Japan was indeed cleaner and far more polite. Not that I thought of China as rude, just blunt and tactless. Haggai, my internet buddy, was supposed to meet me at the airport. It had been he who made my youth hostel reservations in Tokyo, but when I got off the plane he wasn’t there. Eh, how hard could it be to find a 6 foot tall American with a yarmulke? I searched fruitlessly and eventually gave up. I sent him an annoyed e-mail and went to the information desk where I figured I could make alternate plans. Just as I was preparing to take a train into Tokyo proper, the mysterious Haggai appeared. Apparently he had miscalculated the time it took to get to the airport and had just arrived. I made a mental note never to let this person pick me up ever again. As Empress of Punctuality I’m not very good at waiting for others.
Annoyance aside, I was thrilled to see him. He didn’t look at all how he’d described himself, being much less funny looking, but his personality seemed just the same as in the e-mails. He couldn’t say the same for me. I had kept him updated on my progress with shisuo (I was tossing 40 jin now!) and he was expecting someone taller and tougher looking, not this tiny wisp of a girl as he phrased it. I’d started getting a little self conscious about my looks. Every time someone told me I looked thinner I would jump on the scale to make sure I hadn’t lost weight. I hadn’t, but my cheekbones were more defined, my wrists more delicate and my clothes now hung off my hips instead of snug against my waist.
Everyone had first started noticing it a warm day in early November. I had worn my tunic without the shirt over it. Remember that white suit Lei Ping shifu had given me was see-through? Well, I had to go to a tailor and design a sleeveless, collarless tunic to go over it. Everyone had loved the tunic with its simple Asian sensibility cut, gold buttons and pale purple hue until they heard I’d forked over 200 kuai to have it made. At which point they proclaimed that I had been ripped off. After that I stopped telling them how much my purchases cost until I finally could bargain aggressively enough to please them. That day everyone came up to me and said, “Yin Mu your arms are so su” which I quickly discovered that meant buff. My arms had doubled in width. They didn’t have icky perpetually tensed body builder definition, but they certainly had a lot of meat on them. Soon after this revelation the guys started taking a lot of interest in my diet. They told me to make sure I ate regularly and to incorporate many sweets into my diet, which in China meant great quantities of red bean paste, custard and other medleys of rich proteins and carbs. It would not be good if I lost weight, so make sure I checked the scale regularly.
Anyway, it was a long ride to the tiny hotel where I would be staying. I remember little of that first train ride in Japan. No that’s not true, I remember a lot about Haggai’s face and what we discussed, but there is no way I could describe to you what the scenery looked like. Here I was in a foreign country and I was so preoccupied with a person showing me around that I couldn’t take in my surroundings. I had done a lot of traveling before, but this was the first time I was having trouble taking it in.
The hostel Haggai had booked for me was delightful. The rooms were like little cells, but the floors were traditional tatami mats. Each tiny room was furnished with a futon and there was a communal bath down the hall. I thought communal bathing would be fun, just like in a manga, though in truth I ended up rarely seeing other bathers. We spent most of that first day seeing sites of interest such as graveyards and historic monuments. We took a side trip to a Japanese martial arts supply store to buy me a new bokuto. Haggai was horrified that I did not call my sensei upon arrival. Matsushita-sensei had told me to call him when I arrived in Japan and I planned to do so that evening. Haggai said I must have a very different relationship with my sensei than he did his. If his sensei told him to do something, it would be the first thing he did. It’s not that I lacked respect for Matsushita-sensei, I just didn’t want to call until I was ready to meet him.
When I did call, he said he would see me tomorrow at seven, used to China, I asked if he meant am or pm. He seemed surprised that I had to clarify such an obvious point.
“PM we have to work during the day,” he told me in his heavily accented English. “My wife, Shigeiko, will be there too. You remember her?”
“Yes,” I told him promptly. “She has a beautiful smile.
He seemed pleased by my answer and it certainly wasn’t an empty compliment. Shigeiko-san has a smile like the sun coming out from behind a rain cloud. She had been there on both occasions I had met her husband. She also practices Iaido. I didn’t speak to her at all the first time. Her quietness and blank face intimidated me. Unlike her husband, she didn’t project her emotions. However the second time I decided that my behavior was foolish and perhaps she was just shy. This was, in fact the case. When I went over to speak to her she broke into smiles and was more than happy to talk me with me in her careful English. It was a short chat, but memorable.
Matsushita-sensei was also very memorable. I had never seen anyone as good at martial arts as him. If you’ve ever seen that movie with the bad title “Budo: The Art of Killing” you know what I’m talking about, because he’s the swordsman in white in that film. His son, like him, moves faster than I can even process, but the control he has is absolutely overwhelming. I remembered that the first time I met him he was very kind to me, but treated me like a Girl. I was having a lot of trouble in Kendo and he made the drill easier for me. I asked him how to do a good ki-ai and he tried to conjure up situations in which I would want to scream loudly, like to my boyfriend so that he would notice me, for help so that I wouldn’t be murdered, etc. If he presented me with these same silly scenarios now, I would have no qualms about saying to him “Matsushita-sensei, I would not scream for help, I would take care of the thugs myself and I would not call out to my boyfriend to be noticed, I would just run like the wind to be by his side.” None of which I said to him then. The second time I met him he told a story about trying to draw his blade on stray cats and dogs, but the creatures always sensed his presence and foiled his practice. This story worried me. I even asked Randal, who was both my empty hand teacher and also my kendo/iaido senpai.
“Would he have killed those animals, if he had been able to draw on them?”
Randal had thoughtfully answered, “Probably, they were strays. He would have been doing a public service.”
I was very excited about the meeting with the Matsushitas. I spent the whole next day with Haggai sightseeing and at night he gave me directions on how to get to the train station where Matsushita-sensei and his wife would be meeting me. We had a little trouble finding each other. I accidentally went out the wrong exit and had to write notes in kanji until I could get the guard to understand that I needed to go back into the station. That crisis solved, I saw them waiting at the pre-appointed exit and we walked to the dojo together. I was thrilled to be there and I wanted to tell Matsushita-sensei and his wife about my experiences in China. Everything came out in a rush of words that I now know were too fast for the Matsushitas to understand, but then thought that they were merely uninterested. Matsushita-sensei’s senpai was to come open the door to the gym, so we all sat on the school porch to wait.
I was just about to pull out some choice pictures of China, when the senpai appeared. He was a taller than Matsushita-sensei with long salt and pepper hair pulled back in a pony tail. He let us into a small gym. Shigeiko-san and I were sent to change in the closet. I put on my crummy hakama, my soft new kekogi cinched with my too long white karate belt. I went out into the main room where the men were all changed. Another one had appeared in my absence. I think there were only four of them, but there seemed to an entire army of bowing senpai offering me gifts.
First Matsushita-sensei brought out a handful of beautifully painted tiny wooden slats, which I still have today.
“My senpai made this,” he told me. “Here take a few. You can put them on your cell phone…your bag…whatever.”
I hadn’t expected the senpai to give me gifts. I didn’t know how many it was polite to take. I picked out one of a man kneeling to start an Iaido form. Matsushita-sensei then placed a Kendo one in my hand, then another and another until I had four tiny paintings in my hands.
This seemed like a good time to trot out the Jasmine tea I had bought for the Matsushitas in China. The person in the tea shop said Japanese people loved fragrant teas and this kind bloomed in the tea cup. He took it with dignity and showed it to his wife. Then he pried the beautifully hand carved wood tsuba off his bokuto.
“Here my senpai made this. I can get another. You use it. It looks much better than the plastic one.”
I thanked him profusely right before another of the senpai hoard approached me with a poster featuring Matsushita-sensei and one of his nakama mid kata. I thanked him too.
Each senpai was introduced to me. They bowed and said typical Japanese greeting words. I don’t technically speak Japanese, but I knew enough from years of anime watching to answer them properly. I even managed to thank the senpai who had painted the little wooden slats. He smiled and said it was nothing.
Class began. The bokuto I had bought was deemed too short. I was crestfallen that my new wooden sword was not standard length. Matsushita-sensei saw my dismayed expression and decided to mollify me with the following line
“It’s ok. It’s a good length for a girl.”
I was vaguely insulted and mostly amused. Neither Matsushita-sensei nor any of the senpai were much taller than me. In fact, I think one of them was shorter than me, but I decided to refrain from comment.
I essentially had a private lesson. We worked on my ki-ais. I was told to make sure I kept my voice deep and constant. Considering that before the main complaint was my lack of strength and volume I felt that what I had learned in China was truly paying off.
After class finished I wanted to take pictures. Everyone was very obliging. One of the senpai soundlessly handed me a shinken to pose for a picture. I did not like this at all. The blade was so sharp they wouldn’t even let me change my position with it in my hands, rather they prodded me into place and then snapped the film. I felt so stupid. Why have a picture of me holding a sword I wasn’t qualified to wield?
Matsushita-sensei asked me if I had late evening plans, yeah, bed. I told him no and he invited me out to a late dinner with them. We went to a traditional little restaurant where you sit on the floor around a low table. They chose to order for me, correctly assuming that I couldn’t read the wooden slats stuck to the walls that passed as a menu. I was situated in between Matsushita-sensei and his wife with the senpai hoard fanned around us. Matsushita-sensei asked me what I wanted to drink and, like China, was distressed by my lack of immediate enthusiasm for an alcoholic beverage, in the end to make everyone happy I tried sake, which is like a savory version of bai jiu.
I was mostly left to myself to observe the party. I at first thought I was the only one drinking, but as faces became florid realized that the men were drinking some sort of Asian Bloody Marys. They reminded me of my buddies back in China, especially the way Matsushita-sensei would whack my arm for emphasis. I swear I have a collection of bruises courtesy of middle aged Asian men.
“So do you have jet lag?” Matsushita-sensei asked conversationally.
“No, the trip was only three hours. I came from China.” I said in surprise.
“From China?” Now it was his turn to be surprised. “What are you doing there? If you were coming to Asia why didn’t you choose Japan?”
I had no idea how to answer that one, but having an open invitation to come train in Tokyo with Matsushita-sensei was quite appealing.
“So how are you understanding our conversation? Do we speak too fast for you?”
Oh my goodness, they think I speak Japanese!
“Actually, I don’t speak Japanese. I only know what I picked up from cartoons. Atashi wa Marjorie,” I stuttered out.
Matsushita-sensei regarded me gravely and then turned the conversation to other things.
I was given the royal treatment. They would not let me chip in for dinner and one of the senpai drove me home. He had a very fancy sports car. His English was about on par with my Japanese and between the two of us we managed to hammer out a conversation.
I was actually feeling pretty good about my Japanese abilities, considering it was a language I technically did not speak. That first morning at the hotel I had gone searching for breakfast and ended up following a man who said a string of melodic words of which I only understood meishi and asa gohan. I trotted after him repeating “hai, meishi! Meishi!” He led me to a good place too. I had grilled salmon that I still dream of in the dark of the night.