First of all, dear blog: I am sorry! I have only used you to pimp my online store. What online store you say?! The totally incredible and amazing Scramble Stuff where you can buy exclusive Japanese import MMA t-shirts and jiu jitsu DVD magazines!
Ahem, sorry again.
Here is a 100% BJJ related post!
I just got back from Japan where I spent new years and a few days afterwards. It was an amazing trip. I got to see all my old friends and training partners, and meet new ones.
All the good family stuff aside, this is what I did.
On the 30th of December, still groggy from jetlag, I went to Paraestra Hakata, my old stomping (or being stomped) ground for the last training session of the year. Now, I have had the experience of returning to Hakapara after a hiatus before, and at that time I was a little underwhelmed by the reaction (which was: none.) This time I was prepared for it. You see, the thing about the Japanese is, they don’t go overboard with their reactions. Had I been a veteran of an American, Brazilian or even UK gym and returned after a long asbsence, I would expect at least some raised voices, possibly some slapping of the buttocks and perhaps the odd takedown and playful pounding.
At Hakapara, it was a raised eyebrow and a “Oh, Matto!” and that was it. But I like that. I like the way things are just accepted for the way they are. Matt was gone, now he’s back. I like the Japanese way. Stoic. The phrase “still waters run deep” came to mind.
I chatted with Tomari-sensei who straight away was thinking of ideas for me to further my BJJ-related career. He even suggested I should sponsor Daisuke Nakamura, the penniless but awesome Japanese grappler / MMA fighter. Sounds like a good idea but I need more items in my range before I can really sponsor someone. At least I need a rash guard, or some shorts.
Training began and it was a fairly relaxed ordeal. I alternated between gi and no gi, enjoying stretching my legs in a real academy after six months of haphazard training in England. I basically got trounced by everyone but the weeks of working on the brabo choke at Scramble BJJ and Grappling paid off and was able to nail it on someone it is very difficult to nail things on. Which was nice.
The team at Paraestra Hakata
Most importantly, though, we went and got pissed afterwards. Ide-san, the creator of OJJ – a club within a club with a growing membership of good, honest, and hard-fighting judoka and jiu jitsuka–took us to Bar Roch, a literal hole-in-the-wall bar deep in what is basically the night district of Fukuoka, Nakasu. Full of dodgy girly bars and expensive restaurants and exclusive bars. It was honestly like trying to find someone serving drinks in a rabbit warren. We snaked through alleyways barely wider than my shoulders, between structures that seemed to have grown organically between buildings, past burly bouncers and giggling girls, under buzzing neon signs, eventually finding the bar. It was nothing more than a long counter with a single recessed table in the wall, but it had an impressive collection of whiskies and drinks.
Still feeling slightly surreal, jetlagged, and tired from training, I sat back and soaked up the atmosphere. It was as if I had never been away. The drinks flowed, my rusty Japanese slowly creaked into action thanks to the lubrication of alcohol. There were one or two new faces in the OJJ crew, most notably Joe the Boxer. Joe is a good guy. Honest, fast talking, and hard working. I think there is something dark in his past that he doesn’t talk about, but his future is bright. I remember training with him when he started, seven or eight months ago. One night, after a long session, we slapped hands and I said “yukkuri, ne?” meaning “let’s have a slow one.” He shook his head and asked me to go as hard as I could. He said he wanted to feel what jiu jitsu is capable of. I thought for a moment and then obliged as only a purple belt can oblige a white belt whom he outweighs by a number of kilos. To his credit, he hung in there, but it was intense. He grinned and thanked me afterward.
Tonight, he told me, “I’m going to be a world champion.” I think I believe him, too. He had recently debuted at the Kyushu BJJ tournament, and won (although sustained an injury in the process.) I’ll definitely be following his progress. He picks up fast and trains with the relentless energy of the Japanese.
The OJJ crew
It was a quiet night in the end followed by a few days of family activity for everyone.
I was very pleased to be able to shop at Isami (Japan’s biggest martial arts company, parent company of Reversal) in the new year. I met up with Pat of Murasaki BJJ, and there was much rejoicing. I bought a fukubukuro, a lucky bag, and it contained a rash guard, t-shirt, mma gloves, and grappling shorts for an incredible 6,800 yen. I was so pleased with it, I bought another one. They will come in useful this year.
Ide-san invited me and my family to his house for dinner early in the new year. A few people came, and we ate and drank and talked. It’s always fun at Ide-san’s house. His front room is paved with judo tatami, various judo and jiu jitsu medals line the walls (including two All-Japan golds–blue and purple belt), stacks of gis lie on the floor, a thick rope hangs from the ceiling, rubber cords tied around posts for throwing practice, two grappling dummies lean in the corner… It’s pretty much the dream house for a grappling fan.
Yet more of the OJJ krew
Later on in the week, we trained again. This time I was nursing a totally pathetic sore throat, not an infection but an irritation brought about by the cold air at night. I had swallowed some painkillers and gone to the gym thinking to take it easy. Tomari-sensei didn’t like that plan though and said I had to spar with everyone in the room for a minute each. Luckily there were only seven people there, but still, it was tough. I went from white belts to purple belts, with a new partner literally jumping in every minute. I got tapped a couple of times I think but enjoyed myself.
The next day, I met Kato-san, the owner, manager, designer and basically genius behind Art Junkie, to pick up some new shirts. Tomari-san tagged along as Art Junkie had previously made special edition t-shirts for his gym. It was great to meet him and do aisatsu (greeting), very important in Japanese business!
Kato-san behind the pro-wrestling mask!
Kato-san and my boy
As quick as that, my time in Fukuoka was over, but my time in Japan was not. I hopped on a plane to Tokyo for two days and nights of as much BJJ-related fun as I could squeeze in. Which turned out to be not that much as I spent most of the time limping from my hotel located approximately in the middle of a place called nowhere, carrying incredibly heavy bags.
Still, I did get to do a number of very good things. First, I met one of the editors of Gong Kakutogi, probably the best MMA magazine in Japan, and the producer of BJJ Spirits and Grappling Spirits, the absolutely amazing BJJ and grappling dvd magazines I sell in my store. We went for lunch together, and I just sat listening, basically in awe of the coolness of their jobs. They spoke about all the big names of the Japanese MMA industry as if they were friends (which they probably are), name dropping like there was no tomorrow. Aoki, Kitaoka, Nakai… they had the scoop on everyone. The big talk in Japan at the moment is the “Aoki mondai“… the problem of Aoki. His conduct at Dynamite !! has landed him in all kinds of hot water.
Suzuki-san and me.
Waragai-san of Gong Kaku
The editor of Gong Kakutogi was originally going to take me training at his BJJ gym, Tri Force Kojimachi. Sadly, he was too busy, but he still got on the train with me and walked me into the gym itself to say hello to his instructor. Now that is generosity.
Tri Force Kojimachi is an amazing gym owned by Yuki Ishikawa. When I arrived he was busy snapping photos of a grappling class. Yuki-san speaks fluent English and we hit it off immediately. In the short time I got to know him, I really respect him. He’s an honest, hard-working, intelligent funny guy, not to mention an absolute animal on the mat. He has won the Asia BJJ championships as a brown belt, and placed on the podium at the mundials in Brazil as a purple belt.
Yuki-san and me
I stayed at the gym for two beginners classes and an open mat session, until closing time. The training was excellent. Yuki-san teaches in English and Japanese, interpreting for himself as he goes along. He taught a number of techniques in great detail with plenty of repeitions. I should mention the warmup as well, which was brilliant. I think I will steal some of the moves. I’ve seen them on youtube, invovling one partner on his back and the standing partner drilling various guard passes as smoothly as possible.
Sparring was good. I sparred with just about everyone in the room, holding my own fairly well and picking up some pointers along the way. I make it a point not to be a dick when I go to a new school. Some people may feel they have something to prove–both the visitor and the resident–but I don’t encounter that very often, which is good. I make a point of acknowledging when someone pulls off a nice move on me, and they usually do the same. Visiting a new school should be about playing jiu jitsu just hard enough to make it interesting but soft enough that you can feel the different techniques of another way of training.
I sparred with Yuki-san who completely destroyed me without even trying, naturally. He reminded me of Tomari-san, but his style was slightly different and he was much, much stronger, despite being considerably smaller than me. I had gotten so badly beaten that I asked him for another spar later, a much slower one, and there I was able to actually feel what he was doing to me. Tomari-san has a way of not offering you anything to push against. Yuki-san was similar, only his style felt firmer and structurally very strong.
We chatted for a while after training, and I hope to see Yuki-san again if he comes to the UK.
I’m ashamed to admit I got a McDonalds on the way back to the hotel. I was completely exhausted and could not be bothered to investigate and select a restaurant. I promised myself I would eat somewhere proper the next day.
My hotel had a laundry room so I washed and dried my gi and got some sleep. The next morning, without really thinking about what I was going to do save for the vague notion of seeking out the Paraestra headquarters, I set off.
Paraestra Tokyo is pretty much the mecca of martial arts, especially BJJ and MMA, in Japan. Founded by Yuki Nakai, legendary Japanese fighter, it has spawned champions like Aoki Shinya, numerous Shooto beltholders, Yukinori Sasa and Yusuke Honma (both mundials medalists at brown and black belt), and tonnes more of those scary guys whose names you don’t even know but can snap your face off clean off your skull in the blink of an eye.
I checked the map, found that is was approximately fucking miles away, figured out where I would have to change stations and decided to bank on the fact that there would be something to do there. Luckily, there was… an art museum and a bunch of nice cafes at Ikebukuro. I sat in a large courtyard slurping coffee and listening to Adam and Joe on my iPod. I watched a crazy Japanese homeless man with a surprisingly good body running around a fountain. When the police came to clear him off he protested, claiming that he was only doing taiso, exercises. He weaved his way towards me and I did my very best impression of an angry statue that would not respond to any form of questioning or communication. It worked and he steered clear of me, presumably into a lamppost where he slid to the floor and went to sleep.
I ate rice balls and miso soup for lunch, still feeling guilty about the McDonalds from the night before, in preparation for training. I had an insider tip from my contact at BJJ Spirits that there would be a training session at 2:15 that was (suspenseful strings please) not on the schedule. A secret training session, then.
Finding Paraestra Tokyo itself is a bit of a rite of passage, so I won’t tell you how here. But it involves lots of traing changing and walking down long, drab streets, then walking around in circles looking for some kind of sign that the gym is nearby. There is no sign, no nothing in fact except for a tiny sticker the size of the palm of your hand on a mailbox.
I did find it and let myself in. As always, the people inside were friendly and a few spoke English. I did my best to speak Japanese though. As Tomari-san did the bulk of his training and competing in Tokyo, most people there know him, which is good for us students of his. It’s always good in the BJJ world to have mutual acquaintances who can vouch for you. I got changed and took in the atmosphere, which was, in a word, stinky. Parato has a reputation for being “jigoku“… hell. I imagine it is, in summer. It’s a dungeon, a basement, with a window that opens up to… a concrete wall. The walls are old, and they look it. The debris of decades of fighting litter the edges of the mats. Posters peel from the walls. This is the kind of place you travel miles to train in.
The BJJ Basics shirt in the BJJ Japan mecca!
"Show me the sweep!" never gets old.
There were mostly purple and brown belts there, some very serious looking chaps. After some self-directed warming up, it was straight into drills, then sparring. I sparred with most people there and had a whale of a time, warming up really well towards the end… a couple of hours in total.
Notable moments… a big brown belt who was smashing people from wall to wall, literally, asked me to spar. When we started I felt that he was going easy on me, and in fact he kept checking to see if I was OK. In the end, I told him, in the best Japanese I could… “mina to issho onegaishimasu! tsuyoku!” meaning–I hoped–treat me like everyone else and go as hard as you can! He obliged, knee-riding my guts into oblivion, which was cool.
Later I sparred with another brown belt, a very big guy, who welcomed me by straight armbarring me twice in a row while he was lying on his back and I was trying to pass. After that I remembered to keep my hands to myself and my elbows in tight! A few seconds later, though, he snoozed, and I had one of “those moments.” With people breathing hard on the sidelines, resting and recovering for the next round, we were one of only two pairs sparring. I dropped to my back, managed to sneak the de la riva hook in deep, and started working for a sweep. Like I said, he snoozed for a moment, and I took the opportunity to get to his back and put both hooks in behind his knees. I grabbed his belt, kicked out, and he did the waterslide as we call it, falling to the floor directly into my back control. I sunk in the RNC immediately, squeezed away, and he tapped! There was scattered applause and cheers. It felt really good, and we both laughed and I said something along the lines of “don’t kill me now please.”
My joints started to give me some trouble after that, having trained pretty hard three out of the last four days, and the session was winding to a close anyway. I helped sweep the mat and said my goodbyes. I hope to visit that gym often enough that they begin to recognise me in the end.
That night I ate at a proper Japanese restaurant… Tendon, tempura on a bowl of rice, with soba noodles and soup. Yum yums!
It was an early night followed by a horrendous plane journey back to the UK.
The good news is, I shot a lot of good footage on this trip and I hope to shape it into the best episode of Grappling Dummies yet, so please look out for that.