Gasshuku 2019

This year’s Gasshuku (camp) was led by Isao Gary Tsutsui Sensei of Colorado Budokan, his wife Sensei Candice, and daughter Sensei Akemi. The last time we were privileged to have Tsutsui Sensei lead Gasshuku (in 2014) I was a very new 9th kyu – in fact, I’d tested at Gasshuku. I remember at that camp one time I found myself without a partner to work with and I was struggling with the material. Tsutsui Sensei came right over and worked with me until I could manage on my own. Five years later I had a better grasp of the material, but most assuredly I needed help from time to time. Sensei Candice and Sensei Akemi were often right there whenever I didn’t quite make the mark. There were recurring themes throughout the weekend. I’d like to touch on some of them.

Usually at Gasshuku we have guests from other styles not just as participants, but also as instructors. As I’ve written before, getting out of our little Shindo Jinen-ryu groove is tremendously beneficial. We spent the weekend immersed in the Shotokan style. Because in our organization we perform kata in accordance with the old shitei standards, I have a rudimentary knowledge of “how things work” in Shotokan as gleaned from the two kata I’ve memorized (Jion and Kanku Dai). As often as I could remember I tried to BE a Shotokan student. Sensei Candice and Sensei Akemi were there to remind me when I lapsed! The body dynamics are a little different, and it was good to add to my tiny little store of knowledge of the Shotokan style.

Speaking of body dynamics, Sensei Candice Tsutsui is a physiotherapist. She has designed warm up routines for karate. Her daughter Sensei Akemi led us through these warm ups. Warm ups have changed over time, and the Tsutsui family is on top of the latest research and principles on exercise, using the same principles that professional athletes employ. I was very glad that my little-old-lady instincts have been correct: there are certain things I like to avoid during warm up and other movements that feel right for me. We learned a few principles and exercises that were new to me. As a result, I’ve expanded my warm-up routine and no longer feel guilty for avoiding the things that are unhelpful. I am, after all, not as young as I once was, so if I’m going to train hard, I must train smart.

Not only do I strive to train smart, I have for decades tried to teach smart. It started when I helped teach karate when I was a teenager and continued through home schooling two “out of the box” children. For most of my second karate journey I have been helping to teach – I’ve come full circle. I’m still learning about teaching. One nugget from this weekend that I gleaned is about teaching kata. First teach a series of drills based on the kata – breaking down the most challenging movements into even as few as one or two steps. I appreciate having another tool in my teaching toolbox!

One of the best things about Gasshuku is there are no cell phone towers nearby. We can’t retreat into our phones. We spend time together. It’s also a little taste of Japanese culture. All of us pitch in for chores. We go the extra mile for our sensei(s) (instructors) – inviting them to “cut in” ahead of us in the food line, refilling their coffee, and taking away their dirty dishes. Of course there’s also time when we can relax and catch up with friends. All this builds camaraderie. I’ve seen the benefits of taking time to build relationships in family life, in professional life, and in Karate life. It helps to smooth out the politics that are a part of every group of two or more human beings. I’ve always been peripherally aware of how heavily we invest in one another, but this weekend solidified my appreciation of the relationships we’re all building.

As usual, the lessons from Gasshuku have gone beyond the spiffy techniques that were taught. Of course I have added things to my repertoire. Yes, I’ve learned about exercise and how to warm up. I’ve even learned another tool for teaching kata. You see how this is going out and out, expanding from the physical techniques to tools and principles? And surrounding everything are the relationships: Inter-dojo, intra-dojo, senpai, kohai, sensei, peers, mentors, mentees… We have etiquette to guide us in all these relationships, but what it all boils down to is respect and friendship. It’s karate at its best.

Gasshuku 2018

My little hatchback car seemed to explode once we arrived at the Yoshida Gardenview Estate for Gasshuku (Karate camp).  Somehow I had jammed the little car full with three people (including myself), two tents, three sleeping bags, two bo (long staffs), assorted other camping and karate stuff, and cleaning supplies for the bathrooms.  One of my senpai (higher ranked student) had hitched a ride with me and  my younger daughter.  As he claimed his favorite tent site, my daughter and I made a little boundary with our bo(s) (long staffs)  to mark our home for the weekend.  Our tents were set up in short order and we threw ourselves into a weekend filled with training, chores, and fellowship.

Our retreat was “home grown” this year, in that our own yudansha (black belts) led the training (as opposed to bringing in a guest instructor).  For us students it was almost like visiting classes at sister dojo (schools) without having to travel to each individual school.   As always, everyone got to be a student at least most of the time.  Each sensei (instructor) has a different teaching style so it’s good for us students to make the little adjustments students need to make when someone other than one’s own teacher is teaching.  Having a variety of sensei(s) teaching meant that we got a lot of different perspectives.  We all were exposed to things we’d never done before, and all of us took things away that we can use for ourselves and for our kohai (students who are lower-ranked than oneself).

I had a lot of fun and gained some knowledge.  Bo (staff) work is coming more naturally to me now, which is good because it’s not part of our curriculum back home.  I learned a few footwork drills that I can use for myself and for when I lead warmups.  And I fell in love.  No, not with a person – with a kata (form).  Tomari Bassai. I’m already quite familiar with Bassai Dai, so it was easy to follow along with Tomari Bassai.  New for me this year is that I knew enough about kata to recognize that I personally would have an easier time learning Tomari Bassai rather than Sochin.  In general, I noticed I’ve improved in working around my directional dyslexia.  I wasn’t the only one who had things to work around.

Not only is my daughter a brand new beginner, she is also autistic.  There were a few little incidents, she often needed prompting, but on the whole she did quite well.  Even in regular classes my daughter has fun imitating what she sees around her, so she wasn’t at all fazed that the material at Gasshuku was well beyond what she’s done so far in the four or five weeks she’s been training.  The karate community at Gasshuku supported her, and everyone was kind – but also firm whenever a boundary needed to be drawn.  I really appreciated that – it’s one thing when Mom says something, quite another when a total stranger says the exact same thing!  As the mother of an autistic adult, I am constantly balancing her increasing need for independence against her disability.  I’m grateful that Gasshuku was a safe place for me to let go of her a little (but only a little because I’m still also her senpai).  Having my younger daughter along was one of a few things that were different for me this year.

Looking back on my post about last year’s Gasshuku I can see some changes in myself.  I am definitely established in my role as a brown belt.  I earned 3rd brown last Gasshuku and, in fact,  I had  already earned 2nd brown before coming to this year’s Gasshuku (the ranks are numbered in reverse order, so 1 is high and 3 is low).  I am much more accustomed to how children and adults relate to me as their senpai.  I did better this year about remembering to work with kohai, as opposed to always seeking out someone of a higher rank for partner drills.  During bo training I did better than in previous years because I concentrated on my body movement and trusted my weapon and gravity to do the rest.  I’m thinking I’ve grown in my art since last year.

I wonder how much I’ll grow between now and next Gasshuku (2019)?

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.

Out of the Groove

Just hanging out with a few friends
Just hanging out with a few friends

Last weekend I went to Gasshuku – Karate camp.  About sixty of us pitched tents along the perimeter of a big, grassy lawn.  We came from two states and perhaps ten dojos to train barefoot in the grass under the hot summer sun.    There was training Friday night followed by a belt test (no, I wasn’t a candidate but I do have friends who earned their next belts).  Saturday there were four training sessions, each 90 minutes to 2 hours long.  Sunday morning before breakfast found us training one last time together.  We also had a good bit of free time and plentiful food.

Box vector designed by Freepik
Box vector designed by Freepik

I think the biggest lesson I learned is I take it for granted we have our own way of doing things.  Even when something I haven’t encountered before is thrown my way by one of our organization’s instructors I might think it’s new or different but chances are it still fits within the style or art I study.  When a guest instructor from outside our organization, style, or art comes along with a different way of doing things, I learn that really and truly, I’ve been in a groove.  Learning a different style’s way of doing a particular block isn’t all that difficult but, “Time that block to land at the same time your kick hits its target,” is utterly foreign to me.  But yet for that guest instructor’s students back in his home city, that’s probably the “normal” way of doing things.

ClockMore fascinating to me are the reasons why one might want to do things “differently.”  Fortunately, we got to partner up and apply some of what we’d learned.  I love doing this.  The highest-ranked brown belt, an acquaintance of mine, chose to work with me Saturday evening.  In a usual class, one doesn’t always get to talk during the drill or deviate from it.  My brown-belt friend gave me more than just a target or a chance to practice my skills at being a target.  We had a great time discussing what we were doing, why we were doing it, and experimenting with what we were doing.  This kind of fun doesn’t always happen in the groove of a rec-center schedule.  We had the luxury of time, so we were able to go deeper than usual.

This was also a chance for the black belts to see my brown-belt friend outside of his usual context of advanced training with other brown belts or while he’s teaching a beginner’s class.  Every once in awhile when he and I were working together, a black belt stopped by to watch for a minute or two.  I hope these black belts saw that my brown belt friend was doing a wonderful job with me and that he’ll be a heck of a Sensei someday.  I hope that day is soon.  Just my humble opinion, what do I know, I’m only 5th kyu 🙂

Bo. Not “tooth pick.” Bo.

Weapons training is another chance for us empty-handed martial artists to get out of our usual groove.  We did plenty of work with bo (a long staff), which isn’t as different as some weapons because it involves a good many of the push-and-pull movements we’re used to.  But still…  It’s a big stick and one has to learn to manage it.  Saturday I opted to learn the bo basics rather than attempt to learn the bo kata (form).  Unfortunately, Sunday morning only three or four us from the basic bo class were present, and the Sensei who had taught us wanted to do the kata himself.  So we tried our best to keep up with those who had learned the kata on Saturday.  Yep.  Learn a kata – a weapons kata at that – with nobody breaking it down for me.  That was definitely out of my groove.  Or was it?  Maybe not.  Every once in awhile new songs and choreography are added to the Zumba class I go to on Saturday mornings.  And nobody breaks it down for me.

By Monday afternoon I’d already forgotten both the bo kata and the empty-hand kata we were supposed to have learned.  So if I didn’t learn the two katas, was this camp a waste of time, energy, and money?  No.  Was the camp all roses and song?  Well…  I admit my self-discipline was tested.  More often than usual I had to battle the frustration that sometimes crops up when my dyslexic brain decides to act up.  The muggy heat wasn’t fun.  I admit I got discouraged sometimes.  Overall, though, it was a good camp because I know that one learns a lot when one is knocked out of one’s usual groove.  Being out of the groove is groovy.