011 Training in Japan Part 7 – Kicking

I have jumped around a bit with the chronology of the Podcasts series for a good reason – preventing listener boredom!

So today I’m going to talk again a bit more about training in Japan and what training actually consisted off in Higaonna Sensei’s Yoyogi Dojo in 1973 and relate and share to a rather ‘never to be forgotten’ night of training with Higaonna Sensei one evening! 

I was getting used to life in Japan by now – the diet, customs, sitting cross legged and getting used to the little kids close to where I stayed calling out ‘Henna Gaijin’ – which means funny or weird westerner every time they saw me walking past to the station to go to the Dojo!

You will recall from previous episodes that I touched here and there on the training we were doing in the different classes – I mentioned the warming up or Junbi Undo, the occasional running through the streets of Tokyo, Makiwara training and Kihon and Kata training.

In the classes, which were between one and a half hour and two hours long – I cannot remember exactly which was which – maybe Sensei Kokubo would be able to shed more light on that – the training pretty much varied from class to class and there was never a chance to get bored with Higaonna Sensei!

All classes started with the Junbi Undo, which by the way, was nowhere structured as it is today, it pretty much differed from individual to individual, no apparent standardised format or structure or system with the different presenters, which were usually Brown Belts but also Black Belts  such as the Uchi Deshi, Kokubo Sensei, each one having his particular fancy – some would just do loads of calisthenics, another would fancy abdominals so we would literally do tons of different sit-ups.

Another one would like squats and we would do tons of that – Bunny hops were a favorite all around and the fact that Gaijins was not too crazy about it, made it more popular, I guess! One guy was a bit of a Yoga fundi, so we would do a lot of stretching and breathing. 

No Dr Google then, so we did many things maybe in ways that was actually not so good for the body, especially the knees, shoulders and back – the common complaint amongst Karate ka!  But there was a basic direction in the sense that we warmed the body first and then did the conditioning stuff and finished off with the breathing exercises.

This was pretty much the situation still in 1978 when I returned to Tokyo.   In 1978 the Junbi Undo was still very unrefined, and the parameters of the system were still very vague and overflowed, depending on the different presenters.

I should explain!   The standardization actually happened in 1979 in Poole when the IOGKF was established during a two-week International Gasshuku. The International Gasshukus were all two weeks in the beginning – the first week was only Black Belts and then for everybody the second week.

Higaonna Sensei took time the first or second morning in Poole to explain Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s Junbi Undo and to actually teach it to us. He would provide the guidelines so to more or less standardize the Junbi Undo in the different phases and explaining the reasons for the different phases – first, warming up and stretching starting from the toes and feet – the furthest point away from your heart, joint by joint working up to the neck and head eventually, then the conditioning or strength building phase concentrating on the main muscle groups that stabilizes the body and karate techniques and finally the breathing phase using the Palm of the hand strikes combined with Muchimi and Kimé.  As a person with a university degree in Physical Training, this is what I wanted, as it made sense and tied in with modern principles.

To make sure the format was imprinted in everyone’s memory – remember, no YouTube, and videos then – you had to remember it – we did it every morning of the Gasshuku in the same manner. An interesting point here is that the Neko Undo was called Tiger Stretching by Sensei – he explained as he went down that ‘Tiger look forward and growled (breathing out) Tiger looked Left and growled (breathing out), Tiger looked Right and growled (breathing out) then stretched back and breathed in and out suddenly!  

He emphasized that the Junbi Undo is an integral part of the Goju Ryu system, not a ‘loose standing’ warming up activity.

Back to training in Yoyogi!

Another interesting point to illustrate that things we today accept as given, such as modern gymnasiums and sports halls with beautiful floors and cloak rooms were very much non available then, was the fact that before every class, the floorboard nails in one section of the Dojo had to be knocked back in again – it was an old floor and building and the nails could pop out during classes and could cause injuries by cutting your feet, etc., so whilst the cleaning of the floor was in progress, someone would also check the nails! 

After the warming up, we would do Kihon. As I mentioned before, Higaonna Sensei loved Kihon – he was 34 years old at the time, a ball of energy, and we did loads of Kihon every session!  

Another interesting factor to be understood here, was that all the classes were conducted exclusively in Japanese – I mentioned before that Sensei spoke very little English – five words would be over exaggerating, one or two of the students understood a little bit of English, but could not speak it, so Pat had to translate to me after classes if there was something I did not understand clearly!    I made a point of trying to learn Japanese as fast as I could, especially Karate ‘language’, but when things happened fast, I had to ask Pat! 

The different Karate and other ‘slang’ words used, threw any ‘How to Speak Japanese in 10 Lessons’ or ‘Everyday Expressions in Japanese’ out the window whilst on the Dojo floor!  So you picked up the Motto Hayaku, Yukuri, Kime, Mo Ichi Do (which was mostly used as ‘Moshto), Kondo Wa, Tsuyoku, Nagai desu, Shotu, Ashi Kotai which got you through most of the basic stuff! Words Sensei used a lot which were more clear in it’s intentions, were ‘Mo Speedo’ and ‘Mo Powa’!

It was standard practice or customary to do one technique many times, Sensei would count initially and we Kiai’ed every tenth technique. Sometimes, we would go around the entire class, each one counting in succession to ten with each hand or leg – sometimes a few times around the class! Average attendance was about between fifteen and twenty, so it could become a marathon sometimes!

The day I was referring to as a ‘never to be forgotten’ session – right up there with the Makiwara story – was the last session one evening when it so happened that Higaonna Sensei looked a bit pee-ed off by some of the students not cleaning the floor and Dojo properly before class, so, after a very short Junbi Undo – cut short by him – we started the class by standing in Heiko Dachidoing Mae Geri – kicks – not the usual Zuki or punching training first!  

I tried not to look at Sensei but from the odd glimpse and from the tone of his voice whilst counting, I could see that he was a bit irritated – to put it mildly – and we kicked and kicked!  

After twenty minutes, he explained that we must kick harder and Kiai (the shout of spirit) on every kick!   By now, my legs were on auto pilot already and I thought this could be the end phase coming up!  Surprise surprise! 

We now started going around the class, everyone counting 10 with each leg and when someone messed up the count, that person had to start again from one.  

When Sensei finally said Yamé, one’s legs could not stand still! Most of the class were stumbling around a bit!  So, minus the ten-minute warming up, we kicked for an hour and forty-five, fifty minutes!   I remember us finishing off with the Fukyu Kata – just one repetition, and it probably looked like a comedy movie to an outsider with no one able to maintain directions. You went one way and your legs went the other way! 

Not many students from that class came back the next day or the next week to the Dojo!

I had trouble taking the trains home that evening!  I knew if I sat down, I would probably fall over trying to get up, so I just hung on the overhead straps, the downside to this being that my legs were complaining about carrying my weight!  Changing trains in Shinjuku Station was hell, as one had to rush between trains – the train leaving on the Keio line which I had to take, had a ten-minute window to catch and I had to go down a length of stairs and up another one, then scramble for the nearest coach.  

I had to use the rails up and down the stairs and I missed the train and it took a while before the next one!  But it was still paradise compared to when I got home to Mrs. Fukazawa and she was still awake and had prepared some food for me and I had to sit down cross-legged in Agura!

Mrs Fukazawa would wait up every night for me to come home, no matter what time, and always had something prepared for me to eat.  I felt so sorry for her, as she had to get up really early the next morning, but my Japanese was not of such a level yet that I could tell her to please go to sleep!  

One evening, as she was watching a Japanese program on TV, I got out my airmail letter and started to write home.  Remember, no internet, mobile phones, text messages, social media – just Air Mail!  A letter took about one week to South Africa by Air Mail, Surface Mail was about three to four weeks, so Air Mail was the option!  

As I placed the letter down, she immediately said something with the word Tegami (it means letter) in it and excused herself and went to bed!  The gap was there – I realized she felt that writing a letter had to be done in private, so from there on, when I came home and saw she was really tired, I just said ‘Tegami’ and she would bow and excuse herself and go to bed!

Back to Karate – the real test was actually the next two days, as my legs were so stiff – I shuffled to the station, shuffled to the Dojo, struggled to sit down anywhere, battled to do Seiza in the Dojo, felt every muscle in my legs complaining when I tried to move or kick! There were only me and Pat in the classes that day who were there the night before for the kicking marathon and off course, the fresh ones smirked at the Gaijins struggling!

The message of the whole experience was emphasizing again that we are practicing a Martial Art, not a sport or a game. A Martial Art such as traditional Karate, is a serious matter, as your life could depend on it at any time!

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Music by Basson Laubscher

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