Saturday, January 23, 2010

karate memories (2)

I was hitting the Kenkojuku honbu or main dojo about once a week out in Hachioji – not nearly enough, but all I thought I could manage at the time due to work. I look back and shake my head at my foolishness. When coming to Japan, I should have made a strong and active choice to live near the dojo, to arrange my work schedule around dojo practice, to do it right.

I didn’t do so and have regretted it ever since.

That was ten and fifteen years ago, can’t be fixed now. But many things remain with me from that time.

One is the memory of one of the teachers coming to the dojo week after week on Friday nights. Practice would continue as he and Okano Sensei, the soke or head, spoke about this and that.

Somewhere around 10 PM something would be said and people stopped practicing and sat down in the kneeling seiza position in the rear of the dojo. And that teacher, with how many decades of karate practice behind him, would perform bassai dai in front of Okano Sensei, who was never quite satisfied with it.

Bassai Dai is one of the core kata or forms in the Shotokan karate syllabus. How many decades before had he learned it, polished it, been teaching it – and still he came back for scrutiny from his teacher.

At that time I was sometimes disappointed at having to sit so long in seiza, just to watch yet another performance of Bassai Dai. After all, I often came late to practice after work (having skipped dinner and water and all that), usually a 90-minute one-way commute, I and felt that I needed every minute I could get on the dojo floor.

I would give much now for just one more chance to sit in seiza to watch his Bassai Dai and hear again the voice of Okano Sensei, suggesting this or that adjustment to the kata.

Okano Sensei passed away some years back and I am now focused primarily on Chinese martial arts.

Yet I would give much for just one more session on the dojo floor, seemingly ignored for the entire practice then subjected to a short barrage of encouragement in the form of criticism.

We are now less than 1 ½ years from planned relocation back to the US and each practice grows more and more important. Who will continue to guide my learning, once I am an ocean apart from my teacher here in Japan, or from his teachers in China? Who will offer blunt words and a scowl after seeing my best effort?

Already I feel these days are passing too quickly. For so long it all seemed so far away, and now the future seems to lie just in front of me. I suppose the answer is the same as ever – just get back to practice. Regular, steady, and never ending.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My first xing yi quan practice was on May 29, 2002, coming up on seven years already. It was quite unexpected, really. I had begun tai ji quan classes with Mr. T back in Oct. 2001. Somewhere along the way I had read about xing yi quan somewhere and mentioned my interest after class one day. His response was positive, and not much longer afterward a couple of us went to a nearby park for an introduction to xing yi after our regular (indoor) tai ji quan class.

“A few minutes” turned into two hours and I was instantly hooked. We met intermittently through the summer, getting to know the 5 basic fists. It was a typical hot and sweaty summer in Tokyo and the mosquitoes were out in full force – but we barely noticed, having stepped foot into a new world. We started with 劈拳 piquan, and crossover interference from my karate was immediately apparent – I was slicing across and down diagonally (shuto uke). It took me ages to get the feeling of striking / pushing directly down the centerline. And it didn’t seem that I would ever be able to pull my reverse hand down in front of the dantian area below my navel – too many years of pulling to the side of the hip in Shotokan karate.

These outdoor park sessions blended into weekly sessions, 3 glorious hours on Monday mornings. They were sparsely attended – three was sometimes a crowd. All the better for we students, who moved past the five fists and into the twelve animals at last. But we worried about the teacher, spending so much time with us for so little money.

We occasionally slipped a bit of extra money into the payment envelope, or included train tickets to cover his transportation. It felt like the doors had been thrown open – an entire new art to explore, under expert guidance and in the best of conditions. But we also felt that we wanted to do something more for the teacher.

Somewhere along the way, an “official” xing yi class started in the hour before our Wednesday afternoon tai ji class, and it continues to this day. In fact, we just gave our first group xing yi quan exhibition in November, and a second in January.

Also along the way, those Monday mornings switched to Tuesdays and ba gua zhang became the focus – another unexpected but very welcome development. The ba gua got nefariously snuck in one Monday late in 2003, and has been a staple ever since.

Our teacher’s teacher, Liu Jing Ru Laoshi, has visited Japan every summer since 2006 for a special seminar, bringing us his xing yi and ba gua. In 2007, I made my first solo visit to Beijing to study with him.

Now these arts are at the core of my regular practice – something I never could have imagined before all this got started. I had no firm intention of starting either xing yi or ba gua – both arts seemed too far removed, something to get to someday in the future. But the future snuck up quite quickly.

(picture from Jindaiji Temple in Tokyo - curiously, the tiger and the dragon were the first two animal forms I learned)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

adjusting to your environment (3)

This picture is from late 2009 – I had a few days’ intensive work a couple stations out from Yokohama. I had to stay in the company’s training center for the duration (bland, bland bland) but could escape for an hour or two early each morning. Less than 10 minutes’ walk put me in a bamboo grove atop a small hill.

No wire action kung fu shit, just me and the trees and the early morning breeze which had the bamboo swaying this way and that. Our first group xing yi quan demo was coming up, so I worked through most of it – the five basic fists, connected fists form, bashi, the tiger form to cap it off. I started doing the xing yi spear form empty handed until the obvious dawned on me.

In the middle of a mini-bamboo forest, I soon found a 9-foot section of bamboo and got to work. Though longer than my usual spear by a few feet, curved a bit with age, and much rougher on the hands, it was really ideal.

I had brought along a miniature arsenal in my rolling suitcase: nunchaku, sai, and tekko nestled among my business suits, as well as a cheap collapsible jian sword for good measure.

Either in my cramped room or outdoors, they all saw service. Yet the best training equipment had been waiting for me atop that lonely, untravelled hill.

Friday, January 1, 2010

from Okano Sensei


Kinou no ware ni kate - be better than I was yesterday.

Commemorative cup received from Okano Tomasaburo Sensei of Shotokan Karate, Kenkojuku.

Curiously, I stumbled across something in an old journal last night. Back in 2001, Okano Sensei praised my tai ji quan (he was also active in that art in the Hachioji area) to one of my seniors/ senpai, but added that my karate was still no good.

In 2000, back in Japan after an almost-year in China, Okano Sensei asked me to demonstrate my tai ji quan in the karate dojo. I declined, he insisted. I had spent almost every morning in China one-on-one with my teacher, working on the 42 form. Okano Sensei raved about my sweeping-lotus kick (摆莲) near the end of the form and had everybody in the dojo try it. Being hardcore karate guys, they were not terribly interested and their faces showed it.

I don't think my karate got much better after that - but events were already in motion that would lead me ever deeper into the world of Chinese martial arts. I am no longer practicing karate, but his words are more important to me today than ever.

xing yi quan's 12 animal forms (1) - the swallow

It started out as a very focused practice – just the 燕形, yan xing or swallow form, one of the 12 animal forms in xing yi quan. I got to feeling pretty good with the swallow, so I moved on to 鹞形, yao xing or sparrow hawk. That got me to thinking about 鸡形, the chicken, which had been my main theme for review a couple days back.

Then I realized how often birds figure in the 12 animal forms, so I moved on to the mysterious 骀形, or tai form. The form itself is simple. But the tai is one of the mythological creatures among the 12. After that, I moved into the eagle-bear combined form, 鹰熊合形.

Why the swallow? I have been focused on the 杂式捶 zashichui form for a couple days. I learned it on one rainy day just outside the tea house, under the overhanging roof, in tao ran ting park with Liu Jing Ru Laoshi. There was a sudden, massive rain storm as I rode across Beijing from my work at the Olympics to the park in the south of the city. By the time I arrived the rains had eased up but were still falling. It was the first and only time we took shelter under the roof during our lessons.

Zashichui incorporates motions from the swallow form – swooping low then rising high on one leg, soaring through the air and landing low again…running through those motions, I knew it was time to review the swallow form in its entirety.

My first practice of the new year, on the morning of January 1, focused on the nan quan form I will be demonstrating again in a week, and on the zashichui form. Tonight’s review session was the follow-up: the swallow, the sparrow hawk, and so on, through the five birds.

But why stop there? I had hot water in the thermos and a while before dinner. I worked on through all 12 animals, finishing with the monkey form (my namesake, having been born in the Year of the Monkey) just as dinner was served. The horse, snake, and the mythological tuo (鼍形)…and the tiger and dragon of course (the first ones we learned).

Tomorrow: more of the same but with more focus. But who knows – once you get started, it is hard to stop.

Photo: The bottle on the left is “Yanjing Pijiu” – Yanjing is an old / alternate name for Beijing and could be translated as swallow capital or swift capital. Beijing is (was) famous for the swallows / swifts which used to fly about everywhere before massive construction changed the landscape. The beer itself is a light lager and one of the best sellers in Asia.

Reading about the disappearing swifts (search for article at reminded me that Liu Laoshi told me a story about how he loved the swifts which used to be seen everywhere in Beijing. But their numbers have been so decimated that sightings of swifts sometimes make the news.

And another story. Two summers back, I met a friend for a long walk around the Forbidden City, there in the heart of Beijing. We admired a section of water (pond? moat?). She told me that when she was a young girl, people who lived in the neighborhood used to come ice skating when the water froze over. But, due to global warming, it has not frozen over for years. These stories got me thinking about why some martial arts traditions flourish and thrive, while others are lost. More on that at another time.