A Full-Time Student of a Japanese MMA Gym
I arrived at Takada Dojo in the middle of the summer of 2001, the hottest summer on record in Japan for 80 years they said. Coming from Scotland, my hottest ever holiday taken in the Mediterranean, the heat coupled with high humidity was ferocious. No air-conditioning, the gym in set at basement level with little circulation of air. Since it was the day after Pride 15, Takada, Sakuraba and the other fighters were taking the day off. I was told that the other two guys who took and passed the physical test had already been and gone, one made off in the night without a word after his first day and the other lasted a week. So, it was to be myself and Kazuto Kawagoe who were the juniors, or “kohai” as they are known here.
- Kazuto Kawagoe (left) at Contenders in Shinjuku, Tokyo, 2002
It is the junior’s job to look after the gym and the eating room, taking care of all the cleaning, cooking and general orders of the seniors, or “sempai“. This is not dissimilar to the sumo system of living and training together. The sempai-kohai relationship is almost uniquely Japanese and a completely foreign concept to me at that time. The idea is the kohai look after the sempai and in return the sempai provide food and teach the kohai how to fight and be better people. Ideally it is based on respect and works like a family situation, but this is not always the case when there is a bad apple among the ranks! A surprising amount of exploitation and bullying goes on and is accepted, and although I was treated very well, my counterparts were sometimes not.
Our daily routine consisted of:
- Wake up at 8 a.m.
- Go the the eating room and prepare the day’s food, a chankonabe
- Head to the gym at 11 a.m. and begin the “basic training” – 500 squats followed by 50 squat jumps, pyramid sets of pushups and Hindu pushups (starting with 50), 300 situps, a 3-minute neck bridge, and whatever else we had to work on that day
- Grappling/MMA sparring when the seniors arrive at noon for 90 minutes; the clock running 5-minute rounds with 30-second intervals
- Take all the used training wear back to be washed
- Prepare the food for the seniors arriving around 2 p.m. (grabbing a quick shower before they arrive)
- Wash up all the dishes and finish the laundry by 5 p.m.
- Buy the meat and vegetables for the following day’s chankonabe
- Head back to the gym for the evening classes, helping out the paying members with wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, and submission skills
- Close the gym at 10 p.m, clean it and go back to the eating room for dinner (the seniors generally go home)
- Finish the laundry and cleaning by 1 a.m. and get some sleep, then the same again the next day
With only one day off a week, this schedule was a shock to my system. This plus not understanding a word of Japanese then made me wonder what the hell I was doing there! Japanese have two main forms of speech: polite and casual. The seniors speak down using the casual form and the juniors must speak up to them using the polite form. My self-study textbook was almost useless in this situation. Plus I had no time to even study it.
So, here’s me trying to bulk up to heavyweight class and I’m squatting into my own pool of sweat, flapping around useless to Sakuraba’s ground skills and generally trying to keep myself from LOSING weight. Eating became a full-time job. I was constantly asked my weight and continually trying to eat more without throwing up. We’d eat til we were full and then go out to eat more. I’d only been in the country 8 months so I was still adjusting to the new diet; I love Japanese food but this was not fun.
At the time, Takada Dojo’s active fighters were, Kazushi Sakuraba, Daijiro Matsui, Yoshihisa Yamamoto, and of course, Nobuhiko Takada himself. Yusuke Imamura and Minoru Toyonaga (who became a referee/judge in Pride Fighting Championships) were also training full-time there, and I was very lucky to be able to meet and train with a whole host of Japan’s top fighters on ocassion, including Tsuyoshi Kosaka (TK), Kazuyuki Fujita, Masaaki Satake, Caol Uno, and Daiju Takase. Some of them I am still lucky to be able to train with.
Although I no longer train at Takada Dojo, having left in 2002, I still have fond memories of the people I met my extraordinary time there.