Oh man, I feel strange. At the Sunday dojo there are some really old men, all 7th dan, who come to teach sometimes. Today, after practice, we all sat down (there was only one of the old men present) and had tea. He started talking about Siberian prison camps, and it turns out he was sentenced to 12 years in prison after the second world war.

Now, I've read up a little on the history, and it seems you had to have done something really bad to be sentenced for that long. To be fair, perhaps he was just following orders, or it wasn't his fault, or something. I don't know what he did, and I don't want to find out. The fact is, I'm really fucking freaked out by it. I mean, I think about all the horrible things that happen during wars, the death, the torture, the massacring of innocent civilians, and I feel really sorry for the people involved. But I am always far away in my warm house eating nice food when I feel sorry. But to actually come in contact with someone who may or may not have caused the suffering or death of many people... I mean, that scares the shit out of me. A lot.

And now I've read that a lot of Japanese soldiers had katanas, and that they would routinely murder people with them. So what does it mean to do kendo with this guy? Perhaps I'm just being stupid; I don't actually know what he did. But still.


Visit to Totoro's Forest

Yesterday we visited Totoro's Forest, which is located between Tokyo and Saitama about 2 hours away. We decided to get up really early (4:30am) and catch the first trains to try to get past Tokyo before morning rush hour.

Unfortunately our plan failed, and I got a first hand experience at what sardines must feel like. I cannot believe that millions of people put up with this every day! Luckily the sardine experience only lasted about 20 minutes, and after that we were able to get seats. The last train was the best, in which we got the entire carriage to ourselves.

From the last train station we walked about two kilometres through what the Japanese consider farmland (houses a few meters apart with fields in-between). After a while we came to Totoro's Forest.

There were tea plantations everywhere.

And signs I couldn't read.

And really long walkways to climb up.

And beautiful paths to walk along.

And small farms.

And more tea plantations.

And a temple.

And a lake (although not technically in the forest).

We also encountered, in no particular order: giant mosquitoes (which we squished), killer hornets (which we promptly ran away from), a frog in a hole (which we talked to), a funny dog (which we smiled at), swooping birds on the lake (which we composed haikus about) and all sorts of other interesting things.

We came back home and fell asleep.

Happenings in Japan

Recycling is a big thing in Japan. Once a month, at least in the area where I live, everyone gets together and sorts their collected recyclable rubbish into neat, orderly piles ready for collection. At 7 in the morning. And they enjoy doing it, as you can see.

But I feel this is all somewhat wrong. Recycling should not be promoted. If it is then people get the feeling that they are doing something good, and that producing all this rubbish is acceptable. Instead I feel that the initial consumerism which causes all the rubbish should be discouraged. Especially in Japan, where people seemingly cannot buy anything if it is not wrapped in several layers of plastic.

Also, the other day I sent a huge package back home to New Zealand. About 30kg of books. I opted to buy insurance, and estimated the value of the books at $2000 (yea right, but hey, if it gets lost I'll be rich). The insurance cost me about NZ$10, which is pretty cheap. Then, today, there's a knock on the door and the postman is returning the package. He says that the maximum insurance for New Zealand is only about $1500, and that because of this (the mistake the post office made) I now have to hold onto the package until they refund all my money, including the initial postage, into a bank account (which can take a week, and means Kotomi has to go to the bank to get money back, etc.). Then I can send it again. And this is all over NZ$2.50. I seriously wanted to throw the box at the postman.


Shinai and Kotomi's Bogu

We went to Tokyo yesterday to buy some more shinai for me (I've been breaking a lot lately). I am going to start oiling them so that they are not so brittle, should have done that right from the start.

So, two new big grip shinai at about $65 (only bamboo), and a nice grip and black string (and everything else) for the expensive shinai we bought the other day (wrapped in plastic now). I'm thinking that it would be a nice present to give to someone. Is it appropriate to give a teacher a shinai to say thank you? Hmm, it's so nice that I actually want to keep it :(

We went to practice yesterday. I did kata with everyone else and kotomi did suburi. Grumpy sensei seems very happy that she is so dedicated to kendo. He has now even given her (or maybe lent her) an entire set of bogu! And it looks almost brand new. This is in addition to the two shinai, shinai bag, and gi and hakama he gave her. Kotomi thinks this could be a problem, because in Japan this would be seen as a huge gift, and she is now indebted to him. In a way she has to listen to everything he says and learn his kind of kendo (which is a little strange at times) so as not to offend him. Oh well, we'll see. Maybe he is just happy that someone is listening to him.

So far Kotomi has spent a grand total of $20 on kendo ($8 on train tickets to buy a new grip for one of the shinai, and $12 for the grip itself). I am a little jealous :)


Totoro Sensei and the Small Shinai Shop

After every Sunday dojo practice we all sit together in a little room and eat biscuits, rice crackers and fruit, and drink lots of Japanese tea. Today I asked Hirai sensei some questions, and he was really happy and answered with pretty long explanations. Once he left (the older sensei seem to leave earlier) I was told that 10 years ago Hirai sensei was completely different than he is now (i.e. happy and smiling). Apparently 10 years ago he was really nasty, mean and grumpy all the time, hardly talking to anyone. Once he was gone someone showed me how he would hit away a persons shinai so that they lost their grip on it. I'm glad that he's really nice now.

The fat sensei (meant affectionately) that I wrote about a while ago said he would show us a little kendo shop, and that I should buy a few new shinais there (I told him that I had broken some). He has a tiny little red car, which he has driven for 15 years, and which he won in a lottery. He is always smiling and laughing, and talking in broken English about anything. We drove back to our house first to get some money, and I gave him a bottle of fruit juice as a present. He thought it was funny.

Anyway. I have no idea what the sensei's name is (Japanese names are hard to remember). So when we were driving to the shop we noticed that he had a Totoro keychain on his mobile phone. We told him that we love Totoro (and all studio Ghibli films) and that we just went to the Ghibli museum a few weeks ago. He told us that his wife loves Totoro too, and that she says he looks like Totoro when he sleeps, and snores like him too. So we instantly decided his name would be Totoro sensei :) (but we never use the nicknames we give to senseis here)

I made this when we came home, it looks like him a bit:

At the shop we found out that they didn't sell the same shinais as I use (cheep, and big grip). But she asked us how much I had paid for them (about 5000yen, or NZ$65). She went over and took down one of the expensive display shinais with family crests and signatures on them (they look really nice, and are more than 10,000yen) and said it had a bigger grip and that I could have it for 5000yen. I was a bit hesitant, because if it broke I wouldn't be able to repair it with bamboo from my other shinais, but in the end I bought it anyway. Hey, every kendoist needs a flashy smoked shinai which he never uses, right? I might give it to someone as a present someday.


There are some real assholes in the dojos here. Yesterday I was so over the top angry.

At Shimpukan I was getting ready to practice when I noticed that my shinai had a huge crack in it. That's ok, I've got another one. I had a quick look at that one too, and oh wow, one of the bamboo blades was split right down the centre. So I quickly sat down and started taking them apart to make a good shinai out of parts from both broken shinai (it really sucks that I need the big handled shinai, otherwise I'd just borrow one).

So as I was taking the second shinai apart the leather grip wouldn't quite come off (the last 1cm or so), and after trying for 5 minutes to get it off, I asked Grumpy sensei (practice hadn't started yet) if he had a tool at the dojo to take it off (like pliers). For some unknown reason he got really angry, took the shinai out of my hands, sat down, and started trying to take the grip off himself, in exactly the same way as I had just done. This went on for a while, someone else asked if they could try, and Grumpy pretty much just growled at him. Then he got up and took my shinai somewhere, and put water on the handle to make it wet.

All that did was make it even harder to take off, as the leather seemed to shrink. All this time he was glaring at people and grumbling. And Kotomi was looking quite worried. He eventually managed to get the grip off, which he then put on the ground to go and do something else. I then went about getting the good bamboo blades from both shinai together and started setting it up... when Grumpy apprears again and literally grabs it out of my hands and starts trying to set it up himself. Now, I can fix shinais very well. I've broken a few in Japan now, and every time I've fixed them well.

So I'm sitting there fuming and angry. He's making a mess of it and taking way too long, talking (grumbling) in Japanese. Eventually, somehow, he went of to do some training, and I was able to fix the shinai myself. I wanted to hit someone.

And this sort of thing happens a lot, not just with Grumpy, but with other people too. At one point the strings on my men got tangled and I unthreaded them from the top of the men to set it up properly when someone came along and grabed my men and did it for me, as if I was completely stupid. Same with my hakama, Grumpy once grabbed it off me as I was folding it and proceeded to make a complete mess of it trying to show me how to fold it (he completely missed the folds that were already there, and I had to take it apart at home to refold it).

I think some people see me as a baka gajin (stupid foreigner).

And then there are people EVERYWHERE who tell me what I should do, or change, in my kendo. Don't stamp... you're not stamping enough. Move forward more... don't move forward. Hit harder... don't hit so hard. I don't mind this coming from teachers. All I say is "hai" and try to do what they told me. But when it comes from people who are at my level (or lower even), and when it conflicts with what I was taught in New Zealand, and by teachers here, I get really pissed.

But of course I'm polite about it. There is no easy way to tell people to shut up and go away in Japan. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I'm sorry if I've ever done any of these things to other people.


Being Tall in Kendo

I've heard it many times: "You are so lucky to be tall. Kendo must be so easy for you" Well, not really... actually I think it's a bit harder in some ways. Yes, I can reach very far, but you see, being tall creates a dilemma. On the one hand if I hit men without moving forward much I have no forward momentum, and as anyone who is tall will tell you, suddenly creating forward momentum from a stationary position is very very hard: I can't just suddenly move forward (thus I tend to lean forward a little before attacking, which I am unlearning right now). This means that even if I get a clean hit on the opponent I tend to have ugly zanshin, I stop after the hit and then start moving forward again, slowly. Then on the other hand I can try to create lots of forward momentum right at the start of my cut, which is great when I'm practising with an opponent who doesn't move, but simply does not work when we are both moving forward (as is generally the case). When both of us are moving forward there is no room for me to hit men (or kote) without holding my arms closer to my body (not stretched out) which is bad.

I tend to do the first thing mostly: good cutting but bad movement.

I am by no means slow at cutting, I can get some pretty good points on the 7th dan teachers at my dojo when we do jikeiko. But they say: "great, you cut me, why are you just standing there?"

And then there are the problems with do cuts. In order to cut do I have to lower my shinai under horizontal, which makes me twist my right shoulder, which hurts. There is no other way for me to cut do.

I remember that Sam once told me, awkwardly (as if he wasn't sure he should be telling me yet), that I should learn to cut kote really well, as everyone will be expecting men cuts from me. I think, in addition to this, kote is really good for me because I can reach it without putting myself in danger: there have been a few surprised teachers who stepped in to make a cut only to find that my shinai could already reach their kote. But again, there is the problem of moving forward.

Sigh. Being tall isn't that great. I think I look like a penguin sometimes. Standing tall, but waddling with no grace.


Shinai Care

Books in Japan

One thing that really impresses me about Japan is the book publishing.

I'm not sure about the exact numbers, but Japan has a population of about 120 million people, out of 6.5 billion global population. This isn't exactly a very large proportion of the world. The point is that the Japanese are the only people in the world who can read Japanese, and when you walk into a Japanese book store the sheer number of books seems disproportionate to the number of people who can actually read Japanese.

Maybe they just really like reading. Or maybe the fact that most Japanese can't, or won't, read books in other languages makes publishing in Japanese a lucrative business.

Just today we visited a book shop in a not so large city, and they had an entire shelf dedicated, and I'm not joking here, to kendo literature. All in Japanese of course (cry). And, almost like a library, the store only carried one or two copies of each book which made it even more impressive.

Needles to say, I bought one (with lost of big pictures and a DVD).

Next I'm going to look for a book on dojo construction. I haven't found anything in English, so maybe there will be something in Japanese.

Slow Motion Kendo

I think this video of slow motion kendo is really really beautiful.


Unconnected Thoughts

It's getting hot in Japan. Really hot. I think I'll have to buy a summer gi and hakama just to survive.

Someone I haven't seen before has started coming to the Sunday dojo. He is huge, like, seriously fat. I don't know how he found a do to fit him. When he is in kamai he has to stretch both his arms out in front of him, and the end of his shinai rests on his do. He is 6th dan, and hits like lightning, but doesn't move much. He's also one of the nicest people I have met in Japan. He can speak English, and always brings fruit for everyone to eat at the end of practice. He told me with a grin that his wife cooks very good food.

Kotomi and I went to Grumpy sensei's son's house for dinner. He is 6th dan, and does very very strong kendo (he's grading for 7th dan in November). Although he is a very nice person (he always talks to us at the dojo) I think he's inherited the seriousness about kendo that radiates from Grumpy sensei. He had a little too much to drink (apparently all good sensei drink a lot) and started talking about the people he doesn't like at the dojo. These were generally the people that I do like, because they are carefree, happy, and not serious all the time, and take the time to practice with me. But perhaps for some people this kind of attitude is not an admirable thing. He also mentioned that he does not like the teacher at the Sunday dojo (Sensei sensei) because he does not do good kendo. I think there might be a little rivalry, or something like that, between the two dojos. Some people at the Sunday dojo do not speak well of Shimpukan. Oh well. I like them both. Some people can be a little too serious at times.



Kotomi seems to be really enjoying kendo. She has admitted that one of the reasons for starting was that "all the kendo people look so young and happy." I laughed and suggested it might have something to do with all the yelling and hitting people.

But there is one thing that is really annoying her, and it is a point that I have taken into consideration as it relates to myself too. It seems that everyone wants to teach her kendo, and everyone has different ideas about how best to do kendo. Sometimes, within half an hour, several different people will tell her to do completely conflicting things: swing your arms back, no, don't swing your arms back, hit softer, hit harder, cut forward, cut downward, and so on. She's getting really pissed off.

I now see how important it is to start kendo under the instruction of a single competent teacher, in a dojo with an organised class schedule. (The dojo I started at had two teachers, but they agreed, at least I think they did, so that is basically the same).

I think that some of the people who come to offer advice to Kotomi are not very good at kendo, and tell her wrong things, but Japanese etiquette requires that she listens politely, which in turn makes the person think that they are being good teachers. If she asks me afterwards whether what they said was correct I just tell her to ask one of the senior teachers (Grumpy, Hirai or Sensei-Sensei). And in any case, I tell her, I don't think there is one best way to learn kendo, and if there is then it is not that important to follow it: you just simply listen to what people have to say, think about it, ask someone who knows for sure, and then continue on with "practice, practice, practice."

But all this reminds me of when I was a beginner (which I still am, but just a little less so). I went around telling people they were doing things wrong, how to correct it, how to think about things correctly, and so on. Even though I was right in most cases, and I knew how to do things correctly, I had no right to try to teach. Simply repeating what your teacher said, or what you read in books, because it makes some sense to you does not mean that you understand it or are able to practice it correctly, and even when you can do it correctly, you still need to go a lot further before you are tell others how to do things. Because of all this I realised the need to shut up, leave things as they are, and let people learn at their own pace, and in their own way: I realised it is not up to me to teach anyone, or change anything. This, of course, would be different if I am ever a teacher of anything, but until then I hope to accept things as they are.