Karen Hill Anton (C) and her husband Billy surrounded by family. Photo courtesy of Karen Hill Anton

Arriving at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Billy changed out money, the 50 dollars we had left. Although crowded at midday, the silence in the airport enveloped me. It was the silence of not understanding any spoken word. The silence of not being able to read.

He had the directions to the dojo and got us to the train. I don’t know how he confirmed it, but he said, “This is the one we take.”

If we’d looked out of the right side of the train, we would’ve seen Mt. Fuji. If it had been a clear day. I don’t remember the weather. But we didn’t know to look anyway.

We had been on the road an entire year. And by that time, we’d developed senses that told us when we were safe, when it was okay to close our eyes, when it was all right to sleep. There was no sense that could tell us if the water was safe to drink, and that stayed a concern of mine for quite a while. But now, exhausted and vaguely aware we didn’t have to keep our eyes on our dirty backpacks and our child, Billy and I fell in and out of sleep as the train sped us past Mt. Fuji.

Karen Anton. Photo: Japan Times

Absolute obedience was a given

 “Call me Noda,” a small man in a blue training suit said.
Mousy, he looked even more mouse-like as he surveyed us with what seemed to be suspicion. And maybe he was suspicious. We were originally supposed to have arrived at the dojo a full year earlier. Billy had written he’d be accompanied by his wife and daughter, but this man Noda didn’t appear to expect us. He clearly didn’t expect me.

During our year of travel, no day was like the one that had preceded it. I seldom knew when or where we’d sleep, what we’d eat, who we might encounter. Now, with no expectations of what living in the dojo would be like, the prospect of an ordered life with parameters didn’t seem particularly onerous. Our clothes, worn out from travel, were soon replaced by the unofficial dojo uniform, the blue “training wear.” And wearing what everyone else wore indicated we could be identified. We had our place in a group, in a country where nothing mattered more.

Like an orthodox religion with codes of eating and dress predetermined, everything was decided for us. It was easy. We left our lives as individuals at the entrance to the dojo and transformed on the spot, without a word being spoken, into the disciples of Master Jun Yoshida. We were taken under Yoshida-sensei’s all-encompassing wing – a wing with an eagle’s span. His philosophy of living and personal development covered all aspects of our daily lives. Absolute obedience was a given.

“Sensei will return today maybe,” Noda said about two weeks after we arrived.

We were in the little room that could’ve been called the foreigners’ room because the six foreigners at the dojo were the only ones who ever went there. Except for Noda. He was in charge of us, kind of. Kind of, because everything about him was timid, and I sensed he was intimidated just by our size.

But Noda clearly enjoyed his measure of control and power. When the small group of foreigners met every day at the appointed hour, three o’clock, he would make some pronouncement, always spoken like a warning: “Come to all classes.” “No eating in the room.” “Do not use the car if not the business of the dojo.” “We meet at three o’clock with promptness.”

It was Noda’s business to see that we knew where to be when, and what rules to follow. That must have been as hard for him as it was for us, because although some rules were spelled out, most weren’t. However, it was clear that transgressions would not be tolerated. It was also, apparently, Noda’s personal responsibility that we learn Japanese, and during those daily three o’clock meetings, he taught us however he could. He didn’t have a textbook, but came to every class with copious notes and a tattered Japanese-English dictionary. He seemed to be under severe stress – not because of us but because of his relationship with his sensei.

“Wake up! Everyone to the third-floor dojo. Kyoukataiso!” The voice calling out was not Ito’s, who gently plied me out of sleep every morning saying, “Kyaren-san. Time.”Standing at the dormitory door, the male instructor yelled, “Everyone up! Now!” I could hear him repeat his message in the men’s dormitory. There was command in the voice, but also appeal.

“Sensei has returned,” Ito said. In the same manner she dispatched her food, not a thing to pay more attention to than necessary, in seconds she was out of her sleeping robe and standing before me dressed. “We must go quickly.”

It was midnight. Although I already knew not to question anything, I was surprised by this late-night order.

“What about Nanao?” I asked. Would they really demand I wake a five-year-old child in the middle of the night for exercise, for kyoukataiso?

“You must bring her. All people must go.”

Yoshida-sensei and I were the same height, 170 cm or five feet, seven inches, and in Japan, that was singularly tall. At any height, he was an imposing figure who moved no other muscles in his body than the ones required for a particular action, and every action appeared to be one of exquisite precision and impressive control. He never gestured, and I swear his eyes blinked less than the average person’s. In his presence, other people were mere twitching souls, unconscious tics and mannerisms governing their every breath. When Yoshida-sensei spoke, his voice started in a deep well, and the wooden floors and tatami mats of the dojo absorbed and added tone and depth. When angry, the voice boomed.

Every day for at least an hour, or until he felt like stopping, we were put through his “hard exercise” class. We ran, jumped, hopped, climbed ropes. Fasting women had to carry healthy men the length of the dojo floor on their backs. Kyoukataiso, while a strengthening exercise, seemed to have no other lofty purpose than to move the body to complete physical exertion. That midnight, sensei taught us the class usually taught at noon, without modification.

Although we could not understand even one sentence, we were required to attend Yoshida-sensei’s lectures, held in the evenings three times a week. Noda, small and fidgeting, instructed to do simultaneous translation, desperately clawed for words to convey sensei’s message: Through the practice of yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, natural foods, and mastery of martial arts and understanding of Zen, one can attain perfect health and spiritual equilibrium. Or something like that. Noda, fearing to miss one word of this message, was equally fearful his small voice wasn’t small enough, and he might be disturbing sensei’s talk.

During these lectures, we were told of Yoshida-sensei’s exploits as a spy in Manchuria during the war. We learned of his mastery of Budō. Some of these martial arts were familiar to us and some not. He strode around in his dark hakama –the traditional Japanese garment resembling long culottes. The wide legs made broad arcs as he threw someone in a demonstration of aikido. Although I was skeptical, it was possible to believe this man had, ninja-like, crossed borders, escaped custody, dispatched enemies.

Yoshida-sensei was an attractive man. His dark hair was thick and combed straight back, revealing a sculpted brow that shaded steady ink-black eyes. He had the grace and posture of a dancer, the gait of a samurai. He saw no man as his equal, and certainly no woman could ever be. Much later, when I could understand more than they were aware, I heard the dojo women talking among themselves about sensei’s exploits with the ones who were not so thin and bony.

Yoshida-sensei had developed his own form of yoga, and we practiced that every day along with traditional yoga. A wide variety of martial arts were taught, and we’d have regular demonstrations by Bushido masters showing their skill in karate, judo, Shorinji Kempo, aikido, naginata, iaido, and Taekwondo.

Billy threw himself into all this training wholeheartedly. On several occasions, he went to do sesshin (intensive meditation) at Ryutaku-ji, the temple of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism just a short walk from the dojo. I saw him regularly, but sometimes regular just meant passing him in the corridors like he was any other trainee. Those early months at the dojo we slept in dormitories, so our chance to communicate was usually in the dining room (you didn’t dare talk in class) where we could exchange a few quick words.

There was no one at the dojo I could call a friend and I just got used to being solitary. Although we were all supposed to attend classes when we weren’t working, I found it was possible to skip them. I didn’t want to do martial arts, and when I wasn’t scheduled to be in the kitchen, I’d find a corner in the dojo’s maze to hide and read. But no corner in the maze was secure when sensei taught his exercise class. Anyone’s absence was conspicuous, and there was never an acceptable excuse. Before the class began, the teachers-in-training, acting on Noda’s orders, scoured the dojo to make sure all able bodies were present. In Yoshida-sensei’s estimation, there was no such thing as a disabled body.

At the end of every month, there was a celebration for the people who’d had a birthday. The low tables from the first-floor dining room were passed up hand-to-hand to the third-floor dojo. Also passed up was the dinner – 50 plates with an identical food layout. Sitting with our legs bent at the knees and tucked neatly under our behinds, the formal seiza position, we waited for sensei to begin the festivities, which he did by handing out small birthday gifts.

“Yamada!” sensei called out one month. He never used the honorific. Then again, “Yamada!”

When no one came forward, the teacher to sensei’s right, Mihara, leaned over and, in a voice not heard by anyone else, reminded sensei who Yamada was. Yamada had been in a really bad car accident. He’d arrived at the dojo several months earlier, carried out of the taxi on the back of his elder sister. Similarly, he was carried into the dining room three times a day by two trainees who propped him against the wall at the back of the room. His sister would leave her work in the kitchen to go feed him with a spoon. A sturdy woman whose body appeared to compensate for her brother’s, she was the only woman in the kitchen who could lift by herself the giant pressure cookers, valves hissing, and heavy with brown rice.

Unlike Noda, who was more like Yoshida-sensei’s flunky, Mihara was his right hand. And we’d heard he was as skilled in the martial arts as sensei. Now sensei ignored him, and bellowed from deep within the well: “YAMADA!”

Yamada then crawled across the long dojo to the place where sensei sat. No one moved or spoke the 10 minutes it took him to do it. At first I thought it was cruel to have Yamada crawl that entire way, and wondered why someone didn’t just take the present to him. But that thought gave way to thinking, This is perseverance. And patience, which we were all required to demonstrate. Sensei handed him his present with no more fanfare than the others had received, and in the silence of the dojo we could hear Yamada say, “Arigato gozaimasu.” Thank you.

At first, we viewed Yoshida-sensei’s behavior as unusual, but after a while we too accepted, to some degree, what everyone accepted. Following the rules as laid out by someone else had become simply a new and different experience. It was embraced. We were seldom outside the dojo walls, and within the walls the dojo was a world unto itself. It felt good to be just another member of the group. We’d stood out and been pointed and stared at for most of our journey, and now in our characterless blue athletic suits, a variation on the uniform theme, we had the illusion we fit in and were like everyone else.

We went straight from living in a dojo to living in an old, isolated farmhouse at the top of a mountain.
I’m not sure what made us think we could plop ourselves down in the middle of a Japanese farming community and make a life there. But that’s what we did.

We’d heard about the farmhouse from Ito-san. The owner was a relative, and she was adamant in impressing on us that no one at the dojo should know that she’d told us about it. No one ever did. After we left, we never saw her or anyone from the dojo again.

When we met the owner, he told us it had been his childhood home but none of his family wanted to live in it now. “It’s pretty far out in the country.”

“Great,” Billy said. “Where?”

“It’s about one hour away.”

“Great,” Billy said again.

“You like to be in the country?”

“Yes, yes, we like it.”

“I heard you’re from New York City.”

“We are.”

He drove us to the farmhouse, driving on narrow paved roads that turned into unpaved ones with steep drops until finally we came to Futokoro Yama – Breast Pocket Mountain.

Taking one look at the place, Billy and I said simultaneously, “This is it.”

The farmhouse had been vacant for years, but we could tell with a little cleaning and fixing we could make it not just livable but nice.

“How much is the rent?” Billy asked.

“Oh, you can live in it for free,” the owner said, adding he’d rather have people living in it than leave it to be destroyed by mold and mildew, insects and weasels.

It was now two years since we’d left the States and paying jobs. We’d managed, seeming to require little money after our basic needs were met. Our “savings” amounted to the small allowance we were given at the dojo. And although “free” sounded good, Billy insisted the owner accept $50 a month.

We were charmed by the old house – traditionally simple; every room had tatami; the windows were paper-screen shoji; the doors, sliding screen fusuma. The view – not quite the word to describe a panorama of bamboo groves, tea plantations and rice fields, mountains and endless sky that gave you the feeling you were at the top of not just a mountain but the world – was spectacular.

Traditional simplicity also meant the house didn’t have even one convenience. The kitchen, situated on the cold dark north side, had a beaten-earth floor. There was a small, rusty, two- burner stove for cooking, and a kamado, a hearth built into the kitchen. Later I’d find its huge pots were perfect to boil dough for bagels.

There was no plumbing system. Water came into the house through a length of split bamboo connected to a tank on the hill above. It was running water, but it didn’t run in hot. Every night we needed to build a fire to heat the bath, and if we wanted hot water during the day, we had to boil it. The farmhouse toilet (benjo) was the old squat-style Japanese type and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t flush. But a more significant fact was that the vacuum trucks that usually empty these toilets couldn’t reach it. Because of the location of the house, at the top of a mountain and perched on the side of a hill, the only access was by walking down a steep path.

One of the first things we learned from our neighbor was how to empty that benjo – and Billy and I easily agreed that would be his chore. Not just because it was an unpleasant job, but because the waste had to be scooped into two buckets that were then balanced on a beam and carried on one shoulder to the fields or the woods. Those thick wooden buckets were heavy even before they were filled.

The almost primitive living situation didn’t faze me. I’d lived on the road for a year, camping most of the time, and then in the dormitory at the dojo. The mountaintop location made emptying the toilet a chore, but in exchange we got not just a soul-satisfying view, but a home.

Karen Hill Anton, formerly a columnist for The Japan Times and the Japanese newspaper Chunichi Shimbun, is a cross-cultural competence consultant and coach. She lectures widely on her experience of cross-cultural adaptation and raising four bilingual, bicultural children. Originally from New York City, she’s lived with her husband William Anton, in Tenryu, Shizuoka prefecture since 1975.