Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cool Tokyo Blog "LOL Sushi" & No-Thoughts on the Sword

Check out another cool blog based in Tokyo at !

It's got a lot of cool stuff about Japanese entertainment, and I guarantee it will be new info for anybody who's not connected to the right scenes in Tokyo ... including me! Hiding away in various inakas (country-sides) of Japan, I look forward to reconnecting myself with another world outside through this site.

My favorite part of the site are the videos with ... Timebomb Nick!!!

Maybe you don't know Nick, but we actually studied Japanese together at university in San Francisco, and he's a super cool guy living in Tokyo.

On the site you can find a lot of funny videos with Nick in Tokyo, or you can just go to the youtube channel at . Some games are about finding strange things in Tokyo and others about video games.



And now ... the sword ...


That's the sound effect I use with the sword. I learned it from my aikido sensei who liked to make us laugh mid-way through wazas.

As I mentioned in previous posts, iaido is this brand new practice I'm working on and it's utterly fun and exciting in every aspect. In the last post I even wondered:

Can we have a practice that is only fun, allowing us to climb straight up the mountain without falling into depressing valleys of failure?

I'm not sure yet, because I just started, but I've already discovered one pitfall that may send us down to hell in our budo practice:


Until now I've been begging to get a sword so that I could practice on my own. This is hard to do with aikido because you need partners, and kyudo because you need the bow, space, and target ... but with iaido finally I have something I can practice and explore alone. (Though I'm sure doing too much without supervision will be cause for trouble ... but I don't know! I'm going to find out, and wonder how that aspect of iaido will play out ... surely it'll come up in future posts).

So I got the sword, and then I began to think ...


I began thinking about when I'm going to practice, and how I can do it for a long time everyday. That thought in and of itself isn't bad, in fact it's good and necessary ... but somewhere along the way I began making a schedule in my head. "OK, so I'll practice every morning so that I can do it everyday and get it over with before other things get in the way." That's a good idea, but I already have a morning routine that feels full with sitting for 20 minutes, followed by a shower and making breakfast, and then 30 minutes of kanji practice while drinking coffee. It's working out perfect, but I think adding anything else may disrupt the harmony I've cultivated.

What do I do?

(Starting to think ... OK, that's not a bad thing.)

Take out the sitting? No, I can't do that, I need that. I can't take out the kanji.

(I start becoming inflexible, and evaluating the "value" of my practices.)

Should I wake up earlier?

(Iaido practice is no longer fun, but a task to schedule in.)

Should I just forget it and practice throughout the day when I have time?

(Not directly dealing with my desire to practice, leaving it to be decided by the outside world instead of myself.)

Dammit I'll never get a solo routine with iaido, so I'll never get good! This is all a waste of time!

(And I'm tumbling down the mountain.)

So ... there's a lot of things going on around here, but I'll just lightly handle it with the mind I've had that's gotten excited about iaido in the first place.


1.) Iaido is something I've fantasized about for a long time. I remember in my early karate days, weapons were also a part of training. There were many different weapons my sensei worked on, and for beginners he usually had us work with escrima sticks, and then learn bo forms. That is where I was at, but I remember a couple advanced students working on the sword, and I was utterly captivated. My teacher had practice swords on the wall, and an atmosphere about himself and the dojo itself that just filled me with curiousity about the sword. With that dojo I never got to the sword (I still remember and love practicing some of the escrima stuff but don't remember anything about the bo form I learned) and have gone through my martial arts experience without any time with the Japanese sword. (Though I did learn a tai chi saber form I still remember and practice often.) Perhaps I'm so intrigued by the Japanese sword because I've had to wait 10 years to finally begin its practice. I think it's just bad-ass anyway.

I already have a great love and admiration for the sword, I'm not about to sour it with over thinking.

2.) I may never be that good anyway.

This is a huge thing to get over. When I sit down and rationalize about it all, it makes sense and I can continue practicing for the fun and self-development, but somewhere along the way my egotistical and competitive nature kick in. All of a sudden, I'm training to become the greatest practitioner in the land, absolute number one, seeking fame and riches. Everything about the practice revolves about becoming a revered master one day, and then my practice is something that lives in a fantasy world decades in the future, leaving this moment empty and tormented.

Perhaps this is how some people feel about going to heaven.

Anyway, it's ridiculous to think this way because honestly, there are people who have been practicing these arts for way longer, practice way more, and live in an environment that focuses on their training much more. Now for me, I'm a 28 year old American beginning iaido and going to practice once a week. This is on top of a life that is full in many other aspects. There's no way I'm going to be the greatest swordsman anyway ... and besides, who says I really want to anyway? I mean I wouldn't not want to, but at the cost of other things in my life, I think I'll pass.

So, I'll never be that good anyway, I might as well have fun, forget about the future, and just live my practice. Whatever comes will follow on its own.

This is the major trap I've fallen into with kyudo. I'm learning to rediscover a mind that existed before the ambition and competition.


So, at this point I don't know exactly how and when my solo iaido practice will work out, but I do know for a fact I'm not going to let it bother me.

I'm just going to let happiness be happiness, and that is beautiful.

That is getting out of the way of the technique so that all the aspects of the world and situation can work together. It's relaxing the unecessary muscles, making minimal movements, and making those movements with a subtle grace that allows the big picture with all its little details flow ... like a stream in the woods.


And as of today I'm off for Toyama!

Yes, back to my original Japanese home north in the great mountains, I'm headed to Kokura (Kitakyushu City) where I'll take the midnight bus (holy hell, everytime I take a midnight bus I swear I'll never do it again, and yet here I go) for 9 hours to Osaka, and transfer to another taking 6 hours to Toyama at 3pm tomorrow. I will stay with my wife's family relaxing and meeting a new family member (her sister's new baby!), drink some beers with old friends, then grab the wife and head back down here to Nakatsu in Kyushu where we can properly begin our new life. On the way back we plan to drive to Osaka, and then take a ferry to Beppu in Oita Prefecture. Japanese ferries are always quite an experience, so maybe I can post something about that with some pictures when I get back.

So yeah, I'll be off the radar for a week, but during that time you can check out LOL Sushi and Tokyogamerz, and think of iaido books to recommend to me.

Happy Holidays from Gaijinexplorer in southern Japan!

Friday, December 20, 2013

My New Sword

I got a fricken sword!

And I'm super happy about it.

Because it's very cool, I'm learning how to use it, and now I can practice anytime I want.

But I'll need to get some kind of shoulder strap. Walking around Japan with a sword is definitely illegal. I can keep it in the bag shown in the first picture, but I need some kind of strap to hang it around my shoulder when I ride my bike to the dojo. That will make it comfortable and look less like a sword. Today after I left the dojo with the sword I wanted to get straight home with it, but unfortunately I had a lot of things to do on the way: get lunch, go to city hall, and go grocery shopping. The whole time I was trying to hold it in a way that made it not look like a sword, but I probably just brought more attention to myself. I wonder if anyone noticed.

So how did I acquire this fancy piece of equipment? From Sensei ... for a price of course: about $300. The dojo has had it for a while but nobody has been using it, so it worked out perfectly. I really don't know anything about sword quality, but I trust my sensei has endowed me with a sufficient blade.

I was worried about when I was going to get one because when I initially asked sensei where I could buy a sword he said the internet would be the easiest way (not many swordsmiths in the area). After that though, I ran into the other sensei (who I think is the head of the dojo) and he said he would see if there's anything he could find. I guess this was it. I had a feeling they might have something for me, so I brought the cash, and it all worked out perfect.

Now I have my own sword! I'm very excited about this.

And the practice as well.

Today was my second day and the time just flew by. An hour and a half just disappeared as I focused on working the movements of the sword with sensei and the other student. We start class by practicing swinging with a bokken and then after a few minutes go to the real blade. We start by swinging straight up and down from a neutral stance facing forward. Then we start swinging with a step. Today he showed us about diagonal cuts. Then we move into drawing the sword and going through the motions which must be the first kata or waza or something. From a standing position you draw, make a horizontal cut, then step forward with a vertical strike, then step back and sheathe the blade. After that we practiced the traditional bowing out with the sword, which may take me a couple practices to get. Then he showed us how to tie the knot of our string on the sword, which I'm fighting against just completely giving up. I don't know what it is about my brain, but I have serious issues with knots. I used to work in the tree service and making knots was a big part of the job, but one I could never get down. I guess this is my chance to get it right. That's what budo is about. None of us are going to get it right immediately, but all of us can learn.

So yeah, practice is super exciting and I'm really enjoying the teacher and other student, especially now that I have my own sword. Any good budo practice will have ups and downs, easy parts and hard parts ... but right now it's all effortless smiling fun. I'm interested to see how it goes.

Do we really need to struggle with our art? I mean, what's so bad about it being fun? Is it possible for one to practice a budo by simply floating straight up the mountain without falling into the valleys? That's an interesting thought, I'll give it a try.

I'm going to go over a few details of what we learned. I hope to do this after every practice so that I can process what I've learned, teach you about what I'm doing, and maybe hear back from you guys if you do it a different way. These things are learned on the second day and probably going to seem very simple, but that's because it's just the beginning. I'm sure there are lots of ways to do the same thing, and better ways as well, but this is where I am.

1.) When swinging the sword you need to loosen and flick your wrist for two reasons.

First, it's to relax your body and use forces other than just your muscle strength, making the strike more effective.

Second, it's so that your blade can reach the target as quickly as possible. If you're swinging so that your hands arrive before the sword, you're too slow and will get cut by the opponent. One must swing so that the tip of the blade reaches the target as quickly as possible. This was new info to me.

2.) You only need to cut with the end of the blade enough to slice, and when you do, you draw/pull the blade across the surface ... this is opposed to hacking through something. I was aware of this from the aikido sword work, but it's a super important thing to know.

3.) There's only one angle you cut at when it's not vertical or horizontal. All cuts, be it to the head, shoulder, waist, arm, leg ... they all follow one single line, so becoming familiar with that line is super important. We practiced doing this cut by aiming at an invisible opponents head and going diagonally through it, both from the left and the right.

4.) All cuts with the sword follow straight lines. Any deviations will reduce its effect.

5.) When sheathing and unsheathing the blade, you need to do so so that the blade does not cut the inside of the saya (sheath). So, this means that when we draw the sword, we hold it so the sharp edge faces up, so the bottom dull side slides across the bottom of the saya, and the blade doesn't touch anything at all. When you unsheath the blade, you are sliding the dull side of the blade across the inside of the saya (putting no strength into the movement) and you draw until there's only a couple inches of the tip inside of the sheath. At that point, you pull the sheath back and swing the sword which is practically already drawn.

It's hard to see in the picture below, but the blade is facing up, with the dull side on the bottom completely resting on the saya, this is how it should be when you draw.

This was big for me because I thought that you drew the sword straight into a swing. Perhaps that's what it's like for the masters, but if I try that I would completely cut up the inside of the saya and have a weak swing. What we are really doing is drawing the sword out of the saya, and then cutting.


There are certainly a lot of other things going on, but these are the main points I'm focusing on right now.

Sensei is really funny. He's a very cheerful big smiling chit chatty kind of guy when you first walk in the dojo, but you can also see him switch into his serious budo mode. When he teaches us, he acts very much like a teacher, treating us as equals, explaining things, and helping us to achieve results, and sometimes making jokes to lighten the atmosphere. I can't tell how good he is at iaido, but I can tell he's a great teacher. We flowed continuously through the entire practice though it was made up of many different parts. Part way through I thought, "Wow, he transitioned through that perfectly!" I wish I could do that in my English classes.

It's funny when I think of my other senseis in aikido and kyudo ... and they're all very different.

 I think my aikido sensei was the least teacher-like. 90% of our practice was physically doing the technique, and that's mainly how he taught us. He taught by doing, and for aikido I suppose that is most important. Certainly he would explain things the best he could, and tell us when we did something wrong, but a lot of times he would tell people they were doing something wrong but couldn't quite tell them how to do it right. Perhaps that's just part of aikido. But I also know he wasn't the most "teacher-like" of teachers.

My kyudo sensei in Toyama was an excellent teacher, but different than my iaido one now. He was a bit more authoritative/strict, like he would tell us to fix something, we'd do it wrong, and he wouldn't be satisfied until we did it right. But of course he try different methods to explain these things to us. But in kyudo you're essentially doing the movements all on your own, and doing things that viewers can't see easily, so it makes for a difficult time learning sometimes, I think.

Wow, it's strange to look back on it all ...

Anyway, time to get swinging!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Excellent New Books

Perfection is not impossible.

It's right here in front of us.

In the myriad things we do, we are enacting that perfection.

When our breath stops, and we sense that we are not,

when we cannot stand, and choose to fall,

we curse our own special gift of perfection.

That is part of the gift.

Just here, in this moment of knowing without a mind,

there is perfection.

I really am going to tell you about some interesting books, but first I'm going to talk about something else.

It's very clear to me that I do much more than kyudo. Shooting a bow and arrow in the Japanese fashion of kyudo is one of the things that I do that is part of my Way ... but then again what I do is not limited to just "the Way" we think of with calligraphy-like writing, Asian characters we don't understand, and an all peaceful illusion. What I do runs deep into the veins of the earth, stretching like my arms across the art of various generations, then down my torso like the tribal and intellectual traditions of the past, and sinking through my feet into a volcanic core of rocks and gravity and exploding suns.

It's very clear that putting my faith into a religion called kyudo, or aikido, or Japanese, or writing, is a superficial illusion I manipulate to satisfy my own insecurities.

What I have is a feeling and a direction, from that follows the physical characteristics of the world, like kyudo, aikido, Japanese, writing, etc.

I don't know.

I move throughout my life sniffing the paths and making lots of subconscious decisions based on the vibrations my hair and skin pick up. I do my best to honor what I realize, and mistakingly trample upon the treasures of others. I look at people in the eyes and when I like what I see I stick around. I ride my bike past telephone wires and pachinko parlors ... I don't ever buy anything in the shopping malls because they are all empty to me.

My life is one of art. By that I mean expression and experience and interaction. It is a life of great love, great frustration, great searching, and deep sleeping. I look to the sky to try to fly and jump, and in that highest moment of false belief I fall to the ground and crack.

It should look strange, because no one has ever done this before. This is my style. I'm finding my style and it's bigger than what's ever come before.

Moving on ...
I went to kyudo tonight and had an good practice. I have never described a practice like tonight's as good before, something has changed. I've thrown away a lot of insecure egotistical trash I've been bringing to kyudo, thanks to many failures and the acquisition of inspiration from new books.

Basically, when I say I'm practicing kyudo, I'm practicing kyudo. Before, if I didn't like my practice, say I wasn't feeling good, wasn't hitting the target, or wasn't receiving praise others, I would call it not-kyudo. I became picky about what I called kyudo, and so that black non-kyudo side of my practice took over all else. I've been doing non-kyudo for months, just waiting for some good fortune to come by and bless me with skills.

That is trash. Everything I do in kyudo, is kyudo, and my failures are a part of it as anything else. It isn't about hitting the target. It isn't about impressing people. It isn't about justifying your life.

It's about doing your best.

That's all.

It's about doing your best in a very difficult practice. I will no longer expect perfection to bless my bow and arrow, and rather just work ... but it's not just work ... "work" just seems like a humble word to go about putting effort into a great project. It's really more like creating, or expressing, or living through a labyrinth of puzzles that test various parts of our existence.

As for the issue with my hand, it's healed pretty well, and until I'm confident with its condition not deteriorating again, I'm wearing a kind of leather cover over the thumb. It's not ideal, but it's all I can do at this point. I went with it tonight and had a good practice, being able to focus on other things.

I went to a meeting with the other English teachers I work with in Oita Prefecture, there are seven of us in total. We might and talk about various things with our job. Usually a large part of that is sharing games and methods of training.

It's wonderful. We escape our own routines to see different, necessarily fun and effective ways to do the same thing we've been trying to do on our own. It's never about making things more detailed or complicated ... it's about simplifying and making our methods more fun and effective.

There is more than our one way that we get stuck in, but sometimes it's impossible to see. Perhaps we benefit from individual practice and experimentation within our discipline, but in order to advance we must meet with others.

When we do so, it's not just about going to a teacher and asking for specific answers. It's about meeting as equal artists simply revealing our own ways of doing things. It's like a buffet where we are free to choose what we like at our own discretion. It's not a button we press to receive immediate sure success ... this isn't McDonald's.

One other thing, I had a very interesting revelation during that meeting pertaining to budo...

We were practicing songs/dances that we do in class (and yes it's embarrassing as it sounds. It's funny the things you can get used to) and there was one point when we got together with a partner and did a kind of patty cake action. I was paired with a guy from Ghana, a few inches taller than me, and athletically built (I think he's really into soccer), but not necessarily huge or skinny or anything. Anyway, while we were doing the patty cake I noticed he was overwhelming my slaps with his. His hands were so relaxed and heavy, just like the wet towel/ox tongue/etc analogies we try to emulate in a lot of martial arts. I don't think this guy has martial art experience, and yet he was doing this patty cake in a way that revealed great ability ... he'd probably be an amazing martial artist (maybe he is!) I don't know if he noticed it, but I did, and I noticed how light and weak my hands were. After all the years I've trained in the arts, I wonder if that is some kind of conditioning, or just my natural reaction that has remained unaffected by my training. Maybe it reveals a tendency of mine, for better or worse. Regardless, I was surprised, impressed, and jealous of this guy.

So what I was initially getting at is that there are many ways to go about doing something, and I've been in my own little shallow rut for so long, going to kyudo with a fresh mind to listen to my teachers and the protective gear to do something other than worry about my thumb allowed for a great training session. I was able to look at other things, more important things perhaps.

Specifically, my back. I won't go deep into the details, but I need to stretch my elbows out in the beginning, not just to stretch them, but the stretch my back. I need to keep that tension as I rise into uchiokoshi, maintain the tension by turning my elbows slightly in daisan setting up the draw, and then pull that draw with my elbows and back. Also once you do this, just spreading sideways isn't enough and will warp your stance and inhibit your release. You must also focus on stretching up and down with your spine as well. This small focus changes everything for the better. I didn't do it perfect, but that's not important.

I've started chiseling. With sensei we started pounding on this issue and I felt my back cracking inside. We will continue to crack until one day the shell falls off and my new soft skin will bring life into the bow and my kyudo.

Kyudo is like we are statues, slowly cracking away at ourselves until the shell one day falls and we arise natural and soft and advanced.

It's also like getting past a wall.

The wall is so high we cannot climb over. It is so strong we cannot burst through it. We must walk through it ... like magic. It takes a kind of magic faith to acquire such other-worldly abilities in this art. We walk through the wall, perfectly calm.

So, I've got some new books, and THEY'RE EXCELLENT!

2 of them are about kyudo, which is the really shocking part for me.

"Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo" by John Stevens.

What I like about this is that it talks about this master, Awa Kenzo (1880-1939), who is responsible for having a huge effect on kyudo in a time of great transitions in Japan. The information on him is a bit short, but the stories are great and very helpful to my practice. The later half runs similar to "The Book of Peace" about Morihei Ueshiba's teachings in that it is a bunch of one-liners or small paragraphs about the practice. It's something I'll read through at first, but then surely revisit from time to time.

Next is, "Illuminated Spirit: Conversations with a Kyudo Master" by Dan and Jackie Deprospero.

This is a great read because it also focuses on the teachings of one particular master. It is written by Dan and Jackie Deprospero (who have written other good books on kyudo) who write from great experience and humility. It's good writing and based on the personal experiences of a master so you can get the first hand teachings along with a subjective interpretation of it all. I'm finding this book very helpful in looking at my own experiences in kyudo here in Japan.

Last is, "Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki" by David Chadwick.

Perhaps many of you are already familiar with this book about Shunryu Suzuki, author of my favorite book on Zen, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", and person largely responsible for bringing Zen practice to North America, though his life is much more than that. I don't know much about the man beyond this book, Shunryu's other book, and a few other stories, but it's interesting to learn about his life. It's great because it's one of the first books in a while I can casually read through.

Next in the line up is: "There is No God and He is Always With You" by Brad Warner. I haven't started it yet, but I'm very excited to get to it. He lived in Japan for 11 years (I think) studying Soto Zen and returned to the states to practice as well as write and do lectures and play music and many other things it seems. He is the author of a few other books I really enjoyed, and with each work it you can really see the progression of an honest man searching for the answers that come up with Zen, and really life itself. You can check out his fabulous blog at

So there it is. It's been a long time since I've read such interesting books in English, and with these I can only think of more I'm just waiting to order. I'm not much of a book reviewer, but I'll surely continue to post interesting titles that come up.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Gaijin Bike Adventure: Kunisaki Penninsula

Saddle the bike and ride!
This was the feeling I had on this epic bike trip. Until now I've made lots of small meandering rides around the area I live. That's been great. But this time I needed the full deal: an epic ride as far away as my body and the sun will allow for. I needed to go somewhere magical, and I knew just the place.

For such a trip I had to go to bed early in order to wake up before the sun. This is harder than it used to be. Something inside of me tries to sabotage these epic plans. I finished work on the Saturday evening, went to onsen, and made the thirty minute bike ride home. I had to eat, but knew if I went to an izakaya like I wanted I'd spend lots of money and drink beer ... both of which would keep me from making the honest bike ride the next day. So I went to the shitty diner-like chain, "Joyful". Surrounded by chattering obachans (old ladies) eating my subpar meal, I had to get out as quickly as possible, get home, and just go to sleep before anything happens to keep me from my ride. It's amazing, you come to Joyful any other night and it's filled with high schoole girls and men in their young 20's who are trying to impress the high school girls. Come here at 9 on a Saturday night, and the old ladies take over the turf. So anyway, I hurried home with my blinders on and woke up the next morning at 5:45, fifteen minutes before my alarm. Well, that's better than waking up to the alarm and not feeling like going, so I got up and began preparing my things and stretching. Then I was off, nothing but the path before me. 

So, it's mid December, and the fact I'm going off on a bike-ride at this time of year is unbelievable to me after living in Toyama for four years. Actually in the past week, Toyama got dumped on with snow, and it will probably be white until April. That means hanging up the bike aside from necessary trips to the train station and super market. Unfortunately I'll miss out on epic snowboarding and the quiet beauty of the snow that a life in Toyama allows for, but I'll also be able to ride the bike all year long down here in Kyushu, and that's something for me to get excited about. The weather report said sunny weather, and I was ready for it.

No snow, but damn this place is cold in the morning! I had on pants, a long sleeve shirt, a fleece, and a beanie as the normal wear, and a scarf and gloves in case it got cold. Those extra pieces went on immediately, and I tied the scarf around my face ninja style to keep my face from falling off in the freezing wind. It was 3 degrees celsius, but my body was warm, I had successfully fought off temptation the night before, and I had made it right to where I wanted to be. It's only going to get warmer from here.

So where was the magical destination of this Sunday?

The Kunisaki Penninsula.

It's the large penninsula jutting out from the northern side of Oita Prefecture. Below you can see it in relation to Oita Prefecture as a whole. I started from Nakatsu City which is the farthest north western town in the prefecture on the border of Fukuoka, and planned to ride to the center of the penninsula.

Penninsulas in Japan are usually pretty cool places to go. Often they'll be close to large cities, but seemingly cut off from the modern world. Trains don't run in these places because there's no business to be had in such isolation. So Japanese penninsulas are usually composed of lots of small towns and farms around the coastlines, with mountains and temples in the center. One of my favorite parts of the Hokuriku region (Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui Prefectures) was the Noto Penninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, a forgotten land stuck in the past with hidden folk mysteries. Looking at the Kunisaki Penninsula in Oita, I thought it must be the same. When I've looked at the penninsula before from groundlevel afar, it looks like a separate island with many strange mountains. It looks like a video game to me, like Zelda or Mario. The image was captivating, but the land was far. The only way to get there by bike was on a full day trip, so that day was today.

I live north of the Nakatsu City center next to the ocean which is made up of rice fields and houses/apartment buildings. It's really nice apart from the new apartment building they're building a pissing space from the one I currently reside in. (I now curse new construction built just in front of pre-existing buildings, and look at my apartment and realize it's the same. My hands are just as bloodied.) There is a wide road along the coast all the way to the penninsula, which is much better than taking the main road a bit further inland through Nakatsu City.

To the left is the ocean, to the right, the mountains, and in front of me off in the distance are these mountains of the Kunisaki Penninsula which are my destination.

It's not a bad ride, but man it's long. I judge distances often by the number of towns. I live in Nakatsu City. To the east is Usa. After that is Bungo Takada, which is the gateway to the penninsula. In my mind, I pass through one city, and then I'm already at the gateway to my real adventure. In my mind, that's like thirty minutes, but goddamn Usa covers a wide area. It's much smaller than Nakatsu, but while Nakatsu runs more north to south, Usa goes west to east ... nothing but farm fields and shrines ... for a really long time. It takes me about 20 minutes to reach Usa from my house, and then it's about an hour through Usa. Filled with energy and rushed by the freezing morning air, I made the passage as quick about as fast as any human on a bike could.

That is while allowing breakfast time of course, a conbini (convenience store) breakfast bread type thing, banana, orange juice, and coffee. I got the goods, sat on a bench outside, and crammed it all into my mouth, shivering on a steel bench. I drank the coffee while I rode, spending more time with the warm drink to my mouth than not, and so before I knew it my happy morning liquid ration was over. So I stopped at another conbini for another hot coffee, and jumped on the bike again.

Eventually the sun began to rise and I was comfortable. The towns were waking up as I rode past them, as if I was pulling the blanket from off their bodies. Above is a picture that I feel captures my image of Kyushu pretty well. I came here to find another version of Japan, so I'm constantly searching for its individual qualities. It is different, that's for sure. But how? Mmmmm, it seems more left alone (?) It reminds me of New Zealand a bit, there will be cars and houses and gardens that are used, but not perfectly maintained (?) Gardens surrounded by overgrowing bushes. Cars a few years older than the rest. One story houses next to the ocean without extraneous design. It's simple, natural, and less obsessed over. There's also lots of yellow: yellow yuzu fruits, yellow leaves, and other yellow whatevers. I like this image, it definitely has it's own charm. Something about people living in snowy climates with more money changes this.

More ocean. This side of Oita is protected within a bay with Yamaguchi Prefecture (and Honshu as a whole) right across the way. Due to this, it's not much of a swimming area, but it's safe from big waves and tsunami. This allows civilization to be brought right to the shore, which is nice. There is a combination of the fear of tsunami, and the utilization of port industries which makes the Japanese coastline not always a charming place to be. For an island nation, I've been shocked at the lack of beautiful seaside for people to live on and visit. But I suppose as I mentioned, due to the fear of tsunami, cities are built far inland and large concrete tetrapods litter the oceanside tens of meters out to sea. Or perhaps it's due to the fear of invasion of feudal lords in the past, or even modern attacks. Furthermore, a lot of accessible waterfront property in Japan is taken up with industry. I was initially shocked in Toyama the first time I tried to ride my bike along the ocean. For some reason I just couldn't get there. Surely they'd have some kind of pathway for walkers and bikers to enjoy the seaside? Nope. Mostly factories and ports. This is not one of my favorite parts of Japan, but what the hell, can anywhere be perfect? (The idealist in me says yes though. Do something about it, Japan. make me happy all the time!)

Here is another mark of Kyushu: temples and shrines everywhere. I think it has to do with a few things: Kyushu being one of the first places immigrants passed through from mainland expeditions makes people's presence old in this area. Also, the island doesn't have too many dominating natural obstructions. The mountains aren't too high, and there are passages all throughout the island, which means people can inhabit just about anywhere. In Toyama you'll find old culture for sure dating back to the Jomon, but for the most part, you'll have sparse temples and shrines dating back a couple hundred years. In this part of Kyushu they're everywhere and often dating back 1,000 years or more.

Finally I made it through Usa and got to Bungo Takada. It's a small town just off the train line and acts as the gateway to the penninsula. There's not much going on, but it certainly has an atmosphere of it's own, owing largely to "Showa Town". The Showa Era last from 1926 to 1989, and the people in Bungo Takada have built and maintained a part of the town in the atmosphere of the Show Era, calling it Showa Town. There are lots of old buildings and interesting shops, certainly a funny place to find yourself and worth a trip.

And so I'm off! Through this gateway town and on to adventure land.

Along the way I found a Japanese hobbit-hole. Surprisingly nobody was home to offer me a mid-morning meal. What would a hobbit call that particular meal I wanted?

And more small caves.

Kyushu really loves its caves, and its shrines, and putting them together.

I give Japan a C+ for this attempt at a sandwich. With black pepper ham, decent cheese, and a ciabatta-like bread, I sense the effort ... but the fact is that it is 90% bread, and Japan not being able to put more than two slices of meat keeps the disappointment at a high. Actually, there are a few things foreigners don't talk about in this country, and that usually has to do with nostalgic food. For me, it's Mexican food and sandwiches. It actually makes me cringe mentioning them here, and will only be able to manage writing such words a bit further. I LOVE good sandwhiches, ones with interesting varieties of bread, loads of tasty vegetables like pickels and jalapenos and sprouts and onions, along with the conventional tomatoes and lettuce. I love sandwhiches with spicy mustard, good quality mayonnaise, and maybe some oil and vinegar or some other interesting sauce. Then that sandwich has got to have a least two different kinds of cheese, niether of them being Japanese super market sliced cheese. And then, above all else, that sandwhich must be dominated by stacks upon stacks of various meats, turkey, pastrami, ham, roast beef, to the point that your arms get a workout by simply lifting the sandwich to your mouth. THAT IS A SANDWICH!!! I won't even take the time to describe how pathetic Japanese sandwiches are. I'll just say that I've never had a delicious sandwich in Japan ... and that says a lot after four years trying every single one I find.

Oh and Mexican food? It's more of the fact that it's non-existent. Very rarely will you find it, and unsurprisingly it is so Japanized it has nothing to do with the original idea. However, I have found a handful of delicious Mexican restaurants only partially Japanized.

I love Japan, so much in certain ways it makes up for it's limitations, but when you drop the sandwich and Mexican bombs, it's hard not to think about picking up shop and heading across the sea again.

(Though I have decided to live in rural places in Japan. Perhaps in larger cities you can find alternatives. The price I pay for the simple.)

This person however gets an A for their English endeavors. Next to a pond where I ate my Japanese sandwhich-like substance, I found this paper as a piece of trash next to a drainage pipe. This country is amazing for how hard it's people perservere in their studies of English. It's also amazing at how hard the Japanese seek perfection in their English; using combinations of words and intonations that a native speaker hasn't used in decades. Good luck to them all! But I hope they remember, that without being able to have a normal conversation with a native speaker, you're missing a big part of the picture. Wanna meet with me for an hour in a cafe for 3000 yen, anybody???

But I digress.

This is my new friend! What a funny dog. I rode past some warehouse like structure on a hill and out came this guy barking. I didn't sense any aggression, so I stopped. He stopped barking, and wagged his tail. I called him over, he came. I put out my hand, he sniffed it, I tried to pet him, he retreated, he smelled some more, I pet him, and we were automatic best friends. I'm certainly less than a cat person, and this is definitely a dog-dog, so I suppose we're not so picky in each other's friendship. I have a cute dog to pet, and he has a human to pet him, sometimes I guess that's all you need for loyal friendship.

So I pet the dog, we became best friends, but eventually had to say goodbye, so I did and rode on. But then he raced past me, and stared at me as if asking where we were headed. Uh-oh ... I realized that no matter how far I was going to go, this dog was going to loyally escort me wherever that was with zero immediate consideration for his home. The result was going to be a lost dog. I searched for an owner to hold him back to no avail. I spent about a good 10 minutes of honest hand gesturing and rock throwing to convey to him this precarious situation, but he just wasn't getting it. I rode on ahead until there was a fork in the road. Downhill both ways, this was good, I would be able to build up enough speed to outpace the dog, leaving him behind in recent proximity to his home. I wanted to go left, but that's where he went, so sped down to the right. I lost him quickly, and wondered about that strange encounter we had.

Welcome to the Kunisaki Penninsula! Ahead lie funny looking mountains and I wondered what strange things I would find in this magic land.

A temple! Surprise! But I knew this going into it, that this area was famous for a lot of old temples, and I was very curious to the kinds I may find. Here is one built into a cave. It is one of the most famous in the area, called Tennenji. Interesting thing about this is that it is a Buddhist temple, but then right next door is a Shinto shrine. I won't go into the history of the two here, but it reminds me how intertwined these two used to be. It wasn't only until the Meiji Era that such clear distinctions were made between the two, and the different sects within. I think originally each region seemed to have it's own special blend of the two, or whatever else they wanted. What we see today is largely a manufactured editing, presented to look a certain way, instead of carry on the beliefs practiced before.

But if we're going to get specific, this area is famous for Shugendo Buddhism. Here is the brief introduction Wikipedia gives:

"Shugendō (修験道?) is a highly syncretic Buddhist religion or sect and mystical-spiritual tradition that originated in pre-Feudal Japan, in which enlightenment is equated with attaining oneness with the kami (?). This perception of experiential "awakening" is obtained through the understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature, centered on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling practice. The focus or goal of Shugendō is the development of spiritual experience and power. Having backgrounds in mountain worship, Shugendō incorporated beliefs or philosophies from Old Shinto[citation needed] as well as folk animism, and further developed as Taoism and esoteric Buddhism arrived in Japan. The 7th century ascetic and mystic En no Gyōja is often considered as having first organized Shugendō as a doctrine. Shugendō literally means "the path of training and testing"[citation needed] or "the way to spiritual power through discipline."[1]"" 

I have no experience practicing the religion, but have read about it from time to time and I always thought it was the most ... something ... of the Buddhist sects. I'd have to say I have the most interest in the Zen tradition for various reasons, but Shugendo with it's mountain ascetics and esoteric practices, I likened it more to the magical side of Japanese religion, which I think is really cool. I still think it's very cool, but in coming here I realize how long it's been since I've thought of such things. There was a time I dreamed of being a Shugendo warrior priest practicing ascetic rituals with the spirits while hanging from cliffs.

So a big part of this penninsula is being the training ground and pilgrimmage path to many Shugendo practitioners. Here on this funny rock formation above you can see a small bridge on the left and small shrine on the right. I'll have to come back to this area and climb on these rocks, but not today.

What makes this specific temple of Tennenji so famous is that it's home to a very interesting festival and dance. I'm not exactly sure on the specifics, but two people dress up as demons (or perhaps two demons take the form of humans), one black and one red (wearing the masks shown above) and dance in a fashion such as in the picture below.

They light sticks on fire and have a mock battle, while also terrorizing the bystanders, slapping them with fiery sticks if they so desire, and light other much larger sticks on fire outside. It looks super cool, and is certainly part of the great hidden rural culture in these parts. Sure if you go to Kyoto and visit the main temples and shrines, and read about zen, you're seeing a part of Japan, but there is a whole different Japan that lives off the main train lines, and runs long back into ancient veins. Here deep in the mountains and forests are demon traditions of fire ... and really interesting costumes. Are these really the traditional clothes? They look awfully post-modern to me.

So many things to see and study and learn! But only so much daylight to go and I had farther to ride.

My basic plan was to ride to the center of the penninsula where it seems all roads intersect (check the map at the top again). Making it to the center where there are lots of strange temples and mountains around, I would then hope to climb one of them if time and energy permitted. I have a mountain climbing book on Oita and two of the featured treks were in this area. The temple I had visited of Tennenji lay at the beginning of this center, so I had a ways to go to the end, but I was certainly already deep in the dream land I envisioned. Mountains were everywhere, but not so tall. Lots of strange rock formations. This also seems very Kyushu to me as compared to the large mountain ranges of central Honshu.

I rode further and found myself making a steady incline. I envisioned most of the area being flat except for the jutting mountains, and was surprised at this. I also felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I certainly was, but it was different than I imagined. The incline only continued, I didn't see the desired mountains in sight, earlier coffees were wearing off, and I began to enter a darkened mood of sorts.

Looking back, there's not much to complain about. Regardless, low dark clouds settled on my mind all did not seem well. I don't even remember exactly what I was thinking or why? I suppose it is the human condition.

Am I getting older? The obvious answer is yes. My years are counting higher, but it's not just that.

The night before I had to fight unusually hard against sabotaging this trip by drinking, spending money, or getting distracted. It felt like I was fighting against the fat weight of some demons who really wanted me to fail. Like it was grating against the nerves in my skin I was fighting. As for my body, I woke up and felt pretty good after the stretch, but it's the coffee. It's like if I have coffee I can do anything, and if I don't I want to inflict pain on innocent things. I know there are addictions to coffee and whatnot, but really? Is it really so strong? I used to fall in and out of dark thoughts easily and lightly. Anytime I start pushing the bike up a hill this happens, but goddamn, this time it felt so heavy, and it wasn't going away anytime soon. What am I thinking about? What is so heavy as to blind me from the excitement of where I am? When did this happen? Why?

Is it only going to increase with time? What is the purpose and path of this darkness?

I pushed for a long time until I saw a tunnel, something I would usually see in Toyama, but this may be the first one I've found around here on the bike. A nostalgic flash interuppted my stagnating mood, and on the otherside was a steep downhill.

This produced very mixed feelings.

After such a long push uphill, a downhill like this is the greatest thing in the world. That downhill crusing at top speed is the adrenaline gold of these trips. But I knew the only road I would return by was this, and that if I was going to go down, I was going to have to come back up. It was getting later and I had gone even farther than I imagined in pursuit of these mountains. Those mixed feelings drove me mad and I parked the bike and started at the forest.

Like someone pulled down this dream-like curtain before me, I got off the bike without taking my gaze from the forest. Mouth slightly open, I stumbled thoughtlessly to the wooded edge of the road. I was slightly light headed for the sudden change in movement. I walked to the edge of the forest and subconsciously stopped.

This is what you do in Japan.

You walk on the path, and stops where it tells you. There is man, and there is nature. Man can make man into nature with paths and things, but without that, man does not go into nature.

This is not me.

In my home, my childhood was based upon walking into the woods, diving into nature. I walked where I wanted. But I stopped. What has happened to me? I wanted to go in, but there was some small Japanese fear inside of me like I shouldn't, or even waste the time. I saw that there was a light trail into the woods workers had used before. I looked to the woods and saw that it had been heavily affected by man, with lots of fallen trees from chainsaws. I stepped into the woods, maybe thirty meters or so. Stepping on soil, brushing against bushes and leaves, climbing over stumps gives me a feeling like none other: This is where I belong.

I knelt down and just stared at the forest.

I'm not sure how much time passed. I felt the forest. This was different than my thoughts, my plans. I felt the weight of all those plans I have been holding, those chains. What a fucking slave, I thought. Constrained to the path and what others have told me is safe. In choosing the path, I have been blindly accepting the pressures of its expectation. The Fear. I have not rested from these pressures in a long time. Here in the forest I just look. I just breath. I am alive, I am strong, and that is enough. I am also the forest, and it is also me. Everything is OK, because this is just life, a strange amalgamation of phenomenon that eats, lives, dies, and creates. I thought of my plans in search of the mountain I wanted. I thought of kyudo. I thought of learning Japanese, getting married, having friends, writing on the blog, teaching English, being succesful, being home on time, eating the right things, not drinking the wrong things, thinking the right things... everything down to every ridiculous letter, I thought ... I am a fool.

I am alive, I am strong, I am the forest, and everything is OK.

I pulled myself from the forest because I have to move on.

I got back on the bike and proceeded further, just a little, I said. That downhill was looong. It was incredibly fun to ride, and at the same time I cringed thinking about pushing my bike up it again.

At the bottom of the hill I soon found my mountain, small marks of civilization, and an onsen.

All that's left is to climb it. From there the long return will commence.

As you can see, the mountain is lone and steep. It's not so high at 605 meters, but man was it the tallest 605 meter mountain I can remember climbing. Just trudging straight up.

Up up up through the forest. It reminded me of Toyama, lots of small cedar trees and steep climbs. It felt good to be in my boots in this forest.

Up and up and up, what a mighty little mountain this is. I was happy, but also frustrated as one can be on the climb. I wanted to be at the top. I dreamed of what captivating views I would have. Being one of the tallest mountains in the penninsula I imagined all of the surrounding Zelda/Mario-like hills. I imagined seeing the sea, my home in Nakatsu, and maybe even Oita City on the other side.

The top! It only took about 45 minutes, and I had made it. It had the feel of a small mountain top, trees and picknick benches.

On such low mountains there are often still lots of trees to conceal good views, so I climbed one of them to get these pictures.

The views!

OK. I'm not trying to be a miser, though it may sound like it, but I was kind of unimpressed with the view. I'm not saying they should cut down all of the trees so we can appreciate it all, but couldn't they build a small tower to take in the impressive view? I wanted it to be sunnier, I wanted to see more, I wanted it to be more like the video game images in my head. Instead it was real, on this early winter cloudy afternoon. There's lots of mountains around here, is this really the one featured in that book I had? I had reached the top, and the only feeling I had was that to descend. So down I went.

This was good. I found the mountain I wanted, I climbed it: success. But more dark thoughts came in. Not so dark, but questioning. I thought of how much effort I had put into this trip. I thought of how I'm the only person I know who would do this kind of thing. I thought about how wonderful a thing it is to use discipline to get to bed early, get up before the sun, eat healthy, ride a bike where you live, then far to places unknown, where you find old temples, cultures, and then climb a mountain to top it off. I thought about how I have to do these kinds of things to feel alive and be happy, but that nobody else does it. I thought how lonely that can be. I thought of how disappointing the mountain top can be sometimes. I forget about the long rides home.

I had some very revealing thoughts about zen and local traditions. I thought of how limiting zen is. It's a very interesting philosophy, it has a very enlightening practice ... but it makes sense that there are so few people that can understand and practice it.

It's super boring and difficult.

Who wants to just sit there in an uncomfortable position for such long periods of time? For what? For who? How lonely, and boring, and difficult the zen life can be. There's no way normal people can enjoy such a thing. People talk about how universal zen is, how anybody can do it, anywhere, anytime, and it's wisdom is revealed to all who try ... but how few people do you know who can really do it? I think a lot of foreigners get excited about zen and all of its jazz, but they make it something else ... they make it something cool, trendy, or even something we have to do, which is just more trash. I think of a lot of Japanese people I know who don't indulge in the same thoughts, and it's absolutley no surprise no one cares about zen here. People don't want want boring, lonely, and difficult. Why am I the only person I saw on the mountain that day? Or on the road on bike? Or waking up at 6:00 on a freezing Sunday morning? Why do I like this boring, lonely, difficult stuff? I don't know exactly, but I do.

Anyway ...

nobody wants to sit zazen and climb little moutains ... you know why?

Because most people work jobs that are lonely difficult and boring. We already do all of that shit, why would we make our hobbies even more so? Life is full of boring, difficult, and lonely. Work is full of boring, difficult, and lonely. I'm as young and American as the next and indulge in the belief that I should be paid large amounts of money and fame for doing exactly what I want, but ... but ... that's not happening, and it probably won't, because that's just an idea. For the most part I think people in the history of the world have had to put up with a lot of shitty shit including work, life, and responsibilities.

So you want to know what they did in their free time instead of climb mountains and contemplate Buddha???

They got drunk, lit things on fire, and danced around in funny masks and costumes.

It makes perfect sense now. In laboring agricultural society, especialy one pressured by military ruling classes, that sounds like a great thing to do with your free time.

I don't need to do the same exactly, because I live a different life ... but maybe it makes sense if I don't climb mountains and sit zazen and practice budo and write on a blog ... blah blah blah .. all the time.

Realizations. More mysteries. I do not belong to the past, nor the future. I am living a life now that has little definition. In this modern world we are responsible for creating our lives, and largely have the freedom to do so. Ultimate freedom, yet the limitations of reality at the same time. The illusions of society. My mind is broken and useless. It makes no sense. All I know is that I have this body, and I need to get it home before it is too late.

Aren't these cedar trees strange. So long and thin and then just the smallest bushiness at the top. This is very strange.

I went to the onsen and rushed in just before they closed the restaurant. I ordered something quickly and was hackled by an extremely drunk old man. While I was trying to order he was yelling at me telling me to sit down.

"Hey, come on over here and sit down ... Hey, come on ... HEY GET OVER HERE AND SIT DOWN!"

I was tired and ignoring him, the lady at the counter was ignoring him too but very uneasy and embarrassed. She ushered me to a separate room, but the guy kept yelling at me and walked closer to me staring at me with blackout drunk eyes and speaking rude Japanese unintelligible to anywone. I asked him if he was OK, and he stared at me very awkwardly for a long duration. I stared back a bit, but then shrugged him off and turned away. He said something else, then tried to get up but fell over and crawled back to his chair. The waitress came over and closed the door to my area, and the old man continued to hackle. I got my meal, and heard that the lady had called a taxi for him. I heard the taxi man come in. The lady was asking him to leave but he wouldn't. I knew the taxi man was there but he was dead silent. I could see it all behind the closed door: This completely wasted obnoxious old man ordering more drinks, cursing at others, refusing to go home, the very kind old lady waitress asking him to go home, and the awkward taxi man just standing there doing nothing. This wasn't going to end soon, so I decided to step out and pay. The old man seemed surprised to see me, as if he didn't remember me at all from 15 minutes earlier. I looked at him and the others and they were silent. I paid for my bill, said thank you, and the drunk old man said, "Whoa, he's good at Japanese." in a funny innocent way.

"Hey man, the restaurants closed, it's time to go home." I said to him.

The old lady sat for a moment and then said,

"Oh no no no no it's OK, don't worry, you can just go."

I said "whatever" in my head and left. There was nothing for me to say or do, and that was best for me anyway. I just felt bad for everybody. I felt bad for the lady who had to deal with this guy but couldn't tell him to go home. Bound by culture and her job, she had to be as polite as possible while trying to coax him out. The taxi man the same, having nothing to do but politely stand there until somebody fixed or didn't fix the situation. I thought of the obnoxious old man who could have any reason for being so surly. What a strange world we live in. Only in Japan would they have the discipline and patience for such an ordeal. I thought of America where the lady waitress would tell the guy to get out, the taxi man who would try and help do something, and a bystander who might say something. But no ... not here. I respect the Japanese way of doing things, and admire it in a lot of ways, but man sometimes I think there's got to be a better way.

So as you can tell, it was a day of quickly changing moods. This happened, and it really put a wet rag on the mood. That along with the thought of a return trip which may take as long as four hours (which it did) after all that had happened, I thought that maybe I didn't need to come so far. Getting into onsen was a small goal of the trip and I had found one, but there just wasn't enough time for it all.

I quickly entertained the thought of just continuing to the end of the penninsula and staying the night. But that return trip was there no matter what. The only way I was getting back with my bike was on it, and I couldn't afford to blow the money necessary to stay the night, plus trying to get home the next day before work.

So I headed home after my epic adventure, exhausted by the ride, confused by the world, and haunted by that drunk old man.

I can't help but think that in some strange way, this is just what I want.

USA Driving School! Where I can just walk in and they'll give me a driver's license and a car good in Japan!!!

Yeah right. It's just the name of the town, Usa (pronounced oo-sah). I heard that in early modern manufacturing times companies would have their products made in the town so they could say, "Made in USA."

What a loooooooooooooooooooooooong ride home. It was a magical land, but I don't think I'll be going back to the Kunisaki Penninsula on the bike again anytime soon. When Satomi gets here we'll take trips in the car ... nice warm happy trips. Maybe next year when I forget how hard it all was I'll saddle the bike for a summer ride or something.

What a strange place we live in. Each and every one of us, with our own little world of our own. "What is yours like?" I wonder.

Thank you very much for reading this post.