Gasshuku 2017 – The Beginning of a New Phase

Our annual Gasshuku (“Karate Camp”) at the beautiful Yoshida Gardenview Estate  was, as usual, challenging and very educational. I have a lot to reflect on and a lot to work on. Not just techniques but I also will be growing into a new role. I don’t want to downplay the seminars so I’ll start off with that.

Our guest instructor was Sensei (instructor) Elisa Au Fonseca. Others have done a better job of outlining what she brings to the table, so I’ll just refer you to this website. Ohhhh yes. Not only is she quite accomplished, not only is she training for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Karate will be part of the Games for the very first time, but she also is an excellent teacher. The emphasis this weekend was on kumite (sparring). We had loads of drills that everyone thoroughly enjoyed. Those drills will be showing up in dojo-s (Karate schools) in the months and years to come, let me tell you. I appreciated how Sensei Elisa built the skills over time. One of our own sensei and another highly ranked sensei from another organization gave Sensei Elisa a break on Saturday and taught half a session each. They built on her material and, next session, she took it from there so as to maintain a continuity throughout the weekend. We had high caliber instruction, as always 🙂

This year we welcomed guest students and sensei (plural) from other organizations. I had the pleasure of speaking Jaspenglish (Japanese, Spanish, and English) with a student from Mexico. Getting acquainted with a group from Walla Walla was fun. But what really touched my heart was being able to train with students from McMinneville, Oregon. I’ve only ever seen them and competed against them at tournaments, so being able to experience the comradeship of being students together and helping one another learn was wonderful.

I recognized the culture shock when one guest student asked another karateka (one who studies karate) and me about how we in the karate organization I belong to refer to our sensei (plural) and sensei from other organizations. When I studied as a teenager I was in an organization that uses the same titles as the organization that this karateka belongs to. Because of that experience as a youngster I could understand the confusion and, yes, concern. I deal with cultural differences all the time at work so explaining our traditions was no big deal to me.  I hope I set the other karateka’s mind at ease. We mean no disrespect; we simply have traditions that are different.

OK, now back to simply being students together and helping one another learn. I had the pleasure of sometimes being paired up with sensei (plural), some of whom have instructed me at one time or another. I have great memories to look back on with two in particular. The sensei who was in charge of my old home dojo hasn’t worked with me in several months, ever since that dojo was shut down. He and I gleefully pushed each other as hard as we could go during a few drills. On Sunday morning, College Sensei and I worked together for a good while. I’ve been so busy being his student, his assistant, or his uke for demonstrations that we’ve hardly ever drilled together. I’m really glad to have real live examples of karateka who don’t stop learning once they tie on a black belt and who aren’t too proud to work with their kohai (karateka who are lower ranked than oneself).

Speaking of kohai, I think one thing I could’ve done better with at camp was to work more often with them. This was driven home to me on Sunday morning. We were to form groups of six and somehow I ended up with five children. Groups of people did a drill where one person was up front, the rest in line taking turns attacking, then the person up front gets to join the line after everyone has had a turn. That kind of drill really eats up time and our group was the slowest. Whenever I was waiting in line I saw other groups really pushing each other hard and having tons of noisy fun. I reminded myself that sometimes I have to be the senpai (senior in rank). I’m good with kids and it was my turn to be a leader; the one who challenged them to be better. It just so happened that I was the last person to stand up at the front of my line. All the other groups were finished by then so all eyes were on me as the kiddos took their turns coming at me.

Those who know me well felt free to indulge in a little silliness. They cheered me on exactly as they would if I were fighting in a tournament. I did hear a compliment on my control. After everything was over one wag joked, “I dunno, Joelle, it just seems like you weren’t giving that fight everything you’ve got.”  🙂

This kind of camaraderie means the world to me. I come to Gasshuku not just to improve my Karate, but also to hang out with other karateka and build my network of friends and acquaintances. We need one another in order to grow in our art.

Speaking of growth, in the first paragraph of this post I hinted that I have a new role to grow into. Friday evening I took the hardest Karate test I’ve ever taken.  There was a significant change in format this time, and I dealt with it.  My performance and what happened during the course of the test was not at all what I expected. One aspect of my Karate that I thought of as a weak area was quite solid, one part of the test was over way more quickly than I’d anticipated, and my performance was definitely sub-par in the area which is usually my strongest. I barely passed the test because of that weak performance. It’s strange, but I actually find it refreshing that I very nearly was asked to try again at the next opportunity. It means this test was well and truly challenging. Not that the previous tests haven’t been challenging, it’s just that this test was, by design, almost beyond my ability. And I passed that test. I now wear a brown belt.  The Japanese term for that rank is san-kyu, which means I have three more increasingly tougher tests to pass before I tie on a black belt.

A new phase in my training has begun. There are higher expectations. I will be going to brown belt training.  I will be given training in how to be an instructor. I’ve a bit of a jump on this already from training as a teenager and from helping at College Dojo and in my old and new home dojos. But I still have a lot to learn and I’m looking forward to being trained to be the best sensei I can be. I am now eligible to earn credentials to be a referee at tournaments. Tests will be far less frequent and will really kick my butt. I’m looking forward to the longer stretches of time between tests – it means I can go deeper into the kata (forms) I’ve already learned and get a solid start on each new kata. I’ll have loads of time to fix bad habits and develop new bad habits (and fix them in turn, LOL). My new role started immediately Saturday morning at camp.

In just about anyone’s system, brown is at or very near the top of the colored-belt heap, so everyone recognizes that the color Means Something. Children, especially little girls, often looked at me with wide-eyed wonder. Yep, I definitely have a responsibility to be a good role model. I gotta love the kohai – because of the color of my belt the adult and teenage kohai sometimes came at me with zero control over their techniques because they assumed I could handle whatever they bring. It’s OK. I have done and, well, um, sometimes I still accidentally do the same thing. Most of the time I can easily “read” these kohai and get the heck out of their way or block them, so it’s all good. Sensei and brown belts more senior to me have always had high expectations of me, and now they have even higher expectations. Yep, it’s a whole new world.

So am I still a beginner? My belt rank says I’m not a beginner. Or am I? Yes I am – I’m beginning a new phase in my training. I still have a lot to learn. I’m not a black belt yet. But even when I do achieve Shodan (1st degree black belt) I will still be a beginner – it’ll be a new beginning. I will always be a beginner because I will always be open to learning new things. I will begin, and begin again, and again. Karate is a lifetime study, so I will always preserve the mindset of a beginner. The title of this blog, “A Beginner’s Journey,” isn’t going to change.


Here’s some cool drone footage of a sparring drill at camp – half session taught by a guest sensei.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

5 thoughts on “Gasshuku 2017 – The Beginning of a New Phase”

  1. Huge congratulations on gaining your brown belt Joelle! The effect of your resolutely continuing to call yourself a “beginner” is starting to become more and more meaningful as you move up through your belts . . . Kx

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