Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Heading to Beijing tomorrow (today by Tokyo time) for work at the Olympics and, ideally, much good training. Details and thoughts later, but now just wanted to note how strange it is for me, with no interest in football basketball baseball and the like, to be working at the largest international sports event. I am supposed to be going for language work, providing support for a Japanese crew on the ground. But no one has been able to give me a clue about what I will actually be doing, my schedule, anything. I do have a plane ticket and hotel reservations (all paid, of course), as well as a number of face masks and diarrhea pills (out of my pocket). There is supposed to be decent internet access at the main media center, where I will be stationed, so I hope to do much blogging from China. For now, just a pre-departure photo. 

Thursday, July 24, 2008

getting started (2)

Getting Started (I) (July 10, 2008)

I hit 40 this year and it has been rough in many ways. Over 12 years in Japan now, and the Last of the Budo Bums has gotten flabby as work has taken priority over practice for the first time. I can’t expect anyone’s sympathy, I know that, but it’s been rough entering the Real World. Even so, I still have ample time for practice and will now try to squeeze one more thing in, a long-rumored blog.

In late 1995 I came to Japan with the naïve and grandiose idea of spending 5-7 years in Japan studying Japanese language and martial arts, then going to China for 5-7 years of Chinese martial arts and language, then going back home to teach. Nearing 13 years in Japan at this point (minus a short year in China and many short trips over there) and none of the objectives fully realized…

The funny thing is that at about the 7-year mark in Japan, I began a marked shift toward things Chinese. Less practice of things Japanese, and more practice of things Chinese. And I have (for the second time, as many have reminded me) set a roughly-two-year limit for getting back to the States, making it about 7 and 8 years respectively. I haven’t quit things Japanese entirely, but I have significantly rearranged my training priorities.

This blog, then, will feature thoughts and ramblings about the practice of Chinese and Japanese martial arts. About a year ago I began thinking of doing a blog centered on “Pivotal Practices”, trying to capture those moments that mark and change the course of our training. I began jotting and scribbling, but didn’t get far. More recently, I have been pondering the concept of “A Year of Training”, slowly building 365 entries spanning more than 20 years of training. That is, you might get July 10, 2008, then something I wrote back on July 11, 1999, and then another from July 12, 1989, then another blast from the present, and so on.

Being somewhat technologically challenged (I still write real letters on occasion!), I am known as Analog Man among family, friends, and detractors alike. But recent events have conspired to give me access to a Mac blog guru to get me started and to hold my hand when I panic. And everybody I have talked to about this misguided blog idea tells me to go for it. So here we go…

Getting Started (II): Getting Unstuck (July 11, 2008, by 10 minutes)

I spend many Friday nights training and drinking in the Zaimusho Kendo Dojo, but tonight I was on my own. Once my daughter was asleep, I went out to my old pre-fatherhood stomping ground, a nearby open space which offers some measure of privacy while one dodges the occasional unscooped dog shit.

I had been itching to throw some punches all day. Maybe it is a product of doing too much gooey, lovey-dovey tai ji quan lately, or the result of watching too much acrobatic-jumpy wushu at Day One of the all-Japan Wushu/Taijiquan tournament today, but the urge has been growing to just get out and go after it. Solo routines are fine, but at some point I want nothing more than to get into the ring or onto the mat and get after it, two people seeing what happens when the punches and kicks really fly.

I have been very focused on my forms lately, so most of my practice has been solo. And heaven forbid that we practitioners of Chinese martial arts do any sparring. We might find out the hard way that the flashy does not hold up well against the simple and practical.

So tonight I changed the routine, went out for 30 minutes of punching and kicking. No partner, but it was still a valuable exercise. The sweat was flowing immediately, since it is still rainy season in this part of Japan and rain is rolling in later tonight. Yeah, I really beat the shit out of the tree who substituted for a sparring partner. And yeah, it felt good, long overdue.

Then I shifted into some brief standing practice (thanks M in Canada and Z in Tokyo) before starting a thorough ba gua zhang review session. Recently I have been focused on relatively high-level stuff – 八卦掌游身连环掌 bagua youshen lianhuan zhang (swimming body), 八卦子午鸳鸯钺 bagua ziwu yuanyang yue (pair of weird multi-bladed and multi-pointed Klingon-looking deer-horn weapons made of metal which I really love), 对练 duilian paired practice, etc.

But tonight I jumped straight into the years-old “simple” stuff which should have been automatic…and I got stuck. Simple lack of practice, and it stung. In particular, I got stuck on number six of 八大掌, the Eight Main Palms. In the middle of the sequence, there is a portion where one palm stabs upward while the other drives downward. In both Swimming Body and Yue, (and in the health building exercise) you go down into a full squat with flat feet, palms fully extended up and down. But you don’t do that in the Main Palms. And there I was, stuck.

I went through it from the start again and again, but kept getting stuck at the same place. As an English teacher over here, I have endlessly and glibly advised students how to get “unstuck” when all else is going well but they suddenly freeze up on one unknown or forgotten word and are unable to proceed. Try to use the opposite word, try to give an example, rephrase it…Now it was time to take my own advice.

Each of the Eight Main Palms can be done clockwise and counter-clockwise but they are typically done counter-clockwise first. Some years back I did a demo of the Eight Main Palms at a local tournament. Due to time constraints, I did number one to the left, number two to the right, three to the left, and so on. I wasn’t working as much then and had more time for incessant drilling.

So tonight I tried number six to the right, and bang, it came right out. Must be muscle memory from that period when I intensively drilled the even numbers to the right (clockwise). After that, I could instantly do it to the left as well, and was completely unstuck.

Going through the entire set of eight, I was surprised, embarrassed, and pleased to realize how many motions were directly connected to the higher level stuff I have been over-focused on. It is all one massive, unified set when seen and practiced in its entirety. And there is beautiful overlap between the weapons forms and the empty hands forms. All those connections had been waiting for me and were finally found in the humid night under a blurry moon.

Getting Started (III) – Rainy Season (July 12, 2008)

Rainy season affects practice in many ways here. You spend more time oiling and checking weapons like swords and sai. You have to do your weapons review indoors but you love the feel of the rain while going through empty hand forms outdoors. You sweat a lot more and do more laundry. And the laundry never seems to get dry, hanging indoors for days on end. Then there is a day of blistering sunlight and all the laundry goes outside. Even the sweat-soaked pungent kendo kote (hand protectors) can finally get dry (if not lose their odor) in the shade outdoors.

If you are lucky you don’t have work those days and can put in a couple hours in the sun. The first sweat is just from the heat, already dripping and splattering as you stretch. As you start to move, the drops begin to fly. After a while, you notice a growing heaviness in the air and a certain sluggishness in your motions. You aren’t tired yet – it is just the humidity climbing somewhere above 117%. Clouds are forming overhead and you know what is coming, but there is still far too much to review, just one or two more times through this section…

The clothes and equipment have to be brought back inside, still warm to the touch as the rain is falling. Maybe a final couple runs through a taiji quan routine outdoors, then indoors for water and a shower at last. And more laundry to be washed.

rainy season

Rainy season May 27, 2008

Tough practice tonight, went to sword class, got nice improvements on tai ji jian no. 1 of Sha family. Then we took a break and I was unexpectedly called on to demo xingyi lianhuan tui, which I will perform Sunday for my debut at Setagaya Ku enbukai exhibition/ demo. A disaster, totally stuck in the middle, stiff, the works. Tomorrow is the last day of a three-week intensive training at work, no time to practice, then boom.

There is a move where you spear down low with the right palm as the left palm blocks up by the right ear (all this in a crossed-leg crouching stance). The same move shows up in this xingyi form as well as in the lianhuan 24 form of tongbei quan. I had just learned both these forms on a visit to the Sha family in Kunming, China earlier this spring.

But the subsequent move, rising up out of that crouch stance, is different in the two forms, and that is where I got stuck. Obviously hadn’t practiced deeply enough to separate the two…(The same spearing-down palm move – and yet another different subsequent rising move – also appear in Sha family taiji quan…)

But there are no excuses.

So first, do a round trip of bengquan (punch lower, punch lower) the long way down that big middle school gym. Of the five basic fists in xingyi, beng quan is the only one which does not alternate feet while advancing. My right calf muscle was burning at the half-way point of the trip down. I feared cramping up on the return, but survived.

Then five times through the form (with mini-reps inside), then extra work on my own, adding some zip while punching and kicking a stack of mats. I could have gone back to the much-needed sword work, but decided the extra time on this was more valuable at the moment.

Humid, covered in sweat, spilling drops across the wooden floor. Each punch spraying drops onto the window in front of me, each kick leaving a dark shadow of moisture on the mats…

The hardest Mr. T has pushed me physically in a long time and it felt good, need more of it.

All this on the heels of big progress in a Sun style taiji seminar with Li Sensei on Sunday, plunging further into that form….getting greedy these days, reaching for too much. You have to take the chances when they are offered, but the price of greed can be failure in front of all.

June 3, 2008
It has been raining the past several days but rainy season officially opened today. And it seems a good call, as the light rain continued throughout the day – in tandem with the passing of a distant typhoon, one too distant to affect us much here in this part of Tokyo.

Tonight the finest of mists tickled me in the chilly air (this is June, isn’t it?) as I at last returned to the Sha family taiji forms, 1 and 2, after reviewing Sun style.

The June 1 hyouenkai demo passed without major incident. Lots of good stuff to watch, my own to demo. I My performance was average (what I expected given the circumstances – a recently learned form, virtually no guidance once back in Tokyo from Kunming, scant time to practice due to work) – but then a point was deducted since I went out of bounds.

In one sense, it is a pretty simple form. A whole bunch of attacks (forward and to the diagonal) down a long straight line to the front, then different attacks on the long way back, and a little segment returning to the front. You just move forward, plowing through people, no thoughts of retreat or evasion.

I saw the red boundary line approaching on my way back down the long line, but didn’t restrain myself. There had been no forewarning about the gravity of going out of bounds. But more to the point, I didn’t know the form well enough, could not perfectly judge its length.

These are hard days for me as there is so much I want to practice and review but I have less time than ever now that I am working so much. Even tonight, I wish I could stay out in that chilly mist for much longer, but leftover work calls.

Early rainy season begins with a short and wonderful period of cool, breezy days with light, misty rain. Then it gets hotter, then cooler, and again through the cycle, until one time, the heat is followed by more heat. No coolness follows – only more heat and humidity.

The process escalates until it feels like you are walking through water outside. Sweat pours even when you are standing still. There is a brief respite each time rain approaches. The humidity swells, then the temperature drops just before the rain falls. But even before the rain lets up, the heat and humidity start to crank up again.

Kunming is famous for having wonderful spring-like weather all year long. But here in Japan, they take great pride in having four seasons and are often surprised at the concept of there being four seasons in other countries. Each year, rainy season is the hardest time for me. It wears you down, saps your energy and brings you to a halt. Yet there is nothing to do but move forward, work your way through it.


April 15, 2008

Practice early this morning, practice late tonight. The same yesterday. Tomorrow is Wednesday, Mr. T day – classes with him in the morning, in the afternoon, and again at night. These are the best days.

I am coming back to life, waking up again, something. Not waking up, but reawakening, rediscovering. In recent months I have been extremely focused on training related to the Sha family (tai ji quan, tai ji jian, xing yi jian….), culminating in my second visit to train with Sha Laoshi and Li Laoshi in Kunming, China in late March / early April. Had really been avoiding this, but since I am getting ever more deep into Sha family tai ji, I took the plunge and learned the first tong bei quan form (24) since the family also specializes in TBQ. I was also introduced to the xing yi lian huan tui form, my first deep exposure to foot techniques in xingyi quan…

Now I am back in Tokyo, reviewing all the new things daily.
And getting back to much-neglected Liu Laoshi training. I have kept the bagua zhang up pretty well (learned the fine yuan yang yue (crescent moon knives/ deer horn antlers/ various other names) form from Liu Laoshi in Beijing several months back. But the xingyi quan has been suffering.

This week it is coming back to life. The fire is burning and it feels good. We have a class in Tokyo each week (on that busy Wednesday) but it is too short and has been swamped with new members since Liu Laoshi’s second Tokyo visit last summer, meaning we have done endless review of the five fists, lianhuan, and bashi. I am all for review and deepening one’s basics, but at some point, the hunger for broadening also calls to be satisfied.

As of today, I am back on track with the twelve animals, drilling jixing (chicken) and yao xing (sparrow hawk???). In recent months all my outdoor practice has been in the single parking space outside our house – the one-meter wide strip of land surrounding our house just doesn’t afford the space, especially as some of my attempts at gardening are actually yielding results. Spring and rebirth and all that…

The five fists, the linked form, bashi, I have kept these up fairly well. But the animals, I am embarrassed to say, have been neglected – until now.

Tonight after my daughter fell asleep I went out to the small public space a few hundred meters away – not a park, but close enough and with a few trees to almost hide my movements from passersby on the road.

A half-moon visible overhead, fine spring breeze, no mosquitoes yet. Another run through the new material, then a return to the old.

While my wife was pregnant, I did a lot of late night training in that public space (with mobile phone at hand, just in case). I still recall some of those nights from five, six years ago. Drilling the five fists (wu xing quan) up and down the space, running through a few of the twelve animal forms each night. The zigzag of the snake, the wonderful arm motions of the mysterious tai-bird as they spread and come back together before striking, thigh muscles burning from the leaps and dives of the dragon form…

I had started xingyi quan not long before, so I was alive with the excitement of entering a new world, learning something completely different. I was phasing down my karate training. Xingyi quan was different enough to avoid interference (except for this style of XYQ’s habit of pulling the reverse fist to the center of the body in front of the dantian, rather than all the way back to the hip as in Shotokan karate). But at the same time, I appreciated its directness, a great contrast to the taiji quan which was my first area of study with Mr. T.

After my daughter was born, I learned how to make use of late night milk time by catching up on martial arts videos, standing in horse stance, and the like. My late night, outdoor training time diminished. I got by with compressed forms in the living room but the fire did not burn quite as brightly. The once-a-week XYQ class became the focus of my practice – an excellent class by itself, but not enough without regular supplement.

So these days I can feel myself returning to a very good place in my XYQ training, with near-daily review. Coming back to life…

I did things a bit backwards tonight. I ran through several reps of a couple animal forms, reviewed the five fists, then did some standing practice. I had worked up a good sweat and once motionless, my glasses fogged over completely. I waited it out – relaxed, sank more fully into the santishi stance, relaxed again. All without being able to see anything.

A quick wipe with the thumbs – suddenly all became clear again, and I returned to motion. My hands snapped exactly into place, returning to familiar motions. It is going to be a good spring.

getting started

   No great fanfare, just the sudden launch of a long-considered blog. Got started on this planet 40 years ago, started in Japan 13 years back. First martial arts experience, brief as it was, 22 years ago. That was a tai ji quan class at university. Later, I moved deeply into Japanese arts and to Japan itself. While here, I have shifted my focus from Japanese to Chinese arts. Though I remain active in both, I have returned to having tai ji quan and other internal Chinese martial arts as the core of my training. Slowing down these days but  still going strong. I will be writing primarily about my experiences practicing martial arts - things which have motivated me, uplifted me, disappointed me, the works.