Thursday, July 25, 2013

Aikido Ikkyu Test: The Change

The Change ... but not the one you probably expect.

A great change has occured, one that has been slowly churning, a pace not unlike that by which the continents move. Underground, out of sight, these primal forces have been metamorphosing and recently they have cracked to the surface. The change is one I never expected, and one perhaps I never wished to believe. But it has happened, and I see now it has been long in the making.

I mentioned the last kyudo tournament I went to, and that I didn't do so well though it was a great experience. I also wrote about going to kyudo on my day off and how I felt about that. The posts on this blog have been largely about kyudo, and discussions on aikido have become quite the rarity. My kyudo sensei keeps pounding on me, forging my technique, chiseling away at the frivolous excess. I keep falling down and getting up, each time redifined and more aligned with the target.

This is all not the result of outer success but inner turmoil. When I started kyudo it was just a flimsy trial. As I continued I never really gave it much credit. After receiving the shodan, it could all end and I would be fine. No matter the abstract reflections, my body and spirit have been there everyday toiling in the soil that blooms love. Something of a flower has budded.

Since the great change two years ago causing me to switch jobs and locations, taking aikido training from three to four times a week, to three to four times a month, aikido has been hiding in the dark. On those tired nights I pilgrimmage to the dojo in the east and move, each time like a flicker in the shadows. Clumsily, forgettfully. Each is a great dream I can't seem to hold on to. In the past two years, parts of my aikido have naturally progressed, but it's overshadowed by a great slowing in the internal progress of my sinews.

I took my ikkyu test (one before the shodan [blackbelt]) and passed. I did well in many ways, I think. I did all of the techniques that were asked of me. I did particularly well in the jo and ken work ... parts that I have been able to hone and remember alone in my apartment. I actually felt best about the jiyu waza at the end where partners come at me doing one attack (for me it was katate-ryotedori [partner grabs one of your arms with both of his hands]) and I think something of my overall aikido-budo nature came out. But I could list endless details on small things that could have, should have been better.

After the test I went to talk to the two teachers, the main sensei and then the number two, Ueno-san, for their opinions about my test. First I went to the main sensei.

His words didn't come easily.

"You did it, but something is missing. I know you're busy with work, but honestly you haven't changed much since your nikkyu (last test) test. You're good, but there's something missing. It's in the small mistakes, like when you started so-and-so technique earlier and I told you to fix it like this. You fixed it immediately, and you can correct things quickly, but those necessary details are not internalized yet. Of course it takes time, and you had a good ikkyu test, but ..."

I understand completely what he said, and could have said the same things myself before hearing him. I can do the techniques as I'm asked, I try hard, and I learn fast, but this is not at the core of aikido. What is deep in the bottom is heavily rooted natural technique that adheres to the principles. There is no fast way to do this, it just requires simple time and effort. I don't have the time, so I double the effort, and what comes out has no effect on that deep core of aikido.

I knew this from the start, but I've been trying to trick myself out of it. "Yes, I can do it!" What? Like I don't need time? As if I could just decide for time not to be the core factor? That is magic. That is defying physics and the world. That does in fact play a part in budo sometimes, but equally the most important part of budo is realizing the nature of the world that cannot be changed. This nature cannot be transcended. I cannot fly to the top of the mountain. It requires each step to be made by my own two feet, and it will take as much time as it takes.

This is all completely related to my future move to Kyushu. For various reasons the move has continually been pushed forward since May. Now, it looks like it will happen in November at the very earliest, probably December, possibly later. A huge part of this has kept me crazy about aikido.

Can I get the shodan (black belt ) before I leave?

Can I leave before I get the shodan?

Which will I regret more? Leaving before I finally achieve my number one goal here in Toyama, or staying months more just for the sake of this possession?

A great factor on this decision is what sensei and Ueno-san the dojo think. Until now, the plan was just take the ikkyu test, see how it goes, and then start the discussion.

I thought maybe if my test went phenomenally well, like it could have been the shodan test, I would've been happy, then something could happen and I could do magic and just get the shodan before I leave whenever somehow. But that is not how I felt, in fact it was exactly what I feared, a test I passed according to the qualifications, but not magical acquisition of aikido skill.

I talked with Ueno-san who is a huge reason for my love is the dojo. She is a woman in here forties who has been doing aikido with sensei for about twenty years and is a godan (fifth degree blackbelt). She lives in Toyama City as well so she usually gives me a ride home after training. During the rides we've had countless discussions that have been so important to my growth as an aikido-ka, and more importantly a person on Planet Earth.

We talked about the test and she said it was something to be happy about. Of course it wasn't perfect, but for an ikkyu test is was great. I told her how I felt about coming to practice as infrequently as I do and it's affect on real aikido ability. She quietly agreed, but also silently assured me that that's not so important. What is important is just enjoying the practice. She didn't say this, though she has before, and I know it well.

This is my greatest problem with leaving the dojo before I get my black belt: I love the practice I have with the people in this dojo. I also love aikido. It may be my favorite kind of budo I've ever experienced, but that's due to the people I've been training with. If I were to do aikido with anyone less, I'd do something else.

I do aikido with these people because I love to do so. I'm heartbroken about all of this because I can't train as much as I want.

Why don't I get a job during the day that allows me to go to aikido practice more?

Because there's no job available that I want.

Why don't I just stay in Toyama forever and continue to build myself with this dojo?

Because I want to go somewhere new.

Why do I need to get a shodan in Toyama?

I guess I don't.

The discussion about my departure to Kyushu lasted the whole hour car ride, and could have gone on for much longer.

A big part of the discussion had already been made a couple weeks earlier on the topic of earning rank. Ueno-san lamented on the phenomenon of people training until the shodan and then immediately quitting. All of that work put into the person and their technique to finally reach a level as fun and interesting as shodan, where you can really start developing deeper skill, to just have them leave. This also happens after other various tests. Someone takes a test and then disappears for a while. To teachers I think this must be very frustrating. But to many people it's natural.

It's what I will do in this case.

What could that mean for the big shodan?

It feels cheap. Underneath my skin it's like worms. Only going to practice to achieve the rank. Forgetting the true worth of training with the people you're with in that moment. Sacrificing time and essentially your life for the duration for this goal. Using your sensei just to get rank and then leave forever. Thank you, sayonara.

To ask for such a thing is beyond me. To quietly plot this until the end and then leave is equally impossible.

After all this time and finally bringing up the topic with Ueno-san, I realize it's something real. I consulted with her to hear her opinion because I didn't know. I don't know, so I ask. Isn't that natural?

But actually I did know.

All of this: the test, the practice, the discussions, they really are just one giant mirror for me to look back at myself. I brought up the topic because it's real, and because it's happening. It's not a matter of going or not, because I am. It is a dream that has simmered for so long and finally come to an unstoppable boil.

I cannot wait through another winter to just barely get my shodan in the spring and then leave. I cannot wait because I won't steal the belt like that, and I don't want to waste those months when what I want, what I truly want is departure to a new world.

I love my aikido, but it has grown small and dark. It breaks my heart, but that flower has been withering all the while through this fall. All along it has been such, now I look and see.

Then I turn to the sun, and see my kyudo bloom. It's unstoppable. It's so strong, alive, young, I'm in the spring of my kyudo here.

This is the great change:

Now I am more kyudo than aikido.

It's funny how both tragedy and happiness can bring us to tears.

The conversation I had with Ueno-san was one I didn't want to have, but one I had to. I'm happy now though in my understanding. Yet I still have one very difficult conversation to have, and that's with the head honcho himself, Sensei. He is an honest man, which comes off harsh sometimes, but that honesty also provides kindness and love abound. The experiences I've had with him sweating and being thrown over the past few years is a giant well of friendship. This isn't a conversation I can just have for a few minutes after practice, so I'm going to call him and see if I can meet with him for a couple hours to talk.

He's a buddhist priest which gives him free time in the mornings of strange days during the week, just like me. Hopefully I'll meet with him next week and have this giant nasty ball of a talk before I go home.

I asked for all of this. It's really what I wanted. I just didn't realize it.



Moving On

It is because I don't fear you.

Of course, in this time of peace, no violence will become,

yet that weapon most dangerous is not of the physical.

I ask you here. I call upon you. The reaction may be harsh. I didn't mean to call upon you like this.

A wolf in the wild. I am a beast,

not a building.

I have a path, be it failure or misfortune,

whatever you may call it,

it is nature;

it is life.

I am no longer a pup,

this is not school, and the teacher's lessons no longer apply.

Just life.

Each encounter life, sometimes death.

It doesn't need to make sense,

but I won't be here any longer.

I must roam.

I've been here for a time. Yes, I have.

A place I've never been. I have to go soon.

What I see is already too late.

Apologies to the loves past,

but I'm not one to look back.

(art found at

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Frustration and Healing with Kyudo

(The first half of this is from a piece posted a few hours before, apologies for the reposting of info if you've already read this, but the second half is all new. Picture found at  )

Today is my day off and I'm going to practice kyudo.

This is a simple statement, but could be interpreted many different ways.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Something to be excited about? Something to dread? Does it ruin my day off? Is it a sign of my progress in kyudo?

This analytical way of thinking is further developed by kyudo.

Or maybe kyudo has made me completely paranoid and I have absolutley no idea how or why anything happens at all in the world.

Or maybe I've just been like this the whole time.

Generally, I've been in a slump for a little over a month in kyudo. Things rarely feel like they're right. I went to a tournament this last weekend and as far as hitting the target I didn't do very well. But it was a good experience ...

Man this stuff is really hard to describe.

So you have a kyudo even that last all day long, a lot of which is not shooting, which leaves a lot of time for thinking. There's everything that has happened before that event. There are all of the things that happen during the tournament, and enough time to think about each of them ten times over. Then there is reflection and thinking about all there is to come. On that day of the tournament my mind went everywhere, super highs and lows.

The only common denominator is that I keep getting knocked down and keep getting back up.

You shoot four arrows, wait a long time, and then shoot four more. In my first four I missed the first one too far to the left, next too far to the right, next too high ... then finally I hit the last one.

YOSH! I got it! I'm going to hit the next ones cause I finally got it! This is my time!

So I went and sat down waiting about an hour to the next round, propelled by my conviction of positive energy. When the time came I stood up and shot the first one, missed, then the next, and the next. On my last arrow of the day I fought against the giant wave of a thought to just give up and say, "Fuck it, I'm going to shoot this and then have to wait for a super long time until I can go home and nothing really matters anyway." So I stood up there and did the best I could, and the arrow stuck in the rim of the target, which doesn't count as a hit. Goddamn, if it was half a centimeter closer it would have counted. If it was a half of a centimeter further, I wouldn't think of this at all.

It's not just about hitting the target, and so I'm OK with not hitting the target now mostly.

A lot of it is about form. If you have good form and miss the target, that's not a bad place to be. So I've been working a lot on my form, especially on my tenouchi (left hand that holds the bow) ...

(Writing stopped to catch a train ... two days passed)

The details don't matter.

As my energy rose higher and higher and devotion gets sharper, my hand hurts, and things have gone too far. I want so badly to practice kyudo and improve, but not at the cost of my health. I don't need kyudo.

I guess there's a lot of different kinds of getting knocked down and having to get back up.

There's the kind where you just get knocked down and you immediately get up and continue.

There's the kind where you get knocked down and just can't get right back because of something in the way such as other obligations.

Then there's the kind where you can get back up and continue right away, but you choose not to for the greater good ... in this case it's me with this injury.

I hate to ramble just like I hate to fervently pursue physical things I don't need.

So I'll stop.

(15 minutes to hang laundry ... relax ...)

OK, well I'm not quite done yet.

We want to get good at things. This comes in many different forms.

We want to be happy immediately, so devise plans of how to achieve this that often involve spending money, ingesting drugs, or making rash decisions that involve other people oftentimes without their consent. The why's and how's of it all aren't thought about all that well, so debt, drug addiction, and ruined personal relationships occur, or maybe we just never find that happiness as quickly as we want.

It's much less frequent for people to say, "Hey, I'm going to work little by little on this happiness thing and eventually it will grow into a complete reality." Or maybe we do this, but then get frustrated with the lack of immediate results.

But that feeling is legitimate right? Just stowing everything for a later time with nothing to enjoy now is just as pointless as putting all of our faith into now without thinking of the later.

This isn't a self-help blog, and I certainly don't have the credibility to talk about achieving long-term happiness, but this issue is very relevant to practicing budo.

We want skills in budo. We want it now with a very strong desire and it's often fueled by a large amount of physical energy.

This is a good thing, and one should be able to realize this effort to their heart's content.

It's good to want, and to strive for physical purposes. To deny this is to distort ourselves. There's no need to starve when there's plenty of food in the pantry. There's a lot of people who seem to like doing that though. Actually I have a tendency towards this kind of masochistic abstention ... but after enough experience, it's a weed I'm trying to uproot, not allow to fester.

If we have a desire to learn and practice and improve, we should do so until we are content. That is the freedom we are born with, and I believe we have a right to follow that as far as we like.

But it's not usually all that simple.

First of all, too much training can lead to physical injury ... which is the most simple and easy to understand the effect of doing too much. But actually, this isn't so easy to understand in martial arts. Most martial arts are about training to change the body to better handle different circumstances or achieve certain results. Sometimes this involves training to the point of developing large callouses on fists from punching, or over-stretched muscles and tendons in the legs. Sometimes this kind of training leads to pain or the inability to use in later years. There are plenty of teachers out there deformed by their own training who will tell you they have no regrets with giant smiles on their faces.

Actually that's why I quit playing rugby in college. I remember after I broke my collarbone in a game, I went to a "social" (after match drinking party) where I talked to a dude who was forty but looked seventy. Cauliflower ears, crooked nose, bumps and limps all over his body, he took a double shot of whisky and said he "Wouldn't take it back for nothin'!"  I left and told myself I'd rather not be like that.

This is just as prevalent in the martial arts. I don't want to train so that my body is a giant wounded callous.

But how far do you take such kinds of injuries?

To get specific, the current injury that's keeping me from going to the kyudo dojo today is (what I think is) a callous at the base of my thumb. After a three-week hiatus I came back and did a lot of kyudo in a very short amount of time, initially just tearing the skin. I bandaged it up and trained through it, and under and around the wound a callous started to thicken. I trained through it and it wasn't just hardened skin but something underneath (tendons? muscles?) would swell up after practice, and hurt to touch. I iced it regularly and put a few days between each training.

When I stopped it seemed to improve. When I practiced it seemed to hurt.


I've maintained this kind of stop and go for over a month. The outside wound has actually almost finally healed, which seems to me to be a surprise, but it's swollen nature seems to be settling ... but not in a good way. It's not something I'd want to be there forever ... plus it hurts when I do too much. It's not a sharp pain that makes one immediately say, "Hold on, this really hurts, I shouldn't continue." but rather the slow dull kind you can push through, but seems to slowly get worse. I'll start off being alright, but after an hour or two, my hand can't push against the bow anymore.

Two weeks ago I was worried about it and went to the doctor to get it checked out. I spent two hours in various waiting rooms, filling out different pieces of paper at different stages, getting an x-ray, and then finally my two minutes to talk to a doctor. My biggest concern was that I had a small fracture, and the x-ray along with the doctor confirmed there was nothing wrong with my bones.


I walked out the door and about two minutes later thought:

"Then what the hell is going on in my hand!?"

The doctor didn't seem concerned with that, and I guess was simply there to answer my question. Thanks.

Anyway, I've mentioned I've been in a bit of a slump in kyudo since I've had this injury, and while there are many things to conclude, a simple one would be that something is wrong with my technique because there is something wrong with my hand. I'm going home for two weeks which will invevitably take me out of kyudo for two weeks, and I've been looking forward to this time for my hand to heal.

So I had this tournament, my hand has hurt, and I've been looking forward to the break. As it happens, high school students are on summer vacation and go to the dojo everyday during the time I usually go until September.

I've finally been given a break, but instead, as if to somehow malicously counter this postive turn in fortune, I've been trying to go as much as possible either super early in the morning, or dangerously close to my work hours.

What is that!?

I imagined discussing the ideas of over-training a little more, but perhaps this story can suffice.

Our mind does one thing, and our body another. How and where do we put desire and effort?

I don't know ... but I do know that if I rest my hand, it will heal, and my kyudo will improve.

Thank you all for listening and letting me flush that out.


So yeah ... we all want immediate success. In budo, this often means going the first day in pajamas with dreams of being the greatest in the world, and the next day expecting results.

We start off as tiny little sprouts and expect to become giant sequoias in the frame of a few months, or years, or decades even.

Maybe we're already almost full grown, but expect to change it all and become something completely different.

Just look at the trees and ask yourself: "Is there anyway this could have happened in a day?"

Look at the mountains.

In Toyama they're undergoing huge renovations in the train station for the shinkansen (bullet train) tracks. The construction is absolutley massive, and has taken, and will take years more. The progress seems slow, but one day that shinkansen will run.

But I am not like that.

Even slower, the organic threads weave in ways we cannot see.

Look at the trees, look at the mountains, look at yourself.

We are the same.

But then we are completely different.

I don't know!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In This Dark Forest

The stinging wound of failure,

years scraping raw,

finally form a callous.

Regardless, I look forward

to the next match.

I will be victorious.

From here in the forest night,

in this muddy darkness,

mosquitoes search for flesh.

I wait for the sun,

so I may challenge those in the light.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Concentration in Kyudo

Why am I not as good as I was before?

That's where this whole conversation starts.

In kyudo, sometimes you hit the target, and sometimes you don't.


Why not?

This is the essence of kyudo.

There's a lot of talk in kyudo that hitting the target is not most important. I will confirm it's not. But it is the physical goal of what you are doing. If you stand up there and shoot an arrow at the target and hit, you are achieving your immediate physical task. That is good. You hone your physical technique so that you can hit the target more often. You strengthen your spirit so you can hit the target more often. You better understand the world by not hitting the target ... but that's a whole different conversation.

Back to the question of the day: Why am I not as good as I was before?

There have been days I've hit the target a lot, then I practiced a lot, and then I didn't hit the target at all.

One big answer is:


But what exactly is concentration?

One day a long time ago another teacher said to me, "Zac, you're concentration power is great."

It was a complicated compliment taken very simply, because I didn't really know how to understand it. I was just happy at the compliment and kept doing what I did.

I translate what the teacher said as "concentration power" because that's literally what he said: 集中力”, (shuuchuuryoku). It's a bit redundant as you could probably just say "concentration", but for some reason I think it's closer to the feeling because it relies upon a certain strength. It's a force you use to overcome others, and one you can strengthen with practice.

How about an interesting story.

The other day I was at practice and my sensei was working with a very advanced student. His form is great, but he seems to do much better when practicing on the makiwara (practice straw bail) than when at the target. This is fairly common. At the straw bail you're shooting at something only a couple feet away and are completely concentrating on just your form. When you stand at the target, it changes completely as you're aiming at something much farther away and concerned about hitting the target. This student gets phased by something when standing at the target (like myself! and many others I imagine), and so my teacher introduced a practice in order to concentrate his focus a little sharper. He told the student to take away one of the targets and find a tiny white flower to aim at instead. The student did this and then aimed at the target. Of the three shots he made, all of which would have hit the target, and two of the arrows were in the same exact spot about three centimeters from the flower ... that's amazing! By focusing on one tiny little piece of white instead of the regular target which is 36cm in diameter, your focus gets a lot sharper.

I think when you first start shooting at the target, you focus greatly on the target itself. This is good concentration. But after a while you start working on parts of your form which takes conentration away. You go through periods of hitting the target and not hitting the target, and you get to a point where it's a 0 - 1 game, either you hit the target or you don't. Perhaps at that point you're not really focusing on the center of the target, but just aiming at this very vague space that is basically around the target. At that point you're probably doing a lot of other things well and putting your focus in places where it is needed ... but you are not focusing on hitting the center of the target, and that is not good.

So I tried imagining there was a tiny white flower in the center of the target, and I hit it absolutley fricken right in the center of the target. It was by far one of the most amazing feelings I've had in kyudo. But then of course I tried it again and again and my concentration left, thinking of other things.

I hit the target in front of sensei and explained to him that I imagined there was a flower inside the target and he told me that was incredible. He said it can be really hard to have that kind of concentration to focus like that when looking at the target. I asked why and he told me that the target is designed to be difficult to concentrate on.

There are a few different kind of targets used in kyudo, but the most commonly used one is called the kasumi-mato. Sensei told me the name and asked me if I knew what kasumi meant. I said no, and he then explained that it's like a really light kind of fog that slowly flows over a mountain. It's not so thick you can't see through it in spots, but existent enough to obscure what you're looking at. When you look at the target, it's a combination of black and white but the differing sizes of the black and white rings adds for an affect that is difficult to focus on. He also explained is looks much bigger up close because the outer ring is black and difficult to see from afar. Later on I looked it up and kasumi-mato is translated as "mist target".

Focus your vision through the mist, forget everything, and just hit the target with perfect form.

It's that easy!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My Dream

These white clouds seen by my own,

that is real.

No imitated saying, nor stolen analogy.

It's so real I can't hide behind anything,

scream up into the sky.

Shoot it into the sky far and wide,

exploding from an expansion inside.

This is my dream and it's so real it stings.

No one wants to talk about my dream, and so I won't tell anybody,

but the day I see that pain and smile,

I don't know anything better down here in the dirt.

I've seen the best skies from the tops of mountains.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Living Within One's Means

(Totally unrelated very cool pic found at
Budo is a balance between two forces. To the senses, they are not equal. To the mind they are completely opposite. Despite our seeming inability to perceive these things as one and bring them into balance, it is when we walk through the world that these two sides are realized.

The two sides could be described as form and chaos. We unconsciously engage the chaos with instinct and use the faculties of our mind to adhere to form. Complete indulgence in one side while neglecting the other is to suffer imbalance. So how much effort or non-effort do we put into each side? This is perhaps the great impossible quest of the budo-ka.

When I imagine the warrior life, I don't think of a lot of things I actually need in order to live the life I lead. For example, my idea of a warrior's day off is far from what I've done so far today. I went to the bank to withdrawal money from my precious savings. I went to pay my yearly resident tax for living here in Japan. I went to solve a problem with my pension, the result of which is paying more money every month. Both of these required going to the City Hall twice and a separate tax office. I also went to the train station to buy tickets for a trip to the airport for my trip home this summer. I went to the grocery store. On the way I spent a lot of time waiting at traffic lights. I still need to fix a light in my bathroom. I need to clean my apartment. I will go to aikido practice tonight, but that will also require lots of train-riding and waiting.

Where is honing of sword skills? Where is the beast? When do I get to be the hero of my story that everyone admires? When do I get to feel good about making progress on the warrior path? All of that momentum of spirit dissipates with each menial arrand I engage.

All of these necessities are a part of form. They are necessary to live the life I lead here and now, but I need to make them as small as possible, though in fact they feel very big. I do this largely by reducing worry. I think about how to go about dealing with these errands, execute that plan, and don't spend excess thought or worry on the subject. This requires a lot of patience and gaman, a wonderful Japanese word that means "to put up with". It also requires the ability to accept fate, especially when it deals you worse cards than you expected.

After going through all of this I don't worry, but do need to think about how I can spend my funds in a way to deal with the newfound taxes, live a happy life, and still be able to put money away monthly into savings.

Think, plan, execute.

Don't worry, because everything is OK.

If finding balance between the impossible opposites is the quest of the warrior, the realization that everything is OK is their sword.

With that sword we protect what deserves life, and slice through that which does not.

The only one who can weild that weapon is oneself. To live within one's means is to be strong and independent, and to be wise is to realize that we need others. Everyday I move in the world as form in chaos, or perhaps chaos through form. These words are the tale of a budo-ka learning the world, not a text with answers. I sit in awe of it all, and shake my head at all the faltering effort, but it's what must be done.

I don't know. I move.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

From the Bottom of the Ocean

Beneath the stimulation, there's nothing,

a boring kind of nothing. Where do we go from here?

The fire before, seems more about just having something to do.

What for? In an uncomfortable calm beneath the sea,

why resurface? How?

If I can't sit at the bottom of the ocean and know, what will rise

will be some warped fish.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Summer Wind

Hot red winds, it's time for loose clothing and cool refreshments.

We just barely hold on to form so that we can be free to create.

Form is just empty bones, all the muscle and tissue is haze on a midsummer day's horizon.

We borrow the utility of form and flow as we like, according to terrain.

It's too hot to care. So I sit, eyes half open dripping, waiting my turn.

Up there in the summer wind I'll redefine the movement.

That tiny sliver of form brought to life by fire and blood.

When it's time to rest, I'll take a cold drink and forget.

Welcome to summer.

(picture: "Summer Collection: Fields of Gold" created by Rosebud Warrior found at