Mar 9, 2020
Who knew the panic I could cause by just trying to take off my own glove?With a sharp word, the archery master has a student kneeling at my side to carefully unwind the long strip of deer leather securing the glove to my wrist. In Ogasawara-ryū, a school of Japanese archery founded in 1187, there is a proper way to do even the smallest tasks. I’ve unwittingly bungled glove removal.
The strap represents our life, the master explains. It would hardly do to tug at it roughly and cause an ill-omened break. The glove must be treated with respect for the role it plays in protecting our hands, for the time and skill a craftsperson put into making it, and for the life that was lost to provide the leather.
Yes, there are depths of thought behind simple customs in Japan.
This is a fact I know after living here for nearly two decades, but as it applies to the bow and arrow, well, that’s a specific challenge I’ve never taken up. Like for long-term residents of any great city, there are cultural experiences I would have loved to have had but never got around to once I stopped being a tourist. Luckily, Palace Hotel Tokyo has created a slate of training sessions with world-class athletes and cultural experts for locals like me looking to shed our complacency and curious visitors wanting a boot camp in the best of Japan. The Energizing Tokyo package spans sitting zazen with the head monk of a temple associated with the Kuroda samurai clan to swim lessons with actual Olympian and Asian Games medalist, Hanae Ito. As the 2020 Olympics are coming to Tokyo this summer, I thought it would be a great way to get re-excited about my adopted home through the lens of athletics.
Which is how I ended up at the Ogasawara dōjō disrespecting a glove.
OGASAWARA-RYŪ is particularly well- known for performing the Shinto yabusame ritual, in which a mounted archer appeals to the gods by galloping down a 250-meter course at full speed, shooting three targets in quick succession. Practitioners study three pillars: archery, mounted archery and etiquette—the last no less crucial than the other two. In fact, it is essential to developing the strength needed to raise your body in the saddle and steadily draw the bow. As Kiyotada Ogasawara, the 31st head, explains in Budō: Japanese Martial Arts, “Other forms of Budō focus on kata and perhaps winning matches… We aim to train the mind and body through mundane but extremely difficult actions such as constantly maintaining an exemplary posture.”
So my first task is to practice walking and standing, which doesn’t seem like much of a challenge until I see it done. While one student helps me into a uniform of pleated hakama pants and white uwagi coat, two others demonstrate, gliding across the room without lifting their feet from the ground and sinking gracefully to a kneeling position while keeping their torsos ramrod straight. Kiyomoto Ogasawara, the current head, silently watches with a critical eye from the corner.
I stutter around herky-jerky, feeling like a buffalo in a group of gazelle, but at least manage to move from point A to point B, then nearly fall over trying to sink to my knees.
Despite that humbling performance, I’m allowed to mount a wooden practice horse. The high-ceilinged room is packed with a dizzying collection of antique archery paraphernalia. Ogasawara and his students poke, prod and nudge me into something resembling the proper posture: legs opened as wide as they’ll go, feet pointed out, butt lifted off the saddle, back arched, and arms holding the bow and arrow above the head. It’s incredibly awkward just to hold the position, never mind trying to aim and control a galloping horse.
My first arrow misses the target entirely, but I line up shot after shot, trying to hold the appropriate body position in my mind without dropping the bulb-tipped arrow (though I do, once or twice). When it finally hits the target with a resounding crack, I let out an unladylike whoop. It’s surely against official etiquette, but Ogasawara kindly refrains from commenting.
I’ve enjoyed the lesson immensely, but as the incident with the glove reveals, there are depths here that a one-time visitor can’t even begin to grasp. I’m in awe of archery’s physicality and minute philosophy, but it is a world apart, requiring years of study as the price of entrance. Not unwelcoming, but aloof.
Tokyo by bike, though, is openly communal.
My guide is Masatoshi “Masa” Abe, a genial older gentleman with a jaunty salt-and-pepper mustache. Although he’s just a couple of months shy of 60, he has been doing these tours for about 13 years and rides his bike to the office in all weather, 11 kilometers each way. “I won’t give up drinking,” he laughs, “so I have to keep commuting by bike for my health.”
The first leg takes us around the north side of the Imperial Palace, whose moat is ringed by an unbroken five-kilometer path. Like Central Park in New York, it’s a popular place to exercise outdoors and it’s packed with weekend runners. Masa tells me it’s been especially crowded lately as people train for the upcoming Tokyo Marathon. Indeed, one experienced runner cruises effortlessly past our bikes when we are going at what I think is a good clip.
In the pine groves separating the Imperial Palace from the Marunouchi business district, we weave through a women’s running group, laughing as they do A-skip races. It occurs to me that the city has an athletic life to mirror the cultural one. The atmosphere created by like-minded folks engaging in a shared passion is warm and welcoming. I have an inkling this is what actually gets people out of bed and into their trainers on a weekend morning.
Next on the agenda is a three-hour kayaking tour, also with the indefatigable Masa. Though they aren’t woven into the picturesque fabric of the city like in Amsterdam, canals formerly used to transport rice, sake and other goods crisscross Tokyo. Masa coaches me on proper paddling technique and goes over traffic rules on the water, and we head off. I do my best to follow his smooth, straight path, managing to keep pace, even if my kayak tacks sharply left and right with each paddle.
Our first stop is Nihonbashi, a 17th-century stone bridge where the five great roads of Edo began. It’s now dwarfed by highway flyovers and towering office buildings, but it looms large in the Tokyo identity. Topside, Nihonbashi is always crowded, but just a couple of meters below, it feels strangely private. I am in one of the busiest parts of the city, conspicuous in my colorful gear, but quite unreachable. There’s a certain exclusivity to it, for all that I am sitting in a little puddle of canal water by this point.
Kayaking requires upper body strength, but it’s actually hardest on the core, which you use constantly for stabilization, especially to prevent the boat from turning around the pivot of the paddle. By the time we near the end of the course, scooting out briefly on the rougher waters of the Sumida River for a view of Tokyo Skytree, my body is complaining loudly.
Thank goodness, the package also includes a visit to Evian Spa Tokyo so you can get the post-workout work-over the pros do. First, I take a soak in the piping-hot Japanese-style bath and soothe sore muscles in the low- temperature marble sauna. Then I’m ushered into a sunny treatment room overlooking the Imperial Palace’s Otemon Gate for the Mineral Therapy, a treatment that pairs a self-heating marine mineral pack with a full-body massage. Once applied, the mixture heats and fizzles, with the escaping bubbles adding a ticklishly effervescent counterpoint to the deep pressure of the massage.
ATHLETES NEED TO TRAIN their minds as much as their bodies, so my weekend wraps up with two activities said to develop concentration and strengthen discipline: zazen meditation and calligraphy.
The zazen lesson takes place at a private temple in central Tokyo with a 400-year history. Head Monk Sozui Iwasaki, a kindly fellow of indeterminate age and smooth-shaven head, greets me in the tatami-floored main hall. Floor cushions have been arranged facing the garden windows and, with his blessing, I settle in cross-legged rather than in the foot-numbing traditional seiza style.
“With learning or study, you are taking something in, but zazen is about releasing things, emptying yourself,” Iwasaki says. However, trying to contemplate nothing is a fool’s errand, he continues, since our human minds cannot help but wander. Rather than trying to empty the mind, he recommends focusing exclusively on a task. During initiation, his task was contemplating traditional riddles like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” but the task can be anything. When he teaches children, for example, he asks them to think about their favorite thing in Japan.
Since my aches and pains are likely to be distracting anyway, I decide my task will be constantly checking in with my body. Am I holding the correct posture? How fast am I breathing? What kind of pain am I feeling and where? That last one is particularly pertinent when Iwasaki comes along and whacks me over the shoulders with a stick, a technique that supposedly helps students to focus.
We meditate for a little more than 20 minutes—the time it takes for one stick of incense to burn down. In the past, I’ve found meditation tedious, but the time flies by. Focusing on my body rather than trying to separate from it seems to work a treat. My mind was engaged in observation, but without the pressure to decide or produce something, which was strangely peaceful.
Afterward, Iwasaki shares a cup of matcha, expounding on the philosophy behind the tea ritual. “Japanese like asymmetry or incompleteness,” he says. “There’s no way to engage with perfect beauty. But when there’s imperfection, you can engage. There’s room for growth, for play.”
He’s talking about appreciating the irregularity of hand-thrown ceramics, but I’m reassured by how it applies to my training this weekend. As beginners, we aren’t perfect, but we have the pleasure of achieving small wins, and learning from a more experienced teacher.
And the next one on my docket is calligraphy master Mouri Suzuki. He was introduced to the art at the knee of his great- grandfather and went on to study at Daito Bunka University, considered one of the top calligraphy schools in the country. Now he travels the world creating commissioned works and doing large-scale performances.
In his Kagurazaka atelier, Suzuki settles me at a small table set up with the tools of the trade: a brush, an ink stone, and a sumi ink stick made from pine soot. Calligraphy, he tells me, is like a letter. You have something you want to communicate to someone who isn’t present. As you prepare your materials, grinding the ink stick with water, you should focus on that message.
As with zazen and archery, the writing process begins with proper posture, sitting up straight a fist’s distance from the table, brush held in a three-fingered grip at a 90-degree angle from the paper. Imagine it as an extension of your body, Suzuki says, allowing your message to flow through it.
After practicing a bit with easy characters, I choose the character for “home” for my actual work. The finality of each stroke, knowing that however it turns out, it will be indelible, is nerve-wracking. With more practice, more confidence in the language, it would be meditative, but mostly I feel anxious about doing justice to the beautiful supplies I’ve been given. Slowly, carefully, I draw out the strokes, satisfied with some and cringing at others.
It is legible. I am inordinately relieved.
Suzuki congratulates me on a job well done and hangs my work on the wall with a decorative scroll so I can take a picture. I’m sure he’s mostly being kind to a first-timer, but it’s still encouraging.
“When you are starting something new, there is a phrase in Japanese shin-gi-tai, which means mind-skill-body,” Suzuki says. They are the three things you need to achieve mastery. Shin includes not just mental faculties, but also something like “heart” or “spirit” in English. “Shin always comes first. It always starts from the heart.”
For all that Japanese disciplines have an exacting reputation, my teachers were understanding, and perhaps that perspective illuminates why. I certainly didn’t bring technical skill or physical prowess, but I did bring heart. Room for growth and room for play—that should inspire even the highest- level Olympians.
palacehoteltokyo.com; doubles from ¥70,000; Energizing Tokyo package from ¥172,000 including two-night stay.