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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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TRAINING AT THE JKA HONBU DOJO, TOKYO

 

By Neil O’Connor

 

 

PART 1

 

INTRODUCTION, EXPECTATIONS AND FIRST MONTHS TRAINING

 

Neil O'Connor outside the JKA Hombu

 

I decided to submit a “Trip to Japan” report for The Shotokan Way, to share my experiences with other readers of training for 3 months in the heart of karate. This report will be presented in three parts. Part one will explain what drove me to train in Japan and my first month of training. Parts two and three will focus on the specific experiences for the last two months.

 

Having trained in the UK under the KUGB/JKA, I passed my 1st Kyu under Sensei Frank Brennan (KUGB) and attempted my Shodan grading twice under the late Sensei Enoeda in 1999. I was unsuccessful on my last attempt due to a mistake on Heian Nidan. Since this date, international work assignments have meant that I've not been able to maintain a regular training regime. However, I have just completed an assignment in Melaka, Malaysia and as there were no JKA (Japan Karate Association) affiliated clubs in Malaysia, I trained at a KWF affiliated club. I trained twice a week, with about 5 other members. The facilities were not quite up to the same standard as the UK, but training outdoors in 30+deg heat certainly helped shift a pound or two of excess body fat after eating one too many calories at lunch!  Even if the facilities weren’t fantastic, the standard of tuition was first class. A big thank you to Sensei Hazlimmi Himzal at Seiken Karate Academy in Melaka.

 

It was whilst in Malaysia that my passion for karate was re-ignited. I had always wanted to continue my training, but it had not always been possible. The etiquette and discipline amongst like-minded karate-ka has an almost gravitational effect from the moment you step into the dojo. The coveted black belt was within touching distance, so I had to do something about it. In December 2008 my overseas assignment came to an end, so I decided to take a 3 month sabbatical from work and travel to Tokyo, (with my wife) so that I could train twice daily (Monday to Friday, and every other Saturday) at the JKA Honbu Dojo in Koraku, Bunkyo-ku. I wanted to remain with the JKA, as my earlier experiences via the KUGB had been most memorable.

 

I made some initial enquiries to the JKA Honbu Dojo, and was told that I could simply turn-up and start training. This was going to be a completely different experience, going from training twice a week after work, to at least two hours a day, everyday. Thoughts were running through my head about what I might learn, mistakes I’d make, social gaffes etc. My wife and I started to make arrangements for travel and accommodation, and I had to formally request a sabbatical from work.

 

As I’d not trained in the UK for a number of years, my expectations were somewhat mixed. Would the training be as brutal as the stories so often told on the web?  Would I quickly become cannon-fodder, in a quest by the Japanese karate-ka to teach the western guy who’s the best?  The KWF shodan grading syllabus appeared to be almost identical to the JKA syllabus, but would the differences become evident when I step into the HQ dojo?  Would my Bassai-Dai be ripped apart like a piece of meat and thrown back at me?  The language barrier would be the most difficult to cope with, as the two years spent in Malaysia lulled me into false sense of security with respect to learning a new language. English is widely spoken in Malaysia, by all ethnic groups, however in Japan  English is not so commonly spoken.

 

My first day in Tokyo began with a visit to the JKA HQ Dojo, albeit still a bit jet lagged and grossly unshaven. It wasn’t the easiest place to find, as companies aim to grab every last square metre of real estate to shoe-horn the buildings in. The JKA HQ was sandwiched between two other non-descript buildings. It wasn’t until I noticed the JKA banner poking its head through the lamp-posts and electric cables that I knew I’d made it. Upon entry, we were greeted by a friendly “receptionist”, who quickly answered my basic questions…………..when can I start training, and when are the classes and how much are the monthly subscriptions?  Little did I know that the “receptionist” would later turn out to be one of the karate instructors. My English was met with a polite smile and then a frown, as we tried to communicate. I would have to start learning the Japanese language.

 

First class, Tuesday morning. Being ever eager to impress, I arrived half an hour early for the class, to be met by………….no-one. There is punctual and eager-beaver punctual, however this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Suited and belted, I arrived at the top floor dojo which is the largest in the building. I was not alone. There was another gentleman there, who was Japanese and sporting a white belt. Yes, not all Japanese people have black belts in karate, so I was not going to be bottom of the class. The actual class was a very low key affair, in so much as there were only 5 other students in the class, plus one instructor. Almost personal tuition at the heart of JKA karate. We were taken through the basics, consisting of punches, kicks, blocks etc. The instructor made a number of comments on our techniques, and he demonstrated to the class (albeit exaggerated) what we were doing wrong. All of this was obviously in Japanese, but these instructors have a knack of explaining what you’re doing wrong by using exaggerated movements. The standard of tuition is second to none, as the instructors break the movements down into simple steps and with the aid of mime, manage to explain the principles of feet, hip and upper body positioning. Sounds simple really, but this is what sets these guys apart from the rest. At the end of the first lesson, we all knelt down in seiza, to bow to the instructor. Now this next part took me by surprise. All karate students, irrespective of style or association, should know the dojo kun. How many of you can honestly say that you know it and can recite it in Japanese?  The basic dojo kun is a set of 5 precepts, which underlie the teachings of karate, and aim to foster a spirit of humility and perfection of character. The most senior student started by saying these out loud in turn, quickly followed by the other students…………….except me. Mental note, learn the 5 dojo kun, in Japanese. Once this formality was completed, we all bowed to the instructor, who then got up and left whilst we were still in seiza. The Dojo Kun is important as it instills the correct attitude, frame of mind and virtues to strive for in and out of the dojo. The ultimate aim of Karate is the perfection of character. Knowing, understanding and actually applying the Dojo Kun, helps the karate-ka through life both physically and mentally. As soon as the instructor left the dojo, we all got up and proceeded to clean the dojo on our hands and feet with small beer mat sized towels. Imagine being ready to do a squat thrush, then pushing off with your feet and allowing your hands to glide along the floor. This was done up and down the dojo once. Again, this is a refreshing change from the UK, when a cursory sweep of the hall is carried out before training begins.

 

JKA HOMBU DOJO 

 

I thought it wise to start training twice a day, to get my face known at the dojo. A different instructor took each of the classes and focused on separate aspects of basics each time. Despite there being a strict syllabus for the JKA grading examinations, each instructor took a slightly different aspect of a technique and focused on that during class. This approach allows the student to explore the technicalities of each technique to better understand the principles involved. JKA karate is a very technical karate, where focus on near perfect execution is the order of the day. In one evening class, we were put through some kumite drills. These were firstly carried out individually, then with partners. Two lines were formed to allow partnering, and the techniques were then put into practice. I sparred, in turn, with each and every attendee at the class. This is good training, as everyone is built differently. Height, reach, speed, strength etc. This was clearly evident when I came to spar with a younger brown belt. He was a bit shorter and lighter than me, but the presence of a gaijin (foreigner) in his home country dojo, was enough for him to “try me out”. The five step sparring started and he was certainly no slouch. I’m pretty quick myself and managed to react in time to block his first lightning quick jodan oi-zuki. Bang………..punch two caught me right under the eye. At the end of the fifth technique, I countered and put a reverse punch right into his mid-section. When it was my turn to attack, I decided that I needed to return the compliment from earlier, so I turned up the heat and varied my timing. He sensed that I was going to come at him strong, so I made some feints, which completely threw him off his rhythm. I didn’t manage to catch him, but by the expression on his face he certainly knew I was in the zone. With all the students in the class (Japanese and foreign), there were helpful pointers on execution of technique (stance too wide, rotation of hips, placement of feet etc.) To round the evening off, after performing all of the basic Kata, we were treated to a few old favourite exercises. Bunny hops, star jumps, burpesse (star-jump and squat-thrust combined), all of which had to be done across the dojo……..twice. After completing ten sets of each, the whole class collapsed into various heaps across the dojo, to be quickly reminded that the class was over, and seiza position was to be resumed.

 

Throughout December, the sessions were taken by a variety of instructors, from 2nd Dan newly qualified, to internationally renown karate-ka (Sensi Osaka 8th Dan, Sensei Tanaka 8th Dan and Sensei Kawawada 7th Dan). No matter who gave the session, the level of professionalism was the same. Each of the instructors had obviously done their preparation for the class, and were ready to go from the moment they walked into the dojo. A number of the instructors were past and present International Kumite and Kata Champions, so the technical ability of these guys was not to be questioned. The opportunity to train with national champions does not present itself very often, and here I was in the heart of Japan, being taught by two current champions in the course of two days.

 

For one memorable lesson, we all (15 of us) stood in front of the mirror in hangetsu-dachi. From here we practiced kizami-zuki and gyku-zuki, in order to feel and see the rotation of the hips. During this exercise, we were guided to slightly rotate our upper bodies, but with heads not rotating. A common mistake is to rotate the head as the hips rotate. This mistake means that the attacker is not looking at the opponent, who is directly in front. Also, key to this technique, was the contraction and expansion of the inner thigh muscles during the two punches. This contraction and expansion was crucial to allow the hips to move from shomen to hanme and deliver maximum power for the punches.

 

Kihon, Kata and Kumite is fundamental to strong and meaningful Karate. Without mastery of these three K’s, Karate will not progress and will merely be a series of movements without heart, soul or passion. Each session taken focused on Kihon, Kata and Kumite at various levels. Often the Kihon portion of the lesson dovetailed perfectly into the Kata or Kumite section, with techniques being duplicated and only minor tweaks for their applicability. Each training session dealt with a variety of Kihon techniques, and these were repeated so that that the karate-ka’s body learns to move/react automatically to attacks. The ultimate aim is that the karate-ka’s techniques become unconscious and natural, almost unthinking, so that no time is wasted in thinking which defensive technique is required. The effort put in here (during Kihon) will pay dividends during Kata and especially Kumite. A lack of focus or progression in one of the three K’s, and the essence of Karate is lost.

 

The final training session of the 2008 calendar year (Keiko Osame) was held on the evening of 22nd December. This session was extremely well attended and was a great opportunity to train with most of the resident JKA instructors, committee members and other instructors from around the Tokyo area. There were approximately 70 karate-ka there for this special training session, which was conducted by Master Motokuni Sugiura (9th Dan, JKA Chief Instructor), in the top floor dojo. Master Sugiura is one of the last remaining karate-ka who trained with the founder of Shotokan Karate, the great Master Gichin Funakoshi. I really was in the presence of some of the biggest names in Shotokan Karate. The session started off with Kihon techniques, mostly being drawn from the 1st Dan grading syllabus. Following this, we were all put through our paces with Bassai-Dai and then Kanku-Dai to the count of Master Sugiura. The final part of the evening, was Kumite. This was where things started to get interesting/exciting. All of the current instructors (approx 20) lined up along the back wall of the main dojo, ready to start accepting sparring partners for Gohon kumite. Orderly, yet apprehensive lines started to form in front of these assembled instructors (3rd Dan up to 7th Dan). HAJIME……..five-step sparring began and the noise from the combatants was deafening, which brought smiles to the faces of the distinguished guests and JKA committee members. I decided to join the line in front of the current JKA All Japan Kumite champion. Now this was going to be a tough match for me. His speed was breathtaking and as can expected, I didn’t manage to get a single punch to connect, except the gyaku-zuki at the end of each set of five. After this, I joined other lines with different instructors and managed to complete 4 sets of Gohon kumite. YAME…....the call came across the dojo and the fired-up karate-ka took a well-earned break for 1 minute. Master Sugiura then called for Ippon Kumite, with 4 named attacks (oi-zuki jodan, oi-zuki chudan, mae-geri and yoko-geri). I joined one of the lines and nervously took my place in front of an awaiting fighting machine. The first instructor I fought, actually took it very easily, as though he was just warming-up. Not so with the next 3 instructors. These fights really pushed me to my limits. It’s intimidating, but exciting to be able to “lock horns” with these instructors at such a culturally-important training session. Once a karate-ka had finished the kumite engagement, the senior instructors (Osaka, Tanaka, etc), quickly grabbed the nearest student-in-waiting and put them towards a tired but waiting instructor. The final yame of the evening was met with a huge sigh of relief from all present. The atmosphere in the dojo at this point was electric. Despite the spirited and often lively efforts from all of the attendees, each and every attendee had a smile on their face during those precious moments of respite. The evenings training was completed during seiza, with a well-earned mokuso and the mandatory repeating of the dojo kun. That was a truly invigorating session, which I will remember for years to come.

 

Neil O'Connor inside the JKA Hombu

 

Being the final session of the year, it was customary to have the JKA Chairman (Nakahara Nobuyuki) and Master Sigiura make short but relevant speeches concerning the highs and lows of this years events.   At the end of the speeches, a toast was made to celebrate 2008 and look forward to 2009. This was the cue for the party to start. It was not a raucous party, but one which managed to maintain a volume where one needed to raise ones voice to be heard. I managed to pick-up on the custom of having a (full) beer bottle in my hand all evening, so that I could offer to fill the glass of anyone I chose. In Japan, it is customary to fill the glass of a guest and not your own. This didn’t mean I went thirsty, on the contrary. Each person I met, returned the compliment until I’d lost count of the number of bottles of Asahi that were consumed. It was a bit daunting at first, walking across the dojo to meet for the first time, such well-respected karate-ka and offer to fill their glasses. However, the humility shown by these great men was more than sufficient to calm any nerves I may have had. The evening continued for a few hours to the sounds of Kan Pai (cheers) and lots of chatter. This was such a great way to end the year.

 

So there goes my first months training in Japan, well actually two weeks. It wasn’t until I read the 2008 JKA calendar of events for the hundredth time, that I noticed the two week mid-winter break…...oops. Not to despair, this break gave my wife and I an opportunity to do some travelling around the rest of Japan. We made a visit to the memorial to Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957). This is located in the town of Kamakura (just one hour by train from Tokyo), at Engaku-ji temple and was erected by the Shotokai. Each year on April 29 (Shoto Festival), a number of karate-ka pay homage to the Father of Modern Karate.

 

Part 2 of my trip report will cover the complete month of training for January, and will include details of the annual Kan Geiko (cold weather training).

 

Neil O’Connor

(Part 2 to follow very soon)