Life in Kyoto: what’s going on?

What’s going on?  Paganini and Balthus.  What else?

Of course, as kenshusei, the guys have to be focused primarily on aikido.  However, it’s inevitable that everyone has lives outside the dojo.  For example, Herve has an entire social network from his previous life working in Kyoto as a yakitori chef.  And as you’ve seen in the Kenshusei blog, Scott and Alex have become a kind of “odd couple“, traveling, drinking, hobnobbing, and generally enjoying Kyoto and Japan’s Kansai region together.

For myself, I had to find a job teaching English last year.  At the beginning of each class in our school, we ask students to tell some piece of news about themselves.  As a result, I get a constant stream of information about what’s going on in Kyoto–festivals, museum shows, local sightseeing hotspots, etc.  Most of it is stuff I can’t go to, and it’s okay.  For example, a lot of my students have gone to see the Balthus exhibit at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.  I can’t really get too excited about this quasi-pedophile, and I’m a little embarrassed that people are getting drawn in by his love of cats.balthus-kyoto-exhibit

But there’s something else my students are doing that I am interested in.  The Kyoto Cinema at Cocon Karasuma, which is a large building near the Shijo-Karasuma intersection is showing a biopic about Paganini.  IMG_2180

I think this is the movie that played in the US as The Devil’s Violinist, but in Japan it is just called “Paganini“.  This is a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing, although I always have to consider before buying a movie ticket that I could spend the money on Noh, kabuki, etc.

Anyhow, that’s what’s going on right now in Kyoto.  Oh, and chestnuts are coming into season!  In Kyoto I always get them confused with mellons when I talk with students because the Japanese use the French word “marron” for chestnut, but they think it’s English.

Here’s some Paganini in case you can’t afford a movie ticket…


Life in Kyoto: welcome to the kenshusei house

As you know, Herve, Scott, and Alex live together in an apartment with me, old man chris.  We call the apartment the Kenshusei House.

Did you ever wonder what the Mugenjuku Kenshusei House looked like?  You did?  Well, you’re in luck.  Take a gander at these fine photos…

Our building is right next to the LIFE supermarket, so it is easy to get dinner.


Just like everywhere in Japan, there are piles and piles of bicycles.  But our bicycle-parking is across from the Tozando martial arts store, so…


…we get to see samurai armor every day!



We can accept mail from anywhere in the world.  We’re just waiting for letters…




You can see Mt. Hiei from our back door.


We hang our umbrellas out just like our neighbors.  Our neighbors all know who the guys are…


“apartment 309: the Mugenjuku Kenshusei…”




We live, eat, breath aikido: even in the bathroom…



 … where O-sensei and Kancho greet us every day…




Herve uses the dogi storage room for his one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple rain suit.


There’s Wi-Fi, so Scott can listen to music when he’s cooking.


I have a private Japanese-style tatami room.


Alex uses the patio to study Japanese on the weekends.15

…and when he gets bored, he can read something great from the Kenshusei library such Angry White Pyjamas, Aikido Shugyo, Aikido Jinsei, or KansaiScene.16


If you want to practice a little aikido at Mugenjuku, please pay us a visit.  We have room for you and a futon!


Life in Kyoto: April is for cherry blossoms


Famously, the Japanese associate the short-lived cherry blossoms with the life of samurai, which was cut short in the romantic imagination.  So I have always thought it is poetic that the Senshusei and Kenshusei Courses start in April during cherry blossom season.  However, it also makes it difficult to see the blossoms.

Kyoto has many famous places for viewing cherry blossoms.  Last year, I didn’t really get to see any of them because I just dragged myself back to the apartment, poured myself a tall whiskey, and tried to rest my knees and my mind.  But today, between my morning private lessons and teaching in the afternoon, I was able to get to the giant red torii (gateway) of Heian shrine, which is a famous place for viewing the cherry trees along the Lake Biwa Canal.

Life in Kyoto: obligation

Recently, we had Valentine’s Day.  Japan may be the only country on Earth where the phrase “obligation chocolate” makes sense.

Unlike the USA, where V-Day involves men giving chocolate, flowers, gifts, and cards to women, V-Day in Japan involves women giving chocolate to men.  (Men then return the favour on White Day, which is sometime later in the year.)  It’s a big deal.  The department stores have “chocolate fairs” with expensive imports from all over the world.  Plus, they give away free samples, so for a week before V-Day, you can go around gorging yourself on expensive chocolate if you’re shameless.


For the ten-year-old Japanese boy in each of us, there is of course Ultraman chocolate…


But since this is Japan, it’s not so simple as giving chocolate to your fiancé or boyfriend.  You also have to give chocolate to your secret lover, the teacher you have a crush on, your male friends, your father, your co-workers, your boss, and other men in decreasing order of importance to your life.  The chocolate you give the men you don’t care about is giri choko, or “obligation chocolate”.

Obligation isn’t just for chocolate, however.  You may also be obliged to attend meetings, parties, and overseas vacations–yes, I wrote “overseas vacations”–for your company.  Recently, one of my English students who is graduating from university this year said she was hung over from spending days going to drinking parties with her professors because she needed to graduate!

Obligation is an important part of life in Japan and this no less true in the dojo.  Do you hate making fun of yourself in front of crowds?  Well, you may be obliged to be a court jester at a party.  Do you hate teaching kids?  Well, you may be obliged to assist with one of the kids’ classes.  It’s all part of the package of being in the dojo family.  The good news is, at Mugenjuku, they can be understanding about kenshusei needing to work for a living, etc.

Come on down to Kyoto and find out what you may be obliged to do.  Discover the adventure of obligation!

why you need to come to Kyoto

I want to tell you about something that happened on Friday in the Kenshusei course.  I think I did aikido!


Last week, I was reading Aikido Shugyo again as research for the paper we have to write at the end of the Kenshusei course.  I read the book years ago–maybe 2006–but I haven’t read it again since coming to Kyoto.

Re-reading it now after doing Kenshusei, however… whew!!  Shioda is so straightforward, open, and transparent about aikido.  It’s pretty amazing, but it’s still difficult material.  Center line… focus… breathing… simple in theory, but to understand them with the body is another thing.

And then there’s the chapter called “Ki is the Concentration of Balance.”  The concentration of balance?  What does that even mean?

I was thinking about these things on Friday during class when Payet-sensei had us simply work on sotai dosa.  As Izzy and I were doing Tai no Henko Ni, sensei came over to us and did that thing he does.

That thing is where he physically repositions your body for you so you can feel what a technique is supposed to be.  As I was standing in kamae, he Payet-seizaextended my arm and told me to relax, then had Izzy put all his force into pushing.  And when I say relax, I really mean relax–no power, no tension, just shape.

Voila!  I was immovable and all of a sudden could feel so many things Shioda writes about in Aikido Shugyo… getting rid of your strength, maintaining body alignment without tension, power surging through the big toe…  My mind was blown!

All of a sudden, I understood “Ki is the concentration of balance.”  This is a phrase that you can grasp only through experience.  I never could have reasoned it out, but once Payet-sensei aligned my body and arm correctly, I had direct access to the experience.  How can you have a feeling of dynamic energy flowing through your body to defy your opponent when you are weak?  How can it get stronger when you get weaker?  Perfect alignment.  When balance becomes perfect, it transcends itself and makes your uke struggle with the earth underneath you.

Of course, as soon as I moved, I lost the feeling and couldn’t get it back on my own.  But for a moment, I was experiencing aikido!

I wonder… without training under Payet-sensei at Mugenjuku, how long would it have taken me to realise this feeling?  Would I have ever done it?  Will I ever find it again without Payet-sensei?


This is why people train under masters.  It’s why Shioda spent eight years with Ueshiba, two training from 5:00AM to 9:00PM.  It’s why Payet-sensei spent years with Shioda.  It’s why Crampton-sensei and Carter-sensei moved to Kyoto.  You could spend years training pointlessly on your own.  Transmission is directly from teacher to pupil, not through scrolls, books, or videos.



Moreover, you don’t know when the transmission is going to happen.  You have to have the right mindset and be practicing just the right technique and have sensei there to show you something at just this time.

You can train in California or Canada or Russia or anywhere, and Payet-sensei can be your shihan.  But if you see him only for an occasional seminar, you aren’t letting the right confluence of circumstances take place for you to receive the transmission.  In a seminar, the only thing you can be sure to find out is whether you are performing the outward form of techniques correctly.  If you get some insight, it’s luck, but you can’t count on it.  You need to see sensei in the dojo as much as possible and come with your ears open and your body and heart prepared to train.  Then you can be ready for lightning to strike.


Dai Yon in The Course

Now that we are in the Dai Yon portion of the Kenshusei course, we are supposed to go to the classes for regular students and act as Payet-sensei’s uke.

Apparently, when Payet-sensei was at Yoshinkan hombu, all the uchi-deshi used to scramble to try to be Shioda’s uke.  We are to do the same.  If Izzy and Naomi and I are all at the same class, we have to compete with each other and with Andy-sensei and with Nick to take uke for Payet-sensei.

When I was first told this, I thought it was a bit over the top.  But like everything in Yoshinkan, the form comes first.  I think I understand now that the uchi-deshi compete to be uke because you never know when you are going to get some transmission.  You have to create the opportunities for it to happen.

This is why you need to come to Kyoto.  If you are studying Yoshinkan two times a week in between watching episodes of Duck Dynasty, you should stop wasting your time and money.

Do the Kenshusei Course.  If you don’t have time, come visit for a month or two in the summer when you are ready to focus and can go do misogi at Nanzenji with the Kenshusei.  If you are serious about Yoshinkan, you need to come to Kyoto.


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.