Ghibli studio’s Princess Mononoke was my first exposure to Japan. I saw it at a sleepover with a neighborhood friend after playing some video games and I was fascinated. After that the Pokemon craze took over my school with the card game first and the game-boy game second (Squirtle for life). I would watch Digimon on Saturday mornings, play countless versions of Megaman, and eventually sneak episodes of Power Rangers which I was banned from watching for some reason.
However, it wasn’t until high school that the real Japan took ahold of me. After fencing for a couple of years, my coach realized that I was treating fencing like a game and not with the honor and dedication it deserved. I think he also saw that it would be worth building up more arm strength as well. To solve these issues he started training me in Bushindo, the Way of the Warrior and specifically in Kenjitsu, the Way of the sword (Katana).
I was given a handful of books to read including Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry which details his training in Kenjitsu growing up in the mid-west while also telling the story of the Shin-Kage Ryu style of Kenjitsu. Shin-Kage survived as one of the most prestigious Ryu’s because the masters of the school were the personal teachers of the Tokugawa Shoganate for many generations.
I started my training with a Bokken, an oak practice Katana working to learn the forms, or kata, that formed the base of my practice sessions. I was gifted a Katana upon completion of my basic training and from there my lessons used a live (read: edged) sword. At this point my fascination with Japan was fierce and I studied a lot about it. But then I moved away from that coach, couldn’t find a teacher nearby, and stopped my practice in the Way.
Two years later, after being kicked out of BYU I was looking at clases to take at the University of Utah and I took introduction to Japanese for a couple of semesters. I then discovered that if I dropped my language and took two statistics courses I could graduate a year earlier and so again my love of Japan took a backseat.
In the past couple of years I have been distracted from Japan by a dozen things here and there, but 9 months ago, while reading a book on stoicism the lessons I’d learned at 15 started coming back to me. You see Stoicism and the Zen philosophy behind the Samurai are not that dissimilar. I picked up Autumn Lightening off the shelf and re-read it in an afternoon. The history of Japan flooded my memories again and I started finding connections to my life that I needed just then.
Since that moment I have read a half-dozen books on Stoicism, a few books on Stoicism, and 2 of the 3 original great texts of Samurai tradition. Katsujinken – The Life-Giving Sword by Yagyu Muenori the 3rd member of the Shin-Kage Ryu to serve the Tokugawa Shoganate in the 1600’s and Go-Rin-No-Sho – The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi the greatest Samurai to ever live.
This morning I landed in Japan and am on a train into Tokyo at the moment. As I see the country-side transition into city-scape I can’t help but feel the seemingly conflicting images of Japan. The Modern technological Japan that is reserved and economically driven complete with a Prime Minister who just donned a Mario outfit in Rio; and the Ancient, focused, disciplined, and deeply philosophical Japan of old. While they may seem conflicting I am certain that if I look closely enough I will see the influences and even practices in the daily lives I observe.
But to start off this journey, I’ll be headed to the root of wisdom in Japan – Mt. Fuji – where I hope to trod the paths of the ancients and pay my respect to the Japanese spirit that has absolutely had its own influences on my life.