Training in Japan
I’m going to start off saying that my trip to Japan started as a joke to a friend. He’s lived in Tokyo for a few years along with his family and I just happened to message him out of the blue.
After messaging back and forth through email for a while I decided to be funny and say that I would come and visit not thinking much of it until my friend actually invited me to come. I would have a place to stay and train. I just needed to get myself there.
That’s how life is sometimes. There will be times when opportunity shows itself and it will be up to you on whether or not you to capitalize on it.
I’ve found that if you put yourself out there that often times your message will be heard by the right ears.
I dreamed of going to Japan every since I started training in martial arts. I’m not sure if it’s all the karate movies that I watched as a kid or anime that made me think that this would be an awesome place to visit. I just knew that I wanted to go.
My experience in Japan was really life changing. I was definitely out of my comfort zone the entire time I was there and this really pushed me to really focus on my training, on my business and building my brand.
Because of the language barrier there were a lot of times when I really couldn’t communicate with anyone let alone have a conversation for weeks at a time.
I think this can make a lot of long term visitors and the foreigners that reside in Japan lonely in a sense. Luckily, I used this time for self reflection and hard training.
I traveled around a bit during my time training in Japan but I spent the majority of my time in Tokyo.
Getting around Tokyo is pretty easy seeing as Japan has one of the best transit systems in the world so it’s very convenient to get around. But I will talk more about that in my travel tips section.
Of course, I came to see my friend and his family but I also wanted to train and compete. Being a full time Jiu Jitsu athlete, that’s pretty much how I travel. So I planned most of my schedule around the different tournaments nearby.
Pro Tip: If you plan tournaments back to back make sure that you give yourself adequate recovery time.
I spent most of my time training at Axis Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and with the Nichidai Wrestling team with an occasional trip down to Yokohama to train with Hiro Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. So I got around a lot.
Axis Jiu Jitsu
I was really happy to be introduced to Axis Jiu Jitsu through my friends David and Paul who both train there.
Axis Jiu Jitsu is headed by Taka-sensei and Joao-sensei and is the affiliate school of Rickson Gracie in Tokyo.
The classes are taught more in the traditional style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Combining a lot of self defense in addition to more competition based techniques and sparring.
I’ve been to many academy’s where the focus is completely on techniques for tournaments. Which is perfectly okay and has it place, but it felt really good to review and learn more self defense since I’ve spent so much time competing these last couple of years. It’s exactly how I remember classes being taught when I first started learning Jiu Jitsu.
As Jiu Jitsu continues progressing, I fear that many academies will lose or have already lost this aspect of our art form. Leaving just two extremes, the all competition academies and the all self defense academies, with no middle ground. Hopefully, schools like Axis will continue to carry on the tradition.
I really enjoyed my time training here and look forward to my next visit. This academy is super friendly to travelers. In fact, all of the classes are held in English and Japanese, and both Taka-sensei and Joao-sensei are fluent in Portuguese. I definitely recommend Axis if you’re ever in Tokyo.
Training at Axis BJJ in Tokyo with Sawada-san
Training wrestling in Japan was the one thing that I didn’t have a reference for what to expect. I’ve been exposed to wrestling through Jiu Jitsu for years and had even taken a few lessons on the subject, but it’s different doing wrestling for wrestling’s sake versus doing wrestling for Jiu Jitsu. .
In the U.S. most scholastic and collegiate wrestling in based on folk style wrestling. But here in Japan and internationally, freestyle is king. I won’t go into the main differences between the two styles. I just want you know that the rules on scoring is what sets them apart.
In addition to never really focusing on a pure wrestling style, there was also a large language barrier. All of my wrestling training partners were in college where they have to learn English in middle and high school, but it’s very much like taking a foreign language in the U.S. where it’s more about passing the class than becoming fluent.
So my two major hurdles were learning wrestling and figuring out a way to navigate my way with my very basic level of Japanese.
Luckily there were a handful of students that knew a few words in English, otherwise I just had to figure out things on my own. I’m sure that’s what babies go through. You know that stage where they can’t move that well but they still try even though they fall down a lot, or when they are learning how to speak but all they manage to do is make up gibberish. I think babies have read my post on the white belt mindset. That would explain a lot.
Starting wrestling I had a lot of questions about how the sessions would be set up. This was a topic that was really interesting for me coming from a Jiu Jitsu background. Many of the schools that I’ve trained at and visited have similar ways in setting up their classes. Often there is a warm up involving movement specific drills or straight into learning technique. Then students are sent to practice the technique until it is time to spar or roll as we call it.
The training in wrestling is very different. Of course there are some similar movements and drills. But the whole setup of the training is different in a good way. Depending on the day there was an overall focus on either conditioning or technique. Regardless, all of the sessions were grueling but also a lot of fun.
All of the wrestlers were friendly and trained hard every session. Always managing to work their conditioning and their technique whenever they could. It wasn’t uncommon to see guys working the timing of their double legs or doing footwork drills between wrestling sparring.
Many of the coaches were gone for the Olympics so a lot of the sessions were lead by the senior students. So we didn’t work as much group technique but we did do a lot of flowrestling and situational training.
Outside of the hard training, it was fun hanging out with the wrestlers. They were so young, I was definitely the oldest guy training but they always showed me respect and tried their best to help me.
The funniest thing is that at the end of every session all of the students would line up with the coaches facing the students and they would always make me go with the coaches. Most of these kids have been wrestling all of their lives and I’m up there setting in front of them.
For me training wrestling was a very humbling experience. Jiu Jitsu can prepare you for a lot. Many schools even teach basic wrestling and judo techniques. But it’s different when you do the real thing. My most embarrassing moment occurred when I was working on a few techniques with my partner but I just wasn’t getting them down, even after a few attempts and having my partner explain the moves over again, when he looks at me and says, “This is a really basic move”. I knew he was frustrated with me but I kept working at it and eventually go it down somewhat.
Even being a black belt and training in martial arts, I still have trouble with some newer techniques. Whatever your skill level, I hope you are able to see that in life and in martial arts you will always be humbled. It’s how you handle those setbacks and tough moments that determines your character.
Rokiki Kids Wrestling
I was really fortunate to wrestle with the Rokiki Kids wrestling club. What makes this club special outside of the awesome kids that train really hard every Tuesday and Thursday is the fact that they do this at the headquarters for the Tokyo 6 police squad. In fact, all of the coaches are police officers.
All of the kids train really hard and most of the drills and techniques that they do is exactly the same as the university wrestling programs. This is due to the fact that all of the wrestling in Japan is built on the same model. I really had a great time training with these kids. They really love wrestling and have so much fun.
Training Wrestling with the Tokyo Police Squad 6 Youth Wrestling Program
I only had the chance to train at Hiro BJJ in Yokohama a few times along with teaching a seminar there, but each time I visited the training was tough. All of the students were friendly and not shy about asking me to roll. It’s funny, every time I went to Hiro BJJ I ended up rolling with all of the students in the class so be prepared.
Shout out to my friend Miki who helped set me up my training at Hiro.
Training at Hiro BJJ in Yokohama with Hiro-sensei
I knew that I would be competing in three major tournaments during my stay. The All Japan Open, the Copa Bull Terrier, and the Asian Championship.
If you are going to travel and compete it’s important that you plan your competitions out ahead of time. Many tournaments allow last minute entries but through my travels I have found that this is often not the case. Often, promoters will uphold any preset deadlines no matter what your rank and who you know, and some of these tournaments will require additional registration and identification. Much like the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) and how it’s brown and black belts athletes must register every year in order to compete in their tournaments. So you might need a Japanese Jiu Jitsu federation card.
Other than that, I will say that communicating at these tournaments can be a challenge. Of course knowing Japanese is big, but surprisingly being fluent or knowing a few words in Portuguese also comes in handy. I didn’t realize just how big the Brazilian population in Japan is, and it’s really stands out when you go to these tournaments and all you hear is Japanese and Portuguese. I basically had to combine both languages to be able to get around.
Alec at the 2016 Asian Championship in Tokyo
I visited a few tourist locations like Tokyo tower, the big Buddha and a few shrines. But I mostly spent my time inside of Tokyo.
Whenever I wanted to have fun and just let out some steam I would visit the American Club and the Sanno.
Alec next to the big buddah
The American Club
Also referred to as “TAC” , TAC is a great meeting point for foreigners and Japanese alike. If you plan on networking in Japan I definitely suggest getting a membership here. While not cheap by any means, it’s amenities really set a high standard. There is a rooftop pool with a great view of Tokyo Tower, large basketball court, bowling alley, game rooms, cafeteria. Dining rooms, bar, etc.
This is the U.S. Navy hotel. For current military officers.
The Sanno is a really cool place to blow off some steam. Go for a swim or just chill. They are always hosting different events. The last time that I went they were hosting a huge Hawaiian luau. If you stop by, make sure you try their cheese cake!
Coming to Japan I really didn’t have an idea of what to expect.
I think a lot of people are curious about Japan. It has a very unique culture that many have experienced through its influence in many spheres.
The Tokyo transit system can be confusing at first. You have different trains, local train, express trains, semi-express trains and special trains. All you need is a Suica card, which is a prepaid card that you can use on most of the trains in Tokyo, buses, vending machines, and taxis. It’s super convenient and just so versatile. I really wish we had this in most of the major U.S. cities.
The Japanese drive on the left side of the street in case you plan on driving. This also means that the direction people walk in reversed too. So stay to the left.
Bikes are a great alternative to walking. But you might have to pay to park and although Japan is really safe, you will still need to have a bike lock just in case.
Japan is still a cash based economy. So make sure you have a few thousand yen on you just in case. Many ATMs only take Japanese cards so you will have to find international ATMs or go visit a local 7-Eleven.
Beware: you will receive a lot of coins during normal transactions so you will need to find a good place to store them all.
If you go to a supermarket you first pay for you items and then you have bag everything up afterwards at another separate counter.
There are a few coin laundry places spread out around Tokyo. But be prepared to shell out 500-600 yen ($5-$6USD) per load of laundry. If you train as much as me that really adds up. So if you can, find someone with a washer and dryer.
Earthquakes happen here a lot. You probably won’t notice them at first but the longer you stay there the more they will stand out. Just stay calm and wait for it to pass. It’s actually an exciting event that really shakes up your day.
The transit system, specifically the train system can really add up so make sure to plan ahead. I probably spent $6-$8 USD back and forth to go training. So a lot of times I would only train once per day or try to arrange my schedule so that I could attend multiple classes in a trip.
If you can, try to stay within walking or biking distance of where you plan on training. That way you won’t have to worry about getting lost or spending a fortune traveling.
The buses in Japan are pretty awesome! They’re cheaper than the subways systems, there’s a lot of stops, and there’s free wifi. The only downside is that bus times are limited and change on the weekends.
Biking in Japan is a lot of fun and sometimes the fastest way to get around. The bikes run on the same side of the road as cars but the rules are pretty relaxed so you can get away with a lot.
The taxis here all look like they were made in the 60’s or 70’s but they get the job done. They are everywhere. So if you’re really in need to arriving to your destination but have no clue on how to take the subway or bus system then it is a good alternative. The drivers don’t really speak English so that might be a hurdle but if you know any major landmarks or even the name of the station nearby your destination then you should be able to get to where you need to be. Japan is cash based economy so make sure you have enough yen to cover the cost of your trip or if you don’t have enough yen or don’t feel like carrying around any bills, you can also preload a Suica card that will also work in the taxis. Oh, and when you get out of the taxis you don’t have to close the door. It closes automatically.
I didn’t use uber during my trip. I do think it’s available, but the taxis system in Japan has been around for so long and there are just so many of them that I think it’s hard to justify waiting on an uber when you have so many different options when it comes to getting from one place to the next.
The food in Japan is some of the best in the world and had made its way all over the world. Sushi, Ramen, Udon, Mochi, etc. you can’t go wrong.
I didn’t have a lot of money when I went to Japan so I didn’t really eat out a lot. So while the food is well priced and there are a lot places that you can get a good meal at, most restaurants will run you $$ which can easily start to add up.
Also if you have plans on competing while you’re in Japan, a lot of the restaurant foods have a massive amount of sodium so you will need to be careful with what you eat. Unless you don’t mind going up a weight class.
I mostly ate Itsumo Foods Tuna in Coco along with salad. It’s so good! I definitely recommend trying it when it comes to the U.S. and international markets later this year.
Itsumo Tuna in Coconut Oil. I basically lived off of this while in Tokyo, Japan for 3 months.
Japanese gets a bad rap for being a hard language to learn but I don’t think that’s the case. I was able to pick up a few really useful phrases and get by okay.
List of useful phrases:
Konnichiwa – Hello
Genki Desu Ka? – How are you?
Hisashiburi – Long time no see
Ohayo – Good morning
Konbanwa – Good Evening
Cheers – Kanpai
Itadakimasu – Have a nice meal
Wakaranai – I don’t know
Domo arigato – Thank you
Reading Japanese is a different animal, but when it comes to speaking it, it’s not that hard and most Japanese people will try to understand you. Although, it will be hard to get by with only English as many of the Japanese don’t speak it or are too shy even if they know a few words.
There are a few language exchange programs in Tokyo but I didn’t have the opportunity to check any out.
A really cool part of my traveling is being able to gauge the level of opportunities that exist for myself and for other Jiu Jitsu athletes in the locations that I visit.
I think that with right body type, style and Japanese language skills you can do really well for yourself in Japan, at least as far as doing seminars.
If you are a highly skilled featherweight or lower weight I think you can do really well, especially if you have already made a name for yourself at the major tournaments like pans and worlds.
The seminars in Japan are just like those in the U.S. Although the pricing might be set a little bit lower by between 20%-30%. So if you normally charge $60 USD (6000 yen) then your Japanese pricing would be around $40 USD (4000 yen).
I will say to check before hand to see if you will have a translator and if the academy will cover the cost. I made the mistake of not asking, and while everything worked out it did cost me.
It sucks having to write about stuff like this but if you’re ever in my shoes I want you to know what’s up and what can happen. So it’s important that you have an idea of how much you would like to make for your seminar, and how many students the host academy can realistically bring in going into the planning stage and insuring that all parties are accountable.
If they are not able to meet your requirements and are not willing to work with you as best they can, then don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s better to know your worth than to compromise.
Academies in Japan
There are a few academies in Tokyo and the surrounding cities and most of these academies are usually run by bilingual Japanese or Brazilian/Japanese instructors so I believe it would be very hard and simply unwise to try an open an academy here if you’re not already apart of this club.
Doing business in Japan is different than in the U.S. or Europe. Many companies and entrepreneurs believe that they can just go to Japan and it will be business as usual, but that’s far from the case. Japan has its own culture and way of doing business. So if you do have plans of starting an academy or another business here I really suggest you spend a minimum of 3-6 months here and talk to other foreign entrepreneurs that have been in Japan a lot longer than you.
I really would like to thank my sponsors, Itsumo Foods and Shoyoroll, for making it possible for me to have this awesome experience.
Without them, I would not have been able to make it out to Tokyo and be able to thrive in the city as long and as well as I did.
I would like to personally thank David Leibowitz for being a great friend, mentor and inspiration for me.
David has always been one of those really outgoing type of guys that is really passionate about his family, business, friends, everything actually.
Being able to hang out with David along with his sons Noah and Ty, daughter Mia, and wife Mayumi really made my trip to Japan special and I will always remember this time together.
Alec and David
Jiu Jitsu really is more than a martial art. More than about fighting and competing. Those are all important parts of it but I think at its base it’s all about building relationships.
Building relationships with people that you might never come in contact with through your regular lives.
Building relationships with people that live on the other side of the world and speak a completely different language than yourself.
I’ve met so many great people through Jiu Jitsu. People that have changed my life for the better and inspire me to help others in whatever ways that I can.
I spent a lot of time in Japan. I was only there for three months but it felt so much longer.
I think that it’s really great to do a long trip like this because it allows you to immerse yourself in the culture. The downside is that Tokyo is an expensive city.
If you decide to go to Japan to train and you want to make the most out of your trip then I suggest you:
Learn a little bit of the language
Explore the city
Figuring out how to get around
Try as many different foods as you can
Avoid trains, buses, and taxis during rush hour
Visit 100 yen stores
Never go full native haha
Exchange your yen coins before leaving
I really think traveling has helped my Jiu Jitsu grow. It’s easy to stay where you are, working the same techniques with the same partners. I know I got to a point where I would do the same things over the course of weeks, months, and even years. If there’s something that I’ve learned during my travels it’s that in order to grow you have to continually push yourself by stepping out of your comfort zone. If you always lift the same weight and do the same amount of reps you won’t gain any strength. The same also applies to your Jiu Jitsu.
P.S. I’m working on growing my email list so please join on the sidebar of my website.
P.P.S. I’m looking to set up a few seminars before the holidays. So if you or your academy would be interested please contact me at email@example.com