Right now I’m in the first stage of preparation for the Great Adventure: three months training at Futen Dojo in Milwaukee. Futen Dojo is where I first learned what true martial arts are. They’re an important part of who I am, but they weren’t always.
I was nineteen. I had just transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I had fond memories of practicing Tae Kwon Do throughout my adolescence. At the time, I thought of martial arts as each having a “niche” to fill. In my head Tae Kwon Do was good for striking and kicking, Judo for grappling, and Ninjutsu for hiding and ambushing. Perhaps you think of the martial arts this way too. But I was about to be introduced to a single martial art that has all of the essential techniques.
I missed martial arts, so I decided to find a place to train. I might have gone back into Tae Kwon Do if there was a school near me, but there wasn’t. On the other hand, every day I walked past this beautiful little martial arts studio in a storefront on Brady Street.
As I recall, the window said Jujutsu and Ninpo. I didn’t know what Ninpo was. As far as I knew Jujutsu was a lot of locks, takedowns and ground fighting (wrong). So when I went inside, I told the teacher that was what I wanted to learn. “Tae Kwon Do doesn’t do much ground fighting, so I think Jujutsu would be good for me.”
His answer: “Before you learn ground fighting, maybe you should learn fighting.”
I soon found out what he meant. My blocks were designed for loose sparring, where no one really tried to hit the other person. They didn’t work against killing strokes. My posture was terrible; I was all in my arms and legs and never thought about my balance. The idea of off-balancing my opponent wasn’t even in my repertoire.
Sensei showed me blocks that disabled the enemy’s arm. He made sure I could feel it myself, reducing my arm to the numbness of pins and needles. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “That will go away in a minute. I went soft.”
He showed me what it means to feel my own body. Months of practicing rolls, falls, and ritualistic etiquette taught me secret lessons I can’t begin to describe. With time I noticed more than just where my hand or foot should go. I began to feel where my weight should go, and how to move my opponent for my own gain.
I was receiving the training of a samurai, something that no American and very few Japanese could have hoped for just decades ago. Given that amazing privilege, you might think I’d be honored and dedicate myself completely to it.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I treated Jujutsu the way people treat hobbies. It was fun and interesting, but it was always the first thing to go. Too busy? Skip Jujutsu. Tired? Skip Jujutsu. Running out of money? No need to go to that special Jujutsu seminar.
As a result I progressed slowly. When I moved away to Minneapolis, my visits back to the dojo for training became less frequent. I could see real physical improvement, and spiritual confidence, from Jujutsu. But I didn’t treat these skills as something I’d need to save my life. Like a decorative sword, I didn’t keep them sharp.
Now, after half-assing it for a decade, I’m getting ready to walk to walk across Latin America. Let me try to put that in perspective.
Last night at dinner a new friend, himself from Mexico, asked me a jarring question: “What’s the world capital for beheadings right now? Iraq. How about second place?”
I shook my head.
“Mexico.” He explained how his father, a biologist, used to do field research in his home country. An expedition he was on met with thugs, resulting in robbery, beatings and the rape of a woman in the group. Able to escape alive, he refuses to go into the field in Mexico again.
If it was meant to change my mind, the story failed: it’s not the first such incident I’ve been told of by concerned friends. The reality is, I’m walking into a very dangerous area. Followed by many more dangerous areas. So I may require my Jujutsu skills to save my life.
Which makes me wish I had spent the last ten years treating my art as much more than a hobby.
See Part II.