A place is its people and people are their stories and there are two stories that have come to remind me the most about my time in the sister city of San Francisco; Osaka, Japan.
Two people whose stories are so different and yet the same.
Both are artists, gifted practitioners of completely different art forms.
Both lead double lives, like super heroes with their alter egos.
Both utilizing the Mask of Satori.
There is the mask you put on and the mask you take off.
There is the mask that conceals and the mask that reveals.
There is the mask that frees the wearer and the mask that holds him in.
It is a place like no other.
An ex-pat American told me that its existence made life for him just a little sweeter on this side of the world.
Down a neon clad alley in the formerly red lit Shinsobashi district, its facade adorned with sculptures of Osaka's own clown-like gods of commerce and food- (which will later be depicted by wrestlers only to be thrown around the ring like 200 pound rag dolls) is a comedy/wrestling/party/free-for-all that runs about three hours with an intermission five nights a week.
There is a clueless referee.
There are the good guys.
(There is a King who I was rooting for but he got knocked out with a sleeper hold early and spent the next few matches comatose in the center of the ring.)
There are the bad guys.
(Who spit and for whom no body part is off limits.)
There are flying bodies.
There are ringsider girls.
Plus there are:
Nurses wrestling contortionists.
Vain Kabuki heroes.
Tattooed muscle-bound monsters.
School girls scissor kicking in thigh high stockings and patent leather shoes.
The audience is clearly in on the joke and eats up every face slap, arm break and gravity defying swan dive that ends in a thunderous face plant.
They are comprised of the most varied group I have seen in Japan: salarymen and old ladies and hipsters and kids and aficionados and couples out on dates.
Before Every Moment There Is A Moment.
Presiding above all the mayhem is one wrestler, mike in hand, ready to enter the fray at a moments notice and clearly the queen of this wild kingdom of kip rolls and cheap shots. Though my Japanese is nowhere near good enough to pick up what she is saying it is clear from the audience reaction that she is hilarious.
She does it all.
She is bantering from atop a turnbuckle, then flings the mike to the ref and flings herself into the ring. Three punching, kicking, biting, flipping minutes later she is atop the opposite turnbuckle, mike in hand, pumping out the comedy commentary.
Clearly an audience favorite, she does all this under a brightly colored mask.
But don't worry. It's a really small piece. He probably didn't even feel it.
A couple nights later I met her at her "day job" where she works as the omote or "outside the bar" waitress at a sushi bar just down the street from the hotel that is putting up the cast and crew of Kooza.
She is demure.
She brings me the ice cold Asahi that compliments the ootoro, hamachi and unagi nagiri so perfectly.
She is not wearing a mask.
She barely wears a smile.
She has one eye that is sunken and her face, though not unpleasant, is oddly deformed.
I complimented her on her amazing work in the ring.
She had seen Kooza and complimented me on my work in the big top.
I asked if I could take her picture.
But then she remembered that she might have her wrestling mask in her purse in which case it would be okay. After rummaging around in her purse briefly she reported that she did not have it so a picture was "not possible".
I said "No problem."
She said "No problemo."
It's another place like no other.
Down a grey alley in the Awaza district of Osaka remarkable only in its unremarkability, on the second floor of a concrete building with metal crank up doors is The Meishinkan Dojo.
Unlike many of the dojos, practice halls, studios and the like that Iaido is practiced in, Meishinkan Dojo was designed exclusively for Iaido.
And more specifically, Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu. The well known (in Iaido circles) picture of the armor of Hiyashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu that adorned the shomen or shrine at the front of the room was evidence of that. Further evidence was in the stains of sweat on the long, toil-polished floorboards.
Through an ex-pat Aussie named Darryl Lawrence I was invited to train here during my time in Osaka under Hattori Sensei, who was described to me as serious, detailed and above all, practical.
I had no idea.
Training was on Friday nights which amazingly I had off from the circus though I did have a matinee that day.
For my first time at this new dojo I travelled from circus tent to dojo by bicycle, arrived early enough to help the mama-san open the windows she couldn't reach without the aid of a stick, put on my gear and awaited the Sensei and his other students.
They trickled in, grunted cordially in my direction and went about the waza of changing into keikogi, obi and hakama. These were older gentlemen, distinguished. There were flecks of grey in their black manes and the edges of their keikoji showed the frayed evidence of a lifetime in the martial arts.
Hattori Sensei arrived.
I was told he came directly from work.
He looked it.
Smart suit, tie.
(I later found out he was a lawyer.)
He was thirty-five.
He smiled, we exchanged rudimentary greetings, I told him I had just come from Tokyo where I had been studying with Kobara Sensei and of course Esaka Sensei. I think his eyebrows raised a little at the mention of Esaka Sensei. He had heard of Esaka dojo and was glad to take me on as a student for as long as I was in Osaka.
(Amazing how having studied with a 10th Dan can open some doors.)
He quickly changed into his crisply pressed hakama, lit some candles on the shomen, and with three claps- just like back home at Nishi Kaigan in Berkeley- we bowed in and class began.
We started with Tata uchi nokarai, working in pairs using bokken (wooden swords) in a series of waza designed to give the practitioner a sense of real contact with a real opponent.
I think they are also designed to give you a real sense of real holy shitness.
My first partner turned out to be the mama-san, who had quickly changed into Iaido gear and turned out to be scarily good.
The thing with Tata uchi nokarai is that even though your mind may know which direction the cut is coming from, your body has to respond with the right timing to intercept the cut with a cut of your own or you are just relying on your partner to stop himself.
The way these guys were going at each other I didn't hold a lot of faith in that ever happening. As we changed partners around the room I had visions of riding a gurney down some hallway of a Japanese hospital, my head cracked open and blood coming out of my ears.
An hour later I was still alive, drenched in sweat and probably with a deeper appreciation of what they call same, which means something like the combination of push and pressure and inexorable.
We put the bokken away and got our swords. I noticed Hattori Sensei's first.
A "live blade".
When it was out the very air in the room changed.
There is the story of the sword that is so sharp that when it is placed with the edge facing upstream in a small brook, it will cut in half a leaf traveling downstream. Then there is the sword that is sharper. More imbued. When placed in that same stream, the same leaf will simply avoid it and go around.
I think Hattori Sensei's is in the second category.
It had no hi or groove along its length, what many misidentify as a "blood gutter" but actually creates a whoosh especially on the arcing downward cut called Kiriroshi.
Hattori Sensei didn't need it.
His cuts whooshed anyway.
All of them.
I have watched a lot of people do Iaido.
I have watched very intently.
I have watched as hard as I know how.
Yet I have never watched anyone summon an imaginary opponent to the room so completely, see him so clearly and after a charged ballet between human bone and steel see that same imaginary opponent so thoroughly dead as when I watched Hattori Sensei demonstrate Mae, the first waza in the Seiza series that first time.
And his face?
A mask capable of horrendous violence, but a mask just the same.
I became a "guest" member of Mieshinkan Dojo and was helping the mama-san open windows every Friday night.
The Mask You Put On Or The Mask You Take Off.
Three months went by in a flash.
I got to know Hattori Sensei and his family, his lovely wife and charming daughter.
(When they came to see Kooza I got his daughter onstage with our ballerina during the pre-show and gave them a backstage tour.)
It was nice to see him as the happy young family man, always picked up at the dojo by his wife and daughter, a successful guy with a great disposition.
Or was this just another mask, perfectly calibrated to hide the monster of composed violence underneath?
Hattori Sensei doing Tata Uchi Nokarai with Shinken. (live blades)
To see the video click here.
Two things that I shall take from my time at Meishinkan Dojo.
First a lesson.
Sensei was watching me do some waza, I don't remember which, it probably doesn't matter.
Hattori Sensei has little English so most of the teaching is done through example and osmosis.
He stopped me and said "This, you." and pointed to a notice on the bulletin board.
It was an announcement of something, in kanji, typed out on a page of paper. "This, Iaido."
He pointed to the large carving of the flowing kanji that spells out Meishinkan in dark grooves that perfectly represented the movements of a brush in the hands of a skilled calligrapher.
"Don't type. Paint."
And finally, on my last night, after a dinner with Sensei and all the students, Sensei surprised me with a final gift.
We had been doing the small gift roundelay since that first night but this was different.
Inside a nami patterned bag with loops of bone to cinch it closed was a box. In the box was an inkan, the chop of my name and a bright red stamp pad.
Sensei had carved it himself.
The Japanese use chop to make official their most important documents. I recently used the one Hattori Sensei carved for me on my latest contract with Cirque.
Sometime later I realized he had probably carved the flowing kanji of the sign in the dojo.
At the time he didn't tell me.
I suppose he preferred to keep his mask on.