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.