Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review/Synopsis of the 1st annual Ryukyu Martial Arts Friendship Gasshuku

Several years ago I created a number of Facebook groups which were intended for practitioners of Okinawan Martial Arts ("Naihanchi no Kenkyu", "Sanchin no Kenkyu", "Ryukyu Martial Arts [Research and General Discussion]", "Ryukyu Martial Arts [Practical Applications and Training]" and "Hojo-Undo").

I had grown tired of general "Traditional Karate" discussion groups and more especially of explaining the differences between Modern Japanese Karate and Old-Style Okinawan Karate (and either proving or justifying that difference). I wanted a place for Okinawan stylist to gather without having to explain themselves to non-Okinawan stylists...  Over these last few years a number of very knowledgeable (and largely like-minded) people have joined these groups and contributed to these forums in various ways...

We found ourselves making new friends and learning from each other in ways we never expected to. This in turn led to discussions of the possibility of "real world" gatherings in which such an exchange of information could occur... At first this was just a tentative idea floating around cyberspace... until Noah Legel shinshii seized the reigns and decided that it was time to really make it happen!

So from October 16th through the 18th 2015, the first ever Ryukyu Martial Arts Friendship Gasshuku (琉球武芸友合宿) was held.


Fittingly (given that it was Noah shinshii's initiative that lead to the realization of the event) the first session was taught by Noah Legel shinshii. In this event, Noah Legel shinshii became the first American to publicly teach Kishimotodi. Kishimotodi is an extremely old system of Suidi (Shurite) which  which may well be the only non-Matsumura/non-Itosu system of Suidi to survive to today. Its lineage (as respects the gasshuku) is Tode Sakugawa (deceased) to Bushi Tachimura (deceased) to Kishimoto Soko (deceased) to Higa Seitoku (deceased), to Higa Kiyohiko (living), to Ulf Karlsson (living), to Noah Legel (living).

Photo by Denise Legel.

Noah Legel shinshii taught a very old version of Naihanchi (shodan) called Tachimura nu Naifanchi" in Uchinaaguchi (or "Takemura no Naihanchi" in standard Japanese. The kata is noteworthy in its use of Keikoken, a heel-down kosa-dachi (also found in Matsumura Kenpo) and the method of transferring from kosa-dachi to Shiko-dachi (moving through a stance similar to relatively short kokutsu-dachi). Noah shinshii demonstrated the 3 main concepts of Kishimotodi: “issun hazureru” (avoid by an inch), “kobo ittai” (attack and defense are one), and “taigi iichi” (body and technique [are] one) very well. It is worth noting that Tachimura nu Naifanchi's footwork is directly related (and basically essential) to the actual applications of the kata. Noah shinshii taught three main categories of bunkai: Nage-waza (throwing techniques), Kansetsu-waza (joint-techniques) and Uchi-waza (striking techniques). For what its worth, both the kansetsu-waza and uchi-waza were very similar to the old-style Suidi I learned from Kuda Yuichi shinshii and Oyata Seiyu shinshii's arts... The Nage-waza on the other hand were unlike any I have learned previously (at least in the smaller but very important details).

As a random observation, Motobu Choki shinshii's Naihanchi seems to be midway between Tachimura nu Naifanchi and Itosu shinshii Naihanchi. I think this should be considered deeply.

Noah shinshii has obviously dedicated much time and effort to the practice of Kishimotodi and its practical applications. He was a great representative of the art and we are fortunate to have had the chance to learn some of it from him.

Noah shinshii focused most of his time on Nage-waza (and to a lesser extent kansetsu-waza) and was wearing a hakama of the old Okinawan style (which is similar to the Japanese Nobakama). Because of this, one of the Gasshuku participants asked Noah shinshii how long he had studied Aikido (apparently assuming that any throwing art in which participants wear a hakama must be a style of Aikido). Noah shinshii assured him that what he had taught was -not- Aikido but rather an old Okinawan martial art... Despite Noah shinshii's protests, I think this gentleman remained unconvinced ;-)

This concluded the first day of study in the Ryukyu Martial Arts Friendship Gasshuku.

The next morning it was my turn to try teach. I wanted to teach a technique which was similar to methods shin-budo karateka (modern karateka) would be familiar with which also illustrated the main principles of old-style Okinawan karate. These principles include Miitudi ("partner hands" ie always using both hands in concert, rather than sequentially using one hand after another as in shin-budo karate), Muchimi (a heavy stickiness which is used to adhere to an opponent, mainly without grabbing), Fichidi ("pulling hand", using the hand which pulls to the hip to trap/grab an opponent's arm (clearing obstructions and thus eliminating numerous defensive and offensive options for the opponent), and Tuidi (literally "seizing techniques" which mainly refers to joint-attacks but also can refer to various throws and take-downs).

Photo by Denise Legel
In addition to illustrating such fundamental concepts in Okinawan martial arts, I wanted to explore the parry-pass in greater depth than I had ever seen done publicly. So I taught  a single application to the opening of Pinan Godan against a right-punch, a left punch, a left-right double-punch, a right left double punch, a right lead-hand block, a left lead-hand block, a right rear-hand block, and a left rear-hand block.

This was done mainly to illustrate how to practice bunkai in light of of Motobu Choki shinshii's advice to move beyond "dead kumite" (ie static attacks) and to practice against an attacker who threw multiple punches as well as somebody who actively attempts to block your counter attacks (and/or otherwise attempts to defend themselves against your techniques).

The next segment was a lecture and training session by Chuck Merriman sensei.
Photo by Denise Legel
Merriman sensei is extremely well known in martial arts circles, being from one of the early generations of Americans to study the art of karate. As he explained it, Meriman sensei's background in karate seems to have mirrored the history of the art of karate in this country, first learning traditional Japanese karate, then moving on to sport karate as this form grew and evolved, then finally looking more deeply into the roots of karate in its older Okinawan forms... Merriman sensei spent some time explaining the differences between Japanese and sports karate (his roots) and the older approach to Okinawan karate. His observations rang true to me, and this is a man that has drank deeply from all three streams. To me the most interesting portion of his lecture was on the "principles of Goju ryu" which I found most interesting in that they seemed to me to be "principles of Okinawan karate". These include the use of muchimi (a heavy adhesive quality which allows one to stick to an opponent), legs deal with legs and hands deal with hands, the use of close-range and grappling applications, and so on... all of which seemed equally true of the Suidi lineage arts I am most familiar with.

Merriman sensei then discussed some principles of Kakie (a form of Okinawan sticky-hands practice) and had us practice it together. He even went around the room offering more detailed instruction and offering insights as well as pointers on some of the finer points about basic structure and method.

Photo by Denise Legel.
He also took us through some blocking and 4 directional footwork drills. He was assisted by Ed Dinardo sensei, who came with him for his segment.

Next on the agenda was a "knowledge exchange" session... Noah Legel and Matt Sheridan played with some muchimidi... I think Matt gained some appreciation for the range Okinawan karate works best at as Noah moved from trapping to elbow-rolls to tuidi and back again. At first Noah dominated the exchange, but slowly took it down in intensity allowing Matt to adjust to the practice... Before long Matt was finding his way and they were exchanging techniques. After this not much training was happening (mostly folks were talking with each other in small groups). Poage sensei stepped in and started a sort of round-robin training session where folks took turns teaching waza.

We then went out to eat as a group (those of us who didn't have other commitments). This (as is usually the case) was one of the highlights of the gasshuku. People let their hair down (literally in Matt's case) and exchange stories... These always have a wonderful sense of comradery in my experience.
Supporting the Okinawan economy via Orion ;-)
The next morning Raphael Gutierrez sensei taught Yamane-ryu's Sushi-no kun (aka Suji no kun etc). I've always wanted to be exposed to Yamane-ryu so this was very interesting for me. I have always been intrigued by the fluid repositioning of the hands in Yamane-ryu... Many styles teach Bojutsu with the hands at 1/3 positions on the bo and rarely move them. But from what I have seen, older bojutsu methods are constantly changing the position of the hands along the bo. In Yamane ryu, this seems aimed largely at gaining the maximum amount of power (while maintaining control of the weapon). Gutierrez sensei compared this to how one swings an axe while chopping wood which I think was an especially good analogy. I very much enjoyed this session and will keep practicing this kata. By this point in the gashuku, a theme had developed, namely adjusting the art based on body-type and proclivities... Something which several teachers had already discussed and which Gutierrez sensei also stressed.

Photo by Denise Legel
Ed Sumner sensei (a long time student of the late Chinen Teruo sensei) taught a great segment on the different types of violence (social violence, asocial violence etc) as well as discussing the legal side of the use of force (especially when its not justified and how it needs to be proportional to the situational context). He also pointed out some interesting things about how we should be aware of what witnesses may report about the conflict... all of which was great food for thought, and stuff not discussed nearly enough in most martial arts classes/seminars/books etc.
He then discuss how sanchin posture protects the body in various ways, and in fact is an excellent position to work from if you just open your hands and turn them to face your attacker... providing a very safe structure to work out of, while still appearing non-confrontational (getting back to the idea of being aware of what witnesses may report). Great stuff.

He then taught a number of Seiyunchin bunkai taking us through most of the techniques in the kata. He taught a lot of grappling applications (tuidi/gyakute). I especially liked the defense against a push and the wrist-lock from the opening of Seiyunchin. He emphasized the importance of not being "the good uke" who practically does the technique for you

He taught a number of kumite based footwork drills and a novel approach to four-directional sparring... The four directional sparring seemed quite fun, and I bet it would be a huge success when teaching kids and teens.

Ed Sumner sensei teaching me to minimize the "telegraph" of a punch. Photo by Denise Legel 
Finally Richard Poage sensei taught Shorin ryu hand drills and bunkai... This material was very similar to the karate I practice. Through most of this session and Sumner sensei's session, my partner was Brian Sagi, who is a gifted and knowledgeable martial artist and who was a joy to work with. Some of my favorite drills were adaptations of a basic kote-kitae drill which is used in almost all branches of Okinawan karate (as well as Chinese, Filipino, and Indonesian martial arts)... He also taught lot of tuidi and lots of "flow striking"... Good stuff.
Photo by Denise Legel
The part which I learned the most from, was Poage sensei's discussion of ways to manipulate the head so as to minimize their ability to resist... but I found it all interesting an enjoyable.

Great training session... And nice to end the gasshuku doing material that didn't leave me feeling a bit lost.


  1. Looks like heaps of fun - and very informative! I wish I could have been there. Maybe next time - who knows? I hope so. ;)

  2. I can't be sure but I think the knowledge you and other like minded people are sharing is starting to effect the way karate is taught in all karate dojo and how it is discussed in general. Thank you for sharing and making my karate journey more interesting. Oh, and get the main teachers to invite their best student/s to these gasshuku so there is less chance of your valuable knowledge being lost in the future.

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