Written as part of my Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) aikido test.
I was born a person with a very particular sense of self. I have what you might call an all-or-nothing disposition; I’m intense and don’t tend to dabble in activities or relationships. For the most part, I have pursued only what I have been intrinsically passionate about, and as I have gotten older, this tendency has only solidified. Thus, while my practice of aikido has shaped me, I would have never begun it if I hadn’t sensed that it had a place in my life. The caveat is that my conception of aikido and how it fits into my life has, as might be expected, changed and evolved since I took my first ukemi, as I suspect, it will continue to do so. This reflection probably cuts to the essence of the question, “what does my practice of Kokikai Aikido mean to me?”
One of the main qualities I receive from my practice of Kokikai is a dynamic constancy. In the seven years since I begun my practice, I have been through serious tribulations in my life, and experienced great loss, as well as love, new beginnings, and a continual reevaluation of self. Yet, through all this, my practice has always been there, growing with me. In a job several years back, I once mentioned to my boss at the time that I was not available past a certain hour, as I had an aikido class to attend.
“Oh, that’s nice,” she mentioned, prosaically.
I suspect that to her, an evening class (of any kind) was probably a casual hobby that was of middling importance compared to work; but I knew instantly, ironically, that this job would probably pass but my practice would remain, and I was right.
A new friend recently commented with surprise when I first mentioned to her that I had been practicing aikido for several years.
“Isn’t that kind of a big deal?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” I said, “but I don’t think about it like that, after all this time.”
Put another way, the Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, whose words have inspired me since I was 19 years old, once said,
Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment…if you continue this simple practice every day you will obtain a wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you obtain it, it is nothing special. It is just you yourself, nothing special.
That’s somewhat what aikido is to me. It feels very special, yet is also mundane, as it is such an essential and regular part of my life, like eating, or music. What I have achieved now would seem impressive to myself several years ago; still, I look out to the horizon and feel small. Whenever I think I have reached a peak, higher mountains appear in the distance. Never-ending growth is a central tenet I have seen all true artists—martial and otherwise–embody, and is one that defines much of my purpose in life. To me, Kokikai Aikido is very much in line with this philosophy. Although I cannot say when or if I will ever fully internalize the four basic principles of Kokikai–Positive Mind, Keep One Point, Correct Posture, Relax Progressively—I do think they have become increasingly ingrained in me, and expressed through me in their own particular way.
As to what Kokikai means to me, it’s rather a difficult question to answer, especially in an essay as short as two pages, but it might concisely be expressed as: Me, but with a more positive mind, more centered, better posture, and more relaxed than I’d probably be if I had not been practicing these past seven years. There are many positive effects throughout my life that spring from these foundations, expressed in a myriad of ways. It would take many more pages to give an accurate account of them, but at their root, I believe they help my actions to be expressed with greater efficacy and efficiency, and perhaps, more beautifully, and this is also part of the answer. The whole of life is an art, and aikido is a path that lets me experience it with more joy, strength, and clarity. I plan to always walk it, deeper and deeper.
Sitting on my shelf, among the various 50 and 100 g packets of sencha and gyokuro, was this 20 g sencha sample. I didn’t have any expectations going in–I bought it at a stall at central station, Kyoto. The name on the package is “fragrant garden,” and as to be expected, it comes from Uji, that celebration region of tea production side by side with Kyoto, which doles it out in appropriate honorific fashion. I don’t think I paid more than ¥300 for it, maybe ¥200.
Taking the leaves out of the foil and dispensing them in a gaiwan, they look bright green, well composed, and smell sweet and vegetal. Definitely what I think of when I think of “delicate Kyoto green tea.”
The first time I made this sencha, I think I used too high of a water temperature. There was something interesting about it, in its depth and lingering sweetness, but it wasn’t quite there–I couldn’t quite tell if it reminded me more of a high mountain Taiwanese oolong or a chemically altered Tie Guan Yin.
The second time I did it right and brewed at a lower temperature and..it was vibrant and sweet, definitely reminiscent of a high mountain oolong. The taste became slightly more bitter and deep by the 3rd brewing, and unlike most senchas, it did not give out there right then and there, but lasted with sufficient roundness through the 5th brewing. Interesting. The sensations were most centered on the middle of my tongue radiating outwards, and I felt calm, relaxed, focused, joyful. I came away thinking this was a nice sencha, with some special qualities to it–and judging from the sample, quite reasonably priced.
Sometimes in life, and particularly in traveling, I have had the opportunity to meet people who seem unassuming at first, but turn out to be special, whom I seem to forge a meaningful connection with during our time together. And then it’s over; we may never see each other again. I never would have guessed, but it turned out to be memorable, leaving an impression on me. This sencha was like that sort of meeting. If I had any idea it was like this, I would have bought a bunch of it. I will probably not taste it again unless I return to that store in Kyoto; but I have faith I will taste another like it, taking my palate and mind’s eye to similar or greater heights.
I tend to think matcha is overrated. Unlike puer, the king of kings of tea, a set amount is drunk exactly once, and no more, as the leaves are consumed. This is perhaps the exact opposite the allure of puer, teeming with a depth of aged nutrients and bacterial growth which promises cascades of evolving tastes, sensations, and many, many brewings in tiny pots. One might think of puer or oolong as quintessentially Chinese teas in juxtaposition to matcha, which, in its use in the tea ceremony, in Zen, in its psychoactive effects, in its appearance, taste, form, and structure, seem to scream out: Nippon.
–But–No! Modern day matcha (if I understand correctly) is merely the most well known permutation of the category of “powdered teas,” which, in Olden Times, were more widespread. And where did this idea of powdered tea first originate from? Why, China, of course. Like everything else (in the forgotten yet chronicled past, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the present in its cultural forms, bound more tightly by genetics than anything).
The point is: I like evolution. Both in the genetic sense and in the subjective qualitative sense of self and other things. It pretty much motivates a lot of my reasons for living, because I am a person who abhors stagnancy. I used to be impatient (or more impatient), but the difference is, now, I am more accepting and perceptive of small growth/change–and in many respects, 10 small shifts have a potential to be much more interesting than one big one.
Perhaps, for this reason and others, it is no surprise that when we are young we seek to change the structure of our lives and identities through big shifts–jobs, locales, partners. Although I am still young, it seems to me that as we get older, there is a natural shift to want to experiment with change in smaller ways, as the “big” elements become more set–the taking on of additional responsibilities, fine tuning skills we may have already spent years or decades refining. Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who made Mario, said in an interview that he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and moves furniture around.
The point is change comes in many forms. It may be grand of me to say so, but through drinking many types of teas sprung from different legacies and altered over time, we have a chance to experience a wide variety of tastes, sensations, and even attitudes of different ecosystems, cultures, and people. That seems pretty big to me. But how this is actually experienced is through really small differences, most of the time–this year’s crop vs that year’s crop, an extra hour of roasting–in any art, it’s these kind of small gradations that are the experimental substance that drive the changes of later distinctions, allowed to emerge as the new sum of a multitude of variations.
After being hit in the face with it at X number of shops, I finally broke down and bought some matcha on my second to last day in Japan. I had already assembled a decent collection of sencha and gyokuro, so I purchased a few containers of various grades of matcha from a small stall with a celebrated history, run by an older, smiling gentleman, in a covered market in Osaka.
This tea comes from a company called 山口園, which, using my knowledge of Chinese into pidgin-Japanese, I’d translate as something like “garden at the foot of the mountains.” It is grown in Yame 八女, in Fukuoka prefecture, which is a major tea producing area of Japan I was apparently totally ignorant of until just now. As the Osakan website will tell you, this particular varietal, 一葉 (“One leaf”?) retails at 20g for 1,050円 (also known as Yen). I chose it because it was the lowest member of the group of high-class matcha that were being sold, the other two going for about twice and three times as much, which was too much for me. As it is, this one converts to $15/ounce. That’s not exactly cheap, if one takes tea as a whole, so it must be at least pretty good, right? (To make no mention of how good those other two, higher prices ones “should” be,’ but linearity of price vs quality rapidly breaks down once reaches a certain point, as with everything).
Opening the can, a brilliant green luster of green powder appeared, and swirling, gaseous fragments of the tea jumped off of the tiny, low-mass clumps. Now that’s something that’s just never gonna happen with a chunk of puer. This is like earth vs air.
I pre-heated a simple kitchen bowl with water that I think is roughly 70-75 C. The Japanese method of achieving proper temperature water for pre-boiling-water teas (which I think ,are pretty much all greens), is to boil water and do a transfer between cups, thus lowering the temperature by a certain amount with each transfer, due to heat lost. It’s a very elegant, mechanical, Japanese solution. I prefer the Chinese one, which is more poetic and based on intuition, looking and listening to the water, at how many bubbles are appearing and how rapidly they are forming. I think I more or less have a handle on it; besides, it’s more fun this way.
After sifting the matcha into the pre-heated bowl, I pour it up to somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 full, using my trusty Made in China whisk (about $8; I’m not paying $30 for a proper, high-quality Made in Japan chasen), and this is the result:
There’s thin matcha and then there’s thick matcha. I’m a thick matcha kind of guy–I like density and intensity. Adding to my ignorance, I also just recently learned that in the former category (what I had been mistakenly doing), one should beat the whisk in a rapid undulating sine wave/U shape, whereas to make the later, one should simply perform gently circular rotations. Makes sense. I seem to still have the problem of matcha falling out of solution, so is it that I’m doing something sub-optimally that’s resulting in supersaturation, or more that I take too long to drink it? Maybe some of both.
I drank in slowly. Then I waited. A slightly bitter (nothing compared to Lao Ban Zhang) taste with some detectable sweetness and umami. Pleasant. As I continued to drink, I felt calmer and calmer, yet more focused. I drifted–not away but more into my body. By the end of the bowl I was naturally sitting in a meditative posture, looking at a point on the table. I felt completely focused, yet totally relaxed, a razor sharp state of being. There were no thoughts outside my body taking me away from this present moment. I still had the thoughts, but I merely saw them, in great resolution–and yet, I had no desires or compulsions or anxiety about the past or future. It was just Now.
When I started this session, it was maybe 9 PM. I had some vague plans for the rest of the evening, to write, tidy up, read, watch something..but I didn’t, I just stayed in that moment, for at least 45 minutes, completely in a flow state of meditation. After the initial bursts faded and I got up to move around, I still felt very much at peace, engaged, but without any sense of urgency to any particularly activity.
The second session, which was this morning, and done on an empty stomach, was not quite as calming, and I think quite a bit of that might have had to do with these two different variables. I experienced many of the same sensations, but definitely felt my heart tangibly speeding up, and felt a bit anxious, strong heat and a kind of energy building up in my stomach, but in a much more singular way than the one sometimes experiences that with puer, which is diffusive and expansive in a complimentary but very different way.
In conclusion: DRINK THIS TEA. Or one like it. This is good. Not all the time, but, for when you’re ready to drop everything and enter that state of being for 1-2 hours.
How does living in the Bay Area affect your music?
AG: After having lived here for over a decade and seeing so many of our musician and artist friends having to leave had a big impact on this record. Our guitar player, Dylan, said that at times he feels like he’s the last guitarist left in San Francisco. It used to be that just about everyone in S.F. was some kind of an artist. That’s no longer the case. The artists/freaky people are the ones that made the Bay Area such an inspiring place to live. They’ve been replaced by 25-year-old Google millionaires. Trying to survive as artists in the Bay Area feels like you’re floating on a cracker.
The battle had been harsh and quick. There had been no time for Beatrice to scream or fight back; three of her best men had been almost instantly subdued and shredded by the fabled White Tiger, and now she had been captured by the beast. Where was she being taken? She had heard legends of the White Tiger–her great grandmother once told a story to her village when she was a girl of six years, upon having seen it, when she was a little girl; but no one seriously believed it. Maybe that old codger, Sirial, but he was as daft as anyone. The last ravings of a near-insane old woman, nothing more–bless her heart (although she was a bit of a witch).
Beatrice had nearly forgotten that tale, it was merely the flotsam of a myriad of seemingly inconsequential childhood memories–her first kiss, being forced to drink yam-heart pudding on her 11th birthday, as was the custom, the subsequent throwing up–also part of custom, her first husband–whom she escaped from, her second husband–whom she poisoned (it was entirely a case of self-defense, she had maintained, before being exiled from The Mooring of Leering and all its villages, of which Renyur was one). And so it was a great surprise, shall we say, to suddenly see a blazing, near-albino beast waiting for them at the top of the difficult mountain pass they had just come out of after 6 hours of grueling climbing–the sight of which was enough to send her and her comrades into sudden shock–during which, their defenses were helpless, and well..
And Beatrice was helpless now. She stood solemn (if “stood” was the right word, which it wasn’t), her huge head attached to the back of the brutal, silent creature, which it had skillfully woven around its body with a cloth, merely using its mouth, as if it had done it a hundred times.
“And all this time,” she thought, “while the idiot elders were laughing about its existence and other ‘tall tales’ over their daily grog, He was sharpening his claws, carrying out who knows how many missions.”
A solemnity was carved into her face, and she thought of people she had not thought of in a long time, people she had deemed as pathetic and not deserving of anything more than her contempt, and a single tear, almost too small to see, fell from her left eye.
Its mission. Sudden awareness crept into her mind and she attempted to regain her composure along the bumpy, seemingly, ever-accelerating ride. The creature had known that she was a Detacher–kicked off her head instantly in the same way it nonchalantly broke the necks of her companions–but was careful not to inflict the slightest laceration upon her face. It was obviously planned, well coordinated, with plenty of advance-reconaissance–mission was the perfect description of what had happened–and she hated that word, in all its passiveness, yet she could not think of a better one for what had just transpired, and she held back further tears.
But why? She enumerated possibilities, sworn enemies (of which she had many), motivations, etc. She searched her mind through rain, hunger, and lack of sleep, all the while on this terrible caboose, judged the position of the hills, stars, and moon, and the natural flora and fauna of the surrounding environment (which was of a lush, yet brackish nature–confusingly), and in the end, there was a single word left: Brimothir. She was being taken by the White Tiger (whose existence, up until several hours ago, was thought to be purely of a fictional, quasi-Grog induced state of < 0.4 % probability, give or take a few micro percentage poiints)–to Brimothir.
But why? She didn’t know why, didn’t understand. But this was bad. Oh yes, this was very bad.
1) Young, black-multiracial girl smiling beatifically at me as she walks by with a guy. She has wonderful teeth.
3) Possibly listening nearby, possibly indifferent
4) Young vagrant-guy with tattered clothes and rolled up sleeping bag bobbing his head and smiling at me as he walks by
5) Young, enthusiastic Asian girl who comes up and starts talking to me, and says she’s a recent transplant from NJ. She says she is working on a documentary about people who perform or do something in the public sphere, and wants to know if she can ask me a few questions and film it on her iPhone, which she does. Apparently I’m the first suitable person who has captivated her attention sufficiently to be worthy of this honor.
6) Teenage kid with a mullet and a skateboard, who nods at me as he walks by in the medium distance and calls out, “shred it.”
7) Middle-aged guy with tattooed arms walks up to me, rather closely, and starts speaking. He’s slurring his words. I’m pretty sure that’s a strong beverage he’s nursing.
“I think we’re the same..I play too..just keep playing..you’re adding harmony to the world.”
Squiggles, the albino iguana, panted and squirmed.
“Oh dear, if only I wasn’t so far from home, if only I wasn’t so weak and small,” he thought.
“Worm, I shall flay your carcass if you do not move faster!” Yelled Rabbit, his rage becoming more and more self-consuming. He had become obsessed with power and self-image, spending hours each day cultivating himself before the mirror.
“This inheritance shall be your undoing,” his sister had warned him, “you are not honoring the wishes of Father.”
“To hell with ye and ye three tongued-banshee of a scarecrow that ye calleth that cow,” replied Rabbit.
And with that, he rode off into the triple sunset on his brand new iguana.
“Iguana,” spoke Rabbit calmly, regaining his composure upon feeling the shame of this memory, “it is not that I do not respect you, but it is paramount that we fill this cup in which I sit of the finest sake in these lands.”
“Yes my lord,” spoke Iguana, “and for that reason, I am taking you the shortest path to The White Well, of which the clearest and surest Junmai Ginjo is said to flow,” he lied.
“Yes, I am thankful for that..” said Rabbit, knowing full well what really lay ahead.
There would be blood spilt tonight.