Saturday, July 14, 2012

Off to See Santiago

From July 18th through August 28th, I will be hiking the Camino de Santiago as part of a personal and social challenge. AS a blind hiker, I am going to be asking people to help me walk from city to city each day along this 730KM journey. So the Iron Goat will truly be in his element.

If you are interested, please follow my hike at:

Which Way to Santiago

Thanks much and keep training


Saturday, June 30, 2012

3rd Law Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

I have been uncommonly lucky in the high level of teachers, sensei and training partners I have found throughout my travels both abroad and close to home. Of course, if I do not immediately have a good impression of a dojo or gym, I won’t stick around to get a bad one. After nearly ten years of training in the martial arts, you learn what to look for.

Throughout my time training in Judo and especially with the influence of Kashiwazaki Sensei at the Budo University, I have become much more comfortable with ground fighting. I think the blog entries dedicated to the Newaza Kenkyukai in Tokyo reflect my enjoyment of this physical game of chess. For that reason, I made finding a place to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a top priority when I returned to the U.S.
Unlike Judo, where ninety-five percent of a match is faught standing with a single clean throw (or sometimes several less than clean throws) determining the victor, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is faught primarily on the ground. The clean throw that can win a Judo match only counts for a couple points in a BJJ match, although it does provide for great position and control over an opponent when transitioning to the ground.

I am very happy with the great group of guys (and a couple gals, not to be overlooked) that I have found here in Grand Rapids. Tim and Jody Bernhardt are the dedicated owners of--
3rd Law Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
5258 Plainfield Ave NE
Grand Rapids, Mi 49525

Head instructor, Ryan Hyde, is a brown belt under Professor Jorge Gurgel. Coach Hyde is a talented instructor who carefully plans out the longterm structure of his classes. Unlike any other BJJ dojo where I have trained, Coach Hyde very deliberately decides what the focus of each month’s training will be. He then builds upon basic body movements to more dynamic techniques during several classes. This is an intelligent approach to teaching which helps students remember the important fundamentals and not just isolated techniques.

I believe it is the influence of Tim and Jody Bernhart, however, that set the positive example for the 3rd Law BJJ. Their enthusiastic welcome and dedication to healthy training is evident. Tim always makes sure that students are comfortable and involved in training, speaking with each new person as they enter the gym. His great sense of humor quickly demonstrates the sort of close comunity they encourage. At the end of each class, students line up to shake hands with one another and, more often then not, pull eachother in for hugs. Both Coach Hyde and Mr. Bernhart emphasize the importance of taking care of one another in the gym.
Of the three Brazilian Jiu Jitsu clubs I have experienced, 3rd Law has by far been the most professional and well organized group. There is a solid base of white and blue belts with several higher ranked instructors. Classes are offered six days a week with both day and evening sessions.

In the past week I have posted three separate entries on three separate martial arts, which might lead one to question how much I am training. Well, I have learned that training is something that never stops… ever. In any given week, I will spend between sixteen and twenty hours at the dojo. Mondays,Wednesdays and Fridays are dedicated to Aikido and Aiki-Jyujitsu, while Tuesdays and Thursdays I train BJJ. On the weekends, I often put in several hours of one-on-one training with anyone who is interested in any art, be it Judo, Aikido or Jyujitsu.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Teaching Kid's Class

Over the course of the past couple months, I have been very involved in running a children’s Aikido class. This includes teaching whenever the sensei is busy or out of town. Class sizes can vary from three to nine students ranging in age from five to thirteen.

Teaching children an art such as Aikido can be very difficult. Unlike other martial arts where the sensei can line children up and instruct them all on a strike or kick, Aikido requires partner-based training and a lot of one-on-one work with each student. I have always enjoyed teaching children, though, for the special challenge it provides. This means you not only must be flexible in your approach to teaching, but creative in your explanations. For example: teaching kotegaishi (a basic wrist bending throw) can be confusing when a younger student has never practiced a martial art before. Words like, “Grab Uke’s left hand with your right and twist toward the floor,” will be met my blank looks. Most five year olds haven’t quite gotten the hang of your right and his left. Saying, “Put both your thumbs on the back of Uke’s hand and make a butterfly (sticking fingers out straight to either side); now wrap the butterfly’s wings together around Uke’s hand,” however, can help kids picture the throw a little differently. The idea is to find a way to express the techniques, keeping in mind that your audience has an attention span of about 10 seconds.

We are very lucky in our class for the diversity of students. Several students are of the Muslim faith and, therefore, have different customs and traditions they must uphold even when in the dojo. For starters—literally—it is against the Muslim faith to bow before anyone other than God. Bowing is an integral part of dojo culture, however, as it shows both respect and humility before the sensei and other students. Even more importantly, bowing is a form of self control and discipline that is especially important to teach.
After much thought and conversations with the parents, we decided upon a compromise that would not only show respect, but also fit in with Japanese customs. When other students bow at the beginning or end of class or when stepping on and off the tatami, the Muslim students put their hands together in “Gasshou”. This is similar to a “praying hands” gesture, but does not hold religious significance within the dojo setting. It is important to understand and transmit to our students that Gasshou, as well as bowing, are symbols of respect and not religion. We maintain these traditions within the dojo because they are a part of the culture of Japan and of the martial art. To lose such symbols would be to lose a part of the art.

When I was first asked to teach the children’s class, I had a couple obvious concerns. I am blind; how will I know what the kids are actually doing? Although adults are respectful enough to pay attention and do what I tell them, children are sometimes less agreeable to instructions. But rather than worry about the possibility of children running wild, I thought about the advantages of my particular situation.
1: This was an opportunity to give the older students some responsibility. I took the student who had been training longest aside before class and explained that I could really use his help; he was a good kid and now it was up to him to help the younger students. During class, I tried to partner newer students with some of the more veteran members of similar ages. It was a chance to not only teach Aikido, but teach members to look after one another.
2: Since I can’t “see” a student as they are learning how to roll or take ukemi (fall) this was a good chance to encourage the students to verbalize and work through their ukemi step by step. In one instance, I asked a student to “teach me” how to roll. This required the student to tell me, piece by piece, how the body should be positioned. This also gave me a chance to see if any important elements of the student’s roll were missing.
3: Finally, this was a good chance to encourage other adult members of the dojo to come in and help. Sure, I’ll play that card… “I could really use the help…” but truthfully, children’s’ classes are normally avoided by adults and this was an opportunity to get some people on the tatami and training.

I was always against having children in the dojo in Japan because they were mixed in with adult classes. This is not the right environment for a child to learn Aikido and can be dangerous besides. On one occasion, a child was on the mat during an Aikido class and not paying attention to anything around him. As my partner—who was likewise oblivious to his surroundings, apparently—through me, I realized just in time that I was headed straight for the kid. I had to take a very painful fall which injured my wrist quite badly. I was not only angry at my partner, but also at the stupidity of having children mixed into an adult class with no special attention.
After teaching and helping to teach over these past two months, I’ve come to see the important difference in how a “children’s’” class is run. It’s a great opportunity to teach kids an awareness of their environment that will hopefully carry over to adulthood. It is also a chance to teach respect, responsibility, and self control. The important difference between these classes in the U.S. and those classes I attended in Japan is that these are children’s’ classes with adults who participate and not adult classes with children who participate.

*editted for correct photo*

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Green Belt Testing for Hakko Denshin Ryu

It’s been a couple weeks since my last post; some side-projects have been taking up my writing time. I will go into more detail on these other projects in a later post. Nevertheless, training continues. I have been taking on teaching responsibilities for some adult and children’s aikido classes as well as continuing Hakko-Denshin Ryu and Brazilian Jujitsu. This past Monday, I took my green-belt test in Hakko-Denshin Ryu. This would be the equivalent of a 2nd-kyu, two steps from shodan.

Hakko-Denshin Ryu Aiki-Jyujitsu has very few techniques when compared to an art such as Aikido. The ways to apply these techniques are limitless, however, and the structure for testing in Aiki-Jyujitsu emphasizes a student’s understanding of the transition and application of the “waza” or basic techniques. The testing structure for Hakko-Denshin Ryu is very well thought out. The yellow belt test consists in simply demonstrating the 21 shodan waza. The green belt test, which I recently passed, takes this one step further. In addition to demonstrating the 21 basic techniques, one must also show “Henka” or variations. The henka consist in a more “real-world” demonstration of the basic waza. An attack is chosen and, by the application of various techniques, one must control their attacker and finish by pinning, throwing or otherwise demonstrating the desired principle.
In this post, I am going to go through the green belt test by showing both “waza” (technique) and the henka (variation) that demonstrates how the waza might be applied. The green belt test is especially difficult because the person testing must show five-seven henka for each basic, shodan principle… considering that there are seven principles, these ad up to 35-49 required henka. The person testing calls out an attack, telling his Uke how to grab or strike. In this manner, the person testing has some control over the set-up and execution of the techniques. In more advanced testing, this small control is removed and an attacker can decide to attack in any way. I would like to give a special thanks to my Uke—Mike—who was testing for his yellow belt at the same time. He put up with a lot of abuse and some painful pins. He is a good sport and never complains.

Principles, Waza and Henka

1-- Hakkodori (escape)
The first principle is escape, finding any way to get free of an attacker.
Waza: HakkoZema
Henka: Various ways to escape
Things to note: regarding the waza, important things to keep in mind with hakko-zema is to keep elbows low and in-line with hips. Driving through your legs, elbows and hands makes this a much stronger push than just trying to use the shoulders. The henka shows several basic escapes, the goal being to simply free one’s self from a choke or grab.

2-- Atemi (strikes)
Seated Waza: Atemi
Standing Waza: Tachi Ate
I have only posted the two waza variations here. A henka for atemi, striking, can be any variation that finishes with a strike to the head, neck or body. Important to note here: with the standing strike, we have our feet firmly planted and twist at the hips to free one hand. The strike then goes across the side of the neck, rolling across the thick nerve bundle (tankei) which runs down from the ear.

3-- Te Kagame (hand mirror)
Waza: Te-Kagame
Henka: Variation from a roundhouse (tataku) strike
Te kagame (hand mirror) has its name from the initial hand position seen in the waza. You bring your own hand up, palm to your face, as though you were looking in an imaginary mirror. Te-kagame techniques are any in which you hold your opponent’s hand with three fingers on the meat of their thumb. In the henka, I step into a roundhouse strike and then trap uke’s arm to my chest. The pin is simply squeezing uke’s hand toward my chest while twisting the hand, thus grinding the bones of the hand and wrist together painfully.

4-- Osae Dori (straight-arm pinning art)
Waza: Uchikomi Dori
Henka: Variations on a straight-arm pin
Osae dori is a basic, straight-arm pin in which you press uke’s hand toward the elbow. In the waza, you can see a very direct circular twisting of the attacking arm to the floor. The final, standing pin involves rolling the foot over uke’s hand between the thumb and fingers, twisting the hand to the floor. The strange pose is not my attempt to look cool, but rather a precaution for keeping the balance. The henka shows a couple ways to reach a straight arm pin.

5-- Nage (throwing)
Waza: Hiki-Nage
Henka: Variations on Nage
This waza shows hiki-nage, a pulling throw. The idea is to use the rotating of the hips and pulling of the front arm to unbalance Uke. Again, waza is a demonstration of an idea: in this case, how to take balance. The henka shows two variations on throwing an opponent.

6-- Niho Nage (two direction throw)
Waza: Hamani Handachi: Yoko Katate Osae Dori
Henka: Variations on Niho-Nage
Do not let the name confuse you: this waza (Yoko Katate Osae Dori) is in fact a niho-nage pin. Strictly speaking “Osae Dori” simply means pinning art; although earlier I refer to it as a straight-arm pin for clarity. Niho-nage is any pin or throw which twists uke’s hand to the shoulder or bends his fingers backward toward the elbow. The henka shows both variations. In the first, uke’s hand is twisted to the shoulder and I pull his hand away from the neck, putting pressure on the elbow. In later variations, I bend the fingers.

7-- Otoshi (drop)
Waza: Ushiro Zeme Otoshi
Henka: Body Fulcrum Otoshi
Henka: Two More Variations
The difference between otoshi and nage—both forms of throwing—is the use of a fulcrum. Otoshi is any throw that uses a fulcrum to take uke’s balance. For the waza, it is necessary to drops one’s hips below an attackers center of gravity. You “load” Uke onto your hips. In the first henka, as Uke comes in to choke, I secure his arms and drop to the floor, creating a fulcrum from my body. In the second video, it dawned on me that the Judo “ogoshi” (major hip throw) also qualifies.

Though I passed my green belt test, I discovered that I need some work on the henka. It’s tough to “think on your feet” and learning the smooth transitions from one pin to another is something that can only be learned through repeated practice. What is encredible about Hakko Denshin Ryu, however, is the fact that you *can* easily transition from any technique to any other. As I have often stated before, this blog is not necessarily intended to teach—though if something can be learned, that is great—but I hope this gives an idea of the way in which waza (a basic demonstration of technique) can be applied to more realistic applications.

AS we often say, “there is no oops in Hakko Denshin Ryu” there is never a wrong move… just keep ahold and make Uke suffer! (thanks Uke!)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shiatsu Basic Seminar

On April 28th and 29th, the North/South American director of Hakko Denshin-Ryu Aiki-jujutsu, Souke Michael Lamonica, came to the Grand Rapid’s Kyoseikan dojo to lead a Shiatsu basic qualification course. For practitioners of Hakko Denshin-Ryu, basic certification in Shiatsu is required at the shodan level. This course, however, was open to the general public and, indeed, attracted a variety of people who do not regularly practice a martial art. This reflects positively the growing interest in alternative forms of medicine and the healthy benefits of massage.

Shiatsu (指圧), literally “finger pressure” is a style of Japanese massage that focuses on using the fingers and thumbs to apply pressure along major lines of the body. These “lines” closely follow nerve bundles which run from head to toe. By applying pressure, the shiatsu practitioner seeks to improve circulation and relieve stress in his or her… for lack of a better word, patient. In a more traditional sense, we take in energy with each breath. The Shiatsu massage follows, in a sequential order, the natural flow of this energy throughout the pathways of the body. If a patient experiences pain or tenderness, this could indicate a blockage. Blockages can be caused by stress or, in some cases, a more serious injury. The Shiatsu practitioner attempts to remove such blockages by massaging both the affected area as well as the holistic system. As Souke Lamonica explained, extreme tenderness in the bladder line, for example, might indicate a more deeply-ceded problem, such as infection, or simply that a patient is drinking too much coffee and not enough water.

In the basic course, we studied twelve of the body’s major meridian lines. Like meridians on the globe, these lines run up and down along the length of the body. Below I have listed the twelve meridians with a brief description of their locations:

--Boko-Kei (Bladder-Line): The bladder line runs along the back approximately one to two inches on either side of the spine. This line continues down the backside-center of either leg.

--Tan-Kei (Gallbladder-Line): The gallbladder line runs down the extreme outsides of the body, starting underneath the ear and running down the neck, continuing under the armpit and down the side, finally following the outside center of either leg.

--Jin-Kei (Kidney-Line): The kidney line runs up the back of the leg toward the inside of the bladder line. AS a point of reference, you can think of the kidney line as beginning between the Achilles’ tendon and the ball of the ankle on the inside of either leg.

--I-Kei (Stomach-Line): For our basic shiatsu course, the stomach line runs down the top center of either thigh. Past the knee, the stomach line continues just to the outside of the shinbone.

--Kan-Kei (Liver-Line): The liver line runs up the inside of the leg, following close to the shin. Past the knee, the liver line runs up the inside middle of the leg.

--Hi-Kei (Spleen-Line): The spleen line runs up the inside middle of the lower leg (straight up from the ball of the ankle). Past the knee, however, it crosses the liver line and runs up the leg between the liver and stomach lines.

--Daicho-Kei (Large Intestinal-Line): The large intestine line runs up the top-inside of the arm. You can think of the daicho-kei as beginning between the thumb and first finger.

--Sancho-Kei (Groin-Line): The groin line runs up the top center of the arm. You can think of the groin line as beginning with the middle finger.

--Shochu-Kei (Small Intestinal-Line): The small intestine line runs up the top-outside of the arm. You can think of it beginning between the ring and little fingers.

--Shin-Kei (Heart-Line): The heart line runs down the bottom-outside of the arm. You can think of it terminating with the ring and little fingers.

--Shinpo-Kei (Heart Area-Line): The heart area line runs down the bottom center of the arm. You can think of it as terminating with the middle finger.

--Hai-Kei (Lung-Line): The lung line runs down the bottom-inside of the arm. You can think of it as terminating with the thumb and first finger.

There are two points of difficulty I would like to explain for greater clarity. On the inside of the thigh, somewhere above the knee, the liver and spleen lines cross. Where the liver line is closer to the shin on the lower leg, it now becomes lower down and closer to mid-thigh. The spleen line, however, begins in the middle of the inner calf on the lower leg and crosses the liver line to set higher-up on the inner-thigh. At this point of crossing sets a particularly sensitive nerve bundle. A strike to this spot can be excruciatingly painful. It is also somewhat difficult, when beginning, to follow the meridians of the arm above the elbow. When following lines up from the hand, it sometimes helps to turn the patients arm slightly toward their own center when passing the elbow. This helps to expose the meridian lines which might otherwise be hidden by the bicep. Due to the way we hold our arms, it might be thought that the bicep is on the top surface of the arm. Actually, when dealing with the meridian lines, those that cross the bicep actually run to the underside of the forearm.

When beginning a shiatsu massage, we first set the spine. Because our backs bend and vertebrae become out of alignment during our daily lives, the shiatsu practitioner’s first duty is to settle the backbone straight. The patient lies flat with the face turned to one direction. The shiatsu practitioner places him or herself on the opposite side of the body from where their patient has the head turned. Then, with thumbs or fists placed one inch to either side of the spine, direct pressure is applied downward as the patient exhales. This is repeated several times down the length of the backbone. The process is repeated once more with the patient’s head turned toward the opposite direction. Now, with the fingers of one hand spread across the spine, a fist is gently dropped several times on the back of the hand. This process is repeated three times, moving from the base of the spine upward. This final “tapping” is a smaller settling of the vertebrae after the somewhat larger process of setting the spine.
After setting the spine, the Shiatsu practitioner continues by applying pressure along the various meridians. I have noted above the direction which the practitioner should move. The bladder line, for example, runs downward along the spine. Likewise, the massage must move downward. The kidney line, however, moves upward from the foot. Similarly, the massage moves upward.

There is a great deal of debate as to the health benefits of Shiatsu. All I will say regarding this topic is that shiatsu helps to relieve stress. The negative effects of stress on the body have been well documented. It is also important to note the positive emotional benefits of massage. Apart from the physical release of stress, massage creates an intimate connection between two people. Humans naturally crave physical closeness from their earliest years. Even if shiatsu does no more than provide physical closeness and a release of stresses, this is a health benefit in itself.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Souke Michael Lamonica

On August fifth, 1997, the Kokodo-Renmei (an umbrella organization for jujitsu consisting in hakko-Ryu shihans from around the world). Appointed three directors to carry on the art of Jujitsu as taught by Souke Ryuho Okuyama (1901-1987. In a gesture of unity and respect for their teacher’s memory, the North/South American and European directors agreed to call their styles Hakko Denshin-Ryu or The Heart of the Eighth Light. This past weekend, the North/South American director, Souke Michael Lamonica, visited Grand Rapids to give a shiatsu basic qualification seminar. In my next post I will concentrate on a detailed description of basic shiatsu as well as how it applies to the practice of jujitsu. First, however, I would like to dedicate a post to the story of Souke Lamonica.

I honestly find myself lacking the words adequate to describe Souke Michael Lamonica. I have met some amazing sensei throughout my travels, in both the U.S. and Japan, and Souke Lamonica deserves recognition as being among the best. Humble, humorous and, above all, an expert in the art of aiki-jujitsu, Souke Lamonica has had a life well worthy of a biography. I strive here to share some small part of his character and active life in the martial arts.

Michael Lamonica began training in the martial arts while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1950s. Beginning with Chinese Kempo and Judo, Lamonica soon met James Benko—the then head of U.S. Hakko-Ryu jujitsu—and quickly discovered the value of Jujitsu as a form of self defense. While working as a police officer in Akron Ohio, Lamonica was shot in the face. Because the gun had been knocked slightly askew at the moment of firing, the bullet entered his cheek, ricocheted off the bone, and exited through his temple. His assailant then put the gun to Lamonica’s forehead, intending that a second shot would not miss. Lamonica, however, used a variation of the jujitsu technique known as “Kanoha” to disarm and secure his attacker. Holding his attacker fast, Lamonica then marched his would-be murderer to a nearby phone where he could call for police backup.

Incredibly, Souke Lamonica returned to work after only two days of rest. As he told me jokingly, “What bothered me most was that my uniform was ruined—it was covered in blood. You see, at the time, we had to buy our own uniforms on the force.”

It was at this time that Lamonica dedicated his life to the study of Hakko-Ryu Jujitsu. It was jujitsu, after all, that saved his life. In 1975 Lamonica traveled for the first time to Japan, where he trained with the Tokyo riot police. The following year he returned and again the year after. It was in Japan where Lamonica became a trusted friend of the founder of Hakko-ryu, Shodai Ryuho Okuyama. Lamonica became the highest ranked non-oriental practitioner of Hakko-Ryu and eventually received menkyo-kaiden (literally: license and initiation, meaning a person has received the qualification of having been initiated into the deepest secrets of an art). Menkyo-kaiden is a very old, very traditional practice from before the time of “dan” rankings. The menkyo-kaiden comes in the form of hand scrolls that are passed from a master to his most trusted students.
Michael Lamonica served for twenty-one years on the Akron Police Force. He then served another fifteen years as chief of police nearer to his home in Fairlawn. Over the course of his career, Lamonica has trained with both the FBI and CIA as well as teaching an accredited personal defense course with his wife, Chris, at Akron University.

I have rarely met a Sensei who could so captivate his students. As we watched Souke casually disable our Sensei, Matt Pinard, it was encredible to see how little effort is needed when Jujitsu is practiced correctly. After the seminar, I asked Souke if I might film a short video with him. In this clip:
Souke Lamonica demonstrating seated Mune Osaidori

Pay attention to the short and small movements that create such powerful techniques. I asked Souke to demonstrate a seated technique because, especially when seated, the small movements become most readily apparent. This technique—Mune Osaidori—is part of the “shodan waza” or first degree techniques. Though this situation might not occur in a real-world situation, waza are designed to emphasize specific aspects of jujitsu. In the following clip, I am now performing the same seated waza to Souke. My apologies for the background noise—these videos were taken at the conclusion of our three-day shiatsu seminar—it is not so necessary to hear what is being said. At the end of this clip, Souke’s wife, Chris, assists me on the hand positioning for the pin. As with most techniques in Jujitsu, the pin is made stronger by a pushing and pulling movement. While I push against Souke’s knuckles—effectively bending his hand toward his own arm—I am also using my little finger on his palm to pull outward.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Three Wiseass Monkeys

Over the past few weeks, I have been writing blog entries primarily regarding my last couple months in Japan. Though I do have a few more of these tales yet to tell, I have not been idol in the meanwhile. I have continued my training here at home with renewed vigor. It is about this training, then, that I would like to devote the next three posts.

Several months ago I posted an entry about the Three Wise Monkeys. This is a famous symbol in Japan used during the Tokugawa Shogunate to represent the proper way to live: hear not, see not, and speak not. Some have given the ancient phrase a more modern interpretation: hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. In 17th century Japan, however, these were maxims by which a samurai lived his life.

This age-old symbol was given a new meaning today as I was training with my father and our Sensei, Dave Mata, at the Grand Rapids Kyoseikan dojo. Due to the fact this was a day-class, when many people are working, it was just the three of us. My father, who began training in Aikido at the age of 67—who says you can’t teach an old dog knew tricks—is legally deaf. He usually doesn’t wear his hearing aids during class for fear of damaging them. Mata Sensei, on the other hand, claims to find verbally explaining techniques to be very difficult. As for me… well, I’m just blind.

So here you have a deaf monkey, a blind monkey, and a monkey who can’t explain what he’s doing; how do they work together? After spending several minutes trying to describe his movements while taking ukemi—safely falling—Mata Sensei suggested a very intuitive strategy for the three of us. While Sensei slowly moved through a fall, he asked my father to explain, in his own words, how it looked. Does this sound simple? Try to explain, in detail, the position of your body as you climb the stairs or even move from standing to sitting in a chair. Are your hips forward or back? How is your balance distributed over your feet; is your weight forward or back? These motions, which we take for granted, are very difficult to explain when moving slowly. Sensei, who has been “learning how to fall” for over fifteen years, does it without thinking. I myself have been training in Aikido for nine years and the falls have always been something I enjoyed. My father, though, has only been training for a year. These movements are not yet ingrained so deeply in his muscle memory.

Ukemi—falling—is not a simple, once you’ve learned it you’re finished, process. AS you age and your body accrues injuries and stiffness, ukemi is something you must develop and think about. The intent of this entry, however, is not to focus on a discussion of ukemi but rather on this interesting style of teaching. I believe Mata Sensei’s casual suggestion touches upon a very important piece of teaching methodology for the blind or visually impaired. I believe it can also serve equally well for sighted people both beginners and advanced, if for a slightly different reason.
Each person “sees” the world slightly differently. I realized this in particular when visiting an art museum with two friends in Japan. Each of my friends would describe the same painting, but using completely different words. While one friend spoke of the emotions she felt while looking at the image, the other friend talked in more detail about the specific techniques used to create the image. Though each person described the same picture, for me it was as though I had viewed two separate paintings: one a moving, emotional picture while the other was more detailed and graphic. Similarly, the same technique or, in this case, ukemi described by two separate people can touch upon details that one person alone might have missed. A concrete example from today’s class occurred when my father mention the way Sensei turned his hips to keep balance while falling forward into a front ukemi. While Mata Sensei had described to me how he kept weight back and lowered his knee as close to the ground as possible before shifting forward, turning his hips was something he had done without realizing. Again, I am not trying to teach ukemi with this post. I am only discussing a strategy for teaching.
Similarly, this same process of describing a technique can apply for sighted people as well, but the other way around. Especially when first learning, talking your way through an action may help you to more fully understand what it is you are doing. If anything, it may help you become a better teacher in the long run as it helps you to continuously think about your movements. Sometimes, talking yourself through may help you find the point you are missing. It really helps to bring a more conscious awareness to the activity you are performing.

The three little monkeys finally all fell successfully off the bed and landed safely on the tatami. Mata Sensei is, in the end, a very skilled instructor. I would not return to his dojo each time I am in G.R. if I did not feel I could learn from him. Sensei is constantly seeking to become a better teacher—a better “sensei—and this is more valuable than knowing how to describe each technique in detail. It is more important because, after all, each person learns differently. Mata Sensei seeks ways to adjust his instruction for his students.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Friday and Sunday of the International Budo Seminar, time blocks were set aside for participants to train in their primary martial art. In my case, I used Friday’s session for Judo while joining the Aikido group on Sunday. In addition to these regularly scheduled blocks, the dojos remained open each evening so that people might gather and train with one-another freely. These open-mat sessions are, perhaps, the best part of the budo seminar.

The Friday Judo training was something of a disappointment. Very few Judo players from outside the International Budo University came to the seminar. Perhaps because of this, the Judo sensei neglected to make the training session instructive. Instead, it was thirty minutes of randori (sparring) and little else. The four of us Judo bekkasei were joined by eight or so Judo players from the university and a visiting sensei from Tokyo.
What frustrated me in particular about this “special training” was that the Judo players joining us from the University were regular members of our daily judo club. Despite this, these Judo players had never deigned to train with us bekkasei in the entirety of the previous year. Furthermore, these Japanese students were obviously unenthusiastic and did not train seriously.

Though I had officially signed up with Judo as my primary Budo, the sincere enthusiasm of the Aikido practitioners convinced me to join them for training on Sunday. Throughout the day on Friday and Saturday, whenever someone came up to say hi and introduce themselves to me, it was inevitably an aikidoka. Of special note were two young aikidoka—Senya from Israel and Faik from Sri Lanka—who joined me for some additional training on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Having the opportunity to train with such an international group of people is an extraordinarily valuable experience as each person brings something unique to the dojo. Senya, for example, had trained with many visually impaired people in the past. This was readily apparent in the clear way he demonstrated one variation of kokyuudousa (breath throw). Faik, on the other hand, was very energetic and paid special attention to the taking of balance. This is, of course, fundamental to the practice of Aikido, but one that some people do overlook.

At the Sunday Aikido session, I was lucky enough to spend the entire hour training with Kanazawa Sensei from the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Kanazawa Sensei is a humble man with incredibly smooth Aikido. He is well known, especially in the international community, for the respect he shows the foreign aikidoka who come to Aikikai’s main dojo in Tokyo. Interestingly, I discovered later that my own Sensei—David Mata—had also trained with Kanazawa Sensei on his trip to Japan several years ago.

The absolute highlight of the Budo Seminar, however, was the opportunity to train with a good friend from my former home in Kitakyushu: Thierry Comont. As I have mentioned in a previous entry, Thierry is an expert on the style of sword-work Miyamoto Musashi developed while living on Kyushu. It was originally Aikido that brought Thierry to Japan, though, and his Aikido is brilliant. As other friends have noted in the past, you have only to watch Thierry walk to know he is a martial artist of the truest sense. His movements are self-assured and controlled; he is humble and polite to a fault.
Thierry and I got together to train on Saturday evening after dinner. Within only a short time, we gathered a small audience of interested spectators. Thierry pays particular attention to small details. AS he has told me in the past, "I want people to see you and be impressed; you must be ready at all times and never let down your guard."

This is precisely how Thierry trains. In every moment he is prepared; when he comes up from a roll, he is immediately in position and ready in case someone might attack. Similarly, Thierry pushes you to be in complete control of your own Aikido at all times. If there is ever a moment when he feels he can escape from a technique, he will fight free. In my opinion, this is exactly how Aikido should be practiced. Because it is a gentle art, people too often underestimate the real power behind the movements of Aikido. Perhaps this is because there are so many people who have lost the real sense of Aikido while training. The moment a partner begins to resist a technique you can start to feel whether you truly have control… or if you are just using muscle.

The International Seminar on Budo Culture is one of the great reasons people travel to Japan to do martial arts. Ironically, it is not the Japanese Sensei themselves who attract participants to the seminar, but rather it is the chance to train with so many people from so many places. As I have stated before; the benefit of living and training in Japan does not come from the Japanese Sensei alone. Of course, Sensei like Kanazawa Sensei are gifted instructors who have devoted their lives to Budo. The real benefit of living and training in Japan comes from the fact that Japan is the international hub for the martial arts. When people think about Karate, Judo, Aikido or Kendo, their minds immediately turn toward the land of the rising sun.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The 24th anual International Seminar on Budo Culture

This past March, I was excited to attend the 24th annual International Seminar of Budo Culture. For those of us—shall we say “fascinated”—by the martial arts, this is an opportunity to meet and train with like-minded people from around the world. Every year, the International Budo University, in conjunction with the Nippon Budokan, hosts this seminar on budo culture and practice in Katsuura. From March 9th to the 12th, over a hundred foreigners met in Katsuura for the four day seminar. This year’s topic was the introduction of the martial arts in Japan’s school curriculum.

The International Seminar on Budo Culture is open to foreign residents of Japan who hold at least a shodan in some modern Budo art. Over the course of the four day seminar, participants have the chance to train with some of the world’s leading sensei in their chosen Budo. In addition, participants are encouraged to try styles of Budo they may never have experienced. When not training, participants attend a series of lectures on Budo history and modern practice. Because martial arts will become a requirement in middle school physical education this year, many lectures focused on the values of budo education. Other speakers addressed worries about preserving the principals of budo while teaching such short units in a middle school gymnasium.
For the majority of us, however, the lectures were somewhat counterpoint to our real purpose for attending the seminar: the chance to surround ourselves by other people who have dedicated their lives to the practice of Budo. It is sometimes hard to convey to a non-initiate the importance that Judo, Karate, kendo or one of the other martial arts plays in our lives. At this seminar, though, we all understood one-another.

Having grown up in Michigan, where you can tell the season by the type of hunting friends and family are engaging in, I learned to shoot bow and wander around in the woods with my father from a very young age. I therefore couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try out “Kyudo” or the Japanese style of archery. I was a little curious to see how the Japanese sensei would react to a visually impaired man picking up a bow and asking to shoot, but I was with a good group of friends who I knew wouldn’t even blink. To my great pleasure, the Sensei was delighted to have me.

Kyudo is practiced with the Japanese style of longbow or “yumi”. This bow, typically made from bamboo, is unique for its asymmetric shape. Tall—over two-meters when strung—the bow has two-thirds of its length above the grip and one-third of its length below. The longer, gentler curved top helps for distance when shooting while the shorter, more sharply curved bottom provides for greater power. Japanese arrows or “ya” are likewise bamboo and very long to accommodate the wide draw on the bow. Unlike western bows, in which the arrow rests on top of the grip on the inside between the bow and archer, the ya rests on the archer’s thumb on the outside of the yumi. Even drawing a Japanese longbow is different from a western style bow. A special, hard glove or “yugake” is worn to protect the hand. The first two fingers wrap around the bowstring and tuck into the pocket of the thumb. To release, the two fingers spring open as the hand is pulled back.
Ironically, hitting the target is not as important in Japanese archery as in western archery. Some would say, in fact, that hitting the target is a pleasing side effect of beautiful Kyudo. Kyudo is often linked with Japanese Zen and, therefore, is a meditative art. The aesthetic and focused procedure, correctly breathing, raising and drawing the bow is most fundamental to modern interpretations of this art. So why not give a blind man a bow and arrow?

The Kyudo sensei who taught our introductory seminar was excited to teach me the “way of the bow”. So much so, he asked me to please come again on the following day. I had already signed up for an introductory class on Sumo, however, and could not make it back for a second Kyudo lesson. When I spoke to the Kyudo sensei over breakfast our final morning at the seminar, he expressed disappointment that I did not make it for a second Kyudo lesson. He had, in fact, went and bought a beeper to place on the target so I could aim. I was honestly touched by his sincere and genuine interest in making the art more accessible to me.

As I mentioned above, the reason I could not attend a second Kyudo lesson is the fact I was learning some Sumo. As most people know, Sumo is the quintessential Japanese sport. Though we call it “Sumo wrestling” in English, it is much more a game of momentum and balance than is wrestling. Sumo “wrestlers” seek to unbalance their opponent using their great strength and weight. This is achieved by side-stepping an opponent, by dropping one’s center of gravity below their opponent or by using a technique to gain the upper hand. A sumo wrestler wins a match by pushing his opponent outside the “dohyo” (ring) or by forcing an opponent to touch the ground with something other than the souls of his feet.
In our short, introductory Sumo lesson we were taught some of the basic stretches and exercises Sumo wrestlers perform every day. The famous sumo stomp—called “shiko”—involves balancing on one leg while lifting the other leg sideways as high as possible. This position is then held for several seconds before dropping back to the floor and lifting the opposite leg. Shiko, we were told, is generally performed up to three-hundred times before a sumo practice and another two-hundred times after. Incredibly, we watched two sumo wrestlers perform “matawari”, in which the sumo wrestlers basically did the splits until they were completely seated on the ground and then slowly bent forward to lay their torsos and faces flat.
After stretching and a few other basic technique drills, we each got to enter in the ring with a sumo wrestler. Though the matches only lasted about 10 seconds, it was encredible to feel the sheer power behind the professionals. Not to speak overly much of my personal life here… but that sumo wrestler had the biggest pair of tits I have ever felt…. Ever. Absolutely. Encredible. Disturbing.

In my next entry, I will talk more about the Judo and Aikido training I did while at the budo seminar. There were some great people around, especially for Aikido, and I want to dedicate an entire entry to them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reviewing the Budo Specialization course; Part II

In this second review of the Budo Specialization Course of the Kokusai Budo Daigaku, I am going to look at the Japanese classes as well as the lifestyle in the dormitory and city of Katsuura. Finally, I will give my overall opinion on the course.

Japanese Classes:
Bekkasei are required to attend Japanese language classes apart from their regular Budo training. These classes are generally held twice a day from Monday to Thursday, the exact period varying depending upon the schedule of Judo and Kendo classes. Topics range from Japanese grammar and conversation to culture and history.

In a course that is fraught with weakness, the Japanese language classes emphasize the shortcomings in the Budo Specialization Course of the International Budo University. The problem lies in a complete lack of organization; the course has neither a syllabus nor a coherent structure. The primary sensei follows no textbook, nor does she set forth objectives. Though both the primary and secondary sensei are wonderfully kind individuals, they fail to maintain any authority in the classroom. Furthermore, classes do not relate constructively, building upon what has already been taught. Instead, each class consists in unrelated material. This is the danger of teaching without a syllabus.
Bekkasei are required to take these Japanese classes, regardless of their relative abilities in the language. For this reason, both students with very high and very low levels are mixed together. Inevitably, someone will get board. When bekkasei with a sufficiently high level of Japanese asked to take regular university classes, they were refused. The reason being: Bekkasei are required to take the “Bekkasei” Japanese class.
It is difficult to adequately “review” the Japanese language course without seeming to directly insult the sensei. Unfortunately, the criticisms I put forth here have been made by years of bekkasei before me. Though people have expressed their dissatisfaction for over a decade, nothing has changed. The sensei themselves are very nice, but perhaps also somewhat lazy as regards the classes. In the end, however, a sensei has a responsibility to teach. Being friendly or kind does not forgive failure in one’s work.

The dormitory:
Bekkasei are offered a place in the Kokusai Koryu Kaikan, or International Exchange Hall. For 15,000yenn (roughly $150-$170) a month, bekkasei live in a relatively spacious room with access to internet (in the downstairs assembly hall) free laundry and a public kitchen. Each room is shared, but includes a bathroom and shower as well as heating and air-conditioning.
There are some small complaints that can be made regarding the Koryu Kaikan. There is no internet access available within dorm rooms. In order to use the free wireless, students must sit in the downstairs assembly hall. This means there is little to no privacy while speaking with one’s friends or family. Though the use of washers and dryers is free, the dryers are more often broken than not. In the winter, this means you must think carefully about when to wash your dogis.
Despite some few, small complaints, however, the Kaikan provides the most affordable way to live in Japan. Much of the Kaikan’s atmosphere depends upon the bekkasei themselves; though a cleaning staff does their best to keep the downstairs kitchen and assembly hall tidy, the bekkasei decide whether or not it remains so throughout the day.

Katsuura is located one-and-a-half hours (by local train) from Chiba City and around two-and-a-half hours from Tokyo. Though small, Katsuura attracts tourists year-round for its beaches and festivals. In the summer, people spend as much of their free time as possible on the beach. In winter, on the other hand, Katsuura becomes a very uninteresting place to be.
Possibly the greatest drawback to living in a town as small as Katsuura is the lack of variety in food. There is but one supermarket, Hayashi, which is fairly expensive. Fruit and vegetables are especially high priced. It is sometimes more affordable to shop at the “morning market” in downtown Katsuura. This is a daily market in which local farmers sell their produce starting around 6:30AM. The selection is highly variable, however, and dependent upon the season.
A more reliable option is to take shopping trips to nearby towns along the sotobu train line. Though these towns are all fairly small, each one offers something unique that the others might not.
Finding part-time work in Katsuura, at least, is fairly easy. During the summer, a number of small stores open up along the beach. There is always a need for young men and women willing to work serving in the restaurants or selling merchandize. In the winter, some of the local hotels and ryokan—inns—employ students from the university to help take care of the busy tourist season. AS a bekkasei, the student visa allows for part time work up to twenty hours a week. Since most employers are somewhat… “informal” in their records, the twenty hour limit is often overlooked. Employers do keep their own, generally accurate, accounts, however, and will pay their employees in full…. Even if the lack of book-keeping seems suspicious.

My Overall Opinions:
I do not recommend the Budo Specialization Course at the International Budo University for most people. The difficulty in finding acceptance in the dojo combined with the low quality of both Budo and Japanese classes can result in a very disappointing experience. This being said, I myself do not regret having done this course. As with all study abroad experiences, this program is “what you make of it.” I took every advantage to travel and train at several dojos in Tokyo as well as becoming involved in activities outside the university. I was also very lucky in having had a life in Japan prior to beginning this course.
In particular, my relationship with Nakajima Sensei from the Kokushikan University opened the doors for several opportunities I would not have otherwise had. The winter swimming in Kamakura as well as a trip to Nagano to a seminar on disability sports were both thanks to the intervention and invitation of Nakajima Sensei. Furthermore, I knew my way around Tokyo well enough to freely travel on the weekend. This made it possible for me to visit both the Kodokan and Newaza Kenkyukai (Newaza Research Association) on Saturdays. If one’s only idea of Japan comes from their experience in this course, then this is not a good exposure to Japanese culture. However, if a person is outgoing and willing to take trips, look for training on their own, and make an effort to learn the language, then something can be gained by attending the Budo Specialization Course.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reviewing the Budo Specialization Course; Part I

Now that the 2011-2012 Budo Specialization course at the International Budo University has finished, I would like to give my thoughts and opinions in a detailed review for anyone who might have an interest in applying to this—or some similar—martial arts program in Japan. This review will be separated into two entries looking at training and budo classes, in the first, and the Japanese classes as well as living conditions in both the dormitory and the city of Katsuura in the second.

The budo Specialization Course at the Kokusai Budo University is open to people who have an interest in training in either Judo or Kendo. Though the program’s application may give the impression that a black belt is required to attend this program, this is not the case. Five out of the thirteen “bekkasei” or special course students from this past year entered the course without a shodan. Applicants are accepted from a variety of backgrounds from countries around the world. Students have ranged in ages from as young as eighteen to members over the age of forty. No Japanese language skill is required, nor is it necessary to hold a university degree in one’s home country.

Training is divided into two parts: asageiko or asaren (morning training) and bukatsu (normal, club activity.) Morning training is held Monday-Friday beginning around 6:30AM. Bukatsu begins at 4:30PM Monday-Friday and, depending on the schedule, 9:00AM on Saturdays.
It is important to understand that training at a university club—the sort of training one will experience at the Budo University—is very different from the sort of training one might expect when imagining Japan. This is a problem that many, more mature Japanese Sensei are noticing as an increasing number of foreigners come to Japan to practice the martial arts. In Japan, Judo and Kendo are as much “sport” as they are “budo” or “martial art”. AS a result, training at the university level is somewhat cut-throat.

What does this mean for you as a foreigner? Well, if you are weak in your chosen martial art, University students will not train with you because they will not feel they can improve. If you are very strong, however, Japanese students might refuse to train with you for fear of losing against a foreigner. Japan is a famously exclusive country and, when you consider the fact you are training with young men and women, ego plays a large roll. The situation is made yet more complicated due to the fact that not everyone can train simultaneously; there just isn’t enough room in the dojo.

What can you do, then? The best way to deal with this complicated training situation is to show your willingness to work hard. Unfortunately, most Japanese university students will either like you… or not. This has little to do with you, personally, and more to do with how they feel about foreigners in general. By working hard, however, you will win the respect of both the sensei and those Japanese students who are disposed to like a foreigner. Respect, in Japan, is everything. If you can become friends with even one university student, it will help to open the door to a better training environment.

Regarding Judo, there are major differences between the men’s and women’s training. This is a result of the methodology and mentality of the sensei. Regarding the men, morning training is important as a symbolic gesture of your willingness to wake up early. Some people will run while others lift weights. The sensei themselves only show up, bow, and go back home to bed. Though people will tell you asageiko is “very important,” the truth is that very little changed when the bekkasei stopped showing up. No one really seemed to notice. It is much more important to show up regularly to the afternoon Judo bukatsu. For women, however, this is very different. The women’s morning training is very important and extremely difficult. The sensei actually run with the women and drive them to work harder. Bukatsu is equally tough and equally important; the women train hard all the time.

In kendo, on the other hand, morning training is one of the best opportunities to improve your technique. Asageiko consists in “suburi” or basic striking practice. Several kendo bekkasei made it clear that, if you are going to skip one or the other, the afternoon bukatsu is less valuable as far as development goes. In Kendo, as with Judo, it is difficult to find a chance to spar with the stronger players. You can spend 40 minutes waiting in line only to lose in a thirty second round of sparring. Unlike with Judo, however, the Kendo sensei will actually train with the university students and, as I have heard, will pay attention to the bekkasei. This is a golden opportunity for training with sensei who are ranked some of the top in the world.

Budo Classes:
Classes are held from 9:10AM to 4:20PM Monday through Friday in four, 80 minute blocks. Budo classes focus on aspects of one’s chosen martial art. Topics include basic training, referee qualification, “Kata” (form classes) and “theory and practice” classes. Bekkasei also have the opportunity to try the martial art which they are not specializing in. For Kendo students, practicing Judo is relatively easy as it only requires a dogi. For Judo students, however, the basic Kendo class requires a full set of armor and may result a little more difficult. In addition, Iaido—a sword drawing and striking art—is also offered to all bekkasei.

Kata Classes
The majority of the bekkasei classes are “form” classes. Kata is a choreographed pattern of movements or techniques designed to demonstrate some aspect of a martial art. (Though the term “Kata” is also used in non-budo arts such as tea ceremony.) For example, the “Katame-no-Kata” or “grappling Kata” includes fifteen techniques used in newaza.
As a Judo bekkasei, you are required to take six kata classes. These include: Nage-no-kata, Katame-no-kata, Kime-no-Kata, Kishiki-no-Kata, Ju-no-kata and the Goshin Jitsu-no-Kata. Depending on the sensei, these classes are either brilliant and informative or a waist of time. Kashiwazaki Sensei, the current director of the Bekkasei Program and a fantastic sensei, teaches both the Nage and Katame-no-Kata classes while including information on both the history and modern usage of the kata. Other sensei, however, would simply play a video of the kata and maybe correct students while they practiced. To be honest, traveling to Japan to watch Kata video—all of which is freely available on youtube—is something of a disappointment.

The theory and practice classes were, again, highly dependent upon the sensei. Miakoshi Sensei, a seventh degree black belt and a very funny man, showed us variations on several techniques throughout his class. Furthermore, he encouraged us to fight from our weaker side—left, if we were right-handed—because he felt it was important to familiarize ourselves with fighting styles opponents might use. Kashiwazaki Sensei, on the other hand, encouraged us to make an instructional video in order that we might think more deeply on our own Judo. Unfortunately, other sensei just showed videos.

The classes, overall, were somewhat of a disappointment for Judo. Traveling to Japan only to learn Kata, which can be learned on the internet, was not what any of us had expected. The Basic and Theory classes were hit or miss, depending partly on the sensei and partly on the attitude of the students. The best one can do is take what is offered, when it is offered, and make the best of the rest.

In my next post I will continue with a review of the Japanese classes, the life in Katsuura and my final opinions on the Bekkasei course.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


March 17th marked the official end of the 2011/2012 Budo Specialization Course at the International Budo University. This day coincided with the University’s regular graduation ceremony, in which the bekkasei (us scholarship students) were also recognized.

Three weeks prior to graduation, I received a summons from the university’s international office. I have to admit that I was a little nervous. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact the Japanese so frequently sound darkly grim over the phone or perhaps it is a result of my fear that all persons in authority can read my mind. As it turned out, however, the summons was simply to inform me that I had been selected by Kashiwazaki Sensei as the Bekkasei 代表 [daihyou] or representative. This meant that I would be the one student who, at graduation, walked forward to symbolically accept the diplomas for our entire group. This is actually a very clever way of speeding up what could be a very long and tedious process. One member is selected from each of the faculties as representative students. At graduation, while the entire faculty will stand up when their group is recognized, only one member walks forward to receive a diploma. Afterwards, in smaller ceremonies, each individual student receives his or her diploma.

I was also informed that on March 16th there would be a rehearsal graduation ceremony. The secretaries of the international office stressed the importance that I attend this rehearsal. I had no clue what to expect. Would I have to say anything? Make a speech? Demonstrate a Judo kata in front of four thousand people to prove my worthiness to graduate?
Nothing of the sort. In fact, on March 16th I was the only person to show up at the rehearsal other than the men who were testing the microphones and arranging the chairs. The “rehearsal” was simply to insure that I could precisely walk the five meters from my chair to the stage, bow three times, climb the three steps to the stage, bow again, receive my diploma, bow again, turn, descend the steps, turn again, bow three more times but now in reverse and walk the five meters back to my chair. (Eight bows, in case you weren’t counting)
Sound complicated? No, I didn’t think so either. But nothing, *nothing*, is simple in a Japanese ceremony. The University’s president as well as the Master of Ceremony was insistent that my movements be exact to the centimeter. They were so insistent, in fact, that they never thought to ask me my opinion on what would be the best way to remember the distance from my chair to the stage. After all, what would I know about walking around alone… it’s not like I walk around alone every day.
IN typical Japanese fashion, a large amount of tape was applied to the floor to make a yellow line which I might follow with my cane. Never mind that five-meters are about eight normal steps… we were going to tape the floor. “What about the carpet? Could he just follow the edge of the carpet?” “Yes, but how would he know where to stop and turn?“ In the end, it was decided that I would follow the edge of the carpet with my cane and a small pile of tape would be placed at the point in front of the stage where I should stop. As an added failsafe, the person seated behind me in line would be told to whisper my name if it looked likely that I careen off course and, heaven forbid, walk a step past my chair on the return.
During the majority of this discussion, I sat in my assigned seat, board and wondering when someone would ask my opinion. After I had stood up, sat down, walked five meters back and forth and climbed the steps any number of times, someone thought to question the safety of the steps… “Should he just stay on the floor?” No, I assured them, I could climb the stairs. “Oh, by the way, bow left, middle, right before you climb the stairs and right, middle, left when you’ve come down. And lower your head when you bow. And tomorrow, before graduation, please come again so we can practice one more time…”

Saturday the Seventeenth dawned rainy and cold, but the graduation ceremony went flawlessly. While I considered messing things up on purpose—falling down the stairs, walking past my chair and out of the room—I have felt Kashiwazaki Sensei’s shime-waza (choking techniques). I have no doubt that, had I messed up, he would have applied the Japanese method of “teaching by abuse”. After the ceremony we all moved into the kendo dojo where tables had been set up with some drinks and snacks. Kashiwazaki Sensei, with his characteristic sense of humor, grabbed me and said, “I was really worried you’d mess things up.” Wait… wasn’t it Kashiwazaki Sensei who chose me for this?

After mingling and saying farewell to many of the Japanese students who were also graduating, the fifteen of us Bekkasei returned to our dormitory where Kashiwazaki himself passed out our diplomas in a more intimate ceremony. We were each asked to make a small speech in Japanese and, with that… we were graduated! Done and done.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Catching UP

Over the course of the last two months, I have been a nauty nauty boy and not blogging like I should. This was primarily due to a couple trips I took as well as a lack of time to properly sort through my photos. While I always carry a camera with me, it is sometimes necessary to get a sighted friend or family member’s aid when selecting what photos to upload to the blog.

The year long course at the International Budo University has officially ended and I now find myself back Stateside. This is not to say that the Tales of the Iron Goat have ended, however. New places mean new dojos—or, in some cases, returning to old dojos—and I look forward to beginning a more serious study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as well as continuing with Daitoryu and Aikido.
Before I begin with tales from my training in Michigan, however, there are many tales from Japan left to be told. In the coming week or two I will be posting about:

-Graduation from the Kokusai Budo Daigaku
-My thoughts and opinions of the year long, budo specialization course
-more details on how to find the newaza Kenkyukai (newaza research association) in Tokyo
-the 24th annual International Budo Seminar held in Katsuura
-some farewell-training sessions at both the Kodokan and IBU
-and some cultural and historical trips we took over the last couple months.

I apologize most sincerely for the extended absence over the last two months, but please join me now as I continue my studies of budo in a few of its many forms.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Winter Swimming part II: Kamakura

5:30AM comes very early when you were drinking wine and Jinro until 11:30 the night before. Now I can say with certainty, however, that dunking your head into a bucket of cold water does, indeed, cure a hangover. AT least, jumping into a cold ocean was unpleasant enough to do the trick.

We awoke at 5:30 in the morning on January 15th in order to make the hour drive from Nakajima Sensei’s house in Setagaya to the beach in Kamakura where we would be meeting the rest of our group and “going for a dip.” Groggy and feeling slightly hung-over from too much wine, the bumpy ride in the back of Nakajima Sensei’s van made me feel ill enough that I began to look forward to a cold bath in the ocean. When we arrived in Kamakura, however, the sharp wind and 5 degree C (41 degree F) air temperature made me reconsider matters. Kashiwazaki Sensei had said the night before, with a laugh, that snow had been forecasted for Sunday. Thankfully, it seemed to be a clear morning.

After the hour’s car ride, everything seemed to happen quite suddenly. The forty-odd members of the dormitory club where Kashiwazaki Sensei and Nakajima Sensei jointly teach were already awaiting us. As we got out of his vehicle, Nakajima Sensei grabbed my arm and tucked my hand in his elbow, “Let’s go!" We started running down the sidewalk toward the beach. As we approached the sand, we took off our shoes, coats and shirts and, again taking my hand, Nakajima Sensei continued his inexorable run toward the ocean.
Not being able to see the on-coming waters, my impression was a slow-motion gallop across sand so cold it seemed dead and lifeless. The crashing waves, at first distant, began to strike closer… closer…. And, suddenly, my feet and legs were plunged into cold water that quickly rose past my waist. As the cold hit me, I stopped dead with my mouth hanging open in slight shock… allowing a wave to slap me full in the face. I spent the following several minutes spitting out salt. Having grown up in Michigan, surrounded by fresh water lakes, salt water is still something that baffles me.
The waters off the coast of Kamakura, a balmy 16 degrees C (61 degrees F) made me recall fondly the relatively comfortable swim in Katsuura from the week before. We quickly joined hands in a large circle and, as in Katsuura, each individual had to introduce themselves and say a goal for the coming year. Unfortunately, I was caught on the shallower side of the circle and the ocean waters only came up to my waist. Far from a relief, however, this just meant that I was left continuously shivering as each new wave covered me with water and the wind worked to dry it… taking my body-heat along the way.
In an effort to appear macho, the first several members of our circle made long, elaborate introductions. “I am so-called. I study such-and-such and live in the eastern wing of said-dormitory. I am going to work really hard this year to do this-and-that….” As time passed, however, and people began to get colder, their introductions began to get shorter and shorter until the last several people were nearly unintelligible. When 15 minutes had passed and our circle finally broke up, I thought, “OK, not so bad, I can handle this.” Nakajima Sensei began to back slowly toward the shore. Then, for some mysterious reason, he said, “Let’s go for a swim!” and back out we went.

The worst part about kanchuusuiei is not the swimming; it’s getting out afterwards. Though not strong, the wind was blowing steadily. AS we emerged from the water, we were huddled into a group on the sand for photos. The sand seemed to burn with the cold and, before five minutes had past, I had lost all ability to feel or even move my toes. In retrospect—sitting under a heater with all toes functional—it was totally worth the picture.

Apparently my continuous shivering and whimpering were enough to convey my growing discomfort for, as soon as the photos were finished, Nakajima Sensei's son ran to grab me a towel and my clothes. He even let me borrow his coat to wear atop my own, for which I am eternally grateful.

After a quick breakfast of gyuudon—thinly sliced beef on rice with a raw egg and onion—we drove back to Setagaya to a Japanese sento or “public bathhouse.” AS I have been in Japan for three years, I am well aware of the protocols and procedures of public bathing. Most foreigners find it a little uncomfortable, however, and the Japanese always seem eager to watch the shy foreigner. AS cold as I was, though, I didn’t hesitate to strip naked; “Let’s go mate!”
Our time in the sento was brief—only about ten minutes—but it was enough to drive the chill out of our bones. On the long train ride back to Katsuura, I began to consider the fact that the Sensei never seem to suffer as much as the rest of us. I have a theory about this: no matter how horrible or unpleasant a task may be, if you are the one forcing others to suffer, then you can endure nearly anything for the satisfaction of watching those around you squirm. If I ever have a dojo of my own, you can rest assured that I will carry on this sadistic tradition of kanchuusuiei. The thought that I am the one responsible for making everyone else cold will warm my heart to no end.

Monday, January 16, 2012


On Saturday evening I had dinner with the International Budo University’s Kashiwazaki Sensei and Kokushikan University’s Nakajima Sensei. Kokushikan University is another very well-known martial arts University here in Japan and both Sensei hold eighth degree black belts in Judo; Nakajima Sensei also carries an eighth degree black belt in Aikido. Needless to say, spending the evening with the two Sensei was quite the honor. With each such experience, I find my ability to understand Japanese improving greatly. Despite this, however, it is still a challenge to follow the conversation when two old friends—as Nakajima Sensei and Kashiwazaki Sensei most certainly are—begin drinking. The best I can do is to describe the situation as I myself understood and experienced it.

The occasion for our evening together was the annual kanchuusuiei (winter swimming) of the Tokyo dojo where Kashiwazaki Sensei and Nakajima Sensei jointly teach. The swimming was to be held the following morning, though, and as Kashiwazaki Sensei said at dinner, “Tomorrow? What’s happening tomorrow? We’re not thinking about tomorrow, we’re enjoying tonight.” So I will leave talk of early mornings and cold waters for another blog entry and focus on great food and happy company.

Nakajima Sensei took us to a small, three-star Korean restaurant near his home in Setagaya. The restaurant is somewhat famous as it has appeared on Japanese television and won the respect of Japanese food critics. The owner is an eighty-year-old Korean woman who normally prepares and serves the food by herself. On nights such as this, however, when the small room is packed full of people, another—ahem—oneechan “older sister” comes to help.
Taba, as I believe the restaurant is called, is somewhat dark and dirty in appearance. “How do I know this,” you might ask? Two reasons; first, Kashiwazaki Sensei described the place as having walls that practically shone and tables plated with gold and, when Kashiwazaki Sensei tells you the girls are wearing bikini and the floors are spotless, the girl’s probably have armor on and the floor is filthy. A second hint as to the relative cleanliness of the restaurant came in the form of garbage bags we were given upon entering. The garbage bags were for our coats… to protect them from the smoke.

We began the meal with our toriaezu-biiru “for the moment, beer,” which is a typical way of beginning any meal in Japan. A round of beer is ordered to get things started and is referred to as “toriaezu” or “For the time being” beer. After this first glass of beer was finished, however, Kashiwazaki Sensei ordered us all a round of Korean Jinro: a distilled spirit made from sweet potato and similar in flavor to vodka. The Jinro was not served in the small glass one would expect, but rather in the sort of portions you might drink cola in the United States. We were drinking the super-sized Jinro.
Our food began with a round of pickled vegetables and Korean kimchi (a spicy sort of fermented cabbage). This was followed by pig’s feet, served cold with a spicy Korean sauce. I have eaten pigs feet once before when I lived with a Colombian family in Spain and I found the gelatinous meat to be disgusting. The Korean style of preparing pig’s feet, however, is much different. The meat, while being served cold, maintains a nicer texture and the spicy sauce for dipping is delicious. Following the pig’s feet, we ate a particular cut of meat from the cow’s stomach. Though I am unsure of the name, this was also served cold and with spices.
Finally, we began with what might be considered the more typical style of Korean cuisine: the yakiniku or “Grilled meat”. In Japan, Korean restaurants are famous for having grills at each table where raw meat can be prepared. The meat is cut thinly and cooks quickly on the hot metal grill. We ate two types of grilled meat: tontoro (fatty pork from the neck or shoulder) and horumon (intestine). Believe it or not, thinly sliced and grilled cow’s intestines can be very oishii—delicious—if you just don’t think about it.

Over dinner, our conversation passed along many topics. AS the restaurant was very small and little separated us from our neighbors, sometimes conversations would spill from one table into another. One man, seated behind me, commented that my Japanese was quite impressive for a foreigner. Nakajima Sensei then proceeded to tell the neighboring table about how I had come to Japan, alone, and was practicing Judo and Aikido.
Kashiwazaki Sensei then told me about how he had doubted that a visually impaired person could ever make it at the Budo University. When Nakajima Sensei first told him that I was interested in attending the bekkasei program, he was incredulous. Nakajima Sensei assured him I would be fine, though, and Kashiwazaki Sensei decided to give me the chance. Now, he says, he doesn’t believe I have a disability. My blindness isn’t a disability; it’s just a part of who I am. In fact, Kashiwazaki Sensei continued, his receding hairline was more of a disability for him than my blindness is for me. He then grabbed my hand and ran it along the top of his head to show me his receding hairline. When I said, “Ah yes,” he hit me upside the head. “No, when the Sensei says he has a receding hairline you tell him “No Sensei,” and you tell him he’s handsome”
Throughout the evening, our conversation kept returning to one important topic: the importance of a happy life. More than once we raised our glass to “Shiawase” or “happiness”. Being with friends, drinking together, it is a part of happiness. I tend to smile when I’m utterly confused and, well, on Saturday that was all they wanted. A smile and one more person to raise a glass.

I learned many things about Japanese culture over dinner and even more over the wine afterwards. I was smacked in the head more than once for being a stupid foreigner who didn’t understand Japanese customs and, when I told Kashiwazaki Sensei that I had learned more in this one evening than in the entire year of Japanese classes, he said, “Of course, there are some things you can’t learn in a classroom. You have to learn in the…”
“Izakaya,” I provided.
“Yes,” he replied.

“It’s 飲むnication,” Nakajima Sensei explained. 飲む—read “nomu—is the word for “to drink”. What you do in the izakaya (bar) isn’t your typical communication. It’s “nomunication.” It’s the language of drinking and being with friends.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kanchuusuiei; or "Wait, I came for the Onsen"

Hypothermia is a condition in which the body’s core temperature drops below 35C/95F and prolonged exposure to cold conditions makes it impossible to replenish the heat being lost. Typical symptoms of hypothermia include shivering and mental confusion. So come along, everyone, and let’s go jump in the ocean.

The Japanese traditional kangeiko [寒稽古] or "winter training" is well known and many dojos in the U.S. and Europe hold some type of special winter class. IN Japan, kangeiko frequently consists in early morning training in a cold dojo or, in some cases, outside in the cold winter air. “Early morning” and “cold” seem to be characteristic features of kangeiko, regardless of the dojo or the martial art. In the Shishinkai dojo where I practiced judo in Kitakyushu, for example, kangeiko consisted in uchikomi and ukemi on the beach one Sunday morning in early February. At the Kodokan, kangeiko is held for a week in January and training starts at 5:30AM.
At the International Budo University and other dojos around the island of Honshu, people take part in a special form of winter training known as kanchuusuiei [寒中水泳] or “winter swimming”. At our last class with Kashiwazaki Sensei of 2011, he looked at me and said, very seriously, “Niko, Winter Swimming will be on January 10th at 4:30. January 10th, 4:30.” I took this to mean, “Niko, you will be joining us for winter swimming on January 10th at 4:30.” I roughly—and somewhat loosely—translated this for the other foreign Judoka as, “Hey, Kashiwazaki Sensei expects us all to join him for kanchuusuiei.”
So on the afternoon of January 10th, we found ourselves on the beach of Katsuura, facing the Pacific Ocean and bundled up against the cold. At 4:30 sharp, Kashiwazaki Sensei came running onto the beach, wearing his bathing suit and flip-flops and carrying a towel. With no more ceremony than to yell, “Come on” he dropped his towel and went running into the ocean. The rest of us quickly stripped to our bathing suits and followed him in…

You might argue that the 20 Degree C (68 degree F) waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Katsuura are warmer than the air. I would respond by saying, “Go try it.” There is no “getting used to the water”. I dove straight in and started swimming before I could think twice about what I was doing.
Kashiwazaki Sensei swam out to where he could no longer touch the bottom and yelled for us to join him. AS we swam to his side, he pulled out his watch and said, “We have twenty minutes.” Apparently, twenty minutes is just enough time to enjoy the water before you have to start worrying about adverse affects.
After a few minutes, the girl’s judo club arrived on the beach and came running, screaming into the water. With ten minutes left to endure, we all joined hands in a huge circle and, shivering so hard that our teeth chattered, we all shouted our new year’s resolutions. While the girls shouted such inspirational messages as, “This year I will work harder at my judo!” or “I will recover from all of my injuries this year!” I decided to pick a resolution not only honest, but one I could be sure to keep. When it was my turn I shouted, “去年より、暖房を使いたいんですよ” (More than last year, I want to use the heating). Only because I am a foreigner, this got a lot of laughs.

Once we had all finished saying our new year’s resolutions and after we had chattered our way through the school’s anthem, twice, we ran toward the shore and our towels. As the wind once again hit us, we started shivering uncontrollably. My fingers were so numb that I could not feel the clothing in my hands. Combined with the lack of sight, I couldn’t tell if I was holding a shirt, jacket or towel. Kashiwazaki and the girls quickly threw on their jackets and ran toward the nearby hotel, where hot tubs and saunas awaited. My two friends and I, however, were not sure where to enter the hotel and, thusly, walked around in increasing agony for 10 minutes. Mental confusion?

Unfortunately, I was unable to get any good photos of our winter swimming experience. But no worries, I’ll have another opportunity! This coming weekend I must go again, with Kashiwazaki Sensei and joined by Kokushikan’s Nakajima Sensei, to swim in the waters off Kamakura. They tell me it’s even colder!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Christmas Gift from Sensei

This blog entry comes somewhat late due to the general busyness of the holidays and flagrant laziness of the writer in question… but it is an entry worth posting nonetheless.

For the first eight months of this course year—from April to November—only two people wore brown belts in the entire judo club of the International Budo University: myself and one other Italian bekkasei. In most western countries, a black belt is very difficult to earn regardless of the martial art. In Japan, however, most children earn their shodan while in middle school. By the time they reach university, Japanese judoka have second or third degree black belts. Shodan, after all, comes from the kanji 初段 or “beginning step”. The first degree black belt is just the first step along the path of learning a martial art.

For this reason, the two of us wearing brown belts were sometimes ignored or taken less seriously in the dojo. Why would a third-degree black belt waist their time with such a weak opponent? Of course, the color of a belt only matters to someone who has reason to question their own abilities; especially at a university club where pride comith mere moments before the fall… to make a pun.
Our sensei, however, seemed to understand the difference between western and Japanese ranking systems. Kashiwazaki Sensei, in particular, made it clear on a number of occasions that a brown belt meant little when compared to the falling standards of training in Japan. This is a topic I will touch upon at another time, but it is one that came up frequently in our courses. It was somewhat vindicating when, through a friend, I heard that Kashiwazaki Sensei had told a room full of Japanese Judo players that “the foreign brown belts” knew how to do the Judo Kata better than they did. (Kata, for those of you who don’t know, are sets of techniques intended to demonstrate basic principals of a martial art.)

When Kashiwazaki Sensei found out that I won all my fights at the ranking tournament in November, he was delighted. He immediately said, “I’m going to buy you your first black belt.” Then he paused, “No, I am going to give you one of my belts.”
I was more than a little stunned. I did not tell Kashiwazaki Sensei the results of my tournament expecting anything more than his approval and, perhaps, congratulations. It is an honor, however, for a Sensei to give his own belt to a student. This not only means that a Sensei feels that his student is deserving of the belt, but that he is willing to stake his own name on that certainty. The belt, after all, carries the Sensei’s name written clearly in Kanji.

To my knowledge, only a very small number of people have a belt from Kashiwazaki Sensei. One of these people happens to be the Italian bekkasei who, with me, began this program as a brown belt.
Wearing this belt comes with its own responsibilities and, one might say, dangers. Especially in Japan, where people can read and understand the kanji of my sensei and will, therefore, have an expectation. Kashiwazaki Sensei is one of the most famous living judo players. I have little choice, though, as Kashiwazaki Sensei made it clear that, "From now on, you will wear this belt."