I would like to start off by talking about our time in Global Arena in Fukuoka Japan. Global Arena consisted of multiple buildings and the dorms were very nice. They have a convenience store, bakery, and two different dojos for practice. The meals were buffet style in the dining hall. I was very excited to try Japanese cuisine, and I made it a point to try something different every meal. I admit it took me a day or two to adjust. One of my favorite things that we had were what looked like fried green tomatoes, but were crunchy and had some type of meat in the middle. They were delicious. The weather felt much like summer time during the day, but at night it did get pretty cold.
The training regimen in Japan was beyond any that I have seen or done. We trained for 3 hours right after breakfast. The first hour was spent doing stretching and warm up drills that were very practical. Each drill had a different focus to improve on various aspects of your judo: balance, strength, and speed. After warm-ups we went straight into newaza. The newaza consisted of about 20 rounds with frequent changing of partners, every few minutes. The workout ended with uchi komis and cool down stretching. After the first half of practice was over we had about an hour to eat lunch before the afternoon practice started. The afternoon practice was another 3 or 4 hours of practice. The first hour would be spent much like the start of morning practice, stretching and warm up drills. Then the next 2 or 3 hours was constant randori. This was the most challenging part of the training where you had to dig deep and push yourself. These long practices were tough, but I loved them. The Japanese students would shout every so often, I was told it was a cheer to keep their spirits up and to encourage them to keep working hard. I’ve never seen someone push themselves that hard for an hour straight and still have the determination to keep going. It gave me the incentive to want to do that, to have that kind of drive to keep pushing one’s own limits. Randori with the Japanese girls was nothing like what we do back home. Their randori had a kind of flow to it, where they did not let you throw them but if you set up right for your throw they would practice defending. It was not an all-out fight to win. In randori their throws were so skillful and clean that you did not worry about getting hurt. Their grip fighting is also very impressive. As soon as they get their grip it’s nearly impossible to break. I was able to pick a few things just from watching them grip fight. I do not see many left handed fighters in the states so it was really educational for me to be able to watch how left handers work for their grips. It’s very hard to describe the difference of their randori but I learned a lot from being able to work with them and by watching.
One day after a randori session there was a technical workshop. It started with everyone including the hosts showing a variety of standing and groundwork techniques we may have never seen before. I picked up a couple of techniques that I liked; my favorite was a variation of kata guruma. The tori would use their own gi and wrap it around uke’s arm effectively trapping the wrist and giving uke no choice but to fall due to pressure on the wrist when you throw at an angle. The training gi’s they used were very helpful. The training gi’s were colored in specific areas to help you learn were to grip, or arm and leg placement for techniques. I found the training gi was one of the coolest things that I have ever seen. It’s very practical for improving your technique or learning a throw.
The tournaments in Japan are a bit different from the ones back home. The tournaments are lot bigger and with more participants then I have ever seen in the U.S. There were 6 mats used for shiai with 9 different countries competing. Just to give you a perspective of how big this tournament really was there were 89 men and 48 women teams. The tournament at the Global Arena consisted of team matches where you depended on your teammates and the outcomes of their matches to determine if your team moved on to the next round. In the team matches there are no weight categories. The most exciting thing with team matches was when you had a larger opponent versus a smaller judoka. Those underdog matches were the most exciting to watch especially with all the energy and excitement of the spectators. I was impressed by how organized the tournament was for the number of participants.
The second part of our trip had us heading up north to Nagoya Japan via boat and bus. The weather further up north was a lot colder then Fukuoka. Despite the chilly weather I was excited for the next part of our adventure. Our destination was Taisei junior and senior high school. The students and the staff were very excited to be meeting Americans for the first time. When we arrived at Taisei we were treated to different types of cuisine such as miso soup, grated daikon, soy sauce with seaweed, kinako, and sweet bean paste. We also had the opportunity to make mochi (rice cakes), which is done by taking a huge hammer and swinging overhead to hit the rice until it has a sticky consistency. We then left the school with a group of students that showed us around Atsuta Shrine. We all had a great time. The next day we had a tournament which was a pretty big event much like the one at Global Arena, except the girls competed in individual matches instead of team matches and in their distinct weight categories only. After the tournament we had the opportunity to visit Meiji-Mura museum, which kind of reminded me of a Japanese version of Greenfield Village. The buildings and old architecture are not like anything I have ever seen before and getting to know the history behind them was an educational experience. My favorite building that we looked at was the old judo/kendo dojo. The mats are nothing like what we use today and the walls of the dojo have wooden name tags of the students that trained there. It was amazing to see the huge differences in dojos today compared to ones back then. When it was time to leave Meiji-Mura we sadly said our goodbyes to our new friends that we made from Taisei high school and finished our last day in Japan going out to eat before heading back to the hotel for the night.
As a coach I can say I saw the girls improve and grow from this experience both on and off the mat. After every round of randori whether they had thrown their opponent or not I could see that each of them learned something from every match that they had, and I could see growth in their judo each day. I believe that this trip has helped them become more independent and take on responsibilities that they may have never had before. This was great group of young ladies and I am honored to have been able to share this experience with them. I am proud to have been their coach.
I would like to say a special thank you to Mr. Saito, Mr. Munemasa, Mr. Kondo, Mr. Murray, Mrs. Koyama, Mr. Getov, and Ms. Nishida. I would also like to say thank you to the Taisei teachers and students who helped us and introduced us to their culture. To everyone who made donations for the Sanix trip, thank you. Your donations helped make this trip possible for many young individuals who may not have been able to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity without your help.
Birmingham team coach