Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Dojos

Choosing the place where we'll train long-term

[Note: this would normally be Monday's blog post, but I finished it early so here it is.]

My family and I have been happy at LaVallee's karate for the last 6-8 months. We've trained hard, learned a lot, sweated a LOT (especially me) and we're preparing to take our second belt test. I feel like overall it was a good experience. I suppose that at some point I might go into the details of what I do and don't like about the experience there, but overall we were happy and we would have stayed if we could afford it. Sadly, even with every discount and price break they felt comfortable throwing our way, the change from their six-months "intro" program to their full Black Belt Champions program involved doubling the cost to train there (or more) and also required that we sign a 3-year contract. The cost was simply not affordable for us and there's no way I'd ever sign a 3-year contract for services like this, so we're moving on.

Our kids would miss karate if we stopped, but they'd get over it pretty quickly. None of them are the gung-ho type who feels that karate is their personal calling in life. I'm not worried that they won't feel complete until they've mastered every kata, learned every technique, and earned their black belts and beyond. That's just not their style - they're fairly easy-going. Likewise, as much as my wife and I respect and enjoy the martial arts, we'd both gone for a decade and a half without training, so it's not as if our lives will fall apart without it. At the same time, the martial arts was the only sport I ever really enjoyed participating in, and of course my wife spent a LOT of years earning her 2nd-degree black belt way back when. It's certainly been a part of our lives, and we're planning to stick with it (and, if necessary, drag the kids along with us).

We investigated many other local dojos. My wife and I both made phone calls, used social networking, and did our research in the phonebook and on the web. We ruled out a couple of places because their websites or reputations just didn't speak well for them. We ruled out quite a few more because they were in the same price-range as LaValle's for a family our size. In the end, though, we've found two schools we're very happy and impressed with, and this week we plan to get together as a family and choose the one we feel will suit us best. Luckily, neither of them has anything close to a 3-year contract, so it's not as if we'd be locked in forever. I expect, though, that whichever we choose, we'll likely stick with for a very long time.

The two finalists in our Syracuse Northern Suburbs Dojo Roundup are... (drum roll!)

Syracuse Jundokan and Five Star Martial Arts!

 Sensei David Oddy at Syracuse Jundokan and Senseis Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore at Five Star are all super-excited about the martial arts and passionate about training. I'm actually hoping they'll all get to meet at some point, as I think they'd get along tremendously. In the meantime, it's going to be very hard to pick just one of these very different schools.

Syracuse Jundokan's Sensei Oddy and Sensei Sergei Kushner both have "day jobs," and are encouraged by their home dojo in Okinawa to not "eat from karate" - keeping it as an avocation, rather than a vocation. As a result, the dojo's classes are very small (and will potentially remain that way for a while) and their facilities consist of a multi-purpose room at Champion's Fitness plus the after-hours use of the dojo at Aikido of Central New York (where Sensei Kushner trains his students for national AAU and NKF competitions). The facilities aren't tailored to their specific needs, but they're more than adequate to get the job done.

[On a personal note, if it were just up to me, I'd probably sign up again at Aikido of CNY as I really loved it there. But none of the rest of my family has any interest in that style. Such is life - fortunately I enjoy other styles of martial arts nearly as much. But I digress.]

At Five Star Martial Arts, Sensei Napoli and Sensei Pastore are making the martial arts their career. They've thrown their familys' livelihoods into opening their own storefront dojo with all the fixins. Their custom-designed logo hangs in a place of honor on the back wall. Their creed and values grace the front plate-windows and adorn the wall above the mirrors. There are video screens hanging on the wall and a whole closet filled with brand-new hand targets, body shields, focus mits, and anything else you can think of (excepting hojo undō, but I'll get to those later). They have brand-new tatami-mats and the whole facility is theirs to do with as they please and to schedule as many classes a day as they feel they can handle.

Syracuse Jundokan teaches traditional, authentic Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate. So authentic, in fact, that Sensei Oddy travels to Okinawa every year to train at the home dojo of his Okinawan masters - who trace their lineage directly to Miyagi Chojun Sensei, the father and founder (the O-Sensei) of Goju-Ryu Karate. The classes are extremely detailed and focused - sometimes spending most of the class breaking down and working on a single technique. Sensei Oddy is amazing - seeing him perform a kata like Seanchin, watching his precision and how he controls his breathing, is awe-inspiring. His depth and breadth of knowledge in his art are evident in every class he teaches. When I'm learning from Sensei Oddy, I can almost believe I'm in Japan.

Five Star Martial Arts practices Kenpo Karate - the Americanized version taught by Kyoshi Steve LaValle. Kyoshi is a student of seemingly every kind of martial art there is, and has folded most of them into his "Black Belt Champions" schools. I don't get the feel that Five Star is quite as diverse, as "blended" as LaValle's, but at their core they're still Kyoshi's students. In addition, they've been training for a few months under their new Sensei, Nick Dougherty, in New Jersey. I believe Sensei Nick is mostly their business mentor up to this point, but in time they'll be able to add his expertise to what they learned at LaVallee's.

My family has already been training part-time at Syracuse Jundokan for the last two months and I'm amazed at the things I've learned there in such a short time. I mean, it's not surprising that we'd have learned a couple of new katas - Gekesai Dai Ichi and two versions of Seanchin. But I also learned completely new theories around techniques like the horse stance, the cat stance, and even basic techniques like the upward block and the downward block, neither of which is, technically, what their name would imply (in fact, the downward block isn't meant to be a block at all, but a strike!). THAT sort of depth just blows me away and, as far as I can see, it's absolutely unique in the Syracuse area. It's not watered-down, but hard-core martial arts straight from the Far East. In addition, Sensei Oddy's Okinawan Goju-Ryu includes a type of exercise called Bunkai.

Bunkai is a wonderful way to train. Typically when you learn a kata, your instructor will tell you to "Imagine you're being attacked from the left with a front kick," and that helps you to visualize why you're doing the technique the way you are. Sensei does that (and in minute detail, explaining why virtually every muscle you move has a very specific purpose in the kata), but then he adds in a partner performing bunkai against your kata. As you block, the partner strikes. As they strike, you block. As Sensei Oddy says, "The kata informs the bunkai, the bunkai tests the kata." I've never seen anything like it and it really helps add a whole new dimension to kata. They're no longer just forms to be mastered, but actual, practicable combat techniques that you can train in a low-contact, non-competitive sort of sparring with your partner.

Five Star Martial Arts doesn't have nearly as much of the traditionalism that I personally enjoy - they bow to the American flag rather than greeting the Kamidana (a Shinto shrine and/or a representation of the Dojo's founder) in Japanese. The majority of the terminology, from counting to student responses to the names of techniques and stances, is in English. Only the terms for the instructors (Sensei) and the seated positions (seiza) reflect the style's Asian origins. What they do have, however, is a vigorous cardiovascular and calisthenic workout built into each training class. Granted, the classes are shorter to begin with than at Syracuse Jundokan and then the workout further cuts into the time spent learning and practicing techniques, however my wife especially likes the workout and I would have to honestly admit that if I don't get my exercise at Karate, I won't get it anywhere. I've spent most of the last 15 years turning my body into a sluggish, flabby sack of meat that gets out of breath if I jog up the stairs too fast. It took me three months of hard training at LaValle's before I could make it all the way through a class there without having to stop and gasp for breath for five minutes. So it's definitely true that traditionalism and vigorous exercise are both key aspects of what my family needs in its martial arts training, and they're available at different schools.

Though I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge Sensei Oddy's impressive (and growing) collection of traditional Okinawan exercise equipment. Called hojo undō in Japanese, these "supplementary exercise" tools are both impressive and (in my opinion as a clutz and a father of clutzes) horrifying (though I mean that in the nicest way possible. They really are very cool, I'm just certain that one or more members of my family will injure themselves trying to use them). His equipment includes concrete disks on wooden sticks called chi shi, which you heave around trying not to bonk yourself in the head in order to develop your hands, wrists and forearms (among other key muscle groups). Nigiri game are weighted pottery jars with a thick ridge around the opening where you grip them with your fingers. You then practice kata and other techniques while carrying them around. The tachi-makiwara (which he hopes to have re-installed soon) is a padded board used for practicing strikes. And his most recent (and, I believe, proudest) acquisition is the giant kongoken. It's a forearm-thick metal rod that's been bent so it has two long, parallel sides and is somewhat rounded at both ends (sort of like a 100-lb paperclip without the extra piece in the middle). This terrifying tool is used in many different ways to practice things like the hip-movement that powers the strikes in Goju-Ryu. Again, I am both awed and frightened by Sensei Oddy's collection of Japanese exercise equipment, and he makes it freely available to his students. Which is to say that if we put our minds to it, my wife and I (at minimum) could certainly get a good workout at Syracuse Jundokan. It's just going to require willpower and discipline on our parts, whereas at Five Star Martial Arts it's built in to the program.

Given how busy our five-member family is, especially during the school year, scheduling is an issue for us. It's also one place where Five Star's operation shines, since the two instructors (and owners) have the freedom to schedule multiple classes every day of the week, Monday through Saturday. Syracuse Jundokan's classes are Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and they run late enough that we don't get home until a good half-hour or more past the kids' bed-time. That's inconvenient in the summer, but during the school year I think it would be a major problem - especially since their school's arrival time has been moved up 35 minutes earlier beginning in September. The schedule at Five Star would have us home in time to read a book and get the kids tucked in by 8 PM so they're getting plenty of rest for school. Besides that, I'm really never available on Mondays as long as I'm meeting with my Writer's Roundtable, and I expect that to continue through at least the end of 2010, and probably well beyond that. As a result, we'd be limited to training at Syracuse Jundokan on Wednesday and Friday only unless the schedule changes (which I believe Sensei Oddy might be inclined to do at some point). If one of the kids ends up with a school activity on one of those nights, there wouldn't be much flexibility to shift our training to a different day. At Five Star, we can pick and choose the days and times that work best, and could easily train three or even as many as five times a week if we want.

Lastly, each dojo offers at least one unique training opportunity that the other does not. At Syracuse Jundokan, both Sensei Oddy and Sensei Kushnir have extensive experience with national competitions through the AAU and the National Karate Federation, which is considered the national governing body for U.S. Karate by the U.S. Olympic Committee. In other words, if you're training and competing under the auspices of the NKF, then you've got the opportunity to join the U.S. National Team and possibly even the U.S. Olympic Team. In fact, right now their student Bryan Randazzo is preparing to represent the U.S. at the Pan-American Games in Montreal in August as part of our National Team. That's pretty amazing and it's unheard of, as far as I can tell, from any other dojo in the greater Syracuse area. Training at Syracuse Jundokan puts you in the position to participate in AAU and NKF tournaments under the expert coaching of two veteran instructors.

I should acknowledge, though, that that isn't something my family's interested in right now. I'd be floored if any of them ever have the tenacity, the temerity, and the sense of self-sacrifice to put in the effort and commitment necessary to compete at that level. I can almost picture my youngest son showing an interest, but he's many years too young at this point. So while Syracuse Jundokan offers this impressive and unprecedented training opportunity, it's not directly relevant to my family's training goals.

At the same time, Five Star Martial Arts offers the same training in kobudo or, as they simply call it in English, weapons, as at LaVallee's. Not the full range of Okinawan weaponry - they don't appear to know the sai or the tonfa, but they train in the kama, the bo staff, the nunchuku, and they add in the katana because it's cool as hell. Now I certainly know that these tools are superficial to the martial arts training - they don't necessarily add to your empty-hand technique (though the katana certainly does if you're studying Aikido, which we are not) nor are you likely to have them with you should you ever need them, but let's be frank: I like traditional Japanese weaponry, I think it's neat, and given a choice I'd prefer to train with them than not. There's no deeper reason than that.

And there you have it - it's not quite a scorecard, because the advantages of each school aren't necessarily comparable or equally weighted enough to fit into gross categories. And if you're reading the above article and you conclude that "clearly he prefers dojo X or dojo Y," you've misread it (unless you're referring to my old Aikido dojo, in which case you're correct, but it's not an option). It's anything but clear, and in fact it's going to be one of the hardest choices my family has made in quite some time. Both dojos offer us tremendous learning opportunities and I'm absolutely certain that we'd be extremely happy at whichever we choose. Likewise, we're going to be disappointed not to be able to train at whichever dojo isn't selected. When we left Five Star on Friday after our second "intro session," the kids insisted we ought to train at both. Sigh. Yeah, guys, I'd like that, too. If only time and money were unlimited, I believe we just might.

Check back later this week. After we've made our decision and spoken to both dojos, I'll post it here. Wish me luck.

Update: the decision is now up! Click here.


  1. Wow! That's a great review - thanks for the many kind words!!

  2. I mean all of it - training with you has been a remarkable experience. It's making the decision extra tough, but better that than not to have any viable options!

  3. The weapons used at Lavallees or 5 star may be traditional but is the training traditional? Mostof the people I kno have no real katana training even though they "teach" it. Kama, taught as a flashy kata, Nunchucu were never used by anyone traditionaly in the fashion of Bruce Lee. So the pros of kobudo are not really pros in the decision making process

  4. Says the guy who doesn't teach Kobudo. :D

    Seriously, though, that's potentially a valid question. I'm not sure I'd know the difference if it smacked me in the head with nunchuku. I know what I've seen in movies, and I know what my wife learned at Tearney's and what they teach at LaValle's (and, to an extent, what I learned at Aikido, but that seems to be its own unique set of techniques that all reflect the techniques you'd do with your bare hands). I'm not sure I've ever seen "traditional" training, so I can't really judge whether this qualifies as such.

    I don't see it being a deciding factor, regardless, but you raise a good point. It's definitely a major challenge to balance all the factors of cost, location, style, quality, curriculum, facility, and what I'd call "fit" (ie. the degree to which you enjoy learning from the people you'd be spending all that time training with) to find a place to learn the martial arts. We ruled out about ten other dojos just to get down to the two finalists.

    I'm not sure why it has to be so hard - maybe there just aren't that many 5-member families who want to train together, so too few dojos cater to them (and an even smaller subset represent what I'd call "traditional" Japanese or Chinese (or Korean or whatever) training).

    I will say that Kyoshi LaValle has certainly had ample opportunity to learn weapons from traditionally-trained instructors (his resume of people he's trained under is long and seems to represent some very credible instructors to my admittedly inexpert eye), so if what he has passed down to his instructors and students is something else, I don't know why or where it came from.

  5. Mike - that wasn't my comment - another Dave I think...

    I don't want to try to influence your decision other than with the quality of training as you've already observed...

    I can't resist this though - be careful to differentiate between people someone has "trained under" and who they've "trained with." I can tell you with certainty that LaVallee does not have extensive training in Okinawan karate nor kobudo and never has, regardless of who he may have visited for training credentials. His early training was in American Kenpo and is now in his own mix. He does what he does very well, but it's not karate nor kobudo - it's his own style. If you like it that's great and it's all that counts.

    I could easily add my own made-up weapons program and call it kobudo as many have done, but I won't teach something that is not authentic and that which I can't claim deep expertise in no matter how good for business it would be.

    Anyway - just keeping the names straight... :)

    Dave (Oddy)

  6. Thanks for clearing that up, Dave! It never occurred to me that a different David might have joined the discussion. As always, your analysis reflects your keen knowledge of your art.

    Also, welcome, David! It's always nice both to meet new readers and to get the thoughts of another martial artist. Thanks for commenting!