What I Learned About Bojutsu from My Trip to Okinawa
I’ve been training with the bo since I was a kid, mainly in a style that you can call American Bojutsu. The techniques are derived from what you would find in Okinawa or even mainland Japan. I studied other forms of using the staff, and these ended up creating a new style called Ultimate Bo.
I really wanted to go back to the roots of the weapon, at least regarding recent history, and that made me want to travel to Okinawa. There was an allure to the idea of learning from grandmasters who are in the direct lineage of some kobudo greats such as Sakugawa Kanga and Taira Shinken. To actually be there and train as they have for the last several centuries, it would be like using a time machine to travel to the not-so-distant past. I also wanted to walk into my classes with a clean slate, with a white belt mindset, discarding anything that I have ever learned. Afterwards, I would synthesize everything with my greater knowledge, but in the moment itself, I didn’t want to allow for previous knowledge to impede any potential gains.
My GMAU Ultimate Bo students were gracious enough to crowdfund my special trip to Okinawa (thanks again students!). I was also able to film these very special private lessons and group classes just for them (they will be available in the GMAU Ultimate Bo course soon). In this article, I want to go over some of the greatest lessons that I learned from my experience in Okinawa.
Through my traditional karate training, my instructors did not specifically refer to the concept of tanden (also known as hara in Japanese). We were taught to engage our core and explode with energy from this center point of the body, but not in the same way that I was instructed in Okinawa. I was lucky enough to train with Hiroshi Akamine (a kobudo legend). He explained that tanden is the center of your body’s energy system, it an engagement of ki (or qi in Chinese) in the region below your belly button. You push your glutes up, and push your pelvis out some, while breathing out and downward to the floor. This is really only engaged at the final moment of impact. This is not a simple skill to master. But, when Akamine Sensei used tanden in his tsuki versus not, it was like getting hit by an immovable rock. Really, quite hard to explain, you just need to feel the firmness that it created, by rooting your body to the ground, and bringing the energy into the center point.
Rather than getting power and speed from a larger body alignment, including the rotation of the feet or related footwork, the main power comes from the popping of the hip simultaneously with tanden and being well rooted/sunken down into the floor. The hip rotation is like a whip. If you are holding a whip and just push your hand forward, the whip goes forward but just flops and falls down. If you flick your wrist quickly, the whip strikes faster and hard and then retracts. This is what you want to do with the hip of the striking side. The hip rotation I saw used in Okinawa was designed so that you body would use much less energy while striking, and allows your whole body to stay very relaxed until the point of impact, which also increases your speed.
Speed Comes From Relaxation
That leads us into the next great lesson learned. If your muscles are tense and/or you are stressed out (with shallow chest breathing and tightened muscles), you are already one step closer to losing the fight. When you maintain relaxed breathing and very loose limbs, you are capable of a much faster response. One thing that I personally need to work on, is not just being relaxed up until the point of impact, but immediately relaxing after the impact. Once a confrontation has begun, our body wants to engage the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), thus contracting our muscles. Through enough training, we can learn to stay relaxed before and after contact has been made.
Low Center of Gravity
This was a big difference from what you see in modern martial arts, such as Muay Thai, or just watching an MMA bout in general. You see a lot of stand-up fighting happening in a more relaxed stance. In the style of bojutsu that we practiced, the strikes (and blocks) happened while sinking into the floor, in a low stance. The idea is to be rooted into the floor, and this allows you to have more stability, a stronger center of gravity, and to engage tanden and hip rotation. In between strikes and blocks, it is okay to come up higher and by starting higher, it actually allows for you to create more power and speed while dropping into that stance.
Move Like an Animal
I also trained with the world-renowned karate and kobudo master, Tetsuhiro Hokama. Not only does he have a fantastic dojo, but the second story is now the Okinawa Prefecture Karate Museum, filled with artifacts, original documents, photos, and much more. His style of bojutsu seems to be influenced by animal styles (originally from China). Actually, when you walk into his dojo, there are paintings of five different animals on the wall right where you bow to enter the floor. Instead of always dropping your weight down, he taught me a kamae (ready stance), where you are in neko ashi dachi, and the front foot only has one toe making contact with the floor. He also pointed out how you should be very light on your feet, such as a predator stalking its prey. This is just a reminder that there are many different ways to skin a cat, and there is not just one style of bojutsu on the island, actually you can find many different styles in the Ryukyu Islands.
Defenses (Footwork is Really Important)
The overarching defense philosophy that I got from my week of training was connect-then-deflect. Rather than actively, or aggressively pushing into an attack, you really stay relaxed until you connect with the attack, and then just deflect it. And, footwork (general avoidance of a bo attack) is paramount, with your final block being more designed to get the bo out of your way for an easy counter-attack, than the success of failure of your defense being fully predicated on your block. I saw this a big difference here form our philosophy in Ultimate Bo, where we can change blocks depending on the speed, timing, and distance of our opponent. Of course everyone would love to have extremely fast footwork and the ability to avoid an attack without having to fully engage, but the reality that we have found (through live sparring practice), is that you need to have a full range of defense possibilities on the fly.
Bo vs. Bo
I inquired about why most of the bo training is designed against another bo. The bunkai for the bo kata(s) seem to be fighting against someone else with a staff. Of course, they also do kumite with bo vs. sai; and even some of the other kobudo weapons. I think training bo vs. bo can be useful for a variety of reasons, but it is also good to train bo vs. empty hand; bo vs. bladed weapon; bo vs. blunt weapon (of a short length), bo disarms, thwarting a bo disarm, etc. These are reality-based situations that are relevant to real life self defense, and is something that we have added to Ultimate Bo, that you do not see immediately present in most Okinawan Kobudo curricula.
Okinawans Live the Longest
Before my trip, I had learned that Okinawans live longer than anyone else in the world, and I wanted to investigate why. Through some google searches, I learned about Dr. Makoto Suzuki, who is the director of the Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Science. He also co-authored a popular book titled The Okinawa Program. He is literally the world-authority on longevity and why humans live long and happy lives. I thought it was a longshot, but I decided to email him. He replied and offered to setup an interview! I was able to film the interview and this will be available for my Ultimate Bo students to watch.
To recap what I learned, first of all, diet is important. The Okinawan diet includes a good balance of meat (they especially eat quite a bit of responsibly-raised pork from the Northside of the island), seafood, vegetables, rice, fruit, and some grains. They don’t have very much bread/grains and barely any dairy in their diet. This was perfect for me, since I don’t eat any grains or dairy myself. They also don’t eat excessive amounts of processed, chemical and pesticide-laden foods, or refined sugars.
But, there are other places in the world that still eat a pretty clean diet, and they aren’t all counting calories and pre-packing lunches like lunatics for seven days at a time. So, what’s their secret? Dr. Suzuki told me it is ikinai. Ikinai is a Japanese word that roughly translates to mean purpose. Elderly folks in Okinawa still have a purpose, they have something that they are living for. If you don’t have ikinai, you aren’t going to live a very long or happy life. The majority of the population around the world simply doesn’t know what their purpose is; or they think it is to work a lot of hours to buy a nicer car, or to just get by. On the island, you see citizens in their 80s and 90s going to schools to help, passing along their wisdom to the younger generations, and being active with one another.
The other secret is moai. Moai is a word from the Okinawan dialect. It means community or unity. In the modern, Western world, individuals are becoming very separated and isolated. They don’t really congregate together with a close group of friends and family on a regular basis. Dr. Suzuki told me about how groups that have been friends since elementary school still meet up once a month or once a week for a get-together. These gatherings create such tight bonds in the group, and there is a deep love and compassion for one another. If someone gets sick or is in need, they are there for one another.
Okinawans are Very Friendly and Polite
I really enjoyed my time in Okinawa, and I can’t wait to go back. Everyone is so friendly, kind, respectful, and polite. The kids there are respectful of others and mind their parents so well! There is clearly a culture of self-respect and pride. Life seems to be pretty laid back, and I am told much more so than some of the larger cities in mainland Japan. Many Okinawans don’t speak English very well, which made it even more of an adventure. But, they will go out of their way to help and find someone who does. I was also astounded that I did not see a police office the entire time I was there. 0. What a safe place. Well, just about everyone you bump into is a karate master…like a cook at one of our restaurants, one of our taxi drivers…
Okinawan Food is Delicious and Healthy
The food was really good. Luckily, I stayed very close to Kokusai Dori, in Naha (the main city on the main island of Okinawa). This is a very busy street with lots of little back alleys and tiny restaurants cooking up fresh food for the locals daily. We enjoyed quite a few bowls of Okinawan Soba (and even made our own Soba from scratch on a cooking experience with “Taste of Okinawa”). We had Japanese Ramen, Karaage (Japanese fried chicken), Japanese barbecue (skewers of different meats), and plenty of rice and mozuku (seaweed). We had a great time a few evenings at an izakaya called Kozakura, this pub was founded by the owner’s grandfather back in 1955. He now runs it with his mom, dad, and a few friends. You can watch him make your food as you sip on some biru, sake, or awamori as you do your best to make jokes in broken English/Japanese.
I was extremely sore this entire trip; the way that my Sensei(s) had me train from a deep stance and engage hip movement, along with 2 hour sessions (multiple sessions in a day), definitely made me stronger. I felt the pride in what they were teaching me, and the resounding confidence in their instruction. I felt respected while also given real, challenging standards, and I wanted to do a good job for my Sensei. I enjoyed the sunshine, the smiles, and the friends. There is much more to learn, and more styles of bo to compare and integrate. This is a journey of self-mastery, and not just one of completion.