Hoitsugan Seminars 2005
Los Angles, California, USA
Apr 28 – May 1, 2005
By Jon Willson & Kai Noeske
On the weekend of April 28th, 2005, some people worked in their yards; some washed the car or visited family. And some got the opportunity to work out for 20 hours with over a dozen of the world’s best Shotokan karate instructors. This incredible opportunity to train in up to six 1-hour classes a day surpassed even the 4 hours/day one could train at the JKA Hombu Dojo in Japan.
In 1972 Master Nakayama opened his personal dojo, the Hoitsugan, in Tokyo and created a small dormitory for foreigners to stay at while they trained. For over 30 years, karateka from all over the world have stayed in the Hoitsugan and trained both there and at the JKA Honbu (headquarters) just around the corner,
learning from the best of the best. Their instructors are the guys you see in the “Best Karate” series, the winners of the All Japan and ShotoCup tournaments.
Master Nakayama was succeeded at the Hoitsugan by his personal student, Kawawada Sensei, 7th Dan. Hoitsugan residents lived a 24-hour a day budo life.
The students were at the Hoitsugan sometimes for years and then went home to spread great karate around the world. Some of these Hoitsugan alumni trained instructors and champions of their own.
Many of these Hoitsugan students had never met each other, some having trained decades apart. In 2004, the first Hoitsugan Seminars brought many of them together for the first time. These were Seminars but also a reunion. The first Hoitsugan Seminars took place in northern California. There were a dozen instructors teaching at that event; some of the same ones were at this one in southern California in 2005.
The Hoitsugan Seminars 2, near Los Angeles, featured both well-known and relatively unknown instructors. Instructors at this event were Sensei’s Kensuke Seto (guest instructor from Japan), James Yabe, Steve Ubl, James Field, Malcolm Fisher, Michael Berger, Jon Keeling, Bob Ehling, Glen Michel, Aaron Hoopes, Richard Amos, Erik Passoja, and Fred Borda. These instructors came together to lead classes open to all levels and styles of karate students. Many of those in attendance were instructors themselves, some with many decades of experience who knew that this would be a rare opportunity to learn something special.
The opening of the seminars was on Friday eve at Sensei Michael Berger’s dojo overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The air was filled with a sea of intense energy as the first class was about to begin. Mr. Berger pulled that energy into focus as he lead the first class in basics, preparing for Seto Sensei to follow with a masterful class on, among other things, the differences between sen-no-sen and go-no-sen. This class was a major highlight of the seminar series, with a focus on the mental
component of combat: Sensing an opponent's mental focus that precedes the attack, and to initiate the block only on that sensation, rather than after the attacker starts moving physically. This was practiced by trying to hit belts suddenly dropped by partners. Seto Sensei also lectured on the necessity of executing blocks and counters in one 'count', to keep the mind from escaping into a receding movement, which may happen if the blocking technique is a separate count/unit. After that, everyone was ready to break for the evening with a welcoming bonfire on the beach, providing a chance for the early participants to meet each other.
On the second day, Friday, we met at a larger facility- a beautiful new gym within Peck Park. The energy level was rising as Ehling Sensei led a great class on a relatively rare set of techniques (age barai). Next was Berger Sensei with superb kihon (basics). As with almost every class in the seminar, we were given the instructor’s personal insight about how they learned some of these points in Japan and developed some of their own ideas since returning from their time in Japan.
The first two hours seemed to fly by. But because we intended to make all of the classes, a break for lunch, visiting, and listening to tales of Tokyo training from these great instructors was a good way to pace ourselves. Then back to the gym for more training. Now time for choices- two classes were to run at the same time- Borda Sensei taught basics to a general group, Fisher Sensei with an excellent class just for black-belts on footwork and why these movements are so important to commit to practice.
And on it went… There were so many great classes and it was great to share these classes with others who were also dedicated to their training and the idea that these seminars represent.
The Hoitsugan Seminars were so “Tokyo”- like what it was like during the five glorious weeks that I (Jon Willson) stayed at the Hoitsugan 10 years ago. Just like in Tokyo where each day started by waking up early, hurrying to the first class of the day, and not knowing what that class would contain. This felt so much like back then.
There was a lot that was taught there that most U.S.A. dojos do not teach, largely because by the time the info gets here it is like that ‘pass the secret’ game. For example, there is what I (JW) call the “hip” thing. [If you move your knees in any direction when you punch (other than slightly forward), 1.you haven’t learned the ‘hip thing’ the way it is taught in Tokyo, and 2. you should be at the next Hoitsugan Seminar].
Every instructor was open and available to everyone’s questions about life and training in Japan. Fantastic stories and insights into karate-do- “the True Way”- as Master Nakayama explained it in-person to many of these men.
It is often said in Shotokan that the contrast between tension and relaxation is very important. Well this event had plenty of both…
Tension because you knew the class would be great, but you didn’t know quite what it would be- maybe fierce and consuming, maybe slow basics- but you knew it would be great. Maybe it was the physical demand of the very respected Field Sensei’s classes, with the turning, twisting, kicking, punching combinations. The classes of the amazing Ubl Sensei, the first resident of the Hoitsugan, sharing how Master Nakayama personally taught him how to achieve the incredible speed and power that Ubl Sensei displays today. An essence I (Kai Noeske) took away was his focus on making things as short and efficient as possible. He always teaches astonishing material, both on a basic level – you think you know how to turn before he teaches you how to really do it fast – and more advanced, e.g. through a very effective bunkai of Nijushiho. We enjoyed the mental challenge of learning ‘Zen kumite’ from Hoopes Sensei, a master of yoga and meditation. Passoja Sensei taught another mentally and physically challenging class on the idea of ippon kumite – ikken hissatsu (“One Strike, One Kill”), which conveyed the vital importance of alertness, focus, decision and dedication. The powerful Berger Sensei taught soft and slow blocking techniques that gained the ability to break and disarm as speed was applied. Keeling Sensei sharing his deep knowledge of biomechanics and their necessity in producing truly dynamic kicks, punches and movement. Borda Sensei, who moves like a technical drawing of how karate should be, teaching basics in simple terms, yet in ways that many hadn’t heard before in decades of training in the USA. His classes were one of many examples of the pronounced focus on basics that we experienced throughout the seminars. Such was Michel Sensei's class on dynamic hip rotation and the principles of body posture and movement in kumite that Berger Sensei and Amos Sensei showed. An essential point to take away: Karate becomes more advanced through advancing the basics and their understanding, not through adding fancy, spectacular techniques. I (JW) would say that there were no ”karate secrets” here. The instructors passed it on as it was given to them, or added to it. They were not holding back their knowledge and they knew how to pass it on to those present.
Relaxing with Hoitsugan alumni with the fantastic stories of their time “over there”. Funny stories. Frightening stories. True stories that you will never see in print. Relaxing at the Matsuwa Marketplace in Torrance, where we ate lunch surrounded by a set of Japanese “street-type” restaurants, all within a huge marketplace with all kinds of Japanese markets and stores inside. Or sitting in the brewery with Seto Sensei and other instructors after the last of the 2nd day of classes. Or that great Japanese restaurant we all met at after the very last class of the last day where a cold beer (or soda) has never tasted better.
On it went for a total of 3 ½ days. Starting each day with excellent training followed by sharing food and stories of ‘how it was’ from each instructor. Then back for more training. Break. More training.
Both Hoitsugan seminars have been the most intense Karate events I
(KN) have experienced. The amount of knowledge that this big group of excellent teachers conveyed in a few days is enormous, and it was taught in small enough classes to actually get the point, and to have close contact to the Sensei. I got an unmatched collection of basics of Karate to take home, and the classes were like a live textbook to compare own techniques to, to look for one's own long-bred mistakes. I also feel that I learned a whole lot of things that I had not picked up in ten years of previous training. I certainly had great Senseis in the past who certainly taught most of it before, but the intense, dedicated atmosphere of these Seminars made me very receptive, and have given me the motivation to absorb so much. I filled numerous pages with notes.
This special atmosphere, a definite 'spirit', is distinct from the very large Gasshukus I (KN) attended. These are wonderful one-week karate events that I highly recommend attending, yet the Hoitsugan Seminars are a different experience. I feel it is the very personal atmosphere that develops around the remarkable characters that organize and teach the event. This may be because to become Hoitsugan alumni, these people in the first place had to be adventurous and dedicated to doing something very special, to take all the hardships of studying Karate in Japan (and they have great stories to tell about that). I was overwhelmed how welcoming, friendly and respectful we were treated as students, by the teachers' dedication to transmit their knowledge, and by the human warmth and (Jon, how do you express 'openness'?) that they offered despite the fact that I was a complete stranger.
The images still linger in my (JW) mind…An incredible amount of sports tape used by those who attended the majority (or all) of the classes. Uniforms hanging in the sun to prepare for the next set of classes. Dinners and conversations together. Muscles that were both sore and limber at the same time from the constant training. As one person said at the end, “I ache in so many places that I don’t know where I hurt.” New contacts and friendships being formed…
Both Hoitsugan seminars left me (KN) with a feeling of having experienced something very special - something you find a few times in a lifetime at most.
We made it to almost every class of both Hoitsugan Seminars 1 (2004, northern California) and 2 (2005, southern California). Our thanks to Keeling Sensei for bringing the Hoitsugan Seminars together and to Sensei’s Berger, Michel, Yabe and all the others who put this 2nd session together for the incredibly invaluable information that can be found nowhere else and never in this combination of quality and quantity. At least not until next year…Hoitsugan Seminars 3!
For more information about the Hoitsugan Seminars, please see: http://www.hoitsugan.com