During a yearlong trip to Japan, Karin Muller encounters an elderly judo master who gives her a blunt lesson on the correct orientation of heart and mind.
I’ve walked twelve miles today, and most of it on roads—busy and congested—and my feet hurt from the heavy pack and the asphalt. I arrive at the last temple just as the sun is going down. I light incense, chant a halfhearted sutra, and check in for the night. And then I ask, reluctantly, if there are any judo clubs nearby.
I’m hoping they’ll say no. I’m nursing two blisters and a bruised toenail. The day-old sushi I had for lunch was more than a day old. I want to soak in the hot tub, do my laundry, and curl up for the night.
“Yes!” the priest tells me with enthusiasm. Yominuri Dojo is just around the corner. He gives me rapid directions, then draws a map. When he finds out I have a black belt, he offers to drive me and mentions that the sensei once taught his son. I’m committed. I limp upstairs and dig out my uniform.
The place is tiny, no larger than a two-car garage. Nine students file out onto the plywood floor. When it comes time to do the opening ritual, the sensei passes over me and points to a lower rank. He must not like foreigners, or women—or both. I’ll probably be ignored for most of the night. I’m secretly relieved.
We pair up and start practicing our favorite throws. My partner is a stick-thin teenager, just entering that awkward age when he’s hyper-aware of my gender and doesn’t know where to put his hands. I smile and crack a joke or two, but he still looks like he has indigestion. I loosen up my body and make myself light as a feather when it’s his turn to throw. If he’s even halfway accurate, I topple over like I just got hit by a lightning bolt.
The sensei watches from the sidelines, both hands wrapped around a hand-carved wooden cane. He’s ancient—stooped and gray-haired. His wispy beard has no more than half a dozen hairs. He shuffles with each step and barely manages to climb up onto the mat. He’s not wearing glasses, and he’s squinting so hard his eyes are almost closed.
My partner makes a halfhearted attempt to sweep my leg. I’m about to suggest a better starting point when I feel the tap of a cane on the back of my calf. The sensei is standing beside me. My partner evaporates. The old man gets a grip of my judo collar and nods his head for me to do my best technique.
I concentrate on picking him up smoothly and laying him down on the mat as gently as I can. He looks almost translucent, like a delicate piece of porcelain. I’m afraid I might break him into several pieces.
I never see it coming, but it feels like a ten-ton truck at forty miles an hour. I hit the ground so hard that for a moment I can barely breathe. I’m not even sure what countermove he used.
I struggle to my feet. He grabs my gi without a word. I try again—faster this time—with a little less concern about his physical well-being. I hit the ground before I’m halfway through my first step.
I get up again, trying not to let my frustration show. I don’t understand why he’s treating me this way. These practice rounds are meant to teach students confidence in their techniques. If someone always counters you, eventually you expect to fail.
I try again—a different throw this time, to catch him off guard. He blocks me easily. I can’t believe his speed, his accuracy, and his strength.
The other students have stopped even the pretense of working out and are watching us in silence. They have that attentive, predatory look of a wolf pack waiting to see death.
The clock above the door creeps past seven thirty, then eight. I try a dozen different strategies, from speed to fake-outs to combinations. Every time I hit the ground my resentment grows. He never corrects me or shows me what I’m doing wrong. He hasn’t said a single word to me since I walked in the door, except for that annoying, high-pitched giggle he lets out every time I fall. This is absolutely pointless. He’s not a teacher—he’s just an ugly sadist who gets his kicks out of torturing anyone foolish enough to come into his dojo.
A year ago, before I began this trip, I would have told him exactly what I thought of him and stormed out the door, but I’m not that person anymore. For better or worse, I’ve acquired pride, or face, or discipline. I’m going to stick it out.
Nine o’clock. When I fall, I concentrate on getting up. When I stand, I think about my next throw. When it fails, I think about how to hit the ground to minimize the pain.
And then, almost at random, I set my forward foot two inches further left. I pull and lock and drop and turn, just like all my other attempts. He bends forward as easily as a young willow branch. I twist and he lands full-length on the ground. The room is absolutely silent. I know that one day I will relive this moment. I will feel jubilation, pride, satisfaction. I will commit every motion to eternal memory, to savor when I am ninety-two years old and in a rocking chair. But right now I just feel empty. I stand and wait for whatever he decides to do.
He climbs slowly to his feet. My body hurts so much that I can barely hold myself upright. Tomorrow I will not be able to pick up my pack or even bend my wrists.
He raises his right hand as though to grab my collar for another throw. For the first time I notice that his fingers are permanently twisted and his knuckles grossly swollen. It must be agony for him to grip the coarse cloth of a judo gi.
Instead he reaches out and taps me sharply on the chest. “Commit,” he says in Japanese.
His finger moves upwards until it touches the middle of my forehead. “Believe.”
And then he giggles, calls for his cane, and shuffles off.