Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Sound

I recently entered a translation contest. I had heard about it from my cousin, Matt, a few weeks ago, but I paid no mind as I was A) feeling particularly lazy that week and B) was overwhelmed with my own busy schedule so I decided I'd pass on the opportunity. But this Saturday, I decided to take a look at it for funsies, and when I did, I realized that it actually looked really fun and I wanted to give it a go. The only thing was that I would have to translate 45 pages of a manga (Japanese comic book) in...five days.

I opened a Microsoft Word document as I read the instructions for entry. "Well, I guess I'm doing this," I decided.

Being a translator is my dream, although there are days that I find it difficult to comprehend even basic Japanese, let alone make it into a compatible, logical sentence in English. I spent the first twenty minutes of my new project deciding how to translate bird calls into attractive onomatopoeia and not make it sound like a new Twitter feature. I still haven't decided if I like the result or not, but fortunately I still have three more days to work on it.

In any case, I've nearly finished the 45 pages in three days - I have about six or so more pages to go after this. Starting was the hardest part; I agonized over every word, every phrase, every punctuation mark. How do I want it to sound in English? Does it sound natural enough? Does it retain enough of the original content? How does a chime sound in America, and how do I write it out so that it doesn't look stupid? How do I minimize the wordiness of "Kill me now this is way harder than I expected it to be and it's my first time so I'm kinda freaking out how will I ever have enough time?"

But the panic subsided and I'm actually really pleased with how it's turning out. The more I worked at it, the faster I got at deciding on how to rephrase things in English, and the easier it was to settle on something that sounded natural and wasn't too far off the point.

Anyway, I walked home feeling good, bopping to some Arashi (Endless Game, click if you want a blast of Japanese pop culture and some warm fuzzy feelings in your chest area. If you need something poppier, I recommend Sakura Sake, although it's really hard to look at their hair oh god when was this made MY EYES. Great song though. But if I'm going to post links to Arashi, then I have to post Believe because I've watched it possibly a million times and they are especially nice to look at and actually dance in that video and god damn they know how to move their gorgeous bodies. Okay, I'm gushing now so I'll stop. For those of you who think you're too good to even look at Arashi's video for a second - I know who you are - then you can basically understand Arashi as this: a Japanese Backstreet Boys, if the Backstreet Boys were even relevant, extremely beloved and so sexy they should be illegal, had been together for over ten years and everyone in the entire country knew who they were, all females from age 10 to 100 loved them and have at least decided which one they'd want to marry, and if there were so many fans in registered fan clubs that it's impossible to get a ticket to their concert without being in said club, then sure, they're like a Japanese Backstreet Boys.) So I was boppin' and walkin' and I had a smile on my face. I probably looked a little crazy. Doesn't matter, good mood.

Tonight's a Monday night, so after eating some instant ramen (super Japanese today) I donned my Kyudo outfit, sent a picture to Ellen and Brooke, and went on my way to Kyudo.

"Aaaaand I should've worn a long-sleeve shirt underneath," I muttered to myself, closing and locking my apartment door. It chilled down from "nice autumn weather" to "damn I need a thicker coat" in under three days. I put on a brave face and went to my car.

"Good evening!" I called as I entered the Dojo. The two Sensei's and the high school student were there and ready to go, waiting for their bows so that they could start their first round. (Note: After you string a Kyudo bow, you must wait at least ten minutes before you use it. The unique shape of the bow and stiffness of the material requires it. That's why one of the first things you do when you enter the Dojo is retrieve your bow and string it, then set it on the rack.)

"Good evening," they returned.

"It's so cold tonight!" I exclaimed. In Japan, in place of "what's up?" or "how's it going?" you can guarantee the first thing to be discussed is the weather - literally every day, for every initial interaction to start the day. In America the "weather" talk is seen as fall-back discussion, but in Japan, it's a necessary warm-up to further communication.

As we chatted about the sudden cool down, I sat and changed out of my socks and into my Kyudo tabi (Japanese-style sock-slippers with a big toe separate from the rest of the foot), went into the storage room to grab my 6-kg bow (super weak, a beginner bow so that you focus on form and not on force. Admittedly I hate it because I started with a 9-kg before I was downgraded to a more typical beginner-strength bow, but I complied because I trust Sensei and know that form is the most important thing to learn properly in the beginning, before you have room to make bad habits). I took it out, strung the two-meter (6.5 foot) long bow by putting the top point into a high notch in the wall, pushing down with my left hand to bend it opposite to its natural curvature, resting it on my knee and hooking the string loop after twisting it three times clockwise, and then set it aside. I grabbed my breast cover and glove and kneeled to put them on.

I paused to watch the two Sensei and high school student step up to the shooting line and go through the detailed form that's required of a proper shooting: resting their energy in their stomach, keeping a straight back and balancing most of their weight on the balls of their feet; setting the tip of the bow to the floor and turning it, then raising it to face them; taking one of the two arrows in their gloved right hand and sliding it across the string at eye-level, then notching it; placing the second arrow on the string as well, beneath and facing the opposite way of the first arrow; touching the string delicately with the palm of their gloved hand, where the two arrows rested, to set the bottom of the bow, which was taller than them, above their knee and resting their gloved hand on their hip bone; moment later, raising that hand to retrieve the second, falsely placed bow, with their pinky and ring finger, and re-setting their hand on their hip so that the arrow not to be shot was angled perfectly; looking up and down the string, then down the arrow and to the target, without blinking, before returning their gaze to where the arrow and bow meet; taking their right hand, still holding the second arrow, and notching the crook in the thumb of their glove beneath the arrow, and fixing their hold on the bow with their ungloved hand, a grip so precise and difficult to master that it's said to take ten years of practice before someone can get it right; returning their gaze to the target before lifting the bow as though their arms were hugging a tree, so that their hands were well above their heads; moving to the next stage, bending their right elbow just so, keeping their power in their shoulder and their wrists relaxed, while stretching their left arm and straightening their wrist, pointer finger aiming toward the target; bringing the bow down further, their hand pulled back to the corner of their mouth, power in the shoulder and both wrists forward but relaxed; pushing forward against the bow and bringing their arm straight back upon release, and holding that pose as they watch the arrow fly, and keep the pose long after it hits or misses the target, showing no emotion, before slowly lowering their arms until their hands are rested again on their hips, and they're ready to shoot the next arrow.

Aaaaaand that's almost everything you need to focus on while shooting. I didn't even get into how to properly hold the bow, the arrows, or how your shoulders are supposed to stay relaxed, where your feet are placed and at what precise angle (60 degrees)...but anyway, that's just a touch of what I've learned these last two months.

I watch them with eager eyes, soaking their figures up with my eyes like a sponge does with water. I'm a visual learner, but more than that, I'm always impressed how beautiful their form is, even when they don't hit the target (and it's not often that one does - the most I've ever seen hit in one day by the same person was 10 of 10 in an hour by a teacher I work with, and he's the third best in the country. So...).

When they're done, Sensei comes to me and says, "Let's practice." I proceed to practice shooting on the straw butt a few feet away from me for some time ("Relax your shoulders. Make sure the arrow is level with your mouth in the third stage. Expand your body before release. Bring the bow closer to your body. Fix your thumb so that it's straighter"), he eventually gestures to the yard and the line of targets 28 meters (92 feet) away and says in English, "Lets go."

I take two arrows from the standing arrow box and place my hands on my hips and glide over to where I need to be, doing the proper bows and stepping along the way. I arrange my feet so that the tips of my toes are precisely where the middle of the target is, 28 meters away, and go through the form as I've learned it. "Your fingertips should be in a straight line on the bow grip. Straighten your wrist. Push forward as you release. The average waiting time before shooting is five seconds. Don't think too much."

Are you freaking kidding me, Sensei?

I smile because he's right about everything and I was thinking too much about the bow and the arrow and my body and placement and balance and energy that I hesitated before releasing and had to start again from the beginning, twice. I took a deep breath. I had long put hitting the target out of my mind. Kyudo is not about hitting the target, and it is not about competing with the other archers. It is about finding inner balance, obtaining self-control, and reaching peace of mind, along with a bunch of other super Zen qualities. Kyudo literally means, "the way of the bow" - it's a concentration of your energy, and the bow and arrow as an extension of yourself, and a meditation of the spirit. It is not a contest of strength or even number of target hits; one is considered successful if they have a beautiful, practiced form, humility, patience, and perseverance. I know that all of this probably sounds like a load of bull to most of you who may read it; even as I read it in my Kyudo guidebook, I raised an eyebrow at a few of the mega-Zen phrases. But somehow, I embraced it because in a weird way, I understood what was being said and knew that I wasn't going to hit a target from wanting it. I needed to practice and be patient. Now, I think I understand that book even better than before.

My first shot hit the roof above the target and made a loud banging noise. I flinched. The second shot skidded off the dirt wall with a hiss. After those arrows were retrieved, the next one was too high and the one after that too far to the right. My glove pulled on one when I hesitated upon release and the arrow flew to the left, very much not in the direction of the target. The two after that were too low, skidding below the target with a sigh. I closed one of my eyes and sighed, lowering my bow. "That one was too low," I said dumbly.

"Maybe the bow's too weak, Sensei" My friend Hasshi said, looking to him.

"Is it? Is it that the bow is to weak? Too weak, huh, Sensei? Too weak, that's no good..." How desperately I wanted to get rid of this baby bow with its weak sauce and flimsy aim.

Sensei laughed. "Yeah...Maybe it's time to move you up two kilograms."

"Really?!" I had asked him to move me up before to no avail, so I wasn't sure I was trusting him at the moment. "Seriously, Sensei?!"

"You can start next month."

"WHAT DAY IS IT!?" I asked in a frenzy, snapping my head toward the calendar. October 28th. "Next month? Wait...Next week is next month!" I jumped up. "Okay, Sensei! I can wait for that! I decided."

I skipped to the bow rack to rest my bow, then knelt down while bobbing on the balls of my feet.

Hasshi laughed. "Getting warm?"

"No, I'm just really excited."

Later that night, after another failed shot, Hasshi told me,"You hunch when you shoot," while demonstrating with her arms and posture. "Straighten up like this, and open your chest up to maximize power."

"When I straighten like that my chest gets in the way," I frowned.


"I'll give it a try anyway."

As I set up for my next shot, I heard one of the Kyudo members talking with Hasshi. "She does seem to lean forward a bit too much. If she straightens her back more..."

Fine, I'll straighten my back like you would not even believe, I thought to myself, raising my bow. I concentrated on the million little things I had until I reached the point before release; I straightened my back and expanded my chest, pulled the bow close to me and let go; the arrow was a little too far to the right, but was on line with the target, smacking into the wall at its side.

Hm. I might be onto something with this posture-straightening business. The teacher I work with, the one who's third best at Kyudo in Japan, had watched me as I performed, and wore a serious expression as he studied me now.

"Sensei. Advice, advice," I say.

"Well..."He always hesitates before giving me excellent advice. "How are you supposed to push on the bow?"

"Straight forward."

"And your back hand does what when it releases?"

"Goes straight back."

"Is that what happened this time?"

"That's what I wanted to happen this time."

He chuckled. "It seemed to me that you pushed the bow away from you a little this time. Try to focus on a "straight-forward, straight-back" kind of feel."

"Got it."

"And...before you release, your shoulder blades should touch in the back, as your chest swells. Focus on the power you feel at the center of your chest when you're at the last stage."

"Okay. I'll remember."

After a brief break, Sensei came to me and said I could shoot one more arrow, because we should head home before we catch colds. I nodded, flexing my fingers and opening and closing my fist. It was cold tonight, and the dojo was entirely open on one wall for us to shoot across the field. When I was shooting, I didn't notice the cold, or the goosebumps on my arms, the stiffness in my hand. It was when we had to pause for someone to retrieve our arrows, or set our bows down for a break, that the cold suddenly washed over me.

I stepped up to loose my last arrow, carefully going through the form until I was ready to release. I aimed the point of my arrow a good deal higher than the target; the weak bow accounted for a generally low arrow. I released.

Close. The arrow made a dull sound as it dug into the dirt wall next to the target.

"One more," Sensei said. I didn't point out to him that he said that was my last try for the evening, as he went to go fetch me one more arrow. I looked down my line of sight at the target, unblinking. I feel different.

I took the arrow Sensei handed me and went through the basics again. After I notched the ridge of my glove against the string and fixed my grip on the bow, I turned my face toward the target, my resolve set. I can feel it. The energy. I knew that book wasn't just nonsense. Where I had once felt cold, I now felt peace; for once, the weight of my body seemed placed perfectly, slightly forward, with my gravity in my stomach. My shoulders were relaxed and I felt at ease. No, really. Something's different. As I raised the bow, for a brief moment, I understood. The bow is an extension of me. The arrow, too.

I arched my right arm forward, gliding into the next stage. That felt like how it feels to watch my teacher move. It felt graceful. Right, even. Sensei to my side was silent as I progressed into the last stage. I slowly brought the bow down, closer to my body. I relaxed my wrist and pulled the string back with my elbow and shoulder muscle, turning my bow hand forward and pushing slightly forward as I straightened my finger and kept my fingertips lined up across the grip. A power in my chest was building I felt something inside of me align. (As I write this, I know I sound CRAAAAAAZY but I'm doing my best to describe exactly how I felt so that I can remember that moment, and remember that feeling so I can repeat it for many, many days to come...I will admit my whack-job qualities at the moment, however).

The dojo fell silent. In the corner of my vision, I saw someone standing on the sideline on the way to retrieve the arrows, pausing to watch me. They did not matter, nothing did, just the bow and the arrow and me, all of which were one, and that target, which was weirdly also a part of me, too.

This time, I didn't hesitate. After five seconds, staring unblinkingly at the target on the other side of the field, I expanded my chest, straightened my back, and released my hand straight back while simultaneously pushing straight forward. The power that had gradually built in my chest exploded outwards, the bow turned in my hand, and my other hand flew back. I saw the arrow whiz through the air.

I heard it before I saw it. A hollow thud, a sound I had become fairly familiar with over the last two months of coming to the dojo twice a week. It was the sound that would be made when someone hit a target, and not the dirt it was placed upon. The thump of the arrow piercing the stiff paper-like cloth seemed to reverberate across the field and through the dojo, and was even louder in my ears. Before half a second passed, Sensei at my side said, "Hit."A flurry of "Eh?!"s arose not a breath later.

One is supposed to stay refined after shooting, whether or not the target is hit. She is not to show any emotion, she is to complete the proper phases before exiting the shooting area, she is to celebrate silently, internally.

"I did it?" I shrieked, dropping my arm and leaning out over the field, squinting my eyes.

The arrow stood stiff from the target, if not from the center then very close to it. My face broke into a smile. "Is it in the middle?!"

"I'm not sure from here."

"Haley, picture?" Hasshi suggested, smiling and gesturing.

"Yes!" I exclaimed. "Oh, no! My camera's in my car! Wait...wait, everyone just wait!" I hopped giddily from my spot, my Sensei laughing, before I bowed at the shrine area as custom decrees and then hurried off to get my shoes on and get my camera. "I'm so happy, happy, happy~! I did it! Ha!!"

I was breathing heavily after running to my car and back, my shoes slipping off due to wearing the special Kyudo socks instead of normal ones. "Welcome back," one of the girls laughed.

"I'm back," I breathed, getting my phone out. Hasshi came running to join us. She took pictures of me with the target I hit, and the girls gave me their congratulations.

"Thank you," I said, still in awe that I hit the target. I had imagined it before, of course; before I even got to shoot from the normal distance of 28 meters, I had wonderful imaginings of hitting it the first time I tried. It would take a little more effort than just breathing, it turned out; but it had only been a few weeks of me practicing from a real distance, and a handful of meetings. I was proud of myself for making my first hit. I wanted to tell everyone I knew about Kyudo, the fascinating sport I've come to love so much, and how I managed to hit a 36-centimeter target (a tiny more than a foot in diameter) from 28 meters (92 feet) away.

If I'm lucky, the sound of the arrow hitting the target will find me in my dreams, and remind me of what I have accomplished today. I feel that I've achieved something, and I feel like my hard work and efforts of the last couple of months have paid off. I feel happy. Before we all left tonight, I thanked my Sensei, teacher, and friends for their advice and guidance. "It's thanks to you that I was able to hit the target tonight," I said, and sincerely meant it.

And most of all, I feel freaking exhausted. It's been a long day and it took me two hours to diligently write to you what I wanted to say. So I hope you enjoyed it, and I'll see you next time.

1 comment:

  1. OMG HALEY THAT WAS AMAZING. 日本に行く時、一緒に弓道をしてみようね!ヘリー先生として、笑。弓道を練習しながら、その話は全部日本語での話でしょう。すっごいな!私は多分日本語で話しながら、バラバラになっちょうかもね。だからもっともっと、頑張れなくちゃ。いつもボログを読んでいるから、新しいのをお楽しみにしてるね!