Monday, May 19, 2008

Return to the Ring: 鷲宮町空手道大会

I punched a guy in the face and the crowd went wild! The hollow plastic clap of his helmet was heard throughout Washimiya 鷲宮町. Everyone was routing for me and I didn't let them. It was my return to the karate ring after thirteen years of dormancy and I releshed every second of it.

I've been practicing karate in Japan since February with the Washimiya Karate Club. Since then I've almost been knocked unconscious 4 times- at least that's all I can remember. Karate 空手道 in Japan is a serious affair, training the heart and the body.

Learning karate in Japan is drastically different than learning it in the U. S.. The most immediate and obvious difference is the language. I receive all my training in Japanese, save for the times my teacher, the panther quick and leather tough Tanaka Sensei 田中先生, digs deep into his English bag and throws out a "no," "stop," or "straight." He never says "yes;" he does say "so so so so so," but that's a Japanese thing. I'm the only one in the training hall who he tries to use English with, and that's the second difference: I'm the only white guy.

Fortunately karate is a sport that is taught less with words and more by example... and force. Like in Kill Bill 2 when Uma goes to Pie Mei and can't speak Mandarin and he tells her, "You are here to learn the mysteries of Kung Fu, not linguistics. If you can't understand me, I will communicate with you like I would a dog. When I yell, when I point, when I beat you with my stick!"

I don't get hit with a stick, no, I get punched or kicked with whatever punch or kick I happen to be messing up at the time. Here's an example: one day Tanaka Sensei saw me not pulling my toes back on a front kick, so... he saunters up to me, squares off, tells me to watch as he pulls his toes back, then he kicks the ever lovin' shit out of me. A brief instruction follows in Japanese, "See how I did that?" Oh "I got it chief," I think to myself as my stomach hula-hoops around my throat, reminding me what I ate for lunch. It's a painful pedagogy that encourages fast learning. So even though I don't understand everything Tanaka Sensei says but we make it work.

He's one of the best people to study under in Japan, and that's a fact; last year he came in 2nd place at the All-Japan Tournament for people 60 and up. He's 62 but he's got a left punch that'll ring your bell, take my word for it. His assistant teacher is Kawai-san (36) whose right hand is faster than a Tommy-gun, and it hurts like hell. He's really good, he took 7th in the All-Japan Tourney this past year! Wow!!

For some reason or another I always end-up learning from the best. When I studied karate as a kid I trained under West Texas bone-crusher Darren Walters. I've never known a tougher guy, neither have the hundreds of people his K.O.ed. While I won more than my fair share of tourneys under his guidance, I never realized how well he trained me until Sunday when I clenched second in the adult mudansha 無断者, or under black belt division.

Pure instinct surfaced and it all came back to me. Japanese or not, in the ring it's about 80% spirit and 20% skill. The sparring 組手was great and exhausting. Fighting 4 rounds at 26 is twice as hard as it was at 13, especially since I smoked for 5 of those years.

My teammates, the majority of which are my elementary school students, cheered me on, and god I wanted to win for them. They kept cheering "Go Jausten Sensei" which really confused everyone because I was wearing a white belt. They explained that I'm their English teacher at school and that set the record straight (sensei means teacher and is used like Mr. or Mrs. whether you teach Karate or history, it's also used for doctors and, oddly enough, sometimes hairdressers).

In the end I came up one point short from taking first place but it was a victory for me. I got a little trophy and a certificate with my name on it. The certificate is the real prize as it symbolizes 3 months of blood, sweat, and tears, and, most of all, the Japanese cheers from the kids who call me Sensei.

Top left: me punching for the win (I'm on right). Middle: Washimiya Karate Club, Tanaka Sensei is in the middle wearing the suit. Bottom right: Me with certificate and trophy for runner up in Men's sparring.

Video: Kawai-san pulverizes his opponent with two solid smashes. In Japanese sparring you wear a helmet and and chest protector but no foot pads, which means a kick hurts you more than your opponent. It takes two clean and solid blows to win a match. There is a 2 minute time limit after which the match goes to first point wins. Someone must get hit, and hit hard. Kawai-san is the fastest guy in building and 7th in All-Japan! Needless to say he's on the left.

Here's Sensei Darren Walters's site in Lubbock TX:

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