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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!


Saturday, July 25, 2015.  1100
Omagari, Japan

Today is supposed to be our rest day, but Fujiwara Shihan informed us that anyone grading for 6th or 7th Dan needs to come to the dojo today at 1300 for more training.  His take on it is that a day of rest is not what we need.  I’m going to trust him on that even though my body is whining and whimpering to do nothing.  I just finished a Kundalini Yoga set called “Awakening Your Ten Bodies”, which is quite difficult but I credit with getting me ready for this grueling training.  Kind of like a cat with nine lives, I figure I’ll need every one of those ten bodies to get me through it!

I’m sitting in my room at the ryokan writing this on a very low table.  I have the window and shoji screen open to air out my room, but to also hear the outside sounds.  It’s raining again, so I’m hearing raindrops, crows cawing, and the incessant sound of the gas station attendants a block away greeting customers in a typically high-pitched chant.  It is Japanese custom to vocally greet their customers and any business you patronize goes out of its way to welcome you.  Coming from the land of self-service, it’s refreshing.  I watched the gas station attendants and they swarm a car like a well-seasoned Formula 1 pit crew, guide you in with hand signals and go to work washing all the windows, checking the engine, tires, etc.  Here’s two photos of my room from where I sit…still damp karate gi from yesterday hanging on the door.  I bring two karategis even though they are heavy and take up too much luggage space, or I would be doing laundry every day.

Yesterday’s training was very hard but over the course of the six hours of training I went from being very pessimistic about grading to at least feeling better.  You have to be careful not to let fatigue start talking bullshit in your ear.  After the usual first 45 minutes of hard moving basics, your gi is soaked, the chafe points are starting to wear on your knees and armpits, your (choose one or more) knees, toes, shoulders, back, hands, fingers, hangover, menstrual cycle, hamstrings are really starting to bother you, and then the realization comes that you aren’t even through the first hour.  THAT’S when you have to not listen to your human operating systems, which are begging to shut down, and create a zone for yourself.  All you have to do is look around you and know that everyone else is feeling the same things.  I always think of Demura Sensei’s classic  advice:  “it’s okay to quit.  You just can’t be first.”  So nobody quits.  You think you can’t do one more of whatever it is you’re doing, but you do.  You do a hundred more if that’s what it takes.  It’s character building 101, the same as boot camp.  The body always tries to get you to stop.  It is the mind that can keep you going.

I won’t try to give you a play-by-play of everything we did, but it was grueling.  Shihan Takehashi has a number of his kids training with us who are going to compete in Oita, and
They were put them on the front row several times so we could observe their timing in kata.  Ha ha.  Nothing makes a middle aged gaijin feel more inept than to try to keep up with 8 to 16 year old Japanese kids who have been training since they were 4 and are so fast you feel like a slug.  But it was really good for us and we picked it up to a degree.  I can really tell the difference in my katas after only three days.

At the very end of the day, when you are so tired your legs are like rusty anchors and seem to weigh about as much, we are organized into our groups by rank to work our prescribed katas.  Two of my dear Aussie friends and sempai, Glenn Stephenson and Jamie Duggan were amazingly helpful to me yesterday in my grading kata Seisan.  So much so that I was able to look fairly adept when our group finally had to demo it.  That’s the kind of camaraderie that exists here.  By the end of the day, I was actually somewhat optimistic.  Two years ago when I graded for JKF Gojukai 6th Dan, only 3 of our group of 18 karateka (3 gaijin and 15 Japanese) passed.  The standards are quite high.

Last night we ate here at the ryokan and it was amazingly good  as always.  Everyone was upbeat because of the rest day.  We always end up in someone’s room lining the walls and drinking.  Usually it is in Sensei Leo’s or Sensei Vassie’s because it seems to be the tradition.  Or maybe it’s just their charisma.  You think?  Anyhow, there were maybe 18 of us in Sensei Leo’s tiny room.  Eight were Australians and can fill up a room with size and craziness faster than even Texans can.  We started a game we called “Sing or Tell a Joke” and since nobody could sing worth a damn, we heard way too many bad jokes last night.  Everyone also received their honorary redneck names from me.  If I remember correctly, Duggan is now Jamie Joe.  We were rolling with laughs.  Of course, after the hard training and a wee dram or two of sake,  I slept very soundly afterwards.

Tonight is our Seiwakai party and I presume we will see much karaoke afterwards.  I hope the training today doesn’t wear me out too badly.  Or maybe that is Mr. Fujiwara’s plan to get us in bed early?  If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch…

Have to get ready for training.  Over and out.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Friday, July 24, 2015.     0640
Omagari, Japan

If you weren't taxed to the max by yesterday’s training, you aren’t human.  It was raining outside all day, as it is again today, so the humidity was at least 90%.  Once your karate gi becomes saturated with sweat, it never evaporates.  The sensation is that you are doing karate with a wet canvas blanket around you.  It is no wonder the Okinawans used to train in shorts, jembai (spelling?), loin cloths…anything that allowed ventilation while training.  Yesterday after training, I actually weighed my karate gi and it weighed 3.2 kilos.  And it is the lightest KI Mugen gi I could find.

We started with 45 of the longest minutes of moving basic combinations.  I learned long ago to never look at the clock while training because that makes a time warp happen in which time seems to start moving backwards.  Unfortunately, there is a huge clock built into the wall of the Budokan, so it was unavoidable to not see it when you turned 180 degrees during these seemingly endless moving combinations.  Time stopped moving!  Trapped like a rat in the time warp.

We have been working hard on the timing and Kime (physical focus points) of our katas, and not just the power.  That beautiful off-timing and flow is what actually attracted me to Goju-Ryu karate many years ago.  It is very nuanced and very difficult to absorb into your movements, but once you do, it results in a beautifully lethal art.  At that point you begin to approach mastery.  Fujiwara Shihan has been stressing that those Kime points are similar to writers powerfully and artfully ending a scene before beginning a new one.  Beginners tend to do everything at the same power and pacing, which is understandable, but as you advance in rank, you begin to absorb that timing and those Kime points and your kata becomes more and more amazing, which usually means your ability to use that timing in fighting is an internal, intuitive thing.  Many practitioners of karate wrongly see kata and Kumite as two different mutually exclusive physical activities.  My experience is that the are part of the same whole.  I believe that in traditional karate the best fighters also do very strong kata.

The caveat is that getting the nuances right, you break down the moves and do them over and over and over and over again.  That is Fujiwara Shihan’s method, and that is what we do until you are absolutely certain you can’t do one more repetition, but then you do.  There is an old Zen saying that “You may talk about water, but the mouth will not become wet.”  It is only in the doing that we absorb the lessons.  In teaching, words often fail us, but actively watching a masterful kata, such as Fujiwara Shihan’s, is worth a thousand words.  Then comes the hard, sweaty work of a thousand reps to emulate  it until the correct way becomes internal.

Well, today is day three and tomorrow is our rest day.  I’m looking forward to resting the legs and doing some exploring of downtown shops.  Haven’t really had time to do that since arrival.
I just talked with my wife and son back home via Face Time and realize how much I miss them.  It’s been a week now since I departed and doesn’t seem like a day over six months…
Time to get ready to walk to the dojo.  Come on legs…do your thing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


07/21/2015.  1545

It is so hot!  90 d F, feels like 95 according to The Weather Channel.  Training starts tomorrow at 0930 and the sweating will begin in earnest.  Until you train here in the summer, you really don't know just how stifling it can be.  And I'm a Texas boy.  We know heat and humidity.  I was hoping against hope that it might be more temperate.  I'm obviously delusional.  Tomorrow I get to see how my knees really are and if I'm in shape.  You always think you are ready, but about two hours in you start to question yourself.

Ran into some good folks today.  Mario and Gayle Borg from Brisbane.  Jaime Duggan and Tammy Leigh, also from Brisbane.  Desmond Tuck, Vice-President of Seiwakai USA arrived in about an hour ago.  Starting to feel like a family reunion, albeit one where the family likes to punch and kick one another.

I pretty much took it easy today.  As usual, I awoke about 0400 (damn!). Did an hour of Kundalini yoga, meditation, and prayers then hit the onset bath about 0600.  You wash first, outside the soaking tub, then enter.  This one is hot enough to take your breath away, but oh so wonderful.  Even though I shower again with cold water after I get out, I sweat for an hour.  Goodbye toxins,

Then I talked to my Sweetie on Face Time.  Already missing Terri and Jacob.  Fujiwara Shihan was in the ryokan kitchen slicing Maguro (tuna) like the expert he is. I walked the IPad in and Terri and he talked for a minute in Japanese and I also panned the camera across the beautiful sashimi he was creating just to make her hungry.  I'm bad, I know.

I'm having a little trouble making the transition between the IPad I' m carrying (thanks, Sam Parsons!) and the HP with Windows I'm used to.  I seem to have cut off the blog post fo


2015 Japan Training
Omagari, Akita Precfecture
Weds.  July 22.   0615. Day 5

Up early as always, since the sun is up at 0400 and there are no curtains over my shoji screen windows.  I’ve been doing miserably at blogging on this IPad.  I’m such a Windows guy that the
Little things mean the difference between losing everything you’ve written on for two hours or not.  Grrrr.  It’s happened a number of  times and with limited time to write, it is maddening to lose it.

Training begins today at 0930.  Yesterday was 90f and the heat index was about 100f, so we will be sweating profusely.  No air conditioning in the Omagari Budokan.  Just a big cavernous hot place.  Today will have us all doubting our conditioning.  Since my knees are far from 100% it is just one more thing in the balancing act when you train.  I am going to try and moderate myself over the next week before Oita and the JKF grading.  That’s not an easy thing to do when you have always been exhorted to give 110%.  I’ll know better by end of training today.  The good thing about arriving early is you get rid of the jet lag over several days, but you also eat and drink too much and start to feel that you are losing your physical edge.  It’s all a balancing act, isn’t it?

Dinner last night at the ryokan was fantastic as always.  I found out that Fujiwara Shihan has spent over 10 years as a sashimi apprentice.  I was watching him cut fish yesterday and know he could work at any top flight sushi bar if that was his calling.  He and his wife are such hard workers.  He is a top tier karate instructor and coach, travels the world, they run the ryokan and have parties and banquets here almost every night because their food is so well regarded.  And in the midst of all that, here come 25 foreigners to also stay and another 50 staying in the local hotels who have shown up to train.  I have so much respect for them and their family.  I am pleased to say that Fujiwara Shihan looks very well.

Dinner last night also filled the dining room with karateka.  So nice to meet up with old friends.  Last night we had Americans, Russians, Australians, Portuguese, Polish, British, and Japanese at the tables.  I have no idea how many will actually show up for training.  I’m missing a few I thought would be here and am surprised to see some I didn’t expect.  Shihan gave us orders to be at the Budokan and get warmed up as he is going to start straight-away.

Okay, I’d better get some food in me.  More later.

LATER:  Thursday morning 0600

Sitting by the wifi in the ryokan lobby, watching the outside, drinking a can of Boss coffee, and waiting for people to start showing up downstairs so I can Face Time with my sweetie back in Texas without disturbing anyone.  I’d stay in my room but I’m at the end of the hall and the wifi is spotty.

The training yesterday was very good and very hot.  There are probably 60 karateka here right now and we are joined by several Seiwakai senior Senseis who will also be grading in Oita.  In the afternoon we are also joined by several Japanese high school kids who will be competing in the All Japan Gojukai Tournament.  The largest international contingent is the Australians.

We started off straightaway with many moving basics and then  Sanchin kata, which has you sweating profusely after the first one.  This year, Fujiwara Shihan had us get to the Budokan early and warm ourselves up so we could start right in on karate, which was most brilliant.  All our  time was spent on karate that way and I wasn’t nearly as taxed as when we spend the first hour on hard calisthenics.  Most of the morning was taken up with moving basics and Sanchin.  I felt as good about my Sanchin as I ever have, and it seems that the recent tweaks by the Gojukai is moving more in the direction I am most comfortable with: a bit more circular and the emphasis on timing and power…not just the power.

The afternoon was spent on Tensho kata, Kumite (sparring) combinations with partners, and fast, continual attack/defense drills in which one after another attacks the person at the front of each line and eventually, Mr. Fujiwara will yell “Switch!” And you relinquish the hot seat to another karateka.  Good stuff!  I don’t know how much water and Pocari Sweat (a Japanese style GatorAid) I consumed, but it was a lot.  I’m so glad I’m from Texas because some of the people from Russia and England were pretty taxed by the heat.  I believe the heat index yesterday was right at 100F.

We finished the last hour in groups of like rank, working our proscribed grading kata.  Black belts grade on Sanchin, Tensho, and a proscribed kata.  For my 6th Dan level, my kata is Seisan, a very difficult leg kata with many turns on one leg and kensetsu Geri kicks.  My knee replacement seems to be taking it all in stride, but sometimes my balance is off from knee issues and that will be disaster if I don’t fix it in the coming week.  Lots of work needed on Seisan kata – an effect of not having any of my Senseis regularly available to correct things.  We ALL need that second set of eyes or we become complacent, or blind to our mistakes.  When you do have the chance to be graded or evaluated, it is very humbling to find you need to fix many things in the kata you thought was pretty good.   In grading in the JKF Gojukai and in Seiwakai, you are required up through 5th Dan to also do Kumite in your grading.  It can be very “spirited” to say the least.  I’m quite happy not to do grading Kumite any longer, even though I like sparring.

By the end of the day, everyone was ridden hard and put up wet, but it was a very good first day.  My knees feel pretty good and my conditioning is fine.  That’s  it from Omagari.


Monday, July 20, 2015


July 20 - 2215

Whew.  It has been a busy two days!  When Fujiwara Shihan said we were going to the aquarium below Sakata, I was so tired I missed the part that we would stay overnight.  Ha.  So off we go and I don't really have any idea where we're heading.  No overnight bag, computer, toiletries.  We left at 1300 and drove south for several hours, coming out of the mountainous country around Omagari, and down to the hilly area along the Sea of Japan and arrived at the aquarium at about 1700.  We saw amazing fields of farm produce and fruit trees and cedar forests and much logging.  Everything is under cultivation.

The museum sits right on a rocky stretch of coastline and is most famous for its jellyfish studies and collection.  The modern white architecture sits in contrast to the forested hills and rocky shores, but it all somehow worked very well.  The building in some ways reminded me of Tadao Ondo's work.  Being summer and a Sunday, there were many Japanese families visiting and many happy kids.  Here        are some photos:

But much to my surprise