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.



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?



48th All Japan Aikido Demonstration

Day by day for the last two weeks the mats at Aikikai Honbu dojo have grown crowded as Aikidoka from all over the world trickled into Tokyo. They have come to view and participate in the 48th All Japan Aikido Demonstration at the Nippon Budokan.

Unlike previous years, this time I attended only as a proud papa and spectator. My main goals were to watch my daughter perform (my son had a science fair) and meet Ueda Shihan from Ise. Since I went with my daughter we arrived about three hours after the event started and then spent the better part of an hour trying to find her again (I lost the whole group right away) I didn’t actually watch much of the demonstration at all. Once the kids were sorted out, I received a phone call from Sensei and met him in front.

Having seen fewer demonstrations this year than at any event previously, I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I would have liked. The few that I did take I’ve posted below.

After the demonstration, I met Ueda Sensei and the Mie-ken Aikidokai group at the Tokyo Prince Hotel — the one below the Tokyo Tower. After a bit of wandering we found a nice izakaya there in Akasaka. Over dinner, Sensei’s perspective and wisdom flowed with the beer. As usual, when spending time with him I felt as though I should have been taking notes. His ideas about Aikido, life and education are fascinating.

Two younger men sat with us at dinner and sensei quizzed them about the demonstrations. He asked the younger of the two, a new shodan, what he had been watching at the demonstration. The young man replied that he had been watching and trying to learn waza. Sensei responded that that he was crazy to try. Rather than waza, he said, manners and behavior of the uke were paramount. He said to watch how they bow. Remember how the give and receive weapons. He was especially adamant that just observing how the more senior teachers sat and stood should be food for thought.

Later on, when discussing education, sensei mentioned that he was now of an age that no one scolded him anymore and he missed it. His point was that when a teacher or parent scolds their child they are showing that they care. They are providing life lessons and, sadly, once a person reachers a certain age, the mentors in our lives seem to disappear. Becoming an adult capable of self direction and self correction is what growing up is all about but, even so, a friendly slap on the back followed by a “WHAT were you thinking when you did that?” is something that one eventually learns to miss. He told me that he hoped Doshu would scold me more.

The next day we stopped at Tully’s while his students attended Doshu geiko. He very kindly said that though we only meet once a year, it feels far more frequent than that. I agreed but do wish that I could speak with him more often. As always, I appreciated the time sensei gave me and I take his words to heart. I will endeavor to incorporate his wisdom in my life.



A Collection of Stuff

1) Megumi and I visited a sword shop in Ginza last weekend. The shop felt like a samurai art gallery displaying katana, wakizashi, tantou, naginata, bows, arrows, armor and clothing. The swords varied in age from Kamakura and Edo periods to the works of modern masters. I fell in love with the eclectic collection of tsuba (鍔: a sword’s wrist guard) and lusted after steel. Aside from the collection of rare objet d’armour, the feature that stands out about this place was that the master actually opened up his cabinets and allowed me to hold a few of the swords! Wow!

Name : Ginza Choushuya
Address : 104-0061 Ginza Choshuya Bldg 3-10-4 GINZA CHUO-KU TOKYO JAPAN

2) This year NHK is showing a historical dramatization of the life of Sakamoto Ryoma. This is the guy who, in his own rather geeky way, directed the birth of modern Japan. This is fascinating history, interesting drama and provides a view, though fictionalized, into kenjutsu dojo of the late samurai era (at the very end of Edo Bakufu). Four thumbs up from the Holcomb family.

Time: Sunday at 8:00 on NHK it will run for the rest of the year.

3) The Ferris Wheel outside of Korakuen (the Tokyo Dome) is a great spot for a date! The weather is still chilly enough for public snuggling in this non-snuggle friendly society. The view is OK, nothing spectacular, but a few minutes of privacy in a romantic-ish setting are worth it. If you are going there for baseball or to do Judo at the Kodokan (it’s around the corner) this might be a nice stop — especially if your date has started to wonder whether all the “keiko” (稽古: training) you’ve been doing is another girl ( 恵子: “Keiko” is a typical girls name).

Location: Across the street from the Tokyo Dome near the Korakuen Station.
Cost: 800円/person
Con: Adjusting the music to my tastes was challenging…

4) Cherry Blossoms are opening and I think they are regretting it. The weather went from Spring-like back to “Just kidding it’s still winter” in a blink of an eye. The trees are fluffing up but the weather is just not quite good enough for blossom viewing picnics. There is nothing like public drunkenness and karaoke to truly enable cherry blossom viewing. Aaahh! Spring in Japan!



Yokota Sensei
March 1, 2010, 17:47
Filed under: Aikido, Japan | Tags: ,

Recently, I have lucked into more opportunities to train with Yokota sensei than my normal schedule permits. Each time, I have found myself more and more in awe of his Aikido. When I first attended one of Sensei’s classes, I felt as though I had reverted to being a beginner again. Every move I made was awkward or, at best, a mis-interpretation of what he was doing.

At first, I attributed my inability to perform at what I *felt* was my skill level to both sensei’s waza and the way he presented them. Which is to say, the waza he demonstrates are subtly (and unsubtly) different to what I was familiar. Also, Sensei frequently will demonstrate two or three techniques, all based on the same fundamental entry or dynamic and then have the class try to do what he just had. I would then furiously try to replicate what I thought I saw — often only his final technique — but then perform it as I understood not as he demonstrated. In other words, I kept missing his point.

From the way Sensei groups his techniques in a demonstration, it is clear that the common movement linking them is major part of his point. Details of individual waza are important but his overwhelming, uke dominating movements are the basis of his teaching and, I think, must be understood before trying to actually copy his techniques. Fortunately, Sensei will patiently demonstrate his footwork and frequently throws students as he wanders about the mat.

This may seem obvious but, when in Yokota sensei’s class expect to move. Expect big movements (even suwariwaza seems bigger) and dominant positioning to be explored. I know that when I first stepped onto the mat with him my attempts at replicating what he was teaching were very tentative and so, again, missed the point.

Now, I’m looking forward to my next chance to train with him!



Bullshit Artistry
January 17, 2010, 14:06
Filed under: Expat, Japan | Tags:

I just read a story about how Mark Spitz convinced Russian Olympic swimming coaches that his mustache gave him a fluid-dynamic advantage over bare faced swimmers. He then claimed that the following year all of the Russian swimmers competed with mustaches. True or not, this is a beautiful piece of bullshit artistry. Respect! It got me thinking of my personal favorite moment of well-timed story telling.

I was riding a bus home from work on a sunny Seattle day when the young man standing next to me started chatting up a pair of Japanese exchange students. Normally, this wouldn’t have registered but we were standing next to each other and he was making a his move in Japanese. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop a bit. After much giggling and such his stop arrived and he got off the bus. The girls continued to laugh about about how the pick-up artist had hit on them. Just as my own stop was approaching one of them said she was shocked that an American could speak Japanese so well. That was my trigger…

I turned to the two of them and, in my best hick Japanese dialect, told them that ALL Americans can speak Japanese, we just pretend not to. And I got off the bus. Their expressions were worth it.

For bullshit to rise to an art form, opportunities given must be accepted.




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