2014 Obon holiday

Here is the shirtless kenshusei video you have been waiting for.


The Daimonji festival was yesterday, and so the Obon holiday has come to a close and training re-starts tomorrow.  The kenshusei are nestled all snug in their beds while visions of koho ukemi dance in their heads.

It was a nice holiday week.  At the kenshusei house, we experimented with CouchSurfing–letting strangers sleep in our apartment just out of good will and hospitality.  We had 5 extra people in the house at one point.



On Wednesday of the week, the kenshusei and the part-time kenshusei got together at a beautiful spot on the Takano River called Yase-Hieizanguchi.  You reach it by taking the Eizan Electric Rail Line from Demachiyanagi Station in northern Kyoto.





Just like last year, we had a really great barbecue party, but this year there was a lot more swimming. Kitamura-san was especially enthusiastic, resembling nothing so much as a river otter.




Later, the rest of the kenshusei went for a swim too and we fired up the grill.

15shirtless 16shirtless DSC07456



The week wrapped up with the Daimonji Festival (called Gozan no Okuribi by the local Kyoto people), in which bonfires are lit on the mountains surrounding the city in order to act as signposts for the spirits of the dead to return to the afterlife.




bonfire Noh

Recently, some graduates of the Mugenjuku Kenshusei Course went out on the town.  Takenaga Naomi (class of ’14), Nick Richardson (class of ’13), and I (class of ’14) went to Heian Shrine to see traditional Japanese drama called Noh lit by bonfires.

Heian Shrine is one of the major shrines in Kyoto.  It is a -jingu shrine, which means it is connected with Japan’s Imperial family.  It was built when Emperor Meiji moved to Tokyo, and it commemorates the 1000 years during which Kyoto was the capital of Japan.  The design of Heian-jingu is based on the ancient imperial government buildings that no longer exist in Kyoto; in fact, it is a scale model of them.  So we can see what the imperial city looked like in medieval times.




Starting in 1950, Heian-jingu started holding firelight Noh events on June 1 & 2 every year.

Noh is a traditional style of Japanese drama.  The actors wear oppulent traditional clothing and carved wooden masks, and they sing and dance, accompanied by the music of flute and drums.  It is performed on a special small square stage with a long walkway.   Noh is not for everyone.  The actors move very slowly and there is almost no action and no sets on the stage.





Usually, Noh is performed indoors, but outdoor Noh performed by firelight is very popular in the summer.  It is called Takigi-Noh, or bonfire Noh.  At Heian-jingu, a Noh stage is built in the courtyard, and the audience sits in the open air.  The performance starts in the daylight.  When the sun goes down, fires are lit around the stage and the shrine’s buidlings are lit up with flood lights.

This year was the 65th annual Kyoto Takigi-Noh.  Here is the poster for the event:



Nick and I arrived a lit early because there was a big line outside the shrine’s front gate.




It was hot but we had folding fans, and I had a hat.  Nick put a washcloth on top of his head.



We got pretty good seats not too far away from the stage.



We saw 4 Noh plays.  The first two were very interesting to watch, although we couldn’t understand what was going on.  The Noh actors move in a special way, and Naomi says it is good study for aikido.

The third play was actually something different from Noh, called kyogen.  It is a type of traditional Japanese slapstick comedy.

The fourth play called Shakkyo (or “stone bridge”) is famous for having a lion dance.  It has a typical plot for a Noh drama.


A monk is on pilgrimage in China, visiting Buddhist holy places.  Traveling in the mountains, he comes to a dangerous stone bridge over a deep gorge.  Before he can cross, a boy appears and tells the monk that on the other side of the bridge is the Buddhist Pure Land of the bodhisattva Monju.  No one can cross the bridge without performing years of ascetic practices.  The boy tells the monk that if he waits Monju will bless him with a special vision.  The monk sits down and the boy disappears.  Lions come from the other side of the bridge and frolic among the peony flowers on the mountainside.  The lions disappear and the monk moves on.

Shakkyo was a lot of fun.  The music for the lion dance is still echoing in my head.  I took a video of the lions leaving the stage, which is posted on YouTube.  There is also news footage of the whole event from Japanese news; the video is only 2 minutes long.  You can see the lion dance starting at 1:15…


The shrine at night has a very mystical atmosphere.  It feels very ancient and elemental, like sitting around a campfire in the mountains.




Nick, Naomi, and I wore Japanese clothes.  We enjoyed wearing yukatas very much, and Naomi looked very nice in high quality clothes and tasteful makeup.




After Noh, we were very hungry, so we went for French fries!





If you come to Kyoto for kenshusei training, please see the Noh drama.

Kenshusei in Kansai Scene


The kenshusei have appeared in a local Kyoto magazine called Kansai Scene.

You may recall the recent post in which I mentioned a photographer and reporter visiting the dojo.  Well, here’s the article they made.  The article is in both English and Japanese, so it is very easy for anyone to read it.  You can see photos of the kenshusei too.





Shiramine embu 2014

On Monday, May 5, the kenshusei participated in the budo demonstration at Shiramine-jingu Shrine in Kyoto.  Shiramine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of ball sports, a god of brewing/teamaking, two famous samurai, and two Japanese emperors.  It is a “jingu” shrine, which means it is connected to Japan’s imperial family.  That makes it a very important shrine in Japan even though it is rather small and not very well known in Kyoto.


Boys’ Day helmet display made from paper

Because of the samurai and emperors who are enshrined at Shiramine, it holds a martial arts demonstration on Boys’ Day every year.  Nowadays, Boys’ Day is officially “Children’s Day” and for celebrating childish things.  But in the past, Boys’ Day was for celebrating the martial spirit of maleness.  The traditional gift for boys on this day is a helmet.  Even today, people give the hanashobu flower on this day because its shape resembles a helmet.

Mugenjuku trains at Shiramine’s dojo on Sundays, so it participates in the martial arts demonstration every year.

The kenshusei arrived early to clean and set up before the demonstration.  Here they are outside the shrine dojo…



Reg Sakamoto arrived, and he and Nick went to the shrine’s water basin to ritually purify themselves before their Niten-Ichi-ryu demonstration



Meanwhile, Andy-sensei prepared the kids for their demonstration



Unfortunately, it rained, so attendance was low and everyone had to carry umbrellas…




And how about the Kenshusei’s embu?

They performed Yoshinkan’s Kihon dosa renzoku.

Kihon dosa renzoku is all the kihon dosa performed in a row while holding a sword.

They trained very hard.

They trained for a long time.

They were very dedicated and intense.

So you can’t wait to see it, right?

Guess what!

I missed it!!



However, you can always watch them practicing their embu in the dojo the week before Golden Week.  ***** UPDATE: Izzy’s friend got the kenshusei embu on video!! *****

Andy-sensei made a very nice demonstration, and finally Payet-sensei also gave a demonstration…



After the embu, the kenshusei and the dojo members went to a picnic while I went to work.

Kenshusei training starts again Wednesday morning!!

I am a one-year-old

My passport is stamped for arrival at Kansai International Airport on January 8th.  I arrived early in the morning after leaving Hong Kong around 1AM, took a very long train from the airport to Kyoto, then walked from the train station to my hostel.  I arrived in Kyoto at about 10AM on a cold, clear morning and walked west along Shijo Street, then north at Horikawa.  I walked past Nijo Castle, then took a right and a left and found my hostel, which was very close to Nijo.


At 10AM on a cold January morning, Shijo (which is a main shopping district) was almost abandoned, so my introduction to Kyoto was very surreal, but walking past Nijo Castle made me realise I had arrived in Japan, this country I had dreamed about. After checking into my hostel, my first act in Kyoto was to go to Mugenjuku’s old Kojinguchi dojo location on Kawaramachi Street.  You had to ride to the back side of a building and then climb a long flight of steep stairs and open a heavy steel door. I remember hearing yelling from inside and opening that door just a little bit to peak inside.  But I was too intimidated to go in, so I silently closed it again and left.  Then I returned the next morning for 7AM training, when I met Payet-sensei, Nakaema-san, and Izzy for the first time and went to Mister Donuts doughnut shop after. When Nick heard about my first day of training, he said, “Well, he’s met Payet-sensei, been to the dojo, and gone to Mister Donuts… he’s practically done the whole course!” My first month or so in Kyoto, I lived in Hostel Chiquito Mundo and trained at Kojinguchi.  It was a real dream.  At Hostel Chiquito, I had my own cubby to sleep in, but there was no heat, so getting out of bed was freezing cold.  But!  But they had a gas stove in the common room, so it was always warm and sunny in there.




Every night I stayed at Hostel Chiquito Mundo, they had a dinner party with lots of Japanese hot pot, beer, and sake.


Sometimes, I drank too much…


One time, kenshusei Yannick even came to have a party with us…


It was so much fun because of the nice staff such as Rena and Yuko… 2013hostelchiquitomundo_yuko2b   I have fond memories of Kyoto from before the Kenshusei course.  I hope you do, too!

Life in Kyoto : it’s Japan!

This is the first in a series (perhaps of one!) about life in Kyoto.  It is for potential kenshusei, especially those who have a sense of humour.

Payet-sensei is both one of the more severe and focused people I have met in my life and one of the ones who seems to enjoy laughing the most.  Chris-sensei has a sarcastic sense of humour.  And Andy-sensei somehow has a new funny story about his life every time you see him.  (Also, Nick is English, which is funny in its own right!)  So, if you are a sourpuss, please don’t consider the Kenshusei Course.

Today’s message about Kyoto is: Hey, dumby, it’s Japan!  What I mean is this…

Before I came to Japan, I was traveling around Asia.  I drank horse vodka made from fermented horse’s milk in Mongolia; I drank overpriced martini’s in a highfalutin’ bar in SIngapore; and I drank rot-gut Burmese whiskey with local taxicab drivers near Sule Pagoda while sitting in front of industrial-sized fans in the sweltering heat of Rangoon.

Of all my travel boozing experiences, one of the most memorable is drinking Chamisul with a 70-odd-year-old government employee at Gwangjang Market in Seoul, Korea.  I went there twice–first in Spring on my way from Mongolia to Lao PDR, then in winter on a visa run from Kyoto.  Both times, I went to the same food stalls in Gwangjang market, and I loved it.


The first time, I went to a seafood stall vendor, where I drank Chamisul and ate raw octopus and fish cakes.  The second time, I went back, plus I went to a vendor of pigs’ feet and pigs’ heads, where I drank Chamisul and ate pigs’ cheeks and toes.  I loved it!  I gabbed with old Korean men and got soused on Chamisul.

What is the point?

My point is that Chamisul is a form of rice alcohol (which can be found all over northern Asia–I drank it in China, Korea, and Japan) that I thought was fantastic while I was in Korea.

But now that I’ve come to Japan, it doesn’t taste so great.  I’ve been drinking Nihonshu 日本酒 since I got to Japan.  Specifically, I’ve found a brand of local Kyoto sake that I drink whenever I get a hankering.  But Chamisul is sold both in Liquor Mountain import store and in the Life supermarket.  So tonight, I decided to drink Chamisul with my faux-nouveau-Japanese dish of soba noodles, minced beef, and shrimp, with garlic-pepper sauce.  It sucked!!

At 22%, it’s true the Chamisul was strong, but strong like rubbing alcohol.  Sake, even in its most abhorrent incarnations, is never so astringent in Japan.  There are many kinds–strong, fruity, spicy, hot, cold–but never just raw.  The thing I thought was delicious in one country tastes bad in Japan.

And that is the point.

Whatever else you may find and hate in Japan, you will always get something that is pretty good… a cut above, you can be assured.  That goes for rice alcohol, seafood… and aikido.

There’s less than two months left until the 2015 Kenshusei class matriculates, but still plenty of time to get in your application.  If you do, you won’t be disappointed.  You may not have a lot of money to party while you are on the Course, but you will find the things you choose to eat, drink, and be merry will be a cut above the rest.

2014 New Year

In Japan, New Year is the real deal.  People do o-soji, or spring cleaning, then stock up on household goods and hunker down for a few days while everything is closed.  Some people have nine days off or more!  For kenshusei it is time to hunker as well.

Nick has vacated the kenshusei apartment for the week in order to spend New Year with the “Mrs’s” family, so I’ve been on my own.  Since we don’t use any heat in the apartment, I’ve been quite cold and glad to have these new long johns sent from home for Christmas…



I slept in on this day, made myself some toast and eggs in the early afternoon, and then did some o-soji.  I finally threw out Yannick’s old futon mattress, which I had been using since he left last March, but which he let get covered in kabi, or the dreaded Japanese black mold.  I thought I could keep it at bay by keeping the mattress dry, but no luck.  So into a yellow trash bag it went for o-soji, and off to the D2 homestore I went.

I heard a story about the Soviet Union once: if you saw a line, you got in it even if you didn’t know what it was for, in case there was something important at the end.  Using the same logic, I bought more toilet paper at D2 just because it was almost sold out.

So I caught the bus home from D2 lugging enough TP for a small army and a new futon mattress, hopped off at the laundromat to take my bedding out of the drier, and made it home in time for a delicious New Year’s Eve dinner of roast beef…


On the advice of my English students, I decided to spend the midnight countdown at Chion-in temple, which has a huge bell that is rung 108 times at midnight on New Year’s.  Unfortunately, my student didn’t tell me that you have to get there by 10:30PM to get in.  So I ended up standing around with the large crowd outside the entrance.  The crowd was about half stoney-faced, quiet Japanese and half boisterous, inebriated 20-something Europeans, who I assume were mostly exchange students from Kyoto University.  While it’s true that young French girls en masse is a sight for sore eyes for this expatiate, the term baka-gaijin couldn’t help but come to mind.  However, it was nice that they called out the last 30 seconds of 2013, or I wouldn’t have known when the year changed.  My evening looked pretty much exactly like this photo of New Year’s Eve outside Chion-in:


Then I went home and had a New Year’s snack: a very small bottle of cheap bubbly and dried salmon courtesy of Takenaga’s grandmother.



The first day of 2014 dawned bright and balmy.  It was one of those mild winter days when it is actually warmer outside than inside.  I got up late and made my way down Imadegawa street to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to a guardian deity of learning.  It is a quite spacious and popular shrine full of tall old trees, stone monuments, and traditional wooden buildings to house various kami gods.  Today, it was swamped with people, but no one was in a hurry.  It was a very relaxed atmosphere with vendors outside offering sweets and dart games.  It looked almost exactly like these photos of the shrine:



After Kitano Tenmangu, I bicycled around a bit, exploring parts of my neighbourhood I’ve never seen.  Everything was quiet with businesses closed and people out walking, usually to shrines or temples, I suspect.  At Shiramine, I paid a visit to Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and watched the shotokan karate club going out for a bare-foot run to start their New Year’s Day training… New Year’s Day training–oh, the shame for a kenshusei!!

NEW YEAR’S EVE in New York

In the afternoon, I spent New Year’s Eve with my parents.  How did I do that?  Not by flying home but through the magic of Skype.  Midnight back home is 2:00PM in Kyoto, so logged on and had my traditional New Year’s celebration with my parents, which consists of cheese, shrimp, and champagne and watching the ball come down in New York’s Times Square (I watched the ball broadcast on TV and rebroadcast through Skype!).


Incidentally, shrimp are also eaten as a traditional New Year’s food (called o-seichi) in Japan.  Because of their curved backs, shrimp are said to resemble old people and, so, are a symbol of longevity.  Other o-seichi include rolled up omelettes, which are said to resemble traditional scrolls and represent good luck for studying, and sweet potatoes, which are the colour of gold and good luck for business.  By the way, that orange goop is homemade shrimp cocktail sauce made with wasabi instead of horseradish.  Delicious!


Later in the day, I received a mystery gift in the post.  I know it is for me only because I can read my name in katakana.  I don’t know what it is, but I think it is flash cards.  Somebody wants me to learn Japanese!


Notice the stamp on the bottom.  2014 is the Year of the Horse.



At the embu in Tokyo in November, Izzy and I met Takenaga’s family, and her father gave us bottles of his own homemade ume plum wine.  I’ve been letting mine sit in order to make the flavour stronger, but tonight was the night.  So, I’ve been sitting here watching cheesy chambara films and bad documentaries on YouTube and drinking Takenaga’s papa’s homemade plum wine…






On New Year, everything closes.  I went out for a bike ride.  The streets are dark.  Nick and I live in the Nishijin textile district, where kimono cloth has been made since the middle ages.  Normally, the square in the middle has a restaurant bar, cafe, and other businesses open.  Here it is tonight:


The izzakaya across from the dojo where I went to my first Mugenjuku party last February was dark:


And even the French restaurant called Waraku above the dojo is silent and uninviting tonight:


I hope someplace is open tomorrow, so I can find something to eat!

Happy New Year 2014 to you all!

pressing problems of the kenshusei course

The next kenshusei course starts in less than 1/2 year.  Some applications have already been turned in, and only a few spaces are left.

If you are considering The Course next year, you may interested in pressing problems such as, “can I get miniature marshmallows for my hot cocoa?”

The answer is yes!!

As autumn elides into winter here in Kyoto, I have started looking for a way to make the hot cocoa that gets me through my home’s harsh winters.  Here is my father in front of his house last winter…



Usually, I make hot cocoa from scratch…

  1. melt pure cocoa in whole milk in a pan on the stovetop
  2. add sugar, but not too much; just enough to take the edge off the bitterness of the cocoa
  3. pour into large mugs
  4. add Kahlua or another coffee liqueur (this the real sweetening agent)
  5. add whole cream as desired for the correct texture and temperature
  6. put miniature marshmallows on top if you have a sweet tooth

Finding good cocoa in Japan is difficult.  Nick likes Van Houten’s, while I prefer the indigenous Morinaga.  What can I say?  Brits!

Kahlua is easy to find, although you may have to pay a lot.

Cream or half-n-half is very difficult.  I still haven’t figured out which products in Life supermarket are cream and which are vitamin-enriched coffee mates (yuck!!).  Good luck!

The real kicker is miniature marshmallows, but I discovered the Life brand snack.  It is an entire isle of 100-yen ($1.00 or £0.50) snacks.  Most of them are things like crispy squid crackers or seaweed peanuts, but they also have very small marshmallows.  Score!

So, you are safe to come to Kyoto next year.

We hope to receive your application soon, now that your fears are allayed.