Thursday, December 30, 2010

what I'm looking for

Since I started learning Six Harmonies Praying Mantis Fist from Liu Jing Ru Laoshi, I have been seeing praying mantises like I never have before. I wouldn’t begin to suggest this is some kind of Divine Sign of Mantis Approval, but it has been quite curious.

It started last summer, in the middle of Liu Laoshi’s annual visit to Tokyo. Coming home one night from a few drinks after one of my first Mantis practice (heh heh), I found a mantis on the glass door of a temporary ATM facility just outside my train station – not the usual place to find such critters. (see last year’s post)

So here he was and there I was and we communed awhile and then I decided to take him to a small park near my home where I sometimes practice – crowded spaces in front of train stations are not good habitat for mantises. He bit or clawed me or something and DAMN it hurt, even drew some blood. Maybe that was the Divine Sign of Mantis Approval? Anyway I released him in the park and hope he found a nice place to live and was not captured by insect-hunting human kids.

No big deal, probably just chance, but it kept happening.

Some months later, there was one I found on the steps of Jindaiji Temple, where I had taken my visiting mother for a visit. She must have thought me crazy as I bent to study the brilliant green creature.

This year, I found another mantis outside my mothers’ house in Texas (ironically, I had been practicing Compulsory gongfu forms – maybe he was telling me to dump the competition stuff, and return to tradition?). I lived in Texas six years as a child and don’t recall ever having seen a praying mantis in that time.

Late this autumn – well after the time they are usually to be found – I spotted another praying mantis on the side of our neighbor’s house. I have not seen any other praying mantises in our neighborhood in the nearly ten years we have been in this house. I had been practicing Compulsory Southern Fist forms…

And the best one – about a month ago at our monthly tang lang quan / mantis fist gathering in the park. Obviously I was working on a tang lang quan form at that time. I noticed something fall down from above in front of me. Lots of leaves were falling, so that was not unusual. But I noticed it in the brown carpet of leaves below – yes, another mantis, also well past the season when they are usually seen. A female, she had already given birth (I was told by our resident mantis expert). She played on my hand a bit, showing no signs of wanting to leave. I walked her over to the giant tree, placed her on the trunk, and she scampered upward at a brisk pace.

Yeah yeah, I know, we find what we are looking for and all that. If I were to start, say, snake fist, I would probably begin seeing all kinds of oh-so-symbolic and meaningful snakes all around. But there have just been too many coincidences for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sudden Blasts

It's the end of the year, the long winter holiday when I usually do a lot of catching up, consolidation and review. It is one of my favorite times of the year, going back and putting some polish on a year's worth of work.

This year that process has been complicated by the absence of teachers.

Last gong fu practice of the year - the teacher was out and I ended up learning another (unexpected) large segment of the nangun / Southern staff competition form. I learned the first two sections in two huge blasts....then repeated those endlessly. First drilling them in, later focusing on an abridged version of the nangun form we have shown at recent demos. Now the third section is mine, and the fourth and final is in sight.

Last kobudo practice of the year - the main teacher was out and I ended up learning a new sai form (have been through it before, but this time I set out to grab it and make it mine) and moving more deeply into another bo form (have been through it before, but this time....).

I do love these long days of little work and much practice - but it is also daunting, knowing how much I have to review and consolidate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

demo / exhibition season again

Yes, 3 weekends back to back full of demo / exhibitions of Chinese martial arts. A couple weeks to recuperate over the holidays, then several more key events in January. No rest for the wicked, I suppose.

Anyway, time to get the iron out and try to get the wrinkles out of those silk uniforms....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chen style tai ji quan

"The most important thing in learning Chen style is not to rush."

From an email from my teacher last year...

Well we certainly have not been rushing on the empty hands form (a version of xinjia which he teaches). But necessity has meant learning large chunks of the chen style jian and dao forms in a very short period of time. A few days of extremely concentrated, intensive practice -- but even then I don't feel rushed. I only feel the excitement of surging forward in a form. But really the not-rushing part begins now -- weeks and months and more of practicing and refining and searching deeper.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

eight days a week

The prior weekend was filled with a demo / exhibition. My daughter and I both made appearances.

Monday – tough and wonderful night at kobudo, many glimpses of things to come, encouragement to test – and many reminders to get back to basics.

Tuesday – Afternoon gongfu with my daughter, evening focused on Sha style tai ji sword.

Wednesday – xing yi quan, much needed.

Thursday – open practice at night – a return to Liu Jing Ru’s two-person ba gua zhang form and a start on Sha Style two-person xing yi quan.

Friday – gong fu with my daughter.

Saturday – the highlight of the week, an all-day session on the Chen Style tai ji dao or broadsword (sooooo close to finishing the form…but not quite….).

Sunday – Tokyo Chinese Martial Arts demo / exhibition, my daughter and I both making appearances. Our group got a special prize for performing a two-person set of Sha Style tai ji jian.

And so on, with review of all the above before and after….Now it is time for assimilation, assimilation….

Monday, December 13, 2010

stick figures

My daughter drew these after Sunday's exhibition / demo. Three consecutive weeks of exhibition / demos, finally a short break (= time to get ready for January demo....and February demo....).

Anyway, she did a chang quan stick form (初級棍術) and I did a shortened version of the nan quan competition stick / staff form (南棍). She also did some of the basic empty-hand routines, but we had worked the hardest on the staff forms, and I was pleased to see her in action.

I was part of a group of four doing nan gun / Southern staff. Each of us was OK but we hadn't practiced together or matched the timing until the day of the demo, since we all practice at different times / places with the same teacher. Anyway it came off pretty well - though watching the video, I see several spots I need to work on....

Friday, December 10, 2010

anywhere, anytime

Your Faithful Blogger, hard at work in the office....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

cuttin' down trees

oh yes! The people across the street are doing some industrial strength shrub - and - tree - trimming. Really noisy and just what I needed.

time to run out and pound the makiwara awhile so no neighbors can complain. Recall that Tokyo homes tend to be really close together...

Monday, November 22, 2010

tournament / demo season

Yes, it is that time of the year again. Next weekend, all-day special training on Saturday, tournament on Sunday. Next next weekend - all-day special training on Saturday, tournament on Sunday. Next next next weekend....tournament only.

Anyway, my daughter will be showing her stick (staff?) form from Chang Quan. I will be showing mine from Nan Quan. Though the pace is hectic, this is a great season for concentrated practice and improvement.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

essential training equipment (5)

Another in the series: 1/2 " plastic PVC pipe.

So you're in small town Texas and you need a stick or staff to practice with. All the trees were chopped down to build all of the new houses on the street. You go to WalMart or some other monstrously big store but can't find a parking space for all the pickup trucks. You go home and scrounge in the garage and, just about when you had given up hope, you spy it in the corner, adorned with spider webs.

A five-foot length of PVC pipe. Not tapered but it will have to do. It bends easily and has too much snap on the end of a strike but once again, it will have to do. And it does do fairly well...

Friday, November 12, 2010

old xing yi quan notes

From Liu Jing Ru Laoshi’s visit to Tokyo last summer: in xing yi quan, we never stop, not even when stationary. Of course there are pauses between motions, but he is talking about something different here.

Even when we are just standing –and time spent in an unmoving stance is a crucial part of the XYQ practice – we are still working on xing yi. Checking, checking, every part of the body, seeking proper alignment and natural relaxation. This can be some of the hardest work, because there is no escape, only relaxing and maintaining a proper stance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

kobudo dojo opening

I am winding down my own trip to the US just now. Had hoped to get to Mankato Minnesota for Tim's dojo opening up there, but had to focus on my own goals for this US trip. It was a real shame, as it seems the dojo opening, headlined by Akamine Sensei's visit, was a success by all measures.

Here is a link to some local newspaper coverage:

More kobudo action coming to this blog in the future...

(photo from Akamine Sensei's Tokyo visit earlier in 2010)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lawrence Kansas tai ji quan

Enjoying our long-delayed US trip, found this guy on the KU campus in Lawrence.

Any chance you readers have any tai ji / gong fu contacts in Lawrence, Kansas???

Monday, October 25, 2010

Akamine Sensei in Tokyo

Stilllll catching up on old photos. Akamine Sensei visited Tokyo last spring (and has since been to the US for the opening of Tim Jurgens Sensei's dojo) and led a fantastic seminar. I would really like to get down to the honbu dojo in Okinawa while still living in Japan...

mantis fist

Sorry for this one, found on the path at yoyogi park.

Meanwhile our mantis sessions continue. Another 5-hour blast on Sunday, mostly focused on the short xian shou ben form (先手奔) form of Liu He Tang Lang Quan, coming down through Liu Jing Ru laoshi. Even so, there were lots of connections to the other forms we have studied so far. Rumor has the remaining two of the seven forms coming to us on next year's Tokyo visit. Until then, review and consolidate...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

essential training equipment (4)

Yes, brooms.

My daughter and I lucked out again, the only two in the upper class (this is the week before last, posts all out of order).

Good chance to work on the stick/ staff form of chang quan 初级棍术 instead of the usual empty-hands stuff.

We don't usually take our sticks to this Tuesday practice, but a quick look in the storage room revealed a reasonable substitute.

baseball and wushu

I had two long days of work in Yokohama this week (Japan’s second largest city, but really feels like part of Tokyo to me since it is all one connected urban mass) – until the second day (today) got cut short.

There is a lot of cost-cutting going on in Japan these days, some of it on short notice and quite annoying. I was pretty grumpy about suddenly losing 3 hours of work (on an already-shorter-than-usual intensive training course).

Then I realized the good side of things – I was suddenly free to go to Tuesday afternoon gong fu with my daughter. We have been regulars at the weekend class(es), but have missed several of these Tuesday classes lately due to my work schedule.

The loss hits especially hard since the class size is small and we get more attention than in the ususal weekend classes.

I ran from company XYZ’s industrial complex in Yokohama, found a taxi, raced to the station, fairly ran through all the transfer stations, conscious that every minute was valuable.

I made it to my daughter’s after-school activity club just in time and was ready to hurry home, change clothes, and make the 30-minute bicycle ride to practice.

But she was involved in a Very Important game of baseball with her friends. Sigh. The choice was clear and I had no regrets. It was a special opportunity to see her playing with her peers. And I snapped up the bat (still in pinstripe suit and tie) and belted a triple when one of the second-grade baseball stars suddenly decided he had tired of the game. My daughter (sort of) caught a pop fly and then was struck out at bat and I was glad to see every minute of it.

Once finished with baseball, though, we did hurry home and then on to the training hall. The class was smaller than usual – just the two of us in the higher level class, so she got good focus on the first stick / staff competition form (chang quan) and I got drilled on the nan gun or Southern style stick / staff.

Though I couldn’t bring myself to tell the teacher why we were a bit late, I was glad for every minute of my daughter’s baseball playing that I got to see.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

wubo (4) wrapping up

Just some wrapping up on the wubo / Sport Accord / Combat Games posts (see previous).

I would like to hear from anyone else who was there as an athlete, journalist, or whatever, just to compare notes. I was only able to attend the kendo events and I was quite satisfied with the organization and execution overall. And now I am especially glad that all the events were completed before the recent….downturn…. in relations between China and Japan.

How was the level of competition in other events? The judging? Both were quite good for the kendo events, as were the additional demonstrations which helped to introduce a relatively unknown martial art to the audience.

For those interested in more in-depth coverage of the kendo events at wubo / Sport Accord / Combat Games, you’ll just have to wait for the next issue of Kendo World!

Thursday, October 7, 2010


How do you treat your weapons?

Had a long and wonderful talk the other day, rambling all over the place, hitting old themes and exploring new ground. I need more talks like that.

One of the many topics was the treatment of weapons. We can see a very clear difference between Japanese and Chinese thoughts on this matter. In a Chinese training hall, it is common to see someone using their foot to roll and scoop a staff or spear from the ground up into their hand.

Handling a weapon like that could well get you thrown out of the typical Japanese martial arts training hall or dojo. I come from a pretty strict background, where you drop to one knee before putting down / picking up a weapon, where people kneel in the not entirely comfortable seiza position even while folding their uniform or putting away protective equipment / armor.

So it often shocks me to see weapons lying all over the floor of a training space, sometimes getting stepped over (oh shudder in horror – such an offense would bring Great Unpleasantness in most Japanese dojo), and so on.

I tend to be in the middle somewhere. I think some Japanese training halls place a bit too much emphasis on formality, outward form, and the like. And I also think some Chinese training halls would benefit greatly from more respect toward weapons and a bit more formality in general.

Well, I’m a kind of formal guy to start with, and my formative years were spent in Japanese training halls, so that’s my bias. And in this country, swords were forged with the guidance and blessing of the deities, so it is natural for the depth of that tradition to be carried on into the modern day.

These days, I do it the Japanese way when in a Japanese dojo, and I do it… not the Chinese way, but less formally… when in a Chinese training hall.

But wherever I am, I try to be very aware of my weapons, where they are, and how they are handled. One thing that drives me crazy is seeing Japanese martial artists – after the full range of bows and talk about etiquette and all that – walk through train stations and get on trains with no apparent awareness of people around them, bumping into people with their bags of armor, turning suddenly while holding long weapons at an angle, and so on.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Learned a good new phrase in last week’s tai ji class: 打ち気にはやる, basically meaning that the opponent can easily see your own readiness / eagerness to strike. The dictionary says it can be used in reference to baseball, where I suppose it might be a good thing (until the pitcher throws something low and inside, knowing the batter will go for an impossible pitch).

But in taiji push hands, which places so much emphasis on “listening” to the opponent’s energy, having such a feeling only sets yourself up for defeat, making it easier for the opponent to “read” your intentions and unbalance you.

Of course, after being cautioned on this point by the teacher, I then swung to the other extreme, become too careful and cautious, missing good chances to push my partner.

I struggled with this same tension in kendo – the balance between eagerness for quick, decisive action vs. rashness, acting too quickly or signaling one’s own intentions. And I suppose this tension also comes out in games of chess, in business interactions, human relationships, almost everywhere.

Monday, September 27, 2010

wubo (3) the fans

So the first annual Sport Accord Combat Games seemed to come off fairly well and I look forward to next year’s events. First, some notes from the website:

“…the competition will showcase 13 Martial Arts and Combat sports, both Olympic and non-Olympic. The event will also include a Cultural Program that will reflect the social and cultural values of these sports and Combat Games as a whole.”

The site goes on to list the arts, beginning of course with Chinese wushu, then adding wrestling, sumo, karate, judo, jujutsu (why both were included I am not sure – maybe to separate the judo we can see in the Olympics from the more recently developed Brazilian Jujutsu?), boxing, kick boxing, Muay Thai (again, why were these two separated?), Tae Kwan Do, kendo, aikido, and sambo.

Unfortunately I was only able to attend the kendo events, two very long and satisfying days of competition and demonstration.

I am sure the arena was packed for wushu but kendo is much less known in China. And the kendo events were on the final two days of the week. The stadium (Beijing Science and Technology Gymnasium) was fairly full, largely due to the masses of students who attended (class outings?).

Everyone in the audience was given a little flappy fan (nice in the late summer heat, but needed to be more sturdy) with the logos of the various arts on one side (see picture) and a guide to being a good / polite audience on the other.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

wubo (2) Chinese watching kendo

Ten years ago, I took part in two brief kendo / iaido tours of China. Both were excellent experiences and I wish I had known a lot more THEN that I know now (in terms of Japanese martial arts, Chinese martial arts, the languages involved, everything). (Human relations, too).

On each tour, we gave demonstrations in several cities in the Southeastern province of Zhejiang. We toured together with members of a local wushu school. At each stop, reactions were fairly similar.

The Chinese crowds knew something of Chinese wushu and knew how to appreciate the Chinese martial artists. The crowds did not know much at all of Japanese martial arts, nor how to appreciate our demos.

They were used to flashier demonstrations with large numbers of techniques. Kendo, iaido, and other Japanese martial arts are not flashy and tend toward pursuit of a single technique which finishes the encounter. Our kendo and iaido demonstrations were usually met with curious silence, followed by tentative applause, often at unusual points in the demonstration.

In just ten years, general knowledge about the Japanese martial arts has increased significantly in China, and fledgling clubs can be found scattered across the country.

At the Sport Accord Games (wubo or 武博), there was an overall greater understanding and appreciation of kendo in particular. Even so, I loved the fact that the greatest crowd response seemed to come not after the masters’ bouts or any of the other excellent demos, but during the childrens’ kendo demo.

You just have to love the kid who is shorter than everyone else’s shinai (bamboo sword) – and who is trying twice as hard as most of them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What did I eat last night?

It had been a long hard day. I walked into Matsuya, a Japanese fast-food place specializing in bowls of rice with beef on top.

But there were no beefbowls on the menu. And they were out of the two other things I tried to order. It seemed quite busy, yet not much seemed to be getting done.

Not too happy, I was headed out the door when one of the curiously idle workers hailed me from behind the counter.

He was quite friendly and we spoke a few minutes. Then another worker, further in back, suddenly burst into a martial arts form. It was a xing yi quan form unknown to me but performed quite well.

Enough of that! I stripped off my jacket, ready to show one of my forms. It was not a challenge, just a hope for mutual exchange. I don’t even think he saw me. He finished his form and took off out the door.

Several other workers joined him in sprinting quite a long ways, apparently part of their daily afternoon workout.

I started running, too, hoping to join them.

Then my alarm went off.

Maybe it was the late night tortilla chips and beer???

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

wubo (1) Combat Games

I finally made it back to Beijing a couple weeks ago - the trip was much too short but good in many ways. I traveled on a journalist visa for the first time, for Kendo World but also teamed with journalists from Kendo Nippon and Kendo Jidai magazines.

More on that later...About the games - this was the first of what is to be an annual international event, gathering martial artists of various disciplines. I have heard that these "Combat Games" will be followed by a "Mind Games" event in 2011, which could be a lot of fun. Personally, like "chess-boxing" (was that in the UK?), I would like to see (or be??) contestants participate in both games.

I wanted to see the wushu event but our journalist visas were extremely strictly controlled by the government of a certain country involved in it all. We were allowed in the night before the games, and had to return home the morning after they finished (two days of competition).

Overall, things went well and I look forward to next year's Combat Sports tournament. More details to follow...

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Tokyo is a crazy city. Where else can you, in a drunken haze near dawn, stumble across a small rock bar with about 10 regulars and 7 bar stools named after your home state? And enjoy the remaining hours until dawn there, stumble “home” to the apartment of two martial arts scions where you are housesitting, and then have no idea where you were the previous night?

And, years later, stumble about in another drunken haze and rediscover the bar? Well, that could be done in other cities, I suppose.

But in what other city could you, more years later, return to the bar and engage in conversation about satsujinken and katsujinken with a rock musician / descendant of the Yagyu clan???

And then blend into a talk on the intricacies of kendo vs. naginata isshu jiai with another denizen of that part of the city crawling with rock musicians???

Alas I had to leave at an early hour to catch the last train home. I have already had too many last-minute runs up that loooooong hill to the train station. And more than a few have ended in rather unpleasant words upon finding the train platform chained off and the lights out. And a walk back to the same bar to drink or sleep until the trains start running again the next morning.

I should have moved closer to that bar….

The guy in the street

Most of the time, I really love China. Like when I am walking down a street at 2 AM and spy someone practicing the martial art of xing yi quan on the sidewalk. It is the end of a very long couple days’ work and I am free at last to savor some alone time in this city I love. I watch him for a while, my arms beginning to twitch a bit, as I also practice this art.

He notices me watching, tones down his practice, almost stops. OK, I get it. I feign disinterest and saunter off, grab a couple beers from the 7-11. I return slowly and give him a smile and a wide berth. I sit on the concrete steps but don’t open a beer. He keeps practicing this time.

When he finishes his form, I ask him whether or not it is xing yi quan, and the ritual begins.

“Oh, you know xing yi quan?”

“Yes, I practice a little.”

“Let’s see one of your forms.”

As if I didn’t know that was coming. I pick za shi chui – I might be going in too high, showing off a bit, but it is the form I have been practicing the most lately. We compare notes on a few of the motions. He doesn’t know this particular form, but he has a good eye for the basics. Our strains of xing yi are different yet the core is the same.

He then asks me to run through one of the five basic fists, piquan. He is not condescending, but does offer some advice: slow it down. My form is too rushed. We should practice the internal martial arts slowly – the motions will come out quickly when needed. He repeats one key phrase which has stayed with me since returning to my home in Japan: 慢功出细活 (man gong chu xi huor). We need to practice slowly, carefully, for the important details to be realized.

He declined my offer of a beer, lit another cigarette, and got back to practice after goodbyes. What a fine night in Beijing (post-Sport Accord Combat Games).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The dust is settling

Quite a hectic few weeks, things finally settling down and returning to "normal". Highlights included Liu JingRu Laoshi's annual seminar in Tokyo (next year to be his last...), working at the Sport Accord / Combat Games in Beijing, late night xing yi quan exchanges on the streets of Beijing, you know, the usual.

More details and photos forthcoming.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

a tough day

Kind of a rough day today, but a good one.

The Liu Jing Ru seminar is going great – but already half over, too fast as usual. He comes to Tokyo for a short two weeks each year. I had been focusing on ba gua zhang and xing yi quan but last year opted for my first taste of tang lang quan and was quite pleased.

This year I chose tang lang quan for the first two days (Saturday and Sunday). Days 3 and 4 (Tues-Wed), being in the middle of the week, have much lower attendance. Running the circuit through all three groups runs Liu Laoshi ragged, so today and tomorrow are BGZ / XYQ only, no tang lang quan.

OK, back to the ba gua zhang for me. 9:30 AM – opening remarks are short, we have all already stretched, so we are ready to circle by about 9:32. He starts with the ba gua zhang group (the XYQ people are told to review for a bit). He calls me out in front of all and has me start circling. By 9:33 I knew it was going to be a long morning. He totally reworked me on just the first main palm, completely kicked and fixed my ass.

Sure, I had sped up my ba gua zhang review in recent days, but especially after a new blast of tang lang quan to get on top of….

Anyway I survived the morning and learned a lot and all that. We are in the middle of the 64 palms which, when being learned, seem like about 647 palms but who is counting.

Good and bad news after that – I have work in Beijing (the first international “combat games”) on Friday and Saturday, fly back to Tokyo on Sunday. If I am lucky and there are no traffic jams, I will make it back just in time for the goodbye dinner on Sunday. But I will miss the last two days’ training, pian pian.

Well, I have my network set up and will pick up the BGZ and TLQ (and, in other classes, will slowly get the XYQ) that I miss on the final weekend. So I will get there in the end, but I really wish I could spend the last two days here in Tokyo with Mr. L.

More to come on his visit. And I am edging closer to FINALLY finishing my interview with him which has gone on over five sessions so far in various cities and languages.

Enough of this – time for some late night circling.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Liu Laoshi is coming! (2)

Or has arrived, but the seminars have not yet begun. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

essential training equipment (3)

Yes, it may look like a mere badminton racquet, but in the hands of a well-trained professional....

Let's say it's a hot, sweltering night down at the training hall. But it's the gym of a local elementary school so you can't store your own equipment there.

Alright, you've been working on the nanquan Southern Fist routine for awhile. And you got started on nangun, the Southern Staff, so you've been dutifully taking it to practice every time.

But then, in the middle of basics, you learn a new sequence of motions, practice it awhile, then hear that it is from the nandao (Southern Broadsword) form. You won't be learning that form for a while yet, but you don't want to lost the few moves you just got. So you keep practicing it empty-handed until the teacher walks over and hands you the next best thing...a badminton racquet.

It helps to do the motions while holding some kind of implement of destruction, though I do wish said object resembled a dao a bit more in terms of weight, length, single blade, etc.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

essential training equipment (2)

Yes, plums. Nice sour Japanese plums, dried outdoors to concentrate the sour power.

Went to another tai ji sword 42 style seminar, one held on a scorching hot day in an elementary school gymnasium with no AC and no fans. They were giving out free ice (to beat the heat) and Japanese plums or ume-boshi (to maintain stamina?).

I was thinking some free beer might have been a good addition.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

the guy in the park

I was talking with a student last night, a man the same age as me. He grew up near Zenpukuji Park in Western Tokyo, somewhat near my home. It is a wonderful park in the middle of the metropolitan monstrosity which is Tokyo.

When he was in junior high school, my student (“M”) discovered a snake fist teacher who taught there regularly. He was Taiwanese, tiny but quick, and about 60 at that time. I don’t know how well a junior high school student can evaluate the skills of a purported martial arts master, but he was quite impressed at the time. I respect his judgment because he went on to become a long-term practitioner of Nippon Kenpo.

He remembers them fastening a kicking bag high up on a tree and making tremendous leaps to get within striking range (this was snake fist?).

M didn’t study directly with the teacher but he (and other school kids in the area) often pestered him and/or watched as he taught others. Maybe his name was Liu Ming ??. I can’t find anything about him on the internet. It seems he had a single deshi or main student – can’t track him down yet, either.

It really got me to wondering about how many masters have passed away unnoticed. Given his age, (maybe 60 in about 1980?), he would have been in the prime of his youth when Mao and the Communists secured victory in the Chinese civil war. He might have joined so many others in fleeing to Taiwan in 1949, taking to that island the art he had learned on the mainland.

Or he might have been born and raised on Taiwan, and he might have learned the art there without ever having been to the mainland.

It makes me wish I had been born earlier, had gotten started in martial arts earlier.

Like my teacher T, who was among the first non-Chinese allowed to study at The University in Beijing in the early 80s as China just began to open up after the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution.

Like teacher S from Nebraska, who chanced upon W.C. Chen while still in school. Chen was a classmate of the widely known Wang Shujin but their paths diverged widely. Wang found fame (if not fortune) in Japan. Chen might have fallen into obscurity in the US if not for S, who carries on his tradition in the Yi Li Chuan art. Chen taught a small group in his basement and only S has kept the teachings alive.

If I had a time machine, I would go back even further in time and history – who was RyuRuKo, the mysterious fabled link between the White Crane style in the Fujian Province of China and the roots of the karate styles which developed in Okinawa?

And who wrote the Bubishi, and how did it get from China to Okinawa, where it would have such impact on the empty-handed arts of Japan as practiced today?

The Bubishi. I have finally been loaned a copy (of a copy of a copy…) of the original, with permission to copy it. Not by hand, thankfully. Another chance encounter resulting from a prior chance encounter. It makes one wonder whether it is all up to chance. Guarded so furtively over decades, now within reach.

When I lived in China, countless people delighted in teaching me new words in Chinese. From foul-mouthed gutter talk to ethereal four-character compounds, they have all been useful at one time or another. One that popped up again and again, upon people learning of my interest in martial arts, was yuan 缘 , fate, or 武缘, some kind of fate or destiny that brings certain people together through the martial arts.

Was it fate that took me to K kendo dojo upon my arrival in Japan? No, just the convenience of living nearby (and having an instructor who spoke English).

Surely it was fate that tempted me to stay much longer than my allotted year in China, most likely to train deeply with the dockworker Mr. Xie and his intense but probably unknown art. It may have been just what I have needed all along, one art which was the perfect bridge between the internal and external arts.

But I embraced my fate (?) and returned to Japan and continued life here. And, in a twist of fate, found my current teacher, living not far away at all, as he led a brief introductory class not far from my home. It was a small park where I had been practicing on my own all along.

NOTE: this is a post that didn’t go quite where I wanted it to go…look for a substantial rewrite in the future.

ALSO NOTE: This photo is from Tsunashima, not from Zenpukuji

Monday, August 2, 2010


just a quickie, some shite-hot kobudo tonight, much appreciated and much overdue.

Photo from some practices back, just after Akamine Sensei's visit. Very interesting, we watched the video of his visit to drive our kihon that night. Couldn't do it every time, but it was very fresh and appropriate that night.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


1) Went to shiatsu today. I’ve been dealing with occasional extreme back pain in recent years, can’t bend / stand up, the usual complaints. The shiatsu sensei is the demon roller guy, dealing out exquisite pain on the way to glorious recovery.

I am not quick to go to the doctor but barely being able to stand is when things get a bit out of hand. A chance meeting and chance recommendation, he is a local guy and very flexible in scheduling, both big pluses for me.

He does the usual shiatsu therapy, pressing various points to stimulate qi flow, re-align the body, and so on. But he also uses rollers to get into the deep tissue. These torture devices are arranged on a small rack near the treatment table. They look like paint rollers but there is nothing smooth about their application. He begins by rolling them over the surface tissue, then works his way into the deep muscles and tissue, grinding and drilling all the way, muttering about my tight muscles at each point.

It is hard to describe, an unknown sensation somewhere between pain and being tickled. And yes, I pay to undergo this treatment.

One simple point: it works. The short-term relief is of course wonderful. But the long-term treatment is also quite good. That’s why I keep going back.

I know what pain is and I know fairly well how to deal with it. I could take all the pain dished out by this doctor and his demon rollers (strangely laughing at times), except for one thing – the wrist bend.

The back, waist, arms and legs were all finished. He nonchalantly began working on one of my wrists, observing how various parts of the body are all connected. Using two hands, he bent my wrist and brought my fingers back near the inner forearm. It was the only time I couldn’t take the pain and asked him to stop.

He is an aikido guy with super-bendy wrists. He knows I am a martial arts guy and probably expected me to also have super-bendy wrists. I don’t. No problem – he eased off, continued the treatment, and all was well.

2) One other wrist-related memory, some years back in Japan. A friend and martial arts senior asked me to join in a group practice and outdoor demonstration. People from several different training backgrounds had gathered and many of us were meeting for the first time.

During the practice time, we all took turns introducing key points from our various disciplines. All went well until I got paired with Mr. Pain. He was fairly deep in an Okinawan art which includes joint locks as part of the curriculum. He began demonstrating on me and all was going well, though I began to sense that he liked putting on a show.

Then came the wrists. Same position as above, bending my fingers back toward the inner forearm. I felt extreme pain (as opposed to the “normal” amount of pain one expects at such times).

In a close teacher-student relationship, there are times when the student is made to question how much pain they can take, how much is appropriate for the learning situation. The pain tolerance threshold can indeed be changed through exposure and repetition. But that is in a certain social situation, with a clear relationship built on trust.

This guy was putting on way too much pain. He may not have realized it. I asked him to ease up. He smiled and increased the pressure. And maintained it for some time. And looked around to make sure others were watching.

Maybe I should have just shut up and taken the pain? No. I know how and when to do that. This was not the time. His techniques were clearly effective. But as for his way of demonstrating them….

3) Last night’s tai ji jian (sword) class took an unusual and rewarding departure…to the wrists. Five of us nine students that night had also just been to a weekend seminar in Sun Style tai ji quan, or 孙式太极拳. During a break in the sword work, two of the students were talking about one of the characteristic Sun Style motions (开合), in which the palms are held vertically with the wrists bent back as much as possible. The palms are then spread apart and brought back together in front of the chest.

Our teacher (who had not been at the Sun Style seminar) suddenly took us on a lengthy tour of wrist flexibility and strengthening exercises. One of them is commonly seen in chang quan: with the arms extended in front, sharply flick the wrists up with the fingers pointing upward. Then flick the wrists down (finishing with the fingers down or in a hook hand / 勾手 position. Repeat this for a while with maximum wrist motion and you’ll get the idea.

In the middle of a seemingly endless introduction to such exercises, he began talking about a famous sword encounter involving, of all people, Sun Lu Tang 孙路堂, founder of the Sun Style. Someone had insisted on a match. Ritual denial and insistence followed, and then came the inevitable match. Apparently Sun Lu Tang simply and quickly did a beng jian 崩剑 technique, snapping his wrist down and popping the sword tip up under the opponent’s wrist. The opponent’s sword flew out of his grasp and that was pretty much that.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

xing yi quan form of the month: tuo

I think I missed another month somewhere in there – so it goes.

The mysterious and mythical tuo – some kind of water-dwelling creature. No picture for this one, since it is after all an imaginary creature.

I have seen it referred to as being similar to any number of creatures in the past. My earlier conception was the alligator or crocodile, and the powerful swipe of its tail back and forth. Thus the zig-zag stepping of the basic form, and the hands grabbing and pulling across from side to side.

We are working on it this month in class and all references are to a water strider / whirligig or similar animal – gliding smoothly and effortlessly across the water surface. And we are edging our way into the longer, more complex version with a weird body-shaking motion – which makes more sense when stepping back to the side and slipping out of the grip of someone who has grabbed you in a bear hug from the rear.

This form has bugged and eluded me for many years, and I am glad to get a deeper look at last. It is one of the remaining animal forms Liu Jing Ru Laoshi has not taught us on his Tokyo visits. Nor will he be doing it this year, so I hope we make good progress in the form in the remaining month. Then we’ll have to wait until next year’s visit…

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dealing with fear

1. The other day, I took my daughter to her weekly swimming lesson. It is usually one of the highpoints of her week and she is always excited to go. But that day, there was an unusual heaviness in her step as we walked to the pool. Outside the building, she paused, then called me over to the side, tears in her eyes.

She has recently moved up into a higher-level class and is scared of one of the teachers, who is much stricter than her usual teachers. After several minutes I finally got her into the building – but then we had to sit down on a bench for a while.

I got lucky – she was stalling until she could see which teacher had her group that day. It was one of the less-strict teachers, so I got her down the stairs and toward the pool without much more trouble. But I also wish that she had had to deal with her fear more directly.

2. Back in my university days, I drove down to Arkansas with a friend and we sampled one of the heights of local small-town culture: jumping off a cliff into the lake below.

It didn’t look like that much of a jump as we looked up from below. But as we climbed closer to the top, the distance seemed to increase. Once at the top, I risked a life-threatening glance over the edge and it seemed we were impossibly high instead of the actual 50-or-so meters. Were I a less stalwart man I might have worried about oxygen depletion at such an altitude.

Like my daughter, I stalled a while but there was no one to comfort and encourage me – only the locals and their derisive stares. Somehow I got over the edge and was not splattered all over the rocks below. I landed safely in the water but made one fatal mistake: I had my arms extended out to the sides instead of raised overhead like those in the know.

Though it hurt like hell, my arms were not ripped out of their sockets and I climbed up for another jump. I was still struggling with my fear but I got over the edge with much less stalling the second time around.

3. I recall another incident, one from childhood, in which I did not overcome my fear. I was probably 8 years old or so. We lived in an apartment complex with a pool and a diving board. With a really huge bounce, you might catch one or two meters in the air. Nothing spectacular, in fact, but pretty good for an 8-year-old.

Once, we went with some friends to a public pool which had a high diving board. After some hours, I mustered the courage to climb the ladder. It must have been a mile high, up and up with no end in sight.

I couldn’t even get out to the end of the diving board. I might have eased about one step past the hand rails, but that was it. I had to climb all the way down. That meant that all the kids who had climbed up just behind me had to climb all the way down, too, to get out of my way. I caught some pretty mean stares as stole away from the foot of the ladder. The other fearless souls scampered right back up and launched themselves off the board without hesitation.

4. I was part of the university karate club for 7 years and sparring was a part of most practices. Some of the people I climbed up the ranks with really enjoyed sparring. Not me. It was an exercise in dealing with my fear every time, and it was very good for someone who had spent his entire childhood with his face buried in books.

Did I really deal with my fear at that time? Once inside the dojo / training hall, there was no time to think or worry. Every workout was full-on with no time wasted. By entering the dojo, I put myself into a routine that carried me through the practice, not giving me the luxury of thinking about it at all. But even so, there was no turning away, no climbing back down the ladder, and certainly no stalling.

5. These days, I am focused strongly on Chinese martial arts. In my particular case, none of my classes have any sparring activity or exercises with uncooperative partners. We practice applications, but only in an isolated manner. It is good for seeing how to apply the technique under the best of circumstances, but things never work out so nicely in reality, I think.

In the long term, once back in the US, I will have to graft sparring exercises onto all the things I have learned here in Japan. And I might need to hit the open tournament a time or two before heading back…

Thursday, June 24, 2010


which one is the evil doppleganger?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are Competition Forms Useless (1)

This may begin a series of posts on an important topic. Below is part of the text of a comment I received a couple months back. I have been sitting on it awhile (apologies to the writer) but am now ready to wrestle with it.

From the comment: “I just finished learning the 42 sword form, and I must say it is nothing compared to my trad. Yang style sword. Mostly useless performance moves, with lagging principles and uncertain applications. Do you have better experiences?”

I have been working on the tai ji 42 sword form for a few years now but I have to admit it has not been a priority, as it is one of the few forms I have learned outside the classes of my regular teacher (though with his blessing – all teachers in the same group).

It was created in 1991, not even 20 years ago (shorter than my martial arts career!) and draws motions from 4 of the main tai ji styles. Like other competition forms, it was created with the purpose of an international standard in mind. That way, people from many different styles can get together and compete on the same level with each other. Otherwise, how could we compare two people doing completely different tai ji forms? (This begs the question of whether we really need to do so, but hey….)

Those who practice only the traditional forms, improved and passed down over the generations, may well find the competition forms bland. Those who practice only the competition forms may indeed may be missing out on a lot, since the competition forms are hybrids, drawing motions and inspiration from many sources. Perhaps too much has been lost in the blending. But let’s look at the commenter’s points one by one.

“useless performance moves” – there are one or two movements I would eliminate if I could, but I feel most of the motions are useful and have a grounding in reality. (I write this as someone who has practiced kendo – an art in which people wear armor and actually strike each other with their swords – more than 15 years. Then again, those who practice kenjutsu – no actual physical contact but always done with a partner, much less experience in that area myself – often belittle kendo as being “useless” and so on).

“lagging principles” – hard for me to respond to this one, as I need more specifics from the commenter. But on the whole it feels consistent with the principles I hold to be important in tai ji. What principles are being referred to? Strength in softness? Sinking the qi? These are all over the 42 sword form.

“uncertain applications” – Here again, with the exception of a small number of motions, I would have to disagree. The applications seem clear and generally solid to me (though I doubt you would find me using any of the one-knee-raised, balanced-on-one-foot techniques (poses??) the next time I am fighting on the streets with a Chinese sword).

It may not be the perfect vehicle for teaching tai ji jian, but the 42 form does give us a way to distinguish between dian and pi techniques, dai jian and jie jian, and so on. It teaches the shifting of weight, use of force in opposing directions, and so on. And it introduces beginners to the basics stances, grips, etc.

I don’t know the traditional Yang jian form, though I do know a Yang dao (broadsword) form and quite like it. In terms of traditional sword forms, I am getting more familiar with the Sha family sword forms and I like them quite a bit. Are they better vehicles for transmitting excellence in tai ji? Too early for me to answer, but I sense it is a case of two different roads leading to the same destination- and that these two roads share much in common.

In my case, I prefer the closer, more personal form of transmission of the traditional forms of the Sha family. But I wouldn’t want to do those forms only. My experience in the Japanese martial arts has shown me too many groups lost in small, insular worlds. Too many people who, in the pursuit of purity of transmission of Traditional Forms, do nothing but criticize and belittle other martial artists, especially those doing less traditional arts.

As for me, I continue going to a 32-sword class 1-2 times a week. The 32-sword form was an earlier (and still more common) version of a competition form for international contests. Its history stretches back ot 1957 – much longer than the 42-form but still rather short in the history of martial arts.

While it may be a competition form, I am learning it for myself and am taught finer principles and unrealized applications each week. Many of the motions overlap with those of the 42-form. And many of the motions, principles and applications overlap with those of the Sha family sword forms and other traditional forms.

But I would have to say, I prefer doing the Sha family forms. Going back to the commenter’s question -- “Have I had better experiences?” I can only say that I have been and continue to learn from and be challenged by my teacher. He uses the 32 form (and occasionally the 42 form) as tools to teach. Both forms are quite suitable for large groups of people and are often taught to beginners. Generally, people move into the traditional forms after gaining experience with the competition forms. I followed that pattern and I feel it has served me well.

I am most interested to hear comments from readers on this topic (including the original commenter). Also, look for future installments in this series. I will certainly have to write about Long Fist and Southern Fist in this regard.

(photo of myself and a practice partner doing the 32-sword form about 16 years ago)

Monday, June 14, 2010


Was I just complaining about only moving forward one move at a time in my forms lately, instead of the usual mind- and body-stretching sequences of who knows how many motions?

Silly me. Typing notes and consulting Liu Laoshi’s text on Six Harmonies Praying Mantis Fist yesterday, I discovered that I had, in fact, learned two new motions. That’s right, not one but two. The psychological difference is, in my case, profound.

No longer inching along at a snail’s pace, I am suddenly surging forward and straining my capacity to absorb new material. Double what I thought!

But it still feels like one connected sequence, just a difference in how you count the motions. There are four hand motions, a foot adjustment, and a step forward. Is that one motion? Two? Four?

Enough. Time to get outside and practice. One motion, two motions. Who cares, just finish the fight. And get ready for the next mantis fist seminar, two weeks away, and sure this time to blast forward.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

snail's pace

In recent practices, the theme seems to be slow advancement.

Tonight’s class in Sha Family sword (沙式太极剑), I was hoping for a surge forward in the (first) two-person paired form. Instead, we got a (good and needed) review of the (second) 36-motion tai ji jian form, including four repetitions in all directions, which really messed with the mind if you let it, or didn’t mess with the mind if you didn’t let it. Do you know what I mean?

After basics, 36-form practice, and breaks, there was precious little time left for the two-person form we are learning. We reviewed the first several motions several times and learned a grand total of one new motion in the last three minutes of class. No complaints, mind you – every minute of class is valuable, and I appreciate the review.

Last Sunday, we had a special 5-hour class focusing on mantis fist or tang lang quan. It’s a small and experienced group and my only real chance to review the forms of Six Harmonies Mantis Fist (六合螳螂拳) as taught by Liu Jing Ru Laoshi.

My daughter was not satisfied with four hours of Daddy Time all morning, so I took her to the afternoon Mantis class. She was pretty good (as much as can be expected of a 7-year-old) and ran through the Long Fist Staff form (长拳棍术) with me a few times, but wouldn’t run through any of the empty-hand routines in front of others with me.

Between intervals of playing and practicing with my daughter, I reviewed Duan Chui 短捶 pretty well and reviewed the first 1/3 or so of shuang feng 双封 from last month. We drilled that many times and then learned a grand total of one new motion.

I suppose this theme applies to last week (or has it been two weeks ago already??) when Akamine Sensei came to Tokyo from Okinawa for a weekend seminar in Ryukyu Kobudo. Actually there was no advancement into new techniques for me, only pushing deeper into the already-practiced forms. It was enough, and yet I still felt a hunger, watching as others reviewed forms which I have been through but don’t know well.

So these are days of slow advancement and much consolidation for me, both satisfying and slightly frustrating at the same time. Anyway, I will strengthen my foundations and get ready for there will certainly be great blasts of advancement in the future.

(photo of a snail found by my daughter at the tang lang quan practice space)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

no yue

Another tournament today, the last of the autumn 2009 –spring 2010 season.

My daughter did pretty well in chang quan or long fist – she was suddenly paired with another girl slightly older / more experienced than her. On the one hand, our teacher scolded her for watching the competition too much while performing. But on the other, I think it was good for her, it lit her fire a little bit. The other girl was right in front of her and an instant quicker on each motion.

I took third in the weapons division, without a weapon. The pudao guy was shithot and took first and deserved it. The double-swords woman was also shithot and took second place and deserved it. Kudos to them both – I don’t think I could have beaten them even with my yue.

The authorities stuck a magnet on my yuan yang yue just before my turn and, well, the magnet stuck. They are indeed made of steel. Hurried consultation, verdict – can’t use the steel weapons, but you can perform the routine empty-handed. Alright, I’ll go.

I really hate aluminum weapons and geranium (?) weapons. They are light and flappy and snappy and meaningless (I’m gonna catch some crap for this post but you can imagine the couple words that spring to mind, the second being “it”).

Japan is a weird country. I can walk around for years with a shinken “live” sword which could actually cut people ridiculously easily. But hey, I am an iaido guy, so it is OK. But steel swords from China are completely banned here (I have had one or three confiscated in the airport and had them unconfiscated later). I have had my outdoor practice interrupted and my (Chinese) sword photographed by the police for no apparent reason. You could cut someone with it but it would take a lot more work effort and skill than cutting someone with a shinken blade.

I would pick a standard kitchen knife (yes, steel) over an unsharpened Chinese swords in many situations. Yuan yang yue are basically unknown to Japanese authorities but the word is out: no steel weapons in tournaments. Why steel weapons have been singled out, I have no idea.

I can’t complain – apparently there are many US states where I can’t use my nunchaku, tekko, or other weapons, the same weapons I train with regularly indoors and out over here. I’ll deal with that problem in the future. I have no plans, by the way, to own a handgun. I'm not sure about kama (sickle) here in Japan - the blades are steel, but they are commonly used in gardening. But I have been more careful about practicing outdoors with kama lately. Then there are the sai.....

Anyway I will search the fine print in tournament applications more carefully in the future.

Photo Explanation - my feeling as someone approached with a magnet....

And third place is not so bad, for doing a form with imaginary weapons against an imaginary opponent.

Monday, May 10, 2010

xing yi quan form of (last) month: horse

My ideal is to know the forms I study well enough to be able to perform any of them if asked, no preparation and no hesitation. Yeah, that and being able to actually use the applications in appropriate circumstances.

I found out how far I was from that goal on Sunday. Very nice practice, four hours of nothing but Six Harmonies Praying Mantis Fist – review of the familiar and a plunge into a new form, shuang feng (双封). Good review, good consolidation.

Then somewhere near the end of the day, someone asked about a motion from the horse form, 马形, from xing yi quan. I started…and stopped, unsure of a couple motions. A bit earlier, I had whipped out the swallow form (燕形) on demand and was glad I had been reviewing that lately. But the horse…the horse…

So I got out my notes on paper, walked through the form once and got it. Satisfying in one sense, that it came back automatically. And very dissatisfying in another sense – it was obviously nowhere near second nature. Working on the new stuff is always fun, but it is time to go back and double-check everything.