Monday, May 31, 2010
Tonight, and actually very often, I get into the habit of practicing Aikido movements broken down into their individual steps. This is certainly residual from my past experience in Hawaiian Kenpo and Tai Chi Chuan, and it can be a very helpful way to learn movements, but in my Aikido class my sensei is always telling me to make it one smooth movement. You can certainly break movements down in Aikido when learning them. However, when practicing them with an uke (partner), it seems the technique suffers unless it is performed with its full fluidity. I think this is not so much a weakness in the art, but a goal to strive for.
Tonight I was reluctant to go to Aikido for numerous reasons, all of which stemming from a bit of laziness. Of course about 20 minutes into the practice I was having an amazing time and had forgetten about any reasons to stay at home. Most everyone has days where they don't want to go to practice for some reason, but I've noticed it's tendency to become a habit. Ever since I've been practicing martial arts, I've noticed this trend in myself of not wanting to go to training even though I feel amazing during and after. Often times for me it can last weeks, and sometimes it gets the better of me. After a few years of experience, I think that it's important to get over it as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Instead of succumbing to it or waiting for it to go away, do whatever it takes to get excited about going to practice, whether its some kind of mantra, reward, or watching a clip of a cool kung-fu movie. I think this is crucial for any aspiring student, as this laziness can truly plague good potential. What matters in martial arts is hands on practice, and I don't know about any of you readers, but for me I only get two chances a week. If I don't consistently go to those two practices, I know I won't improve (at least as much as I want). What matters most to me is benefiting from the few classes I have in Aikido while I'm here, and that requires attendance.
I had a great training tonight, but I know again soon I will be reluctant to go, but I will do whatever it takes to make it there, because the rest is taken care of when you do your best. For all of you students thinking it would be better to just get some sleep, clean your apartment, or read a book about your martial art rather then practice it with your precious companions ... JUST GO TO TRAINING!
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Today I had my greatest bike adventure to date. When I stepped out of my apartment and saddled myself upon my trusty bike, I started rolling but didn’t know exactly where. I’ve found that the two best directions to head are either across the highway towards the mountains, or towards the beach, and on this day it was the former. I was actually initially thinking maybe I’d go to one of the neighboring towns I haven’t been to yet by bike, and headed in that direction. But I kept being pulled towards the rising mountains and unknown forests. Here in Kurobe Toyama, the highest mountain range in Japan just shoots straight up about a couple of miles inland, and stretches for an absolute complete panoramic view. It is incredible, and makes Kurobe a convenient outpost to access the mountains, but it is still separated a bit. On the coast of a long plain, the land is covered with towns and rice fields, which is nice, but it’s not like walking out your front door and into the mountains. The Japanese wild of forests and mountains has its own unique qualities, and one of them could be called mysterious. I say this less so because of what you may infer from being in them, but more so of their view from the outside. In Japanese society it is usually very clear what you are supposed to do and what you are not supposed to do. Moreover, what is safe and what is dangerous. I think for the most part to the majority of Japanese people, the wilderness is perceived with first a lot of wonderment, but also fear. The Japanese are generally nature lovers, and will venture out of town sometimes, but 99% of the time it would be a short day trip on a very designated and more likely touristy path. Though there are these towering mountains with endless forest, there is really only one trail I know of as being popular and accessed by the general public: it is the path to the second tallest mountain in Japan, Tateyama, and even for that they have a cable car that takes you up most of the way so it can be summitted by just about anyone in a couple of hours. On summer holidays, this trail is packed, as everyone gets their wilderness outing desires quenched. I’ve often, with fairly weak attempts I must admit, tried to penetrate the unknown wilderness around here, but to no avail. Well, today I got a little closer, and found a socially acceptable entrance to the Japanese wild.
So I was on my bike, and kind of headed toward the neighboring town of Nyuuzen, and kind of headed toward the mountains, when all of a sudden a police car comes up next to me and tells me to pull over. I was extremely surprised, but also the night before, when I was on a beer run on my bike in the middle of poker night, I saw a police car pull over three young males on their bikes. I was shocked, annoyed for the kids, and scared because if I had been pulled over and if the cops had realized I had been drinking, I could have been in a lot of trouble as it is illegal to ride a bicycle intoxicated. As I pulled over, I realized I was doing nothing wrong, so decided to approach them as genki (energetic or lively) as possible. I’m sure they were nervous about dealing with a gaijin, and I certainly only confused them more by approaching them in such an outgoing spirit, which is not how the Japanese usually communicate with the police. I surprised them with my Japanese, and it ended up that they only wanted to make sure my bike was registered, which it is. While in conversation they asked me if I was headed to Unazuki … mmmmm … Unazuki. I said maybe, and they recommended I go to the onsen there. Onsen in Unazuki … mmmmm. Unazuki is the town inland towards the mountains, and is the outpost for the train that heads into the mountains and through the Kurobe gorge which is home to the famous Kurobe dam. And the town is famous for its onsen. “Sure, yeah, I’m headed there,” I said. They said great, and that it would probably take an hour by bike. Great. I was on my way.
Unazuki was certainly in my realm of dwelling, but I never expected to get there by bike, it seemed a bit too far away. But now I realized it certainly was possible, and the mystery of it fueled me forward on my one-speed granny bike.
I got to the top, looked nervously around, didn't find Bowser, and decided to climb back down and resume the adventure.
Here is the shrine itself. Ha, just joking. But that piece in the middle looked a bit like some structures you may find in a Japanese garden. With the atmosphere, I think it stands better as a piece of art than whatever mechanical use it has.
Here is the view with my back to the dam and looking down towards Unazuki.
I was feeling the giddy rush of adventure, wide-eyed and taking large gulps of this refreshing haven. I looked at a medium-sized patch of grass just next to and below the dam's waterfall, and thought what every good Tai Chi Chuan practitioner would think: time to do the form.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Anyway, on with the lesson; and actually a couple into one tonight. Big happy bonus number one.
First we'll start metaphysical:
"Senri no michi mo ippo kara."
Roughly into English: "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step."
I actually learned this very early on in my time here in Japan from my closest Japanese teacher at high school, and I have said it to myself at least once every single day. In the context of foreign language, it is so blatantly apparent that fluency and mastery are so very far from a beginner's ability. However, there's no use complaining or quitting or doing anything else except practicing if you want to get better. Also, there's no jumping from one to one hundred, one to fifty, or even one to ten (unless maybe you've done strength shoes ;) ), you must take it one step at a time. This is also very very very apparent in martial arts, and in my opinion especially those of the softer type like Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido. This can be a cute little Eastern "zen" phrase for you to read and think for a moment and forget, or it can be something you follow very closely and in depth. This one has stuck with me.
Now on to something tangible. I received an answer to an ukemi question that has been bugging me for a long time: When doing ukemi (roll), should you be on the toes of the foot that ends up under your bum like in the picture just below ...
Or should you land on the top of your foot like the the picture shown below here?
When I first started martial arts with Hawaiian Kenpo, we were specifically told to pay attention to this detail and choose option "A", the first one listed with your weight on the toes. From what I recall, this was to give you mobility and balance on that foot to enable you to move in a new direction or propel forward with the help of that foot. Option "B", the second one, was called the "dead foot" and should be avoided because it can get you stuck in the middle of your roll.
However, when I asked my Aikido teacher tonight, he definately favored option "B". He said it was more "natural", but all of you martial artists out there know that "natural" can be helpful but often even more so ambiguous and manipulated. Well, by executing your ukemi, if you focus to flex your foot up for position "A", it may interrupt your roll and create what may be called an unnecessary strain in your ankle. In option "B", if your foot takes the relaxed position and makes contact with the top of your foot, you can ideally roll through your ukemi more smoothly. Perhaps this explanation may not just fit better with Aikido ideals, but may also prevent harmful tension on your ankles. My sensei also mentioned something about distance, but I wasn't able to discern exactly what he meant. I think he was trying to say that you could roll farther away with option "B", but I'm not sure if that feels right or not.
This explanation is also in the context of my imperfect Japanese. I 100% understood that my aikido sensei favored option "B", but my imbellishment of his explanations could be subject to error.
With different opinions, I think it's only clear there is no one right answer, but different answers according to their relative situations. As for now, I'm rollin' with "B".
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Taking a look at the two kanji on the right hand side of this picture will answer this question.
Together, they are "sottaku."
Yesterday, one of the fellow teachers at my high school saw me practicing my daily kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese writing), and said he had a homework assignment for me. Surprised and curiously I said sure, and he then instructed me to go to the front of the school where there was a large paper with kanji on it; I was to try and read it.
I was optimistic about the assignment until I saw the kanji. My homework was written in beautiful but inelligible calligraphy. I reported back and said "zenzen wakkannai" (I have no idea.) He laughed, but quickly took a serious tone and explained very carefully the meaning of these two kanji that greet the students and teachers of Sakurai High School every morning. Below I will display what he wrote to me in quotations. I think my own attempts at this point would only dillute it's meaning.
The top right character can be read as, "From the inside of an egg, a chick bird is going out of egg, pecking the egg from inside."
The bottom right character can be read as, "A mother bird is giving hints to a baby bird with knocking the egg to show the direction and strength."
Sottaku is a noun and a metaphor, which shows the good relationship between an educator and an educatee.
An educator gives not so many hints to the educatee while an educatee is yearning. A mother bird never breaks the egg for a chick, because the chick needs the self confidence and independence. In the same way, an educator never solves the problem, nor gives the solution because the educatee needs the self belief. This word, also shows us that, the quality, the amount, timing of hints are important. Sottaku is the ideal state between teachers and students."
This was given to me written in these exact words from a math teacher, who has spent some time in the States, studied English for a long time, and is the head of the kendo club at school. I speak to him daily, but like many people we see and work with everyday, I had no idea that he would give me such information.
The fact that so much meaning can be drawn from only two Chinese characters is absolutley amazing, and a testament to their importance for students of Japanese language.
What comes to my mind right now when I ponder this kanji is the difference between teaching methods between American and Japanese martial artists. To generalize, Americans often seem to want and expect all the objective information and answers to their questions immediately upon being taught, irregardless of time spent training. I don't think this is necessarily bad, and if there's knowledge, it should be free to everyone, right? Maybe to generalize on the Japanese side, students are expected to obey completely without asking questions, and teachers teach by simply performing the techniques on the students.
Perhaps dwelling somewhere between these extremes, there is an eggshell to be carefully cracked.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
First was a seminar by a Russian man named Vladimir Vasiliev. This was an especially interesting beginning to the video, because the majority of the techniques and principles he was focusing on were certainly ones shared with Aikido, however, he certainly didn't limit his demonstration to only Aikido techniques. Almost all of those attending the seminar wore gis and hakama, but he wore camoflauge pants and a t-shirt. In the beginning he lead excercises in breathing, and then moved on to body movement without any martial techniques. Actually, for a part of the time he had the participants walk around each other within a small space to simulate walking through a crowd, which is often a topic visited Aikido and promoted by the founder Morihei Ueshiba. Next, with an attacker, he demonstrated how to evade an attack by simply doing the least amount of work to accomplish this. For example, when someone moves toward you with a strike, you do not first load up on one leg in your fighting stance and dash out of the way, but in a relaxed state step out of the way. He then showed this with multiple attackers to effectively demonstrate how rigid and jerky evasions will slow you down and probably get you entagled with your opponent, which in some circles is not so desirable. After this he began introducing techniques, both open-handed and with knives, but this is where it looks like it diverges from Aikido. Certainly the evasive movement was Aikido, but you could see him setting up for a lot of strikes, and performing what I thought to be a lot really great subtle leg trips. One complaint of mine though is that his attackers move only half speed, and for the effect he was going for, I would like to have seen a few a bit faster.
I was very intrigued by this man and his teachings, but after more investigation on his website about "Systema" (the System), which he seems to have built, seems a bit fishy. He claims from a system of Russian martial arts that has been developed for centuries on the principles of spiritual growth and maximum efficiency, but the introductory video on it made me question it a bit. Below is listed the website for Systema, and I encourage you to investigate further, as I certainly will. Also, he apparently has trained many people throughout the world as authorized teachers of Systema; maybe you should enquire about one near you, I would love to.
Ok, the rest of these will be less wordy, and all of them are Japanese.
Next is Tetsuzan Kuroda, who may have been the most impressive to me of the group. He didn't speak English, but had a great interpreter to help out. He was of a slighter build than average, but seemed to execute extremely sharp techniques that stemmed from an equally so spirit. In the martial arts realm, I think he would side on the scientific side, and broke down each movement to the smallest degree where you could explore what maybe you could call a "balance breaking point." In every technique, the opponent should be brought to a point where the execution is effortless; it seemed very similar to what I know about the instructor Tim Cartmell. He repeadetly mentions, "These are not magic tricks," and that there is a science behind every successful technique; all successful techniques are a utilization of body mechanics. There was no website advertised, but I wonder if you can find him on youtube.
Third, was the livliest of the bunch named, Gaku Homma. He spoke fluent English, and I'm 99% is Japanese, but he really had the weirdest accent that made him sound like he was from somewhere in Southeast Asia. Anyway, he had an extreme amount of energy, and a lot of jokes, and would probably be the most fun to train with. However, he executed his techniques as serious as death, and always accounted for the techniques application in the street. Open handed techniques most often accounted for knives the opponent may have, and all of his ken techniques were explained in the context of their samurai origin with details about how the cuts would work around armor. His techniques were perfomed with great speed and intensity, and a great contrast to the slower more minute teachings of other teachers. He also has no website, but maybe you can find him online elsewhere.
Next was a man named Hiroshi Ikeda. He spoke fluent English, and reminded me of the second guy in this series, as he broke things down to the smallest detail, and had a more serious demeanor about himself. His trademark may be his emphasis on the waist and hips. Every movement is based upon the use of whole-body movement, where the waist and hips are the generators of maximum power. The website was listed, bujindesign.com, however, there doesn't seem to be any information about Hiroshi, is a site where you can buy martial art equipment, but also has a section for training tips that could be interesting.
Lastly was Kyoichi Inoue. He spoke little English, and had a translator, but he seemed to be a young American with a level of Japanese that was a little more advanced than mine, so I wasn't impressed much with that. Then again that's my own bias popping in. Anyway, he was a smaller older Japanese man that executed his techniques in a way that seemed more appropriate to kata and waza from Karate, but also had their own legitimacy. Perhaps that's just style of training, and doesn't necessarily limit his style of Aikido. In ten minutes of video, I think there were only two techniques, but it emphasizes the importance of basics, especially those found in shiho-nage for this source. I was less impressed by this section, but perhaps I need to see more of his teaching to understand. A website was listed for him under yoshinkan.net, but there is no appearance of him, and seems to be the website for his style highlighting it's head honcho.
In summation, I was greatly impressed and relieved by this gift of quality Aikido, and saw teachers who approached their art with the greatest sincerity and severity, but ended it all with a smile. I see a group of highly refined practicioners, that care not for "master's secrets", but rather the spreading of knowledge for the sake of human benefit.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
By definition, true onsen are only those that use water from geothermally heated springs that contain one of nineteen designated chemical elements, and must be at least 25 degrees Celsius before being reheated. I suppose in the truest sense, these are found completely untouched in nature, however, it can also refer to sites where the natural water is used in a bathhouse. In Japan you will find other bathhouses that do not fit the definition of onsen, but may still use the name. Their true term would be sento.
Aside from the wonderful ambiance and relaxation, it is said that these onsen have remarkable healing capabilities. There are many sources that say that it is the minerals and chemicals in certain onsen that carry these healing capabilities, but sources often going very little past that piece of information. Thusly, there are many who believe the healing capabilities of onsen are non-existent, or create merely a placebo effect. In research, I was able to find a couple of interesting leads on relevant information.
First, there exists a medical practice called balnotherapy. Balnotherapy refers to the medical use of spas and water such as drinking of waters, use of hot baths and vapor, as well as various types of mud and sand used in hot application. Often times, the water used in balnotherapy will contain various minerals, which is where onsen come in. According to these definitions, going to a true onsen with the intent of therapy could be considered a form of healing.
Second, the best website I found on the effects of particular minerals found in onsen on the body is listed here, http://www.nihonsun.com/2009/03/06/the-healing-properties-of-a-japanese-onsen/. Some commonly believed healing effects of onsen are aiding heart disease, blood circulation disorders, neurological disorders, painful joints, arthritis, rheumatism, menopausal discomforts, chronic skin diseases, etc. But the list goes on and you should check out the site for more examples if you want to know the specifics. It should also be mentioned here that onsen can be dangerous for some people who are pregnant or have certain heart conditions.
So what’s the REAL deal with this onsen stuff? Well, much of it greatly depends on the onsen, as they vary quite a bit. So far, I’ve been to one that was deep in the mountains which was only one medium sized tub outside which had an absolute amazing view, but the water was so hot that you really couldn’t stay in up to your shoulders for more than 2 minutes without passing out. Another hardly had a pool hot enough to consider an onsen. Another was one more like a theme park in Tokyo which wasn’t real onsen. And another one close to my town is new and has lots of interesting and strange baths, but isn’t real onsen, too many young people go, and it’s just missing something.
BUT! My absolute favorite thing I’ve found in Japan, is not just any onsen … but KINTARO! It’s the closest onsen to my house (30 minute bike ride) and is real onsen. After you pay about $7 for an hour, you walk into the changing room where you get naked and enjoy a preliminary beer if that’s what you’re into. Then, you grab your little hand towel, which you can hold discretely in front of your specials, or simply plop into a pile onto your head, or snap it at the closest person and laugh … NO! That’s a joke, and not a funny one because if you did that, especially as a gaijin, you’d probably be kicked out of the country for life after they cut something off. Anyway, then, you walk through the entrance into a large room where you are welcomed by the biggest bath I’ve seen so far (but not too big), and showers and a few other pools off to the left. You rinse yourself with water, and get soaking. At Kintaro there’s a large indoor hot bath, and two outside that vary very slightly in temperature. These are the main features, but there are other baths such as one’s with jets you can sit in, one’s with jets you can stand in, one waist high that is only warm which people usually walk in for exercise, and a freezing cold one I actually just discovered the other day. Also there is a sauna which is by far the hottest sauna I’ve ever been in in my life. When I read the thermometer inside I think it says 110 degrees Celsius, but I might just be hallucinating from the heat. Oh, and certainly one of my favorites which is just a stream of water coming down from the ceiling you can sit under and have it hit against your back and neck. Oh yeah. Inside and outside there are large rocks of various colors of grey, red, and purple, stained from the minerals of the onsen, and are in a very specific Japanese style. I can’t put a name to it, but if you’ve been to Japan you probably know what I’m talking about. It creates a wonderful scene I haven’t seen at any other onsen. Also, outside there are large pine trees and also sakura trees! Which means most of the year it’s a brilliant green, but in the spring its electric pink. Could you find a better hanami sight?
But there’s one more factor that makes Kintaro different from all other onsen … the oyaji. Ojiisan is the word for grandpa, but for onsen situations, the ojiisan that visit Kintaro we will call oyaji. When I think of oyaji I have a distinct image in my head (maybe you have your own if you know this term), but its usually followed by a wonderful smell of hair tonic, cigarettes, alcohol and onsen. (I also apologize for anyone who takes offense to this, but it’s a humorous generalization that makes me laugh, so I will share it with you). Anyway, 75% of the people who visit Kintaro are oyaji, and you can find them doing various things in the onsen. Simply sitting and enjoying the bath, ignoring the one little kid who may be running around causing trouble, laying sprawled out by the side of the pool sleeping, scratching themselves very blatantly, or my favorite, doing various stretches and calisthenics while making “Issshhhhh“ sounds. Or also chatting away with their other older buddies. But it’s the feeling of Kintaro that is so special. Possibly one could relate it to the image of the quiet local pub where people go to relax and just be. At other onsen I see too many people making it social hour, or maybe just too many gaijin. But here you just come to hang out. I think I am considerably spoiled with Kintaro, because I stick my nose up at every other onsen I’ve been into. I am now currently on a onsen challenge, looking for one to rival Kintaro. I hope as a young gaijin, I haven’t ruined this oyaji heaven, and I hope it doesn’t change while I’m here.
I think that’s enough onsen talk for now, but I hope I’ve left you with a good image. The pictures are not ones I’ve been to, but random ones to try to give you a feel of what its like.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Monday, May 17, 2010
After Golden Week which is considered the longest stretch of holidays in Japan (though most Americans would probably eek to know that's their longest holiday of the working year), and then traveling with Jolene for her last week, it's been about two and a half weeks since my last aikido class. I've been practicing on my own, and been thinking of it extensively, but I am now reminded that does very little compared to consistent practice with partners.
It was a little frustrating, but with my aikido group it was just really nice to see everyone again, and have fun. What else am I doing it for? Pride? Power? Magic techniques? Well, maybe a little of all of those, but mostly fun.
I did however treat myself to onsen tonight. For those that don't know what onsen is, just wait for the next post or two for a spotlight on my favorite part of Japan.
Now it's time to sleep to the sound of rice field frogs.
Friday, May 14, 2010
The block of combined steel is heated and hammered over a period of several days, and then it is folded and hammered to squeeze the impurities out. Generally a katana is folded no more than sixteen times, then it is hammered into a basic sword shape. At this stage it is only slightly curved or may have no curve at all. The gentle curvature of a katana is attained by a process of quenching; the sword maker coats the blade with several layers of a wet clay slurry which is a special concoction unique to each sword maker, but generally it is composed of clay, water, and sometimes ash, grinding stone powder and/or rust. The edge of the blade is coated with a thinner layer than the sides and spine of the sword, then it is heated and then quenched in water (some sword makers use oil to quench the blade). The clay slurry provides heat insulation so that only the blade's edge will be hardened with quenching and it also causes the blade to curve due to reduced lattice strain along the spine. This process also creates the distinct swerving line down the center of the blade called the hamon which can only be seen after it is polished; each hamon is distinct and serves as a katana forger's signature."