Thursday, June 07, 2007

Usagi Yojimbo, you know him?

I can almost hear Mat scrambling to his Japanese-to-English dictionary, trying to translate the terms, Usagi Yojimbo. That is if he doesn't already know about the Rabbit Bodyguard... :)

Yup, that's what it means, Usagi means Rabbit and Yojimbo means Bodyguard. And where the heck have I found such a term you may ask? In the comic book series of the same name, written by Stan Sakai. The series has been going on strong for more than 20 years now, starting way back in 1986. It relates the story of a ronin (i.e. masterless) samurai who has become a bodyguard for hire. To help you understand, I'll simply repost the wikipedia entry for Usagi Yojimbo:

Set primarily at the beginning of Edo period Japan (early 17th century), with anthropomorphic animals replacing humans, it features a rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, who wanders the land on a musha shugyo (warrior's pilgrimage) occasionally selling his services as a bodyguard. The character of Usagi has been inspired by the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi while the tone and inspirations of the stories are heavily influenced by Groo the Wanderer, Lone Wolf and Cub and the films of the acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa.

The books consist of short stories, and occasionally novel-length stories, with underlying larger plotlines which culminate in long extended story lines. The stories include many references to Japanese history and Japanese folklore, and sometimes include mythical creatures. The architecture, clothes, weapons, and other objects are drawn with a faithfulness to the period's style. There are often stories whose purpose is to illustrate various elements of Japanese arts and crafts, such as the fashioning of kites, swords, and pottery. Those efforts have been successful enough for the series to be awarded a Parent's Choice Award for its educational value. The series also follows the standard Japanese naming convention for all featured characters: their surname followed by their given name.

So yeah, Usagi is a rabbit fighting with all sorts of other animals. Bad dudes can be rhinoceroses or wild cats or even moles. It is very cool and a lot of fun.

I'm currently reading book 2 of the collected series and while I loved book 1 a lot, book 2 is really where it picks up steam and explains a lot of stuff about Miyamoto Usagi. It's told as a sort of flashback story by Miyamoto Usagi himself, going back to how he was trained to be the samurai that he is now, and also how he came to be masterless.

The way it's told, you can tell that author Stan Sakai, a third generation Japanese-American who was born in Kyoto Japan but grew up in Hawaii and later in Calofornia, has done his research well. You can read and interview with him here where he tells about how he does his research and how his mom who was born and raised in Japan is his best source of information. Everything as authentic as one would think that feudal (early 17th century) Japan would feel.

Even better, it's a good read for kids too, at least for kids as young as 9 I would think. Sure there is swordfighting but the fights are not real graphic. At the same time, there's plenty of great teachings present in the books. The first example is how his teacher thaught him at first. He asked him to get wood and water and everytime he'd be close to him, he would bonk him in the head with a bambo pole. At first Usagi didn't understand why, until he started getting wary of the bambo pole and started always behind aware of his surrounding cause he would never know where the teacher would be to bonk him in the head. Behind a tree, at the corner of a clearing in the woods, right behind a door, etc. That part had a pretty strong Mr. Miyagi feeling to it where you'd look at how his sensei is teaching him and you'd wonder where he is going with it, then it hits you. Very cool.

There are also great teachings through the words of his wise teacher. Such as these gems: "As a samurai, you must strive for perfecton in body and spirit. Duty and honor are the essence of bushido, the way of the warrior, and should be preserved at the cost of your own life."

Sure, the same would probably not apply today, but remember, we're talking about early 17th century here. It fits...

Then there's more: " A samurai's body is the manifestation of his spirit. To have a strong body, you must have a strong spirit. So your inner self must be cultivated just as much as your outer shell..... The sword is the sould of the samurai and his badge of station. To appear in public without it is a disgrace. But behind the sould is the spirit. When you strike, first strike with your spirit. Look into your adversary's hara into his center being. Know how he will strike, before he, himself does. Often the duel is over before the first blow is even struck. reach out for your spirit. Feel for the hidden dangers lurking..."

And with that, as Usagi was walking under a tree branch loaded with snow, the teacher lightly tapped the branch above his head and before Usagi realized it, he was covered with snow. :)

And then even better, something I too take for my own self: "Every day of our lives is an education. You must strive to learn something new every day."

Sooooo simple, yet very true.

And there's more, this time relating more the what it's about to be a samurai: "The sword is not just a weapon. It's also a mirror. It reflects the soul of the samurai. It is the soul of the samurai. Just as the blade can be tarnished, so can the sould be corroded. Swordsmanship is a discipline and a way of strengthening one's inner self. So keep your soul sharp and clear. Remember... a true samurai does not look for a fight... but tries to avoid it. The best souls are those kept in their scabbards."

So much of that can also apply to us as martial artist. You too should not look for a fight but try to avoid it.

As you can see, these little teachings can even be understood by kiddos of around 9 to 12 years of age. And I'm sure they'll enjoy the samurais splitting flies in two with their swords. :)

I've read that this book is sort of difficult to find. I bought my copy from (especially good for Canadian readers) but I see that also have a few copies in stock.

I'm sure many smaller comic shops might have copies of it lying around, but I have found that indigo and amazon (either .ca or .com) are the cheaper ways to go when buying trade paperbacks of comic books.

Back to twice a week

As for my karate training, I've gone back to my previous twice a week schedule for the Summer. I used to take an extra hour of class on Wednesday nights, but a coworker of mine told me about the 30+ soccer league he played in and that kind of rekindled my old love for the round ball. To the store I went, bought some cleats and shing guards and played my first game yesterday. I'm sure it'll do wonders to my overall fitness to be able to run and exerts myself in the open and in the long run, my karate fitness will only be better.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Most of the class was spent working on something I feel like I need the most to work on: throws.

I'm beginning to get a feel as to what I can do once I've blocked the first strike. I can do a sequence of counterstrikes, add in one of maybe four different locks and end it with a sweep pretty easily, but every time I work up the courage to end the sequence with the most basic hip throw, it turns out ugly.

I've found that as a beginner with throws, sometimes the throwee is almost as important as the trower. With that I mean that if somebody who's about to be "victim" of a throw decides that he will lock and push himself backward in anticipation of the throw, since he/she really knows the throw is coming, well it makes it twice as hard to effectively throw the person. I was lucky to be paired with a black belt young lady yesterday. Not only was she able to throw my whole 206 lbs big body over her hip, she especially knew how to take the fall that comes from a throw. Sure, we don't drop anybody to the floor as we hold on to them as the throw happens, but somebody who's not feeling safe with their falling pretty much always makes it tough for the thrower.

Yeah, yeah, I know, if I had to throw somebody in the street, he wouldn't let me do whatever I want and take my sweet time positionning myself, but still, I'd probably have some surprise effect to my advantage. That surprise effect is pretty much absent in the dojo and getting to work with her yesterday, I was able to build some confidence in my throws, so much so that after the class, I felt much better with them.

I even learned a good lesson from that class. Boxer shorts are not good for a karate class. That landing on the ground has tendency to squeeze some parts that are meant to only be sqeezed gently. :D

And before you ask, no, it wasn't me but the guy whom I threw over my hip that suffered. He took a long walk and was fine afterward, don't worry. :)


Friday, May 25, 2007

That feeling of being watched

Being a higher belt comes with some responsibility, a bit like Spider-Man, you know, with great power comes great responsibility. :)

Well, not so much responsibility, but that feeling that people can look up to you, that they want to see how you do a certain technique. It happened to me in last night's class. It wasn't the first time it happened, but it had a special feel to it.

We started class with a very solid cardio warmup and followed it with a review of our "fall" technique, you know, how you break a fall. First to the right, then to the left, falling forward, or backward. We then moved on to rolls, forward and backward. The forward roll is a great to "roll with it", as it's name implies, when you are falling forward and you don't want to hurst yourself. I think I have linked to the Aikido Ferret in the past to demonstrate the forward roll, but here it is again.

Up until then, we were still all in a big group, two rows of students. That was a class for intermediate and advanced students, i.e. blue to brown belts with even one black belt. Some of the newly graduated blue belts seemed to be struggling with their rolls, and not only the backward roll which can be tricky, but even with the forward roll. It's only when our instructor asked us to all line up at the back wall that it took an interesting turn. He asked us to do a forward roll ending with a tap to break the fall, meaning he wanted us not to get up after the roll but simply tap and stop right there. The kicker was, he wanted us to do them one by one, starting at one end of the line where mostly blue belts were up to the other end where the brown belts, yours truly included, were. The first few went and had indeed a bit of problem, which I know was just normal. Then my the turn of a brown belt came right before me and he too kind of struggled. Then my turn. I felt like I had 15 sets of eyes watching me. For some stupid reason, I didn't want to disappoint them. That thought didn't last very long in my mind. I told myself I was doing karate for my own self, not for others, and the roll went very well. Still it was very interesting to feel the tension, sort of, that other people were kind of looking up to me to see it done properly. Interesting in the sense that I have done that so many times. Watch how a kata is done by a higher ranked student and you learn. Watch how they do a certain technique and you might learn something. There is just so much to learn by simply watching, and listening...


Monday, May 21, 2007

2 minutes to midnite

Well, not really two minutes, more like 105 minutes, but still, in the grand scheme of things, it was close enough. Stay with me...

The weekend started out well with a gorgeous Saturday. Nice weather, all sunny and bright. Had class at 11:15, a class where only 5 students were present. I hope the attendance won't drop too much for the Summer session because I wouldn't want the school merging the class with the 10am one where they are already 15 to 20 attending. Going from being 10-12 (during the Fall and winter sessions) to 20-25 could be rough.

Anyway for now, we enjoyed a semi private class. We reviewed basics starting with Cat 3, down to Cat 2, and finally Cat 1 and then we asked if we could review our KC. Instructor pinpointed stuff to correct. Always good to be corrected but then also to realize that you are working on finer points. A hand here, a strike there, finally a stance to adjust slightly...

We ended class with a session of the circle of love. It went well although I'll have to work on my hip throw. Still too robotic to my liking.

Andrew had class at 12:15 and I stayed in the room next to his class and I practiced for a good 30-40 minutes. I went over sushi no kon sho two or three times, adding a bit more flow and intent to it, trying to part with the robotic way of doing the kata, you know when you think before you make a move. I also did all my 36 self defense techniques from the perspective of both a right hand but also a left hand attacker. Went smoothly. The cold is out and I can feel my head working much better.

When I finally got back home, it definitely was a gorgeous day but I still reminded my wife that if she wanted to practice, I'd be ready when she would be. She said it was too nice a day to practice inside and that she would practice when it would rain (rain was forecasted for Sunday). I didn't mind so much as it was indeed a nice day and I got to work around the house and vacuum the remaining dirt from the bottom of the pool.

Sunday was a really bad weather day. Strong winds, hard rain all day. I had the duty of grocery shopping and got home around 2:30pm at which point I again reminded her that if she wanted to practice, I was all hers. She told me something along the lines of "I feel so lazy, my head says I should, my heart is telling me to go lie on the couch". *sigh* I told her to do as she wish but that she shouldn't complain after her next class that she didn't remember a thing from a week ago. She simply nodded.

We watched some TV from 9 to 10 and before going back to surf the net a bit, I told her she still could practice if she wanted to. I wasn't really pressuring her, don't worry, and it's probably why she replied with "hey, I feel like it now actually". It was 10:15pm on Sunday night, thus the 105 minutes before midnight. ;) And so we practiced. We reviewed everything she'd learned over two weeks. She vaguely remembered what she'd worked on, or more the sequence of things she'd worked on during her two classes, so it was easy to put it back together. We covered the basics of three punches she'd seen, three kicks, and three self defense techniques (Checking the storm, Battering ram, Downward hammer).

It was cool and lasted all of 30 minutes. 30 Minutes during which I never lost my patience (I'm known for that when she asks me to teach her something computer related). I was kinda proud of that from some weird reason. She seemed to appreciate the time spent working on it and me, well I was just happy that she cared enough to even think about practicing. Baby steps as they say, baby steps.

Today is a holiday in Canada, Victoria Day they call it. It's not a mandatory holiday and for some reason, I'm at work while both kids and mommy are relaxing at home. I will be taking a class at 7 tonight, but that's normal for me. What will not be normal is that I reminded my wife that there's a beginner's class on Mondays at 6 and that maybe, being that she's at home today, it would be a better idea for her to go to class today instead of tomorrow for this week. So, she wil be taking a class right before mine tonight and I should get to watch the end of her class. I'll try to make myself tiny and hide in a corner, cause I know she'll feel overly self conscious... :)


Thursday, May 17, 2007

So, what's your gameplan?

I'll tell you, if there'S one thing from my wife hat irks me more than anything (other than her tardiness), it's her coming to me on a perfect Saturday morning, as I'm relaxing, drinking my coffee and reading the paper, and she asks me the death sentence question: "So, what's your gameplan for the weekend?"

My whole work week is planned by the minute. There are meetings to attend and deadlines to meet, tasks to finish, and then sport events not to forget in the evenings. When the weekend comes, I don't necessarily want to plan out every little thing that I will do around the house. I mean, some things are set in stone, like our karate classes in the morning, or soccer/football practices, and while I usually have a pretty good idea of what I will do around the house, I don't plan it all on Saturday morning, minute for minute.

She knows it irks me and she sometimes has fun pushing it to me. I used to get mad (well somewhat mad) but we now laugh about it as she tries to find subtle ways of asking without same the G word. :)

Why am I telling you this? Well yesterday night, as we were getting ready to go to bed, she turned to me, all dead serious and well, here's the exchange that took place:

HER: Now listen to me.
ME (in my head): huhoh...
HER: I have stuff I want you to work on this Saturday.
ME (out loud): What? it's only Wednesday night, what
HER: Yeah, things I really want you to do. I'm setting up your gameplan in advance.
ME (in my head): oh no, not that word again...
HER: It's very important and I want you to do it Saturday.

By then, I was getting skeptical as she didn't look mad or anything, almost playful, with a funny crooked smile growing up at the corner of her mouth.

ME: What's so important you have to ask three days in advance?
HER (with a huge grin): I want you to help me practice what I have learned in karate so far.

I stood there speechless with my lower jaw dropped open on the pillow. :D

I'm not completely sure if she was really serious, but I think so. She sorta complained after her Tuesday class that she didn't remember much of what she'd done a week ago. I had told her, yet again, that it was the reason why I advocated taking two classes a week, that or practice at home.

I guess she's going for the private classes at home. We'll see on Saturday. :)


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

feeling off... and on

It was not my best class of karate last Monday. I felt off. Maybe it's the cold I'm still fighting but when our instructor took us through the 36 self defense techniques, I often had to think hard about how one would start and such things. I even did a totally different technique than the one asked, only to realize it when he called the next one. I was not reacting to what he was calling, but trying to do them in the order I though they would come. Really not my best.

We then worked on some deflecting and it went a bit better. By deflecting, I mean if someone is attempting a lapel grab and I just do that, deflect him and get out of his way in such a manner that he's left grabbing air. Was very interesting.

That cold I just mentionned is kinda going away, but I have decided that I would not take a class today. Next class will be Saturday.

One who seems to be enjoying her karate is my wife. She was disciplined enough yesterday to leave work at 5pm sharp in order to attend her second karate class. Not sure if you remember, but I must have mentionned in the past about my frustrations with her not always being able to be home on time for me to leave for karate. Well to see her dedicated to not missing her class is absolutely fantastic to me.

And even better, she seems to be digging it. She told me that last night's class wasn't so much cardio work, but that she could feel how she worked her abs by simply having to hold the forward stance for a good part of the class. She was just like a kid as she got home and I asked her what she'd learned. She quickly replied "don't say it, don't say it, it goes like this!" and she demonstrated to me a well done KC #1. Way to go momma. :)

Meanwhile for Andrew, since he's done almost enough class in advance not to have to go more than maybe 8 to 10 times this Summer, I decided that we would start skipping his Tuesday class and go back to a two a week schedule. He asked me why and I I explained it to him, reminding him how he usually stops for a few weeks during Summer time. He told me that this Summer, he doesn't want to stopp for too long. He added "cause I love karate, dad!". That's my boy... :)


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Tired kata and the circle of love

Our instructor had us go through an intense opening of class Saturday. After going through our usual stretch/warmup routine, he first told us to go through Pinan 1 to 3 in a stretch. After that came 25 pushups and then he asked for Circle of the Tiger and Statue of the Crane, again without a break, followed by 25 more pushups. After that came Cat 1 and Cat 2 and another 25 pushups only to finish the run with Cat 3.

His intentions were simple: to show us what it is to have to deliver our katas when we're tired. You just can't concentrate on your tiredness or else you delivery of the kata goes by the wayside. We have to thank the three black belt hopefuls for that tough lesson. :)

And I can thank them for the pain I had in my arms today while vacuuming the swimming pool, ugh... What doesn't kill you makes you strong they say...

We then worked on some bo work but not really sushi no kon sho as a kata per se, but more on the basics of striking with a bo the traditional way. See, in open forms, when you start a strike with the bo next to your right ear, the left hand will go to your left hip and the right hand will slide up the bo to remain parallel to the floor. In traditional strikes, the left hands kind of extends forward when the bo is chambered close to the right ear and it will also go to the left hip, but then will be closer to the lower part of the bo. The right hand will then slide down as you strike, leaving you with a longer part of the bo available for a longer reach. I hope this is clear enough, but let me say that to me it's a big adjustment. I've been taking open bo classes for two years now and while I can spin and throw it a few different ways, I've never really taken much time to work on traditional bo strikes. I'm getting to it though... :)

We ended class with 6 of us forming a circle around one person which we ended up attacking alternatively and he/she would have to defend with anything he/she could think of, trying never to use the same defence twice and incorporating some locks and throws in there. To add to the challenge, our instructor distributed a couple clubs and a knife to some of the attackers. That simply added a bit to the love felt in that Circle of love. :)

Defending against weapons is a whole other though. You can back off against a knif, you have to block the arm at its highest point and always keep control of the arm that has the knife. We had a good example of what not to do when a tall 14yo kid, black belt hopeful, blocked the knife attacker at the forearm, stayed in control and all, until he decided to unarm his attacker and grab the knife as if it were a club, i.e. straight by the blade. Err, ooops. :D