Kiyomizu Temple Light-up

April 17, 2008

Cherry blossom viewing season is just about over. In central Kyoto the peak was actually almost two weeks ago, but in Japan there are literally hundreds of varieties of cherry trees, so there are still some late bloomers. These pictures were taken two weeks ago in my (utterly successful) effort to turn my frown upside down. Here’s the story: I had a rare Wednesday night off, and I was really excited to go to the Aikido Kyoto practice in Hirakata, which is located in northern Osaka Prefecture, a little over an hour’s commute away. I boarded the Keihan Line commuter express train with plenty of time to spare, put on some Marvin Gaye and stuck my nose in a Japanese textbook for the forty minute train ride…. After a while I resurfaced and felt that I’d been on the train for what seemed to be a little too long. Sure enough I’d missed my stop and, because it was a commuter express, I’d have to wait until it went all the way into Osaka proper before I could back track to the right stop. At Kyobashi I dashed to the opposite platform and caught the next K-express bound for Kyoto, and, though a little peeved for missing my stop, I still would make it just in time for class. But wait. When I inspect the system map after boarding the train I had in fact not missed my stop because my stop didn’t exist between 5pm and 7pm on the K-express. This meant I was stuck on the train which went non-stop from Osaka to southern Kyoto….OK, this made me upset, but I was still determined to go, even though I would probably miss a third of the class. So I got off at the first stop after Kyobashi and boarded the local train going in the Osaka direction. All’s well, or so I thought, until the train stopped at the very next station and the conductor told me that this was the train’s final stop. The next train would be along in 15. Due to some afternoon clouds I was carrying my umbrella along with me, and I was so infuriated at this point that I took my frustration out on the poor thing and smashed it on a hand rail when no one was looking as I stormed out of the station, which happened to be one of the rare train stations in Kyoto that doesn’t have a causeway connecting the two platforms. So, I was stuck having to pay an extra fare just to get back to the station I left from without ever going anywhere. After two hours and seven trains I was back at Gojo Station, pissed off and determined to turn things around. The search light pointed to the sky in the west reminded me that Kiyomizu Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage sight and a candidate for the “new” seven wonders of the world, was having a light-up for the spring cherry blossom season. I went. It was awesome. The topper was that there happened to be a free classical performance by a wind ensemble from Switzerland taking place. Oddly enough, most of the tourists there didn’t pay any mind to the incredible performance being held, so I managed to get in pretty close to the stage and really enjoy the music, which was greatly enhanced by the setting. Basically, what was one of the most frustrating times I’ve had in recent memory and one of the best experiences I’ve had since living in Kyoto all happened in one evening. Here’s some pictures of the temple:

What made for a real cultural mash-up and a surprising delight was the music I happened to be listening to while wandering around. Growing up in Texas in a Hispanic neighborhood I was constantly exposed to Tejano music, but not until recently have I become open minded enough enjoy it, and in a recent bout of homesickness and sentimentality I started downloading what I could find. The real jewel is the group ‘Los Tigres del Norte’, who are possibly the kings of Norteno music. Anyway, this is what I was listening to while I was taking these pictures. One of my favorites by this group is called ‘Somos mas americanos’, which has a chorus that translates as “we are more American than any son of the Anglo-Saxon” Here’s a video someone made for youtube with English translations

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I was asked to write something for our dojo’s newsletter about this years excursion to Hyogo Prefecture for Aikido Kobe Sanda Dojo’s annual ”embukai’. Here’s the full text with some pictures.  For those of you who don’t do Aikido I apologize for all the jargon.  If anyone really wants to know what it all means just send me a line and I’ll be happy to define all my terms.

yoko sensei

Seven o’clock is for me a very early time to be anywhere but in bed. Actually, I can’t even remember waking up that early in the year and a half I’ve been living in Japan.  But of course, I knew that the early rising would be worth it, for I had heard good things about Aikido Kyoto’s annual expeditions to Sanda, where we train with a guest teacher from Aikikai’s HQ and participate in an enbu, a kind of performance where each dojo gets a few minutes to showcase several techniques. I was curious to see if the rumors were true about the man-mountain, Horii-sensei, and his irresistible nikkyo.

Because I had failed to touch bases with anyone about where we were meeting, I was anxiously peering up and down the length of the station platform at a few minutes past seven, when I spotted the group led by Asako-san descending the stairs to catch the early southbound train. We said hello and were soon on our way. After what seemed like a lifetime of watching the unchanging urban landscape of Osaka and Kobe we finally broke out of the city into refreshing scenes of the mountains and greenery of rural Hyogo Prefecture. I was finally starting to wake up a little at this point, and I felt a tingle of excitement, for I knew we were near our destination. It was at the JR Station at Sanda that we rendezvoused with Okamoto-sensei’s group, and from here we proceeded to the gymnasium by taxi.

On the way I asked someone in the backseat who had trained at Hombu-dojo what today’s guest instructor, Miyamoto-sensei, was like. “He drinks more than any other teacher at hombu,” was the response that stuck out in my mind. I also heard that he was similar in style to Chiba-sensei in San Diego, and that Didier-sensei and “Manolo” from San Diego Aikikai had accompanied him from Tokyo. As we filed in to the gym, everyone bowed to and formally greeted a slightly grizzled looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, standing outside the main entrance in a cloud of cigarette smoke, sporting a goatee and a sharp grey suit. “Is that him?” I asked and received a nod. We were shown to the changing rooms and afterwards trickled slowly into the main hall to warm up and wait patiently for the class to begin. It was around this time that I noticed Okamoto-sensei had a white obi sticking out from the bindings of her hakama, and that her hakama said “Yu” instead of “Okamoto.” Apparently her gear hadn’t made it off the train with her, and she had to borrow a uniform piecemeal.

After a nice long warm-up lead by Miyamoto-sensei we proceeded to have a really fantastic class. I had the opportunity to practice with many fine aikidoists, and the difference in styles was good study and definitely kept me on my toes. Miyamoto-sensei’s style was really interesting as well. For a good portion of the class we focused on irimi-nage, and Miyamoto-sensei’s demonstrations seemed as if he himself were experimenting instead of showing a polished and close-to-perfect technique to serve as an example for the class. After throwing his uke fourteen times in fourteen different ways he would seem to strike upon something valuable, stop to explain his discovery and demonstrate the technique once again before letting the class give it a try. His technique matched his somewhat rough appearance, but only superficially so. Several times during his demonstrations I found myself cringing a little when he would grab his uke by the head or twist them into a painful looking position before throwing them. It was much to my surprise when I got to take his ukemi and found him to be really gentle and sensitive to his uke. His technique was powerful, but not in the least bit excessive, and he seemed to be keenly aware of what I was capable of taking and did not go beyond that point.

After class we had a two hour break for lunch before the demonstrations began. During this time Horii-sensei taught a kids class, but I was too interested in listening to Manolo and Didier-sensei’s off-color antics to watch much. We also had a pretty intense meeting regarding the geometry of our section of the enbu. Once it began we all crowded into the upper balcony to watch the other dojos strut their stuff, and as our turn approached I began to get a little anxious about performing. But as we started, the Aikido part of my brain took over, and it was all over before I knew it. Then we lined up on the edge of the mat and Okamoto-sensei gave an excellent demonstration with the help of Asako-san, Manu, Maria and Paul. We finished with a bow towards the shomen before filing off the mat and tumbling back up the stairs as quickly as we could to catch the final demonstration of the Hombu Dojo consort (all high-level aikidoists, and quite an impressive show).

After the closing ceremony everyone returned to the gym floor to put away the tatami and chat a little about the day’s experience. When all was said and done we gathered to bask in the warm sunshine we’d been missing all day. Yoko-sensei called JR and was relieved to find out that her dogi bag was waiting for her back at the station. We all chatted happily about the weather and the great practice, reflecting a little on the improved performance from last year (thanks to Maria’s diagrams!) before starting off on our long journey back to Kyoto.

Being a new member of Aikido Kyoto I found this trip to be an invaluable experience because it gave me the opportunity to interact with the dojo members on a different level than that of the normal training routine since we were there to represent the dojo collectively among a larger slice of the Aikido community. Since then the dojo has seemed a little stronger—a little more tightly knit, and everyone’s focus seems a little sharper. It was well worth the effort and the early morning, and for those of you who couldn’t make it this time, it’s not an event you want to miss again!