All Japan Iaido Championships  

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Yesterday I travelled up to Sendai with my friend and Iaido colleague K san for the All Japan Iaido Championships. This is an annual event that changes venue each year. This year’s host city, Sendai, lies about 300 miles north of Tokyo, necessitating a rather early start and a long drive – made all the more difficult, incidentally, by our ill-judged decision to dally overlong at Yebisu’s in Nishi Ogikubo last night. But I digress.

EIDO-1660 We arrived in Sendai City after a drive through some pretty spectacular scenery. The Kanda plain on which Tokyo sits is surrounded by mountains that rise suddenly and unexpectedly from the billiard-table flat countryside. It is an impressive landscape – perhaps due to its volcanic origins – quite unlike anything that I’ve seen in Europe; Steep mountains and deep valleys, all carpeted by dense forests. As we travelled north, the leaves became increasing tinged with gold and red – a tantalising preview of the spectacular display to be played out over the next few weeks.

EIDO-1662 The city’s sports hall is quite an impressive facility, and by the time we arrived, the competition was in full-swing. Unlike the Nationals in the UK, this competition appeared to be restricted to just 5th, 6th and 7th dan competitors. Consequently, the standard was – as you’d expect – pretty high. But what really surprised me was the number of very high grades there. In the UK, the highest grade we have is 7th dan and there is only a handful of them. Here, there are lots more, not to mention a surprisingly large number of 8th dans. I thought 8th dan was the highest possible, but apparently there are three 9th dans still alive and one of them gave a demonstration yesterday. Quite amazing – he must have been well into his 80s. There’s hope for me yet.

I met with my new sensei and was introduced to some of the other students and given the official OK to commence training, although it will be sometime before I am given any form of direct tuition. I have to prove I am serous first – just goes to show the limited value of my 2nd dan grade!

Along with the impressive Iaido,there were some pretty impressive toys on display yesterday. Each one of these swords isEIDO-1683A a shinken – a real, razor sharp sword forged in the traditional way by a certified swordsmith. And as you’d expect, each has a price tag to match. This selection started at about 65 man Yen – about £3,200.

By for me – the highpoint of the day was the mass demonstration by 7th and 8th dans. There were far too many great Iaido practitioners to take in in one go, but I did spot some fantastic techniques. Oshita sensei – perhaps the most EIDO-1717 important teacher for UK Iaido – was just below where we were sitting in the balcony, impressive as always. But just one of many, many other great displays.

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Japan:Take nothing for granted  

Thursday, 23 October 2008

One of the most endearing features of Japanese life for a Westerner is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. Food is, of course, probably the first culture-shock people experience here. We are not accustomed to having our dinner arrive still attempting to escape, nor do we share the Japanese enthusiasm for plonking raw egg yolks on everything. But long after these occurrences cease to become remarkable, the country still has the capacity to catch you out with some unexpected cultural roadside bomb.

Take, for example, shower gel. A pretty innocuous household substance, that you would think was fairly universal in its formulation and use. But you’d be wrong, for in Japan they strive constantly to achieve perfection – and those good people at Sea Breeze shower gel are no exception.

Sea Breeze is quite a good name for a shower gel I guess – conjuring up images of bracing sea air, the exhilaration of the briny spray with a hint of wind-swept manliness thrown in. Combined with it’s attractive sea-blue bottle, these factors swayed me in its favour over its – frankly – rather effete competitors. However Sea Breeze proved to be a little more appropriate in its name than I bargained for.

Say the word “congestion” and probably the next thing you think of is “menthol” – of course renown for its ability to clear blocked sinuses and ease the breathing. One can almost picture the chain of thought that led the product designers to that eureka moment where Sea Breeze acquired its magically invigorating powers. Yes, you’ve guessed it. Menthol shower gel.

On the face of it, it doesn’t sound too bad. And on the face of it, it isn’t. However it’s a slightly different story when Sea Breeze meets the slightly more delicate parts of one’s anatomy. If you’re not expecting it, a sudden warming sensation in the nether regions can be a slightly alarming experience. There may be a warning on the bottle I suppose – but there’s no way I could have know. Perhaps I should suggest some typically cute graphic indication of the likely effects of Sea Breeze when applied inappropriately – Miffy the Rabbit clutching his nuts with a pained expression perhaps?

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Byoin ni ikimasu  

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Beerhound locks have become rather unkempt of late and so, after a courage-bolstering trip to Yebi-san’s fine drinking and yakitori establishment near to Nishi Ogikubo station, I decided to take the plunge and have a haircut. The problem was – where to go?

To be more precise, which of the roughly hundred thousand barbers, stylists and hairdressers within a 1km radius I should visit. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of hair-care specialists in such a small geographic area. It’s almost like every other shop is something to do with hairstyling. Having neat hair is clearly a major preoccupation of the good people of Nishi Ogikubo, only narrowly eclipsing their enthusiasm for stamping their names on things – judging by the number of hanko shops.

I finally chose a place quite close to our house. Big M tried to explain to the barber what I wanted: Out came the styling books; in true Japanese style, the conversation ranged far and wide, encompassing every aspect of my life. The hair should be short, because of physical pursuits such as running and martial arts. Yet not overly so because of my professional life and the fact that short hair tends to make me look a little too aggressive (moi?). Inevitably, the delicate subject of my bald spot popped up in the conversation.

Yes it’s true, certain areas of the Beerhound bonce are a little threadbare. Being 6ft 2 means that few people here every get to see it, but for the record, I don’t really have a problem with it. All my angst was worked out many years ago – the Summer I first got a sun-burnt head! However, being the consummate professional, the barber tentatively raised the prospect of “the barcode”

The term “barcode” rather accurately describes the effect on the average Japanese male of what we in England would call the “comb-over” or “Bobby Charlton”.

There is no power on Earth that would ever induce me to indulge in this most transparent of self-delusions. Nothing could look so ridiculous, nor reveal so much about the fragile sense of self-worth of its wearer, than the comb-over.

Not that I need it, anyway.

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Brown should come here if he wants to see how a government dept should be run  

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

After my previous post (see below) I wanted to contrast my experience with the Japanese authorities while applying for residence, and that of Big M’s in the UK. Basically, there is no comparison whatsoever. In the UK, we were treated like criminals – forced to cough up thousands of pounds, forced to enrol in English classes we didn’t need and finally subjected to the totally demeaning and utterly pointless New Labour Propaganda Life in the UK test. The total cost of all this, just for my wife and stepdaughter to stay in the country, was in excess of £2,500. We had to travel twice to the disgusting Home Office Immigration facility in Croydon, carrying a truly ridiculous amount of supporting paperwork that required an entire archive box. We were forced to wait in the cold and rain with no toilet facilities; when we were eventually allowed in the building we were searched like thieves and treated like absolute shit.

Contrast this with Japan. The application for a marriage visa took one visit to the very pleasant Japanese embassy in London. Even though there was an irregularity with our paperwork, the staff were unfailing helpful and polite and the problem was sorted out easily. Total cost: £5

In Japan, the application for residence took just one visit to city hall and about a 20 minute wait while they processed the application. Cost: £0

I returned one week later to collect my card and register my stamp (see below) Cost: About 25p

Just a little bit different to rip-off Britain!

If there is any UK resident reading this that is contemplating settling in the UK with their Japanese spouse (or any other non-EU passport holder for that matter), my advice simply is – don’t even think about it. I would say that trying to start our family life in England was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.  

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Feels like I’m here to stay  


This morning I went to city hall to collect my gaijin card. This basically is my permission to live and work freely in Japan and it’s what all foreigners who want to stay here strive to achieve. For foreigners arriving here in the hope of getting a job, the gaijin card can prove a major obstacle; you can’t get a job without it and you can’t get a card without a job! But of course for me it’s been pretty easy thanks to the missus.

hanko2 The other major acquisition today was my personal seal (hanko) which people here use instead of a signature. I found a place around the corner that produced mine for about £25, complete with a smart black case with built-in ink pad. While I was at city hall I also registered my stamp so I can now do things like opening bank accounts etc.

With these two bits of personal administration sorted out, I feel a lot more settled and it really is starting to feel like home now.

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The taste of Autumn  

Monday, 13 October 2008

Last night we visited a place called Masa Yakitori. As well as yakitori,the place is famous for its fine selection of sake. we chose the ginjo selection -5 representative offerings from the genre. very tasty. Looking at the picture it appears I missed one of the bottles. Can't image how that happened

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A stroll in the park  

Sunday, 5 October 2008

EIDO-1503 This morning we got up early (for us!) and went for a stroll in nearby Inokashira Park. It was an absolutely beautiful morning. The trees in the park are just beginning to be kissed with Autumn gold, but the weather is still pleasantly warm. There is something about the light here that is extraordinarily beautiful – the trees in the distance are rendered a kind of smoky blue that is extremely evocative of classic Japanese art and paintings. Even though there are loads of people in the park on a day like today, somehow the crowds seem to do little to spoil the tranquillity and elegant beauty of the place. It is quite the most wonderful haven of timeless peace in a sea of frantic urbanisation.

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Following the trail  

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Last night I made contact with my iaido friend and mentor here in Japan. We had a very pleasant evening discussing the state of iaido, both here and in the UK and catching up on all the latest news. He mentioned that he had already talked to his teacher about me joining the dojo, and the teacher has said I would be very welcome. I am thrilled by this. It has been an ambition of mine to train in Japan for nearly as long as I’ve been involved with martial arts, which is quite a long time now. Hopefully this dream will come true soon, although I’m sure I will have plenty of moments when I wished it hadn’t – the training here is considerably harder than in the UK. But you know what they say, no pain – no gain.

On the train home, I got to thinking about the traditions of my school, and the value that such a long heritage imparts to the style. In particular, how fortunate I have been to have struck lucky in the lottery of martial arts instruction; my path leading from humble beginnings in Sidcup all the way to Tokyo and who knows where else.

Embarking upon a course of instruction in any martial art is like arriving by boat in a wide river delta. From the perspective of the visitor, all the little streams and channels look pretty much alike. It’s only once you have ventured down them that you discover whether they are quiet backwaters, silted-up tributaries or whether they broaden and deepen, joining with other streams, allowing you to navigate further into the fertile hinterlands of knowledge and wisdom that lie beyond.

I have indeed been fortunate to have chosen just such a path. I just hope my frail little ship has the stamina and constitution to survive the rigours of the journey that awaits.

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