Tales of the Dojo Origin: II –The Shinoda Years

Shinoda sensei was before my time, so what I got to know about the beginnings of the dojo were the stories told after practice around some orange juice or beer, depending on who was doing the talking. Shinoda was Japanese and this gave a particular flavor to how he ran the dojo. His goal was to set up a Shoreikan Dojo and do whatever it took to get there. From that initial group of kids that Kimo Wall was training, a half dozen or so were chosen to get a total immersion karate training, and that meant round the clock training that included sleeping over at the dojo. From this half dozen came what was to be the core of the future homegrown sensei: Fornaris, Palmer, González, Gandía, and Rodríguez, and maybe a few others. Shinoda taught the class as he was taught, in the strict Japanese and/or Okinawan fashion. The exercises and formal kata and bunkai training were meted out to take you to the limit, and then more. How Kimo fit into all this, I never got to know, but all my sensei considered him their sensei, so he must have exerted a greater influence than the stories let on. I know it was Kimo that spread the Dojo to the University system and to nearby towns, Caguas and San Lorenzo. But it was Shinoda who marked the psyche of the sensei at the time, especially Fornaris and Palmer. But, like I said, this was before my time. So what I experienced was the Shinoda effect: that all that went before was worse, much worse than anything I would experience. And also, that all who partook of the time were more real karateka for having endured it. Now I know that for what it truly is: the curse of the new practitioner; that all time past was somewhat more real, more authentic. Well, every art has its myths, and this is enduring karate lore. And for whatever it is worth, Tony Fornaris lived it to the core: he was my Shinoda, and I dreaded the days he would come by the Dojo (he wasn’t my official sensei, which was Gusi González, “the soft sensei”). Tony was built oriental: short, stocky, and from what I hear, was as short-tempered and intimidating as Shinoda. That does not mean that I didn’t love the man as I got to know him better through the years, even to the point of practicing with his 19 year old son, but I never stopped fearing him, and he never stopped making me feel like I knew absolutely nothing. No one ever knew what became of Shinoda, no one ever saw him again, stories and legends abound, sightings also. So I feel like I knew Shinoda, channeled through Tony Fornaris, one of the three sensei I learned under when I began; he gave me my green belt.


Tales of the Dojo Origin: I -The Three Sensei

When I began Goju karate the Dojo was run by three young sensei, in their early twenties. How they reached that level so young is a story into itself, and like any story that circulates around a dojo, it was woven in equal strands of myth and truth. They all began in their early teens when they sort of ran into Kimo Wall (who was then a Shoreikan sensei stationed at a local military base) practicing in a park close to their homes…or was it that he put an ad in the paper… well, anyway, Kimo began teaching them and other youngsters the Goju karate fundamentals in more or less an informal way. Although Kimo was called away by his military duties, he promised to send them an instructor to take his place. One of the students could not wait and started practicing with an army buddy of Kimo, but in Isshin-Ryu (later to return to Goju and eventually become my sensei, Jaime Acosta). The rest drifted away until one day the promised instructor showed up on the Island, sent directly by the Shoreikan Headquarters in Japan through Kimo’s and Toguchi’s mediation. He was Shinoda, meaner than a sweaty Gi, a face like a stone makawara, a walking Sanchin kata, in other words, from the tales that flew like night moths around the dojo, Shinoda was a badass sensei. A white belt’s worse nightmare, a samurai in an insurance salesman suit, because that was how they say he appeared one day at their door. As the legend goes, he was a mae geri to the groin. Goju –Ryu came to Puerto Rico to stay and the sweat began.


The ElusiveTandoku Kata Dai Ichi

The first kata I learned, a beginners form I was told was created by Toguchi, went by this name. In another Goju Dojo they referred to it as the Fukyu Kata, which I thought was more fitting to what I felt in trying to learn it. Only until recently I was not able to find any mention of it it in the online Goju Kata listings. But You Tube finally posted a more or less reasonable facsimile. It is a very basic form, a skeleton of the Gekisai series to follow.I guess it was the simplest breakdown of the basic movements, a bare-bones approach, a kata for dummies...and yet, how long it took me to learn it! I can only imagine how ungainly and clumsy I must have been when I look at someone beginning to learn it. No Kung Fu master moves here. It is all close-fisted blocks and punches. Misleadingly simple. A basic atom from which all the remaining katas would evolve. Thus, it was not taken lightly in the Dojo and taught over and over again, each move rigorously repeated a thousand times til you thought you learned it and then they would start on the details, one by one until it seemed like another kata altogether. All this with the never ceasing mantra of the japanese numbers and the opening and closing salutations. They were laying the groundwork: repetition and breathing with the moves to create the particular Goju touch of soft and hard, swift and paused, still and explosive. So they kept it simple so you could learn the basics. The Tandoku I learned back in '73 is not the one I do now, it looks the same, somewhat, but it does not feel the same. It, as they say, has become me and yet still retains its elusiveness.


The Gushing Spigot

Besides the aches, sweat, and confusion of these early days, what comes most to mind was my unquenchable thirst, not to learn karate, but for a bucket of water, to drink it in one sustained gulp. I would await the 5 minute break and plan how I would dash faster this time to get a good turn at the spigot, because many times you would be waiting in line and when your turn came you barely had time for one or two gulps or maybe you were so far back that when they called formation you went dry for the last hour of practice. I learned, patiently and painfully, not to think about it, about my thirst, like I learned to forget the pain in the ten-step push-up (the supreme torture of every Dojo session). The only students allowed to drink water were those below green belt, even though after three months anyone who ran to the drnking line was frowned upon. That rule changed through the years as the dangers of dehydration became more evident. But in the beginning I ran like a fool, a madman, a possesed being, whose only purpose in life was to get his head under the gushing spigot.


The Fine line That Separates

The Ochoa Dojo had gaffer tape line on the floor at the very edge that separated the small lobby and the practice area. There you were taught the ceremonial bows you had to make, first sitting and then standing, and the words you had to say and the words you had to hear before being given permission by one of the teachers to enter. They would tell you that once you stepped over that line you left behind your status, cares, worries, and notions of whatever you thought yourself to be in the world and entered a discipline with its own rules, etiquette and morals: the way of Goju. You had to start at the beginning; you had to learn how to walk, talk, see, and hear in a different way. You had to see yourself as a child and slowly nurture your body and mind to form yourself anew. You had to shut up and listen, pay attention and see, follow and learn. Whatever you were outside that Dojo – whether doctor, teacher, lawyer, or engineer, bus driver, housewife, opera singer, or janitor – you left on the other side of that line. All dressed in white Gi, what distinguished one from the other was the color of their belt, their rank. The most inspired words could not deflect a blow or correct the symmetry of a kick. Whatever you were on the other side of that fine line that separates the Dojo from the world you ate and worked and slept in would not help you get over that next routine, or lift your aching body off the floor during push-ups. That you learned mingling your sweat with the sweat of others, finding out things about yourself that you would otherwise not know, working through the pain and frustration of learning something you never knew before: karate. And sticking to it. At the end of a session, you retraced your steps to the edge of the line, bowed and left the Dojo and reentered your world and assumed whatever station you had in life. But you see, little by little you took the Dojo with you to that other world, but the world stayed on the other side of that fine line that separates.


First Step in a Long Road

When I first walked into the Shoreikan Dojo in San Juan I was in my 20's and I had vague idea of what karate was, mostly media fed images and also the scare stories from a the few practitioners I knew. It was, after all, 1973. We formed a group and went together, my then wife, my sister, and a friend (bravery in numbers). It was what I learned later to be a classic Okinawan training session. It was brutal. I only remember, dazed as I was, the sheer, relentless exhaustion of the exercise routines, passing out into a pool of sweat around my head after a series of 10-step push-ups. When they dragged me home, I swore I would never go again. My sister (an athlete) was beaming, my wife was philosophical about the whole thing, my friend was ecstatic...and I was bone-tired and humbled to the core. Luckily they convinced me to give it a week and I did, and now as I look back I smile for it was truly one of the best decisions I ever made. I've trained all this time in classical Okinawan Goju, although I've had the chance to share training with friends in other styles and martial arts.
So this will be a diary blog in retrospect of those more than 30 years in classical karate training: the senseis, the dojos, the friends and experiences lived in the practice of this martial art.