Mifune Judan

Several days after the conclusion of the Tokyo Grand Slam, I travelled with my host, Dr. Hiroshi Takei, his wife, my Japanese wife, and our daughter to Kuji in Iwate prefecture. Kuji is the birthplace of Kyuzo Mifune, the legendary 10th dan, and 1981 world champion Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki. It’s also home to the memorial museum and gymnasium dedicated to Mifune, who is referred to as Mifune Judan.

We arrived late Friday afternoon after a four-hour drive from Yamagata City: too late to tour the museum, but with time to spare before practice started at the Mifune Judan complex. Next to the museum is a large, modern Judo gymnasium. The mat (30 x 16 m) is lightly spring-loaded, and features two competition areas. The tatami are Japanese- a combination of straw and foam- and quite comfortable, much to my surprise. Kuji is in Northern Japan and cold in the winter, so I expected that we would be freezing in the dojo. Another surprise. The dojo is heated with radiators running the length of all walls! There are bleachers for the spectators, since the dojo hosts 3-4 tournaments a year. Of course, there is a special place of honor for Mifune Judan.

Road Sign

Statue of Mifune in the parking lot.

The entrance to the dojo is level with the parking lot. To get to the dojo, you take the stairs down to get to the gym floor.  There is a huge window in the entrance lobby, which allows you to see down into the dojo. When we arrived kids were already on the mat, some playing soccer. We milled around the lobby for a few minutes as more kids arrived for practice. The stares started. Who were these visitors? Within minutes, kids were running up and down the stairs, excited, pointing, waving, sometimes saying a word or two in English. Gaijin! Gaijin! They had spotted the foreigner. Me.

View of the dojo in the Mifune Judan complex.

Down to the dojo we went. My host, who is a former student of mine in San Diego and is now head sensei of the Yamagata University Medical School Judo Club, introduced our group to Naoya Hisamatsu, the Mifune Judan sensei. Dr. Takei quickly realized that he and his wife knew Hisamatsu’s wife. So sensei Hisamatsu called his wife to announce our visit, and she joined us minutes later, gi in hand. After watching class from the sidelines for a good amount of time, both Dr. Takei and I decided that it would be nice to randori with the kids. With permission granted, we quickly changed into our gis. He, his wife, and I got on the mat. The gaijin was on the mat now wearing a blue gi! More excitement and finger pointing.

L to R: wife and sensei Hisamatsu, "Gaijin", Dr. Takei and wife.

Randori was a blast. All the kids had good fighting spirit. One after the other, they wanted to be the next player to fight me. Morote seoi nage is the first throw they are taught, and the favorite of many.  Combinations, counters, and transitions were almost non-existent even among the more advanced juniors. So, I caught myself having to be a coach from time to time, suggesting this or that throw in combination with their initial attack. Every now and then I couldn’t refrain from throwing in perfectly legal Te guruma counters, which the kids seemed to enjoy for some reason. I guess it was fun to have an old gaijin in a blue gi do a Judo throw that they didn’t know or use.

After randori, sensei Hisamatsu made a point to tell his kids that even foreigners knew about Mifune Judan. Class was dismissed, and then I was mobbed by a bunch of curious kids. They wanted to touch my blue gi and rub up against it. Bows and handshakes were exchanged, and thanks given. Lots of comments were made, but I didn’t understand. My translators were busy elsewhere. I even got lassoed into a cross-cultural game of rock-paper-scissors. Lastly, sensei Hisamatsu gave me two fans with Mifune Judan’s writings.

That blue gi sure looks interesting!

Playing rock-paper-scissors after practice. Kids expressions: priceless!

The next morning, we went back to the Mifune Judan Museum. Sensei Hisamatsu was waiting for us. He arranged free entrance for our group, which I thought was very kind of him to do. There is much to see in the museum; his gi, formal clothing, calligraphy, awards, certificates, etc. Three different video clips of Mifune, each around six minutes long, can be viewed. What truly amazed me, however, was two photos of Mifune. Everyone knows that Mifune was small; maybe 5’1’’ and 110lb. I was shocked when I realized within that small frame was the musculature of a body builder. See for yourself.

Taken when Mifune was 24 years old.

Small, not puny! Mifune is on the left.

Like all good things, our trip to Kuji was coming to an end. We toured the port of Kuji, climbed a rocky formation with a shrine at the top, then got back into our car, and drove back to Yamagata City. All in all, my trip to Kuji was a priceless experience that once again epitomized the power and beauty of Judo.

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