005 Training in Japan Part 4

In the previous episode, I described my first two weeks in Japan, how I found a place to stay and meeting in person the greatest westerner expert on Japanese and Asian Martial Arts – Don Draeger!

Back in the Dojo, I slowly started to get into condition again, still battling with the heat and humidity, but also starting to realize the importance of hydration and nutrition. In the latter, I was privileged – Mrs Fukazawa always left me a small breakfast with eggs, seaweed, tofu and miso shiro soup before she left home at six o’clock in the morning to go school teaching – good stuff with fair protein content! 

Hydration after training was difficult – most water was not suitable for drinking everywhere and even where it was, one’s stomach bacteria needed to get used to it first – so the notorious ‘Geri’ or ‘Japan Guts’– very bad diarrhoea – would hit you if you’re not careful, so the main alternative source making sense to a 23-year-old, was Tokyo’s famous ‘Kirin Beer’ after training ….. in the small classes!!

Today, I’m going to share an experience with a bit of a deeper insight in the Martial Arts or Budo ‘Way’ with a situation around Makiwara training in my early days in Yoyogi Dojo!

Makiwara is the actual pad on the punching pole or board, but we understand that Makiwarameans the pole and pad as a unit.

t was used for striking with the fist or Seiken, back of the fist or Uraken, bottom fist or Tetsui, the palm of the open hand or Shotei, the back of the hand or Haishu and the knife hand or Shuto, used mainly for hand techniques – there was a hanging bag for kicking and a heavy bag on the floor against the wall for foot sweep -Ashi Harai, foot stomp ‘Sokuto Geri and shin conditioning training!  

There were two Makiwara in Yoyogi Dojo at the back of the Dojo and both were planted in the soil – the floorboards lifted to allow this – but you still stood on floorboards when using it. Interesting was the fact that both Makiwara posts were much higher than the average Chudan or Chest height – the explanation – Japanese were short and therefore practised against a potentially taller opponent!

Before, after and sometimes in-between classes, one or two students would be using the Makiwara and the intensity and variety of the striking and hitting would depend on the level of the student! 

‘Makiwara’ literally means ‘rolled straw’.

I was very familiar with Makiwara, as both my previous Shotokan Senseis, Kase and Shirai, used to hit the Makiwara daily whilst teaching in South Africa in 1965 and made us do it as well in special senior training.  

The Makiwara pads they had brought with them from Japan, was the actual pleated rice straw wrapped around a pad of rolled rice straw, when is mounted on a solid wooden board with some flexibility or spring. Dimensions vary, but roughly 10 cm wide, 8 cm thick and anything between 120 to 180 cm long, the top tapering down to about 1,5 cm.

The board would be secured tightly against a wall or pillar or planted in soil outside. Japanese oak (Kashi) was mainly used in Japan, we used Meranti and Philippine mahogany back home. 

I had a Makiwara planted underneath a tree at my parents’ house and used to hit it daily – I actually pleated and rolled my own Makiwara from a tough kind of grass that grows wild in our area.  

Makiwara training is relentless and can be very unforgiving! 

When one strikes it the wrong way due to lack of concentration or bad technique, it would cause blisters or simply take the skin of your knuckles, not a pleasant experience, as your knuckles would brush against everything, such as the pockets in your pants or your bed blankets at night during the time it took to heal!  

When regularly hitting the Makiwara with Seiken or fist, the skin on one’s knuckles formed callouses after some time and the thicker the callous, the harder one could hit the makiwara! 

An interesting remark here, is the shape of the callouses – if it’s big lumps protruding to the front, it means maybe not striking the Makiwara with a lot of power and Kime (focus)! If you struck the Makiwara with good powerful blows, the callouses would be flat between the two knuckles. Higaonna Sensei’s knuckles are flat in front!

A last interesting remark on the actual straw Makiwara training to which I was first introduced, was the fact that the pad was struck with Tate Zuki – vertical punch, because the turn against straw was more due to take skin of the knuckles!

So, back to Yoyogi Dojo! 

After 25 days at sea, my skin had become soft again, so I needed to start makiwara training slowly. 

I noticed Denis Martin’s knuckles being all scabs when I met him the first time in Yoyogi after arriving and when I asked him about it, the answer was something like ‘,,,you’ll see!’ After that, he and Terry left, so I did not know what wast meant – then!

The Makiwara or pad in Yoyogi Dojo was not straw – it was a very hard type of rubber, about 1cm thick!

Higaonna Sensei loved – still does -hand conditioning, and his hands were covered in callouses over his ‘Seiken’ or the two big knuckles area as well as the ‘Ura’ or back of his hands.

One evening after the last class, just before the free training, I slowly started to hit the Makiwara, planning to do about twenty punches with each hand to slowly get back into it. I stopped when Higaonna Sensei entered the floor to bow-great him.  

Sensei gave a small smile and announced to the few guys on the floor which Kata they were going to practise, turned to me and said – ‘Bakkie Makiwara!’, 100 punches with each hand rotating! – one of the seniors who spoke a little English conveyed the instruction to me as Higaonna Sensei spoke very little English – just a few words, I also sensed from his tone of voice in those two words, that it was not a request! 

So, I started punching the Makiwara, rotating hands every 100 punches. After the first 100 with each hand, and the skin of both fists already coming off slightly – first little blisters, then becoming bigger blisters and then skin coming off – I was waiting for a ‘Yamé’ or ‘Stop’ but … nothing!  So, I continued.  

The skin was now completely off on both knuckles on both hands! First, the index knuckle goes, followed by the big knuckle’s skin. 

After, I guess another 20/30 minutes, small chunks of pieces of raw flesh were actually coming off, the Makiwara itself bloody, which you from time to time  wipe clean with a rag for cleaning the floor!

I continued non-stop – it was incredibly painful, but strange enough, after a while the pain almost goes away! I guess it was obviously the endomorphins kicking in! 

When my hands were really covered in blood to the extent that I looked like a butcher, Sensei eventually called ‘Yamé’ ‘Stop!’ to the free training group and to me!   I glanced at the clock and it turned out to be a little over one hour of Makiwara punching!  The student who spoke English, looked at my hands after we finished off and said, ‘you take care for infection – must wash hands soon!’

It was absolute hell getting dressed and going to the station to return home! There was no shower at the Dojo, you either went home to wash 

or to a public Bath house, not too far from the Dojo after class! 

When I got home, my landlady, Mrs Fukazawa, made some clucking sounds in amazement and sympathy and after I had showered, which was hell using my hands – she washed my hands thoroughly again with soap and water and then put some antiseptic stuff on which burned like a blow torch – I think she understood the trend of some of the English words I used, as she gave me a puzzled, but sympathetic, look (Japanese don’t swear!) 

When I saw Denis again two days later when they returned from an interview trip, he looked at my hands, smiled and remarked ‘you got your welcome to Yoyogi Dojo then, did you!’

There’s more to the story!  

After about three weeks, one month, my hands had healed almost completely, just a small scab or two remaining. One evening, free training session, Higaonna Sensei looked at me again and said ‘ ‘Bakkie you one more time Makiwara!’  – and it all repeated itself again – skin off, pain, anti-septic, waiting for the healing!!  

I understood that Sensei was obviously testing me – to see if I was serious about my Karate and whether I had what it takes – inner strength, determination, perseverance, tenacity – above all, did I have the hunger and will to continue until I succeeded, or would I just simply take the easy way out and ‘Give Up!’!

These are some of the characteristics a serious Martial Artist needs along with humility, dedication, loyalty, trust in his Teacher – the list goes on! 

When I watch the scene from the movie ‘The Last Samurai’ where Algren – Tom Cruise – gets the daylight beaten out of him in the encounter with YOU DJI HOU Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada) in the fight scene in the rain with ‘Bokken’ or wooden katana, I understand even more Higaonna Sensei’s ‘method behind the madness’.  

Also, hitting the Makiwara for a longish period, doing hundreds of repetitions of a Kata movement or Kihon, all helps to develop the ability to self-induce the state of ‘Mushin’ or ‘No Mind’ – the open mind needed in combat to anticipate and react to any situation!

It was not the only character test that was sprung upon me during the more that five decades that Higaonna Sensei has been my Teacher!  

The ‘Good Teacher’ does not teach what the student wants to know – He teaches what the student NEEDS to Know to survive in real situations.

To this day, one of my own personal credo is ‘The Harder you Hit or pound Iron, the Purer and Harder Steel it becomes!’

2 thoughts on “005 Training in Japan Part 4”

  1. Fantastic detailed explanations about the makiwara and training on makiwara.

    Just a question:
    Makiwara is said to cause stress fractures in the knuckles and also other bones of the hand. The increased calcification is said to be unhealthy, contributing to gout, arthritis, limited mobility of the hand, etc.
    May I ask you for your views and experiences?

    1. Hallo Raoul – Thanks for the comment and yes, there is much controversy surrounding the effects of Makiwara on the hand joints, such as arthritis, and justifiable!
      To put ‘Hand Conditioning’ in perspective, 50 – 100 years ago, Karate was practised to survive the next fight, so ‘conditioning’ of the body was ‘short term’, similar to boxers, and other pugilists and some sports today! Remember also, there were probably only ,001% of the knowledge available that we have today.
      I stopped Makiwara in my early 40’s when advised I have osteoarthritis starting in my body (highly hereditary, from my mother’s side). I do not personally see more long term benefits to Makiwara training compared to bag training, but every serious Karate Ka should at one stage do Makiwara training, provided done correctly – using a softer padded sponge instead of hard unforgiving rubber, post needs to be flexible – to help the development of Kimé, ‘double Kimé’, Mushin, etc. These qualities cannot be developed on a free swinging bag – tie the bag or a hard, flexible pad down to a post or wall to develop these. Primates walk on their knuckles, so anything can be toughened up – soles of our feet, but again – personal choices. When in doubt, don’t!!

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