Monday, July 25, 2011

Shunryu Suzuki's Aikido

"It is necessary for us to keep the constant way. Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged. This is not good. If possible, try to be always calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement. Usually we become busier and busier, day by day, year by year, especially in our modern world. If we revisit old, familiar places after a long time, we are astonished by the changes. It cannot be helped. But if we become interested in some excitement, or in our own change, we will become completely involved in our busy life, and we will be lost. But if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world even though you are in the midst of it. In the midst of noise and change, your mind will be quiet and stable.

Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiousity, and they only make themselves busier. If your practice makes you worse, it is ridiculous. I think that if you try to do zazen once a week, that will make you busy enough. Do not be too interested in Zen. When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest.

Just continue in your calm, ordinary practice and your character will be built up. If your mind is always busy there will be no time to build, and you will not be successful, particularly if you work too hard on it. Building character is like making bread - you have to mix it little by little, step by step, and moderate temperature is needed. You know yourself quite well, and you know how much temperature you need. You know exactly what you need. But if you get too excited, you will forget how much temperature is good for you, and you will lose your own way. This is very dangerous."

These are the words of Shunryu Suzuki (1905-1971), a Japanese Zen teacher who started the Zen Center in San Francisco. This quote is from the book, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" which was generated by a series of talks given to his students. To be honest, this isn't the exact quote I was looking for, but I think it suffices to reveal my thoughts on the topic: If Shunryu Suzuki was an aikido teacher, I think this is the kind of aikido he would preach. This is also what my own Sensei is always saying, without saying it. This is the kind of aikido I want to practice.

I think this is particularly interesting because to downplay enthusiasm for students of aikido, particularly those of young Americans, is to kill a lot of motivation. But is that motivation honest? Perhaps, but in my opinion it seems misguided.

"But Sensei, isn't the point of aikido to get better at aikido?"

"Not really."

"So our goal is to not get better at aikido."

"No, of course we want to get better at aikido. That is why we practice! But it is not why I practice aikido. "

This conversation has never happened just as I wrote it, but could just as easily be made between us on a Wednesday night when we drive to the Uozu dojo.

In my most arrogant of moods, I think anyone who really cares about aikido should be an uchi-deshi (live-in student) and practicing aikido for 8 hours everyday. How anyone would get paid or get food is not the kind of question that has room in such a maelstrom of ego. What would happen if I got sick or injured? Who would build houses? Who would give company to my parents? Maybe a more serious question would be, what if you lost insterest in aikido? You would be a fool, lost, sick, worthless!

"Zen is not something to get excited about" does not mean we should not be excited about what we practice, I think. Being excited about something is a wonderful side effect of the good things in life, but to let it be the leading factor in something important in our lives will leave us open to weakness when it is not there. In practicing aikido, aren't we trying to become stronger? More consistent? More independent? Then why is it so easy to become dependent on it? I get excited about aikido very often, but if I rely on that, at any moment I am not excited my aikido is dead and I am weak.

My sensei says, do not let your aikido interfere with your daily life. If you get sick or injured from aikido, then you can't go to work. If you come to aikido during your only free time, then you won't be spending it with your family and friends.

The Point (with a capital P, I want to emphasize) is not to get better at aikido. This is obvious to even those who have no experience with aikido, like Shunryu Suzuki (actually I don't know for sure if he never practiced aikido, but I'll take the chance for the sake of this discussion). Here is a quote from Stephen King on the matter of writing:

"It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around."

Every sentence of my life does not need to be accompanied by, "My name is gaijin and I practice aikido because I want to be the best in the world." No one needs to know that I practice aikido. No one needs to know it happens to be one of my favorite activities in the world. No one needs to know that it is the inspiration for a lot of my being. My aikido is revealed in every seamless aspect of my actions and non actions. I don't need aikido. I don't not need aikido. If I ever need to use my aikido, it is less my aikido and more myself. When I stare at the reality of confrontation, it is not aikido that is staring for me, it is my own eyes.

"Is Taiji Quan practice the reason for your longevity?"

"Not directly. Taiji Quan helps cultivate a relaxed spirit. Having a relaxed spirit is the secret of longevity."

-Interview with 105-year-old Taiji Quan master Wu Tu-Nan, from "the Way of Qigong."

The Point of practicing is not to get better at aikido. The Point of writing is not to get better at writing. The Point of practicing Taijiquan is not to find the secret to longevity.

There ... is ... no ... the Point,

I think.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In Search of Castles

Could I call my conscious return, which was made as quickly as possible to the last place I visited in the mountains, a kind of revenge? No. Just honest obsessive curiousity. There were too many unkown side roads branching off from that seemingly dead end I found last week. What I did last time was take a road straight in one direction to my goal and return just the same. This time I would knock out both sides of the curiousity by making a loop with Kitayama, the last destination, somewhere in the beginning half of the middle. Yes. That looked pretty good from my maps.

I started just before 12pm and had to account for aikido at 7:30. Ideally, I'd have time for a meal and hour onsen just before practice which left 5-6 hours of hard riding. Perfect considering a bit of a sleep-in and going to aikido. Yosh. At full speed I made the 45 minute ride to where I consider the real begin of the journey. That initial period of avoiding careless drivers on flat exposed land in the sun is almost unbearable. Actually, "careless drivers" does not accurately describe the situation at all. I hate to borrow a cliche from the American masses, but the asian female drivers here are a natural wonder. It's unbelievable how many near-accidents happen here compared to the actual accidents. It's like people are constantly bracing for the collision or taking full advantage of it's seeming non-presence.

There's a sign that I'm headed in the right direction. You see what I'm seeing going on on the right side of that house? At the top there's a chimney fueled by stacks of wood on the second porch as well as on the base level. Who knows how much they got stowed out back in another shed and indoors as will. Whoever owns this is the coolest Japanese I've never met. The winters here are so harsh, a fire place would change everything for the better. I know Japan has a bad history with fires, and for everyone in the country to use firewood every winter would easily rob the whole forested country of its green ... but I still want a fireplace more than anything. Communism would not work here, at least for gaijin. There is not enough space or resources in this country for everyone to enjoy everything to its fullest, and yet one person can do it very easily. That violates a lot of morals in my head, and yet my only material dream for the future is having a fireplace to fill every winter and that will happen no matter what. I guess I probably won't be in Japan forever then.

The journey beckons. This picture was taken at the top of the giant hill which I pushed my bike up for what felt like two hours. However, I had left my apartment only and hour and a half earlier, and spent 45 minutes getting to the point where I could start pushing my bike ... so something isn't adding up here. Apparently, I spent about 45 of those minutes leaking sweat pushing my bike up the hill. I was feeling especially good this day, and despite my own personal gauge, I was making incredible time. At the time of this picture, I had completed the first side of the loop and made it to Kitayama, the town I had visited before. In fact, the first sight I had of the town was the abandoned building which was the focus of my last journey and post in this blog. I felt like I had visited a new friend, like a charming acquaintance I met by chance at the bar last Tuesday. I laughed and took a generous amount of water from the spring located conveniently on the side of the road. I marvelled at the wonderful views of the ocean below as well as my good time, and yet it was a good sign I would be going much further than I expected today. There are no easy ways out when you're fueled by genuine curiousity.

As soon as I descended through the town and found that side road which begged my curiousity a week earlier, the partly blue skies of blaring heat became darkeningly grey and thunderous. At that very time, there was a barbecue happening on a beach with my friends, and I remember them saying that it would be in the early afternoon because of such changes in the weather. Oh yeah, it still very much is the rainy season. For better or for worse that's really not something that passes through my head on a free sunny morning. Well, it's not like I'm going to turn back. What's the worst that could happen? I get sick from being stuck in the rain? What's up with that belief anyway? It's not like I would be cold. Through the rain I still sweat through all my pours in this temperature. In fact, how would it be any different than me swimming in the ocean? Thunder and lightning are another factor though. I should probably research riding bikes in lightning storms since it seems to come up often in my line of fun.

Here's me before any lightning strikes. I imagine there may be some mystique to remaining anonymous on the blog, so many stories and yet not a trace of the protagonist, but being personal is a lot more fun I think, so here I am. A gaijin about a third of the way around the globe from where he calls home. Funny enough, only a couple hundred years earlier, all of my ancestors were probably just as far away in an equally different kind of place. Since a long time ago it seemed irrelevant to talk about "homelands" and such, maybe seeing too many red-headed Americans touting "Kiss Me I'm Irish" shirts on St. Patty's ... and yet I feel some kind of connection with Northern Europe through my ancestors, and will damn well say any day that Orcas Island, Washington is my home. Funny how we can find some solid ground in the existential void.

"You should never use strength against strength, but sometimes you need to."

My goal at the beginning of the trip was: Make it back to Kitayama by a side road and go down the mysterious path I had found before. From there, try and get to something-something-dam while bypassing old castle ruins. I made it to Kitayama and down the mysterious path, so anything from here on out was part of the fluffy plan which I didn't really expect to follow anyway. However, those castles are an interesting bit, and what would guide me to the end of my journey. The town I was directly inland from, and technically within, was Uozu, the neighboring town just south of Kurobe. Japan is the best in the game at giving individual towns individual icons, and Uozu was famous for castles ... though there wasn't a single castle in the entire area. It reminded me of when I was driving through a town called Kamiichi elsewhere in Toyama. I was with one of my English teachers, and I noticed that on each of the signs for Kamiichi, there were pictures of the ferocious Buddhist icon (Fudou Myou). I asked him what was up with the signs and what may be famous about the town, and he replied that he had no idea. It shocked me at the time, but now it doesn't at all. Precisely because there IS something to be famous about in the town: a temple in the mountains where monks sit under dragon-carved-stone-waterfalls in the deepest colds of winter. But he had no idea. Anyway, on all of the signs for Uozu, there were drawn pictures of castles, and Uozu is known as a castle town ... and yet there are no castles. Any resident of the area will confirm that Uozo is the "town of castles", but couldn't tell you anymore. On a slightly disappointing bike trip a year earlier, I followed the signs in Uozu to the two different castle ruins that were labeled on signs. One brought me to the town of Kitayama which I had passed through, but no castles were ever found. The other I did find, but was nothing but a small wooden park structure and one of those cardboard foldouts of a samurai with the head cut out for a picture. It seemed that the ruins were in fact just the places themselves on top of hills were castles used to be. I reasoned that by following their trail some of the mystery may reveal itself to me on a second try. So, onward. Maybe castles, maybe something else, definitely sweating on my bike.

The thunder clouds began to produce rain as I emerged from the forest and found the giant image which is in the picture above. A giant goat with the square, circle, and triangle symbols often used in aikido. (OK, the geometric figures are commonly used outside of aikido, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.) The rain increased while I climbed higher up the hill following the signs for castle ruins. I thought little more of the giant goat until I saw small wooden signs for "Goat Woods" and "Goat Farm". Then likely enough, I found goats. I found a small center with some information packets explaining that oftentimes there are small camps and schooltrips for kids to come and learn about farming, and goats.

I took this moment to rest from the rain and stare at the goats. I thought about how heavy my bag would become if the aikido gi (outfit used to train in aikido) that was in my bag got soaking wet. That's not a pleasant thought. Lately when I've ridden to aikido on my bike with my gi, the pack is an average weight, but when I come back my bag feels like it weighs 20 pounds extra from the amount of my sweat that been soaked up by the gi. When I come home and dump my gi into my washing machine straight from the bag, it falls in with a thunder and I worry if it will ever drop through the floor. (Funny story, last time I just empty my bag into the wash, my aikido notes snuck in as well. They were thoroughly washed, emerging half illegible, and half torn to thousands of tiny pieces that acted like paper mache all over my clothes and kitchen. I'll be sure to give my gi another few good shakings before I put it on tonight.)

In addition to signs for castles, there were some other kanji that kept showing up on signs for something important, and whatever it was was somewhere near. I pushed my bike up through what diminished to a sprinkle in the woods, and came upon this particular site. Whatever it was, it was accompanied by a giant stone plaque and an entrance way into some woods off the side of the road. It didn't look like castle ruins, and it didn't look like a gravesite. I walked into the woods and found ... nothing really at all. It was kind of an overgrown grassy clearing. There were also a large amount of extremely thick bamboo growing everywhere between the trees.

There was an abandoned looking building to the left (to the right in the picture). Nothing special really. Didn't look like much more than a storage shed. Doors were locked. Things felt a little spooky, kind of like the abandoned "hotel" I found a week earlier. Perhaps another sign of past financial prosperity in Japan. I walked away from it. But then I noticed a very interesting design around one of the windows and a small symbol of sorts over it. I couldn't get a very good picture of it, but it was certainly more ornamental than what you usually see on a shack in the woods. This really reminded me of some hippy psychic shack I'd find in the woods in my hometown. Maybe this was an energy "powerspot" of sorts, or a vortex. There plenty of Japanese around here that would be into that. Taken that into account, I myself deemed this a special spot for something, and decided I would bless it by practicing my tai chi chuan form; something that I do when I find extraordinary places from time to time. A lot of the times when I run through the form I'm very concerned and occupied by what goes on inside of my body, but isn't the purpose of such arts to eventually be better in touch with your surroundings? I began having great revelations about the beauty of emptiness in tai chi chuan. That ideally, I want to be empty in my tai chi chuan in order to feel what is actually happening on the outside, free from my illusory judgements. I began to move through the form at an extremely slow pace investigating the area with all of my sensitive intuition. What kind of place was this?

I quickly found that it was a place full of mosquitoes.

Less than 60 seconds after starting my form I resorted to swatting furiously around my head and exposed legs and raced to my bike to continue my journey towards the castles.

The proper signs revealed themselves to me and I was drawing nearer to the castle ruins I have never visited before, Kusunaguma Castle Ruins. I expected nothing, to be honest, and really just wanted to find some downhill slopes again. I arrived at a small village and explored some of the small roads extending from it. Most became dead ends at houses. One I followed down opened up to a wide expanse of rice fields. Again I pondered the presence of these which were so far removed in the hills. Below is a picture of one of the houses and farming storage units that are common in these places. I fantasized about being a kid and coming here for weekend visits in the summer. Or maybe being stuck in a snow storm in a house like this.

Apparently this town was home to the infamous Kusunaguma Castle Ruins, and this is what I found ...

SOMETHING! The building on the right acted as a small information center, and on the left were stairs leading up to a shrine. The information center was tidy with tables and a TV, and then two unplugged refrigerators with beer! Deucers of Kirin! How could I take them though? I have to be honest, it was tempting. The refrigerators were unplugged. It's not like anybody was going to drink them soon, I thought. A calendar inside was flipped to May of this year. I wasn't able to get much information from this information center, and assumed the grand attraction was the shrine next door. I have noticed in Japan, that the more stairs there are leading up to a shrine.

It is actually quite timely that I embarked on my castle adventure at this time. A week earlier at the Sakurai High School enkai drinking party, I finally got to chat with one of the teachers who is also a zen buddhist priest. He has the clean shaved head, but like my aikido sensei, he isn't what you would maybe expect of a priest at first glance. Nevertheless, and extremely interesting guy. Anyway, I got to talking with him and asked him if he practiced zazen, the zen practice of seated meditation. He said, sometimes. As I asked him more esoteric questions about zen, he directed me to more relevant matters concerning his buddhist status. Mostly, I think he said, his job is to take care of the temple which has been in his family for many hundreds of years. He said that his temple was crucial during the Sengoku Era (Warring States Period) in the mid 1500's. At that time, the Maeda clan was in control of the areas now called Ishikawa Prefecture (neighboring prefecture to the west containing the famous city of Kanazawa) and Toyama Prefecture. To the north in Niigata, was a powerful warlord named Uesugi Kenshin who was trying to expand his area south into Toyama. Kurobe, being a city in eastern Toyama made it a bit of an outpost against invasion, and apparently many soldiers lived in my teacher's temple. The lord Maeda would use these temples as bases and would compensate the priests and communities in gold and protection. The teacher then said his temple was a "castle" in Japanese, oshiro. I was really confused because when you say Japanese castle, I have a grand image of the giant castles you find in large cities in Japan, but I know his temple is nothing of the sort. It seems I have come across another mistake in generalizing about certain Japanese words. Maybe the term "oshiro can also be used for temples which housed soldiers as well. It also reveals how religion in Japan has been utilized by society and politics throughout its history. Temples have often been sites of military and political struggle throughout Japanese history. Perhaps, this "castle" of Kosunaguma was similar to my teacher's temple/castle.

I climbed the stairs to find a fairly normal looking temple, but instead of disappointment, I was filled with historical curiousity.

Well, on to the next castle, whatever it may be. Luckily there was a lot of downhill and no rain. After about 20 minutes I made it to the next castle, Matsukura Castle, which I had visited a year before.

At a fork in the road just before the castle, I happened upon my first forest friend of the trip, and of a kind I haven't seen in a while.

Kamoshika! Defined as a goat-antelope called a serow. I'm not sure how prevalent they are around the rest of Japan, but there's quite a lot in Toyama, and I think that's rare. Aside from monkeys, these are the second most frequent animals I see in the mountains. This is just the kind place I would expect to see one. This one was very strange though, standing on the side of the road. I saw him coming from a ways off and stopped to take a picture. It was dead frozen. I waited for a bit just hanging out with it from a distance, but it didn't budge at all. When I continued down the hill in it's direction he remained the same. I went down the other road from the fork, keeping us about 20 meters apart, but he just watched me. I thought this was really weird. It certainly didn't look like it was standing its ground in defense, but it also didn't look frozen with fear. It seemed like it was just watching me like I was watching it and completely forgot what it was doing. Maybe I have some deep connection with kamoshika, I like them better than the stinky thieving monkeys.

I thought it strange and looked back periodically to the frozen kamoshika, who remained frozen, while I rode up to the ruins just up the other side of the hill. I think this is the more "popular" of the two main castle ruins, and has been turned into a park with grass lawns and some monkey bars (that maybe the monkeys use???). There's an interesting wooden tower platform which was roped off and climbed by me. Further down there was a covered area, and if I remember right, there's a cheesy life-size wooden samurai figure with the face cut out so you could pose with it and take a picture. This seemed like a cruel joke a year earlier when I anticipated a great mysterious castle and found this campy display instead. It made me laugh now, and I didn't even bother to make the 50 yard walk to find out if my memory was right.

The road continued past the castle ruins, which made two potential ways further into the mystery of the mountains, but which one should I take? Going in opposite directions they'd surely take me to two very different places. Ah-ha! A map! There was a convenient looking illustrated map just behind me I bounded to for a look. It indicated exactly where I had been wanting to go ... but I couldn't for the life of me figure out which of the roads it was indicating. I don't know how many times I've found myself in this situation. Slightly lost and provided with a giant public map, but still having no idea how to get where I want. Well, actually I had two ideas, but they led in complete opposite directions along those roads. I wonder what's more to blame, my sense of direction or Japanese maps. Well, I gathered one road took me back to Kitayama from where I had came, though the road I thought it indicated was in the opposited direction from which I came. The other road, would lead me up to further mountains, but seemed like it would head in the valleys.

I looked back to find the kamoshika in exactly the same position it had been when I first saw it.

I gave up on the map and made an intuitive guess to follow the road that the map seemed to show going to Kitayama. What initially went up, turned to down quickly. I followed it a bit further, and saw it curling back to where Kitayama could be and continue down for a long while. This was definitely not the road I want. I pushed the bike back up the hill back to the castle ruins. The kamoshika had made it across the road where it was slowly grazing. At the time I was thoroughly convinced he was there to signal the way. I began my descent with great speed in order to power me up the hill across the way where the kamoshika was standing. I rang my bike bell so as not to scare the animal, and he very slowly crawled up the hill to the left while watching me, seemingly without fear or need of defense. I waved goodbye to him and headed on my way.

According the pictures on the map, I was going to ascend a bit so that I could follow a ridge of about 4 different peaks, and then eventually descend to the river I planned to return along. I pushed my bike for a while through winding uphill roads. I realized how long it had been since I ate and fantasized about a beer and plate of chahan (fried rice). The whole day had gone faster than I felt, and so I was still making very good time. Remember, I was still trying to make it to aikido later. Two weeks earlier I had the same plan after my Kareisawa trip, and showed up to aikido just in time after I crammed a plate of chahan in my stomach. So I was in class happily, but dehydrated, stinking, and with a stomach ache. This time I thought I could plan so I would get down back to civilization early enough to gorge on a huge meal with a beer and get clean and rested in onsen before I went to the dojo. But I still had further to go.

I got to the first of the four peaks indicated on the map, and found a small wooden sign on the side of the road that pointed towards an overgrown path in the woods. I contemplated just continuing along the road without stopping, but then settled to go on foot. First there were wooden steps, and for some reason I felt a burst of energy and started bounding up the steps in a run. Combined memories of running up "the Hill" in football practice as a boy and feelings of adventure exploring mysterious worlds in Zelda video games came together in some kind of amazing synergy, and this caused a huge smile with my tongue hanging out in the wind and sweat. I got to the top and found a slightly flattened and cleared area. It looked like a prime spot for a campground, but there was essentially nothing there. I ran to the second peak in the same fashion which didn't require me getting on my bike. I was taking the overgrown wooden stairs two at a time on my upward bound to find a larger but similarly cleared area. Perhaps this one was used as a campsite sometimes. There were many trees in the way, but I was able to find a spectacular view of the mountains behind.

Ahhhh, absolutley amazing to look one way and find the small world of civilized human life in the towns, and look back the other to see snow capped moutains and wilderness forever. I think the mountain in this picture is Dainichi. I could also pick out a taller mountain whose summit was covered in clouds. I recognized its jagged peaks and new instantly what it was: Tsurugi-Dake! AKA Sword Mountain. AKA Hell Mountain. A mountain I had climbed almost exactly a year before with my brother. If the kamoshika is my spirit animal, then Tsurugi is my mountain. Everytime I get into the mountains, it is Tsurugi that somehow catches my glance and I pick it out right away, though it is usually less than obvious. It reminds me of when I climbed Shirouma-Dake and looked out across the mountainscape at sunrise. I was standing next to a guy who looked like a very experienced hiker, and pointed to a mountain asking him if it was Tsurugi. He said, nope, it was something something something mountain instead. I believed him at first, but for hours as the day went on I became absolutley 100% sure it was Tsurugi. He was full of shit. I wonder if he doubted himself when he told me. Well, I was 95% sure that that mountain hidden by clouds I saw on that bike trip was in fact Tsurugi. I had great feelings welling inside of me.

I continued down to resaddle the mamachari, and barely stopped at the next path up as I parked my bike and resumed my savage pace. A higher more expansive hilltop revealed itself, and continued to what would be the forth and final peak.

After all this wandering in what I thought were unknown mountains, I found information!

Sweet wonderful informational boards and maps! I couldn't read the Japanese on any of them, but began investigating them with all of my curiousity. On this map, I was at the top of the farthest right point on the ridge in the back. On the flat plains next to the ocean are where the main towns are located, and you can see where rivers cut inland, which are my usual gateways to the mountains. I'd say where I was was maybe the 2nd of 5 tiers that go up to the highest peaks. On bike rides like these, I usually don't get quite as high as this.

The Japanese on such informational boards and maps is particularly difficult to read because of the amount of kanji, perhaps to give it an educated and sophisticated touch. I don't appreciate it much, but it's the main reason why I want to learn Japanese. Anyway, on this map were many tiny little colored dots indicating specific locations of import. At the top of the list were the two castle ruins of Matsukura and Kusunaguma, but then there were a list of about ten other locations, with the suffix of "castle"!!! What? The four peaks I had just visited were also noted as "castles". I felt as though while I stood there in front of the map on top of the mountain, a huge curtain of Japanese confusion was pulled aside to reveal Truth! I believe these were not castles like those most famous in Japan, but were large temples that acted as castles during the battles between Maeda and Kenshin! (Despite the cartoony castle image you see on all the signs in town in Uozu, tricky bastards.) Also, this place was known as "Castle Town", not just because of one or two of them, but because there were upwards of ten or twenty of them! Being on top of this ridge, it was an epic feeling to imagine myself 500 years ago standing here surrounded by castles and soldiers.

And nobody knows about this place. What amazing and mysterious history there is laying in the hills underneath the ground, but the hive down below could care less. Less than a few kilometers away, convenience stores by the hundreds were being filled with the exact same products as you could find anywhere in Japan, and I was standing upon Toyama history. It was a long time ago I stopped looking down condescendingly on Japanese for their lack of knowledge of local history. It's just a fact of life here. People are too busy working, studying, shopping. WAY too busy. When I first started finding such places, I would tell my coworkers and students at school and they would marvel at my enthusiasm for such adventures. But after months of telling such stories every weekend, it was no longer interesting, and rather frustrating to others.

I would show up to school on Monday morning and begin class by telling the students I went on a great bike trip to find interesting places in the mountains.

"Has anybody heard of this place before?"

Nothing but blank stares focused on my sunburnt face and blonde hair, from which a mouth was spewing this strange barbaric language; one they have studied for maybe 5 years now, but the shock of hearing it in real life seems too much for them when it can't be checked in a textbook or immediately translated into Japanese by the teacher.

"Well, what did you do this weekend?" I pointed at a particular student in the front row. They become immediately flushed with red and point at their own nose trying to confirm whether it was them I was asking.

"Yes, you. What did you do this weekend?"


"Test?! You had tests on Saturday?"

Confirming nod.

"What about Sunday, what did you do Sunday?"



I looked at the teacher who said, "Zac-san, didn't you know they had tests all weekend?"

I looked back at the class. Half of the students had their heads down and hair covering their face to conceal sleeping in class. A quarter of the class were picking at their hands or spinning their pencils. The other quarter were staring at me as intently as their tired eyes could. I wonder how many knew what we were talking about. I felt horrible as I handed out a worksheet for them.

"Here is a ... special ... uhhh ... very fun English assignment I have for you! Yaaaaay!" I had a huge sincere but forced smile on my face, hoping that it might cause a chain reaction with some of the students.

On the mountain I went to a small shrine at the highest point I could find and made a few claps and bows in accordance with Shinto tradition. Then it was time to descend and find food and onsen.

I'm not sure when it was that the switch happened, but somewhere along the past two years, the return trips from my mountain voyages have become extremely conflicted. Sunsets and downhill cruises are undeniable pleasures, and yet returning back to society brings a lot of ill feelings. I'm not talking about some generalized battle or discontent with society. I'm talking about more specific and indirect thoughts. I miss Jolene incredibly much. What have I sacrificed to be here? I miss friends who have big beards, wear carharts, and drink large amounts of dark beer. I think about the hakama (dress-like garb that goes with a blackbelt in aikido) that I dream about so often. Either I marvel at staying here for 10+ years, becoming an uchi-deshi and a high ranking aikidoka, to return home as a teacher fulfilling what may be the clearest semblance of a goal. Or I become frustrated with the dreams that cage so many years of my future and just want to give it up and travel somewhere new. I just want a double blue cheese bacon burger.

I have no idea what's happening to me.

At least in the form of abstractions. I only know I'm on a bike, and making incredible time to eat a big meal, have an hour for onsen, and go to aikido. This aikido is not the aikido fantasize about, with all its epic quests of slaying dragons. This is the aikido I do, with real people that make me happy. There is a big difference between these two.

There's something going on between living my daily routine in Japan, riding my chari to the mountains, and practicing aikido. I don't know what it is, but there is some unnameable force linking them all together for some collective experience of something.

I don't know exactly what it is. It's definitely not my daily life, aikido, biking, or writing, but something more interesting.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hauntings in the Mountains

This was the first sign that notified me that I had begun to tread on haunted ground. I didn't see any ghosts or things moving against the normal laws of time and space, but this place was weird. I assume she acted as a sort of scarecrow, but it doubled as a scaregaijin.

Here's another view with her friend over there on the left in purple. If I could, I would love to meet their maker, but maybe in a voyeuristic kind of way. I'm not sure I'd want to talk to her right away, but see what kind of person put together this manakin for the crows. Across the road from these frightful broads was another scarecrow of sorts, but was just clothes on a cross with a large farm hat. From it I could hear nonstop chatter. I quickly realized it was a radio blaring; the only sound in this strange mountain town. I looked to find someone around working who may be listening (seems like a pretty normal thing to expect right?), but I didn't find anyone. I wonder how such a poor farmer can afford such battery use.

And the abandoned granny wagon on the side of the road? How far could someone who needs this kind of transport gone on their own?! Have you reader's ever heard of Tengu? In Japanese folklore they are a kind of half-crow, half-human goblin responsible for various kinds of mischief. I've only read about them in books until now.

But before I move on to the really strange stuff, I'll give you a little background information for this particular trip into the mountains on my mamachari. It was a Sunday morning I awoke to my summer ritual of a fried egg, english muffins with blueberry jam, and a little too much coffee. Oh yeah, and a slightly more than slight hangover this time. The night before was my last enkai, Japanese work party, which are famous for heavy drinking for those willing to go to afterparty after afterparty. Because it was my last one, I made a big speech which I did pretty well with (excellent planning, poor practice, and extremely nervous upon delivery), I talked with a lot of other teachers, and went to a few afterparties with the usuals. I think I'm much closer with my coworkers at Sakurai High School than most other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). This is probably because I only go to one school whereas many others often go between 5 or 10 different ones a week. Also, I speak Japanese enough to make conversation, and so I do so daily with the various teachers at my school. Furthermore, I don't mind having the same conversations over and over and over and over again that come up in such enkai scenarios; as long as I can drink and make the other party laugh in the end. If there's no drinking and no laughing, my face gets sore from fake smiling so much and I want to drink way more than I know I should ... that situation happens often in my line of work/life here in Japan.

So, I felt as though I did as much beer imbibing and socializing that a weekend needs and was just writhing to get on my bike and into the mountains. Funny thing is, there was an annual beer festival in Toyama City where small breweries from all over Japan come to Toyama for a big party. The fact I passed this up means I really wanted to be on my bike and away from people. This is kind of like school teachers who are forced to become crabby and bossy when kids drive them crazy at work; maybe they're not like that naturally, but because of their circumstances, they become so. I feel as though I'm a pretty social and extroverted kind of guy, but because I'm constantly around people in social situations that are not fitting to my ideals, I'm constantly finding myself escaping more such events. Perhaps this makes me anti-social. Maybe other people should find more interesting things to do. All I know, is that at the time, being stuck in transit and paying large amounts of money to drink beer while I already had a hangover and have to make conversation with people known and unknown alike made me feel like I'd really hate Monday when it came along. Therefore, I was off.

This brings me to an important tangent about enduring harsh weather and hangovers. Both are quite separate, but first, by far the best way to deal with harsh weather is to get out in it. Lately it's been the rainy season, and so it's in the low 90's, incredibly humid, and it usually breaks out into raging thunderstorms at least once a day in the middle of sunny weather. If I spend all day under air conditioners and fans, my skin and feeling gets all screwy and I hate it. Moreover, when you finally get out into the heat, it's just unbearable because you could just as easily be under the air conditioner which you've grown accustomed to all day, all season long. And you know what? I really don't mind the heat, which sounds weird when I hear myself say that, because usually I prefer colder to hotter temperatures. But seriously, I could care less if I'm sweaty and stinking. I only care because it is uncomfortable for other people if I'm teaching at school or getting together with friends. I'll sit and write on my blog in my apartment and lose track of things in the world and look down at my arms to realize I have more beads of sweat than an elephant in the oven. I don't care! I'll drink water. When I'm on my bike, I'm either not around people, or people are already staring at me because I'm white, so what does the sweaty factor matter? It just adds to my general freakness here in Japanland. Anyway, the same works for snow and rain. Weather only sucks if it keeps you from doing what you want. So you should just do what you want in whatever weather is happening, and if it's really what you want, the weather won't matter. This little conversation has gone differently than I thought, I wonder if you learned anything. Oh yeah, hangovers: if I can manage to get out of bed then I can completley forget about the hangover when I'm leaking sweat in the sun towards the mountains.

My goal for this particular bike trip was a place called "Kitayama", which literally means "north mountain". It's really not that far north and niether a particularly high mountain. One of my maps said there was an onsen there, and it looked a bit far, which were both good enough reasons to get me excited while I stared at them with my coffee cup in hand in my "living room", which has tatami mats and isn't really like what most people would think of as a living room. So I'll call it my "living tatami room". To skip all the little details of things I saw and get on to the weird stuff, I went looking for an onsen I didn't find, and instead found myself in the same place I did almost exactly a year ago in an equally disappointing trip where I was so close to what I was looking for but didn't find. After the initial feelings of failure, I decided to follow the road further up, and found this strange town of Kitayama. It was all rice fields and farm houses ... except ...


I first saw this unfitting gigantic building from the bottom of town and I was pretty excited to make the rest of my trip downhill. However, I was just mesmerized by the oddity of this building. I thought maybe it was some kind of community center, maybe a hospital? Maybe it would even be an onsen. Many of the nicest onsen are actually in hotels that look pretty bare or even shoddy from the outside. I decided to give it one look before I go down because I was pretty sure I'd never be here again.

As I got closer, I noticed graffiti on the walls and a lot of broken windows. Also, a wall of shrubs grow around the perimeter save a long sheet metal barrier. I rode my bike beyond it to higher ground, like a wolf circling some strange corpse to extend the time of distant investigation.

This place was really tagged up. I couldn't see a single intact window, and any space along the inside looked like it was covered in graffiti. I looked down on the sleepy farming village, and then back to this giant decrepit builidng ... it didn't make sense. From my perch I looked for an entrance and then descended upon the mystery.

I went back to that sheet metal wall, and parked my bike conspicuously across the street. I found a space that was slightly ajar, just wide enough for some punk high schooler with a bag of contraband to get through, which fit me just fine. I walked through for twenty meters through overgrown grass and came to the entrance of the building. A part of me synched right back into a mode of exploration I honed growing up in my forested island hometown. Investigating abandoned buildings alone or with friends always began by rustling through head high brush and grass. The outside had been completely razed by bats (of the swinging smashing sort) and spray paint. There was no real door inside on the bottom level. I could have taken the rusting metal staircase that went along the outside, but I went for the midget-sized cutting in the side of the building which seemed to function as the main entrance for whoever it was that had been here last.

Ever since my plan to find onsen was foiled earlier, all I heard in my mind was "I don't know anything. It's OK if you don't know anything, it's if you do know that you get in trouble." This conversation echoed from the last car conversation to "strange" aikido earlier in the week. Sensei got on the topic of how to get good at aikido, and the concept of time came up ... practicing aikido 3 times a week for 5 years is better than practicing aikido 5 days a week for a year. "But what about practicing 5 days a week for 5 years, Sensei?" I wanted to ask, but for some reason I held back. Anyway, both of those scenarios are better than practicing once or maybe twice a week ... that is way too slow for my liking, however, it is my near future hear. At least for the next year, my aikido training will most definitely be cut down to one, maybe two if I'm lucky, training sessions a week. I told Sensei, "I'm very worried." There was dead silence for about 5 seconds, and then I said something else. I wish I hadn't have said it. I was begging for some kind of fatherly reassurance. "Don't worry, Zac, you'll be good no matter what." Or "Well, maybe I can fit in another practice or two for you sometime." But there was nothing but the dead silent reality of a question with no answer: "How am I going to get better at aikido?" I really wish I hadn't said it, and I understand at least on some surface functional level, that it's way better for me to smile and say no problem than to worry about this ... for so many different reasons.

Where was that onsen? I don't know. What is this building? I have no idea? Nothing ... in reality there's nothing but nothing, and limited questions that lead to real expansive nothing.

It was incredibly dark. Not pitch-black, but incredibly dark. The pictures only reveal as much as they do because I used the flash. I was thoroughly creeped out. It was dead quiet and my eyes were wide open trying to pick up any sign that may indicate I need to get out of there as quickly as possible. The area I had walked into was a wide high-ceilinged ballroom of sorts with stairs on either side spiraling up to other open areas. Graffiti revealed itself quietly through the shadows. My vision was maybe at 20%.

This seemed to be the main piece in the gallery, possibly naming the group that was responsible for the recent life in this place: "MASK THE REVOLT!!! SEXGANG CRU!!!" They really should have had a native speaker look at this to check their English. Maybe I should have left my card in case they need my future services. I saw this slogan along with a drawn face (unfortunately covered by the post on the right) in many different places in the building. Wandering around I was still incredibly weary of whether someone else was in the building at that time. Who knows how recently anybody was in there? Were they punk high school kids? Junkies? Biker gang rapists? A couple weeks earlier I was talking with another English teacher and he mentioned a story about a biker gang about ten or twenty years ago who abducted two high school girls, and took them against their will to an abandoned school in the mountains. They were never seen again. This wasn't a school though. The main area I was in looked like a dining area. I have no idea.

I investigated further and found a few nondescript rooms, totally ravaged and tagged, and found the main staircase. It led to a hallway that could be seen from the outside. (See pictures above of view from outside.) On each floor there were four rooms, which looked like domiciles. Actually really nice ones at that. Each had an entryway, a large main room, a small bathroom, and porch space. It looked like a hotel room to me. The balconies looked out towards the ocean which yielded great views of Uozu City and the ocean. I went through and checked each room, each equally abused and individually marked by artistic creations.

Each hallway as well had been marked. A lot of English phrases you'd expect to find from foreign taggers, but nothing too explicit. When you see amatuer graffiti in the States, I'd say most of it are strings of the most obscene English words available accompanied by pornographic illustrations. There were certainly some explitives written, and strange faces drawn, but nothing like you'd see in bathroom stalls at home. There was a lot of Japanese as well, it looked like a lot were names and locations. Here we can see the musical choice of some of the members: "Metallica" (perhaps a sign of aggression and good choice in music), "Mr. Children" (Really? I don't think anyone who listens to Mr. Children would be responsible for anything more than harmless misdemeanors), and others above read, "Radwimps" (They're OK but still pretty mainstream) and something else I didn't recognize.

There were four stories of these kinds of rooms and I went through each one. As I advanced to the next floors, I had a very ominous feeling like I was ever getting closer to some horrible revelation or impending doom. Perhaps unknowingly I was slowly walking into a trap that would change me forever.

Man this place had some really good views.

One other interesting note about this place is that there were no empty alocohol containers or any trash for that matter that wasn't originally in this place. Isn't that a crucial part of tresspassing and trashing public property? Pissing and throwing your trash around in defiance? Not here. Maybe these were well seasoned hikers well accustomed to "pack-in, pack-out" philosophies.

Ah-ha! Some hard evidence! 2002. Almost ten years ago. I would imagine if someone had been there since for such destruction, it would be written on the walls. But I checked every square inch of wall in the building and this was the only date. That's a pretty long time for the residents of the town to tolerate such a monstrous monolith of youthful rebellion in their sleepy farming village. Such a demolition. project would be incredibly expensive and time consuming.

I have to mention again, this is extremely rare. Perhaps in the city you'll see some abandon buildings taken over by such activity, but this is the first time I've seen it in Toyama. What makes this especially weird to me is that it's deep in the mountains at the very end of the road and civilization. When you live in town and go about your daily life you really don't see the kind of people whom you would associate with this activity. But even in small country towns in Toyama certainly have their own underbelly. If you're out late at night around the highways you'll see and hear biker gangs from time to time. Not quite the Harley image, but a younger Japanese version. If you go to the right bars, you'll find the people who could really care less about fitting into Japanese society, but the difference about Japan is that if it's clear this is the case, then you're obviously an outsider. On rare occurences I have been sitting in an onsen and just before closing time seen bald men with goatees and scars wearing yakuza-esque tattoos on their chest and arms. The other Japanese ignore them with contempt. The counter culture is incredibly hidden in Japan, but most certainly existent.

I made it to the roof and expected some kind of epic conclusion to my shady adventure, but instead found nothing, expect myself standing on the roof in plain view of the town. I crouched down and left the premises soon after. I got back on my bike, which obviously belonged to someone who had went for a tresspassing peek, and descended from the town. As I passed through I rode by an older woman who was certainly surprised to me and let out a "Harro!" and laughed. I said "Hello" back and laughed myself.

In the end I would guess it was a failed hotel project of sorts. One of the many signs, all over Japan, that there was a time a decade or two or three earlier where lots of people had big ideas and wallets. Maybe it was built for workers out there in the mountains. Along the many rivers in the area, there are huge dams everywhere and lots of people come from major cities to do seasonal work in the country on various projects from time to time. But I don't know. Certainly it wasn't to boost tourism. Maybe it was intended as a weekend resort area for people living in Uozu? Maybe there was onsen there one day!

I didn't find my onsen, but I found something far more ... something. You never know what you're going to see when you start taking nameless roads inland. This was definitely the last town into the mountains here, but tiny roads followed rice fields further up, and alternative routes leading out of the town were on either side. This was enough for me on that day, but by no means had I exhausted exploration in the area. I would be back. Especially because I think I saw a sign for castle ruins and an extremely enticing road leading into darkened woods away from civilization.

I'll be back.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mountain Shrines, and Monkeys, and Villages, Oh My!

This post is a little late coming as I took the trip about two weeks ago, but better than never ne?

It occurred to me that morning, that though the snow melted many months ago, I have yet to go on a real gaijin adventure on my bike into the mountains in search of the mysteries of Toyama Prefecture. Back in February when the snow quality was slightly diminishing and epic snowboarding experiences began to lessen; all I could think about was when I could get on the bike again. However, a trip to Yakushima, visits from loved ones abroad, and other miscellaneous distractions have kept me from what it is I love most to do on fair-weather weekends. Well, that time came to an end as I rolled out of my futon with a slight hang over, had my standard weekend breakfast of a fried egg and two English muffins with blueberry jam, accompanied by just a little too much coffee, and saddled my mamachari (Japanese granny bike). That detail of the mamachari is actually pretty interesting because I upgraded happily a long time ago to a mountain bike, but somehow I'm left with only the mamachari at this time. There's a strange simple beauty about the mamachari compared to the mountain bike. Maybe it's because it only has one gear, is much heavier, and carries more rust. Maybe it has something to do with wabi sabi. Well, regardless, I'd actually very much prefer to be on a mountain bike; but whatever.

My destination that day was Kareisawa, a mysterious sounding town that I had only seen signs of before on earlier mountain adventures. Last year I rode (or rather pushed) my bike up an 800 meter mountain to the Kareisawa Shinrin Koen (Kareisawa forest park) on one of my most trying adventures to date. It was one of those instances where I looked at my maps and remarked, "Oh yeah, no problem. This looks like a short one today." However, I soon realized that I should invest in some topographical maps that could better warn me of incredibly steep inclines. It was one of those trips where I had been pushing my bike for a couple of hours in the sweltering humidity and somehow knew instinctively that I had hours to go even though I had no idea where I was. I got to the top and found a place much less epic than I imagined, and promised I would never go up that way again. Well, part of the way up I remember seeing a sign for this town of Kareisawa with a tiny windy road that descended the mountain, but away from the ocean and into a forested valley. This was where I decided to go. On my way up towards Shinrin Koen I planned to stop at the Niikawa Farm, a place famous in Niikawa (the eastern region of Toyama Prefecture) for friendly animals and tasty ice cream. It is about halfway up the mountain, and I wanted to take a back way that I hadn't seen before. So, off I went, flying towards the mountains with my sun hat and squeaky mamachari.

To be honest, this "back way" up to the farm was more of an idealized hope than something I knew for fact. Given this mindset and the places I usually try to go, it's some form of miracle I ever find these places. Anyway, I headed towards where I thought this entrance to the mountains might be on roads I had ridden many times before. My first distraction was a sign on the side of the road that looked as if it led to a park beyond an overgrown trail. The top of the hill looked like it wasn't too far away so I decided to park the bike and explore.

I jumped up the stairs that ascended quickly and came to a very muddy fork in the trail; one way going 90 degrees to the right, and the other in the complete opposite direction. Neither of these trails looked like they were going up in any fashion, and also didn't look like they had been used in years. I looked back and forth between the two, took a deep breath, and just picked the one to the left. The path was dead flat. After every turn I would keep telling myself, "Alright, if this doesn't look like it goes uphill after the next section, I'll go the other way." I said this to myself about three times, but finally after about 10 minutes I gave up and headed back to where I came to investigate the other side. Once I finally started in the other direction from the trailhead, my patience ran thin after only a couple minutes, and I eventually turned back and returned to my bike without seeing anything but endless overgrown paths through the forest. Every path leads somewhere for sure, but I really don't have time to go down every path, so it's onward to one that is a little more exciting.

I got to my bike and decided that that was my one aimless meander for the day and from here on out it was going to be straight to where I wanted to go: Niikawa Farm. But there was a bit of a problem. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn't really know how to get there. To the left was the monstrous super highway that would surely get me closer, but could still be difficult to find when trying to get off it, and would be hell with all the cars speeding past me. To the right were tiny farm roads towards the mountains. Ideally, there would be that "perfect back way up to the farm", but most likely there would be no road, and I would certainly not make it to my goal that day if that was the case. Well, anything is better than the highway, so into uncertainty I rode with conviction.

The road had a slight but steady incline, which becomes a great task on the chari. Here there really is no turning back. If I decide to put the effort into the climb, there's no way I give it up halfway just to find another path just as uncertain. As I go further to the mountains, it's all wide farmland, mostly rice fields, and the occasional lone standing house with the typical small white Japanese farmer truck parked in front. I saw where a couple roads led up to the right in the direction of the farm. Certainly such a road could lead to the farm, but to be honest I was only about 20% sure things would work out in that direction. I had to make my decision to head into the mountains at some point and so I did. As the ascent became slightly steeper, I still trudged onward pedaling on my bike. Sounds of civilization dwindled and I was able to start looking down on things.

Eventually, the farms ended and the tree line began. As I entered the forest, all sounds disappeared; in fact everything did but the walls of green forest on either side of me, and the pavement single lane before me. My pedaling gradually became slower until I came to a complete stop. From there on out as long as there was such an incline, I'd be pushing the bike up the mountain. Up ahead came a fork and it seemed I would be given news about where it is this road leads too. News I received, and extremely good news it was: about 4 kilometers away was Niikawa Farm! Turns out I did find my secret back way up to the farm.

A rush of elation carried me up the hill through the forest for about 30 minutes. But then I encountered my first mental block along the way. That point where I find myself pushing my bike up a lonely road and I realize I will be doing it for maybe the next hour or two. It was hot, and even though I was under the cover of the trees, I was sweating profusely. My legs like pistons were pushing me up the hill; my hands on the handlebars in a forward lean; my head for the most part hanging to give me a good view of the asphalt I was covering. My sweat stank. I could smell the rank of coffee and alcohol and other toxins being squeezed out of my body. I could feel my legs working asymmetrically, maybe because one ankle I had sprained skateboarding about ten years ago never healed the same. In the middle left side of my back, a usual ball of stiffness came, maybe from a collarbone broken in rugby five years earlier. Though my imagination was clear and dwelt deep within me, it was covered by this stinky fleshy existence on all sides; absolutely completely enveloped by this weak temporal frame.

With my head to the pavement, visions of my insides began haunting me. Who knew exactly what was going on inside of me? What kinds of parasites, bacteria, or cancers were festering inside of me? In what kind of shape were all those organs and tissues that were so generously given to me in my mother's womb?

But at that time, all of those things seemed not to belong to me. I never asked for them, and surely I wouldn't have them for much longer. I really can't do much to control their condition can I? I mean really; those fleshy pieces ever in flux. However, there was something different about my bones. Those white solid unflinching columns atop which all else settled. No matter what sweat came out, or how much I huffed and puffed, my bones where there just the same. It seemed like forever they would be as they are. I wanted my bones to shine in the sun and be free of my fleshy case, but that is just not how things work. I started thinking there must be some kind of sacred space separating my bones from my flesh. No matter how small that space was, there was a distinct separation between my bones and flesh. Maybe it was similar to the space between my fingernails and my skin, or the space between a copper nail submerged in wood.

You may investigate these things yourself and find no space, but I do, or at least did at that time. I saw the surface level where the majority of society deems me a normal and healthy and functional human being. On this level I wake up, do incredibly boring errands, cram food in my mouth, pass over without giving proper respect many things that may deserve it, and shower and go to sleep. There is my blonde hair, pink skin, human language speaking smiling self. But below that things are much much different. Underneath the skin hungry hungry fleshy desires fester and desire satiation. Little hungry demons that cry when they're not tended to. Though I belong to a society that makes indulgence so convenient, these demons can only be kept at bay for a while. At least until you start wondering why it is you have to do so much as far as maintenance for the shell. Here I am hungry for food and water. I need to be loved by family, friends, non friends, people who don't even exist. I need to be assured that I am worthy and needed in this world. I drink coffee when I'm bored at work, drink booze when I'm alone in my apartment, and gorge myself with food so I'm so full I can't think of anything else. I get angry with people who don't meet whatever standards I deem important at whatever particular times. And all of those demons who whip with fire these fleshy desperate desires, seem able to change and grow and disappear in a matter of seconds. What it is that is always so desperate can easily be forgotten in a second. That food I craved so much, I can't even remember what it is. That taste for beer I wanted so badly disappeared once I distracted myself with some TV show. At one point when I thought I couldn't live without some kind of love, that feeling became nothing when a car almost hit me in the street.

It's like watching a sports game and screaming and crying at the small people's actions on a TV screen while you cram yourself with junk.

This is not me. This is not what I wanted; it's not what I want now. It wasnft here when I started, and moves on quickly after it comes. However, its nature envelops me, and there is no way to escape it. Below I take refuge in my bones where I can sit beneath my flesh and watch the demons fight each other. As if I'm sitting underneath the ocean, I just look at all the fish in the blue with innocence. Some may call it a "beginner's mind". It is what I felt when I was a little kid and went out my front door to dig in the dirt of the forest next to my house. It's the same feeling I got when I rushed out of my apartment on my bike. That is still there, here with me now, underneath that plague of flesh.

For some reason I looked up and saw a sedan parked strangely on the side of the road where a rusty piece of metal acted as a bridge over a concrete guided stream. The bridge headed nowhere in particular it seemed.

The road wound steep up to the right and rose quickly. I kept my eyes to the woods in the direction of the car and sure enough I saw an old man walking through the woods about forty yards away. I kept on pushing my bike up the hill with my eyes glued to him. He noticed me, and halfway sneakily crept behind a tree to avoid my gaze.

Anyway, I rose above the majority of the forest and things flattened out a little bit, revealing pastures that probably used to be grazing ground but were now just overgrown grass and wildflowers. After an uneventful half hour I arrived at the ranch.

I have visited the ranch before a few times and wasn't surprised at the company of farm animals and local families and oldies. Niikawa ranch is THE place to go to for a half day getaway. Parents take their children here, and retired folks gather in tens and order shuttles to take them up the mountain. The place is also famous for wonderful views over the flatland of Niikawa and the ocean and even the Ishikawa Peninsula far in the distance. It was fortunate success to make it here first to the Niikawa Farm, but my destination lay much further ahead.

I started the steep climb ambitiously by pedaling instead of pushing my bike up the hill. After about 2 minutes my speed had decreased significantly and an older man on a mountain bike fully decked out in spandex high tech gear passed me on my right at a steady speed. I leapt off my bike, wiped the sweat of my upper lip, and resumed pushing my mamachari.

So, in my mind Niikawa Farm was about 1/3 of the way to the top of Shinrin Koen, the top of that particular mountain which I visited a year ago. I predicted the sign and turn off for Kareisawa would maybe be 2/3 of the way to the top. Now, after 2 years of exploring this area on my bike, I knew better than to try and print out maps of where I was going. For one thing, the two excellent maps I have in my apartment which I consult before such trips are slightly different from each other, so something is a little funny there. Also, I know better than to expect to just get straight to where I wanted to go. At this time, the worst case scenario would be missing the turn off and going all the way to the top to Shinrin Koen.

This stretch of road is rarely used and extremely windy and steep. I was either pushing my bike up an impossible incline or straining my hands on a brake while flying downhill. On this part you start to get closer to the real mountains of Toyama. Snowcapped peaks loom closer and on either side may be deep forested valleys with rivers like veins pumping from the heart of the mountains out to the extremities of the shore and into the sea.

I got to where I thought was about 2/3 of the way up and no sign of a turn off. Well, there's no turning back here.

I kept on for about another 30 minutes from a waterfall on the side of the road where I filled up my water bottle. Just after that I found a turn off! But for Kareisawa? I don't think so. Some other strange town perhaps. Would it take me to Kareisawa? Probably. Ideally the road I would take would be a long steep road taking me to the deepest towns along the rivers inland. At the worst, it would just be a road that would take me quickly back to the oceanside towns I was more familiar with. I remember a year ago seeing specific signs for Kareisawa, and this was not it, so I kept on.

I soon came to another turn off, again with no mention of Kareisawa. I didn't remember there being so many of these. They seemed to be in the right direction, but not exactly what I was looking for. Did all these roads meet up and lead to the same place? I have no idea. Still onward and upward.

A slight ironic frustration arose as I passed landmarks I remembered from a year ago. The same thoughts were passing through my head as had before. Actually, that's not true. Last year I desperately wanted the destination to be just around the next corner. This time, I had enough experience to know such thinking would only curse the next turn as well as my patience, and was just generally unlikely. However I did see my first monkey on this particular trip.

Eventually, I finally came to a sign with characters resembling Kareisawa, but it wasn't quite what I remembered in my mind. Surely I was getting closer, but this was still not it. I intuited that there was another road higher up which was the road I wanted to take, but it probably linked up with this road just below this point. Regardless, I was feeling good at the time and decided just to keep on up. I knew that once I decided to head down, it would be 100% down from then on, so I wanted to use what little energy I had left for the adventure up.

About 15 minutes later, I found my road. I think I made it about 95% up the mountain. This is hilarious considering my sense of timing and direction. In my humble opinion, I usually have a great sense of the direction I need to go, but completely underestimate and distort times in my head. I'm just lucky I confine my adventures to day trips in relatively safe environments. I would have to make some serious changes if I was to head out into true isolated wilderness.

I knew Shinrin Koen was just a little further, maybe ten minutes away and I decided to make it to the top just to say I did. But then I stopped after 10 paces, remembered how disappointing it was the first time, and elected to just begin my descent into mysterious mountain towns. I tried to think of what could possibly be at the top which would make me regret turning around. ... dinosaurs ... anything less than living breathing fighting dinosaurs at the top of the mountain, and I could care less. So down I went.

The road was surprisingly small and unkempt and it surprised me the road warranted a sign at all. It was steep and littered with brush. My hands were sore for days afterward from holding the breaks the whole way down. At times I held the brakes down completely only to find a very slow deceleration. I thought whatever it is that gets in my way will certainly be unhappy about the condition of my brakes. I also thought a thought that comes through my head a few times a week when I'm riding my bike at high speeds: how good is my ukemi? (Forward rolling that we usually do in aikido) If I flew over my handle bars down a steep hill at 20 mph, would I be able to roll out of it with no harm done to my body? I don't know.

The road was small and trying, but it was a great downhill ride and soon took me around cliffs that looked upon the ocean sunset view that was descending on the towns I have for two years called home. Just as I had hoped, the road led down deep into the mountains, back into the forest. A sign appeared and civilization again encroached on my view. But there were rundown shacks. In the woods I saw what was a medium sized home with a chimney smoking. Then a large stone torii, gate signifying the entrance to a shrine appeared before me. Just what I was looking for! Strange mountain shrines. Sure enough, two weathered guardian statues were on the side of the small road and led up stone stairs. I walked up to find a very old shrine. For small shrines in the country this one was impressive, but barred for some reason. Was it to keep out uninvited guests? Maybe it was under construction. As usual, I had no idea, and just marveled at the architecture and the Chinese characters I couldn't read written on the stone statues.

I went further down the road and found a large tomb of sorts. This was really impressive, but what was it doing in the middle of nowhere? What kind of person would be buried here? A farmer? A priest? Most likely the tomb was for a family instead of a single person.
The trail of civilization stopped after the grave for ten minutes until I began seeing rice fields. In tiers upon tiers so deep in the mountains, it really does give me the feeling like I'm in some kind of fantasy story. Closer to the sea around the main cities there are uncountable amounts of rice fields. One would think that such small and secluded ones like these in the mountains would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, here they lay, tended to with the hard labor of Japan's aging population.

As I rode down I heard rustlings in the bushes around me and knew immediately that this was monkey territory. Further down the road I saw a few in the road, and a few on any concrete forms around the rice fields. Then more monkeys. About 50 yards ahead of me were probably 30 or 40 monkeys. By far the biggest monkey party I've ever seen. I took a few pictures, but they noticed me quickly and more of them dispersed every second I watched them. When I rode by them, all the young ones scattered, but the old ones would just stand their ground a safe distance on the side of the road and watch me pass by.

At the bottom of the rice fields I finally saw the end of a small town that I assumed was Kareisawa. This was my goal, and it didn't disappoint. Other than the most famous old-style Japanese villages that are preserved as World Heritage Sites and removed from a normal functional life, this was the most old-fashioned village I have seen. I imagine the small town looked no different fifty or sixty years ago. The only differences were new cars parked in driveways and the occasional drink vending machine. The funny thing about the cars is that other than the small white farmer trucks characteristic to Japan, most cars are less than five years old. Maybe in the U.S. in a place like this you'd find lots of old trucks and beater cars, but it's completely different here. For an American, this is a pretty strange sight until you get used to it.

As I rode through town I saw a few people who were slowly working in the rice fields. People that wouldn't look any different a few hundred years ago I would imagine. With modern jobs and diets and hobbies and fashions, the Japanese body has changed considerably since the Meiji Era, and especially since the production of mass processed food, but that means nothing to the people living here. Perhaps they will be the last generation of such a lifestyle. I was welcomed with gaping stares, ones even more pronounced than I usually get in town, but that's no surprise. I wonder if I am the first gaijin they have ever seen in this area. When I first started going on these trips, I would return to my friends exclaiming the strange wonders I found in the mountains and was sure I was going to start a chain reaction of gaijin headed out to rediscover these oddities, but people usually lost interest after 30 seconds. I have never had a conversation longer than two minutes about these adventures despite my genuine efforts.

"Hey man, what did you do today?"

"Dude! I rode my bike into the mountains and saw some crazy shit!"

"Really? Where'd you go?"

"First I rode my bike up to Niikawa Ranch ..."

"You rode your bike up to the ranch?"

"Yeah, on my chari. Then I went up towards Shinrin Koen forest park in the mountains ... have you heard of it?"

"Uhhh ..."

"And then I rode down this tiny road and found gravesites and shrines in the forest."


"And then went down to this secluded town called Kareisawa in the mountains. It looked like something straight out of Last Samurai!"


"Kareisawa! Dude it's just inland from Uozu."


"Yeah, where you live!"

"Oh. Crazy ..."

Most gaijin here own a car, don't often talk to Japanese if they don't have to, and only know the main highway that runs through the prefecture along with its convenience stores and gas stations and cheap restaurants that run along it. I think most opinions from the gaijin community of Toyama are pretty low, because it is in the country and has crappy weather. Good thing I like the country and don't mind crappy weather if I can make these kinds of trips into the mountains whenever I have the time.

This kind of trip would usually end with onsen, but it was Saturday which meant aikido. I had little time before, but the last thing I ate was an English muffin and fried egg about 6 hours earlier that day, so I stopped to get a giant plate of chahan (fried rice) before practice. I was starving, thirsty, and exhausted and could care less about the impending stomach ache I was about to have after rolling around and being thrown by my friends. I did in fact make it to aikido, and did in fact get a stomach ache that I somehow managed to control until I returned home. I don't even remember what I did after that, but probably went out to a bar or went to play poker. I can't believe it's taken me so long to start these adventures this year, but you can bet I'll be doing whatever possible to keep them coming until the snows in winter.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Aikido's Affect on Teaching English

Because I'm leaving my current school in about a month, things are starting to come to an end and goodbyes are being made. This is a picture of me with my 2nd year seikan students. Can you tell which one is me? I'll give you a hint ... I'm the only one that's not a 17 year old Japanese girl in a school uniform.

At my high school there are three kinds of classes: futsuuka which is general course students who will most likely go on to academic universities, doboku which is civil engineering and is more vocational in nature and 99% all boys, and then there's seikan, which is homemaking and 99% girls and they ... will be homemakers? When asked what they want to do when they grow up for work many of them say they want to be pre school teachers or hair stylists or patissiers, which is pretty smart because they will always need more of all of those in Japan. Anyway, it was announced that this was my last class with them so the Japanese teacher asked if any of the students had messages for me. It was dead quiet, then turned into giggling, and at the end of class we took a picture and I got about 10 notes from the students they had written and folded into origami hearts.

Oh yeah ... aikido ... I got a bit distracted there. Aikido's affect on teaching. I actually really don't have much to say on this topic except I think it works against school systems a bit. In aikido you're working with one person at a time and so a lot is based on a teacher/student relationship. Furthermore, that relationship is experienced on a lot of instinctive and physical levels beyond mere oral communication. English is no different ... not at all. Sure there's the mental processes of using a language, but then there's the whole realm of the experience of having a conversation which plays a part. For example, who you are talking with, who you are yourself, where you are, why you are talking, emotional states, past experiences, etc. In aikido it's obvious that each situation is different though you may be doing the same technique you've done thousands of times, and so you need to adjust to this accordingly to each scenario. For me teaching English, that means I want to communicate with each student, which means I would teach different to every student. But in a class of 40 students in an hour once a week, that's a little difficult. Also, it doesn't help that the motivation for teaching English to Japanese students is primarily to do well on college entrance exams, which is more learning complex sentence structures and less functional conversation. Furthermore, because of a million different reasons, most students do not want to learn English. I guess I'm the answer to these problems of teaching English in Japan. I'm a young American used to get kids interested in English and help students with conversation. However, I'm often times more like a poster on a wall than a living person who can communicate with people.

I've kind of got off track here and I don't want this to become a rant about the shortcomings of mainstream education. My point is, learning in aikido happens on a very personal and situational level between teacher and student, and so when I try to bring this in the classroom I start focusing in independent students instead of the group, I change a little bit between each student, and I do whatever it takes to get the student to understand and be enthusiastic, which is arguably the most difficult. Also, I've found that after two years teaching, I've started doing the big "No-No" which is speaking Japanese in the classroom when I want to get my point across.

But my primary concern is communication. If the students have absolutley no idea what I say, then they'll be confused and probably feel subconscious about that, so, sometimes I whip out the Japanese, which they love from time to time because they get to see me struggling with a foreign language. Basically, the biggest block I run into with teaching English is student's low level of confidence. Before they can really start learning and using English at a good pace, then they need to get past that. It's like trying to teach people high falls in aikido when they're afraid of doing a simple front roll! Or maybe showing someone how to do a technique by lecturing for 20 minutes, give them one chance to do it right, and if they don't then tell them to try harder or study more.

Perhaps it's a good thing that in my next job it will just be me with about 5 students at a time doing whatever to get the students to speak English.

The other night I was in the "strange" aikido class and sensei was trying to explain something very important. That a lot of young people's strength is dependent on muscle strength, but really, it's not all that strong. In aikido we use a different kind of strength ... but what kind of strength sensei was calling it I didn't know. I thought I understood the concept pretty well, but I didn't know the word and sometimes the specific meaning really makes a difference. So, I went home and looked it up ... but couldn't find the word! I asked a teacher the next day and she gave an answer that didn't seem to match. So the next night I went back to aikido and after class I got out my dictionary and said "Sensei! I couldn't find the word in the dictionary," and I motioned for him to find it for me and he said, "It's too small, I can't read it," in a dismissive fashion. I had one of the other students help me find it and it was exactly what my English teacher had told me earlier, "concentration" ... shuuchuu suru. I was confused, and then just frustrated because it's another very important word to aikido that just isn't quite in English. Perhaps a good translation would be "structural strength" or ... mmm I don't know really. The kind of strength that doesn't dwindle away when you get older, but may increase because you are more comfortable in your body and if you do aikido you'll have more experience in dealing with other people's bodies in movement.

Anyway, afterwards I said to sensei, "Japanese is hard."

"Yes, it is."

"Which do you think is harder? Aikido or Japanese?"

"Definitely aikido."


"Because you can only learn aikido from someone who is good at it and it takes many many years."

Ahhhh sensei, I'm kind of disappointed in you! Surely there are differences, but in reality, you can't just learn a language from studying alone and it certainly takes many many years to be "fluent" ... just like being "good" in aikido, but in both worlds training is never complete. Also, if you never speak a language with native speakers, it will never be quite right. I wish all of the English teachers at school would try and practice aikido and I sometimes wish I could put sensei in a room full of only-English-speakers for an hour and see how he likes it. Hehe, funny stuff. I'm glad I get to suffer and benefit from the experiences I choose.