Wednesday, December 30, 2009

learning how to learn

Demo/exhibition no. two of the season went well. It was held on the national holiday which celebrates the Emperor’s birthday. My daughter and I made a day of it and enjoyed it all.

She performed two short gong fu routines, カンフー体操 1 and 2, and did well in her first such appearance before a large crowd.

It was a “light” day for me, as I was only triple entered. Started off with the 32 form of tai ji jian or tai ji sword – not much stress for me, as I have been working on that for years. The only danger is cross-over into sequences from the Sha family tai ji jian routines, but I had anticipated that and was well-prepared.

The surprise came afterward. As soon as 32 jian was finished, I found a semi-isolated corner and started working the Sha family 36 tai ji jian form, which is much newer to me and cause for more concern. During one of the many turns or spins, I caught sight of someone watching me.

I paused midway and he approached after a moment. Quite a few questions and some praise for my form. Turns out he was a professional ballet dancer for many years in Japan, but has not danced for 20 years. He has, however, recently come to tai ji quan and is quite enthusiastic.

It seems he has made rapid progress through several forms in a fairly short time. In short, he learned long ago “how to learn”, in terms of physical motions. The arts may be completely different, but his years of ballet trained him to watch a teacher’s motions carefully and immediately be able to reproduce those motions with his own body.

Look at almost any (adult) beginners’ class. People are eager and enthusiastic but are, in general, very slow learners. They don’t get it and they are not even aware that they don’t get it. Even the simplest commands – move your left arm, open your right hand - cause much difficulty and must be repeated again and again. “No, the other left hand” and all that.

Now look at an experienced martial artist (or dancer or whatever). The sense of body is already developed. He or she can watch the instructor and reproduce motions in the mirror image. When learning a new motion or a new form, they are instantly aware of whether a palm is facing up or down, or the exact position of the bent thumb, and are constantly checking and adjusting the height of the fist on the hip or the angle of the bent knee. They can also look at other students and adjust their own postures and motions – whether drawing from proper or improper examples.

This kind of body awareness and attention to detail (and the instructor) are the product of years of training and are what lead some people to make better progress than others.

Near the end of the conversation, he used the word 中心感, which I take to mean a sense or awareness of one’s own center. This is something essential to any discipline involving body motion. He is walking into the training hall with this sense already developed, whereas others around him – sometimes even those with years of experience, still don’t have it.

Yes, some people may be critical, saying he has learned too much too fast (24, 42, 48, 32 sword, maybe even 42 sword). Maybe so. He may need a long period of consolidation and separation of these forms. Yet I suspect his long-term progress will be solid. And the next time we meet, I will ask him for recommendations on my motions.

(Sorry to recycle the photo from an old blog post, but it fit perfectly. It's from a Beijing subway station in 2008)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


It is demo / exhibition season in Tokyo again, keeping us busy through the winter. Things get started with the local Mitaka tournament, which is just that – very local, and rather small. A good place to get ready for bigger things to come.

The second was, in fact, just yesterday, on the Emperor’s birthday – an exhibition / exchange involving hundreds of people who are part of the Tokyo Chinese martial arts group headed by my teacher. It was also my daughter’s first performance in front of a large group, and she did quite well if I may say (two basic gong fu routines, カンフー体操 1 and 2).

January brings a pair back to back – Saturday is another (larger?) all-Tokyo demo, and Sunday is another local gathering, this time the (richer) side of Mitaka which is on the other side of the train tracks.

There is another in February, also fairly large, and that is it for awhile (oh, gee, there is the Setagaya Ward demo, and then the all-Japans in the summer) (and a trip or two to China in the meanwhile..).

Since I am training regularly in several different classes with my teacher, I will make multiple appearances in each of these demos. There is the ubiquitous tai ji 24 form and the 32 taiji jian or sword form. And our Sha style group is getting pretty regular with Sha style tai ji jian demos.

Then there are the individual demos at some of the above. I use these as motivation, usually picking a weapon or form that has been neglected in prior months, just so I can get back on top of it.

Indeed my yuan yang yue form, learned from Liu Jing Ru Laoshi in his beloved Tao Ran Ting park, had been sorely neglected. So I started off the season in Mitaka (I was first in order in the individual demos, not an enviable position) with 鸳鸯钺 and must admit I was pleased with the result – but I also felt MUCH more polishing is needed. Read more about this pair of strange curvy weapons elsewhere in the blog…

This Mitaka demo was also significant because we finally did a group xing yi quan demo with the five basic fists, lian han quan, ba shi, even the tiger form and a short bit of xing yi spear at the end. And we’ll be doing it again later in the season, all the better.

More on the above events as they unfold. Photos above from before (yue) and during (spear).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

small victories

I have written a few posts about my daughter’s interest – or lack of – in the martial arts. We continue going to a gong fu class together on Friday nights. These days I have been very pleased to see her interest growing and her motions and concentration improving.

We started quite young, about age four, mostly just playing rather than truly practicing. My goals were to expose her to the training environment and to do something together regularly.

Her initial excitement wore off after a few sessions, but her attachment to the teacher and some gentle nudging from us parents have kept her going for a couple years now. And it seems it is finally paying off.

During the week, I can actually get her to practice several days, if only a couple runs through the shortest of gong fu routines. But she would never practice at home before, so this is a big step for her and a great source of pride for me.

She seldom wants to practice during the week. But on Friday nights, she is (almost) always eager to go, and is always happy once inside the gymnasium. And these days, she does the entire workout (arriving early, staying until the end with all the Big Kids and assorted adults) without her customary breaks for drawing and reading.

Part of this may be because, while still the youngest in the group by a couple years, a new woman has joined and looks to my daughter for help and instruction. Fun to watch, and a boost for my daughter’s confidence.

Another part of it may be because our teacher co-hosted a couple free introductory demos with about 30 kids each and my daughter got to be a model a few times. And we have our first parent-child demo coming up later this month as part of a larger exhibition in Tokyo.

But despite my happiness with all these changes, there has been one small disappointment. My daughter informed me and the teacher that she does not want to do the demo together with me as planned, but wants to appear separately.

Fair enough. A small price to pay in the face of so many other small victories recently. My daughter may never share my passion for practicing martial arts, and her dream is to become an Olympic swimmer, but each practice we share together is a great victory for me.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

When to quit

About seven years back, I was in my naginata prime.

Work was a very distant second to training and my daughter was in the making. I was training three times a week regular practice on top of regular weekend seminars. It was the right way to train. I passed 3rd dan in one go, and 3rd dan is a major dividing point in the naginata world, which only runs the dan ranks up to 5th dan. (After that, it is only the titles: renshi, kyoshi, hanshi).

At that time, I also passed the test to become a nationally-recognized naginata shinpan (referee), joining a very small number of non-Japanese to have done so. Alas, since that time, my naginata career has not continued to soar, but that is another story for another time and place. For now, we are focused on accomplishments, not decline. And on quitting…

Some time after passing 3rd dan, a person may be ready for consideration for shinpan training. The final stages involve a pair of intensive trainings which culminate in the testing. The naginata world may be even more conservative than those of other Japanese martial arts, and the pass rate is not excessively high.

I managed to pass. Along the way, I had an encounter which will always stay with me. For the second intensive, we were joined by the nationally famous K Sensei. Atarashii “sport” naginata or not, no one could watch her motions and not be impressed. By the way, she has long been active in one of the more combative naginata koryu ryuha.

Somewhere along the way, I heard that she had a huge “blank” in her training, about 15 years. I couldn’t believe it, could not fathom it. She was nationally recognized for her skill, then stopped, completely, for fifteen years. Absolutely no practice.

This just could not penetrate my brain. No matter the reason – she decided to devote herself entirely to being a mother upon becoming pregnant. At that time in my life, it was alien to me. As for me, there would only have been one option: to reduce naginata practice yet continue, while devoting myself to parenting.

Not an option in Japan. This is a country where people – especially martial arts people – are very focused. You devote yourself to one thing and, with time, come to do it very, very well.

Anyway, sometime around her child’s high school years, this teacher returned to the naginata world and remains a strong and respectable presence to this day.

Slight change of topic, but related.

Some months back, I caught a ride to the train station with my ryuukyuu kobudo friend after practice. He is an interesting and supportive fellow, and we have begun to climb up the ranks together. That particular night, I was listening to the music he played in the car and liked it despite its mainstream feel.

Upon asking, I was told it was Yamaguchi Momoe. After some youtubing and wikipedia-ing and a look through The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (Schilling), I learned quite a bit about her.

Now anyone who knew me Way Back in the Day may be surprised to know of my interest in a pop idol totally within the mainstream. True, I have been a Wang Faye fan for a decade since living in China, but I don’t divulge that information often, either.

Anyhow, something in her music caught me and drew me in. She was a very young pop idol, starting about age 13 in 1972 and quickly taking Japan by storm. That despite being a “love child” outside of marriage (a major taboo in Japan just a couple decades back).

After a string of hits she suddenly called it quits in 1980. Just like that. One final concert and tearful apologies for selfishly abandoning her fans. And it was over.

Many others in the fickle Japanese entertainment world have called it quits, only to revive their careers (or look ridiculous trying). But Yamaguchi Momoe remained true to her word – once she quit, she has never come back for a single appearance. She has opted for a quiet, domestic life on the outskirts of Tokyo.

What started this entire post was her words upon quitting the entertainment world at the height of her popularity: “I want to give my love with both hands”. Innuendo aside, this simple statement really captures something at the heart of Japanese culture. She was declaring her intent to devote herself solely to her husband and her domestic role. There was no possibility of her being a wife and a member of the entertainment world. Schilling’s Encyclopedia mentions that feminists were aghast at Yamaguchi’s decision to give up a singing career for her husband, but that millions of fans were touched by her devotion and resolution.

Whatever your take on this decision, she has stayed true to her word despite the clamoring of fans and has never once reappeared in the entertainment world. She quit one pursuit and devoted herself entirely to another. And, my wife informs me, she continues to live a few stations down the train line from us, still married and still domestic.

Back to the naginata world…there was another story I heard during that pivotal intensive when I gained my referees’ license. It involved a practitioner of Ten Do Ryu naginata, a centuries-old ryuha in which I was active at the time and maintain some commitment even now.

She was devoted to Ten Do Ryu and practiced endlessly at the home dojo outside Kyoto, which still serves as a home for the ryuha and as a gathering point for large numbers of practitioners several times a year. She got married and continued her practice. She had a baby and continued her practice. The story I heard had her back in the dojo less than a month after giving birth, the baby strapped on her back, running through the naginata techniques.

All of this comes back to me and my penchant for practicing more than one or two arts. For years (decades almost) my guiding principle was to never quit. Once I started a martial art, I could not quit. So I added one, then another. And here I am today, struggling to balance several martial arts. In recent years I have (regrettably) quit an art or two, and significantly reduced my commitment to others. But in choosing this way, I have strayed from the Japanese way of practice. Or have I?

There are those like K Sensei, one of my kendo teachers, 80-some years old and still going strong. Started young and never practiced any other martial art. And he has reached a height, a pinnacle, unseen by millions of others practicing kendo. I can go full bore against him and not touch him – and I am not holding back at all due to his age. But more importantly, there is a row of 7th dans in the dojo who face off against him weekly– and seem not to take many points at all.

There are also those who practice several martial arts. Of course they must specialize in one, but they have familiarity with others.

The question for me, though, comes down to when to quit an art. We can’t keep starting new arts without quitting some. I met one man who was devoted to a particular style of karate. A national champion in one country, he came to Japan for many years to continue his training and has since returned to his home country.

I had one hours-long talk with him after a few (??) drinks at the infamous annual budo seminar in Katsuura, Japan. We have had almost no contact since then, but his ideas left a strong impact upon me.

He was a karateka to the core and there were no questions about what his specialty was. Yet at the same time, he investigated a number of other martial arts in order to supplement his understanding of karate. He would study a number of years, then stop, just like that, once he felt that he had learned enough to add to his karate.

Like the naginata story above, I respected his idea yet it simply could not penetrate my head. I could not grasp spending a few years on an art, then setting it aside permanently. Why not keep karate as his main art, while continuing to explore martial art X or Y, to which he had already devoted a number of years??

It is one of the fundamental questions in martial arts – whether to devote yourself solely to a single art, or to pursue several of them, once a strong foundation is achieved. You know where I fit in this picture. This question has haunted me for years, mostly because of the criticism of those who are devoted to a single art. There seem to be two views, and they further seem to be irreconcilable.

My only answer is that it comes down to one’s personality. Some of us are just “built” psychologically to focus on one art and pursue it exclusively. Great, go do it. Some of us are just “built” psychologically to pursue a number of arts. Great, go do it. I just hope that we can respect each other while going and doing it.

Those of us in the latter group, in addition to the daily struggle of how to nurture more than one art, are sometimes faced with the question of when to quit an art. I have no answer for this, but I find much food for thought in the examples above.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What is fang song?

A reader’s request: A complete post about “fang song” would be in order.

That’s a tough one, which is why I have been putting this post off for several months. I still don’t have a good answer, nothing more than I could have said some months back. Fang song (放松) is a Chinese word simply translated as “relax”. But it refers to a deep, whole-body state of relaxation.

Far from having the tensed muscles so prevalent in external martial arts, the goal of fang song is to have a completely relaxed body / mind which will result, paradoxically, in smooth and strong actions with great power and speed.

You can practice (achieve?) fang song by progressively relaxing the muscles in your body, usually working from the trunk / center out to the extremities. But however much I relax, it seems I can go back through another cycle and relax even more.

Not much of an answer, I fear – thus I will call upon readers to give their own answers to the question, “what is fang song?” Please reply via the "comments" section.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

be prepared

There is a weekly tai ji jian sword class which I like very much, though work sometimes interferes. Sometimes I can only stop in just long enough for a talk with the teacher – in tonight’s case, my plan for a group xing yi quan demo at an upcoming local tournament.

Until now, about two of us have done solo xing yi quan demos at the tournament but now that the class has been going for 5-6 years, I suggested that we have a group demo featuring several aspects of xing yi quan. So everyone might demo the 三体式 standing posture and the five basic fists 五形拳. Then we could break into small groups and each group could perform one of the twelve animal forms 十二形 of their choice (probably dragon, chicken, and monkey, since those were the focus of Liu Jing Ru Laoshi’s most recent visit.

Then, splitting into halves, we could do the 连环拳 and 八势 routines. Finally, I hope to run through the spear work we have covered so far, 形意枪. The teacher is very supportive but other class members are a bit reluctant. Anyway, I think we should be ready to demo and have tried to create a 10-minute performance that will showcase what we have been working on while allowing each person to choose only some parts to focus on. Alas, I will have to do 杂式捶 another time.

So my intention had been to simply attend the sword class (late), watch carefully, and discuss my proposal. As I should have expected, the teacher came right over with his sword and insisted I join the group for one last run through the 32 jian form. I duly protested. He duly insisted.

We have been through this ritual before and I should have known it was coming – and should have drunk less beer with dinner. I have not been practicing this 32 form much at all, as I have been quite focused on the Sha family tai ji jian forms for some time. And sure enough, at one of the places where the 32 form overlaps with the first Sha (24) form, I went into the Sha style, going off 45 right instead of forward after an overhead chop (劈剑), downward block along the side, downward flicking cut (点剑) sequence.

I quickly hopped in place to adjust my angle by 45 degrees, and couldn’t help but notice the smirk on the teacher’s face. Apart from that little glitch I gave a good show, but that one flaw stood out to those two who knew and betrayed my lack of preparation, the readiness to do any form at any time.

It’s a good thing I finally have a morning off work tomorrow. You’ll know where to find me.

Friday, October 9, 2009

karate memories (1)

Had a nice long solo practice at home tonight, spent most of it on kobudo. Somewhere in the blur of motion my mind began wandering. I took a break and let it go where it would.

(I) There was one visit, a friendly visit to another karate practice. Was it in the Dallas area, on a visit to relatives there? A very small group with a male teacher, a female top student, myself, and some beginners. We three continued after the beginners had finished their paces.

They were also Shotokan karate, though of a different line. Everything was the same but slightly different. He had the lead student and I start running through each of the Shotokan kata, side by side. Both brown belts, we were in the best of condition and the hungriest of spirit.

The three taikyoku kata. The five heian (pinan) kata. And so on, one by one. The three tekki (naihanchi) kata. Not a word said, just the name of the next kata after a short rest between each. Both bassai kata. Ji’in, jion.

It was the best kind of competition, both of us showing our stuff while respecting the other. We just wanted to show good kata, not to be better than the other person. Jion, nijushi. I began to wonder how far we would go, when he would say something. I hadn’t yet learned either of the gojushiho kata. If memory serves, I knew a couple more kata than she did. I hesitated, looked at him, got no signal of any kind, which I took as a go-ahead. He called a couple more kata, but I think it was getting clear that my breadth had exceeded my depth and there was no purpose in going further.

He never did say much more and I was uneasy, unsure what his purpose had been , what he had been looking for. Yet there was nothing negative, either. We finished off with some basics, bowed and exchanged thanks and goodbyes.

(II) All of this comes on the heels of an excellent practice last week (already blogged) in which we spent over two hours on a single weapon, the nunchaku, rather than the usual run through several weapons. Depth to balance out the breadth, and much appreciated.

(III) Sometimes I get little blasts from the past, very specific memories of places where I practiced. One late night outdoors in Texas, in the space between my parents’ house and the neighbors, as the air conditioner whirred into the night. I can still feel that night’s breeze cooling me between kata. I had taken my bo staff with me on that trip, and ran again and again through the selection of bo kata I knew. No one was watching, but it felt like anyone could be watching, and I knew that my kata were good.

Another visit, this one to a dojo inside a sweltering Quonset hut in summer in Bemidji, Minnesota. A karate / kobudo class with one teacher, two students, and me. And about twice that many onlookers outside, occasionally jeering but not venturing inside. I was a bit wary upon leaving, but found no one looking to jump me.

And another visit, to a long-running dojo which had only recently opened its doors to men. A friend of a friend was a long-term member and arranged for my visit. I was very impressed with the practice and have always wanted to return for another visit. It was an unplanned visit and I was treated exceptionally well, loaned a karate-gi, the works.

Other practices surface: striving in vain to hold kiba-dachi horse stance in the late night waves on a North Carolina beach, striving in pain to hold kiba-dachi in calf-deep snow in a backyard in Nebraska. The surface of the snow had iced over and I found blood running down both legs upon going inside – but had felt nothing outside, numbed by the cold.

The blood that had slowly accumulated on a makiwara punching post in the basement. And the giant, swollen tick I found on the carpet backing / punching pad I found one night under the single light bulb which illuminated the whole basement.

My first karate summer, was it 20 years ago? I had been through the university class, which captured me from the start, 4 ½ months in the spring and a bright new yellow belt. I knew from the first day it was for me and jumped in all the way.

I was the epitome of the bookish nerd, had been for 20 years. And now my body was moving and growing strong like it never had before.

Remember the kid who had perfect grades and shunned all the sports and athletes? That was me. The kid whose only athletic accomplishment (apart from a long and relatively undisturbed stint in right field in elementary school softball) was joining the cross-country track team and coming in dead last at every day’s practice except that one glorious day when the Always Second-to-Last kid had a cold and I swept past him in glorious victory (blogged about way back when)….that was me.

Maybe all those years of no physical activity, all the piles of science fiction novels, all the games of chess, had been building up to something. Because once it started, it couldn’t be stopped. I practiced like I had done nothing before in my life, as if fully awake for the first time. It consumed and shaped my life.

Too much so. My social life was arranged around an endless practice schedule. Staying the night at one place on a bitter cold winter night. I arrived after karate, of course, and hung my stinking dogi up to dry in her kitchen. The sweetest cup of hot chocolate in the history of the world – but that aroma had to dance and waft around the stench of a karate gi / uniform. If I only knew then….That was long before I knew that Practice sometimes has to take a back seat to more important things.

After that first semseter’s class, I continued in the sparsely-attended summer classes and spent afternoons pouring sweat in our sauna-like attic: multi-colored shag carpet and a wavy, broken line of foot-wide mirrors bought at various thrift stores. I ground those taikyoku and heian kata into my body. Our Sensei had written a text for the university classes and it was my guide day after day as I spent the afternoons preparing for the nights.

After more than the usual four or five years, I graduated university with three majors (I’ve never been one for focusing too narrowly….) and High Distinction. But the real story was not written on my diploma. My real passion and endeavor through it all was karate. What I really learned at that time was Japanese budo. It was played out there in the dojo and was written on and in my body over seven years, all leading to my coming to Japan.

Strangely, it was never quite right after coming to Japan. Long stories there for another time and place. Many things I might have, should have done differently. Many opportunities missed.

Fast-forward past all that. Now in Japan twice as long as I practiced karate and other budo in the US. I now find myself immersed in the Chinese martial arts, having found that one teacher and training environment which are right for me at this time. The Chinese martial arts world tends toward breadth (with depth) in just the way that the Japanese martial arts world tends toward depth over breadth. Maybe I have found my place after all.

(IV) What is my first, strongest karate memory? Maybe one from the end of that first semester. It was the last class before our paper test. Of course we had a practical test with kihon basics, kata forms, and kumite sparring. But there was also a written test which covered a wide range of material. On the last day, one of the teachers was drilling us. She asked a question about the meaning of the name of our branch of karate, Kenkojuku Shotokan.

No one else raised their hand. So I, in all my introverted glory, cast my eyes about and shyly raised my hand. I think she knew that I knew that answer, as she looked around for someone else to call upon. No other hands went up. She nodded, I answered, almost too completely.

I could feel way too many eyes staring at me. Was it the last question? Maybe so. We rose, bowed and said a final “osu!”, and left the training hall. I knew at that time that I had found something which would shape and guide my life.

(V) 2009. It has been too long since I have gone back. An ocean away and farther, as I move ever deeper into a different world. But on nights like this, I can pull out those taikyoku and heian kata and take myself straight back to the attic where I first burned them in.


Thursday, October 1, 2009


I have been thinking about resistance in terms of my 6-year-old daughter lately – she seems to have entered a new / higher stage of resistance to parents. Most days are pretty good but once in a while trouble unfolds.

They are little things, mostly – stomping up the stairs when told to put her toys in her room, ignoring parents when they call her, steadfastly refusing to comply with innocuous requests….surely I wasn’t such a stubborn child! I tell myself it is all a necessary part of her growth and development, but it is scant consolation after a long day at work and unnecessary poopiness at night.

Anyhow, last night I suddenly had to look at some of my own resistance. I practice martial arts because, well, I like learning and practicing martial arts. My goal is to absorb what the teacher has, bring it into my body and my motions. So I usually try to do what the teacher says. Pretty simple stuff.

The starting point is having chosen a teacher whom I respect and that I feel has mastery over the motions and concepts they are teaching. So, like most students, I go along with what the teacher says and strive to understand it and make it part of me.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel right at all.

We were working on Maezato (Mezato) no Nunchaku and Akamine no Nunchaku last night. It was great, an (almost) all-nunchaku night, over two hours of detailed reps. One of the core moves in both kata is a combination block which sets up the attack to follow.

You block across horizontally (the front stick is held vertical and the rear one at about a 30 degree angle, with the rear fist reinforcing the inner forearm of the lead arm. From there you add in another hip rotation and take the lead hand up inside the other arm to block overhead. The other hand moves across the body slightly, toward the opposite side of the torso.

The lead arm finishes with the stick held horizontal overhead, parallel to the floor (the teacher was stressing last night) and the other stick is held vertically, out near the shoulder. He was also urging us to keep the horizontal stick much lower, about eyebrow level.

My long-time habit is to block higher overhead, so I must assume this is more of a ready position. That is also because as the lead stick is going upward, the other stick pushes across to the side a second time– this functions as a strike to drive the opponent’s weapon (a six-foot wooden staff or bo) off to the side, following up the block just before.

My habit is also to block overhead with an angled stick – the idea being to let the blocked weapon slide downward off my weapon, absorbing some of the shock and helping get the opponent’s weapon out of my way.

So I was trying my best NOT to block, but merely to assume a ready position for the next motion, a downward strike from this cocked position (add a slide forward with yori-ashi). Trying to keep the overhead stick (a) parallel to the floor and (b) much lower.

I couldn’t let go of the blocking concept. I managed to get the motion down, but I was blocking it out in a way – not accepting it as correct. Even as my body did the motion, my mind was not accepting it.

My own little rebellion stage, I suppose, or just another issue to work through. Thinking about this, I have gained a bit more patience for my daughter as well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Between worlds

Have been jumping back and forth between different worlds the past several weeks, too busy to ponder the craziness of it all. This goes way back into last month – several days of extra work, then flash, 10 days with Liu Jing Ru Laoshi here in Tokyo.

I had really wanted to get over to Beijing again before his Tokyo visit but it was impossible. Then here he was in Tokyo. Suddenly work was on a very distant back burner.

He returned to Beijing and I to work – for a few days. All day every day, and extra work each night. Then one morning I went directly from work to gasshuku, a couple days off in the semi-countryside with nothing to do but practice and drink. Gee, what a fate. Rode the last train back one night, took an early train to work the next morning, 3 hours with another group, another company.

12:00 noon, finish work. 12:08, on the subway on the way to the airport to pick up a visiting parental unit. And taking care of her every day until the day after tomorrow.

Except I did cast aside my filial duties for a special class last night. And an all-day Chen taiji thing today, building well on recent Chen work…Filial duties resumed as soon as Chen ended, now a few moments to myself at night.

And so on, back and forth between vastly different worlds. A return to the normal routine lies somewhere on the horizon a few days later.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

aging in Japan

1. Yesterday I went to the park with my daughter. We were walking all over and spied an older man practicing karate by himself, just off the beaten path. There was no flash, no bang, just good solid technique. Throwing punch after punch, then thrusting again and again with his fingers, all while rooted in a strong stance. There was no muscle power, but you could tell each one of those strikes would really hurt. People were jogging and exercising all around him. They paid him no mind and he had his back to them. How many decades has he practiced those strikes, and there he is, late Sunday afternoon, going after it in the park.

2. My neighbor is nearing 80 and was extremely active until a bicycle accident last year. He has maintained a large and somewhat overpopulated garden, something quite hard to do in this city where every square inch of land commands a premium price. He has advised my amateur gardening efforts in the meter of land running around my house which pass as a garden for the 8 or 9 years we have lived in this home.

He still gets out and putters in the garden / jungle every day, but has slowed noticeably since the accident. So these days I go over and impose some small measure of order on the chaos growing outside his home. It is the large space I have always wanted here in Tokyo and now I can have it vicariously for a few hours each week. He apologizes profusely for no longer be able to help me. I insist that I am glad for his tips and recommendations.

These days he has me taking out an entire tree here and there. Each time I feel a pang of regret / loss, but he moves on, convinced it is time to clear things out. I wish I were able to do so with some of the forms languishing on my back burners. And some of the unread books on the hard-to-reach corners of my shelves. Cut the ties that bind and move on. I piddle about, trimming the odd branch here and there, pulling a few weeds. He is resolute, forging ahead with determination and no hesitation whatsoever. Maybe he senses a limit on his remaining years and wants to get things in order. Me, half his age and trying to do too much, I just wish I had more hours in each day. And even half his determination / resolution.

3. My grandmother-in-law is 104 and counting, and more healthy than her daughter (my mother-in-law). Until 101 or 102, she got down on the floor and welcomed me with a full bow each time I visited. At 104, I don’t mind at all if she gives me a little nod (and a hand-wave in recent years) from her bed. I still get down on the floor and bow to her.

What strength has kept her moving so long? Four generations live in that house in the countryside. She still jokes about her own impending death every day – but won’t give in just quite yet. She may sleep as many hours a day as a baby. Yet when I pass by her room and pause to sneak a peek, she sits right up and shoots me a question. She is not finished yet.

Friday, August 28, 2009


OK people, this is too strange.

I started six harmonies praying mantis fist (liu he tang lang quan 六合螳螂拳) today with Liu Laoshi. I have had my eye on it at each year’s seminar (2006, 2007, 2008) but have kept a respectful distance. As you may have surmised, I have a few martial arts to work on and struggle with the breadth vs. depth question everyday. So I have focused entirely on bagua zhang and xingyi quan on all of Liu Laoshi’s visits to Tokyo (and on my visits to him in Beijing).

An email with a close gong fu and budo friend from Tokyo changed everything. He may visit some of Liu Laoshi’s seminar dates for the first time, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to work on something like this with a good friend. Turns out he might only be able to come for a day or two, but I have jumped in and committed myself all the way.

Actually I am getting some good xingyi quan review in along the way, in addition to as much ba gua zhang as I can swipe from the sidelines (I will catch it all later in the review classes, but it is nice to get a taste now).

Each year only a few people opt for mantis fist, so we get a lot of attention when he makes it over our way between the other two groups. And we are off to a good start, working at a fast pace through 藏花, the Hidden Flower form. I like it quite a bit and am looking very much forward to the next class.

After the day’s seminar, I took a long walk through one of my favorite areas of Tokyo, the Shin-Okubo / Okubo area, full of Chinese and Korean people and a few Japanese holdovers. I have always loved the area since moving to Tokyo and love to explore whenever I get the chance, even though it means walking the long way around.

I moved on to my favorite Chinese restaurant, a Chang’an place out west near my home. I ate and drank to excess and left in the finest of moods. A street cat outside, perched on a bicycle seat, caught my eye and suffered my attentions, lifting my spirits even higher as I snapped some photos and offered my hand and nose.

Then, at my home station, I got out of the station and was walking along in a wonderful mood when I spied a large praying mantis on the door of a bank. Captivated instantly, I got out my camera and got to work. But this was no place for a stray mantis, with cars and bicycles and twirpy kids who love to grab insects as overnight pets all around.

I set about trying to capture the mantis and had a hard time of it. His earlier motions, swaying back and forth in a nonchalant manner, betrayed a speed I had not imagined. About that time, a passerby stopped and offered support.

It was unusual in the best of ways. I have something of a complex about my spoken Japanese and get quickly and exceedingly grumpy when some Japanese people act as if I do not exist. No eye contact, speaking to any Japanese person next to me but never directly to me, staring blankly in response to my (gasp! Foreigner’s) Japanese (go read Laowiseass’ blog for his version of the same in China (Taiwan lately).

Anyway, this was really uplifting. A total stranger, she spoke to me like a normal human being, no hesitation whatsoever about my FOREIGNER status. It was the first time either of us had seen a mantis in years and we were both concerned for its safety.

I grabbed it one more time and was promptly bitten / scratched / somethinged and blood was drawn. Shit, that bugger could cause some pain. The woman grabbed him, showed me how to hold him without being bitten or somethinged, then handed him back.

I said I would take him to the nearby public area where I often practice. She did something very uncharacteristically Japanese and, under the circumstances, very natural and normal. She took out a package of bread items, took them out and put them into her purse (without a bag! Gasp! Utterly shocking concept in this over-clean and over-wrapped country) and gave me the bag to put the mantis in while carrying him to the park.

A totally natural gesture in most countries, but a complete and very welcome surprise in this country. Mantis in bag, I thanked her and headed off to the park. A few minutes later, I heard footsteps approaching from behind. She had returned to offer a band-aid for my thumb, still smarting from the mantis’ greeting.

The mantis crawled about and explored the bag as we made our way to the park. I let it go among some flowers and wished it well, then moved on, still gripped with wonder.

I have almost never seen mantises in Japan (maybe never in the US). Only once stands out to me – my family had joined the DaZaE crew (our budo/yoga/beer/everything friends from the neighboring station) for a day of frolicking in the park and a tiny brown mantis had jumped onto my arm. It wouldn’t go near anyone else. But I couldn’t get if off my arm. We looked at each other and rocked our bodies side to side and it was good.

Tonight’s mantis was much bigger, an adult, and vibrant green but for a pair of black eyes protruding slightly. Its green will help it hide in the park, I hope.

What timing brought us together, this day that I began my mantis fist career? That long walk through Okubo, just the right time spent over food and drink at the Chinese place, a chance glance at a brightly-lit door on a bank.

Good luck, my mantis friend.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Blast from the past

We interrupt the ongoing updates regarding Liu Laoshi's Tokyo visit to bring you a pair of revealing photos from this blogger's sordid past. Maybe 12 years back, doing a short demo in Tokyo. Ugh.

We will return with ongoing coverage of The Liu Laoshi Visit before long.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Liu Laoshi is coming to Tokyo (2)

Tomorrow, tomorrow.

Back to practice for now.

(picture of Liu Laoshi in "The Professor" mode so loved by the students here in Tokyo)

Liu Laoshi is coming to Tokyo

...what more can be said? Nothing but review and preparation the next couple days, then it all starts. More to come...

(Photo one of the few leftovers from Tao Ran Ting in August 2008, working on ba gua jian)

Monday, August 24, 2009

The gathering of the 5000

A couple weeks back there was a major karate and kobudo gathering in Okinawa. Over 5000 participants from around the world gathered inside the Okinawa Prefecture’s Gym. There were so many demos that 6 or 8 rings were running simultaneously.

I didn’t make it down for the fun, but several dojo mates and seniors did. By chance, I had an open Wednesday night so I visited the Morishita dojo where I have practiced a few times and have always been made to feel extremely welcome.

Though I missed out on the big event in Okinawa, it worked somewhat to my advantage because most of the people from Tokyo had not yet returned. That meant only four people for kobudo practice and more individual attention from the teacher.

He asked each of us to focus on whichever was our weakest weapon for that night’s practice. Oh, so many to choose from when they all need work. I opted for sai, since I will need to perform tsukin shita haku no sai (chikin shita haku no sai) for my next rank exam. And because I have not been able to nail the down block / rising block combo which is done about 552 times in the kata and that has caused some concern out in Tama where I usually practice.

The extra scrutiny from the teacher was well worth it and my kata or form has been completely rebuilt. Now to grind in the changes through about ten thousand reps before the test…

(photo of a number of bo staves strapped onto a bicycle for easy transportation around Tokyo)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ping Yang memories (1)

Ten years ago I was living for a short time at Ping Yang Wu Shu School in China’s Zhejiang Province. I joined many classes with the children there and had some excellent experiences. I wish now I had taken so many more photographs, so much more video.

Immersed in the Japanese martial arts at the time, and taking part in demos of kendo and iaido in that area, I had scant knowledge of Chinese martial arts and didn’t know what to look for.

It was a pivotal year in my life and many deep memories remain. Most are clear, easily connected to my understanding. Some remain unclear. Once in a while, the unclear becomes clear. I am grateful for the realization, but hunger again for chance to return and observe and experience with more knowledge.

One of my unclear memories was of a post-dinner practice. There were three or four regularly scheduled practices each day, but students often gathered informally after dinner for more practice.

There was a room used by the boxing class and by the hard style qi gong class. It had weight machines scattered about and a large mirror on one wall. The floor was always dirty and people always went in barefoot and came out with black soles.

I had almost no Chinese language ability at the time and thus could not communicate directly with the young wu shu teachers but we all got on well enough. One of them, tall and lanky, started to demonstrate the strangest punches I had ever seen. Up and down the floor in great bursts of speed and flurries of motion, his arms flailing about in giant circles…I didn’t know how to grasp it. Yet I also knew instinctively that I didn't want to be in the way of any of those punches.

All my punches were in the straight and direct lines of Shotokan Karate. I used straight punches only, and I expected only those from my opponents (or believed that other types of punches were easier to block). I knew these young teachers were all tough, had to be tough, but couldn’t imagine why he was punching like that.

Ten years later…I begin learning basics of southern fist 南拳 in my gong fu class and here I am, working on this crazy left-right combo with wildly swinging arms…called 挂盖拳 (gua gai quan?), it is one of the fundamentals of southern fist.

(The photo is from Ping Yang Wu Shu School, but not of southern fist, alas...had I known then what to look for, what to take pictures of....)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

It's just not fair

I was very fortunate to start my martial arts career in a dojo where stretching was an important part of every workout. From the beginning I have always tended to be among the more flexible within a group. Then I got started with my Chinese Stuff teacher over here several years back and had to take it to a new level. OK, elbow to the toes? No problem, just give me a couple years. Oh, you also do it cross-body, right elbow to left toes? OK, give me another year.

Then I joined a Friday night gong fu class and realized I hadn't begun my stretching career. Led by a husband-wife team, we might easily spend 1/3 of the class time stretching. Each week they seem to dream up new and sadistic (masochistic?) ways to twist and contort. I am making slow but steady progress - may need another year for the forehead-to-the-toes thing, but I am on it.

One thing I can't seem to make progress in is bending the wrist over until the fingertips touch the inner forearm. I've seen some aikido people do this but almost no one in gong fu. So I have taken it as a special challenge - but can't seem to make much progress.

I spent last week teaching government employees over here. One kid in my group was a surfer. Complete anti-thesis of the martial artist's rigor and discipline, right? And here he is, wrist bent almost completely over. We were taking a break and he was popping knuckles in his hand and I joked about him bending his wrist this way. And there he went, just like that.

Incidentally there was also an aikido person in our group. At my suggestion she tried a technique on him (kote gaeshi??) and it still worked quite well. Anyway, even if it won't prevent a dastardly aikido-ka from flooring me in screaming agony, I still want to work on this wrist bend thing.

Maybe if I took up surfing???

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Portrait of the Martial Artist as a Young Man

In honor of (more than) one year as a blog, and just reaching the 500-mark on “profile views”, I offer this rare glimpse from the past. Yes, I was in good shape at one point.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Ministry of Silly Walks

It stopped raining for a while, so they officially declared the end of rainy season. Then it started to rain, and hasn’t let up much since. I have been pretty lucky – the dry afternoons have coincided well with my open times to practice outdoors, so I can’t complain.

And it has been a stellar weekend. Gong fu on Friday brought in one old young friend and another new person. That made 4 in the 南拳 camp and a sudden surge of Southern Fist activity (the class is usually geared heavily toward the (Northern) Long Fist 长拳 style for all, but this Friday we separated. I think my entire being is geared much more toward the southern styles than the northern (at least in terms of the external arts), so this is exciting news for me.

Unusual Walk (1) This morning there was an unprecedented intro-to-Southern Fist seminar. Small group, lots of attention. And one made-on-the-spot form completed (assembled from an assortment of elementary motions). Cursory as my knowledge is, it is a blast, something to hold on to and develop.

We were introduced to several key motions of Southern Fist, one being a strange way of advancing. Each foot steps across the center line in a zig zag that looks like a kid who has to piss. This stepping combines with the butterfly palms 蝴蝶掌 which look a bit like cloud hands going back and forth across the body. I don’t know the reason for this stepping yet but am proceeding on faith. It has only been one day, after all.

Unusual Walk (2) Learned it in the Kumi Dachi set from iaido, paired practice with wooden bokuto swords. The steps also advance in a zig-zag fashion, stepping alternately across the centerline, but with the toes angled in. In Unusual Walk #1, the toes are angled out on each step (and the back heel is raised). We can also do it on one of the seated oku-iai techniques (which feels more like one of the standing techniques), 虎乱走. It is something the teacher will mention on rare occasion, though most people don’t do it. As above, I don’t know the reason for the unusual stepping, but am proceeding on faith.

Anyhow, it was a great weekend in every way (the morning’s seminar was followed by a tai ji seminar in the afternoon, but that is a different post for a different day).

Monday, July 27, 2009

tai ji jian 42

What a weekend – nothing but tai ji jian (sword) 42 for two full days. Two long hot days of scorching heat and puddles of sweat in an elementary school gymnasium with no AC. And with the best of teachers.

It was actually a joint venture, 32 and 42 tai ji sword. But with a big test coming up, 90% of the people were there for 32. Which left a few for 42 – and us split into two groups based on experience. The result was much attention – and just the right kind of drive and push from the teacher.

I don’t have any regular classes in the 42 jian form, only these weekend seminars a couple times a year. So I go in hungry, knowing I must get all I can in a short time.

That means the week before has heavy 42 jian rotation in preparation, and the week following has heavy 42 jian rotation in review, and so on. I went in thinking I had a handle on the form but needed a lot of smoothing out.

Fool. I was smoothed out a damn lot but left feeling I don’t begin to know the form well at all. It is the best combination of frustration / dissatisfaction with my current ability and a deepened motivation to improve, and it is what keeps me going.

First and foremost, fang song. My old friend and nemesis. Everywhere, every motion. Fang song, relax and sink in. Fang song, then move. And again that voice of a child at Ping Yang Wu Shu School where I lived briefly 10 years back. He watched my tai ji 42 form and had only one comment. Fang song.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

rainy season (2)

I love listening to the rain at night, working out indoors in the humidity long into the night.

Now that this year’s rainy season has been officially declared over, it has rained all day today. And will rain tomorrow and the next day. Then a two-day sword seminar starts and I will be inside all day anyway.

Fine with me, as the three-day weekend gave me three days of working out in the sun (plus Friday night’s super-humid gong fu class with my daughter). Sensing that rain might follow, I spent extra time on weapons the next three days, and have pleasantly (?) sore arms to show for it. So tonight, with the rain, it will be the 64 hands of ba gua zhang in preparation for tomorrow’s class.

64 hands is quite unusual in that the techniques are performed moving in a straight line. There is plenty of characteristic ba gua circling, but the body is moving straight forward as a whole.

Created by Liu Jing Ru, he taught us this set last year on his annual visit to Japan. This year he is rumored to be bringing us the more commonly seen 64 palms. Not enough time, not enough time…

But this weekend had plenty of time. Hours of solo review and polishing, then a morning of much-needed iaido, a blast all the way through both seated and standing okuden forms, and on into a solid review of the paired kumi-dachi sets. The perfect, intensive review I needed, with both breadth and depth. I was on fire, moving well but not satisfied, looking for more. My head is still spinning, and not from the circles of ba gua zhang.

Less work than usual for the rest of the week means more of you know what. Truly glorious days are these….

Monday, July 13, 2009

hungry, thirsty, and gotta piss 5

I walked into the dojo, quite late because (A) work ran late, even after I had arranged in advance for it to finish early, just to get to the dojo earlier, and (B) there had been yet another train suicide and the trains were stalled and the train platforms impossibly crowded, and me with my bag-o-Okinawan-weapons.

N: “Hi Bryan, nice to see you. Are you free on the 29th?”

B: shit….loaded question….think fast….I think I know what’s coming…”Yes, I could be”.

N: “Good, there will be a test. You’ll need to do bo kihon and the tekko kata”.

B: “OK, I will be there”. Shit shit shit.

OK, we have focused rather exclusively on the bo-tai-bo and bo-tai-sai sets and I am getting familiar with both sides of each, if a bit by-the-numbers. I check again, just to be sure.

B: “So, only bo kihon (staff basics) and the tekko kata (knuckle-dusters, essentially)?”

N: “Hmmm, there might be one of the nunchaku kata as well.”

B: “OK, I ‘ll be ready.” I don’t want to push my luck by asking which one.

So it goes. Time to re-arrange the rest of the month, gear up for this chance.

It was another great practice, and I forgot all the problems. Hoping for those few extra minutes of practice, I had foregone toilet, dinner, and water. It took me straight back to last summer in Beijing, those glorious summer nights with Liu Jing Ru Laoshi.

I worked all day at the Olympics, dashed off as soon as I could, raced across that crazy and wonderful town and…sat down to relax with Liu Laoshi over tea in Tao Ran Ting park. Before scrutinizing my ba gua zhang or xing yi quan, he would critique my ability to snap a folding fan open and shut. Glorious and unforgettable nights. Go see the hungry, thirsty, gotta piss series in this blog, which started in Beijing.

Same story – how much will you give up for those few extra minutes of practice? And just like in Beijing, once I got moving tonight, I forgot all about having to piss, being hungry, needing a drink.

Yeah, I know, you should relax and slow down and all that. But sometimes we can forget the complaints and limitations of the body. And the relief is all the better once practice is done. No tea for me, thanks. I’ll take another cold beer. They taste so much better tonight.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

in praise of newbies

Things are going much better on the gong fu front. Most importantly, my daughter seems to be over her “I’m quitting gong fu” phase. It is tough for her, at age six, to be in a class of half adults and with the nearest kid at least three years her senior.

Last week I had a really good practice. My daughter was off at a school function and I went alone to gong fu for a change. No progress on the sticks (nangun, 南棍) but great progress in other areas.

Usually I partner with her through the extended aerobic / agility exercises so I have to hold back quite a bit. But last week I blasted all out and enjoyed it, pushing myself to the limit in the extreme humidity.

For some reason, five new people joined the class that night, all of them adults, three or four of them very experienced. That kicked everybody’s intensity level up several notches, on top of the all-Japan tournament starting this week.

Midway through practice, I was called over to run through basics with the new member who lacked much experience. Usually there is little explanation and there are few if any reps of the demos by the teachers. But that night, the teacher really slowed down for the beginner – and I could benefit from that and really soak in some motions that have been half –understood and half-assed for far too long.

This strikes me as being somewhat similar to my situation in iaido lately. The teachers tend to focus heavily on whoever has joined the group most recently. The longer you have been in, the less attention you get. The less direct attention, anyhow. You have a growing responsibility to watch how the teachers teach those who are newest – to steal what you can and apply it to your own practice. I got a lot of attention when I joined this group – a thorough re-tooling of my iaido to get in line with our style. But now I am seldom taught directly and have to watch the teaching of others.

I am in a strange position in gongfu. They know I have experience with other arts. Despite the fact that I have little background in long fist (the core of this class) or southern fist, I am treated as one of those with experience. That means I am always trying to get all I can while others are being taught – but I am struggling to learn it the first time. At least in iaido I had a strong grounding before joining my current group.

Anyway I had a rare and special opportunity last week, since my daughter was gone and I had been partnered with a newbie.

Now what we really need in this gong fu class are some new young kids, my daughter’s age, to join. That would do more for her motivation than anything. As for me, I hope the newbies keep coming, as their presence gives me the rare chance to get some in-depth explanation and slower reps while learning new moves.

Monday, June 29, 2009

essential training equipment

Yes, the mosquito coils.

I was first introduced to them while living at Ping Yang Wu Shu School and being eaten alive by mosquitos at night. Once I made my distress known, a quick trip to the local store solved the problem and introduced me to the wonders of these coils that burn like incense and really do keep the mosquitos away. There must be something especially tasty in my blood because others around me were not bitten by mosquitos.

Here in Japan I have been using them for ten years ever since and they are lifesavers, as the bulk of my training is outdoors these days, either next to my house or in a large park. I realize that a True Warrior should be impervious to such minor unpleasantries as nagging mosquito bites, but let's face it, I would rather practice without such distractions.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

one of those nights

It started off well – I got an early start for the 90-minute commute and arrived early. The teacher came a few minutes later – and sat down in the lobby of the 6th floor of the building we use for practice.

The room had been reserved well in advance but the paperwork had not arrived with the teacher. And without the paper forms in hand, they won’t let people use the room. There is absolutely no flexibility on this issue.

So we set up shop in the lobby and got to work. No uniforms – if we wore them, they would tell us to stop. But without a uniform – then it is OK to flail about with all manner of weapons, and flail we did.

No time to waste. Heavy nunchaku review, then bo, then something new: the sai vs. bo exercises. All of them. Nice partner drills, good contact, and the sai always “win” the encounter, always started by the bad guy with the bo. We had a nice sai vs. sai set in Nebraska, but I have never seen that over here, and this was my first chance to work sai vs. bo intensively.

So the frustration of not being able to get into the workout room – after a 90-minute trip – melted almost immediately. I had been given a chance, one chance only, to nail this set. Once it is ingrained, I can practice and review on my own, and with partners before/after the usual practice time, but getting it into the body is the hard part.

Rather than going through each of them once, one through ten, then repeating the whole cycle, and so on (the inefficient method so common in Japan), we did it like this: 1, 1+2, 1+2+3, repeat 1-2-3, then add one in, and so on.

In short, we spent over an hour doing the right kind of repetitions and I have a decent feeling for the set – and can now really begin to practice it. We probably wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time or done as many reps if we hadn’t been locked out, so all worked out quite well. The rest of practice went well and was disturbed only by the sudden mid-kata appearance of a rather noisy and confused stag beetle in the room. We maintained focus, he was caught and released, and all was well.

It was raining heavily after practice and I had left some notes behind in the lobby and both my trains were late and I just missed the bus for home and had to wait another 20 minutes in the rain and that bus shortens its route since it is late at night…..and none of it mattered. All because of forgotten paperwork and inflexible policy and an hour’s spontaneous drilling in the lobby. Who needs a special room for training?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

mystery bruise (2)

No mystery about this one (see two posts prior). Last week I decided I would get the Akamine no Nunchaku form down for good. Last night, I got through it on my own but here is the price I paid.

It is the second nunchaku kata we learn in our kobudo group, the first being Maezato (mezato) no Nunchaku. I have been following along with higher ranked people when they do Akamine no Nunchaku but have not really made it my own until just now. It’s the same kata where I bashed my lip and bled all over some time back, yet another previous post.

We don’t really practice small parts of forms little by little and then put them together. No, you run through the entire kata / form once, maybe twice, trying to keep up with everyone who knows it, and that is it. So you try to grab a move or two each night and slowly, painfully make it yours.

But the time was right to make a big jump forward so I spent most of an afternoon on it, dedicated solely to the idea of walking into practice and blasting out the kata and leaving people wondering “damn, when did you learn that one?”

Well, I didn’t exactly bowl them over but it is mine now – and NOW I can do it with everyone and really start to benefit from the corrections and details.

Back to the bruise. Didn’t really notice any pain that afternoon, but the next day I felt a dull ache. No big deal. Took a shower that night and geez! The telling thing is that there is a lovely bruise on my left side, not on the right, despite having practiced the swing and catch on both sides. You know what that tells us.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

adjusting to your environment (2)

Another week, another business trip – ah, the perils of having found employment once again.

This time – on the train back up to Tokyo – ended up working through the opening of the second Sha family tai ji quan form in the space between two cars of the train.

This is not any train, but the Shinkansen, or “bullet train” which zips along pretty quickly indeed and which connects all major Japanese cities.

The prior week I had a full schedule everyday (up in Hakone, another Shinkansen ride away from Tokyo), then gong fu with my daughter on Friday night, special Liu Jingru Laoshi review session all day Saturday, special Sha Laoshi review on Sunday – and directly onto the train from the workout, my roller suitcase full of sweaty clothes and clean suits, and my head still buzzing with three days’ intensive martial arts training.

That week had been spent entirely within the confines of the training facilities, apart from the solace to be found on the rooftop (read about that in a prior post). The change from that setting to three days of Chinese martial arts was immense and much-needed, though I might have used a brief transition.

Again without transition, I plunged back into the work world, spending the next week (i.e. last week) on a mountain outside of Osaka, having boarded the train immediately after Sunday’s practice session. Upon arrival at last week’s facility, I was pleased to discover that we were completely free to wander outside in the forest. So off I went, early every morning and late most nights. I had parallel lives going – work during the day and workouts before and after.

I was stuck between two worlds in another way. It was easy to get lost in the forest as I ventured further and the trail narrowed and I started to worry about getting back on time – and then glanced up to find a giant power line overhead. A small clearing in the forest with both wildlife – the frog I almost stepped on, the birdsong overhead – and reminders of civilization, with the sudden appearance of a set of concrete stairs leading down to….nothing.

In that clearing and other, smaller ones, I worked through the tai ji and tai ji jian (sword) forms of the Sha family, trying to lock in the recent corrections I have absorbed. For a brief period, I could put aside matters related to work and do nothing but move slowly in the mountain air.

I have been transcribing my stack of practice journals into a more orderly and digital form, typing everything onto a computer for my own use now and for possible development into a text in the future (very maybe on that one…). The going is extremely slow but I hope to finish (most of ) an early version by the end of this year.

But in such a wonderful setting, it was not the time to hunch over a laptop and make notes about the wrist curling inward in the direction of the little finger….no, far better to get out and do it, learn with the body and all that. Remember, there are precious few spots of nature left in Tokyo, so I got fairly excited about the woods on the mountain with birds and frogs and – gasp – even signs warning those who stray from the path to be on the watch for snakes.

Back to the Shinkansen and civilization. The week’s work done, I was on the way back to Tokyo and watching the scenery whiz past while hunched over my laptop and making notes on the second tai ji form of the Sha family.

This was actually the first form of theirs which I worked on, started by fortuitous chance but left largely on my own to review during the long gaps between sudden bursts of new motions. I have always been a little shaky on the first sequence of moves, which involves a series of horizontal circles and strikes with the palms.

I had ironed out the sequence of motions back in the woods but couldn’t type out a description of the motions without doing them. And with staring eyes all around my motions were constrained in my seat. So I did the only reasonable thing and moved to the space between the train cars and drilled that section even further between trips back to my seat to tap out more notes.

I got it figured out somewhere between Nagoya and Shizuoka in that small, swaying space and it will be forever etched in my memory. We can’t always choose the best times and places to practice. Sometimes they choose us, and when it goes well, it is an experience to hold onto. Leaning back into another bagua-like palm circle, seeing another unremarkable town flash past out the corner of my eye, returning with a double-handed push to the front – I was far removed from the peace of the mountains, but had created my own brief period of tranquility in a very different space.

Friday, June 5, 2009

the mystery bruise

I used to have them all the time, from sparring. When things are going you don't really recall the details of when and where you got tagged. Now that I seldom spar the mystery bruises seldom occur. But I found one on my thigh last week and couldn't begin to imagine where it had come from.

Last night at gong fu class, I remembered. I have been working on some basic staff (gun, pronounced "goon") moves, southern style. There is a characteristic motion of pulling the lead wrist down sharply onto the thigh to draw the staff down in a vertical circle. Just one swing and it all made sense.

Today I have a much bluer and greener reminder of the source.

(photo from an outdoor session last year)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


My first kendo teacher in Japan didn't immediately teach students who came to him with prior experience. He said he would wait 3 years, to watch them, judge their character, see if they were teachable.

By this I think he meant that he was waiting to see whether or not they could unlearn what they had previously "learned". He had to work with a blank slate, to write his own kendo upon each person from scratch. At the time, I had a hard time understanding his approach. Looking back, I don't think I unlearned enough kendo to learn what I could from him, and it is to my ongoing detriment.

I have a hard time letting go of things, especially when it comes to martial arts. That is part of what has gotten me into my current mess, trying to work on too many things at once.

Starting something completely new, unrelated to any prior martial arts activity, is relatively easy. But starting something that is related to things you have studied before...there are endless problems of cross-over, of old habits that interfere with new ways.

I have felt this most keenly in kobudo. As part of my karate training, we learned several weapons forms or kata. I burned some of those into my body pretty deeply, and the habits and motions of a decade and more are not easily erased.

I have had no karate action for a few years now. But I have recently made a big shift in kobudo, shifting from a couple-years' half-assed commitment to kobudo to a much more serious approach lately. It has not been easy, and there has been much unlearning.

The forms I learned many years back were right, true and correct for me at that time. More recently I have come to see them as having been "Shotokan-ized", adapted and changed from the original to fit into the overall rubric of Shotokan karate. Some of the forms I am working on now are exactly the same ones I started over fifteen years ago - and yet they are completely different.

The best example is Shuushi no kon sho, one of the basic bo / staff kata. It is the same and yet different. On the surface, you could see two people doing roughly the same kata, but once going in deeply, they become worlds apart.

For some years, my ideal was to preserve the old forms I had learned in my formative years while getting to know the "new" (original) ones. And, predictably, I made progress in neither. I have finally tried to let the old forms I grew up on go completely, and am focused solely on the "new" (for me) forms - and am, also predictably, also finally making progress.

Another example is the sai - a weapon made of metal, slightly longer than one's arm (see photo elsewhere on the blog), a rod with two tines protruding. One of the basic kata is tsukinshitahaku no sai (or, in the Okinawan dialect, chikinshita haku no sai). I have had to unlearn and re-learn completely opposite motions and principles. Only recently, after completely setting aside the "old" form which I originally learned, have the "new" motions sunk into my body.

"new": stack up at 45 degrees, block fully facing or torso square into the opponent. Stack up with the handle near my shoulder or armpit, not up by the ear. the arm is flat to block down, with the sai outside on the edge - not with the arm rotated or turned out. Narrower front stance. And on and on.

When I think about it, it has taken me just about three years to let go of my old habits, fully open myself and embrace the "new" habits. Maybe now the real learning can begin.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

iaido mistake

This morning’s iaido class was quite good, in the intensive scrutiny kind of way. Some classes I am kind of left alone while the teachers focus on whoever is newest in the group. Those are the times to absorb or steal as much of the teacher’s instruction as you can. You are not being taught directly, but you are expected to actively take what you can get – and thus you are being taught, however indirectly.

There is a movement in the iaido world to make it more accessible to everyone, to teach very freely and directly, and to focus very strongly on passing tests for dan-ranks. The same movement tends to place very heavy emphasis on the seiteigata, newer iaido forms which were created after the war. The older, koryu styles are left very much on the back burner.

The pair of teachers I have chosen are not part of that world. Of course you cannot escape it completely, but they are trying to preserve something which they see as being more original and perhaps more pure.

We are pursuing an uneasy existence, floating along the edges while trying to preserve a different core. For us, the old style koryu techniques (from which the modern, seitei forms were adapted) are the core, and most practices focus strongly upon them, rather than on passing rank exams.

There is much more to the story, and much that could be written about machinations within the iaido world here in Japan, but this is neither the time nor the place.

What concerns us, or me anyhow, is one of my mistakes, and my teacher’s response to it.

I had warmed up with about ten zillion basic cutting techniques, most of them using yokoburi, or a sharp sideways motion with the blade to shake off the blood and goo which have accumulated upon the blade after dispatching my imaginary opponent. I switched to a standing technique to give my knees a rest and promptly botched it.

It is the only standing waza or technique in the shoden set, 虎乱刀 or korantou, and is one of my favorites. There is also a kae-waza, an alternate version which is the mirror image of the usual, and it was this that I plunged into – and messed up. My motions were good – the intention while walking, the pair of cuts timed and executed well. Then I went directly into yoko-buri to finish, just sharply taking the blade across to the side with a strong wrist motion. But it should finish with a much larger type of chiburi, with the tip being taken widely out to the side/ rear, then the forearm folding in like Mt. Fuji, and a strong cutting motion downward to fling off that troublesome blood and goo before re-sheathing the sword.

I tried to recover smoothly, finishing with a sense of zanshin for proper finish. My teacher had been watching all this from behind and I could sense him walking up behind me. He didn’t say a word about the mistake in the form. He was concerned with the mistake in my yoko-buri. Rather than taking the blade directly across, I had taken it across and then pulled it back slightly closer to my body, creating a bit of arc. He would have none of that! It was no longer in the optimum position to begin the next motion, taking the blade back across to the left once my left hand had slid down to the koiguchi or opening of the saya/ scabbard and rotated it 90 degrees.

So I repeated just that part of the motion several times, then repeated the entire korantou waza – with yokoburi at the end – until I got that tiniest of nods that means “it’s not great yet but it is a notch better. And I don’t want to spend all morning on this one damn technique…”

Then I repeated korantou a couple times with the “correct” / larger chiburi, and all seemed well, ready to move on to the next waza.

It may not seem like a big deal to most people, but I really appreciated his response. Too often in Japan, people are fixated way too heavily on the sequence of motions rather than the overall feeling or deeper issues. I know I mucked up the waza – but in this case, it really didn’t matter, because that muck-up revealed a big problem, and one that needed to be fixed on the spot. Just repeating the waza with the correct ending would really teach me very little, apart from reminding me of a sequence of motions – yet that would be what many teachers would focus on, just that single obvious mistake. But a flaw in yoko-buri…that would affect all of the chuuden techniques, all of the okuden techniques (seated and standing), even the kumidachi techniques, which are forms done with partners while using wooden bokuto swords.

I could babble on for hours about problems with the current iaido world here in Japan. But here was an instance of something very good and useful happening, the kind of thing I would like to see much more of. And it had nothing to do with rank examinations and promotions and the like. And everything to do with openness and flexibility which are all too hard to find in the modern budo world in Japan.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

flash practice

There must be a better name, but you get the general idea. Quick bursts of practice, maybe a few minutes each, usually unexpected. And they can be quite revealing at times.

I have had a few of these lately, each of them valuable. You can’t make any substantial progress with only these short bursts, but they can be valuable supplements to the regular regime.

My daughter likes going to gongfu class with me on Friday nights and will practice her routines or basic staff motions there, but not much at home. So I was surprised and pleased when she suddenly said “let’s practice sticks” a couple days back.

That was great – for about three minutes. Then she told me to wait right there, she would be right back. She went into the house and soon emerged with badminton equipment. So much for the sticks.

True, I had also been wanting to play badminton with her for some weeks after the brief Badminton Excitement about a month earlier, which ended as quickly as it began. But this was strange timing indeed. We played badminton about 20 minutes, until it was quite dark outside. Six-year-olds have their priorities, I suppose.

But that quick little flash of practice time together with my daughter was quite valuable, something I need more often. And it reminded me how difficult it can be to explain to / show others a motion which you can do by yourself with no trouble.

A second incident involved a visit to a friend’s taiji class. I am not her student but needed to drop by on other business. She invited to run through a taiji form with her students. Normally I might have tried to politely decline, but I saw this as a chance, a very small kind of test.

I had not practiced this particular form for some weeks, since I have been concentrating heavily on the Sha Family tai ji forms. I had no problem with the order of the motions or anything, but I soon noticed where the rust had crept in – especially on the “Snake Creeps Down” move. Creeping down was okay – but I was noticeably wobbly when rising into the subsequent one-legged posture.

So it was a good wake-up call for me, a reminder to continue the occasional rotation of back burner items while focusing on one form or set. And it only took a few minutes of my time to make this (otherwise obvious) discovery.

Days like yesterday – over eight hours of stretching and practice - are obviously valuable and rewarding. But I will also be searching for these short little bursts of practice time as well.