Notes on Martial Arts Training in the New Year

At dawn on New Year’s Day in Japan, people will rise up early and drive down to the eastern coasts to catch a glimpse of the very first sunrise of the New Year,  HatsuhinodeIt’s a tradition for which many spend a night on the beach the previous night, the same way spectators in Pasadena hold an all-night vigil for the Rose Parade on January 1. Hatsuhinode has a charm and appeal of its own, that everyone could relate to.  Not everyone digs parades; I’m willing to bet that a lot more people dig sunrises. Especially in Japan.  It’s a good way to start the New Year and there’s nothing particular- ly mystical about it. One simply “looks forward” to better things and a bright future, as represented by the Rising Sun.

There are a few other traditions in the Japanese New Year (which, until 1873, was based on the Chinese lunar year) that are noteworthy, and that we would do best to emulate. Hatsumode (First Trip to the Temple), giving away money, Mandarin oranges and mochi<… mmmmmm, mochi…>, writing poetry, are but a few small, nice gestures to oneself or to others. One can start the year with a clean conscience, start the year right by becoming more spiritual, generous and artistically-inclined, instead of simply making resolutions to do so. It’s the Japanese version of a “Positive Mental Attitude,” simple and not so over-the-top.

For karatekas and other Japanese/Okinawan-style martial artists, there is Keiko Hajime – The First Training Class of the Year. Dojos that emphasize rituals (e.g., iaido and aikido) will hold formal gatherings and inspirational speeches. Others may incorporate spirituality in the form of meditation sessions. For most dojos, Keiko Hajime is marked simply by good old- fashioned intense and ass-kicking training. The reps increase a notch, the pacing is faster and more vigorous. I don’t know of a much better way to start the Training Year right.

Photo Courtesy of Xste35

For us humans, Life is one part being active, and another part just being.  In the martial arts, it is both. A karateka is always active in body, mind and spirit.  He or she is also always living, being in the moment.  One objective is to constantly train, to the point that actions become automatic, become part of one’s own being.  It’s a Zen thing, and something that can’t easily be ex- plained in words. Of course, in the beginning it’s important to be mindful of proper technique, application of strength as needed, speed and all that. As one’s training progresses, he or she is expected to combine these elements without thinking (mushin), in a singular flash of a moment.

It has been more than 12 years since I first put on a gi to take up karate as a serious activity. I was a very different person back then, and so were my reasons for training. However, the routine has hardly varied.  A thorough training session (which we have the wry honor of experiencing when we visit the hombu or main dojo) consists of a 15-20 minute cardio and agility workout, like running, sprinting or jumping, followed by a good stretching routine. Afterwards, there is kihon training, the basics: punching or striking, blocking and kicking; then short-form or combination exercises. Towards the end, the agenda might diverge to either long-form exercise (kata), free sparring (kumite) or self-defense applications. In karate, a good karateka would be one who is able to fully appreciate and integrate the basics and the formal aspect of training (typified by kata), the sport aspect (kumite), and their true applications in life-or-death self-defense situations (characterized by randori). By definition, that would be reserved for the master practition- ers, the senseis.  In each training session, I catch a glimpse of that mastery, if only enough to appreciate what karate was designed for, and the serious nature of its training.

Photo courtesy of Indrek Galetin

Karate was and is a system of self- defense; it was meant for an individual to fight his or her way out of a pinch, out of an attack at close quarters, with- out guns or weapons. It was never meant to be used offensively (as kung fu was used in the Boxer Rebellion, with disastrous results). In general, and like most Japanese martial arts, it’s not meant to be used at all, unless truly ne- cessary.  This idea is a paradox which we fully understand, yet may not be able to clearly explain to anyone else. Just as soldiers train extensively during peacetime for a war that may never come, we in the dojo train twice, maybe thrice a week, practicing specific moves that might happen at any given mo- ment in this crazy, random world. Unlike soldiers who have to respond to orders and have little choice when told to fight – we as karateka don’t have to fight if, we can just as easily walk away.

That’s when it hits me (almost literally): We train hard for something that, in all likelihood, will happen very rarely or not at all, if we conduct ourselves properly in our everyday lives. And this is where Keiko Hajime comes full circle to Hatsuhinode. When we start living Life on a good note and on good terms with ourselves, others and Nature, there is no need to enter the dark and terrible aspects of martial arts. Keiko Hajime – and any given training class for that matter – simply becomes a cycle of affirmation and reaffirm- ation of one’s appreciation for Life and the World of the Living.

Copyright Anabasius 2010

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