I love Hirosaki. It’s the place where I first thought to myself “you know, I should live in Japan someday”, and it’s also the place where I met possibly the greatest love of my life so far. Besides that, it’s just a beautiful town, and they have plenty of Taido going on.

In fact, this year is the 30th anniversary of Taido in Aomori Prefecture, and this year’s Sakura Matsuri Taikai (cherry blossom festival tournament) was the 28th such event. That’s a long time, and it’s always a great tourney.

I’ve been able to watch the Sakura Taikai three times, but never competed for various reasons. I had hoped to actually make it onto the mats this year, but having broken my finger two weeks before the event, luck was not on my side. Even as a spectator, I’ve always enjoyed seeing everyone come together with friendly attitudes and great skills for this event that perfectly sets off the All-Japan champs, held every November. The Sakura Taikai is probably the largest non-national tournament in Japan and is a two-day event. Players come from all over the country and sometimes from other countries.

As is my pattern, I’m going to omit most of the details form the actual tournament and focus on the general feelings I got form being there and interacting with other Taidoka.

The Double Dutch Bus

Being a weekend tournament, everyone who doesn’t live near Hirosaki has to find some way to get there and back. The overnight bus is the cheapest method for most of us. My bus left Tokyo at about 10pm Friday night and arrived in Hirosaki at 6-something Saturday morning. As expected, I recognized a few faces around the bus terminal but nobody I knew very well. When I got on, the first thing I saw was Masaki and Funase sitting right up front. Even though we slept for basically the entire trip, it’s nice riding with someone you know and like.

When all the buses arrived in Hirosaki, team after team of Taido students began to pour out onto the sidewalk, and I started getting a really nostalgic feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time in Hirosaki (a lot more time than most people know), and I’ve always traveled there by bus. I started getting really excited looking around at all the places I used to hang out. Since it was still early, my dojomates and I decided to head to Gusto for some breakfast.

At the restaurant, which was one of a very few places in the vicinity open that early, almost every table was full of Taido students from universities and dojo all over the country. We all made our rounds, saying hello to people we hadn’t seen in a while, and I spent a few minutes chatting up this really cute girl form Kitasato Uni before sitting down to my first of about 15 cups of coffee. At 8:30, Chiba said “OK, time to pick up the car”. Huh?

Chiba is a genius. We are about the only group that had a car, and we are about the only group that had no trouble getting anywhere. The car ended up costing less than we would have spent on taxis, and we got to use it at our own leisure. Plus it had a navi, which made finding our way around between the onsen, budokan, party, and hotel much easier. We still had a couple of hours to kill after getting the car, so we headed to an some random hot spring to relax.

It felt really nice to clean up and soak for a bit after the eight-hour bus ride, and it felt even better to have a beer afterward, knowing that I didn’t have to compete. We ran into Nakano and Kaneko there and talked with them for a bit before everyone fell asleep watching Matsui and the Yankees get their asses handed to them on TV. Then, it was back in the car to the Prefectural Martial Arts Hall.

Tourney Day One

I’ve come to the conclusion that tournaments are really just a social event. That’s a good thing. Japan is a small country, but transportation is really expensive, so nobody travels unless they have a good excuse. Frequent tournaments allow everyone to get together and talk about Taido and other things with people we can’t see too often. I think the independence of various clubs in Japan coupled with the frequent tournaments is one of the things that keeps Japanese Taido strong.

When I first walked down onto the floor, I could already see through the window to the judges’ room at the front of the gymnasium. Before I could make it halfway across the floor, Shima Sensei comes practically trotting out with a giant grin on his face and his hand stuck out in welcome. He’s such a friendly guy, and it’s great to see somebody who has been doing Taido so long who still gets excited about the little things. After that, I ran into tons of other folks that I hadn’t seen since whenever, and it was great to meet them all again.

It was especially cool seeing the Australian team. I’ve run into them in Japan before, and since visiting them earlier this year, we’ve really become good friends in Taido. Five students from Australia were at the tournament, and four of them were competing.

I also got meet somebody for the first time that I had heard I needed to. I recently sent out a survey regarding Taido injuries, and I’m working on writing up an article about what I can find out. Denis (a French Taidoka who has “gone native” in Hirosaki) introduced me to a guy named Matsumoto. Matsumoto is a doctor, and for the past several years, he has been keeping stats on injuries in Taido tournaments and practices. He reports his findings to the Japan Taido office. I asked him a few questions, and he agreed to share his findings with me. So the bad news is that my article will be delayed, but the good news is that I will have much more data from which to make analyses and suggestions.

Of course, it was a tournament, so the actual games were interesting and exciting too. Some of the hokei demonstrated were excellent. The women’s hokei in particular was of a generally higher quality than what was presented at last year’s All-Japan meet. Of course, it was no surprise to see Nakano doing amazing tengi, but there were some really good performances by university students as well, and I would be very remiss if I didn’t mention that Denis’s hokei has improved dramatically since I last saw him perform.

For the Yokohama team, there was lots of good stuff going on. Hiromi pulled out some great rengi in jissen, and Takatsuna made it into the hokei and jissen finals. Chiba scored an ippon in about ten seconds in one match. Then it came down to Yokohama versus Yokohama between Chiba and Takatsuna. Surprisingly (and I say that, not to put down Takatsuna, but because Chiba is really great at jissen), Takatsuna won. I think Chiba was just exhausted by that point, but it was a really close and fun match nonetheless.

Bottoms Up

After the first day’s events, it was time for drinks. Everyone got together for food and beverage and good times at a place near the hotel. I hung with the Aussies a bit, talked to Kaneko, met an American woman and her son who is doing Taido, drank so much I forgot all about the food, and then got talking with Denis and Alvar about translating Taido texts into English. After a couple more beers to build momentum, we seized the opportunity to get an “official” perspective on some ideas.

We cornered Nakajima sensei (Japan Taido president) and Yoriko Kudo (one of Shukumine’s daughters) and got to talking about what would be required to professionally translate the Gairon (most importantly) and the Kyohan into English. Apparently, Alvar has already got funding for the project almost nailed down from some “anonymous” benefactors. Of course, the concern was raised that the Kyohan in particular has numerous errors that would have to be addressed, but we are confident that these can be ironed out in the translation/re-editing process. On the subject of editing, we were able to impress on them the importance of good English editing of the translated product, and I think I have been tentatively elected as the one the people to do that. At any rate, this was a potentially important conversation in that it was agreed that we could go ahead. Now it just remains for them to actually provide Alvar with the original manuscripts so he can get price quotes for the translation. I’m holding my breath.

After that, I was out in the hall, about to enter into a really deep conversation with … Somebody, when Hiromi told me it was time to go find the hotel. So we did.

No Rest for the Wicked

We had one room for four men, and both the ladies had their own rooms. Chiba’s sensei (Watanabe, who teaches at Takushoku Uni in Tokyo) apparently didn’t have a reservation. So Chiba magnanimously gave up his futon and headed down the hall to sleep with his wife. And so it was that Takatsuna got some impromptu jissen coaching from Watanabe Sensei.

We didn’t tear up the tatami in the room too badly, but those little rooms were not built with the idea that semi-inebriated men would doing late-night jissen practice in them. At least we didn’t kiai. I have to give tTakatsuna credit for his note taking too, because the next day, I’ll be damned if he didn’t try every single suggestion Watanabe had made in at least one match. And even though he did eventually get beaten, he got style points in the process (and he definitely works hard for the style points).

Bright and early next morning, we were treated to a breakfast of raw egg and natto. For those who don’t know, natto=disgusting. I had a few bowls of rice and a few cups of coffee and passed my natto to Miho, who apparently can’t get enough of it.

Of course, I always get grief from Japanese people for not eating natto – they seem to take such national pride in gulping down the slimy, smelly stuff. Every time I mention that I don’t eat natto, I get the same chorus: “It’s healthy!”. So? It won’t make up for all the beer I drank the night before. Besides, the last thing I need is diet advice from a culture based on refined white rice. Please, let’s see some complex carbs, complete proteins, and less sodium before making claims of dietary superiority. About the only things the traditional Japanese diet gets right is fish and vegetables. I could easily go on a rant here, but I’ll spare you…

Tourney Day Two

The second day’s events included all of the children’s events, and contrary to form, I actually watched them. I usually only watch kids’ events if I know some of the competitors, but this time I watched most of the games. The kids were good – no doubt about it. Kiddie karate isn’t my idea of a stimulating spectator sport, but I’ll admit that about 10% of the kids I see doing Taido in Japan are actually impressive.

Sadly, most of them will eventually quit. Not to be pessimistic, but people staying with Taido their entire lives are a real minority. Only Bryan and Mitsuaki have been doing Taido as long as me in America – everyone else dropped off. In Japan too, guys like Kaneko and Fumi Suzuki are rarities. Funase told me later that she had done Taido since she was very young, but quit for most of her teens because of school pressure and such. That she came back to Taido probably has a lot to do with her father.

So while I want to look at young kids doing Taido with optimism and enthusiasm, history tells me that even the brightest stars will burn out and fade away by college, if not before. You can see it clearly in America in recent years, and you can also see it in Japan. However, here it’s somewhat balanced by all the people who begin Taido at university clubs. Of course, the vast majority of them quit upon graduation as well. Moving on…

The second day also held the finals for the adult events, and this was much more interesting. There were some really good jissen matches, and Takatsuna really held his own. The hokei were clean, but my favorite for women’s hokei ended up only making third place.

It was a good day for the Yokohama team. Takatsuna walked away with silver in jissen, Chiba won the gold in old-timer hokei (please! He’s only 36!), Hiromi took gold in women’s jissen and best female overall. Some other people from some other schools also got some awards, including Stephanie from Australia, who made a really strong showing in both hokei and jissen. The Austalians won the women’s team jissen as well.

Finally, there was also a special presentation of the kyoshi and renshi titles to Fredrik and Louise, respectively, which is super-good news for Aussie Taido. Louise was also awarded her certificate for, in Nakajima sensei’s terminology “four-dan”. I even remembered to tell them both congratulations like a good boy. Mom, if you’re reading this, be proud that your son has finally learned some manners. (I’ll leave out the other stuff I told them…)

Then everyone cleaned up and went their separate ways.

The Last Supper

Since we were guests (well, I was hanging with the guests…), the Aussies and I got to crash the dinner that most of the Hanshikai, Yoriko, and the tournament organizers/Aomori Taido guys were having. There were lots good feelings going around, along with food and drink. Kondo sensei told me to hurry up and marry a Japanese girl so I won’t have to go back to America, but I persuaded him to let me do my thing in the States for a while before I’m old enough to settle down.

It was really cool getting to talk to Yoriko again too – I think I was eight the only other time I had actually met her. She’s very cool and really into getting Taido ready for the future. She and Alvar were talking a lot about copyrights and the logo design for the new World Taido Federation. I put in my two cents with some, uh, observations and facts I had researched along those lines, then left to find more beer. Of course, logos are all well and good, but action is much more important in the long run. Anyway, she’s a really funny and approachable lady (and very good at English), and I hope to meet her again.

The entire point of getting together and drinking is to free up the communicative pathways, and let me say that we were all feeling especially glib. In fact, Tanaka Sensei and I had an interesting discussion about the notion that drinking together is one of the best ways to get to know somebody. Dave and I talked about (what else?) stupid people. It was also funny chatting with Jason about studying physics. My studies took me from a major in physics to mathematical logic to linguistics to communications theory to literature to semiotics to (finally) a degree in sociology. Jason’s experincing a similar exodus from the physics department.

And just when I thought it was safe to put down my glass, in walked Yumiko Sekiba. Now, everyone who knows Yumiko loves her, and she and Sekiba Sensei have done so much to help so many Taido students over the years that it’s impossible to say enough about how wonderful they are. I’ve spent lots of time living in their house and hanging with their family and friends. Though Yumiko is very, very shy, she is always thirsty for the special, Kirin-brand water. Getting to spend a few minutes talking with her was probably the best finale for this trip I can imagine.

The Post-Last Supper (Reprise)

After making sure we hadn’t wasted any beer, Masaki, Funase, and I then said our see-you-laters and caught a cab for the bus terminal. We bought some cheesy Aomori souvenirs and headed to the Golden Arches to kill some time before the busses arrived. I ingested some poison, and we talked about all kinds of good Taido stuff. I told them to definitely visit the States some day, since we don’t have too many women reaching very high ranks (they are both 5dan), judging, and actively teaching Taido, especially under thirty years old. I think I may have convinced them to get their asses to Atlanta someday (bribes).

Back on the Chain Gang

Now I am back in Gunma, typing (with both hands!!!!) from my usual perch at the Misuta Donatsu in Tomioka, guzzling coffee. I like it here, but I’ve wondered more than a few times during my three years living in the armpit of Japan how things would have turned out if I had managed to find a school posting around Hirosaki. I would certainly be doing more Taido, and well – there are some personal things too, but I’m not going to get into that right now. Sekiba Sensei made me promise to visit again before I return to the States, so i’m shooting for another trip up that way maybe in August.

At any rate, I always enjoy Hirosaki, and I got a lot out of being a part of this event, despite my inability to compete. I got to see a lot of quality Taido and talk with a lot of quality people about Taido – and other stuff. In two years, Aomori Taido will host their 30th consecutive Sakura Matsuri Taiki, and I’m not sure where I’ll be living or what I’ll be doing, but I have marked it on my calendar to attend.