I woke up with the sun glaring from my window. The cell phone on my side incessantly whines telling me to get up, it was 7:30 am. My body still hurts after the late night practice, it was necessary practice but I think I overdid it. While brushing my teeth I stared blankly at the mirror, my hair standing up, my eyes still demanded sleep and my mouth foaming with white bubbles. I hardly had the urge for breakfast, got a cup of hot choco and walked around the house. 8:00 am, time to get ready. Standing directly underneath the shower feeling the cold water run through my spine, I’m still half awake but I need to get going. Finally got dressed, checked my bag for my gi and the tanto. Seminar starts at 10:00am, I’ll leave at 9:30am. So much time to spare, mixed feelings, doubt and excitement, eager yet uncertain. So I sat on my bed and prayed, prayed hard, prayed like my life meant it, prayed like there was no tomorrow. 9:30 am, got to go, it’s now or never, the shodan exam awaits.
Arriving at the dojo I see familiar faces, fellow students, Japanese visitors, good friends. Everybody was practicing, getting ready for their own exams. One student was there as early as 8:00 am, we had a chance to practice sandanuchi for a while and then he wanted to change gi because he was already sweating profusely. It was almost time to start, my requested uke hasn’t arrived yet, but why worry the exam isn’t until 11:00 am. I checked out the mat, did shikko just to feel if the friction was right. Ironically, this wasn’t my first time on this particular mat, but I just wanted to make sure, maybe my knees have a certain preference. The seminar starts, three techniques just to warm up, tenkan, back stretching and gyakuhanmi ikkyo, then my uke finally arrives. Just in time, picking myself from the mat wiping the sweat form my brow I greeted him and asked, “Are you ready?” He laughs and smiles asked me back, “Are you?” Practice session ended shortly, rest for 5 minutes then the exam commences. After bowing to the shomen I moved back to where my backpack was, searched for the tanto, took the bottle of water my girlfriend offered and headed back to the mat.
“Shomen ni rei!” the exam proper begins. All the students moved to either side of the mat. First to be called was the examinee for 5th kyu. As I looked at his exam I recalled my own. It’s been quite a while since my 5th kyu exam, my uke then was the same uke now, who happens to be my cousin. The gi I wore then was the same one I was wearing now, but with a few enhancements like a tear on the left knee pad and the shrinking size. Hands clapping, the first exam was over, examinee didn’t even break a sweat. Next examinee is called, this time for 1st kyu, flashback three years ago. 1st kyu was the last exam I passed, I particularly enjoyed this exam because it included sword movements shomenuchi, tsuki, yokomenuchi and of course sandanuchi. By far 1st kyu was my favorite. “Otagai ni rei!” He’s done. It’s my turn now.
When my name was called, I raised my hand, yelled “Hai!” stood up and headed to the center of the mat with my uke. We then bowed to the shomen, then to each other. I could barely hear the examiner’s voice when he was giving us instructions. My heart was pounding fast and there was a feeling of intoxication. This isn’t my first time, but why does this feeling never change? I looked at the examiner behind me just in time to get the final instructions and the first part of the exam. Suwari waza ikkyo kara yonkyo. I looked back at my uke and gave the signal to start.
I felt better that I was moving compared to just sitting there in front of them. Little by little the techniques piled up, omote and ura, my knees didn’t hurt because I could glide on the mat softly, plus the callous formed by years of practice made me a bit comfortable. Succeeding the four techniques two additional ones were requested Suwari waza kotegaeshi and iriminage, which I gladly performed but then my legs were beginning to ache. After completing suwari waza we sat down on seiza and awaited for the next instruction. While seated my legs began to hurt, and the pain was slowly creeping up to my thighs, I pretended to kneel just to release some of the tension but by then the next technique was called out, hanmi handachi.
My uke stood up and from my seiza position I proceeded to do shikko until he could reach for my hand, and the techniques came flowing. Just like we practiced I thought to myself, but my legs were already hurting and I was desperately trying to get the details right. By the sixth technique I was already gasping for air and I felt that I could not bear the pain any longer, I wanted to stand up, luckily the examiner said “OK, that’s enough.”
I stood up and walked back to my place slowly, getting enough time for my legs to relax. Once back to my side of the mat, I sat in seiza position facing my uke. Sweat was beginning to fall down my face, I could still breath normally but my heart felt like it would thump its way out of my chest. The examiner then calls out the next instructions. While he was doing it my legs began to feel the pain again, I didn’t want to appear disrespectful so I pretended to face him by stretching my legs backward and move facing towards his direction. My uke was getting tired, and as we agreed the previous night, I will have a replacement uke, one of the students from Japan.
I bowed to them thanking one and to the other asking for assistance “onegaishimasu”. The next part of the exam tachi waza, the examiner mentioned a lot of techniques but I should only choose three, so I picked the ones that I have constantly practiced ever since, gyakuhanmi, aihanmi and shomenuchi. Of the three waza I was to perform five different techniques (e.g.. ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, shihonage all omote and ura). For aihanmi and gyakuhanmi it was required to do a tenkan before the technique (the term we use is flowing technique) especially for this level of exams. I was happy to be in the standing position now, though my legs were a bit groggy moving was relatively easy. But each time I do a lock while on my knees my legs would feel the pain again, so I would try to stand up immediately after each lock. When I was already performing gyakuhanmi (I did aihanmi first) I was all out of breath and my body was beginning to feel tired. What can you expect I didn’t practice as hard as I did the previous years.
As I was positioning myself for the nikyo lock I was wondering when my second wind will come or if I had a second wind at all. My body was already giving up. I told myself that I must go on, then a memory crossed my mind. Last summer while on vacation I almost drowned, I swam far from the shore and my body was too tired to swim back. I didn’t call for help, I was just treading the water then I kept my focus on my loved ones who were playing by the shore. I don’t know where I got the strength but I slowly swam my way back to them, my body still hurt but I know that I had to get back to them. As my feet touched the shallow surface, I let out a loud gasp, then I looked at the smiling faces of my family. Their bright smiles greeted me and I could feel how much they love me, I got back alive. I knew I had the instinct to survive, not for myself, but for those who I love.
The tapping hand of my uke brought my attention back to the exam, I must have overdone the lock. I got back up and with no reservation moved like I have just started the exam, with a new start and better pace. We were spinning and circling around the mat, the examiner says stop and we were told to sit down, the second waza was through. He checked if I was OK and more importantly asked if my uke was OK, I was still breathing heavily and was then asked to stand up to finish the third waza. I was getting ready when this comment followed, “You have done ikkyo to yonkyo and shihonage. Why not show us something else?” To which I gladly obliged, shomenuchi, was by far my most well practiced technique I also spent a lot of time teaching my junior students on the basics and important points. As practiced in our dojo we always start from 1st technique (ikkyo) going up, to avoid confusion and repetition of the techniques, so even if were tired our body still recalls the movement. For this exam, I did it all backwards (from iriminage, kotegaeshi, shihonage, yonkyo and back to ikkyo).
I didn’t think this part of the exam would end, I just kept going on and on, even repeating a few techniques. I didn’t mind the time, it felt like forever there. I was practically drinking my own sweat and the tear in my gi already matured into a huge hole, but I never stopped. “OK, that’s fine” the examiner says, and calls out, “tanto dori.” At this point I was already smiling, I got the wind back in my lungs and my body felt light as a feather. I handed the tanto to my uke and as prearranged we had a pattern tsuki, shomen, yokomen. Before we started the examiner asks again if my uke was OK, the kid just smiled and said “Uke, OK,” thumbs up. The wooden dagger came at me, on and on, technique after technique, throws and locks. I was careful enough not to get hit and avoided touching the blade which was the reason why I failed my first exam. The patterned cycle was through, but still no signal to stop, so I told my uke to do the sequence again until we were told to stop. At last. after iriminage with the tanto still in my hand the examiner yells, “That’s enough.”
Here the exam ends, but the thrilling part is yet to come. “Otagai ni rei” we were all smiling as we said “Domo arigato gozaimashita.” “Shomen ni rei.” We bowed to O-Sensei’s picture as the air was filled with the sound of clapping hands. We then bowed to the examiners who gave us a satisfying nod. I looked around and saw a handful of people cheering for me. My gi was drenched in sweat, my body weary but I still had a huge smile all over my face. I got back in line as the examiners drew the exam to a close. The worst isn’t over, but I’m glad that the exam is.