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Everybody Loves Kung Fu Fighting

JAPAN | Thursday, 5 May 2016 | Views [297]

Sunday we were supposed to leave the house around 8:30 for karate class. So I got up at 7:30, which had the perk that it meant the bread I got for breakfast was still warm. Other than that, there wasn't much of a difference between getting up at 7:30 and getting up at 8.

Leaving at 8:30 was a rough goal, and by the time we'd all piled in the car and started driving it was a good number of minutes later. So basically it was exactly like my family when we're going somewhere. Nevertheless, we got to the gym the karate was held in without much difficulty and with a few minutes to spare. I took off my shoes and socks, then bowed and entered the main gym.

Youhei and Yuki introduced me to a couple of people, and then class began. The start was people moving around the gym at whatever pace they wanted. Yuki was moving at a fast walk/light jog that suited me just fine. Then there was a whistle, and everyone had to start running faster. Then another whistle, and we lined up on one side of the gym. Age group by age group, people raced each other across the gym and back. Even the adult age range I was now part of. It reminded me of a gym class.

When that was over, we spread ourselves out across the gym and had an advanced student who seemed to be high-school age lead us in exercises. This was challenging, since I wasn't familiar with the exercises, so I was just trying to figure out and imitate everyone else in the span of time allotted for each exercise. I also learned once again that when I don't do push-ups for a while, I lose my ability to do push-ups. At least I didn't need to worry whether or not I was doing the right exercise then.

With basic stretching and muscle-building exercises done, we moved on to warming up through basic punches and blocks. There was a brown belt around Yuki's age who essentially served as my private tutor during the class, and she helped me figure out what the rest of my body was supposed to be doing while I was throwing a technique. Because I would have been fine stepping forward with the same foot I was expected to punch with, and I would have been fine standing still. But the compromise step forward with the opposite foot, then punch, then step back which everyone else seemed to be doing was really confusing me. My tutor helped me at least figure out what was going on, and slowly I got the hang of it. Still wasn't entirely sure how to put power into it, but I tried.

After that, it was time to do forms. Forms are not easy things to fake your way through, especially when the people around you are going full speed, so it didn't take long for my tutor to take my off to the side so we could run through them more slowly, and she could actually show me what was going on.

In whatever specific style of martial arts we were doing, the forms were called gatas, literally, shapes, and we were beginning with the first one. In tang soo do, the kind of karate I've done on and off (but recently, mainly off) since I was in third grade, forms are called keybons. I bring this up, because my knowledge of keybon 1 was both helpful and a hindrance when it came to learning gata 1.

Keybon 1 (actually, most of the keybons) are 20 steps in an I shape. So you begin at the bottom of the I, turn left, step, turn around completely, do another step, turn 90° to the left, take three steps, turn left 90°, and you're now on the top of the I. Do another step, turn all the way around, take another step, turn left 90°, do three steps down the middle of the I, turn 90° to step, turn all the way around, and do the final step. Every time you turn or step, it adds to the count. And of course, since it is martial arts, every time you turn or step you are also punching or blocking and, in later forms, probably kicking too.

Gata 1 was the exact same shape. In fact, the only real difference between gata 1 and keybon 1 was that gata 1 used middle blocks where keybon 1 used low blocks. I kept screwing that up, because muscle memory is hard to overwrite in one day. However, knowing how to move in the right shape and throw blocks and punches meant I learned quickly and was soon able to move on to gata 2.

Gata 2 had none of the perils or advantages of familiarity. It was not in an I shape, and even though the blocks and punches weren't entirely foreign, I wasn't quite sure what stance I should be standing in, and had no idea what some of the moves were supposed to do.

Some of the forms I'd learned in Tang Soo Do had really weird parts, like 23.5° turns and jumping kicks and hand techniques that were supposed to do things like take someone's head and bring it down to the ground, preferably snapping their neck in the process. The point is, I know what all of those moves were supposed to do. I had the time and luxury of having had things explained to me in English, so I knew what I was supposed to be doing, not just to make it look right, but to make sure that every technique had power in it. It was weird to learn forms without power being the focus.

After a while of that, each group showed off what they'd been working on to the other groups. And I realized that it wasn't just me- most of the forms were lacking in kicks. Even the other adults who had been there for a while didn't really kick. The exception was a brown belt who did a form using not just kicks, but jumping kicks and strategic falling on the ground to get back to fighting. It was pretty impressive to watch.

Host family

Then class was kind of over, and we took a break to drink water and get out gloves and punching mats. I would have been content to just watch, but various women kept encouraging me to, so eventually I put on the gloves and tried hitting the mat. I didn't throw any kicks, though, because the kind my partner was encouraging me to throw involved hitting the mat with the top of my foot, which felt wrong and awkward.

After a bit of that, the medium-aged ones (older children, in this context) lined up to spar with each other. This time, I sat out and just watched. They had protection over much of their body as well as helmets, and certain things counted as fouls or points, but I never could figure out which. There was definitely a time limit, though, since I watched several people just pace around throwing fake-outs until the whistle was blown on them.

It was an interesting experience, and one that I was glad I could have in Japan, but mostly it just made me miss the Tang Soo Do classes where I understood what was going on, and had the practice to be able to do things well. Also, forms that involved kicks.

We had lunch at a place with a vegetarian buffet, and then, while we were in the city, they dropped me off at the train station. I went back home to do my homework and use the onsen. After a weekend that had involved playing with kids, climbing a mountain, and karate, I was pretty sure I deserved it.

Tags: exercise, host family, karate

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