Sunday, December 8, 2013

I Finally Found Iaido ... and Jodo

I did it, and I'm overflowing with budo happiness and general excitedness about life.

I've mentioned in the past few posts my growing interest in a dojo that teaches iaido and jodo in Nakatsu. Until now I've been just trying to get used to the new home with the area and work. After a few weeks I started kyudo here and found an excellent dojo, but I've had trouble getting started, and still haven't found a rythm. I thought I'd wait at least until I get into the rythm of kyudo, maybe a few months or so, before trying anything new. But I have too much time and energy on my hands to just sit around and plan. That frustration, plus the intrigue of finally exploring new budo boiled over and I couldn't help but contact the dojo and make introductions.

Two days ago I decided to make the call despite all warnings against. I woke up, went through my morning routine, and then decided to call. But something felt wrong. Was I really going to put this whole thing in motion? The thing is, if I make the call and initiate contact, then I'm going to have to show up. I'm going to have to present myself and my situation and take that teacher's time and energy to feel me out and accomodate me as a prospective student. After that I will be asked if I want to start. If I just talk about the limitations of practice (acquiring a new practice while still maintaining kyudo, only having weekday mornings to train) and give vague answers ("Well, I want to start, but I dunno ...) then I'll be considered a flake (because it is flaky) and any future potential contact will be limited by that first impression.

First impressions are so important, maybe a little more so in Japan. If you start off on the right foot, you can fall as much as you want as long as you try to get back up ... and finishing is really important in Japan, too. As a matter of fact, compared to my feelings about home, how you start and finish things is way more important here. As for the actual mid-way participation, it doesn't have to be perfect, not by a long shot. (The reasons why will demand another post!)

So, I decided to make the call, which meant following through with whatever came after, even though I was extremely nervous and hesitant. But whatever, I was going to do it. I decided that whatever I do in my first contact, don't be flaky, and more importantly, don't be annoying.

Don't be annoying. If there's any advice my small years can offer another person when meeting a new person in which you'll receive a great service ... like a job or a new dojo ... don't be annoying.

OK, don't be annoying.

So I called at the awkward time of 2 p.m. What normal person calls someone else at this time of day? Regardless, it's what I did. It rang and rang and eventually went to voice mail.

SHIT! I didn't think of what to do if it went to voicemail.

Of course before the call I went through my head what I would say, but setting anything in stone is just setting yourself up for failure (no matter what language), plus all the thinking taxes my resolve, so I just said screw it and call and see what happens.

But it went to voicemail, and I didn't expect that, and so I hung up before leaving a message.

Shit. This guy probably won't call back this random number after one call (though Japanese seem to be better at calling people back, I think). So, I'm going to have to call again, and I'm going to have to leave a message.


So I rehearsed a couple times what I was going to say and was ready.

I called. It went to voicemail. I began to speak:

"Hello. I'm calling for Yamada Sensei. My name is Zac and I'm an American who just moved to Nakatsu. I found your website and am interested in learning more about what you do. I've always had an interest in budo and ~"


Shit! It cut me off before I was finished! This is definitely annoying. But I have to call again to finish what I was saying.

OK, I'll call one more time and see.

I called, it rang, someone picked up, but I couldn't hear anything. Maybe he was busy and couldn't deal with the constant ringing. Maybe the button was pressed without his knowing? I have no idea. But I hung up after 10 seconds of silence and left it at that. Though this teacher got three phone calls and one half-message from a gaijin which he may or may not have understood, if he's a good teacher or person at all, he'll understand he should call me back. If not, I'll call again tomorrow.

After that, I called it enough and left for work. The whole time riding my bike and the train, and a bike again, I thought about what ripples will happen from my initial tossing of the stone. Did I understand what I had started? How far would this go? I thought of many different things. I thought of finding the perfect dojo and experience I've been waiting for my whole life. I thought that the sensei would be crap, or their training time wouldn't work with my schedule and it would end before I ever unsheathed a proper katana.

After I finished my last class I dashed to my bag to find my phone and realized I had a missed call from the sensei and had a voicemail. In the message he told me to call a different number and we could talk more about the subject. I called it back immediately and it went to voicemail. I didn't leave a message because I figured they knew once they saw it what I wanted, which was to talk to about budo. I cleaned up the classroom and right as I was locking the door and heading out I received a call from the dojo. I picked it up and ran outside as quickly as possible to escape the echoing halls. This man was very friendly and very easy to talk to, which was a big worry of mine. It doesn't take much to run out of patience talking to an unknown foreigner on the phone, but he was very friendly and seemed very interested in meeting as soon as possible (another thing I think Japanese are really good at) to talk further, which was exactly what we needed to do. We needed to see each other face to face. This may be more important with budo than other social meetings. He asked me about the next day but I had plans and couldn't meet until the day after. He asked if 10 was alright, and I said sure, and the meeting was set. I don't think I was too annoying, and was really impressed with the teacher over the phone.

I jumped on my bike and raced to the station, heart pounding and mind racing with excitement.

(Funny story: Along the way, probably taking my gloves or phone out of my coat pocket, my house key fell out somewhere and was never found. I realized it when I got to the train station, took a taxi back to the classroom and convenience store I stopped at on the way to check if it fell out there with the monetary transaction, couldn't find it, and ended up paying loads of money for taxis, express trains, and slept on the floor of the other gaijin who lives in Nakatsu. Next day I called the landlord for help, didn't get an immediate answer, and made the smart yet extremely shady choice of climing up my downstairs neighbor's balcony to mine and get in. )

So yeah, the next day I did my thing and thought the whole time of that Saturday morning meeting to come.

The night I had a beer and quite a few glasses of wine. But totally within my limits, and went to sleep knowing I would just wake up, take a shower, eat, and then this quest for further budo would be happening to me.

I woke up and took longer than I thought in preparation squeezing my time short. I stopped at a convenience store for a coffee and gulped it down while I raced on my bike over bumpy sidewalks to the dojo. From my apartment it's about thirty minutes on the bike. Is that long? Certainly not the epitome of convenience, but I swore before if I didn't have to ride a train and make a commute of over an hour one way to budo training like I did for kyudo in Toyama, I wouldn't complain. And so I won't.

Along with first impressions, being on time, or early is sooooooooooo important in Japan. No matter who or what you are, just don't be late. I had to throw my coffee cup away and take a piss before going in the dojo (I knew I would have to wait a long time before next chances of relief) so I stopped in the shopping center across the street, literally ran to the bathroom, finished, jumped on the bike and screeched to a halt in front of the dojo at 9:57.


Perfect. Truly perfect, I think.

I climbed the four steps of the dojo, stopped and stepped back down for a 30 second breather. I saw a shape come to the door, open, and then it began.

The man, Yamamoto Sensei, dressed in training garb, told me to come in, and so I did.

The dojo is ... NICE.

I saw pictures of the outside online and it looked like a nondescript square white building: Super not-interesting. On the outside are wooden signs with the name of the dojo, but if you didn't know what you were looking at, you definitely wouldn't notice it. When I got to the dojo for myself I though about how unimpressive it is, which is often a good sign of a dojo.  But ... I was impressed in a very subconscious way when I went in. It smelled of fresh hinoki wood, was not a huge hall, but certainly not cramped for space. It was clean, there were martial arts paraphernalia on the walls, and there were big mirrors. The sensei was very nice and welcoming and we began talking. We had a minute of chit chat, and then he began showing me some of the scrolls on the wall which told of the arts that were practiced in the dojo. Not but two minutes later, another man came in the dojo and began getting dressed.

He asked why I came and I said that I was interested, really interested, in the iaido and jodo it looks like they practiced. He smiled wide and then asked if I had any experience in martial arts. I said I did. He asked if it was karate, or something, and I said that in high school I started karate. He seemed to expect this. After I graduated from college I came to Japan and started aikido. He seemed interested in that. I said I did kyudo as well, and he didn't seem interested at all. I didn't mention my time in other Chinese arts like Tai Chi, Ba Gua, and Hsing I, mostly because it would inundate everything else, and anyone who has done so many different things is probably not good at anything. I remember when I first talked to my aikido sensei, who was a little less friendly at first meeting than this guy, I mentioned I did karate and tai chi chuan. He asked what kind of karate and I said Hawaiian Kenpo. He had never heard of it before and didn't seem to care, and didn't say anything else at all about tai chi. Since then, I probably won't mention at first meetings I practice tai chi chuan, not for any other reason than it doesn't seem to resonate with the Japanese audience all that much. (But if brought up I would happily talk for hours attesting to its legitimacy and the fact that if all else faded away, I would still be standing there practicing the tai chi form, and idealizing about push hands as the best martial arts practice I've ever felt). So he didn't seem very impressed with kyudo, and that is another thing I've noticed among other budoka. I'm excited to get back to other budo and see kyudo from a distance, but any misjudgements of kyudo are just that, misjudgements. It is a legitimate budo and should be admired with the rest, training the mind body and soul sufficiently (but further explanation will require a whole separate post as well! Too much to say, too much.)

So, we talked about these kinds of things and he told me about the dojo and after five minutes he told me to take a seat and relax and watch the training session.

I was impressed with everything I had seen so far, and was happy that I was able to sit in on a training. Before, I really wasn't sure what this meeting was going to be like. Would we just talk for a few minutes? Would he expect me to start training right then? Would I watch a training session first? I was happy for the latter, which is what I expected anyway.

I sat in a chair in a corner and watched.

 They started with jodo. By "they" I mean Yamamoto Sensei and the lone student.

Yamamoto Sensei is an interesting looking guy. Many of my Japanese teachers and friends in the martial arts have been far more normal than I imagined, which is perfectly fine, but there's something about this guy that stands out a bit more. He's pretty tall for a Japanese, maybe six foot, which makes him considerably taller than me, and any other Japanese martial arts teacher I've had before. My aikido sensei was maybe 5'9, kyudo sensei in Toyama about 5'7, and kyudo sensei in Nakatsu about 5'5, and all fairly average looking Japanese dudes. So this Yamamoto Sensei is pretty tall, and old enough to have half of his full head of hair greying. The thing I noticed most though was his beard. He has a beard, and it's cool. You can tell he takes his time trimming and shaving around it, and in fact his demeaner shows that he isn't lazy about his physical hygiene. I know think this is a good thing. He's in good shape, not super thin, but also not especially muscled. His limbs seem a bit long, but I suppose that's normal for people of his height. His hands are pretty average sized. He has very attentive eyes, but he doesn't stare at you or anything. His gaze simply looks sharp. He moves within his bounds and balance, but he looks like he can move fast when he needs to, which is something I haven't seen much of in my other Japanese teachers. Fast movements don't happen often in kyudo or aikido, though I have seen my aikido sensei move fast when practicing his kenpo.

The student looked like a good student, but definitely a beginner. At one point we chatted for a moment and he said he'd only been practicing for a month now. So short. It made sense. In the movements he found himself in strangely off balance positions, and struggled to remember all of the little details involved in sitting, standing, preparing movements, etc (as anyone would and I will!).

I was totally impressed by the one on one class they were having. I haven't had that in a long time. To have your teacher's full attention in improving your technique is a very special experience. In kyudo I was lucky to get my sensei's full attention often, but even then it's not like the whole time he's there with you. He'll watch you, help you, stay for 2 to 15 minutes, and then shoot or help someone else and come back later. In aikido this never happened because there were always a lot of other people, though I had lots of one on one conversations with the sensei. Furthermore, a lot of things in aikido deal with very subtle body movements where the sensei will tell you to do something that really feels impossible. My impression with this kind of iaido and jodo is that a lot of it starts off with and can ride along with imitation. Imitate your teacher, do exactly what movements he says, and you're good. This is much more difficult to do immediately in aikido and kyudo.

So they worked on jodo, and I watched from the corner. I've had experience with the jo in aikido, but I knew that it would be different than non-aikido jodo. The jodo I've done was good, but extremely limited ( not because of the teacher, but because of my rank and time). Most of the jodo I've done is solo waza, with very little experience doing waza with opposing partners, and always relative to aikido movements. I think it's good, but different than this jodo, perhaps. There were lots of similarities, but that had less to do with my knowledge of the jo and more about general rules about budo like body weight, hand positioning, and distance.

Yamamoto Sensei talks a lot. For him, it's a good thing. He explains everything he does and why in a very practical manner. He also gives stories or further examples to explain his points. He talks a lot, but for him it works. He also moves a lot, and by that I mean practices each movement a lot to show and work with the student. You can tell he has a goal, which is the student performing the full movement correctly with a partner. He does whatever it takes to get that student to that point the fastest and most thoroughly. He'll start with introduction movements, explanations, speeding up of the movement and timing. When there is a problem, he'll go back and fill in the gaps until the student understands. He watched the student very carefully, focusing on the necessary missing pieces, and not bothering with other small things that will come with time.

He's concerned with kuzusu, putting an opponent off balance. There are points when contact is made in a smacking motion between partners' jo's and ken's, but he made a big point to say it's not about hitting the opponent's weapon out of the way, because it doesn't do anything, and good ken-wiedlers train their wrists to be soft so that when hit in such a way they can react and whip back even stronger. Instead of slapping another person's weapon, you make contact and move in a way that off-sets the partner's balance, making for a successful technique. Sometimes it may look like just hitting an opponent's weapon, but it's much more. This reminded me of my aikido, where movements are made sparingly and with the intent of unbalancing and opponent. You're not just flailing your arms around and making unecessary movements, though I have seen that kind of aikido before.

The jo is used in context against the ken (sword). In this respect, you have to analyze the pros and cons of this particular weapon. Pros, it has twice as many options as you can use either end interchangeably. It also has reach. However, it's just a stick compared to a long blade, which in my opinion seems like the greatest disadvantage. Because of this, one must be persistent in examining their practice of the jo. Every advantage must be taken to it's maximum. I saw this in practice as Yamamoto Sensei told the student to hold the jo or his body in a certain way as not to waste the length of the jo, and also to move in ways as to not give an opportunity for the opponent's blade to slash you or your jo, which would be the end of everything.

After an hour they moved on to iaido.

During this interum I looked around the dojo from my perch on a stool.

The dojo is NICE!

Fairly simple, but it looks very recently built. I asked later and he said it's been about a year. He seemed surprised at my interest in this detail. It smells like fresh hinoki wood and has beautiful mirrors, as I said before. The ceiling is high, and there are racks with lots of weapons (something I haven't seen since my first karate dojo). It's not a giant hall or anything, but very comfortably sized. Looking around, this is the perfect dojo, I thought.

They began iaido and the practice was similar to that with the jo. Just the two of them, and the teacher read and reacted to his student very well. There were lots of key explanations, and Yamamoto Sensei commented that though it looks like we practice iaido alone, it's impossible to do alone or think of as a solitary person's art. This hit home with my kyudo which is just the same. In jodo there was more of just starting, but in iaido a lot of time was spent on the proper introductory movements and etiquette. I also empathized with this from my experience in kyudo. The student was having trouble with it, and I just wanted to start doing it myself. I looked down and saw my hands realizing moving, mimicking the movements Sensei was teaching. I wanted to start there so bad, but today I would just watch.

Part way through Yamamoto Sensei was telling a long story. It had importance, but maybe was a little long for a training session. I was thoroughly interested and following, but I looked at the student and could see his mind was completely full. Eyes partly glazed over falling asleep, partly on fire trying his best to follow the teacher. He had reached his limit and I totally understand. After one month spending two hours on such tiny little details with the teacher's full attention. I totally understand. But I'm also chomping at the bit to get started.

When they finished, the student looked happy to call it a day, and the sensei laughed. This is a guy who loves his arts, has practiced diligently for a long time, and has a mind for an encyclopedia.

For some reason, in some way, I've been looking for this kind of training and teacher for a really long time. He asked me how it was and I said it was really interesting. He asked if I wanted to try and I said I really wanted to.

So we began discussions of the logistics. In this, my biggest worries were relieved. He teaches in the mornings according to the student's time. My work time will be no problem. Furthermore, I was really worried about him wanting students to spend a lot of days in training, but when I asked how often most students train in the beginning, he said just one day a week.

One day?

I was really hoping that he was going to say you don't have to come all the time, but one day? Wow. I guess ... that's ideal to start. I'll start with the one day a week and move on from there. In all of my martial arts experience it starts like this. You show up for the limited time at first, get used to each other, and things grow from there, and I can see there certainly is room for there to happen.

I was sure to assert my dedication to kyudo, but of course asked what he thought about practicing the two. I think the best situation for him is to have a student solely devoted to his dojo, and when that attention is diverted, it's a red flag in any situation. He tentatively said it would be no problem, but that it can get difficult to handle the details of it all when your mind is divided. I know this all too well, but I think it can work out for now, which is most important. I'm held back by my hand in kyudo, and I think my practice is hampered by my sole focus on it. I think for the most part I need to just chill the f&%k out on kyudo, go a few times a week and not worry about it instead of bouncing between the heavens and hells of it's affects. One day a week? This is ideal in a lot of ways. I'll start with this and see. I told him, and believe, that if it's too much I'll have to scrap one.

That's kind of scary. Because looking at this dojo, letting go of the interest and curiousity in it is impossible. In the beginning it will be one day a week, but I can tell this dojo is really into it's arts and will take it as far as one wants. I love kyudo, and I've come to an excellent dojo, after such a great experience with my past teacher in Toyama, I can't just throw it away ... but to only do kyudo now is torture and a waste I think. I'll progress in both slowly and see how it goes.

So it's good to go.

There was just one issue I hadn't predicted: money. I have a jo and dougi to use which is great. They use hakama when they train, and I have one from kyudo, but I have a feeling it's a bit different from the ones they use here. Other than that, the sword is left. The sword which is super necessary and not cheap. I asked how much it was and he said about $400 straight faced. They talked and said they've seen some for a little less than $300, but he definitely didn't try to pretend it would be any cheaper, and I appreciate that I guess. So after the move and all the unexpected expenses, here's one more. To the woe of everyone else concerned about my funds, that sword will be bought as soon as possible, before I really do have no money.

Unfortunately, my jo is still in Toyama, and I'll go and pick it up, along with my wife! in two weeks when I go back to Toyama for a few days. He said that's good, and until that time when I have all the gear we can just chill. I'll go in next Friday to sign paperwork, and train "just a little". He said this with a smile which gave me confidence. Though there is paperwork and gear to be had, he is a teacher and I am a student and we're ready to get started. I also liked that he said we'll start slowly at whatever pace works best and move from there.

After that I left the dojo and no idea what to do. I was so impressed with it all, and I couldn't believe I had already made all the moves to put me in the place to start this training. I was planning to ride the bike to a mountain onsen, but I wasn't ready to get started. I had to do something, but I didn't know what. I needed to drink a coffee or write something, so I started with a chahan and gyoza meal followed by a coffee, writing in my notebook all the while.

After that I rode to the mountain onsen of my desire. I thought. I soaked. I forgot. I thought.

I hate the supermarket, but I loved it today.

Everything about this place has blossomed. At points I've doubted my time, but today it feels right.

Today it feels like there are no such things as mistakes,

because there isn't.

We just move, and go, and things react, and so do we, and we have a thought, perhaps a desire, and it becomes real ...

This is the Becoming, and I'm very excited.

(These photos are of the bike ride after the dojo meeting to Nishitani Onsen. On the way I passed Yabakei, which is the most famous natural attraction in Nakatsu City, cliffs in which the side is carved out by temples. Not a bad place at all.)


  1. Outstanding! It looks like you hit the jackpot.

    Be diligent!

  2. Thanks! I can't wait to get started, details and stories and secrets will be given regularly here for sure.

  3. Happened upon this blog. I lived in Oita pref. for about 7 years and did a double take when I saw Nakatsu. I lived down south in Saiki and in Beppu. I also do Jodo as my primary art. I doubt there's much I could do to be of help, but if there ever is, please feel free to contact me. Hope you enjoy jodo!
    Tom Groendal (

  4. Send me the address and contact information for this Iaido dojo please