TRAINING AT THE JKA HONBU DOJO, TOKYO
By Neil O’Connor
RETURN TO TRAINING AND THE ANNUAL KAN GEIKO
Following the two week break over Christmas and New Year, training started on 7th January. Although before the break I’d only trained for two weeks, the rest period was very welcome. I’d been training six days a week, twice a day and this was a huge step from the two sessions a week in I’d been used to in Malaysia. This amount of training really does put a strain on your body.
First day back at training was a bit of a mixed bag. Mentally, I was ready to resume the rigorous daily training regime, but physically my body was telling me otherwise. I’d picked up a niggling sprain to my right ankle towards the end of the last week, and I wasn’t completely sure that it’d healed properly. After the warm-up exercises were complete, I noticed that I couldn’t feel the niggle in the ankle anymore. Result ! So, back to training and ready to face the challenges ahead. 2009 will be (should be) the year that I grade to Shodan and receive the coveted Kuro-Obi (black belt).
The language barrier during training did not normally pose too much of a problem. I had picked up a number of phrases from the years of karate, so I knew my migi from hidari, jodan from chudan and hanme from shomen and yame from hajime. However, when the instructors were explaining the intricacies of techniques, I felt embarrassed about not being able to fully understand what was being said . Physical demonstrations help, but words can really make the difference. At present, there are only about 3 other English-speaking people training at the JKA HQ, and I do not always get a chance to train with them (their work schedules mean they train at different times to me). More often than not, I am the only westerner in the class who cannot speak Japanese, but I have made a great friends with a German guy, who is fluent in Japanese, and often helps translate for me.
What I didn’t make clear in my Part One article, was that as I’m a 1st Kyu, in the UK you wear a brown and double white-striped belt. During my first few sessions at the dojo, a number of Japanese karateka had asked me what grade I was. Somehow, the striped belt had confused them. Was I a white belt or a brown belt? They didn’t understand the reason for differentiating between 3rd, 2nd and 1st Kyu grades. In Japan, the belt system is very simple : white, green, purple, brown and black.
Within the first week back, we were taken through Taikyoku Shodan. At first I didn’t know what this was. I recognized the name, but was this a missing kata from Gichin Funakoshi, only recently discovered? Maybe it was the Japanese pronunciation or my lack of knowledge, but I just stood there confused. To ensure that I didn’t make a complete fool of myself, I decided to delay my first technique slightly, so that I could see the person to my left begin. It turned out to be…….Kihon kata.. I knew I had heard the phrase before somewhere. Taikyoku Shodan is more commonly referred to as Kihon Kata in the West and contains only two basic movements, namely gedan-barai and oi-zuki chudan, both in zenkutsu-dachi. Albeit the first and simplest kata in Shotokan, it is amazing how many people fail to understand and apply the basic principles from within it. Even the experienced black belts within the class had to be corrected on a number of points…..….deeper stance, keeping the rear heel in contact with the floor, positioning of reaction arm during gedan barai etc. Once we’d completed this kata twice, we repeated it but with shuto-uke replacing gedan-barai and oi-zuki chudan. To make things a bit more “interesting”, we were told to do the kata reversed. By this, I mean that instead of blocking to the left at the start, you block to the right. Effectively the kata is mirrored about the major axis line (embusen). Where you would normally block with your right, you now block with your left. Again you’d be surprised by the number of people who can’t do this correctly first time around. It is a simple kata, but one needs to think carefully when doing it reversed. Kihon and Heian Shodan were relatively simple to perform in this manner. However, the real fun started with Heain Sandan, and then right through to Jion (Bassai-Dai was missed out) and Kanku-Dai. Now, I am not completely familiar with Kanku-Dai, but doing it twice in the correct direction was testing, but attempting it in the reverse direction really did test all of my co-ordination skills. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t quite master it there and then.
Throughout the month of January, all of the lessons followed a particular format. They were concentrating on the basics. Fundamental to (Shotokan) karate is the ability to control and harness the power of the hips. Almost every technique practiced requires some movement or other from the hips. So it is no coincidence that the start of each lesson consisted of hip conditioning exercises, moving from hanme to shomen. An interesting yet very simple exercise that we were introduced to, was that when in zenkutsu-dachi, a person each holds your front and rear legs in position. From here, we concentrated on correct hanme to shomen transition. This sounds simple enough, but you will be surprised at the amount of “fighting” that your front and rear knees do against the partners’ resistance. This exercise illustrates the need to keep your rear leg slightly bent, with the knee pointing forward. The knee and ankle joints of the rear leg must work in tandem to absorb the rotational movement of the hips from hanme to shomen. (The repetition of this particular exercise was one of the sources of my niggling ankle pain.) A common mistake is to think of the hips rotating about the bodies centre axis. This will only serve to move the front knee back and forward during hip rotation. The karateka must think in terms of two axes of rotation (for left and right movements). Each one centres on a line drawn vertically from the shoulder to the hip for each side of the body. So then during hip rotation, the forward leg (knee) does not suffer from an unwanted movement. The added benefit of this application, is that the whole torso will rotate, not just one side, thus imparting maximum force into the technique, be it an attack or a block (for further reading on this particular subject, check out “ZENKUTSU DACHI - THE WOBBLY KNEE” By Scott Langley in the articles section of The Shotokan Way).
The Kan Geiko
The end of January was going to be a new experience for me, as the JKA calendar of events had an entry for 26th Jan to 1st Feb entitled Kan Geiko. As part of my research for this trip to Japan, I had surfed the web for information on what Kan Geiko was. There were numerous entries across all facets of the Japanese martial arts, from Aikido to Mugai-Ryu and Ninjutsu to Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iaido (some of these martial arts I’d never heard of!). Kan Geiko literally translates to “Cold Training”. This is an austere practice conducted during the coldest time of the year as a form of spiritual forging, and mirrors the respect Japanese have for their best traditions. There are many reasons for training under extreme conditions (hot or cold), but mainly it is that it gives people the opportunity to be in direct contact with themselves and with nature.
Our Kan Geiko would last one week, and start at 7-00am each day. After dragging myself out of bed at the unearthly hour of 6-15am, I managed to make it to the dojo. As I left the apartment to reach the dojo for 6-45am, the sun was only just beginning to make an appearance between the buildings and the temperature was somewhat cooler than usual. The weather forecast had said 2 degC. Not quite freezing, but at this time in the morning, any temperature lower than that of the bed you’ve just left is classified as “cold”. Add to this, the fact that soon I would be jogging around the Tokyo Dome (about 2 miles round trip) in nothing more than a karate gi.
After leaving an unusually crowded changing room, I made my way up the stairs to the top floor dojo and could hear more voices than usual. I had expected to see about 20 to 30 karateka taking part, as none of the regular lessons since I’d been training here, had exceeded 20. However, upon arrival at the dojo, I was amazed at the number of karateka gathered before me. About 60 were taking part this year, some on their 6th Kan Geiko, and most of them I didn’t recognise from the weekly sessions. One group of gentlemen stood out amongst the crowd. These 5 guys were from the UK and were representing South London Karate Club. They had come to Tokyo specifically for the Kan Geiko. For some of them, this was their 3rd visit. Now, with no disrespect to the other Europeans I had befriended, it was a good opportunity to be able to have a conversation in plain English about karate and our experiences here in Japan. All of the HQ Instructors were present and this was another opportunity to not only be taught by, but train alongside these instructors.
Each day, a different instructor took the class and varied the techniques. The first day of Kan Geiko appeared to be what I would describe as fairly straightforward. Warm-up, run, warm-down, return to the dojo for an early morning session of kihon, kata and kumite. Generally, the kumite section consisted of sanbon kumite (3 step sparring) and ippon kumite (single attacks of jodan, chudan and mae-geri). Depending upon where you were in the mass of karateka, you could be sparring with the senior instructors. Day 3 was nice a surprise. We started by performing choku-zuki, with the instructor counting us to 10 for the punches. Then, the next person started to count to 10, and then the next. This was repeated until all of the gathered karateka in the dojo had counted to 10. 600 choku-zuki’s later, the whole process was repeated. Yes, on that morning we completed 1200 choku-zuki’s, and it wasn’t even 8-00am !
On day 5 it was raining, so the run was cancelled. Not really sure why, but returning to the dojo soaking wet would not be conducive to training on a somewhat very slippery floor. However, our “fun” was not to be quashed. We were treated to an invigorating stretching routine, by the most flexible instructor (for this read : contortionist). This routine lasted about 40 minutes. I was situated at the back of the class this time, alongside some of the senior instructors. Now although I am not as flexible as I would like to be, the load groans coming from the senior instructors made me laugh to myself and realise that I wasn’t the only one having difficulty. Everyone in the dojo had what I could describe as a strained-smile expression on their face. Some of the exercises stretched tendons that I didn’t know I had. After this 40 min “warm-up”, I think everyone was ready for the kihon, kata and kumite. For the final day, we ended our run at a local temple, where we stopped quickly to pay our respects and take a few photos, finishing back at the dojo for the final training.
The last (7th day) training session ended at about 8-00am, to a loud sigh across the dojo. Before we left the dojo, all the karateka assembled in seiza for a group photograph. Now even after my six weeks here training twice a day, I still cannot get used to this sitting position. At no other time during my karate training, do my knees give me any cause for concern. I am sure that I am not the only one with this problem!
After a well earned shower, we all congregated in the 2nd floor dojo for a celebration. A short speech by Master Motokuni Sugiura to all of the attendees and then a raised a toast to the efforts of all who took part and completed the Kan Geiko. Soon after this, certificates were presented to each karateka who completed the full 7 days training of the Kan Geiko. Plaques of achievement were also presented for people who had completed 3 or more Kan Geiko in a row and one gentleman, who was in his seventies, had just completed his 49th Kan Geiko. The certificate I received has been endorsed by Nobuyuki Nakahara (JKA President) and Master Motokuni Sugiura (JKA Chief Instructor) When I return to the UK, I’ll have the certificate framed. The certificate is written in Japanese, basically translates to -
Certificate of Merit – Perfect Attendance
Neil O’Connor, we present you with this award because you have achieved the results noted above during Sohonbu’s Winter Training.
After the formalities of the presentations, the party was ready to start. Much like the party at the end of the year, there were plenty of bottles of Asahi and sake around for everyone. Numerous plates of dried octopus/cuttlefish, crisps and mini pepperami followed by home-made curries and soups, had been laid on for the mass of people. It did feel surreal however, raising a toast at 8-45am on a Sunday morning. On previous Kan Geiko’s, the guys I met from London had made good friends with a number of the Japanese karateka. The guys had brought over from England some fantastic souvenirs including JKA-England jackets, union jack bobble-hats, ties etc. It was good to see international friendships being renewed under the banner of karate. I spent most of the morning drinking beer and sake, interspersed with a few mouthfuls of food. It was a great opportunity to have a chat with the instructors and other karateka in such an environment. As I finished each glass of beer, time was quickly marching towards noon, and I needed to leave to make another appointment. I left the dojo and rolled out into the bright Tokyo sunshine a bit worse for wear. Was it the 7 days training or the sake that had affected my vision, walking and speech ?!
Part 3 of my trip report will cover my final month’s training and will also reflect on some of the experiences over the last 3 months in Japan.