by Esther Elizabeth Suson
Whenever anyone asked if we (my best friend Angela and I) were going to Japan for vacation, I stuttered over the answer. “Vacation” suggested rest, and that was the last thing we planned to do. (To be fair, we did get to sleep a lot on that trip.)
My mouth sometimes formed “missions” before I remembered it was actually a vacation, but there was very little besides “vacation” to describe it, since it was neither for work nor school. However, in Japan and after it, I realized it was a journey of 3 pilgrimages all in one.
As Students of Japan and its History and Culture
When deciding where we wanted to go, Angela and I agreed right off that we wanted to encounter Japan through its history and culture. This pilgrimage consisted of a trip to the Tokyo National Museum on the very first day, although – like the aikidokas we and our hosts were – we went hunting for the weapons and armor.
We included in this general pilgrimage a visit to the grounds of the Imperial Palace, although the gates were closed. Our host told us it was open in the spring, when the sakura were in bloom. So, all we reached was the first line of defense: the Imperial gates.
The Imperial swans, fish, and turtles as well.
Our other main travels in this pilgrimage involved visits to the different famous shrines in Kamakura. We visited the Daibutsu or Great Buddha, Hasedera Shrine, and Hachimangu Shrine. These were a closer glimpse, for us, into the history and culture of the nation through its shrines and temples.
On the other hand, an experience of Japanese culture would not have been complete without a glimpse of its modern and pop culture. Hence our visits to Akihabara, the anime and manga center of the world; and to Shinjuku, and Shibuya crossing.
Nothing that we did, nowhere we went, could do anything but scratch the mere surface of what Japan and the Japanese are. We went where we could to see what we could, but this was possibly the most superficial of our pilgrimages. The next two were much more personal.
This is how our itinerary-planning went.
“So, Aikikai Hombu dojo.”
“Where else do you want to go?”
Our desire to go to Japan was deeply connected to our lives as aikidoka (aikido practitioners). At the time of this trip, Angela had been doing aikido for six years, and I for three. Our closest contact with the hombu dojo, or the headquarters, was through the seminars regularly conducted with invited Japanese shihan.
Through our hosts, we had an opportunity to train in the headquarters, under the doshu or current head of aikikai-style aikido. On a personal level, it was a pilgrimage to the seat and house of the martial art we had both committed to.
On a professional level, it was a check for our own dojo, to see how closely we were keeping to the standards set by the headquarters. What did they do that our dojo was missing? What could we incorporate? How closely were we aligned to the style and function of the techniques taught in the class?
After the training, we wound up at Sakuraya, a supplier of weapons (both practice and decorative), uniforms, and armor for different martial arts.
We browsed through practice swords and staffs, admired the sword displays on the shelves, and soaked in the care and excellence that went into the weapons and their accessories. It is heaven for any student of Japanese martial arts.
We are yet in the “mild” section of passionate aikidoka, however. All of our hosts had found their ways to Japan in pursuit of the training they could only find in their respective martial arts headquarters. One cannot be near them and fully resist the passion and fire they have for their art.
It was a challenge to either catch the same fire, or find what I would be passionate enough about to pursue with that much strength of perseverance.
Our Japan itinerary included a visit to a Roman Catholic church, and one to Every Nation Tokyo in Shibuya. We wanted to see the structures of our respective faiths in Japan.
We did manage to enter the Catholic church, St. Ignatius near Sophia University. As a mass was going on, we quietly sat at the back until communion started.
The second destination, however, we could not fully reach. The venue of Every Nation Tokyo is just a few blocks away from Shibuya crossing, surrounded by eateries, bars, and restaurants that only fully wake up on the weekends. It is also one of the most multi-cultural spots in Japan. However, we didn’t get any nearer than the building.
The venue was not open on weekdays, however, so the next Japan itinerary should have a Sunday thrown in somewhere.
Japan: A Tale of 3 Pilgrimages
Now that I’ve thought it through, it’s easy enough to say, “it was more a pilgrimage than a vacation,” and to explain why. This is what Japan gave us, what we brought back from her, and why we are going back.