Little House In Ise

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:

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

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.

Happy New Year 2010
December 31, 2009, 23:07
Filed under: Expat, Family, Japan | Tags: ,
Eric, Ray, Megumi, Kokoro in kimono

The Kageyama Holcomb Family

Ray : 礼
April 8, 2009, 18:14
Filed under: Aikido, Family | Tags: , , ,
Ray at Aikikai Honbu Dojo

Ray at Aikikai Honbu Dojo

Kagami Biraki 2009 / 2009年の鏡開き
January 18, 2009, 22:28
Filed under: Aikido, Expat, Family, Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This year, I participated in two Kagamibiraki (鏡開き) events. The first was held at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo on January 11th. Ueda Shihan, my teacher from Ise, and one of his deshi, Kan Ishiguro (soon to be a Honbu uchi deshi), came to participate in a national meeting of Dojo Leaders and Kagamibiraki.

That morning, when we arrived at Honbu for Kagamibiraki Keiko, we found most of the uchi deshi and many others outside in the parking area. They were pounding mochi in preparation for the events later in the afternoon. As usual, the uchi-deshi were busting their butts doing most of the hard work (mochi hammers are big and heavy) while older, more experienced members stood around giving sage advice.

Ueda Sensei had asked me to chaperon Ishiguro-san and so I offered to be his training partner. I also suggested that if he really wanted to have a good time he should grab one of the scary old men and train with them. He agreed and partnered with a very talented 5th degree black belt who is a morning class regular. They seemed to have a very pleasant (hardcore) time of it. The dojo itself was crowded with visitors from all over Japan attending that weekend’s many events. It was not quite as packed as during the All Japan Enbukai but falling was still a challenge. Class ended early in order to prepare for the afternoon and we went to lunch.

After lunch, we went back to the dojo and got in line for the Kagamibiraki ceremony itself. The line stretched about 70 meters down the street. At the front, the “cooks” were preparing oshiroko (お汁粉: a sweet bean “soup” with a lump of mochi). There were so many people attending that local high school students had been recruited to act as shoe valets. We took off our shoes in the entrance of the dojo and were given a receipt. The valets parked our shoes out in a grid marked on the concrete of the covered parking area. They were expecting between six and seven hundred attendees. On the third floor, it felt as though that was an underestimation. The dojo was filled wall-to-wall with people sitting seiza in neat rows. Uchi deshi wandered around asking people to leave their bags and coats in the locker room. We spent more than a half hour waiting for the room to fill and the ceremony to start. It was long enough for most feet in the place to be completely numb by the time the ceremony started (almost broke my foot trying to stand at the end).

Osawa Shihan acted as the MC and there were speeches by Doshu and other officials. Announcements of the Kagamibiraki promotions from shodan to hachidan were made and representatives received their certificates. There was only one hachidan announced and he came in person. After the announcements, Doshu gave a demonstration (in a very small area) that included tachi tori, jodori and san-nin gake.

After the ceremony was over, I escorted Ueda sensei back to the train station. When I returned to the dojo, I found that tables had been laid out and sake and oshiriko was being served. The second floor dojo was less crowded, this was where children’s kagami biraki was being held. Megumi, Ray and Kokoro were all there and had already eaten. The kids were very pleased with themselves as they had both received promotions (Kokoro to Jun 8 kyu and Ray to Jun 3 kyu). I grabbed a bottle of sake and made the rounds pouring for parents and then the shihan present. It was comfortable and friendly.

The next day, the Nihon Budokan held its Kagamibiraki ceremony. Kagamibiraki literally means “opening of the mirror” where the “mirror” is a pair of loaves of rice cake used traditionally as New Year’s decorations. The splitting of the rice cake was a way for upper level samurai to share their wealth with lower ranked samurai and the celebration was supposedly an important time for renewing bonds between warriors (that’s what the lit distributed at the Budokan said anyway). At the Budokan a small army dressed in Samurai era armor paraded and the Dai Shogun split the rice cake with a hammer and wedge. The Fuku Shogun had the more pleasant task of splitting the lid of a sake barrel.

After the ceremony, there were demonstrations of Kyudo, Judo, Juken (bayonet), Karate, Iaido, Shorinji Kenpo, Sumo, Naginata and Aikido. The Kyudo and Karate demonstrations were both spectacular and the Sumo demonstration was fascinating. The lethal precision of Kyudo was as beautiful and terrifying as ever. The practitioners made all of their 75 meter-ish kill shots while projecting cool control. The Karateka were as spectacular as they were brilliantly vicious and gave what I thought was the most exciting demonstration of the day. Since I have been blessed with many opportunities to see wonderful Iaido in the US, I was not particularly impressed with the Iai demonstration, it was merely professional and clean. The Judo demonstration was actually boring. It was clear that the intent was to present the most basic elements of that art as executed by masters but, to me, it seemed to lack a sense of love of the art. The Shorinji Kenpo demonstration was so energetic it was almost spastic and very difficult to follow. Sometimes, it seemed to be little more than a wild punch-fest. Juken was very disappointing with only the most obvious strikes and responses demonstrated. The Aikido portion was excellent with demonstrations by both Yokoto shihan and Sugawara shihan (yes, I am biased but they were good). I missed the Naginata demonstration because I was changing into my gi.

After the demonstrations, there was common practice with students of all arts on the floor trainiing at the same time. While this was fun and actually quite a good class (lead by Yokoto Shihan with Honbu uchi-deshi as uke) it was a little frustrating for participants who had wanted to watch the other arts training. I was definitely hoping for too much! 😉

Happy rolling!

3rd Floor Dojo During Kagamibiraki Party

3rd Floor Dojo During Kagamibiraki Party

Yokoto Shihan 横田師範

Yokoto Shihan   横田師範

2nd Floor Dojo (Kids' Kagamibiraki party)

2nd Floor Dojo (Kids’ Kagamibiraki party)

Ray, Sugawara Shihan, Kanazawa Shihan, Kokoro, Me, Suzuki Sensei

Ray, Sugawara Shihan, Kanazawa Shihan, Kokoro, Me, Suzuki Sensei

Kokoro's new rank Jun 8th kyu (pre 8th kyu)

Kokoro’s new rank Jun 8th kyu (standard 8th kyu)

Lined up at the Budokan

Lined up at the Budokan

Daishogun Kabutu

Daishogun Kabutu

Samurai vs the tub of sake ...

Samurai vs the tub of sake …

The army

The Army





Nihon Kendo Renmei Iaido

Nihon Kendo Renmei Iaido

Sumo -- the flexible big guys

Sumo — the flexible big guys

Sumo -- stare down

Sumo — stare down



Shorinji Kenpo -- Japanese Kung Fu

Shorinji Kenpo — Japanese Kung Fu

Shorinji in space ...

Shorinji in space …

Juken (bayonet)

Juken (bayonet)

Aikido Demo (I'm in the fourth row on the left)

Aikido Demo (I’m in the fourth row on the left)

Happy New Year 2009
January 5, 2009, 17:07
Filed under: Family, Japan | Tags: , , , , ,


If Holidays have themes beyond what our various cultures paint on them, then this holiday’s theme was probably “Discovery”. Megumi and the kids discovered Shogi (Japanese chess), I discovered a secret that Ray and Kokoro have been keeping quiet since summer and we all discovered that laughter increases proportionally with the number of people you pack into a bed.

Before the Holiday’s began, Megumi enrolled the kids in a Shogi class. Though it was a kids’ class she sat in and participated too. At the end of the class all three were awarded a rank of 20th kyu (20級) meaning they have a lot of work to do before they get their black belts. The teacher said that he could have easily given Ray a higher rank than that because he had a better grasp of the game overall (many chess skills and tactics carried over) but that it was best that everyone starting together receive the same rank. My only involvement in this, other than cheer-leading, was to provide a new Wii game that includes shogi. The Wii game can still whup their butts at a pretty low setting but that may be changing.

We were in Okayama for New Years and Ray played against his grandfather and his great grandfather both of whom tried to pass along tips and tricks while brutally thrashing the poor boy. Megumi also played a game or two with her grandfather but I don’t think he was as kind to her about providing advice and instruction. He did quite generously provide a butt-kicking that she will likely remember for a while though…

Before leaving Tokyo, I was told that there was a secret that the kids had been keeping from me since summer and they were excited to show off once we were there. The whole family was in on the surprise with Granma providing the equipment and Guranpa setting up an area to train. Megumi repeatly tossed me red-herrings such as, “We have to wait until the fire is big enough” etc. It turns out that the kids have been practicing unicycling.

Granma had gotten them one over the summer and Guranpa had used aluminum tubing to construct support bars for them to use at the beginning. They have been keeping up the training at a local play area that provides unicycles, stilts, balls and such. Ray’s focus has been stilts and I later found he had gotten quite good at walking on them. Kokoro on the other hand had put her huge heart into learning to ride unicycles. The big girls (2nd and 3rd graders) at the play area who knew how to ride gave her tips, encouragement and a hand up when she needed it. So, the kid is pretty darned good. Considering that it was only last summer that I took the training wheels off her bike I am impressed and amazed that she immediately decided that two wheels was one too many. I can’t ride those things!


Happy New Year!


Our Christmas on the 27th (25th was a school day)

Our Christmas on the 27th (25th was a school day)

Kokoro and her loom

Kokoro and her loom

It snowed in Okayama

It snowed in Okayama — guess who was happy?

We made 16 kilos of mochi this year

We made 16 kilos of mochi!

Kokoro does quality assurance

Kokoro does quality assurance

Ray keeping the mochi machine warm... Yeah, right!

Ray keeping the mochi machine warm… Yeah, right!

Megumi, wishing for more soy-sauceMegumi, wishing for more soy-sauce

Great Grandfather and Ray

Learning shogi from his Great Grandfather

Cousins were there too! Koseke and Taisuke

Cousins were there too! Koseke and Taisuke

And away she goes!

And away she goes!

Big brother and coach

Big brother and coach

The family in Yasui

The family in Yasui

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