to people who have only studied unquestionably under one sensei. When I go to practice, I go as empty as possible, and have an incredible trust in my sensei and fellow aikidoka, but when I go home ...

I am sensei in my own dojo.

In the end, I am the one responsible for my training. To recognize and assume with confidence this role of authority with an analytical mind, and of course an infinite amount of humility, I think is a big part of what martial arts can teach us. I practice alone, and when I do, I practice slow, fast, trustfully, analytically, tired, happy, sick, intoxicated, whatever. Because I'm Sensei of my dojo, I'm always trying to act in accordance with this responsibility. So, like the isshinryu blog post, I will also end with a question:

Who is responsible for your training?