4. The Keikogi–Do Clothes Make the Budoka?

The standard karategi
The standard karategi

Okay, so you joined a club. Now you get to buy one of them there cool looking pajama uniforms. After all, half the coolness of joining a martial art is looking tough in one’a them there white PJ’s, right?

Of course, you do run the risk of putting it the outfit on WRONG and then you look like a  total dorkwad, too. So for the complete beginner, here’s a little primer on how to wear those white pajamas. Or, we should call them keikogi (practice outfits); or more succinctly, depending on what you practice: judogi (outfit for judo), karategi (outfit for karate), kendogi…or simply dogi…well, you get the idea.

So that’s the terminology. A practice “uniform” is a something-or-other-gi, the “gi” meaning something you wear. For kendo and aikido people, you also strap on a hakama, a sort of wide breeches. It’s not a dress. It’s got pants legs, albeit they’re very wide, to allow for a wide freedom of movement.

To hold the top together, you use an obi, or cloth belt. For many Japanese martial arts systems, the obi color also denotes what rank you are; white or different colored belts to brown signify a –kyu level (such as sankyu, or third kyu), black means “black belt,” or yudansha (“someone who holds a dan rank). Kodokan judo also instituted teaching ranks, or professorship, which are signified by a yudansha being allowed to wear a checkered red and white belt. We’ll discuss the significance of the belt and the kyu-dan system later.

For now: the clothes.

When I was researching the origins of the white keikogi for an article in Furyu, I found scant historical resources. No one really knows its exact origins, although it’s pretty clear that Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan judo, was probably involved in its development. He standardized the white cotton, thickly woven practice outfit used by judo players when he developed judo in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Like his own judo, the judogi was probably an amalgam of what he thought were the best, most logical and most practical points of traditional Japanese wear and Western athletic wear. Instead of hakama, he opted for a simple pair of pants and a jacket that could be grappled and pulled and yanked without tearing apart. The simple white outfit was practical as well as philosophically compatible with his concept of modern judo: a Western-style athletic endeavor that nevertheless contained some elements of traditional Japanese style shugyo, or austere mental, spiritual and physical training.

As such, the judogi was simple, austere, tough and without any ostentation.

Although there were antecedents, Kano appears to have been the one who really popularized this type of training outfit. In addition, Kano also popularized the kyu-dan ranking system. And we’ll talk about that later as well.

In due time, aikido and karate adapted the judogi.

One karate friend who has interviewed a lot of prewar Okinawan karate masters noted that some of them have alluded that early 20th Century karate was often done bare-chested, sans the stereotypical karategi. There were, they conjectured, two reasons for this: one, the Okinawan practitioners were often poor, and could ill afford specialized training outfits. And/or, in any case, when doing dynamic tension exercises, the sensei (teacher) could tell if the right muscle groups were being utilized by the student if he could see their muscles contracting and expanding. Hence, even now when doing a kata like Sanchin, many male practitioners take off their gi tops.

In any case, the white gi has evolved into blue-colored gi, striped gi, gi with longer tails to tuck into hakama, and thinner gi for karate, outfits with black edging for Korean Tae Kwon Do, and even multi-colored, stars-and-stripes forever gi for good ol’ American style kurrottee gee. Some modern martial arts also take to festooning their gi with all sorts of patches and sponsorships, so that their gi looks less like an outfit for austere spiritual training and more like the pajamas of an Indy 500 race car driver.

Putting the gi on is simplicity itself. Slip on the pants, cinch up the cords so they don’t fall off. Then put the top on. grab the left and right lapels with your two hands and pull them out in front of you. Tuck the right edge into the left side of your body and the left side over the right, so that the left comes around to your right hip. Karategi have ties that help you to secure the jacket in place. Please don’t tuck the wrong side in. Reversing it, so that the right edge goes over the left is only done (in Japan) for dressing a corpse.

Holding the gi close, wrap the obi around your waist and tie a square knot in front.

Simple enough? Not quite. You need to make sure that the obi rides just above your hip bone. For men, it shouldn’t ride too high. For women, riding high is OK due to the different hip structure. When seen from the side, the obi tends to slope down slightly at the front compared to the back. The knot in the front should go around all the obi wrappings. The ends of the obi should come out of the sides of the knot and hang down. If the ends are too long, you need a shorter obi. Or you could tuck the ends back up into the obi itself, so they don’t get in the way.

–Interestingly, I found that tying up the obi in the front was also not standardized until somewhat recently. I was helping Charles Goodin (http://museum.hikari.us/) set up a show about the history of Okinawan karate in Prewar Hawaii. He had an amazing trove of old photos, culled from different resources. Among them were Okinawan karate practitioners dressed in thick judo-style outfits. They held their tops together with a standard cotton martial arts belt, but it was tied in a loop, sort of a half-butterfly knot, and cinched at the side, like how some Okinawans used to tie up their regular, everyday obi and kimono.

The lapels should be prim and closed up. That means the jacket should be big enough so that it at least covers up the chest when you are not grappling or having it yanked around by an opponent.

If you do aikido, you slip a hakama over this. If you do kendo, then you just use an uwagi (top) and a hakama, sans the cotton trousers. Tying up and wearing a hakama can be somewhat more complex, and in fact I found that aikido people do it differently, as do Shinto Muso-ryu jo people, as do kendo people, as do different ryu (styles), so if you are at a loss as to how to wear a hakama, ask your own sensei or your seniors.

Hakama over a gi.
Hakama over a gi.

One of the reasons Kano chose a white gi was hygienic. You can wash it and dry it and you don’t have to grapple with bare nekkid men and go skin to skin all the time, catching their fleas and skin rashes. So I think it behooves you to keep your training outfit clean and neat. If you had a particularly exhausting session, wash your outfit! There is no glory or machismo in coming to class stinking of stale sweat, although it might keep people afraid of grappling with you.

Another reason might have been aesthetic: a simple outfit allows you to concentrate on the main point to budo, the training. So my tendency would be to forego the many patches, insignia, and assorted paraphernalia. Stick with basics. As a corollary, while military dress uniforms allow for shiny medals and spit and polish buttons, you don’t go into battle dressed like that. You go in as simply as possible.

As far as accessories go, you’re not prancing down Rodeo Drive, girl (or guy)! Traditional Japanese budo dictates that you remove jewelry, watches, earrings, etc. Jewelry is both an aesthetic distraction and a real danger to you and your training partners. It can get caught during a throw and may hurt you or your partner. Or you may implant your “Waialua High School Class of ’98” ring design on someone’s face when your punch goes wild. Not very nice. Aesthetically, removing jewelry is part of the shugyo process. Training is not the time to show off your wealth or to call attention to your outward beauty.

Going further, being physically clean (yes, guys, wear washed undies; please no two-day old stinkers!) is the accepted norm. Although budo is a physical regime, it’s not considered cool to stink and look like you just got out of two months in the wilderness. Being filthy and gross may seem manly in some subcultures, but it’s not in budo. You should avoid really strong perfumes or colognes.

Lest you think these considerations seem prissy for budo, it’s not limited to these art forms. The same restrictions tend to hold true in many other traditional Japanese pursuits, including tea ceremony (be clean, dress clean, no jewelry or strong perfumes while doing tea), flower, music, dance and so on.

Again, the reason for this is that in all such arts, you are participating in something personally enjoyable for yourself, but it’s also a form of shugyo, of personal training of the mind, body and spirit. As such, there’s a tinge of asceticism to the training. So think Quaker furniture, not Louis XV. Think Franciscan monks chanting in a monastery, not a Black Eyed Peas concert in the park.

A couple other notes, which may turn into rants: First, the dogi or keikogi are meant for training. In Japan, I’ve seen little kendo kids hurrying to practice on bicycles already dressed in kendo outfits. That’s cool in Japan. And maybe for little kids in America, it’s kind of cute to see those little urchins dressed in clean white outfits piling into and out of an SUV, stopping at a grocery store or Pizza Hut on the way home.

But for adults, in America, I would advise that if your training area has a place to change, take advantage of it. Avoid driving to practice dressed in your outfit. Wearing a karategi with a white belt is simply asking for trouble if you encounter some drunken or crazy person with a history of violence while you’re buying a hot dog at the 7-11 on the way home. Plus, mustard stains are hard to get out of a white gi. I know. I’ve tried.

I recall a story someone related to me from my youthful days in karate. He was a professor at a local college, a studious, bespeckled, skinny guy who just started karate. On the way home, two drunken thugs in a beat-up truck noticed him driving his BMW dressed in a white gi with a white belt and started following him, making obscene gestures about what they proposed to do to him when he stopped his car. Fearing that they might injure his wife if he drove straight home, he stopped his car (not the best tactic, in my opinion, but anyway…) on a lonely stretch of the road and stepped out to meet them. We had just begun nunchaku practice so he could only think of draping it around his neck. The thugs ran out to attack him. He told me that the only thing he remembered from training was to swing his nunchaku at an attacker in an arc, so he did that. The wooden tip struck the first attacker on his head just when he was about to throw a haymaker punch, and he fell face forward to the ground. The sudden attack from what seemed like an easy mark probably scared him more than hurt him. The thugs ran back into their truck and drove off quickly, leaving my friend unscathed.

While I was happy that my friend avoided physical damage, I dissected the lead-up to the confrontation and surmised that the whole affair might have not happened had he changed his clothes and not stood out like a sore thumb while driving. And it would have been a sorry affair had we not been practicing nunchaku, but doing something like sword or sai work. Yikes.

When you doff your keikogi, you can simply throw it into your gym bag and head home. If you want to be more disciplined about it, you can fold it flat to be neat and have it take up less room. The pants are laid flat on the floor, then folded over lengthwise so the legs are on top of each other. You fold the pants into thirds, making a neat rectangle. Likewise, you place the uwagi, or gi top, flat on the floor, lapels tucked in, right on top of left. Fold it in half lengthwise at its spline so that one sleeve is right on top of the other sleeve. Fold the sleeves at the elbow and shoulder so it sits atop the uwagi in a rectangle. Fold the gi from the bottom up in thirds so the fold covers the folded sleeves. There, you have a neat little bundle!

You can also slip the pants into the uwagi bundle and then wrap your obi around it, making a neat little package if you like.

As soon as you get home you hang up the gi to air out, or throw it in the laundry.

As for folding the hakama, I found that different people do it differently, so I’d recommend that you consult your sensei about folding and storing it.

3. Mon Iri 2–Joining a budo

The Choufukan dojo in Kyoto, Japan. 2009.
The Choufukan dojo in Kyoto, Japan. 2009.

What is the “entering” process? Where do you begin in joining a Japanese martial art? In my last entry, I indulged myself and waxed nostalgic about how I got started in budo. It was fun to compare notes with some readers who talked about their own experiences and motivations. This entry will be more informative, mainly for folk who are new to budo, or classical Japanese martial arts. For the rest of you who have years behind your belts…heck, you know it. But let me indulge.

Anyway, I’ve had enough years and joined enough clubs to have some idea of what to do/not to do, so maybe some suggestions may prove helpful to those of you just starting out.

Finding your way

So let’s say you are either a teenager or adult and decided that hey, maybe some vigorous exercise would take some weight off your gut, and learning to defend yourself might be a valuable plus, and you would like to give traditional Japanese martial arts a try. You went to some MMA workout sessions, some kung fu, Tae Kwon Do, escrima, boxing, amateur wrestling, basket weaving classes…They’re all good, but somehow they don’t appeal to you as much as sweating in those cool-looking white cotton jackets do.

You find some traditional Japanese martial arts school addresses in the phone book, from posters and flyers, or from word of mouth. You call them up, ask to observe a session. Whether you show up stone cold or not, you should always ask to observe a class before jumping in. That’s not only good for you to get the “lay of the land,” but for the instructor to talk with you and go over any preflight paperwork or discussions before the training.

Having a shokai, or someone who knows both you and the sensei (instructor) vouch for your own good character is not terribly necessary anymore. If it’s a very traditional dojo, especially what we call a koryu (more on that in a while), it’s a very nice touch, but no longer a requirement. It used to be a pretty important part of whether or not you got your foot in the door in times past, however, and if you do have a buddy who is already training there, or know a friend of the sensei, that does help because it’s a traditional form of Japanese etiquette. The sensei feels a connection to you, and there is someone he trusts who will attest to your character.

Here’s the deal. When we discuss classical, or “traditional” Japanese budo (martial “arts,” rather, they should be called martial “Ways,” but nobody uses this term in the popular English vernacular), we are talking about those schools that are embedded in Japanese cultural matrix. Some of these traditions and habits are wonderful and I think it will echo or add to your own best cultural habits. Some of these traditions can be maddeningly awkward and (to our minds) backwards. But they’re part of the whole package. You can enjoy and endure it, or you can just leave and do something without that baggage, such as cardio kick-boxing. Nobody’s stopping you. But you can’t have it both ways.

Do you feel bowing to another person or the enshrined spirit of the dojo (training hall) goes against your fundamentalist Christian belief that you bow to no one other than Christ? There’s the door. Don’t let it hit your butt on the way out. Do you have a thing against training with women or people from a different religion, ethnicity or sexual persuasion? Well, as that popular YouTube video says, “Don’t be ninjering nobody that don’t need ninjering.” Don’t expect to have your prejudices and eat it too.

The traditions, in fact, are the flavoring that sets classical budo apart from other martial arts, and if you don’t like that, then you simply have to accept that your tastes run to other forms of martial arts. Case closed.

In any case, you are allowed to observe a class. I’ve been on both ends, as a teacher and as a potential student, and here’s what you really should do to get off on the right foot. Come dressed appropriately. Don’t show up in your ten-day old sweat pants and t-shirt with holes in ‘em and chili nacho stains all over. You may think it makes you look rugged and tough. That only makes you look like a scum bag. You don’t have to be dressed for a Senior Prom, but wear clean, informal clothes such as a washed polo shirt to show respect to the dojo and teacher. Don’t let your boobs hang out by wearing low-cut, tight bikini tops. And that goes for you women, too. Think more like Sunday School, less like gym class.

One of the things you have to get out of your mind is that a dojo is not simply an Orientalish workout gym that’s for purely physical grunt-and-groan training. It’s not. Whether the training space is a beautifully handcrafted post-and-beam, polished and oiled wood structure, or a rented room at the YMCA, a dojo is a place for mental and spiritual polishing, not just physical exertion. So you pay respect with your proper attire. And a traditional teacher WILL notice. He/She will notice things even if he (I’ll use the male pronoun from here on, but there are women budo teachers as well as men) doesn’t say anything about it.

As much as you are checking out the practice and instructor, the instructor is checking you out the moment you stepped through the doorway.

So you come in, introduce yourself, ask to observe the class, and sit where you’re told to sit for visitors. Sit properly, without being too stiff or without slouching over. Perish the thought, but don’t get horizontal and open up a bag of potato chips. Again, quietly observe the class as a way of showing respect. Wait until there’s a break and the instructor has time to talk to you, or wait until the end of the session. Don’t try to engage the teacher in the middle of class unless he makes the first move.

Even if you’re so excited you can barely hold your pee in because you so badly want to join, wait. The worst thing you can do is go up to the teacher in the middle of training and tug on his sleeves and beg him to join. You can jump up and down with joy and wet your pants later, at the end of class. The teacher is busy. And out of the corner of his eyes, he’s watching you.

–This etiquette of sitting quietly, by the way, nearly did in a friend of mine. We had a nice laugh over dinner as he recounted the situation. Having trained in various forms of Asian martial arts for decades, he was steeped in their culture and tradition. One of his friends one day suggested a Western body-movement studio to help rehabilitate his nagging back ache. So he called, made an appointment to observe a class, went to the studio, and sat in a corner and watched. Quietly. All six-foot-six, heavily muscled, bald-head of him sat quietly, without uttering a word, through a whole session while the female teacher and her student worked through body stretching machines in tight-fitting leotards. Shoulder rotations. Leg splits. The teacher (who eventually overcame her initial qualms and actually married the lug) felt unnerved, she said, because of his stoic silence. Was this guy a masher?

In a Japanese budo setting, my friend was being very polite. In a small room with two women spreading their limbs apart, the silence and attentive behavior seemed like stalking. So you should temper your behavior when it is appropriate!

In sitting quietly and observing class, you are already starting the process of entering the training. Observing (kengaku) is, after all, one form of training. The instructor is also observing your behavior and bearing and if you appear attentive, that’s a positive character trait for a potential student.

In a typical traditional dojo, classes are often small, maybe 20 or less students. Bigger dojo, even in Japan, can range higher, but there will be more assistant instructors to spread the teaching load around. Any bigger than 20 without higher ranked students helping to teach and I wouldn’t recommend the class. In Japan I’ve trained in dojo that sometimes only had two people, including me and another student, besides our teacher. And I’ve been in classes where several clubs would train together that had upwards of 50 people, but at least ten of them were fourth dan (a high “black belt” rank) or higher. So the ratio of beginners to advanced people still ended up about 1 to 5. Personal, specific instruction is one of the nice traits of classical training.

Look at the class and study the environment. Besides the student-teacher/higher ranked student ratio, is the dojo hygienic? My first judo hall was in a dilapidated meeting hall whose walls were more termite bodies than wood, but the mats were always kept clean.

Observe the interaction between the teacher and the students and between students.

Dave Lowry, an author whose writings are an excellent resource for any martial artist (his books are available at Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com), advises that you look at the sensei and try to envision him without that magical cloak of sensei-ness. Strip him of his black belt and white gi (training outfit) and in your imagination place him in an outside environment. Is his character someone you would trust in an office setting? In the streets? In a school? With your children?

The difficulty of training will range, depending on the level of skill and the style of martial arts. Back in the early 1960s and 1970s, during the first American martial arts “boom,” a lot of dojo sprang up run by former military servicemen or college exchange students who received a couple years’ worth of training in Japan or Okinawa. Their version of training, therefore, sometimes ran towards the militaristic and–some might say–fanatic. –Ten thousand push ups before you have knock-down-drag-out sparring sessions. That’s how they learned it in the Old Country and they mixed it up with gentle tidbits gleaned from their own modern military boot camp workouts. (“Yes Sensei! Five thousand front kicks, sir! Right away! Hoo-yah!”) I daresay if you like that kind of training, some of those sensei are still around, leading the exercises with arthritic knees and deformed fists. But by and large, I think you should find that modern budo training should be a lot more along the likes of a very focused, attentive physical workshop than a drop-dead from sheer exhaustion test of nerves. –Unless you LIKE that kind of training, and I’m sure you’ll find it.

There are also different forms of traditional budo: The “modern”’ forms such as judo, aikido, iaido, kendo, karatedo, naginata-do. There are also the rarer “old” forms, or koryu, which are distinctive subsets of swordsmanship (kenjutsu), sword-drawing (iaijutsu), grappling (jujutsu), jo, and so on.

Maybe you’re not so drawn to competitive grappling after you’ve seen a judo class. Well, maybe you might enjoy fistic sparring a la  modern, AAU-type karate. Or you like karate kata more than sparring, so you could find your way to a traditional Okinawan style karate school. Or you like banging people over the head with a bamboo stick: try kendo. Or you just want to go through forms for the sheer beauty of it and your competitive days are behind you: try the koryu. There are a lot of flavors and tastes in just classical Japanese martial arts alone.

–Just a caveat: The modern budo forms are often run in America through large national governing bodies. There may be some maverick schools, but by and large, most of them adhere to a standardized and clearly discernible training method. There are national and state organizations for judo, aikido, kendo, and karate. So if you join a judo club and the teacher begins to teach you “secret judo-ninja stars throwing methods,” it’s easy to find out whether this is legitimately part of the art or not.

The koryu schools, however, are by their nature smaller and more fragmented. Where there is only one kendo standard of training, to which many state kendo federations work towards, there are a variety of, say, kenjutsu schools based on different strains and traditions. A Yagyu Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu school will have different kata (forms) and training methods compared to an Ono-ha Itto-ryu kenjutsu school. This is great for preserving a variety of ancient, historical techniques. But it’s also a lot easier for a scam artist to make up his own koryu form because there’s no comparative national and international standard against which to compare it. I’ll discuss the problem of fake teachers later. For now, be forewarned.

There is no national certifying body for koryu in America, but you can go online and make a query in discussion sites like e-budo.com, or at the Shudokan Martial Arts Association, or by reading up on posted stories about koryu at koryubooks.com.

Sign me up!

So let’s say you really like what you see, you like the vibes of the class. You want to join. You talk to the teacher or one of his sempai (top students) for more info.

The reality of modern day martial arts practice is that you have to pay dues. Even in Japan or China, there’s no such thing as the romantic notion that you are going to mooch off your sensei and train 24/7 in martial arts for years and years until you master the Dim Mak Death Touch of David Carradine, God rest his whacked-out soul. Your teacher has to pay his bills, just like anybody else.

How much tuition is reasonable? That depends. Professional or semi-professional martial arts teachers need to eat, so they will charge you appropriately. I’ve heard that in some places, upwards to $100 a month is considered ho-hum. I charge $35 a month, and all of it from my five students go towards covering the rent. My friend uses a spare room in a recreation center for free so he charges only $5 a month to cover sundry supplies. I would think, however, that if you pay more, you should expect more, such as more training time, relatively speaking, or better facilities. Due to its popularity, MMA and  composite grappling schools charge a pretty penny, but you may find that nonprofit judo clubs, which teach pretty much the same thing except you do a lot more bowing, may even be free for little kids, or only a few bucks a month. So tuition varies wildly.

Some schools will charge an initial sign-up fee. That’s appropriate. I’m not a big fan of long term contracts. If you end up not liking the class after one or two sessions, you should be able to quit without taking a big monetary hit due to a contract.

Practice times: I only train once a week due to my busy work schedule, although I really would like to have structured training times at least twice a week. For larger, better-run schools, two or three times a week is a really good schedule. You should try to see if the training times meet your own work and family schedule. Ask what they think would be the best frequency of training for you if you can’t make each and every session.

It is not bad behavior to ask a teacher, at this point in your steps toward enrolling, what the provenance of the school and his own training are. If a teacher sniffs and says, “Only the top students are allowed to learn the secret origins of my Baka-Tare-ryu,” then thank him and leave as fast as you can. Something is rotten. In asian cultures, a mark of pride is the ability to trace oneself to one’s teacher and teacher’s teacher. That shows a connection to an appropriate lineage, like how proper breeding records are a mark of pride for dog owners in the American Kennel Club. If it’s a purebreed, he’s got papers. If it’s a mutt, then he should say it’s a mutt.

The sensei may then ask about your own background. He’s as curious about you as you may be about the school. Be forthright and honest. Consider it like a job interview. If you were in a different martial art school, but left, be honest about your training history, but (like describing a former job) don’t badmouth the previous teacher or school needlessly. It reflects badly on you. If you had legitimate reasons for leaving, then of course you can offer them up: You moved across country. You hurt your back so tumbling is out, kendo is in. You can’t do competitive judo anymore due to bad knees so you thought you’d try naginata…

I wouldn’t say things like, “Man, I didn’t like krotty point competition and quit because it’s unrealistic in a street fight, I wanna learn your jew-jits because it looks like it kicks ass!” Uh-uh. Bad idea.

When my jujutsu sensei encouraged me to start a club in Hawaii, he said, “Don’t worry about how strong or tough new students are, or how good they are in martial arts to begin with. Get students who have good character, because your students’ personal character is how people will judge your school.”

I’ve made mistakes in character judgements over the years, but by and large, I’ve come to realize the truth of my teacher’s words. I try to encourage people with good character to stay, and shady characters to leave. When you are talking to a potential teacher, be on your best, most humane behavior. You don’t have to make “big body,” you don’t have to show how macho you are. Just be yourself, and hopefully you, unvarnished, are a person that the teacher will like.

In other words, how you comport yourself, how much respect and self-control attitude you display may have more impact on a teacher like me than any physical or technical skills you may have in the beginning. And at least for me, having a sense of humor is a plus. Budo is serious. It can be deadly. It can be exhausting (but hopefully NOT sadistic). But really, the reason you signed up is because it’s a whole ton of fun, isn’t it? Laughter, when appropriate, should be allowed in the dojo.

Readers: Comments on your first encounters with a budo school?

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?

1. Starting late in the blogosphere

A view of Kyoto from the hillside dojo of my sensei.
A view of Kyoto from the hillside dojo of my sensei.

Okay, so here’s my first blog about my musings on classical budo. I arrived late to the blogosphere because, frankly, I didn’t think much about it. I mean, how much ego tripping can even I endure writing about myself, probably mainly for myself?

Then again, after seeing the movie “Julie & Julia,” I thought, well, OK, blogging does assume you have a fan or readership base (even if it’s yourself), and it does assume a certain amount of self-gratification, but what the heck. I did a magazine (the late, lamented “Furyu”) once, so why not try this out. Only this time, I won’t be putting any money into it, won’t be losing money, and as such, I’ll simply focus on my own classical budo experiences and thoughts.

It will be a more internalized series of musings, perhaps rambling, perhaps idle, maybe possible profound (if only to my dog), but without limitations as to esotericness or general readership comprehension. You want general basic martial arts chop sockey, go read “Black Belt.” This blog is basically my own ramblings, to set in words some of my loosely flowing thoughts.

Umm…Hmmm. So let’s see how this bloggy thing works!!! Off we go!