The Black Belt – All it’s cracked up to be?

In a sense, this was the climax, the pinnacle of the Kenshusei course. I think it’s hard as a Kenshusei not to feel something really special about this event….the Shodan test I mean. When we started out (As what now feels like children), this point in the course seemed like a distant, almost unreachable goal. Especially on the days when I felt truly exhausted, frustrated, and hopeless. And there were many days like this for me in Dai Ichi. No joke. It kicked my ass. I never thought I was a tough guy, but I also never thought I was an out-of-shape weakling…but one day of “Hell Week” in the kenshusei course was enough to prove me wrong. As the days, weeks, and months have passed, I’ve become stronger, more resilient, more “tough”. But then, so has the course. I mean, it never ends. As our Senseis, in particular Payet Sensei, points out, we’re pushing our limits, adding onto the layers that we’ve already built up…Dai ichi, Dai Ni, Dai San. So in a sense, I don’t really feel stronger than I was in the beginning of the course. It’s a paradox, a really crazy paradox. Much like so many things about this course and Aikido in general. I am constantly slapped in the face with one paradox after another. I can’t describe it in words, but I guarantee you if you do the course (or have done it) you will know exactly what I mean. Relax, but be strong and heavy. Have a good time, but take care of everyone and everything around you. Work yourself to the bone (Blood, sweat, and injuries required) in training, but enjoy it! Work your ass off for Shodan, but realize immediately that you have just started…AGAIN! Yes, that’s right. The black belt is everything and nothing at the same time. It is a very significant point in the Kenshusei Course. A time to demonstrate everything that we’ve learned in the nearly 1000 hours of training we’ve put in to it…but a time to immediately be humbled and to humble oneself. I’m not saying that I don’t feel proud of myself and of my Kenshusei brothers for having reached this goal…because I do. And I think it’s important to embrace what we’ve accomplished. Where we’ve come from and where we are now. I mean, how many people can say they’ve done something like this? Who has spent over a thousand hours of their lives in ONE YEAR pouring out their blood, sweat, and (Well, sorry I can’t complete the cliche because there really weren’t any tears shed, but the pain, frustration, anger, hopelessness, fear, etc etc were there – in mass doses) for something like this?? I talk about it now, trying to express the feelings I have for having come so far. But the truth is that I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. And I don’t mean that just for my Aikido, I mean it also for myself. For Aikido is really just a projection of our lives in general. It really is. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course, in my hours, days, weeks, and months of training, its that. All of my challenges, frustrations, weaknesses, and obstacles during the training are nothing more than microcosms of my life in general. I believe that if one were able to truly express everything about what they do in Aikido, they would essentially be talking about what their life is about. And if one chooses to apply this (whether through Aikido or not – and I say or not because I don’t think it’s the only way) to their life, it can be a path to happiness. Payet Sensei said in the “Aikido is Life” video “Finally Aikido is a way to be happy, to be happier in your life”. It’s a phrase from a very wise man that drew me into Mugenjuku like a magnet 9 months ago. It sent shivers of joy down my spine and brought tears to my eyes. And it still has that effect on me today…black belt or not.

A Very Berry Dinner

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Have you heard of the Very Berry Cafe in Kyoto? Neither had I, until I stumbled upon it with a friend last week. It was easy to spot, as it had a gigantic American flag hanging outside, visible from 3 blocks away. Being the patriotic yank that I am, I went down the road to have a peek. The Very Berry Cafe turned out to be an American-style diner…well, not really. It was more like a Hawaiian-Themed, Japanese-style waffle restaurant with a remarkably unique bathroom.

First of all, the food was really good. And while the recipes seemed like they could actually be American, I myself have never seen things like an avocado cream cheese waffle sandwich, or a BLT pancake sandwich. I can assure you, the Avocado sandwich was delish!

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Secondly, the bathroom was simply brilliant. The picture doesn’t do it full justice, but you get the idea. It was like a disco party in there with a Simpsons DVD playing on repeat. I have to say, in general, the Japanese definitely know what they’re doing when it comes to bathrooms. Everything from heated toilet seats, to bidets, to the water spout that fills up the tank you can use to rinse your hands off, these bathrooms are full-on.

SO, go get yourself a funky waffle sandwich and enjoy a rerun of the Simpsons in the privacy of a disco bathroom!

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“Cha cha cha changes”

I figured while I’m on the subject of change, I may as well talk about my own changes…in my body of course. Just in case you haven’t thought about what would happen to your body after 6 months of intense (Kenshusei) AIkido training, I’ll give you a moment now…

Ok, so as you probably imagine, there are indeed some changes that have occurred in my body. I’ll simplify it by breaking it into three parts: The good, the bad, and the internal (I know, not quite the Dirty Harry title you were expecting).

THE GOOD – When I started the course in April, I had just finished doing 2 months of jiu jitsu training 1-2 hours per day 5 days/week…thinking that would help…hahaha! Actually it may have a little, but seriously, there’s nothing that could really have prepared me for the first month of this course. Prior to that, I was exercising 2-3 hours a week if I was lucky. Now? 4-5 hours a day. On most days, at least 1-2 hours of that is high-intensity cardiovascular exercise. My weigh-in at the start of the course in April was 83 kilos. Now? 77 kilos. And a noticeable change in my appearance. The training hasn’t made me develop larger muscles, but it has made me more compact and aerodynamic. I can honestly say that I am more fit now than I have been in a very long time.

THE BAD – The downside of this intense training is the inevitable chronic and acute injuries. First there’s the little injuries, which are hardly ever even worth mentioning at the dojo – but they can be identified by tape on the toes and heels, blood splotches on the elbows, backs, and knees of the dogis. And the perpetual feeling of some (or all) of the body aching – joints, muscles, the works. Secondly, there’s the acute injuries like a separated shoulder, knee injuries, lower back injuries, wrist, and elbow injuries, oh and we can add ankle to the list now too. Pretty much every joint in your body becomes prey to this training. Most of these injuries last a week or less, sometimes a little more. Thirdly, we have the chronic injuries. Most of these have some historical origin prior to the course, a few not. These are the kind of muscle or joint injuries that stick around and nag you like your mom telling you to do your homework. You can’t ignore them, and they come back again and again – Yes, like your mom telling you to do your homework.

THE INTERNAL –
Just today I went to the hospital to see a doctor about some kind of bug that I caught. Fever, chills, body pain, and other pleasantries. While I was there, the nurse checked my pulse, blood pressure, and Oxygen Saturation. My blood pressure turned out to be about the same as it was 6 months ago, a little high, but not of concern. My pulse and O2 sat had both changed. My O2 saturation was up to 99%. I’m pretty sure the last time I was checked it was in the 96-97% range. And my pulse had an even more dramatic change – 51. As I can recall, last time I was at 62 or 63. So I dropped up to 12 points. The nurse asked me if I was a basketball player or a runner, because ordinarily the resting pulse rate for athletes runs low like that. I guess that means my heart health has improved!

Conclusion:
The course is good and bad for your health. You should do it!

Partner Change!!

On Wednesday of last week, at the start of our afternoon lesson, we lined up in our kamae positions facing our partners, and then just before we started, Andy Sensei announced that we would be changing partners. Now, I know it sounds like a pretty arbitrary thing, and even more arbitrary to write about. BUT, it was a rather symbolic moment for us 5 Kenshusei. What it meant was, then end of the partnership that we’d had for all of Dai Ni, and even some of Dai Ichi (at least 3 months all together). It meant that the person who we’d trained with 5 days a week, 4-5 hours per day, was no longer. Granted, we do do some switching around several times a week, but by and large, we do have just one main partner to work with.

Over the course of several months with Jotaro, we’d formed a kind of bond, an alliance. Most of it happened unconsciously, and that which happened overtly, was mostly in the form of nonverbal communication – through our Aikido. By now, we’ve learned a lot about how one another respond to techniques, how we move, when we’re tired, angry, frustrated, energetic, even hungry. Reflecting on this bond that we’ve created, I can’t help but make a connection with something that Payet Sensei said in the “Aikido is Life” video. “…It’s a way to communicate. To communicate more truly with people”. I think Jotaro and I did just that.

Well Jotaro, I’m going to miss you. But remember the famous line from Mel Gibson in Braveheart: They can take away our Sotae Dosa, But they’ll never take, our Embu!!! (That’s how it went right?)

The Kenshusei joint Russia-US alliance decends upon Osaka!

Yes, Machine and I went to Osaka together.  It was a very spontaneous decision.  We were sitting in the apartment on a Saturday, relaxing, a little bored…and then inspiration struck us.  Why not just get on the train and go to Osaka for a change of pace?  And so we did.  Since inspiration took until 2pm to strike us (Probably from training fatigue, not because we’re lazy, uh uh).  By the time we’d gotten there it was already past 4pm.  We decided to go to Osaka Castle first, and later to the classic urban markets with flashy lights and swarms of people.  When we arrived at the nearest JR station to the Castle, we walked through the park on our way.  It’s an impressive park actually.  I think of it as kind of a combination of Kyoto’s Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace park….only bigger yet.  They’ve got a baseball diamond there, a river, a forest, some kind of traditional drumming facility, and random people playing brass instruments in the middle of the park (I guess it’s pretty hard to find a place to practice the trumpet in Japan).  And the Castle and walls surrounding are quite impressive.  Even more impressive was the joint US-Russia delegation that was visiting that day.  Have a look at the pictures. 

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MAGIC SPONGES

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Yes, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’d be blogging about magical sponges on the Kenshusei Blog.  Let me explain.  So here in Japan, they sell these magical little white sponges.  They’re about 1 inch cubes, and you can buy a big pack of them at the 100 Yen shop.  I think they are called “Melamine Sponges”.  Anyways, these things are amazing.  You can clean scuff marks and grime, dirt, old tape gunk, and a host of other unpleasantries.  The point is, they clean things that cleaning sprays, soap, and rags won’t.  I used them a few weeks ago to clean off all of the black scuff marks on the corners of the wall in the entryways of the dojo – worked like a charm.  Then I used them on the muck that was covering the “B1” as you get off the elevator at dojo level – it looks new now!  And just yesterday I spent 20 minutes wiping off the gunk on the wall in the kitchen that never came off with any of the cleaning solutions in the past.  And yes, it worked there too!  I’ve yet to find something they don’t work on.  There is one complaint I have about them (Besides that I have no idea what kind of chemical is in it – probably one that causes skin cancer);  they’re too small!!  Imagine using a 1 inch sponge on an entire wall.  Then again, that’s the kenshusei way.  I digress.

 

UPDATE!

So I’ve done some research today and I discovered that we do in fact have an equivalent product in the US.  It may have even come first.  According to the apartmenttherapy.com website, the “Mr. Clean Magic Eraser” has been on the shelves in US stores since 2003.  Where were you when I needed you Magic Sponge???!!!  I just had to find out if they were toxic.  There were rumors out there about the sponges having  formaldehyde in them.  So what’s the verdict?  Well, according to this website, Proctor and Gamble released a statement about the sponges stating that they had trace mounts of formaldehyde, in quantities less than indoor air, and that there were no other toxic chemicals in them.  So there you have it, they clean like magic, AND they don’t cause cancer!!  Amazing!  Oh, and best of all, they have the same brand name in the US as the name that I coined them here in Japan.  Here’s a list of “Don’ts” from the website (#4 is a knee-slapper).

Next time you reach for the Magic Eraser, here are a few things to remember:

1. Do not let your kids (or pets) play with or use Magic Erasers! They can be swallowed and can cause rashes and burns if rubbed against the skin.

2. After using, wipe up any remaining residue.

3. Don’t eat, lick or taste Magic Erasers. Remember what happened when powdered melamine was found in pet food and infant formula in China with tragic consequences?

4. Don’t rub Magic Erasers on your person. Just don’t. And, again, don’t let your kids play with them. The superfine foam can cause abrasions.

Field Trip!

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This post is a little overdue, but better late than never.

The day after our Dai Ichi Exam, we went on our first “Field Trip”. It was an event we’d been planning for a long time. Our trip to O’Sensei’s grave in Wakayama Prefecture.

We arrived early at the Dojo to take the Ippan class, then a few of us ran to Kitamura San’s apartment to take a quick shower before jogging back to the Dojo to meet Naomi who kindly brought the rental car. After a quick stopover to pick up a GPS, and a 7-eleven pit-stop for we headed out of town. I guess it took us a couple of hours before arriving at our first destination, O’Sensei’s grave. As seen in the photos attached, we followed Naomi’s instructions to fill the buckets of water, and used the water and brushes to clean off the headstone from top to bottom. Then we bowed in silence and payed our respects to the great Ueshiba Sensei. The grave site was located amidst the grounds of a beautiful temple, a well-manicured garden, and a bunch of other old and nice looking structures for which I can say little about their meaning.

Next stop was the land where Ueshiba Sensei’s house once stood…now a fenced off empty gravel lot, next door to a hardware store with a name something like “Ueshiba Denkiya”. Nice touch.

Next stop was the beach…and the gigantic statue of Ueshiba Sensei just nearby. Andy Sensei and Jotaro dove in for a dip in the ocean while the rest of us hung out on the beach. Highlights included Andy sensei performing Hiyaku Ukemi in the shallow waters, and making sand trails of Shakoho, Taino Henko Ichi and Taino Henko Ni. SEE Photos. A quick and refreshing lunch at a nearby restaurant, and then we were off and running again.

Next stop was the onsen…which was closed…minor setback…so we improvised and went to another one instead. It was pretty awesome actually. Nice pools with jets, oxygen, electricity (For the brave), and a wide range of temperatures, including “Siberian Cold” (For the really brave) – and being the hardcore Yoshinkan boys we are, we all dipped in. Since we didn’t do any Aikido while we were IN the Onsen, we just set up the cushions for Andy Sensei to do some leaping Mae Mawari Ukemis in the quiet Tatami-Floor lounge downstairs.

After a long ride back home, a few of us stopped off at the Izumiya to grab a couple of beers and sip them by the river on Horikawa Dori. It was a long day, and I think we were in fact more exhausted the next day for training than we normally are after a solid day of hitting the mats all day. Having said that, it was a nice trip and I think we’re all glad we had the chance to go.

DAI ICHI EXAM

—- DAI ICHI EXAM —-

The translation of “DAI ICHI”, according to wikianswers.com is:

Firstly… / First of all…
Number one. The first one.
Coloquially: The best one.

I’m partial to the last definition, preferring to think that what we were just did was, indeed, THE BEST ONE. Truthfully, I don’t know if it was the best one, but it was a hard one. In the 2 weeks leading up to the exam, we prepared 6 hours a day at a consistently ridiculous level of intensity…repeating the Kihon Dosa (Basic movements) and the 23 Waza (take-down techinques), attacking the training from every angle possible – high speed, slow motion, breaking it down into microscopic detail, changing partners, changing the order, fine tuning all of the details of each movement, getting lower, getting deeper, and pushing ourselves past our limits…all in preparation for a 30 minute test. Actually, I’m not sure it even lasted a full 30 minutes. But anyways, here’s 30 minutes to demonstrate 300 hours of training…No pressure, ok? We were forewarned that whatever anxiety we felt during our mock tests would only be a fraction of what we’d feel in the actual test. And so we prepared with as much Kenshusei spirit as we could. Some days I’d get home from training and just want to collapse, but stop short of that in order to ice my knees and back, and to enjoy our ritualistic afternoon coffee and toast. In the mornings I’d curse at my alarm clock, when I’d have to command my creaky knees to get me off my futon on the floor, and limp with sore feet, ankles, and knees into the kitchen for coffee with my fellow soldiers Alex aka “Machine”, and Herve aka “Houdini”. We’d exchange morning greetings in Japanese, mocking both our poor Japanese skills and the polite tone of a female supermarket clerk simultaneously. By the end of these two weeks of rigorous test preparation, my body was a pile of mush, but a pile of mush that would feign strength and preparedness for Tuesday morning’s exam.

“SHOMEN!” We made a perfect line at the front of the dojo, facing the Kamidana (Shrine), awaiting Payet Sensei’s orders to commence the exam, in complete silence. I heard the confident shuffle of his feet on the tatami and the ruffling of his hakama as he approached our line from the rear. He turned to face us, Kitamura aka “Gorilla”, bellowed out “Payet Sensei ni REI!!!” “OSU!!” we all replied in unison as we bowed. The on command, we bolted into our ready positions for instruction. For the first part of the exam, we performed all of the basic movements or “Kihon Dosa”, plus seiza ho, and my all time favorite, “shikoho” or knee walking. As we performed them with careful attention to every detail of our movements, our 3 senseis, donning hakamas and clipboards, paced around the room looking us over like moving sculptures at an art museum. “YAME!”

“MUKAYATE!” We turned to face out partners, and the waza began. We alternated between one another as the waza were called out at random for us to execute. I remember experiencing a strange sensation that my body was actually moving before I could mentally process the command being given. One after the next, like on autopilot, we knocked them out. And then,“KAMAE NORI” (Ready position) was called out. It was over. We were herded out of the Dojo and into the kitchen, while our senseis huddled to make a decision about our performances. 4th Kyu for all of us – the highest rank possible! I was happy, and relieved, as we all were I’m sure. In addition to receiving my new rank, I also took away a lesson. I’ve perhaps never been as prepared for something in my entire life as I was for this test. To feel what it’s like to prepare for something until it seeps into every pore of your body…to the point that you’re no longer working at a cognitive level, but at a primitive neurological level, is something of a unique experience. The idea behind such intense and repetitive training is to work towards integrating a more spontaneous ability to respond to a movement; to develop muscle memory, reflexes, and ultimately, self-control.

Now…how to generalize this to life outside the dojo…hrrrrmmm.

Hammered!

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Saturday night…another night out with the Kenshusei boys.  

Last week was a hard week that ended even harder.  We’re gearing up for our first test – for 4th-6th Kyu.  And this test is ALL about spirit.  Our senseis have all commented that our form is there, our technique looks ok, but this isn’t just a display of technique.  This is about putting everything we have into it.  110% into everything – from the first strike, to the kiai, and onward through every movement in the technique; even the stand-up and return to starting position.  INTENSITY.  We’ve done nearly a dozen mock tests so far, each one with increasing energy and focus.  I feel anxious every time, and I can guess its similar for the other 4 kenshusei.  Even Big Chris said during one of our mock tests that he felt anxious and stressed out…even though he’s not testing next week.  On Friday, the last day of our training week, we got hammered with a session of Hiyaku Ukemi.  I knew it was coming; we all did.  During Kote Gaeshi, none of our Hiyaku Ukemis looked great, and our senseis hinted that we’d see a return of Hiyaku Ukemi practice, even after Kote Gaeshi was finished.  So Friday was the day.  While I got thrown 10 times, threw my partner 10 times, and back and forth for a total of 100 each, I couldn’t help but feel like it was the physical representation of the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC.  In fact, the track was running through my head, and I secretly wished it was playing full blast in the background of the dojo.  When we finished, Andy Sensei told us to put away the white mats, and then lined us back up facing each other.  “Ok, now we’re going to do the same exercise without the white mats.”  100 more Hiyaku Ukemis on the hard tatami.  I can’t say I was thrilled at the idea, nor were any of the others, BUT, oddly enough, I was ready for it, and I bet the others were too.  And when I say we were ready for it, I mean, we all would have done it.  But it would have taken it out of us.  I think it was wise for us not to have done it after all.  But it was a test of our spirit, to show that we were focused and ready and committed.  And I don’t think we passed that test, at least not based on Andy Sensei’s reaction.  

At any rate, we plowed through to the end of the day on Friday, giving everything we had, and finished off with a good dose of conditioning as always.  This time “only” 80 push ups, 80 sit ups, and 80 superman lifts.  When we got home on Friday, Big Chris had left us an awesome gift on the kitchen table.  A bottle of Suntory 43 degrees.  It was a kind of consolation for having given the idea of doing this ukemi practice…not knowing that Herve’s wrist was injured from doing Kote Gaeshi the day before.  The three of us, Herve, Machine, and I, wasted no time in filling our glasses with ice coca cola, and the healing potion.  Soon we were wearing big grins, laughing, and celebrating our mini victory, having completed the week’s training.  Saturday night we were out with an old Japanese friend of mine who I’d met on my travels in Myanmar, and at the end of the night, the 3 of us – Machine, Kitamura, and I, polished off the night with a drink at an old classic Japanese Bar next to Kiyamachi street.  I felt like we’d jumped in a time portal and went back 30 years.  

Reflections of a beginning

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Over the weekend, a big group of us from Mugenjuku made it out to Osaka for Ando Sensei’s workshop. I was particularly looking forward to it, as I had trained at Ando Sensei’s dojo twice before, and I hadn’t seen him or trained with anyone from the dojo since starting the Kenshusei Course. My good friend Michiko from Tokyo (And Ando Sensei’s dojo) was also attending the workshop. I met her over a year ago on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, when she first told me about Aikido. She encouraged me to try it out when I visited Japan later in the year. And so I did last June. I had the opportunity to do 7 days of live-in training at Ando Sensei’s dojo. I really enjoyed my time and training there, and got a little taste of what Yoshinkan Aikido was all about. Months later, I made a big decision to participate in the Kenshusei Course with Payet Sensei. And now, nearly 3 months into the course, I had the chance to train once again with my friend Michiko last night at Mugenjuku. I was happy to show her my new “Aikido Home”. I also found that I appreciated all of the hard work and training that she’s put in to her Aikido over the past 5+ years, now that I’ve shed some of my own blood, sweat, and tears.

After Keiko last night, Payet Sensei was kind enough to invite some of us out for drinks. We had a good time listening to stories and anecdotes about Aikido and the awe inspiring lives of Gozo Shioda Sensei and Payet Sensei. And I also realized how I need to get back on my computer and start studying my Rosetta Stone Japanese again…