The black belt. In Japanese, kuro obi.
Although any martial artist will tell you that getting a black belt is pretty meaningless, is over-hyped in media, and is only the beginning of a long journey of study, it retains a certain mystique. It is the transition from a completely unknowledgeable beginner to a beginner who has demonstrated a complete, albeit shallow, knowledge of basics. It is a gateway to being taken seriously by the other, senior members of the dojo. It is an honor, as indicated by the visual change in the training uniform.
Yesterday, December 23, 2013, there were three kenshusei who were very happy to pass their kuro obi exam at Mugenjuku dojo.
The day started with just the three of us, Nick, and Chris- and Andy- senseis. Then the spectators started rolling in around 9:45. This was our first exam that in front of an audience. We had a very nice selection of people from the dojo, including two of Mugenjuku’s first black belt students and an entire family of husband, wife, and 3 children among others. Close to 10:00, Payet-sensei arrived and things got started quickly. There’s not a lot of formal ceremonies in a Yoshinkan test–just do the daily shinkoku ceremony, sit in seize, and start performing.
The test starts from the initial seiza line-up. Each person’s name is called, and he has to quickly bow from seiza while bellowing “OSU!”, stand up, and run to the front of the dojo. When everyone is standing in a line, we bow to Payet-sensei, then run to pre-arranged positions in the dojo across from our partners.
At this point, we were all standing in kamae and the nerves were awful. The first aspect of the test is standing in kamae so the instructors can examine your stance for correct balance and tension. I had taken Toradol earlier in the morning to help loosen and anaesthetise my knees, and I was feeling jittery and unbalanced.
Worse, someone had turned up the heat in the dojo. Although we normally train without any heat in winter (just as we didn’t get air-conditioning in the summer), the heat was on because of the spectators. We hadn’t even starting yet, and the sweat was already beading on my freshly shaven head.
The first techniques are the Yoshinkan basic forms called “sotai dosa”, shown in the following video at 2:00. There are four of them.
After the basic forms, we demonstrate the basic techniques. I’m not actually sure how many of them we did. At this point in the test, my higher brain functions were entirely engaged in damage control on the rest of my brain, which was in panic mode. My mind was like an engine room in an old submarine warfare movie, with blown gaskets, steam everywhere, and people frantically running around trying to keep the parts together long enough to get to safety… Foot’s light… keep it heavy, shoulders back, hips… Oh, crap, sensei’s talking!! What’s he saying? Something Japanese! Okay, everyone quiet, we need to translate… Oh, the heat! Who turned on the f—ing heat!! Wait, “ryote mochi shomen iriminage”??? What’s that? Think, think!!–OH, SHIT, HERE COMES NICK!!…
And then Nick was pulling on my hands, and all I could do was try to react and hope I was doing the right technique.
At some point, the sweat was running down my arms, and Nick lost his grip on me. Or I lost my grip on him. I’m not sure which!
Anyhow, I don’t remember if I had a good test or not. I didn’t make any errors, but error-free is the goal for regular students; for kenshusei, the goal is not only to be free of technical errors but to do the techniques with good balance and body position–to move from the centre of the body–and with spirit. I don’t even remember which techniques I did, but here are two of them I know for sure…
Yes, we have something called “the-4th-tricky-breathing-technique”! And, yes, it is tricky!!! The above video is deceptive because when it works, it looks effortless, but 90% of the time, it doesn’t work. I remember doing this technique, because usually I can’t throw Nick with it and, as we were getting into seiza, I was thinking to myself, Shit! Shit! Nick, just fall over this time! Just fall over!! And he did. Thanks, buddy. I owe you one!
After demonstrating basic techniques, we demonstrate shumatsu rosa, the “ending stretching exercises,” as shown…
The final part of the test is jiyu-waza, or free-techniques, which is basically demonstrating how to apply the basic techniques in a fast, free-flowing context. First, I did shomen-zuki-jiyu-waza (front-punch-free-technique), shown here:
First, I was the “throwing partner” as Nick attacked me maybe 10-15 times. I’ not sure how many times, but it wasn’t long compared to what we’ve done in practice. Then we switched roles, and I attacked Nick with a punch and got thrown.
We normally did only one round of jiyu-waza in rehearsal exams. It looks easy in the video but is actually extremely tiring, especially if you are old (check), stressed out (check), hung over, sleep deprived (check) or, in this case, heat intolerant (big check). But after I was done with one round, a second round was called!
After the first round, I was breathing hard, but in the second, I was completely out of breath because of the heat, which was smothering. Anyhow, in the second round, we did yokomen-uchi-jiyu-waza (side-chop-free-technique), shown here:
Jiyu-waza is the part of the test everyone pays attention to. This is partly because all the test-takers do the basic techniques at the same time, but the jiyu-waza is only one attacker-thrower pair at a time. So one gets the whole stage to himself. But it is also because the kuro obi exam is the first time you do jiyu-waza in a test. For the previous tests, it is only basic techniques.
I was afraid I had done very badly, but afterwards, the spectators said my jiyu-waza looked good. One took a video of it. To me, it looks very slow and plodding with throws that come from my arms instead of my centre, but the form doesn’t look as bad as it might have. When that video gets uploaded to YouTube, I will post it here. Maybe.
After jiyu-waza, there was nothing left except to line, bow out, thank everyone, and retire to the kitchen while the examiners compared notes. Thankfully, we all passed!!
Payet-sensei was very kind to buy all the kenshusei and the spectators lunch after the test. I admit I felt more like taking a nap than eating lunch, but it was very nice of people to come watch us, and lunch felt celebratory.
I wish our Internet readers could have been there. Thank you for your support so far.
Now we have 1-1/2 weeks break and then a big push to the final instructor’s exam. Gambatte, Izzy and Naomi!