Aikido training in Japan

Recent Stumbling on the Path

My performance in aikido the past couple nights could be described as far from “flowing”, “smooth”, and “effective”; which is what I am ultimately aiming at in my practice. Perhaps it was the overstimulation from the current issues in Japan, but last Thursday I walked into the dojo with my head and my body going in two different directions, and niether of them seemed to be concerned with aikido. As we warmed up, I realized where I was and what I needed to do for the next two hours, but when we lined up to watch sensei demonstrate a technique for us to practice, it didn’t look like anything I’ve seen him do before, though it was a very basic technique I’ve practiced hundreds of times. When we got with our partners, I didn’t even remember what the attack was supposed to be. When practicing techniques throughout the night, I was constantly stopping in the middle with no idea what I was supposed to do. After about forty minutes I mentally stopped myself for a little peptalk and tried to reel myself back to some acceptable level of aikido competency, but all I could do was look over at the clock … over and over again. Practice a move, look at the clock … 8:06. Practice a move, look at the clock … 8:09. Practice a move, look at the clock … 8:10. As soon as I started this, my mind followed my body into a downward spiral of uncoordination and laziness. I just wanted practice to be over. I never did recover my drive, and so the rest of practice went on like this, and we even practiced twenty minutes longer than usual.

The interesting part about this is that sensei noticed my state very quickly and gave me physical signals like, “What the hell are you doing???” When he was my uke (the person receiving the technique), he wouldn’t give me anything, and when I was his and giving a crappy ukemi, he would sit unpatiently waiting for me to adjust and give me a really sharp wrist lock or throw or whatever. I would react with frustration, and he saw me getting very hard on myself, and thus making my whole being tense and stuck in tunnel vision. He didn’t appreciate this at all, and responded by utilizing the most effective method of communcation a teacher has: silence. After class, I had to pay money to Ueno-san, and we talked about potential times for an upcoming test I was due for. I said something in Japanese with a little more gaijin-accent than usual, sensei was right next to us, and he mimicked me! After I just had a worthless night of aikido, was paying my dues, and trying to get out as soon as possible, he made fun of my Japanese!!! In reality, it was a very small thing, and I probably do sound really funny when I speak Japanese, and I probably would have laughed at a foreigner in the same situation … but sincethen, that moment has replayed in my head on average of a few times a day, and I try and say the phrase over and over again to get rid of the accent. I even had a dream about it last night! Anyway, we decided the test would be during the next practice, and I gathered my things as quickly as possible and went home … but not without a stopping at the conbini (convenience store) for some medicine (beer).

I went home to have some very important revelations. On my bike ride back to the apartment, I was continuing being very strict with myself, criticizing myself with all kinds of ultimatums and extreme judgements: “I suck at aikido“, “I started too late“, “I’m leaving too early“, “aikido is stupid“, etc. However, as soon as I got home, it all fell away and I started laughing out loud. I must have looked really funny, even more so because I started trying so much harder and failing more, and I probably did speak Japanese extra strange tonight … and it was probably even more funny because I got all heated up about it. There is absolutley nothing that this kind of frustration does to help me in aikido … unless you count this revelation I was having as something that was helping me deal with this specific destructive trend; which it was, but technically it doesn’t directly affect my aikido ability. I’ll say it again, frustration and self-conscious worries do not directly progress your ability in aikido. If there was a direct path to progressing in aikido, these frustrations only harden yourself, making you stiff and static, distracting you away from the path, or slowing if not stopping you altogether. If I am climbing a mountain called aikido, this would be like sitting down in a cold rainy puddle in the middle of the road, or trying to punch the rocky sides of the mountain. Looking back on my life thus far, I think I would be better martial artist if I substitued all those feelings of frustration with either more honest practice or laughing and having fun. The frustration does nothing but transport me to my own personal hell of suffering … which is about as real and relevant as a place located miles beneath the surface of the earth where large scary red people poke at you with tridents amid torture in fire … which is not very real or relevant to me. I think this is where Hosogoshi was/is stuck, and why sensei had that strange night with him a week ago, and why he has left. Though Hosogoshi went to every single practice, and trained harder and more consistently than anyone else, I think he was stuck in frustrations, and sensei communicated his discontent casting him from the dojo.

It’s the Dark Side:

“Anger leads to hate, hate leads to pain, and pain leads to suufffeerrrriiinnnnggg.”

Remember who said that? Master Yoda. Though Anakin was by far the one with the most potential and thought he deserved to be on the Jedi Council as a master; and Obi-wan may have seemed lame when telling Anakin to chill and be more patient and wait for a few more years, Anakin was blinded by his passion and eventually overcome by his ambition turning him into the slave of the dark side, Darth Vader. Hehe, I hope you enjoyed that reference.

Anyway, Saturday came and it was time to test. Practice was in Uozu, the next town over, and so I called sensei as usual to see when he was going to pick me up. No answer. I called again; no answer. Crap, I was going to have to ride my bike there … whatever. I agreed to test that day, so I was going no matter what, and sensei was going to have to show up eventually. At first I was kind of pissed at him, in case this was some kind of test of devotion, but after further consideration, I realized Saturday is usually his busiest day at work, and he was going to have to make the big drive from two towns over even if he only can be at training for 20 minutes just to see my test.

My frustrations and complaints only exacerbate already apparent less-than-ideal situations.

On Saturdays, we share our already small mat space with a karate group, and we had a surprisingly large amount of people … maybe eight were there at the beginning when usually Saturday is a little smaller of a class. By the end, sensei did show up, along with four other people, making thirteen aikidoka in all. The last twenty minutes of class I spent practicing the waza (techniques) for my test. I was definitely a little tired and looking forward to relaxing playing poker in an hour, but my techniques were solid and I envisioned summoning a great surge of energy during the few minutes I would test. The only thing I was worried about was the small amount of ken (wooden sword) and jo (short staff) I was going to have to do. For this test, which is yonkyuu (my fourth test and three away from a black belt) by the way, there is a very small amount of weapons, and they are the most essential basics, which I am more than capable of doing. However, I can never remember the names of the moves, and am unfamiliar with the protocol of doing weapons during the test. Whatever, I’m sure it won’t be a problem.

Anyway, we all lined up, and I waited to be called out to test. Ueno-san said something about making preparations for the weapons part, and I had absolutley no idea what she was talking about. After some very awkward motions and Japanese communication I realized what I was supposed to do, and started off the test thrust into a state of reddened cheeks and accelerated heart beat. This was all accentuated because of the large amount of people watching me do this by myself in an unusually small amount of space. We did weapons first, and it became very clear I had absolutley no idea what the protocol for doing weapons during the test was, and forgot all of the names of the waza I was supposed to do. Ueno san called out the techniques for me to do, and I would start doing something, something other than what I was supposed to be doing, and she’d give me a strange look and I realized I screwed up. She kept repeating in Japanese what I was supposed to do, and I started guessing what I was supposed to do in very self-conscious movements, which just made things worse. My cheeks flushed red and I felt like such a stupid gaijin standing in front of everyone during the test I am supposed to be absolutley ready for, and I was screwing up on the very first portion and unable to understand the most simple of commands. I seriously looked at Ueno-san and every drop of Japanese ability melted away from me … she could have been speaking Chinese to me and I wouldn’t know the difference. If only she would just mimic the moves quickly, I would do them. Well, somehow, I got through it, and we moved on to the empty handed techniques. I had two people serve as my uke, but both of them made things more difficult than usual. One of them is a white belt who hardly ever comes to class, so he doesn’t know how to do proper ukemi for a lot of the moves and often reacts very unnaturally. The other was an experienced black belt, but he’s older and unbelievably stiff, and does ukemi different from everybody else. I would perform a move and one of them would move differently than usual, and I would react, but it was not very smooth. At one point, a move was screwed up, I got really hot and knew everyone could see how red my face was getting, and all I could hear was the thunderous beat of my heart. However, the best part of my test for me personally was that I just took really calm and deep breaths, and went on with things as absolutley best I could. The test finally ended, and afterwards I went to sensei and Ueno-san to receive comments on my test. They both said my empty handed techniques were just fine for my level of my testing, but I had a big problem with not knowing the correct terms for the weapons portion. This was obvious, and I apologized for my mistakes, because it does in a way show disrespect to the system and test. Next class I’ll go over them again with Ueno-san to make sure it’s all in order.

Before I went to poker, I stopped for a bowl of ramen and a beer to laugh about the silly gaijin antics I had displayed over the past couple nights of aikido. In the end, I’m grateful for the honesty of my superiors. Not only their words, but also their physical actions. If I’m screwing up, no one is going to take it easy on me and ask me if I want to rest, or tell me it’s fine for me to do comprable aikido. Instead, they hold fast to their standards, and it is me who needs to make the choices considering my performance and attitude towards life. I’m glad to have last week behind me for so many reasons, and look forward to what will come: more aikido class, normal life in Toyama, and maybe … just maybe some signs that spring is coming.

By the way, I just saw Bladerunner last night for the first time … how have I missed that until now? Absolutley amazing. From what I’ve seen, the 80’s were the Golden Age of sci-fi movies. (Predator, the Abyss, Alien, Bladerunner, to name the favorites that immediately come to mind.)
In less than two hours and without 80% of the movie being run with green screens and computer graphics, you can get an amazing story with great action scenes that leave you with deep questions to ponder far after viewing. Now, everything has to be a 10 hour long trilogy attempting to answer everything under the sun with an overload of computer graphics. I’m going to watch Tron tonight.

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2 thoughts on “Recent Stumbling on the Path

  1. Zacky, (Slacky Chan??) don't worry too much about testing over here. I am in a bit of a rut myself. I have tested for kendo 4-dan 12 times or more over here, still have not passed. I lost track of the number of attempts somewhere along the way. Am now in the middle of “a couple years off” for various reasons as I focus my practice in other areas. I am sure I will try again someday, but not right now.
    The tests are horrible for me – usually close to 1000 people for the combined 4-dan and 5-dan tests in Tokyo. i am a Nebraska boy, don't like crowding much, so the feeling is horrible for me, everybody smashed into the budokan, no place to put your stuff on the floor.
    Don't worry too much about the tests; just do your own good aikido, I think. BP

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