2. Mon Iri–Entering the Gates

Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu, where I was born.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu, where I was born.

Everyone has a story about how they got started in budo. For me, it was because I had the classic 98-pound weakling syndrome.

If you were to try to find my original dojo, you’d end up in a dead end road facing a field of six-foot tall scrub grass and weeds. The dojo where I first started my budo journey is no longer to be found.

But almost a half-century ago, there used to be a derelict cast-off building that the sugar plantation in my home town loaned out to a group of Nisei plantation workers to start a judo club, the largesse of the company probably stemming from the notion that any sport or pastime that kept its workers and kids happy, healthy and out of trouble is good for business and productivity. The building sat in a dirt lot, cleared in the middle of the sugar cane fields, along a poorly maintained asphalt black top road with more potholes than you could count.

The wooden building would shake noticeably if a heavy judoka was thrown. Us young boys used to joke that the structure was held together by the termites holding hands. A plastic tarp covered thick padding on the floor, and as I recall, there was a raised stage in the front. It was probably a town meeting hall before it was converted.

That humble small-town dojo was where I began my budo journey.

I was, as I said, a typical candidate for those back-of-comic-book ads that promised bullies would no longer kick sand in your face if you signed up and paid for their regime. I was sickly, without much social graces, awkward, and a bookworm. My mom remembers having to force me to go outside to play. I’d rather be reading library books in the house. If neighborhood kids picked on me, I’d run home crying because I didn’t know how to fight, or at least that’s how my parents recalled my early childhood.

By the time I was in elementary school, even a tomboy girl picked on me in the schoolyard. She could smell my timidity. That was one of my first experiences with girl-boy relationships, and I’m sure it scarred me for life. First she beat me up. On top of not knowing how to hit back, I already had a notion that I wasn’t supposed to hit girls. Then she felt bad about beating me up and in an odd way got attracted to my hopeless nobility, I guess, because after that J let me to play with her during recess. And she kissed me under the cafeteria table one day because she thought I was sweet for not punching her back. Maybe that’s the pattern of my love life since then: women beat me up and then take me in. Who knows? Maybe it’s a Freudian thing.

Anyway, one day I got tired of being picked on, teased and laughed at for being a Clark Kent without a Superman alter ego. I didn’t want to get beat up anymore. I didn’t want to play organized sports like Little League or Pop Warner football (my younger brother did all that, and so well that I couldn’t hope to compete), so why not judo? I watched a session. Judo was fascinating. It had a cultural component. It was Japanesey. It could teach me how to stand up for myself in a schoolyard fight. I could get strong!

For five dollars a month, I signed up. During the first couple sessions, all I did was practice ukemi. Tumble. Front, back, side, forward roll, back roll. Once I got the hang of that, the old codgers took me to Level 2: learning how to take falls while being thrown all over the place in randori.

I was taught very little about throwing somebody ELSE in the beginning. The idea was, I suppose, that I had to learn my ukemi first before anything else. If I could get launched clear across the room and still end up unscathed, then I could take on anybody in a judo match and not get too hammered.

So for an hour-and-a-half each session, my body, so unused to physical exercise, was put through the mill. Old-school judo folk will know what it’s like: warm ups including stretching and calisthenics. Then strength and endurance exercises, like squatting and hopping around the room. Ukemi. Randori. Session after session, I was thrown and thrown and thrown.

I used to get home, take a bath, and then lie on the living room floor, my body in complete pain. My mom, bless her soul, would rub Ben-Gay and Salonpas all over my aching back and legs and console me that I could always quit if it hurt so much.

I was determined, however, not to fold. This was my first foray into the weird, wonderful, odd world of real physical sports. It was the first time I ventured into the world of men and boys, that strange world of locker room humor, male bonding, old men teaching young boys the intricacies and lore of a sport. How could I quit so soon? I needed to prove something to myself. I needed to feel like I belonged to a male lodge.

At bedtime, I literally crawled from the living room into bed. And I’d do it again the next practice session.

Eventually, I was taught a throw or two. And then newaza, or grappling on the mats. My introduction to newaza was inadvertently very “old school.” I was thrown down and the sensei put his forearm around my neck. I struggled…And then I saw black. I woke up, dazed, with the sensei looking at me with a surprised look on his face.

“Don’t you know to tap before you get knocked out?” he asked.

“Uh…I was knocked out?” I said. “You tap to give up?”

The sensei laughed and then proceeded to show me how to tap out from a choke. Good thing he showed me that before he did an arm bar on me!

Eventually the aches and pains of pushing my body in physical exercise eased. I progressed to learning different throws. My body grew leaner, stronger, and in growing confidence, I felt more capable and self-assured physically.

As a child, I had grown up reading about heroes and super-heroes and their feats of derring-do. Judo was a concrete, real-life adventure that made me feel like one of those heroes, in a juvenile, adolescent sort of way. Hey, Bruce Wayne became Batman through sheer force of will and training! Holy tomoe-nage, Batman, I could train hard too and become a super-hero, if only in my mind!

One funny outcome: other kids stopped picking on me. It wasn’t because I had become more belligerent. Far from it. Yet somehow, I suppose my newfound self-confidence kept all but the most rabid school bullies away from me. The more I practiced, the less I found myself being physically bullied. One of the reasons I started judo was to defend myself, but self-defense became less and less a major priority. I began to have other goals: developing greater finesse in my techniques, learning better body movement, engaging in tournaments, and so on.

I was far from the best judo student. There were a host of other kids far stronger, faster and more technically adept than me. But I had found a place. I felt like I was part of a social group. I was part of a group of guys, engaged in a sportive ritual, and I belonged. No matter how well or badly I did on the mats or in a tournament, I was a member of a dojo.

Developing a healthy body from judo eventually opened up other avenues of physical activity for me. During high school, I left judo practice for months on end to pursue more popular sports such as football, wrestling and weights. But I kept going back to judo. Something about the structure of the dojo environment, the budo culture, kept pulling me back.

Even now, I have a fuzzy, warm nostalgia for that old dojo and its termite infested walls. It may not have had the fanciest facilities, but it was a great nurturing ground for me when I was a child just learning how to be a man. The judo dojo accepted me for what I was. There were no first string, second string or bench warmer status to demean you. We all participated, we all got some kind of ranking step by step, we all trained together and bowed and paid respects to each other, regardless of prowess. It was a great introduction to an egalitarian, communal system of physical activity.

I started from there. Little did I know, at the time, that this introduction to budo would lead to a lifetime of training in various budo, ending up where I am today. My own private life is all the more richer for having started, not just because of my improved physical health, but because of the mental stimulation, friendships and experiences I enjoyed through the years, gifted to me by budo. And so, perhaps, that is why I continue to train, and study and learn.

…So readers, what about it? What were YOUR first motives for starting budo, and how did you start?


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19 thoughts on “2. Mon Iri–Entering the Gates

  1. My first experience was laughter and refusal. I first asked my parents about training in martial arts at age 13-14. They laughed at me, in mid 1970s Texas. Later, they enrolled my brother, at the same age, with no qualms.

    Oh yeah, I happen to be female.
    It’s not an issue for me. I don’t make it an issue for anyone else, unless they have issues. Then, I resolve them. If I cannot resolve them, then, it’s their own problem.

    I managed to get into an aikido class in my early 20s when I was in community college. My father wasn’t amused about paying for martial arts training, but I promised him it would help me concentrate.
    Another speed bump hit, and I had to take some years out of school (my life in the class struggle) eventually I got an admin peon job with a major university, and got into the aikido club there.
    A major turning point was a seminar with the students of Shoji Nishio.
    I fell in love with that version of “sogo budo” and never forgot it.
    My first love was the sword, particularly Japanese sword, and it has simply never left my heart.
    The end result is a woman in her early 40s, with a list of injuries and the ability to deal with them through being a Rolfer with excellent colleagues, seeking some kind of shugyo with a compromised body, and uncompromised spirit.
    That said, a twice separated left shoulder is no compromise, in the larger world.
    It just means that sticks are better than hand to hand, in terms of surviving and continuing my own work, as a bodyworker.

    My training is in limbo at this time, except for some SMR jodo. I’m not happy with it, but until my teacher figures out that I’m all he’s got, that’s all I’ve got.

    1. Thanks for sharing, ED. It’s exactly the kind of comments I was hoping to get…varied, from different perspectives, with different opinions. SMR is not too bad. I ended up doing it (and naginata) for several years because I didn’t have the time or money to continue with judo/aikid/karate…Yes, I was young. And crazy then.

  2. My first experience was with goshin ju jutsu as a 7-year old. One of my classmates in elementary school did it, and she dragged me along. I did it for about 3 years, and then moved on to do kickboxing for a while. At the age of 20 I got the opportunity start TSKSR, which I later supplemented with Kendo. I still do both.

    1. Thanks, Kenneth. Seven years old! There’s a Japanese tradition of starting your child in a classical art (such as dance, tea, budo, etc.) at six, if only in a way that makes the practice somewhat familiar to them so that when and if the child gets serious about it, it’s already somewhat internalized mentally and physically. You started pretty close to the ideal age.

  3. Wayne,

    It is nice to see you blathering, err I mean writing again! I enjoyed your scribbles when you had Furyu out and besides, you still owe me a couple copies that unfortunately never happened. Now, I consider myself compensated to see you writing again!

    Me, I got started in budo things since as the youngest kid, I was doing all the things my brothers and sister wouldn’t do, or my parents couldn’t afford back then for my brothers or sister. Of course, in a JA family, I had little choice in most of those things. One of my cousins suggested aikido where he trained, other cousins had done judo at the same place. My parents picked aikido for me. I was 12 and had no desire to do this at all.

    But things somehow changed, and to my parents surprise, and my own, the one thing that they signed me up for that stuck and has been to the detriment of my business career and other aspects of “normal life”, was budo. When I could have stopped, I didn’t since I wanted revenge on the adults who used to pick on me in aikido class, and by then Bernie Lau was teaching more LEO and I got to beat on cops legally. What more can a misfit teenager ask for as he struggles to find his place in becoming a young adult?

    I still can see/feel the Seattle Dojo the same way you picture your first dojo. I can still hear the creaky door and floorboards, the dripping sound of rain in the broken gutters. The smell of sweat and the old straw tatami, the overheated wood of the building and in summer. I can still feel the horrible cold in winter when Bernie Lau would open the windows and the sauna like heat in summer.

    Now, though I am just a goshin budo guy, I realize the roots of where and what I do come from and have an interest in those roots. So, blog away, I’ll read it.

    1. Neil, thanks. I still feel bad about the demise of Furyu and someday, if I ever make millions and millions of dollars as a teacher in a state community college, I intend to pay back people with pending subscriptions. (Judging from the state of our state economy, don’t hold your breath.) But one of the things I always enjoyed opening up the mail to Furyu were your bizarre–err—humorous!– letters. Hope you reply to my posts a lot in the future!!!

  4. I’ll refuse payment Wayne. Anyway, this is a great start. Which brings me to the question:

    1) How freaking old is Salonpas? Wow…. 😉 I was expecting leaching back then.
    2) Were your dojo mates a melting pot of nationalities?
    3) Was this a “pure” Judo dojo or was it mixed in others?

    1. Thanks Russ.
      1) How old is Salonpas? Gotta be real old. Compared to you “young” bucks, back in my days, The Flintstones were a real life home comedy.
      2) Back then, because it was taught by old Japanese Americans, and perceived as a Japanese sport, most of the students were JAs, but a plantation town being what it was (economics trumped ethnicity; the neighborhood lower middle class kids hung out together, the richer kids hung out together), we had a couple of others ethnicities: a Portuguese Golden Gloves boxer who was a brown belt, maybe a Filipino kid. I remember one very old haole (Caucasian) lady in Sunday dress doling out dollars for her grandson’s first lessons. For some reason, that image stuck in my mind because she was so well dressed sitting in our termite-eaten, cracked-window panes dojo, counting the five individual dollars.
      3) It was a “pure” judo dojo. There was nothing else until the head of the club went to seminars in a new art called aikido. From then on, it alternated nights between judo and aikido. At the time, I was more interested in the rough and tumble of judo. I only got involved in aikido in college.

      1. Great memories.
        I really know what you are talking about here. There was a time when I lived in a neighborhood that had houses with dirt floors and horse-meat was more popular than beef (because it was cheaper). Believe it or not that was in the middle of a growing city. The barbecues sucked. That same area has now become an upstanding meth-lab neighborhood. I believe the barbecues have improved, though.

        Q: Were there any of those Sandal-wood wrestlers running around that area(the Danzan ryu fellas?)

        Fun fact (that I had to look up, I use salonpas almost everyday): Salonpas was introduced in 1934 based on the “Asahi Mankinko prototype”. What that is I have no idea…sounds fun though. I wonder if there was an electric “dipping vat” associated with them? 🙂

      2. Man, if you use Salonpas every day, and if you haven’t done so yet, you gotta try Spray-On Salonpas Xtra Strength. That’s like a rush! My bud Clark had terrible leg cramps after hiking up Atago in the night and this other Takeuchi-ryu student sprayed it on his legs. Nearly instant relief, when nothing else would have worked. I just tried it the other week. Amazingly good. Must have stuff in it banned by the FDA!

  5. Wayne, very nice to see you active in writing again!

    I’m something of a child of the 70s karate/kung-fu boom. Not because I did it, but because my father did. When I was a little tyke, he’d gotten up to yellow belt in some form of karate, I believe it was Tang Soo Do, and naturally he wanted to pass these “skills” down to his son. I remember him teaching me how to fall, metsuke, and making me stand in a horse stance for lengths of time.

    After that there was the “Gong fu Club” at my high school. My high school had a Chinese language program, and as part of that an American who’d studied wushu in China came for a year and taught us some of the forms. We even went on a tour of elementary schools as part of an exhibition on Chinese culture.

    In college my sister and I found a local USAF aikido dojo and joined. That was my first experience with a true, formal dojo, as well as my first experience with Japanese culture. 17 years later, here I am living in Japan, studying heiho. All perhaps, in a sense, as a result of my father jumping on the karate bandwagon in the 70s!

    1. Josh, thanks for the comment. It’s fun to be writing again about budo. And the really cool thing about this format is that it’s not just a one-way street. When people reply or comment, it feels a lot like a really great conversation over a beer (or in my case, ice tea)!

  6. Hi Wayne,
    Just saw Julie and Julia with the wife and I can understand now how you got inspired to do this blog.
    I always enjoyed your writing from the first time I stumbled onto your article about Yagyu Jubei.

    1. Thanks Dave. Loved the Meryl Streep parts. The Julie parts seemed kind of narcissistic but I thought, what the heck. If someone can blog about cooking Julia Child’s recipes, I could blog about martial arts.

  7. My first budo experience was aikido. I think I was around ten or eleven. Me an some of my friends wanted to try something different, but unfortunately it did not hook us and we quited soon after. I never thought about starting any martial art after that, not because of any bad experiences, it did just not interest me, and I had no use for it and still don’t. But then after a while I become interested in swords, and my father gave me his sword, a wall hanger that he got somewhere in Europe before I was born, and my interest peeked. I read some about viking swords, but ended up reading about the legend of the samurai sword, luckily I found those websites that portrayed the swords in a fair way and without the myth talking. I quickly become hooked. I bought books about the making of them and wanted to start collecting but never got that far, because I thought that if I want to collect I should know how to use them. I first thought kendo, that was all I knew about this, but then I got a email from a owner of a local samuraisword dealer that his son trained katori. I had no clue what this Katori was, sounded strange, looked strange and was strange, I got hooked. The collecting part has vanished, and all that is left is a gigantic wibrating abstinantic (<– is that even a word) feeling when I don't train. I find that things change in your reason to train, and the best is that it changes for the good.

  8. My first Experience was Judo too, I used to love the newaza part. But as I was still very young and the classes finished at 10pm on a school night my parents pulled me from the class but I always wish i could have kept it up. Years later, after my older brother had been doing aikido for a few years, i joined a local Shorinji Kempo club and the past five or so years have been great. I find its really helped me overcome my dyspraxia and I love the mix of hard and soft techniques. I’ve also tried my hand at Iaido and loved it, but the class is too far to drive to regularly, but I’ve recently taken up Judo again, and may join a Naginata club when I start university next month. I just hope I get to keep up what I know will be a life long commitment and obsession with budo.

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