One afternoon, as I was returning from one of my longest walks yet that had my shins and arches aching with a dull, throbbing pain, I dropped in at the Budôkan to see what kind of martial arts were taught there.
At the entrance was a bulletin board with a schedule of classes. On Saturday evenings, big boys in diapers pushed themselves around a clay circle. Sumô wasn’t really my cup of tea, which is just as well; of all my blessings, girth is not one of them. Three evenings a week, the kendô members met to whack each other senseless with bamboo swords. That wasn't quite what I was looking for either.
I walked over to a small window, stuck my head in, and said excuse me, disturbing three elderly men from their naps.
"You really gave my heart a start," said one of the men as he approached the window.
"Um, sorry about that."
"Wow! You're Japanese is excellent."
"Tondemonai," I replied reflexively. Nonsense! "My Japanese is awful."
"Oi, Satô-sensei. This gaijin here says his Japanese's awful, then goes and uses a word like, 'Tondemonai!'"
Satô rubs the sleep from his eyes says, "Heh?"
"How can I help you?"
"I'm, um, looking for a kick boxing class. You got any?"
"Kick boxing? No, I'm sorry we don't. We do have karate, though. Tuesday and Thursday evenings. And there's Aikido on Wednesday and Friday evenings."
"Nothing in the afternoons?"
"No, only in the evenings."
"Well, what about jûdô?"
The man's eyes lit up. I was in luck, there was a class in session now, he said pointing to a separate building across the driveway.
"That building?" I said. I had my doubts.
"Yes, yes. Just go right over there. Tell them you're an observer."
I wasn't sure the old man had heard me correctly, but I went to the adjacent building all the same, and removed my shoes at the entrance. As I stepped into the hall, two women in their fifties wearing what looked like long, black pleated skirts and heavy white cotton tops minced past me, their white tabi'ed feet sliding quietly across the black hardwood floor. A similarly dressed raisin of a man, upon seeing me bowed gracefully, then glided off to the right from which the silence was broken with the occasional "shui-pap!"
"Anô," I called out nervously. "I was told to come here. I'm, um, interested in learning jûdô."
"Jûdô?" the elderly man asked.
"This isn't jûdô," he said, eyeing me warily. "It's Kyûdô."
"Kyûdô?" What the hell is Kyûdô?
He gestured nobly in the direction the "shui-pap!" had emanated from and encouraged me to follow him to a platform of sorts overlooking over a lawn at the end of which was a wall with black and white targets.
"Kyûdô," the man told me again. The Way of the Bow.
He instructed me to watch an old woman who had just entered the platform carrying a bamboo bow as long as she was short. She bowed before a small kamidana shrine, then minced with prescribed steps to her place on the platform. Her posture was unnaturally rigid: her arse jutted out, spine curved back. Her head was held high. With her arms bent slightly at the elbows she raised the bow upward, bringing her arms nearly parallel to the floor. She then adjusted the arrow, stabilizing the shaft with her left hand and fitting the nock onto the string with her right. She turned her head ever so slowly, and, fixing her gaze on the target some thirty yards away, raised her arms, bringing the bow to a point above her head.
Inhaling slowly and deeply, she extended her arms elegantly, pulling the bowstring back with her right hand, and pushing the bow forward with her left, such that the shaft of the arrow now rested against her cheek. The old woman paused momentarily before releasing the arrow. The string snapped against the bamboo bow with the "shui-pap" I'd heard before, and the arrow was sent flying majestically right on target. It fell ten yards short, landing in the grass with a miserably anticlimactic "puh, sut!"
A small, nervous laugh snuck out before I could stop it. The old man at my side gave me a nasty look then went over to the woman who had just delivered the lawn a fatal shot and praised her effusively. She remained gravely serious, bowed deeply, then bellowed: "Hai, ganbarimasu!" I'll do my best! All the other geriatrics there suddenly came to life and also shouted: "Hai, ganbarimasu!"
Once the old woman had minced away, another man came out onto the platform and went through the very same stringent ritual. He ended up shooting his arrow into the bull's-eye of the target . . . two lanes away. He, too, was lavished with compliments by the old man, whom I'd only just realized was the sensei, the “Lobin Hood” to these somber “Melly Men and Women“, if you will.
A third man walked onto the platform with the very same gingerly steps and bowed as the others had in front of the kamidana. Standing with a similarly unnatural posture, he went through the studied movements before releasing his arrow. To my surprise, the arrow actually hit the target. No bull's-eye, mind you, but close enough for a cigar. And just as I was thinking, "Now here's someone who finally shows a bit of promise," the sensei marched over and ripped the man a new arsehole. His form was apparently all-wrong. The poor bastard looked thoroughly dejected as he slinked off the platform.
I went back to the Budôkan the following day to begin Kyûdô lessons in earnest, not so much out of a burning passion for the martial art itself as a consequence of an adherence to the Taoist doctrine of wu wei--the art of letting be, going with the flow: I'd got this far, and was curious where it might take me. It was a mistake, but I didn't know it at the time.
I didn't want the other members at the Budôkan to think of me as a mikka bôzu, that is a-three day monk, which is what they called quitters here, but of all the martial arts I could have ended up doing, Kyûdô must have been the worst. Being pushed around by big boys in diapers would have been a vastly more entertaining.
My training progressed with unnervingly small baby steps with each visit to the dôjô. During the first several lessons, I was not allowed to even touch a bow. Instead, I was made to practice how to step properly into and then walk within the staging area. Oh yes, and how to bow reverently before the goddamn kamidana.
After weeks of mincing effeminately, I was allowed to move on to the next stage which involved going through the elaborate ritual of holding the bow, threading the nock with the bow string, aiming and releasing the arrow. Problem was, I had neither bow nor arrow and was asked, rather, to rely on my fertile imagination. Several days of this humiliation were followed by at last the opportunity to hold a bow and practice releasing imaginary arrows at an imaginary target. After the hour-long practice, I would have tea with my imaginary friends.
Excerpt from A Woman's Nails. To read more here.
© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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