Monday, July 7, 2008

My Final Japanese Karate Tournament 吉川市空手大会:僕の最後日本の空手大会

Yesterday I fought in my final karate tournament. The tournament was held in the extremely out-of-the-way city of Yoshikawa, which meant an early start for Taka, Uchi, Calum, and I. Taka and Uchi are fellow members of the Washimiya Karate Club and Calum was there to cheer us on and take some great pictures.

Over 220 people, most of them elementary students, participated in the tournament. Only about 15 people were able to make it from the Washimiya Dojo but I didn't feel that was a bad turn out. Along with Taka, Uchi, and I, Mr. Sugino also came and competed in the men's sparring event. Mr. Sugino is great because he practices karate alongside his 3rd grade son, who I should add holds a higher belt ranking. It's great when sports become a family affair.

In my kata (pretend fighting forms done to practice basic karate techniques) division their were almost 20 competitors, all of which were better than me. I was eliminated in the first round of heads-up demonstration.

Kata competitions are done differently in Japan than in the States. Back home, each person performs individually and is given a score when finished. In Japan however, two people perform simultaneously in a match and the judges choose a winner from the two of them. I like the Japanese way better because its easier to choose between 2 people at a time than 20 all at once. Another interesting part of the arrangement is that if you win, you are expected to perform a different kata for you next match/performance. Kata's must alternate so the judges don't get bored I guess, I don't know. I do know I only got to go one time and sit on my ass for the next 30 minutes watching the winners do the same two kata's over and over again.

After kata and lunch finished up is when the real fun started. I'm talking about the sparring baby! Unfortunately it was hot as hell inside the gym, and it got even hotter after strapping on body armor and a helmet.

Unlike the Washimiya tournament from 2 months ago, the Yoshikawa one allowed competitors to choose one of two types of sparring: sundome and bogu. Sundome is sparring like I did in Texas; you wear gloves and head gear and the focus is about striking fast and getting points. Bogu fighting, or fighting wearing the protective helmet and chest piece, or bogu, also focuses on getting points, but the blows must be powerful, precise, and intentional; did I mention POWERFUL already? Points are only awarded for delivering strong clean blows to the protected parts of the body. Bogu sparring gets pretty serious, and unfortunately, among the more macho testosterone driven crowd, it even becomes violent -- more like street fighting in a karate uniform.

I won my first match with a solid head kick (see above picture). I was riding high despite the heat and was ready to face my next opponent, the massive brick-wall-of-a-monster Imai-san. Imai-san is 21 and about 6'3" 200lbs. He beat Uchi during his first match and now it was my turn to give it a go.

At the Washimiya tournament I defeated Imai-san in the first round rather quickly. When I saw him earlier in the day yesterday we chatted a little. Here's what went down:
-Hey Imai, long time no see. How are you? 今井さん、元気ですか。

-I'm fine. I've been practicing to beat you since the last tournament. Today I'll get my revenge. 元気ですよ。ジャスティンとくに練習した、今日僕の復習をする予定だよ。

-Ok, let's do our best alright. (I didn't really know how to respond to that.)
うん、じゃ、頑張りましょう!

Well he beat me this time. He got his revenge I suppose. Then he went on and beat Taka to win first place. I ended up taking third in the sparring division, a result I wasn't happy with at all. What really chaps my hide is that I won't have a chance to get my revenge because I'm leaving Japan before the next tournament in September. I guess Uchi and Taka will have to get for me.

In the end I left the Yoshikawa with nothing but decent memories and great pictures. They didn't award me anything for my third place finish; only first and second took home certificates and medals. Damn it, I wanted another cool Japanese certificate to take back home with me. I'll have to be content with my runner-up certificate and trophy from the last tournament.

On the bright side, here's my good friend Taka proudly displaying his 2nd place certificate and silver medal. It was his first time to win an award so we were all happy for him.
Well done buddy! Keep it up!

And so ends my competitive karate career in Japan. I'll still go to practice until I leave, but I already miss the thrill of competition against different opponents.

I do look forward to continuing my karate back in the States, hopefully under a teacher who will appreciate my Japanese experiences and is sensitive to the rich culture that molded this amazing physical and spiritual practice.

For me, karate in Japan has been more about training my spirit and growing confident in myself than practicing kicks and punches. It's also been about the amazing friends I practice with. The ones that hit me and I hit back; my strongest friends I'll never forget: Uchi and Taka. They are family to this homeless American living uncertain in Japan. 本当に、本当に、ありがとうございます。
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Pictures: Top: 3 Brothers: Taka, Me, Uchi. 2: Uchi performing kata. 3: Me in my borrowed, mangled helmet. 4: Head shot gets the W. 5: Taka and spoils of victory. All photos shot by Calum, thanks for the memories I'll always have man.

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