This was some time ago, so excuse my memory, but when I was 20, I was given the opportunity to study acupressure with my Uncle in Japan.
Yup, that's young me.
Uncle was a doctor of both Western medicine and Chinese Traditional Medicine. He was a founder of a special acupressure technique, so he was looking for someone in the family to pass his "empire" to. He was determined to win the Nobel Prize, someday.
His clinic was one of the most expensive private clinics in the world, mostly because of its location…the middle of the Ginza district in Tokyo.
This was prior to my studies as a chiropractor, and my parents thought it was a great opportunity while Uncle wanted me to choose a Western Medical degree or TCM degree instead of Chiropractic. My perspective was that it would be cool to learn another way to heal people with just my hands; this was what attracted me to chiropractic in the first place.
Uncle spoke Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and a little bit of English.I spoke a little bit of Chinese, and English—arguably a bit of Spanish.Thus, as we went through hours and hours of private tutoring, he would teach me in Chinese, and I would respond in English. It was ridiculous trying to parse medical terminology from both Eastern and Western medical models—and, this was before the internet had all the tools it has today.
There were legit moments of talking about kidneys using explanations like, "add dirt" or "drain water".
Thankfully Uncle’s unique technique was built on a "one point one cure" methodology where he believed that the problem with TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) was that masters passed on techniques to treat certain conditions to their students without explaining why, and thus, over time as each student became a master in their own right and figured out new things, there ended up being a dozen points to treat the same condition all passed on generation to generation without a true mechanism of why.
Memorizing the points
Uncle had, essentially, created an equation to treating people.He was progressive, highly contentious, but he had the credentials of a Western Medical Doctor as well as significant media coverage—so his influence was large, and I have to say, his technique was effective.
Though I went into my private education with the intent to "figure it out" with a Western mindset, or at least, a theory to why acupressure could work, after studying with Uncle I had to throw up my hands and admit that it did work, but I had no clue why.I just had to accept the model of the 5 elements, and use Uncle’s equations to treat different conditions which he broke down as: sharp pain, achy pain, and numbing pain.
Uncle had a school where he taught his techniques to other doctors from many fields.He had a business partner who managed the marketing.And he had what seemed to be a thriving clinic.
I remember being shocked to see the prices of each short treatment of around 20 minutes: 500 USD per treatment and upwards. And patients often came in multiple times a week.
But it did work.Individuals reported success, and their gratitude was over-the-top.In my time there, I saw many things that I couldn’t wrap my head around.From treatments of cancers that were supposed to be absolutely fatal, to individuals hobbling in with pain and then jumping up in alarm as the pain completely disappeared.He even treated phantom pain—because he could when no one else could.He didn’t need to touch the "pain site", so he could treat missing limbs.
As I learned, I began to see similar results myself as I assisted him.
Uncle teaching using me as the model.
Chi Gong masters came and visited from time to time. I remember the surreal sensation of one of them, hailed as a famous Chi master, and one of Uncle’s close friends, grabbed my arm suddenly and dug his dirty fingernail into my arm, hard.No explanation.
He grinned stained teeth at me and pointed at my arm and said, "You feel?"
I felt nothing.
He drew his pointing finger up my arm, into my shoulder, and said again, "You feel?"
Still, I felt nothing but pain and discomfort.Then his pointing finger stopped at my cheek, and he said again, "You feel?"
I didn’t, but I certainly wanted him to let go of me at this point.
He pinched my cheek.Hard.Shaking it. Then he pinched my other cheek. It hurt.
Wait.I’d felt nothing on that cheek he’d pointed to.Literally, nothing.
In awe, I touched my own cheeks and compared them.On one side, it was completely numb.No sensation at all, and on the other, soft touch, vibration, pressure sense—all of it was intact.Somehow, he’d turned off all sensation to one side of my face.
It freaked me out.
But I saw these things every day, and as I learned, I started to experiment with new ideas with Uncle.There were moments that Uncle rubbed my wrist, and suddenly I could do the middle splits (I wasn’t even close, before) and there were other times that I swore I had to be seeing a placebo effect. Even if it were placebo, the blood panels were remarkably different, as well as the patient’s reported symptoms…so, whatever it was, it was working. That said, I stubbornly held on to my skepticism.
I helped around more and more at the clinic, and I even started to try some small treatments on random visiting individuals who I never knew what association they had to Uncle.And then one day, a patient essentially asked, "Who is this young guy treating me?"
See, I wasn’t licensed at that time, in any country.I was a student, without credentials, and though I was in Japan and suing wasn’t a thing there, (the respect doctors have is significant), Uncle’s business partner was spooked.He told Uncle to hide me in the back of the clinic, and that was the end of my practical studies.
Over time, Uncle continued to grow busier, and our studies became more and more rare. I used my newfound time to exercise, to write my novel, and do anything to not go crazy.
But I was lonely, and even though I befriended the nurses, without being able to speak, it was difficult. I was frightened as I wasn’t used to being independent at that age, so as a natural introvert, I never left the familiar spaces and never spoke to any stranger. I was improving my Chinese speaking to Uncle, but I had no background in Japanese so I only learned a few things here and there; odd things, like "Itai!" which means, "It hurts!" came from my time in the clinic.
And as brilliant as Uncle was in medicine, he was a horrible human being.
He lived with his mistress, Zuki, and Uncle’s family and wife had completely disowned him.His children refused to see him or speak to him because of how challenging an individual he was. Uncle, Zuki, their 2 year old son, and now me lived in a very small space—maybe 500 square feet?
Uncle and Zuki argued constantly, the screaming between them was daily, and their 2 year old couldn’t speak a word, even at that age. Their son would also scream at the top of his lungs in the most horrendous sound, without anyone educating him or managing him, ever except to give him exactly what he was screaming for.So, anytime he wanted anything, it was that deathly scream, first.I remember once the screaming in a fancy restaurant because he wanted to be off his leash, so they unclipped him and he ran around wildly, into the kitchen, and Uncle and his mistress just sat there doing nothing. I was very embarrassed.
I tried to deal with the constant arguing and screaming, but it really was a small space.I was starting to feel the strain and I also would argue with Uncle about everything.Health, philosophy, ethics.For months, I’d been sleeping on their couch, head literally next to the TV because the space was so small, and now that I wasn’t doing what I was there to do as much…I was growing anxious.
As wealthy and backed as Uncle was, he lived in the middle of Tokyo.I have an extended great uncle who is the owner of a major Taiwanese pharmaceutical company. He’s the one who purchased the clinic for Uncle in the first place.Looking back, I assume Uncle was playing the riskiest bet of his life with how expensive everything was to run—the stress must have been monumental.
I ran across a video.It was a parkour video that played in front of a Jackie Chan Film: Rush Hour 2.It was David Belle, the founder of parkour, and it blew me away because it was something I found myself doing all the time, anyway: climbing things and jumping on things everywhere. I immediately reached out to someone in Colorado, Ryan Ford, who ended up being one of the only people practicing parkour in the entire nation. He was the moderator of one of the biggest online forums in the world for parkour in those days: Urban Freeflow run by Mark Toorock. We promised to train together when I got back to Colorado.
Uncle and Zuki got in a massive fight again, and he turned to me and yelled at me that, "This is how your future will be, too." Something inside me snapped. I left the apartment and slammed the door behind me, and I stood there, not knowing where to go next except that I had to get away.
The apartment was at the top of a very tall building. I’m still frustrated that I can’t remember the exact number anymore, but we were either on the 36th floor, or upwards of the 76th floor.Those two numbers stick out to me?
Anyway, the building was designed with apartments in a square around a large courtyard atrium thing in the middle with what looked like a very large tent at the bottom. Large plastic drains ran from top to bottom. I would guess, knowing what I know now, they were at least 60mm in diameter and held together by what looked like metal zip ties.
Thanks to Dad for finding this photo and verifying my memory.
I was fuming anger, so I climbed over the rail, and I began sliding down the drains. It shook, a lot, but I was so angry that it was worth it even if I died.I was cursing the entire time as I slid down one floor, then the next.Black soot covered my entire palms and clothes and probably my cheeks. I didn’t care. I slid down floor after floor, learning to avoid those pesky metal zip tie things.
I made it all the way to the bottom, and at the bottom, the drain curved under the building. I dangled from it, and I saw the ground, something like a 13 foot drop even with me dangling from my arms.
I had no choice; I was so exhausted.So I let go.
My body was so pumped, I think, that I landed without injury.I was very involved in martial arts at the time, so perhaps that had conditioned me enough, but if I tried the same thing now, I’m sure my ankles would have exploded.
I found myself in the underground-ish thing of the entire apartment complex.Around me were what looked to be massive springs holding up the entire building—for earthquakes, I later learned.It was like an open basement, but walls were on all sides outside the building…
Walled.On all sides.
I walked the entire space, and found only locked doors and a concrete wall more than 20-some feet up with a fence on top of it.The large machinery that filled the space too far from the walls to utilize.
My rage melted into fear, and I wandered for at least an hour, looking for a way out, and realizing that it could easily be nightfall, soon and I could be trapped.I did not want to stay there all night…or God knows how long.I finally found some thin piping on the walls and even if it meant running up the wall to grab it, where it tore up my fingers, after several tries I managed to grab it without ripping off a fingernail. I managed to grab the lip of the wall next, and then reach the fence. I climbed over the barbed top, and hopped back to the outside.
The relief of getting out was met by the realization that it was already basically nightfall.I still didn’t want to go back home.I was covered in black soon, and my fingers were bleeding, so I walked toward the nearby stream.
There were homeless people milling around, but they didn’t seem to notice how I looked. I rinsed my hands, and I found one of those very large manga books laying on the ground slightly damp and torn near me. What the hell.I picked it up and began reading it as I began walking around. I even recognized one of the manga chapters: gantz, which I’d been reading at the time.
I wandering through the streets of Tokyo as aimlessly as I dared, because I still didn’t want to go home.
The manga had pictures of barely clad women and several sexy chapters in it.I wondered why anyone would throw it away, but I also almost threw it away myself in embarrassment. However, I wanted a keepsake to prove to myself that the night had really happened. I still have it stored away, somewhere.
As night fell, and businesses started to close, I started to feel apprehensive.Again, I was not used to being alone, and this was as independent as I’d ever been.It started to rain, and I knew about acid rain in big cities, but I didn’t care.I didn’t care about anything. I just didn’t want to go back to that screaming hell.
All I did was get a plastic bag from a corner store and wrap the manga up before walking more.
I must have looked insane, and I felt insane, walking in the middle of pouring rain like a tourist, carrying only a plastic bag, black soot streaking down my body.
Finally, I started to get cold, and after a bit of getting lost, I found myself home.
It was well beyond midnight. By then, and everyone was asleep. I showered, and got on my couch, and wondered if I had actually gone crazy.
The following week, Uncle needed to go on a long business trip. He would be leaving me alone in Japan during this time.It would be several weeks, possibly longer.He was very vague about where and how long. The fact was, though, that I definitely wasn’t going to be studying during this time.
I spent my time wandering Japan, and I finished my novel. It was horrible.I remember thinking that a bathroom scene with a character trying to pee on a fly and it instead (big twist) landing on the character instead, was a good idea…
Some of the nurses tried to entertain me, inviting me to Kabuki, to food, to certain festivals.I remember cat fireworks and being stuck in a packed corner store with empty shelves, a woman yelling and beating on my back in panic, to try to get out because it took an hour to walk one circle, and me not being able to even let her past me. I remember the fertility festival, and seeing a bunch of massive penises on alters bouncing around the streets. I remember a man laying down in the middle of Roppongi with a ringed space around him like he was an art exhibit—only to realize that he had an erect penis tucked between his legs (shockingly large).How he maintained the erection so long, I can only wonder (as I had to pass him a second time on our return to the subway).
I may have built some friendships, but with the barrier of language, I felt powerless. I wish I’d actively pursued actual friendships, but I missed that opportunity.I grew more depressed.I told my parents I wanted to go home.
We arranged my flight home. Though Uncle came back before I left, when I said my goodbyes, and there was no love left between him and I.I told him I wasn’t interested in succeeding him and his empire of medicine, and then it I was walking through airports, wondering why everyone was so large and no one was bowing to me.It was over, like a dream.
Over the years, looking back, I’ve tried to treasure the memories of eating udon with him, trying piranha or raw beef, sitting in smokey bars as I listened to his stories.Little moments like when he took me to "Ninja Town", his maniac driving down a temple’s mountainside, of his anger (and my lack of remorse) when he saw the long distance bill I’d accrued calling my girlfriend.Of him singing with Zuki (she was a pianist) and their smiles as they made music together.Of Zuki’s scheming laughter as she pointed out his porn stash of hidden CDs in the VCR slot right by where my head had been this entire time, and then the stash disappearing the next day. A movie ticket costing 20+ USD (remember, this was 15+ years ago), and deciding to watch the movie, anyway, only to find that it was decked out in luxurious additions like fancy chairs that leaned back. The way Uncle showed me all his little tech toys: one button push for microwave and laundry, a car that unlocked for him when he touched it, his excitement over a new negative ion generator that could replace acupressure sticks.
Uncle’s wig.Definitely ridiculous.
I saw Uncle only once more before he passed away, several years later when I was in chiropractic school.I met him at an anesthesiology conference where he was presenting evidence about successfully treating trigeminal neuralgia, a challenging condition where a slight breeze could cause a patient excruciating pain.
We went and had sushi after the conference, which surprised him because, back when I was in Japan (I’ll shamefully admit), I refused to eat sushi. We made our peace and shared a few laughs, and only about three years ago did he pass away. Here is the original post I made about his passing: (https://www.facebook.com/PKChiro/posts/10103721638...)
To this day, I think I actually did go crazy in my time in Japan; I’m sure I sound quite insane to a reader, but also to this day, I use Uncle’s technique whenever I can’t figure something out through more physical means.I still don’t understand the why it works, part, but I’ve seen some magical things such as bruises disappearing in front of my eyes, and the sudden disappearance of any soreness (in others) after they’ve trained jumping for a prolonged time—all with the power of touch. Uncle’s technique is as close to magic as I’ve ever seen, and certain patients have certainly benefited from it.
I think I’ll stop here.I’m sure you can tell that my time in Japan was one of the strangest, most surreal experiences in my life. I hope you enjoyed the read.