Tuesday, October 25, 2016

First Snow


Special is the First Snow.  For it we wait, we hope.  Like romance when it arrives, the first snow lingers a short while.  It speaks and reminds:  nothing you do can control me.  It touches what's sentimental.  It can be gleeful.  It can be sad.  Transient.  It is here.  It is gone.  A harbinger, it speaks.
Riding the rails north to Nagoya.
This train, blunt faced, striped orange on white, rumbles north and east from Shingu Station, Wakayama Prefecture.  I leave behind crystal blue sky and cotton clouds hovering above the lone woman who was packing things behind her bicycle.  Next to her was the station's brown poignant statue - a man holding a small child's hand.  I ride the same track that two days ago carried me in the opposite direction.  It's time to "come home" and be again with Fumio and Miyuki.  Today's trip will last an hour less thanks than the one I took the day before yesterday, this thanks to a quick turnaround in Nagoya station where I'll catch a sleek needle-nosed, blue and white bullet train that will zip me at 200mph into Nakatsugawa.  
As I did when entering Shingu, I sit today on the right side of this coach now departing.  The journey south treated me to lush green mountains and valleys at a distance across the spreading rice fields.  This journey north will provide a close up picturesque coastline surrounded by green knobbed hills.  Fishing village bays and ocean views are mine now.  The seat that holds me is a four-shoulder-width distance from where I sat on Tuesday.  The opposing perspectives propose two different worlds rushing past the windows.
The Shingu visit.  
This was a forty-hour compression of life: gracious strangers meeting and taking care of me.  We visited sacred shrines, one splashed orange and the other hidden deep within a mountain forest; we took a long drive upriver and walked trails to a spot held special by the founder of Aikido.  We enjoyed conversations over shushi and coffee and tea; we studied Aikido under the direction of a true aikido Shihan (master) - Motomichi Anno Sensei.  These can become chapters to appear on some future day - except today requires mention of Anno Sensei. 
When I first encountered this man, it was some years ago inside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium of Northern California.  Surrounded by two hundred students, he stood and taught for hours, a slight body magnified by an expansive venue and a PA system that carried and caressed his energy outward into the hallways.  His lessons were translated into English by his host,Linda Holiday Sensei, long-time loyal and devoted student.   But yesterday, Wednesday, November 25, the scene was quite different.  Alone he sat within his tiny dojo across the river from Shingo.  Why? Because this is his school.  He is here to teach his regular 7 a.m. class.  Today his energy focuses on five of us, the morning's entire population.  His first act is one of humility: a request, actually a demand, that we students sit forward of him ... quite the opposite of what traditional etiquette asks.  He deeply understands that rank is something to be earned, not something to be used to lord over others.  He knows who he is.  He respects who we are.
It was a rigorous and hard two hours of training for me, especially so because I was on the same tatami just ten hours ago under the direction of one of his senior students.  My knees are not the best knees in the world, and neither is my left hip.  But my purpose is to train, and train I did.  Within ten minutes my knees ached, my hip throbbed.  Fifteen minutes later a large blister appeared and broke under my big toe.  No problem.
After class I sat and thanked him with a small gift.  Tim Detmer, seasoned sensei in his own right, provided the go between language-work so we could converse.  Then, photo taken, we hugged and said goodbye.  I moved to the small kitchen area, now a dressing room, to change from hakama and dogi to street clothes..   Outside we few passed Anno Sensei and thanked him again while he stood trimming shrubs that framed stairs leading to his school's front door.  It was a delightful sight.  He appeared a mixture of Star Wars' Yoda and The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi.
Across the parking lot the student who provided my morning ride handed me a packet and said, "Sensei asked me to give you this gift as an expression of his thanks."  As of this writing I'm not yet ready to share what the packet contained, except to say that it is both mind blowing and humbling.
Arriving at Nakatsugawa station.
Fumio and Miyuki Mori stand on the other side of the station entry gate.  We're the same age but I feel like a child.  There's something magical and youthful about stepping off a train to see smiling faces, people waiting with welcome.  It happened once before in my life.  I was 20 years old then, arriving by train into Ridgefield, Connecticut from New York City.  I will never forget that day, that sight and the cousins who, flowers in hand, welcomed me. 
Today is Thanksgiving Day.   Fumio and Miyuki lived in the USA for a while.  It's where we met and began our friendship over thirty years ago.  Now they live in Japan, and it's because of them that I am here.  They understand American Thanksgiving and have planned two meals - one at a restaurant and the other at their home.
November, five years ago.
My mentor, George Leonard died.  A few weeks prior to George's passing Fumio came to the US, stayed at my home and attended a Samurai Game that I led which would be the last that George would witness.  In the days that followed we began to discuss its potential for Japan.  "You need to bring this to Japan," he suggested.  "We just have to find the right time."  My reply,  "Yes, perhaps ... but do you think it will be accepted there?  I'm Gaigin (foreigner). Will people feel respected, or will they be offended?  Will they think me presumptuous by bringing it?"  His reply then, and in the years that followed were always reassuring, "I think it will be good.  I like it.  I think others will too.  Someday we shall see."
Someday arrived. 
A date was set, November 28-29, 2015.  The venue could well have been as past venues were:  hotel,  seminar training room,  beach,  school yard,  college assembly hall,  gymnasium.  Not so with Fumio, not so for Japan's first.  Here it is Kenchuji Temple, built in 1651 to honor Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate that governed Japan for 268 years. 
First Snow. 
It's Thanksgiving Day plus one, and Japan Samurai Game-day minus one.  In preparation for tomorrow we take a drive to visit nearby Nakasendo Magome-Juku  - a village strategically sitting at the confluence of ancient roads that for centuries were used by daimyo traveling to Edo (now Tokyo) to pay homage to the shogun.  Here in Magome-Juku they rested.  We walk the village cobblestone street and view the buildings, required preserved as they once were hundreds of years ago.  We visit shops and museums and view the ancient armor of lords long past.  We take a warm lunch.  We sip hot tea. 
Hours pass. The air chills.  Fumio says, "It's time to go, but first let's drive up onto that hill."  And we do.  The road is not really suited for us.  No matter, no sense in turning back, we park, we get out.  We walk among stone monuments - some obviously ancient - all with kanji (written language) chiseled.  Fumio reads and informs that the inscriptions declare we are standing on the campground of a famous daimyo - the place where he gathered his strength before heading into a final battle that would prove decisive and shape the history of Japan.
The chilled air becomes a frigid wispy white.  Clouds quickly descend and cover the surrounding mountains, where only a short while ago the sun shone bright. 
"Ah," says Fumio. "It's our First Snow!"
April 17-18, 2016.  Samurai Game #2 in Japan.  Kenchuji Temple, Nagoya. 
© Lance Giroux, January 2016

No comments: