Growing up in Uchida Sensei’s dojo, kangeiko was always one of my favorite Taido traditions. Everybody came to kangeiko, even if they couldn’t make it to practice very often during the rest of the year. It was always like a family reunion. And the workout was HARD.
We always started at 6am, and the floor would be freezing. We started by warming up thoroughly and running through all of the fundamentals. Lots of punches, lots of kicks. Then we’d practice each of the Taido kihongi and, after that, hokei. Despite the cold, everybody managed to get up a good sweat by the end of it.
Then we would all line up and, one at a time, sit with Sensei and exchange New Year’s greetings: “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegai shimasu.” Then we’d drink sake (if you were under 21, it was “just a little…”) and clean the dojo.
I hear that American Taido kangeiko is a much different affair now. That’s cool. Things change, and nothing is so perfect it can’t be improved.
I don’t know much about the traditions of Taido dojo in other countries. Do you do kangeiko in Europe? How about Australia?
In this article, I’m going to give a little background on what kangeiko is, where it comes from, and how it’s practiced in Japan.
According to “ancient tradition,” kangeiko is held early on a Saturday morning in January. All students (even those who are unable to practice often) congregate at the dojo for the ostensible purpose of beginning the year with good spirit in training. Everyone works out, and the focus is on kihon – the basis of fancier skills.
Following the practice, the students greet their teachers and wish them a happy new year (“akemashite omedetou gozaimasu“) and ask the favor of continued tutelage in the new year (“kotoshimo yoroshiku onegai shimasu“). The deal is sealed with a Japanese handshake – bowing and drinking sake.
Then, everyone participates in the osoji – big cleaning. Students and instructors take pride in maintaining their practice space and equipment. And then there’s breakfast and more drinking.
That’s the kangeiko I remember.
Meaning and Origins
Kangeiko is a Japanese word made up of three characters and means “cold training.” Why would one want to train in the cold? The concept is a type of toughness training – forcing oneself to perform under difficult or even painful conditions. In theory, this strengthens the “fighting spirit” by helping us find our true limits and quieting the inner-weakling that keeps telling us to give up.
This idea of subjecting oneself to harsh treatment in order to strengthen the resolve owes to the influence of Buddhism (in Japan, anyway). Ascetic monks would choose the coldest days of the year to set an example and demonstrate their piety. Apparently, some dedicated samurai borrowed the practice and began subjecting themselves to intense training on these days as well. It eventually became a tradition in Sumo.
Judo adopted the practice, and as a result, most modern Japanese martial arts have some sort of kangeiko tradition. In Japan, many professional sports teams hold a sort of kangeiko, and even some large corporations have “kangeiko” for their executives.
Kangeiko’s Importance as a Martial Arts Tradition
In general, kangeiko has a reputation in the martial arts of being a serious challenge. There are all sorts of stories from “the old days” about extremely tough (and often stupid and dangerous)kinds of training that various dojo have put themselves through in the name of strengthening their spirits.
Martial artists love telling stories about how tough things used to be. My father summed up the tendency nicely: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” These stories are often more romantic than realistic, but I think they serve a purpose. I look at these “legends” like a challenge – not necessarily to dive into a sub-zero lake and do 10000 punches in my frozen uniform – but to occasionally engage in practices that bring me closer to my limits.
Which is really the whole point. You don’t have to do fifty hokei in your underwear on the coldest day of the year. But as martial artists, we do have to push ourselves to overcome stress. Since this can be uncomfortable, many groups ritualize the challenge as a tradition.
Kangeiko is just a tradition. It’s serves the same purpose that other traditions do: reinforce group identity and group values. Severe training is also worthwhile, but it’s not necessarily the most vital part of kangeiko.
Two Kinds of Kangeiko
There are basically two schools of thought on what kinds of things kangeiko should entail: the hard core GUTS! school and the more austere and subdued school.
“Guts” type training is what we usually associate with “tough guy” schools. An example of a hard core kangeiko might start at 5am with 1000 punches and 1000 kicks before moving on to work routines and sparring. Maybe it would also include a few hundred push-ups and sit-ups.
Of course, all of this is done in an unheated dojo, which is almost the same as doing it outside. Traditional Japanese architecture doesn’t include much in the way of insulation. Martial arts dojo tend to have as much window as they do wall, and though we may use fans during the summer, finding a heater is extremely rare.
Some schools actually do train outside – running a few kilometers or even training techniques on the frozen ground. Just this past week, I saw a news report about a karate dojo in Osaka that waded into the harbor and did some punches in the freezing water.
Apparently, only a couple of them suffered from hypothermia. That was probably because it was a publicity stunt, and the students were only in the water long enough for the camera crews to capture the event. Of course, it the old days, they would have stayed in for longer…
The content of “guts” type training is less important than the intensity. The idea is to push ourselves until we don’t think we can go any further, and then to go further. Your muscles say “no,” but your mind commands “yes.” Through pain and exhaustion, you find that your true limits lay well outside your usual comfort zone.
Doing this kind of training sucks. But it’s great.
Pushing past our perceived boundaries builds mental toughness. It’s great for reminding ourselves just what we’re capable of (as opposed to what we enjoy). The body can’t handle this kind of thing too often, but doing it a few times a year can help push us to the next level mentally.
A hard core kangeiko is guaranteed to “make a man out of you,” unless you’re a woman.
In dojo that have an extremely intense kangeiko, students sometimes have to rest and recover for up to a week or even longer before returning to training. If training injures you, it’s no longer training – it’s punishment. Forcing your body to the breaking point is not “guts,” it’s stupid.
Balancing challenge with insanity is the art of this kind of training.
A lot of dojo aren’t so much concerned with being tough. They practice for sport and recreation. Dojo with a lot of older adults and children aren’t going to convince many students to show up for a physically intense workout. Instead, they follow a more subdued approach.
Just as with the hard core dojo, most “normal” dojo will focus their training on basics. They may do a certain number of repetitions of each kihongi, but the pace is usually relatively slow. Usually, few words are spoken, and each student is left to consider how to perform each repetition better than the one before it. This can sometimes go on for quite a while.
Even without breaks, this kind of training is not going to make anyone pass out or vomit. The physical intensity is low. but it’s not easy. In fact, it can be just as intense mentally as the hard core style is physically. It’s just a different kind of intensity.
The objective is to practice with total concentration. Instead of diving into freezing water, you’re trying to submerge yourself in each technique. The challenge is to get inside the technique, and that’s something you can only do with a lot of effort and repetition.
The first few repetitions may be kind of rough as you get warmed up. Then you’ll fall into your typical habits for the next few. Doing the same technique eventually starts to get boring, so you start trying to move faster and stronger. As you tire, you’ll begin to shift your emphasis to clean, efficient movement. After doing fifty or so in a row, you notice that your last repetition was far better than the first.
Training like this helps refine your technique and calm your mind. After working through a variety of techniques in such a manner, you’ll find that you feel very calm and relaxed. Though you’ve probably been sweating profusely, you won’t feel very tired.
This state of ease is the perfect time to reflect on your progress and goals for the next few months of training. You may take time to consider the 5jokun or otherwise think about what Taido is to you and what you hope to get out of it.
This is a more personal kind of training, even though it’s performed as a group. Each student is responsible for managing their own intensity and focus. The results are often similar to the more-extreme style of training: it can help push you into the next level mentally. It’s a different way of reaching for the same goal.
Of course, since kangeiko is an “ancient martial arts tradition,” it’s an important part of the spirit of a dojo. In fact, it’s such an important part of Taido tradition, that most clubs in Japan don’t do it. Some do, but it’s definitely not the norm.
Those dojo that do have a kangeiko tend to follow the second blueprint. A few university clubs may do killer workouts, but most dojo will do less extreme training and work on increasing the mental intensity.
None of the dojo I’ve been a member of in Japan have had a formal kangeiko. Instead, we just resume training in the new year as usual. But several Japanese clubs have posted blogs about their kangeiko training this year, and none of them went swimming in their dogi…
What’s Your Kangeiko Like?
By this time, many of you have already had a kangeiko at your dojo. Maybe it was similar to one of the patterns I discussed above, or maybe it was something totally different.
The most important thing you can get out of kangeiko is to give it your best and start off the new year of training with a positive attitude. Beyond that, take it as a chance to push yourself to the next level by challenging your body or your mind with more intensity than usual. Being outside your comfort zone will help you grow as a martial artist.
If you’ve had any interesting kangeiko experiences you’d like to share, please post them in the comments.