Tokyo, Japan.

At one point, I moved to Japan to spend a time practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and No-Gi Grappling,

I had a great experience there so I stayed for a year! I visited several gyms for a week each and decided to train at GRABAKA. GRA– short for Grappling, and BAKA– Japanese for insane. One of the advantages I had was that I was not fluent in Japanese.   That meant I trained with no distraction and had to watch every detail of the technique we were being taught meticulously.

Mvc-054fThe gym is lead by Kikuta Sanae. He is a former Pancrase Light Heavyweight champion (2001–2003) and winner of the ADCC 88 kg class in 2001. His professional record is 28 win, with 8 loses.

At the end of my first week of class he wanted to see how I was progressing, to better coach me on what I need to work on.  This assessment meant going “One on one, with the great one.” Before Japan, I’d had a year of Judo mixed with some grappling seminars, but nothing as focused as what I was learning at GRABAKA.

Having said all that as a preface, when the bell rang I jumped on him like a pack of wild dogs on a three-legged cat.  It went well for the first few seconds.  In hindsight, he was probably just asking himself if I was suicidal or just young and stupid.  Things get hazy after that.  He choked me unconscious a few times and I remember a solid arm-bar thrown in there.  I’m grateful that it was only a five-minute round. When the bell rang again at the end of our five-minute round, he smiled, gave a curt bow, then dismissed the class.   I worked hard to become a good student of the gym. It was a place where “tough love” took on an entirely new meaning.

Mvc-028fThe classes were all run by several professional competitors and fighters.  I’m not sure if he was assigned to me, or if he simply took a keen interest in my development, but after my first week, Kazuo Misaki worked with me.

By “worked with me” I mean he became the vessel through with I was asked what every man is asked by the gods of fighting.  I call it The Question.  On no uncertain terms, it means that through hardship and pain you will be asked how badly you want to learn and become part of a group of men who dedicate themselves to their art.

The first time I was put to The Question was a few weeks after I joined the gym.  Coach Kazuo had me on a steady regimen of seizure-inducing exercises before class.  My least favorite was the backpack and rope.  I had to climb from the floor to the ceiling on a rope wearing a thick backpack.  The trick was that every time I came down, I had to add a 5-pound weight to the backpack and go back up again.  When I reached failure I could take one weight out, but I had to keep going.  All of this was how I spent 30-45 minutes before class even started!

It gets better.


After a few weeks Coach Kazuo mentioned to me that he and I were going to spar.  I thought it would be for him to measure my progress.  It was, but by measure progress, he meant “see how much he could torture me before I either A) cried out in feeble submission, B) curled up in a defensive ball to ride out the storm, or C) died.”  I chose to invent my own Picard Maneuver and came up with my own plan.  I just kept fighting as if I had a chance to win. I didn’t, but I have never let reality get in the way of my ego.

How the round went:

-5:00 the bell rings!

-4:59 I crouch into a position to stop his takedown attempt.

-4:58 I see my feet in front of me, even though I was still standing up.  It took a few milliseconds for my mind to adjust to the fact that this was NOT GOOD!

-4:57 I was violently and ruthlessly slammed to the mat.

-4:57 and the duration. The man who went on to be one of my best and favorite coaches proceeded to re-define pain for me.  I was pulled and tested in ways that the natural laws of physics should have prevented but didn’t.

FarGuard1On the left, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does not blend with MMA gloves easily. I’m trying to Pass Guard on a classmate.

On the right: This isn’t a mismatch, it’s a journalist who did a feature article on the gym. I was asked to demonstrate techniques on him. We had a lot of fun. In the end, the picture they published was of what might be the worst arm-bar I’ve ever thrown. Still, I was featured in the magazine spread!


My time in Japan wasn’t all violence and pain.  I managed to enjoy other things, like discovering new food and restaurants!  One of my favorites is a place called Bikkuri Donkey.  It loosely translates into Awesome Donkey or Donkey Surprise.  One makes about as much sense as the other since meanings rarely translate cleanly.  They specialize in hamburger steaks and serve their own home-brewed soda in HUGE mugs. By huge, I just mean American sized! Why do they use a picture of an owl on the glass instead of an ass?

TheSumoDogTo pay my respect to my Sumo heroes Takanohana, Musashimaru, & the fiery Mongolian Yokozuna / Grand Champion Asashoryu I made a wonderful pilgrimage to the Sumo Museum in Ryogoku.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside so all I could muster for you is of this stone guardian who keeps silent vigil in front of the tournament hall. The hall famous for sumo but it can represent the fighting spirit in any discipline, the Ryogoku Kokukigan!


Taiko1These are pictures from a Matsuri, a Japanese party/festival.  This one’s held in Azabu-Juban.  The woman on top is playing the Taiko drum & the ladies on the left are wearing a Yukata while Bon dancing.  Bon dancing & Taiko are two Japanese arts that ancient but still appealing to young and old.


A huge number of Japanese women are obsessed with dark flesh! The lady on the left and millions of people that you see in Tokyo every day spend quite a bit of money to get it. There were tanning salons everywhere.  Sometimes I’d stop in and ask if anyone spoke English.  If they did I’d talk about packages and price plans if I bought in bulk.  No, I’m not kidding.  Watching them try their best to figure out how to deal with a Black American interested in tanning was like watching a robot short circuit itself.  As long as I didn’t laugh, it was the funniest thing I may have seen all that week.  This picture is at the Blacky Tanning Salon. 

Sensoji1To the left, you can see that main entrance to the Sensoji temple at Asakusa Kannon.  Every day hundreds of people come to see this monolithic dedication to the Buddhist God Bohisattva Kannon.  When I visited, there was a service being held by the monks.  They were dressed in traditional robes like the monk on the right.


I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting museums to visit. I enjoy art and culture from different times and places.  The Edo Period Museum in Tokyo is one of my favorite places.  Here I learned quite a bit about Japans most famous period, the Edo Period.  The picture on the left is of an Edo period actor.

Work1To the right is a pic with my co-workers. (L-R) Nobu, Hiro, myself, & Yuko. Yuko is cradling our company mascot, the ubiquitous, and slightly creepy Nova Usagi. In my spare time, I taught Business English with a great company, NOVA.  For anyone interested in a unique and enjoyable way to travel the world and expand your horizons, consider teaching English in other countries.  Like any job, it has its ups and downs, but the major benefit is that you can afford to travel the world with a skill that is translatable to quite a few countries.  It’s how I started.  If you want to know how just ask me.

BONUS: Misaki during training & the ceremony held at the end of his career.

His retirement ceremony. I cried too, its ok.


If what I wrote helps, send $5 in BitCoin to this address.

It’ll buy me coffee to fuel my mind while I write!





YusefWateef (at) Gmail (dot) com


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