Hatsu Geiko - The First Training
Updated: May 9
Many traditional Japanese art practitioners observe Hatsu Geiko (初稽古) in and outside Japan. It started in olden samurai times around the 15th century and adopted in modern times around 1885. Jigoro Kano (嘉納治五郎), the founder of Judo started it in his headquarters dojo at that time and it has become a national custom. It is a celebration of renewal, rededication and spirit.
Hatsu Geiko, also known as Kagami Biraki (鏡開き), is the first performance of a chosen art in the New Year and sets the tone for the remainder of the year. Thus, one will perform to the best of one’s ability taking this first performance of the year very seriously. It will define who one is, if one has mastered his art, or where one is on the road to mastery. For example, in shodō (書道/calligraphy), the kanji chosen is important and must be a powerful kanji full of meaning and beauty. Cha-no-Yu (茶の湯/tea ceremony) is performed with the utmost attention to detail and fluidity demonstrating a relaxed and flowing performance. In all of these arts, it is the first, and only the first attempt, that counts. There is no warm-up or practice session before the first one. One prepares the setting using ink and stone for shodō or water and tea for cha-no-yu. One concentrates by taking deep breaths. Breathing in inspiration and breathing out performance. Breathing in to relax, breathing out to manifest spirit.
Many martial arts groups around the world observe Hatsu Geiko. On the first day of the New Year, martial artists engage in some challenging activity to test themselves and start the year off right. While other arts such as shodō and cha-no-yu are performed and completed relatively quickly, martial arts Hatsu Geiko may last up to two or more hours on the dōjō floor.
Genwakai America’s tradition makes Hatsu Geiko one of the most intense trainings of the year. Genwakai America started its tradition in the early 1990s and it consists of performing 1000 kicks. As the Genwakai America headquarters known as Ohio Budokan grew, a style of classical Kenjutsu (swordsmanship) was added to Hatsu Geiko. Those practitioners perform 1000 sword cuts on New Years day.
Every year on New Years day at 10am (EST) the students meet to perform their respective 1000 techniques. One side of the dōjō is reserved for the karateka (空手家) and the other side is reserved for the kenjutsuka (剣術家). At the appointed time all join in for junbiundo (準備運動/warm-up exercises) before the training begins. Then, the lead instructor calls the dōjō to order and all line up from left to right by rank and in a straight line. Once everyone has taken their position the lead instructor calls out “Seiza! (正座)” and everyone assumes the traditional kneeling/sitting position. Then the order “Mokuso (黙想)” is given and everyone closes their eyes and clears their mind, breathing slowly and evenly. After several breaths the instructor calls out “Naotte (直って),” meaning to stop and everyone opens their eyes but remain still. The instructor announces, “Hatsu Geiko Hajimamasu! (初稽古始めます)” meaning “Let the first training begin.” Everyone bows their head to the floor and exclaim, “Oussu (押忍)” in agreement, then one-by-one raise themselves up according to rank. The instructor then tells them “Tatte (立って)” to stand up and all rise up to their feet again one-by-one according to rank. The instructor then bows to the students and exclaims, “Oussu!” and all respond with the same exclamation, “Oussu!”
The instructor counts out the first 100 techniques in Japanese. The count is then passed to the highest ranking person on the far left who counts out the second 100 techniques. The count is passed down the row until 1000 techniques are completed.
The performance is punctuated by kiai (気合い/spirit shouts) as students gain their stride and their spirits are high. Sometimes the instructor shouts out a slogan, like “Fighting Spirit” and all kiai even louder. This exercise is for forging one’s body mind and spirit into a razor sharp sword.
Some students wear the hachimaki (鉢巻き/headband) to indicate their determination to complete all 1000 techniques. Others who may not be able to do 1000 techniques due to a physical ailment will do 1000 blocks instead to meet their annual goal.
At the end, the instructor exclaims “Naotte,” to bring the techniques to an end. The closing ceremony is performed with the words, “Hatsu Geiko Owarimasu (初稽古終わります),” officially closing the Hatsu Geiko for yet another year.
Afterwards, a series of stretches are performed in pairs as a warm down. Finally, after all the physical efforts are completed, the group enjoys sharing sushi, sake and other carry-in foods. There are many toasts to the New Year, the Sensei, the martial arts and several other worthy topics. Then all go home tired and sore but in high spirits for having accomplished what had seemed impossible just hours before.