Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The other night after I had gotten back from the Aikido seminar, I turned on my phone and realized I had missed two phone calls from Nishijima Sensei. Nishijima Sensei was a PE teacher at Sakurai High School (school I teach at), but was sent to another school in the area (which happens every 5 to 10 years usually for teachers in Japan). He was one of the first people I met, and one of my favorites. He was no average PE teacher, but used to wrestle professionally and was one win away from representing Japan in the summer olympics. When he worked at Sakurai, we would talk everyday, and we had built a strong relationship. It had been a while since we talked, so I knew his calls were about something important.

To be honest, I was a little hesitant to call and get caught up with something because I just wanted to relax and clean my apartment. But of course, I returned the call. He picked up and told me that he had someone he wanted me to meet; a tea man. Because it was a little late on Sunday night, he hung up the phone to see if this meeting could take place. I was very surprised with which the urgency Nishijima Sensei spoke, and thought it must be really important. He called back assuring me it was OK, and I was on the next train to his town of Namerikawa about 20 minutes away on train.

On the train I thought about how nice it would be to relax and go to bed early. I had no idea what I was getting myself into going across the region to talk with a tea man. But I have a great interest in Japanese tea ceremony, and realized that everytime I keep my eyes open for something unexpected I am approached by amazing surprises, and when I go to sleep early I usually miss them. I was trying to imagine what this man would look like. My image was of a slight man, peaceful, but very calm, composed, disciplined ... perhaps a little strict. I was worried about what I had worn, and the effect of my limited Japanese. But oh well, I was on my way.

Nishijima Sensei picked me up from the station and we headed to his house towards the mountains. We got out into the hot summer air, and walked over to his friends' house where the tea man was staying.

I walked into the house into a whirlwind of small kids yelling and playing with toys to their heart's extent. I met Nishijima Sensei's wife, and son who is 2 years old, and two other couples with kids who were having dinner. I met them, and Nishijima Sensei told me to sit and wait for a few moments. I played around with the kids and talked casually with the other adults, and then a man walked in.

He was built like an absolute solid stump or wine barrel and had a completely bald head that wrinkled as it met his neck in the back, and a long grey/black goatee protruding from his chin. His build was so particular, but I don't really know what name to give it. Perhaps an appropriate image comes to mind of Oddjob from James Bond. But he was about 5'5", wore traditional summer clothing, and had a great peaceful emminence about him.

Nishijima Sensei said "This is Tame-san, the tea man." When we shook hands, he had a very gentle grip and gave a very nice "nice to meet you" in English, while making eye contact the whole time. He did not fit my previous image at all. He walked away to take care of something, and Nishijima Sensei started spraying bug repellent on my bare arms. He then said, "It's time, let's go" and we walked outside into the night air, Nishijima Sensei, Tame-san, and I. We walked to the front of the drive way where there was a small tea room made of wood. I couldn't believe this house had a tea room in front just like that, and entered through the characteristically very small entrance inside.

This tea room was very clearly hand made recently, and I mean this in the best of ways. It had all the necessary parts to a tea room, like the very small tea room itself with a tatami mat, a tokonoma, which is a space for pieces of art, which in this case was a small lantern, a vase with a flower, and a strange unopened scroll. Also there was a very interesting window that was circular in shape with wooden designs in it representing a rising/setting sun with clouds, and water at the bottom. Then there was the small area where tea was prepared, with the needed tools and pot to boil water. That is where Tame-san sat while Nishijima Sensei and I sat in the guest tea room.

I was trying to think of something interesting to say about the room or tea ceremony, but Tame-san wasted no time (though certainly not rushed) and began talking. He started talking about the dichotomy humans create between "correct" and "incorrect" ( tadashii and tadashikunai). Society deems things correct or incorrect, right and wrong, good and bad, but there are two drawbacks to this categorization. First, it can be very aversive. People who are subjected to this phenomenon of "right" and "wrong" since birth have little choice but to follow suit until they realize that they do not have to believe in such a system, and decide to follow something else. People are initiatlly unnecessarily chained to this concept, and it's effects run the gamut of undesirable conditions. Secondly, Society's concept of "correct" and "incorrect" is only applicable to the agent that decides it. This concept is inherently arbitrary and subjective, thus not accurate to all. Tame-san brought up the question of what we should do when we confront something that is "incorrect" or "wrong" or "bad". Well, he smiled and said we should do nothing. If a thief wants to steal, then let him steal. Say "OK! Here you go!", and then Tame-san laughed some more. Tame-san commented on how dangerous and unfair it is to subject people to a rule system without asking if that's what they want to do. Or reprimanding people without giving explanations of why. We must learn for ourselves. We are experiencing our own particular individual reality and life. That is most beautiful. This is the purpose of Japanese disciplines and art forms, and of life: to learn for ourselves.

Certainly this is a complicated subject with no one answer, but here I hope to represent Tame-san's character (though of course, the conversation was in Japanese so my explanations are solely based on my limited undersanding ... nanto naku). After this first conversation, I've never experienced someone like Tame-san before. I've seen so many videos, and read so many books about these characters who seem to genuinely embrace Zen philosophies. He looked you in the eyes honestly and squarely, he listened when someone spoke, spoke with a softness, and laughed from his belly uncontrollably. I couldn't believe the person I was sitting in front of. This is the center of much of my interest in Japan. I'm so elated that he wasn't the strict image I had before.

Tame-san soon explained his current situation. He travels around, serving tea in society in his personal expression of cha no yu (freestyle as opposed to the strict discipline of other formalized tea schools of sado like omotoseneke and urasenke which he was apart of for many years before). Most of the time, he sleeps in the woods. He said that when he "goes home" to the woods after being away, he says tadaima ("I'm home") by howling to all the animals. At that point, he demonstrated his howl before Nishijima Sensei and I, which was as honest as could be. It was extremely loud and went on much longer than 99% of people would ever try to demonstrate a howl. Perhaps 99% of people would be very embarrassed or uncomfortable doing such a thing in front of a stranger (including me) but not Tame-san.

Do you think he's crazy?

All the while through these conversations, Tame-san had been preparing some tea for us. This is the way his tea ceremony goes. A small group sits together, talks, or doesn't talk as it comes naturally while he prepares tea, and then we drink it together. This is starkly different that the official disciplines of tea where every movement is preordained and abided by. I completely forgot what the name for the tea he served was called, but it certainly wasn't regular green tea most people are accustomed to drinking, and it was different from matcha, which is what I usually assumed was used in tea ceremony. He served us a couple different kinds of tea. All of which had the most wonderful quality I have ever tasted. Here is no place to go over the movements and happenings of all tea ceremony, but in this case, he would make the tea, pour a small amount into a bowl (which he made), and I would drink a few sips, and then pass it to Nishijima Sensei. One should empty onself so as to fully experience the tea. When I took a small sip, the warm and full flavor seemed to envelop the inside my mouth (is that possible?). Tame-san said after he takes a sip, the whole world through his eyes change, and gave a look as if it had been mushroom tea instead of green tea. This is a man searching for honesty. To him, it comes in a natural and informal fashion, peacefully and best expressed in joy.

I asked some questions about his past, and how he maintains such a lifestyle, but to be honest I don't remember exactly the answers he gave, and I didn't ask every possible question about such things. Instead, we enjoyed each other's company, having the experience we were having.

One important detail that I asked was, "Where do you sleep? Do you have a tent?" He answered, "I sleep right there." And pointed to where I was sitting. We were all a bit confused.

"I drive to where I want to sleep, park the truck, and sleep right there on that tatami mat."

"This is built on a truck." He began laughing roarously.


I took a good look around to realize that, this tea room Tame-san had built was on the bed of a truck.
I don't care if he's enlightened, or crazy, or what. But that is the coolest thing I have ever seen.
Hey Dojo Rat! How about a traveling saloon???

Tame-san and Nishijima Sensei's friend came to join us, and we talked about the things Tame-san had in his truck, as well as other strange Zen philosophies. I couldn't believe this grouping of people. Tame-san, this stout bearded zen traveling tea man. Nishijima-Sensei, a very small but incredibly cut professional wrestler from Tokyo who looked more military than anything else and who was now a high school PE teacher in small-town Toyama. Their friend who looked more like a slightly built geeky science teacher. And then me, a strange blonde gaijin. All of us united, talking and laughing. All kindred spirits. All with our each distinct manifestation of the same desire for an interesting happiness.

When I returned home on the train, I've never felt more unsure if I was dreaming or not. This is one of the strangest experiences I have ever had.

I have a book recommendation for anyone interested in Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese culture. In fact, of all the wide variety of books I have read about Japanese culture, this is number one:

"the Book of Tea" by Kakuzo Okakura.

A BIG Step

senri no michi mo ippo kara

a journey of a thousand steps begins with one

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it?

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

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

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

Nanto naku.

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


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

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

"So are you coming to class on Wednesday?"

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

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

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

Monday, August 30, 2010

Aikido Gasshuku

This weekend we had an aikido gasshuku, which could be translated as seminar, but also intonates an overnight stay with the people at the seminar. The location was Joetsu, in Niigata prefecture about and hour and a half drive north of Kurobe. The group from our dojo numbered at 18 and we all carpooled to the spot. I was lucky enough to ride in the same car as Sensei, one other skilled black belt, and one of the only other students who started after me.

Interestingly enough, Sensei is a Buddhist priest. Writing this, I think the image foreigners usually have of most Buddhist priests can be very different than most of the priests in Japan. Think less, a monk with a shaved head meditating in the snow. I can't explain exactly what being a Buddhist priest in Japan really means, because I don't really know. But I can tell you that my Sensei is someone who also runs an Aikido dojo and appears to lead a normal life. Temples are not just found on top of mystical mountains in the forest, but 98% more often found in towns and cities in Japan. I have no idea how many temples are even in Kurobe, but a lot more than I know about. At the high school I teach at, the Social Studies teacher is also a Buddhist priest. My Sensei and the high school Social Studies teacher both work very hard, have lives other than chanting sutras, and I have seen them both incredibly drunk. I think much of Sensei's work as a Buddhist surrounds maintaining the temple, holding events, and fulfilling requests for people. But to be honest, I really don't know.

Anyway, the three of us picked up Sensei at his house in Nyuzen, and I was really impressed by his temple. He met us in traditional summer clothing which was silver (think kimono-esque, but much lighter in weight, less fancy, and shorter sleeves and pants), traditional geta sandals, and some really stylish shades, making him look more yakuza (Japanese gangster) than small town Buddhist priest. With my beard and sunglasses, I think we caught more looks than usual.

During the ride, I asked Sensei many questions about aikido, but understood little of the answers.

When we got to the Joetsu dojo, I was surprised to find only four people training who belonged to the dojo. One white belt, two black belts, and their Sensei. It was the first time the two groups had trained together, so there was a bit of getting used to each others' ways on both sides. In martial arts, communicating with other practitioners is something truly necessary though it can sometimes be uncomfortable. The Joetsu Sensei welcomed us and led us through warm-ups, but the teaching of techniques was given by our Sensei, which I didn't expect. However it was certainly appropriate. The Joetsu Sensei was a 3rd dan (3rd degree black belt) and looked around 30 years old, and our Sensei is a 6th dan and I think 54.

Over the spectrum of Japanese martial arts, the belt system and it's effects are often heavily debated. At this seminar, I was able to have my own experience seeing the differences between degrees of black belts. First of all, having a black belt (at least in Aikido) is by no means a sign of mastery, but a beginning of becoming a true practitioner. To me, it seems to have a black belt means you know the techniques of the curriculum and can execute them at a satisfactory level, can take the falls required of the techniques safely, and have a good sense of what your style of martial arts is. There are quite a few 3rd dans at our dojo, and to me, these people have a great amount of experience in aikido, exhibit effectively the qualities of aikido, understand many different aspects of approaching techniques, and effectively execute the techniques. If I'm not training with Sensei directly in class and instead with one of the 3rd dans, I am still learning from great great aikidoka. But next to a 6th dan, you can really feel big differences. My Sensei as a 6th dan seems to have the techniques more deeply ingrained in his bones. Every movement seems to exhibit qualities of Aikido. To move with Sensei is a completely different feel. He seems to just do the technique, which can be hard for beginners to see and understand in attempting to make the connection between not doing and doing a technique sometimes. My appreciation for the skills and attitudes of my fellow aikidoka and Sensei grew a lot over this seminar experience.

As for the specific details of the first day of the seminar, it was unbelievably hot and sweaty, I made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of fun, and can't remember all the details that were revealed to me. So I'd say it was a success.

Aikidoka putting on their dancing skirts ... hahaha, just kidding, the pants/kilt/skirt is a hakama and it's very serious business, and I want one oh so very badly.

Gaijin about to eat mat.

This girl is one of the higher ranking and toughest aikidoka in our dojo, and never gives you a technique. But it seems after 8 months I've broken her down with silly gaijin charm! Smiling in the middle of techniques. In aikido we smile through the pain.

They even let me have my turn sometimes.
After the first day's practice, we went to where we were staying. Going into this, I actually had no idea where we were going. I expected something rudimentary like a gym or dojo. But instead, we were staying at a really fancy ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). We had a couple hours to get settled in, partake in the communty bath, and get ready for dinner. So, I grabbed Hosogoshi (best buddy who I climbed Tsurugi dake and Tateyama and went diving for oysters with), and we immediately found the beer vending machine on the premises. We hung up our sweaty-soaked gi (training uniform) and put on yukata (summer kimono) provided by the ryokan.
Here's some of the dudes.

Some decorations commonly found in ryokan.

This room was built partially over the garden's pond and you could look down through glass to see the biggest koi fish I've ever seen.

There he is! The famous Hosogoshi. Definitely the coolest guy in Japan.

More cool ryokan decorations.

And the handsome looking guy on the right closest to the camera is Sensei!
When it was dinner, we gathered in a large tatami room which would be ours for the next few hours. We ate a fancy traditional Japanese dinner, but in fact, it sometimes makes me a little nervous. There was one dish I could absolutley not eat which was fish eggs in a sauce that looks like something I can't even mention on the blog. The person next to me took it down with a huge smile. But there was some sashimi (sliced raw fish) that may have been the best I have ever had in Japan! And then many other dishes in the middle that went from OK to really good.
Cute and tasty mini octopus.
Absolutley awesome sashimi.
The woman on the right not dressed in yukata is Ueno, the number two of the dojo, and my favorite woman in Japan for so many reasons.
Sensei hard at work at the head of the table.
We also had what may be the cornerstone of Japanese dining: nomihodai (all you can drink beer and sake) which is always interesting. My great buddy Hosogoshi who was quickly reaching a peak of wastedness was philosophizing at a high volume about the "Human Bairas!" "Humans are a bairas!" I think he meant virus. Also, Ueno who is the number two in the class, was crying uncontrollably about her cat of 20 years that had died recently. Amid all of this, I had gone over to Sensei where we attempted a conversation about Aikido.

Conversationally, my Japanese is sound and I can understand a lot of what Sensei says now, but once we start talking about the specifics of Aikido, communication is lost. It was the beautiful the frustration we both had. We both had important things to say to each other, but the words couldn't communicate. One part I did understand though was about participation. He said two days a week practicing Aikido is not enough to really progress and become proficient in aikido (which is what I do), and we talked about the classes he has in Uozu two other nights of the week which we have talked about before. But I haven't nosed in too much without being invited for fear of being rude, and so the conversation usually dribbles away after he mentions that it's too far without a car. But I know the area well and it would be a 30-45 minute bike ride one way, which would definitely be worth it. We'll see how this progresses. He also mentioned that before I leave Japan, I should stay at his house for a month or two for aikido. Uchi-deshi experience? My stomach turned in excitement.
One other thing he mentioned was about his aikido. He said that he practices aikido to become strong. By this, he certainly doesn't mean he wants to have huge muscles, but something deeper. In class we follow plenty of protocol and tradition, but I know we don't do as much as many other dojos, or spend as much time talking about things like ki. My sensei is concerned with good technique, and that objective priority, makes for a great aikido experience for me I think.
After this seminar which marks 8 months of practice, I am dedicated, and have grown very close with Sensei and the other members. This next Saturday I have obligations at school, but I think next week I'm going to more directly and formally ask about classes in Uozu. My time here in Japan is precious, fortunate, and limited.

Eventually, we had fulfilled our welcome in the dinner room, and were told to go elsewhere inside the ryokan to continue on. At that point, I've never seen such a mad dash to smuggle alcohol out of a room. People were chugging their beers as well as any others in the vicinity half full, one person had taken the shochu bottle and put it down his pants, and Sensei was checking the bottles, consolidating the remains. I then remember last week at the end of practice when Sensei was talking about the seminar, that we would have nomihodai for only a couple hours, so we should sneak out as much booze as possible when it was over.

We amassed in another room for more debauchery.

In one of the bigger rooms people were staying in, they had a garden inside the room.

The evening went into the dark hours of morning where me and two others were talking and drinking in our room, next to a passed out Hosogoshi. I actually got to the point where I was trying to speak Japanese, but my mouth could not physically make the right shapes and sounds appropriate to the language. It was time for bed.

After an unneccesarily early rise and seminar training session, we headed back home. But not without onsen of course.

I did have one great epiphany at the seminar though. I watched one of the white belts be thrown and while he was doing ukemi (roll), I could clearly see his bright red underwear under his soaked white gi pants. I shook my head and laughed thinking him to be quite the amateur, until I looked down at my own pants to clearly see my blue boxers glowing through my own gi. Silly white belts.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Adventure Weekend Part 2

This is another account of one of my bike rides. However it is much different than the last very lengthy and descriptive one. Those take more time than I have, so I'm trying a shorter route here. Please let me know what you think (if you like one more than the other, etc) in the comments section if you have an opinion. Please enjoy.

It all starts again. Thrust from the night's rest into the sun, to mountain forests on meandering paths, it all starts again.

Temple stops,

old and wooden,

with bell and dragon inhabitants.

Though hardly a thing of the past,

it now matures with cigarette butts and lights.

Yin and yang exist eternally.

Rice field seas isolate human buildings and gardens,

as islands to be visited by a monkey's hungry curiousity.

Important things are transported along tracks with shacks.

Effort's design.

But there is nothing here save what's already been done.

Past the signs that read "wild boar warning" is where magic still stirs.

Both ancient and fresh,

this is not just a picture, an image, or a forest.

This is life in all it's complex intricacies.

Anger, fear, happiness, and computers.

And also is this; sex, fame, the war in Iraq, your great grandchild.

This is the end of a road.

Sporadically, images of self appear all alone.

I've searched for hours pushing a bike in the sun,

looking for something without a name,

without a past that has been tainted by the writings of man.

Perhaps it takes a small pond of mosquitoes on a medium sized mountain ... nope, it was made by man.

Perhaps it's not so bad...

Perhaps it's hell...

Perhaps the picture just won't come out right.

Already again this day ends.

What of everything, but nothing at all ...

there must be something.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Adventure Weekend Part 1

I've been reacquainted with teachers and students at school, returned to Aikido, met gaijin friends for poker, but there is one great big giant thing I needed to do to be properly settled back into Japan, and that's a bike adventure ... and onsen.

I slept well after a bottle of wine and watching "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", woke up this morning for ritual Ravensbrew coffee and writing on the blog, and went rushing out the door. The image of the headless horseman leaping out of the tree from the movie, "Sleepy Hollow" comes to my mind.

Going into this trip I didn't really have a plan, but more of a direction. Today I would head north to Asahi, and then up a river into the mountains. One potential path would lead me to an onsen (hot spring) called Ogawa onsen. Asahi is two towns north of my home in Kurobe, the closest main town to the next prefecture to the north, Niigata, and is the sleepiest of towns that inhabit my Niikawa region in Japan.

Basically, there are three ways to get to Asahi. One is to take the Hachigosen (Route 8) which is the big highway that runs through my region. It could be fastest, but absolutley horrendous with traffic lights and huge trucks. I could also go along the mountains. This would be fast and scenic since it's where I'm going anyway (to the mountains), but maybe I should use the convenience for the ride home. The next option is along the ocean. Certainly the longest, but it would be beautiful, and one I've never taken far north before. So it was decided; sea route to Asahi, mountain route back, and no time for the Hachigosen.
From my apartment, I first headed west to the ocean to an area part of Kurobe called Ikuji. It's much older than the rest of Kurobe, and you can tell by the buildings. To a foreigner, it may actually fit one's image of Japan more than the rest of Kurobe because the buildings are so close to each other, and it still has a lot of old aged wooden buildings and shrines.
I love this area most because it's simply, the beach. Instead of the smell of manure from rice fields that sometimes frequents my front door, at the beach you have the ocean breeze instead. If I could choose to live anywhere in my region, it would be Ikuji.
Perhaps one of the most unique features of Ikuji is the large population of hawks hanging around the telephone poles or hovering in the sky just above the shore. It's rare to see one. Instead one often finds 3 to 6 of them together dominating the sky. For an area so densely populated by people, the sight of hawks here always surprises me.
I have a great respect for hawks, but after coming to Japan, I realized what annoying pests they can be. A little further south from this part of Ikuji is our favorite place to barbecue. It lays in a small grassy area in the woods next to the ocean, which also happens to be the hawks' home. Well, when there's fresh meat on the grill, guess who often takes the first bite? The hawks if they can get away with it. More than once I've sat at the benches around a grill, beer in hand and deep in discussion, when a hawk swoops down less than a foot away from me to snatch my meat. I now realize they are much bigger than they look in the sky. You can really imagine how sharp their talons are when they swoop down so closely to you. It would be a pretty mean joke to put a piece of meat in the hood of a buddy's sweatshirt when he's not looking.

Anyway, I could spend all day at the beach, especially considering the heat, but I have a lot of ground to cover.

Speaking of the heat, this had to be the hottest day I have ever experienced in Japan, and there I was, just setting off at 11:00 as the day really begins approaching it's climax of heat. I'm beginning to think I have some sick fetish with sweating as much as possible after so many similar bike trips, nights practicing aikido in the oven of a gym we have, and frequenting onsen in the middle of summer. After a half hour of riding, I could already feel slight affects of heat exhaustion, and chugged a bottle of vending machine water as I headed to Nyuzen, the town between Kurobe and Asahi.

I haven't spent much time in Nyuzen, because there doesn't seem to be much going on. It comes across as a pretty sleepy town. But I would be foolish to base my opinion on this generalization. Nyuzen has beautiful communitiy centers, parks, and shrines, and many quant neighborhoods. As I'm floating through, I see a sign that sparked a memory of an interesting place recommended by my students. Sugisawa no Sawasugi. Sugi means cedar tree, which is enough to get my attention. Apparently Sugisawa is a grove of cedar trees that is partially growing in water right next to the sea.

Enter, my first side trip: Sugisawa no Sawasugi.

I followed the first sign I saw for it easily, but eventually came to a turn with many different possibilities, and no sign directing one to the site. This is beginning to be one of my pet peeves about Japan: having one obvious sign for a popular sight-seeing spot, but none afterwards when there are mazes of paths to choose from. In this instance I was fortunate, because I searched out the biggest of the groupings of trees I could find next to the ocean, and easily found it. But in the past, this phenomenon has often led me astray in the mountain forests.
Sugisawa no Sawasugi had a wonderful information center. Inside was a lot of information about the site, but unfortunately of the kind I still don't understand in Japanese, so I took a quick look around and just headed to the trees.

It was a maze of wooden pathways through a grove of cedar trees that were growing in streams that flowed to the sea. The cedars were not particularly large, but they certainly had their own specific magic. To see such a wondrous tree like the cedar like this seems to be pretty rare.

I could see a lot of places were the creeks and streams were low, and began to wonder if this place may be more interesting during wetter seasons. Or, in the winter in snow.
Well, full of coffee and eager for the mountains, I departed Sugisawa quickly, but with intent to return again one day.

From there it was straight to Asahi, well, while snaking back and forth along one way roads through small neighborhoods; anything to avoid the cursed Hachigosen. I've said this in earlier posts, but if you ever want to go directly somewhere new, don't go with me. All of my trips are at least twice as long as they should be, and even oftentimes never make it to the destination. Alas, no plan is the best plan, and the gems I have found in my tangents have been priceless.
After 30 minutes or so I reached Asahi. I've mentioned that by living in Kurobe, I couldn't be closer to the mountians, but that is a lie. Here in Asahi, the mountains literally come all the way to the shore in some spots.

I immediately began looking for food. Anything would do, and yet I had a very difficult time finding anything at all to eat. Last year in the Fall, I went to Asahi one night to meet a fellow gaijin for dinner. I met him at the train station after dark and went to a restaurant in the town center and couldn't believe how quiet it was. It was probably 6:30 at night, and you couldn't hear a sound. Just walking quietly through the empty streets lit up by eerie green and yellow street lights that made you feel like you were in the Matrix.

Walking down what were labelled "main shopping streets" in English, I saw four elderlies on bikes, 90% of everything closed, a few souvenier shops, and only one place to eat. The sign made it look kind of hokey, but once I opened the door I was very surprised. Beats of Jay-Z played through a very hip and modern bar stacked with a wide variety of popular foreign liquor. On one side was an area of tatami mats for large groups, and on the other were booths. Inside on a TV was a Tokyo variety show and sitting at the bar were two middle-aged men and a girl waitress way too cute to not be in one of those Tokyo variety shows.

Looks from all around reminded me I was a rare sight. I stayed to myself drinking water faster than the girl could bring it and trying to wipe the sweat off my face, neck, and arms with a small towel I had brought. I ordered some of the best seafood pilaf and tomato soup I have ever had in my life, which came as another nice surprise from Asahi. After I had finished when I was moments away from leaving, one of the men at the bar decided to try and communicate with me. It's instances like these that reveal how far I've come in Japanese. A year ago, any such conversation would have quickly ended after one or two confusing minutes or so. Now, I could talk with this man for as long as he could take. In this case, it was about 20 minutes. He said he knew the ALT in Asahi, which is no surprise, and I told him we were good friends and would be playing poker later that night. I then told him I was headed towards Ogawa onsen, and he searched through his bag to find three free passes which he gave to me. I tried to refuse, but he assured me he had plenty more, and then gave me three more.

It was a great surprise to receive these gifts, but actually, in hindsight, it doesn't surprise me at all. The generosity of the small town locals around here is enormous, especially towards foriegners who try and talk with them. Every interaction I have with the Japanese here results in some kind of gift, be it physical or informational in form.

I left the restaurant full of nourishment and headed off into the mountains in search of Ogawa onsen.
Working off the vague images and names I tried to ingrain in my mind earlier from maps in my apartment, I had a little trouble getting on course. I followed small dirt roads that stretched beside streams and rice fields, trying my best to sense how to reach my destination instead of brave the large highways. With enough time and patience, this method always works (most of the time). The mountains in this area are dense. By that I mean that they are steep and have many waterways that have formed canyons and paths that lead deep into the mountains. Lately for these trips, I just decide which one of these I will follow. If there's trouble, it's because I find myself in a different one than I planned.
I found myself heading where I wanted, and began following a small one-and-a-half lane road along a river. Buildings and rice fields become less as the mountains rise closer and closer to you the farther you go inland. Each path I have taken like this reveals it's own specific treasures, and so I've gotten into the habit of keeping my head up and eyes open as long as I am on them. As I had this particular thought while I was riding, I looked up to find something that really kept my attention. I halted abruptly, slamming my stomach against the handle bars, turned around, and began investigating. What caught my eye at first was a blackboard against a wall inside of a large garage that had the dimensions of a bear drawn on it.

In the middle of this garage was a giant cage with extra large food and water dishes on top.

My eyes went back and forth between the blackboard and the cage. I then noticed a large sake bottle resting in front of the blackboard.

I've talked a lot before about my interest in traditional Japanese culture like tea ceremony and bushido, but perhaps cooler than doing any of those, would be hanging out with bear hunters in the mountains. Or maybe at least trackers or conservationists. The mystery of the this garage remains burning in my imagination.

Well, onward I go. Pedaling, sweating, pedaling, sweating. The further I get the steeper the climb, and the more tired I become. These bike rides in the Japanese summer have shown me more pours to sweat out of than I ever imagined existed. I am also discovering a threshold I have for the heat here. Since June I've enthusiastically embraced the heat and humidity, despite it's often uncomfortable nature. But lately, I'm really yearning for autumn. I may have to wait another month or so though.

Pedaling, sweating, heat.

Hot, pedaling, sweating.

Uphill, sweating, pushing the bike.

Back on the bike, pedaling, sweating, heat.

I had two small bottles of water in my backpack. This would be fine if I got to Ogawa onsen as fast as I predicted, but somehow I often forget that I can't just pedal my bike at max speed the entire way on these trips. So my trips become much longer than expected.
But alas! Reprieve from the heat looms ahead! A concrete half-tunnel in the side of the mountain is guaranteed cool shade. At this point, I am pushing my bike through any uphill I come across, grinning just thinking about the downhill return trip. As shuttle buses pass me with "Ogawa Onsen" written on their sides, I gaze with apathy. I can't even comprehend what it would be like to have a 20 minute shuttle ride instead of this 5 hour bike ride in the sun. I chose this path happily anyway.

Through the tunnel, the road gradually rises, making the river below become farther and farther away. Eventually the tunnel emptied me out to an enormous dam. It looks like it could easily be in a James Bond movie. I looked at a map and saw that the onsen/hotel was only one more kilometer away, so I explored the large concrete beast of a dam before me.

I happily resaddled my bike to ride across the flat of the dam's top. Looking all the down the side of the dam, all I wanted to do was slide down to the bottom of the refreshing looking pool. More realistically, on the other side of the dam was a large part of the river that looked amazingly delicious to swim in. After riding for so long in the heat, I couldn't think of anything better than to dive in, but I looked around all of the banks to the water, and they were lined with steep grades of bushes and such. This was a popular tourist spot with picnic benches and informational boards, but no way to get into the water. Here was a wonderful place for the Japanese to make the water accessible, but no, of course not. Someone might drown because "water in nature is scary." My frustration was peaking, but soon subsided as I reasoned the onsen was close and I was immersed in exploring the dam.

On the other side of the dam was a series of ladders that lead all the way to the bottom, and only had a low gate barring entry. "Mmmmm" I thought. Just below the top where I was, there was a door that led into the dam itself. I looked around, saw nobody, and quickly jumped down one level to jiggle the handle. Locked. Of course. I quickly climbed back up, and gave up on any James Bond activity for the moment.

I looked down the road and saw a bridge, leading to a tunnel that went into a mountain to some unknown desitination. I certainly wanted to follow it, but if I went down every strange road in the mountains, I would need another 10 years in this area of bike adventures every weekend. Those similar such roads I've followed before have rarely ended, and seem to be for other dams or powerlines.

Well, back on track for the homestretch to Ogawa onsen. One way would be to take a nice small overgrown road around the mountain, but it was roped off. The other way was an enclosed tunnel instead of the one with an open side that I ascended earlier. These tunnels are not fun to pass through. They are dark, the sidewalks are barely wider than my handle bars, the pedestrian paths are raised a foot from the road, and have steep curving concrete walls on the side. The sound of even a single car thunders deafeningly through the whole tunnel. It takes the utmost relaxation and trust to keep pedaling straight ahead as cars pass only feet away. Usually these tunnels are not heavily trafficked, but I surely get through them as fast as posibble. They are probably the most dangerous part of my bike trips. One interesting thing is that these tunnels are always extremely damp. Puddles in the road, dripping water from the cieling, and containing very cool air. I imagine it's from clouds/fog/mist that is trapped in there.

Ah finally, Ogawa onsen. Or at least the Ogawa onsen hotel. These moments have become priceless for me. The satisfaction of reaching the destination is momentarily accompanied by the shocked gazes of passerbys. In this case they were vacationing Japanese relaxing in the ambiance of nature and comfort of onsen. But then comes me, a disheveled, smelly, hairy, sunburnt gaijin stumbling off his bike in the parking lot. I think I used to be self conscious about these kinds of things, but that's not such a good feeling to express because often times Japanese will meet you with equal if not increased awkwardness. But now I just smile, bow, and give a hearty "konnichiwa!" This is also usually met with equal enthusiasm. This is actually a great example of a gaijin's experience in Japan. If you are scared, nervous, and self conscious, the country will close in around you with uncomfortable looks. But if you embrace the concepts of genki (energetic/enthusiastic) and ganbaru (persevering/giving effort) with a big smile and nod of the head, oceans will part before you with the applause of the Japanese population.
The man who gave me the passes to the onsen earlier mentioned there were two onsen at Ogawa. One was a nice modern one which he praised, and the other which was an old boring one he squinched his nose at. So I continued along the road to scout out the area. I reluctantly climbed some stairs into the trees to find this large Buddhist statue, and found a sign leading to the old onsen. One path was gravel, and another was grassy, but again roped off. If you haven't noticed, this is another pet peeve of mine with Japan. The number of unneccesary ropes and signs prohibiting entry to perfectly fine areas is really inhibiting my adventurous nature. To the Japanese, it seems that someone has made a safe clean road to be shepherded conveniently on, so you had better use it.

I stepped over the pathetic rope anyway.

My path followed maybe 10 feet away from the safe one, which was along a very refreshing looking river that I would love to get in, but there was no clear path through the brush to it, and there were signs telling people not to swim in it and had pictures of drowning children and monkeys. All I want to do is get into some cold natural water before the onsen, but it's just impossible if you follow the rules around here.

I grumbled along the path and found a shack with signs that looked like the "men" and "women" curtains that usually hang before the changing rooms to onsen. I looked up to find a small pool that went slightly into the side of a rock cliff. It was obviously natural due to the effect the water had on the rocks. But I was confused because I couldn't tell if you were allowed to go in. Men? Women? Both? I poked around and heard and old woman attendant walking around with a cleaning bucket. She saw me look into the men's side of the changing shack, but when I came out and she saw me again, she leaped back absolutely surprised to see me. I also used to be nervous talking to older people because the language barrier can be so wide, but hesitation only results in increased confusion. I comfortably enter these conversations expecting each participant to only understand about a quarter of what each other are trying to say, and I use as simple and direct Japanese as possible.

"What is this place?"

"blah blah blah blah Buddhist blah blah blah."

I look over towards the steaming water and see incense and a small Buddhist statue. I look back at the "men" and "women" curtains.

"Is this an onsen?"


"Can I enter?"


I saw a rocky path that climbed up and around the onsen.

"Can I go up there?"

"blah blah blah cannot blah blah blah."

"Uhhhh ... OK."


"Excuse me. Sorry. Thank you."

"Excuse me. Thank you."

I turned around and waited for her to shuffle away. Then I looked back three seconds later and saw no trace of her. I peered around all corners and in all doors. Still no sign. She just disappeared.

Anyway, I took her "cannot" for, "you cannot help but go up there", and climbed the rocky path.

After being in Japan for a year and recently returning from a week in the States, my appreciation for certain nuances in Japanese culture have increased, but my respect for unnecessary limitations has dropped through the floor. I now play my "gaijin card" in any situation I deem harmless.

I climbed up and around and found an overgrown grassy flat spot with two Buddhist statues. One of which I recogniced as the deity Fudo, but don't know about the other. There was also a thin wooden ladder continuing up the overgrown hill, so I climbed it.

The path became more overgrown with every step and ended where a small concrete tunnel began. I peered in and saw no end. My feet had disappeared beneath thick bushes and shrubs, and the mosquitoes had been replaced by what I think were hornets, and that was the end of it. Any Indiana Jones-ing reached it's limit with the bugs and I hightailed it out of there as quickly as possible cursing and flailing my arms. I had to find one of those safe Japanese paths again.

I got back to the onsen, saw no sign of the attendent, and went a little further along the path. There was another onsen with a changing shack that only had a "women"s" sign on it, so I took an innocent look around. The attendent reappeared and said that it was only for women. I dumbly looked at the sign and said, "Oh sorry! I still can't read kanji well. I'm sorry, excuse me, thank you!"

That was the furthest point of my journey, and time to finally get in the hotel onsen. I would have gone in the natural outside one, but going straight from the heat to hot onsen water didn't sound good without cleaning off in something colder first.

The hotel was indeed very fancy and nice. As I made my way to the onsen through the immaculate halls, beautiful views of the mountains, and calming Japanese music playing through speakers, I was reminded of the serene counterpart to the 95 degree, super humid, bug swarming, roped off, difficult to communicate side of Japan.

I can't believe how lucky I am to have such journeys anytime I decide to ride towards the mountains in search of onsen.

Cheers to small town Toyama.

Any desires to chase images to Tokyo and Kyoto have been extinguished for the time being.

After a long soak, a beer, and a twenty minute session in the massage chairs, I slowly exited the hotel and climbed on my bike to take the long downhill cruise into the sunset.

But not without one more cause of excitement.

Instead of taking the closed tunnel back, I took the grassy route along the side of the mountain.

It was certainly much nicer to bike on a grassy path in the fresh air as I looked down at the river. I had my head down and started thinking about monkeys, pondering the chances of seeing them around here, when all of a sudden, I heard a rustling in front of me and saw two monkey butts disappear into the bushes below. I followed quickly to look for them, but only heard their rustling. Then more noise in the bushes above me to the left. I was surrounded by them! I slowly walked my bike along the path with eyes glued to the bushes and trees around. Then in front of me about 30 meters were four monkeys sitting in the road. As I got closer, two ran away, but two sat and waited for me to get closer before darting into the bushes.

It should be known that I suffered tens of mosquito bites on my legs for these pictures. I've always attracted an above average amount of mosquito bites, but the ones here in Japan are just vicious. My bites here swell up huge and itch much more than any I've had elsewhere. (This does not include sand flies though which are even a million times worse.) I guessed that a week's worth of itching hell was worth this short monkey experience.

This has become a regular Saturday for me, and each week I grow thirstier for such adventures. Sunday I usually write on the blog, relax, and hang out with friends, but I need another dose of bike riding this weekend.

On my way home, I'm already planning the next day's adventure.