Since arriving in Naha, the honbu-dojo ‘gang’ has really taken me under their wing. This isn’t always easy with newcomers. Dojo ‘newbies’ have the potential to really disrupt things – breaking dojo etiquette, bringing training ‘back to the basics’ and generally wrecking the vibe. This is especially the case among people who have been training together for a long time. As a junior black belt, and the only female, this was surely even more true for me. In this respect, I feel very lucky to have been so warmly adopted as part of the honbu dojo and have come to really admire and respect my senior ‘sempai’ who train here.
Kumamoto-Sensei is Sensei’s chief instructor in the honbu dojo. He’s also a bit like the parent to us all, ‘looking after the kids’ when Sensei’s away. When I first met him he struck me as the ‘quite and reserved’ type, but, I’ve since come to know him better over some hot awamori (traditional Okinawan spirits) and gyoza some nights after training. And as a side note, unlike the men on the mainland, this Okinawan knows how to hold his liquor.
Alessandro-Sensei is a chirpy, warm-hearted Italian with a good sense of humor and flirtatious nature. He's fluent in Japanese, Italian and English, and like many others in the honbu dojo, his language skills really make me aware of my ignorance as a solely English speaking Westerner. While Alessandro-Sensei claims to be “no good” at English his disarming nature and charismatic expressions make him easy to talk to and never seems to detract from his ability to share a good joke.
One afternoon I ran into him in the car park of a supermarket down the street. While his wife was doing the shopping he was sitting in his car conditioning his hands on a 'portable' rock (keitai ishi) – a stone that he keeps under the front seat! I suppose it goes a long way to explaining why his hands have started to look so much like Sensei's and when I made this comment to him I couldn’t help but notice him ‘glow’ a little at the thought.
I think the thing that amazes me most about the guy is his constant energy. He trains every day, teaching kids classes at three different dojos and then trains with us again in the evenings. Even after training for 5 or 6 hours straight he just doesn’t seem to slow down. Whether it’s beating himself with wooden conditioning sticks or doing 100s of push-ups at a time with his legs wedged up on the weights bench – everything is done full speed and power. On occasion when he takes the senior classes we often find ourselves doing an endless array of odd and interesting exercises of his own creation - from new ways to condition our bodies (and partner’s), to human Kongo-Ken and floor-polishing push-up techniques.
A fellow Aussie from Newcastle, Brent has been training at the Honbu dojo pretty seriously since 2005. As one of the higher-ranking senior grades, his years inside the dojo show in his strong and heavy techniques and at times, his slightly 'too effective' bunkai applications. Brent tends to keep to himself and his stern and serious nature could otherwise be interpreted as ‘standoffish’ by those who don’t know him. In truth his dedication, focus and passion for training is nothing short of inspiring for me. In my time training here, I’m yet to see him train at less than 100%. His long working hours teaching English and late nights at the dojo show in the occasional dark circles under his eyes and furrowed brow, yet tiredness never seems to slow him down. And, on nights when I’m feeling tired or run down, he serves as a reminder of why I’m here – a reminder to “go hard or go home!”
These days, Brent and I often get paired up together for applications or forearm conditioning (ude-tanren) and in truth, I sometimes feel a small part of me groan for I know I’m in for a work out and I’m going home with some bruises. With arms like baseball bats and hard, heavy punching and kicking techniques, training with Brent always makes me feel like a white-belt again. Yet, I have a lot of respect and admiration for the guy and learn a lot from our sessions together. While some nights I might wish I had a ‘softer’ partner, I know that training with Brent will accelerate my learning and if I can keep it up (and if he doesn’t kill me first) I’ll be all the stronger for it.
Vincent was one of the first to befriend me at the honbu dojo. Despite claims that his English is poor, I feel that Vincent seems to understand me more than most… or maybe it’s just that one of his favorite word “exactly” makes me feel this way. In any case, his warmth and sense of humor add to his disarming nature making him an easy guy to joke with and confide in.
Most nights at training I can hear Vincent’s stomach gurgling from across the room. I’m still not sure if it’s trying to tell him it’s hungry, or reprimanding him for liver abuse - an unfortunate side-affect of being a ‘slender blond’ working at a “snack” (host/hostess bar) each night after training. Despite being routinely hung-over, Vincent never seems to miss a day of training. His dedication shows in his big handwriting which dominates the pages of the dojo journal – a daily record of all our names.