Little House In Ise

Where To Sit
April 23, 2008, 12:28
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: ,

When starting in or visiting a new dojo I have tried to pay close attention to local etiquette. Each school has its own variations on appropriate behavior and it is wise to politely be mindful of differences. As you would expect, Aikikai Honbu Dojo has variations as well. On the far wall of the first floor, facing the entrance is a bronze bust of Osensei and on the landing between second and third floors there is a similar bust of Second Doshu; it is common practice to pause and give a short bow in front of both when passing. Another thing to note is that when entering the third floor training area, men should enter through the men’s changing room door. Women may enter through the main doors though, if sensei is starting class, women have been known to run through the men’s locker room and sneak in the back way — be warned! 😉

Other schools I have been in have varied between having strict rules regarding who sits where during the line-up and no rules at all. Honbu falls into the no real rules category but there are better places to sit. For example, If you are traveling with a group, try to _avoid_ the people you came with. Do NOT sit near them else you may wind up training with your buddy from your home school. You probably did not travel 6,000+ kilometers to be thrown by your buddy from home, right? Also, make an effort to sit closer to the far wall, near the back door. This is where most of the older students (sensei/shihan types) sit. If you come all the way to Tokyo to train then you may want to go the extra five meters or so to get to where the teachers are sitting.

After class, sweeping and dusting is appreciated but don’t take your hakama off yet! There are many shihan, shidoin and cranky old sempai who do their regular training at Honbu, don’t just decompress, ask to be thrown. You may find that the best training you get is after class!


Not Bad for Seventh Dan …
April 18, 2008, 13:07
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , , ,

I want to switch to real mountain climbing. At least you get to see the top occasionally. If you happen to fall off a real mountain it can’t possibly hurt as much as a fall from the meta-physical. Physical pain is tolerable to a point but frustration and impatience are hard devils to tame. I want to push them off the fucking mountain. Sometimes it seems as though they are all that are pushing me up it.

After a fairly normal Honbu practice I got in line to be thrown around by the ki wizards. Usually, I find one who will throw me and sometimes try to show me how to do their special brand of not-quite magic. This time however, I was thrown and thrown and thrown some more for good measure. After that I was passed onto another nage for yet more with a comment about “We don’t rest in Aikido”. After finishing two rounds with shihan, each of uncounted many throws from absolutely random waza, with a short but grueling round with a sempai (who graciously did the same throw repeatedly) in between, I was dragging butt. Blowing wind like a smoker in a marathon, I hauled my soggy, rag-doll self to the edge of the mat and plopped down hard.

David, who had been watching the fun, laughed at me and said, “He’s not at all bad for a seventh dan is he?” Nope, not bad at all. But, but… How does he do it?

Short Skirts (A Trip Report)
April 15, 2008, 16:18
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , ,

Japan is a land of many contradictions — at least it confuses the hell out of me most days. One of the contradictions that leaps to my eyes is the whole school-girl-skanky-uniform thing. Since high schools have dress codes that mandate skirts of a certain length and the current fashion is scary (I’m the father of a little girl, OK?) short, many girls manage to have it both ways by rolling their skirts into their waistbands. This gives them the short skirt they want but if challenged at school they can quickly prove that they are within the dress code.

And how is that related to Aikido? Well, you see, _my_ skirt is too short. When I first bought my hakama I intentionally ordered it a bit short. It turns out that my measurements were also short. I also roll the front panel under my belt.  All that together means that I have a lot of ankle and more than a bit of gi-pants showing below the edge of my hakama. Back in Seattle, this drew laughter from Dave over at Aikithoughts but it didn’t really strike home to me until a student at the Mie Aikidokai took one look at my hakama and announced that I was wearing it High School Girl Style. Since then, I have heard other comments about how much I must have grown since I bought it, how fat my stomach must have gotten to have pulled the hakama up so high… Perhaps my hakama was made for training in the Sailor Moon Aikido Ryu? I liked this culture a whole lot more before I could understand the language. 😉

So, when one of my sempai offered to introduce me to his favorite tailor I agreed. After practice on Saturday we hopped into his car with a third friend and went to the Toyama area of Shinjuku (north of Honbu a bit). The shop was completely unmarked — just a brown door between a cheap looking beauty salon and an odds-and-ends shop. The door lead to a very narrow staircase at the top of which was a cluttered little room with perhaps two tatami mats worth of space free. The rest was taken up with sewing materials, half made hakama and piles of belts and gi. It suited the little old man who owned the shop.

He came in and apologized for the mess while promising to clean it up. My sempai laughed and complained that he always said that but never did anything about it. The old guy ignored that but listened closely to the rest of sempai’s spiel. He went on about how I really needed a hakama but I also needed it soon. It turns out that the old guy is very good but also famously slow. He then took my waist and hip to ankle measurements. He made a note of my weight and height then promised to be ready by next Saturday.

The base price is 7,000 yen. Embroidery costs 200 yen per character and with shohizei (tax) the total was 8,190 yen (about $80) — excellent! As for quality and fit, I don’t know from my own experience but Sempai is actually stockpiling this guy’s work. He is building up a supply of tailor made hakama against the sad reality that the old guy won’t be making them forever. Given their friendly banter and the feeling that I am not the first person sempai has brought to this shop I think sempai may be performing a sort of a social service by driving customers to his door. I don’t mind, he is also performing a social service by getting me a longer skirt — reduces the need for eye bleach.

Dr. Pervy
April 13, 2008, 12:47
Filed under: Expat, Family, Japan | Tags: , ,

Ray and I were biking around the other day when he mentioned that he was thirsty. It was a short ride home so I said we could wait until then to get something to drink. Ray knows me very well so the next vending machine we passed he announced loudly “Oooh look, they have Dr. Pepper!” Simple but effective manipulation that I fell for immediately.

I finally figured out how they managed to make a market for a product in country where most people think it tastes like medicine: Anime porn! You don’t believe me? Here are some pics that I took of the can …

Like other simple, effective manipulation it works for me too.  I bought two more. 😉

The Disturbed Child
April 11, 2008, 15:15
Filed under: Expat, Family, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

The kanji characters for shoji are 障子. Translated literally they mean something like “disturbs children”. There are few words whose origin is more clear and appropriate. Shoji are paper windows and a feature of traditional Japanese homes. As you might guess, they tear easily. Small children must maintain enormous restraint not to rip the paper with their little fingers, crayons, baseballs and jump ropes. I’ve also noticed that “Restraint” and “children” tend to be mutually exclusive concepts. So paper covered windows clearly would be trouble for little kids. In Ise, we replaced the paper in four shoji, twice. Once we did it ourselves. The second time we called in a pro — Grandma. In both cases the need for new paper was due to my two wonderful, creative and clearly disturbed children’s games.

The new house in Tokyo has shoji only in the master bedroom. The paper looks old and soft. It’s a lot like butcher-block that has gotten wet and dried many times. Ours have probably weathered several rainy seasons. On sunny days the paper glows with a friendly, diffuse white light.

On our first day in the new house, I went from room to room making up beds and getting them ready for our first night. I did the kids rooms first and then the master. The bed was closer to the windows than we had planned and while flopping the comforter over the top, I put the first hole in the shoji.

Shoji disturb me too…

Two Hands
April 9, 2008, 16:03
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

At the Mie-ken Aikidokai, Ueda Shihan often tells the kids class, “You have two hands, take two things away each time you train.” It is a philosophy that I have tried to apply to my own training. In practice, if I can learn one concrete thing in a class I am happy. Some days, though, all I get is the awareness that I have moved my body in a pattern that may be a little bit more right than last time. Though not concrete, I can still claim success on those days.

At Honbu however, I often feel as though I don’t have enough hands. Almost everyone who trains there is either a sensei or a sempai. Often I am lucky enough to train with what I have begun to think of as “real sempai”. A partner that likes to give and receive a good hard throw now and again but is also willing to slow down and patiently correct flaws. Repeating and helping me through my flaws (as opposed to criticism without correction) is what I see as the key elements of a real sempai. Recently, I worked with a fellow who gave me several concrete pointers and enough food-for-thought that, at the office, I have had to work hard NOT to think about them. 🙂

It’s brutal honesty time. I am just not confident enough yet to be my own definition of a real sempai — at least not here at Honbu. I have trained with a small handful of people whose rank is lower than my own. I have seen flaws in both technique and posture but I am not yet comfortable offering suggestions. In my last dojo, I was asked for advice often enough that I just started giving it. At Honbu, there are so many amazing teachers around that are much closer to the source that I wouldn’t ask me either.

Also in the spirit of brutal honesty, the esoterica that some of the older guys teach, though clearly powerful, is often too far up the mountain for me to apply. I love the fact that they can sense exactly how to unbalance or redirect my motion but when I am spending my time polishing (grinding?) gross movements their subtle magic is just too distant. So, I will play with the ki wizards when I want to get a sense of where the path leads but stick to real sempai for how-to details. For now though, my hands are full and it is wonderful.

The Destroyer
April 3, 2008, 11:28
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,

I’m not in the good old boys club. I’m neither good enough nor old enough and one out of three doesn’t cut it. Getting older seems to be working for me so two out of three may be possible eventually. As for “good”… that’s another story…

Since I’m not in the good ol’ boy group that Doshu regularly greets and jokes around with, the fact that he was very solicitous about my health this morning made me nervous. As my partner for the day and I were starting out, he walked up to me and said, “Be careful, I’m not sure why but, be careful.” It turns out I was training with a man Doshu has, apparently, nick-named “The Destroyer”.

Aikido has its fair share of jerks and Honbu is no exception. The Destroyer is the first one I’ve met here. He was definitely rougher than most people that I have worked with here but the thing that set him apart was his determination to make me fail. I don’t mean that he just fought techniques, he fought them in ways so that they could never be made to work without using significant force.   He then acted as though it was my Aikido that was at fault.

People who let their personality problems influence their training and Aikido are more than a pain in the ass, they are dangerous. Sadly, these people are not as rare as one would like. Usually these wastes-of-effort are just a few minutes out of my life and I can move on. At Honbu, however, you’re stuck with your bad choice for an hour. When it’s good it’s very good but the other way is true too.

Assholes are a fact of life and Aikido too. They are a big enough problem that I have been in seminars where the topic of “self defense” was presented with regard to dealing with jerks in the dojo rather than on the street. As with the infamous street, the secret to survival with a jerk is awareness. If you can avoid them in the first place, do so. If you can not, set you limits verbally and up front. If they pass your limits, walk away. Training as though your life depends upon it is a great philosophy but training with an untrustworthy nage really could put your health at risk.

During class, Doshu approached my partner a couple more times and cautioned him. Doshu pointed out that making a training environment that everyone could enjoy was his goal. From that point on my partner spent the class watching out for Doshu and only being an ass when he thought he could get away with it. For my part, since I didn’t trust him fully, I stayed soft and over-committed my ukemi so as to make sure that I was in control of every fall. Shihonage was my only real worry and, oddly enough, Doshu was nearby during that technique. Fancy that! So, from the health and safety perspective all turned out well. From the training perspective, not so much.

The nicest part of the whole thing was leaving the changing room and bumping into one of favorite teachers. He was looking into the dojo and scowling. “The Destroyer” was throwing someone around rather roughly. This sensei explained the nickname and its origin. He turned to me and in English said, “Don’t be bothered with him, he is stupid.”

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