Back In Japan

I’m back in Japan for the 25th anniversary celebration of the first branch of our karate school here. (Our school itself is 40 years old, with its headquarters is in New York — there’s a bunch of martial arts politics involved, which I won’t go into here.)

This is my sixth time in Japan, and I’ve spent about four and a half months here total over the years.

The first time I came was 2002. I was ready for change; earlier that year I had gotten out of a brief but very unhealthy romantic relationship, which really unsettled me; and I was having doubts about my professional life, whether I would eventually age of the software field as my father had, or whether everything was going to be outsourced to India. By the fall I was thinking about going back to school, the Baltimore School of Massage’s Shiatsu and Asian Bodywork program, but I was unsure.

Then I got a note from my friends Robin and Eric, who had moved to Kobe to teach English that summer. They invited me to visit over the New Year’s holiday.

Well. Here I was trying make up my mind about going to study a Japanese healing art, and along comes an invitation to visit Japan. I don’t believe in anything as unsubtle as direct divine intervention, but, in terms of signs from the Universe, that was a pretty big one. I bought my plane tickets, and signed up for the shiatsu program that would start a few months later.

We day tripped most every day: Kyoto, Himeiji, Osaka, Nara. Robin and Eric hadn’t had the chance to be touristy yet, all work since they arrived, so it was a revelation for them too.

To see the giant Daibutsu statue in Nara during the New Year’s festival — I knew in that moment that things would never be the same for me. And Nara also gave me Shin-Yukushi-Ji, the “new” temple of the Medicine Buddha (“new” here being relative, in a city that’s 3,000 years old). It’s a small temple but a cultural treasure. It’s Medicine Buddha statue is accompanied by statues of the “12 Generals Who Drive Out Disease”, wrathful deities of healing who immediately appealed to me as a martial artists about to stat training in a healing art.

I’ve returned to that temple a few times since, most recently in 2012 shortly after the near death of my friend Ian Hesford, to give thanks for his survival. I will return on this trip to give thanks for the survival of my mother after her near death, and for my father’s recovery from his own recent serious health challenges.

But first, we had a karate tournament yesterday, where I acted as a judge. The competition wasn’t open to senior black belts, or I would have done my kata and fought my fight — if you’re going to fly to the other side of the world, go all the way. But it was the first time I acted as center ring judge during sparring competition — not to bore you with details of how karate competitions work, but just to note that I got to do something new to my practice under pretty cool circumstances.

And on Wednesday, I will be participating in a demonstration at the Grand Festival at the Hida-ichinomiya Minashi-jinja Shinto shrine in Takayama, an event that happens only once every 57 years. I’ll be doing a form with only nine other people, also pretty darn cool.

And so I’ll get a little time in here with both Shinto and Buddhist deities.

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About Tom Swiss

Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as "Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian", which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. Over the past decade he has built a reputation as a lecturer on subjects spanning the gamut from acupressure to Zen and from self-defense to sexuality. He is an NCCAOM Diplomate in Asian Bodywork Therapy, a godan (fifth-degree black belt) in karate, a poet, a singer/songwriter, an amateur philosopher, and a professional computer geek. Tom has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. He is the author of "Why Buddha Touched the Earth" (Megalithica Books, 2013). Find out more about his wacky adventures at www.infamous.net.