Saturday, February 27, 2010


"The Sound of bells echoes through the monastery at Gion Shoja, telling all who hear it that nothing is permanent."
"Gion Shouja no kane no koe, shogyoumujou no hibiki ari."
A haunting passage isn't it? It the most famous line from one of the classics of Japanese literature, "The Tale of the Heike." Shogyoumujou is the "nothing is permanent/everything in life is transient" part of the passage. I'm not going to try to explain Zen philosophy here, but I just wanted to share this with you as it has affected me greatly since I first read it.
No matter your pains, addictions, sufferings ... or your pleasures, glories, or successes for that matter, they will not endure eternity.

But What About the Hands?

What is the proper way to hold your hands (no pun intended) when you practice your martial art?

I'm sure the answer is like everything-"it depends"-but maybe we can be a bit more specific.

When I was first practicing Hawaiian Kenpo, there was no strict preference for this matter. It was very important not to have your thumbs out so that they don't get broken or grabbed. I remember one member who always had his hands in fists like a boxer, but I didn't like that because it felt awkward, and I would rather parry or do something else initially besides punching; so I always kept my hands relaxed in my fighting stance with fingers directed towards the opponents eyes.

My first Tai Chi Chuan teacher (Kwan Ping Yang style, ever heard of it?) always made an emphasis on keeping your fingers stretched out as much as possible. It was something I had trouble maintaining, but I thought it looked good on him when he did the form, and he was very powerful and relaxed.

I've also read from and internal source that is important NOT to have your hands strained as it blocks the flow of chi in your hands.

Now, in my Aikido class, one of the black belts, who in my opinion is probably one of the dudes I would REALLY not want to mess with, he moves well and all his wrist locks are just deadly and don't let up in transitions...anyway, this guy always has his hands stretched out before a technique, and I think it may help him.

So, at this point, I don't want to have unnecessary tension in the body, but may give the extended fingers a try. One interesting thing I thought can be related to punching, or any movement actually. So, if you are flexing your arm when you punch, first, your body will have to relax the muscles in your arm, and THEN be able to punch. However, if your arm is relaxed, you can skip that and get to business! If you have your fingers outstretched and are going to grab someone, your hands will naturally just close around what it is you grab, INSTEAD OF having to extend your fingers around whatever it is you're grabbing AND THEN grab.

I'll get experiementing, but please comment on this with your ideas and experience!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bicycle Adventures in Kurobe

First off, this is my third blog of the day, so don't forget to scroll down to the other posts! If you have the time of course.
Well, this morning I woke up in my regular fashion and made my daily 20 minute walk to school which seemed a little strange today for some reason. Maybe because of a strange movie I watched last night, or maybe the lack of students bicycling to school today saying "Herro." Well, it all made sense when I walked into the office to see only one of the vice principles and one of the other English teachers who were more surprised than me; today there was no school! Whoops, I forgot. Well, we laughed, and I decided to sit down for a little while anyway talking to Terao sensei and having the usual morning tea. Then I returned home pondering what to do with such a day.
I have many things that I could do fill more than just one day, but the most important I think is an adventure. Being strapped for cash, I decided to make it a local trip, maybe just to the beach which is a twenty minute bike ride away. Also, we've had an extroardinarily snowy and cold winter here, but the past couple days have warmed up quite a bit, and today was in the low 60's with the sun shining. So off I went.
The town I live in, Kurobe, is famous for few things. Maybe one is the Kurobe gorge and dam. Being so close to the mountains, its not a far train ride until you get to the gorge and it truly is amazing, although I haven't been to the dam yet. OK, so besides that, Kurobe is famous for having the headquarters of YKK. Check any zipper you may have on, and you'll most likely find a "YKK" on it somewhere, and most likely was made in the factory shown above. This company is probably the reason for the towns existence, and any adult male you meet in Kurobe seems linked to the corporation somehow. Its somewhat between my house and the beach, so I decided to roll over and give it a look. I have no pictures to do the company justice, but it is absolutley gargantuan. At first I saw one giant factory building, and looked behind it to find five or six more of the same size or bigger. Kurobe's population is about 55,000 people and feels much smaller, but seeing this compound of giant YKK factories explained a lot.
Next to the YKK factory was advertised a "Science Museum", so I decided to check it out. Judging by the parking lot it seemed quite empty, and maybe even closed. I wasn't intent upon going in anyway really, just wanted to give it a look and maybe return. I started walking my bike around a small park with a stream through it that was on the property of the center. I was wandering alone, and was a bit nervous as maybe I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there, and was then shocked to see a young woman from the center jogging towards me giving me a loud mix of "konnichiwa" and "hello". She was also followed by an older man in the same dress. Their urgency confirmed feelings of unwantedness, but was then surprised that all they wanted was me to come into the center! The girl said they saw me through the window and wanted me to come have a look. If the people here are not walking with their heads to the street in their own little worlds, they're running at you pleading to talk or go somewhere with them. Surely I made the right decision to take this adventure today.
Well, we went in and the older man took me to a room with various science experiments on the walls and tables. He proceeded with great showmanship to show me a few. Of three he displayed, I will talk about the first, bear with me. We went to a sink of water where he held a ring with a handle that had mesh wiring on the end. First it was bent out and down, and under the water, he put a glass full of water upside down on it, and lifted it out of the water. The water fell from the glass; that makes sense. Well, next he flipped the mesh wiring the opposite way, up, and did the same experiment; but the water didn't fall! It remained in the glass despite is porous wire mesh bottom. Whether you understand my explanation or not, I assure you it was pretty surprising. He did it a few more times, and then began to explain its reasoning. That when the mesh wiring was flipped down and out, the space between each wire mesh was a bit larger than that of when it was flipped the other way, and was large enough that water would escape. However, when flipped the other way, the size of the holes and the pressure of water allows it to remain in the glass. Aside from being a cool trick, it applies very well to fisherman. When pulling a net out of the water that inevitable convexes away from you, it becomes difficult to pull with the pressure of the water. However, if you have a crabpot that has a bottom that concaves, it will be much easier to pull out of the water. INTERESTING STUFF! At the end I couldn't help but laugh that I was just chased by this young girl and older man so that they could bring me inside and show me science experiments for a half hour. There are a lot of other things in the center that I will surely see later on, with Jolene!

After that I climbed back on my bike and continued my journey seaward. From the center I could of course see YKK, but then also a lot of other industrial factory-ish, buildings all around me as well as rice fields. Before coming to Japan, I imagined central Japan, Chubu, where I live, would be all industrial and a very unattractive and menacing manner, but after coming to Kurobe, I didn't see any of it really. However, if you stray far enough from the main track, you WILL see this side of Japan. Actually, en route to snowboarding in Niigata prefecture just north of Toyama, you will see many many small towns built around their factories, most pumping gasses of some kind into the air, and some completely abandoned due to the recession. Kurobe is certainly enough of other things to make this a bit more exciting, but I should not forget that this is a hard working region with the majority of its young people in factories like YKK, and the older generations in the rice fields that dominate the area.

My eyes eventually left the factories, and observed the rice fields surrounding it to find about 40 cranes wandering picking for food. Japan is a country of extremes, and its dichotomy was displayed pretty well here with majestic cranes flying from the decrepit factories. As I got closer to the beach things started looking nicer. More greenery, more water, and shrines!

Though Kurobe isn't known for having famous shrines, I am amazed at how many it does have, probably as many as it does convenience stores! Which is a lot, and actually I bet there are more shrines. Each has its own individual quality, and can appreciated as long as the viewer can last. The area closest to the beach is definately my most favorite in Kurobe for a mulititude of reasons, of which would require another blog entry, but today it was my favorite because of the hawks I saw hovering in the wind almost motionless, searching the beach for prey. Just thirty feet above me was probably five of them, and it was pretty cool.Actually last time I went to the beach, I had left at dusk and was walking through a small forest park and heard an incessant whooshing above my head. I looked up and in the dimming light was maybe twenty hawks fluttering from tree to tree to find their resting spot for the night.
This is a strange and beautiful country indeed. Its seeming contradictions and surprises are amazing. But talk to a Japanese zen priest and he'll tell you it's all One.

The Ten Commandmants of Learning English

Back in November, all ALTs (assistant language teacher) in the Toyama prefecture met for two days for a mid-year seminar on teaching English. I went to this instead of school for two days, was going to learn some things about teaching, and meet other ALTs I hadn't seen before. There are two very different sides to these qualities, but I was pretty optimistic at the outset. However, the general consensus of anyone involved in the seminar was that is was stupid, boring, and a waste of time. When I walked in and was receiving papers and folders and information about the seminar, the ALT in charge of handing out the info gave me a huge smile and in a very depressingly sarcastic tone said something to the effect of, "I hope your ready for a really exciting two hour speech!" It was at about eight o'clock in the morning, the beginning of what was quite a long seminar, and we were about to listen to a two hour lecture about teaching English, but the comment hammered my optimism down a bit, and was annoyed at the girl's need to say something clever or whatever.

As a side note about many people that belong to the same generation as me, there are quite a few inside jokes stemming from recent popular culture like facebook and the TV show "Arrested Development." As a result, I have a lot of peers who only know I exist if I'm their friend on facebook and make some reference to "Arrested Development" at least once an hour. I think it makes for a specific demeanor and sense of humor that was ubiquitous for the duration of the seminar.

OK! What does this have to do with the Ten Commandmants of English? Well, this was a wonderful gem that I found amidst a desert of a two hour speech about teaching English. In a handout given to me, there was this list of "commandments" for English learners as well as teachers, but I went with the one for learners, as I think sometimes teachers understand better as learners. Anyway, I lost the paper after copying the list down, so I don't know who to cite or thank, but whoever came up with this idea is a very smart person.

The "Ten Commandments of Learning English" read as such:
1.) Fear not! Osoreruna!
2.) Dive in. Tobicome.
3.) Believe in yourself. Jibun wo shinjiyo.
4.) Seize the day. Isshun isshun wo ikikire.
5.) Love thy neighbor. Rinjin wo aiseyo.
6.) Get the BIG picture. Kousho kara miyo.
7.) Cope with the chaos. Konran ni taishoseyo.
8.) Go with your hunches. Hirameki wo ikase.
9.) Make mistakes work FOR you. Machigai wo ikase.
10.) Set your own goals. Jibun no mokuhyou wo mote.

I had many epiphanies in this seminar, but realizing the importance of this was one of the biggest. Learning a foreign language is hard for most people, and being reminded of these ideas can change a whole lot about one's attitude, which is a whole lot of learning. I believe if I would have had this when I was taking Japanese language classes in college, I would have been a better student and would now be better at Japanese. But that's just hindsight. I use it now and am slowly reaping the benefits.

BUT! This epiphany manifested into a great project, which was translating these into Japanese (Thanks to one of the greatest Japanese Teachers of English on the planet, Mr. Terao whom I work with) and then making a small personal copy for every student at my high school. It was an epic quest in and of itself, as I printed nine copies of the "Commandments" onto sheets of orange paper, cut each one out by hand (the school's big paper cutters are absolute crap) and then lamanated them with a lamanator that the past ALT bought, which is awesome by the way. Yes, two weeks later, about 700 were made and sitting on my desk.

THEN, I gave them to the students. At first they looked at it in a very confused manner. I explained that it was a present for them that I made in order to help them with English. Some were happy, some were bored, whatever. Well, this wasn't just another hand out in English class, this was a precious treasure made with the sincerest of intent for the great task of learning a foreign language. So I began talking to the class in Japanese. I have NEVER had a class so quiet and focused on what I was saying. As soon as I said "watashi" (I), I had them. I explained that I have studied Japanese in college for three years, and practice diligently every day, but I still make mistakes everyday and get very frustrated. But, if you mind these commandments, things can be a little easier. Everyone was very happy to receive them, and I'll be happy to give another round to the upcoming freshmen.

I'd love to explain why I think each of these commandments are so important, but I think this entry is long enough, and who knows what you can come up with on your own.

No Love for the Ox Tongue

This ain't China! I don't really know what that is supposed to mean, and this isn't about food, but rather martial arts and the application of a technique called the "Ox Tongue." My first experience with this technique was in Bagua Zhang where you step behind your opponent while draping your arm over your opponent's collar bone and pulling them down with your qua and ox-tongue-of-an-arm-drape while stepping back. I started to actually like this move for its simplicity and use of soft and heavy power, but tried to apply it in the Aikido class and it was not what we were supposed to be working on.

That night we were working on kokyuu nage, which is a very important move in all Aikido styles I think, and very very difficult for me I know! Anyway, as you step behind your opponent and place your hand on their neck to pull them around, I was getting really close to the opponent and started naturally using the ox tongue I had learned before. Not that its wrong or necessarily bad, but it just wasn't the technique we were working on, and that's cool. I like them both and look forward to someday being able to do kokyuu nage with some grace and efficiency.

This does make me think more of the similarities between Bagua Zhang and Aikido. Both focus on the utilization of circles, flanking your opponent, and using soft power, but I'm beginning to see many differences. Actually one of the biggest differences I feel is that while practicing in the internal arts of Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua Zhang, and Hsing I, all the movements come from very small details of positioning and posture IN your body while I feel that in Aikido right now, more emphasis is put on the movement itself. Also, the internal arts seem to work their best in great proximity to one's opponent in order to execute throws. Of course, in Aikido the focus is often throws, but they seem all done at a bit of a greater distance from your opponent.

Also, my own training habits account for many biases. After spending most of the past couple years on internal aspects, I got used to dissecting techniques down to very small details with my training partners, and also allowing for a lot of creativity in figuring out what worked for each person. Now, its strange for me to be in a class where repititions have priority, and there is less explanation of each technique's minute details ... not that I would understand them! Ha, actually, Sensei does explain quite a bit, I just don't understand his Japanese yet.

I feel kokyuu nage and the ox tongue reveal great differences in the two arts of Bagua Zhang and Aikido.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Aikido Party

One of the guys at Aikido just got married a bit ago, so it was only right for him to have a party with the Aikdo crew, which happened last night. It was well advertised at every class for the past month, and at first I was hesitant about going, but soon decided that it would definately be a bad idea to miss for many reasons. These types of dinner parties are certainly ubiquitous, and almost as much mandatory for people to bond outside of class or work. It seems, to avoid these parties would be a bit of an offense to the people, and seeing as I'm trying to get as close as I can in able to learn as much Aikido as possible, and I'm obviously different as a gaijin, it is best I do everything possible to find as much common ground. Plus, for an average price of about $50, you get an all you can eat fancy pants meal and absolutley free beer! And, it would be a great oppurtunity to practice Japanese with a bunch of really cool people. So of course, I had to go.

It was a group of about twenty people, so when we entered the restaurant together into our own special room, it took about twenty minutes of awkward milling around waiting to find your proper seat. There were three tables, and because of my gaijin status probably, I was invited to the table with Sensei, the groom and bride, and a couple other cool people. I felt kind of bad to hog the good seat, but I'll soak it up as long as its available, and plus it would be rude to turn down.

After we raised our drinks for kanpai and took our respective gulps, I noticed that the Sensei's took over half of his pint! Well, this should get interesting. The food was amazing and overflowing along with the beer, and the only thing keeping me back from a constant ingestion was struggling to speak Japanese with my neighbors, which really does get better with the right amount of intoxication.

By the way, the picture above is a semblence to what the main dish was, which was a giant tuna head, which was really good. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera, so this was just taken off the internet.

After about an hour, I almost didn't notice Sensei trying to sneak out the door as the party was only getting better, but certainly the others around noticed and all seemed to pounce him, tearing his coat off and pleading to have him stay. This seems to be a well understood and often practiced Japanese custom of someone important trying to leave and everyone else needs to plea to have them stay. I understood what was happening, but was really surprised how long it took, and how much grabbing at arms there was. Especially with a bunch of expert martial artists, it was pretty interesting to watch.
These guys weren't there, but they are quite representative of the ideal karaoke energy I think.

Well, debauchery increased, and I soon realized I was going to be much more full and return home much later than I expected. How we ended up going to karaoke afterward certainly surprised me ... and also didn't at all. Everyone sang, so of course I was involved. I tried to pick something I knew that they would too that would be American and maybe they could appreciate, so first I picked one of my favorites from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and no one had ever heard it before. So next I picked the Beatles, and I actually don't even remember what I picked, but everyone was surprised there was a song by the Beatles that wasn't called, "Let It Be." It was pretty awesome to see everyone so relaxed together, but also weird when a stranger with his shirt off came in attempting to join the fun, but I got really tired of him rubbing his sweaty chest on my and screaming in my ear. It was also of great satisfaction to see the Sensei with his head in his hands with an extremely finished look on his face while he continued to hang for more beers and student's singing.
Well, eventually a train was caught back, my bike was ridden home, freshly cleaned futon covers were frustratingly wrestled over their futons, and I went to sleep only to wake up a few hours later for school. However, I didn't feel so bad, and I look forward to training tonight to see how everyone was.
I would surely feel stupid to show up and listen to them go on about the party had I not gone, and instead I can show up as one of them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hogging the Black Belts

(the office where I secretly read Aikido books)
Tonight the Sensei along with many of the students showed up an hour late for whatever reason, so I got a lot of time with other high ranking black belts to help me wipe and scratch my face on the mat for a bit. However, the most fun and interesting part of the night came when the Sensei arrived and demonstrated a move for us to do. To me, he appeared to be frustrated that he had come late as well as at whatever kept him late, and you could sense it in his movements. After his brief showing of the move, we seperate into small groups to work on them, and of course one of the groups has the Sensei in it. I thought either A.) I should give him a second to get settled in with other black belts first and then burden him with my white belt handicaps, or B.) Just get straight to it ... and that's the one I picked. The look on his face seemed a bit surprised and less than excited maybe, but happy to have an enthusiastic though possibly naive new student. I of course fumbled at first, but am catching on more and more, and happy with my decision to take advantage of Sensei whenever it is possible.
On the same note, last Thursday's class was cancelled due to a holiday, but I contacted one of the black belts in the class who really has a hard time staying away from the gym, and we met one on one that day for what was the best step by step walk through of techniques I've had thus far here in Japan.
So for all you white belts out there, get at it! And for those black belts, it can be quite a gift to share your time with the poor.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Toga Soba Fest 2010

When winters here seem endless and just plain cold, it's time to head to the mountains for a Soba festival. Along with the tasty bowls of Japanese noodles, there were many snow sculptures, ranging from some a few feet in height made by young Japanese children, to epic life 30 foot tall creations that do not fail to amaze.

While amazed at the intricate snow structures, I was surprised to what was a large amount of soldiers at the event. After asking fellow gaijins, I gathered it was the national guard, putting their time and large funding to use by having them build the ice structures and strut around casually in their uniforms.

Expecting a large amount of mayhem and debauchery, Gaijinexplorer got on the good side of the authorities early on.

Oh yeah, the Soba! Here is the house of Soba, with many stands serving large amounts of what is now my favorite Japanese noodle dish, as well as other tasty goods. Anyone that has been to Japan will probably be able to tell you about the myriad of mediocre wieners served in all kinds of meals, but here I had what was actually an amazing sausage and real beer! I love Japanese beer, don't get me wrong, but I was truly refreshed after having a pale ale here, which is quite the rarity.

Who: crazy Japanese person and Gaijinexplorer. What: random one man band and interpretive dancer (not shown) spreading smiles and confused looks. When: About three pints deep. Why: I have no idea!

A giant snow stage displaying various performances throughout the day.

Most of the early presentations were done by young children, who were sequentially interviewed one by one while standing in this chilling snow. Poor kids. I probably heard this MC say "Arigatou Gozaimashitaaaaaa" about 867 times in the most nasal of Japanese pronunciations...I love it and will surely miss it if I ever leave this magical land.

I've never been to a festival in Japan without fireworks, and this one didn't dissapoint.
Hooray for Japenese festivals. It was amazing, I bet I'll be there again next year ... but honestly, its about time for some warmer ones. I'm certainly looking forward to hanami in the spring.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Back On Top Baby!

After my last Monday class of frustration I decided to do three things: First, drink a beer ... then practice for an hour ... and then buy 6 books about Aikido in Japanese from! If I don't understand my Sensei because he's using Aikido vocabulary all the time, then I'm going to learn it. I felt immediately gratified after ordering them, even more so when they arrived only about two days later, but am now looking at them a bit apprehensively trying to judge exactly how this is going to work. For all those students of Japanese, I think you'll be able to sympathize. There is a large amount of kanji to decipher. Thus far I have utilized my fellow teachers at school to help me with kanji translations, but they are getting busier and my novelty factor is wearing off, so I'm not getting as much help these days. I have a great kanji dictionary, but to struggle through finding the radicals and such for every single word in these books may take me about 80 years, and that exceeds my contract here in Japan, so I need to find something else. I did hear from a friend that actually the best option may be to buy a Nintendo DS because it has a game you can buy that has a great kanji dictionary, and as long as I get the stroke order right, it's about the fastest and most effective way possible. However, it will be expensive, and there is a great looming threat I will satiate a deep desire to play Zelda and thus neglect teaching responsibilities, studying Japanese, practicing Aikido, getting out and exploring Japan, and hanging out with friends. Mmmmm. Any words of advice is GREATLY APPRECIATED.

Class the other night actually went very well. I showed all the books to my sensei, and he was certainly interested and maybe even a bit more shocked. I think he was happy to have an enthusiastic student, but confused as to how I'm actually going to read these books, or if I'm just crazy. As for being tossed, I certainly ate a lot of mat while feeling new pains in tendons I didn't even know existed. As for throwing, I am already seeing small improvements.

Buying these books and having a positive and thirsty attitude I think are great fruits blossoming from studying about Taoism and the internal arts of Tai Chi, Bagua Zhang, and Hsing I. With life in constant change, the universe and its manifestations are always vascillating in a wave like fashion alternating from up and down, positive to negative, and so forth. My life and training are no different. However, I believe our role as rational and sensitive humans is to see these patterns and be able to hasten those less enjoyable parts and longer enjoy the time in the sun. In Japan I have made so many mistakes and rode already through a lot of less than ideal experiences, but the best thing I can do is to get on that horse and ride as fast as I can into the next adventure.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What the f$3%k did you say?!

First off, as of yet, I have been the gaijin in the corner taking up half of the sensei's time with me on beginner aikido drills and basics, which is awesome, and to be honest, I've done pretty well with them. However, last night was my first night with everbody else practicing the techniques, and I saw the dark side of the moon, and it was confusing! A few techniques I could do alright, but on one in particular, for some reason was absolutley impossible for me and the sensei, although I believe him to be a very kind and understanding man, was getting a little more than frsutrated with my lack of understanding of both Aikido and Japanese. I'll also note that I've studied Japanese for quite a while now, and am past beginner level, but I don't understand a single word this man says. So as he looks me in the eyes and says as slow as he can what he believes to be the simplest idea, I look at him for the umpteenth time like, "I'm doing exactly what you are! Why isn't this working!" Actually I did understand one thing, and it was something to the effect of, "This isn't Chinese martial arts, you need to listen to my 'advice.'" (adobaisu)
Now, this is all in good training, and inevitable as Aikido is a highly refined art that takes many years to just get the feel of. I understand this, but am still frustrated. In fact, I utilized my 20 minute granny-bike ride home grumbling to myself about it.
Well, there is only one answer. Can you guess? Some of you may say drink beer, and I concur, but also practice by myself and meditate on what I've seen in class! So I depart to whirl in circles for an hour or so.