Coarse techno beats distract me time and time again while I sit at a small table, attempting to read, at Espresso Royale on State Street. The repetitive lyrics, ich, ni, san, shi, are sung in a way that could provoke hip-thrusting motions. The less-than-background music is suddenly recognizable.
It occurs to me that the words, ich, ni, san, shi, are Japanese for “one, two, three, four.”
Those four small words put to rhythm take me back to the second week of September -when I would have my first try at handling a nunchaku.
Upon arrival at the Weapons Connection Society Summer Weapons Camp held at the YMCA Storer Camp in Jackson, I approached a robed and belted crowd standing in a large grassy area bordered by a group of trees on one side and a large cabin on the other. Psychedelic rock streamed from the cabin. The Weapons Connection Society is a nationwide martial arts society specializing in weaponry.
As I entered the scene, I noticed a small group of students performing for about 10 instructors. Approximately 20 students were on deck, standing quietly behind the performers.
The sensei (or instructor), pronounced “sen-say,” shouted commands: “Rei” for a bow, “yoy” to begin. The students, males and females of all ages, demonstrated their skills with the tonfa – a wooden Okinawan weapon consisting of a shaft and handle. I watched in amazement as the students swung the tonfas, one in each hand. With swift thrusts of the wrist, the students wielded the tonfas in circular motions across their bodies. I was startled when the group smashed the shafts of the tonfas together, producing a loud “clunk” sound. The group then bowed and disappeared into the larger student audience.
Everyone in attendance applauded and looked on, anticipating the next kata demonstration. A kata is the name for a demonstrated series of movements, usually pertaining to a martial art. Looking to my right, I spotted the featured guest of the camp: Grand Master Kiichi Nakamoto of Okinawa. He sat peacefully, all regal-like, in a blue foldout lawn chair. Of all the people in attendance, he was the only one seated.
Soon thereafter, the demonstrations were over. I was introduced to Peter Carbone, whose martial-arts academy was hosting the camp.
I told him I hadn’t brought a weapon to train with. I looked at him, worried, because I realized everyone else had a weapon (and significant experience). He then put his hand on my shoulder and asked cunningly, “Did you bring your brain?”
I assured him I did.
Ni: Breaking hands with horse bridles
I never realized how easy it is to break someone’s bones. Of the three weapons I learned to break hands with, the hanbo was first. Put simply, the hanbo is a three-foot-long stick, a shorter version of the traditional bo – which you’ve probably seen in the hands of Bruce Lee.
After Carbone demonstrated a technique with the hanbo, I paired up with the man beside me to practice. My partner had driven from London, Canada, where he runs a martial-arts academy. Upon hearing this, I smiled innocently and told him: “This is my first experience with martial arts.”
My partner pointed at his left temple and nodded his head at my hanbo. I squinted, momentarily unsure, and then he slowly moved my hanbo toward his head. Suddenly, he counter stuck and twisted his arm about mine, jerking the weapon from my hand. Standing in disbelief, I knew I would need some extra help.
Thanks to my partner’s patience, I was able to get the motions down. When he swings, I counterstrike, then reach for his arm, twist the hanbo and apply pressure until he drops the weapon – or his hand breaks.
I started to realize that the skills I was learning were all means of defense. We were not learning to be the aggressor, only to respond quickly and wisely to an attack. This idea of being on the defensive dates back to the year 1609, when Japan invaded Okinawa. The Japanese confiscated the Okinawan weapons and thus the people began to use commonplace kitchenware and farming tools to defend themselves from the Japanese.
Next time you see a horse, take a look at its bridle – that’s where the nunchaku came from. Then, take a look at the horse’s stirrup, which was transformed into another widely used weapon, the tekko.
The tonfa was originally a piece of millstone used for grinding rice into flour. Now picture the grim reaper, scythe in hand. The scythe is an agricultural tool used to harvest grain. A similar tool, the sickle, is smaller and less efficient at the job. The kama, another common Okinawan weapon, was originally a sickle.
After asking Carbone which weapon I should learn, he pulled a nunchaku out of a bucket of weapons. Having only seen nunchakus in martial-arts films, I grabbed the weapon excitedly. I smiled while asking myself, “Am I actually about to do this?”
San: Nunchaku kata
All the students dispersed into groups on the grass with several students learning each weapon. It turns out the key to learning a kata is repetition. Mary Carbone, Peter’s wife and a martial artist for the last 29 years, said the repetition leads “almost to a state of meditation.”
I can’t say I would have said the same – at least at first. Learning the kata was hard. I started to get agitated because my feet were apparently in the wrong place all the time. (You are supposed to get really low in the knees and spread your legs like you are on a horse.) I could have sworn my feet looked the same as everyone else’s.
On top of that, my right arm went forward when my left should have. My arm was up instead of down, my foot in the back instead of the front.
It was eventually my turn to lead the group in counting – in Japanese. “Uh, Itch? Ni? Can I do this in English?” I was frustrated that I couldn’t remember 10 simple Japanese words, but my group members didn’t mind that I counted in English, at least from what I could tell.
My movements were abrupt at first. But after repeating the movements 20 times over, I felt the same way I fondly remembered from my days in ballet class – the feeling of grace. After getting more comfortable with the nunchaku, I was able to control its movement fully, guiding the weapon and my body in time with the counting.
It was an extraordinary release, and at a certain point, I had memorized the steps and was able to move through the kata ceaselessly.
During dinner later that day, I spoke about this feeling with other students. A woman from Long Island, who was in my nunchaku group, said that knowing a kata well is helpful in the heat of battle because when threatened, it is difficult to think rationally about your next move.
That means if I have a nunchaku in hand, I’m prepared for anything.
Shi: Learning to cipher
Most of us have known someone who took karate as a kid, claims they can break a 2-by-4 with their hand or took a few lessons of tae kwon do. But playing with weapons? What kinds of people do that? Is it legal?
The nunchaku, for example, is illegal in several nations, including Canada, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. In the United States, it’s illegal in some states, including New York, California and Massachusetts – but not Michigan.
Carbone said that learning a kata with a weapon teaches a person to focus. He said people are naturally more aware of their actions with a weapon in their hands. Training with a weapon teaches people to defend themselves empty-handedly, he said.
Quoting Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies, Carbone said weaponry “helps you to cipher.”
Carbone was born and raised in Detroit. Since he was a boy, he participated in martial arts, but he didn’t get heavily involved in weaponry until he was a young adult.
He dropped out of high school three months before graduation (though he went on to earn his GED 11 years later). At that time, he called himself “almost a rebel.”
Supporting his rebel fa