Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Akuma Barai. 悪魔払い

Akuma Barai. 悪魔払い

New Year's Eve.
Don't get it. Never got it.
It feels like a completely arbitrary chronological indicator of unrealized potential. Yes, there is physical evidence that 365 days is a worthy placeholder in our collective book of days with the seasons and their ancient and mostly forgotten- unless you're a farmer or a haiku poet-  inexorable march through time. But in a world where climate conditions have gone wonky and unpredictable and the only rituals that still make a blip on my personal radar are year's end top ten lists and the arrival of Screen Actors Guild screener DVDs in the mailbox.

So I don't get it.
The screaming, the goofy 2015 goggles, the seeming requirement to gulp gallons of bad champagne like a man gasping for air at an oasis of bubbles. The standing in public squares with thousands of others waiting for balls to drop in the freezing cold while their own retreat up into their bodies.    

I'm not one for crowds anyway but multiply that by thousands of crazed imbeciles celebrating another tick on the mangy back of a dog of a lifetime by shooting live ammo into the air (I live in Oakland) like manic children playing cowboy while quaffing adult beverages by the bucketful.

Yes, New Years celebrations are a ritual and I'm all about ritual but all that rampant enthusiasm just doesn't jibe with the solemn fact that the previous year, however celebration worthy it may have been, is still packed with 365 days worth of dire events, dreadful occurrences and let's face it; Death.
And the next year will be too. Yeah, one night of unbridled optimism doesn't hurt anyone and it's good to blow off steam at least once a year but
you just won't find me pressed up against a metal cordon with two thousand strangers in the middle of the night to yell at a clock.

That said, there's something to it. This out with the old, in with the new positivity has ancient roots and I wanted in. My Druid forebears probably partied pretty hard on those prehistoric evenings when the heavenly stars and their towering stones aligned. The turning of the great wheel is measurable perhaps and I didn't want to deprive myself of the mystery of renewal and rebirth.

Sensei Diamantstein
My Sensei at Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, Andrej Diamantstein, Kyoshi, has a New Year's tradition. At 11:30 on December 31st we have a practice. We swing into the new year with the swinging of steel blades. After practice we have a potluck and lots of toasts and hilarity. But at the moment the clock strikes twelve the only sound you hear is the squeak of bare feet and tabi on polished wood and the unmistakable swish of three foot razor blades cutting the air.

Hannya Mask. Actually a wronged woman
Everyone has demons.
We face them all year. The demons of procrastination, addiction and apprehension prey on us all at one time or another.
And anyone who says they don't is probably under the influence of yet another manifestation: the Demon of Denial.
That's why, on the final hour of one year and the first hour of the next we only do three Waza.

 (Waza are forms of imagined scenarios that include unsheathing, cutting imaginary opponents in meticulously prescribed ways, clearing the, again, imagined viscera from our blades and re sheathing (noto) and returning to our starting position.)

One of the Waza we only do at this time of year. It's special. The last time I saw it was seven years ago. It is called Akuma Barai which basically means "Cutting down the  demons". I can only describe it as a piece of physical poetry. The scenario, or bunkai of a this Waza involves no less than five opponents and when performed well looks like a flower opening in one of those time lapse shots you see on the nature channel. Only this flower is deadly. And when it's done, the imaginary opponents, in this case demons, should crumple softly like fallen leaves around the iaidoka as he returns the blade quietly to its resting place scabbard or saya in Japanese.

The general feeling is one of profound resolve as the opponents attack from all sides. You can't help but feel after performing it a frisson of triumph and a delicate unveiling of the possibility of a world where the demons lay vanquished and the future stretches out before you, untarnished by the past. It is the perfect Waza for a new beginning. And a perfect way to greet a new day. Or a new year. Even if it is just an arbitrary tick of a clock.

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu.


Happy New year.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

妙 & 間 (Myō & Ma.)

Good Ink, Fukuoka.

Dear Diary,
I recently returned back from Japan.
I performed 453 shows in four cities there. Our 3000 seat big top was usually full.
I joined and trained in Iaido in four separate dojos.
I was there for the earthquake.
And the cherry blossoms. (twice.)
I got lost. (a lot.)           
It was Myō.

A hundred years ago people wrote diaries. Your diary was your Facebook, your private audience, yourself. I suppose blogs and such serve that function now. This is how we label and describe our experience. I was looking for a way to describe the experience of spending a year and a half in Japan and I stumbled across the perfect word:

This word has two meanings.
It means indescribably beautiful.
It also means strange.

So as far as meaning is concerned this word is an acrobat.
This word is doing the splits.
This is a Buster Keaton word; one foot on dry land, the other on the deck of the good ship Damfino as it bobs further and further from the shore.
And it is this duality that makes this word the perfect description of my experience in Japan.

Words can do a disservice to the actual. Our need to describe beautiful things can rob them of their beauty. 

Why can't we just shut up and let their silence do the talking?

So the Japanese invented a word that describes the indescribable. But this word is like a coin. 

Another meaning lurks like a doppelganger on the flip side of this coin.
And that meaning is simply this:
Me and my Doppleganger
Indescribably beautiful on the one hand and just plain strange on the other.

Uttering the Unutterable
Sad Cookie Box.

I won't do my experience the disservice of description.

I won't try to label the appreciation I have for the placement of the delicately balanced foot paths I found on mountain trails.

I won't endeavor to put into words the tenderness I felt for a trio of monks as they quietly swept spent ginkgo leaves into a pile at some Kyoto temple.

I won't sully with syllables the rush of the marvelous that I felt seeing how a single well placed chopstick can take a cascade of hair spilling across a porcelain shoulder and turn it into an exquisite black whirlpool that rests atop a head like a finely woven nest.

 Suffice it to say it is indescribably beautiful. 
Yet with that there is a strangeness.
Suffice it to say it is Myō.

Shades of Shinjuku

Bloom Shelter

Is it not strange that on the last train on a Friday night on the Yamanote line a man can drunkenly stagger into a crowded train, vomit, step back onto the platform before the doors can close forcing the crush of humanity to be forced to stand on the fresh spew in that impossibly confined space for as many stops as it takes to get them to their  destination and nobody says anything.

Busiest Intersection on Earth.

Is it not strange that during the cold season sometimes 30% of our audience were wearing surgical masks.
(Whether they wear them to protect themselves from others or to protect others from themselves I was never able to ascertain.)

Beware of Kappa.
A flower amongst the ruins.
Is it not strange to look around the busiest train station in the world and see no litter, no graffiti and thousands upon thousands of people negotiating their way around one another and nobody bumps.

And the reason nobody bumps is that Japanese culture comes replete with a fundamental sense of Ma.

Kids keeping Ma.



Meoto Iwa.
Ma is something beyond a word. 
It is a concept. 
A thread woven through the fabric of existence.

And another word that straddles two meanings.
Ma is distance but it is also interval.
It is therefore time as well as space.
Ma is the emptiness between things.
It is the stillness that lives at the end and the beginning of all movement.
In music Ma is the space between the notes.
In art it is the areas in which there is no art so that the art may more readily be seen.

When Robert Rauchenberg erased a de Kooning he was playing with Ma.

 In martial arts it is space between the opponents but also the time necessary to attack or defend.

Because Ma is both time and space concurrently it can be charged with possibility.
Ma is more than negative space.
Ma is alive.

 Shiokawa Sensei and the Hakata Iai Study Group.

In Iaido you can see Ma at work quite clearly.
You can see it in the transitions, where the residue of what came before gets a chance to ebb and the fuse of what is to come gets lit.

 Maeda Sensei and godan Greg Robinson, Nagoya.

Iaidoka try to distinguish this space with a charged/not charged quality.
This all inclusive awareness that does not pick out any one thing in particular but rather endeavors to see all calmly is called Zanshin. 
Keeping zanshin while executing a waza or form in iaido is one of those scratch your head rub your belly conundrums that never gets old because it never gets easy.
It is an attempt to follow sword/saint Miyamoto Musashi's suggestion in his Book of Five Rings to have your outward aspect be the same in battle as it is during everyday life and the same in everyday life as it is in battle.

 Practicing Zenteki Gyakuto at Shiokawa Dojo.

Zanshin is elusive.
If you don't have it you're dead.
If you try too hard to get it you're dead.
But the combination of good zanshin and an innate sense of proper Ma can be deadly.
Working too hard on my Zanshin.

In any duel (on or off the "battlefield") it is the one who controls the Ma who is invariably the victor.

Ma is also a deeply personal thing.
How you manage Ma is as distinct to you as a fingerprint, as revealing as an x-ray and perhaps the only place in the highly codified practice of iaido where personal style can be subtly revealed.

Ma can be very real.
And Ma can disappear.

When a memory of stepping into a warm spring fed Onsen is as vivid as if it is happening right now that is the Ma of time collapsing.
And the very real six thousand miles between Tokyo and San Francisco is the Ma of distance rearing its ugly head.

Dear Diary,
I miss Japan.
It was really Myō.

Mixed messages in Miyajima.

Shiokawa Dojo photos by Remi Lemieux


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

遊 Play.

A recent article in The Japan Times concerning the findings of a group of researchers using "baby-cams" to capture footage of babies playing jokes on one another with no ulterior motive than to get laughs was the kind of underwhelming revelation that goes viral these days.

It struck me as a bag of grant money thrown into a well to prove gravity.

Of course babies like to cut up when they get together.

They've just been through a major experience.

Being born is at least one of the top five things you can do in your life.

There's bound to be some stories.

It must have been scary.

And humor is how we frighten the scary away.

So when they put a group of babies in a room and the red light of the baby-cams starts glowing they must be like a green room full of comedians after a bumpy flight in from Denver.


What I found interesting is that the games the researchers observed the tiny tikes making up were fundamentally the same games we clowns play in Kooza.

The simple yet perfect patterns of three.

The creation of expectations and sudden dismantlings.

The there it is, there it is, there it isn't rhythms.

As clowns we often refer to the various sections or to use an acting term beats of our time onstage as games. What is the game now? Are we moving on to a new game? Or best yet: I found a new game. Games are fun. Especially if played with absolute conviction. But in order to participate in any way you must first be willing to play.

The fact that babies are working the room before they can walk across the room is no surprise. What perhaps those same researchers should be looking at is why those of us more ambulatory (and potty trained) humans can lose the awareness that everything we do can be a form of play.

Ohtaki Hunter

Between Osaka and Nagoya I had a couple of weeks off from the circus and went to the southernmost tip of Japan, Yakushima Island.

UNESCO has designated Yakushima Island as a World Heritage Sight. It is easy to see why.

Because of a fluke in the geography, the gulf stream and I'm sure a thousand other factors it is both sub tropical and sub arctic at the same time.

What this means is that you can be hiking amongst pines and junipers and turn a corner and be amongst palm fronds and sand and turn another corner and be plunged into a land of ferns and moss.

All within a hundred yards of one another.

The trail maps look like something Tolkien might draw up.

Primordial doesn't begin to describe it. I tried, failed.

Momoko and the path taken.

Yakushima is also famous for two things: Ancient cedars or cryptomeria (the Jomon Sugi is estimated to be 7,000 years old and is protected from huggers like myself by a network of exquisitely laid out trails) and ohtaki or waterfalls. I became an Ohtaki hunter. But there was neither the time nor the stamina to bag them all.


I stayed in the little town of Anbo half the time at Yakushima San Shu and the rest of the time in Onaida at the Shikinoyado Ryokan with Kentauro San and his lovely family.

After a week of not performing in a sold out big top Ken San asked if I wouldn't mind making a appearance at his kid's school.

"You're a clown. Can you do something funny for them?"

Little did he know I had been jonesing for an audience during all those grueling hikes to the ohtaki.

Sure, I wanted to play.

And this would be as pure as you can get:

1. Walk in room.

2. Forget language.

3. Play.

A couple of hours later I was drenched in sweat and ready to go play "Ohtaki Hunter" once again.

Screaming and Playing.

is the kanji for play in Japanese.

Variations of this can be found in such meanings as "To amuse oneself", "to blow life into" and even "to do nothing".

Since a lot of what goes on in the martial arts would qualify in the scratching your head while rubbing your belly category, perhaps play is the perfect way to deal with the difficulty of doing two opposing things concurrently.

For example the game we play in Iaido; presenting a calm exterior while at the same time demonstrating a life or death encounter.

Cool on the outside.

Coiled on the inside.


In fact, when someone engages in any of the martial arts, be it kendo, judo, iaido, kyudo, whatever, it is said that they play the particular art.

Someone plays kendo.

When they start class they say "let's play."

They may be trying to score points by bashing each other over the head while screaming their bone shaking kiai but inside all that gear kendoka are playing.

And the best players win.

Play Ball.

The Setting:

The 35,000 seat Fukuoka Yahoo Dome.

The Teams:

Team Fuji Television.

The undefeated victors of every Cirque du Soleil/ Fuji Television game since the beginning of the partnership six years ago. Athletic, smart and wearing lots of micro fiber stretch pants, plus they bolstered their roster by enlisting a hulking security guard who used to play pro and a bus driver with his own batting glove.

Team Kooza.

A rag tag band of guys with a passing acquaintance to baseball. Riggers, follow spot operators, sound ops, lighting designers and a cook. A Russian acrobat in right field playing for the 2nd time ever. And on the pitchers' mound, a clown.

The Fans:

In this giant room that dwarfed us all and made me think how wonderful it must be to be a major league baseball player and get to play on this gigantic astro turfed stage, a group of no more than 30 filled the air with cheers and chants.

They did the wave.

A singer and a trapeze artist had pom-poms. Sergey, master of the hand to hand act, screamed himself hoarse.

The Game:


From the pitcher's mound it was pure psychological warfare.

A game of very precise catch with one major difference: A guy with a stick is trying to bash the hell out of the ball just before it reaches its destination in the catcher's glove.

Getting it by that person is pure play. Towards the last couple of innings Team Fuji was changing their batting order to get their best hitters up. They didn't want to be the team that ended their winning streak by losing to these bad news circus bears.

Plus there was a trophy.

It got serious.

And quiet.

I was glad I had the iaido to fall back on.

To drop back to stillness before each pitch.

To remain cool and coiled concurrently.

To play.

The Final Score:

Fuji Television 1

Team Kooza 3

Kooza Photos by Miron Rafajlovic.
Yakushima School Photos by Kentaro Mizoguchi.
Yakushima bridge photo by Momoko Shimokado.

Softball Photos by Billy Riske.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Wrestler and the Sensei.

Mirrorly a Clown, Reporting the Facts.


A place is its people and people are their stories and there are two stories that have come to remind me the most about my time in the sister city of San Francisco; Osaka, Japan.

Two people whose stories are so different and yet the same.

Both are artists, gifted practitioners of completely different art forms.

Both lead double lives, like super heroes with their alter egos.

Both utilizing the Mask of Satori.

There is the mask you put on and the mask you take off.

There is the mask that conceals and the mask that reveals.

There is the mask that frees the wearer and the mask that holds him in.

Two examples.

Two stories.

The Wrestler

It is a place like no other.

An ex-pat American told me that its existence made life for him just a little sweeter on this side of the world.
Down a neon clad alley in the formerly red lit Shinsobashi district, its facade adorned with sculptures of Osaka's own clown-like gods of commerce and food- (which will later be depicted by wrestlers only to be thrown around the ring like 200 pound rag dolls) is a comedy/wrestling/party/free-for-all that runs about three hours with an intermission five nights a week.

There are the things you might expect from such an entertainment.
There is a clueless referee.
There are the good guys.
(There is a King who I was rooting for but he got knocked out with a sleeper hold early and spent the next few matches comatose in the center of the ring.)
There are the bad guys.
(Who spit and for whom no body part is off limits.)
There are flying bodies.
There are ringsider girls.
Plus there are:
Wrestling nurses.
Contortionist wrestlers.
Nurses wrestling contortionists.
Vain Kabuki heroes.
Tattooed muscle-bound monsters.
School girls scissor kicking in thigh high stockings and patent leather shoes.
The audience is clearly in on the joke and eats up every face slap, arm break and gravity defying swan dive that ends in a thunderous face plant.
They are comprised of the most varied group I have seen in Japan: salarymen and old ladies and hipsters and kids and aficionados and couples out on dates.

Before Every Moment There Is A Moment.

Presiding above all the mayhem is one wrestler, mike in hand, ready to enter the fray at a moments notice and clearly the queen of this wild kingdom of kip rolls and cheap shots. Though my Japanese is nowhere near good enough to pick up what she is saying it is clear from the audience reaction that she is hilarious.

She does it all.

She is bantering from atop a turnbuckle, then flings the mike to the ref and flings herself into the ring. Three punching, kicking, biting, flipping minutes later she is atop the opposite turnbuckle, mike in hand, pumping out the comedy commentary.
Clearly an audience favorite, she does all this under a brightly colored mask.

But don't worry. It's a really small piece. He probably didn't even feel it.

A couple nights later I met her at her "day job" where she works as the omote or "outside the bar" waitress at a sushi bar just down the street from the hotel that is putting up the cast and crew of Kooza.
She is demure.
Quietly efficient.
She brings me the ice cold Asahi that compliments the ootoro, hamachi and unagi nagiri so perfectly.

She is not wearing a mask.
She barely wears a smile.
She has one eye that is sunken and her face, though not unpleasant, is oddly deformed.

I complimented her on her amazing work in the ring.
She had seen Kooza and complimented me on my work in the big top.
I asked if I could take her picture.
She declined.
But then she remembered that she might have her wrestling mask in her purse in which case it would be okay. After rummaging around in her purse briefly she reported that she did not have it so a picture was "not possible".
I said "No problem."
She said "No problemo."
And smiled.


The Sensei.

It's another place like no other.

Down a grey alley in the Awaza district of Osaka remarkable only in its unremarkability, on the second floor of a concrete building with metal crank up doors is The Meishinkan Dojo.

Unlike many of the dojos, practice halls, studios and the like that Iaido is practiced in, Meishinkan Dojo was designed exclusively for Iaido.

And more specifically, Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu. The well known (in Iaido circles) picture of the armor of Hiyashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu that adorned the shomen or shrine at the front of the room was evidence of that. Further evidence was in the stains of sweat on the long, toil-polished floorboards.

Through an ex-pat Aussie named Darryl Lawrence I was invited to train here during my time in Osaka under Hattori Sensei, who was described to me as serious, detailed and above all, practical.

I had no idea.

Training was on Friday nights which amazingly I had off from the circus though I did have a matinee that day.
For my first time at this new dojo I travelled from circus tent to dojo by bicycle, arrived early enough to help the mama-san open the windows she couldn't reach without the aid of a stick, put on my gear and awaited the Sensei and his other students.

They trickled in, grunted cordially in my direction and went about the waza of changing into keikogi, obi and hakama. These were older gentlemen, distinguished. There were flecks of grey in their black manes and the edges of their keikoji showed the frayed evidence of a lifetime in the martial arts.
Hattori Sensei arrived.
I was told he came directly from work.
He looked it.
Smart suit, tie.
(I later found out he was a lawyer.)
He was thirty-five.
He smiled, we exchanged rudimentary greetings, I told him I had just come from Tokyo where I had been studying with Kobara Sensei and of course Esaka Sensei. I think his eyebrows raised a little at the mention of Esaka Sensei. He had heard of Esaka dojo and was glad to take me on as a student for as long as I was in Osaka.
(Amazing how having studied with a 10th Dan can open some doors.)
He quickly changed into his crisply pressed hakama, lit some candles on the shomen, and with three claps- just like back home at Nishi Kaigan in Berkeley- we bowed in and class began.

Same Same

We started with Tata uchi nokarai, working in pairs using bokken (wooden swords) in a series of waza designed to give the practitioner a sense of real contact with a real opponent.
I think they are also designed to give you a real sense of real holy shitness.

My first partner turned out to be the mama-san, who had quickly changed into Iaido gear and turned out to be scarily good.
The thing with Tata uchi nokarai is that even though your mind may know which direction the cut is coming from, your body has to respond with the right timing to intercept the cut with a cut of your own or you are just relying on your partner to stop himself.
The way these guys were going at each other I didn't hold a lot of faith in that ever happening. As we changed partners around the room I had visions of riding a gurney down some hallway of a Japanese hospital, my head cracked open and blood coming out of my ears.

An hour later I was still alive, drenched in sweat and probably with a deeper appreciation of what they call same, which means something like the combination of push and pressure and inexorable.
We put the bokken away and got our swords. I noticed Hattori Sensei's first.

A shinken.
A "live blade".
When it was out the very air in the room changed.

There is the story of the sword that is so sharp that when it is placed with the edge facing upstream in a small brook, it will cut in half a leaf traveling downstream. Then there is the sword that is sharper. More imbued. When placed in that same stream, the same leaf will simply avoid it and go around.

I think Hattori Sensei's is in the second category.
It had no hi or groove along its length, what many misidentify as a "blood gutter" but actually creates a whoosh especially on the arcing downward cut called Kiriroshi.
Hattori Sensei didn't need it.
His cuts whooshed anyway.

All of them.

I have watched a lot of people do Iaido.
I have watched very intently.
I have watched as hard as I know how.
Yet I have never watched anyone summon an imaginary opponent to the room so completely, see him so clearly and after a charged ballet between human bone and steel see that same imaginary opponent so thoroughly dead as when I watched Hattori Sensei demonstrate Mae, the first waza in the Seiza series that first time.
And his face?

A mask.

A mask capable of horrendous violence, but a mask just the same.

I became a "guest" member of Mieshinkan Dojo and was helping the mama-san open windows every Friday night.


The Mask You Put On Or The Mask You Take Off.

Three months went by in a flash.
I got to know Hattori Sensei and his family, his lovely wife and charming daughter.
(When they came to see Kooza I got his daughter onstage with our ballerina during the pre-show and gave them a backstage tour.)
It was nice to see him as the happy young family man, always picked up at the dojo by his wife and daughter, a successful guy with a great disposition.
Or was this just another mask, perfectly calibrated to hide the monster of composed violence underneath?

Hattori Sensei doing Tata Uchi Nokarai with Shinken. (live blades)
To see the video click here.


Two things that I shall take from my time at Meishinkan Dojo.
Both practical.
First a lesson.
Sensei was watching me do some waza, I don't remember which, it probably doesn't matter.
Hattori Sensei has little English so most of the teaching is done through example and osmosis.
He stopped me and said "This, you." and pointed to a notice on the bulletin board.
It was an announcement of something, in kanji, typed out on a page of paper. "This, Iaido."
He pointed to the large carving of the flowing kanji that spells out Meishinkan in dark grooves that perfectly represented the movements of a brush in the hands of a skilled calligrapher.
"Don't type. Paint."

And finally, on my last night, after a dinner with Sensei and all the students, Sensei surprised me with a final gift.
We had been doing the small gift roundelay since that first night but this was different.
Inside a nami patterned bag with loops of bone to cinch it closed was a box. In the box was an inkan, the chop of my name and a bright red stamp pad.

Sensei had carved it himself.

The Japanese use chop to make official their most important documents. I recently used the one Hattori Sensei carved for me on my latest contract with Cirque.

Sometime later I realized he had probably carved the flowing kanji of the sign in the dojo.
At the time he didn't tell me.

I suppose he preferred to keep his mask on.