JKA Kan-geiko 2009
by Tony Cronk
The world famous Japan Karate Association Gasshuku needs no explanation but there is another special time at the Honbu that few outside of Japan will have heard of. ‘Kan-geiko’, the literal translation means mid-winter training. For one week a year, at the end of January, the Tokyo Headquarters opens its doors at 6am every morning for the dedicated karate-ka to undertake this course. In essence it is a way of re-confirming your dedication to karate by training early every morning without fail. The date chosen to symbolise a new start and to test the will-power to battle the elements of the cold.
Waking at 5am to get ready for training is in itself surreal. Walking through the largest city in the world at dawn, its wide streets empty, is a sight to see. It is as though Tokyo knows our mission and positions a brightly lit vending machine on nearly every corner, dispensing cans of sweet hot coffee to aid our journey. Arriving at Honbu, its lights shining brightly in the gloom we join others who change into their gis and climb to the top floor and enter the main dojo. There, after bowing to the ornate shrine at one end, we silently stretch on the highly polished wooden floor. As the hall slowly fills the air warms and the excitement grows. At the arrival of the first Instructor everyone turns and bows. ”Oss!” rings outs and echoes around the walls. More Instructors arrive, mingling happily with the students. Soon the hall is filled with quiet, nervous chatter. With a single command “Seri-retsu” everyone forms lines behind the Instructors and the class begins. After a short but thorough warm up, as if the building was on fire, we rush downstairs put on our running shoes and tracksuit tops and wait outside in the dark. Slowly the white dressed snake of bodies starts to run. The chant of “Washoi!!” (be brave) ringing out as we go.
With the run complete we return to Honbu and charge up to the top floor, discarding outside clothes as we go. At once we launch into combinations of basic techniques, all under the watchful eyes of the most senior Instructors. We then progress to kumite. Random luck dictating whether you pair up with a young brown belt, Tanaka Sensei or possibly Shimizu Sensei, the last winner of the Funakoshi Cup World Championship at kumite.
Lastly we work our way through the Heian katas. First in slow motion, then with feeling “speedo!” the rhythmic count barked by a junior instructor. To conclude the session the kata is performed “NO count!”
Finally we line up again, kneel and recite the Dojo Kun, in Japanese naturally. As the Instructors leave we begin the last ritual of the morning, the cleaning of the dojo floor. Each of us, brandishing a small towel, line up shoulder to shoulder at one end of the room and bending low, pushes the rag the length of the hall, gaining speed as we go, several people racing each other from one end to the other. So ends Kan-geiko for the day. The rest of the day is spent eating, sleeping, sightseeing or more likely attending one of the many classes available at Honbu.
Each morning the routine is repeated but as the week progresses, not surprisingly some faces disappear. Some due to work, others due to injury, others still from exhaustion. Those who still attend take on the haunted expression of the determined, focusing on completing the course.
By mid-week, the pattern has been established. Kan-geiko, breakfast, training, lunch, training, more lunch, sightseeing, training, supper, hot bath and finally bed. The routine now seems totally natural, an ideal existence. People start asking how easy it would be to extend their stay and continue doing this for say….two or three years. The ability to simply train and rest is very appealing. But sadly all things must end.
The final day dawns. After stretching, we start out on our now familiar run route, the slower runners moving to the back, while the faster ones vie for position near the front. We stop at a simple yet beautiful shrine near Honbu and after removing our tracksuits we stand quietly in the cold, clear morning and give thanks for our week of training. After numerous photographs to remind us of this special moment, we jog steadily back to the dojo for our final training session. Testing basics in kibadachi followed by a fast and furious Tekki Shodan. Then our last dojo kun rings out with more enthusiasm than ever. The final ritual of cleaning the dojo then follows. As well as the floor, skirting boards, window sills and ledges now receive our thorough attention under the critical gaze of the all the Instructors.
After a quick shower, with our damp gi now stuffed into bags in the corner, we re-assemble on the floor of the lower dojo in our smartest clothes. Sugiura Sensei, 9th Dan, Chief Instructor of the JKA, his back ramrod straight and his voice clear and confident, congratulates everyone who has completed the week and ceremoniously hands out beautiful scrolls, each personally addressed to the recipient. Again the Instructors look on, now smiling.
Now only the final challenge awaits. As the caps are removed from in excess of one hundred very large beer and sake bottles I look at my watch. It is 9.30am local time and I have to be sober and at Narita airport in exactly 24 hours. For the record I managed the location but not the condition.
The heroes of this article are not those of us who have given up a week to travel to Honbu, but rather those karate-ka who have travelled in every morning from the Tokyo suburbs, juggling work and family commitments to find time to attend without fail. No one exemplifies this more than Sekine San. Now in his seventies he is a superb example of JKA karate. Humble, generous and above all dedicated. In the 1960’s his Sensei, Nakayama Masatoshi, then Chief Instructor was discussing Kan-geiko and thought that it would be almost impossible for one man to attend fifty times without missing one. He then said that if anyone could do it Sekine San would be the person to succeed. Sekine San promised his Sensei he would try. In 2010 he will complete his task in spite of illness, his commitments as a renowned Tea Ceremony Master and a very busy professional and personal life.
Lastly, one comment keeps returning to my mind, when people question me about how hard it was attending Kan-geiko. It comes from, without doubt, the most physically flexible person I have met, a senior karate-ka and very nice lady. She said “anyone with two legs and some spirit can complete Kan-geiko”. I have the legs now where did I put that spirit?
If you would like to find out more about Kan-geiko please go to: http://www.jka.or.jp/english
For information about JKA karate in England please go to: www.jka-england.org