Little House In Ise


Earthquake
March 14, 2011, 17:59
Filed under: Family, Japan, Work | Tags: , , ,

All in all this has been a pretty shitty weekend. As most of the world is now aware, the largest Earthquake in Japanese history struck off the East Coast on Friday. At its epicenter the quake had a measured magnitude of 9.0 and was then followed by hundreds of aftershocks. According to the USGS, more than two dozen of those aftershocks were of magnitude 6 or greater — same size as the quake that rocked Christchurch last month. Quake triggered tsunami have shredded thousands of lives and televised scenes of murderous black froth sweeping away burning ruins will long remain in Japanese collective memory.

At the time of this writing, the Japanese government is estimating that there have been more than 10,000 deaths and many more injured. Adding further insult, two of the reactors at the notorious Fukushima nuclear power plant seem to be in the throes of serious cooling problems. Though the word “meltdown” has been bandied about it seems likely that damping and containment are both still being maintained. There is evidence (cesium and radioactive iodine in steam from the plant) that there has been some sort of core damage in at least one of the reactors but it is also near certain that damping rods that were automatically inserted during the first quake have the main reactions stopped.

Between the Earthquakes, fires, tsunami and nuclear reactor failures this has been and continues to be a particularly horrible experience for much of Japan.

My office is on the 16th floor of a 32 story tower in the Shibuya district of Tokyo — about 500 kilometers from the earthquake’s epicenter. The shake we felt was a “mere” Magnitude 5.0. In comparison to the experience of people in cities to the north, this was minor. My office shook with sufficient force that everyone including the quake-jaded Tokyoites donned emergency hard-hats (provided to all employees) and ducked under tables. The swaying of the building was both sickening and nerve-wracking but by design — better to flex and sway than to shatter. A tall bookshelf and the metal rack holding the office dartboard crashed to the floor. (This CNN video was taken near my office: http://cnn.com/video/?/video/world/2011/03/11/vo.japan.quake.cnn.cnn)

While busily advising people to put their damn hardhats on and get under tables, I also managed to dial my wife before the cell system went to hell. I didn’t know I had gotten through to her voice mail. The message I left was a shouted, “Table!” and then it was cut off. That may not have been the best final message I could have left and, when she finally heard it, she was more worried than reassured. I then began trying to call both Ray and Kokoro and failing to get through. If you imagine one cell or another pressed to my ear for the rest of this narrative that is an accurate view of how I spent the next several hours. Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening, I only got through to my mother-in-law who I asked to call Megumi and the kids. The voice networks were overwhelmed immediately.

As the shakes continued the facility managers announced that we should stay where we were. No, we should go outside, No stay where you are (edit: A friend who was there says he doesn’t remember the dithering — maybe that was just my internal dialog). After a moment or two of weighing the alternatives we evacuated calmly and quickly, taking coats, laptop computers and the occasional emergency survival kit. The building shook a bit as we descended the stairs but was mostly still by the time we got to the evacuation area downstairs. A few more hefty aftershocks hit as we waited for word on what to do next. We were advised to stay well back from the tower to avoid falling glass (none fell) though most of my team had already backed off about 50 meters. Since the sway of the building was clear to observers on the ground it didn’t take much urging.

Traffic snarled pretty much immediately and crowds on the street slowly grew thicker as workers abandoned their offices. I told my team that they should go home and soon after that upper management made the same call for everyone. At that point (perhaps 3:30?) most of us were expecting the trains to be running in a short time. They didn’t. After all of my guys left, I reported their status and headed for home myself. I went to Shibuya station to try the train first. Security had locked the entrance to the Hanzomon line, my normal subway. On the other side of the station I could see the elevated tracks of the Yamanote line and it was stopped too. As chance would have it, I bumped into a crowd of people from my office debating what to do next. I joined their discussion as they were deciding that it was time to walk. The group split in two going different directions and I followed the first group heading towards Shinjuku.

I had never walked through street level crowds as thick as that. Japanese subway stations are famously crowded and Meijidori, a large road cutting through Shibuya and Shinjuku, was similarly thick. Vehicle traffic was almost completely stalled and people crowded the streets like a sort of shell-shocked version of Carnival. Almost everyone had cell phones pressed to their heads. This modern talisman did little to ward off evil and certainly didn’t help my fear. I was one of the millions trying desperately to reach family and failing. My problem was that I wasn’t certain about the timing but I was knew that it was near time for my kids to come home from school and I was afraid that they were on the subway when the quake hit. I made a conscious effort to stop imagining them trapped underground. I kept walking.

The others from my office were smokers and needed to stop with frustrating regularity. Complaints of their speed aside, I used those pauses in our march to contact my boss by Skype and send emails to my parents and wife. At about 5:00, I got a very oddly worded email from Ray’s Facebook account but it indicated that he and Kokoro were safe and on their way home with a teacher from his school. It turns out that the teacher had logged into Ray’s account from an iPhone and sent the message for them. I didn’t hear any of this until later but the kids evacuated the school immediately and parents soon descended on the place taking their children home. The remaining kids were left outside as they were (light coats for both and slipper-like sneakers for Kokoro) when the quake hit. Mr. Thomas, the teacher who took them under his wing lives in our neighborhood and he said that he would see the two of them and another little boy home. They left the school on foot at about 4:00. They stopped at a convenience store and fueled up on meat filled buns and then tried to take a bus that was going in almost the right direction. The bus didn’t get far in the traffic and they abandoned it after a very brief ride. From that point, they started walking home.

Having gotten word that the kids were relatively safe I was tremendously relieved but not ready to celebrate. The people from my office decided they needed another break so I decided to press on without them. We split up near Shinjuku. Though I know that area better than others I am very happy to have had GPS guiding me on a “best route” to where I was certain of my way. On the road the only real damage I saw was a collapsed retaining wall holding up a cemetery. Headstones and memorials had spilled down into the street.

I am still not certain of my wife’s timeline but when she left her office her first reaction was to catch a taxi. That worked as poorly as the kids’ bus so she walked home, grabbed our car and charged to the kids rescue. She was soon caught in a traffic jam and stalled on the road near Iidabashi (normally about five minutes from home). By the time I got home it was about seven (only about two and a half hours walk) and the cell network was finally recovering a bit. I reached Megumi and let her know what the kids were doing. She decided to turn around and try again when we had a better idea where they were. I spent the rest of my time trying to reach Mr. Thomas via phone, email and Facebook. We finally got word that the kids were in Kudanshita (near the Budokan, about 8km from the start of their trek) and Megumi took off again. I packed up a bag full of coats, Megumi packed a bag full of hot soup and a thermos of hot drink. I tossed a handful of candies into her bag, showed her how to use Skype and the GPS and away she went. Around 10:30 that night she brought them home after dropping off their teacher and the other little boy.

Others in the family were not relieved so quickly. My sister-in-law’s kids were on a field trip to the zoo when the quake hit. Their mother was stuck on the far side of Tokyo so far from home that walking wasn’t a reasonable option. She spent the night at the office. Their father managed to walk home that night but the zoo was far enough way that going and getting them was not an option. The boys (4 and 5) spent the night at the zoo. It was not until 10:00 the next night that they got home. For them, it had been a wonderful adventure though their teachers were a little on the ragged side.

Our cell phone based earthquake warning system didn’t let out a peep during the big one but their mini klaxon sounded off and on all throughout the following night as aftershocks struck here and there. Today, Monday, small quakes continue. The government and power companies are arranging scheduled black-outs to conserve power and they have recommended staying off the trains unless there is a serious need. Since my sister-in-law’s family lives in a black-out zone in Chiba (water has also been a worry there) their children are staying with us and they will be moving in tonight. It will be crowded but having all of the local family nearby will be good for my nerves.

Tonight, I’ll break out a bottle of sake that was given to us by an old Aikido instructor friend and I will toast health and family.



Happy 2011
January 1, 2011, 17:52
Filed under: Aikido, Family



Yet More Shihonage Technotes
December 10, 2010, 17:46
Filed under: Aikido | Tags: , , ,

Here are a list of shihonage (四方投げ) concepts that have helped me a lot. Please note that I am not claiming that any are the One True Way. Rather, this is my understanding at this moment. My understanding is subject to regular, painful (to me), evolution. As such, when next I write about Shihonage I may hold the belief that it can only be performed under the influence of grass hula-skirts and coconut shells.

I remember being taught shihonage by a sempai who insisted that nage has to be shoulder-to-shoulder with uke when executing the technique. That’s fine and dandy but it is possible to gain significant mechanical advantage for nage if they enter deeply enough to place their shoulder slightly behind that of uke. This will allow nage to use their own shoulder as a fulcrum. Really, this is cool, try it.

There is a saying among jujutsuka: “Attack pain”. Cranking on uke’s elbow can work but it may also telegraph an intention thus providing uke with a focal point to resist and attack their pain. I believe that the goal of this technique should be for uke to not feel as though anything is wrong until it is catastrophically too late.

With that in mind, extending Uke’s arm is what I see as key to the core of shihonage. Cranking up uke’s elbow can work and there is some serious martial validity in doing something that makes uke feel as though their arm is about to break but they will know that something is going on that is bad for them. If nage forms their arms into a broad circle with uke’s arm resting on top nage’s they can then lower their center and smoothly rotate from their hips. At all times through this rotation, nage’s hands should be directly in front of their own body with feeling of forward extension.

At the ultimate point of rotation and extension, nage should end up facing uke’s back or at worst their ear. If you nage does not rotate that far and winds up trying to throw against the direction uke is facing then uke is in a much stronger position to escape or counter.

One ugly counter from this position is for uke to simply reach around with their free hand and grab the back of nage’s gi. If uke can maintain their grip, nage’s throw will take both down with momentum in uke’s favor.

Finally, to cut down or cut out? Both work and I think both should be practiced. Lately, I have preferred to cut down to my foot as that keeps me in position to hold uke by putting my weight on their elbow while holding it across their face.

When executed properly, even shihonage can leave uke with that irritating “Why am I on the ground?” feeling.



Other Epiphanies
December 2, 2010, 08:51
Filed under: Aikido | Tags: ,

The other day I partnered with one of the uchi-deshi and got half of a great practice. Unfortunately for me, he had to leave midway to help with the 7:00AM beginner class. When he left I went looking for a pair to join.

The first were two young women, both about a head shorter than me who looked as though they were having a lot of fun together. Cutting in seemed rude so I went on to the next pair — an odd couple. One was a very tall, French, fifth dan and the other a Nepalese mudansha about my height. They were having a serious exchange in which the big guy was pounding the crap out of the mudansha (in a loving and caring sort of way). My playful side called out and they offered to let me play too.

The mudansha is a physically strong and flexible fellow who also studies karate and judo. Altogether that made working with him interesting. He fought every technique so I very carefully splattered him to a degree that he seemed to find satisfying and occasionally broke out of his pins to show that I really was paying attention.

The tall French sempai was altogether a different story. In terms of proficiency, the difference between us was not quite as great as that between me and the mudansha — I really want to believe that but it may just be hubris. He made me earn every throw and pin while calmly and casually reversing every opening.

Kobayashi sensei was substituting for Doshu that morning and he came by a few times and watched us. I’m not sure why but once he sort of shook his head, smiled and wandered away. It wasn’t that we were intentionally ignoring what he had demonstrated but rather there were such vast differences in size, strength, skill and intent that exactly replicating what he demonstrated was difficult. Watching the mudansha trying to perform morote tori kokyu nage (諸手取り呼吸投げ: two handed breath throw) on a guy thirty centimeters taller and five black belt ranks above him was not so much a study of how to do the technique as it was a study of how to teach someone how to do it.

In the end, that was my biggest take-away from the class. Too frequently, morotedori techniques are executed in ways that, at least to me, seem ineffectual. Sempai provided understandable instruction on how to turn the elbow in, align his posture and extend while rooting through his trailing foot. Somewhere along the way the mudansha’s techniques became more effective. He will not run out and take his black belt test tomorrow based on what he learned in that class but between start and
finish it was pretty clear that he had experienced an “Aha!” of some sort. I carefully stored that away with the hope that someday I will be able to provide someone with a similar epiphany.



A Meeting on a Bridge
November 26, 2010, 14:43
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
He said, “Like what?”
I said, “Well… are you religious or atheist?”
He said, “Religious.”
I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
He said, “Christian.”
I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
He said, “Baptist!”
I said, “Wow! Me too!
Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
He said, “Baptist church of God!”
I said, “Me too! Are you original baptist church of God, or are you
reformed baptist church of God?”
He said, “Reformed baptist church of God!”
I said, “Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of God, reformation of
1879, or reformed baptist church of God, reformation of 1915?”
He said, “Reformed baptist church of God, reformation of 1915!”
I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

– Emo Phillips
(NOTE: I first read this as an Isaac Asimov joke but the only internet reference I could find was for Philips.)

The more similar two groups are, the more their tiny differences seem to matter. That said, I recently met a man who has managed to put aside some extreme similarity between groups. In the process, he has also had to lay his ego aside in a way that I found even more impressive.

In order to preserve this fellow’s anonymity I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that while browsing through an Aikido blog I bumped into some videos that contained a familiar face. In the videos the familiar face was a black belt of the Yoshinkan and the person who I was aware of had an Aikikai white belt. This was almost enough to make me believe that the similarity was pure chance but when I saw him I asked. Sure enough, he admitted that he was the guy in the video.

My curiosity kicked into high-gear and I quizzed him all the way to the bicycle rack where we parted. Though I am also interested in the circumstances that caused him to switch to Aikikai, they are his and not the business of this blog. My interest is technical. It has been years since I have had a chance to study with a student of Shioda Sensei’s lineage and I am fascinated by the prospect of his perspective.

Even given my belief that everyone we train with has something to offer, I almost missed this opportunity because of the guy’s white belt. I don’t avoid white belts, I just tend to seek out sempai to train with. Please read this as a sign of selfishness rather than petty elitism. Because of that, I have been missing out on chances to work with someone with significant and different Aikido experience just because of the silly white belt and my perceptions! I hate it when trip over my ego!

It is this man’s defeat of ego that has most impressed me. It turns out that the guy not only had a black belt but he was a fourth dan. He chose to go from fourth dan to white belt… in the same art. Though pursuit of rank is not my reason for being, rank progression does have its importance. Ranks are useful for setting goals, can be handy for guesstimating energy level at which you can safely work with a new partner and are a fine way to honor effort and accomplishment. To be honest, I don’t know whether I could put down my own rank and start over from zero in another branch of Aikido. This guy did exactly that.

Pushing heretics off bridges is getting harder every day.



Weapons Training at Honbu: The Kinjo Meiwaku Theory
November 24, 2010, 12:27
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In some parts of the Aikikai discussion of weapons training in can sometimes cause almost religious levels of dispute. I have heard very serious Aikidoka tell me that O Sensei “gave” weapons to Iwama but not to Honbu and that, in some way, proves the superiority of Iwama flavored Aikido. Without getting into the “what is better” or even “what is closer to tradition” arguments. I would like to propose a theory as to why weapons are not typically taught at Honbu.

Aikido Honbu Dojo (its official name) was built in Ushigome Wakamatsu-cho (later just Wakamatsu-cho). Despite the name (牛込:”ushi gome” means “crowded with cows”) the area was residential even when the original dojo was built. Now the neighborhood is packed with single-family residences, multi-story condominiums (called “mansions” in Japanese) and apartment buildings.

The residential Tokyo feel of Honbu contrasts strongly with the Iwama dojo which is nestled in a farming area slowly evolving towards being more residential. The neighborhood has many large vegetable patches, flower and traditional gardens as well as the occasional rice paddy and working farm. The area is also relatively thick with trees and the nearest neighbors are more than a stones-throw away.

Compared to Tokyo, Iwama is spacious and open. So much so that outdoor weapons training is not uncommon. The high ceilings and light fixtures at Honbu show that when it was rebuilt in 1967 someone had been thinking about swinging weapons. Even so, there is no space outside for students to do similar outdoor practice. If anyone were to do so the neighbors would be irritated and uchikomi (striking) with bundles of bound sticks or car-tires would certainly draw protests.

At the start of normal classes, which may be the loudest portion, the windows are closed to minimize disturbance to the neighbors. Also, in most flavors of Honbu Aikido there is very little use of kiai or other yelling. In fact, people who grunt or make “Ha” sounds are discouraged from doing so. Quite the opposite is true in Iwama where shouts of “Hap!” and “Ho!” are the norm especially during weapons work!

It is my contention that it was merely a matter of being a good neighbor that caused Honbu to go down a path of not teaching weapons extensively. Later, courtesy likely became custom then finally policy. There are still weapons requirements for testing at Honbu and one can occasionally see Doshu practicing suburi privately, so, it is possible to say that weapons are still an element of Honbu Aikido though certainly much less than in Iwama.

Based on this reasoning, there are clearly elements of modern Aikikai Aikido that are more closely linked with environment than with the philosophy or martial spirit of the founder. This then raises the question, what else? What other aspects of Aikido technique, teaching or logic may have been changed to suit differing environments?



Ray
October 18, 2010, 22:02
Filed under: Aikido, Family | Tags: , ,

Last week I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my career in Aikido. I attended another weapons training camp in Iwama but that wasn’t it. I met, trained with and swapped gossip with a famous American teacher but that wasn’t it either. The wonderful experience was that my son attended his first adult class, Doshu’s ichiban geiko, and trained with me.

The previous week I had watched Doshu vigorously throwing Waka-Sensei around and when it was over Doshu tossed in some gentle fatherly ribbing. It looked like great fun and when Doshu saw my smile he asked what was up with that. I told him that I wished that I could do that with my son too. When Doshu found out that Ray was eleven, he told me to bring him in on a school holiday. That was it, official sanction for something that I’d been wanting to do for quite awhile.

The following Monday was a national holiday and on most national holidays Honbu Dojo is closed. However this was “Sports Day” and the Dojo stayed open for some classes. With school closed Ray didn’t have an excuse to NOT go to morning class. On his own he is an early riser so I didn’t feel too guilty booting him out of bed and tossing him his dogi. After much complaining he gave in to the inevitable and we biked over.

As we entered the dojo, Ray handed over his member card and formally announced to the people at the desk that he would be attending today’s class. I was surprised, the uchi-deshi behind the desk amused and Doshu seemed totally confused until he saw me smiling and pointing. Doshu smiled and nodded and so we went in — first hurdle cleared with extra-style points awarded for Ray’s little announcement.

In the third floor changing room I put on my hakama and Ray worriedly looked around at the crowd. The place can get pretty packed and there were several tour groups in that day from Russia, France (of course) and Scotland. It was crowded.

I mentioned to Ray that the warm-up was different than he was used to so he could just follow along. He did and had no problems. I picked a spot near the “Silver corner” where the crazy old men work out. Ray said that wanted to meet Yoda and then asked about another of my favorite old-guys. Sadly, Yoda was out that day but he did say hello to quite a few of the codgers.

This was our first time to take a class together and train as partners. Ray went out of his way to throw me as hard as he could and for a pre-2nd kyu, his kotegaeshi and shihonage are pretty hard-core. This was his first ever adult class and as icing on the cake, Doshu came around twice to throw him. Afterward, Ray said it was physically really hard but he wanted to come and do it again. Appropriate superlatives to describe how that made me feel just sound silly — I was, and am, ridiculously proud of my son.




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