So this Japan thing’s pretty cool

In 2004, I watched my first real Japanese anime.  “Woah,” I thought, “why don’t they have shows about ninjas in England?”  I remember how compelling the violence and ninja-magic were.  I marvelled at the murderous sand and talking frogs.  It was amazing.  That was the first time I felt a deep resonance with Japanese culture.

After a while of watching anime about ninjas, samurai death gods and supernatural notebooks I started thinking I should probably learn some of these moves for real.  “A martial art,” I thought, “Yeah!”  I sent some emails out to local martial arts clubs, asked them how many flips they did and tried to get a general impression of how cool it would be to practise at each club.  In the end I decided the best thing to do was to go along to one to try it out.

There were no ninjutsu schools in my area and the kung-fu club said they didn’t do any flips, so I decided to go to the aikido club held in a school gym not too far from me.  In my t-shirt and black hiking trousers I copied the regulars entering the dojo by bowing to the gymnastics equipment.  I met my instructor and I tried to help the club put out the mats.  And so began my journey into the deep and spiritual world of Japanese martial arts.

Train hard, young grasshopper

Over the course of the next ten years I kept doing aikido – a lot of it.  I started seeing it not just as a way to learn cool moves, but to fundamentally improve myself.  Even when I took a four year break for university, I could never stop seeing myself as a person who did aikido.  I got so much out of doing it that I went from hating the idea of teaching it to actually wanting to get up in front of people and share what I knew with others.

By this point my life had been heavily influenced by Japanese culture.  I practised three Japanese martial arts, I read manga, I loved the food, and my life’s ambition itself – to teach aikido – was rolled up in it.  It came to crunch time.  How seriously was I going to take my dreams?  How much was I prepared to sacrifice?

Now, I feel I’ve had a pretty good life so far, with a lot of opportunities I think others might envy me for.  I had a sweet job, the potential to earn decent money and to live a comfortable life.  All I had to do was kick back and I figured I had it made.  I could’ve kept doing what I was doing then, and not only could I have taught aikido (well, I did that occasionally anyway), but I could’ve lived a decent life, had a nice house and a nice car, and be judged to be “successful.”

Going Zen Crazy

The only trouble is, my heart wouldn’t be in it.  So I was faced with a choice.  Do I take the easy path, live in comfort and security, accomplish my goals and work not-too-hard in a job I’m not passionate about, or do I risk all of that for a shot at kicking the hell out of my goals, working hard for less pay, but ultimately fulfilling my dreams?

Time stood still.  It was a character-defining moment.  Which path would I take?  Which path would you take?  I fooled myself into thinking I was considering it for weeks, but my heart had already decided.  All that was left was for my body to follow suit.  I chose to throw everything away, move to Japan and study aikido with the masters.  I chose to risk it all to follow my passion.  And this is my journey.  This is the story of how I went Zen Crazy.

Well, put your feet up, grab yourself a beer and enjoy the ride!


Matt Bowen