010 The Global Virtual Dojo

Today I would like to tell you a little bit more about my recently established Global Virtual Dojo of Traditional Karate. I would like to explain my motivation for embarking on this project, what I intend to achieve with it and basically what it is all about.As we are all very aware of, the world changed drastically and dramatically a little less than a year ago with the advent of the pandemic. 

This also affected in a major way all Karate dojos and organizations all over the world and the resulting ‘knock-on’ or ‘after-shock’ effect in the global economy is bound to have a considerable influence on the way Dojo’s are going to operate in the near and distant future. 

When the pandemic took off, global assumption was that it was temporarily and would blow over in a month or two’s time with a few countries being affected and that it would stay territorial in those few countries only. 

A few medical experts worldwide warned that it could be more serious than perceived and that it could possibly escalate, but their concerns were met with skepticism, so to speak, by most governments and individuals – the common person simply did not conceive that it could be that serious or take on a permanent flavor.  

But in a very short time it went global, affecting 90% of the countries in the world in different degrees of severity – and as we now realize, it is turning out to be one of the biggest and at the same time, deadliest in some cases, threats or disasters known to mankind over the past century. 

When different countries went into a lock down to try and to contain the virus, South Africa was one of the first. We originally went into a three week lock down which eventually was extended to 8 weeks and then extended again.   

It was a strange reality and also a bit traumatic as, all of a sudden, the global village as we knew, it ceased to exist and freedom of movement was restricted drastically.  

Dojo’s were locked down, initially not a big concern, but as the lockdown was extended and extended, many instructors suddenly found themselves without an income – and we do not receive any form of financial support or compensation from our government in this country! 

Unrestricted worldwide travel was put on hold and chaos ensued for many people – holidays were cut short, jobs were lost, families separated and on the Karate front, Gasshukus at all levels were cancelled and gradually, more and more Dojos were closed.

It was a surrealistic experience for most of us, but as the reality sunk in, we realized that we needed to continue our Dojo’s, which took years to establish!  In my language, Afrikaans, we have a saying when things get rough ‘Maak ‘n Plan!’ which means, Make a Plan

So I started – and got most of the South African Dojo’s to do the same – to use virtual technology, such as YouTube, Vimeo, but when it was evident that this is going to be a long term situation, Zoom, Skype, Google and others were utilized – quite a radical change from the traditional ‘in-Dojo’ situation in so many ways – the social aspects, the Student/Teacher relationship, the Sempai/Kohei relationship and most importantly, the Dojo ambiance of positivity.  Also, the presentations taught on Zoom was still pretty much amateurish and not tying in with my ‘in Pursuit of Excellence’ mindset!  

As an ex-schoolteacher before my full time Military career, I was pretty much aware of the shortcomings in the transfer of knowledge department with these amateurish Zoom classes.  Again, we still had it in the back of our minds that this was a temporary measure, although the new reality was starting to filter through!

For myself, it was a time of serious personal introspection because of a few very important factors:

I do realize that the road ahead of me, is considerably shorter than the one behind me, and this comes with all kinds of reality checks! 

One of the things that struck me in my life through the years, is the sadness and resulting insignificance when a prominent person in any sphere of life, overstays his or her welcome!  It is indeed a life skill in my opinion to realize when to come and much more important – when to leave!

In life skill and management training courses in the Military, one of the most dangerous scenarios presented to one when doing planning and appreciations, is the example of two old generals from the previous war, sitting and discussing the previous war in order to plan the next one!   

Nothing in future will be the same as yesterday, so you need to plan for tomorrow, using tomorrow’s possible scenarios and technology!

So, I understand it’s getting close to my time to ‘Go!’

In line with this I had already made an informal, unofficial decision to myself at the end of 2019, when I looked back on numerous trips through the year to Okinawa, USA, Europe, the UK, etc., that 2020 would probably be the last year of me travelling and teaching extensively internationally.  

The effect of travelling and flying long distances had been taking a heavy toll on my body for some time now, and although I really took great care of myself and my body, time and tide waits for no man, and it definitely gets harder with age.  I could either extend my own physical karate training a bit longer by not travelling, or I could start facing consequences which could cut short my own physical training career. 

When one does not train physically yourself, the flame starts going dimmer and dimmer, it affects one’s passion and it will definitely also affect one’s teaching and transferring knowledge credibility eventually.

Over the years I have accumulated a following of serious, likeminded persons – mostly from the countries that I visited annually, but also amongst serious practitioners from all over, including other styles and organizations.

I feel that I still have a lot of knowledge to share to up and coming Karate Ka and would really love to share that knowledge and see the results manifests in my lifetime in addition to their own Sensei’s inputs in their home Dojo’s – it should be seen as an add-on to their existing Karate experience!

So how do I go about, without physically travelling to all corners of the world to teach, to still get to my objectives of sharing my knowledge and skills and opinions with serious Karate Ka? 

As much as I hate technology – you will have noticed I am very rarely on social media – I realized that I would need to face up to this fear and become proficient in using technology otherwise, I will just be another Karate cowboy that faded into the sunset!

One of the lessons that was thumped into your head during my military days was not to try and reinvent the wheel! The wheel is there already – find out a way to use it to your advantage!  

I then considered who I would like to reach, so to speak, and I realized that 60% of Karate Ka presently in the ranks of senior Kyu to Dan grades, were Generation X and later, totally familiar and comfortable with technology, as just paging through social media and audio visual platforms will prove and, as I often do sitting at airports – look at what people are doing while waiting for their flight – 99% were either on phones, tablets or computers, so proof that this was the way to go! 

I also realized that simply presenting Zoom classes or Gasshukus, is a temporary arrangement and that a lot of the knowledge goes over the students heads because of sound problems, etc.  These classes have more of an entertainment value to keep the interest, but eventually, the serious person is looking for something more substantial that makes sense to him or her!

I would thus need a more permanent platform, accessible from anywhere in the world, at any time, where I could display my knowledge by presenting properly manufactured and constructed classes to which members could have carte blanche access to use for self-training – the difference between this and an online Zoom class being, that they can pause, rewind and replay the classes to fully understand what is being taught at a time of their own convenience and which they could plan for themselves without interferences! For this there needed to be some kind of a Library!

Generation X and later persons are a lot more inquisitive than my generation was and they want to know things and they want clear answers, so it was logical to assume that they would probably also welcome an opportunity to communicate with myself on issues or questions that they have on all Karate related matter, so it was important to establish some kind of a Community forum for this with anytime access to the discussions via the Library. 

But the most important factor was to keep intact and promote the real values and, the essence of the Martial Arts – this is difficult in an online class – one would need a more permanent platform for this.

After discussing with some of my students and with really creative and constructive inputs from my son – a very successful self-made businessman living in the USA known as the ‘Cashflow Ninja’ (google him), I decided on the Global Virtual Dojo for Traditional Karate where members will have anytime access to classes taught by me in my Dojo in a condensed form, as I explained previously, as well as having a communal forum once a month to discuss their questions and issues.

So, with the Global Virtual Dojo for Traditional Karate, I would like to leave behind a legacy of experiences, information, ideas, perceptions, opinions and history to future generations of serious Karate Ka to help them to plot their best road to pursuing their own excellence!

If you are interested in the Global Virtual Dojo, visit 


Music by Basson Laubscher

006 Training In Japan Part 5

In the previous podcast, I shared my Makiwara ‘Introduction’ to the ‘Real’ Goju Ryu Karate world of Higaonna Sensei and mentioned a few of the characteristics required to rise above just being another Karate Ka or Martial Arts practitioner! In the previous podcasts, I also mentioned my introduction to the Martial Arts icon, Don Draeger. I probably need to explain at this stage that during the few times that I was in Don Draeger’s presence and company, I learned more about the Japanese Martial Arts culture from him than from anybody else in my whole career. I recall another very prominent South African Shotokan Karate Ka, the late Sensei Nigel Jackson, making a similar remark a few years ago! There’s a popular saying in business or in any corporate and even creative type of environment that one ‘Needs to See the Big or Bigger Picture’ in order to align your own personal objectives and define your goals. Once you have the objectives and goals, you need to start searching for a road map to get there and then start to establish, formulate and adapt the methods and systems required and, most importantly, negotiate with yourself on how much time, energy and passion you are prepared to invest in this journey or personal odyssey! The ‘Road Map’, your starting point – is impossible to find without a Mentor or Teacher, and unfortunately, genuine Mentors or Teachers are becoming very scarce to find and the search for a real one is often blurred or side-tracked by selfish, egoistic self-interest and swamps of internet clutter! There’s a Chinese saying ‘He Who Speaks, Knows Not and He Who Knows, Speaks Not!’ – makes you think, doesn’t it! Another factor that complicates this search, is the commercial factor, which, on the one hand contributed largely to the expansion and preservation of the Martial Arts by allowing Teachers to practice their art as a profession and get food on the table this way instead of merely doing it part time, but on the other hand it is also a threat to true, honest, classical and traditional Martial Arts when the motive becomes financial profit at all costs, driven by intensive marketing and self promotion! Our system of Karate, Goju Ryu, literally means the ‘Hard/Soft system. It is pretty easy to understand and do the ‘Go’ or Hard part. The ‘Ju’ or Soft part is an absolute variable and totally unknown and you would only experience or witness this – if you are very fortunate – in a real ‘Master’ in the Martial Arts! The bad news is – there are just one or two of these Masters, with their roots in the ‘Old School’, left worldwide! I was very blessed to experience the ‘Bigger Picture’ on occasions, apart from experiencing Higaonna Sensei develop and transform over the years – remember, I started training with him when he was in his early thirties to the present! The first was when I was invited along with Terry and Denis by Don Draeger to visit the Jo Do Dojo – the Jo is a short staff as opposed to the Bo – the six foot staff. Don just dropped us of after the courteous introduction to one of the seniors and left. We sat down in Agura – crossed legs – at the side of the Dojo and watched some students going through sparring drills against each other. Two were really impressive with obvious speed and power in their strikes and parries, Yondans, I learned later. Trying to take my mind of my legs, which were going numb now, not yet accustomed to Agura for long periods of time, I noticed from the corner of my eye, an old man entering the Dojo, looking like maybe the cleaner person! We watched him appear from a curtained corner – the changing room – wearing a Hakama. He walked very slowly and difficultly, as one expects from a very old person, and shuffled to another corner where the Jo’s were kept. He took one out, shuffled over to the one Yondan, and mumbled something. They went into Kamae and the next moment, the Yondan attacked with full force – I was shocked at the speed and power of the attack onto this frail looking old man! But – the next moment, the old man moved, floating like a ghost out of the way of the attack and had the tip of his Jo against the young guy’s throat! I just realised instantly, that I am witnessing something that probably will only come along once in my lifetime – a real Master! The sparring went on for quite a few minutes, when they bowed and he turned to the other Yondan and the same thing – every time an attack came, he would float out of the way with absolute minimum movement and effort, either parry or avoiding the attacks and counter attacking without using any noticeable power or energy – true JU! The ‘old Man’ was none other than – Jodo Master Shimizu Takaji Sensei, this was five years before his death in 1978. An even greater bonus came about a few days later, when Terry invited me along to Narita area in Chiba prefecture (before the airport was built!), where Don Draeger lived, to meet up with him and another expert on the oriental Martial Arts, a known Budo journalist, Arthur Tansley. Don Draeger would introduce Terry O’Neill to the Terauchi family, the patriarch Terauchi Kenzo, a Master along with amongst other, the legendary Otake Rizuke in the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu – the oldest extant Bujutsu Ryu, founded in the Heian Period (794 – 1185) for an interview. I mentioned ‘introduce Terry to Terauchi Kenzo Sensei..’ I must explain: When you wanted to visit any traditional Dojo of whatever system, Karate, Judo, Aikido, Kobudo in those days, you needed an introduction from someone, almost like a sponsor – a ‘trusted’ person known to the Master or Sensei, before you were allowed to visit the Dojo – similar to Higaonna Sensei and Mrs Hasegawa introducing and ‘sponsoring’ me to Mrs Fukazawa. On another occasion, for example, I asked Higaonna Sensei if I could visit an Aikido Dojo not too far away from Yoyogi and it entailed that he first had to make a telephone call, explaining who I was and why I wanted to visit the Dojo, got permission to bring me along and then he accompanied me to the Dojo and we sat in Agura – the cross legged position – for the entire class we were watching for two hours! The trip to Chiba took a while and after a quick lunch with Don Draeger and Arthur Tansley, we continued to the house of Terauchi Kenzo Sensei. Once the introductions were completed, Terauchi Sensei showed us his family Samurai armour suit as well as his Katana (long sword) and Kodachi (short sword) all passed down for centuries of generations. Terry interviewed and Don translated and when Terauchi Sensei sensed that we were serious about Bujutsu, he instructed his son to get some stuff together! Out from everywhere – cupboards against the wall, underneath boxes in the wharehouse – came stuff! Hakama, jackets, Naginata, Bo, and Bokken! The house had a small courtyard or garden and we moved there. First, Terauchi Sensei performed an Iaido Kata with the live Katana, starting off knealing in Seiza, leaping into the air while drawing and cutting three times with the Katana, landing , spinning the blade and hitting it on the handle to shake the ‘blood of the blade’, putting the Katana back into it’s scabbard without looking or hesitating! The ‘put back’ is where many novices would cut themselves, as Iaido people would know! I saw demonstrations later through the years, but nothing that came remotely close to what I just saw!! I had goosebumps on my skin from witnessing something so ‘DIVINE’!! After finishing the Kata, we were treated to a demonstration by Terauchi Sensei, his son and Don Draeger to combinations of all the Kata Bunkai of the Ryu – Bokken against Bokken, Bokken against Naginata, Bokken Against Bo, Bo against Bo, No against Naginata. It was unbelievable to watch – some of you might recall that I posted some pictures on my Facebook page of this event – I was so overawed, I only remembered to take a few pictures towards the end of the demonstration! Again, it was shear poetry watching Terauchi Sensei in action whilst he demonstrated using the Bokken against all the other weapons without any visible effort and power, he would anticipate, move out of the way, block the attack and countered! It was almost as if he was floating on air! These two experiences are of the outstanding in my mind of the Bigger Picture of the ultimate Master level in Budo – it was pure, pristine, honest and effortless execution – the result of decades of pursuing excellence by these sincere and real people and these memories still to this day reflect in my mind daily, when I put on my Karate Gi to pursue excellence in my craft – traditional Karate!

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!’

004 Training in Japan Part 3

This is the third part describing my arrival and training in Japan. 

In the previous episode, I described my first two days in Japan!   

First, a gruelling session in the Dojo the Saturday when I arrived and then the next day – on ‘Relax Sunday’ – being taken to watch a movie in Shinjuku by Higaonna Sensei and some Dojo members. The movie – ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ – all about a disaster at sea – a ship capsizing in a freak tidal wave! This, after I spent 25 days at sea and actually experienced the power of just merely a typhoon’s outskirts!  

Little did I know then that this was not my last encounter with the might of the ocean – a much scarier experienced laid in stall in the not-so-distant future!

 Let’s continue, starting with my third day after arriving – Monday.

I trained in my first class in the afternoon session, with every single muscle in my body still aching from the Saturday session!  Luckily, Pat Telsrov was also training on Monday and he advised me on the customs and rules, do’s and don’ts in the Dojo. 

Although very friendly and helpful, I still had the feeling that Pat and the senior black belt members in the Dojo whom I were introduced to, were a bit stand-offish, but I had other things keeping me busy during those first days!

Things like – acclimatising!

It was not so much the Tokyo summer heat, but the incredible humidity!   Back home, we know heat of 30oCentigrade +, but the humidity was a new ball game!   The constant nauseous and soaking wet feeling the moment one left any air-conditioned building, was an unknown!   Later in my travels, I realised the intensifying of the heat and humidity as a result of the high buildings was par for the course in summer for most big high-rise cities worldwide!

I also could not understand why the sky was overcast daily, 24/7 – but no rain fell, just the pressing heat and humidity. I asked Pat about this and got my answer! It was not rain clouds causing the overcast, it was pollution!!  

I was taken aback – first the experience at sea, 250 km out from the Japanese coastline with all the wall-to-wall waste floating in the ocean, and now the sky? 

Coming from country three and a half times the size of Japan with abundant nature and open spaces, so pristine and clean 47 years ago as far as industrial development and waste was concerned, it was all new to me and I have to admit – scary!

It was frightening to witness rush hour point duty traffic policemen in the centre of Tokyo having to leave their little islands in the centre of an inter section every now and then to breath oxygen from a cylinder, then get back on again!  Wearing a white T-shirt or shirt was a challenge – soon after starting to move and travell outside, a black ring would form on the collar! 

The first time I actually saw blue skies in Tokyo, was when the monsoon season started, and the winds blew the pollution cloud out to wherever! 

Anyway, I also had to do my alien registration with Sensei as my sponsor to be in Japan legally, as required from all Gaijin. 

Every evening after training, Sensei escorted me back to his apartment because I was still unable to use the train system by myself and would get lost, for sure!   Then, he would return back to the Dojo to stay there. 

These night-time train rides were nerve wrecking for me at first – Sensei would fall asleep on a train the moment we sat down!  I did not know which station we needed to get off and was afraid we might overshoot our station!  I was also too wary to wake him up – In the beginning, I tried coughing really loud, but no luck!  Many times, the trains being so jam-packed full, we were not even sitting close to each other!

But … like an alarm clock he would wake up the moment we stopped at the station where we needed to get off!

By the eend of the week, Sensei explained to me that we are going to look for a place for me to stay.  

A very kind and dear elderly lady who worked in the restaurant next to the Dojo that was part of the property, Mrs Hasegawa, took me and Sensei to a friend of hers, a Mrs Fukazawa, an elderly music teacher who had an almost western style apartment with a spare room. The apartment – very small compared to back home!

After being formally introduced, Higaonna Sensei and Mrs Hasegawa explaining my motivation for being in Japan, Mrs Fukazawa agreed that I could move in – she had this small spare room – a three tatami room.   A tatami is 3 feet x 6 feet, so the room was basically 9 feet by six feet – 54 square feet in total!  

But the apartment had a shower and inside toilet, and it turned out to be paradise, as I later realised how lucky I was when seeing where other people stayed in similar sized apartments with communal toilets and neighbourhood bath houses!

Mrs Hasegawa stayed over as well the first night after Sensei had left and the three of us sat looking at each other – I spoke no Japanese, and they spoke no English – so, just foolish smiles all around and pushing little plates of food my way which I have no idea what it was – and ….. filling up my ‘small’ beer glass as soon as I took a sip!   Strange to me at first, but later this ‘never pour your own drink’ custom was explained to me – again exemplary of manners and respect for each other and other people

As time went by, I started getting a basic grip on Japanese and Mrs Fukazawa had about ten dictionaries!  By the time I left Japan, we could communicate almost fluently and was able to share so much about each other’s cultures and beliefs!

Mrs Fukazawa understood and appreciated my studying a Martial Art! She was a direct descendant of one of the famous Samurai War lords or Daimyõ, from the south of Japan – Shingin Takeda!   She herself practised the art of Naginata (halberd or spear) in high school and university. Her younger brother whom I met soon after, trained Iai-Do, loved drinking and introduced me to the well-known Kuruda Bushi song – later a trademark of Terauchi Kazuo Sensei!

Her family homestead in the Kanzai area near Mt Fuji was 350 years old – the age of my country!

I only appreciated later in my stay how absolutely blessed I was ending up with this incredible lady, who taught me so much about Japanese culture and about being a true ‘giving’ type person and I was so happy when I was able to take my wife and mother to meet and stay with her upon a return trip in 1978!

Back to the Dojo!  

I was getting into training now and trying to do two classes daily and also hung around for the ‘self’ training – Jibun de renshū  -after the last class finished at eight o’clock in the evenings.

The classes were two hours long with breaks of between 30 mins and one-hour in-between, depending on the day of the week.

Training consisted of ‘Junbi Undo’, which Higaonna Sensei usually designated to some 1st kyu Brown belt or lower Black Belt and it would seem that they enjoyed showing how many push-ups, sit-ups, squats kicks and ‘bunny jumps’ they could do to impress the Gaijin!Junbi Undo would be anything from 20 minutes to half an hour long!

Higaonna Sensei believed in Kihon or basic training and we did at least 30 minutes to one hour of basics – attacking and defensive techniques done standing and moving and then combinations. 

The level of the combinations would vary according to the level of the participants in the class – if there were more 10th to 3rd Kyu present, we would do loads of standing basics – off course, a lot in Sjiko Dachi, not a ‘favourite’ with us Gaijin, being taller and heavier and with different bone ratio in our legs, it was not easy, but after a month or two of grinding your teeth, your legs actually got a lot stronger! 

Next, we would do Kumite, ranging from one technique standing and blocking to Sanbon or three attack, standing and blocking and then using the same techniques moving, again from one attack to Sanbon Ippon and Jiyu Ippon Kumite and sometimes Randori, depending on the level of the class.   We did not do too much Randori in class – that was more for the senior free training after the last class.

After Kumite, it was Kata training, mostly taking one technique or combination from the Kata and doing it over and over ‘ Mo Ichi Do’! – Higaonna Sensei’s Trademark command!   We would sometimes split up in levels for different Kata, but mostly start with the Gekki Sai Dai Kata and as we progressed to higher Kata, juniors would be made to sit down and watch the senior levels train Kata. Higaonna Sensei is a great believer in this way of teaching  – ‘watch and learn!’

After the class, Sensei would maybe go out to eat and come back and do some one-on-one teaching or the most senior on the floor would take a few students for specific training, mostly Kata.  

It is interesting to mention at this stage that the Yoyogi Dojo Senior was the only Yondan in the Dojo – there were about two Sandan, the rest were Nidan and Shodan.  I was a Sandan at this stage.

I did have to adapt my intentions of doing two classes of two hours each plus the self-training afterwards daily, as the body simply could not maintain this.  One class plus another one or two hours of the free training would be ample!

I am very sceptical about people claiming to do six hours daily training whilst in Japan – of course – there’s training and there’s training, but doing Higaonna Sensei’s training in those days, four hours was already very demanding on the body! – He was in his early 30’s then, so you do the math!

Also, adapting to a completely alien diet, was telling on the body!   

I couldn’t understand why I felt so weak after two or three weeks, but then realised that my body was not getting the nutrition I was used to, so I started paying more attention to my eating habits and became very protein conscious – although it was expensive – from Sashimi to Yakitori, Tonkatsu, etc – it was expensive compared to a bowl of noodles.  

The first ‘Makudonarudo’ – McDonalds – were around already in those days, one close to Yoyogi Station, so it was quite a treat to eat a Hamburger and an Ichigo Mirkoshaku(Raspberry Milk Shake) now and then – again, it was not cheap compared to local stuff.

Terry O’Neill and Denis Martin returned from one of their interview trips and were also now training sporadically in the classes in between their interviews in Tokyo itself, so more English conversation for me!  

It so happened that Terry needed accommodation for about two weeks before he went back to England and Mrs Fukuzawa was so kind as to invite him to share my room for the period!  Two fairly huge Gaijun in a three-tatami room!  But it turned out to be fun.

One Friday evening during training in the last class, we were doing Jiyu (Free) Ippon Kumite training and I was working out with one of the Japanese in the class. 

The training was a single timing, ‘surprise or random’ attack with any pre-arranged technique and the defendant had to block and counterattack against it.  So, you needed to concentrate to anticipate and react. Timing was a factor, so the attack would be totally random – the idea not to signal your attack beforehand and then to catch the opponent with speed and timing before he sensed the nature of the attack.

Yoyogi Dojo had big sliding doors leading out onto the street and it was customary to find walkers-by stopping and watching training. As it was a Friday, there were quite a few spectators – my eye caught an elderly Gaijun or foreigner amongst them, but I was kind of busy defending my wicket against my opponent.  Japanese relied a lot on speed when doing any kind of Kumite training against me and this guy was no exception, so I had my hands full and my mind on 100% concentration!

As the class finished, Terry and Denis arrived, and I just saw them speaking to the foreigner gentleman as we did our Moku So and finishing of the class (the sliding doors were the Shomen or front of the Dojo).

After cleaning the floor, I went across to them, who had entered the Dojo and was speaking to Higaonna Sensei.  Terry introduced me to the gentleman I saw earlier outside  – it was the legendary Don Draeger himself!  Don Draeger, an ex US Marine from WWII, was the first foreigner ever to be registered as an instructor at the Kodukan, the headquarters of Japanese Judo and who had training Karate at the JKA Honbu Dojo when legends such as Senseis Kanazawa and Enoeda were still white belts! 

He also wrote the most encompassing series of books on Classical and Modern Budo.

While I was still busy feeling very honoured by the introduction, Don Draeger turned to face me and remarked ‘you did a very impressive workout there!’

I was speechless and he continued to explain that, while watching the class, standing amongst the locals who did not know that he spoke Japanese fluently, he overheard them commenting how big, clumsy and slow the Gaijin on the floor (me) looked and how easy my Japanese opponent would beat me with speed! 

He concluded with the words ‘..but, they soon became very quiet!’ He commented on my focus on technical correctness without relying on my superior power and size, and how I applied my power and speed very effectively for such a tall person!

Until this moment, I still regard that moment and that conversation as one of the absolute unforgettable high points or moments in my Karate career, not only because of the compliment that stroked my 23 year old ego, but because of an affirmation from this Martial Art Icon! 

It was a confirmation from a Master in the Martial Arts that I was on the correct path in what I was trying to become and achieve in Karate! 

Note! Trying to Become and Achieve! I am still daily trying on that path of ‘pursuing excellence!’

003 Training in Japan Part 2

I continue in this second episode on my stay and training Karate in Japan, from the moment when my ship I arrived in Tokyo Bay!

We docked in Kawasaki at six o’clock in the morning after a night of no sleep, because of the excitement of the arrival – floating slowly into a brightly lit Tokyo bay towards our mooring, watching the pilot coming on board and steering the ship through the channels in the bay, past Yokohama, finally watching tugboats pushing and securing us to the quay, watching the stevedores tie up the ship to the moorings – all the time having a feeling that this is a moment in time in my life that will be remembered – imprinted in my mind forever! 

I was filled with a cautious anticipation and also overwhelmed by the intensity and magnitude of life around this bay at that time of the morning!   

Compared to Cape Town port back home, everything here was so different!  

The intensity of the stevedores and other workers in the docks – so competitive and productive – caught my attention! No-one sloughing or slacking, just getting things done quickly and effectively!

I must explain at this point that back home, life pretty much came to an end around about 10 o’clock in the evenings starting up again round about 6 o’clock in the morning. 

This ‘City that Never Sleeps’ syndrome was really beyond my frame of reference! 

The only big international city I ever visited before this,  was Paris, France the year before and I was there for a very short time, so did not quite experience the 24/7 nature of it!

This was long before mobile phones and computers, so before I left South Africa, I wrote a letter to Higaonna Sensei with the details and contact number for the ship’s agents Tokyo and an estimated date of arrival.  So I was kind of anxious whether somebody was in fact going to be there to meet me!

But only about two or three hours after we docked and the cargo was being offloaded, Higaonna Sensei arrived and came on board the Sugela accompanied by Pat Telsrov, a Nidan training at YoYogi Dojo at that time.  Pat was originally from Minnesota and had finished his service in Vietnam in the US Marine Corps a few years before.

Upon introducing myself, I got the feeling that Pat regarded me a bit skeptically, and I discovered some time later why this was so!

After saying goodbye to the crew of the ship, the three of us left by taxi for Tokyo, it really felt weird walking on solid earth again!  

We went to Higaonna Sensei’s apartment where I was going to be accommodated until I found a place to stay. 

This was one of the situations where Higaonna Sensei’s unbelievable warm human side struck me – I figured out later that he had arranged that his wife would stay over with a friend and he would sleep in the Dojo, so I could stay in his apartment until I found accommodation of my own!

Higaonna Sensei’s apartment was the first of many cultural shocks to come!  So unbelievably small! 

It was the size of a mobile camper back in South Africa!  I was bumping my head on the ceiling and walking into the walls – like a gorilla in a submarine!  

In South Africa, we took space for granted, so this was the beginning of a new regard and appreciation for a lot of things I had accepted before as simply being a given!

My amazement started with the complete difference from life back home – the Tatami floor, no chairs, sitting, eating, sleeping on the tatami floor, a simple bamboo pillow or head rest – sitting with legs crossed!

 A lot of getting used to was lying ahead, not mentioning the language and food!   In South Africa, we grew up on meat – we ate loads of meat, in Cape Town, some fish, but our portions were huge! 

Little was I to know how long it would be before I ate meat again!

Sensei explained to me that he needed to go to the Dojo to teach a class – it was Saturday and there was only one class at 18:00 and that he will only be back pretty late to make me dinner.  

I asked Sensei if I could come along, just watch the class and maybe after the class, when the Dojo was free,  just do some stretching by myself to shake off my sea legs.

He agreed, so off to my next couple of newbies – the Japanese Railway and subway system and Wall to Wall people on the stations and everywhere! 

Tokyo was much smaller then -12 million inhabitants – compared to 25 million today!  But in South Africa, three times the size of Japan, the entire population of the country was 23 million!

We got to the Dojo, which was right next to a railway line.  Every time a train passed by, the whole Dojo would vibrate!  It took few weeks to get used to this!

I sat and watched the class, not a big class because of the weekend, which ended at eight o’clock. 

Higaonna Sensei left for a meeting and told me he would not be long and to wait in the Dojo. About five or six black belt students hung around on the floor and did some self training.

I got changed, bowed and started stretching a bit at the back, when one of the guys on the floor, who arrived after the previous class and had a bit of an air of authority around him, called ‘Shugyo’ ‘Line Up!’ and everyone lined up. They looked at me as well, so I also fell in! I understood that we were going to be  training senior Kata together.

I did not know how to explain that I just got off a ship after 25 days, etc. and I thought a little Kata couldn’t do any harm, all the time hoping for Sensei to come back so I could go home and get sleep!

Again I got that funny feeling that I was being regarded very skeptically – almost hostile!  

45 minutes later of doing the Kata Sepai over and over – again I got in touch with the phrase  Mo Ichi Do!’ meaning One More Time!’  – I had learned this phrase the hard way when Higaonna Sensei’s was in South Africa!

My lungs were burning by now and I was drenched in sweat in the hot humid conditions, dehydrated, as I was told not to drink any non bottled water and felt a bit like fainting, when finally the senior – Mr Yozuo Ito – the Dojo Sempai Dai or Senior – called Yame’ – Stop!

I thought ‘Thank Heavens, it’s over’ – but … surprise surprise – we started free sparring!  

I thought OK, just take it easy and try and stay on your feet, but …. my first opponent flew into me like he wanted to bury me right there!    There were no holding back in his attacks – I immediately realised that if I did not block or got out the way, my nose, ribs or groin would be gone! 

I reciprocated in kind – I could fight – after all, I did fight in the World Tournament one year before!

Let me explain at this point that Dojo sparring in the ‘old days’ was pretty much full-on under normal circumstances!  

When there was a respect or attitude issue – a junior not showing respect to a senior member, or someone not showing respect to his/her colleagues, it could get brutal!!  Ribs, noses were occasionally broken, the odd tooth knocked out and everyone wore an athletic groin protector for a reason!

Every time we changed partners now, the same happened – the new opponent would fly into me with everything he had, while I noticed they were taking it easy when going against each other.  

I was a bit surprised at their lack of street-smart – I was taller than any of them and they fought me with completely the wrong strategy by just rushing in and attacking, which made counter attacking easy. But they kept me moving constantly, which did zap my energy!

This must have gone on for at least 30 minutes – it felt like hours though – one or two more guys had also arrived in the meantime, bowed, warmed up briefly, got on the floor and started joining in – fresh!  

Meanwhile, form the corner of my eye I noticed that two westerners had also entered the Dojo and sat down in the corner and watched.  

It was an old acquaintance of mine – Terry O’Neill from England, editor of the prominent Martial Arts magazine, ‘Fighting Arts’. With him was Denis Martin and the two of them had, in fact, just arrived back from Okinawa, covering articles on Okinawan Karate for the magazine.

I by now realised that I had a maximum of five minutes left in my tank and the next time Mr Ito said Yame, I bowed and started moving towards the changing room area.

But just then, a person appeared in front of me coming through the little curtain that covered the entrance to the changing room with an insignia  or logo on his Karate Gi that I did not know – I bowed to greet him, but he bowed and got his hands up for sparring! 

I thought, ok a couple more minutes!  The next moment he let fly with a spinning back kick to my groin area, and although I saw it coming, my body was too tired to get out of the way completely – he caught me just above the pubic bone, full blast, I was  moving sideways, so the kick was deflected to an extend, but I thought, that’s it – I won’t survive this for the next five minutes or so, and flew into him with everything I had!

I remember using the exact same spinning back-kick to his stomach and knocked him down (it was one of my best techniques in those days and I could do it deceptively fast for my size and ‘slow’ appearance!)  I then grabbed him as he stumbled up and ended up by pushing him against – almost inserting him into –  one of the shoe racks in the side of the Dojo. 

I stepped back, bowed to him, said ‘Thank You’ bowed to the Sempai Dai and Dojo and got off the floor into the changing area, feeling like getting sick any moment!

Just them Terry O’Neill came in to greet me and said in his Liverpool accent ‘Congratulations Bakkus, you just f’ed up the All Japan Shito Ryu Champion!’  

It turns out that this guy had won this major Style title two weeks before in a tournament in Tokyo!

i should explain that a lot of students from other styles trained at YoYogi Dojo in those days because they held Higaonna Sensei in such high regard and they enjoyed the no-nonsense, traditional type training there.  Also, very few students wear a logo on the Gi, so it was only possible from watching their techniques, to ascertain that they were from another style!

Terry was one, although he was a Shotokan man, he trained at YoYogi Do when visiting Tokyo and loved Higaonna Sensei’s training and him. as a person!

I got changed, sweat still running like water of me. Higaonna Sensei returned, had a short meeting with Terry and Denis and we eventually had something to eat after which Sensei accompanied me home where I slept for 12 solid hours!  

I learned later that, had Higaonna Sensei been there, this hostile reception would have been totally taboo, but when the cats away ……..!

The next day at noon, Sensei fetched me and we went to meet some Dojo members at Shinjuku. Luckily, Pat was there to translate! We went to see a movie as it was a day to relax!

The movie was in English with Japanese sub-titles and it was called … The Poseidon Adventure!!   Lucky I did not see it before the 25 days Bak75264

boat trip from South Africa!

My first two days in Japan I will never ever forget!

002 Training in Japan Part 1

Any young Karate Ka’s dream six decades ago in the early days of Karate, was to visit and train at the source – Japan! So, in the next few episodes, I’m going to tell you about my first visit to Japan in 1973 to train with my Teacher to this day, Higaonna Morio Sensei, in the world famous Yoyogi Dojo in Tokyo where he taught. I will explain how much different training in Japan was in those days compared to nowadays, with Japan now being a lot more ‘foreigner user-friendly’ than back in the seventies!

But first let me give you a short background to this incredibly important and significant era of my life! While I was doing my year of compulsory military service in 1966, my teacher at the time went to Japan, searching for a more ‘original or traditional’ style of Karate. After meeting the – now renowned – world Karate icon, Higaonna Morio Sensei, and training at the famous Yoyogi Dojo with him, he decided this was it!  So we  changed to a very formidable, ‘old school’ non-sport, classical or traditional style of karate, called ‘Okinawan Goju Ryu’.

So, returning from my Military Service in December 1966, just days before Christmas, I learned my first Goju Ryu Kata – Seiyunchin! Apart from being fascinated by adapting to this new style with it’s fluent movements – as opposed to the more rigid of my previous two styles, I was also absolutely fascinated to listen to my teacher telling about his experiences – his training experiences at Yoyogi Dojo, the special kind of person that Higaonna Morio Sensei was and fascinating aspects about life in Japan and Japanese culture of which very little was known in South Africa at the time and which appeared to be so totally alien to the life I was used to.  

An Okinawan Goju Ryu body was founded in South Africa, one on the north of the country and us in the south.  In 1969 and 1970, a few South Africans went to Japan on training visits to Yoyogi Dojo and Higaonna Sensei, but I was at university at the time and did not have the funds or time to join them. Little by little we started to become accustomed to this new form of Karate and it’s fundamental approach and attitude requirements, but training was still ‘second hand’ in the sense that, because of the distance to Japan and no technology such as the internet, we had to form our own interpretations of a lot of the techniques and applications of the techniques and Kata.

I was still active in the sporting side and competed in the All Styles events in South Africa occasionally, not so much because I liked it, but I felt an obligation to promote our new style of Karate, and Higaonna Sensei – both regarded a little sceptically by the other major styles in the country at the time. There were basically only two other styles in South Africa at that time. 

In 1972, I was selected to represent South Africa at the first official World Karate Championships in Paris, France, where I went through to the quarter finals (again, keep in mind there were no weight divisions – only one division – Open!).

Higaonna Sensei was invited by my teacher to come and stay for a period of almost six months in Cape Town to teach and promote Goju Ryu and he came via Paris, where he met up with my teacher and watched the World championships at the same time. This was the first time I met him in person! Upon meeting him, he gave me a pair of Kobudo Sai, which I still have to this day!

Upon return to South Africa, the classes with Higaonna Sensei was incredible, even though he knew about five English words! This training with him and seeing the manifestation of Goju Ryu in this person, opened up a complete new horizon for me and my Karate pursuit!  He was just on 33 years old at the time and absolute dynamite technically, power, speed and  yet showing his deep intrinsic understanding of this system! After a couple of months in South Africa, I invited Sensei over to my mother’s house for a Sunday dinner and during this visit, he invited me to come to Japan for training sometime and he promised my mother that he would take care of me! 

So the planning began to get to Japan!  I had some senior students who could take care of my Dojo in Stellenbosch, but finance was still a challenge! Air tickets was incredibly expensive at the time because you could not fly to Japan direct and had to stop over and be accommodated along the way. With a stroke of luck, one of my seniors’ father working for a merchant shipping company whose ships carried sugar to Japan, arranged for me that I could work my way over to Japan by giving fitness training to the crew at sea.    So it came that I left from Durban port in late March 1973 on the SA Sugela for a non-stop journey of 25 days at sea and the outskirts of one typhoon in the South China Sea!

The crew on board the ship was incredibly friendly, nice persons and on departure, I was introduced to those not operational by the Purser – the rest I got to know over the next 25 days – great guys who made me feel at home very soon!  My accommodation was in the the owners cabin which was five-star quality and the meals on board was even more five-star.   I was amazed at the quality of the accommodation and food on board, but by the end of my journey I understood that a ship’s safe, productive and efficient operating is totally dependant on the attitude and energy of the crew! A lesson many companies learned as well in those days, I guess!

I realised much later that if you take care of the crew and treat them like royalty, they perform and act like royalty – a happy crew is a productive crew which leads to a happy and productive working environment!   It was interesting to see guys coming out of a shift in the engine room – basically a sauna – with a smile and calmly discussing a few hiccups with the Master over a beer and top class cuisine! After my initial three or four days of being seasick, I started moving around the ship to see what was happening in every department.   I spent a lot time up on the bridge, especially at night and was amazed at the navigational skills of these officers – keep in mind there were no GPS systems in those days, they used the sextant to navigate on the azimuth of the Sun and used the stars at night to determine the ship’s position and calculate it’s speed.

After four or five days, I started an exercise regime by running up and down the deck from the bridge to the forecastle or fo’c’sle – a distance of 76 meters one way!  I also did my push ups and sit ups and tried to do basic techniques and Kata – a strange sensation on a rolling and pitching deck! Two things that I remember clearly are the time changing about 20 minutes daily and the temperature became very hot and humid as we were getting closer to the equator and eventually entering the tropics. We more frequently now encountered rough seas with the swells sometimes coming over the forecastle and flooding the main deck.  During one of these spells I noticed the kitchen staff running onto the deck with baskets and picking up things!  the ‘things’ were flying fish that landed on deck in the night. We had that for dinner and it was fantastic! On another occasion, I was warned to stay off the decks as it was covered with yellow and black sea snakes – the very poisonous Coral reef snakes would wash up on deck with the swells!

Another interesting incident during this journey happened about two days before we were due  to cross the Sundra strait between Sumatra and Java, The ships radar was malfunctioning, and the ship’s electrical officer, or Sparky, tried very hard to fix it, but needed some parts that he did not have on board. We were due to cross the Sundra strait at night and a heavy overcast and fog was looming, so the ship’s Master ordered a 180° turn around until visibility was clear the next morning and we turned around again and crossed the strait.

My eyes went big the next morning, seeing the traffic in the strait, which is only about 15 miles or 24 km wide! From local Junks with their funny sails to big oil tankers, cargo ships – all were crossing us on both sides! One of the not so pleasant experiences in the South China Sea was when we hit the outskirts of a typhoon that cause mayhem on the Chinese mainland!  To see this huge ship being pushed back by the swells so that it’s huge propellors were completely out of the water at stages, and you could listen to them spinning in the air, was kind of hair raising!  Luckily, the ship was heavily loaded with cargo and we were not tossed around too much, but it was still a big relief when we finally left the storm.

About 250 miles from the Japanese coastline, two very interesting experiences occurred!  The first, was our Sparky turning on a television set in the lounge which picked up Japanese TV!   Now you must remember that South Africa only got TV two years later for the first time, so this was indeed something that I have only seen in the movies before! I sat watching Japanese programs with a very bad blurry picture, but fascinated nevertheless!

The second was a bit more disturbing:  Whilst doing my daily deck running, I noticed a lot of debris and rubbish floating past the ship’s bows –  huge pieces of foamalite, plastic, cane, buoys, oil slicks, empty plastic containers, oil drums and cans and logs.  Not noticeable at first, because of the typical warm ocean haziness. When the haze cleared up a bit, I noticed that as far the eye could see from Portside to Starboard side, Bow to Stern, the ocean was filled with wall to wall litter!  One of the crew members explained to me that this ‘carpet’ was prevalent all around the entire Japan!  This in 1973, was strange and also scary to me as in South Africa at that time, there was hardly any pollution, not even in the big cities!

A day before we arrived in Tokyo, it was confirmed that we will be docking down in Kawasaki.

I will never ever forget the sight at 04:00 hours while the ship was slowly moving into Tokyo Bay, engines cut. 

It was like being under floodlights standing on the deck!  All around the bay factories and buildings had their lights on and then entire bay was lit up like a football stadium!  The bay was also completely full of other vessels, from oil tankers and cargo ships, to fishing boats and passenger liners, big and small – a world so totally different then what I was used to! Back home, Cape Town was a port, but so insignificantly small compared to this!

We slowly drifted in, waiting for our pilot to come onboard and take us in!   At about 06h00, the pilot came on board climbing up a rope ladder on the side of the ship and started taking us in to our mooring.

After 25 days at sea, I had arrived in Japan!!!  The first part of my dream completed!

001 Why I started Karate

I often get asked ‘When and Why did you start karate, How did it happen, What made you become interested in this art?’.And the follow-up questions usually are: ‘What makes you continue practising after 57 years – Why are you still training, sweating and aching?  ‘Do you still enjoy teaching?’Today I’m going to talk about the first question and explain How it came about that I started doing Karate.  

The answer is simply: It was a matter of survival!

I need to start off by giving you the background on my situation at the time when I started. My family lived in a town called Stellenbosch, the oldest village in South Africa, world famous for its wine and its university – it is in fact, a university town, similar to Heidelberg in Germany.   Well, that’s where I lived  since my 11th year, where I still live today and have had my Dojo since 1967. 

My parents owned a relatively small boarding house or residence for university students in Stellenbosch with about 35 students residing.   It was however different and unique from the other university residences in the sense that the living-in students were all officers in the South African Military, who were send to study engineering at Stellenbosch University as an extension of the National Military Academy, situated about 120 km further up the West Coast. 

They were representative from the three arms of the service at that time – Army Air Force and Navy and age-wise varied between 19 and 25 years old.   Also interesting and unique, was the fact that they wore full military uniform to lectures  We’ll get back to the relevance of this to my story, in a while!

Their daily routine was a roll call parade at 07:00 hours conducted in the boarding house quad, breakfast, then of to non-stop lectures, lunch break in between and would return from lectures about 17:00,18:00 hours daily. After dinner at night they pursued their studies until 21:00 hours, when there would be a half an hour break with tea being served out in the quad, which was partially in open air and partially covered with roof.   My mother would always throw in some homemade bakes with the nightly tea, as they were young men away from their homes and she regarded them as her sons! During these tea breaks, as typical young men would do to let of steam,  they would indulge in physical playing, like Arm wrestling, Indian wrestling (where you both stand with your feet in a straight line and try and pull each other of balance), Finger wrestling (engaging the middle fingers and try to pull open each other’s finger or drag him forward towards you) and many Reaction or Reflex type games like holding out your hands or fists and try and pull it away before the other guy could slap it or rap you on the top of your fist with his knuckles! 

As a curious young school boy, I would attend these tea-times to hear what the older guys were talking about and doing, so inevitably, I got drawn into these games and went to bed many a night with my hands slapped red and burning, or the back of my hand bruised from knuckle strikes!   Eventually, I got the hang of it, could hold my own, and stopped being an easy target, but still a target nevertheless!

One evening during this tea time, they discussed the fact that the university was going to revive its boxing club – there was one really good amateur boxer amongst them and most of them had done boxing as part of their military basic training.  So the next thing that happened was that they purchased some boxing gloves and during the evening tea break some “friendly” sparring started to become part of the evening’s letting off  steam, of course with the odd ‘Oops I’m sorry – are you OK?’ I was about 11/12 years old at the time, but big boned, and it wasn’t long before they slapped the gloves on me, with the intention and promise that they would ‘teach me how to box’ – ‘don’t be afraid, you’ll be ok, we won’t hurt you!’ but ended up by beating the living daylights out of me when I got in the odd lucky blow!  

Being a sore looser since birth, (I still am, but don’t put that on Facebook!) I swore revenge, but it did not come overnight! The fact was that they actually did succeed in teaching me to box – although by explaining afterwards what I should have done not to have gotten that punch on the snoot! As weeks and months went by, I improved, got a bit more street smart and eventually I could hold my own against the smaller and weaker ones among them.   Significant at this stage to mention, is the fact that I developed and relied on fast, variation Footwork, combined with good Timing against the more stronger ones – to get out of trouble and in to attack – duck, dive, move in, attack, move out, duck and dive again!   Very valuable skills that manifested in my Karate career in later times! Those of you who ever attended a Gasshuku where I taught, will recall my emphasis on the ability to MOVE!

At that stage I also joined the University boxing club as a junior, and represented the University in tournaments around the area. I was quite proud of myself that I could actually stay alive against them in the boxing situation until one evening, about a year later, at teatime, when I heard them discussing this new mysterious mystical fighting art from the orient, called Karate!   And, that there was an expert that was going to start a club at Stellenbosch University and they were all going to start this new fighting art!   Very little, if anything, was known about Karate in South Africa at that time.   Mas Oyama Sensei’s books had not been out over here in bookstores and movies like ‘The Invincible Boxer’, which accelerated the popularity of Karate in the west before the Bruce Lee movies, was not out yet.

Rumours surrounding this mystic art, KARATE, were about people breaking bricks with their bare hands, they were invincible in a fight, et cetera. I was devastated when I heard about this new fighting art coming, because visions of the living daylights being beaten out of me one more time with this new art – just as I was able to hold my own with the boxing – popped into my mind again!  I realised that if I did not also learn this new art, I would not survive, so I started strategising big time how to achieve this. 

The challenges were two-fold:  The tuition was not free and it was only for University students! We’re talking about a fee of R4-00  per month at that time which is today probably equivalent to R1,000 today, I guess! My first challenge therefore would be to find the way and means to get hold of R4 per month!   My monthly pocket money allowance, that I received from my father, was R2 and that was for extras – candy, movies, anything ‘non-essential’.    I knew that he did not have more money to help me – I also had two sisters who had to be taken care of.   My second challenge was to join the University club as a scholar which was tricky for a 14 year old!

For the financial challenge – I mentioned earlier that these students wore uniform to classes everyday and part of the uniform were freshly cleaned shoes, inspected every morning at the roll call parade by the senior officer in charge! I discussed and negotiated with them, and a new business was started!   I started cleaning shoes to get money to pay for Karate lessons which would ensure my survival! I cleaned 15 pairs of shoes every night, excluding Fridays and Saturdays at 50 cents per month per pair of shoes which brought me a grand total of R7.50 per month.  So I could pay my karate tuition from that and still have R2.50 left over for mischief! 

Maybe this will help you to understand my policy to this day not to give away Karate knowledge for free!    Had my father put up the money for me with a ‘Don’t worry, Daddy will pay..!’  I probably would have stopped after a while, but being self-reliant gave me such a feeling of ‘I did it on my own!’  – it kept the hunger for more Karate going to this day! To overcome the ‘university students only’ issue, there was only one way out – I had to cheat my age! At the first lesson and registration,  I had my R4 clutched in my hand, and was ducking and hiding behind the students from our boarding house and got one of them to complete my form stating I was 19 years old. The instructor gave me a long look, but because there was quite an attendance for the first night, he took my R4, I slipped through and ‘crossed the final hurdle to staying alive!’  

The Sensei later told me he knew then that I was not a university student, but I looked so keen, he did not have the heart to tell me I could not join! I got a few snotty looks from many of the other university students during the first lessons – the ‘what is this little weasel doing here, he probably won’t last long, wait till we start contact training!’ – type of looks!   This only inspired me more and I remember very clearly that during only my second lesson, I looked at them from behind (I was placed in the back row) and made a decision right there and then that, ‘I will be in the front row soon and one day I will become the best Karate Ka in that group!’   When the actual contact training and sparring started, I did kind of shut their mouths, as not one of them could get the better of me, being a 14 year old big eared snot nosed string bean and all! Well, I am the only one from that class still training after 58, almost 59 years!

To conclude, I should mention that I received my senior Black Belt at the age of 16 in 1965 and was one of the – if not the – youngest in the world be awarded this – I was tested by the late Sensei’s Taiji Kase and Hiroshi Shirai of the Shotokan JKA organisation.  Note that there were no junior Black Belts then, that came later.  I also won the Cape Grand Champion title in 1965 and 1966 in the senior Black Belt division at ages 16 and 17 – note again there were no weight or age divisions, it was open.

Thank you for listening and look out for my next In Pursuit of Excellence episode, which will again cover various aspects of my live and personal experiences from my lifelong Traditional Karate journey.  

If you are interested in joining our global online virtual dojo to pursue excellence in the martial art of karate, you can do so at www.traditionalschoolofkarate.com.

000 Why I Am Doing Podcasts

I just launched the In Pursuit of Excellence podcast, where I share insights, lessons, and stories from my journey of almost six decades of pursuit of excellence in the mastery of my craft, the martial art of traditional current day. 

So, why I’m doing this is straightforward. I love karate, since my very first lesson, I decided to get totally involved in this incredible traditional classical martial art, no matter what.

And because I love it so much, I would like to see next generations of serious karateka approach the martial arts journey in the correct way to be able to get the life-changing experience I got, tori. I need to explain that mediocracy has never been an option to be in anything I’ve seriously attempted. If I ever decided to get involved with something that I thought was important to my being, I would get completely involved, whether it was an activity, project of lifestyle. I would go all out, unconditionally and regardless. That’s why my credo, or motto has always been, a quest to be in pursuit of excellence.

An incident that had a very big influence on this way of approaching life happened in my high school years. I was a pupil at the well-known Paul Roos Gymnasium. A boys’ school in the picturesque town of Stellenbosch. It was a custom at the school to invite guest speakers to address us on a monthly basis during assembly, where the whole school was present. These speakers would be from all spheres of life, usually highly successful and accredited persons in their various fields. I remember one of these delivering an enthralling talk on how he made it to the top in a highly competitive field. His closing words being, “Remember one thing, there’s always room at the top.” These words have stuck in my mind from that day on and still guides my thinking. Since my very first karate lesson in 1963, it never occurred, or mattered to me, how long that perfection road could be.

But even at that young age, I realized that it could mean sacrifices, disappointments, but also smiles that came with success. So, after the first couple of years, I began to realize and appreciate that continuously pursuing excellence, demanded a lot more to get to the next level. It implied that I would need to get to know myself intimately, realize my own weaknesses and strengths, that it will be an up and down road, but I would need to work through the downs and serve the ups, never ever stopping. I also realized that a bull in a China shop approach would not get me anywhere. That was a dead end road. And I could end up by battering my body and mind. I would need a roadmap, a strategy, and a plan. Now we must appreciate that even to this day, not much has actually been empirically documented and recorded about karate since its origins more than a century ago in Japan, via India and China, because it was practiced secretly, mostly underground.

And the transfer of knowledge was restricted to the teacher, to student, a closed circle. A lot of research had since been done, but only emerging in the past 10 years or so, and still very much controversial and political in a lot of ways. I am very skeptical by nature. So, for me to really understand and appreciate what I’m getting into, I would need concrete, factual information and not mystical vague stuff. So, in 1967 after my compulsory military service year, I enrolled at Stellenbosch University and got a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education, or Human Movement Science. This enabled me to a more updated scientific approach on the physical dimension of karate techniques, and what is needed technically to lift the quality of my karate to the highest and most effective level possible. I should also qualify the name art, as in martial art. In Japanese, the terminology is budo, bu means martial art and do, means the way. The way of the warrior or martial artist.

An art is the manifestation of the popular slogan, “It’s not a destination, it’s a journey.” In an art you can never reach total perfection, but striving towards perfection brings the excitement and the passion. The last two words are absolutely the foundation of my philosophy, passion and excitement. I can tell you now that anything you attempt in life that does not have these two words embedded in your efforts will not necessarily fail, but it can leave you empty inside, thinking to yourself, “What am I busy with? What am I doing? Why am I unhappy?” For the past 58 years my life comprised basically of karate, but also prioritized quality family time. It is very important at this stage to mention the fact that throughout my karate career barring the past 22 years, when I’ve been on pension, I have always had a permanent non-karate income.

So, not dependent on money from teaching karate. I was never in a position where I had to compromise my beliefs and standards in teaching karate to get food on the table for my family. My personal life has been unbelievably blessed with self-growth due to my karate pursuit. Apart from running my own school or dojo since 1967 and being chief instructor for South Africa since 1982, I have traveled and taught karate seminars in 28 countries to date. This brought me in contact with so many different cultures and helped me understand so many human behavioral tendencies. So, to conclude my motivation with this podcast is to share this unbelievable journey of my life with similarly minded persons, serious, as opposed to curious persons. And my main objective would therefore be to provide them with a rough and adaptable roadmap of the real budo journey. 

To your pursuit of excellence, 

Sensei Bakkies Laubscher