Saturday, March 28, 2009

do budo-ka dream of eclectic sheep?

Had a dream a little while ago about the Toda Ha Buko Ryu Naginata group doing a demo – with shuriken throwing stars! It was in a crowded pub or something. The first guy stands up, nails it perfectly in the bullseye, sits down, perfect zanshin. Someone gasps at the table behind, draws stares and giggles.

The next two people hit the target but not the bullseye.

The next one is way off, misses the target and almost hits people at the next table on.

That’s about all I can recall. It stood out to me because I don’t have many martial arts dreams these days.

Why this dream? And why Toda Ha Buko Ryu, which I have never practiced in my life? Upon my arrival in Japan, I was shown one of their practices, met the headmaster, Nitta Sensei, and was of course impressed and tempted, but did not join. Nor do they have, to my knowledge, shuriken among their weapons. I was active in Ten Do Ryu Naginata for several years but am inactive lately.

So why not a Ten Do Ryu dream? Their motions are still latent in my body. I saw their demo at Meiji Shrine a couple months back (see picture of two members preparing beforehand). I joined an excellent all-day seminar recently and was surprised at how quickly the motions came back – and how far I had drifted.

I used to have karate dreams, move in my sleep. This was back in the university years when I was focused on one primary art and practiced it every day. I would frequently throw blocks and kicks in my sleep – to the consternation of others who might be in close proximity.

But no more – I am too spread out in my training and can no longer – on most days – practice four hours a day. Those were good times back then, good dreams and good nights.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

kobudo day (2)

After being excoriated in an earlier comment on the "kobudo day" post, I should like to offer this update. The turtle (tortoise?) shell is real but quite old. No metal tip on the other piece yet. The real things (OK, synthetic turtle shell) are on order, more on that later.
No blood recently, either.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kunming (1)

Just a couple pictures from the 2007 and 2008 Kunming trips, in honor of my not being able to go this year due to financial constraints. Much as I wanted to go, it was good to stay in Tokyo and review daily – one of the few benefits of being nearly unemployed in these dismal times.

More Kunming photos coming, but I realized that I have no photos of people in action in Kunming – lots of eating and drinking pix, scenery, the usual. But when people were practicing or demoing, I was only thinking video. Hence, no such photos.

By the way, anyone out there with connections to the Sha family style, please leave a comment.

Monday, March 16, 2009

learning about your weapon

Regarding kobudo weapons training, a teacher friend tells me that you haven’t really learned about the weapon until you have injured yourself with it. Given the number of weapons in our system, there are ample learning opportunities.

I had a very nice one a couple years back, trying to follow along with some others who knew a higher level nunchaku kata. It is quite a bit fancier than the one I was working on and involved many more types of swings and strikes.

This was a new kata for me. They weren’t going to slow down for me. I could/ should have stepped out to observe, but something in me can’t do that. So, going too fast through a kata I didn’t know…

Bam, the tip circled back and struck me between the lower lip and chin. That smack or my following bad word were enough to draw everyone’s attention. Again, I could/ should have stepped out, but something in me can’t do that.

So I was frantically trying to follow along while also running my tongue around inside my mouth, trying to check for any teeth that might be floating about in the blood that was seeping out.

It is a sort of multi-tasking, I suppose. Like when sparring a Thai kick boxer who blasts right through and kicks me in the mouth, just like that. (Could have should have worn a mouth piece). My jaws and teeth crashed together and I heard something fall on the dojo floor. But it was not the time to stop. Knowing immediately that I was not near his level, he was kind enough to ease up a bit, which made discovering my half-broken tooth with my tongue –while trying to continue sparring - a bit easier.

Following up last night’s excellent 3 hours of kobudo practice, I was outside this morning when another learning opportunity arose.

This time it was the sai. Everything was going smoothly and I was reworking all my motions from the ground up. Then one of the metal tines on the side of the weapon caught or snagged the pocket of my jacket. There was a beautiful instant of realizing that it had caught and adjusting the usual path of the sai to avoid ripping the pocket. (see “if I were a true master” series of posts)

That instant was followed by another in which I realized that altering the path of one hand, without altering that of the other, could have unpleasant circumstances. The beauty of the prior instant gave way to a rather different sensation, one of pain, as the end of one sai ripped across a couple of my fingers.

Then it was time for multi-tasking again. Of course stopping the motions of the kata to inspect the damage was not an option. But I was really curious as to whether or not blood was flowing. I could glance down at the hand…but that would disrupt the flow and focus of the motions. Drops of blood on the ground or jacket? Same problem.

Nothing to do but keep going. As expected, the damage was not too severe: the blood staunched quickly and the lingering sting is a good reminder.

Time to review the tekko (brass knuckles, basically) next. Surely I won’t be served up two learning opportunities in one day.

(picture from Vancouver)

Friday, March 13, 2009


We didn’t go to gong fu tonight. Again.

Last week had a reasonably good excuse, as did the week before.

But tonight was simply “I don’t want to go”.

For over a year now, my daughter and I have been going to gong fu class together. I know it was early to start her, but I kept the pressure off and we had fun each time we went. We didn’t enforce it as a weekly ritual, but offered praise and support each time she wanted to go.

The first several visits, she would last about 20 minutes before whining and saying she couldn’t move anymore. And besides, she had brought plenty of toys in her backpack. I let it be. She was, after all, five, and couldn’t be expected to have such a long attention span. Especially when everyone else is older than her. So she played with her toys or drew pictures and I struggled to keep up with the smoother motions of those much younger than me.

But over more than a year, she has become able to stay for the entire class – and still walk home carrying her own backpack. That’s no mean feat for a tired and bedraggled six-year-old. True, we often celebrate after class with a healthy and nutritious Mac or 7-11 dinner for her, and that may contribute to much of her motivation to attend class at all. But hey, she is a kid after all.

It is basically a kids’ class, though several young adults have remained after coming up through the ranks. A gap of a couple years separates my daughter from the next youngest kid – an eternity at that age.

A gap of a couple decades separates me from the young adults. But I can out-stretch and out-stamina them all. Except the teachers of course. Husband and wife, they both have chin-to-the-toes flexibility (I am getting closer, millimeter by millimeter) and amazing form. One is (inter) nationally known for the Northern Long Fist style. The other is (inter) nationally known for the Southern Fist Style. And so far as I can tell, neither is terrible at the other’s specialty….

My main purpose in joining the class was to do some kind of martial arts activity together with my daughter, but not as her teacher. Nope, we are learning side by side in this class, as I have no background in either of the main arts taught.

From the start, I have harbored no illusions about going deeply into Northern or Southern Fist (though I have always cultivated a secret passion for the Southern Sword [南刀]). The greater part of each class is devoted to stretching and line drills of gong fu basics, both fine with me – intersecting well with and reinforcing my other training without opening up another new art for me to explore.

Learning a few basic sequences together has been fun, as has drilling each other at home. I really love it when she teaches me, repeating the points she just got drilled on the prior week. It is good for me – and she is, I must confess, often right.

All of this is to say that it really hurt tonight when she announced that she did not want to go to gong fu. At the moment it is unclear whether this is a one-time declaration or a permanent cessation. Either way, it leaves me a bit empty this windy Friday night.

(photo from a housing project near the gong fu practice location. desolate as it appears, I wouldn’t mind living there – at least there is plenty of space to practice outdoors)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kobudo Day

I really shouldn’t do things like this.

But it’s spring, and sometimes the body and mind just can’t be controlled. I couldn’t help it. The entire day was spent on ryukyu kobudo.

My glorious days of underemployment are rapidly drawing to a close. Today may have been my last full, complete, and uninterrupted day of being a househusband / occasional part time worker. And my kobudo practice has been terribly neglected lately, despite larger amounts of free time.

It started with the nunchaku. I haven’t covered that form in a while and I needed to go through one of the kobudo forms I know well. That got to feeling pretty good pretty quickly so, just for fun, I ran through an old nunchaku form I had learned in Nebraska. Once through and that was feeling good, but better put in a few more reps to make it better than good. That led into a third form, and so it goes.

After that, well, you can imagine.

The sai came next. I have been stuck between two forms for too long now. The Shotokanized version of tsukin shita haku no sai I learned in the US, and a very different (original??) version I am learning here as part of Okinawan Ryukyu Kobudo.

I say different, yet they are fundamentally the same kata. That is the worst possible combination, because there is too much cross-over and interference between the two. My first idea was to preserve the weapons forms I had learned in Nebraska (each differs slightly from the Shotokan versions I learned here in Japan), and slowly learn the Okinawan forms.

I have not dedicated enough time to either set and have recently felt that I must go in the opposite direction – set aside the Nebraska forms for a while and get these down well, then maybe go back and re-integrate the forms I started with.

Suddenly my progress has quickened and as of that fine day, I can get through this version of tsukin haku no sai (or chikin haku no sai, in Okinawan dialect) reasonably well. Now the real work begins…

Anyway, it was a fine day all in all, working through other weapons in the curriculum and getting ready for the upcoming classes I will be able to squeeze in before the ugly thing that is work raises its head.

I have gotten over the hump, anyhow. For too long I was stuck half-knowing a couple of these forms, able to follow along with the group and maybe able to stumble through it on my own. Now I am where I need to be, able to take a decent version of the form into class and have it worked over and really benefit from that. Then all my solo work at home will be taken up a higher notch, and I will be ready to take in an even better version the next time, and so on.

Like I said, now it really begins.

(photo shows home-made version of tinbe and rochin. real ones are on order)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

If I were a true master...(2)

...I would have seized the opening.

I was very impressed with the interpreting at the Ma Laoshi seminar and am quite thankful to both of the people who helped so much in that regard. One funny thing – I would listen to Ma Laoshi’s Chinese and catch some small portion of it, then understand more when it was followed by the Japanese. Once, one of the interpreters got stuck on a word I knew, have known for a long time. He couldn’t recall it, glanced out to the audience, and someone supplied the missing word. He laughed and carried on, quite naturally.

Strange to me that that word (生活) would be one I knew, amidst the flow of words I couldn’t catch. Don’t worry; I harbor no illusions of moving into C-E translation or interpreting anytime soon. But why was it that particular word which caught him, when so many other, far more difficult words and phrases were handled with ease?

A tougher point were the 4-character phrases which Ma Laoshi sprinkled here and there. That puts me at a double handicap, since I have a hard time with them in Japanese (my stronger language) as well. Some of them are long familiar, like 气沉丹田, about sinking the qi/ chi into the dantian area below one’s navel. Some were new, but I could figure them out easily – 外顺内通, which is about an outward alignment of joints and the inner flow of both qi and blood.

But there were some I could not begin to catch. So I toddled on over to the interpreter and asked him about it during a break. He showed me his notes and I began to copy the miscreant characters into the little memo notebook I take to each practice. I was surprised and dismayed to hear someone say “even if you show him, he can’t read them”.

I have gotten used to the blanket assumption of many Japanese people that any obviously non-Asian face could not possibly comprehend Japanese characters, but this stung a bit.

Now, had I been a true master, I might have blithely suggested with a smile that I can read Japanese kanji characters better than current Prime Minister Aso, who recently became (in)famous for mis-reading several Japanese characters. (Don’t confuse him with the just-resigned Japanese Minister of Something or Other who gave a lengthy attempt at a press conference while completely drunk. Cheers to YouTube for that one). Or I might have mentioned the overwhelming degradation of the once-beautiful Japanese language, which is accelerating year by year (oh, the kids these days!).

But I am not, and I did not. I paused a moment in hesitation and missed the opening. I copied down the characters I needed and eased away, not wanting to darken my mood any further. Rather than my qi, my spirit had sunk. But my qi soon settled and my spirit rose again as soon as we began moving after the break.

All of that was in stark contrast to something that happened recently in sword class. It is customary for one of the nice, sweet sword-bearing ladies to pass out candies during the break. The other day, we each received a fortune cookie (it was actually my first one in these 13+ years in Asia), and there was a little fortune with tiny print in each snack. None of the ladies had their glasses, so one after another they came to me and asked me to read their fortunes. I was lucky and could read all the Japanese kanji characters that night, doling out large and small good lucks, the need to care for one’s health this year, and so on.

It was a very strange moment for me. For an instant, they believed in me in a way that usually never happens in Japan. This is a country where someone is standing in line in front of you, trying to buy a train ticket, but can’t figure it out. You navigate this city daily and know it better than many of its residents who never leave their small neighborhoods or who have just moved here from other cities in Japan. The person in front of you turns around to ask for help, takes a look at you (obviously non-Asian), and immediately looks about for someone else to ask.

That kind of thing can wear you down a bit. Then something happens like this at the sword class. No hesitation whatsoever – “sorry Bryan, I don’t have my glasses. Can you read this for me?” and that is that. And these are the moments that can really brighten your day.

Back to the Ma Laoshi seminar…one of the interpreters is young, finishing up his university days. He did an excellent job and I was pleased that he could make things so easy to understand (especially wading his way through a long list of names of Chinese masters, not missing a beat). It was interesting to me that sometimes his young person’s Japanese seemed to make the …. older…. crowd around me smile in polite amusement.

He also got stuck once (NOT a complaint – it is a natural part of the job), couldn’t recall the Japanese for umbilical cord. That one I knew by chance, since I became a father over here, but it is the type of word I would normally never catch in Japanese unless reading the characters. There was also a story about rice sitting in water and getting soft, not good for cooking or eating. He referred to a modern rice cooker, but I am sure the image in the older generation’s mind was one from an earlier time, when electric rice cookers were not a staple in every home.

Another good language moment came when one of Ma Laoshi’s long-time students, Mr. Xu, was showing off one of his handful of newly acquired Japanese words – “wakarimashita?” he asked, to check everyone’s understanding after he had explained something about push hands. Everyone laughed in approval and more than one Japanese lady was heard to say “jouzu”, praising his mastery of the Japanese language.

The Japanese are not alone in this tendency – it is also standard for any non-Asian looking person to be heavily praised upon stammering a loosely arranged group of poorly pronounced words in Chinese (trust me, I know about this, not yet having risen to a respectable level of spoken Chinese).

As for Mr. Xu, he is to be praised for his excellent English, which made for quite an interesting seminar. The Chinese of Ma Laoshi and his son were rendered into Japanese, while Mr. Xu addressed the Japanese people directly in English (there were only two interpreters) as he wandered about, and somehow things went quite smoothly.

A final note – I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for the interpreters above and that I think they did wonderful work. I couldn’t begin to do it myself. If I comment upon a missed word, it is not in glee at having found such an instance. Rather, it is in admiration for the interplay with the audience which brought out the missing word, as well as for the naturalness with which they resumed. Cheers to those who are masters of the languages and of the arts!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

rain and snow and sun

Days of rain and snow and occasional sunshine. You wake up in the morning all set to work on sword forms today but there is the lightest of snows falling, strange heavy chunks, not snowflakes. You leave the sword inside and do some empty hands work outside as the snow fades into a light rain. And so it goes, for several spring days. The sun makes a sudden appearance. You are reluctant at first, but it soothes and caresses you while you are in motion outside, and you shed a layer or two as your trust grows. You go inside, make four trips up and down the stairs to hang laundry out on the balcony, checking each trip that the sun is still out there, is not teasing you. On the way outside, you grab a sword, glad for the chance to finally...

In an instant, the misty rain began again. You are not sure if it is sunny or cloudy. It seems to be both at once.

You put the blade away, pull the clothes back inside, slap on some gloves for more empty hand work and guess what.

There is our friend the sun again.

Three years and one week of Wu Style

So last week was devoted entirely to the visit of Ma Chang Xun (马长勋) Laoshi and his oldest son and a senior student from Beijing. All are teachers of the Wu (吴) Style of tai ji quan, and made a well-attended visit to Tokyo.

Their visit corresponds almost three years to the day of my introduction to the Wu style. Without warning, Mr. T suddenly introduced a segment of one of the Wu forms to our usual push hands / ba gua zhang class. At the time it seemed like something from outer space, but in retrospect it makes sense, as the push hands we do in that class (and others with Mr. T) is rooted in the Wu Style approach.

I have a terrible and shameful confession to make. I am not, at heart, much of a push hands guy. And – I hesitate to write here in public – there have been times when I have wanted much more ba gua zhang and less push hands in our Wed. AM class.

I have often heard the injunction that you can’t really understand taiji without the push hands element and it was repeated emphatically through the past week. But this time around the words reached more deeply into me and I could feel something very different, a deeper interest in push hands and a different kind of movement in my body. And greater acceptance or openness in my mind.

Another shameful and terrible confession – sometimes I … don’t… like… push hands. There, I said it. The secret is out. Gasp and shudder. I feel the rumbling of the taiji deities above…but once started, I must confess all. There is no holding me back now. In particular, I don’t like the super-fake exaggerated motions some people make when receiving a push. At least when receiving a push from me. I received one of Ma Laoshi’s pushes (probably a very light version) and felt myself propelled backward, and then I knew there is something real going on here.

There is something to be said for being a cooperative partner and showing your partner when they make a good push. But when it just resembles a bad aikido demonstration (oh geez, the aiki-ites are going to lynch me if the taiji deities don’t crush me first) (hey, I said the BAD aikido demos, OK?) when the True Believer is not cooperating but colluding to make the teacher’s technique look very effective, well, it doesn’t sit well with me.

So I must confess to some skepticism and resistance. But that is to push hands in general. I have no complaints about the past week’s seminar. Each day’s lessons were excellent and fulfilling. If anything, the past week did much to open my eyes and heart to what push hands can be.

And in the middle of it, I spent three days with the group who opted to learn the 13-motion form. This was a special treat because it deepened my understanding of what we do on Wednesday mornings tremendously.

There, we do the beginning of what I think is the 45-move Wu-style competition form (though I have also heard it called the 66 form). Day One (2006): we did the opening and a couple subsequent motions. Day Two: opening to single whip. For a couple months, that was all we did. Then I went to a different part of Japan for a couple weeks’ work. When I returned, the group had surged past me in a cruel conspiracy. By July I had caught up with everyone else….and that is as far as we have gone in the form (ru feng si bi??). For weeks, months, now years afterward, my post-practice notes read “no advance in the form today…” We typically do the portion of the form once per class then move directly into push hands.

There is much overlap with the 13-motion form. I have done nothing but the 13-motion form for nearly two weeks now. This afternoon I tried out the portion of the longer form I know and found myself quite rusty.

Even more strange, my body hesitated to start any other styles of taiji while reviewing today. I got it moving through the Sha Style forms which have been my focus for some time. But anything else was completely blocked. So the repetitions are deep, now it is time to move toward better integration.

My head (and body) remains full of so much gleaned during the past week. But most important, and most deep, may be my increased awareness of my old friend, fang song. Relax.

As the older son told me at the end of one day’s session, it is very easy to practice taiji, but it is not so easy to bring fang song into our practice, into our lives.