I arrived at my teacher’s home right after school, excited about this opportunity to learn martial arts. I was finally going to learn all those wonderful things I had seen in the movie “You Only Live Twice.” Little did I know how wrong I was.
On my arrival, I was told to complete my homework before we could begin, which I hastily did. I was then shown where I could change clothes, and where I was required to wait until the class began.
Soon after, my teacher’s daughter entered the room and started showing me the proper etiquette I would be required to know if I was going to continue training with her father. Bor-r-r-ing!
That’s not why I was here. I was here to learn to fight with swords and flip bad guys over my shoulder, just like in the movie (keep in mind I was eleven years old with no real knowledge about the martial arts or Japanese culture).
Okay: bow like this; sit like that; don’t do this; keep quiet and do as your told. Got It! Can we please start now? No. When will this girl ever stop talking? What do you mean I did it wrong? I did it just like you said I was supposed to. Really, I have to do it again? All these thoughts ran through my head. I certainly never said them out loud, but I’m sure my body language and facial expressions told her exactly how I was feeling.
Finally, after what seemed like an endless amount of wasted time, the order came that class was starting. I rushed into the garage, eager for my first lesson.
After we bowed in and did some breathing/meditation exercises, sensei Yachigusa called me to the front of the class, where I sat and waited. I can not quite describe his look, as he looked me over, but it sure was not one that made me feel welcomed. I remember feeling quite nervous as he scanned me.
After a few minutes, he “growled” something in Japanese; within a few seconds his daughter brought him a teapot and two cups. One cup was placed in front of him, and the other in front of me. My teacher then poured some tea into my cup, and made a gesture to drink.
This was the first time I had ever had green tea, and I didn’t like it. It was so bitter that all I could do was to take a sip before placing the cup back on the floor. Once again he gestured to drink it, and following his lead I gulped it down.
He then poured me another cupful, though I’m positive he knew I didn’t like the taste. I swallowed it anyway.
“What’s your name again?” my teacher asked. “Gary,” I said. “Gary?” he said with a very heavy Japanese accent. “Yes sir,” I replied, not even sure whether he had actually said my name at all; I could barely understand him.
“You train hard, yes?” he inquired. “Yes sir,” I responded. There was silence, as he scanned me over again as if trying to determine if I meant what I said.
“You behave, yes?’ he asked. “Yes sir, ” I replied, thinking he meant I would behave in class. What he was really asking is if I was a troublemaker, if I was “good boy” or not.
“Your parents let you train?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I lied. The truth is my mother had no clue what I was up to. She just thought I was visiting a friend. Looking back, chances are she would have let me do it since she was very supportive of my interests, but at the time I didn’t want to take the chance she would say no.
By this point I started feeling fidgety, and was sweating because of the hot tea. Also, my legs were also cramping up because I wasn’t used to kneeling in seiza (formal sitting posture).
I’m sure he was aware of my discomfort, but he poured me another cup of tea and continued his inquiry.
“You like jujutsu?” he asked. I remained silent since I didn’t know what “jujutsu” meant. Figuring that any answer was better than none I blurted out, “I like judo,” remembering that was one of the arts demonstrated in the movie “You Only Live Twice. “NO JU….DO here, just jujutsu” he responded. There was that word again. What was he talking about?
He poured me another cup of tea.
Then he took a different approach. “You like (pointing at the sword behind him),” he asked. “Yes sir,” I answered, “very much.” “Honto” he remarked (he may have actually said, wakarimasu (I understand), but honto (really) is what I think he meant).
“So, you like to fight?” he asked. “No sir I don’t,” I replied, which was the truth. I had only been in one fight during my entire life to that point.
More silence as he scanned me again. “You train hard, yes?” he asked again. “Yes sir,” I responded now hoping this would end the interview so I could get up and move my legs, which were now in agony.
“Good, let’s get started. Move over there,” he said as he nudged me towards the direction I was suppose to go.
Wobbling to the backyard of his home, I followed him to a pile of firewood. He pointed to one piece, gesturing me to pick it up. He then pointed to a table, gesturing me to put the wood on it. I had no idea why I was doing this, but I did exactly what I was told. Little did I know that “Loggy”–the name I would eventually give to that piece of wood–would become a major element of my early years of training.
After the log was placed on the table he covered it with a folded towel, and then out of nowhere he punched the log with his fist. His movement surprised the hell out of me, as did his kiai (battle cry).
“You do,” I was told. I just stared blankly. “Hit it!” he commanded. I hit the log. Ouch, that really hurt.
“Again” he commanded. “Again?” I thought, can’t he see my hand hurts.
“Hit it now,” he command, clearly already losing patience with this kid he didn’t even really want to teach. Startled by his tone I hit the log. But I hit it too slowly and without enough power.
“NO!” he yelled, as he forcibly grabbed my hand and struck it against the log. Now I was really in pain.
“Again” he commanded; and though my hand was hurting I hit the log as hard as I could muster. I did it over and over again, until he told me to stop. I had never felt pain like this ever before. And if it hadn’t been for the towel, my knuckles would have been a bloody mess that day.
Without even giving me a hint that he thought that I had done a good job, or even that I had at least tried my best, we were off to the next exercise.
This time I was shown a pile of sand, and instructed to move the pile from where it was to the other side of the garden. Okay, no problem, this would be easy. I grabbed the shovel and bucket next to the pile and started shoveling sand.
“NO!!!!!” he yelled. “Not like that, like this.” He then proceed to pick up two handfuls of sand, walk to the other side of the yard, and drop it. “Do it,” he commanded. And I did.
Needless to say, my hands were already so sore form hitting the log that grabbing handfuls of sand was very hard. It didn’t take long before my hands were cramped up so badly that I could barely keep a handful in them. But I didn’t stop, even when he wasn’t watching.
Handful after handful, I did this exercise for over a half a hour.
“Yame” (stop), he ordered. He then inspected my hands, muttering, “no good, no good,” as he pointed to the two lower fingers of my fist, which were bruised. That was my first correction regarding technique, though in truth, I didn’t have a clue what he meant.
After a short water break, class continued.
The next thing I was taught was a sequence of transitions I can only describe as a kata (solo form). It had nothing to do with fighting. There were no block, punches or kicks, but it was simple to see it would improve balance and strengthen the legs.
No explanation was given about what the movements were for, nor were the movements broken down. It was simply a case of monkey see, monkey do. I have to say, it was pretty impressive to see my sensei, a man already in his 70’s, do this form over and over, apparently without any effort. He made it look easy, and I remember telling myself that if he could do it so could I.
Little did I know that day, but these movements would form the core of actual techniques later on. Basically, the first six movements were:
- From standing upright: move right leg to the right; exhale and squat; exhale again and hold squat; ichi, ni, san, shi,…ju (count to ten); inhale, rise to starting position.
- Move right leg back (long stance); do lunge; return to staring position.
- Move right leg to the right; exhale, drop down do side lunge; hold lunge; inhale, rise and return to starting position.
- Extend right foot forward; exhale, drop butt almost to the ground; hold position; inhale, rise and return to staring position.
- Do seiza (formal sitting); rise to kneel, stepping off line; return to seiza; rise to starting position.
- Do seiza; rotate body off center line (my students know this movement as a kneeling evasion); return to starting position; repeat to left.
Being youthful, and pretty flexible none of these movements were beyond my ability to imitate, except for number four. I’m not saying they were easy, or I did them right, or that I never lost my balance and fell, but I felt pretty successful with my performance when we were done one hour later.
I have no idea what my teacher thought though. There were never any words of encouragement, and all the corrections were physical: a tug here, a pull there, a kick to widen the legs, and so on. But whatever he thought it didn’t matter at the moment.
By this point, over one and a half hours had passed. My hands were killing me, and the muscles in my legs were exhausted. Part of me was ready to quit and go home. I was also upset that we hadn’t done anything related to what I had seen in the movie, which was why I was there. When would we start doing that, I wondered? But it would be years before that would happen.
I wanted to ask questions, lots of questions; but remembering his daughter’s instructions, I did not.
The final phase of training for that first day was my introduction to ukemi, (receiving techniques, see Training via Osmosis). This wasn’t the ukemi most martial artists are familiar with, where one learns to fall. It was mostly just me serving as a punching bag.
Without receiving any warnings about what was about to happen, instructions on how to fall, or even how to indicate that I was in pain, I was told to punch my teacher’s son as hard as could.
But wait, he was my friend. There was no way I could hit him for real. My first punch was some lame attempt, that stopped short of ever touching him.
SMACK! Out of nowhere my teacher struck my arm. “No,” he snapped, “punch hard.” So I did.
Now I have no idea what my teacher’s son did to me, since it had happened so fast. All I knew was that I was on the ground. I was in pain. Now everything hurt.
“Punch again” he commanded, as I picked myself up from the floor. Against my better judgment I did, though a lot more cautiously. SMACK! My teacher hit me again. “No,” he yelled, “real punch.”
So I punched. Over and over again. The results were always the same. I ended up on the floor without really knowing how I had gotten there.
Of course, the more I was tossed around the more I became frustrated. Soon I was losing my temper. Now I really did want to hit my friend, just to get even. But as I hard as I tried, I only nicked him once, and even that wasn’t enough to stop him from throwing me to the ground over and over again.
Certainly, my teacher witnessed me losing my temper, but he never intervened. He remained expressionless, only breaking his silence to order me to punch again.
“Yamate,” my teacher finally yelled–a word that had no meaning to me at the time. “Class is over.”
Thank God I thought. It had been over two hours of hell.
We lined up, did a few more breathing exercises, and then bowed. Then, just at like the beginning of class, he gestured me to come forward and take a seat. Even before my butt hit the floor, his daughter arrived with another teapot. “Please, not more tea,” I thought to myself.
But it wasn’t tea. Instead it was something with an terrible odor I could not describe. “YUCK! I’m going to have to drink that now?” I said to myself, “No way.”
Fortunately, this foul-smelling liquid wasn’t for drinking. Within a few minutes, he was rubbing it all over my hands. The coolness of the liquid felt great, but the rubbing was almost unbearable. He didn’t seem to care.
“You like class?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to answer him; I was conflicted. I was physically and mentally worn out, and clearly had been pushed past my limit. Yet, part of me still wanted to learn. I was stubborn and did not want to be a quitter, so I answered, “yes sir.”
Once again there was silence, as he scanned me, not quite sure if he should believe me or not. “You’re sure?,” he asked. “Yes sir,” I responded, still trying to convince myself that I meant it.
“Good. Tomorrow you start real training” he said.
What!? Real training? What do you call what we did today?
As I rode the bus home, and my muscles started to stiffen, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. It certainly was not what I had expected, and I hadn’t been taught anything even remotely similar to what I had seen in the movie.
More importantly, I could not stop thinking about what he could have meant when he said “real training” would start tomorrow. Things had felt pretty real today. My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts, and I debated the pros and cons of attending another class.
Clearly, I felt that my first class, which was over two hours long hadn’t taught me anything. What’s the use in hitting a log and carrying sand? And that silly kata, what was the point? Worse yet, I was still really angry about getting beaten up by his son. And then there was the pain, that wasn’t enjoyable either.
Surely, there were more reasons to quit, than go back.
Looking back, I have no idea why I returned the next day; but I did. As I tell everyone now, I was just a dumb kid, who didn’t know anything about martial arts, and assumed this was how everybody did it. If they could, I could.
Furthermore, I had told sensei Yachigusa I would be there, and I wasn’t a liar (well, except for the part about my mother allowing me to train).
So I did return. And I returned the day after, and the next, and for next ten and a half years, until my sensei left San Francisco to go home to Japan.
This year will be 40th anniversary of that first day.