Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Samurai Medicine

When reading about traditional Chinese medicine, one of the first concepts you learn is the concept of appropriate application. A particular herb may be good for alleviating one ailment, but hazardous to another. That particular herb may be the necessary remedy, but if taken at the wrong time or without proper application its effect may be nullified. So, it's not just ailment and cure, but the application which incorporates a lot of sensitive issues such as timing and dosage. I use the specific example of traditional Chinese medicine here, but I don't know traditional Chinese medicine very well. What I do know, and what is relevant to me, is the healing or distorting effects of the various stimuli I incorporate into my life. In this case, it's the media like images, music, books, television and movies I expose myself to.

This fall was a chaotic time for me where I felt buried by the amount of everything around me and the lack of resources with which I had to dissolve them, or at least I thought. What seems to have been ideal  in retrospect was a calming of my anxieties and a clear vision in order to untangle all of the complexities that were consuming my mind. Perhaps the most beneficial media would be of the sort that would act as an agent to encourage the discipline to stick to a healthy and conserving routine. To this end I was listening to ambient music, drinking tea, going to bed early, and reading books about the things that usually calm and interest me. In my daily life, I tried to spend only the bare minimum needed to survive. But it didn't work. It was too quiet and wasn't real. So when I decided to act otherwise, I would blast out on the opposite end of the spectrum. I would abandon all previous thoughts of healthy conservation and plow forward with luxurious desires fueled by heavy metal and my favorite expensive beer. This felt powerful, but I would only wake up deeper in the hole.

All of those individual aspects are perfect with the right application and moderation, but I wasn't adhering to such ideals with success. Traditional Chinese medicine seeks to restore balance by counteracting excess and depletion. I was in a very hot summer of sorts and sought balance, but the cooling remedies I attempted were too severe. Then I took heating agents which ended up taking me to boiling point. These are matters I feel I should handle myself, so in a sense I am my own life-doctor, choosing which stimuli I should imbibe. I believe this touches on another important concept in traditional Chinese medicine; a self-sufficient and preventative approach to finding one's balance, as opposed to going to an outside source receiving temporary remedies for ailments that have already matured. I was not a good doctor to myself.

However, the other night I watched a movie that was just what my internal doctor should have known to prescribe: "Chonmage Preen."

Harking back to my original curiousity of Japanese bushido and samurai. I picked up this interesting movie which reinvigorated the kind of feelings inside of me that can successfully battle those antagonists that have so recently devoured my health. (Chonmage is the traditional hairstyle worn by samurai. Preen is a custard dessert.)

It's a story about a samurai named, Yasube, who somehow finds himself time traveling forward to modern Tokyo where he becomes entangled in the life of a single mother and her 5 year old son. In his free time adjusting to his new life, Yasube watches cooking shows on TV and becomes a skilled patissiere. However, he abruptly finds himself sinking back into time from whence he came.

For such a cliche story, I really enjoyed it. Certainly not the heavy nature you usually expect from samurai films, but it still displayed the ethics and code of conduct a samurai is expected to posses. This is the kind of influence that I've been needing.

What I absorbed from this movie were the notions of discipline so often attributed to samurai, yet adopted to modern times. A samurai he still was, but one that couldn't use his sword or social status to achieve his aims. What was distilled were the old values applied to modern scenarios.

One of the first interesting differences you see in the movie are in the ways of speech. Yasube introduces himself to people and speaks in an old dialect, which is a comedic point in the film. But this also reveals interesting notions of our modern use of speech. Japanese is particularly interesting in that people use different words and modes of speech depending on their social status. Keigo is a special form of languge in Japanese used to distinguish social status and dilineate respect. It is used commonly today; clerks will use keigo when talking with customers, and Japanese will use keigo with superiors in office settings or formal situations. But for most conversation, it's viewed as strange. Yasube uses keigo with everyone, which is strange in modern situations, but it shows a respect for others, and the ability to subvert one's own bias in order to make a stiuation as "appropriate" as possible. Ideas of "appropriate" behavior are often viewed negatively by Westerners because it connotates submission; an enemy of the so highly valued freedom-of-expression we cherish in our individualistic culture. But this is where misinterpretations of samurai and even Japanese culture often occur. Many people believe it needs to be one extreme or another. For example, some may believe being "appropriate" in Japan means using the most polite language to everyone and bowing with every word, but this is strange and not Japanese. Or perhaps being a samurai means expecting enemies around every corner and treating every aspect of the world as battlefield to consume foes in the name of one's lord, but I think there is a lot more to samurai than that kind of thinking. Japanese culture and samurai are more about appropriate application. In some situations it is appropriate to voice your opinion, and in others it is appropriate to subvert your feelings for what's best for the group and environment.

I mentioned that the samurai in the movie often used keigo and old dialects with people in the movie to show respect, but there are also scenes where he abondons this and scolds others using abrasive and harsh language. When he does so, it is terrifying and effective. The samurai is not necesarily brought to anger, but utilizes such language to achieve a specific means. In the cases of scolding others, he is attempting to affect someone's behavior to change for the better. Again, appropriate action directed to a specific end; one that necessarily benefits others.

Adaptation was another theme throughout the film. Though the samurai was transported to another time altogether, Yasube found an application for his skills. Perhaps he was a naturally gifted patisiiere, but that is irrelevant. What the movie exemplified was the application of his skills that were born in bushido to cooking. He followed recipes exactly as they were given, he made every effort to be as clean and precise as possible, and he put all of his concentration and effort into the particular dishes he was making. In this way, he found great success making pastries. If one applies these efforts to their endeavors as Yasube did, perhaps our abilities could extend much farther than what we commonly believe. To me this is incredibly liberating. What matters more than your natural gifts or limitations is your conviction to do something the best you can. If you have the discipline to apply your effort without distraction, and be able to do so intelligently as possible, you can do amazing things. Cleanliness, focus, patience, perseverence; finally these ideals found reality and relevance when I watched this film.

However, there is much more to life than these isolated abstractions. There are these specific ideals of the samurai, but they are not necessarily the desired goal, and certainly not the whole picture.

I believe samurai were not perfect, but rather people just like you and me and everyobody else. I imagine they had just as many worldly issues in the way of their dreams as we do. They need to breathe, sleep, eat, take care of family issues, struggle with society, and deal with sickness and death. The difference is that a samurai, regardless of their bodily or situational limitations, would adhere religiously to the pursuit of perfection.
With this intent, the illusory clouds of fear that have gathered inside of me are cast out, and I reclaim the center. No matter my limitations nor the propensity of my adversity, I can engage the demons of my life with the most powerful of patience and skill. Holding to that base, the outcome, which is me engaged with the realities of life, is the pinnacle of beauty. With that, I am invincible. Death is nothing but a stone on the path.

Thank you Yasube.

One last comment I thought of separately, but seems incredibely relevant, runs as such:

To find perfection in the moment, a peace and patience that envelopes the whole of the universe containing all of your small fears and squabbles inside, is to find happiness.

To string every now-moment together perfectly with the following consecutive now-moments, is great.

To make a goal and connect all of the consecutive now-moments together to collectively and intelligently build towards your goal successfully, is to be a great human being.

This is what I want to do.
The samurai ethics are not superior to any others, but they are appropriate for me today, and so that is my path.

Oh yeah, Happy Holidays! Tomorrow I fly to my childhood nest in the northwest corner of the greater U.S. Perhaps I'll find a few dojo rats there ...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Surviving the Fall

I successfully made it to the cliffside and jumped full on. I expected many obstructions, but never predicted just how taxing it would all really be.

Pockets bled and heavy doses of external stimuli were taken to compensate. My old tools were useless, and through trials, my abilities seemed to wane.

When I thought I was safe, I just wasn't there yet.

Thoughts only exacerbated the wounds.

Instead of falling into my place, I was falling into abyss. Calling out, my voice echoed back as fear.

The Fall.

Falling into my place. Falling into fear. But, aren't they both just ... falling?

What's the difference? My body is the same body that falls regardless. Those walls I pass on the way down are just those passing walls.

There is something that changes everything.

I'll call it a mask.

The details aren't so important. Certainly not worth my time to write or yours to read. But it's been one hell of a fall. Through these times, if we stop, then that's it. What you see is what you get, and the rest will be written about it. But it's all redeemed if you can see it through. If you can crawl out and stand up straight, it was all worth it, and the lessons will be learned. I have learned a few crucial lessons through this period. They are all ones I've known before, they've just been futher illuminated. However, this does not mean that they are the same; the rules have changed a bit and so have I. Furthermore, and more importantly, they haven't been any easier to put into action. If anything, they have become a bit harder. The lessons I have learned are directions on the map, and they are challenges that require true action.

What does this look like in aikido?

Well, when I went to practice the other night, there wasn't one great particular thing that seemed off with my technique, it was more like every little bit was quite a bit off. Maybe a beginner could look and say, "well that doesn't look too bad at all." And yet, in every movement and connection I make, there are beaming flaws. Everything needs work, simulatneously in an effort that will take time.

However, I've noticed two immediate things I can do that will change a whole lot: First, keep my back straight. I have a tendency to hunch over a bit in my movement and it compromises everything. Need to keep that straight like a plumb hanging from the sky. Second, relax my shoulders. This is another small detail that throws everything off. Let them hang and find another way to move that doesn't ignite the muscles.

We fall, we die, we are born.

Hooray we're alive!

Now what do we do?

Relax, breathe, and build ... one little universe of a block at a time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Screw Cleaning!: I'm going on a bike ride

I had a day off and a lot of cleaning to do. It was one of those things I preordained the night before; no matter what, I was doing that cleaning. I prayed for heavy rains so that there would be no temptation at all to saddle my bike. Well, it was fricken unbelievably sunny outside. I walked down seven flights of stairs convincing myself that a trip to the store and back would suffice ... but once I saw my bike, I walked back up the seven flights to grab a banana, granola bar, and camera which would be needed on a trip much longer than just to the store and back. I came back down and flew outside on two wheels. Crap, I need sunglasses. Back up and down, and then off.

Seriously, people (me included) often waste so much time not doing what they really want and feeling bad about it, but with this small decision I tackled that gargantuan quandary and was just doing it. I started to feel bad like I should be doing the other things that seem as though they will more greatly affect my future for the better ... and then I found quite possibly my greatest demon ...

Wasting time. When I get confused, or unhappy, or any negative emotion ... it's root is usually gripping tight into the poisonous soil, rank in dark stagnant places with the fear of wasting time. I'm not sure why I feel that way, how "good" or "bad" it is, or exactly how to extricate this fear from my life ... but I know that it is the biggest waste of time to worry about worrying about wasting time. I'm huge about abstract analogies and metaphors, which is probably why I love reading about esoteric religions and philosophies, but I've found a great one lately somewhere in my mind.

The fear pulls me up on strings just like a puppet. The tension constricts my shoulders forcing me to hunch pulling my center of gravity up, and my eyes are fixed forward in a stare that sees absolutley nothing. My mind is pure fear, completely consumed by it. And all I have to do ... is cut the strings. Cut those strings and let that fear rocket into the sky, to hell, wherever, who cares. Instantly I relax, resting my weight down and shooting my spine straight up. The tension sinks from my face, neck, and shoulders and I take deep breaths. Cut the strings of your fear.

So I did, and ended up finding some cool castle ruins with no castle almost right in the middle of the city.

I've never heard about this before, and imagine most people in Toyama haven't either. Doesn't surprise me though, because there's nothing there really. It's just the grounds for where an old castle used to be. But when you look at it, the size is impressive. If you can imagine a castle there, it would probably be the same size or bigger than the "real" Toyama Castle that stands now in the middle of the city.

Knowing this drastically changed my perspective on Toyama, and thus my life. I guess that's why I was a history major in college. But few know, and less care. "What a waste of time" someone might say. Well, I got back in time to do a thorough cleaning anyway, so there.

Only problem is, I can't find my air conditioner remote (which acts as my only heating system in my apartment at the moment.) This is a huge problem because there is no manual remote on it, it's too old to get a generic replacement at an electronics store, and no one is going to pay for it to be replaced if it's not broken. But look! It's as good as broken if you can't use it right?

Fear. I don't fear the cold. But you know what I do fear? Toyama summertime coming along and me being without air conditioning ... literally hell on earth. Not even Japan in summer, just a Japanese apartment. Like little ovens they are.

Cut the strings and ride, puppets! You're free!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Elbow Stacking in Shihonage

Weed out the worms,starve them of the poison they love.
Replace it with knowledge,
that will shine light on the dank stagnant boils where they fester.
Dry them up until they crack into dust, then sweep them out.
Expel the worms that work towards your premature rotting.
This cleaning is infinity.

Continuing on with my discussion from the last two posts on elbow stacking, putting one's elbow directly above or below a partner's for ideal positioning, here I will show it's application in shihonage, a basic technique in Aikido. This particular version of shihonage starts from gyaku hanmi katatedori : in this case it's where I started with my left leg and arm forward and my partner started with their right leg forward and they grab my left wrist with their right hand.

The picture above does not match my ideal for elbow stacking. Can you see why? Because the elbows are not directly above and below each other! But perhaps this is the phase just before reaching the point of elbow-stackage, which reveals one problem I mentioned earlier about trying to break down these techniques; they should be done in continuous fluid motion. Stopping them allows us to take a picture and have a discussion on a particular point, but it is not the technique. Unfortunately, in the few pictures I took, I just couldn't get the shot right. Not to blame a partner, but successful completion of this technique does require some things from the partner, which my partner may not have been so privy too. First of all, one must maintain a solid grip on your wrist through the technique. If it is too lax and there is space, then my wrist will slip out of the partner's hand, connection is lost, and another technique would suit the situation better. Perhaps these pictures serve as a better image of what it looks like just before you stack the elbows. Or maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about! HAHA!

Anyway, I wanted to show this particular example of elbow stacking because in my last two posts, the tori's elbow (person doing the technique, me in these instances) is above the opponents, breaking their balance and dropping them downwards. With shihonage though, we get the opposite effect. As I move to put my elbow directly underneath my partner's as they maintain an honest grip, they will be forced upwards on to their toes to get the effect of what is often called, "floating waza"; a technique that utilizes this uprooting of the partner giving them a brief feeling of floating. If you don't stack the elbows properly, you probably won't get the "floating" effect which is key to breaking the balance of your partner.

Of the many potential boundaries I create in my technique keeping me from efficient movement, it's the tension in my shoulders which I think is most problematic. If one can relax their upper body, primarily the shoulders, then a solid/fluid (funny how those antonyms are both part of the same thing here eh?) connection with the ground is made, which is your greatest support and strength in this technique. You are the tool, the medium between the earth and gravity, the magician of forces that utilizes certain facts of life to produce certain outcomes, in this case, unbalancing your opponent and putting yourself in an advantageous position. If you are clean of impurities, in this case, muscle tension in the shoulders, then those forces you seek to utilize can work to their greatest potential.

Saying this, my shoulders are not completely relaxed in my technique. This is the greatest difference between me and my teacher. I can talk about it, but achieve little results in actuality whereas my Sensei can just do it. Well, how do you breach that wide gap between our respective abilities? Time and experience I suppose ... at least that's what everyone is saying.

But I need to go to sleep soon, and then I have to go to work, because I have bills to pay, and then I have to go to the supermarket to buy food, then I have to cook the food and then spend time in the bathroom. Then there's places I need to go in order to see people I need to meet. I'm here ready to devote myself to improvement in technique but it's just so ... complicated sometimes. Maybe not, it's all just time and experience right? I suppose there is also a gap between the realization of this ideal and practical daily life. It's all physics ... no magic.

Well, doesn't stop me from searching for the Holy Grail. Gonna live forever I swear, even if it kills me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stacking Elbows in Aikido and Following Dogen

The darkness at the bottom is quiet.

The light above is piercing bright.

We are engaged by the myriad creatures and landscapes on all sides.

Here is my partner who will soon succumb to the power of elbow stacking!

In my last post I talked about how we often practice kotogaeshi and I received a comment from someone saying that they have never seen it that way. I'm not sure what particular the comment was directed towards, but here I'll show another example of a technique that utilizes one of aspects I talked about in the last post: elbow stacking.

Actually I'm not really sure what it's called, if it's got a specific name at all, but that's what I'm going to call it until I hear a better term. Anyway, elbow stacking. It's where the tori (person doing the technique [me in the picture]) positions their elbow either directly above or the below their partner's for an advantageous position. In this series of pictures, elbow stacking is utilized in tenkan undou, which is more of just a warming up excercise than an actual technique. We do this everyday after stretching and before starting techniques. As I said, it's not really a specific technique, but it's a movement we use in A LOT of techniques. We start from the position above where one partner grabs the other's wrist.

The tori pivots on the right leg (stepping forward if one must for optimal position), and swings their left leg around to the outside, away from the partner. From here, a lot of techniques can be used, but for the purposes of the tenkan undou, the partner steps with their right foot to bring them back in front of the partner, pivots on it, and starts another rep by grabbing the other hand. But what I want to focus on here is the position of the elbow. Tenkan undou has a lot of small details one must be mindful of in order to do it well, but it seems that this elbow stacking is the key to its success. I say this because the purpose of this technique, and arguably all aikido techniques is kuzusu, putting one off their balance (while maintaining good posture yourself).

Here is the same technique seen from the other side.

If my partner's elbow is not directly under mine, and is between my elbow and my body, our space is jammed, putting them under my center of gravity which is ideal for them, and also forces me into an uncomfortable position which means I'm flexing my shoulder muscles, making me vulnerable and off balance. If my partner's elbow is not directly under mine, and is to the outside of mine, then they can recover their position easily and are probably not put off balance at all. By stacking my elbow directly above their's, they are forced downward and off balance while I maintain a strong position transitioning into another movement.

That last line is very important, and something really hard to get from pictures and explanations. First off, this is a practice that is the beginning of techniques, and is not necessarily a technique in and of itself to be used in a self defense situation; it is a transition that moves into another movement. Secondly, this should be executed in one full movement without stops. You can break it down to some extent as I have in the pictures, to show certain aspects or teach or learn the movement, but it's effectiveness is broken down with the stops. This also doesn't mean you start the technique from a wrist grab. Ideally, it's started before contact. As one partner reaches for the wrist, movement has already started and the partner does not wait to "start" the technique upon contact, but just slightly begins movement to set up the technique. Also, as with most aikido techniques, it requires a specific movement from the partner. In this instance, it requires the partner to maintain a substantial (not necessarily strong muscle exerted desperate grasp, but a soft/strong grab) throughout the technique until the end. To many that may seem foolish because someone would never hold on to the wrist through such a movement, but would instead let go. Well, if they let go then you should do a different technique. Also, it could be argued that if performed in a fluid movement with an honest attack from the partner, the partner will be put off balance and maintain the grab in order to find balance, and thus feed the technique even more to the tori's advantage. Instead of letting go, they'll hold on more desperately! But I'm not that good, and such discussions will have to be further explained in a post far into the future.

For now, this small detail of elbow stacking.

Oh yeah, and Dogen; the man credited as the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism who lived from 1200 - 1253 C.E.

It could be said we are all on a path, partaking in a journey, headed in some direction. Recently I have been reading a book called, "Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra" by Taigen Dan Leighton. It's a great but intense read, one of those where you read for a half an hour and then realize you've only gotten through about 8 pages, and is acting as some sort of mysterious gate to reading Dogen's most famous work, the "Shobogenzo." I started this specific path with martial arts by practicing Karate where I started a fascination with Zen Buddhism, but always read about it with respect to martial arts. Then I began exploring other Zen-esque philosophies as their related to cultural arts in Japan, and then finally made my way to read Shunryu Suzuki's, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," which was an apex of sorts in this quest. I've been reading some various books about Zen, but I feel as though I'm delving much deeper now, and am approaching what it is I've been looking for for so long, here standing at the first gate of the Shobogenzo.

But then there's all this other stuff that keeps coming up like work and bills and responsibilities and obligations, and then all of my other remedies and solutions and distractions accompanying them, and then whole other realms of love and accidents and surprises. It's so important and so fragile, this adventure of study that now brings me to Dogen.

I wonder what would happen to this part of my life if I just let it all go. Nothing and something I imagine.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Aikido: Kotogaeshi and Softness

This is part of a move in aikido called kotogaeshi, and there are a lot of intricacies involved. Three I'd like to talk about are elbow placement, points of contact, and angle of the hand.

Ah, the concentration. How can I show this technique, take a picture of it, and not concentrate too hard on the pretty girl.

Anyway, elbows. When doing this technique, it's easy to just grab your partner's wrist and swing around pulling them by their wrist, but that puts you in a weak position where you'll probably be relying on muscle strength or your partner's lack of skill. To prevent that, we need to find ourself in a position where our elbows are above our partner's. This is apparent in a lot of different aikido techniques, and is one of the gems Sensei is always trying to get us to focus on, but it's one that usually isn't remembered or at least executed. If your elbow is in the right place as tori (person executing the technique), then you can be in a comfortable position of strength without relying on muscles and your opponent will be forced into one that's compromised.

But first, points of contact need to be correct. (This is actually one part that hasn't really been explained to me, but I'll try and interpret it from all the times I've felt and seen it). The focus of my intent is on my hand, particularly the base of my palm next to the wrist. According to the pictures, it's actually best two pictures before this text. My hand should be such that my fingers raise up a bit, placing the base of my palm close to the wrist pushing downwards. If my weight is relaxed, this point will bear down on the partner in just the right place: the first quarter of the partner's arm towards the wrist. This point on the partner's wrist we're talking about is huge in the aikido my Sensei does; a point on the body with great potential. Usually we focus on this point as the person executing the technique (me in the pictures) as a point of contact and a place we keep heavy to bear down on or guide our partners through techniques, but here we focus on that point of strength in the opponent and use it against them. Proper uke is executed when you are mindful of this spot and don't let your partner break that part of your structure down.

Then the hand. Our index finger should be such. Also take a look at where my hand is (the one on top), the base of my palm is on my partner's arm arm about a quarter of the way from the wrist.

But we we don't just have our hand flat-parallel with the floor; it should be at an angle. As I follow a horizontal circle with my hand going in the direction of my index finger, there should be a slight angle just like a train going around a bend. The train, or car, or any such vehicle, doesn't take turns staying straight up, but goes at an angle while making the turn. Our hands should be like this. It can be really uncomfortable for the partner to keep their balance or take control of the technique.

I'm not sure how you do kotogaeshi, but these are a few of the details we focus on considering hands and arms.

I have to say that I don't see myself doing this perfect in any of the pictures. I've done this technique hundreds of times, and putting special effort into making it accurate in a still position, and I still can't get it right! I'd say that's a testament to the time it takes to become a skilled aikidoka. These are not techniques you see and do and BOOM it's perfect. It takes time. But here's me in a funny position in this funny place and time. I'm also unsure of my descriptions, but I don't ever know exactly what my Sensei is saying anyway! Haha! Maybe my aikido is more like interpreting a piece of art rather than analyzing an engineering manual.

Anyway ... softness.

I'm going to aikido about four times a month now, which is not very much. So when I go to practice, my whole being is like a laser, focused on what Sensei is doing and what he wants his students to do. There are a lot of shortcomings that go along with my recent infrequency, but one thing I've noticed is a heightened sensitivity on feeling how much people struggle, use muscle, and grab (negative connotation here) throughout techniques. It's too much in the wrong place. There's also a lot of stops. When Sensei does a technique, he is incredibly strong, but this has to do with body placement and weight distribution, not muscle. So if you're using extra muscle in the technique ... it's not it, and so it's not so wise to keep doing so. Sensei holds on to you with grabs and locks through techniques, but he never feels like he's really grabbing you. Again, negative connotation. He's not excessive. But many people, probably due to concentration on doing a technique right, often are way too grabby. This is also not good technique, and annoying for uke. Sensei is also fluid. When he does a technique, it is not broken up or especially emphasized in one aspect (unless he is trying to show something specific). His move is one fluid motion. When learning a technique, we may often stop, make it choppy, or over emphasize one part. This is part of the learning process and necessary to an extent, but I try not to do it so much when I come to class and rather make each technique one fluid motion.

Sensei will point something out if it's done wrong or can be improved, but he doesn't nag. If he commented on every mistake that happened in his dojo, he wouldn't stop talking. So I see sensei watching students and going through ukemi, and I've identified a very specific look on his face. A face probably accompanied by the thoughts, "I wish they'd just relax, stop being so grabby, and do the whole technique."

90% of my efforts in aikido class are based on getting the opposite reaction out of my sensei. It's a very slight nod and an short utterance of "OK."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

You Don't Know Basho

And niether do I.

In fact, I probably know a lot less about Basho than a lot of the readers. But I know enough about him to know that he's got way better stories than the haiku he produced; those writings that made him one of the most famous figures of Japanese culture. What we read are jewels of art that have been remarkably preserved and elaborated by other people on the path. By reading his work, and indulging in such imaginative exploration, we are taking part in his life, and everything in the universe at the same time, but while we endeavor, holding his name to ourself, we are doing something else. It is no longer the man that lived named, Basho. At least that is what I've done; guilty and fortunate enough to have woven my own fantasy which is arguably real. It is the unexplainable and truly unbelievable dichotomy of life that Zen Buddhism focuses upon, and while I am fascinated more by the products of this religion above all else, I continually forget the physical truth of existence of these seeming freaks of synthesis created by the unfathomable. Is Basho perfect? Ideal? Something to be thought of with a genuine smile?

Are you not yourself?

Our own tragic death, or worse, our own betrayals are all part of everyone's mutual enlightenment.

Tonight what Basho never said is much more interesting to me than what he ever did, and I don't even know the dude. This strikes my heart more than most of the things happening in my daily life. What strange creatures we are. I am growing weary of the puritanical crusades which alienate myself from those things in my life that are burning next to the fire, suffering from my neglect. And yet returning requires me to throw others in as much to perish: execution. The world is a burning fire of sacrifice. Some seek to extinguish the fire, but that said so plainly is just the same. It's all sacrifice. What's the difference?

A lot of you are martial artists, I bet you have a good idea ...

how about intent.

What kind of intent gets you through a technique?


Wow, I've already gone too far. That last string of words sends a chill down my back, as if conviction alone is enough to condone our activity. Obviously there are a lot of other factors involved like sensitivity and knowledge and compassion. But even with such enlightened characteristics, in the end, aren't we just following our conviction? If not, what is left?


Ha, I just can't see past two shades. You see what I have to deal with?

I've thought a lot, and not thought a lot, and this is what comes out. Maybe some good advice would be just to relax and live life. Fine, I'll go to sleep. But I'm probably going to think of this again.

Sensei tells me he's still learning, though he's never said this before. I still don't get it. My ignorance is so goddamn persistent, not unlike my oribobo wild boar figurine I have recently welcomed into my house. He stands there over his pile of gold, tusks and hair and all. No words will move him ...

but maybe a treat would? Some kind of" skillful means" perhaps ...

... a female maybe ... ?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thanks Dainin!

I have just finished reading Dainin Katagiri's book on zen called, "Each Moment is the Universe." In the second to the last chapter, I read an incredible passage that seems very relevant to me as I feel like I've been living in the Apocalypse lately. Maybe you will find it interesting as well.

"When I think of my life, I realize there are many things I haven't done yet. In Buddhism it is said that there are eighteen thousand scriptures. Can you read eighteen thousand scriptures in one lifetime? Well, I became a priest at the age of eighteen, but there are many scriptures I still haven't read. My mind says that I want to do it, but practically speaking, I don't do it. In my lifetime I cannot finish all the things I want to do.

No matter how long you life, you cannot satisfy all your desires. Your lifetime is not long enough. So I think you should have a next life. You should practice and study now but leave the unfinished job for your next life. In your next life you will see lots of unfinished jobs too. So carry them to your life after the next life. Then you feel relief. If you try to finish everything in this lifetime, you become nervous, irritated, and uneasy. I don't mean that you can be lazy. Of course you should study Buddhism and practice zazen, because you have to understand the human life that is going on forever, moment after moment, life after life."

Have you ever had a deadline that had to be met, and if you just had one extra week, it would make everything a lot more pleasant, relaxed, and allow you to make your product better? How about another lifetime? What about all of your goals and the anxiety you have in your life considering you may not achieve those goals? What if you had a whole nother life to carry these on? How about all of eternity?

One of my goals is to be fluent in Japanese. So how about I don't become fluent in this lifetime, but become a Japanese person in my next lifetime? Hooray! I did it! Instant fluency. But that's not what I want. Because then I would just be a normal Japanese person, and would probably want to learn English even more than I want to learn Japanese as an American. What I really want is to be fluent in Japanese right now! But that's not the case, so that's a pretty silly desire. I don't want to be fluent in Japanese just because I'm a Japanese person and any normal Japanese person can speak Japanese. I don't even want to be fluent in Japanese when I'm old, because that just means I spent so much fricken time practicing it and I'll just be an old Japanese-speaker. I want to be fluent in Japanese right now because that would be cool! But again, not the case. You know what's really cool? My situation right now striving to become fluent in Japanese as a goofy white dude and the experiences I have on this quest. But I don't really appreciate that very often.

Apparently the issue is not being fluent in Japanese, but something else much deeper ...

If some form of reincarnation does occur, I think it would be that "something else deeper" issue as opposed to the Japanese language concern. So when I die, if the above scenario of being born a Japanese person occurs, it wouldn't surprise me at all.

What would carry on through our lives? What would not? I think it would be the deep issues of concern or psychological tendencies that would carry on, but the specifics and details of our specific situations that would die off and change. Does this mean that our deeper issues are more important because they are the ones that last? Perhaps, but I can't help but think the opposite here: it is precisely those things that are fading, those things that we will never be able to experience again, which are so precious. I have all of eternity ... or more accurately ... as long as it fricken takes to get over the things we need to get over, so there's no need to worry about it happening. It either will or won't. Personally, I would like to get my head out of this dungeon of spiritual angst concerning the dragons that will chase me into my afterlife, and rather appreciate that I'm typing for this blog and I have plenty of time on this sunny day to get to work and do a great job because I want to be a good teacher and the students are young kids who want to have fun. Me making mistakes or one of the kids being a little punk are much less frustrating than they are the beautiful process of the universe ... but again, I don't appreciate this very often; I usually feel like saying really mean things to that kid and feeling bad because of my failings as a teacher and the ignorance of masses of the world who don't spend time trying to understand their lives through Zen Buddhism and Aikido, and how they rather throw bouncy balls at each other in the middle of class when they're supposed to say the target phrase of the day.

So thanks Dainin, for writing this piece in your book which helps me understand myself and the universe just a little better. The book by the way is one of my favorite books I've read about zen and recommend it to everybody, so check it out.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Beef with Taosim

Here is the newest edition to my developing abode. As I was walking to aikido one night, I passed a used antique-esque store and found this small-medium sized something which pulled me into a kind of vortex. I picked it up and paid the 500 yen convinced that I had just made a huge score with a small price. But it's more than just a decoration. From the moment I saw it, I've felt an extraordinary connection that borderlines some kind of idol worship. It's all unexplainable for me right now, but this wild boar figure and I will be going through this winter together. You could call him a kind of mascot, but that's too limiting.

My beef with Taosim is that it has way too many systems. "Huh?!" You shriek in utter amazement that such a phrase could be used to describe the philosophy that rejects the concept of systems altogether. I suppose I have confused myself as to what exactly I'm talking about again. Maybe I mean that the practices that rely on Taoist theory are too ... too something. Too much? Too complex? Well, that just makes me a whiner. An American baby who wants the satiation of my spiritual angst to be given in one free guaranteed swoop of comfort ... right now and forevermore.

I look to Taoism for inspiration, and so I read about traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, meditation, diet, and cosmology. It's damned interesting, but I continually find myself stuck in an idealistic philosophy where all of these must converge on the highest level in order to reap the benefits. What benefits? Perhaps this is my problem. Somewhere after I am motivated by interest, it becomes obsession, and there arises something that I want. Until I am a skilled practitioner in all of these fields considering Taosim, I feel I am a waste. Then I'm back in the mud with all of my peers who I subcionsciously seek to separate myself from. In some philosophies, we are advised to cultivate emptiness. From that void, what arises is our true character. Is this conglomeration of obsession and competition and need the true character of my spirit? Am I misreading the signs and texts? The result of this is fear. My exploration of Taoism often agitates this psychological tendency of mine.

Various interpretations of Buddhism will do the same for me as well; requiring high levels of purity and perfection and abstention in order to realize one's life. I just can't understand the "why"s and "how"s of it all anymore. It's like a glass palace in the sky. The fear of it shattering render me sterile.

Perhaps I'm too deep in the woods to see above the treeline.

And so I walk with my oribobo. (When I bought the small statue, one of the girls at aikido said I should call it oribobo. But then I showed it to my girlfriend and she said it was usually a name for something smaller and cuter. I mentioned the name again to the aikido girl, and she corrected me with the name, but I don't remember what it is. So, until I find out what I'm really supposed to call it, it will remain oribobo, a name I've gotten used to and find it quite fitting. Apologies to any Japanese proficient readers who recognize clearly my stupid gaijin mistake.)

I walk through the woods with my oribobo. Everyday we forage for food and search out adventure. It's a quiet companionship, but I like that. We have no home to return to, so it's always onward down the path, wherever we may find that weakest part in the grass which delineates our direction. Need is determined by necessity. Thoughts vanish quickly if the environment calls for attention. The next meal isn't worried over, because if we die, then we're just dead, and won't need to eat anyway.

I'm not sure about that crystalline palace in the sky, but I'm not going to try to look for it anymore. Maybe one day I'll see it again. Maybe the forest will burn down. Maybe I'll eventually find myself in the plains. But down here in the woods, it's just me and my oribobo.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Does it work?" Part II: Your system is weak and dying

The foliage here in Toyama is particularly lush. The rivers are particularly full. Things feel very thick. It is a complete ecosystem, full of everything it needs to expand and contract appropriately with the seasons. And yet, it doesn't have everything in the world. It is a "complete system" of the world, but it doesn't contain deserts, the highest mountains, tropical beaches, or elephants. How can it not have "every" phenomenon the planet has to offer, and yet be complete?

Many modern martial artists yearn to have a "complete" arsenal and understanding of the martial arts, so people idealize about being a grandmaster in literally every style ... mastering every technique known to man and nature. Surely this isn't just a modern trend, every martial artist has surely pondered this matter at some point. But in today's world we are provided the illusion that it is possible to do so. We can study the different styles and master different approaches; the kicking of tae kwon do, the softness of tai chi chuan, the striking of karate, boxing, groundfighting and grappling in bjj. Theoretically if we were to be black belts in each of these, we could have everything. We could have Mt. Everest right next to Costa Rican beaches with rainbows shooting up from 8 foot walls of powder snow, with lions and polar bears sitting next to each other drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ales.

That is strange. There are philosophies in the world that embrace the idea that we can be one and everything at the same time, but I think this is different. I don't want some freak of a zoo of martial techniques to convince me I can do everything.

I can't do everything.

Personally, I'm not so tall and have relatively short legs. I will never be nearly as "good of a kicker" as others better physically built for such activities and who have spent the time training so. But that's a farce of an idea anyway, because what defines "better kicking"? Perhaps I won't have the range or strength or speed of another, but if I have better timing, and my kicks hit when others' don't, then mine are "better" right? That's not specifically tae kwon do, or the "best style" of kicking, but it wins.

Nature is composed of seemingly separate but complete and interconnected self-sustaining systems. We can easily find a kind of perfection in this. Mankind's buildings and contraptions are different. Leave civilization be and it will deteriorate and eventually disappear into nature, which will keep thriving. Actually, I'm not so naieve as to push this analogy the whole way through, because there are holes. But the general point it is, there is a huge difference between "nature" and mankind's constructions, and the limitations of the latter are staggering in comparison ... in my opinion.

What are our martial art systems like? When we say that we want to have or embody a "complete" system, what do we mean? Do we mean being "masters" of every martial art ever mentioned, more like my analogy of Mt. Everest on a beach, or a complete system more like that of the wilderness of Toyama? Tai chi chuan can be considered a "complete" system, and yet it doesn't seem to have the same advantages as some other "complete systems", which in turn have aspects that tai chi chuan does better. To some extent, I would say that there are things we could call "complete" martial art systems that stand similar to the different ecosystems of the world. Each contains enough of everything to survive and flourish, and yet don't have "everything" in the world.

But we still run into a problem here; the issue of man's logical tweaking and design. This is lessened by the influence of many instead of one, a vast range of generations instead of one moment, and the employment of intuitive motion instead of purely calculated design ... and yet it's still limited, as a system. There are differences between one man who has practiced for a year in ten different styles and set up his "Rex-kwon-do" dojo in some stripmall, and a man who practices a style like tai chi chuan that has been developed for centuries in local traditions, but they still stink with a name. Our systems will always be in the realm of the design of name. As long as the system has a name, it has a limitation. As long as the system has a thought, it will die. Take humans out of the situation, systems don't exist.

Is it possible to be nature instead of a system? Can we be something even if we don't exist? Can we be ourselves, and yet be like a particular ecosystem, and thusly be complete? If there is thought, it is not it.

It's not just Mt. Everest and beaches, lions and polar bears, rainbows and snow. Perhaps we could trap all of these in our laboratory, everything science has ever tested ... and yet we will never ever know if we have it all ... because we are thusly limited by our thought and apparatus. It is an illusion. Our thoughts are illusions. They are dying pictures, and so are dead.

My body has limitations. My experience has limitations. I will die. And yet, I am everything; infinite and invincible. But I will die.


Why do I practice the martial arts?

To realize a relaxed spirit.

Why do I desire to have a relaxed spirit?

Because everything happens in that flow of relaxation, and the feeling is good.

When this is experienced, it doesn't need an explanation. It doesn't need blackbelts in every style. It doesn't need to be able to dominate everything physically. It doesn't need to be worshipped.

It just is.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Does it work?"

This is HUGE!

We spend all this time practicing martial arts - no wait - anything, any hobby! But I'm going to talk about this in the context of martial arts right now because it can be a particularly judgemental arena on such matters. SO! We spend all this time practicing martial arts; punching and kicking the air, throwing each other around, dressing up in strange clothing, paying large amounts of money, occupying our incredibley precious free time ... for what?! Well, many people do it because "it works."

What the hell does that mean?

Well, it means many different things, depending on what "it's" working for. Lets simplify and specify this a little more. Let's say the point of martial arts is to be martially proficient: fighting, defending yourself, or controlling others' bodies. If a technique works, then it's a good technique, and was worth spending the time to learn, practice, and ingrain. BUT HOW DO YOU KNOW IT WORKS!?!?!? Some people go out looking for fights to practice techniques, and however much I may negatively judge that approach because I wouldn't ever do it myself, you gotta admit that's a pretty good way to check if a technique works or not. But what about for the rest of us? Because you have your buddies give certain fake (no matter how well your friend simulates the attack, it is never the real thing without intent) attack, you think that's battle-testing it? I would never contemplate a defense against an attack if it came, #1 because I probably wouldn't have the time or peace of mind to do so, and #2, because my natural reaction, no matter how much it may violate the ideals of stances or balances, will do a better job because of my conviction and instincts rather than a contemplated technique.

Anyway, I think I'm getting a little off track. This whole question and realization actually started in the context of iaido. Just the other day I found an extremely interesting flier about iaido (the art of drawing the sword, generally) in Toyama. It actually looks like it's part of a big organization called, "International Batto-do Shizan Association Ryuseiken." (So if any of you have any stories or opinions on this, PLEASE let me know because I want to get as much information as I can in case I decide to join.) Anyway, I've always wanted to try iaido, and I've talked a lot with my aikido sensei about iaido because he happens to be a third degree blackbelt. He's practiced in Toyama, and maybe even with this particular group. I'm not sure, I'll ask soon. But the problem is, he says there are a lot of contradictions between iaido and aikido, and that it can really end up being a minus for each other to practice them both, at least in his experience. For example, do you swing a sword with your hips straight ahead or tilted at a 45 degree angle? This is really important if it's the most basic of concepts you're trying to incorporate into your body's subconcious reactions. Moreover, he mentioned that a lot of iaido schools are supported by kendo practitioners, who practice iaido to get a better sense of using a "real" sword in "real" situations, but that the iaido gets manipulated and changed to better serve the kendoka. This is a real turn off for me.

So I was thinking about practicing iaido, and judging for myself whether the techniques were good or not. Well, what's the criteria?

"Does it work?"

"DOES IT WORK?!?!?!"

What do you mean!? The "purpose" of using a sword is to cut and kill people ... I will never cut people!!! Never say never, I know ... but seriously, I'm way more likely to try and kill someone with a bad joke than a sword (you dead yet?).

Do you see where this is going?

If "working" iaido is the kind that enables me to cut someone in half with a traditional Japanese sword, that's a pretty fricken worthless skill isn't it? Or at least more worthless than learning how to kill people with jokes, which is a better technique based on the fact you spend less time around a traditional Japanese sword than you are able to tell a joke. Furthermore, for empty handed techniques, if the sole purpose of "working" emtpy handed martial arts is to be physically invincible, then I'd say you're spending way too much time on this task when you should just get a gun or ... oh my god, how about this ... how about you train your awareness so you can avoid danger before it engages you physically?

So, if you follow my logic, the purpose of practicing martial arts lies outside mere physical abilities in martial activities. I just watched an interview of Tim Cartmell  (a prominent figure in modern martial arts particularly in the arenas of TCMA and BJJ) provided by a certain dojo rat where he is asked various questions about his opinions on the martial arts, and guess what, the question of "why do we practice the martial arts" came up. His answer? Self-cultivation. A person can acquire in a pretty short amount of time a good enough arsenal to protect them in the majority of physical altercations. So why then, do so many people stay at it? There's something else. Tim Cartmell labels it "self cultivation". In a book I'm reading now about qigong, "The Way of Qigong: the Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing" written by Kenneth S. Cohen, there is a very memorable quote that states, "The purpose of practicing tai chi chuan is to have a relaxed spirit." A fairly simple idea, but how many people physically realize this? Lately, this has been the most recurring idea in my mind, and one that lies at the center of this issue.

In addition to the many wonderful physical benefits, a lot of which include martial phenomenon despite my peaceful agenda, the primary reason why I practice martial arts is to have a relaxed spirit. Self-cultivation is part of it, and actually, may be bigger than merely having a relaxed spirit, but for some reason that quote is too relevant to me right now. The number one reason why I put all this time and energy and thought into practicing martial arts is to have a relaxed spirit.

So now here comes the big question:

"Does it work?"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Toyama City

This is where I live: Toyama City. Since I won't be going to aikido nearly as much as I used to, I will probably be writing a lot more about this very strange and interesting place I live in. That being the case, perhaps an informal introduction to the place would be a good way to start.

There it is! Right exactly in the middle of it all. Well almost. Actually, I'm pretty sure the geographical center of Japan is located in the prefecture south of Toyama, Gifu. But anyway, Toyama belongs to that green region on the map which is usually called Chubu, central Japan.

Here's a little closer look at Chubu. To get a little more specific, Toyama belongs to the Hokuriku region which is comprised of the prefectures in central Japan that are located on the Sea of Japan. Starting from the left of the picture, Fukui, Ishikawa, Toyama, and Niigata (kind of a swing prefecture that is sometimes considered Hokuriku and sometimes not.)

Here's the prefecture itself. Homely don't you think? Enclosed by other prefectures except for one side which is the Toyama Bay. The blue line going from left to right is the main JR railway. Basically, to the south and east of it mountains rise like a giant wall cutting Toyama off from the other side of Japan. Though there is one train line that goes south right through the center of the prefecture and into Gifu towards Takayama and eventually reaching Nagoya. For two years I lived in Kurobe City, which is located at the top right section of the Toyama Bay just before the coastline starts running to the east. In Kurobe if you go to the beach, you're pointed west looking across the prefecture and the bottom of the Noto Penninsula of Ishikawa. Kurobe is a small to medium sized town located conveniently next to great access points to the mountains for biking, and close to Niigata prefecture for snowboarding. But now I have moved to Toyama City (which is usually just referred to as "Toyama", which I may do as well, please excuse the confusion), the capital of the prefecture located directly in the center of the map around the railways.

And here is my humble abode, an average size mansion (apartment) located on the 7th floor. No three tatami room palace like I had in Kurobe, but for Toyama it's a good setup. Other rooms in the complex face brick walls and are smaller in size. Mine at least is one the 7th floor providing an interesting view with a river famous for cherry blossoms just below. It's taken me a while to get used to it, but it's starting to feel like home. Except one thing ... the sinks stink. I've poured drain cleaner down them, have air fresheners, but it still lingers. I'm contemplating the next step ... recommendations for dealing with putrid drains would be GREATLY WELCOMED!

Ja JAA! My balcony view. That portion of the road you see is actually a bridge, and the greenery on either side are the cherry blossom trees that line the river below. If you follow this road to the left for a fifteen minute walk you'll arrive at the train station. This is a pretty ideal location for a bum gaijin with no car. At night you only hear the bugs and the wind; thanks Toyama for really not being that big of a city. However, from the morning on, the thundering blundering of the street car which runs on that street is heard every five minutes or so. Oh well. I'm trying to wake up earlier anway.

 Another benefit of my location is I'm right next to Toyama Castle. It doesn't have the fame of Osaka or Himeji, but it certainly adds to the charm of the city.

The funny thing about living in Toyama now, is that for the two years I lived in Kurobe I dismissed the city as the biggest waste of time and space in the prefecture. The proximity of the ocean and mountains offer some amazing things particular to Toyama Prefecture, but Toyama City? It seemed just a grey sprawl in the center of the prefecture. To live in the city, separated so from the natural wonders was inconceivable. And yet, here I live, right in the center of it. But you know what, it's better this way. I have a special affinity for western Toyama inaka country towns, and I actually do most of my work there, commuting to Kurobe and its neighboring towns of Uozu and Nyuzen three weeks out of the month. But for living? I have a lot more options and inspirations here in this strange city. Strange because of its seeming incongruities; a phenomenon that is applicable to Japan as a whole.

Anyway, I look forward to doing experiments in the city in order to more fully understand it's constitution and direction. Maybe you can learn more about it or your own home in the process as well.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Assaulting the Japanese Language

Perhaps the title was a little strong, (a product of more metal in the itunes playlist maybe) but it actually fits my mood concerning the issue pretty accurately. I majored in Japanese language at university, and have lived here in Japan for almost two years, but am continually appalled at how inadequately I can express myself and how far I still am from reading Japanese texts. Hands down and a round of applause to all those people who can just live in a country for a year or two and become fluent by just "picking it up", but that ain't me. If I'm going to become fluent in this language, it's going to take a well calculated mass conquering strategy operating on all fronts in all terrain. Time to move to the next stage of Gaijin's invasion of Japan!

I contemplated taking Japanese classes in order to give this aspiration some kind of tangible form, but that seems absolutley ridiculous to me. I have stacks of Japanese textbooks to study from and Japanese friends to consult with questions. Tens of thousands of dollars were already put into a college education, so throwing more money at the problem isn't the answer either. Besides, if I'm looking for a class to support my system of discipline, then I should take a better look at the two things which interest me most in the world: martial arts and zen. The core of these two entities are qualities of self-responsiblity and self-empowerment. I know that I can pack a lot more learning that is directly applicable to me in one hour of self study than going to a class for the same amount of time. If this is something I really want to do, then I can devote that bit of time everyday to it's cultivation. So anyway, I'm pretty well set on that.

One hour a day; three 20 minute sections.

Section 1: 20 minutes reading through old textbooks reviewing grammar. This is invaluable. After two years, I'm conversational, and I've internalized a lot of the nuances and casual phrases necessary for a flowing comfortable conversation, but I know I'm misusing a lot of the particles and grammatical structures, making me communicative, but extremely gaijin. As an English teacher, I can see a HUGE difference in those who can use the correct grammatical structure versus those who continue to speak their own strange internalized version of the language. Even the simplest grammatical structures, I still mix and match a bit, so it's time to clean that up. This is addressing the cognitive and critical side of my learning.

Section 2: 20 minutes memorizing and mimicking Japanese sentences. A set of textbooks I received while teaching with JET presents particular grammatical points and accompanies them with about ten different phrases, and so in this section of my learning, what I do is I read these and memorize each sentence until I can say each one five times in a row from memory. This is to incorporate the subconscious learning from repeating and mimicking. I do this all the time in daily life by listening to the Japanese spoken around me, but I really feel like I need it written in front of me to totally understand. Listening to Japanese has made me a great listener, but I really need to see this stuff. In my job we focus on tailoring lessons to different learning styles; simply, 1.) auditory, 2.) visual, and 3.) kinesthetic. We all have different ways we assimilate information and often times our preffered method is some combination of these. For me personally, I'm definitely a kinesthetic learner, which may be why I'm so inclined to the martial arts. Give me body movement with something I need to learn, and I'll get it quick. A lot of my language assimilation has happened in aikido because movements are always incorporated with movement. Next for me is visual. If I can see the language that's being used then I am way better off, which is probably why my weakest part is listening. Have you ever played that language game where you listen to a paragraph of what someone said and repeat as much as you can from memory? I am the worst; borderline handicap if you ask me. Just listening is not enough for me. So, in this method of practice, by reading and repeating various sentences, I am internalizing proper Japanese by reading, repeating, and hearing myself ... and as a kinesthetic learner I try to incorporate as much gesturing as possible. One interesting trick to this part is that I'm usually struggling by trying to practice a difficult or new grammar point, but the whole while, what's really being internalized are all those particles and simpler grammar forms that I know pretty well, but have yet to really ingrain in my subconscious.

Section 3: 20 minutes kanji writing practice. This is arguably the most frustrating part of the language. The Japanese uses three different alphabets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana is composed of forty six characters, and is relatively simple. Katakana is another forty six character alphabet, but very similar to hiragana. Learning these two is not too difficult. They are phonetic and can be memorized in a couple weeks. I did it a long time ago in the first term of Japanese class in college. But kanji are 1,945 Chinese characters that are used in Japanese language. This is what I'm struggling with. We studied this in college, but I never made much of an effort to seriously learning them, so it was largely a memorize and regurgitative process. Being in Japan I've gone through a couple phases of seriously studying kanji, which did help, but it's always been random and infrequent, so I've again forgotten a lot of what I've learned. And again, just being here and seeing it is just not enough ... for me at least. So, what I'm doing is going through kanji in a textbook I have, making flash cards, and practicing writing them down. I'm not really sure how good of a practice this is though. The problem is that I'm not directly relating it to any other aspect of the Japanese language, and am still going about it in a relatively random and chaotic manner. The good thing is I'm being exposed to a lot of kanji and processing them through writing, which is something I want. One can learn to read a lot faster than you can learn to write, but if you learn to write it ... you can write! That's what I want.

So, as briefly as I can explain it, that is the skeleton of my plan to conquer Japanese. But it's not enough. There are two more aspects that are necessary for it to fit my ideal of self-education.

First, which goes with the kanji practice, is reading manga (Japanese comic books). If I want to read Japanese, then I have to practice reading Japanese right? There are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of interesting manga out there, which I am more than enthusiastic about reading, and by reading manga, I can practice reading kanji as well as reading casual conversation through the dialogue. But I'm having some real trouble getting started. There are two different ways to go about this. Some manga, which are often more directed towards kids (which are still incredibly relevant and interesting to adults, a huge difference between Japanese and American comics and animation) have the hiragana characters for all of the kanji. With this, I can read everything and can look up the words I don't know in a dictionary. Two problems though, are going through paper dictionaries which take up a lot of space and time, and always looking at the hiragana translations instead of the kanji. The other option is reading books with only the kanji, which is more difficult, but in the long run will teach me kanji faster and more efficiently(?) The big problem with this, again, is the dictionary. It takes a lot longer, and requires a lot more energy to look up the kanji than regular words. So, in an attempt to have a casual time of enjoyably reading Japanese through the medium of manga, I'm spending my whole time leafing through giant dictionaries. I'm sure already some of you have already began to think of a solution while reading this entry, but the big answer to this problem of dictionaries can probably be found in technology. I've heard that for the Nintendo DS, they have a kanji dictionary where you can just begin writing the kanji in the correct stroke order and you'll get the word ... which would be a giant answer to my question. But do I really want to throw down the cash for a DS, one that will inevitably be a huge distraction for someone like me who has a natural affinity for video games? There are also loads of electronic dictionaries, but I haven't come into contact with one thats really good for processing the kanji. Another answer could be found in an iphone app. I'm not really sure about this, but there's got to be an app for looking up kanji right?

This is probably a fairly simple problem to fix. I could probably fork over the cash for either a DS, electronic dictionary, or an iphone and be on my way to faster language acquisition ... but it seems like a huge technological boundary for me. Maybe I need to just go cry about it for a minute, think about all the money I throw at beer, and just accept I need to upgrade this part of my life in technology and spend a little less money on those things that aren't so important.

OK, last issue with my Japanese invasion plan: review. In my study, I'm going through a lot of grammar structures, vocabularly, and kanji, and I love learning new things, but if I don't review, I'll lose it. This has been my biggest problem in studying Japanese from the beginning. I need to devote some time to this, but reviewing flash cards while on trains or waiting in lines has never worked. It just becomes a fat stack of something I always have to do sitting in my pocket wherever I go. So do I add another 20 minute section to my routine??? I think I max out at an hour of hardcore textbook, flash card learning a day.

I've been operating on this plan for about a month at maybe 70%, due to the fact I'm still getting acclimatized to my new life and schedule, but I'm already feeling the benefits. Perhaps the bugs will naturally work themselves out as I go along ... but that kind of thinking is not really what I'm going for. In this routine I'm setting up, I'm attempting to use my discipline and concsious cognitive workings at a maximum level. I want this language and I want it as soon as possible.

Once I get it, I will now longer be thrashing around in the water struggling to stay afloat, but will gracefully swim along, eventually by a boat, and be a pirate sailing gloriously across the Sea of Japan!

PLEASE post if you have any methods or recommendations for my studying of Japanese.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Zacky Chan Version 3.0

The mountains are my body,
the clouds are my thoughts.

 How's that for wisdom? When I took these pictures it was a real "Whooaaaaa ... duuuuddde." moment for me.

 I've been foibled by the blogging gods over and over again trying to put a first entry in over the past couple days, and so now you're getting a very very condensed version of what I imagined. Screw it, look at these interesting pictures I took on a week-long hiking trip from Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture to Kamikochi in Nagano, drink your preffered blog-reading-beverage, and read some ramblings about my recent transitions and thoughts on martial arts.

 First off, I have left my old job working as an assistant language teacher with the JET Program at Sakurai High School in mid-smalltown Kurobe to be a children's eikaiwa (English conversation school) teacher for Peppy's Kids Club in small city Toyama City. This means I moved from the rice paddies to the grey concrete blur to work for less pay and reduced vacations for a job that's 100x more challenging ... oh yeah, and I work nights so I get to go to aikido once a week maybe instead of three to four. But things couldn't be better!!! They also couldn't be worse. That's just the nature of existence, there is only the now, right?

But seriously, everything is just mountains and clouds.

 And here's my friend.

And his friend. They were cool and liked to drink beer. They saved me from realizing my week of "purity" and bought me a very expensive tallboy Asahi from one of the mountain huts.

 Anyway, everything is different now.

The old thoughts aren't interesting anymore, the don't make sense anymore, the images, the smells, my clothes even, it's all dead history.

The beautiful thing about the New, is that you can't really expect what it will be, and if it really is new, it will be accompanied by new feelings. This is really how you know something is new. It's that easy! You just do it! Right?

Well, not ... really. Our mind, the tool that it can be, categorizes and starts inserting all kinds of opinions on the matter ... which becomes more your habits and tendencies than that new experience itself. For example, your at a festival seeing something you've never seen before and it's great with all these new feelings, but then you start to think ... which is stupid ... "Oh, I know how to make this better" or "I know what this is" or you say some stupid joke that is half-relevant you heard but your friends probably haven't. If this occurs long enough without being checked, then you'll just have a long history of you masturbating all over these passed up new chances. And that's not all that cool.

There's got to be a better way.

Most likely, between the abstract polarities, you find yourself in your specific situation, which is amazing and completely independent and new in and of itself. So, let's get specific here. Concerning this blog, and myself, I will be writing about being an American living in Japan, because that's what I am, Zen and Taoism and mythology because that's what I'm interested in, teaching foreign language, because that's what I spend a lot of my time doing, and then of course, like a giant masterpiece standing in the center of my grand cathedral, exists ... martial arts ...

What an extremely difficult thing to describe.

 A lot of my time is spent on this topic of "martial arts", and I think that goes for a lot of readers here too. It is a beautiful kaleidescopic mandala we form together at "martial artists", with all different kinds of styles and beliefs and directions and histories ... including all our brothers and sisters in the past who punched the air and moved around through imaginary opponents and liked it. One of the particularly interesting things about the "martial arts" that I like to think about is the timelessness of it all. Someone centuries ago may have been doing these same movements and thinking these same things. In a way, we can excuse ourselves from the modern world by engaging in such activity, which is cool! But we do exist now, and are an integral part of the modern world of October 2011. In this respect, we have some very interesting trends in the "martial arts." (I hope the quotations aren't bugging  you, because I must persist until the end of this entry).

We have UFC cage fighting featuring mixed "martial artists", and people practicing "martial arts" who have never encountered violence in their life. The great disparity between "martial artists" leads us to one very big question:

 "What are the Martial Arts!"

And then we have the emergenceof the blogosphere, an electronic voice translated through 0's and 1's given to all with access to a computer with an internet connection.

So let's get talking!

Well, actually that might be enough for now. We certainly don't need to solve the Problem right here an now. Rather, let's discuss over months or years of snipits of discussion. We're so very far from the end anyway.

If I could make one last comment though ...

Recently, there has been great debate over what constitutes a "martial artist." A lot of the people I tend to side with, but don't totally agree with, accuse some of not embracing the "artist" side of the equation. For example, UFC fighters are only just that, and can not be considered "martial artists". But lately I've been looking at the other side of the phrase. I'm comfortable calling myself and artist in my practice ... but martial? Am I martial? Are you?

It's all just mountains and clouds ... and flowers.

I happily look forward to more conversations with you all. Thank you for reading.