Here is how Social Media works in a positive way. Sensei Brian Pena and Sensei Butch Togisala re-connected after twenty years thanks to Facebook. These two men competed throughout the 1990’s all over the world. Sensei Brian and his family visited California and Togisala Shorin Ryu during Easter break and, a little over a month later, Sensei Butch was graciously invited to attend the Carolina Martial Arts Open tournament in South Carolina.
On April 24, 2016, Sensei Brian Pena published the following announcement via Facebook:
We are excited and honored to announce that multi-time NBL World Champion and Japanese / Okinawan Karate Legend: LELAGI ‘BUTCH’ TOGISALA of Torrance, California is set to be at The Karate Dojo in West Columbia, SC for a seminar, private lessons, and to receive a special award on May 14-15, 2016 to coincide with the Carolina Martial Arts Open.
Sensei Togisala is a Japanese Kobudo and Kata MASTER that holds the record of winning the NBL World Title in Japanese / Okinawan Kata for 5 straight years through the 1990’s until he humbly bowed out to his team member Marcus Young at the 1998 Super Grands World Games.
Please make plans today to meet, greet, and LEARN from a great friend of mine, and the single most prolific Japanese / Okinawan Karate & Kobudo competitor of the past 25 years – PERIOD.
Email me at Sensei@TheKarateDojo.com with Seminar interest or to schedule Private Lessons, and stay tuned in the coming days for further information.”
On Friday the 13th in May 2016, before the sun had risen, Sensei Butch and I boarded a flight to ATL to catch a connection to CAE. There was a level of excitement in both of us bubbling and Sensei Butch had lots of questions regarding the weekend. We knew that a greeting at the airport by Sensei Brian and a sushi dinner with some of his black belts were on the Friday evening itinerary. So, we planned on checking into our hotel, resting a bit, getting our gi pressed for the weekend and just going with the flow.
I had cooked up a fresh batch of Kalua pork for Sensei Brian. He really enjoyed that when he was at our house for Easter. A couple of pounds of frozen Kalua pork were one of my carry-on items. In addition, I packed some healthy snacks for the long flight across the country.
Early morning flights usually mean a plane full of passengers who are either trying to sleep or overly sparked on caffeine. We both attempted to catch some Zs after take-off, to no avail. Because our seats were upgraded to Delta Comfort, we had access to free movies and he selected the film, “Invincible” starring Mark Wahlberg. Sports-themed movies usually contain messages about hard work paying off, enduring monumental physical challenges, and overcoming adversity. These themes were threaded throughout the film and I saw many parallels with what Togisala Shorin Ryu is experiencing.
We sat next to each other, sharing earbuds (yes, we looked like “that couple”) and enjoyed the inspirational true story of lifelong diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan Vince Papale. Coach Dick Vermeil called an open tryout to boost interest in the flailing Eagles. Papale realized his wildest dream, survived try outs, and became a squad member. The movie shows Papale’s tenacity, grit and heart in a mature and relatable way, beyond Disney’s usual animated fairy tales.
“Invincible” touched our hearts and there must have been quite a bit of dust circulating in the plane, as I had to keep wiping tears away. No comment about Sensei Butch’s “allergies”. The feel-good story focused on the importance of hard work and the responsibility of individuals to support their friends, neighborhoods and more importantly, their families. Competing in sports played a critical role in developing both of our personal core values around Respect, Discipline, and Courage. He and I are athletes who have competed at various levels throughout our entire lives. Sensei Butch leveraged his raw talent for karate and his incredible support from his father and surrogate father, Grand Master Sensei Richard Rabago, to “pull himself out of the ghetto.” Disciplined training became a way of life and that led to a successful sport karate career that took Sensei Butch all over the world.
When a competitor sees someone who consistently performs at the level to achieve world champion status, that person impacts him/her in profound ways. Sensei Butch has fans around the world and social media has connected him with other martial artists that used to compete with him. This is what brought Sensei Butch to South Carolina.
Friday afternoon we landed at CAE airport. Sensei Brian Pena greeted us with some of his senior students: two of his black belts and one of his brown belts. The Karate Dojo welcomed Team Togisala with warm smiles, open arms, and deep bows of mutual respect.
We felt hungry but wanted to see The Karate Dojo before checking into our hotel. The facility was incredibly impressive. I had never seen a dojo as large as this one. The main floor also housed weight machine that looked more complete than most hotel gyms I train in while on the road. In addition, there is a smaller, more private training room and a large space perfectly equipped for child care and fun. But as impressive as the physical space was, even more impressive was the spirit and atmosphere inside the dojo. The floor, the walls, the equipment all looked pristine. But on the interpersonal level, everyone from the staff to the students showed immense respect to Sensei Butch. We heard, “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” in every response. Such a simple behavior, using consistent and respectful manners, exemplifies the way a karate-ka should hold him- or herself.
Sensei Brian graciously allowed Sensei Butch to use his beefy, tricked out, and gorgeous Expedition. He drove us to Downtown Columbia, dropped the car off with the valet, and Sensei Butch spotted a man walking. He told me, “Babe, that’s Coolio.” I dismissed him and said, “Leave that man alone. It is not Coolio.” What would Coolio be doing in Downtown Columbia? We checked in, unpacked, and grabbed a nap before dinner.
Friday night – sushi dinner in South Carolina. That was not a sentence I ever imagined saying out loud. We pulled up to a shopping plaza and found a restaurant called, “Inakaya Watanabe.” Sensei Brian had reserved the private room with tatami mats and when we entered, there were two HUGEMONGOUS sushi boats on the tables to greet us. Sensei Butch felt a bit apprehensive about sitting on the floor throughout an entire meal but thank goodness, the tables were built over a sunk-in floor. The food tasted fresh and I devoured the fresh yellowtail sashimi while Sensei Brian requested rolls like soft shell crab, chef specials and some terrifyingly hot roll with a mystery chili pepper of some sort. Eating that hot scary pepper thingy roll was a rite of passage for Sensei Brian’s black belts. Since I am deathly allergic to peppers, I did not have the opportunity to taste that mystery torture roll. Thank goodness.
At the end of dinner, Sensei Butch presented a special gift to Sensei Brian. We had a brand new set of rope kama made by Tenth Degree Weaponary in Southern California for Sensei Brian. Rope kama are Sensei Butch’s signature weapon and there are multiple videos of him swinging them in sport karate tournaments all over YouTube. Sensei Brian appreciated the gift and we were delighted to present it to him.
May 14, 2016, Saturday morning, Carolina Martial Arts Open tournament day. When we arrived at the The Karate Dojo, the building was bursting with competitors and their family members. Sensei Brian treated both of us like honored guests in his dojo and asked for the opportunity to introduce Sensei Butch to all of the participants. We didn’t know he also had a big surprise in store for Sensei Butch.
And then, Sensei Butch had me bring up another gift for Sensei Brian. It was a vintage heavy weight Team Togisala competition gi, complete with gashes in the back of it from Kama blades. I thought that this one of a kind, irreplaceable gift would be something that Sensei Brian would appreciate. Material gifts can’t beat sentimental gifts, in my opinion. We can all buy “things” but no one can replace memories and experiences.
A wide variety of martial arts schools were represented by colorful gi and t-shirts. The number of competitors could have felt overwhelming but the order and precision that Sensei Brian exemplified in running simultaneous divisions impressed me. Sensei Butch and I split our time between walking the floor and resting and reviewing the seminar format together. Jet lag crept in every hour or so, we tried to catch cat naps throughout the morning. While out on the floor, we met an enthusiastic competitor. She cheered everyone on in the rings by yelling, clapping, and sending tons of positive energy. I pointed her out to Sensei Butch and he said, “She’s an awesome hype man. We should bring her to all of our tournaments LOL.” Her enthusiasm was noted by others and pointed out to Sensei Brian. He recognized her by presenting her with a special “spirit” award. She found us at the end of the tournament and asked to take a photo with both of us. Look how her spirit shines through in her smile.
This tournament had numerous examples of how martial arts influences young lives. The atmosphere felt supportive and loving and still competitive throughout the day. It struck me that martial arts tournaments should always feel family-friendly, rather than cut-throat competitive. We work to build character in our students through discipline, respect, courage, and fun. Becoming a tournament champion does not have to be the outcome in order to build up our students’ character. World Championships, trophies, black belts…none of that makes a Champion. Students living their lives by showing respect for others, acting with integrity, and staying physically fit is the ultimate goal. Martial arts training never stops.
As the tournament wound down, I heard tid bits of stories of first-time adult competitors making their debut at the Carolina Martial Arts Open and examples of children showing love and support for one another. Sensei Brian referred to his event as an “investment in the future.” A father of one of the participants wrote a “thank you” note to Sensei Brian because his son was crying at the end of the tournament. This young competitor was overcome with tears of pride because his sister had won Grand Champion. Sensei Brian recognized and rewarded this young competitor with a trophy, as well. But in fact, what that young man gave all of us was a greater gift. Love and support for our family members and dojo Ohana is the ultimate goal. Sensei Brian encouraged all spectators to cheer for all competitors and the dojo roof was raised by all the positive energy and Aloha throughout the tournament.
Next up, was the karate seminar with Sensei Butch Togisala. About 20 or 25 students attended the seminar on Saturday. The game plan consisted of a brief stretching session to prep the participants for the first activity – stances. Strong, low stances are a signature for Togisala Shorin Ryu and the foundation of our style. Having a low base is critical to executing our kata correctly. Sensei Butch selected Pinan Godan as the kata to teach during the seminar. And we wanted each student to be able to learn the entire kata during the seminar, regardless of belt rank, and be able to perform it. I will note that Sensei Butch thought I was being too strict during warm-ups but I protested that as I conducted a very short stretching session to prepare their hips and legs for doing basics, just as I do in our dojo every night. But I digress..
I have written about one of the mantra of our Sensei, the late Grand Master Sensei Richard Rabago, “Basics are Everything.” The stance is the foundation for karate. Not all Japanese karate schools take as a low of a stance as Togisala Shorin Ryu. But I believe that the beauty in kata is taking a low stance. It might be from my years of studying hula kahiko, my Kumu Hula taught us that our energy comes from our classmates and from the Earth. Being connected to both improves the spirit or mana in a dance. The same can apply to kata. When the karate-ka applies the movements within a kata, it is a self-defense technique or offensive attack.
Sensei Butch began the seminar with running the participants through exercises to practice: kiba-dachi (horse stance), zenkutsu-dachi (forward stance), and neko-dachi (cat stance). We had students as young as six years old, all the way up to adult aged and yellow belts up to second degree black belts participating. Everyone worked hard to adjust to the style of Togisala Shorin Ryu to learn a new kata, Pinan Godan. This is a required kata for advancement to purple belt in our dojo but it isn’t taught at The Karate Dojo so it became a nice addition to their kata toolkit. One of the black belt students in the seminar stated, “So very impressed with Sensei Togisala. He captured my family with his calm yet strong patience. He led a seminar with a 6 year old all the way to us older folks and NEVER lost our attention. We all left not only being taught a kata but also being taught a lesson in humility and strength. Thank you sir for graciously giving us your time and energy this past weekend! Deep bow of LOVE and RESPECT!”
Personally, I learned a lot through the process of helping to teach our kata during the seminar. In addition, it became clear to me that Sensei Brian teaches all of his students how to be Champions in life. His dedication to teaching the martial arts is a gift. Sensei Brian runs The Karate Dojo as a very special school, filled with exceptional students. I humbly bow to him.
After the seminar, Sensei Butch and I went to the Club Lounge to relax with appetizers and a glass (or two) of wine. He felt pleased with the outcome of the seminar. We chatted with the lounge hostess, a student from USC (Gamecocks, not Trojans) and discovered something that Sensei Butch found amusing. A big old school hip hop concert was held nearby and Salt N Pepa stayed at our hotel the night before. They were hot during the early 90s, the height of my clubbing days. Sensei Butch and I sang a bunch their songs, most of which the hostess had never heard of because she was an infant at the time. And, unfortunately, it was revealed that Coolio was also staying at our hotel! BThat means Sensei Butch did see Coolio the day before and he reminded me over and over throughout the rest of the weekend that I blew a fantastic photo opportunity for him. Ugh.
At dinner time, we walked about a mile down the road to a restaurant ironically named, “California Dreaming.” It came highly recommended by the nice man sitting next to me on the flight from ATL to CAE, that recommendation was co-signed by our lounge hostess and others. They were right! We had a fantastic walk and a lovely meal.
After dinner, we called Uber so we wouldn’t have to take the one mile walk uphill. A tricked out GMC SUV on 22″ tins rolled up, bumpin’ some hip hop. We looked at each other and laughed. Our driver was so chill, we talked about USC (Gamecocks, not Trojans) being on summer breaks. Then we asked about the concert and I had to hear how I blew an opportunity for Butch to take a pic with Coolio. Again. They both laughed at me about that. Every person we encountered in Columbia, SC was gracious and welcoming. We had such a lovely time.
On Sunday, Sensei Butch was in his element, working one-on-one or in semi-private groups with students on their kata. His innate talent for performing kata spills over into the incredible gift in customization and teaching. Sensei Butch excels at making subtle shifts to sequences and moves that suit the individual’s strengths to transform a dojo kata to a winning sport karate kata. Let me have some of the participants speak for themselves.
“What an incredible experience to be instructed by Sensei Togisala, honored to have the opportunity, I hope to see him again one day to Thank him once more (or a thousand more) for helping me with my competition Kata. He is an exceptional man.”
The photographs above are from a semi-private lesson with two black belts. They perform the same competition kata but Sensei Butch provided direction for each of them to customize a section of the kata to make it their own.
“Very cool to have met someone I’ve only ever heard about (and seen in kata videos). Sensei Togisala embodies who a leader and instructor should be – knowledgeable, caring, and patient. Respect!!”
Sensei Butch started the morning off with a private lesson refining a kata specifically for competition.
In this private lesson, Sensei Butch shared a few tricks of the trade to make this Sensei’s competition kata really stand out. His strength could be amplified with a few tweaks at key points in Go Gi Shi Ho, which happens to be Sensei Butch’s signature open hand kata.
Three private lessons were with junior colored belts. Each of these students worked very hard and earned a lot of praise from Sensei Butch. He reinforced the importance of basic stances and precision in strikes for competition. As intense and serious as all these photos look, there was plenty of laughter and smiles during these private lessons. Best of all, each of them asked questions when necessary, took the gentle criticism to heart, and applied their learnings in real time. It was a delight for me to watch.
The last lesson for the day was a semi-private session with two junior blue belts. Each of them paid close attention to Sensei Butch. Their high energy sustained him as he closed out the long day of teaching. These two are well on their way to a bright and shining career in sport karate competition.
Sensei Brian’s Team Dojo will “Never Give Up.” The future of karate lies in our children continuing to learn and train from experienced instructors and competitors like Sensei Brian Pena and Sensei Butch. Being open to new lessons and learnings was my key take-away from the weekend. Hard work is nothing to shy away from in karate or in life. As instructors, we need to be open to receive the lessons that our students teach us every day. On behalf of Team Togisala, I send a deep bow of respect and gratitude to Sensei Brian Pena and all of his students, staff, and parents at http://www.thekaratedojo.com. We were honored and humbled by the experience we shared with all of you during the 2016 Carolina Martial Arts Open karate tournament. Sending much respect and Aloha to Sensei Brian Pena.