Sent: Wednesday, May 31, 2006 1:23 PM
Subject: LIVE AT THE BUDOKAN
So here it is, a little tale of three Amigos who made their way to a fight club in Tokyo.
It all started on a dark and stormy night (as most stories do) when I agreed to go with two friends to a karate seminar at the world headquarters of Shotokan karate. It’s the equivalent of going to a political lecture at the United Nations, or going for a skate at the Hockey Hall of Fame. But more about that later.
First, a few words about the process of going west to the east: you end up in a different time, a different culture, a different wavelength. The only problem is that you have no idea which wavelength to tune in. For example, I had a lot of those “where the hell am I” moments. Someone described the Japanese culture as the closest thing we have on this planet to a Martian culture (except with breathable air). And that’s not a negative comment, but a positive one. Don’t forget, this is a country that has Honda, Hitachi and Yamaha, which makes not only outboard motors and motorcycles, but also pianos and violins. I saw one of Yamaha’s new prototype products cruising in downtown Tokyo. It was a combined motorcycle and electric piano that appeared to be controlled by the tunes the driver was playing. I couldn’t tell, however, whether it was a sonata or a fugue.
Another unusual aspect of Japan is that in spite of its technology it is very much a cash society. An attempt to find an ATM turned from a search, to a hunt, to a quest, to an adventure. I think the cash-only way comes from two rather admirable sources. First, there is virtually no crime, so carrying cash is pretty safe. Second, the Japanese are not enamoured with credit. Somehow the banks and credit card companies have not convinced them (as they have us) to rack up huge credit card and other debts. Credit for a car or home is okay, but for everything else its MasterYen.
Price of a bullet train to Fujieda: 8,000 Yen Beer with pals on the bullet train: 2,000 Yen Bowl of noodles at Tow San Ramen: 500 Yen Karate Training Live at the Budokan: Priceless In the city of Fujieda there’s a central martial arts complex that’s new and large and mostly wood. It’s called the “Budokan” which translates as “the home or house of the martial arts.” Just as here, where each town has a curling rink, a skating rink, a swimming pool complex, in Japan most towns have a Budokan, where various forms a martial arts are trained and trained and trained. Thus, we arrived in Fujieda to meet and train with Sensei Sakurai. Luckily, he was teaching a children’s class at the Budokan, so we had the chance to experience the joy and enthusiasm of Japan’s youth in their own Budokan.
But once again I’ve arrived at the end of the story before I got through the beginning. So: back to the beginning. On arriving in Tokyo our plan was to “hit” the karate master’s clinic with panache. For our illustrious leader (Sensei Don Sharp–1996 World Champion) that would be a breeze. But for the “now” world famous travelling karate team of Chester and Lester panache was about 73 etiquette breaches and 1,000 karate bows away.
You see, one of the grand traditions of Japan and inevitably karate is that mutual respect is sewn into the social fabric. When you bow to a karate master, he or she bows with you. Bowing is a moment of pause–a taking of time–to acknowledge that other person. When you hand a business card to someone in Japan they take it with two hands and read it. Similarly, objects of any kind when passed from one to another are passed with two hands and accepted the same way. There’s some thought that goes into the process.
You remember Rodney Dangerfield often said “No Respect.” Had I known then what I do know now, I would have bought Rodney a plane ticket to Japan. It would have been good for his soul.
In Texas, by contrast, the folks there treat each other with an obliging respect. The idea there is that people are allowed to carry handguns (even concealed). Thus, “treat ’em like they’sa packin”‘ is pretty much the state motto.
So Respect there is enforced. In Japan Respect is just there.
I guess that living on a bunch of small islands with a crowd of people generates one thing or the other: chaos or order. And perhaps there’s a third option: conflict (or fighting) within certain rules. And that’s where the martial arts
seem to make their entry. That’s where the Samurai come in.
So you’ve all heard about Tokugawa leyasu, right? You know, the famous guy who solved Japan’s big puzzle….I’m not getting a lot of feedback here. You know, Tokugawa leyasu. Okay, tell you what: he became the
first and greatest Shogun in 1600 after solving (or stopping) the feudal wars. Peace reigned for almost three centuries. Seems like he did a good job. Peace flourished, but so did the martial arts.
If Tokugawa leyasu appeared suddenly for a job interview at Honda, the discussion might go as follows (TI is Tokugawa leyasu and HG is “Honda Guy”):
HG: Thanks for coming in today.
TI: It has been a long journey.
HG: Tough commute?
TI: A few hundred years.
HG: Wow, you’ve got to be kidding.
TI: Not really.
HG: So, okay, you’re here for the job as CEO of Honda. What can you tell me about yourself? TI Well, I was the first son of a Daimyo.
TI: A Feudal Lord.
HG: But, whoa, wait a second. Is that some code word that Yamaha is using?
TI: I don’t really know about Yamaha.
HG: They’re the guys who make motorcycles and pianos.
TI: Oh ya. I saw one of those.
HG: One of those?
TI: Ya. The motorcycle where the guy’s driving it with a piano.
HG: A piano? Shit. Just a second, I have to phone research… Hey Bill, what’s the word with Yamaha
and the piano/motorcycle? 0 ya? Really?… Great.
TI: You have good news?
HG: Ya. It turns out Honda has once again outmanoeuvred Yamaha. TI How is that?
HG: Well, they’ve got a motorcycle driven by a piano. But we have the new Accord driven with a violin.
TI: That’s why I’m here. By the way, does Honda have a motto?
HG: Yes. Its “Honda is what Honda does.”
TI: We have to work on that.
HG: Sure. Of course. So lets get back to why you’re here. This CEO job with Honda.
TI: That’s not really why.
HG: It’s not?
TI: No. I’m here to explain why an understanding of the martial arts of Japan is so important to understanding what Japan is about.
TI: Well, That’s my job right now.
HG: So you’re not here to be CEO?
TI: Not really interested. No.
HG: So who set this up?
HG: Lester? Shit….he drives a Ford. This is a problem.
TI: Well. This is just Lester’s imagination, so I don’t see it as much of a problem. Especially considering that I was Shogun and all.
HG: So you’re saying this job interview is over?
TI: That seems to be what Lester is thinking.
Okay— I’m back. Wow. Those guys really do know how to talk. So there you are. Moments in Japan are always powerful. Every single time.
So where does that leave us? A recap is in order. The Amigos arrive in Tokyo. They train at a gathering of world champions. The Amigos cross paths with other Amigos from Japan and other countries (karate can be translated as “camaraderie”). The Amigos fare well at various karate parties where the art of beer pouring is significant. The Amigos spill no beer and (ultimately) end the episode with but a number of (significant) bruises. That’s not to complain (Amigos never do).
But after the daily training, there was the nightly “cavortaree.” In Tokyo “cavorting” means “Okachimachi.” At least, its one of the great places to cavort. If you have seen Blade Runner, then you have been to Okachimachi. You know, it’s the scene where Harrison Ford is down in the streets, eating noodles, its dark, there’s lots of people and vehicles, and shopping and lots of other things going on. It’s a great place to be with friends.
Several nights in a row we hit the “0” district and sat on tiny little chairs in the street. The style is tall bottles of beer are poured into tiny glasses, so there’s lots of pouring going on. But even in those simple tasks, there’s style and grace. Don’t forget, this is a country where the Samurai also studied the tea ceremony. Much of Japan’s Micro Moments are directly related to its Big Concepts: Zen, Shinto and Buddhism.
I’ll end off by saying that those last three are biggies. I mean, I can’t even start to explain those. The precise detail to properly hold the beer as you pour it into your comrade’s glass: I can explain. The specifics of the hand movement as you do an open hand block: I can explain. But the way that Zen, Shinto and Buddhism interact with everyone in Japan is—- a question. I’ve seen and felt that. But it seems that when we’ve ended our morning, our afternoon, our evening and we feel that long emotional stretch into something much bigger than ourselves, then that’s the time to catch a glimpse of Zen, of Buddhism, of Shinto.
Some people think I take risks. From my perspective I don’t, compared to the real explorers. However, I have realized that from time to time its necessary to take a risk. So, as a final moment in this diatribe, I’ll take a final risk. That risk is to attempt to define Zen, Shinto and Buddhism. Following that I will make myself disappear. Zen is touching the flower while it touches you. Shinto is being inside the flower.
Buddhism is understanding the flower. And for my final act POOFFF
Honda Guy “Hey. Now that he’s gone what are WE supposed to do?”
Tokugawa leyasu: “I suggest we take a test drive of that new Accord.”
KARATE IN JAPAN: A PRIMER
Insights by Masters-past present and future Photos and commentary by Chester Text by Lester
Photo Management by Tania Zinc and Henry Waldock
If you want to do karate in Japan, then you will have two important steps to take. The first is your step onto the aircraft (boat, or car) that will take you to Japan. The writer of this piece, NASKA and the JKA all seriously discourage you from attempting to drive a car to Japan. The second step is the big one. It’s the first step you take onto the dojo floor. “Dojo” can simply be defined as the training area, or more complexly as “the Place of the Way.” Or is that “the way to the place?” No, no. Indeed it’s “the Place of the Way.” There’s a big difference between stepping onto an airplane and stepping onto the dojo floor.
The First Steps
Sure, there’s lots of procedural stuff to do before anyone lets you onto an airplane: take a passport, leave your guns and explosives at home, and adopt a general attitude that doesn’t seem threatening. But the big difference is shoes. When you step onto the airplane, you can have Guccis, Reeboks, Nikes, or even Flip-Flops. When you step onto the dojo floor you are barefoot. Not pardoning the pun here: you bare your soul (well, I guess its “sole”-but hey-that’s just a spelling mistake).
Karate is barefoot. It starts and finishes there. As I think about it more, I realize the long tradition of barefoot karate means many things. Purity, for example.
However, before I expouse my theories about karate and barefootedness, I realize you folks need a break from my apparent (but denied) foot fetish.
You see, this piece of writing is supposed to be a direct communication to NASKA (the North American Karate Association).The 3 Amigos’ mission in Japan was to train with the Masters and to report back their secrets. Sensei Sharp has the big job of teaching what we learned, and to Chester and Lester falls the task of documenting the journey. And boy’o boy did we learn some secrets. So those of you who aren’t into karate, you’re welcome to stay to the end, where I will reveal the great secrets of the Masters, so you too will be an invincible tower of power. But that’s later. Since the purpose of this piece is to give you details about karate training in Japan that’s where we’re going right now.
Even before you take that first step onto the dojo floor, there’s the process of getting to the dojo. I have to admit I was nervous about that part because I knew there were many opportunities for an etiquette breach. For example, when paying for the seminar I got the Yen mixed up and insistently attempted to pay about $10 for a $300 seminar. The lady taking the money was very patient and I was very embarrassed-my first guffaw not even a minute into the door at Shotokan world headquarters.
Hanging with Champions
By the way, the lady taking the money at the front desk is also the current world champion in women’s kumite (fighting). Going to the Master’s clinic is like going to an NHL hockey camp where not only the current greats are participating, but also the champions from the past. So Rob Brind’ Amour was there and so was Chris Pronger, but also teaching was Wayne Gretsky and Bobby Orr. In fact, at a party put on by the Masters for foreign visitors, we were poured a bowl of soup by Sensei Tanaka (the karate equivalent of Bobby Hull or Mario Lemieux, or perhaps the two hockey greats combined). Anyways, the Stanley Cup finals are on, so I figured a hockey analogy was in order. Back to the shoes So we haven’t yet set a foot on the dojo floor, but already there’s lots happening on the first of the four floors at Shotokan central. Just passing the sign-in desk (and my goof-up with the Yen) the next “step” is to get rid of our shoes. Karate is Japan and Japan is karate. Nowhere in Japan do you walk into a home with your shoes on. No surprise it’s the same at JKA world headquarters (the Japan Karate Association). The shoe stands at the base of the stairs (going up) clearly said: “no shoes beyond this point.” And I paused for a moment before climbing the staircase to floor 2 of JKA headquarters to see what kind of shoes do karate Masters wear to such clinics. And sure enough, it was that familiar assortment of Guccis, Reeboks, Nikes and Flip-Flops. First-an aside about the JKA Before we go to the second floor, I have to give you a little context about what that staircase means. The JKA is the largest martial arts organization in the world with something like 15 to 18 million people learning this art. So you ask: why so many? Once again, that’s where the Masters come into play. The JKA (Shotokan karate) “exported” karate around the world. With great insight in the 1960s and `70s they sent numerous Masters to live and teach around the world.
The seminar the 3 Amigos are walking into is an “update” for all those teachers from Japan and around the world. There is, in essence, a “quality control” about the art that is Shotokan karate. No surprise that there was lots of testing going on. Not just the expected Dan (black belt) tests, but also the equally important tests for referees, examiners and instructors. When you’re dealing with an art where movement, and timing and a whole bunch of other intangibles are significant, you can’t just phone your teachers and tell them about that. Similarly, films and books fall short. That’s why the karate Masters gather to review their art. That’s what we did: review, learn anew and learn the new.
Of course, each participant’s percentage of “review” versus “learn the new” varies depending upon his or her experience-but more importantly, the level of teaching at their home (“honbu”) dojo. That’s where NASKA comes in: we are getting world class teaching here. And that’s because of our chief instructors’ connection to JKA headquarters.
Living and breathing Karate-Do
Sure, there were still a lot of new insights and techniques, from my perspective. But a large part of that arose from the fact that we were living and breathing karate for eleven days straight: 2 travel days; 4 days at the Master’s clinic; 2 more at the main dojo; 2 more with Sakurai Sensei; and a touring day with Kawasaki Sensei and his daughter, Yasuko.
Even a day touring with karateka (students of karate) is a day spent in – the spirit of Karate-Do (the way of the empty hand). Just one example of that interconnectedness of karate and life is “Sharp Sensei’s Sensational Sushi Save”-but that story will be found later under the heading “Secret Tricks of the Masters.” One thing I invite all of you to do is to pursue your passion, whatever that is. And a great way to be inside your passion is to spend time immersed in what you believe. Sure its great reat to spend some hours doing what is important. But when you can do that day after day-all day-then you really start to understand and become your passion.
Oh Boy, those Good of Days
Before we get back to describing that very first step onto the dojo floor, I think a comparison is in order: between the “old days” of training in the martial arts and the “new days” of JKA with its international connections. When your photographer and commentator (Chester) and your writer I (Lester) first started “shooting the boots in Saskatchewan,” we inadvertently started training with some prairie “Gung to” group. Our instructor was sincere enough (even with the powder blue uniform) but there just wasn’t much information flowing about How to Train. I think a lot of these guys just made up techniques on their own based upon movies, books, or folk lore. For example, one technique for ornaments was to reach down, grab the guy’s athletic cup, give it a yank away from his body, give the cup a twist and let go-hopefully engendering some sort of “Gung fo” nutbuster.
Needless to say, that one is not part of the JKA arsenal, nor will it appear in this piece under the “Tricks of the Masters.” The point here is not that the martial arts have been reinvented into some modern form, but rather that there are many more forums to gain access to world-class teachers. Now, we’re getting closer to putting that first foot onto the dojo floor at JKA headquarters.
Finally a Foot touches Wood
After shedding various forms of footwear, such as Guccis, Reeboks, Nikes and Flip¬Flops, the various Masters proceed upstairs to floor 2. What I later realized is that the progression from the Is’ floor to the 41h is much more than walking up four flights of stairs. If you take the (shoeless) walk up and into JKA headquarters, then you will feel a change in energy, in focus, in what things seem important. Step one
On the first level you will remember my confusion about what to pay and a little bit of panic about where to put MY shoes (okay-you guess-were they Guccis, Reeboks, Nikes or Flip-Flops? First correct answer gets a free pair of ). The Is’ floor is the business headquarters of JKA. And the energy is business-like.
The 2nd floor is, well, I’ll call it the “Preparation Floor”: there’s a smaller training area, a lounge and, of course, some changing rooms. “Please be careful” at this juncture because one of the unmarked doors leads to the change room reserved for highest-level Masters only. I know this from experience.
The 2nd floor is a place where the energy is either, well-how to describe it? Its either breathing-in, or breathing-out. My memories of that floor are one of two: anticipating the training that would occur two floors above; or happily resolving the training that had just occurred. Each floor has a different spirit.
Then there’s the 3′.d floor: that’s where the Art of Karate starts happening. The first thing you see is real wood. There’s a beautiful wood dojo floor covering part of the area and a second zone that’s a collection of punching bags and other training items. Thus, the 3rd floor is not quite “pure” karate, but getting close.
For lunch each day during the Masters’ clinic we were given a “Bento” box, which is a wonderful and unknown assortment of various things to eat. Trust me on this one: in Japan its better not to ask what you’re eating just go ahead and engage. Notably, during lunch hour, the karateka assembled from around the world would eat those unknown Bento boxes while lounging on the 2nd and P floors. No one would even consider eating lunch on the 4th floor.
I suppose I can explain karate this way. The art of paining oil on canvas involves the paint, the brush and the canvas. In the art of karate you can consider your spirit as the paint, your feet as the brush, and the floor as your canvas. That’s why no one would eat lunch on the JKA’s finest canvas.
At long last, there’s the 4th floor: you reach the top of the stairs and there it is. There’s just the wood floor. That’s where karate happens: bare foot on dojo floor. I have spent a
lot of words about what it takes to get onto the shining wood floor at JKA headquarters.
From my perspective as mere reporter of this action, my job is over.
That is-I got you there, to the place, the floor, the four staircases up to the most important wood dojo floor in the JKA world. What follows are just a few personal experiences while training with Masters on that prestigious piece of flooring.
On the Floor
In spite of my exaggeration about how serious this all is, the most important message I can send is this: Goodwill and Humour prevail. All of the people who made it up to the 4th floor, from my perspective, had energy, had happiness, had a wonderful sense of joy.
At times there were more than 300 black belts on that floor. Just doing a rough bit of math here: each has well over 20 years of training, some as many as 60 or 70; so lets say, uh, taking a median of, oh, lets say 30 years (just to be conservative); multiply 300 karataka x 30 years of training = 9,000 years of Experience. If you’re listening and watching, life teaches.
Well, it’s up to me right now to try to interpret why all those folks had so much joy in what they were doing. I don’t know. But I can say that there’s great joy in doing what you believe.
I guess that’s it. Because we had a whole lot of fun, and joy, and inner peace training with the Masters on that 4th floor. After that, I will always see life a little differently. That change happened in one fell swoop: “seiza” is the process of sitting straight in a line, with your legs underneath you; this is done at the start of class; “mukuso” is what you hear next and that means “close your eyes and let go of what has come before,” or something like that; then you disappear; then you hear “mukuso yame” which means, in essence, “wake up.”
That’s when it hit me. I opened my eyes: to see white uniforms, wood floor; to hear silence and peace; to feel the power of centuries of endeavour. We all stood up and got busy.
Tricks of the Masters
I have to say “sorry everyone,” because this last section was just a trick to get you to keep reading. If you’re upset about this, then I apologize, and offer you a few “tips.” You see, in the end there really are no “tricks” but rather 9,000 years of spirit in action. The “Tips”-summarized
1. Never pay attention to someone who says he knows what he’s saying.
2. If someone, such as Lester, says he knows what’s going on, then ask him this question: “Life is This, but what is That?”
3. When choosing between Guccis, Reeboks, Nikes or Flip-Flops, most Masters choose Flip-Flops.
4. When you travel to karate seminars in other countries, try to convince someone of lower belt rank to go with you. That way, you’ll have less carrying to do.
5. In all situations where your life is in jeopardy-keep your body weight lowered.
6. And if you really understand this concept, you can make money in New York bars. Alright, alright, an explanation: you see, one of the ladies from upstate New York did exactly that. After we finished a two-hour session with Naka Sensei focussing on how to keep your weight lowered by controlling your mind, she explained how she had used the same concept to get money from New York bar patrons. She convinced a remarkable number of guys to pay her $50 each for a chance to “pick” her up. By that, of course, she didn’t mean “pick” her up, she meant $50 for a chance to lift her up. Now we’re not talking about a large woman here, but indeed by focussing her “mental weight” down, the boys at the bar couldn’t lift her up. Who said you wouldn’t make money by studying karate?
7. When in Japan don’t look at the food for too long. You see, that’s what happened during “Sharp
Sensei’s Sensational Sushi Save.” On our tour day with Sensei Kawasaki he took us to a traditional sushi bar where they hand roll the sushi and slap it on the table in front of you-no plates, no chopsticks. You just grab the sushi and down the hatch.
Except… some of those looked a little weird. Once we sat at the bar the two sushi maestros got at it. A growing line of sushi started accumulating in front of each of us. The first few were “normal” but then the first of the “bad boys” appeared. It was a strange piece of sushi-dark and covered in fish eggs. But then It appeared,
the dreaded ” Ikura”-salmon eggs in a large pile that looked like a bottle of vitamin E capsules wrapped in seaweed-yummy (not). I couldn’t stop looking at it. And the more I looked the larger it got. Once the usual pre-meal chant of “eat a tacky mouse” was spoken, we started in.
Of course the “normal” sushi was great, but the two “bad boys” just kept getting bigger and bigger. I decided to tackle bad boy number one (the dark and ominous one). As I choked my way through it I looked over at Chester to see that he just finished eating bad boy number one and he looked as green as I felt. Fortunately, Sensei Sharp was fine with all of these “delicacies.” Turns out that bad boy number one was fish guts and seaweed. By the time I finished that one the dreaded Ikura had become the size of a football. For the first time on the trip I began feeling real fear. The etiquette is to eat what is given to you. Fortunately, karate training also trains your “inner radar.” And Sensei Sharp’s radar was on that day. He subtly reached over and took Chester’s Ikura out of existence. For a moment I had one of those “what about me” moments. But indeed, a minute or two later the dreaded pile of vitamin E tablets was taken out of existence in the same manner. Chester and Lester still owe Sensei Sharp for that Sensational Save.
8. When in Japan don’t bite off more than you can chew.
9. Be smooth or go home.
10. Keep your stick on the ice.
Well folks, that just about wraps it up for now. I’ll be tuning in again sometime soon. Until then, don’t forget that “everybody loves somebody sometime.”