More is less. Less is better. Achieve less. Nothing is more. Be empty-minded. Smooth is fast. Those pearls of Zen Bushido wisdom were burned into wooden plaques mounted on the dojo walls. Bushido means the way of the warrior.
Its foremost precepts are giri, honour and ninjō, compassion. For the first two weeks of lessons, I had shown up nightly prepared to learn how to swing the shinai, happily anticipating learning a new sport. Generally, other kendoists were absent when I arrived, yet the dojo retained the feeling of having been filled with shouting and sweating bodies. Energy and enthusiasm lingered though the owners had departed. Kendo means the way of the sword.
Sometimes I wondered if the owner had intentionally isolated me as if by simply looking at me he had realized that I was unsuited to share civilized company. Unwarranted paranoia my rational brain told me. Yet, the awkward discomfort I felt in the company of other people persisted. I was a pariah, so I kept my own peace and stayed aloof.
The slip-slap of callused barefeet and yellowed toenails clicking against polished maple announced a familiar presence. Sporting a bottom lip beard with foot-long ragamuffin hairs that stuck out in every direction, a Japanese man entered from the hallway. An off-white and frayed shinshaga jacket, held closed by mae-himo sash, draped in scruffy wrinkles around angular shoulders. The grey hem of his threadbare hakama (wide cotton skirt) curled up around varicose ankles. In one toughened hand he lugged a galvanized metal bucket filled with soapy water. In the other hand, he held a two-foot-long wooden scrub brush.
Sometimes his grey-white hair hung down his back, but most days he wore it in a topknot twisted into a bun on top of his head, secured by two wooden stakes shoved through from opposite sides. Samurais traditionally wore topknots. I had researched Samurai culture, Shinto religion, Zen Bushido and Kendo, but I kept that from the gnarled gnome hauling water. No one wanted to be known as the wise guy asshole.
Less is better.
Seldom did he utter a friendly word; never a kind phrase. When he deemed me worthy to communicate with at all, he imparted succinct directions in virtually identical words as the previous night. Not once had he offered his name and I had never asked. We went round and round in an odd relationship loop just this side of almost impolite. Not far abreast of cantankerous. We bordered on mutual respect like two quasi-friends who fought each other like cats and dogs their whole lives but would not have had it any other way.
Having set the bucket on the maple floor, he ordered, “Clean floor. Use both hands.” He held up his arms indicating a specific distance between scarred fists dotted with liver spots, but which sported thick calluses. “Clean from knees; stretch out; breathe out of mouth to four-count. Pause four-count. Pull back; breathe in through mouth with four-count; hold for four-count. Repeat. Do job well, gai-jin student.” He nodded briskly with each instruction before weeble-walking away on bowed legs. Before he disappeared through the curtain, he called back, “Why you procrastinate? Scrub now lazy sloth that crawls slowly down tree.”
Student means the way of unhappy floor scrubber.
Initially, I had scrubbed the floor thinking it might have been a karate-kid training technique, but my patience had begun to wane. The monthly fee I paid endowed me with the privilege to maintain the dojo floor and for the honour of reading those wooden plaques.
More is less. Less is better. Achieve less. Nothing is more.
If I stopped scrubbing, I’d achieve less. No wonder he called me gai-jin. It meant barbarian loosely, but foreigner more specifically. Only a dull-witted foreign barbarian would pay so much, for so little, and for so long. Nothing is more! To think the height-challenged hobbit had sent me packing that first night still made my skin burn.
* * * * * * *
The picture window sign had advertised, Students Welcome. Katana Dojo was on the way home from what was then my new job at Hidden Oaks. Upon entering the double glass doors, the same white-haired Japanese man appeared.
“Please to follow me.” After an interview that lasted one minute and comprised five questions and answers, he declared, “Have stained spirit. Bushido not for you. Learn tai chi. Go now.”
“Is the manager here?”
Even money said his son, the owner, was in the back and this guy carried a Nagasaki grudge, not that I blamed him, but I had come for kendo lessons.
“No manager. Just me, gai-jin.” He pointed to the door. “Leave now.”
“The sign says Students Welcome. I’m a student. Besides, it looks pretty quiet in there. Is a stained spirit a religious thing? You’re advertising a few stains yourself,” I told him indicating his food-stained shinshaga. “I’ll make you a deal. I teach you Western fork style, you teach me kendo.”
“Fork style?” he said scratching his chin as his face and forehead flamed insult. I worried the little fellow might burst a blood vessel. “Follow me, gai-jin.”
We passed through high-lustre walnut doors into a spacious training area. As he traversed the dojo, his bow-legged weeble-walk rocked him side-to-side like an emperor penguin headed for open water. On second thought, an emperor penguin might be taller. Less than a third of the dojo’s fluorescent lights illuminated the floor. An entire wall comprised of ceiling height mirrors reflected the floor’s polished maple wood brilliance and diffused available light. The back of the dojo had a shrine built into it. Scorched incense holders framed a seated Buddha statue set on marble relief. Buddha was definitely taller than Yoda. To be fair, Buddha was a lot pudgier around the middle.
It was difficult for my eyes to penetrate shadow, but I recognized folding mats in one corner and headgear with wire face shields hung on hooks beside them. Banks of cubbyholes contained folded kendo padding placed exactly the same distance from the lip of the cubbyhole. The old guy returned carrying two three-foot-long bamboo staves, one of which he tossed one to me when we stood nine feet apart. A quick examination of the revealled strong twine soaked in wax lashed three pieces of sliced bamboo together. Slightly shy of four feet long it had a rounded end with a flexible tiny whip-like feeling. Weighed about a pound.
“Shinai,” he said in a voice that belied his age.
I blinked. He seemed to have grown a foot before my eyes.
“Use both hands,” he said splitting his grip high and low. “Right hand high, behind tsuba (the collar). Left hand down low near tsuka-gashira (the end).”
“You want to battle?” Was this beat a senior week?
“Not battle. Kickass, gai-jin. Then you leave. Hai! No religion accusations. No return. Learn chopstick etiquette!”
“What about lessons?”
“One strike. Touch me anywhere with shinai and I’ll grant lessons.”
How hard could that be? I stood more than a foot above him. My reach advantage was huge; I outweighed him by sixty pounds; I was far younger. Nevertheless, I had never held a shinai; his ability was unknown; only nightlights illuminated the dojo and he had probably been doing this since the invention of fire. According to Sun-tzu, I was in trouble. Still, the ancient guy was older than dirt but just as crusty. Sad to say that it was my nature to compete, even when I was too stubborn to admit my lack of kendo proficiency might prove disastrous. All I had to do was suffer a few bamboo slaps, outlast him until he tuckered out and needed a nap. After which, I would gently touch the old guy on the shoulder. Should not be too painful. I had been hurt far worse and for a lot less reason in the past.
“One strike.” Bring it, old-timer.
“Kire!” he yelled and swung. “Cut!”
One blink earlier he had stood idly in front of me. Seemingly relaxed. His shinai held low and to the left pointing at the floor. And though he minimized his profile by turning his shoulders ninety degrees to me, I had not assessed that posture as threatening. Before I had registered danger, he exploded into action sliding forward while his shinai blurred upwards on the diagonal from left to right faster than the eye was almost able to perceive, too fast for me to do anything. Flexible bamboo slapped hotly into my hip inflicting scorching pain that flared outward from the point of impact. The shinai’s whip-like, flexible construction increased the momentum of the strike severalfold. That non-threatening stance had been a deception.
My waist buckled inward. No bow to begin the duel. No warning. Nightlights impeded my vision. That old hobbit was cagey smart and faster than a King cobra.
“That was migi kiriagi. I teach nine cuts technique; eight more seeds to sew. Do you yet desire kendo lessons, gai-jin?”
“I know Catholic school nuns who hit harder,” I muttered through clenched teeth.
Waves of burning agony faded as I moved. Any thought I coveted about taking advantage of the old guy vanished. He returned his shinai to another low position, this time pointing to the floor in front of him. I circled left, crossing one foot over the other, maintaining a minimized profile, wary of a repeat strike. In a sudden burst, I stepped forward and chopped down. He whipped his shinai up, deflected mine high and to the side while continuing to raise his shinai toward the ceiling. When he achieved a baseball batter’s stance, when his elbows were nearly parallel to the floor, he uncoiled without jerkiness. He smoothly unfolded a strike that was deceptive in its speed.
“Migi kesagiri! Cut two.”
‘Thwack!’ Sliced bamboo shouted when it belted into my flesh. Acute pain fought to stun me into a statue, to steal movement from my limbs. My head tilted toward the strike point. Had I not hunched my shoulder at the last moment, the midget might have fractured my collarbone. As it was, my shoulder had gone numb. If I stopped to rub out the pain, he would strike again with that greasy speed. Anger directed at the old man flooded through me. Seeped into my fast-twitch muscle tissues. Travelled down my limbs to infuse them with hostile energy. Bleak shadows moved across the light-coloured floor between us. He was taking advantage of me ― playing me for a dolt, adroitly picking and choosing his strikes to highlight my kendo ineptness, which, if I was honest, was not too difficult. Anger evicted pain. To hell with hobbits and pygmies. Before I had assessed him for weakness, he launched a follow-up attack.
“Hidari yokogiri!” Bamboo slammed into my ribcage. “Migi yokogiri!” he yelled and swung left to right at my torso from the opposite side.
After his first stinging strike had raised a new welt, reflexes placed my shinai in the path of his next strike. Our shinais clatter-rattled together. The searing pain faded as my warrior’s brain calculated angles and speed, as fresh streams of adrenaline and fury and purpose flowed through my system, merging to focus on my tormentor. Surprise widened the midget’s eyes. Studying his stance for correctness, I shoved his stave back and mimicked his stance by placing my weapon straight out in front of me, the tip at the same height as his throat.
“Not twice in a row,” I snarled.
Twine wrapped bamboo thrust at my torso. This time I caught sight of bunching muscles and bent my knees to drop my shoulders. Bamboo grazed past and along the outside of my neck as I lunged out and upward out of my crouch, swinging sideways at his torso as if my shinai was a Louisville baseball bat. No longer thinking, I trusted my instincts and reflexes to locate an opening. The old guy had recovered from his thrust and blocked my strike. Unprepared for the power behind my ballpark swing, it lifted him off his feet and jolted him backwards. Knees bent to absorb the impact, he landed in perfect form, still hanging onto his weapon, now held straight out, ready to intercept my next blow as I stepped forward to follow through.
How in hell had he managed that manoeuvre?
Hearing his breath quicken and begin to chug hard past an open mouth encouraged me to attack, chopping and swinging for all that I was worth. Though fast and skilled, no one can fight old age indefinitely. Just one thing to do: keep him on the move. Tire him out. Pressing him, I struck high, right to left. Do not let him breathe. Again, I struck high, this time left to right. Move forward. Bury the pain.
Summon more rage and determination. Ignore muscle stiffness and strike hard. Again, high left and then high right. At each juncture my opponent blocked those wild and erratic strikes, making it appear ridiculously easy to thwart my intent. He toyed with me, waiting to inflict more pain when it suited him, purposely provoking various positions from me. He was testing my reflexes, assessing speed, strength and cardiovascular conditioning, I suddenly realized, powerless to do anything except to respond, or to let myself be hit. Half-angry, half-cunning, I hammered at his midsection crudely attempting to change the tempo and to disrupt his plans.
His stave waited.
His qi shout no longer contained the same energy: he no longer counted cuts. ‘Thwack!’ There went my other hip.
As though it had a life of its own, my shinai flashed out to take advantage of his extended arms. He blocked it, but just. The little fellow was an eel, all squirmy and unpredictable, slimy fast. Limping noticeably, I shuffled backwards needing time to think. Make him come to me, I thought. Burn up more of his energy. He slid closer as my eyes darted from his hands to his stave. I swung out across my middle, sweeping the front, forcing him back before he struck. He nimbly leapt backwards beyond the arc of my shinai, huffing and puffing hard now. The second his toes hit the ground he sprang forward faster than an Indian rubber ball, springing up and up floating like Michael Jordan. Bound bamboo arced down from over his head, too fast and too sudden for me to raise my shinai.
“Shinchokugiri!” he called out, launching head splitter.
The men in our family are known for having large, quick hands. It was generally agreed that we were blessed with exceptional eye-to-hand coordination through some DNA freak of nature. Whether it was freakish genetics or just luck, I caught his descending shinai with my right hand. A sword would have amputated half my hand. But it was not a sword. It was a pound of bamboo bound with twine. Welts from that stick covered my body like freckles. My breath came hard and fast and tomorrow would find me black and blue, but tonight the pain-giver was mine. I clamped my hand tightly around the blunted end and repositioned my feet, prepared to hang on no matter how hard he tugged. Standing six-foot-two-inches tall, I weighed in at 230 pounds, almost twice that of the old fellow.
Grinning victoriously, I swung from way back over my shoulder, coming down one-handed from left to right shouting out the words that had accompanied his second strike, summoning whatever power remained in my battered bones.
The old fellow released his shinai as I had teed up. He now stood statue still with his hands crossed lightly at his front. Backbone ramrod straight. Chin level. Eyes unwaveringly locked onto mine. Not a hint of flinch. An aura of serenity and peace surrounded him, cloaking his benign being in a bubble of nonaggression. He was Gandhi and Buddha harmonised. Vulnerability and passivity endowed him with an ethereal strength heretofore unknown to me. He did not duck. He did not step back. He did not so much as raise a protective arm to deflect my oncoming shinai. He refused to vacillate from his decision. Refused to surrender. Old fool.
He was going to accept my strike. Kamikaze!
Too late to check my swing, too late to stop my shinai’s pendulum momentum as it rampaged toward an unprotected shoulder, I opened my hand. Bamboo flew away. It turned into a projectile. Launched like a javelin across the distance until it struck the wall to dent it admirably. A hair later, several one-hundredths of a second slower, and I might have crushed him. The old fellow had lost more brain cells than Japan had lost WWII fighter pilots. Tossing the shinai I back confiscated back to him with a disbelieving head shake, I turned for the exit. Acute waves of roiling pain rolled up my legs as I fought a losing battle not to limp or to groan, not to show myself to be a bigger fool than I already had. Goddamn, that midget sure could land a shot. At least I enjoyed the distinction of knowing I could have whacked an old man with a bamboo stick. I would find lessons somewhere else, from someone taller.
“Rest easy. I keep my bargains,” I responded not looking back. Low, pain-filled groans escaped my lips as I walked despite efforts to muzzle it back. “I’m history.”
“If can walk tomorrow, return 7:00 pm for lesson two. You perform most fantastical uchikomi-dai impersonation. Pleasure to instruct you further.”
It hurt too much to stop and to turn around, so I lifted my hand and called back, “Tomorrow night. Got it.”
It would be some months before I learned that uchikomi-dai was a practice bundle fashioned from wet and green bamboo stalks, a punching bag in Western terms. After that embarrassing debacle, I was returning. That old man and I had some unfinished business. He had humbled me mightily. More than ever, I wanted to acquire the ease and skill with which he had dispatched me.
Night air flowed cool and refreshing over and around my bruised and battered body. It was a leisurely twenty-minute walk to the Brownstone bunker where I rented a one-bedroom suite. It should take me about an hour tonight to get there. I might have to rest a couple of times to pay homage to the wrinkled Japanese gnome whom I admired and respected for his skill and courage to stand fearlessly in the face of uncertainty. That took grit. It would not be a lie to say that I liked him immediately.