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Happy Ninja Cat Day

February 22nd is Ninja Cat Day in Japan. The onomatopoeia of a cat's meow in Japanese is nyan nyan. The  Japanese love their homophones and thus nyan nyan become ni ni and the first syllable in the word ninja (忍者).

The kanji for nin is  忍 which means patience or self-restraint which are huge concepts in budo. The other kanji 者 is ja or sha which means person.

One of the major differences between beginners and experts is impulse control. Impulse control is nothing more than being able to control one's self in any situation. Self-restraint is then the mark of a true master. 

Happy Ninja Cat Day!

We make each other better

For samurai-jackFor 20 years during the Sengoku period, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fought a series of hard fought battles. It was during this time that each cultivated a deep respect for one another. When Takeda Shingen died suddenly on the battlefield, Uesugi Kenshin supposedly wept and said, "I have lost my greatest rival, there will never be a greater hero."  Our adversaries can be our greatest teachers. As a training partner, it is our duty to bring out the best in our partners. We owe it to them to give them a good hard practice. That doesn't mean be a jerk. It means to push them to become better. If we are too easy they become too complacent and soft. If we are too hard they become bitter and contemptuous. Pushing them to their heights in a positive and productive way enables them to reach their true potential. It is a great honor to be a part of that process.  Be a positive force for change so that as C.S. Lewis stated, "All of hell rejoices that I am out of the fight" because I help make others better.

Fighting one man is the same is fighting ten thousand - Miyamoto Musashi I recently saw this video made in Japan where three Olympic fencers took on 50 untrained or barely trained fencers on a Japanese variety show. The video was made for a TV so it wasn't that serious but I was amazed at how poorly the Olympic fencers performed.  Not only did they show a low level of skill, but they also showed that since it is a sport there was no group strategy.

At first as the 50 converged on them, the Olympians fled to the stairs.  I thought, "Ahh, this is correct."  Furuya Sensei taught us that to fight one person is the same as hundred and to strive for high ground (which I am sure was gleaned from Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings strategy).  Going to the stairs would have provided them a natural barrier for three of the four sides of attack and they would only have to face opponents from only one direction and, most crucially, only one at a time.  This strategy would have allowed them to use their skill to win the battle.

As you can see from the video they abandoned the strategy of working together and using the stairs.  Those three Olympic fencers would have been overwhelmed and killed in a matter of minutes if it were are real fight.  They would have been picked apart as the odds stacked up against them because each Olympian could be surrounded by as many as 16 people at any given time who would be attacking from all sides.  Also, did you see by how many times the untrained fighters just poked them in the arms and back as they ran by?  This method is called "Death by a thousand cuts" in knife fighting where small non-lethal wounds add up to a tremendous amount of blood loss and eventually take their toll on the fighter as the battle rages on.

It is interesting, as things become more "modern" or sporty they can sometimes lose their martial sense. As martial artists, we can look at this video and take heart to make sure that we practice our arts as martial arts and not just something we do for exercise.


Are warriors sensitive?





















Are real warriors sensitive?

One might think that people engaged in the military arts would not or could not be sensitive by the shear nature of their business.

I would argue that a warrior or martial artist at their highest is and has to be sensitive.

Sensitivity is commonly, and erroneously, thought of as vulnerability and vulnerability is death.  At first glance, this is true, but only to warriors of the lowest levels.

To be a great warrior one needs the ability to be able read their opponents in a split second.  This "read" has to be done with the sub-conscious mind because it happens so fast that one only realizes that it is happening when they are already moving.  This sub-conscious action requires a master's amount of training.  It is so fast and without conscious thought that most begin to call it "intuitive" movement.

To develop this intuitive movement requires that one venture to a place within themselves seldom seen by the outside world but only after the physical art has been mastered.  It is the place where we hide all of our secrets and fears which we call our "weaknesses."  To be able to defeat a foe greater than ourselves we must venture deep within ourselves and confront these dark places.  The most well-known movie scene illustrating this was in the Empire Strikes Back when Luke ventures into the Dark Cave of Evil where he strikes down Vader only to reveal himself which suggests he is his own worst enemy.  When we become aware our weaknesses and deal with them then they become the source of our true inner strength.

We then use this sensitivity, which is rooted in the awareness of our own weaknesses, to find the weaknesses in our own opponents.  Looking for the weakness in Japanese it is called "Benki no naki dokoro" which means Benkei's weak spot (Musashibo Benki was a legendary warrior in 12th century in Japan).

Can we be strong and sensitive?  Sure, true strength is found at the juncture of what we can do physically and where we are mentally.  To gain true victory is what O Sensei calls Masakatsu Agatsu or the true victory is the one gained over one's self.

Does a real warrior cry?  I would argue that they do, but not for the same reasons that we might think.







Happy Friday the 13th!

Maneki Neko  












I wish you good luck today and a happy Friday the 13th!  Today is supposed to be bad luck so I send you this Maneki Neko in hopes that it bring you good luck.

The Maneki Neko or "Beckoning Cat" is a symbol of good luck in Japan.  The waving cat is everywhere in Japan, but did you know one of its origins is samurai related?  Here is one famous story about the samurai origin of the Maneki Neko.

In 1615 during the Edo period there was a temple in Tokyo called Gotokuji that had fallen on hard times.  The priest there loved cats and, although poor, he saved his meals to feed this stray cat.  As the cat ate, he would say, “Please bring me good luck and prosperity.”  The story goes that the famous samurai Naotaka Ii who was the feudal lord of Hikone happened to be walking by the temple on his way home from falconry one afternoon.  As he looked over at the temple gates, he noticed that the stray cat seemed to be beckoning him to come in.  Naotaka became curious and entered the temple just as a severe thunderstorm passed over soaking the entire area with heavy rain.  The famous samurai from Hikone spent the rest of the afternoon drinking tea and listening to the priest's sermon on Sanzeinga no ho (三世因果) or the reasoning for the past, present and future.  Grateful to the cat for keeping him dry Naotaka Ii donated a large sum of money to re-build the temple and designated it the official temple of his clan.

I wish you the best of luck today.


"When you see a stranger regard him as a thief!" - Japanese proverb

thief When I was a student, we had to announce ourselves whenever we entered or left the dojo.  We had to say, "Good morning Sensei it's David" or "Good night Sensei, thank you.  This is David" every time or we got a scolding from Furuya Sensei the next time we came.  Sensei used to say, "Only a dorobo (thief) enters without announcing themselves."  This stems from the Japanese proverb, "When you see a stranger regard him as a thief!"

This idea of announcing oneself or one's intention can still be seen in Japanese society today.  When a person comes home, they say, "tadaima" or I'm home.  When we see someone you know in the morning one is supposed to say, "Ohayogozaimasu" or Good morning.  When a student visits a dojo, they are supposed to bring a letter of introduction from their teacher that states the student's rank, how long they have been training, something about their character and a request to allow them to train.

This insular idea comes from the "village" mentality that the Japanese had that dates back hundreds of thousands years.  If you were from their village then a Japanese person would bend over backwards to help you, but if you were an "outsider" then they would be very suspicious of you.

From a martial arts perspective, this distrust of outsiders came because of the practice of dojo yaburi (道場破り) or dojo challenges, but some call it dojo storming.  Dojo yaburi is when a person comes to the dojo to challenge one of the students or the teacher.  Supposedly, if one could beat the teacher then they would take over the school and the students. Resources and students were scarce and so this was a frequent occurrence.

This idea of regarding a stranger as a thief is one that still exists today.  One of the main differences between Japanese and Western people is that Japanese people don't talk to people they don't know and they especially don't idly chit-chat with strangers.  This closed-offness is something that confounded Western businessman in the 1980s as they tried to infiltrate the Japanese economy.  Usually, no introduction meant no business.  One needed to have an "in" in order to start a business relationship.

There is even a famous Zen story closely associated to this idea of strangers and thieves:

One evening, Zen Master Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras as a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding that he give him money.

Shichiri told him: "Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer." Then he resumed his recitation.

The thief found the money and began to leave when Shichiri said, "Don't take it all. I need some to pay taxes with tomorrow."

The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave.  Shichiri then said, "You should thank a person when you receive a gift."  The man thanked him and ran off.

A few days afterwards the thief was caught and confessed to his crimes.  When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: "This man is no thief, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave him money and he thanked me for it."

After he had finished his prison term, the thief became Shichiri's disciple.

In Japan, whenever you enter someplace you are supposed to state your intention and one does this by how one announces themselves.  Students have to greet their teachers and show they are ready to learn and this is done with the first greeting.  Customers always air on the side of politeness so they usually say, "Sumimasen" or excuse me prior to asking for something.

Spring has arrived!


















The bluebird and the cherry blossom are the universal symbols that Spring has arrived.  In Japan, the arrival of Spring brings with it the opportunity for renewal and hope of prosperity.

The two motifs are a favorite among the warrior class.  Both symbols have a certain sense of balance to them in regards to life.

Bluebirds symbolize happiness but their songs also represents perseverance in darker times.  I am sure a samurai in the heat of battle who had the awareness to hear the song of the Bluebird would think that it was a good omen and that their song might give him the strength to carry on.  It is said that the Bluebird carries the sky on its back and with it eternal happiness.

If Japan had a national flower, it could easily be the sakura or cherry blossom.  The Cherry blossoms usually only blooms for one to two weeks from the first blossom called kaika (開花) and full bloom called mankai (満開).  After mankai is reached the blossoms begin to fall off the branches.  There are five petals of the sakura flower and thus it said to represent human beings.  Therefore the falling of the cherry blossoms off the branch are reminiscent of a head being chopped off or life being lost.  The cherry blossom falls off the branch at the peak of its beauty and just as men are cut down on the battlefield in their primes.  The cherry blossom reminds us that there is no tomorrow and that we must live our lives well.

Spring has arrived!  Rejoice, get out, find happiness for there is no tomorrow.  Oh and come to class if you can.









In the earliest part of Spring in Japan the snow sometimes lingers as the cherry blossoms or sakura begin to blossom.  It is kind of a strange but pleasant paradox when you have the leftover bitter cold and snow of Winter along side the fragrance of the blooming cherry blossoms of Spring.  This occurrence has been a constant theme over time for many artists and poets in Japan.

This same paradox exists among humans.  We are all beautiful despite the coldness and bitterness that we have faced and triumphed over.  The question is, "Can we let our beauty shine despite being covered by snow and surrounded by cold?"

This is the same question that martial artists face too.  When we are surrounded or up against seemingly insurmountable odds, "Can we still maintain our composure?"

Training teaches us to be this paradox of beauty in spite of the circumstance.  Our paradox is actually the opposite whereas we have the ability to do great harm, but instead exercise restraint and show the true beauty of man by acting with kindness, compassion and forgiveness.

In Spring, the seasons start over.  The cold demanding Winter is starting to fade and give way to the possibilities of Spring.  With a peek of light and a hint of warmth, Spring brings us renewal.  I hope that you have a wonderful Spring.


"The falling leaves doesn't hate the wind." - From Zatoichi, the blind samurai

Kintsugi-bowl-honurushi-number-32Life is a never ending cycle of falling down, healing and getting back up.  In Aikido we call that taking ukemi.  As these scrapes, bumps and bruises heal, we have the tendency to try and hide them as if this damage some how defines us in a negative way.  These battle scars do more than define who we are - they makes us into who we become.  If we try and hide them, then we tend to take that negative path in life.  If we display them for all too see then we can use them as fodder to make us stronger. It is natural, I suppose, to want to hide one's flaws and only project one's accolades or strengths.  In chado or Japanese tea ceremony it is the exact opposite.  One's flaws are seen as the things which makes us human and this can be clearly seen when a tea bowl is broken.  Rather than throw it away, it is sent out to be repaired.  The bowl is painstakingly put back together with a sort of gold glue called kintsugi (金継ぐ) or gold patch.  However, the bowl isn't repaired back to "new" where one wouldn't even be able to see where the original damage was, but in some sense made better by the repair.  This repair, therefore, enhances its beauty.

In Aikido, we fall down and we get back up - it is part of the training.  The trials and tribulations of life's journey do add up, but they make us who we are - the person we have become.  We can either get back up and use it to make us stronger or hide them and make ourselves weaker.  We are all infinitely stronger than we think.  How do I know that?  Well, you are still here, right?

Below is a nice video explaining kintsugi in further detail.



Can you wrap like the Japanese?

Gift giving is a big deal in Japan.  Japanese people always bring back some kind of gift for their friends and co-workers whenever they visit someplace other than where they live.  This gift is called an omiyage (お土産) pronounced oh-me-yah-geh.  In Japanese culture, relationships are very important.  The gift is not supposed to be ostentatious but rather something that one brings back that is reminiscent of one's trip.  Usually, it is some local food that the place is known for called meibutsu or some people bring back some type of chotchkie.  When one goes away, they leave others behind and this gift is supposed to say, "I value our relationship and think of you when I am away."  Relationships in Japan have a interesting circle of debt (giri) and dependency (amae).  Giri and amae can be thought of as "I owe you and you depend on me."  For instance, you bring back cookies for the office because those people covered for you while you were away.

Because the gifts are about relationships, the Japanese go to painstaking efforts in their presentation.  One way they to ensure the relationship's importance is in the way the gift is wrapped.  As with all Japanese things, there is a special way to do it.  Whenever one buys a gift in Japan at a local food stand or a department store, it is wrapped but it is wrapped in a way so that the presentation doesn't offend or embarrass anyone.

I love the way gifts are wrapped in Japan.  Every Christmas I try and wrap some of my gifts "Japanese style" but it never quite comes out the way they do it in Japan.  Here are some videos demonstrating this great wrapping  technique.



Another great video about Japanese carpentry

A wise person knows that there is something to be learned from everyoneThis message is a mixture of things that I am interested in and things that I find that I hope can help other people in their journeys.  Some things I post here just serendipitously pop up or someone sends it to me and then I think, "Oh, this would be great for..." and I send it to them or sometimes I post it.  The last two days I stumbled upon these videos about Japanese culture and how it is viewed through the eyes of traditional carpentry.  I firmly believe that learning about other people, other things or other arts can help us gain a better perspective about ourselves.  To see how others live helps us to understand how we live.  Their passions, love and suffering are the same as our passion, love and suffering.  As the Dalai Lama said, "We are all the same."  One of the greatest skills to acquire is the ability to see things from another person's perspective. I usually like to vary my message/posts and not post the same things or too many videos in a row, but I really liked these two videos.  They really inspire me and help me to understand Japanese culture better.  I hope that they inspire you in whatever you do.  Please enjoy and have a wonderful day!




The way of carpentry

Our old dojo was built by Sensei with help from a Japanese carpenter.  Not until after the old dojo was demolished was I able to see the true craftsmanship.  They used local woods that some might grade inferior and turned it into a pieces of beauty.  One of the interesting things was that the floors were made with wood one might use on a outside fence, but you would have never known it by looking at it or touching it.  They must have used a Japanese plane to create the finish because in the 17 years I was there I can't recall us ever "re-staining" the floors.  If they would have used sandpaper and stain to create the finish, we would have had to re-do it after a couple of years.  You can see this now as the new floors need to be re-stained. I found this video documentary below.  It is quite interesting even if one isn't interested in carpentry because they discuss the Japanese mindset and philosophy as it pertains to carpentry.  One of the hallmarks of Japanese culture is to live in harmony with nature and you can see it reflected in how these people build things.  Miyamoto Musashi said, "To know one way is to know all ways" and so we can understand our own way as we learn about other ones.

How do you sit?

The chair in Japan can be traced back to the Kofun period (ca. 250-538 AD), but it didn't really come in to favor until the Meiji era (ca. 1868-1912 AD).  Even after the Meiji era, Japanese people still tended to sit on the floor.  Nowadays in Japan as with everywhere else, there are chairs available everywhere.  Traditionally, how one sits in Japan is based on the situation and the level of formality required.  Here are some of the traditional ways Japanese people sit based on the formality of the situation. Seiza 星座

Seiza (正座) is the politest and most formal way to sit for a man or a woman.  Seiza is a difficult way for Westerners to sit and is becoming especially so in Japan as well most likely due to sitting in chairs.  One sits with their legs folded underneath their thighs with their buttocks resting on the heels.  The ankles turn outward to for a V with the toes touching.  It is considered bad form and a sign of uncouthness to have the feet overlap.  In Japan depending on the situation and level of formality, one might be required to sit in seiza.  For instance, in Doshu's office there are chairs and tables and there is no need to sit in seiza because the atmosphere or context might not warrant any formality, but if Doshu were to be scolding you or if you were to be receive something official like rank then you might want to sit in seiza as sign of respect.


Yokozuwari 横座り

Yokozuwari or side sitting is an appropriate formal alternative to seiza for women.  This is the way Disney's Princess Ariel sits with her tail wrapped behind her.  Therefore a man who sits in yokozuwari might seem effeminate sitting this way.




Agura 胡座

Agura (胡座) or sometimes called anza translates as barbarian sitting is a more relaxed posture a man might take when they cannot sit seiza any longer or have a injury.  It is formally known as cross legged.  Generally, anza is an informal posture and not appropriate for formal occasions or for when a gesture of respect is need to be given.  Women are not supposed to sit in anza, but that is changing in Japan.



Taiiku suwari 体育座り

Taiiku suwari is an alternative form for both men and women to sit.  It is an informal style of sitting and can be seen in a physical education class where children are sitting on hard floors.  One might use it as a rest position between seiza or anza to give their buttocks, knees or ankles a rest.





Obachan suwari おばあちゃん座り

Obachan suwari or grandma sitting is where you sit in a modified seiza position where you don't sit on your ankles but sit between them.  This style of sitting is often seen in Yoga class and is called Hero's pose. This is a seated position only for women unless of course one is taking a Yoga class.





Tatehiza 立て膝

Tatehiza (立て膝) can be for men and women but has grown into an informal way to sit.  Tatehiza translates as standing knee and was designed as a way for warriors to sit on the battlefield in armor.  So it is kind of weird gray area when it comes to formality.  Sitting in tatehiza in a formal situation might come off as an affectation of politeness and thus seem disingenuous and rude especially since it came from the battlefield and might be misunderstood as a sign of contrariness or readiness to attack.  Today we see this posture in casual settings and at the higher levels of Iaido techniques.  It is actually not that easy to get into or tatehizaget out of in a pinch.





Interesting video on how scrolls are made

This video demonstrates what it means to be called a shokunin or expert craftsman in Japan.  There is a saying, "A master has the ability to make difficult things seem easy."  Kamon Sensei is a fourth generation scroll (kakejiku) maker who's family has been in business 100 years.  You can see from this video how easy he makes it look that he must be a master craftsman or shokunin.  His level of care and seriousness for his art pales in comparison to his level of humility.  This is what it means to be a master.  He does not beat his chest with how great he is but rather how he only hopes to do a good job and continue to improve - this is true humbleness.

A beautiful view

The Solitary Cherry Tree The Solitary Cherry Tree is located at the base of Mt. Iwate at the Koiwai Farm in Shizukuishi in Japan.  The sakura or cherry blossom tree blooms against the backdrop of the snow covered Mt. Iwate.  This tree was planted over 100 years ago and gets 750,000 visitors every year during hanami or cherry blossom viewing season.








"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"

Last night I saw this piece Al Jazeera about the iemoto (hereditary succession) that was really done well.  The story follows a 30 year old  young man who is in college in Canada and who is in line to become the next head priest of his family's temple.  He is line to become the 24th generation head priest of an 800 year old Buddhist temple in Kyoto.  The story deftly illustrates what it must be like for some to inherit such a huge responsibility (something I know a bit about).  I was struck by how supportive his siblings were toward his plight and how two of them were ready to step in if he ended up turning down the position.  The position of head priest or hereditary grandmaster comes with a heavy price.  A line from Shakespeare's Henry the IV adequately describes this young man's struggle, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."  I totally get it. Watch the 25 minute documentary by following this link:

The Cherry Blossoms are beginning to bloom in Japan!

cherry 1 cherryGenerally, the blooming of the sakura or cherry blossoms signals that spring has arrived.  This year, Japan had an unusual amount of late snow fall which causes the sakura to bloom later.  The blooming of the sakura is a big deal in Japan.  The daily weather report starting around March tries to forecast on when the sakura will bloom.  When they do blossom, people flock from all over Japan to see them.  Every park has a season long (1-2 week) event where people camp out and party while sitting under the cherry trees.  This is called hanami or flower hanamildviewing.

さまざまの事おもひ出す櫻かな Samazama no  koto omoidasu  sakura kana

How many, many things They call to mind These cherry-blossoms! -Basho

The cherry blossom is a favorite motif in Japanese culture.  It is said that the beauty of the sakura is interrupted by its short life span and that the falling flower is reminiscent of a head being cut off.  This imagery brings home the impermanence of life and how we are sometimes cut down in our primes.  This impermanence is the driving force to live our lives in the present moment and well because we don't know how long it will last.

Mainoumi - the department store of sumo techniques

Mainoumi facing the giant Konishiki One of my favorite sumo-tori (sumo wrestlers) of all time has to be Mainoumi.  Mainoumi was born Shuhei Nagao and was an amateur national sumo champion while attending Nihon University.  He changed his name as all sumo wrestlers do to Mainoumi when he turned pro to reflect his sumo stable which was Dewanoumi.  Mainoumi was active in the 1990s when Sumo was very popular.  Sumo was very popular worldwide at that time because of the influx of non-Japanese wrestlers who were very good and some even went on to become grand champions or Yokozuna.  I like Mainoumi because he was so much smaller than the average sumo-tori yet he beat many famous and larger wrestlers like Musashimaru, Akebono, Konishiki and Kyokushuzan.  At the time, Mainoumi was considered small at 5' 7.5" inches and weighed only 215 lbs compared to Konishiki who was 6' 1.5" inches and 633 lbs or Akebono the grand champion who was 6' 8" inches and 514 lbs.  The American announcers called him Mainoumi "The trickster" but the Japanese media dubbed him "Waza no depaato" or the department store of techniques because of his knowledge of the sumo techniques.  One of his specialty techniques was mitokorozeme which hadn't been used in the modern era of sumo where he simultaneously tripped the leg, grabbed the other leg and barred his head into the opponents chest to force him out.  He had incredible balance and kinesthetic awareness which enabled him to switch techniques or fend off attacks.

Mainoumi was also well known for how he skirted the height requirement by injecting silicone into his scalp to gain a couple more centimeters.  Since then, the Japan Sumo Association has added special dispensations for former amateur champions.

Mainoumi didn't win a lot but when he did it was usually an incredible bout and he always seemed to give the biggest and best wrestlers a run for their money.  He didn't win a lot, amass a winning record or graduate to the highest division of wrestling, but I admired him for his fighting spirit.  What do they say, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog."

Here is a video of some of his biggest wins.

Welcome to Fall


Ichi-yo ochite tenka no aki wo shiru. "With the fall of one leaf we know autumn has come."

A couple of years ago we stumbled upon this small temple in the suburbs of Kyoto.  The temple is called Komyo-in.  It is off the beaten path, but well worth the visit.  It is one of the sub temples of Tofukuji which is just down the street.  You can just sit on the veranda for as long as you want and just take in the awesome rock garden that is bordered with Japanese maple trees.  We went in the summer so the maple trees weren't in bloom, but from the vast number of maple trees it must be incredible in the fall.  I just loved sitting there and taking in the quiet while looking at such a serene place.  Whenever I go back to Kyoto again, I will try and spend at least an hour just sitting there.

Here is a link with more pictures and some information about Komyo-in.

Nakasendo - the road between Tokyo and Kyoto

There are five routes called the Gokaido in Japan that connect the capital of Japan, formerly Edo, with the outlying provinces.  The five routes are: Tokaido, Nakasendo, Koshu Kaido, Oshu Kaido and Nikko Kaido.  Today most of the routes have been replaced by modern day freeways or highways, but there are still some parts that have been preserved.  The Tokaido and Nakasendo have the most notable areas that have been preserved. The Nakasendo is one of National Geographic's 50 tours of a lifetime.  The Nakasendo connected Tokyo (Edo) with Kyoto.  It was the trail through the mountains that supposedly was preferred because you didn't have to cross any rivers.  Originally there were 69 towns that travelers could stay at or get a soak in an onsen or traditional bath.  Today only patches have been preserved and some towns have legal mandates which prohibit change.

I have always wanted to go to these preserved places and maybe I will get around to making the journey.  I found this video of Nakasendo that was  really nice.