top of page

American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 15  - WINTER CAMP
BIO 15 PIC 1.jpg

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Upon my return, I formed a Black Belt association that was referred to as “Kurobi Ura no Kai” (“Hidden Black Belt Association”).  The word “ura” means “back”; this association was an unofficial one that was created behind Mas Oyama’s back, without his knowledge.  The association was very successful, aside from the unexpected drama that unfolded after K. opened his mouth at our first meeting.  It would’ve been different if K. had been a champion fighter or had a strong reputation as a leader, but he had none of that, which was why it was so infuriating to the senior Black Belts when he voiced his opinion.  It wasn’t that K. was a bad guy—he was just naïve and inexperienced.  Also, since the chief instructor at the dojo was a Brown Belt and he was a Black Belt, he had grown accustomed to assuming the position of seniority by default.  Among the Black Belts, though, it was a completely different story. 

            Anyway, once the Black Belts began returning, the dojo became more exciting.  Time passed quickly, and soon it was the new year—time for winter camp.  Traditionally, in the martial arts world, there are two seasons when training camps take place—freezing cold winter and burning hot summer.  The idea is that training under such harsh conditions helps build up mental toughness.  The winter camp was (and still is) held at a large Shinto shrine atop Mt. Mitsumine.  This mountain is just outside of Tokyo.  It was on this mountain where the legendary samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, trained when he was young. 

The winter camp was 3 days of training and we came back on the 4th day.  We chartered three or four buses to transport about 180 of us to the top of the mountain.  Besides the headquarters dojo, other branches from around the Tokyo area also attended the camp, including the Kyokushin Karate club at Josai University.  By that time, my condition was getting better, but still not great.  In addition to teaching and training, I also had a lot of managerial duties to attend to. 

The first training began at 4:00 a.m. in the morning.  We all slept in the same room of a large building by the shrine.  There were sliding doors dividing up the building that we removed in order to have a single large common area.  At 4:00, I shouted “Wake Up!”  Everyone got up and quickly rolled up their futons and put on their dogis.  We started at 4:00 because, according to Shintoism, that is a pure and holy time of day; before the sunrise when gods still inhabit the earth before the beginning of human activity.  It was the middle of January, but we opened all the windows to let the cold, holy and purifying air rush in.  We started with basic exercises and all basic punches and kicks. 

After that, we walked on a narrow wooden pathway outside to the main shrine.  The freezing air blew hard from every direction.  Automatically, we started shouting loud Kiais in response to the harsh wind.  When we entered the shrine, the chief priest was waiting for us.  In Shintoism, the priest is the intermediary between the gods and humans.  It was customary for us to receive the priest’s blessing and for him to pray to the gods on our behalf for a safe and fulfilling winter camp.

            We all sat in seiza by order of rank.  I was next to Mas Oyama, then all the other Black Belts and the other students were behind us.  The floor of the great hall of the shrine was hardwood and the windows were left open in order to keep the cold, purifying mountain air circulating.  We only wore our dogis and weren’t allowed to wear anything underneath, so they were little help in keeping us warm.

            We were instructed to sit on our knees and keep our eyes closed for the duration of the priest’s blessing.  He started chanting prayers and recounting the histories of the gods in an old-fashioned voice that sounded like, “Dey—uh—daduh-dee—dehdadu…”  The words were in Japanese, but I had no idea what he was saying, and I’m sure nobody else did either.  Mas Oyama was the only one who may have had some idea of what the priest was talking about.  My mother was Christian and so my brief encounters with religion growing up all took place in a church, not a Shinto shrine.  All I remember, really, was that preacher would give us candy at Sunday school.  Especially around Christmas time, the church always had great candy.  So, I had no idea about Shintoism or what the priest was saying. 

            Within the first 10 seconds of the priest’s incantations, our legs and feet were consumed with sharp pains.  I said a little prayer myself that the priest would hurry up.  After about 30 seconds, our legs were numb.  Sometimes, the feeling would come back, but it was very painful.  Five minutes went by.  Then ten minutes.  At fifteen minutes, the melody of the priest’s voice seemed like the blessing may be coming to an end, but it was false alarm.  The priest was praying for our health and safety, which was nice, but all I could think was that we didn’t need it.  We were fine without a blessing, just hurry up and finish.

            (When I wrote this part of my biography as an essay, I discussed it with Sensei Ishikawa, who is part of one of the Oyama Karate branches in Japan.  He is also a Shinto priest.  I asked him how he was able to learn all of the long, complicated ritual prayers and histories of the gods.  He said it’s difficult, especially for young kids.  Before they learn any of that, though, he said that a priest in training first has to learn how to sit on his knees for an extended period of time.  They have to work their way up to 60 minutes at a time and be able to get up gracefully without falling down (most people’s legs start going numb after a few minutes).  “Do you guys ever fall down when trying to stand up after sitting in seiza for extended periods?” I asked him.  “Yes, all the time at first,” he said.  That made me feel a little better.  Anyway, back to the story.)

After 20 minutes, it was over.  Mas Oyama signaled me to give the “Mokuso yame! (Open your eyes!)” command, at which point everyone had to stand up.  Mas Oyama stood up.  My legs were numb and painful, but I was the chief instructor, so I forced myself, with all my energy, to stand up.  I was the chief instructor, so if I wasn’t able to stand up, I’d have to commit Seppuku (Harakiri).  Most everyone else, though, collapsed to the floor just as soon as they tried to get up.  Mas Oyama growled and shook his head. 

We finished with the shrine at about 5:00 a.m. and returned to the main hall to train.  After that we had breakfast.  We sat under Kotatsu (Heated table covered with a blanket) to keep warm.  Before lunch, we trained again.  We trained outside in the snow and ice BAREFOOT.

            We only had to go to the shrine for the priest’s blessing on the 1st day (thank God!), so we didn’t have to get up until about 5:30 a.m.  The shrine had large facilities to accommodate the priests who came to do their training there.  Part of the shrine complex was a large hot springs bath.  Since we trained barefoot in the snow, our feet would be frozen and numb afterwards.  The dumb, inexperienced members of the group would rush on the first day to soak their feet in the hot water.  As soon as they did, though, they’d scream and fall to the floor in pain.  Putting frozen skin in hot water is like cutting through it with a hot knife.  First you have to massage the skin, then add just a little bit of lukewarm water and let the skin warm back up and thaw out gradually.  

On the last day we had to do long-distance running.  We were instructed to run to the bottom of the mountain and back up again.  For this part, we could wear tennis shoes.  However, I didn’t have any.  Somehow, I was able to find some naga-gutsu (thick rubber boots).  (When writing this article, I consulted with Shihan Miura and asked him if I really did wear naga-gutsu or if that was just my imagination.  He laughed and said, “Yes, you did.  I watched you doing mawashi geri in the snow with naga-gutsu, and thought it was very dynamic.”) 


BIO 15 PIC 2.jpg

Naga - Gutsu

Going down the mountain was not so bad.  Once we were at the bottom and had to go back up, it felt like trying to climb Mt. Everest.  Rather than go back up the path that winded up the mountain, I and a couple other Black Belts decided to take a shortcut by going straight up.  It ended up being much harder, though.  We got so hungry along the way that we would ball up the snow and eat it, but it didn’t do any good.  By the time we finally made it to the top, almost everyone else had already made it back before us.

            The last night of camp, we had a little party.  During the party, each team had to present some type of entertainment.  Mas Oyama and some of the senior Black Belts would judge each group and the winners would get a little prize—beer, sake, towel, souvenir, etc.  I was always on the lookout to recruit my successor at Headquarters dojo.  I talked with the head of the Kyokushin Karate Club at Josai University.  His name was Araki, and he was a senior.  He had a lot of guts and spirit.  He was a great leader of the people under him.  I tried to get him to come train at the headquarters dojo to become a Karate instructor after he graduated.  He appreciated the offer, but said that he couldn’t.  His father had a business and, since he was the oldest son, he was expected to come work with his father after graduation.  He introduced me to the junior who would take over as head of the Karate Club after he graduated.  That’s how I met Shihan Miura.  Araki suggested that Shihan Miura would be a good fit for training at headquarters in the future. 

            That winter camp was when I started recruiting Shihan Miura to come to headquarters dojo.  I told him that his university was a nice place, but it wasn’t one of the top schools where major companies tried to hire graduates.  I told him that Karate was his chance of being successful and seeing the world.  Shihan Miura ended up coming to Headquarters for the Black Belt class and as a member of the Kurobi Uranokai. 

            One other big part of winter camp, done on the last day before heading home, is punching and kicking underneath the waterfall.  We would take our dogi tops off to stand under the waterfall.  Most people don’t know it but being under an ice-cold waterfall is like being hit with a hammer.  The rocks underneath are icy, so if you don’t have a really good stance, you’ll be sent flying down to the bottom.  Each of us took turns standing under the waterfall for a couple minutes.  Part of the reason we stood under the waterfall was supposed to be so we could be purified and cleansed spiritually.  But nobody cared about that part while they were under it—they just did their best to not be sent flying to the bottom.  When we were done, Mas Oyama would hand us a small cup of sake to drink to get warm. 

This year, 2018, I asked Shihan Goda if he still stands under the waterfall at winter camp.  He’s 78 years old now, so I figured there was no way he did.  “I don’t run down the mountain,” he said, “But I still stand under the waterfall.”  This is a picture of him doing it this year.  He may be 78 years old, but he’s still a ferocious monster… a crazy ferocious monster.   

“You guys still wake up at 4 o’clock and train and sleep in that big room with no heater and the windows open?” I asked him.

“No,” he laughed, “times have changed.  There’s central heat now—just like a hotel.”

“But you still get up at 4:00 a.m. since that’s the most spiritual part of the day, right?”

            “No, we get up at 7:00 a.m. now.  But was still go to the shrine on the first day for the priest’s blessing.  That part’s the same and so is the wooden floor and everyone’s legs going numb.”

            “Well, be careful,” I told him, “you’re an old man now.”

            “No I’m not!” he shot back.  “My body might be old, but I still have teenager’s spirit!”


BIO 15 PIC 3.jpg

Shihan Goda under the waterfall.  His body may be aging, but his spirit is as young as ever!

bottom of page