23. The ghosts of practices past…

There is something that happens when I put on my practice outfit, or keikogi, that colors that particular, current training time. I remember the past. It’s fitting, after all, because the Japanese word for training, keiko, is made of two Chinese characters that means “to consider or reflect upon the past.”  So in teaching, I try to inculcate in my students what I myself had learned in the past from my own teachers, as best as possible, in my own way.

But lately, I’m thinking that when I tighten my obi, I also reflect upon the ghosts of my own practices past. Like a doddering old geezer, when I slip on my white training pants, white quilted uwagi, cloth belt and hakama, I recall the many times I did so in the past, in memorable training sessions that lasted far into the night. Maybe it’s because I long ago turned 50 years of age. That’s half a century. That’s more years behind me than ahead of me, probably. That’s all my youth gone and went, and now I’m in the autumn staring at the twilight years. That’s…as some college kids would blurt out….really OLD, man. “Man, you’re like my father,” some of them used to say. Now they say, “Man, you’re as old as my grandparents!” Sheesh.

So I put on my keikogi, we bow in, warm up, and work on our techniques. I’m focusing on what the students are doing at the moment. But behind them, behind the way I teach, the way I emphasize certain things, are all the ghosts of practices past.

There’s the ghost image of my jujutsu teacher, when I first met him, at the peak of his physical prowess, moving like a greased monkey throwing people around, then losing interest and going into the back room of the dojo to play his shakuhachi while we fumbled over the techniques. In the cold, wintery Kyoto nights, sometimes it was just me and Takagi-san, hammering away at each other while our sensei played the evocative bamboo flute, watching us and sometimes getting frustrated and stepping back on the mats to correct our moves.

There’s the fleeting image of my Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai teacher when I first met him in the Butokuden in autumn, cupping his ears so he could hear me better, a gentle old soul, I thought, whose iai was so expansive it truly was like the nickname given to that particular strain, “tonosama no iai,” or the iai of a warrior lord.

There’s the memories of the tough judo practices and fun times over beers afterwards that I enjoyed with a sensei and friend. I learned that he later ended up passing away in a frenzy brought on by an extreme bout of his chronic manic depression, striking at enemies of his mind in a bamboo thicket.

There’s the ghost image of another judo friend, who later counseled me when I was going through a divorce. He had gone through his own problems and was telling me things will get better; he found his wife in bed with another man, he hated his job, and he finally crashed his car into a tree…and walked away from it all, to a new town and career…and he built a new life, becoming a professor in a field he enjoyed, with seven great kids and a supportive wife.

There’s the great sempai I had in karate. We used to train outside of regular sessions on the beach on the North Shore of Oahu, going over kata and kumite over and over again. A few weeks before I had my thesis presentation and fine art show for graduate school, one of my sempai, who had become a police officer in the toughest beat in Honolulu, called me out of the blue to ask if I could come over for a few brewskis and to talk story about the old training days. I had to turn him down, saying I really needed to work on my master’s degree final presentations.  That moonlit night, after the phone call, he walked on the beach where we used to train and put a bullet in his head, probably due to the stress of his law enforcement duties and his personal life.

There’s the training sessions that I was allowed to participate in with the U.S. Olympic judo team. It gave me a glimpse into how great a gap there was between me and the cream of the crop. There was just no comparison, and I realized that I had better pay more attention to my schoolwork because there’s no way I could ever be a professional athlete. The U.S. representative in my weight class dumped me all over the place. If anyone has any question as to whether judo is an effective martial art or not, I’d just say, try getting thrown by one of those guys in an asphalt parking lot. You’d be lucky if you can stand up after that in one piece. Surprisingly, for both him and me, however, when we ended up grappling on the mat I easily pinned him. There was nothing he did on the ground that I couldn’t easily counter. That’s when I realized I owed a debt to my judo sensei, whose own teacher was Mikinosuke Kawaishi, the renowned judo teacher who taught a very balanced, technique-oriented style of judo that emphasized equal dexterity in both standing and groundwork techniques.

There’s the training sessions I used to have in jojutsu, out in a park on a mountain top, come rain or shine, even in the middle of tropical thunderstorms, where we’d be slipping and sliding in the mud and trying mightily to keep hanging on to our jo so that it wouldn’t slip out and whack our partners in the head.

There’s the winter time judo training sessions I had on the Mainland, where we ran barefoot in the snow in Upstate New York, us adults freezing our toes while the kids in the group were traipsing and laughing at the novelty of the experience, unaffected by the cold.

There are so many memories of really good times, and really hard times, times that made fast friends, and times that drove unbreachable wedges between me and other people.

And there’s the very first memories of when I first stepped onto a dojo mat, even before I owned a keikogi, and took my first lessons in breakfalls. The dojo was a former sugar plantation meeting hall, termite eaten, old, cobwebbed in the corners, retrofitted with a canvas-covered mat. It was taught by blue-collar workers: sugar plantation workers, garage mechanics, tractor drivers. That was well over 40-odd years ago, when I was barely entering my teens, and those gruff old men were my first role models besides my father and school teachers on what it was to be an adult.

So I knot up my obi and cinch up my hakama and for a brief moment, those ghosts come up from the past, making the instant bittersweet with its memories. Then I put those nostalgic bursts of recollections aside and train. And I make new memories.

19 thoughts on “23. The ghosts of practices past…

  1. I have only about half of your the years of of training, but it is enough to know that I will never be a champion or the meanest fighter on the block. Not that I want to be those things, I just no longer care. I don’t really care what I train in anymore either. It’s the people I train with and the shared experience of training hard that brings me joy and keeps me waiting for the next session. It could be the satisfaction of pushing each other for that extra repetition or the deep belly laugh all round when someone makes a gaff, its always the people we train with that make it worthwhile.

    Excellent post and thanks for sharing.


  2. Thanks Stu. To steal a phrase, it’s (practice) not how long you make it, it’s how you make it long. If you have quality training time with quality mates, that’s the main thing, not how long you’ve been training. Yep. I think something happens when you’ve been training a while and then it becomes the training itself, not the awards or degrees or promotions, or other secondary bric brak.

    1. And thank you, Max. It’s a good feeling to know that there’s people who like some of my stuff!

  3. For martial arts practicioners, this is our path, the one we chose time ago to follow, and as long as it is more ahead of us, we will continue walking.

    I have had two judo teachers. When I started with the second one (a japanese 6th dan from the kodokan), he took me for randori in the ground and a friend of mine alerted me: “take care of your neck”, to what my teacher (already over me) replied laughing: “take care everywhere, guy!!”

    Excellent post Wayne,


    1. –Reminds me of this judo sensei from the Kodokan (could it be the same person?). He talked about how he used to knock out people with his Osoto-gari throw. He eased up on it in order to use it during randori in his American dojo until finally his students got together and asked him to stop. Why? He didn’t knock anybody out anymore. They said, “Yes, sensei, but your throw is still so hard people are rolling right into our walls. It’s costing too much money to patch up the holes in the walls!” Then he looked at me and said, “OK, you come up for my demonstration.”

      Yikes. He piled several thick tumbling mats so they were about two feet thick right behind me. He did his Osoto-gari at half speed, he said, but I still felt like my back hit the mats like a ton of bricks.

    2. Javi,
      Yep. Judo people seem to have a wicked sense of humor. Must come from being thrown all over the place or something.

  4. Nice post Wayne… it’s kinda like my own heartbeat echoing back to me. After all these years, it seems as though I’m just taking another breath while putting on my dogi. Often memories prop up that are surprising in the quality of “why the hell did that just pop up?”… And then, warm feelings of being truly “at home” in the dojo putting on that worn dogi not really minding if it’s my last few breaths that come doing what I love and with people that know each other’s kokoro so well.

    I’m off in a couple of hours for the Valley of the Sun for another Shochugeiko for five days. Yahoo! Wish you were gonna be there… 🙂

    1. I think it’s like why old geezers love the golf course. The feel of the green, the cameraderie of the gang. And the golfing. Same, I think, in a way, with us old timer budo folk. Of course the training is great, but we just feel at home putting on a keikogi and stepping on the mats.

    1. Thanks Kit. For a moment I thought the blog was a bit too self-indulgent, but then I thought, what the heck. It’s a blog. As for the friends, those events are in the past, but they do give me pause to realize that life can be short.

  5. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months Sensei and your insights are greatly appreciated; especially your comment about the “expansive iai” of tonosoma no iai. I’m from the Tanimura-ha side and when I saw 20th generation headmaster Miura Takeyuki Hanshi do his iai at 84 years old in Shimane prefecture in Japan, I was dumbfounded. I can only hope that with another 25 years or so of training , I can be half as good.

    1. Thanks, Rick. You had a rare and wonderful opportunity, I must say to see a good teacher move. Also, don’t call me Sensei. Wayne will do just fine. Or if you’re really young and feel uncomfortable with being so informal, “Mr. Muromoto” will be OK if you want to show this old geezer some respect. Just don’t call me “Mr. Mr.” as some of my community college design students do because they’re too darned lazy to remember my name.

  6. Not at all, yours always strike me as stories and opinions flavored with just the right amount of personal anecdote. None of that self-indulgent “the world is reading my diary” type drivel, or the calculated “image creation” that some blogs and websites seem to be intended for.

    Yours just comes across as real.

    1. Kit, I am humbled by your kind remarks. Just give me an iSlap if I ever get too full of it.

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