As I boarded the flight to Convention in early March, I could easily sense that the environment around me in the airport was quite different than usual. I am used to flying, traveling weekly or so for work, so I had grown accustomed to the sounds, crowds and rhythm of LAX. But today felt different. There was less noise, and fewer people. Those who were there, rather than scurrying around the airport trying to catch a flight, weaving in and out of the crowd of other passengers, moved slowly and carefully, with caution instead of urgency. I remarked to my dojo-mate Chris who boarded the flight with me, that in a way we were fortunate – we’d have plenty of extra space and likely our pick of seats on the uncrowded flight. Indeed we did, finding a nice empty row to share. We wiped down our seats, sat down, buckled in, and made our way north to San Ramon.
The 2020 AJJF Convention was full of exciting, educational, fun, and inspiring moments. But in the backdrop of this great event, you could feel that we were all on the verge of a looming challenge. The hand sanitizer bottles carefully placed on the tables, the elbow-to-elbow handshakes and the distance hugs. We all knew trying times were likely around the corner. As Convention concluded and I headed back to LA, my dojo-mates and I talked about how we looked forward to continuing our training, all the while knowing that things might start to look very different soon, and that we had to prepare for what was about to come.
It was coincidental that at that time I had just completed one of the books from our dojo reading list that had some interesting parallels to my own early 2020 experiences, Persimmon Wind, by Dave Lowry. The book tells the story of Lowry’s own travels for his martial arts training; visiting rural Japan to reconnect with his sensei, who after having trained with Lowry while living in St. Louis, eventually returned home. After the long flight and journey to the countryside outside Nara, Lowry’s trip was filled with training, unique experiences, and connecting at new depths with his dojo family and martial arts lineage. Towards the end of his trip however, a typhoon approached Japan, and Lowry, his sensei and family all had to prepare sensei’s home for the coming storm. Lowry could literally ‘smell’ the storm pending in the near future. The forewarning winds picked up the smell of persimmon trees from the surrounding area, hurling around with an unusual potency, indicating that the storm was approaching. Training with his sensei well past when the winds picked up, eventually it came time to carry sensei’s unwieldy wooden storm shutters up to the pitched roof, and cover the house’s windows for extra protection from the coming typhoon. Once the house was fortified, Lowry, his sensei and their household retired for the evening. After a warm meal of oden stew, rice and pickled vegetable, they spent the mostly sleepless night huddled by candlelight after the power went out, drinking genmaicha tea, and engaging in hours of conversations about martial arts, American and Japanese cultures, and how their training and life experiences have shaped their characters.
Like Lowry surrounded by the early winds in Nara, in late February many of us could start to sense our ‘storm’ coming, and by mid-March it had hit. Our physical dojo was locked down; we all stocked up on provisions, and then gathered into our homes to stay safe. The Novel Coronavirus had arrived in Southern California. Since then, like nearly everything else in our lives, our Jujitsu training has changed as we wait for it to pass. But like in Persimmon Wind, our time in shelter has been a time of learning, of probing deeper into elements of our training, and of getting to know ourselves and the other members of our dojo in ways we otherwise may not have done. In Persimmon Wind, Lowry doesn’t describe his night in the storm as the low point of his trip, nor as a disappointment at all. Rather, it was a unique moment to transition in and out of, with experiences and lessons not to be dismissed as the best he
could do in the situation. Back in Southern California, our Santa Monica dojo closed, our Pacific Jujitsu Kai virtual dojo opened, and our path on the journey of Danzan Ryu took a unique and engaging turn.
In the virtual dojo, much has remained the same as in our physical dojo. As we enter the Zoom room, we bow in, we warm up with Kowami exercises, and our Sensei, Professor Kaplowitz, walks through the lesson plan for the day. We practice our techniques, engaging with Sensei and each other, in ways that don’t simply try to mimic what we did in our physical dojo, but that take advantage of the unique circumstance to focus and improve on particular elements of our techniques. Using lines we each made on our floors to guide us, we are paying extra attention to footwork in Nage practice drills. Using gis to grip, we are focusing on proper hand and wrist movements in Shime. Using yoga mats (or for the braver of us, the floor) we are practicing a variety of Sutemi drills I hadn’t done before. We’ve had the added benefit of also training with dojomates of ours who have moved elsewhere, and who can now train with us routinely again. Over the course of our time in the virtual dojo, I have definitely felt my development in Danzan Ryu continue. Drilling familiar techniques under my Sensei’s watch without a physical uke has helped me become more focused on my own movements, and more deliberate with my footwork and posture. White belts through black belts in our dojo ask questions about the techniques along the way, often calling to my attention details I hadn’t been focused on before. As a result, it feels like every class I walk away with new perspectives on techniques I’ve practiced before. Perspectives that perhaps would have taken me much longer to develop training in a more traditional class setting.
Interspersed within our new routine, has been a series of engaging sessions dedicated to learning and discussing elements of DZR and related concepts from neighboring arts and philosophies. These have allowed us to broaden our training horizon, and deepen our understanding of areas we may have only been somewhat familiar with before. With incredible guest lecturers including Senior Professor Ball, Professor Hudson, and Professor Belzer, we have covered elements of Danzan Ryu history and philosophy, Seifukujitsu and healing arts, as well as Japanese and martial arts culture that have enriched our training. Similar to Dave Lowry in Persimmon Wind, while secluded from the world and forced outside of our normal routine, we have taken this opportunity to learn new things, deepen our connection to our art, and all become a bit closer to one another as a result.
As the typhoon fled from the Nara countryside, Dave Lowry prepared to bid farewell to his sensei and return to his life in the United States; his experience in Japan enriched by his night in the storm, ending on a personal high note. Many, if not all of us, across the AJJF are likely still in circumstances that prevent us from returning to ‘normal’. Hopefully everyone is staying safe and healthy. For those able to, finding a way to engage in training in this unique environment may prove to be a very memorable, personal, and developmental moment in their DZR journey, as it has been for me and our dojo. Our virtual dojo has been a place of learning, growth, fun and a much needed respite from the health, social, and financial consequences we may facing from COVID-19 and the stormy world around us. Hopefully now the clouds may be starting to lift. While all of us are of course looking forward to the sunshine after the storm, under the leadership of our Sensei, Professor Kaplowitz, our training has continued and expanded during this challenging time, and our bond as a dojo has strengthened as we experienced Danzan Ryu at a distance all together.
Taking turns leading Kowami exercises
Focusing on Sensei’s footwork
Improvised weights for pushing / raising warm ups
Sensei’s Yawara Wheel to pick the next Yawara technique