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.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Running with the Devil

I am currently doing some research on a couple topics I am interested in posting as entries, but I want to double check my information before I put anything concrete up. I’ll take this opportunity, however, to talk about a charity event I participated in with the
Dojo in Kitakyushu, Japan, last summer.

Every May, the city of Kitakyushu holds a charity event called the Himawari Ekiden [ひまわり 駅伝] or Sunflower Relay Race. Groups from around the city meet in down town Kokura and run laps past the historic Kokura Castle, along the Murasaki River and up past the Riverwalk mall. When the weather is nice, thousands of people show up for the event representing local schools, hospitals, businesses and even dojos and clubs. Last year, we raised money for relief efforts in Haiti after the massive earthquake that demolished the country.

Looking at the photo, you might make note of a handsome man running at my side. This is Lyn Jehu and, though he is not a member of the Shishinkai dojo, he asked if he might join the relay race and run with me. Of course, he was warmly welcomed into our ranks. Lyn had the ingenious idea to use the inner tube from a bicycle tire as a tether between us.

Running has been something I have always dreaded. During four long wrestling seasons in High School, I gasped my way through mile after mile up and down the hallways. I ran holding the elbow of a sighted guide and it seemed that, no matter how much I exercised, I never managed to find my stride. Lyn, however, was clever enough to realize the problem: holding someone’s elbow while running prevented me from swinging my left arm and relaxing the muscles of the diaphragm. NO matter how much conditioning I did, I could not take a full breath while keeping one arm close to my side. Using the inner tube, however, Lyn and I were able to run smoothly, both of us swinging are arms freely and racing like hell to do as many laps as possible before they could stop us.

They finally did have to stop us. Lyn and I were anxious to show the town how the gaijin—foreigners—could run. After Haga Sensei completed the first lap, we made our way onto the track. After two rounds, people cheered and waved. After three laps, people waved and shouted. After the fifth lap, we were told to stop running; no one explained that we were only supposed to run one lap at a time and pass off to another person.

In total, Lyn and I were only able to run eight laps due to the sheer number of other dojo members who wanted to participate. We had a wonderful day enjoying the festive atmosphere, however. I am certain many people show up to the relay race for the promise of the barbecue held afterwards, but for me it was all about the chance to get out and get involved.

It’s important for me, as a visually impaired person, to be as active as possible in the international community. It is unlikely you would see a blind Japanese person participating in the Himawari Ekiden. I was brought up with a different mentality, though, and I won’t let something as ridiculous as blindness prevent me from taking part. Quite the contrary, I believe my blindness has driven me to be as involved as possible in the world around me. Whether or not people take notice; whether or not I change perspectives, I’ll live my life like there’s no tomorrow and keep running with the devil.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Making Movies

There was a slight delay in putting up this blog post; I am still getting the hang of multi-media and how to add more creative things to the blog. Today, we’re experimenting with adding videos…

The program for international students at the Kokusai Budo Daigaku consists in a series of classes devoted to your major—Judo or Kendo—as well as the opportunity to take an introductory class in the martial art you are not focusing on. I realize that I have yet to explain the classes in detail, due partly to the fact we have only recently begun the regular semester.

Judoka have three “kata”--or judo form--classes in which we study set routines such as throws or pins intended to demonstrate principals of the art. Apart from these kata, which I will talk about in greater detail as the course continues, we have one basic technique class and, finally, the class I am going to talk about today: a movie making class.

Yes, that’s right, a movie making class. Our first period on Thursdays is devoted to filming an instructional video. Each student has ten minutes to teach two or three of his or her favorite waza. We can choose between tachiwaza [standing techniques] or newaza [ground techniques] or demonstrate various interpretations on one single throw.

The purpose of making a demonstrational video for Judo is two-fold. Firstly, one tends to think about a technique differently when teaching. Breaking the technique down to its principal pieces helps to deepen understanding and is especially useful for finding out where one’s weaknesses lie. Its often much easier to commit yourself to a throw and quickly execute it… but when you slow things down you find the little errors—bad posture, incorrect hand position, unbalance—that may cost you a match.
The point that Kashiwazaki Sensei stressed above all, however, was the importance of keeping a record of one’s development. Sensei explained that this video will be something we take with us: a reminder of this year and the place we are in both mentally and physically. Having a record of your current level of skill or strength provides encouragement to improve. It sets a mark in stone—or film, as the case may be—that may then be surpassed.

The clip I have uploaded is a quick demonstration of Haraigoshi [sweeping hip throw]. While preparing to film this clip, I worked with a man much shorter than myself. I realized that a traditional Haraigoshi throw was very difficult for me as I have trouble lowering my hips far enough to get below my opponent's center. In this video, however, I am doing a slight variation of Haraigoshi in which I step to the right and then quickly twist my hips inside:

I approached Kashiwazaki Sensei to ask him his advice on my two throws. I explained that, with shorter opponents, I have difficulties performing the traditional style of this throw. Therefore, I do a slight variation. With taller opponents, however, I stick with the variation of Haraigoshi more typically taught.

Kashiwazaki Sensei’s reply was, “That is exactly what we’re looking for; this video is for You to explain Your technique. What works for you and what doesn’t. If one variation works on a short opponent while another variation works on a tall opponent, teach it. That is what this video is for.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mama Always Told Me to Play Nice With the Girls

Mama always told me to play nice with the girls.

…but apparently no one told the girls to play nice with me.

I was pulled aside yesterday during training by two of the Japanese judoka. They wanted to explain, with much regret, that there are two tournaments in the following couple weeks. That being said, they will not have time to train with us foreigners. So…. We decided to train with the girls.

I am not in the least ashamed to admit that I was thoroughly and completely beaten by a girl weighing 10-kilos less than I do. I am only slightly chagrinned to confess that I was beaten thoroughly and completely by several girls weighing 10-kilos less than I do.

For anyone who has seen a women’s judo club, however, this might not come as a surprise. Women in Japan train hard. Where many men will stand around and watch their fellow judoka spar, the women have no such opportunity. Due to the relatively small number of women judoka—around 25 in this club—every person is on the mat training for the entire two hour session. class began with several minutes of uchikomi [technique drills] followed by more uchikomi while running across the length of the dojo. After 25 minutes of 1-point randori (spar until someone scores a point and then switch partners) there were six six-minute rounds of randori while keeping the same partner during the entire round. Finally, we finished with 20 minutes of ne-waza (ground fighting) and another several minutes of technique drills.

There is one major difference in the way men and women do judo: women depend completely upon skill. Some men take advantage of greater size and strength to overpower their opponents. The women, on the other hand, rely more heavily on their ability to drop below an opponent’s center of gravity while using the opponent’s momentum and motion to throw. I was very surprised at the number of women who successfully leg-swept me to the mat; few men I have trained with here have the timing to catch me so precisely off balance. Although none of the women judoka attempted to throw me using the hips—haraigoshi, uchimata—I was extremely impressed with their ability to generate momentum by twisting. Twisting inside an opponent’s guard is absolutely crucial for hip techniques, but the women leaned more heavily toward throws that took advantage of their shorter stature.

Another noteworthy difference with the women judoka was there immediate acceptance of the foreigners, including myself. Perhaps this is due to the fact that women must struggle to find respect in Japan. Whatever the case may be, they did not hesitate to toss me on the ground at the first opportunity.

Ironically, during the two five-minute breaks between randori sets, the women served us iced lemonade… some aspects of Japanese culture run very deep.

This was a great chance to spar against judoka with very different skills and styles of play. My only frustration came during ne-waza after a girl very quickly put a choke on me. The sensei shouted, “Niko, she beat you in thirty seconds.” My immediate instinct was to reply, “Yes, I’ve been here a month and a half and this is the first time I’ve done judo!” Instead, I made sure to twist the next girl’s arm until she tapped out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kokodo Jujitsu

Of the three martial arts I primarily practice—Aikido, Judo and Jujitsu—jujitsu is by far the most practical. Jujitsu, even at the most basic level, consists in simple movements that result in tight wrist and elbow locks. Some of the more advanced techniques can become excruciatingly painful, but, unlike other martial arts, techniques in jujitsu rely increasingly on relaxation for their greatest effectiveness.

This past weekend I traveled four hours from Katsuura, in Chiba, through Tokyo and finally to Omiya in Saitama to the dojo and clinic of Soke Yasuhiro Irie. Irie Sensei is the founder of Kokodo Jujitsu and practices acupuncture, bone setting, moxa and shiatsu as well as jujitsu at his clinic.
Irie Sensei trained under the founder of hakko-ryu jujitsu, Soke Ryuho Okuyama, and received the title of jodai in 1977. This is an old Japanese term which means “castle value” and is given to only the most proficient and trustworthy students. Irie Sensei became head instructor at the Hakko-Ryu honbu dojo (head dojo) where he continued teaching until 1993. In 1995, he founded the Kokodo Jujitsu at his bone setting clinic in Omiya.

When I walked into Soke Yasuhiro Irie’s dojo on Saturday, I was greeted warmly by Irie Sensei himself. He asked me how long I had been training in Hakkodenshinryu jujitsu; saying, “Is your Sensei OK with you training here?”
I replied, “Yes, of course, my sensei in America asked me to please find you and train as much as I could.”
“Good,” Irie Sensei said, “Because once you become a member of my dojo you are a member for life. This is like a mafia!” He then proceeded to laugh very hard and finally explain, “That is a bad joke, but you will always be a member of our dojo.”

AS I changed into my dogi, I was given a pair of tabi to wear. Tabi are a type of booty--or sock--that has a separate pocket for your four smaller toes and one for your big toe, like mittens for your feet. Sensei explained, “There are three reasons we wear tabi: first, to keep the dojo clean; second, to protect our feet; third, because tabi are slippery. If you learn to do a technique wearing these slippery tabi, then it will be that much easier to do a technique if you are attacked on the street. Someone on the street isn’t going to stop and wait for you to take off your shoes before they attack. Fourth…. Is there a forth reason? I guess there are only three reasons we wear tabi.”

Sensei asked me to demonstrate some of the techniques I had studied in the United States. The twenty-one black belt techniques (Soudan waza) are similar in form and intent with only a few slight name differences. What is referred to as “te-kagame” (hand mirror) in Hakkodenshinryu jujitsu is referred to as “kotogaishi” in Kokodo jujitsu. Where Kokodo jujitsu differs from Hakkodenshinryu jujitsu is where many of the martial arts differ from Japan to the United States: the amount of force used.
I am by no means an expert in Hakkodenshinryu jujitsu. I have practiced for a short time and, although my sensei was very impressed with the speed at which I picked up the techniques, I will be the first to admit I am a mere beginner. This being said, I found it interesting that Kokodo jujitsu relied much less on pain than did the Hakkodenshinryu style. Te-kagame—or kotogaishi, for example, involved driving an opponent’s elbow into their own stomach while applying a tight wrist lock in Hakkodenshinryu jujitsu. In Kokodo jujitsu, however, the lock is equally disabling but there is very little pain. There were many other interesting differences in the application of wrist locks and especially in the emphasis on movements from the hip; something Americans seem to struggle with. I will save some of these discussions for later posts, but one thing wanted to report was on Irie Sensei’s explanation for how one uses the middle, ring and pinky fingers to grip. The pinky finger, Sensei explained, is connected with the heart. Gripping with the pinky finger will increase the strength of the heart. The pointer finger, however, is much weaker. Sensei explained that gripping with the pointer finger, which is directly connected with the bowels, will lead to heavy bowels and slow movements.

In the west we are taught that the middle, ring and pinky finger fall on a line with tendons in the lower arm and are, therefore, stronger. It was interesting to hear this alternative explanation for a man who practices so many eastern style of medicine.

Unfortunately, the four hour trip to Omiya makes for a long day, especially if I intend to return home in the evening. I don’t know how often I will be able to attend classes in Saitama, but I look forward to visiting Irie Sensei’s dojo again in the near future.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Kashiwazaki Sensei's First Lesson

Our first formal class with Kashiwazaki Sensei began with a simple question:
“Why, when you sit seiza [kneeling], do you lower your left leg first and then your right?”

In an effort to demonstrate our knowledge of Japanese customs and their history, each one of us said in turn, “Because the Samurai carried their sword on the left side of the body.”

“Interesting,” Kashiwazaki Sensei replied. “Before World War II people went down to their right knee first and then their left when sitting seiza. So…. It can’t be related to the sword.”

As we bowed to begin class, Kashiwazaki Sensei posed us a second question, “Why do you bow?”
“Out of respect,” we replied.

“Yes, but why. Why is bowing a sign of respect?”

Sensei went on to ask us how monkeys, dogs, and even ships greet one another. In the case of monkeys, they show their rear ends. Dogs, as most everyone has seen, will allow other dogs to sniff their asses. Ships, in previous centuries, would fire an unloaded cannon as a form of salute.

“Why do you shake hands in America?” Sensei then asked me.
“To demonstrate that we have no weapon,” I replied.

“Yes,” Kashiwazaki Sensei said. “In all these cases, we are showing our weakness. I give you my hand to show you I carry no weapon. Ships fired an empty cannon to demonstrate they were not armed. Monkeys, Dogs, and other animals put forth their most vulnerable areas. Likewise, in Japan, we bow to expose our weakest point…. Our necks.”

Kashiwazaki Sensei explained that there are three reasons we bow in Judo. We first bow as we enter the dojo. This is a sign of respect toward the spirit or, one might think, God of the dojo. In the Shinto religion there are millions upon millions of gods that exist in the world around us. We bow to do honor to that energy that inhabits the dojo. (I like to think of it as “Tatami-sama”)
When we bow to our opponent before a match it is *not* a sign of respect; rather, bowing helps us bring our mind and body under control. When we finish sparring, then we bow to our opponent to show our gratitude and respect for training with us.

The purpose of Kashiwazaki Sensei’s lesson was two-fold. It is our responsibility to carry on these traditions and teach them in our home countries. Few people in America know the true reasons behind the actions they perform in a dojo. The second reason we were challenged mentally—and not physically--is because an action without reason is useless. We must always question. Why? Why why why? Why do we bow? Why do we sit seiza? Why is haraigoshi [sweeping hip throw] done this way and not another? Kashiwazaki Sensei touched upon a lesson that is very important in Budo and one that I believe is often forgotten: the mind plays a role equal to that of the body.

To return to our first question: why do you lower your left knee first when sitting seiza? Well, the answer is remarkably simple. Someone decided to make it the custom. During the 20th century—especially after the two World Wars—many countries created customs to help begin a new age. Tradition is important and it helps create unity amongst people.
It was also interesting to learn about the origins behind seiza or the kneeling style of sitting that is so common in the martial arts. Japanese only began sitting seiza since the development of woven bamboo mats [tatami]. Before the turn of the 18th century, floors were hard stone or dirt, impossible to kneel on for long periods of time. When tatami mats became popular, however, people sat in seiza to prevent their dirty feet from touching the clean floor. Furthermore, the ruling class in Japan realized it was much more difficult for a subject to jump up and stab them if they were seated in a kneeling position and wearing restrictive clothing or armor.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Can Niko Come Out to Play?

The day after I spoke with Kashiwazaki Sensei about my difficulties in finding sparring partners, I once again took my chances at the men’s dojo. As the seventh round of randori finished and I was considering taking up kendo for the pure pleasure of thwacking Japanese people with a wooden stick, one of the first year students finally approached me. Two or three of the first and second year students will regularly spar with me… but that is usually the extent of my training.

The six-minute round ended and thus concluded the first half of practice. The colored belts—which I have referred to as sashes for ease of communication—were then passed to a new group of Judo players. A person wearing one of the sashes is referred to as a motodachi [もとだち]. This person spars every round for a set period; in the case of our dojo it is eight rounds. The first set of motodachi consist in the third and forth year sempai and, during a brief pause after the eighth round finishes, they will pass their belts on to a group of kouhai.
As the second set of eight randori began, I was delighted to find one of my other first year friends wanted to spar. Two rounds of randori in a row? Today must be my lucky day.

I finished sparring and, as I returned to stand with the other foreigners, my roommate excitedly exclaimed, “Nick, one of the guys just asked if you can play every round! I told him “Of course!”” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a Japanese Judoka was tugging at my sleeve and saying “Onegaishimasu [please]”

Suddenly, I was being passed from person to person without a break. I held my own throw-for-throw during the first four rounds, but as the opponents became tougher and I started to get tired, it became more of a stand-up fall-down game. I smiled through every minute, jumping to my feet and exclaiming “Onegaishimasu!” as each new person asked, “Dekimasuka [can you?]” There was no way I would ask for a break. After a month of extended breaks, I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to spar.

In total, I fought nine rounds of randori that first day. The following day I fought six rounds and the third day only five. Then came Golden Week—a week of holidays in Japan—and a University from Kyoto came to practice with our dojo. The foreign judoka were once again forgotten and I began to worry that things would go back to the way they had been. But now the semester has begun and I have been happy to find that, at least for the second round of motodachi, I have a steady stream of partners.

I do not know if the change was brought about by something Kashiwazaki Sensei might have said to the sensei leading practice… or if the students have just started to come around of their own volition. It’s also possible that the “helpers” I was assigned the first week of April have finally started “helping”. Whatever the case may be, I’m happy to finally have some chance to do what I came here to do…. Judo.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

International Community

The most amazing thing about training in Japan is the extensive international community that exists here. AS I mentioned in a previous post: the martial arts in Japan are not inherently better than in other countries. Sensei are not better by virtue of being Japanese and, often times, the traditional teaching style is difficult for foreign students. Japan, however, is the world epicenter for the martial arts; it’s a gathering point where people come to share their knowledge and energy.

In the two years I’ve lived in Japan, I have had the opportunity to meet and train with an interesting variety of Budoka from around the world. In Kitakyushu, my mentor, Lyn Jehu, was a Welshman—NOT ENGLISH—who currently holds a ni-dan in Shotokan Karate, a san-dan in Shito-Ryu Karate and a san-dan in Goju-Ryu Karate. WE often practiced boxing and various striking and kicking drills in the park… much to the amusement of my middle school students who lived nearby.
Through Lyn, I was later introduced to the finest swordsman in all of France—or so I’ve heard—who also happened to be one of the finest Aikidoka I have ever met. Unfortunately, we did not meet until the end of my stay in Kitakyushu, but the two hour training session we shared before I left was better than six months of any normal training.

During the three months I spent at the
I was privileged enough to meet the Venezuelan Paraolympic team. This was my first chance to train with other blind judoka and I am not at all ashamed to say they kicked my ass squarely and soundly. I am proud to say the person who has most thoroughly tossed me around a judo mat was a blind man called Junior. I took the opportunity to arrive early one day and chatted with the team for a couple hours before training. Junior practices Judo full time; in Venezuela, he trains twice a day six days a week. Thanks to the governments strong support of the Paralympics, He has traveled around the world and, for the second time, taken three weeks to train in Tokyo.

Besides training with German, Russian, French and Egyptian national champions, I had wonderful opportunities to spar with sensei from Israel and Barbados. Every day brought new players from new places. One Italian Pilot chose to work flights to Narita so he could train at the Kodokan in his rest period.

Of course my discussion on the international community could not be complete without mentioning the budoka at the International Budo University. The judoka include three Americans from very different backgrounds, one Chinese man and one Peruvian. France, Holland, Turkey, Finland, Mexico, Korea and Chile are all represented by the Kendo members training In Katsuura. We are as mixed as the countries we represent, but we all share our passion for the martial arts.

Perhaps it is because we all share the common trait of being outsiders in this country… or perhaps it is simply our desire to improve ourselves and those around us, but the international community in Japan is one of the most supportive networks I have ever seen. I do not wish to undercut the amazing Japanese budoka I have also met and I hope to be posting frequently about the fantastic sensei at the Budo Daigaku when classes begin. I just wanted to take a moment during Golden Week while nothing is happening to remember the many foreigners I have met here in Japan.