Japan, September 2013

by James Elsol

This is a personal account and so is subject to bias and inaccuracy from the perspectives of others. It also is not intended to be a travel-log.

What is a gasshuku: One interesting definition I came across is that a gasshuku is a Japanese word referring to a group of people stepping outside of normal lives and routines and going on a sort of retreat together. There are lots of happy group activities, practice, and, in the case of some adults, much drinking. How this fits with our own experiences may be revealed shortly.

The circumstances of the 2013 Aoyama University TSKFA karate gasshuku: The 2013 gasshuku was organised by two groups of people. In Japan, Shihan Takahashi, our chief instructor, was ultimately responsible and oversaw most everything we did in Japan commencing with greeting us at the airport on arrival. The training occurred in Iwate province with the logistical support of Yoshida Sensei who lives locally and has long been a friend of Shihan.

The previous Australian – NZ group gassshuku was in 2009 at a different venue.

Motivation to attend: Ultimately, the motivation came from a personal desire to hopefully experience some of what others had done before, reap available benefits of training and hopefully improve technique, and see a little of Japan.

I was of course encouraged by Sensei Ian (Harry) of Lismore, and past participants. Sensei Steve (Sherwood dojo) was and is always encouraging. That my son Josh was going with or without me probably tipped the balance. But also, the cost was more than reasonable. More on that later. The real decider is always personal. Age not being a deterrent was also encouraging. As I was to find out, Sensei Mark of NZ (also our deputy chief instructor) had given up counting how many he had been to after 20 attendances. No excuses.

What training was involved: Nine sessions of about 2.5 hours duration Monday to Friday with Wednesday afternoon off. The Wednesday morning session was outdoors. Want to know what was involved ? – enrol for the next one.

In short basic training.  What did you expect? Kihon, kumite drills and kata. All students shared a core of training, with older/younger separated for kata. The younger section had additional strength and endurance training, Gojushiho sho and Unsu with Satoshi Sensei and others, while the oldies had Daisuke Sensei for Sochin and Gangaku.

Is a high number of repetitions necessary?: Absolutely. Though 99% of attendees were with shodan or higher rank, continued learning is enhanced by a longish week of high repetition. Like learning a foreign language, immersion within the task reaps rewards that occasional training can rarely provide. It is also useful to be able to tell students at home how easy they usually have it: stop complaining and train some more. High repetition may bring tiredness, but also associated relaxation, and therefore hopefully better technique. Just do and see what happens.

Highlights of training: Remember this is a personal perspective. Highlights are what one remembers long after the event. In no particular order here are a few.

1. The encouragement highlight – Sensei John repeatedly training even with one arm strapped and immobile. Hard to beat there John.

2. Seeing Josh on the final day with kumite against Japanese students – and winning the first point in his bouts – well done.

3. Wednesday morning in the park wearing shoes. In perspective, most students had a 400m circuit to run at least 10 times, punctuated by 5 repetitions of the first 10 kata followed by Unsu or Sochin. Well it depends on where you stand, but I remember clearly (and as Unsu is longer in duration than Sochin) that on the fifth rep of Unsu, Sheanna was clearly going hard at making it as good as possible with wet shoes as well. The jump (alone this was well executed) was followed by strong technique to the kata’s completion. Well done. Doju kun in practice. Just how she always does it.

4. Daisuke Sensei was exceptionally good with his tuition of Sochin and Gangaku. Daisuke is a graduate of the instructor training program and is a full time instructor. He also attended nationals at the Gold Coast in recent years. Strong and accurate technique, excellent use of the joints and hips, with more practice for his students (us) needed.

5. Yoshida Sensei helped and encouraged me on many occassions. Thankyou greatly Sensei.  Some of my techniques are better for it.

6. Slack effort is not good enough. Part of the class was told by Shihan that more effort was required of the kumite drill, and that idle chatter was unacceptable. More repetitious basic training followed. Beware.

7. Getting to the end and realising it was certainly a training and life highlight to be remembered and recommended to others.

Recommendations to take home: Just keep training. Like breathing. Just do more, and if (when) the opportunity presents itself for a week away training, find a reason to go, and make it happen. Age is no barrier. We had James Potter set an excellent example though only nine years of age, right through to our senior Senseis who held their own and more. Be prepared.

Following from point 6 above. The dojo is a place to practice the way. In our case training in karate, karate do, the practice of karate. The ritual of bowing in separates us from our daily life outside of training.  And if dojo kun is what we are living by, we need to strive to better ourselves which also helps our fellow students improve.

Recommendations for preparation: Be as fit as you reasonably can. Do not expect to get the maximum out of the training with little or no preparation. Especially work on leg and joint fitness. No muscle - no kick. Also, as high numbers of repetitions are likely, and tiredness may play a part, joint compression bandages can be extremely useful to help avoid injury, and minimise needing help from others to strap you. Train your hips and joints, learn to turn on your heel more for rapid turning and minimal skin tear.

Other memories and thoughts. Without exception,we were well looked after. Before travelling to Japan Debbie Russo did an amazing job of sourcing, sizing and distributing essential merchandise. Shirts, towels, bags, jackets etc. Sensei John, thank you for all the logistical support you and Deb did. Exceptional.

Also at every stage our Japanese hosts were unstoppable. Though there were moments of wonder and seeming confusion, everything fitted into place in time. Training worked, transport worked, accommodation and meals worked, the baths were hot. Mr Miura, Aoyama University, and the ‘old boys’ probably sponsored more than any of us can truly know. The dinners following completion of training, at Morioka and Tokyo, combined extra-ordinary Japanese cuisine with unbounded service and generosity, the best.  We have a lot to be thankful for.

Koki san, always an untiring companion and translator.

Sheanna. It seems you were not really away from work but tirelessly assisting those in need of attention.

Recommendations for the next lot of travellers: Be fit. Be as self-reliant as possible, but also generous when the need arises. Stop talking and listen. Help out. Make room to bring back merchandise for the good of all. Help Deb, Sensei John, Sensei Steve, whoever is carrying more than their personal belongings for the good of all. You do not need to be asked to be useful.

Ear plugs assist greatly in muffling the sound of others when sleeping. Tim? You there?

Open ears when training. Listen to advice given and try to change for the better. Not just more of the same, more different. It works so give it a go.

Money. Carry cash as credit card acceptance is rock-bottom low.

Drinking. Yes always. Consume lots of water and green tea. Alcohol consumption was not allowed in the rooms, but only in the common room. An excellent arrangement if you wanted to sleep. Generally consumption was not too excessive. As we are guests while in Japan, moderation is more acceptable than abuse. Also, there is always more to do the next day, even if only travelling. Suitcases, bags and stairs are fair game for sick people.

Recommendation for the next gassuhuku: Make it as far away from wi-fi as possible. Really, it is not that hard to turn a phone off for a week. Remember a gasshuku could be a group of people stepping outside of normal lives and routines and going on a sort of retreat together.

Final notes: Rhonda and Deb. Wonderful job with hundreds of photos. Thankyou. I am sure everybody has benefitted from your devotions. Sensei Mark - on tips on the finer art of drinking canned beer, champion. Oss.