No Second Chances

By Phil Davison

Day 1, 4:30 pm: Narita Airport

Having cleared the immigration counters, we approach the customs counters. There are three of us, myself and two healthy looking younger westerners, Nic and Shanon.

With a courteous smile the customs officer, a pleasant looking young man, asks us what are in the long cylinders that we carry.

“Iaido katana.” I answer.

“Katana desu ka?” (A sword, is it?) He is surprised to realise that we have Japanese swords. They are, in fact only training blades, weighted to feel like the real thing, but made from a soft alloy that prevents them from being used as a weapon. We are here to study iaijutsu, the art of using the Japanese sword. I had told him we have iaido swords (Iaido being a closely related but better known art) but he appears to only have understood the ‘katana’ part. His smile is a little more strained. “Please come with me.”

He takes us into the area that I presume the anteroom to the place where they keep the rubber gloves for the body cavity searches. As we enter one of his colleagues says something that I presume means, “Well, what do we have here?”

“Katana desu,” says our smiling customs officer.

“Katana desu ka?” says his colleague, and rushes away. Shortly the colleague returns with an older man and a few other onlookers. “Katana desu!” he says, and produces a small blue disk. They take out our swords and the older man applies the blue disk, which turns out to be a magnet, to our blades. When the magnet reveals our swords to be alloy there is general relief all around, not the least from us. I have heard of swords being confiscated by Japanese customs officers. Nic and I both have antique Japanese blades, but these we have left at home, and Nic has had to buy an alloy blade especially for this trip.

6:00 pm: Ueno

After taking a couple of educated guesses we arrive at the Ueno train station, but at the side of the road there is a large map of the area that doesn’t correspond to the map I have in my hand. I take a stab and lead us across the road, and take the first left, guessing that this is where the hotel should be. It’s is just a few doors down.

As we enter we cause some commotion. The elderly lady behind the desk runs away shouting, “There are foreigners here!” Soon she returns with another woman, who says something that I don’t understand. Then she gestures to our shoes, so we begin to take them off. “No, no,” she says and I realise she is she is saying we should leave our shoes on.

She lets out another torrent of Japanese, and this time I pick out the words Sekiguchi San, the name of our teacher, who recommended the hotel.

Hoping that she means something like “are you the people recommended by Mr. Sekiguchi I say “Hai” (yes). When I made the booking through an interpreter they were not that happy about having westerners. Westerners don’t understand the Japanese style bathroom and wear shoes on the tatami. I had to explain that we were basically house-trained and that I spoke Japanese. The last isn’t really true. Although I can get by when talking about martial arts, my conversational Japanese is pretty limited. “Cut to the wrist, and then flick off the blood,” I can say, but when it comes to ordinary conversation I quickly run out of vocabulary.

The rooms are as good as I could ever have hoped for. Although basically concrete boxes, they have tatami floors, air-conditioning, and an approximation of traditional décor.

7:00 pm: Ueno

We take a walk, looking for dinner. It’s hot. There is a thermometer on a nearby building reading 32°. How will we cope training in this heat?

We are looking for food. I’ve warned the guys that Japanese food in Japan is weirder by several powers of ten compared to the Japanese food one finds in New Zealand. The first place we pass is called First Kitchen, and appears to be a clone of McDonald’s. We have that at home, so we carry on. A large sign advertises “Coffee and Bread” so we note that as a possible site for tomorrow’s breakfast. We find a pizza parlour, but we have that at home so carry on. After wandering past several possibles, we find a conveyer belt sushi restaurant. Wild horses will not hold me back, and I drag my companions inside.

This sushi place seems to specialise in slabs of raw fish on squares of rice. One sits around a circular bench while the sushi comes around on a conveyor belt in front. You take whatever you wish, and the bill is calculated from your empty plates. Sushi in Japan is a long way from what we back home. The beauty of conveyor-belt sushi is that you can eat according to your bravery. You get to see it before you own it.

We wander aimlessly for a while before heading back to the hotel. We have to meet Sekiguchi Sensei for the first of our daily classes in Japanese swordsmanship at 7:30 the next morning. Sensei has a schedule that involves training eleven hours a day for all of our seven-day visit.

Back at the Hotel, Nic and I find the bathroom. I’m very conscious that Japanese people can find westerners to smell unpleasantly due to the high proportion of dairy foods in our diet, and I don’t want to give a bad impression. The bathroom is Japanese style, with a dozen shower units attached to the walls, and hot and cold baths. We shower with the water almost cold. It’s too hot to contemplate the hot bath.

Day 2, 6:30 am: Ueno

The time difference makes an early start easy, so we are up and looking for breakfast before any of the shops are open. We will have to do without “coffee and Bread” since it is still shut, and have to make do with First Kitchen. We get bacon and egg burgers with hash browns and coffee. “Breakfast of Champions” says Nic with solemn irony. We make the mistake of eating on the first floor – which is the smoking level. Salarymen and schoolboys are putting off the day’s endeavours by smoking up a haze.

We are in the station to meet Sensei early. We are talking to each other when a loud voice calls out “Sensei!” It’s Sekiguchi Sensei.

Sensei is the Japanese equivalent of ‘professor’ and is used instead of ‘san’ after someone’s name to show the respect due to someone with advanced skills in a particular subject. Sekiguchi Sensei often addresses his students as ‘Sensei’, presumably to make us feel that we have to live up to the title. However, the term can also be used as a sarcastic insult, so we will work hard to justify Sensei’s using the title on us.

Sekiguchi Sensei is average height for a Japanese man – in other words, we tower over him – yet he has a powerful presence and personal magnetism. Nearing 60, he has iron grey hair and a relaxed smile. As he leads us toward the train to Hasuda, where we will be training today, I notice his broad shoulders. He has the proportions of a weightlifter.

8:20 am: Hasuda

As we exit the station Sensei introduces us to a middle-aged woman with a broad smile.

“This is Obiki Sensei. She is very good at Kendo, and does a little Iaijutsu. We will be training at her dojo today.” I later learn that “very good at Kendo” means utterly devastating at the Japanese sport of fencing. Twice national champion. When Sensei says she does “a little Iaijutsu” he means she is a highly skilled practitioner who was recently demonstrating the art on national TV.

We head to a small restaurant, where Sensei insists on buying us breakfast. What I am appreciating is the air-conditioning, and I indicate to my companions that politeness dictates that we will enjoy a second breakfast, hungry or not. There are only a few choices on the breakfast menu, and they all seem to involve raw egg. Raw egg has not been my food of choice in the past, and Sensei has to show me how to mix it into the rice. Actually it’s delicious.

Outside we stop at a vending machine and Obiki Sensei wants to buy us a cold drink. I indicate Pocari Sweat, which is, for me, one of the highlights of Japan. The drink is intended to replace the various minerals the body loses through perspiration, and since it is lightly flavoured and not too sweet it’s very refreshing. I’ve always been surprised that you can’t get it in the west. Nic has heard of it through the novels of William Gibson, and is surprised to find that it is a real product, not the product of Gibson’s imagination. Liking Pocari Sweat proves to be a good move – for the rest of our trip, when it gets really hot, and we are really tired, an ice cold Pocari will appear.

9:30 am: Renshinkan Dojo, Hasuda

Obiki Sensei’s dojo (training hall) is in what looks to be a dormitory suburb. Compared to my 380 square metre dojo in Dunedin it is a shoebox – but decorated with photos, certificates and trophies it has a wonderful atmosphere. We are ushered into a corridor stuffed with kendo gear. This is the changing room, but it’s so small we have work to avoid bumping into one another as we get into our training gear – tunic, tabi socks and hakama, the Japanese “trousers”. Wearing hakama is a skill in itself as it is very easy to trip by standing on the hem.

There are just the five of us, Sekiguchi and Obiki Sensei’s, and us three westerners. We walk onto the dojo’s tiny training floor, and bow to our swords and the kamiza – the small shrine that is a feature of every Japanese dojo. Next to the kamiza is a photo of Obiki Sensei’s late father who established the dojo, and now looks down on every training session.

Sensei asks us to begin with a fairly advanced set of kata, the Okuden Tachiwaza. This set is one of my favourite sets, and Nic knows it reasonably well also, but Shanon has had to lean it hurriedly over the past few months. Sensei had told me that the training would involve all the kata in the style, and that any students should know all the kata – so Shanon has had to learn all the more advanced kata quickly.

It’s soon apparent that there is not enough room for us all at once, so we split into two groups. First Nic and Shanon have the floor, and then Obiki Sensei and I train while the first pair watches. The heat and humidity is oppressive. Even small movements seem to sap energy.

We perform the kata again and again as Sensei watches and criticises. I translate as best I can, and Sensei demonstrates when language falls short. Nic and I get grilled fairly intensely, while Sensei hardly speaks to Shanon. When Obiki Sensei makes an error she is rewarded with a sharp bark form Sekiguchi Sensei.

You know you are doing well when Sensei criticises you in ever-smaller detail. Sometimes he makes adjustments that appear to be only millimetres – but then demonstrates with a sword how those few millimetres might be the difference between life and death. If he is not particularly impressed with you he doesn’t offer any correction at all. I have seen him completely ignore less skilled people attending his seminars.

Sensei works us into the early afternoon. I feel completely exhausted. A man comes to the open door of the dojo carrying a large box. Lunch has arrived.

We break for lunch and help bring the low table from the dojo office onto the training floor where there is more room. Lunch is cold Soba noodles and broth. They are light and the perfect food to follow the exertion in the heat.

“Soba is samurai food.” Says Sensei. “In the age of warfare, if someone needed an army they would need good noodles. Samurai would choose an army to fight in on the basis of whether the noodles were good before they worried about pay.”

Lunch is all too short. Sensei tells us to relax, that we don’t have to sit in seiza, the formal kneeling posture – but wearing hakama on the wood floor it’s one of the few positions that makes any sense.

We put away the lunch things and return to training. Sensei asks us to perform a kata called To Ryu Bangai no Bu. I have never heard of this kata. Seeing the looks on our faces he demonstrates. It’s a long form; five shorter forms run together, and complex. I tell him it’s new to us, and he takes us through it more slowly.

The form is one that has been assimilated from another style (the To Ryu) many generations previously. Unlike the more familiar Eishin Ryu kata some of the footwork is very different. In places where I expect the footwork to go right, right, right, it goes right, left, right. This might seem simple, but when you have a lot to think about in terms of just remembering how the form goes and trying to train as well as possible in the heat, things fall apart.

Sensei has me doing the form by myself. I reach the first of the sections with the three steps and I’m concentrating on getting good technique while trying to remember what comes next. Without consulting me, my feet go right, right, right. I turn to Sensei and apologise, and ask him if I should do it again. He indicates I should, but at the same point I make the same mistake. I apologise again, and ask if I should start over. Sensei does not look happy.

“You know basu-boru (baseball)?” he asks. It’s not exactly NZ’s national sport, but I’ve seen enough American movies to get the general idea, so I say yes. Sensei picks up a wooden sword and holds it like a baseball bat. He swings and misses “Strike,” he says.

He walks off the dojo floor, and motions me to come with him. He picks up one of the damp towels that have been provided for us to refresh ourselves with. I think it’s time for a break, but he walks to the doorway. He takes a sword posture and begins to cut with an imaginary blade, but stops. He draws a line with his finger across the inside of his wrist, like a sword slashing his arm. He wrings out the towel, and water splashes onto the paving stones. The image is clear – a cut to the wrist and one’s blood splashes on to the ground.

“In baseball you can try again. In martial arts there are no second chances.”

We return to the dojo. This time my footwork is correct.

9:30 p.m. Yakitori bar, somewhere in Tokyo

We arrive in the yakitori (grilled chicken) bar after the evening’s training session. The evening’s session was held in a school gymnasium empty but for the five of us who had been training all day and Fuji Sensei, another middle-aged woman who is Sensei’s second-in-command. Even in the evening the temperature is still hot and I drink in the yakitori bar’s air conditioning.

The evening’s training had been augmented by mosquitos. We had covered some of the most technically difficult material, and the session had been arduous and confusing.

Beer appears and our glasses are filled. Nic and Shanon reach for their glasses but I hiss at them to wait. Sensei takes his glass and we all drink together. The food is divine, and beer is beyond comprehension.

Obiki Sensei is telling Shanon about her grandchildren, and I am reminded about how unusual it is for grandmothers to be active in any kind of sport in New Zealand. At her age, most New Zealand women might look forward to the occasional game of bowls, at the most. I can think of few sexagenarian martial arts practitioners in New Zealand, and none of these are women. None of these train for eleven hours a day, as Obiki Sensei has been with us.

We are about to leave. Obiki Sensei picks up her shopping bag. I see the tendons ripple in her forearm.

11:30 pm: Ueno

We arrive back at the hotel. The thermometer on the nearby building reads a mere 32°.

Day 4, 9:00 am: Another train station, somewhere else in Tokyo

Today, after two solid days training in Iaijutsu we will learn something new. We get off the train and Sensei introduces us to yet another older Japanese woman – but this time I recognise her from her photograph. She is Shimizu Nobuko Sensei, an exponent of naginata, the Japanese glaive, and also a student of Sekiguchi Sensei. She takes us to her car, and here we have a problem. There are three of us giant westerners to fit in the back seat, and quite a lot of room is already taken up with a bundle of two meter long naginata that can only fit by running from the dashboard to the back window. We manage to squeeze in, but only by contorting ourselves into some strange shapes.

We stop at a restaurant for our second breakfast. I’ve found on previous trips to Asia that it helps the digestive system a great deal if you can give your body at least some food that it is used to. Suddenly taking bread out of your diet can throw your system out of whack quite easily. So each morning we have a “breakfast of champions” at First Kitchen. It’s familiar, and we know we will be having a hard day, so it doesn’t hurt to have some extra calories on board.

On a table napkin Shimizu Sensei writes down the names of the kata we will learn in romaji. There are two fundamental techniques to learn, Mizugaruma and Kazeguruma. I guess the translation to be water-wheel and wind-wheel, and ask Sensei if this is so. “Yes, Holland style,” says Sekiguchi sensei of Kazeguruma.

But before we are to go to training our teachers go into discussion. Sekiguchi Sensei turns to me: “before today’s training we will go to relax.”

“Oh, good” I reply, not having the faintest idea of what we are in for.

We contort ourselves back into the car, and after a short drive arrive at a small building with a sign the reads “Relax Corner.”

Entering, we are given a set of loose clothes, a towel, a locker key, and a thin mat. After changing into the loose clothes (which are tight on our giant frames) we enter a long room. Along each side of a walkway there are large flat stones that are radiating heat. Shimizu Sensei shows us how to lay the mat on the stones, and then to lie on the mat and “relax.” The purpose of the mat is to prevent the stone burning you.

“Three minutes” she says.

I lie on my stone, thinking that a sauna is going to leave my body feeling like jelly for the rest of the day, but I tough it out until Shimizu Sensei gets up. I follow her into a “rest” room that is only the ordinary 30° heat that it is everywhere else in Tokyo, but at least there’s a fan to help cool off. A group of Japanese housewives find our presence hilarious.

I ask Shimizu Sensei if she comes here every day. “No, only once ever three or four days,” she says.

There’s a sign on the wall that seems to have some sort of suggested programme: so many minutes on the hot stones, and then so many minutes rest. The last picture shows a person sitting with their knees to their chest. I point this out to Shimizu Sensei and ask why.

“Very good” she says patting her groin area. I don’t understand. She pauses for a moment, searching for an English word. “Very good, for your penis.”

A short while later we are at a community centre which will serve as the dojo for the day. Getting changed, I do indeed feel like jelly.

For the first hour Shimizu Sensei drills us in the basics of the use of naginata. The stance is higher than I’m used to and it takes a great deal of effort to avoid using the lower iaijutsu and jujutsu stances I’m more familiar with. When she feels that we are making a reasonable job of Mizugaruma and Kazeguruma she decides it is time to move on to the kata.

She and Sekiguchi Sensei pair off. Their gazes fixed on each other they bow. Shimizu swings her naginata toward Sekiguchi’s leg. He blocks. She swings it behind her and down to his head. He blocks again. She steps back and appears to drop her guard. In a flash Sekiguchi attacks, driving his wooden sword toward her head. But Shimizu has been only pretending to drop her guard: she raises the shaft of the naginata to block his cut. Realising her head is no longer open Sekiguchi changes his tactic and drops to one knee, cutting at Shimizu’s left leg. This is what Shimizu has been waiting for. In a single movement she steps back and lifts her left leg out of harm’s way. Standing on one leg she drives the blade of her weapon down to Sekiguchi’s head. A fraction before the weapon splits his head open, Sekiguchi tilts his head to one side, and Shimizu pulls the blow so that it lands with a gentle tap on his shoulder.

We learn a series of kata. Shimizu Sensei demonstrates them and we copy, but I have the strong feeling that I will be unable to remember what we are learning. Shimizu Sensei is presenting a large amount of material in fine detail, and our brains feel like they are full to overflowing. At least I have a table napkin with the names of the kata.

9:30 pm: Possibly a Chinese restaurant somewhere in Tokyo

After another night’s training in a school gymnasium we are in a small noodle restaurant. It turns out that all of Sensei’s senior students are grandmothers – but grandmothers with arms of steel. Once again I am reminded of how there is no equivalent for these grandmothers. I presume that since their children have grown up they have found that they have more time to devote to serious martial arts study.

During the evening training sessions Sekiguchi Sensei assigns one of the grandmothers to each of us, and they hover behind us like fairy godmothers or guardian angels whispering corrections in our ears. Even today, when I train, I can hear Fuji Sensei’s commanding whisper “Massugu!” (straight ahead).

Shanon has been allocated Shimizu Sensei, who is probably half his height, but tough as nails. When Sekiguchi Sensei demonstrates, she grabs Shanon’s sleeve and drags him into the optimum position to see the demonstration, all the while commenting in rapid Japanese that Shanon doesn’t understand. We are all improving rapidly with this constant guidance, Shanon particularly.

Now we are in the restaurant, and the beer is welcome. Our hosts seem surprised at the quantities of water we consume. We are seated at a bar, and I am between Sekiguchi Sensei and Noguchi Sensei, one of the ferocious grandmothers.

“You speak Japanese, talk to Noguchi Sensei,” says Sensei, before engaging someone else in rapid Japanese conversation. As I have said, my Japanese conversation ability is minimal. What do you say to an 8th Dan grandma anyway?

“Tokyo is very hot,” I begin, because it is something that I can actually say.

“Ahh, so it is.”

“New Zealand is very…” I can’t recall the word for cold. Since “hottu pinku” (hot pink) is a phrase borrowed from English I try making up a Japanese word “cold-oh” and it seems to work.

“Really?” she says.

“In Japan it is summer; in New Zealand it is winter.”

“I suppose it must be.” I seem to have exhausted the possibilities of the weather. I stumble through a longer sentence explaining that cherry blossoms come in September in New Zealand, which confirms that New Zealand is an upside down country. What do I say now?

“What is the name of this?” I say, pointing to the various objects around us, and she gives me the Japanese name. We agree that soy sauce is “delicious” and that chillie sauce is “hottu” (although I think I’m stretching the use of the word here).

Our food arrives, and they are delicious Chinese noodles. I know this is Chinese food: I have lived in Taiwan.

“This restaurant, it’s Chinese style isn’t it?” I say.

“I don’t think so.”

“This food, it’s Chinese style, isn’t it?” I try, thinking that my first sentence did not get through. Noguchi Sensei asks the restaurant owner who seems rather insulted that someone thinks his restaurant is Chinese. A long volatile discussion ensues, which appears to be along the lines of “This is a Tokyo restaurant! I’ve never been to China, and I don’t even like Chinese. What does this foreigner know anyway?”

I remember that I have my digital camera, and there are a couple of pictures of me holding my infant daughter on it. I get it out and show them to Noguchi Sensei. Suddenly the conversation takes a whole new turn, and the camera is shown to the other grandmothers.

“Poppa desu!” (You are a poppa!)

It seems that even grandmothers with arms of steel go week at the knees at the sight of a baby.

Day 5: Hasuda

Since Sekiguchi Sensei is unavailable this morning we are having a lesson in kendo from Obiki Sensei. Sensei thinks it is a good idea to introduce us to other forms of Japanese martial arts, even though I get the idea that he does not really approve of kendo. He describes this morning’s session as valuable “personal experience.”

Obiki Sensei meets us at the train station and takes us to the dojo. A morning class is in progress for a “young mother’s group”. In New Zealand, young mothers I know spend their time drinking coffee and comparing notes on babies, here, it seems, they don armour and attack each other.

The class is being instructed by an older gentleman who is sitting at the side, fanning himself. When we arrive they have a break. He introduces himself. During the war he was a Zero fighter pilot. When he hears we are training in Iaijutsu he seems less than impressed. I get the impression that he thinks kendo is the beginning and end of swordsmanship, but I have neither the inclination nor the language skills to begin an argument.

The class resumes with Obiki Sensei in charge. The class runs through some basics, and we are asked to join in. The shinai (bamboo swords) feel strange after holding the real thing, and most strange is the kendo habit of galloping past the opponent after you have struck – when you have had years of training to never take your eyes of an opponent at the conclusion of a technique.

Obiki Sensei stands in front of us. She provides an opportunity and we are to cut to her head, whacking her on the front of her helmet. Nic and I do our best, but when Shanon’s turn comes he delivers a full power cut, as if designed to bisect her. Shanon is well intended, full of spirit, and trying to do well, but a blow like the ones he is dealing out delivers a painful, bone jarring, crunch. When we get the chance I whisper to him that he is supposed to pull the blow, and focus more on speed, and he goes a little lighter.

Eventually, Obiki Sensei asks us to watch for a little bit. There is nothing in her face or voice to suggest that a giant foreigner has just been hammering her into the floor. Obiki Sensei now faces one of her students, and the display is dynamic.

Obiki and her student are sparring at lightning speed. Suddenly Obiki drops her guard, providing an opportunity for her student. The student is too slow, and Obiki repays her with a sudden blow. Again and again she provides an opening, but if the student is too slow Obiki responds with a lightening speed blow, and barks a sharp rebuke.

The class ends, and Obiki Sensei takes off her helmet. Her voice changes from that of a samurai warrior incarnate to that of everybody’s favourite grandmother.

Day 6: Resort

Today we will have a rest. As is typical of Japan, resting will be hard work. We were going to go sightseeing, but Sekiguchi Sensei says it is too hot – so we will go to a hot bath and sauna resort instead.

We catch a courtesy bus from a suburban train station and soon arrive at a large concrete building that is pretending to be in Indonesia. We get changed and Sensei explains that we are not to go naked, but to hold a small towel in front of our genitals. When we get into the bath area, however, I notice that many of the other men don’t bother with the little towels. For that matter, all of the attendants are women.

We sit soaking in the various baths. There are hot baths, very hot baths, and hot baths with pressure jets, but my favourite is the electric bath that puts a powerful, pulsing, electric current through you. I last about two minutes in the electric bath.

Sitting in the sauna I ask if there is a women’s version, and Sensei explains that there is a women’s section in the same building. I wonder if there are male attendants in the women’s section.

After a lunch of soba and beer, we go to the sleeping room, where we join a dozen other men in sleep, each on our own small bed.

Afterwards, we go to training. I feel like jelly, and my efforts are hardly wonderful.

Day 7: Ginza

We are sitting in an expensive restaurant, eating a meal that probably costs more than all the training fees we have paid – and we will not be allowed to contribute to the cost. Sekiguchi Sensei is searching for a word to describe Shanon. The process resembles a game of charades.

Shanon’s ability has dramatically improved. We have all improved, but recently Shanon has been getting grilled over small details by Sensei: a sure sign that he is doing well.

Sensei puts his fingers beside his temples as horns. “Angry?” I ask.

“No. America.”

“Ahh, buffalo!” Nic guesses it.

“Yes,” says Sensei and indicates Shanon “Buffalo Sensei desu.”

Shanon is not sure that this is a compliment. Later Nic and I try and explain the significance. A buffalo is a big, beautiful, powerful animal; but not known for it’s subtlety or finesse. It is also an endangered species. Sensei is at once praising Shanon for his energy and spirit, while at the same time pointing out what he needs to correct.

Later that evening we do our last training session. I am lucky in that I get some video of Shimizu Sensei doing the naginata kata, otherwise I could never remember them. She also has a set of notes for us, typed in romaji.

“You type?” I ask her and mimic the motion of typing.

She corrects me by indicating a single finger on the typewriter keyboard. She had stayed up until 3 am typing them for us.

At the conclusion of training I am exhausted. My feet are aching, and I feel drained. After training we head to a yakitori bar that is done in western ranch style. I feel that I can now relax: we have survived the punishing schedule, and I let my body go to jelly.

“No relaxing,” says Sensei. He points out that he has an important demonstration to do only a couple of days after we leave, and shortly after that he will be teaching a seminar series in Australia. “Samurai never relax,” he says and I pull myself together.

Day 8: Ueno

We are shopping. We have only a few hours free before we have to head to the airport. Sensei and several of the grandmothers come to guide us to some shops before heading off to another training session.

There isn’t much for us to buy, but we find a toy shop and I think it would be great to find a weird Japanese toy for my baby daughter. There are five floors of all kinds of things for children of any age. Nic and Shanon go off exploring cultural clashes while I try and find something that my four-month-old daughter will like. Unfortunately, almost everything I can find has sharp edges and little bits that would be great to choke on. I settle on a glove puppet that turns one’s hand into a family of rats.

At the airport we are searched on arrival, and like a mirror image of our arrival the swords create a stir. We are searched a second time, before we can check our swords in, by the most thorough and polite airport security in the world.

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