Friday, April 26, 2013

Japan Blog Carnival: Samurai Sushi

Blog Carnival!

What is it? It's where different bloggers get together and write about a similar topic. Thanks to Sophelia at who organized all of this , a few of us gaijin here in Japan got together and wrote about food in Japan. Check the links below for some interesting stories  from some very cool blogs.

Then at the bottom you can find mine ... SAMURAI SUSHI!

by">Sophelia's Adventures in Japan. Sophelia regularly blogs about teaching, adoption, dogs, vegetarianism and general geekiness.

< br />">Eating My Way Around an Island by">Big Red Dots and Squggly Inkblots. Furiida blogs about her experiences as a JET Programme participant in the rural prefecture of Oita.

< br />">The History of Yakiniku by">Angry Gaijin. Cameron Ohara is a Gaikokujin (foriegner) living in Japan. But get this - he was actually Japanese in a previous life! Now it's all he can do to get his Japanese comrades to look beyond his red hair and tall nose and see the Japanese human that exists within!

< br />

Samurai Sushi

Eat, drink, cook” she said … what a great topic! I’m not sure if the genius was intended, but there is no way gaijin living in Japan could not write on such a topic. That is unless you have your moms send you more than just coffee and oatmeal in the mail. I for one, rate cooking way down on the list of “things about me”, and yet I have one Japanese-master-secret -technique to tell you about.


But before I talk about the process directly involved in filling yourself with Japanese food, I’ll instruct you on the proper scenario required for such a feast. As is with many things in Japan, you can’t just get started putting things together and call it … well, something to be talked about.


First of all, this meal is best to on your day-off. This meal is a gold nugget amid a day of doing only exactly what you want. Any hindrance on this purity will only degrade the experience. Ask yourself what your favorite thing to do on your day off is, and do just that.


Secondly, this meal comes best after some kind of expended effort. This kind of meal is  something to be earned, not expected. Though the effort expended should be the best you can give, that doesn’t mean the hardest necessarily, but that kind best aligned with your interest. Surely you are interested in something you can expend effort for! I recommend something physical. Personally, I take this meal after a long bike ride into the mountains. This is very important.


Thirdly, this is a meal to be enjoyed alone. I hesitate a bit with this very crucial step, but it has less to do with any anti-social behaviors of mine, and more to the fact of enjoying this meal without unnecessary chatter or judgments. … OK, well maybe you can eat it with someone else, but only if they’re really cool.


So on with the ingredients; what are we going to eat!? And drink!?




Or more specifically, sashimi, that which is bought from your local supermarket. You’ll often find different packs of various pre-sliced sashimi, but I don’t mess with that. I go for the long solid slabs of salmon. They usually have tuna available as well, but I happen to like salmon better, so that’s what I do. In my experience, there are two price ranges which aren’t so far apart, but make a huge difference. If I find a one-person-size piece of my favorite sushi and it’s less than 200 yen, it’ll be the bad kind and ruin the whole meal. But, if I go for the 300-400 yen range, it’ll be the best sushi I’ve ever bought at the supermarket. I’m sure there are more ways of figuring out what makes such a huge difference, but translating the label in my head while I’m being swarmed by obaachans in the fish aisle seems like a lot of work.


So, you get the fish, and all the rest is super-easy. Make white rice in your rice cooker. Boil hot water to add to the miso soup packets you got at the supermarket with your fish. Then buy lots of Asahi in the large glass bottles, 2 works good for me, and one small-medium sized bottle of sake, I go for Tateyama, largely because it’s from my prefecture and really good. In fact, that’s important too. You should get local sake, or Tateyama because it’s just really good.


Now there is one last step and it’s not dessert. The last step is watching a period-film by the famous director, Akira Kurosawa along with the meal. I’d give some recommendations, but the list is far too long. Just rent/buy/download a Kurosawa film involving samurai and you’ll be good to go. This step really adds the right mood to the meal. It doesn’t have to be like preparing for seppuku or anything, but the black and white of it all makes it feel important. Somehow, the stereotypes of samurai and sushi really do go well together.


That’s it! So go now to your calendar, mark one of your next days off as “your own sacred day”, go have an adventure during the day, and then treat yourself to this meal of at-home-samurai-sashimi.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Shape of Quality

This is the one connecting road I see between cities, mountains, islands.

Posts have been infrequent this month. That does not mean there is nothing to talk about. Rather, it's quite the opposite. Too many things to talk about render me frozen amid sparse breaks from the movement. The changes are too fast. At the moment of impact, I could potentially imbellish curious minds, but the passing of mere moments already begin the rotting process.

Spring winds change the clouds so much in a single day, I can't remember the blue sky under such grey broodings.

Like going to kyudo, I can never predict what kind of practice it will be. False anticipations only make the results more the strange.

A quality form, base, skeleton, is important.

A room's shape, simple and strong. Bland is a quality to build from. Various furnitures can define spaces, pictures can direct moods, plants can breathe. Dirt can accumulate inside, clothes can litter floors. But those walls, that shape, comes before and lasts beyond it all.

In kyudo, aikido, and tai chi bodies are placed into desirable positions in order to maximize all abilities. From those correct positions, various techniques grow out for myriad purposes.

I can see these things, like a magazine. I flip through the pages and let my interest guide eyes to something of an undefined "quality."

But what about the mind? What is the shape of our mind? How is it structured? What is it designed to do? How can we adjust these settings?

It's like trying to see the back of your head.

All you need is a couple mirrors, or a camera.

So, I guess we can just move along and not care about such matters.

Or we can use some tools to figure it out.

The mind, its use and un-use. This is what I've been thinking about lately. How does that base structure of my mind affect my actions and the world I move in.

It's not static.

It's fluid and changing. We cannot stop to rearrange. We cannot accurately judge what's good and bad. We move in directions, falling, floating, swimming, gliding. In that shifting moment we move ourselves in ways beyond what we can conceive.

Like James Bond.

Quality. That single word can be magic. A compass amid worlds of painful complexities. Quality is a shape we color in with the instruments of our decisions.

For me, practicing budo is how I consciously affect my mind. Budo is quality. But it's not the only thing. Budo is a shell, and my guts are the decisions I make.

I don't know. Nobody knows. Some moments I'm peacefully unaware. Other times I'm trying to figure out how to get out.

Sometimes, it all feels just right.

That is quality.

(picture above found at

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Early Spring Mountain Darkness

A day off. What to do while everyone else packs off to begin the work week and school? Ride.

Something about the morning was amiss, so I took the stairs instead of the elevator. This I found, a pot fallen from someone's sill. Or purposely cast perhaps. Regardless, the plant continues to grow.

Things have been strange lately, much like early spring skies. Blue cloudless moments allow golden sunlight down for brief spans until dark clouds sweep back through to remind us of dark winters. Wind blew me sideways the whole ride through the plains, slowing my pace while demanding more effort. Why?

I adjust to each shift, but tire from the change. It's only recently I've begun to realize what people mean by "Hope". A lot of peole like to talk about it, as if it's the one bright sword to fight all demons. It is a special thing indeed. When you fall down cracks, digging further down, concepts of good become so far away, and a small flash of this so-called Hope can change it all. But change it will again, when you forget.

The road I wanted was barred by a flimsy barracade. Obviously it was meant to keep cars from entering, but offered little incentive to avert one's effort. I assume it's less about impending danger or severe penalty, and more about the roads not being maintained to a perfect condition for normal cars to go through. Hesitantly I rode past. Soon I found though that it was one of the best roads I'd been on to date, relatively flat, small one lane smooth road, with just enough debris to make it fun to dodge.

Soon parts of the road revealed long stretches of snow. No one has been here in a long time. I wonder what kind of things have settled here in the absence of humans, during those long months of quiet isolation. People know nothing of this silence; it's not in our nature. Yet, we can see it.

Every once in a while I need a break. When I need a break from riding, I walk and push the bike. When I can't do that, I park the bike.  I couldn't sit because there was snow everywhere, so I just stood there. What am I supposed to do on a break? Why don't I just go? Such a simple question seemed so difficult for me to answer. My own silence in the world seems impossible to grasp.

What am I supposed to do?

What do I want to do?

At one point the snow became to deep to easily push my bike through. I looked in my guide book, stared at the mountains, and judged what I thought to be the mountain I was attempting to climb. I saw the route. It was very long. I calculated the time. 2 hours up. But, I always undershoot the time, and I also had no idea how much snow was on the path ahead. At this rate it was just barely tolerable, and it only came in short patches. What if it was deeper, the whole way? Ascending further, one could only assume so. I made it to the dam pictured above.

This is what lay on the other side of the bridge. I had spats covering my lower legs, but my boots are old and not water-proof. My feet were already soaked from stepping in a deep puddle while looking up at the trees. I was hungry, and only had a couple conbini sandwiches. This was my day-off.

What am I supposed to do?

What do I want to do?!

At an earlier time I decided that riding my bike to climb mountains was what I wanted and should do. I've come here, doing it, but failing the mark. If I succeed, all of the suffering will be worth it. If I turn back now, what will that be?

I quickly stopped the overly-concerned spirit battles and plainly decided that climbing the mountain wasn't nearly worth the risks involved. So I ate my sandwich, and walked back to my bike to descend back to town.

It was a pleasant ride back, as it usually is. Just downhill cruising. The small patches of snow provided entertaining challenges, and most of the time I had forgotten about climbing the mountain at all.

I stopped at onsen, ate at a new restaurant for lunch, and bought food for my at-home sashimi meal which would be accompanied by an Akira Kurosawa film I hadn't seen yet, Kumonoso-jo,"Throne of Blood." It was amazing.

I also got great blue-bird skies to watch the mountains from. Here's our regular friend, Tsurugi-dake below.

When I got back home, I remembered it was the beginning of spring, and arguably the most beautiful time in Japan. The sakura are blooming, and most people take the time to relax, drinking and picnicing with friends. I however rode to blocked off roads in the mountains where snow can still be found, fighting against myself and impossible nature for ...


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

First Kyudo Tournament & No Competition in Aikido

(The pictures included in this post are of a bike ride I took to Jouyama in Kamiichi Town, of my  home Prefecture, Toyama, on this lovely over-cast early spring day-off. Please enjoy.)

Yes! It happened.

The night before I had a very pleasant and relaxing night, going to aikido, watching the current anime of my interest "Darker Than Black", drinking a couple cheap fake Japanese beers ... but then I couldn't go to sleep. So I drank some more, and then fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up, nervous, without enough time to drink my coffee, and had temporarily been separated from my wallet. The frantic search-time gave me a chance to finish the coffee and curse about how I couldn't believe I had signed away another precious Sunday to doing something other than not being tied to something I am required to do.

I showed up, signed in, met with Sensei and many others, and got started.

I'd call it a success. It was a great learning experience. It shook me out of my comfortable nest. It introduced me to a lot of new people, dojos, and ways of kyudo. Most importantly, I didn't do anything incredibly stupid, and a few of my shots at the target felt really good.

But as far as awards and hitting the target and all that ...  I wasn't considered a "winner" I guess.

In this kind of kyudo competition you enter in a team of three and shoot eight arrows each ... four arrows in a turn. I hit one ...

One single stinking arrow!

I usually hit more than one in eight, so in a way I am disappointed. But then again, there's a huge difference between one and zero, so I'm happy to get that one. If I got zero though, I probably wouldn't feel any different, and it wouldn't mean anything else at all. I had a couple arrows that felt really good, but just missed. Sensei says that's most important: To know when you made a good shot. Hitting the target represents the achievement of your tangible goal, but doesn't necessarily mean you shot well.

So, overall I feel good about the experience, and in that "overall" kind of wholistic kyudo experience category, I learned a lot. In the dojo every morning I'm chiseling away at the skills I'm developing, putting small bricks into my kyudo castle. But at events like these, you get to step back and look at it all a little better.

I spent a lot of time talking to Sensei about certain aspects of shooting, and am making a lot of progress internalizing and slowly producing results. Most of all, in my tenouchi (left hand that holds the bow). This is my weakest point in kyudo, but as mentioned, one that is making progress.

The most memorable part of it all though, is something ... less than exciting. In fact, it might be the opposite of exciting. The tournament was a reminder of how much "not-shooting-arrows" is part of the kyudo experience. I was at the dojo from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. That's seven hours. 10 minutes of that time, I was shooting an arrow. Seriously. That means I spent seven hours and fifty minutes standing around, chatting with people, eating free munchies and drinks, watching kyudo. It wasn't hell ...

but really ...

Seven hours and fifty minutes doing not-kyudo when I was at a kyudo event!

I know how "not-doing-kyudo" is actually also "doing-kyudo" and all those zen philosophical meanderings, but frankly, it's way less interesting when you're actually doing it.

It is true, that we learn a lot about what we do, by not-doing, and sometimes it's fun to talk about these kinds of things in an objective space separate from the mud and sticks of building technique, but it's a space that doesn't require much time. I spend a lot of time "not doing kyudo" in my daily routine. I get it. I'd like to spend that time I devote to "doing kyudo", actually doing kyudo, and leave my philosophical clouds to train rides and drinking parties.

I love kyudo. It's a huge challenge for me. It's a huge challenge for anybody. That's kind of the point. But, budo-wise, sometimes I feel like it doesn't quite click with me like some other arts, like aikido. I love aikido, and I love kyudo, but they are very different. I feel like I can kind of just walk into aikido and fall into the seams of its movement fairly easily. I think I'm naturally good at aikido and pick up on it's nuances quicker than other people. I don't think I'm being over confident, rather just conscious of my strengths and weaknesses. I could tell you a million things I'm less good at than aikido, and a large percentage of those things I'm worse at than the average person. For the discussion at hand, I mention kyudo. Every single movement of the shooting process seems to be a huge leap for me. Improvement takes longer, more obstacles appear, and the truth of failure feels a little more stark than I've felt in other arts. Aside from the techniques, all the other parts seem to take a little more effort to adjust to. With aikido, at least with my dojo, we show up, practice, and enjoy each other's company. We are all searching for truth, but not at the expense of everything else, and we also love drinking together. With kyudo, there's so much extra stuff, and so many different people. That part of doing kyudo, the "not-doing-kyudo", gets to be really big, and sometimes feels like a waste of time.

This certainly is a difficult discussion to conduct.

Lastly, I'd like to end on a positive note with kyudo; specifically, concerning competition. This is a very good thing for kyudo, and any form of budo in my opinion. In a competition, you most likely go to a dojo you're unfamiliar with, other competitors you don't know deeply, and are set out within a limited space that reveals your ability. In front of everybody, most of which are looking very intently at every little bit of you, you must complete the act of shooting an arrow. Actually, you shoot eight, and what you hit is what you hit. There's no "buts" or "maybes". Kyudo is about managing a lot of psychic energy inside of you with a lot of physical technique based on minute movements and balances, and so a lot of getting good at the art is managing these in a place where you can actually start dealing with them: usually a quiet dojo with fellow practitioners and supportive teachers. Competitions shake this all up so that you need to readjust, finding a solid base to shoot from. Some people don't like competition. Some people love it. Most people like the idea of it, but are scared. No matter where you are, participating every once in a while will make you a much better archer. That goes for tests too, but I'll wait for the next one I go through to imbellish this subject.

Aikido, my great unquestionable love, on the other hand, has no competition (at least the kind I practice). In aikido, you don't get this kind of experience, which is kind of a shame, really. When you test, you're in a "competition-like-scenario" like I described above: you're set out alone to complete certain techniques, what happens happens, and failure is possible (perhaps the key to all of this competition-testing conversation). However, you can't measure things in a strictly black and white, win-lose, kind of way so easily in aikido. There's too much grey. What is considered winning and success in aikido? Successfully throwing an opponent? Nope, that's judo. Is it successfully being thrown? (A very interesting topic perhaps only aikido could indulge, but yet not clear enough). In aikido there are so many small variables that depend much upon one's partner, it's really difficult to see the benefits of competition might afford, at least for beginners (like me!) You could say randori (aikido's free sparring of sorts where partners attack and one moves with techniques as one would like) is a good form of competition, but first of all, I don't have much experience with it, and two, it's still very difficult to see one's actual ability. The greatest problems I find in people's aikido is when they define a level of success and start chasing after it. The comes in the guise of young agro dudes at seminars throwing each other around with faces that reflect the epic tension of the battle inside. Actually, it's one of the most ridiculous things I've seen in martial arts altogether. These dudes who "go all out" at a seminar showing off to a crowd, of usually none others than aikido practitioners (who should have some idea what's going on) feeling like they're on a battlefield fighting for their lives. You know what is way cooler? The doshu (head of aikido) doing aikido with his partners with skilled technique and a calm expression, as if he's doing this as a demonstration for other practitioners of aikido.

Aikido: such a gem of practical martial arts technique and mode of self cultivation, yet so very often abused.

Anyway, this is difficult, too. It seems no matter where you step down with a statement, it leaves you vulnerable to a sweep.

But this blog and budo itself are less about making definitive statements, and more about doing your best and questioning reality.

I'm now left with memories of various very important conversations with my aikido sensei which all ended with the same theme:

"If you think you know aikido, then you have no idea. If you think you're good, then you're failing."

This isn't indulgence in shallow (though helpful) proverbs, but the words of a man who sincerely believes this of his practice.

If you practice an art that has competitions and tournaments, go try one! If not, do your best to shake yourself up. And if you think you know ... well, you probably don't.