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).