Japan: A Road Less Travelled…training at Keio University & Beyond

Japan: A Road Less Travelled…training at Keio University and Beyond

By Simon Bligh, Technical Director HDKI GB

There is a wonderful and much trodden path taken many times by foreign karateka.  Training at the JKA, SKI or JKS honbu dojo and they are well documented.  Indeed “Moving Zen” and anrticles by Richard Jackson sensei and Mike Clarke sensei in Fighting Arts many years ago inspired me to go and live in Japan in the 1990’s.  I have been back 6 times since then.  SKM have had some great articles and the book “Karate Stupid” illustrated some of the sheer difficulties of being a foreigner in Japan and the impossibility of “fitting in”.

So, in  when Scott Langley and myself decided on a return to Japan we looked for a new path.  In 2017 we returned again.  This article is mainly about training at Keio on both trips but will cover some experiences at other dojo.

It all started when Scott Langley got a phone call at his Dublin dojo.  A Japanese voice asked if he could come and train, he was visiting Trinity College and staying in the city.  A few days later Ota Hiroshi stepped onto the floor and trained along on the Friday Dan grade class.  An ‘Old Boy’ of Keio University Karate Bu and then 6th Dan, Ota Sensei is a gentleman, but a powerful and spirited Karate sensei.  His enthusiasm and open mindedness is evident.  He is very sociable too.  A connection was made.

Keio University is the most famous and prestigious University in Japan; it was also where Funakoshi Sensei opened the first University Dojo in 1929.  His main assistant, Obata Sensei also taught there.  Whilst Keio is an academic centre of excellence it also has a thriving Budo heritage.  Famous as the “Oxford and Cambridge” of Japan, Keio also has a very serious competitive team and compete in the All Japan University Championships and although they are behind Teikyo, who are the leading team, the difference is Keio students study and complete a full academic degree.

Getting to train at Keio is an honour, it’s not a commercial dojo and you can’t just email or turn up and pay.  It’s by invitation.  Connections are everything in Japan and are well-earned and easy to muck up.

So it was that months later I found myself with a group of Irish, British, Norwegian and Polish karate-ka standing outside an old building on University campus in Japan.  The average age of the group was over 40 and ranged from very experienced to 6th kyu.

Our first class was with Ota Sensei who introduced us to Shotokan Keio style.  This is different from modern Shotokan.  It was also a bit of a blowing the jet lag away and we did pad work, partner drills and lots of gohon kumite.  I met Henry Bellinger here who is a young, strong sandan who I enjoyed partnering with and is now a friend and regular trainee at Keio for the past 3 years.

After, we went for dinner with Ota Sensei and discovered that he had “opened many doors” for us.

Tommorrow we would train with the “Old Boys” in the “Mokuyokai” class.  this is the regular Thursday night training, which has run for the past 60 years, they keep a record of it!  This is pre-JKA Nakayama Karate where very senior people, plus students and the odd All Japan Champion meet up and train kata.  Afterwards there is a small party and at 9pm exactly it’s all tidied up and stops.  Very Japanese phenomena.

The outstanding feature of this class is the wealth of experience of those attending.  Mainly non-professional Sensei who havre trained all of their lives.  All graduates with careers in law, medicine, etc.  The stand out feature is that they have all trained a long time and continue to do so.  Surely the karate ideal?

For example, in the class was a Nagura Sensei JKF General Secretary and part of the WTF Olympic organising committee.  Also a gentleman, we ended up a few days later with him at the JKF Headquarters!  Beside him was Wada Sensei 1970 World Champion and some one who was later to be very generous with his time for us.  However, amongst many others the man who stood out was a small red belt at the front of the class who was obviously the senior.  This was Iiwamoto Sensei 9th Dan, a man who had trained with Funakoshi as a boy and who graded to Shodan with him in 1950!

The form of the class was a kata discussion group.  Kata were performed Keio style. Neko Ashi dachi and Shiko dachi featured a lot.  They have much more of an Okinawan feel more akin to Shorin Ryu but still obviously Shotokan.  After a few run through’s, a small discussion would break out.  Lots of “we used to do this way” or “usually this was a slow move” etc.  Iiwamoto Sensei had the top trump card saying, “Well Funakoshi Sensei said do it this way!”  What was evident at all the Toykyo dojo was that being part of the JKF everyone knew and was happy to do the new standard versions as well.

But a these sessions we did Hangetsu, with cat stance instead of back stance and different timing.  I got picked out and had one of the highlights of my Karate life by being corrected and assessed by Iiwamoto Sensei under the watchful and critical eyes of everyone.  Another very Japanese experience.  Later Ota Sensei said, “Simon good, but all wrong.”  Welcom to Japan.

One of our group, my friend John Carr, was picked out to be uke and had the pleasure of being hit by Iiwamoto Sensei.  It was, he said, “Like getting a electric shock!”

Other kata were a Gojushiho kata which featured shiko dachi and elements of Dai and Sho, Enpi and the 3 Tekki.  The atmosphere in the dojo was absolutely amazing, a living Karate history class and although serious, there was an intelligent and helpful mood.  This was especially evident at the party, where Karin Williams, Nidan and over 70, proved to be a very popular guest and new best friend of some of the Old Boys… a great night.

Next day was with Ota and Wada Sensei.  Usual kihon and kumite drills, which they gleefully did with us, Ota Sensei seeming to forget he was the oldest man in the dojo and moving like a speedy young man covered in sweat and a roaring kiai.  A joy to partner both of them.

In true Keio style we returned at the end of the class to kata.  This time Sanchin, Tensho, Seiyunchin and Hyakuhachiho usually performed in Shotokan.  This was very interesting and rminded me that Funakoshi never really wanted styles, just Karate.  As an Okinowan of course all of these kata would have been part of his life.  They were not a circular as the Goju versions and felt Shotokanized as would be expected.  All of us enjoyed these sessions and felt a bit like time travellers, catching a glimpse of karate as it once was, pre-Shotokan and happy to see it is still alive now.

As the week developed the doors opened more and more.  We trained at the Nihon Budokan with Shimuzu Sensei and at his local Saturday afternoon sports centre.  This was a regular sports centre but alongside Badminton etc. there was a full-on Kendo class, a Kyudo range and Tai Chi class, all great to watch.  The karate class was just like any Saturday sports hall class in the world.  Ordinary people training along.  A useful reminder that people are people wherever you go and not everyone is a Karate superstar in a Japanese dojo.

Interestingly we did Seiyunchin kata again in this class.

What struck me most here though were the various individuals probably in their late 60’s, early 70’s training on their own, all in dogi and all very “genki”.  A couple were in full splits or holding out high kicks, doing tube training and kata.  All quietly getting on with it and all mobile and fit.  Something that I am sure is hardly ever seen in the West.  I was impressed and inspired.

There is always a challenge sometimes on a trip to Japan and that came on Saturday evening.

I think if you go to Japan you really want to do kumite with real, actual Japanese black belts.  I know that was my motivation when I first went.  Well, Ota Sensei took us along to the JKF Tokyo Vets Squad training after the nice easy Sports Centre class.  Taught by a former All Japan Champion and 7th Dan Goju Kai Sensei, Takakuwa, who was suitably fierce and serious.  We had the choice of 2 classes, kata or kumite. Of course most of us chose kumite and we had a long, slightly bloody and a little bit nasty epic session. Of course this was one of the best sessions, a real challenge and we definitely held our own.  Full of adrenaline we scuttled off to the Izakayua for drinks and war stories.

The whole trip was constantly changing, visits to Nikko, Fuji and next up the Nihon Budokan, home of the Japanese Martial Arts.  It was an experience just to be there, classes in Shorinji Kempo, Kendo and Iaido were all going on.  In complete contrast to the kumite class we trained with Shimizu Sensei (former All Japan Kata Champion) and his kids – polite, disciplined and great fun to train along with.  A nice change and perfect end to a hard, wonderful week of training in Tokyo.

Next stop was Okinawa a wonderful contrast to the fast paced frenzy of Tokyo.  Sub tropical and much more relaxed than the mainland.  We always train with Senaha Sensei 9th Dan Goju Ryu, but first, we went straight to the Naha Budokan to train with Onaga Sensei 8th Dan JKF Shito Ryu and former All Japan Kumite team member.

An Okinawan; he is very strong and stern but also cool as anything wearing pink crocs and carrying a Bo, he is also a high Dan grade in Ko Budo.  A wonderful character but it has to be said, very scary.  We got off to a bad start by being 5 minutes late, shepherding 18 tired Karate-ka through Naha took slightly longer than we thought.  Sensei was not impressed.  What followed was a full-on intense 2 hour class.  Kumite drills and an epic 6 kick per count drill with a partner in sets of 20.  120 kicks.  We did lots of sets.  We got through the class and once again added to our tremendous bank of intense memories, think we were on day 9!

Next day was Onaga Sensei part two, at his own dojo.  Early morning start and once again hard kumite drills, then suddenly the magic words… “Shall we go to the park and practise Bo kata, tenki desu ne?” (it’s a nice day).  We then had a delightful hour or so of Shusu no Kon kata in the sunshine.  Just what we needed.  I think we had been forgiven.

The last 2 sessions were with the wonderful Senaha Sensei at his beautiful dojo, which is also his house, high up on a hill, with a welcome breeze.  Relaxed and happy, over 70 years old, he took us through Tensho, Sanchin, Shi Sochin and Saifa, along with kumite drills and kakie.  A fully equipped traditional dojo we had a “play” with the hojo undo tools, strength stones and gripping jars.  Most popular were the makiwara, which ended up as a last day competition.  Finally, as a treat, Sensei opened his massive jar of 50 year awamori firewater and toasted us all.  Kampai!!!!!

Many thanks to Ota Sensei for his wonderful open heart and helpfulness.  Special thanks to great friend Steve Lyons Sensei Ryusyokai goju Ryu for his Okinawan connections and sheer friendliness.  Finally to Scott Langley Sensei for yet again another Karate adventure.  Next HDKI Japan trip is October 2018.

Author: Editorial Team