‘Take a look at this. This is fucking amazing.’
Mr Swansea scuppered my hopes of a lie-in by flinging open the curtains at eight o’clock and sitting me in front of the television to watch a video about Naoki Eiga, the former World Kendo Champion.
‘He’s a policeman in Sapporo, and this is what he does every morning before he goes to work. That’s a hundred-tatami-mat room, you know.’
Having cleaned the dojo floor by hand (a dojo is a sports hall used for martial arts training, and although this one had a wooden floor, interior spaces of any kind tend to be measured in terms of tatami, which come in a standard size of just under two metres by one metre), Eiga spent an hour going through his kendo moves, on his own and in front of a full-length mirror. Again and again he lunged forwards, stamping his bare feet on the floor and swinging his shinai (竹刀 / bamboo sword) at an imaginary opponent, his face dripping with sweat and a picture of absolute concentration. All in all he was a pretty serious character, and even at home with his wife and children, displayed little in the way of emotion, his voice a low mumble and his entire repertoire of facial expressions contained within the narrow range between ‘neutral’ and ‘serious’.
‘I watched this about twenty times and I still couldn’t understand what the fuck he was on about. In the end I had to get Miss Brazil to translate for me.’
‘So what’s he saying then?’
‘To be honest, even when she was sitting where you are and explaining everything, I still didn’t really get it. A lot of the time he’s talking about his injuries – he’s already had a couple of knee operations, apparently.’
The programme flashed back to show Eiga at the World Kendo Championships in 2000, where he won both the individual title and the team title with Japan.
‘Look at that,’ exclaimed Mr Swansea. ‘The other guy hasn’t got a chance. He’s so quick!’
Eiga was so quick, in fact, that to the untrained eye, it was hard to tell that anything was going on at all. He would square up with his opponent and they would circle each other for a few seconds, the tips of their shinai almost touching. Someone would eventually go on the offensive, and in a flurry of movement, either their shinai would find its mark, it would be fended off, or there would be a counter-attack. With a point awarded for each direct hit, the first player to two points was the winner, and entire matches might go on for little more than a minute.
Mr Swansea had been practicing kendo since he arrived in Japan in 2002, and began to mimic some of Eiga’s moves, which correspond with the various parts of the body at which the shinai is directed.
‘Koté! Men! Doh! Tsuki! Hand! Head! Chest! Neck! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I was out on the veranda doing those before I took my first dan. I used to spend hours out there annoying the neighbours, and you know how hot it gets in Nagoya. I was sweating like the proverbial.’
Taking up a martial art appeared to be a pre-requisite for anyone wishing to emigrate to Japan, so I had enlisted at the Aikido World Headquarters within a week of my arrival in Tokyo the previous year. My first sparring partner was Mr Half Mountain, who despite being even shorter, skinnier, older and balder than myself, was possessed of enough strength and agility to beat me to a pulp – or at least restrain me to a pulp, because aikido is about self-defence rather than aggression, and involves grabbing and twisting the arm of your assailant in such a cunning way that he or she is obliged to drop their weapon. One moment I would go for Mr Half Mountain with a karate chop to the head, and the next, through some imperceptibly deft manoeuvre, he would have me pinned to the floor, or my wrist in such an impossible position that one more millimetre of movement would snap it in two.
I eventually quit the Aikido World Headquarters after being told by my sensei there was ‘No laughing in the dojo!’ and while I subsequently joined more laid-back and small-scale clubs in both Tokyo and Mito, the more I practiced, the more I came to realise that aikido was not for me. Its rituals may have been fulfilling – the set routine of warm-up exercises and bowing before and after each practice session, for example – but I am even less skilled at contact sports than I am at non-contact sports, and could never quite get the hang of thrusting my foot towards an opponent, grabbing their forearm, spinning us both around and throwing them onto the tatami. In that sense, and with its complex sequences of hand and foot movements, aikido reminded me of nothing so much as ballroom dancing, which I once took up in a shameless attempt to meet girls. In both disciplines, having watched your teacher demonstrate a move, you are placed with a partner of superior ability, and spend the next five minutes being reminded of how hopelessly uncoordinated you are, and just as I had failed to find romance through ballroom dancing, I never progressed beyond the level of absolute beginner at aikido.
‘If you want to pass an aikido exam, you have to memorise all of these different moves with obscure Japanese names, but kendo doesn’t look particularly complicated at all. What are there, five or six basic moves?’
‘Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? It’s Zen. You do the same thing over and over until it’s just instinct. People like Eiga have been doing kendo since they were in elementary school, and sometimes I ask the guys I practice with – guys who are the same age as me – and they’ve been going to the same kendo club for thirty years. No wonder they’re better than I am.’
The fridge was completely empty, so having taken a shower, I suggested we find the nearest kissaten. Because Mr Swansea’s conversation school was just down the road, when we arrived, several of his kindergarten and elementary-age students were there, and came over to say hello.
‘Kids are Zen, aren’t they?’ I said. ‘Even if they’re doing something mundane, some stupid game they’ve made up on the spot, they’re completely engrossed in it.’
‘I don’t know. Some of them are just a pain in the arse. One or two of the elementary schools I work at, they’re running riot. The teachers can’t keep control at all.’
‘Look at Eiga, though. When he was cleaning the floor in that video, he reminded me of my junior high school kids back in Ibaraki.’ Every day in Japanese schools, usually just after lunch, everyone takes part in soji-jikan (掃除時間 / cleaning time), a concept that other countries would do well to adopt, whereby for fifteen or twenty minutes a day the school is cleaned from top to bottom. Desks are pulled aside and classrooms swept, sinks are scrubbed and blackboards wiped, rubbish is collected, flowerbeds are weeded and dead leaves are cleared from the playing fields. Soji-jikan also involves the students polishing both classroom and corridor floors by running back and forth on all fours while sliding a damp cloth along in front of them.
‘In a way, that’s partly why I came on this trip,’ I continued, ‘to regress to a childlike state, to pack so many experiences into my day that I forget what the last one was. Everything is new when you’re on the road, everyone you meet you’re meeting for the first time, and it all passes by so quickly that your brain doesn’t have time to dwell on anything. It doesn’t have time to work things out. It only has time to absorb as much in as it can on a subliminal level, which is exactly what children do when they’re growing up.’
‘So you’re living in the moment.’
‘Exactly. I’m in a heightened state of awareness.’
‘How about cycling? Is that Zen too?’
‘Yes, it is, but mainly the climbing. Climbing is everything. It’s what separates the men from the boys. Once you get down to first gear and you’re slogging your way up a steep hill, you get to a point where you forget you’re doing it. You forget what you had for breakfast, you forget that you’re already hungry again, you forget where you’ve just come from, and if you’re really in the zone, you forget where you’re supposed to be going as well. You forget about the top of the hill, so it’s a pleasant surprise when you get there, and then you forget about that too, because by the time you’ve reached it, there’s already another goal to aim for.’
‘That’s exactly it. Zen is all about the moment. There is only the moment and nothing else. The past, the future, nothing. You know what Eugen Herrigel’s sensei tells him in Zen in the Art of Archery? He says, “You are the target.” If there’s a problem and you’re missing the target, the problem is within you. You have to look at yourself and make an adjustment, not at something outside of you. “You are the target.” I love that.’
‘Cycling is very good in that sense because it’s rhythmic. You have to keep turning the pedals otherwise you’d fall off, so you don’t have time to get bogged down with worrying about stuff. I suppose that makes it easier to…well, to achieve enlightenment.’
‘Yeah, satori. It’s easier to achieve satori because you’re continuously repeating the same physical act. And as Jack Kerouac says, “You can’t fall off a mountain.” You have to convince yourself that you’re not in danger, that what you choose to do is achievable.’
After coffee and croissants we caught the train into Nagoya, where Mr Swansea showed me around his favourite shopping mall. However they choose to treat their environment, and however uninspiring their town planning may sometimes be, the Japanese have always had an appreciation for the smaller things in life, and there were all sorts of weird and wonderful gadgets, toys, trinkets, clothes, CDs, books and furniture at which to marvel, often in the same shop. With his Tag Huer watch and Louis Vuitton wallet, Mr Swansea was in his element, although my priorities were a little different, so I had soon steered us in the direction of Miss Coffee Shop’s coffee shop.
Like many Japanese women, she owned a small and – depending on your point of view – very kawaii or very irritating pedigree dog. Her customers, too, were encouraged to bring their own, so the shop was overrun with Pekinese and chihuahuas, and despite this being the hottest time of the year, several were dressed in colourful little doggie sweaters and doggie jackets, including one authentic Chanel number, on which the logo was outlined in silver rhinestones – a designer dog, no less.
Dinner with Miss Brazil was yakitori (焼き鳥) the literal translation of which is ‘grilled chicken’, although yakitori restaurants do not just specialise in breast meat and drumsticks, and will put pretty much any body part on a wooden kebab skewer, including such delicacies as liver, gizzard and cartilage. Miss Brazil worked at an English conversation school, but through force of recent habit, I managed to keep us speaking Japanese for at least part of the time, and was surprised when Mr Swansea confessed that it was the most he had used in ages. Like many aspects of his life in Japan, Mr Swansea saw the language as a challenge to be overcome, and often talked of ‘cracking the lingo’, as if with a shinai to the head of a kendo opponent. But putting such pressure on yourself can lead to self-criticism, and in turn paranoia, as there is a fine line between not being able to understand what people are saying, and thinking that what they are saying is about you. With a suspicion of outsiders born from centuries of isolation, and an emphasis on being accepted into the group only after proving your loyalty over long periods of time, Japan is a more difficult country than most in which to become assimilated, and through the lens of his linguistic inadequacies, Mr Swansea tended to magnify what prejudice he did encounter beyond all proportion, or to see prejudice when it wasn’t there at all. In one sense, this was because he had lost sight of his Zen principles, by thinking about his ultimate goal too much instead of concentrating on the task at hand. Then again, I had plenty of insecurities myself, and my goal of talking to a different stranger every day stemmed at least in part from a desire to show off about my achievements. Whereas women tend to learn a language for the sheer joy of communicating, men will often use it as just another excuse to engage in one-upmanship, and create more difficulty for ourselves in the process. Many is the gaijin woman I have met who can slip into easy and relaxed conversation with the natives, and many the gaijin man who sits in a corner and asks ‘How’s your Japanese?’ while assessing what sort of a threat you present to him, rather than simply getting out there and talking to people.
Back at the apartment, we put Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack on the stereo and sang along. It had become a theme tune for the two of us, partly because it was the ultimate bragging song for the aspiring ladies’ man, and partly because it was recorded by a Brit, whose career subsequently imploded to the point where he ended up in jail (or to be strictly accurate, ended up back in jail). It was our antidote to the trials and tribulations of being an expat: to the heat and humidity, to our capricious employers, to the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of the language, and to the vagaries of The Matrix.
‘When I go out to bat for the Tigers,’ said Mr Swansea over the music, ‘this is what’s going to be playing through the PA. Bangin’ R&B – the ladies love it! I’m going to buy a car and get it fully kitted out: alloys, rear spoiler, blue neon lights under the skirting, tinted windows, furry dice, the lot. There’ll be a great big bass bin in the boot, and I’ll go cruising round Nagoya with this on the stereo: “Here I am / Once again / Oh my God! / Return of the Mack.”’