Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Seki Rocks Dylan: interview with an enigmatic music lover

Over a year ago a new principal came to Washimiya Junior High. He looks like any other Japanese administrator I've ever met: short sleeved button-up shirt with tie, glasses, greying hair. Given his appearance, I was completely caught off guard when he introduced himself to me in English like this: Good morning, nice to meet you, I'm Yasuhiko Seki and love your American folk music.

I soon found myself in the Principal's office and having a blast discussing American folk music, especially Bob Dylan, and learning about 60's and 70's America, that confusing and changing time that gave birth to so many great poets, rockers, and social critics. Because of our conversations, and sometimes guitar playing together, I asked Mr. Seki (54) if I could interview him for Inside Outsider. Fortunately he agreed, giving the blog its first interview report about someone who's interests and ideals don't really click with the society around him. He too is an inside-outsider.

IO: When you told me about your interest in American folk music I was a little surprised. How did you start listening to folk music here in Japan?

YS: I was 16 or 17 when I first heard the music. I started liking Bob Dylan when I was in a record shop. I asked the clerk to play "Times they're a Changing" by Simon and Garfunkel. It was very pretty. After that he played Bob Dylan's version and I was moved. Bob Dylan's rusty voice reflected the pain of people's minds. That's when I started listening to Dylan a lot.

IO: Were a lot of Japanese people listening to Dylan at the same time you were?

YS: Not many because he sang all in English so people couldn't understand. Not many people could touch his deep insight. He digs the problems with U.S. society.

IO: Dylan emerged at a very difficult time in U.S. history. Was there a similar atmosphere here in Japan at the same time?

YS: Oh yes. Americans were totally confused during the 60's and 70's because of the war [Vietnam] and the civil rights movement. Then there was unemployment. In Japan, during late 60's early 70's we had the huge student movements at Tokyo University. The students were tired of the old style of politics and wanted something modern. All over the world people were revolting, in London, and Paris, it was a time of change.

IO: With all that happening around you, how did Dylan's music effect your way of thinking about the world?

YS: Dylan's music changed my mind from a child to an adult; early Dylan especially with songs like "Only a Pawn in the Game," "Blowin in the Wind," and "North Country Blues." His songs are truth and always reflect the culture. He helped me think seriously about politics and social struggles. Also, I started learning English by listening to his music; that's why my pronounciation is a little rough I suppose.

IO: What other musicians do you like?

YS: I like Simon and Garfunkel, Brothers 4, The Band, and Credence Clearwater Revival. Also Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, and The Who.

IO: My dad really likes Simon and Garfunkel so I grew up listening to their music. It's so different from what you hear today. They focused so much on harmony and quality.

YS: That's right. I'd like to talk with your father someday. But you should remember that Paul Simon is a musician, not a poet like Dylan. Simon and Garfunkel's music is beautiful but it goes in one ear and out the other. It's all feeling and doesn't make you think. Compare Paul Simon's song "Boxer" to Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore" and you'll understand the difference. Dylan's lyrics accuse and question society, Paul Simon's don't. Dylan is a poet, not a musician.

IO: Thank you so much for your time. Can you play a tune for the Inside Outsider audience?

YS: Sure, how about Mr. Tambourine Man.


Thank you Mr. Seki, you are, by far, the coolest principal in Japan. If you're ever in Lubbock Texas, be sure to stop by so I can take you to the Buddy Holly Museum. Peace friend.

Friday, July 18, 2008



2008 JET Journal Selected Essay!
Earlier this year I submitted the following essay into the JET Journal, a collection of selected essays written by JET Program participants about their experiences in Japan. I'm very glad my essay "Team Taught Face Punching," was selected for publication because the editors of the journal translate all the pieces into Japanese. Now I can show the piece to Tanaka Sensei and the others mentioned in the piece! I'm glad they'll be able to read the essay as it's about the best way I know of to thank them for all they've done for me. Thank you very much.

(Click on the pictures to view larger readable versions. The picture above the essay is not mine and has nothing to do with the piece. Pictures like this are randomly interspersed througout the journal.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

澤木道場で坐禅していた Meditating at Takubou Zen Center

I felt a single bead of sweat creep down my forehead one pore at a time. The sweat would trickle in from above, fill the pore to capacity and gently overflow it, rolling on to the next pore in a never ending process. My head so still the drop felt like a glacier inching closer to the sea.

Then the train came ringing into Nippori station. "You've arrived at Nippori" the announcement said every three minutes as the Yamanote train ran circles round Tokyo. I heard it's steel wheels roaring down the track from miles away. My head so quiet I thought I was lying between the tracks as the train came in.

These were two of the hyper-sensations I experienced while meditating at Takuboku Zen Center 澤木道場 in Nippori 日暮里, Tokyo. The center is located just a three minute walk uphill from Nippori station on Tokyo's busy Yamanote line 山手線, making transportation convenient but concentration challenging.

The tatami floored zendo 禅道 meditation hall sits on the second floor of the center, and, true to Zen aesthetic principles, is sparse and serene. The only ornamentation in the hall was a Buddha altar (with doors closed in the picture), two hanging scrolls, and a framed piece of calligraphy at the rear. The framed piece says 直心道場 and translates roughly as "the heart is the real training hall."

Keeping with the Zen minimalism, there wasn't an air conditioner anywhere to be found; hence the sweat running down my face, chest, arms, and legs. Everyone was sweating their asses off- literally. All the screened windows were open but not a breeze stirred the 90% humidity, 90 degree day. With a new train arriving every three minutes and the heat unbearable, I wondered if I was wasting my time sitting there, because I sure didn't feel any closer to enlightenment. In fact I felt further from it than ever; I felt plain miserable.

But I endured and sat with my back straight and my eyes downcast. The evening session consisted of two 45 minute rounds of zazen 坐禅 (meditation) with a 5 minute break in the middle. About 15 minutes into the sitting, one of the priest stood up, walked over the altar and picked up the keisaku (japanese link here), the Zen whoopin' stick! (What is it with Japanese people hitting their friends with sticks anyway?) The priest then walked in front of the 15 of us, and, when someone motioned to him, after bowing respectfully, he smacked the shit out of their back 6 times! This is an old Zen tradition and is not meant as a punishment, but rather as a means to bring the mind back into focus. The smack that stick made was so loud, like a hollow thunder clap.

I sure didn't want anything to do with it at the time, but in retrospect I kinda wished I had tried it. Maybe next time. I've never been smacked by a Zen master before.
After the sitting was finished I went downstairs with the two priests who were smacking that day and had a really long and interesting conversation about Zen in America and in Japan. When I told the priests I had practiced Zen at the Denver Zen Center before coming to Japan they were intrigued and wanted to know how the Japanese experience ranked. I told them there weren't any whoopin' sticks in Denver. They laughed long and hard.

The older of the priests, Mr. Domyo Kurihara said that Takuboku Center is a tough place to learn meditation because they sit for two 45 minute sessions with only a 5 minute break in the middle. He was sure right about that.

The hardest part about sitting still for so damn long is keeping your mind focused and your eyes open. Takuboku Center practices Rinzai Zen 臨済宗, one of two main schools of Zen that encourages its followers to focus the mind on the breath and Zen sayings, or koans, i.e. "What is sound of one hand clapping," while meditating. In Japanese this approach is called 一念一想, or focusing on one single thought. This form of meditation differs from Soto Zen 曹洞宗 which propagates a "no thought," 無念無想 approach to meditation.

As instructed, when the bell rang to start meditating I began counting my breaths. I got to 13 and started thinking about everything under the sun. It's crazy what little minute things pop into the mind when you try to calm it. For some reason I started thinking about the strongest and least intrusive way to hang pictures on drywall. What the hell? Where did that come from. Well, after I finally treed that squirrel and started back at 1, I'll be damned if I didn't get stuck at 8; this time thinking about how a mosquito could have a field day in here with all the sweaty lumps of flesh just waiting to be suckled.

When I explained my difficulties to Mr. Kurihara and Mr. Chijo Seko (pictured above) they said it was very natural that my mind wouldn't focus. It takes years to get good at Zen. Mr. Kurihara, who has been practicing Zen for over 40 years, said that sitting still and counting the breath is easy in theory but extremely difficult to do well in practice. I completely agree.

I recommend a little Zen meditation to everyone. If you live in Tokyo and would like to join Takubuko's Zen meetings you can check there website here (in Japanese). The center holds 1 1/2 hour zazen sittings on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6:30pm, Saturdays from 5pm, and Sunday mornings from 7. If you are new to practicing Zen, please arrive 15 to 20 minutes early so a priest can teach you how to meditate properly. There is a nominal charge of 100 yen ($1) to participate. All instruction is given in Japanese although Mr. Seko Chijo speaks really good English. The center is affiliated with the Japan wide Ningen Zen Group (English link).
I'd like to thank everyone at the Takuboku Zen Center for a great day of meditation, philosophical conversation, and an after hours tour of the center I'm not supposed to mention.
Top: Inside the Takuboku training hall. Middle: The coolest Zen man in Tokyo, Mr. Chijo Seko. Bottom: Outside view of Takuboku Zen Center.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Religion in the Japanese Classroom, 神鉛筆

Every year the 3rd grade students at Washimiya's public junior high schools 鷲宮町立学校, along with the rest of Japan's junior high students, take a three day class trip to Kyoto 京都, the cultural capital of Japan that was once the capital of Japan. (For reference, Japanese junior high 3rd graders are the same age as a freshmen in American high schools.) Some of the students along with teachers who chaporoned the trip brought me back some great souvenirs.

By far, the most interesting of the souvenirs I recieved was a pencil. Not just any pencil, a special pencil sanctified by the Japanese god of scholarship, Tenjin 天神, who makes his home at Kyoto's famous Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine 北野天満宮.

This auspicious pencil should help the 3rd graders ace their upcoming high-stress high school entrance examinations; examinations that very well could determine the rest of their lives.

The pencil is part of a special academic combo package the shrine sells to visiting student groups looking for a little extra help with their exams. The 5,000 yen ($45) package includes a pencil and bookmark for each student in the class, plus a sanctified wooden tablet to hang at the front of the classroom so its blessings can rain down on the student's study-weary heads.

These pictures are from Ms. Hirano's homeroom class. On the right of the tablet is written the school's name: Washimiya Junior High 鷲宮中学校, and the left is written the class's name: 3rd grade class 2, 3年2組.

I'm not exactly sure how this thing works, hell, I'm not sure anyone really does, especially the students. I asked some them if they believed the tablet would help their test scores. While a few of them believed it would, most of the students were of the opinion that it sure couldn't hurt any.
Even though I don't follow Shinto, I am a pragmatist, and I think my pencil just might help me on a future test (maybe doctoral comps or teacher examinations?), and because the pencil is a high quality #2 Tombow *HB* I can use it on pesky fill-in-the-bubble answer sheets.

Whether the academic combo pack works or not, the very smart and business savoy shrine is making bank off these packages by appealing to traditional Japanese religious sensibilities and offering a dash of godly help to scared shitless students.

Most Japanese people "follow" Shinto 神道, the native religion of Japan that, in a nutshell (literally) holds that all beings, and I mean all beings are endowed with spirits 神; from ancient moss covered boulders to a your fresh out of the showroom new car. Of course you and I and other animals have spirits too.

There isn't a lot of literature about Shinto in the west and what little of it there is makes it all sound new-agey and fruit-loopy, like worshiping tress or dancing in the forest naked. But in reality, Shinto seems to function more as a cultural constant that organizes Japanese life. Gods really aren't worshipped but they are prayed to, and that's when it's nice there's a god just for your test scores!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Roll On Black Beast

Two years ago when I came to Japan I weighed around 190 lbs. (86 kg), but thanks to healthy Japanese food and lots of exercise, I now weigh 156 lbs (71 kg):that's less than I weighed in high school. While practicing karate for 3 hours on a hot and humid summer day will shed the pounds quickly, I owe most of my new found health to the ugliest bicycle in the world.

I don't drive in Japan because there is really no need for me too. Washimiya is only 13 km (8 miles) wide and is serviced by two trains, both of which take me to Tokyo in less than an hour. Having a car would be a huge waste of money, especially since gas runs 180 yen a liter: 3.78 liters to a gallon @ 108 yen to the dollar = $4.10 a gallon. Ouch! I haven't filled up a tank or put my foot on the gas since last summer when I went back home for vacation.

My feet do push the pedals though. They push them a lot. One of my schools is about a 2 mile ride from my apartment one way, the nice train station is about a mile and half out, and the cheap supermarket is about 2 1/2 miles out. I'd say on an average day I ride at least 2 miles, some days it's upward to 4 or 5 miles, and that's just getting around. Shit, every now and then I'll put on some ZZ Top on the iPod and drag main on my black, fire-breathing stallion from Hell!

And so without further ado, here's the bad som' bitch I've been shedding the pounds and shredding the pavement with. Don't look at it too long or it might bite ya.

This monster boast only the bare essentials: what it lacks in gears it makes up for in tote baskets- perfect for the 2 mile return trip from the grocery store. The dim headlight is friction powered off the tire and doesn't illuminate anything; I use it so cars will see me at night, that's its only job, and it's an important one.

You've probably already noticed the custom reflector work. That's all me baby; from the double striped detailing on the frame post to the French-inspired design on the chain guard. Not to mention the single wraps on the ape-hanger handle bars with the long, smoothly curved brake lines crossing in the front. And don't miss how stealthly the umbrella hooks around the seat post and rests on the rear basket support assembly. Like silk bitch!

Bikes don't come off the lot like this in Japan. Nope, I've got blood, sweat, and tears invested in this mofo (not to mention routine maintenance, like putting a new chain on her and changing flats every 3 months).

I think my bike kicks-ass, though most Japanese people mock and ridicule it, calling it a "mama chari," or an "old woman bike" used for fetching groceries. I don't listen their chides though, after all, I need those baskets damn it. Besides, I've grown close to my bike. After riding it for 2 years straight it's gonna be hard going home to my restored Peugot 12 speed and V6 Dodge Ram. I've gotta keep riding though. I like saving money and I enjoy living healthy, both for me, and for mother earth, whose back my 26" rims roll on.

Monday, July 7, 2008

My Final Japanese Karate Tournament 吉川市空手大会:僕の最後日本の空手大会

Yesterday I fought in my final karate tournament. The tournament was held in the extremely out-of-the-way city of Yoshikawa, which meant an early start for Taka, Uchi, Calum, and I. Taka and Uchi are fellow members of the Washimiya Karate Club and Calum was there to cheer us on and take some great pictures.

Over 220 people, most of them elementary students, participated in the tournament. Only about 15 people were able to make it from the Washimiya Dojo but I didn't feel that was a bad turn out. Along with Taka, Uchi, and I, Mr. Sugino also came and competed in the men's sparring event. Mr. Sugino is great because he practices karate alongside his 3rd grade son, who I should add holds a higher belt ranking. It's great when sports become a family affair.

In my kata (pretend fighting forms done to practice basic karate techniques) division their were almost 20 competitors, all of which were better than me. I was eliminated in the first round of heads-up demonstration.

Kata competitions are done differently in Japan than in the States. Back home, each person performs individually and is given a score when finished. In Japan however, two people perform simultaneously in a match and the judges choose a winner from the two of them. I like the Japanese way better because its easier to choose between 2 people at a time than 20 all at once. Another interesting part of the arrangement is that if you win, you are expected to perform a different kata for you next match/performance. Kata's must alternate so the judges don't get bored I guess, I don't know. I do know I only got to go one time and sit on my ass for the next 30 minutes watching the winners do the same two kata's over and over again.

After kata and lunch finished up is when the real fun started. I'm talking about the sparring baby! Unfortunately it was hot as hell inside the gym, and it got even hotter after strapping on body armor and a helmet.

Unlike the Washimiya tournament from 2 months ago, the Yoshikawa one allowed competitors to choose one of two types of sparring: sundome and bogu. Sundome is sparring like I did in Texas; you wear gloves and head gear and the focus is about striking fast and getting points. Bogu fighting, or fighting wearing the protective helmet and chest piece, or bogu, also focuses on getting points, but the blows must be powerful, precise, and intentional; did I mention POWERFUL already? Points are only awarded for delivering strong clean blows to the protected parts of the body. Bogu sparring gets pretty serious, and unfortunately, among the more macho testosterone driven crowd, it even becomes violent -- more like street fighting in a karate uniform.

I won my first match with a solid head kick (see above picture). I was riding high despite the heat and was ready to face my next opponent, the massive brick-wall-of-a-monster Imai-san. Imai-san is 21 and about 6'3" 200lbs. He beat Uchi during his first match and now it was my turn to give it a go.

At the Washimiya tournament I defeated Imai-san in the first round rather quickly. When I saw him earlier in the day yesterday we chatted a little. Here's what went down:
-Hey Imai, long time no see. How are you? 今井さん、元気ですか。

-I'm fine. I've been practicing to beat you since the last tournament. Today I'll get my revenge. 元気ですよ。ジャスティンとくに練習した、今日僕の復習をする予定だよ。

-Ok, let's do our best alright. (I didn't really know how to respond to that.)

Well he beat me this time. He got his revenge I suppose. Then he went on and beat Taka to win first place. I ended up taking third in the sparring division, a result I wasn't happy with at all. What really chaps my hide is that I won't have a chance to get my revenge because I'm leaving Japan before the next tournament in September. I guess Uchi and Taka will have to get for me.

In the end I left the Yoshikawa with nothing but decent memories and great pictures. They didn't award me anything for my third place finish; only first and second took home certificates and medals. Damn it, I wanted another cool Japanese certificate to take back home with me. I'll have to be content with my runner-up certificate and trophy from the last tournament.

On the bright side, here's my good friend Taka proudly displaying his 2nd place certificate and silver medal. It was his first time to win an award so we were all happy for him.
Well done buddy! Keep it up!

And so ends my competitive karate career in Japan. I'll still go to practice until I leave, but I already miss the thrill of competition against different opponents.

I do look forward to continuing my karate back in the States, hopefully under a teacher who will appreciate my Japanese experiences and is sensitive to the rich culture that molded this amazing physical and spiritual practice.

For me, karate in Japan has been more about training my spirit and growing confident in myself than practicing kicks and punches. It's also been about the amazing friends I practice with. The ones that hit me and I hit back; my strongest friends I'll never forget: Uchi and Taka. They are family to this homeless American living uncertain in Japan. 本当に、本当に、ありがとうございます。
Pictures: Top: 3 Brothers: Taka, Me, Uchi. 2: Uchi performing kata. 3: Me in my borrowed, mangled helmet. 4: Head shot gets the W. 5: Taka and spoils of victory. All photos shot by Calum, thanks for the memories I'll always have man.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stone Passages to God, Nanjundeswari Temple pt. I

On our fifth day in India, Calum and I were taken to the magnificent Hindu temple of Nanjundeswari, located in the Mysore countryside. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Mysore on the long, flat, rice paddy and palm tree lined roads, we drove into the unknown, past rusty sheet-metaled cigarette stands and roadside coconut peddlers, zooming by old tanned-black farmers riding on turquoise carts drawn behind bony cows with yellow painted horns, sweat glistening, asphalt flying.

Turn left, get off the highway and onto the rough washed out road that's been under construction for the past century with only another century to go until completion --a microcosm for India, constant construction with no end in sight, rubble everywhere, nothing is clean, everything is gritty.

The crowds ignored our car cutting into its on the way to the parking lot. People, animals, and what must've been half of the world's children wandered and laughed, bitched and bartered with each other. The temple gathers everyone alike, a motley swath of people, some seeking divine favor by rolling on their sides (Lotan Baba style) in circles around the temple's expansive border, others seeking money by selling trinkets that no could appreciate, many longing for darsan, the moment God is both seer and seen, the divine meeting where two become one and wisdom is passed to the faithful.

"You won't need your shoes," Sharath told us before stepping out of the car. My eyes burned just looking at the sun-baked asphalt my curling-in-terror-toes were about the tread. Only 100 yards to the temple gate. I ran like a kid from the changing room to the pool on a blistering summer day. A small pipe with holes cut in it bled a small stream of water to cool and cleanse the feet.

People looked at my white skin as I made my way through the elaborately carved courtyard centered around a large bull statue wreathed in fresh flowers of all colors. A carpet was spread in the open air courtyard marking the path into the main temple and granting respite to scorched soles. I walked through the place oblivious of my own difference and smiled at all who cast me strange glance, "I'm hear to see God too you know," and by god I'll be seen.

Stepping into the wide seemingly-sub-terranean shade of the corridors was awe inspiring. The columns of stone were massive but in perfect with the rest of the structure, which was massive too. All was stone: the cool dusty floor, the hard pillars worn smooth by countless hands' rubbings, the 6' tall carvings of Hindu pantheon, all of it stone and most it smudged with red, orange and yellow curry powder and dripping with candle wax.

The total effect of the scene made me feel I was wandering somewhere I shouldn't be; like I was about to come face to face with someone or something that would just as soon mutilate me as look at me. Something other lived in these man-made caverns, something not to be touched once carved. I knew that eventually, if I stayed in this place long enough I would have to see God, and even worse, be seen in return...


Top: Front view of the amazing temple crown. Bottom: view of the temple courtyard and colorful Indian women. Video: never before seen footage of a stroll through Nanjundeswari Temple, Mysore India.