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‘Pain is the best instructor, but no one wants to go to his class.’ – General Choi
For any aspiring martial artist having a real-life, hard-drinking, humorous version of Mr Miyagi turn up on your doorstep offering to teach the secrets of the Samurai would be a dream come true. So when Toby's best friend Bryan returns from travelling in Japan, along with Suzuki Sensei, an enigmatic fencing master, they jump at the opportunity to move to the foothills of Mt Fuji to study Kendo (The Way of the Sword), and embark upon the ultimate martial arts adventure. But from the very beginning, life as a modern-day migrant ninja, particularly one required to work in a stifling sweat shop turns out to be anything but romantic.
Dealing with authentic medieval living conditions, sadistic factory supervisors, breaking bones up mist-shrouded mountains, proving their manhood on the world’s biggest rollercoaster, whilst all the while plotting to escape the “Factory of Dreams”; Toby and Bryan desperately attempt to emulate Suzuki Sensei’s apparent imperviousness to pain and hardship.
Toby arrives in the rural town of Yoshiwara in the fierce heat of summer armed only with the ability to say ‘this is a pen’ in Japanese. Suzuki Sensei’s ancient family home resembles a faded Kurosawa movie, with sliding wooden screens, worn tatami mats and little else. By the time Toby has been painfully initiated into the joys of full-contact martial arts and succumbed to the constant pressure to drink Saki and cultivate ‘fighting spirit’ he is unsure if his teachers are traditional or just sadistic.
If the Kendo is challenging, then working at the paper factory turns out to be soul destroying. The “Factory of Dreams” as Bryan calls it resembles a Dickensian sweat shop inhabited by a bizarre mixture of brain-dead co-workers, mulleted disco-dancing Iraqi refugees, mini-bosses with all the people skills of concentration camp guards, and a saintly old box packer who’s transformed her menial labour into a meditation. The work is torturous and to make matters worse, Toby’s arrival is reawakening Bryan’s rebellious British identity.
Suzuki Sensei and an array of colourful Kendo teachers try in vain to instruct Toby and Bryan in the true spirit of combat, dishing out advice, alcohol and trying increasingly unorthodox teaching methods, such as riding the world’s highest roller coaster, experimenting with different martial arts and getting naked in the public bath-houses.
A crushing sense of frustration and exhaustion, and a near-fatal run in with the Yakuza pushes Toby and Bryan’s friendship to breaking point and life working at the paper factory begins to eclipse the challenges of kendo mastery in unexpected ways. Despite a toe-curling disregard for Japanese rules and social etiquette, they are drawn kicking, screaming, and laughing into the rare and fascinating no-nonsense world of Bushido – The Way of the Warrior.
Toby Howden grew up in Totnes in Devon and has been practicing traditional martial arts since he was young. He spent several years working and studying in both Japan and China and holds a BA in Chinese and Religious Studies. He currently lives in Bath with his partner and three children. Instead of teaching self-defence to Special Forces and Intelligence Agencies, he works in a school. Paper Tigers is his first book.
The dojo, despite its size was softly lit and stuffy. At the head of the hall hung a large draped banner bearing the calligraphy and emblem of the Yoshiwara Kendo School. The place was rapidly filling up with people now. Around the edge of the room along a thin marked off area spectators and parents were sitting chatting and directing children to get changed, whilst the majority of the adults were stretching, carefully checking equipment and warming up with slow purposeful sword swings.
As we walked through the sliding doorway I felt the eyes of the entire hall look me up and down. I tried to act casual yet respectful, which no doubt just came across as alarmingly confused and self-conscious. Suzukisan marched us resolutely towards the head teacher Takagi Sensei who was standing in the middle of the hall dressed in full battle gear. He was grey haired, stern yet serene and, as I had imagined, appeared to be the living embodiment of a powerful ancient samurai master.
As if to order, thunder rolled in the distance and for a split second I felt as if I was being led to my execution. We bowed in formation then Suzukisan introduced me. I re-bowed and prematurely blurted out my embarrassing half coughed attempt at “Onegai shimasu” (Please teach me). Takagi Sensei gave me a bemused look. He turned to Suzukisan and said a few words in a deep gravelly voice which I guessed were along the lines of “What the hell did he just say?” then motioned me to take a seat. Bryan escorted me to the edge of the class and explained that Takagi Sensei had said “I was welcome at the dojo and to please train hard.” He told me I should sit in seiza (formal kneeling position), then gave me an encouraging nod and disappeared to get changed.
- 5th July 2017 The Art of Shelf-digging: Obsessive Book Collecting in the Digital Age
While browsing a local second-hand bookshop recently, it occurred to me that I enjoy the process of searching for books as much as the end result of finding something to read. If I'm honest, occasionally I will even buy books knowing full well I’ll probably never get round to reading them. Of course I could save myself the hassle and simply order online, get a tablet, use my phone, it's never…27th June 2016 A book, tight shut, is but a block of paper
Following the incredible excitement of reaching the funding target, it occurred to me that it’s high time I gave you all a quick update of what is happening with Paper Tigers.
After one final emotional read through, I took a deep breath, and submitted the full manuscript. Things have now moved into the production process. This will include a structural edit, a copy edit stage and a proofing…11th May 2016 Paper Tigers; martial arts and misadventure in Japan, coming soon...
Stop the press! Somebody alert Richard & Judy. Paper Tigers has finally reached its crowdfunding target and is now 101% funded!
This is incredibly exciting, fantastic news and I cannot wait to get the ball rolling and begin the next stage. Specifically, the editing process, cover design, more writing, posing for black and white photos in front of bookshelves, staring into the distance meaningfully…3rd May 2016 A journey of a thousand miles ends with a single step
There are now over 70 amazing, positive, beautiful, book loving people who have pledged their support to get Paper Tigers published.
I know many of you have helped to spread the word, some of you have gone way beyond this and I am truly appreciative and grateful to every single one of you.
We are tantalisingly close to the crowd funding target. At the time of writing this, we only need…22nd April 2016 The (publishing) Journey is my home - Basho
It came as something of a shock upon completing my book Paper Tigers that getting it published was going to be a whole other game/almost impossible. I’d always naively assumed that if you actually finished writing a book you could simply send it off, don a polo neck, light a pipe and retire to an island hideaway and begin work on the tricky second novel. Well, despite being utterly wrong about…14th April 2016 A blustering harmless fellow they call a “paper tiger”
The title of this post comes from the earliest mention in English of the Chinese term ‘Paper Tiger’ translated in 1836 by the sinologist Sir John Francis Davis in his work: The Chinese: a General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants, Volume 2. Chairman Mao used it to describe American Imperialism to a foreign journalist during the 1940's, thus ensuring its fame in The West as…27th March 2016 The pen is mightier than the sword, but rarely so alluring.
Anyone who has ever held a real (live bladed) samurai sword will know, first and foremost, it is a weapon that demands respect. There’s an obvious and immediate awareness of the horrific damage it could do to an opponent, combined with the paralysing concern over the very real possibility of slicing off your own fingers, ears, nose etc. For me, it also brought into (sharp) focus the obvious skills…28th February 2016 How to Find a Decent Martial Arts Instructor: Ten Essential Pointers. (For every Mr Myagi, there’s a Mr Bean).
Like many young men I spent a great deal of my early life as an armchair martial arts fan brooding over who would win in a fight between Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Eventually, I decided “the student was ready”: it was time to find a real teacher. Once this momentous decision was made, it still took an inordinate amount of time to build up enough courage to walk through the door of an actual class…21st February 2016 It's not good because it's old it's old because it's good.
This is a picture of the traditional house in Japan where Paper Tigers is set. Freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer, mosquitos all year round. Tatami straw mats, battered sliding screens and made entirely from wood it expanded and contracted with the elements. some nights it creaked like an ancient sailing ship. The 'ninja house' held many secrets, not least the constant visits from…18th February 2016 Kendo means the way of the sword
(Bokken and Tenagui from the Yoshiwara Kendo School)
In the story of Paper Tigers the enigmatic Kendo Master Suzuki Sensei describes the way of the sword as ‘not just for fighting other people, but for defeating your personal demons. Kendo is a way of life, and it is life itself that is the real challenge. We’re not training for uncertain confrontation; we’re doing it for the here and now. The…14th February 2016 A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Exciting news, Paper Tigers has reached the halfway point in just a couple of days! A massive thanks to everyone who has pledged support, if everybody could tell someone else about Paper Tigers we can get there in no time.
I also just wanted to share a picture of some of the amazing old books about The Orient that I've picked up over the years that first inspired me to travel East in search of…12th February 2016 Thank you!
I’d just like to say a hugely heartfelt thank you to everyone who has made a pledge so early in this journey to getting published. I am genuinely humbled by your generosity. You guys rock!
I will be doing a lot of blogging about Paper Tigers in the coming months and have already started referring to myself in the third person. Also, I will be posting some ninja related articles and pictures that…
These people are helping to fund Paper Tigers.