What is the 50 State Challenge? Want to join the Challenge? Email me here.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Taekyun as a Combat Sport

Taekyun has been practiced as a sport in Korea since at least the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when its popularity soared and taekyun matches were first depicted in books. Taekyun is still practiced as a sport to this day, with the most prestigious event being the Taekyun Battle.

Teams of taekyun players gather from all over Korea to compete in the championship, which begins in May and ends in October every year.  I was lucky enough to be in Korea for the finals.

Taekyun Battle 2015 officials, demonstrators, and teams competing for 1st through 4th place.

How The Game is Played

Matches are full contact.  The only protective equipment is a mouth guard and a groin cup, although taekyun shoes have a minimal layer of padding built into the top of them. Beyond that, the players are completely unprotected.

There is no scoring in a taekyun match.  There are two ways to win--either by a successful kick to the face or by throwing the opponent on the ground.  Even though low kicks aren't tracked by the judges, they are still a major part of the game since they are used to weaken the opponent.

Low kicks are used to weaken the opponent.

A kick to the face will end the match.

A good throw will end the match.

At the Taekyun Battle, there are five players to a team.  Two players face off and have five minutes to win by head kick or throw.  At the end of the five minutes, if neither has achieved a victory condition, both players are eliminated.  If one does manage to decisively end the match, only the opponent is disqualified.  The winner stays to fight the next opponent from the other team.  In fact it's possible for one player to defeat an entire team single-handedly.

The game ends when one team's players have all been eliminated.

Taekyun Battle 2015 Finals

The opening ceremony for the finals included speeches by dignitaries and an explanation of the rules.  There were also demonstrations highlighting the aspects of taekyun that aren't immediately apparent from watching a taekyun competition.  One performance showed taekyun as a basics demonstration to live music and one showed taekyun as a practical martial art--both of which were fascinating, but will have to wait for another blog post.

The final match of 2015 took place between Sungju Taekyun Academy and a team of graduate students from Sungkyunkwan University.  Sungju, wearing muted red and green, had to travel about four hours to compete in Seoul.  Sungkyunkwan, wearing bright green, were much closer since their school is in Seoul.  These two teams had to eliminate ten others on their way to face each other in the finals. 

Sportsmanship:  Before the final match, Sungju surprises their opponents with fruit gift boxes.

Here is part of one of the match-ups, to give you an idea of how the game is played.  The nice folks at Kyulyun Taekyun provided this video and uploaded a longer version that shows all of the matches.

The judges confer about whether a high kick was blocked or not.

Kick blocked!  The match continues.

It ended up being a very close contest.  Two matches ended by kicks, two by throws, and two more ended with the clock eliminating both players.  Both teams were down to a single remaining fighter, and it all came down to the match up between Park Hyeonsu of Sungkyunkwan and Son Byungjun of Sungju.  Since it's determined by elimination instead of score, matches can be cruelly short.  Here is the final match-up in its entirety.

Taekyun Battle is finished until 2016.  Congratulations to the top four teams!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Because of Some Reading

After the 50 States Challenge part of my trip was done, there was still one last thing I had to do in Seattle.

A view from the water tower in Volunteer Park

But first, a flashback.  Just imagine your screen is doing that cheesy wobble thing and playing some stereotypical flashback sound.

When I was a color belt, I practically lived at the dojang.  One student quipped that I was there so often, the instructor was claiming me as a dependent on his taxes.  But it's impossible to be training every minute, so when I wasn't in class or practicing at home, I would read.

One particular book that I read was a collection of essays written by martial arts instructors.  One essay was about how instructors can adapt teaching techniques to help students who learn in different ways.  I thought the author might have some insight into a problem I had in sparring that had confounded both me and my instructors.

Between the references in the book and the wonder that is the Internet, I found an email address for a Sensei Carol Gittins.  I eagerly drafted an email explaining my situation and asking if she had any advice.  And then I didn't hear back.

I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised.  6th degree black belts (as she was at the time) are busy.  School owners are busy.  Published authors are busy.  6th degree black belt school owner published authors probably have better things to do than worry about some color belt clear on the other side of the country.

So I was quite surprised a couple months later to get a reply.  She apologized for the delay since their email had been down for a long time due to computer upgrades, and proceeded to write a detailed answer to my question.

I was excited and grateful, but some of what she suggested were drills specific to her style that I had never heard of before.  I had to sheepishly admit that I had no idea what she was talking about, and ask for some clarification.  She again sent back a detailed reply. We traded emails for months, and she always seemed just as happy to be answering my questions as I was to be getting those answers.  At one point, she recorded a video of her with one of her students performing one of the drills that she recommended, which she then burned to a DVD and mailed to me (stop laughing, it was the most convenient way to do it back then).

We kept in touch, and I promised that if I ever visited Washington, I would visit her in person.  It was the better part of a decade later when that finally happened.

Since I had no car, she picked me up in hers.  I thought it was funny to post on Facebook that, "I'm getting in a car with someone I met on the Internet!"  My family thought it was less funny.  Then she gave me a tour of the International District, Volunteer Park and Bruce Lee's Grave.

And the shore.

That was fun, but then I got a chance to train with her.  I have never seen, or even heard of a school like that before.  It's tiny.  There are only a handful of students, and they are all black belts.  The school has no website and almost no online presence, so I never would have found it on my own.  I feel very lucky to have been invited, though, because their approach was fascinating.

The classes were led by Sensei Gittins, but they were taught by everyone.  One might expect a class like this to be chaos, but it wasn't.

The class, minus the photographer.

The cliché about teaching being the best way to learn is a cliché for a reason.  Sensei Gittins is a professional educator with years of experience teaching both in public schools and in the dojo.  It's safe to say she knows what she's doing when it comes to the process of learning.  She directed each student to lead a part of the class, often just barely outside of their comfort zone, and often giving them some leeway in specifically what techniques they would cover.

I got a crash course in their curriculum.  There wasn't enough time to go into anything in depth, but I got a taste of quite a bit, spanning striking drills, sparring drills, one steps, joint locks, and forms.  She would direct someone to lead the class through five drills, then the next person had to lead us through a few more, and so forth.  Since I was completely absorbed in trying to make the most of my brief introduction to their material, I was surprised when she assigned me to lead the class through two techniques.

As luck would have it, before class one of the students mentioned that when she trained in taekwondo, she found a certain kick to be very difficult.  Class was about to begin, so I promised to show her a trick to make it easier afterward.  Class hadn't ended, but I found myself in a teaching situation and decided to use that time to answer her question.  I cannibalized part of my pivoting class that I had just taught, thereby making myself look much smarter than I actually am.  It looked like I came up with that lesson on the spot.

Sensei Gittins later told me that they operate the class with the philosophy that when you are struggling with something, you teach it until you figure it out.  It is a very different approach from any other school I've trained in, taught at, or even visited.  Even though this wasn't an official stop in the Challenge, the time I spent there was very much in the spirit of the project.  This is a project about teaching and learning and experiencing new ways of doing things.  I was beyond lucky to end up here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What Does 400 Pounds of Food Look Like?

When I first spoke with Kris Wilder about the 50 States Challenge, he immediately suggested collecting and donating fresh fruits and vegetables, because those are scarce in food banks.  I liked the idea of everyone bringing a "ticket" to my class, which could be anything from a head of lettuce to a bag of apples.  But after discussing it with the West Seattle Food Bank, they came up with an even better idea.  It's a targeted program addressing a very specific problem.

Supporting an award-winning not-for-profit in Washington.

Some kids simply don't have enough healthy food to eat at home, so they rely greatly on school lunches.  That makes the weekend a tough time.  Often they're home alone for at least part of the time that their parents are at work, leaving them to prepare their own snacks and meals.  When they get back to school on Monday, even if they're not hungry, they're not necessarily nourished if they've been eating cheap snack food instead of balanced meals.

That's all unfortunate enough by itself, but it comes with some scary side-effects. Without the vital ingredients to build a healthy body and brain, malnourished kids get sick and miss school more often, have more trouble concentrating, and can lack the energy to participate in class.  Since their bodies are still growing, malnutrition in childhood can interfere with development and cause long term or permanent damage.  It can affect the whole class, too, because a child with poor nutrition is a staggering 7 to 12 times more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Fortunately there are programs like West Seattle Food Bank's Backpack Program.  They provide backpacks for latchkey kids to assemble their own healthy meals over the weekends when they might otherwise go hungry.  The very generous students at West Seattle Karate donated an impressive 400 pounds of food to this program.

I thought that since the 50 States Challenge is just starting out, there would be a slow start.  We might only collect a couple bags of food and some lessons learned for next time.  Please enjoy these pictures of the students proving me wrong.

One of the classes hiding behind a whole lot of healthy meals.

Piled into the van, on the way to the food bank.

So what does 400 pounds of food look like?  It looks like a bunch of kids with a better shot at an education, a healthier childhood, and a greater chance of growing up to be healthy adults.

If you would like to support a cause like this in your community, get in touch with your local food bank.  Even if they don't have a backpack program, they may have something similar.  Volunteering or donating can make a huge difference to a lot of people.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Martial Artist's Look at Seattle

In between some of my more ridiculous antics in Seattle, I had some rather sobering experiences.  Here are a few of them.

Seattle Dojo - America's Oldest Judo School

Seattle Dojo has been in this stand-alone building since the 30's, but the school was originally established in 1902.  The building looks and feels old, and the way the room shakes when students practice their breakfalls is only a little disconcerting.  I am sure this school has many stories to tell, but here I am telling only one, regarding the calligraphy on the walls.

Inside the oldest Judo school in America.

Seattle Dojo's calligraphy was done by Jigoro Kano, who is more famous for founding judo than he is for calligraphy.  However, the calligraphy on the walls today are copies of the originals.

It happened during World War II.  The Japanese Internment is a shameful chapter in America's history, in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes and relocated to concentration camps.  It was driven by fear in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Anyone of Japanese descent was given a few weeks notice to pack a single suitcase and leave everything else behind.  Many believed that they would not survive the ordeal, and even if they did, they would never be allowed to return to their property.  Many chose to destroy their farms and homes rather than allow them to be confiscated.

A sign at the entrance to Seattle Dojo.

The school had to close from January 1942 to September 1947 during the Internment, but the building survived thanks to one of the students, a Jewish corporate attorney, who kept the deed to the school and many other Seattle area Japanese-American properties in the vault at Seattle First National bank. The FBI did not attempt to confiscate it, as they did with almost all other Japanese-American property.  It was gutsy, but it paid off.  When the people were released from the internment camps and allowed to return home, the school had survived.
However, after reopening the school, it was discovered that the calligraphy was missing from the walls.  It is unclear if there was a break-in or if the calligraphy was removed for safe-keeping, and then accidentally lost, during the chaotic three weeks in December 1941 when Japenese-Americans were forcibly removed to various camps. Jigoro Kano had passed away even before the start of the war, so the school had to commission copies to be made to replace the originals.

One of Kano's last visits to Seattle Dojo.

Even though it's always sad when a piece of history is lost, that's not my takeaway from this story.  This is a story of resiliency.  This is a story about a community coming together in the face of adversity.  One might attribute it to the martial spirit of the judoka who carried the school through events that should have killed it, so that today it has not only survives but even thrives.  I have never trained at Seattle Dojo, but I think if I did, I would be very proud to be part of that legacy.

Japanese Garden

Completely surrounded by city, Washington Park Arboretum includes the Seattle Japanese Garden.  This would be an amazing place to sit and relax, read, or just enjoy a leisurely walk.  Of course, I did none of those things.  I zoomed through, hoping to save time to experience as much of Seattle as possible.  Yeah, I fail at vacation.  Though the sky was just a little too overcast to take perfect pictures, I did get to take some good ones.

Every few steps there's a completely different but equally beautiful view.

I've never been to a Japaense garden before, but this park reminded me greatly of certain venues in Korea.  The style is one of people whose open space is at a premium.  While I certainly appreciate Western botanical gardens and arboretums, they have a very different feel.  Here, every few steps provides a view substantially different from the views around it.  There's no symmetry here.  Taking a picture from one side of the pond could never be confused with the view from the other side.

A lantern by the water.

This park was built in 1959, with its construction delayed from the anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of World War II.  Despite its newness, I was acutely aware of the history here.  The Nihon Shoki includes the earliest written mention of a Japanese garden. This is an art that has been in development for literally thousands of years.

Duck-sized koi in the pond.

In true Seattle fashion, it began to rain shortly after I arrived.  Not an unpleasant rain, but the kind of thing that is awful for taking pictures.  I'd love to return on a clear day and do it justice.

Bruce Lee Remembered

Bruce Lee is buried in Seattle.  I've only dabbled in kung fu, but even if I hadn't done that, I'd still feel his impact on martial arts.  He inspired so many people to start training.  He opened doors for so many people by advocating for kung fu to be available to everyone, not just Chinese.  He is less known for his involvement in promoting women in martial arts. I think it's fair to say that the martial arts landscape in America would look pretty different if not for what he did.  I took a moment to appreciate how much richer my martial arts experience has been because of him.

Thank you, and rest in peace, Mr. Lee.

It also crossed my mind to wonder what he might think of the reason I was there.  He is well known for his mixing of styles, and that gives me hope that he would have liked the spirit of this project, even if the execution is, for the time being, unproven.

The Wing Luke Museum had an exhibit for him called Do You Know Bruce?  They didn't allow photography, but the surrounding area was fascinating.

The Western entrance to the International District.

I want dragons to hold up power lines everywhere.

Seattle has a lot to offer the martial artist.  Should you find yourself there, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.