Just before the evening sun disappears into the horizon of the East China Sea and the cool evening breeze begins to blow, practice begins. The air is still and muggy and sweat is already dripping from the short walk down the dusty road leading to the Ken Pu Kan Dojo of Taika Seiyu Oyata.
The rustic building, although surrounded by many other dwellings, stands as a solitary monument to those who have come before. The dimly lit room reveals eerie shadows cast from the evening sun as it shines through the slats in the windows. Weapons and Bogu gear line the walls as if this were some ancient military arsenal. In the front of the room sits a lone chair in which the Sensei sits to observe the class.
After removing the shoes and entering the dojo, a short bow is given. As the bare feet touch the floor that has been worn smooth from the enthusiastic workouts of previous students, one can’t help but feel the presence of the warrior spirit. Facing the empty chair in the front of the room and knelling into seiza, again a bow is given to show respect to the Sensei and Masters of old. Before standing, a commitment to learn all that is possible and to always train hard is also silently given.
Rising from seiza, warm-ups began by approaching a rustic and strange device referred to by the American students as the “noose”. Two white belts had been tied together, looped at one end and thrown over one of the rafters. (This somehow made new students uneasy.) This device was a primitive but very effective “stretching machine”. Inserting one foot, the loose end was pulled until the limits of flexibility had been reached or the supporting foot had lost its grip on the floor and you found yourself hanging in mid-air by one foot.
After stretching, you approach the makiwara to begin punching. The makiwara was a 1/4 inch hard rubber pad that seemed to be mounted on a post as big as a giant redwood tree; however, upon closer examination, the post was only a 4X4 that had been planted in the ground below the dojo floor. After the first strike to the makiwara, you realized that your first observation was correct, it was indeed attached to a giant redwood tree.
No matter how hard the makiwara was punched, it didn’t seem to affect the post as it stood tall and ridged. Only Taika Oyata could move this post the 4 or 5 inches to meet the wall behind. This could be attested to by many an unwitting student who was unbelieving enough to place his hand between the post and the wall.
Hanging in the center of the dojo near the main entrance was a 70lb kick bag. The kick bag was not only made of leather but also stuffed with leather shavings. The bag never seemed to hang still as someone was always punching or kicking it. Often there was a line of students, who took turns alternately kicking or punching the bag while others took turns on the “noose” or makiwara.
A favorite training method was to swing the bag away and step into it as it swung forward. Many students found themselves on the floor after such an attempt until they had learned the proper technique and skills. After the technique had been perfected, the students then tried to get two or three kicks into the bag for each swing or a combination of kicks and punches.
Sometimes during hot weather or crowded dojo conditions, the bag was suspended from an “At frame outside. This added another dimension to kicking as the bare feet dug into the corral dirt. This had a tendency to toughen up the bottoms of the feet more than the wooden dojo floor.
By this time everyone was adequately warmed up and ready to begin practice. As Taika Oyata entered the dojo, everyone stopped practice and turned toward him and bowed. The bow was returned and practice resumed as Taika Oyata summoned everyone to line up for kata practice and upcoming drills.
As we lined up on his command, we realized the seriousness and sincerity of the moment. After bowing and preparing for the first move, the dojo walls reverberated with “ICHI, NI, SAN…” and we began the practice of Exercise One and Nahanchin Shodan Kata. Suddenly, a student crashed to the floor as his stance was “corrected”. Everyone tightened in anticipation that they would be next, but never wavering or looking around for all had experienced this “correction” at one time or another and looking around was even a more painful lesson.
As the cool evening breeze began to blow from the sea, it did little to cool down the students, as they remain fixed in a horse stance while the teacher lectured on the importance of proper posture and form. “Crash”, another example of bad stance and Taika Oyata muttered something in Japanese that roughly translated into “Potato Head”.
After kata practice, the students are directed to line up around the wall, using it as support for the upcoming drill. Already drained from a days work, an hour and a half of kata practice and warm-ups, everyone had to reach deep down inside to muster the energy required to perform the 200 side kicks as they are called out.
Winded and gasping for breath after the kicking drill, we are paired for BOGU KUMITE. The heat of the night and the exercises had everyone’s gi soaked with sweat and likewise the Bogu gear was still clammy from the previous night’s workout. There had been no time for it to dry and thus it contained the sweat from the first time it was worn, perhaps 5 years earlier.
Sparring was less formal in the dojo than in tournaments. No points were called and there were no time limits, although after a good point was landed, the fight was stopped so that the loser of the point could shake the cobwebs from his head. Already exhausted and drained of energy, you fought from the instinct of survival, knowing that win or lose, you had to fight again.
Although sparring was part of the routine each night, no one took it lightly. Each fight was as if it was a championship match and techniques were thrown with all the fury that could be mustered. Injuries, although never serious, did not stop a match. Jammed fingers and toes called for using the other limb. After one incident in which I split open a tee nail on a mask, Taika Oyata said, “What’s the matter, don’t you have two hands and two feet?”
After sparring, class normally ended. We all bowed to Taika Oyata and bid him a farewell until the next evening. All of the students left, however; I often stayed a little longer for special training even though I was already exhausted.
I was sometimes requested to fetch two Bo and commanded to “strike, any strike”. As I did, I always found myself on the “loosing end of the stick.” If we did not practice Bo/Bo kumite, then Taika Oyata would correct my kata further or I would work on weapons kata.
As practiced ended, I thanked Taika Oyata for his lessons and bowed. The short walk down the dusty road seemed like miles as I carried my bruised and tired body home, but my walk had a bounce of new found energy and knowledge for I had just worked out with a true TAIKA. The lessons that I learned will follow me the rest of my life.
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