Sunday, January 28, 2007

Paging Dr. Banzai!

Calling all Blue Blaze Irregulars! Instant newsflash...

Any out there besides me remember The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension? The hero was a rock n rollin', philosophy spoutin', six-gun slingin', neurosurgeon/astrophysicist, and probably a bunch of other things. This was a geek-fest starring Peter Weller in the title roll, Jeff Goldblum as his chief sidekick, opposing the evil antics of John Lithgow and Christopher Lloyd. To be fair, the idea of a pulp action hero with as much in the brians department as the brwn department isn't new. Doc Savage, the man of bronze, was plying those waters many, many years ago. But, you never got the sense from Peter Weller that Dr. Banzai's churning waters ran very deep.
What do you expect from the man who played RoboCop? While Peter Weller is a cult favorite on the Sci Fi Convention circuit, it's not like he ever made a big, important movie.

He's solidly in the B-list of well-made cult films.
So imagine my surprise when I learned Peter Weller, man of a thousand faces, and film super hero, had an alter ego...
It seems Mr. Weller is, in fact, working towards his PhD in Italian Renaissance Art from UCLA. He already holds Master's Degrees in Roman and Renaissance Art. And this is no lark... like any aspiring academic, he actually teaches classes, writes papers, and lectures! And he seems to have a sense of humor about it too. Here's a quote regarding the fact that his classes are so hard he actually loses many students after the first class: "They thought they were going to get the easy A from old RoboCop." Why would they think that? Don't they realize RoboCop is one badass mother... Sorry, I was just talking about RoboCop.

This specialized expertise has garnered Peter Weller a gig hosting the History Channel's Engineering an Empire. He apparently is very knowledgable about Roman architecture. Who knew?

Momofuku Ando

Usually when I post pictures of elderly Japanese men, they are highly skilled martial artists desperately trying to maintain a tradition of ass-whupping that goes back hundreds of years. Not today.

On January 5th, 2007, at the ripe old age of 96, Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin and the inventor of instant noodles, died.

I found his obituary in the back pages of hoity-toity The Economist, a weekly newsmagazine that I feel into the habit of reading several years ago while studying for a job interview. (Don't ask.) The obit is very wry. It likens the instant gratification and simplicity of instant Ramen noodles to the search for enlightenment. Apparently this is not merely the low-wit of the author, because Mr. Ando had three sayings that served as Nissin's motto:

Peace will come when people have food.
Eating wisely will enhance beauty and health.
The creation of food will serve society.

Talk about a mission statement. No wonder Japanese business is such tough competition.

Anyway, instant noodles are the kind of thing you take for granted. You just assume they've always been around. Not so. Mr. Ando got the idea while walking home from work in 1957. He saw the long lines of people waiting at the noodle shops, which were the Japanese equivalent of McDonalds back in the day. I say "were" because I suspect McDonalds is now the Japanese equivalent of McDonalds, but I digress.

It took Mr. Ando a year to perfect the process of creating the instant noodle. The secret? Flash-frying the fresh noodles in palm oil. But here's the bit that really surprised me -- as it will surprise almost any student in higher education:
Mr. Ando was laughed at and repeatedly told he would fail because... the instant noodles cost 6 times as much as a bowl of fresh noodles! Hard to believe when you can take home a grocery bag full of the things for pocket change.

Well, we will all miss Mr. Ando in our own ways. But he did something extraordinary by making so many millions happy with something so incredibly simple, and even if he is forgotten, I'm sure his legacy will continue forever.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Path of the Assassin is Koike and Kojima's 15-volume story of notorious ninja master, Hattori Hanzo! Published by dark Horse comics, you can follow the "quasi-historical" (i.e. fictional)advantures of Hanzo through this series. Koike and Kojima are best known for their hugely influential series, Lone Wolf and Cub and they have an excellent understanding of the Japanese past.

While I certainly would never in a million years claim they know true ninjutsu, they do have an excellent understanding of samurai and martial arts history. And being Japanese, they provide an added insight into the mythology and history surrounding the samurai and ninja cultures. It is very different from the Hollywood idea of the legends we have in the US. The shadow of Sho Kosugi does not fall on Koike and Kojima.
And speaking of the true stuff... I had an opportunity to teach a section of the dojo's End of Year Training. I took about fifteen minutes to express, and demonstrate, what I learned this year: that Basics really matter.
I'm not talking about the outward movements we tend to teach or describe as basics, but the underlying principles that make them work. I showed how the most recent Black Belt recipients could throw a great punch, but failed in a decent understanding of the necessary distance to use it properly. They had been working on that punch for over five years.
Earlier this year, I was left in charge of a class and I asked some new black belts to each teach something themselves. It was an excellent gauge of progress. They each competently taught a technique, but not one of them referenced a principle. There are, of course two big principles we ought to be talking about ALOT!
Distancing, or ma-ai.
Balance, or kuzushi.
But there are plenty of other principles also to consider in good taijutsu. Moving in circles, or angles. Proper use of total body weight. Leverage. The meaning of "Natural" movement. And of course, the elusive "Kukan," or management of space.
You have to pick apart the larger movements we call Basics, or Kihon Happo, to work on these principles.
I had another enlightning moment when walking through a Black Belt class one day and suggesting a correction to a gentleman performing a particular kata. He had replaced a kick with a knee strike. I showed him how to do it better ("correctly" being a loaded term) and he frowned at me. He told me he knew that was the original way the kata was done, but he couldn't do it that way and substituted the knee strike. OK... But I'd seen him do it several times and he'd been consistently doing the knee strike. Yes, he had changed the way he did the kata -- and that was ok, he said proudly, because it "worked."
I shook my head and moved on, secure in the knowledge that this man would wise-up, or hit a dead end and quit. We change kata at our own risk. If we can't perform a movement correctly, it is a clue that we are doing something wrong and need to figure out what it is and why. Kata hold many lessons about the basic principles, and we need to be mindful of them. They are not simple movements strung together as a tailored response to some attack. They are meant to suggest a solution, based on a basic principle, to a particular type of problem. For example: Straight attack coming in on a line? Shift in a circular way and generate power for a counter-attack, while placing yourself in a protected position. Change the kata, and you might get part of that solution, but neglect the second.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

National Marine Corps Museum

This is Tun Tavern. On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress commissioned Samuel Nicholas to raise two Battalions of Marines. That very day, Nicholas set up shop in Tun Tavern. He appointed Robert Mullan, then the proprietor of the tavern, to the job of chief Marine Recruiter -- serving, of course, from his place of business at Tun Tavern. Prospective recruits flocked to the tavern, lured by (1) cold beer and (2) the opportunity to serve in the new Corps of Marines. So, yes, the U.S. Marine Corps was indeed born in Tun Tavern. Needless to say, both the Marine Corps and the tavern thrived during this new relationship.
Tun Tavern still lives today. And, Tun Tavern beer is still readily available throughout the Philadelphia area. Further, through magazines it is advertised to Marines throughout the world.

The United States Marine Corps is older than the Republic for which it stands. For over 200 years, it has stood guard over our country and taken the fight to our enemies wherever they slept. The Corps is very proud of its history, and insists that all new recruits learn a fairly detailed account of dates, names, and places important to the Corps' heritage. Yet, until last November 10, there was no central, National Marine Corps Museum.

Over my Christmas Vacation, my father and I went to visit the new museum. He had provided a donation for the place, and wanted to chack on his "investment." My father was not a Marine, he was a draftee in the Army. But when he heard there was an effort to build a museum, he felt strongly that he should provide some money to assist in the construction.

The museum is world-class. It covers the full expanse of Marine Corps history, but focuses on the modern age: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War Era. This was obviously done to appease the many, many vets (always known as "Former Marines," never "Ex-Marines") who provided money so the deeds of their comrades would not be forgotten. The staff is rife with Former Marines, all ready to answer questions knowledgably and eagerly. There are plans to expand the museum to have exhibit halls devoted to the earlier periods, and more than one staff member told me they have more artifacts than they can ever hope to display.

The place is very moving, and does not shy away from the Marines' core mission: find the enemy and destroy him. This is not an dry, antiseptic view of history. There is a life size display of a World War I Marine struggling in hand-to-hand combat with a German stormtrooper -- it's all mud, muck, knives, and pistols. As the visitor enters the World War II gallery, the visitor is greeted with another lifesize diorama of a Navy Corpsman treating a wounded Marine.

The actual flag from the famous Iwo Jima picture is on display at the Museum, across from a war studded with globes and anchors, one for each Marine who died in the gray, sulfur sand of that godforsaken place. In the Korean War Gallery, there is a room size diorama of a winter battle, kept chilled by air conditioners. Personally, I think it was still too warm in there, and I'd have dropped the temperature more, but it gets the point across.

My favorite room was a depiction of a Vietnam firebase -- most likely Khe Sanh. The entrance, as you can see in the conceptual drawing above, is through a mock-up of a Chinook helicopter's tail. The Chinook fuselage vibrates, and a hot, dry wind blows through the main compartment. You can hear radio chatter over some speakers. I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of a high school classmate who recently returned from reserve duty as a Marine in Iraq. One of his stories involved a raid from the back of a Chinook, and it occurred to me that it must have been just like this... Except for the stark fear and adrenaline dump, of course!

I recommend the museum. I'd like to go back some day and spend more time. We were there for four hours, and it was no where near enough time to soak it all in. We missed a few things -- including the Tun Tavern mock-up that serves as a dining hall. And I decided against trying out the indoor rifle range with it's five dollar cost and laser rifle training tools.
On a final note, I think those of us in the Bujinkan should also make an effort to visit this museum as part of our roots if possible. Consider that two members of the "Holy American Bujinkan Trinity" of founders (Bud Malmstrom and Jack Hoban) were Marines, and I think that not a little of the spirit of the Corps has been grafted onto the sprout that came from Japan.

Oniyuri Shinobigatana Review

I've already lost count of the number of swords I own. It isn't a huge number, but it's more than the average person. (Of course, how many "average" people own even one sword?) My previous acquisition was a Last Legend katana and I was so happy with it that I figured it would be a long time before I purchased another sword.
It was about three years... I guess that's a long time for me.
I discovered Cheness Cutlery's shinobigatana. They make two versions, the Onibasu and the Oniyuri. The Onibasu is the "economy" version and list prices at $299.99, but seems to be on a semi-permanaent sale at $189.99. Since Santa Claus was financially kind to me this year, I purchased the Oniyuri version, which lists at $499.99 and is also on semi-permanent sale for $249.99.
The Oniyuri is advertised as being made to the specifications of a Togakure Ryu sword, as commissioned by a Bujinkan Dojo based on information they received from Hatsumi-sensei at some point. I can't verify the truth, but it sure sounds good. These are the technical specs for those who care:
metallurgy: 9260 Silicon Alloy Carbon Spring Steel, full hand forged, through Tempered, Oil Quneched, Hand Polished.
Dimensions: Overall sheathed length: 44.5 inches. Cutting edge: 23 inches. 0.3 inch width, 1.25 inches height. The sori, or curve in the blade is a deviation of 0.5 inches.
Weight is 2 lbs 12 oz.
Tsuka, or handle, length is a whopping 14 inches!
Now, I am not a sword connoiseur. All of my stuff is made for cutting and is sturdy, but it was all made by Indians or Chinese folks, none of it is a true Nihon-to, forged with the blessings of the kami, and direct from the Land of the Rising Sun. But I do know that oil quenching is a no-no for Japanese sword fans, amd double-pinning the tsuka to the blade is a faux-pas. Still, this is an impressive cutting tool made in the image of a true shinobigatana, or ninja-to.
The obligatory word on the ninja-to: We all know by now that the straight bladed, square-guarded short sword that is instantly familiar to even the previously mentioned "average person" is a Hollywood fantasy. Yes, I know that Christian Bale even used one in Batman Begins... But they were living in Tibet! Obviously, if you are a secret agent -- no matter what era you live in -- you don't want to be carrying around tools which instantly identify you as a spy or assassin.
A ninja sword tended to be whatever sword fit the disguise you were in: rich samurai, poor wandering ronin, armed monk, traveling merchant. Even so, Togakure Ryu seemed to favor a "trick" sword that was made to look like an everyday katana, but had a shorter cutting blade. This provided some advanatges to the owner. The most widely known is the quick draw. The shorter length allows the blade to clear the scabbard faster. It also messes with the distance of an attacker. (Ponder that, those of you in the know...) The sword could be used in tight spaces. The hollow in the bottom of the scabbard could be used to hold small items intended to be secret, or even blinding powder. (Note: If you own a ninja sword from Cheness, DON'T put powder in your scabbard. I know it sounds cool, but the oil from your sword will creep into the powder and creat a mess over time. In eons past, replacement saya were much easier to come by than in 21st Century America.)
I haven't had a chance to cut anything with it. But the workmanship holds up with the Hanwei line so many people have, and is almost as good as Last Legend. These seem to be the current standards for swords to be used (or is that "abused") by martial artists. Here is a thread from Kutaki discussing the Cheness swords. And here is an interesting thread on whether or not there ever was a straight bladed ninja-to from e-Budo. I post this last link because it opens the question: how do we know the story about the curved, short Togakure Ryu sword is true? Has anyone ever found one? It's a mindbender for sure...