Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Here they are and here we are at the 100-post mark. I was going to leave off the shoes pictures, but this couldn’t be missed.

15 years in the making, these guys have finally started to give in and are doing so just in time for the centenary post. I bought them back in the university karate days when I had nothing but time and energy.

I was going jogging late at night, pounding around the streets of Lincoln. Being a student and lacking any athletic sensibility, I bought a cheap pair of shoes with Velcro straps, no laces. I was so far removed from athletes and athletic equipment. But they served me well enough at the time, then languished in storage for several years.

I can still remember some of those late night runs. Houses with dogs that barked as I passed, tree roots to be nimbly jumped over in the park. Snow starting to fall under a shining moon. I might have had an afternoon practice followed by a night practice, but I don’t recall feeling especially winded during those runs. No, these shoes carried me along and moved me forward.

But the late night runs ended and I focused more on my regular training and review. This fine pair of shoes languished in the less accessible corners of closets, no longer tasting the fresh air or moving under the stars.

Somewhere along the line I brought them over to Japan as a spare pair. I wore them only occasionally (and always at night, when no one could see or smell them) until last year. Another old pair of running shoes (hightops with laces even) had fallen apart, yielding to the scraping and turning of ba gua footwork.

So this pair returned to glory for a short time. They tasted the caress of the concrete once again. I grew bold, not caring who might see or smell them. I sometimes wore them in daylight. But the years of alternate abuse and neglect had taken their toll and the grinding away accelerated. And the stink festering within their depths accumulated.

The Velcro straps don’t cling as tenaciously as they used to, but I still have a few sessions left with these old friends before holes are completely worn through the soles. Until then, let’s extend them the dignity – and distance – which they deserve.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Lost Samurai

Months of near-unemployment have come to a sudden end. It has been rather unpleasant financially but quite nice in most other areas. Time. Time with my daughter, time for practice. Time for thinking and pondering.

Wondering why I am doing all this, what I have been doing all these years, what I have missed. Anybody of my age group in the US is well down the career path. Me? Still trying to find that way to work less and train more, all while taking care of my family. Getting good in any number of martial arts, but not world class in any of them. Respecting those who can devote themselves to a single art and reach amazing heights in it, but not able to so restrict myself.

Not teaching over here but still with visions of doing so in the US. The problem is when to go back. The longer I stay over here, the more direct training I have with good teachers in Japan and China, the more my knowledge will increase. But the longer I stay over here, the less time I will have back in the US.

A lot of the longer-termers were worried about staying too long in Japan. Donn Draeger was one of the first and longest to stay (if you don’t know him and his books, get off this blog and go find out). There was a group who followed but saw him as the pioneer – and all are now back in their home countries after about 20 years over here, most teaching so far as I know. I met a few and missed a few, and was helped very much by some of them.

Then there is “my generation”, who followed a bit later. We are heading back in droves – most already gone, many others in the process of going. There are rumors of my family’s impending return to the US in a couple / few years (yes, that has been going on for several years now, but this time it might really happen). We’re all currently in about the 15-year range as ex-pats and have moved home recently or are in process. I will be one of the last of this generation to go home (setting aside those who are here for a longer haul). But most of them got going on MA’s or other such Qualifications and can take something home besides mastery of an obscure art or three.

Me? Too busy to move forward academically. Shifting ever further from my roots in the Japanese arts, getting ever deeper into Chinese arts. Yet no long haul in China (one year of living there, and a couple trips each year don’t quite cut it). Feeling very much stuck in the middle at the moment.

Age 41. Moving in on two decades of martial arts experience – and that figure alone shows that I started too late. Other regrets lately but I will save them for elsewhere and elsewhen.

If we get back to the US in a couple / few years and start building the foundation immediately, in 20 years there could be a good network, dedicated martial artists striving toward a common goal or vision. And I could be a wobbly hobbly old man.

So I am wondering a lot about how best to spend these final years in Japan. Last weekend was instructive. Friday night gongfu with my daughter (her “quitting gongfu” crisis seems to have subsided). Saturday solo practice at home and in the park, Saturday night visit to my old naginata practice after too long away. Sunday morning a special all-koryu iaido practice.

Gongfu basics class is always good but I usually wrestle with a sense that it is good but not combatively intense. Anyway, I can still out-stretch all those half my age and am getting my forehead ever closer to my toes. And it is great to do something together with my daughter.

Outdoor iaido was excellent apart from the shrieking pain induced by sharp rocks cutting into the tops and bottoms of my feet.

Naginata. Maybe my weakest art back in Nebraska, was my strongest in Japan for years as I made years of several practices a week and lots of special practices as well, achieving a respectable dan rank and earning a shinpan/ referee license over here. All while getting a good taste of one of the koryu naginata styles. But lately my practice has lagged terribly, and my Saturday return showed me how far I had drifted, especially in comparison to the crispness of one young woman who has come up through the ranks of high school and university clubs.

Walking again to the dojo – in an elementary school gymnasium, passing under the last falling cherry blossoms of the season – brought back many memories and many thoughts of the future. Watching my teacher, who used to put on the bogu armor and give me a thrashing each practice, hobble about with her cane brought me complicated emotions. She has given up on the wig and is letting her grey hair show in all its feisty glory, still spunky at almost-80.

I wish we had met earlier, when we were both younger, that I might have spent more time with her, taken in her influence more deeply, carved her motions into my own body. She lived through the war as a young woman and often reminds me that our countries fought as bitter enemies. But she has never held anything back from me, has always done her best to help me improve my naginata.

The next day, I felt much the same in iaido. My teacher is 70-something and his arts – kendo and iaido – are etched deeply and fully into his body. As a young man, someone told him, “All you can do is swing a sword and drink. You should join the police” (the police in this country have traditionally excelled in kendo and judo). He taught kendo to the Tokyo police for decades and has also taught iaido for decades. Each practice, I feel keenly that my time with him has been too short, that my remaining years in Japan are too few.

At the same time, I am haunted by a sense that I must get back to the US soon, must get started teaching over there. However long I stay over here, I will not be perfect. And there is great danger in staying too long over here, not getting home soon enough to teach well and long.

One of the people who came here after Draeger, one who was especially kind and helpful to me upon my arrival, told of cleaning out the apartment of a decades-in-Japan judo man who had stayed too long, never made it back to his home country.

Another of that generation – one who has made it back to his home country and has been teaching for some years now – asked a question in his book “Dueling With O-Sensei” about how long we will stay and what we will take home with us.

Those words are with me tonight as another week away from home (teaching an intensive course well outside of Tokyo) creeps closer.

One good martial arts friend is moving back to the US at the end of this month. Another early in the summer, another (husband-wife team) later in the summer.

I’ll pack a couple extra weapons in my suitcase for some hotel-room training. Staying sharp over the next week is a small matter. But the bigger questions loom large. What, indeed, will I take back with me??

Thursday, April 16, 2009

getting closer...

to 100 posts. And here it is, the first lame "sorry for not posting post".

Kind of locked away with work for a week, quite literally. Doing intensive business skills/ language for a group at their training facility well outside of Tokyo, enjoying a view of both mountain and ocean. No time to enjoy the hot springs, much to my regret. We must stay inside the facility, no wandering outside, no enjoying the fresh mountain air. Of course, there is a balcony with a wonderful view (and wide enough for most forms) but it doubles as the smokers' lounger, so all workouts are confined to my room. Adjusting to the environment...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Kobudo Day 3

What a strange and good day. It began with my daughter’s entrance ceremony for elementary school, a major event here in Japan. Continued with my private lesson with a Chinese student here in Japan. Then moved to kobudo practice for 3 ½ hours, the perfect finish. And cherry blossoms at every stop along the way, all in full bloom, expanded as far as they can go, and only one place to go…

So my kobudo revolution continues. Blasting ahead in every practice – yet each time being reminded of how little I know and how far I have to go.

See the poster for an upcoming tournament, probably the cause for my first and long-delayed trip to Okinawa…

Time for more beer and some late night cherry blossom viewing.