It started with a conversation, as those things often do.
A friend and I met after a long time, say 7 years and compound it for the time vortex that was the pandemic, and we had a few drinks on the terrace on my small apartment in Seoul city. We were reminiscing on where we had met, how were the people we used to spend time with, and ended up talking about what had brought us to the place we had met at that specific moment in time. I started taking over the conversation, as I often do when prompted by questions and beer, and went on to talk about some of the favorite parts of my youth, and those very special moments that tend to cover the current technology-filled and human-interaction-devoid everyday life with a slight shade of grey.
I’ve always thought that life defining moments where for other people and never really considered that I had met people who made a great impact on my life, the kind of impact that we hear during interviews of the greats who shape our world. Yet, as the stream of anecdotes waterfalled out of my mouth, silence suddenly sat at the table, picked up a glass and winked at the two of us after I realized that I had just revealed one of those defining moments, not knowing that it had been one all along.
This post isn’t about this moment, but what it made me think about: those moments in life, and those people I met, that only the spectacles of hindsight could reveal as having changed my life in a significant way. While I often say that I don’t like people very much, it hasn’t always been true. I used to love meeting people, especially those who at some point in life had chosen to live on the road for a while.
The road has always been the most beautiful thing I could ever think about. I was fascinated by it when I was a young adult, and I was frightened not to see it again when I settled for a bit, for a reason or another. The idea of getting on the road at a moment’s notice in order to leave everything behind and make my way towards new lands and new people was the true meaning of freedom to me. On the road, I did meet a lot of people, some of whom have indeed changed my perception of life at the least, and shaped some of it to make me become a completely different person at the most. So, I’ve decided to write about these people, may it be to reminisce, to think about the lessons they taught me, but also to say thank you.
Hiromi, Perth – Western Australia
To start with, I can’t think of anyone I’d like to thank more than Hiromi.
I had been backpacking for about half a year by the time I stepped into this city on the Western coast of the country. It had been the best months of my life and I had learnt a lot about the world and about myself. Some of these lessons included that cattle farms were a source of both depressingly grim and absolutely magical moments, that beer and sunset can be enjoyed on your own or with hundreds of people, and that most picking jobs will hurt your back but also open the doors to other wonderful experiences if you do it to the best of your ability.
I had been in town for a few days and was looking to not only meet people, but also learn something new. So, I decided to answer a local advert from someone looking to do some language exchange: English-Japanese. I’ve always liked Japanese culture and was happy to find an opportunity to use the study of the language to get to learn more about it. This is when I met Hiromi, a person who would plant a seed that would grow to become one of the most important things in my life for many years after.
Hiromi had come from Fukuoka and was traveling and learning English in Perth. We met a few times to speak in English and talk about each other’s backgrounds and culture. We became good friends and one day, she offered to introduce me to kendo, Japanese fencing, and we went together to watch a practice at a local club. We sat down in the elevated benches that overlooked the gymnasium’s grounds where the practice was to take place. The club’s members lined up and the teacher, the sensei, called for the opening meditation. An intense silence fell onto the place soon followed by the sensei calling for the first bow of the practice. As all the students in attendance bowed in response, so did Hiromi. She was sitting next to me on the bench, not taking part in the practice, and yet she still bowed with everyone else. My heart could feel this intense connection between her and kendo, and it created a gravitational point in space that would later blossom into an intense connection with kendo for myself. As the practice was unfolding in front of my eyes, it became clear that this was no usual martial arts. The usual discipline and drilling of basic strikes was still present, but the constant support that the kendokas were showing to one another throughout the hour was a sight to behold. During one specific exercise where each member was to strike based on the command given by the sensei, one of those members seemed to have been targeted for a more intense session, and was tasked to continue striking until near complete exhaustion. As the strikes became increasingly painful to achieve, based on all the signs that exhaustion can create, all the members of the club started to scream “fighto” as a sign of support. The screaming of the kendoka fighting through his pain along with the screaming of his teammates supporting the effort was the second point of inception regarding kendo in my mind.
I learnt later on that Hiromi’s personal connection with kendo came from her father who was a kendo sensei back in Fukuoka. She had grown up with it and it seemed almost inevitable that she would have to learn it as well.
Perth was only one of the stops on the road to nowhere and soon enough, I packed up my bags and left Perth. I stayed in contact with Hiromi but our correspondence were few and far between as I was mostly on the road and a bad communicator altogether.
A few months later, maybe a year, I started to work at a wine shop in Auckland city, New Zealand. Across the street was a kendo club. I registered, not without trepidations, as soon as I possibly could.
Kendo Changed My Life
Trying to learn to develop as an adult by going to travel the world on your own is quite the undertaking. When no one teaches you life lessons, you must rely on the foundations laid by your family and hope for the best. In my family, there was only one foundational word that resonated through our bones and it was “work,” and all the values attached to it: work hard, work as much as possible, respect people who work hard. For anything else, you’d have to work it out on your own.
While I will never discount the value of this central teaching, it did open a lot of doors to me throughout my life after all, it never really prepared me for the more existential questions that my artistic nature would warrant. Such questions as: how can I become a better person, how can I help make this world a better place, how do I explore ideas and concepts through artistic expression while not letting the world compromise my own vision?
In kendo teachings, I found the structural basis to help answer some of those questions, and in the dojo, I found a solid group of friends with whom I would spend most of my time inside and outside the dojo, and a set of teachers whose words would often enlighten me and helped me change the way I approached life. I ended up spending a lot of time at the dojo and it quickly became my center of gravity. As a young writer looking for a voice, and for publication opportunities, I was also given a chance to write for a respected international publication, the Kendo-World magazine. I became both physically and mentally stronger. Kendo shaped my life during my stay in New Zealand.
Then, I moved to South Korea.
We Meet Again
One day, I will write about how my dedication to kendo, and to my self improvement through it, have gone down hill almost as soon as I placed a foot out of the airport in Seoul. That none-withstanding, I had an opportunity to visit Japan not long after starting a new life in South Korea. While there is plenty that I wanted to see in Japan, I jumped on the opportunity to head to Fukuoka where I met Hiromi again.
She had been back in Japan for a long time by then, got married and had a beautiful baby boy. I was lucky to meet her family, including her father and siblings, and we shared a wonderful dinner altogether.
By that point, she had been too busy with her young family and her job to practice kendo regularly, and I was starting to have my own issues with practicing in South Korea.
The Constant Call
Yet, I can never let go of Kendo. It’s always on my mind. I think about its teachings and how I often fail to carry them in my everyday life. For the longest time, I thought that I could go up the levels and maybe compete to a certain extent. It has become clear that this future isn’t in store for me, but some good news have come to light recently. As I struggle to settle into a good practice routine, the knowledge that Hiromi has resumed her own practice has been helping me get back to the dojo. My current practice is less than ideal, but I do it with a firm goal in mind: one day head to Fukuoka and do a full practice session with Hiromi. I’ve had the chance to practice with fantastic senseis from Japan when they visited the club where I practiced in New Zealand, but the day I get to practice with the person who changed my life in such a significant way will be truly special.
Thank you Hiromi, for what may have seemed innocuous to you, visiting a kendo club, but turned out to put my life on a very special path. I look forward to practicing with you in Fukuoka.