Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas at the Kaikan

It was your typical holiday scene on December 25th, 2011, at the home of the Bekkasei students of Budo University in Katsuura, Japan. Everyone gathered round the Christmas Cane and peered with wide eyes and wonder at the heaps of food laid out before them. No stockings were hung by the chimney with care, but I do believe there were some slippers left haphazardly by the door. NO one wore a kerchief or a cap, but rather tracksuits and hoodies were quite in vogue. Sugar plumbs did not dance in our heads, but rather high-carb pastas and potatoes rested sanguinely in our stomachs. There did, however, arise such a clatter from the kitchen…. But that just turned out to be a Finish man who had no idea how to cook.

It’s never nice to spend the holidays alone and, let’s face it, plane tickets were just too expensive to afford this year. So the Bekkasei who remained in Japan for the holidays all gathered together on the night of the 25th to share a wonderful meal. The only requirement was that each person makes something to share; no chips or snacks purchased at the convenience store were permitted. If there's one thing all martial artists have in common it’s a love of eating!

The variety of smells emanating from the kitchen was something spectacular. Seven countries were represented around our table, that night, and each person made something unique. From Italy we had spaghetti a la carbonara; way, way too much spaghetti a la carbonara. As an American from Michigan, I made bean soup and a blueberry cake (from scratch, baked in a rice cooker). Another American made clam chowder while our third fellow from New York made stuffing. From Korea we had kimchi and bibimbap, while our Turkish member made chicken and rice. From China we sampled another, much spicier chicken and our Mexicans provided fajitas and tacos. The German PHD student brought gingerbread and… chile con carne? (well, it’s not German, but it’s good). Finally, our Finish friend made… something. There were several attempts at boiling and then frying potatoes. After all was said and done there was a huge bowl of mashed potatoes and a fried potato dish with sausage and eggs. And mustard. Don’t forget the mustard. The mustard really makes this dish, use the damned mustard.

We pushed together four tables in the center of our assembly hall and erected the very traditional “Christmas Cane!” That is to say: my walking stick with red lights and a battery pack mounted on it. There was, in fact, a small Christmas tree in the adjoining room, but we decided that the “Christmas Cane” was far more representative of our gathering and thus should be used in place of any more typical signs of the holidays.

As we all fell into the deep coma provided by consuming sugar and carbs, one last merry little thought filled our heads….
Ohhh hell; I just went up an entire weight-class.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Now…. Do I want the black cotton Weave or the Black Satin?

There are just so many choices when purchasing your black belt; I had no idea! Do I stick with the traditional black cotton…. Or spring for the black satin? Cotton is washer-safe, but who really washes there belt anyway? The satin though…. pretentious?

This past weekend I participated in my second shodan-shinsa shiai or black belt examination tournament. At my first tournament I earned five of the six points I needed to receive my shodan certificate and, since the system in place at the International Budo University awards a point for simply participating, I was guaranteed my shodan on Saturday just for showing up. I wanted to go out—or come in?—with a bang, however, so I decided to win all my matches. Call me sick and twisted, but there is nothing more gratifying than holding an opponent in osaekomi while they struggle feebly to escape.

My first match lasted a total of about 30 seconds…. 25 of which were taken up by me holding my opponent down. When my opponent falls at the beginning he lands on his side, which is worth a quarter-point. In judo, you must hold an opponent pinned for 25 seconds for a full ippon (1-point). Those 25 seconds last a surprisingly long time:
Second Tourni, First Fight

My second opponent actually seemed to have some idea of what he was doing. At least, he knew how to move and he tried to throw me. He tries tomoe-nage twice; a sacrifice throw in which you fall backwards and use your leg to propel your opponent over top. Though it is a really difficult technique, beginners seem to try it often. By the end of the match, something in my head clicked and I decided it was time to end the fight. I noticed that the kid kept trying to pick up his right leg, so I tried to time my soto-gari as he picked up the leg. I’m not sure the timing was perfect, but he went down well enough:
Second Tourni, Second fight

My third and forth fights were both quite short and quite similar. I didn’t have a chance to make a nice technique in either match because, in both cases, my opponents put themselves in bad positions very quickly.
Second Tourni, Third fight

Second Tourni, Forth Fight

It is fun to act a little cocky in Judo, for a change, but in defense of all my opponents, these kids came from a variety of sports clubs. I believe my first opponent practices karate, my second opponent practices rugby, and I’m not sure about the third and forth. The system at Budai is a little unusual; every judoka at the university is a shodan well before coming to Katsuura. Students from other sports can take Judo classes, however, and the shodan shinsa is so that they can also earn their black belts. Regardless of this, I do feel I have earned the shodan after eight months of daily judo training against men (and women) who have been doing Judo most of their lives. I can say for certain that there is at least one third-degree and several second-degree black belts who I frequently beat during practice. The shodan examination was a formality more than a test and, when I return to the United States, I would like to earn my shodan separately within the American system.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dinner with a Sensei; or, No, Sensei, No!

It is said, in Japan, that before you marry a woman you should eat her 肉じゃが [nikujaga] or meat and potato stew. This stew consists of potatoes and beef (or pork) boiled and flavored with mirin—a sweet Japanese cooking wine—and is a typical winter dish for Japanese families. This stew, it would seem, is the best way to judge what kind of wife a woman will make. That being said, Kashiwazaki Sensei has a fantastic wife!

A few weeks ago, the world-champion Judo player and current director of the bekkasei program at the International Budo University—Kashiwazaki Sensei—invited the foreign Judoka to his house for dinner. Besides the afore mentioned nikujaga, we sampled a wide variety of Japanese foods including sashimi, clams, oysters, tempura, fried sweet potato and fried rice. In Japan, it is not unusual for a Sensei to invite a number of his students to dinner; however, it is an honor to be served in the sensei’s home. The sensei/student relationship is sometimes more akin to an adult/child relationship in the west. Sensei sometimes treat their students in an almost parental fashion.

Allow me, now, to relate the importance that alcohol plays in Judo… and every other Japanese club, place of work, or group of people who are in any way socially related. Nomikais—or, drinking parties—are a common feature of clubs and work places. Basically, the members of the club or, alternatively, the boss and his employees will go out and drink themselves blind. There is much that can be said, both good and bad, on this topic. Some believe that it is necessary for Japanese people to become completely hammered in order to express themselves freely. Others say that the Nomikai is yet another form of social pressure in which you *must* drink because your boss tells you to. Many, though, see this as an opportunity to relate to your colleagues in a somewhat more relaxed environment.

In the case of our dinner—and subsequent round of drinking with Kashiwazaki Sensei—it was just a chance to have fun and, perhaps, for Sensei to show off his wide variety of alcohol. We tried, in no particular order: traditional Japanese Sake, called nihonshu (rice wine); a sweet version of rice wine known as amazake; Okinawan Awamori (with snake venom); a very rare umeshu (plumb wine) that cannot be purchased in stores; some kind of alcohol with flecks of gold floating in it; a number of varieties of shochu, which is a potato or sweet potato based alcohol similar to vodka; and, of course, beer to chase it all down. Kashiwazaki Sensei laughed joyfully and proceeded to pull out bottle after bottle while one of our members cried in panic, "No Sensei, no!" Sensei only grinned evilly and refilled our glasses.

Amidst the revelry, Sensei took out the medal he received when winning the world championship and passed it around for us to see. I personally feel that it is inappropriate for anyone but the world champion himself to wear this medal, but Kashiwazaki Sensei insisted upon putting it around each of our necks and taking a photo. So I did not protest. After all, this quite possibly will be the only time I ever hold a gold medal in my hands.

AS with many Japanese nomikais, its all fun and games until someone pukes over the Sensei’s table. This is the traditional sign, I believe, that the party has been a success and that it is time to go home. I have lived in Japan long enough, now, to know how to hold my licker, but one of our younger members is now proud to say he puked over the bean-bag of a world champion. Far from feeling embarrassed, however, we are all quite proud of our light-weight heavy-weight.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Please Don't Feed the Gaijin

AS part of our regular Japanese language class, twelve of us foreign students studying at the International budo University went to a local elementary school today, where we were put on display like a traveling zoo. The principal welcomed us warmly to the school and explained that the students, who were studying English, had very few opportunities to meet and speak with “gaikokujin” (foreigners). We were then asked to introduce our home countries… in Japanese, of course.

Before coming to Katsuura, I worked for two years within the Japanese education system. Though I worked regularly at a middle school, I had the chance to visit several elementary and high schools. In all honesty, elementary schools in Japan are one of the few places where children are encouraged to be children. From middle school onward, strict Japanese socialization is enforced and students’ creativity and independence are slowly crushed. Nevertheless, it was amusing to see that even third graders must make opening speeches, closing remarks and bow every time someone farts.

“So how does this relate to Budo?” you may be asking yourself. Well, after introducing our countries and teaching the students how to say “hello” and “good morning” in Spanish, English, French, Turkish, Finish, Dutch and Korean…. We were asked to demonstrate our hobbies. Specifically, we were asked to demonstrate Judo, Kendo and Iaido in front of a room full of Japanese children. There was something of the “Hey, look at the foreigner do Japanese culture!” feel about the entire situation. We had an unnecessarily long argument with our Japanese teacher when two people asked if they might demonstrate American Football rather than Judo.

My partner and I did, in fact, demonstrate Judo. In the above photo I have just completed a Haraigoshi throw—sweeping hip throw—and in the photo below you can see a little more of the environment. (For anyone interested, in the following photo I have thrown my partner with Sumigaieshi, a fun throw which involves falling backward and flipping your opponent over. The children quite enjoyed this one.)

Our demonstrations were very short and, afterwards, the children themselves showed us a wide variety of Japanese traditions and games. This was quite interesting as a third grader taught me how to fold an origami crane and paint the kanji for 光 hikari (light).
Finally, we sat down to lunch with the elementary school students. I can’t help but wonder if the children were warned, “Don’t feed the Gaijin,” as we ate the same small meal as the students with one small difference…. We all had to return to the University and begin three hours of training!

Monday, November 14, 2011

You Look Tired; Why Don't You Sit down?

My third partner for randori today seemed not to understand or, possibly, not to remember that I am blind. He grabbed me roughly by the sleeve to drag me across the room to an open space where we could fight. He attacked me very aggressively—which I enjoy—but when he threw me he would stand and wait, expecting me to somehow find him amongst the confusion of fighting pairs of judoka. In a word, he seemed reluctant to play me. As I stood up to continue our randori, the kid came in fast and immediately started fighting for a controlling grip on my sleeves. I pushed him backwards a few paces and, finally, caught him with kosotogari, putting my foot behind his leg as he stepped backwards and pushing him off balance. The kid toppled hard… right into a row of folding metal chairs.
The noise his fall made was nothing short of cacophonous and drew the eye of every person in the room. For someone who was already uninterested in fighting me, having a blind foreigner throw him into a row of seats was probably not his cup of green tea. AS he frog-marched me back across the room I really doubted I would have another chance to play judo… not just with him, but with anyone.

It has been too long since I last updated the blog. As this little glimpse into my Daly randori may indicate, however, I am still struggling to find acceptance in the men’s dojo. Every day I go to training, hoping to fight as much as possible. At the beginning of every round I walk into the center of the dojo and wait for a partner…. And, inevitably, the space around me fills up while I remain an isolated island. I realized last week that, on the few occasions that a Japanese Judoka comes to play with me, it is only because the sensei has pointed at the judoka and then at me, a silent order that he *must* play with me.
Though I appreciate the efforts that Koshino Sensei—the sensei in charge of the men’s dojo—is making, let me put the situation into perspective. People *only* play with me as they are obligated. When I walk to the center of the room and stand, hoping for a partner, people pass me by as though I were not even there. It is the most humiliating feeling, to know you will never be taken seriously no matter how hard you work or how skilled you might become. It is no wonder the Japanese have such a high suicide rate; no other culture I have ever before seen is as skilled as the Japanese at isolating and outcasting individuals. I am safe in the knowledge that, at the end of this program, I can return to my own country where I have friends and people respect the efforts I am making. Imagine what it must be like for Japanese who feel as I do… but have no home to return to.

When I train with the women, I am never short of partners. I realized last week, however, that one girl has been put in charge of doing drills and uchikomi with me. Perhaps my mistrust of Japanese people has infected me too deeply, but I can’t help but wonder…. Is this girl only working with me because she is obligated? Does she take me seriously, or is this an unpleasant chore that must be done? For the most part, the girls do treat me as an equal; but I must squish my pride down into a corner of my ego every time I play with the girls because the boys won’t accept me. I hold women’s judo in the highest regard and I do not mean this as a sign of disrespect, but I think most men would feel somewhat uncomfortable in a similar situation. But pride is something I’ve had kicked around quite a lot and I’m interested in learning Judo at any cost, so I’ll continue playing with the girls if that is what it will take.

I do not like to harp on the negative of Japan, especially in a blog such as this, but honesty is more important in this case and I have shown Japan every respect. I keep my sanity because I am surrounded by foreigners, sighted foreigners none the less, who are treated little better. I will try to continue this blog as before, focusing on aspects of learning judo, Aikido and whatever other martial art might come up. Every now and then, though, I must also update readers on the actual situation and experience I am living.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Speech at Applied Psychology Seminar; Nagano

On September 11th, I was invited to a seminar in Nagano, Japan, to speak about my reasons for studying the martial arts. Though the seminar covered various topics over the course of the weekend, Sunday was devoted to the topic of "disability sports". Since I am a foreigner with a disability who has altered the course of his life to pursue the practice of Budo, Kokushikan's Nakajima Sensei invited me to give a short talk. Below I have included my speech in both Japanese and English. My Japanese is by no means fluent, so there are some errors both with kanji and grammar.

フクストラ、ニコラスと申します 今日は、自分の武道、合気道や柔道などを









Good morning;

My name is Nicholas Hoekstra. Today, I’d like to speak about the reasons I am doing budo; Aikido and Judo. But first, let me introduce myself.

I am from Michigan in the United States. I’m 27 years old. Twenty years ago, at the age of seven, I began to have migraines and became seriously ill. Though doctors performed several tests, four months passed without the source of my migraines being discovered. Finally, a tumor was found behind my optic nerves. Three surgeries saved my life, but my optic nerves were already seriously damaged. From the time of the third surgery I was left completely blind.

My entire life changed in an instant. I had to learn ways of doing everything; from learning to read Braille to learning how to walk with a cane, I had to begin from zero. On top of this, medicines had left me very overweight and the time spent in the hospital had left my body very weak. My self confidence was gone. Both mental and physical health are closely connected, however, and when I entered high school I wanted to begin playing sports.

Originally, I wrestled during the four years of high school. However, when I entered University I became very busy with classes. I could not continue with a sport as demanding as wrestling. I wanted to continue doing something, though.
In my freshman year of University I tried Aikido for the first time. Since then, I have not stopped practicing budo. Three years ago, when I came to Japan, I also began practicing Judo.

There are many reasons to practice budo. For one, in my case, through the practice of budo I was able to rebuild my self esteem. When you do Aikido or Judo it does not matter whether or not you have a perceived disability. Every person has their strong points and their weak points. One is able to use their strength to fortify and improve upon their weaknesses. Although I am unable to see, I depend upon my other four senses. In the case of budo, the sense of touch is especially important. In Aikido, one guides their partner to take a fall. In the case of Judo, one feels the movements of their partner and attempts a throw.

Another reason for which I do budo is that, when I first started Aikido, the purpose of training was that everyone work together to improve their skills. Two people together work to perform a technique. In the case of Judo, of course someone wins and someone loses. However, in the Kitakyushu dojo where I first began training Judo, people helped each other to make better throws.

For these two reasons I practice budo: for the purpose of building my self confidence and the fact that people work together to develop better skills.

Thank you very much.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hakko Denshin Ryu; A Gifted Instructor

I would like to revisit, briefly, the training I did in Hakko Denshin Ryu during my two week hiatus to the States at the beginning of August. This entry does not focus so much on the art of Hakko Denshin Ryu, but rather seeks to showcase the teaching style of my Sensei, Matt Pinard. Matt was kind enough to allow me to record a couple short videos during our last training session. The links I have put up are not intended to explain these particular waza.

Since the beginning of January—and until the end of March when I returned to Japan—our Hakko Denshin Ryu club consisted of three regular members plus our sensei. Having such a small group is ideal for learning the art quickly and, in truth, our sensei marveled at the speed with which we learned our shodan waza. Though Matt Pinard attributed our progression to our deep interest in the art, the truth is that Pinard Sensei is a very gifted instructor. His clear explanations combined with the humble attitude he adopts while instructing make an otherwise painful art enjoyable. More than anything, it’s the enthusiasm Pinard Sensei brings to the dojo that is contagious.

Pinard Sensei never hesitates to take ukemi himself. In this manner, he can feel both the pressure and angle of the technique and instruct accordingly. In this video:
Matt instructing wile I apply wrist lock and throw
The initial wrist lock is something Sensei and I worked on during the beginning of the class. In this video, however, we proceed to a throw. From the wrist lock, I pull Sensei’s elbow (holding the sleeve) to my chest and apply pressure to the back of the hand, forcing Sensei’s wrist to bend painfully inward. This is refered to as konoha. Then, again holding the sleeve, I lift the elbow high and, as though dumping a tray, tip the arm and throw Sensei to the ground.
Sensei shows definite enthusiasm as both joint locks and pressure points are applied. AS you can see in the video, “Nice! Nice!” means it hurts like hell. Nevertheless, I hold a very high respect for a Sensei who will actively participate in class and take ukemi for his students.

In this second video:
Matt demonstrating Third-Dan te-kagame from seated and standing
Sensei explains the origin of te-kagame (hand-mirror) as it appears in a henka-or series of moving techniques—we were learning. In the established series of waza, the te-kagame technique we were practicing appears as a third-degree, seated technique. Sensei explains both the seated technique and then applies it standing.

What I would like to further point out, in this video, is the stress Sensei puts on my understanding of the correct movements. Notice how he makes sure I have felt the movement of the elbow, insisting that I use my free hand to follow his movements. Pinard Sensei is extremely gifted when it comes to teaching in this manner.

One of my greatest frustrations when learning new techniques—or even reviewing techniques I have already learned—in any art is the fact I must wait for the Sensei to explain the technique and then rely on another student to transmit that technique to me as best they can. Pinard Sensei, however, almost always uses me as Uke while teaching. Though this can become quite painful, I find this to be both an honor and a sign of respect from the Sensei. On those occasions where Pinard Sensei does not use me directly as his Uke, he makes a point to explain the technique to me immediately afterwards. I believe, more than anything, this is the reason I have been able to progress rapidly in the art of Hakko Denshin Ryu.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Privilege and A Pleasure

Between working in Spain and Japan and then beginning this course at the Kokusai Budo Daigaku, I have spent little more than six months in the United States during the past five years. Trips home, then, are marked by the scramble to visit friends and family and there is never enough time. I am a man of clear priorities, however, and my first stop after dropping off my suitcase—and putting on my gi—is the
Dojo of Grand Rapids.

I have known Sensei David Mata (2-dan, Bironkai of North America) since I first began Aikido at the age of eighteen. The summer after my freshman year of college found me with a new passion for the martial arts. I had been practicing Aikido for six months with the Yoshokai club of the University of Michigan and I couldn’t let the summer vacation pass without finding a dojo in the Grand Rapids area. After a couple “false starts” which I will not bother to mention, I found my way to the Toyoda Center.
It was Sensei Mata who first greeted me upon my entering into the dojo. At that time, he was teaching the Saturday afternoon class and he invited me to join. Over the next few months, it was Mata Sensei more than anyone who oversaw my training. I was impressed, immediately, by his attitude toward teaching someone with a visual impairment. Aikido, after all, is a martial art anyone can do.

When Sensei Mata separated from the Toyoda Center and founded his own, Kyoseikan, dojo in September of 2006, it seemed only logical that I follow him. Mata Sensei has been both my friend and teacher during these past nine years and has always encouraged me to pursue the martial arts in any way possible. As much as he has watched my Aikido grow and develop, I have had both the privilege and pleasure of watching Sensei develop as an instructor. Mata Sensei is always working to improve fundamental aspects of his own Aikido, never taking an attitude of superiority. Most recently, Sensei has dedicated time to the deeper study of kenjitsu and the ways in which the buki—weapons—relate to Aikido.

I had the great pleasure of spending some time this past trip home being thrown around by Mata sensei. I take a lot of pride in my ukemi (falls) and I was very pleased, therefore, when Sensei noticed my movements had become lighter and faster. I enjoy these opportunities to take ukemi as they challenge you to react quickly and rely on your instinctual feelings to guide your body. The slightest turn of Sensei’s wrist can communicate the direction or type of ukemi expected. For a visually impaired budoka, the ability to read an opponent or partner’s movements is crucial. Even in daily life, when walking with a sighted guide, it is important to understand the message conveyed through subtle body movements. The way a guide’s weight shifts from one foot to the other can communicate a step or change in the terrain; the sharpness of an arm movement can indicate surprise or distraction. Its amazing the amount of information we project in our slightest motion.
This is a video of Mata Sensei tossing me around:
Taking ukemi
A word of advice: Do Not, I repeat, Do Not do a full stomach work out at the gym immediately before a class in which you may have to take prolonged ukemi. I was struggling to get up from back-breakfalls.

It is so important to know that, no matter where I travel or how long I am gone, I always have my home at the Kyoseikan Dojo. For a real budoka, your dojo is in many ways your second home…. Or even your first.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hakko Denshin Ryu; S&M Anyone?

You really have to be sick to enjoy this stuff as much as I do; why else would I willingly—eagerly—submit myself to the chokes, joint locks and other various ministrations of my friends both in Japan and the U.S.? Maybe I should be questioning the sort of friends I have! All’s fair in love and Budo, though, and my friends are always willing to submit themselves to equal punishment when the time comes.

I have written previously of my experience traveling to the dojo of Soke Yasuhiro Irie, founder of Kokodo Jujitsu, but I have not yet touched upon the Hakko Denshin Ryu Jujitsu I have practiced in the States. Hakko Denshin Ryu traces its roots to Okuyama Yoshihara (1901-1986) who dedicated his life to the study of various styles of bujutsu and oriental medicine. Okuyama Sensei, through government contacts, was introduced to Shihan Toshimi Matsuda and later to the founder of Daito-Ryu Aiki Jujitsu, Shihan Somi Takeda. As Takeda Sensei grew older, Okuyama Sensei found himself taking on more and more of the responsibilities for the daily running of the Daito-Ryu association. By 1939, when it became apparent that the leadership of Daito-Ryu would be passed to Takeda Sensei’s son, Tokimune Takeda, Okuyama Sensei began to split from the Daito-Ryu Association. He was interested in establishing himself as a master in his own right and, in 1941, performed a ceremony proclaiming the birth of Hakko-Ryu at the Shiba Tenso shrine.
On August 5th, 1997, an organization of Hakko-Ryu Shihans from around the world appointed three directors for the further advancement of the art. In a spirit of cooperation, directors Michael LaMonica and Antonio Garcia named both the American and European styles Hakko Denshin Ryu, the Heart of the Eighth Light.

In his life, Soke Okuyama Yoshihara studied Keiraku therapy (circulation medicine using the meridians of the body), Shiatsu (finger pressure medicine) and Amma (massage). The unique and most powerful feature of hakko-Ryu and its offshoots is the combination of the martial practices with the founder’s deep understanding of the body and its pressure points and meridian lines. A practitioner of Hakko Denshin Ryu is able to deliver varying degrees of pain to control an attacker; as one progresses in the art, the techniques require less effort and cause increasing amounts of agony. Unlike with many other martial arts, however, the techniques of Hakko Denshin Ryu leave no lasting physical damage.

In this video of my friend
Sam and I,
Sam has grabbed me katate dori (single, same side wrist grab). I circle the hand he has grabbed up and around and bring it to rest on top of Sam’s arm… effectively turning his hand sideways. I use my free hand to hold Sam’s hand trapped and create a point of locked joints. This can be used to move Sam around as it creates a rather sharp pain through the wrist. Then, I drive my arm forward and across the back of Sam’s elbow, turning his arm and shoulder toward the ground.
Once Sam is on the floor, there are any number of pins I can use to hold him still. Our Sensei, Matt Pinard, is showing me one such pin. If you listen closely, I ask Sam if it hurts at the end of the video…. He says that it does… actually, he says, “haiiii” in a rather cute voice.

In this second video,
Matt and I
Are reviewing two techniques we worked on this particular evening. In both techniques, you drive your knuckle up into one of the meridian lines underneath your friend’s arm. This line is referred to as shabori, I believe. I am still learning the vocabulary related to Hakko Denshin Ryu.
In the first technique, I simply throw Matt away from me. In the second technique, however, I keep control and bring Matt to the ground. Then, bracing his arm against my knee, I continue to drive my knuckle deeper while sliding it up his arm. Another nice little trick is to start cutting the knuckle toward the side of your friend’s arm while continuing to press it into the meridian. I use the term “cut across” because it does create a pain similar to having someone cut you with a hot knife.

Pinard Sensei and Sam are both great people to train with. We laugh as much as we cry during these sessions; as I say in the introduction of this blog: if you can’t laugh, then you’re not in good enough shape. This has been only the briefest of glimpses into Hakko Denshin-Ryu Jujitsu. If you practice Aiki-Jujitsu, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. If you don’t train in this art, though, it’s really worth the pain. As the pain fades away, it leaves you feeling a little giddy and exhilarated. Or maybe I am just a little sadistic….

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Judo at the Kroc Center, Grand Rapids

On my recent trip to the States I took the opportunity to train with a great group of Judoka in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area. I have known Jim Murray and his son Alex for just over a year—since I visited home last summer—and never have I met two people who do more to encourage a positive Judo spirit. I was excited then, in January, to hear that Jim Murray Sensei was starting a Judo program at the Grand Rapids Kroc Center.

The Kroc Center
2500 S. Division Ave
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49507
Judo: Children’s class (under thirteen years of age), 6:00-7:30 Mondays and Wednesdays
Judo: Adults (thirteen and older), 7:30-8:45 Mondays and Wednesdays

The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, one of many such centers across the United States, was founded with the intention that all people, regardless of social status, have access to a world-class recreational, educational and cultural arts facility. Joan Kroc—wife of McDonalds founder Ray Kroc—established the first center in Sandiego, California in 2001. Since 2001—and with the aid of an impressive 1.5 billion dollar donation from the Kroc family—the salvation army has continued Joan Kroc’s dream by establishing many more such cultural centers.

The first time I joined a class at the Kroc Center—back in February—I was immediately impressed by the fact I was hearing as much Spanish as English spoken amongst the members. An excited group of twenty kids between seven and 14 years of age were gathered to learn Judo, wearing judogi that the Kroc Center even provided. The students were energetic, friendly and, above all, excited to watch Jim Murray Sensei throw me and other adult judoka with Ogoshi (major hip throw).
Six months and more have passed now. When I joined the Kroc Center’s Judo club these past couple weeks, I was delighted to see that there is still a strong membership with children and adults from a mixed variety of races and ethnicities. As Murray Sensei put it, “With our visiting Sensei from Poland and Nick in from Japan, I think every major culture is represented here tonight.” This is what I, personally, love to see. Jim Murray Sensei, with the help of the people at the Kroc Center, is bringing Judo into the lives of people who would probably never have the chance to learn under normal circumstances. You hear stories of great basketball and baseball players being discovered in poor inner-city neighborhoods…. Why not the next Judo gold medalist?

Jim Murray is a third degree black belt in Judo and the president of Judo Affiliates of Michigan. He is a USA certified national coach and a USJF certified Kata instructor. He has taken silver and bronze medals in both the USA Judo National Championships (Masters Division) and the Pan-American Masters Championships. He also won the gold medal in the 2005 Midwest Judo Championship (Masters Division).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rinzai Zen Training

While on my two-week vacation to the U.S., I revisited an aspect of Budo training that I have yet to mention in this blog. That is to say: meditation. Though meditation is rarely a part of Judo or Jujutsu training, it is a very integral part of Aikido. Especially in the United States, where the founders of many of the major Aikido organizations have been practicing Zen Buddhists and have made Zen a part of daily training.

At the
Kyoseikan Dojo
in Grand Rapids, Michigan, members regularly meet on Sunday mornings for a Rinzai Zen study group. Rinzai Zen was first brought to Japan from China near the end of the twelfth century, where it became popular with the newly formed Samurai class. Unlike other, gentler forms of Buddhism, Rinzai Zen was characterized by a more martial practice.
In 1979, Omori Roshi—a man considered to be one of the greatest Zen masters of the twentieth century—founded the Daihonzan Chozenji temple in Honolulu, Hawaii. This was the first Rinzai Zen headquarters established outside of Japan. From Honolulu, Rinzai Zen spread to mainland United States through the activities of two of Omori Roshi’s disciples : Tanouye Roshi and Hosokawa Roshi. Rinzai Zen training was further supported by the actions of Toyoda Tenzan Rokoji, founder of the Aikido Association of America and a Zen Master in his own right. Toyoda Sensei promoted the study and practice of Zen through his Chicago based Daiyuzenji temple.

(Zazen with Mata Sensei)

Though it seems difficult to believe that the practice of sitting still and clearing one’s mind can have beneficial results, it has long been an integral part of both religious and martial practices. Modern science has demonstrated the changing brain-wave patterns in people who spend time meditating and nearly everyone has heard stories of monks who have endured great cold and suffering through meditation. The sheer difficulty of “not thinking” should be enough to prove its importance. I will gladly train for three hours at a stretch, but thirty minutes of Zazen seems to last an eternity. But how can meditation possibly help your Budo?
One of the most important things that Budo teaches us is to develop control; both over our mind and body. He who fights in anger fights himself. A good budoka must have his complete concentration on his art without falling prey to stray thoughts or emotions. The practice of meditation helps us develop this control and focus. I like to think that meditation is a form of training for our concentration. AS with other practices, it becomes easier over time. The time you put in at the zendo will prove useful in the dojo or in competition where you need a clear mind.

In the Rinzai Zen training I have seen, the goal is to completely empty one’s mind of all stray thoughts; a seemingly simple task which proves itself to be much more difficult than it appears. For beginners, such as myself, counting one’s breath is a simple, first step. Focus your mind on the number… “one” inhale—exhale… “two” inhale—exhale. Each time a thought enters your mind, you must begin the count again from one.
There are many ways to sit for meditation and the exact form varies from school to school. The most important things to keep in mind are posture and breath. One’s posture should be straight with the hips pushed back. As Chiba Sensei—founder of the Birankai association of North America—once explained, “Show your ass-hole to the universe.” Pressing the hips back opens a space for the stomach to fully expand. This allows for correct breathing; deep breaths that fill and expand the stomach without moving the chest cavity. The chest has a very limited range of motion, whereas the stomach can expand much further. Try, for example, to inhale into the chest. When your chest is fully expanded and you can no longer draw breath, push out your stomach and notice how you can now continue to inhale.
As you exhale, try to maintain the stomach expanded. It is difficult, but the expanded stomach will act as a cushion upon which your internal organs can comfortably rest. This will actually help your posture.

Meditation is something I have long been telling myself I should practice more regularly. Its surprisingly difficult, however, to take those twenty or thirty minutes—even once a week—to sit. Perhaps this is a result of the busy lives we have created with our constant need for stimulation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oops, Sorry About That

Have no fear, I have neither forgotten nor abandoned these tales of the Iron Goat. I developed a social life about the same time the university semester was ending and I found myself rather occupied during a three week stretch. Though the social life thankfully remains, I have more stories to tell!

I am currently on vacation in the United States and will be returning to Japan on Thursday the 18th. I've been taking advantage of my summer vacation, however, to practice a little Judo, Aikido and Jujitsu. Pretty much what I do every other day of the year.

It is, of course, always interesting to return from Japan and train in American dojos. For one thing, people speak English... there's a surprise. What is facinating, though, are the differences in teaching methodology. I jokingly said to a friend, "I'm going to take advantage of my vacation to learn Judo..." which may seem strange as I am studdying Judo full-time in Japan.
Sadly, there was some truth to my statement. No one can deny that the Japanese train hard. On a typical day in judo bukatsu I may do anywhere from one to three hours of randori. In Aikido, we will do ten to fifteen techniques over the course of two hours. In dojos in the states, however, much more time is dedicated to learning and reviewing throws in Judo and, in Aikido, I often see a smaller number of techniques demonstrated but with a greater stress on the relation in the movements between techniques.
This is not to say that American dojos are better or worse. In the U.S. I do not feel like I have enough of a work-out during class. In Japan, on the other hand, I do not feel I've learned much during training. And in these two sentences I have written, without consciously intending to, the real difference: Japan has "training" whereas American dojos have "classes".

Though this is not a hard and fast rule--there are always differences from dojo to dojo--this has always been my experience. I can state very firmly and very infatically that dojos in the States are better in one aspect: working with people's with disabilities. During every class I have attended in the past two weeks, someone has stood next to me while the sensei demonstrated a technique or throw. That person, without my asking, has shown or told me in as much detail as possible the key points the sensei was trying to make. In Japan, someone must show me what the sensei has demonstrated after the sensei has finished. It becomes that person's sole responsibility to both remember everything the sensei has shown as well as teach it to me.
This subject is of particular importance, obviously, because I'm blind and have to learn martial arts in a specialized way. I do not feel this means I must go to a special dojo, however. I have been invited to speak at a seminar in September in Japan about this very topic: disability sports. I've been thinking a lot recently about how I learn because that is what I'm going to be asked. The other interesting twist is the fact I'm not only a person with a visual impairment trying to learn Judo in Japan... I'm a westerner who is accustomed to a western teaching style trying to learn Judo in Japan. I have much to think about.

Over the course of the last week I've been taking a lot of videos and photos and I'll have some great stuff to put up shortly on the blog. May the training continue--

Monday, July 18, 2011

Teaching Sankaku/Ude-Garami

Due to classes and general busyness, heat and the fact I exercise for four hours a day…. I haven’t put up a blog entry in a week! Naughty naughty; I’ll try to behave better. With this in mind, I have something particularly near and dear to my heart I would like to share.

I’m not sure I’ve adequately expressed my love of newaza—ground fighting—over the course of my posting. Ground fighting is, however, where I feel the strongest. Maybe it is because of the close proximity of my opponent, but I feel like I can better read my opponent’s movements while on the ground than when standing and fighting. Of course, I must work to develop both aspects of my judo; I wanted, simply, to share my enthusiasm for the technique I am about to show.
This technique is both a sankaku (triangle choke) and ude-garami (arm bar). A friend taught me the technique three weeks ago and I have found it to be extremely effective, even against people who know exactly what I’m about to do.

The volume in this video is quite low and my explanation is in Japanese, but please
And I’ll give a more detailed description below.

When an opponent lies flat on the tatami, he is probably stalling and waiting for the referee to stop the match. In Judo, very little time is allowed for ground fighting. This turnover, however, is quite fast.
As you sit on the opponent’s back, you want to grab the back of their collar with your hand and, if you’re particularly nasty, try to dig a few knuckles into the back of your opponent’s neck. This will make them more willing to move momentarily. With your other hand, try to pull your opponent’s arm away from their body. Obviously, your opponent wants to stay huddled up and probably won’t let you push their arm out. So, it helps to use a knee behind the elbow. Believe me, your leg is a lot stronger than their arm.

Once you have opened a small space between the opponent’s elbow and body, lift the opponent using the hand at the collar and back of the elbow. Shoot your foot around, under the opponent’s neck, and put your foot into the space you opened before. In this case, my right heel must touch my left knee.

Now, fall to the side and roll your opponent over. While in this motion, try to shoot your foot inside the bend of your knee to form the triangle. With the leg that is free—my left leg, in this example, I use my foot to hook the opponent’s hip and turn my body. I turn simply to better position my leg across the opponent’s neck.

In this position, you are ready to choke. Just squeeze your legs and lift your hips. The triangle has to be quite accurately placed in order to choke the opponent and often times I fail to hit the mark. The benefit of this turnover, however, is the option to make an arm bar.

The opponent has their left arm within your triangle and, therefore, it is rather isolated from the rest of their body. You can easily sit up and wrap your arm around theirs. Then, try to find the opponent’s elbow. Place your hand on their elbow and, using your own elbow, press down to bend the arm backwards.

I change one detail in this turnover in my second demonstration. As I lift the opponent and bring my right leg around, I catch my own ankle with my hand. There is a reason to do this. Most likely, at this point, your opponent will have figured out what you are trying to do. They will try to close the space you have opened by bringing their elbow close to the body and blocking your leg. When you slide your hand in that space, however, the opponent cannot stop you from catching the ankle. As you do the turnover, just pull your own leg through and hook it with the opposite leg as before.

AS I mentioned before, I have had a lot of luck with this single turnover; more, in fact, than with any other technique I’ve ever been shown. It is fast, simple, and allows for either a triangle choke or an arm bar. I hope the explanation has been clear and that the video is likewise understandable. I will try to edit the video for volume in the next few days; I wanted to get this post up as soon as possible.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Under Pressure

I love Judo. There is something about the beauty of a perfectly timed throw that sings of poetry in motion. Here you have these two people who both want to throw the other, but every move one makes could be opening a throw for the other. Judo is, after all, a game of using an opponent’s force against them. It’s the competition I really admire in Judo; where the other martial arts I practice are mere demonstrations, Judo is pure application.
Despite what I have just written, I will now make a confession: I hate competing. It is both what I most admire and most dislike about the sport. When the referee yells “Hajime” and the match begins, somehow my brain shrivels up, my heart and lungs stop functioning properly and my world is populated by two people: myself and my opponent. I have to rely on instincts I’ve gained during training to carry me through the match. Fortunately, I’ve done enough conditioning over the past few years that I can survive three or four minutes without air.

Today I participated in a shodan shinsa shiai [初段審査試合] or shodan examination tournament. This is a tournament in which you earn points toward obtaining your first degree black belt. Under the university rules, which are recognized by the Kodokan, a person needs six points to earn their shodan. Entering a shodan tournament immediately earns you one point and each consecutive win is then worth another point.

My first match was called three minutes after the tournament began. I quickly grabbed the sensei in charge and explained, “I have to start from kumikata”. Under official rules, blind fighters start with both opponents having an equal grip at collar and arm. The sensei made sure to explain this to my opponent and before I was even aware they were ready, the referee yelled “hajime”.
My opponent was a very muscular rugby player who we’ve seen in the gym… lifting more than my body weight. I was taken a little off-guard by the sudden start of the match and before I knew it my opponent was shoving me around. He finally threw me over his hip and landed on top of me, ending the match.

Frustrated would be a mild way to put my feelings after my early loss. I took this frustration, therefore, and carried it into my next match. Here is a video; be careful not to blink:
Second match

The technique I used is something between an ashi-guruma and a koshi-guruma, (leg or hip circle).

My third opponent seemed to think he was going to win. He certainly tried to out muscle me anyway. This time I was more prepared, though, and I attempted a sacrifice throw. This is when you try to pull the opponent on to your leg and flip them. It’s a great throw when someone is pushing hard into you. As you can see in the video
Third match

My tomoe-nage was not successful. The kosoto-gari (outside foot sweep), however, was very effective. My favorite part of this match came right after the video ends. My opponent looked to the side toward his friends and yelled, “Majide?” (Really?) As in “Really, I just lost?” I wanted to tell him, “Well, you are the one on his back now.”

My camera man left after this match to support some of our other friends, so I do not have videos of my fourth and fifth matches. Neither one lasted more than thirty seconds, however.

One person went home today saying “I just beat up a blind man."
Four people went home today saying, “I just had my ass handed to me by a blind man.” Just the thought warms my little heart. I scored five points in total, which means I will be guaranteed my shodan at the next tournament I enter.

I would have liked to win my first match. If I had played the same person during my second or third round, I think I would have. Judo, for me, is partly a game of beating my opponent and partly a game of beating myself, however. Losing one match and thinking I was done for the day really put things into perspective. Its just one more step up the latter; one more experience under my belt.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Further Training with the Ladies

A friend of mine put it this way:
"Well, you can come over here with the girls and train for three hours… or you can go over there with the guys and watch for two."

If you harbor any doubts to the value of a man training in the women’s dojo, allow me to share with you the results of the recent Judo ZenNihon Gakusei Taikai [柔道 全二本 学生 大会] or All Japan University Judo Championship. The Budo Daigaku’s women’s team took third place… the men failed to place within the top ten. I wonder why that is. Could it be the fact that the women judoka train harder? Could it be the influence of a training session that includes technique drills, conditioning exercises as well as the normal randori? Maybe they’re just better.

I believe the breakthrough from “visiting guest” to “more or less regular member” of the women’s judo club came a couple weeks ago on a particularly hot afternoon. During two hours of training, I was never short a partner. AS soon as the whistle blew, someone was waiting to grab me.

When a welsh friend of mine—a man who also trains regularly with the girls—finally had the opportunity to spar with me, he said, "Well, I see we’re feeling patriotic today; I’ll have to throw you extra hard for that."
"What?" I asked, not following his logic.
"Ahem; I can see the stars and stripes of your boxers through your pants."

Allow me to reiterate: I am somewhat lacking in the sight department. How was I supposed to know my American flag boxers would show right through my wet dogi? But I’ll say: I never lacked for a partner that day. Advertise, Advertise, Advertise.

Training is almost comical, now, for the sheer efficiency with which the girls include me in their drills and exercises. As I step back from one drill, one of the girls is waiting to push me into the next line where a second girl pulls me along. You can almost hear the clockwork precision of their movements:
"This is Cheri, you ready Aya?"
"Aya here, we’re waiting,"
"Here he is---"
"Ready in five… four…. Three… two… one… go go go!"

It’s a little awkward being pushed and pulled around. Under normal circumstances it would probably bother me, but the girls are man-handling me with the intent of including me. When it comes time to train, though, they fight me every bit as hard as they would another dojo member.

I train with the girls twice a week; Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I still practice at the men’s dojo. This gives me a nice balance of technical and physical training. The boys are stronger, physically, and this gives me the opportunity to try the techniques I’ve drilled with the girls against a different type of opponent. In the end, it’s just nice to feel welcome at the dojo, men or women.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Goju-Ryu [剛柔流] or the Hard-Soft Style

"The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness." [From the poem Hakku Kenpo]

Goju-Ryu [剛柔流] or the Hard-Soft style is a traditional Okinawan style of Karate. It is unique for its blend of both hard techniques, such as closed-hand strikes and kicks, with soft techniques such as circular blocks, locks and even throws. Goju-Ryu is also characterized by an emphasis on correct breathing as well as body strengthening and conditioning drills. Many partner exercises exist in Goju-Ryu to help build strength and sensitivity.
Karate, in its origins, entered Japan from China by way of Okinawa. The Okinawan isles served as a center of trade between the two countries and several styles of Karate were developed and practiced there as a result. Goju-Ryu has its beginnings with Kanryo Higashiana, a native of Naha who spent some years training various styles of boxing while living in China. When he returned to Naha in 1882, he founded a dojo characterized by its mix of hard and soft techniques. Higashiana’s most prominent student, Chojun Miyagi, decided upon the name Goju-Ryu in 1929.

While visiting friends in the south of Japan, I was invited to train at the Shidokai dojo and experience some Goju-Ryu training. An hour trainride out from Kitakyushu followed by an hour’s drive brought us to the very remote dojo in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture. We were greeted warmly by Kanari Sensei, an 82-year-old man with an eight degree black belt (in the photo, he is the man standing to my left). As Kanari Sensei invited us into his office, he pulled open his refrigerator an offered us all drinks. After we shared refreshments and introduced ourselves—there were two of us visiting the dojo for the first time—we were inviting to train.

In a room full of 3rd-degree, fourth-degree, and fifth-degree black belts, it’s hard to know where to begin. AS this was a special occasion, however, and Kanari Sensei knew I practiced Judo, he encouraged me to train with another member of the dojo, Jim Baskind, who has practiced Brazilian Jujitsu quite extensively. Jim and I spent an hour “rolling” (the Jujitsu term for Newaza) and he was kind enough to pass on some advice on strategy and positioning while fighting on the ground. Judoka—at least your normal Judoka—rarely spend time fighting on the ground and the knowledge you can gain from a Brazilian Jujitsu fighter is invaluable. AS we discussed BJJ—primarily while he was choking me—two important ideas stuck out in my mind: ground fighting is like a game of chess in which you patiently wait for your opponent to make a mistake and, in another sense, its like mountain climbing where you spend time looking for foot and hand holds.

After a short coffee break mandated by Kanari Sensei, I began practicing with Quint Oga-Baldwin. Together we worked on “Sensitivity Drills” known as Kakie. These drills involve close contact grappling with an opponent and focus on sensing an opponent’s intention through tension and movement. I will dedicate a separate entry to Kakie as it’s something I quite enjoy.
Finally, Nonomiya Sensei—the fifth degree black belt who is second-highest ranked in the dojo after Inari Sensei himself—grabbed me and practiced breaking an opponent’s grip. We began by discussing how Judo players grip and hold their opponent’s gi during randori and Nonomiya Sensei offered me his advice on breaking balance using movements from Goju-Ryu.

At the end of the night, I commented to my friend Lyn, “Wow, that was the most relaxed dojo I have ever seen; people come, they train hard, and the sensei had no problem that I spent time practicing Jujitsu when this is technically a Karate dojo.”

Lyn’s response was simple, but I think really expresses the truth of the situation: “Kanari Sensei is 82 years old; he has an eighth degree black belt. He is pretty confident in his skills and students and he has nothing to worry about.”

---Note: also training with us was Mario McKenna; if you want to read the blog of an extremely well-respected and well-informed budoka, check out his blog at:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Niten Ichi-Ryu [二天一流]

Most anyone who has an interest in Japanese martial arts, especially in the sword arts, has probably come across the name of Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi is arguably the most famous swordsman who ever lived and is author of the Go Rin NO Sho [五輪書] or Book of Five rings. Many stories exist in Japan about the life and deeds of Musashi, including a famous duel in which Musashi defeated his opponent—who wielded a two-handed sword—using the wooden oar of a boat.

This past week I had the honor of training in the Niten Ichi-Ryu [二天一流] or two-sword style of kenjitsu developed by Miyamoto Musashi. My instructor was a French man by the name of Thierry Comont, one of very few non-Japanese people to hold a teaching license in this style of kenjitsu. Thierry was trained by Iwami Toshio Sensei, the eleventh generation direct successor of Musashi. Thierry himself is a budoka in the truest sense of the word; he maintains a casual confidence which betrays his deep knowledge and understanding of budo. I felt privileged that Thierry would spend two hours of his Saturday morning teaching me some small part of a sword art that can be traced directly back to such an important figure in Japanese history.

Niten Ichi-ryu is noteworthy for the use of a second, shorter sword, in addition to the traditional Japanese long sword. The complete set of kata (forms) includes twelve using only the odachi [大太刀] or long sword, seven using only the kodachi [小太刀] or short sword, and five techniques using both swords simultaneously. Because this was my first experience training in Niten Ichi-Ryu, I focused primarily on learning to strike with the long sword.

To begin with, one must hold the sword in a correct manner. The left hand holds the base of the hilt with the small finger extending half its width off the end. The right hand is placed one fist’s width above the left hand, just under the tsuba, or cross-piece. It is important that the palm be able to “fold” around the hilt; that is to say, the meat of the thumb must pinch the hilt against the palm. This fold in the hand is known as the toraguchi [虎口] or tiger’s mouth.

The sword is held in front of the stomach, just under the belly-button, at a distance of about one hand’s width. This is a comfortable and relaxed position and shows readiness. Extending the sword out far from the body may indicate fear and a desire to hold an enemy at a distance. While preparing for a strike, the sword is raised high above the head while maintaining the initial curve of arm. The shoulders simply rotate upward and then draw the sword back until it touches the ear.

When striking, one takes a small step forward. My instinct was to take a large step, but this is not correct. A large step requires more time in the movement and more time to recover. The blade of the sword should strike the opponent at the same moment the foot hits the ground, both points of impact occurring together. The back foot then quickly comes forward to reset and ready another strike.
As with cutting, hitting a piece of meat with a knife does little damage. A sliding, slicing motion is most effective. Similarly, in sword-work, the blade is extended forward and pulled back toward the body at the moment of striking. This would, in theory, cut the opponent more deeply.

Hopefully these few notes can serve to give a basic idea of Niten Ichi-Ryu sword-work. Failing to do so, I hope they at least convey my excitement in finding this opportunity to study such a traditional art. Thanks Thierry for the patient instruction.

Monday, June 27, 2011


During the past week, I spent several days visiting Kitakyushu, Japan, where I used to live. Kitakyushu is located on the island of Kyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture. Though it is considered “inaka [田舎]” or rural countryside by people of Fukuoka City, Kitakyushu is a sprawling town with over one million residents.

While I was in Kitakyushu, I trained in the dojo where I first began Judo three years ago; I practiced Karate and Brazilian Jujitsu at a truly inaka dojo with an interesting mix of Japanese and Western martial artists; and I learned Kenjitsu from one of the best all-around instructors I have ever had the pleasure of training with. Though I will talk about each of these experiences individually, I would like to first address something important to the life of any athlete…. Dinner.

They say an army marches on its stomach and the proverb holds equally true for budoka. During the five days I spent in Kitakyushu, I ate half of my meals in one small shop in the Shirogane district.

Shirogane is known for bad schools and some unsavory people. Through the busy streets and narrow alleys, however, you can find a small man with a huge smile and a tray of soba speeding around on his trusty motorcycle. Shouichi Nago-San is a sixty-three year old man who has devoted his life to making soba and making life easier for the foreigners he meets. This is quite literally his purpose.
Nago-San was on his honeymoon in Guam in 1982 when he met a friendly taxi driver who helped show his wife and him around the city. Nago-San was so touched by the kindness of this complete stranger that, when he returned to Japan, he devoted his free time to learning English and helping any foreigner he met.

I was drying my clothes with a friend last May when this little man walked into the Laundry mat and exclaimed, “My name is Nago. I have a shop right across the street; do you see that little shop? That is my Soba shop. Please come drink coffee with me!” And thus began one of the most noteworthy friendships I have found in Japan.
If I had met Nago-San three years ago when I first moved to Kitakyushu, I would be a fluent speaker of Japanese. I spent a total of eight hours in Nago-San’s shop this past week, sipping green tea and taking notes as Nago and his wife told me their recipe for making Soba broth and how often one must light a candle for deceased ancestors on Obon. Nago-San periodically stopped to take orders and rush out to deliver Soba to nearby customers, but he always returned and picked up the conversation where he had left off.

Life is better when you surround yourself with happy people and Nago-San is one of the happiest souls I have ever met. In his words, “Spending time with young people, it makes me young again. I take energy from you and I am younger for it!” Could you receive a nicer complement than “You make me feel young and energetic”? Returning to the Budo Dai and the cafeteria, I miss those hand made noodles…

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kosen Judo

This past Saturday, one of the PHD students studying Judo at the Kokusai Budo Daigaku offered to take me to a dojo in Tokyo where they primarily focus on newaza [寝技] OR GROUND FIGHTING. The Newaza Kenkyukai—newaza research group—was founded after the death of their Sensei, Kanae Hirata, in 1998 at the age of 76. It is said that Hirata Sensei practiced judo up and until the day before he died.

The Newaza Kenkyukai practices what is known as Kosen Judo [高專柔道] or the Seven Imperials Judo [七帝柔道] referring to the seven imperial universities where Kosen rules are still applied. Kosen Judo differs from the more widely recognized Kodokan Judo in its greater emphasis on ground fighting. In 1925, when Jigoro Kano established rules limiting the time Judo players could spend on the ground, some groups continued to hold tournaments under the old system. These groups became popularly known as Kosen Judo. Whereas in Kodokan Judo players only have a very limited time—depending on the referee, as few as ten seconds—to show progress while on the ground, Kosen rules allow for matches held almost primarily on the ground.

The Kenkyukai training was held from 1:00-5:00PM on Saturday at a sports center in Tokyo. After stretches and some light leg exercises, we played three rounds of tachi-waza (standing fighting). When these three rounds were over, dojo members kneeled in two rows facing one-another and we began ne-waza.
When I wrestled in High school, my matches nearly always ended short seconds after a take-down. I was so hopelessly bad at wrestling on the ground that my coach referred to me as a turtle; once I was on my back, I was stuck. AS an adult, however, I have developed a great enthusiasm for ne-waza; to the extent that I am actually much better at ne-waza than tachi-waza. This being said, the members of the newaza Kenkyukai showed me a class of ground fighter I have never before seen. After two straight hours of training with only one short break for water, I honestly thought I was going to vomit. I am no stranger to hard training, but the combined heat and my relative inexperience with prolonged ground fighting pushed me to a new limit. When I mentioned to a friend, “I’m not sure I’m going to last!” He said, “You have to. IF you stop now, they’ll never let you come back.”

So I lasted. One of the assistant sensei even made me a motodachi in the last twenty minutes of training. (That is to say, while others were given the chance to take a break, I was made to fight every round.) In total, I believe we fought over 30 rounds lasting five-minutes each.

I have taken every opportunity to travel and train in the last few months. The newaza Kenkyukai, however, has been the most impressive group I have seen. Every member is serious; every member is active. Members do not hesitate to choke you out or teach you to choke them out. After we finished training, the entire group walked to a nearby izakaya (bar) for dinner and drinks. The sensei liked me, I was told, as my sake glass was never left empty for more than a moment. After thirteen shots, the language barior was no longer a problem.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Give Thanks Where Thanks is Due

Over the course of my life and most especially in the last five years—since I’ve been living abroad—I’ve done some pretty amazing things. I’ve traveled around South America, Europe and some parts of Asia and I’ve met some encredible people along the way. I would never have been able to accomplish so much without the kindness of friends, family and strangers. It is important, then, to give credit where credit is due and give thanks where it is deserved.

This past weekend I said goodbye to a very close friend, a person with whom I’ve spent the last two years traveling and experiencing Japan. Marla Prince was a stranger two years ago when I met her in Kagoshima in the far south of Japan. Since that time, however, Marla and I have traveled throughout Japan together and taken trips to parts of both Europe and Asia. Without her help and support, I don’t know if I could have stayed on in Japan this past year.

Though Marla herself doesn’t practice budo, she has gone out of her way time and again to help me find and learn the routes to both the Kodokan and Kokodo dojos. She even made the journey with me to the Kokusai budo Daigaku last November when I was applying to this program. Most importantly, however, is the support Marla has shown when I’ve needed to vent about the difficulties finding acceptance in Japan. In the end, it’s knowing that there is at least one person who will understand that helps you make it through the day.

This is a photo of the sunrise on Mount Fuji from when Marla and I climbed two summers ago. Unlike most sane folks, we started climbing from the base of the mountain. (Most people start about mid-way up.) After fifteen hours of hiking, we found ourselves huddling on top of the world, waiting for the sun and its warmth. I believe this experience, more than any other, demonstrates the character of Marla. She never takes the easy way out; she starts climbing from the base of every mountain.

Marla will be greatly missed in Japan. I’m sure there are some great dojos in Germany, however, that I may find reason to visit in the future.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Back to the Kodokan

My first time back to the Kodokan in over six months and, after twenty minutes, you can already see my dogi has been soaked through with sweat. A forensic scientist could probably trace, with some detail, the progress of my first two rounds of randori from the prints my ass has made on the tatami. I train anywhere from four to six times a week and still, I sweat like a rotisserie chicken.

I took the opportunity on Saturday to make the holy pilgrimage, once again, to the
In Tokyo. It was a four hour train ride comprised of three transfers and two onigiri (rice balls). As I walked into the dojo, however, the journey was made worthwhile, “Hello, Mr. Nicholas!” Even after six months, I was still greeted by name.

AS I have discussed before, the Kodokan is especially interesting for me because of the amazing people it brings together from around the world. Upon stepping onto the tatami, I was immediately approached by a man from the Netherlands who was just excited to tell me it was his first time training at the Kodokan in the 40 years he’s practiced Judo. Shortly thereafter, I found myself doing uchikomi with a man from Dubai.

There are some important things to keep in mind when visiting the Kodokan for the first time. Training at the Kodokan is held from 6:00-8:00PM Monday through Saturday. If it is your first time visiting the Kodokan, however, it is asked that you arrive before 5:30 to fill out registration paperwork at the international office found next door. Sensei Koria and Shimoyama staff the international office and both have very high levels of English as well as being willing partners for randori or uchikomi. A one-day training fee for the Kodokan is 800 yen (approximately $9).

The ground floor of the Kodokan contains a store selling Judo-related books and materials such as posters, towels and clothing. On the second floor is housed the Judo museum and library. Several rooms are dedicated to photos and memorabilia honoring important figures in the development of Judo. One room is dedicated to the founder of Judo—Jigoro Kano—and includes one of the founder’s uniforms and calligraphy drawn by Kano Sensei himself. Of particular interest on the second floor is the library, where can be found historical texts on the development and practice of Judo.
The third floor of the Kodokan contains dormitories where visiting students may stay. There are both private and dormitory-style rooms and a common-area for relaxing. The fourth floor holds the check-in desk and locker rooms for changing.

Floors five through seven contain three large tatami rooms. Children train at the fifth floor dojo, women at the sixth floor dojo and men train on the seventh floor. The eighth floor is an open observation deck where one can look down upon the seventh floor dojo.

From 6:00 to 8:00PM, open training is held. Though sometimes small lessons are held on one side of the dojo, this is primarily a time to train independently. Usually, after stretching, people find a partner for uchikomi (entering drills). From 6:20, or thereabouts, people are ready for randori.

One very important strategy for training at the Kodokan is to ask the various Sensei to demonstrate their “tokay-waza” or judo specialty. Each Sensei has a particular technique that he has spent years mastering. The Kodokan provides something of a buffet for judo learning and the quickest way to improve is to take every opportunity provided.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Teaching Ashi-Barai

One of the simplest and yet most affective techniques in Judo is Ashi-Barai, or foot sweep. During the natural movement of randori, as both judo players are fighting for position and balance, a clean foot sweep can easily land an apponent on his back.

When I asked a sensei at the Kodokan for help practicing seoi-nage (shoulder-throw), his response was, “Why are you waisting time with seoi-nage. That is a technique for short people. You need to practice ashi-barai. Your legs are long; when you touch me with your foot I am scared!”
The sensei had good reason for his suggestion. Of the handful of tournaments I have competed in here in Japan, ashi-barai has one me the most matches. Furthermore, practicing ashi-barai has been a great way to develop a better sense for my aponents movement and weight placement. Before you can jump into a more complex technique, it is crutial to understand whether an aponent is leaning forward or back, whether his weight is on the right foot or the left. Hours of drilling foot sweeps have helped me develop this sense.

With this in mind, I wanted to write about some of the recent suggestions Kashiwazaki Sensei has made for teaching ashi-barai.

A foot sweep is as simple as it sounds; the idea is to sweep your foot at an aponent’s ancle at the moment they are stepping. The foot should be slightly tilted with only the little toe sweeping the floor. It is important to keep your leg straight with the hip projected slightly forward. The wider the stance you have when beginning a foot sweep, the stronger your sweep will be. Try standing with your feet two inches apart and then sweeping one leg across…. There isn’t much room. Now stand with your legs a little further than shoulder-width apart and sweep a leg. There is a lot more momentum.

One way to practice the motion of a foot sweep is to take turns with a partner, walking back and forth across the room and sweeping feet alternately, as in this
Ashi-barai practice

It is important to pull the apponent toward you to take his balance. Do not make the mistake of pulling yourself into your aponent, as this will knock you off balance instead.

After practicing this drill, Kashiwazaki Sensei asked us to do something very strange. “Write your names on the tatami with your big toe.” Surprisingly enough, this is much more challenging than it might sound. This is also a great way to help children develop balance while standing on one foot, an important part of foot sweeps.

Perhaps the most powerful counter to a foot sweep is also the most logical. Sweep your aponent’s foot at the moment they are trying to sweep yours! Kashiwazaki Sensei described this as drawing the letter D. Pull your foot back toward you (dodging the aponent’s sweep) and circle your foot around to push the aponent through. Watch this video for an example of a
Ashi-barai game
That helps practice sweeping and counter-sweeping while maintaining balance.

This is an easy technique, but the benefits of practicing foot sweeps are far-reaching. Balance is crutial for all aspects of Judo and it is important to practice pulling an aponent toward you for later, more complicated throws.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Three Wise Monkeys

One of the unique benefits of studying at a budo institute is the access it allows to people who have dedicated their lives not only to the study of martial arts, but to the study of the history and development of the martial arts. The information is not always readily available; however, if you have a dictionary and the interest, there are many professors who will take the time to speak on various aspects of budo. I will try, whenever possible, to include information on the history of the martial arts or how changes in Japan have affected modern budo.

Sanbiki-no-saru (三匹の猿) or the Three Wise Monkeys, as they are referred to in English, comprise a famous symbol known throughout the world. Though the exact origins are unknown, the three monkeys are most often associated with a carving over the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan, dating back to the early seventeenth century. The monkeys are known as mizaru (見ざる), kikazaru (聞かざる) and iwazaru (言わざる) or see not, hear not and say not. Some hypothesize that monkeys were chosen to represent these three ideals due to the fact that the Japanese word for monkey, saru (猿), is pronounced similar to the antique suffix expressing negation—zaru. A play on words results in which “see monkey”—mizaru (見ざる)—is read as “not looking”.

Statues and images of the three monkeys reached the western world by way of Dutch traders throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this time, Japan was closed to all but a few Dutch traders who themselves were limited to one island off the coast of modern-day Nagasaki. The meaning of the statues was taken to be “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” and is a maxim for the healthy way to live. This information is all available on Wikipedia or any number of other websites; in fact, large groups of people collect images and statues of the Three Wise Monkeys and have discussion boards online.
After a trip I recently took to Nikko, I was discussing the statue of the three monkeys with a professor. The famous carving over the Tosho-gu shrine is attributed to a legendary sculptor known as Hidari Jingoro (左 甚五郎). Hidari, in Japanese, means “left” and the story goes that Jingoro was cut in his right hand and, therefore, learned to paint and create encredible sculptures with his left. In actuality, Hidari Jingoro was not a single person but rather a title handed down from person to person in the Hidetakayama region. Hidetakayama was long known in Japan for its artisans—sculptors amongst them—and Hidari Jingoro was said to come from this region. Whether or not the story of a man overcoming a physical disability to create beautiful art is true is unknown. It makes for a nice story, however, and is therefore repeated frequently. It is also said that Hidari Jingoro once carved the likeness of a woman so realistically that she began to move.

Further speculation on the history of Hidetakayama and the significance of the three monkeys is difficult to find. It is believed that after the Genpei war, in which two clans—the Minamoto and Taira—fought for power, people associated with the Minamoto clan fled Kyoto. These people established themselves in the mountain towns of Hidetakayama where they remained for centuries. They then had a long reputation of defiance against the ruling Samurai class.
Hidari Jingoro, if he indeed came from a background of anti-samurai sentiment, was probably making a statement with his carving of the three monkeys. Though it is known that “look-not, hear-not, and speak-not” were rules to live a healthy life, it is not so immediately understood that these were meant in irony. In order to be a healthy Samurai, one must learn to ignore the things that happen around him. The tokugawa clan, to whom the shrine in Nikko is dedicated, had a history of atrocious crimes against commoners. Some samurai were known to kill pregnant women, taking bets on the sex of the child within the mother’s womb.

Commoners, as well as samurai, were forced to ignore many injustices that happened around them. To openly look, listen, or repeat could result in a quick death. The philosophies surrounding Budo were developed as a result: to help curtail the violence of inactive Samurai in times of piece.

I hope this has been interesting. It is important to understand the history of martial arts as well as the practice. The Three Wise Monkeys provide a quick, though poignant, glimpse into the history of the Samurai.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Asageiko II: Inner Island-san

From my second day of asageiko, I was assigned a new running partner. To protect the identity of all innocent and not-so-innocent parties, lets call him “Inner Island-san” from here on out.

I believe my suggestion to run with a new Judoka every day was a clever way to get to know the Japanese students a little better. If the individual Judoka ran with me and saw that I was working just as hard as they were, maybe they would accept me a little sooner. Such are the plans of mice and men, however, for Inner Island-san has been my “assigned” running partner since our second day of asageiko. There has been no great fidelity gained through shared suffering; no triumphant race to any finish-line; I have found no acceptance by proving my willingness to work hard. It’s just me and Inner Island-san… running around that track.

Inner Island-san is not an enthusiastic runner. As we shuffled around the track on our second day of asageiko, I had the slightly disturbing image of a man and his dog out for a morning jog. I’m still not sure if it’s a case of an over-excited puppy dragging his reluctant master, or an energetic man pulling his unwilling dog. That eight-inch piece of chord feels a little too much like a leash, though, and by our third lap Inner Island-san was gasping for breath as I attempted to subtly pull him a little faster.
As we finished our third lap, Inner Island-san suggested we take a break. I must give my running partner credit, though, for despite his obvious dislike of running, we only rested for three minutes before he was ready to shuffle another three laps. Then, after a second break, three more.

The real excitement came after about a month when Inner Island-san and I coincided with the female Judoka who were also running laps. As we began our second time around the track, the familiar voice of Kashiwazaki Sensei greeted me by yelling, “Niko, you’re slow!” In a wordless gesture of helplessness, I picked up the hand that was tethered to Inner Island-san and shrugged the other shoulder. Kashiwazaki Sensei grunted and shouted, “Inner Island-san, why are you running so slowly?”
Inner Island-san mumbled a reply that I could neither hear nor understand, but picked up his speed until we were out of range of Kashiwazaki’s ire. Apparently my partner forgot to pick things up again by the time we had completed our circuit, though, for as we rounded the track and began our third lap Kashiwazaki Sensei was again waiting, “Inner Island-san…. I said Run!”

I was amazed; my reluctant guide began to jog…

In defense of Inner Island-san—who I’m sure would rather be doing anything than running with me around the track—his attitude is reflected in the majority of the Japanese Judoka. I cannot count the number of days when we’ve gathered for asageiko, jogged until we were out of sight of the sensei, and were told by the team captain, “Ok, free day free day,” at which point everyone finds a comfortable place to sit and wait a respectable amount of time before returning. As we have slowly learned, asageiko is not about conditioning. Nor is it a matter of discipline. It’s a sign of solidarity. You show up—despite the fact you don’t want to—and you go through the motions. It seems silly to us foreigners; if you force me to get up at 6:30, then I want to benefit from it. It’s just how culture works in Japan. The group matters and its important to be a part of the group.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

朝稽古 「[asageiko] or Morning Training

From our first days at the International Budo University, the importance of 朝稽古 [asageiko] or early morning practice was stressed almost above even our regular training. “If you really want to find acceptance with the Japanese students,” we were told, “you must go to asageiko every day.”

Asageiko is a relatively infamous word within Japanese sports culture. From middle school onward, the members of many sports clubs will gather early in the morning to train. The specific type of training might vary from sport to sport; running, in the case of baseball or Judo, or perhaps kata drills in the case of Kendo. The idea is that morning training shows the real dedication of an athlete.

So, at 6:30 AM on Monday of our first week at the budo daigaku, the five of us international judo players gathered downstairs in our dorm and worked up the ambition to join morning practice. We walked across the parking lot toward the dojo, dodging the Japanese judoka as they sped up on their mopeds, and stood in the back of the large group of judo players assembled in the entry of the dojo. AT 6:45, we filed out and stood in neat rows and as the clock read 6:50AM, we bowed and were then rushed through a series of stretches that lasted about one minute and presumably covered the entire body including all major muscle groups.

The judoka then broke down into groups according to weight class. Each group spoke with a different sensei and received instructions on what they would be doing for their morning training. I immediately approached Koshino Sensei and explained, “It is too dangerous for me to run in the street; if it is OK, I’d like to go with another Judoka to the track and run laps.”
--I had experimented the previous day with a couple of the international students by using a looped rope—similar to how Lyn and I ran—with about eight inches of play. We quickly discovered that the sidewalks are nonexistent in Katsuura and the streets are far too narrow for two people to run abreast. On top of this, there are any number of holes and curbs which just can’t be avoided. (I discovered this by running, falling off a curb and landing in the road)--
I felt like this might be my best chance to get to know the Japanese judoka. I suggested that every morning I could run with a different judo player and thereby get to know them one by one. Who knew, maybe they would have all started to feel comfortable with me and accepted me in the dojo.

Koshino Sensei agreed and assigned me one of the heavy weights to run with. (Which is odd… since I only weigh 75kilos [165lbs]…. But oh well.) We walked to the track, only to discover that it was being used by another club. So we decided to return to the dojo and do laps around the building. The building is large and once around is probably about half a lap on a typical track, so it’s not a bad alternative.

I pulled out my knotted chord and handed one end to my new running partner. It took us a lap to get the hang of running with each other, but by the third lap we had things under control.
“You don’t look like you’ve even started running,” my partner told me after the fourth lap. Well…. Of course not. I trained in the States by running four or five miles every other day. After the fifth lap, my companion slowed down and said, “OK, that’s enough for the day.”

Really? That’s all? I went inside the dojo and sat down on the steps to weight for the other judoka to return. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to weight long. It was 7:25 and asageiko was finished….

Stay tuned tomorrow for part II of Asageiko: Inner Island-san.