Tom's travels

karaoke, Nanzen-ji, and the Osaka way of business

Posted on: Sun, 07/08/2012 - 02:08 By: Tom Swiss

I've had notes on my last two days in Japan sitting here for weeks, waiting for me to wrap up the tale...once I catch up with that I'll explain what's been up since I got back.

So, before I left Osaka...Saturday night, out to The Cellar (small bar in Shinsaibashi with lots of live music -- sort of an Osakan version of Leadbetters) to see Eric play with the Tardy Boys, great to talk with him. After the show, got the idea to have one more drink over at Cinquecento before heading back to the hotel. Ended up striking up a conversation with a two lovely young ladies (ah, if only I'd had a few more days there!) and getting invited to go along with them and their friends for karaoke.

rainy days in Toyko and Kyoto, sunny day in Nara

Posted on: Sat, 05/05/2012 - 09:30 By: Tom Swiss

Rain the past few days in both the Tokyo and Kansai areas, but good weather here on Saturday as I head out to Nara.

Wednesday was Kamakura, home of the famous Daibutsu. The outdoor one, as opposed to the Nara one, which is inside. The Kamakura one was inside a few centuries ago, then there was a tsunami that destroyed the temple hall and left this big bronze Buddha open to the sky.

But before the Daibutsu, Hase-dera and the Great Kannon. No, the Great Kannon is not a weapon wielded by some anime mech, it's a huge (30 foot high) wooden statue of Kannon, a.k.a. Kanzeon, a.k.a. Kwan Yin, a.k.a. Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Worth visiting and taking a moment to contemplate. (I silently did a few repetitions of the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo, a chant to Kannon that is about the closest thing to a Buddhist prayer that I have memorized.)

The Great Kannon is Hase-dera's main attraction, and everybody loves Kannon; but two of my other favorite Japanese Buddhist deities also get their due at Hase-dera, Jizo and Benzaiten. Jizo is an earth spirit (the "Earth Store Bodhisattva"), and a guardian of children and travelers. I had a painting of him/her (like Kannon/Avalokitesvara, there was a gender change along the route from India to Japan) that I got at a Grateful Dead show for years, before I learned who he/she is. Benzaiten, or Benten, is the Japanese version of Sarasvati; when I lived in Osaka for a few months in 2007 my apartment was in Bentencho, "Benten Village", and as a patron deity of musicians and poets and scholars (according to the wik, "Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows: water, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension, knowledge"), how can I not love her? I left an ema at the Benzaiten shrine with a wish for "Health, Happiness, and Inspiration for Poets & Musicians Everywhere!".

I had planned to do part of the Daibutsu hiking course and make a visit to Zenneari Benten, the "money washing" shrine, but the rain made the path in a stream and was sapping my energy a bit. So I gave it a miss and found an Indian restaurant that my Lonely Planet guidebook recommended. (A smartphone with GPS makes finding place a hell of a lot easier than it used to be!)

Thursday the rain continued, so I didn't do much in Tokyo. Did hit a lovely garden, and a temple that holds the graves of the famous 47 Ronin. But that was about enough of Tokyo, at least on a soggy day, so I grabbed my stuff and caught the shinkansen (the correct sort this time) for Osaka. Almost felt like a homecoming -- I lived here for three months in 2007, longest I've been anywhere outside of Maryland.

Spent my first evening in Osaka eating, drinking, and being simultaneously merry and meloncholy until the early morning, got up late and took my hangover out to Arashiyama, a beautiful region on the outskirts of Kyoto. Crowded -- it's a very popular spot during Golden Week and other holidays. Visited Adashino Nembutsu-ji, a lovely small temple with a collection of thousands of old stone carvings. Apparently (if Lonely Planet has the story right), this was the place where the bones of paupers and those without families were laid to rest. A good place to visit on a drizzly day.

Also went to the garden at Tenryuji. This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, especially if you see it during the blossoming season as I was fortunate enough to do a few years ago. Though this was also sad for complicated personal reasons...there was someone I'd once thought might be with me when I retuned here. An idle dream, perhaps, but realizing that's probably never going to happen was something to process. But as they say here, shikata ga nai -- nothing can be done.

Got back to Osaka and saw my friend Eric Wiegmann's band Helium Five (one of his bands) play in Umeda last night. Since no one had a heart attck this time, it was much better than the last show I went to! :-/

Today, Nara, where my number one task was to visit Shinyakushi-ji, a temple of the Medicine Budh, to give thanks for the survivial and healing of the heart attack victim, our friend Ian Hesford. I visited this temple on my first trip to Japan nine and a half years ago, which was shortly before I started my shiatsu training. (Whoa. How'd that happen, timewise?) It was the sort of coincidental discovery that's left me with a gut feeling of connection to the place. I also visited a lovely small temple up the side of the mountain, Byakugo -- a stunning view looking out over Nara, and an active temple where people were coming to pray in a more ordinary way, I think. Refreshing after a week of big-name temples and shrines; I like to try to understand the regular practice of regular folks, not just the big fancy stuff. I also made a stop on the grounds of Kasuga Shrine, to find the small side shrine where five years ago I met a Shinto priest who was kind and patient enough to explain some basic concepts of the practice to me.

A lot of walking today! Tonight Eric is playing with one of his old bands at The Cellar, just a few blocks from my hotel, so I plan on catching that. Tomorrow, maybe, a quick trip back to Kyoto? Not sure. And Monday early, time to depart. But for right now, I feel a bit recharged in spirit. (Even if my feet are sore.)

get my kicks in this floating world

Posted on: Thu, 05/03/2012 - 13:11 By: Tom Swiss

Today (Thursday), more rain. Wanted to see more in Tokyo, ened up hitting a lovely garden, and then the Zen temple that holds the grave of the famous 47 ronin. Even today, centuries later, on a rainy weekday (though a Golden Week holiday), saw a Japanese man show up to make an offering of incense.

But finally the rain got the better of me, and I decided to give up on Tokyo and catch the shinkansen for Osaka. Small adventure en route, as vending machine on the train ate my 1000 yen bill, a bit of a hassle to get a refund. (Indeed, since it didn't get sorted out until the end of my ride, it ended up feeling like a Tokyo vs. Osaka thing, "proper procedure" vs. the merchant's rule of customer satisfaction.)

Washed up and changed into dry clothes, and headed out to Slices for dinner, then the Cellar, where by complete coincidence I found the Amemura Folk Jamboree wrapping ujp. This is an open mic sort of event that I played when I wa here five years ago, and the gentleman who runs it is a karateka who met Kaicho Nakamura decades ago and remaims impressed by him. He actually rememeber me and, with the owner of the place translating, we renewed our acquaintance.

At Cinquecento now...amazing how easily we can fall back into old patterns. It's been four or five years since I've been in Osaka. yet my first night back I've hit three of my old haunts and felt comfortabl at each. Thinking that there's a track my life could hop onto, where I do the expat thing and just up and move over here, saying to hell with all the bullshit in my personal life of the past few months; but knowing also that "a darkness in the heart cannot be cured by moving the body from place to place", and feeling that there's work I need to do in Baltimore.

But still, for now, I'm in a great bar in a great city, still basking in the glow of a great weekend. (And, now that things are going well, in the glow of knowing that, yeah, I helped save a life. "Big damn heroes, sir.") So I think it wil be a few of these 500 yen martinis before I stumble back the the hotel room. Even as I recognize that there's a stress-relief, safety-valve aspect to I have to come halfway around the world to let off steam now? Has it come to that? Considerations for later. Plus an astrologer friend told me I need to live it up while I'm over here...I don't believe in astrology, as Jim Morrison once said, I think it's a bunch of bujllshit, but I tell you this: I want to have my kicks before the whe shithouse goes up in flames, here in this floating world.

Akihabara and Roppangi

Posted on: Tue, 05/01/2012 - 10:30 By: Tom Swiss

Happy Beltane! No Maypoles here in Tokyo, at least not that I've seen -- but, today I found an electronics store in Akihabara with a corner devoted to Tarot decks, occult books, and the like. So the universe still has surprises in store. That's good to know.

This morning I checked out of my tiny (even by Japanese standards, I think) room at the Chisun Inn in Nagoya, got my JR rail pass (after bouncing around the station for a while trying to find the right office), and got on the shinkansen train to Tokyo...only to find that I'd gotten on to a type of train ("Nozomi") that wasn't covered by my rail pass. Oops. I gave the conductor my best "sorry, I'm just a dumb gaijin" routine (which had the power of truth behind it) and he didn't demand I pay. I just got off at the next stop and caught a "Hikari" the rest of the way. Checked into my less tiny but still small room at the Horidome Villa, hit the ATM at the 7-11 (protip: Discover cards work as JCB cards here, making them pretty widely accepted and you can use them at many ATMs to get a cash advance on your account), rested and caught up on e-mail for a bit, then threw myself at the city to see what sticks.

First, the aforementioned Akihabara. A tech geek mecca. I did some window shopping in a few of the big stores and picked up a few small things, and also found a drum shop, a guitar shop, and an astounding telescope shop, with the largest scope having an aperture I could stick my head into; but my favorite discovery has to be CompuAce, the place with the Tarot decks and a noren (door curtain) with Ganesha on it, crowded with all kinds of computer and electronic accessories in addition to Pagan-y goods. Some sort of technopagan power spot.

Now, the infamous Roppangi. Full of hustlers, lots of Carribean or African guys trying to get me into clubs. Finally found a veggie burger, and then the "Cross Over" bar which seems a decent place to have a few beers, the sort of place that attracts both gaijin and Nihonjin. I found an Indian restaurant nearby, might hit that for dinner tomorrow. Indian is a good bet for vegetarian food plus an English menu. (Yes, there's probably ghee so it's not completely vegan, but we do the best we can in circumstances -- I'm a lot less likely to get fish stock in Indian food than I am in most practical alternatives...)

my weekend: Seido Aichi Benefit tournament and 20th anniversary celebration

Posted on: Mon, 04/30/2012 - 19:19 By: Tom Swiss

On the bus for the trip to Ise Shrine with the Seido crew. Time for a quick update...

First, unrelated to the trip -- very good news about our friend Ian Hesford. He's been waking up and talking a little, even making jokes. Not to minimize the long road ahead, but this is amazing news.

Anyway. I'm in Japan! Took some complications to get here. JAL canceled my flight from Boston to Tokyo last Wednesday due to a maintenance issue. (On a new plane, no less.) Apparently they didn't the have the necessary part and had to have one brought from LA. They rescheduled for Thursday and put us up at an airport hotel for the night.

This blew a hole in my plan to hop from Narita (the Tokyo airport) to Kansai (the Osaka one), rest in Osaka for the night, and take the train to Nagoya the next day. I did get then to fly me from Tokyo to Nagoya so I got to Nagoya late Friday night -- after another delay at Narita.

Stumbling bleary-eyed from the airport to the train station, I heard someone call "Sensei Tom?" It was Sensei Hiroaki Kondo from the Seido Aichi branch, who was coordinating with foreign visitors and was coincidently there to meet another arriving karateka. So nice to see a friendly face! He got me pointed in the right direction. I got to my hotel and just about collapsed, too tired to get much sleep.

Saturday morning, tired but happy to be here, I went to the workout at Atsuta Jinga, one of the most pre-eminent Shinto shrines. Atsuta Jinga is said to hold Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sword that is said to be a gift from Amaterasu Ōmikami and one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. I'd guess about 100 students, children and adults, attended.

We started with a brief Shinto ritual -- these are not really "religious" in the Western sense, as Shinto really doesn't have domga, but a mythology and a set of attitudes that it tries to cultivate. For this we were let into one of the outer sanctums of the shrine, past a fence where ordinary visitors have to stop. It's not like we got in to see the sacred sword itself or anything, but I think that we were brought in and permitted to have a brief workout on the grounds shows the respect that Kaicho Nakamura and Seido Karate enjoy in Japan.

Then we lined up for the workout. I think we ended up in aot of tourist photos that day! Kiai echoed over the shrine grounds as we did basic techniques, Kaicho exhorting us to give it our all. Then each rank group got to do a kata.

Yondan and more senior students did Sai Kata Ganki Dai. (The folks at Customs got a kick out of my sai, by the way.) And in my gut I like to think that the fact that I did a sai kata on the grounds of the shrine that is the repository of such a sacred sword, somehow charges them up with mana.

Most inspiring, though, was a young yellow belt student in wheelchair. I believe he had cerebral palsy or a similar condition. He was taken out of his chair and sort of knelt or sat on the ground (the gravelly ground), throwing his legs and body forward with each step of the kata. An amazing display of the "non-quitting spirit"; it made me proud to be a Seido student.

After the workout, those who wished (and paid a small fee) were invited to a special ritual, a blessing of sorts for Kaicho and Seido. It included a stunning dance by two priestesses, very precise and forceful; and ended with a sip of sake -- a practice of which I heartily approve!

After a nap, Saturday night I headed over for the anniversary banquet. I gave a small present (a Maryland flag signed by many students with congratulations) to Jun Shihan Toshihide Sawahira, Seido Aichi branch chief. I also had a gift for Sensei Kondo, in appreciation for all of his help. (He has been absolutely amazing in coordinating things. As we ride back from Ise I see that he has fallen asleep in his seat, a well-deserved rest.) Of course the speeches at the banquet were in Japanese. and even with a translator summarizing, I'm sure I missed much. But the affection and admiration that the students have for both Jun Shihan Sawahira and for Kaicho Nakamura needed no translation. I also got to meet several students from New Zealand and from Honbu and Johshin Honzan. So many new people to meet I fear I'll never remember everyone's names!

Sunday, the tournament. Yondan students were not eligible to compete, so I was a judge. (And as I was still pretty exhausted maybe it was best that I didn't compete.) I ended up as chief judge for junior brown and yellow belt kata divisions, and with a bit of help on translation I think things went smoothly. (It occurs to me that sometimes you have to give someone some help before they're able to help you or others, a thought worth further exploration.) I also helped judge shodan men's kata (saw a lot of Seienchin!) and was a kumite corner judge for junior green belt boys, lightweight (I think, the weight classes are a little different) black belt men, and junior black belt girls. Everyone showed strong spirit and good sportsmanship. Especially moving was a mildly handicapped shodan who competed in kata. I believe that the young yellow belt I'd seen at Atsuta Shrine also competed. They were wonderful reminders that the purpose of these tournaments is to help push each of us to be our best.

Right after the tournament I had to go back to the hotel, get online, and deal with an emergency at the day job. Sadly this made me late for the "uchiage" (after tournament) party. But I got there (and, this being Japan, was mildly scolded for being late), and enjoyed several drinks and conversation with fellow karate students, as well as a rousing sing-along of "YMCA" led by Jun Shihan Sawahira.

Today, a bus trip to Ise Jinga, another one of the most pre-eminent Shinto shrines. Again there was a special ritual dance ("kagura") dedicated to Kaicho and Seido karate. Just amazing. Watching it I could feel the stress of the past few weeks leaving me; such a feeling of gratitude to see something like this. I had planned to visit Ise on a previous trip to Japan, but ended up missing a train -- if I'd gone then, though. it would have been nothing like what I got to experience today.

After lunch, a sudden heavy rain soaked us as we returned to the bus, the sort of soaking that makes everyone laugh. (Glad I bought an umbrella before things got bad, so I'm only soaked from the knees down!) A wonderful end to the trip. Bus back to Nagoya now, where I'll probably rest up and do laundry tonight. Off to Toyko tomorrow.

Live blogging from the Occupy Wall Street site, Liberty Plaza, New York City

Posted on: Mon, 10/17/2011 - 16:58 By: Tom Swiss

I came down for an hour or so yesterday, just to see what was what. Danced to the drumming for a bit, and the playful and gentle nature of some of what's happening here (drumming, dancing, art, communal sacred space, giant potluck meals) reminded me of some of Kery Thornley's "yin revolution" and "counter-games" ideas in his book Zenarchy. The Occupy movement is not just a protest, but an experiment and a demonstration of an alternative to the hierarchical socioeconomic systems that have dominated our thinking for centuries.

I also ended up running into someone I knew years ago in Baltimore and fell into good conversation with her and with a high school girl she had befrended. Just hearing people's stories is also a big piece of what this is about, for as John Steinbeck wrote, "two men [or women] are not as lonely and perplexed as one".

Came down again this afternoon after my plan to visit the Statue of Liberty was derailed by a security snafu. (Apparently the US Park Service fears that I will use the awesome power of my Gerber multi-tool to disassemble the Statue of Liberty. There is, of course, no irony at all in the paranoia of the security state preventing me from visiting the Statue of Liberty. I gave up my ticket rather than have them take the $60 tool.) Ran into a few more Baltimore people (between OWS, and running into a woman who used to date one of my best friends in the Village last night, seems I can't even escape into anonymity in New York), and got into more interesting conversations with strangers, but spent most of today's time here just sitting at the community altar, holding space. (Photos to come.)

It's interesting how people react to the barriers the police have put up around the site. They don't completely enclose the space, you can move in and out freely, yet many people come up and stand on the other side watching, as if watching a parade or something. Perhaps a deliberate bit of police strategy to keep people from feeling like they can join or identify with the occupation -- establishing a boundary that takes a deliberate act to step across.

So I invite you to cross it. Go down to your local Occupy group and join them, even for an hour. Cross the lines that the power structure sets up to keep us divided.

it takes an Erisian village...

Posted on: Sat, 11/20/2010 - 17:29 By: Tom Swiss

I've been to Greenwich Village a couple of times before, but previously I've always been tagging along with someone who knew the area, so I didn't really bother with navigation. But last night, I decided that I should check a map before heading down for dinner and a few drinks (at, as it turned out, a nice little restaurant called Village Natural, and then the famous Stonewall Inn).

Now, Manhattan is famous for being laid out on a grid of east-west streets and north-south avenues. Indeed, it's lent its name to the mathematical concept of "Manhattan distance", the sum of the horizontal and vertical distance distance between two points, as if you were walking a square grid. It's pretty much a canonical example of Order. Chelsea, which is the neighborhood where the Seido Karate Honbu is located and thus where I spend most of my NYC visits, is just about a perfect implementation of this grid.

But when you go just a few blocks south into Greenwich Village the grid breaks down. Here, the system is so warped that 4th Street actually bends to run north-south and intersects with other numbered streets.

Now, this would be a sign of the hand of what goddess of Chaos?

And what, my friends, do we find where 5th Avenue and 5th Street would meet, but Washington Square Park, the heart of the Village?

Guess if NYC is the Big Apple, this is the place where it turns to the Golden Apple.

Hail Eris! Kallisti!

presenting at Primal Arts Festival and Fires of Venus

Posted on: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 13:59 By: Tom Swiss

Hi friends. I wanted to let you know about upcoming workshops I'll be presenting, at two different events in September -- conveniently located at the same place, Camp Ramblewood in Darlington, MD:

First, at the first ever Primal Arts Festival, I'll be presenting "Self-Defense as a Spiritual Practice", "Moxibustion for Sensation Play", and my famous workshop "How *Not* to Flirt With a Goddess". Primal Arts is September 3-6.

Then at Fires Of Venus, I'll be presenting some very special Erisian programming:

Kallisti: For the Prettiest One

Ok, Venus/Aphrodite is very nice and all, but have you ever had the feeling that a somewhat more...dynamic...goddess was running your love life? Have you ever tried so hard to prove how attractive and worthy of love you are, that you ended up causing all kinds of trouble? Do you feel that by taking yourself too seriously, you might be getting in your own way? Or do you just want in on the joke when people yell "Hail Eris!"?

Discordianism is a satirical (or perhaps in this context, satyr-ical) religion invented in the 1950s that has been very influential in the NeoPagan movement. We'll discuss its history, literature, and philosophy, and how a greater openness to divine chaos might (or might not!) enhance our romantic lives.

(I may be doing one or two other classes at FoV as well.) FoV is September 23-26.

Zelda's Inferno exercise: imagine the backstory

Posted on: Sun, 08/08/2010 - 20:23 By: Tom Swiss

Zelda's Inferno exercise: imagine the backstory of someone you've seen on mass transit.

I cheated, in that the first part of this is a blog entry from three years ago.

Here's the end of the story: "On the plane out of Osaka on Thursday, young man, maybe mid-twenties, sitting next to me. Before takeoff he reaches into his bag, pulls out an envelope, puts it in his lap and looks at it. Doesn't open it. I see a girl's name written on it. I figure that he met a girl over here, this is her farewell letter and he doesn't know what it says. For about ten, fifteen minutes, he looks at it, picks it up, puts it back down, trying I think to gather up his courage. I was actually getting worried for the guy. Finally he opens it, breaks out in a big smile as he reads,throws back his head and laughs. I tell him, 'I don't know what it is, but I'm glad it's good news.'"

*   *   *   *   *

Inside the huge hall of Kansai International Airport, they embraced one last time before he got into the long United check-in line. He took her hands. "So, um. I'm going to miss you. Have you had a chance to think about...?"

Shelley and science

Posted on: Wed, 08/04/2010 - 20:16 By: Tom Swiss

In honor of the birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley, here's a fascinating article I just stumbled upon about his attitude toward science:

From the days at Eton however when the embryo poet set trees on fire with gunpowder and a burning glass, or "raised the devil" -- and his tutor -- with electric batteries; even from earlier days, when he brought stained hands and singed clothing to the nursery at Field Place and tried to "shock" his little sisters into a cure for chilblains; Shelley's great interest lay in chemical and physical experiments that gave free scope to fancy and were too primitive to call for the exactness alien to the romantic nature of the experimenter.

During his short stint at Oxford, Shelley wrote:

"What a mighty instrument would electricity be in the hands of him who knew how to wield it? What will not an extraordinary combination of troughs of colossal magnitude, a well arranged system of hundreds of metallic plates, effect? The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy. It promises prodigious facilities for locomotion, and will enable us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we still so ignorant of the interior of Africa ? -- why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks?"

Ah, Shelley: nonviolent anarchist, atheist, vegetarian, poet, worshiper of Pan and fan of the Goddess, and now lover of technology when applied for humane ends. Is there anything you did that I don't love?

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