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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

JAPAN TRAINING 2015 -- August 3 -- LAST DAY

August 3, 2015.  1800 Japan time
Japan Airlines 60.  Osaka Kansai to LAX

I’ve had a wonderful visit to Tokushima to visit Masumi and Dave Cooper and the Toyosaki family.  They were awesome hosts and Masumi’s father, Masao, would not let me pay for a single thing – from my hotel to the express bus to Kansai this morning.  He said it was because Terri and I took such good care of Masumi when she came to visit us in Texas about ten years ago, but I suspect he would have done that anyhow.

Yesterday we went shopping at the new mall on their side of the Yoshino River from Tokushima City.  Since it is new and since it is hot as hell right now, the mall was packed, and my true feeling is that if you’ve seen one mall, you’ve  seen most malls and this was no exception.  I found a couple of very cool shirts for Jacob and a summery shirt and breezy trouser set for myself, and then we ate in the food court with the kids.  After we dropped Masumi and the Kids off, Dave and I went for a massage.  Male masseuses work on males and female masseuses on women.  You are fully clothed in a little Jack LaLane style jumpsuit.  No oils.  My guy was very good however and after two weeks of travel and karate, he had me asleep on the table after about twenty minutes.

Dave dropped me off at the hotel while he went to catch up with his Awa Adori dance group at a Shinto shrine where they would perform later.  Masumi and family picked me up later and we also went to the shrine.  Got there right at dusk and the orange full moon was rising over the massive tori gate entrance.  The walkway was lined with glowing lanterns on both sides and I had a feeling something magical was about to happen.

The Awa dance dates back to the 1500’s when Tokushima prefecture was known as Awa and was the fief of a Samurai daimyo.  The dance is very tribal and seems a little like a mating ritual, with the women in their geta and kimonos, very fluid and supple as Se grass, and the men in jembei and colorful headbands and tabis, dancing around the women like dervishes.  The drums are pounding, shamisens and wood flutes droning on, and bells ring constantly.  Like reggae, it is almost impossible not to start moving your body with the beat.  The saying for the Awa Adori matsuri is “You’re a fool if you dance and a fool if you don’t, so you might as well dance.” The dancing lasted about an hour and then there were sparklers for the children.  Afterwards, Dave and I took the other car to the local onsen baths and had a most wonderful soak.  Then a light meal and some good conversation before he dropped me off.

Today Masumi, Dave, and the kids came to my hotel and we walked to the JR station together to have a light brunch at Starbucks and some last minute shopping.  I was terrified that I was not going to find the items Terri had given me for her “shopping list” but at the stores around the station, I scored big time and found everything she had requested.  She likes the small, interesting items like coin purses.  Tokushima is famous for its indigo blue dye and I was able to find the items in that beautiful deep blue with almost tie-dyed patterns.  Very exquisite.  Then we had to say our goodbyes and I boarded the express bus for Kansai, while Dave and Masumi had plans to head for the Oboke Gorge to visit their whitewater rafting pals.  Both of them used to be river guides.  They were such great hosts and are dear friends indeed.

All over Japan I am impressed with their civil and structural engineering fetes, mainly the way they have managed to build amazing roads, tunnels, and railways throughout this mountainous nation.  Today, however, I was awed by the entire area around Kobe and Osaka.  The area is one huge network of ports and bridges that almost defy imagination.  Wow!  Kansai airport itself was created as an island by using cofferdams, pumping the ocean out, and bringing fill in.  Then it was connected to the mainland by a bridge that must be four miles long and allows shipping passage beneath it.  This is one amazing country and a very ambitious people.

 In another eight hours, God willing, I’ll be in Los Angeles.  I always suffer a reverse culture shock upon arrival after the  politeness and orderly manner of Japan.  But it’s my country and I miss it.  I mainly miss Terri and Jacob.  It seems a long time since July 18 when I departed on this journey.  Thank you, love, for supporting my need to go.  Thank you to my senior students who took the dojo classes for me while I was away.  Thank you Dave and Masumi, and also the Aussies who always adopt me.  Thank you to Shihan Fujiwara and his wife and family for being so hospitable at their ryokan, and for him being my teacher.  Shihan, you are the best of the best.  We all know it.  I hope you do also.  I think other ryuha thought Seiwakai would be diminished after Tasaki Hanshi passed, but we have in fact grown and are getting better.  That makes me happy and proud and is a legacy I try to instill in my own students.

Now it is back to our lives.  Being able to attend a gasshuku such as ours is like entering a monastery.  We live and breathe Karatedo and don’t even think about news or politics or the mundane things that typically fill up our existence.  We get to do ONE thing and do it to the best of our ability.  And when it’s over we’ve  grown in ways we don’t even know and have hopefully changed in positive, subtle ways.  I know I have.

So, from somewhere over the Pacific, I’m signing off for now.  Thanks for coming along on this journey, whether actually or vicariously.  I hope you’ve grown some too.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

JAPAN TRAINING 2015 - August 1st, Day ?

August 1, 2015.   1006
Between Kokura and Okayama
En route to Tokushima, Shikoku

I left behind my many karate friends at 0800 to catch my trains.  The people you come to know through this strange and exclusive international organization is what keeps me involved.  I’ve met people of so many countries and occupations through Goju-Ryu Karatedo it is unbelievable, and I don’t see how our paths could have crossed any other way.  Some are merely acquaintances, but many become like brothers and sisters – family – whom even if you don’t cross paths for a few years, when you do, you take up right where you left off and are genuinely joyful to be together again.  And they are trustworthy, honest, and loyal, always willing to go the extra mile and watch your back in any country or situation.  In a word, it is wonderful.  So it was with genuine sorrow to say goodbye.  I almost teared  up when I said goodbye to Fujiwara Shihan because I like him so much and he always brings out the best in us and is an amazing host.

I’m heading to Tokushima to visit my dear friend Masumi Toyosaki Cooper, who I first met in 2004 on a whitewater rafting trip on the Yoshino River after my first Japan training.  Masumi spoke very good English and wanted a native speaker to talk to.  I now know her family, who are now my family too, and her husband Dave, who was a rafting guide from Australia, living in Japan.  They now have three children and live in Brisbane, but are here visiting her family, so I finally get to see their beautiful children.  Tokushima is a gorgeous city on the Pacific side of Shikoku, just across a straight of water from Osaka.  It is the home of one of the biggest matsuri festivals in Japan, the Awa Adori Matsuri, which draws over a million people to dance in the streets and have a great time.  It is the Japanese equivalent of Mardi Gras Festival, and like the Mardi Gras crews, the various Awa Adori dance troops will be practicing in the evenings while I am there.  When you walk along the river downtown, the big drums are slamming out a heartbeat rhythm, and everywhere are dance troops practicing.  Masumi and Dave are both dancers and I think Dave is quite famous as one of the few gaijin who can do it.  Not to mention he’s about 6’3” tall with a shaved head!  Very recognizable amongst the dancers.

My first two trains had no reserved seats left, so I’m using the unreserved cars, which is quite fun and like a land rush to get on, because there are always some folks left standing, kind of like a game of musical chairs.  And there is absolutely no chivalry.  You snooze you lose... and nobody offers a woman a seat.  I dropped my hand bag and already broke a real good bottle of sake (second time in that soft bag.  First time 2006) so my bag reeks of sake and people probably figure I’ve been on a drunk.  Oh well.  Good times!

My body has reached its absolute physical limits from the travel, time changes, different diet, gallons of sweat, and nine straight days of karate in a soaking wet gi.  I really don’t even care to put one on for a few weeks, because I am so sore and exhausted.  The training has been very good and very technical, but I really don’t know how many more times I can do this.  But I always say that, don’t I?

I found out this morning that I did not pass my Rokudan grading.  I thought I did a good job and had a better chance as there were only 13 grading this year (5 passed) as compared to 18 (3 passed) when I graded two years ago.  You never know what the grading panel is looking for and the standards are quite high at this level.  I know I am fighting the battle of age also.  In fact I was surprised to find I was the oldest one grading for Rokudan, which explains why I was number 13 out of 13.

The grading was held in a smaller Kendo room off the main area of the Beppu Budokan and it was so hot, instead of all of us going in at once, they brought us in in three groups of 3,5, and 5.  I was in the last group, which was apparently the eldest of the group.  That’s a good thing really, because you don’t really want to come right after a guys who is 48 or 50 and can stick a kansetsu Geri like a locomotive.  The older guys try to be a little more precise about timing and Kime (focus points) because they have lost some power.  Vassie Naidoo and I were speculating there are probably not many guys in their 60’s who can do what we do.  The grading panel is 6 stone-faced 8th dans, with 3 more observing from the side.  It is a bit intimidating.

I’m of course disappointed, and maybe more disappointed for Fujiwara Shihan and Seiwakai, but I have to look at it like the Japanese do.  For them, it is all about the doing, and failure is a part of the game.  They do not look at failure quite like we do in the west.  To have been there and made the effort is paramount on the path to perfection.  You won’t achieve perfection, but you keep striving.  There are many senior Japanese Sensei who have failed these grading numerous time and they seem totally unfazed and undeterred.  It is an honor to have been qualified to try.

My new friend, Sanny Yap Sensei, from Singapore helped me reframe it yesterday, even before I knew the results.  Sanny asked me how I felt about the  grading and I replied, “I think I did pretty well.”
He said, “No…how do you feel?”
I said that I felt good and he replied, “then hold on to that feeling because that is all you can control.  You never know how they see you and what they see.”
That was good advice.  I feel good about it all.

Vassie Naidoo, Desmond Tuck, John Dean, and I  went out to a Korean barbecue place last night with Jamie Duggan’s group from Brisbane.  This bunch of crazy Aussies are my adopted crew and they are so much fun.  Tough, funny, loud, and really strong karateka.  Definitely crazy as Texans.  Probably more so..  And they live life for today, so every experience is good and life is for living in the moment.  It was a great time and more than a little alcohol was consumed now that the pressure was off.  I can’t wait to see this bunch again.

Almost to Tokushima now.  I need a massage!!!  Over and out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

July 28th and 29th, 2015.  1155
On the Shinkansen –Akita to Oita

I’m currently heading from Northern Honshu to Central Hokaido.  A long bit of distance.  Someone said about 600 miles.  We are on our second bullet train, having left Omagari at 0640 and will arrive in Oita almost twelve hours later.  My traveling companions are Gayle and Mario Borg, Seiwakai instructors who live in Sydney, Australia.  Some of our Omagari group decided to fly because of the distance, but the trains are a much better way to see the people and sights of Japan.  You can also sleep well on them and eat or drink.  Why we can’t create a rail system as efficient as the JR system is beyond me.  What a wonderful way to travel.  We are currently almost to Nagoya, going about 180 mph, the countryside rolling by like a movie panorama.

Yesterday turned into an inadvertent rest day for me, much needed and much appreciated.  I asked to skip the morning session to take the train over to Akita to activate my JR (Japan Railway) pass, which can only be done in major cities.  It’s about a 50 minute trip and I got over and took care of business and headed back to Omagari with some time to spare.  Had my gi in my shoulder bag and started for the Budokan.  I traveled a couple of blocks when the bottom fell out and it started raIning cats and dogs and I was totally drenched.  I still had some time so thought I’d head over to the ryokan first and change clothes and maybe catch a ride back with Mr. Fujiwara.  I changed clothes and since my knee was hurting from the walk, I decided to lie down for a few minutes and elevate my leg.  Out!  Like a light. Awakened at almost 1600 and felt a bit guilty because I was probably needed for a grading panel for those grading for Seiwakai, but there was nothing to be done about it now.  When Mr. Fujiwara returned, I apologized to him for missing the session and he laughed when I told him what had happened and didn't seem too concerned.

We arrived at Beppu on schedule.  A couple of business men from Beppu once train told us that chicken tempura and sho chu, a drink kind of like vodka distilled from wheat, were two things  Beppu was known for (other than the hot spring baths, of course).  Beppu is second only to
Yellowstone National Park for the amount of hot spring geothermal activity.  It’s a bit of a tourist place around here, but not too bad.  Goodnight.  My hands are typing very weird things
As I keep nodding out while on the keyboard.  Long day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 27, 2015.   2220
Omagari, Japan

Today was soooo hard.  Slept poorly.  Did yoga.  Walked the mile and a half to the dojo and my IT band and knee (the one that hasn’t been replaced) were already lighting me up.  And it was already hot!  Fujiwara Shihan always starts us out with many moving basics techniques…just about every combination of Goju-Ryu techniques imaginable…first few times smoothly and slow, and then many times at full speed and power.  Most days so far this starting phase has lasted about 50 minutes.  Today it was about 65 minutes.  Your gi is drenched within 10 minutes and soon the sweat is dripping from your eyebrows, nose, fingers.  Needless to say, I was finding it very difficult to hit the hard and fast reps because my knee was screaming at me whenever I would push off on it.  I was thinking, “Good God, I’m toast and we’re only one hour into the day.”

After that we ran Sanchin kata numerous times.  Sanchin requires attention to every body part simultaneously and much isometric tension.  It is one of Goju-Ryu karate’s kihon (primary) katas and you never perfect it.  You just drill down deeper into it.  There’s nothing difficult about it…no kicks…no crazy jumping moves.  It is so demandingly basic that it is extremely difficult.
Paradoxical.  Usually Sanchin can feel quite demanding, and it is, but after an hour of moving basics hell, it almost feels like a mini-vacation to me.  The added benefit is that men run it with their gi jacket off.  You sweat profusely, but at least your gi jacket is not chaffing you.  If you are not a karate practitioner you are no doubt asking why anyone would want to subject themselves to such training.  About that time of the morning I am often asking myself the same thing.   When you train so hard in the karate fashion, normal obstacles in life just don’t have much power over you by comparison.

In the afternoon, Akita television sent a team to do a feature on Mr. Fujiwara’s  juniors who will be competing in Oita this weekend, so Sensei arranged a kata (forms) competition followed by Kumite (sparring).  You would have to see these juniors to believe how good they are.  Their katas are technically very precise and they develop the power as they grow and mature into the techniques, usually in their teens.  The Kumite is very spirited, as Fujiwara Sensei and his Sensei, Mr. Tasaki, were both Kumite champions.  What really impressed me was their speed and timing.  It was very good to watch.  I’ve attached a video of part of a match.

Much to my surprise, when we went back to kata after the filming crew left, I switched my position from the tatami mats to the wood floor, and something must have shifted in my knee because I felt strong again and the pain subsided. So I was able to work hard for the last two hours, primarily on Seisan kata, one of the three katas I will be graded on in Oita.  By the end of the day, everyone was toast, not just “ the old guy with a bum knee!”  You really do find a zone to be in to make it each day.

Back at the ryokan after training for a soak in the onsen and another scrumptious dinner.  We ate in the banquet room so we would have enough places for a group of New Zealand Seiwakai members Sensei had invited.  Mr. Fujiwara goes out of his way to try and get to know members of each group.  At our party the other night he said we now have over 700 registered members internationally.  If that is the registered number, there are probably again that many who haven’t registered yet.  I don’t believe that number includes his Japan members either.  It is a large organization yet, because of Mr. Fujiwara and the senior Senseis around the world, it feels like a family.

Anyhow, the table talk was more subdued because everyone is pretty tired at this point of the training.  I sat in the lobby with several folks – Mumbai, Sidney, Oxford, London, Omagari, and of course Texas!  It was interesting and amusing to hear English spoken in so many beautiful accents.

Almost finished in Omagari and soon heading for Oita in far southern Japan.

Sunday, July 26, 2015




July 27, 2015.   0506
Omagari, Akita, Japan

Being here is such a refreshing pattern interrupt.  We are living monks lives:  Eat, drink, karate, sleep.  No phones, no television, no work, no distractions.  We’re far from home and occupations and get to focus on one thing and the people who are doing it with you.  And, of course, getting through the day of training.

An incredible soreness has set in that I manage to overcome.  Actually it is my many years of training that allow me to compartmentalize the pain and continue to function on an incredibly high level.  I can train at the highest level and intensity, yet afterwards I can barely climb a flight of stairs I’m so sore and tired.  How is that?  It amazes me.  So do the stellar people I train with.   I know for a fact each of them is sweating their tails off and just as sore and exhausted as I am, yet nobody complains except good naturedly.

Every day we’ve had school aged Japanese karateka come to the dojo for training – many of them will be competing in the Japan Karate Federation International Competition this coming weekend in Oita.  Yesterday (Sunday here) they trained all day with us.  Trained hard in the heat and never complained or acted sullen like they wished to be anywhere but here.  When they arrive and leave the Budokan, they run over and bow to their Senseis and always to Shihan Fujiwara in acknowledgement of the teacher/student relationship.  They have such character and willpower already!  When you spend time here you realize there’s a system of honesty, respect for others and property, and a work ethic in general that just doesn’t seem to exist in The U.S. these days. And I hear the same from the Aussies and Brits also.  The streets are clean and litter free.  People will go far out of their way to help you.  Transportation is on time. When I return to the States I always suffer from culture shock at the vast difference in attitude.  I believe we are too obsessed with the idea of “freedom” to do whatever we wish to, even at the expense of our fellows.  The concern and respect for others in Japan keeps their society in tact.  I know there is a limiting downside in that they may not have an absolute freedom of expression, but the society here is very impressive.

Training yesterday was terrifically hot and tiring.  What else can I tell you?  Although my knees and feet are hurting continually in an extraordinary fashion, I can tell I am improving and getting stronger daily.  We come here to deepen our knowledge of the art and science of karate by being pushed far beyond our perceived limits and it is effective.  People need to be pushed to find their real potential.  We are pushed by Shihan Fujiwara and at the same time totally inspired by one another.  I arrived with very little confidence about grading for 6th Dan – Gojukai but every day makes that seem more doable.  I have to also give a lot of credit to peers, who continually go the extra mile to help me improve.

Last night I did laundry after training, had a couple of cold beers here, then walked over to the Route Inn hotel by the JR rail station and met up with my Australian brother, Jamie Duggan Sensei,  and his students for dinner.  We had the most marginal pizza ever, but the conversation and laughs were great.  The Route Inn has a “Relaxation Room” by the onset baths with a massage chair and two foot massage machines.  Oh bliss!  The massage chair is over the top great and I walked home feeling almost like a new man.  I’m about to go down to the ryokan onsen  and try to soak away some of my morning aches and pains.  It’s going to be another hot one.  I’ll take it one hour at a time today.  Two more training days before I travel to Kyushu for the Gojukai seminar and grading.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

JAPAN TRAINING 2015 - Day 8 Photos

Saturday, July 25, 2015.    2200
Omagari, Japan.

Here are a few photos from the party and the day.  Time to go to sleep. Enjoy!