On a recent week off from the circus I took the opportunity to go to Bali, rent a scooter and bop around the villages of Ubud, Mas and the Padangtegal Sacred Monkey Forest.
(Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana)
Mas Mask Mecca.
I also used the time to ramp up my Iaido training since I would be testing for shodan upon my return. Though this has the distinct quality of something the Japanese call Tsukeyakiba. (literally: added tempered edge)
The hamon of the Japanese sword is the temper line, the pattern of the hardened, martensite steel as it shows on the side of the blade including the transition zone habuchi to the softer pearlite steel.
The sword maker, who is also an ordained Shinto priest in most cases, can manipulate the appearance of the hamon as an artistic expression.
Waves, clouds, mountains, even sunrises can be depicted along the length of this deadly tool depending on the skill of these holy artisans.
Tsukeyakiba refers to the modern practice of adding a fake hamon using chemicals or polishing techniques without actual tempering. It has become a metaphor for last minute study that is of no real long term benefit. In other words you can't cram for your Iaido test.
A blister won't help me.
A callous might.
Sieza before Hidari.
The Town of Mas(ks)
Mas is the town dedicated to mask carving and I was able to meet the top carvers in the country with ease. Unlike Japan where I was only able to meet with the artist after a series of introductions, lunch meetings and an email trail yards of scrolling long, in Bali I just knocked on the door.
Every place is really it's people and Bali is filled with happy, smiling, sloooow moving, spiritual ones.
The women have skin the color of polished teak, eyes like I imagine Mata Hari's must have been (Is smoldering a color?) and teeth like Louis Armstrong.
The men are all named either Wayan or Ida and all apparently own taxis.
Beware of women with knives.
If you want to teach someone how to kick back show them a Balinese person.
They have basically turned lounging into an art form.
They have refined their reclining skills to a very high level.
It's like their ancestors did nothing but build temples for thousands of years and now their just resting for the next couple thou.
Oddly, I found that though they are heavily reliant on tourist rupi, money takes a backseat to... Wait for it... Stories.
They seemed to love to talk and if you can tell a story they open their doors. Literally.
After sharing mine with a restaurant owner (and of course taxi driver) named (unusually) Royan, he took me to see his father, a Brahman artist at his temple/home to tell it again.
There seemed to be no ulterior motive but to laugh!
(I was probably the source of some amusement for the locals at the Villa Sonia who I'm sure wondered who that crazy farang tourist is who gets up at dawn every morning and swings a sword around on his veranda.)
And the masks.
I bought 13 of them from four different artists.
Unfinished Masks carved by Ida Bagus Anom Suryawan
Finding Myself (wanting)
Bali is a place people come to find themselves.
The same is true for me.
Apparently I am an ugly, ugly American.
I like my air conditioned, my drinks brimming with ice (a luke warm pina colada does not cut it) and my prices exactly what it says on the sign.
Haggling, though de rigeur here, is somehow embarrassing for me, especially when it is for something- say a hand carved, one of a kind mask, a piece of art, of cultural history and a valuable tool for my future work- that I would gladly pay a hundred dollars for but found myself threatening to leave the store if the price didn't come down from the original 50,000 rupis (about fifty bucks) to the finally settled on price of less than half that.
And I know, from talking to the artists, that these babies take a lot of time to make. Besides the carving, done on the floor, like the Japanese but with the mask held by the feet for quick repositioning, there are literally hundreds of coats of paint on each one.
But I guess time is less of a factor when your belief in reincarnation is so thorough.
The great thing about believing in reincarnation: no deadlines.
Although many of the masks themselves feature prominent features, the inside of the masks are not carved to accommodate my ample proboscis.
I pointed this out to master carver Ida Bagus Anom Suryawan in the temple like grounds of his home/workshop.
He handed me his mallet and chisel and sat me down to chip out the space.
I was tentative at first, lightly tapping the chisel in the fear I would crack the mask I had already purchased and uncomfortable in the Balinese mask carver's pose with the mask held between my feet for quick repositioning.
Ida suggested, laughing, to "take a whack at it" and I finally did and within minutes my western snozz could live comfortably under the mask forever more.
Carving the inside of a mask
Held on the floor between my feet.
Mallet hits chisel.
A curlicue of Hibiscus wood
Flies in a delicate arc
Like a dragonfly
On my splayed knee cap.
Making space for where my nose will go.*
Leaf me alone
Bali time is as elastic as the natural rubber straps that each mask comes equipped with. I felt time bend around me as I scooted from village to village in utter contrast to the way time seemed to hang in the drenched heat of the jungle trails with their vine choked carved idols and macaque infested banyans.
Despite this, and knowing it was only a matter of time before I would be back in Japan with a demanding schedule, I did buy a new watch while there.
Unfortunately I was only able to get the price down to 30 dollars.
For a Breitling.
The most amazing part?
Two weeks later, it still works!
My return flight was an overnight affair that got me into Tokyo at 10 am.
By 13:00 I was in full regalia for my last Iaido practice at Kita Matsudo with the various Esaka dojo Sensei before my testing the following day.
Halfway through class something I ate in Indonesia caught up with me in the form of sinister rumblings down below.
I finished class in a chilled nauseous puddle and got on the train for home.
I will spare readers the details of that evening's frantic hunched scurry from the station to my toilet and the subsequent commode ballistics but suffice it to say that night was a sweaty, cramp ridden, miserable battle with frequent migrations from bed to couch to toilet.
Dawn finally came and I left the sweat soaked Ron-print on my bed and pale and shaky, started the hour long commute to the Iaido testing site.
Three hours later I received my 3rd Dan in Iaido, the art of Japanese swordsmanship.
(I actually received a public commendation for my technique from the head judge.)
That evening my fellow iaidoka celebrated with lots of beer.
I had a yogurt shake.
And a smile.
*"Nose" reprinted from Scrutinies and Tangentia
Iaido pictures by Pierre Ginet