Sunday, January 22, 2012

Winter Swimming part II: Kamakura

5:30AM comes very early when you were drinking wine and Jinro until 11:30 the night before. Now I can say with certainty, however, that dunking your head into a bucket of cold water does, indeed, cure a hangover. AT least, jumping into a cold ocean was unpleasant enough to do the trick.

We awoke at 5:30 in the morning on January 15th in order to make the hour drive from Nakajima Sensei’s house in Setagaya to the beach in Kamakura where we would be meeting the rest of our group and “going for a dip.” Groggy and feeling slightly hung-over from too much wine, the bumpy ride in the back of Nakajima Sensei’s van made me feel ill enough that I began to look forward to a cold bath in the ocean. When we arrived in Kamakura, however, the sharp wind and 5 degree C (41 degree F) air temperature made me reconsider matters. Kashiwazaki Sensei had said the night before, with a laugh, that snow had been forecasted for Sunday. Thankfully, it seemed to be a clear morning.

After the hour’s car ride, everything seemed to happen quite suddenly. The forty-odd members of the dormitory club where Kashiwazaki Sensei and Nakajima Sensei jointly teach were already awaiting us. As we got out of his vehicle, Nakajima Sensei grabbed my arm and tucked my hand in his elbow, “Let’s go!" We started running down the sidewalk toward the beach. As we approached the sand, we took off our shoes, coats and shirts and, again taking my hand, Nakajima Sensei continued his inexorable run toward the ocean.
Not being able to see the on-coming waters, my impression was a slow-motion gallop across sand so cold it seemed dead and lifeless. The crashing waves, at first distant, began to strike closer… closer…. And, suddenly, my feet and legs were plunged into cold water that quickly rose past my waist. As the cold hit me, I stopped dead with my mouth hanging open in slight shock… allowing a wave to slap me full in the face. I spent the following several minutes spitting out salt. Having grown up in Michigan, surrounded by fresh water lakes, salt water is still something that baffles me.
The waters off the coast of Kamakura, a balmy 16 degrees C (61 degrees F) made me recall fondly the relatively comfortable swim in Katsuura from the week before. We quickly joined hands in a large circle and, as in Katsuura, each individual had to introduce themselves and say a goal for the coming year. Unfortunately, I was caught on the shallower side of the circle and the ocean waters only came up to my waist. Far from a relief, however, this just meant that I was left continuously shivering as each new wave covered me with water and the wind worked to dry it… taking my body-heat along the way.
In an effort to appear macho, the first several members of our circle made long, elaborate introductions. “I am so-called. I study such-and-such and live in the eastern wing of said-dormitory. I am going to work really hard this year to do this-and-that….” As time passed, however, and people began to get colder, their introductions began to get shorter and shorter until the last several people were nearly unintelligible. When 15 minutes had passed and our circle finally broke up, I thought, “OK, not so bad, I can handle this.” Nakajima Sensei began to back slowly toward the shore. Then, for some mysterious reason, he said, “Let’s go for a swim!” and back out we went.

The worst part about kanchuusuiei is not the swimming; it’s getting out afterwards. Though not strong, the wind was blowing steadily. AS we emerged from the water, we were huddled into a group on the sand for photos. The sand seemed to burn with the cold and, before five minutes had past, I had lost all ability to feel or even move my toes. In retrospect—sitting under a heater with all toes functional—it was totally worth the picture.

Apparently my continuous shivering and whimpering were enough to convey my growing discomfort for, as soon as the photos were finished, Nakajima Sensei's son ran to grab me a towel and my clothes. He even let me borrow his coat to wear atop my own, for which I am eternally grateful.

After a quick breakfast of gyuudon—thinly sliced beef on rice with a raw egg and onion—we drove back to Setagaya to a Japanese sento or “public bathhouse.” AS I have been in Japan for three years, I am well aware of the protocols and procedures of public bathing. Most foreigners find it a little uncomfortable, however, and the Japanese always seem eager to watch the shy foreigner. AS cold as I was, though, I didn’t hesitate to strip naked; “Let’s go mate!”
Our time in the sento was brief—only about ten minutes—but it was enough to drive the chill out of our bones. On the long train ride back to Katsuura, I began to consider the fact that the Sensei never seem to suffer as much as the rest of us. I have a theory about this: no matter how horrible or unpleasant a task may be, if you are the one forcing others to suffer, then you can endure nearly anything for the satisfaction of watching those around you squirm. If I ever have a dojo of my own, you can rest assured that I will carry on this sadistic tradition of kanchuusuiei. The thought that I am the one responsible for making everyone else cold will warm my heart to no end.

Monday, January 16, 2012


On Saturday evening I had dinner with the International Budo University’s Kashiwazaki Sensei and Kokushikan University’s Nakajima Sensei. Kokushikan University is another very well-known martial arts University here in Japan and both Sensei hold eighth degree black belts in Judo; Nakajima Sensei also carries an eighth degree black belt in Aikido. Needless to say, spending the evening with the two Sensei was quite the honor. With each such experience, I find my ability to understand Japanese improving greatly. Despite this, however, it is still a challenge to follow the conversation when two old friends—as Nakajima Sensei and Kashiwazaki Sensei most certainly are—begin drinking. The best I can do is to describe the situation as I myself understood and experienced it.

The occasion for our evening together was the annual kanchuusuiei (winter swimming) of the Tokyo dojo where Kashiwazaki Sensei and Nakajima Sensei jointly teach. The swimming was to be held the following morning, though, and as Kashiwazaki Sensei said at dinner, “Tomorrow? What’s happening tomorrow? We’re not thinking about tomorrow, we’re enjoying tonight.” So I will leave talk of early mornings and cold waters for another blog entry and focus on great food and happy company.

Nakajima Sensei took us to a small, three-star Korean restaurant near his home in Setagaya. The restaurant is somewhat famous as it has appeared on Japanese television and won the respect of Japanese food critics. The owner is an eighty-year-old Korean woman who normally prepares and serves the food by herself. On nights such as this, however, when the small room is packed full of people, another—ahem—oneechan “older sister” comes to help.
Taba, as I believe the restaurant is called, is somewhat dark and dirty in appearance. “How do I know this,” you might ask? Two reasons; first, Kashiwazaki Sensei described the place as having walls that practically shone and tables plated with gold and, when Kashiwazaki Sensei tells you the girls are wearing bikini and the floors are spotless, the girl’s probably have armor on and the floor is filthy. A second hint as to the relative cleanliness of the restaurant came in the form of garbage bags we were given upon entering. The garbage bags were for our coats… to protect them from the smoke.

We began the meal with our toriaezu-biiru “for the moment, beer,” which is a typical way of beginning any meal in Japan. A round of beer is ordered to get things started and is referred to as “toriaezu” or “For the time being” beer. After this first glass of beer was finished, however, Kashiwazaki Sensei ordered us all a round of Korean Jinro: a distilled spirit made from sweet potato and similar in flavor to vodka. The Jinro was not served in the small glass one would expect, but rather in the sort of portions you might drink cola in the United States. We were drinking the super-sized Jinro.
Our food began with a round of pickled vegetables and Korean kimchi (a spicy sort of fermented cabbage). This was followed by pig’s feet, served cold with a spicy Korean sauce. I have eaten pigs feet once before when I lived with a Colombian family in Spain and I found the gelatinous meat to be disgusting. The Korean style of preparing pig’s feet, however, is much different. The meat, while being served cold, maintains a nicer texture and the spicy sauce for dipping is delicious. Following the pig’s feet, we ate a particular cut of meat from the cow’s stomach. Though I am unsure of the name, this was also served cold and with spices.
Finally, we began with what might be considered the more typical style of Korean cuisine: the yakiniku or “Grilled meat”. In Japan, Korean restaurants are famous for having grills at each table where raw meat can be prepared. The meat is cut thinly and cooks quickly on the hot metal grill. We ate two types of grilled meat: tontoro (fatty pork from the neck or shoulder) and horumon (intestine). Believe it or not, thinly sliced and grilled cow’s intestines can be very oishii—delicious—if you just don’t think about it.

Over dinner, our conversation passed along many topics. AS the restaurant was very small and little separated us from our neighbors, sometimes conversations would spill from one table into another. One man, seated behind me, commented that my Japanese was quite impressive for a foreigner. Nakajima Sensei then proceeded to tell the neighboring table about how I had come to Japan, alone, and was practicing Judo and Aikido.
Kashiwazaki Sensei then told me about how he had doubted that a visually impaired person could ever make it at the Budo University. When Nakajima Sensei first told him that I was interested in attending the bekkasei program, he was incredulous. Nakajima Sensei assured him I would be fine, though, and Kashiwazaki Sensei decided to give me the chance. Now, he says, he doesn’t believe I have a disability. My blindness isn’t a disability; it’s just a part of who I am. In fact, Kashiwazaki Sensei continued, his receding hairline was more of a disability for him than my blindness is for me. He then grabbed my hand and ran it along the top of his head to show me his receding hairline. When I said, “Ah yes,” he hit me upside the head. “No, when the Sensei says he has a receding hairline you tell him “No Sensei,” and you tell him he’s handsome”
Throughout the evening, our conversation kept returning to one important topic: the importance of a happy life. More than once we raised our glass to “Shiawase” or “happiness”. Being with friends, drinking together, it is a part of happiness. I tend to smile when I’m utterly confused and, well, on Saturday that was all they wanted. A smile and one more person to raise a glass.

I learned many things about Japanese culture over dinner and even more over the wine afterwards. I was smacked in the head more than once for being a stupid foreigner who didn’t understand Japanese customs and, when I told Kashiwazaki Sensei that I had learned more in this one evening than in the entire year of Japanese classes, he said, “Of course, there are some things you can’t learn in a classroom. You have to learn in the…”
“Izakaya,” I provided.
“Yes,” he replied.

“It’s 飲むnication,” Nakajima Sensei explained. 飲む—read “nomu—is the word for “to drink”. What you do in the izakaya (bar) isn’t your typical communication. It’s “nomunication.” It’s the language of drinking and being with friends.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kanchuusuiei; or "Wait, I came for the Onsen"

Hypothermia is a condition in which the body’s core temperature drops below 35C/95F and prolonged exposure to cold conditions makes it impossible to replenish the heat being lost. Typical symptoms of hypothermia include shivering and mental confusion. So come along, everyone, and let’s go jump in the ocean.

The Japanese traditional kangeiko [寒稽古] or "winter training" is well known and many dojos in the U.S. and Europe hold some type of special winter class. IN Japan, kangeiko frequently consists in early morning training in a cold dojo or, in some cases, outside in the cold winter air. “Early morning” and “cold” seem to be characteristic features of kangeiko, regardless of the dojo or the martial art. In the Shishinkai dojo where I practiced judo in Kitakyushu, for example, kangeiko consisted in uchikomi and ukemi on the beach one Sunday morning in early February. At the Kodokan, kangeiko is held for a week in January and training starts at 5:30AM.
At the International Budo University and other dojos around the island of Honshu, people take part in a special form of winter training known as kanchuusuiei [寒中水泳] or “winter swimming”. At our last class with Kashiwazaki Sensei of 2011, he looked at me and said, very seriously, “Niko, Winter Swimming will be on January 10th at 4:30. January 10th, 4:30.” I took this to mean, “Niko, you will be joining us for winter swimming on January 10th at 4:30.” I roughly—and somewhat loosely—translated this for the other foreign Judoka as, “Hey, Kashiwazaki Sensei expects us all to join him for kanchuusuiei.”
So on the afternoon of January 10th, we found ourselves on the beach of Katsuura, facing the Pacific Ocean and bundled up against the cold. At 4:30 sharp, Kashiwazaki Sensei came running onto the beach, wearing his bathing suit and flip-flops and carrying a towel. With no more ceremony than to yell, “Come on” he dropped his towel and went running into the ocean. The rest of us quickly stripped to our bathing suits and followed him in…

You might argue that the 20 Degree C (68 degree F) waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Katsuura are warmer than the air. I would respond by saying, “Go try it.” There is no “getting used to the water”. I dove straight in and started swimming before I could think twice about what I was doing.
Kashiwazaki Sensei swam out to where he could no longer touch the bottom and yelled for us to join him. AS we swam to his side, he pulled out his watch and said, “We have twenty minutes.” Apparently, twenty minutes is just enough time to enjoy the water before you have to start worrying about adverse affects.
After a few minutes, the girl’s judo club arrived on the beach and came running, screaming into the water. With ten minutes left to endure, we all joined hands in a huge circle and, shivering so hard that our teeth chattered, we all shouted our new year’s resolutions. While the girls shouted such inspirational messages as, “This year I will work harder at my judo!” or “I will recover from all of my injuries this year!” I decided to pick a resolution not only honest, but one I could be sure to keep. When it was my turn I shouted, “去年より、暖房を使いたいんですよ” (More than last year, I want to use the heating). Only because I am a foreigner, this got a lot of laughs.

Once we had all finished saying our new year’s resolutions and after we had chattered our way through the school’s anthem, twice, we ran toward the shore and our towels. As the wind once again hit us, we started shivering uncontrollably. My fingers were so numb that I could not feel the clothing in my hands. Combined with the lack of sight, I couldn’t tell if I was holding a shirt, jacket or towel. Kashiwazaki and the girls quickly threw on their jackets and ran toward the nearby hotel, where hot tubs and saunas awaited. My two friends and I, however, were not sure where to enter the hotel and, thusly, walked around in increasing agony for 10 minutes. Mental confusion?

Unfortunately, I was unable to get any good photos of our winter swimming experience. But no worries, I’ll have another opportunity! This coming weekend I must go again, with Kashiwazaki Sensei and joined by Kokushikan’s Nakajima Sensei, to swim in the waters off Kamakura. They tell me it’s even colder!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Christmas Gift from Sensei

This blog entry comes somewhat late due to the general busyness of the holidays and flagrant laziness of the writer in question… but it is an entry worth posting nonetheless.

For the first eight months of this course year—from April to November—only two people wore brown belts in the entire judo club of the International Budo University: myself and one other Italian bekkasei. In most western countries, a black belt is very difficult to earn regardless of the martial art. In Japan, however, most children earn their shodan while in middle school. By the time they reach university, Japanese judoka have second or third degree black belts. Shodan, after all, comes from the kanji 初段 or “beginning step”. The first degree black belt is just the first step along the path of learning a martial art.

For this reason, the two of us wearing brown belts were sometimes ignored or taken less seriously in the dojo. Why would a third-degree black belt waist their time with such a weak opponent? Of course, the color of a belt only matters to someone who has reason to question their own abilities; especially at a university club where pride comith mere moments before the fall… to make a pun.
Our sensei, however, seemed to understand the difference between western and Japanese ranking systems. Kashiwazaki Sensei, in particular, made it clear on a number of occasions that a brown belt meant little when compared to the falling standards of training in Japan. This is a topic I will touch upon at another time, but it is one that came up frequently in our courses. It was somewhat vindicating when, through a friend, I heard that Kashiwazaki Sensei had told a room full of Japanese Judo players that “the foreign brown belts” knew how to do the Judo Kata better than they did. (Kata, for those of you who don’t know, are sets of techniques intended to demonstrate basic principals of a martial art.)

When Kashiwazaki Sensei found out that I won all my fights at the ranking tournament in November, he was delighted. He immediately said, “I’m going to buy you your first black belt.” Then he paused, “No, I am going to give you one of my belts.”
I was more than a little stunned. I did not tell Kashiwazaki Sensei the results of my tournament expecting anything more than his approval and, perhaps, congratulations. It is an honor, however, for a Sensei to give his own belt to a student. This not only means that a Sensei feels that his student is deserving of the belt, but that he is willing to stake his own name on that certainty. The belt, after all, carries the Sensei’s name written clearly in Kanji.

To my knowledge, only a very small number of people have a belt from Kashiwazaki Sensei. One of these people happens to be the Italian bekkasei who, with me, began this program as a brown belt.
Wearing this belt comes with its own responsibilities and, one might say, dangers. Especially in Japan, where people can read and understand the kanji of my sensei and will, therefore, have an expectation. Kashiwazaki Sensei is one of the most famous living judo players. I have little choice, though, as Kashiwazaki Sensei made it clear that, "From now on, you will wear this belt."