Dan's Rants

Business And Pleasure In Japan

Visiting Japan brings with it the pleasure of seeing old and new friends again, some indulgence in my favourite hobby of aikido (a kind of energy minimisation problem in a martial context) and the very serious business of sports and sports engineering. Last month was my most recent trip which might be of mild interest.

A few weeks ago I found myself on a plane and Japan-bound again, I think this is the seventh visit, last year was for an international aikido camp I help organise but mostly it’s a mix of business and pleasure, this time I was accompanied by centre protege Dr Jim Lee. This was Jim’s first trip to Japan, and while eating fish (including raw fish) isn’t high on his priorities he assured me that its ‘not a problem’, well I hope not because the visit is a precursor to his 1 year Japan Society for the Promotion of Science fellowship which is due to begin in December. Anyways we board the Osaka bound Jetstar flight, again somehow it is nearly empty (my last trip was during Japan’s Golden week) which means Economy is about as comfortable as Economy can be. Unfortunately, we forgot to book meals and they had run out by the time the cart gets to us, likely story!  as we are in the third row of the plane! No blanket either (that’s an extra $5 too), fortunately, the seat belt is included in the price of a ticket and with no entertainment, we at least have our presentations to work on.  They have to be good because it is a Japan conference so visuals can really help our non-existent Japanese!

okajima aikido

We touch down in Osaka pretty much on time, and then begins a frenetic navigation of the Osaka public transport system, as we have an applied biomechanics workshop to attend in the early evening. Actually its a class with  Okajima sensei to try and get a handle on some of the Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu waza he presented a few years ago back in Australia. Daito-ryu is the forerunner of Aikido and one of the reasons slightly built geriatric Japanese can fling hot-blooded westerners around with ease. Fortunately, I have downloaded the maps, know the exit number of the stations, been there before[1] and have a compass in my phone[2].

Thus we make it in pretty good order to the Kansai headquarters of Aikido Yuishinkai and who should I find intruding on my idea of being the only westerner in a Japanese martial arts dojo but Lisa and Mark of Balina/Byron dojos. I first met Mark in the UK 10yrs ago during a stint in the finance industry,  and we continue a fine tradition of bumping into each other as we can around the world. The ensuing class was excellent and sensei was obliging in working through some of the advanced mathematics of stability, centre of mass and optimum toppling moment, colloquially known in the aikido community  as aiki-age and aiki-sage.

After practice we adjourn to a local noodle house for some  Japanese English conversation that becomes progressively more animated and sensei shares a little of his insights into inyo, a concept that has only recently hit my radar following discussion on aikiweb.com, reading Amdur’s book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ and a Kareteka / Shintaido practitioner that visited our dojo recently.

kyoto maruyama park cemetry

Next stop, how to find our hotel a few stops down the line. Along the way we are accosted by all manner of Halloween costumed tweens, I think some of them forgot to put all of their costumes on too, I must be getting old. Next morning we head to Kyoto on the Hankyu line, cheaper and faster than the JR line and less walk at the other end to the hotel too. Our hotel is in the heart of the Gion district, of Geisha fame. Unfortunately our host and longtime collaborator Prof. Yuji Ohgi is delayed and so we amuse ourselves for the afternoon. How do we do this? By trying to change some money on a weekend and then heading up through Maruyama park and up the local mountain behind it. When we reach the top and its raining so we share a hut with a Japanese gentleman who speaks great English but apologises in Spanish…go figure!

Eventually, we decide to brave the rain and head down in a slightly different direction, pretty soon we hit some signposts that have nothing recognisable on them (not that uncommon in Japan for ignorant gaijin) and proceed, using our aforementioned poor sense of direction. The road gives way to vehicle path gives way to vehicle track to a path, gives way to a goat track that leads us down something pretty steep halfway up a ravine and judging by the cobwebs it is not used that much. About now I’m thinking of the stories in the news about tourists that get lost in our local bush around Brisbane, without protective clothing, map, food etc… and with daylight fading, we realise that yep that’s pretty much us and if we are not careful we’ll end up in a cemetery. Funny that,  because that’s exactly where we end up just 10minutes later. Wiggling our way further downhill we run into a few Japanese tourists, Jim practices his skills and there is lots of giggling, buts that’s Jim and language is no barrier there and we make out way back to our hotel.

daniel james yuji ohgi

Next day we are off to the conference at Kyoto University. Tantalisingly on the way we discover a Tozando[3] branch office, where the credit card takes a bit of a hit, somehow I resist the temptation of the antique samurai swords, maybe not so surprising with the price coming in anywhere from $AUD50, 000 and up. Despite just a few purchases, Haruko-san takes an interest in my hobby and the transportation needs of the purchases I must cart all over Japan and get through customs. With the usual tradition of overwrapping she helps me get what I need to carry them through various subways, buses and shinkansen. Just around the corner we also discover the Kyoto Budokan, wow! its straight out of the matrix training video, no time for practice though, despite an invitation, alas. (here’s a pic of the inside )


I’ve been following the JSME (Japan Society of Mechanical Engineering) joint symposium on Sports Engineering and Human Dynamics for a few years now[4], which recently became a formal society of the JSME. While the conference is in Japanese and for Japanese, though there are a sprinkling of a few token westerners, it’s still very informative with mathematics the universal language and some fairly fancy animations in the presentations (thankyou Ohta san). The conference is a great way to see what is happening in Japan research and industry and is well supported this year with over 300 people attending I think. This makes it as large or larger than the biennial International ISEA conferences and the Asia Pacific Congress on Sports Technology. Also at the conference are a lot of industry exhibits, there are some really cool (and the odd kooky) business ventures on display, many of what has continued to develop from when I saw at the previous years’ conference.

The conference was a great way to catch up with research colleagues in Japan that I have got to know over the years through collaborator and pal Yuji Ohgi and more from several universities around Japan and a few companies as well, including ARS. I was mistaken for David Rowlands at once point, I guess us westerners all look the same 😉 Most nights we are whisked off for dinner with another of Yuji’s colleagues, into the back streets to feast on something that is famous for something from a particular region, though at times we aren’t sure what it is we are eating, and sometimes we discover its better not to ask.

delicious food - oishi

At the conference end, we dine at a friend of Yuji’s new restaurant in the heart of Gion, its an exquisite meal of many courses in a traditional style room. There is momentary excitement, beyond the gastronomic adventure of the subtle and sublime tastes of each course, as the infamous fugu (puffer fish is served up). We are assured by our companions that the reputation of the fish is unfounded, and only a few people die from it each year in the whole of Japan and usually by unlicensed chefs serving it up. While Jim eats it with great gusto (fortunately slurping is appreciated in Japan so he isn’t an embarrassment here) whilst I hold back a little. It’s a winning strategy I’m thinking, till one of the others guests suggest to me that if it is poisoned there might be no more ambulances left by the time I show symptoms, maybe I need to man up?

Apart from that, the dinner conversation is quite dignified *cough* with a colleague sharing a little of his work as a famous sportswear designer. His work builds ‘supportive wear’ for females of all ages shapes and sizes, which piques the interest of most people carrying the XY chromosome at the table as he describes the challenges of the occupation and the importance of very thorough testing. There is some excited talk of collaborative work in the future, though for those of us that are married it looks like a high-risk venture.

mizu temple
golden temple


During our time in Kyoto, we manage to fit in some time to visit temples, including the famous Mizu temple, the golden shrine and some stately homes and amazing gardens. On our final day in Kyoto and we stumble upon the ‘philosophers path'[5] near the university after a quick soba lunch near a temple. The philosopher’s path looks interesting, but there is no time for it, maybe later… isn’t that always the way. Another Koan from Japan…sigh

Later on, we journeyed Tokyo way to Keio Universities Shonan Fujisawa campus, where we were invited to give a lecture to the students and have a good look around. Jim was particularly interested in the facilities as this is where he will be based for the coming year looking at prosthetic legs for running athletes and a bit of swimming on the side.

ohgi jo

We stay with Yuji and family, which was a lovely time to reconnect with Midori and Miwa as well as to check out their fabulous new house. Well, its a new house but actually its a very old house redesigned by the Ohgi’s, originally a few hundred-year-old barn shipped all the way from Yamagata. The exposed beams and traditional construction were lovely, as was the setting high on a hill and nestled in a local reserve. Structurally it uses no nails and has a lovely open airy feel to it. For our time there, we had to chop wood for the fire, something that’s in Jim’s blood being from Tasmania.

dinner by midori and dishie
chopping wood supervised by miwa

All too soon it was time to say goodbye and jumping on the train to Narita and heading home on the night flight.

First up is the confrontation with my underfed addiction to sugar and fat,  which a familiar multinational fast food is eager to satisfy….do I feel conned?

Again the plane is 1/2 empty, and through the wisdom of computerised seating systems, we are all jammed into the back half of the plane. Newly invigorated with a love of sports, once the plane is at altitude I make the 30-yard dash for the spare seats up front and manage to get a reasonable nights sleep.

[1] Budo bums in Japan, see Trip and Seminar Reports

[2]  I find a compass essential because in the northern hemisphere my sense of direction is the opposite (but not opposite enough that I trust it) and emerging from the rabbit warren of Japanese subways and confronted with Neon signs it’s hard to find something that tells you which way you need to go

[3] Tozando is a somewhat well known martial arts store that does mail orders overseas, it’s kinda the Ralph Lauren of uniforms and equipment. http://www.shogoin.com is Haruko-san’s shop

[4] recent conferences include Tokyo APCST, Kanazawa, Tsukuba, Akita, Fukuoka (which sadly I missed) and now Kyoto

[5] http://www.kyoto-u.ac.jp/en/profile/intro/photo/list/philosopher.htm


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