As a Martial Artist, travel provides an opportunity to get deep inside a culture, by connecting with people on a very elemental level.
Martial Arts have been a passion of mine for years, my first encounter with them was in the form of Karate, Kickboxing and Kung Fu as a youngster in the UK, but after several years of study my busy life caught up with me and I had to put them to one side for the time being. When I moved to Japan in 2005 one of the things I wanted to achieve there was to pick up on my study again and get some serious training under my belt.
Ironically, the company that hired me in Tokyo was a boutique consulting firm that had 6 very high level martial artists working there, the types that are regularly invited around the world to teach seminars to students in various countries. It was also a very happy go lucky workplace, so as you can imagine with me and 6 of these guys in the elevator heading to lunch or at the end of the day, you really needed your wits about you as play fights got a little.. exuberant… we had some great times!
The art they studied, and I decided to join also was called Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. I trained for the first year one on one with a long term Japanese resident student in Yoyogi Koen, the park in the center of Tokyo, and whilst it was a great experience I still have some bad memories of the cold in winter time (your hands getting whacked with a wooden sword is no fun!) after I had learned some of the basics I had the opportunity to train under several Master Teachers and with the Grand Master of the art, who is now over 80 years old and still trains on a regular basis near his home in Noda, Japan.
As a resident myself at the time it was a great experience to meet with all of the people who came to train at Hombu (the Headquarters), a small training hall in the middle of nowhere near the Atago Train Station north of Tokyo. At times there could be anything from 15-400 people in the hall, from literally every Country you could think of. Here I was a host, and would help with etiquette and making people feel at home. There is a word we use called Buyu, it means Brotherhood. And it is a really wonderful thing when traveling, these guys were my Buyu, and when I in turn would go to visit them later in life I would be welcomed in the same manner.
Interestingly enough, after moving to New York I found I just couldn’t get enough classes in a week by training in just one art, so I started training in another in tandem, this one is the better known Brazilian JiuJitsu, which is growing in popularity as it is the grappling art of choice for the UFC Fighters, and on any given Monday we can see many of the stars of these tournaments grinding it out on the mats, people from UFC Champions to up and coming fighters and on the other end of the spectrum White Collar and Blue Collar Amateurs, we have Lawyers, Firemen, Accountants and Cops all trying their hardest to have a great time whilst beating one another up!
Armed with these two hobbies opens up a whole new world for me when Traveling, it means that whenever I come to a new town I get the opportunity to meet with and hang out with local people and get some great insight about the local life, talk about their plans and dreams and often times will go for dinner and drinks with them to the best local spots.
Trips become so surreal when this happens, especially when you consider some of the other hobbies at play – and packing becomes quite the nightmare! Earlier this year we went to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Tokyo. Starting out I required Scuba gear for the Maldives, then in Sri Lanka we needed Hiking attire, for Tokyo I had several business meetings and I needed to catch with the guys at Axis Brazilian JiuJitsu, in Meidai-Mae; these are a great bunch of guys and very talented JiuJitsu-Ka. Due to my work schedule for the 4 days in Tokyo the only solution was to rent gear and throw away clothes – that way I didn’t need to worry about carrying sweaty gear to my meetings, I would train in the morning class that started at 9am, shower up and head into a business meeting.
If I am ever in Japan on a Saturday evening you will find me far out from Tokyo at a place called Kita Asaka, where in a small community center a Japanese Master Teacher shares his insights on movement and technique. The format for this class is very interesting, it always has a mix of Tourists (visiting Students) and Local Students, the teacher will call up one of the senior ranked Tourists most often and ask him to show something he feels is important, we then take that concept and dissect it, giving his views on pros and cons of what was shown. Unlike most Dojo you find in the USA these places come with solid wood floors, and you better know how to roll on them as you get some serious bruises if not.
Ukemi is the word we use for the art of Receiving. It has many meanings and interpretations, but at its simplest means that what you are given you receive in a way that is proper. As a Martial Artist what this means is that if you are thrown across the room you learn how to receive the throw by landing in a safe manner, that could be by tucking into a ball and rolling to your feet, or several other things. Here are some pics of me using Ukemi, I am the guy with the shaved head, my favorite summer look until Mrs Saverocity banned that…
Ukemi to me is akin to listening to someone, they give you information by ‘talking’ with their body, and by being able to listen to them smoothly you can understand the message being conveyed. I have often times trained with people where we cannot verbally communicate, but by giving and receiving on the physical level we are able to convey very complex ideas.
Reiho is the word we use for Etiquette. There are many levels of Etiquette in Japan, and within Martial Arts. Many people will tell you that a Japanese person will not tell you ‘No’ but that does not mean ‘Yes’ the subject is a fascinating one for me, but I can only scratch the surface in this post, suffice it to say that Etiquette is more than going through the motions of Bowing correctly (your bow should be equal to the bow given or a little lower if the person is very important, and most bows will appear like a nod of the head outside of formal exchanges). When traveling Reiho is everything, if you want to join a group to train you will be accepted with open arms if you have followed the proper protocols, there is no room for ‘DYKWIA’ attitudes in these arts, everybody should be humble. A line that I like a lot is ‘ respect everybody, fear nobody’.
People are very forgiving of mistakes in Reiho if you have the correct attitude, you are a guest in someones house and should act politely and accordingly. Whenever possible I would recommend an introduction from your teacher to their teacher prior to your visit. I do this with Brazilian JiuJitsu, as it is the polite thing to do. I ask my teacher who I should visit whilst in town and they tell me where to go.
There are some politics when it comes to training, the best advice is to stay away from the subject, and ask your teacher where to visit. On a simple level politics could arise from local clubs that are competitive and have a rivalry, it is best to go with the group that is friendly with your group, as otherwise you might be giving the impression that you are walking in to teach everyone a lesson. You also have to watch out for this if you, like myself, come from a famous club.
Recently in Dubai I dropped in at a local club that is training at a serious level. They do get people coming in from other places on occasion, but I was quite the Novelty, especially as they had only just moved to their new location, a giant facility in associate with Team Nogueira. Unfortunately because they were so new they didn’t have any rental gear to borrow, but luckily Brazilian JiuJitsu has two types of training, with the Gi and without the Gi, so ran down the street to the local store and picked up a $5 T Shirt and grappled with their guys – they were all very good, and very nice people too.
When you come in like I did, watch out for tempo and make sure that your Ukemi is good, if you are overly aggressive and dominant at the start it can be quite the challenge to the home gym, so keep things smooth, and letting go of finishing moves before the other person is forced to submit is a good way to set the tone… be prepared for some people on occasion to set the tone themselves, in a more aggressive manner – it is hard for people to accept a stranger coming into their gym and they do want to lay down the law, this is a rarity, but one of those cases where it is Caveat Emptor, and you must protect yourself rather than rely on the other guy to be nice to you.
Sadly, a Business Meeting took me away from Dubai on Saturday, when they were hosting a Seminar for the local Bujinkan Dojo, but I did get to hang out with the guys who ran the club and had a personal tour guide for the trip – a lovely group of people and very helpful with getting all of our needs addressed and setting us up with a great itinerary, they booked all our tours, restaurant reservations and even got us into a Private Screening of the new Superman Movie Man Of Steel! It is good to have Buyu! I hope they will come to NYC one day so I can return the compliment.
Now, whenever I travel Domestically or Internationally I check out the town to see if they have a Gym or Dojo that I can pop in and visit, makes for quite the different experience when you travel, whilst packing becomes more complicated you get to see a whole new side of a Country and its Culture when you get to fight with the locals (legally). What hobbies do you have that you could take into a foreign land like this to open up new experiences?