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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Interview with Sorin Popa of The Open Dojo


Today I am lucky enough to be talking to Sorin Popa. One of the chief instructors of Vancouver's new Open Dojo. A Dojo that is taking a unique approach to the martial arts by marrying the disciplines of BJJ and Ashihara Karate under one roof. 


We will take a look into how Sorin first found Karate, why he has moved to Vancouver and then he will offer some solid advice for those who are looking to start their own Dojos. I hope you enjoy it.

K: To be honest I never really had a strong interest in joining Karate but when I was 12 or so my mother invited me to go along with my little brother and some of his friends, who were starting Karate at the local middle school. Ever since then I have done whatever I could to train as much as possible.

I have gone as far as moving to Japan for the last two years. I was lucky enough to end up in Matsuyama a hot bed for Knockdown Karate. Something I have had a strong interest in ever since training with VKK in 2008.

Matsuyama is the home of the Ashihara Honbu Dojo. One of the newer styles of Knockdown Karate, most noted for its emphasis on Tai Sabaki 「体裁き・Body Movement and contemporary Kumite Kata 「組手の型・Fighting Forms . When I was still in Vancouver there were no qualified Ashihara instructors around. But that has changed.


The Open Dojo recently opened in Vancouver at the Vancouver Japanese Language school. Lead by Sorin Popa and Nobuo Kato, The Open Dojo brings together Ashihara Karate and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu creating a unique training experience not previously offered in Vancouver.


Today I am lucky enough to be talking to Sorin Popa. We will discuss how he first found Karate and how he ended up in Vancouver with Nobuo Kato and The Open Dojo. So with out further ado:


How and why did you first step foot into a Martial Arts Dojo?


S: I started the karate in the mid 80’s in Eastern Europe (Romania) using books and training by myself. During the communism the martial arts were illegal in Romania; the karate practice was more like an underground movement. There were no formal advertisements for Dojos, and the way to get in was to be introduced by a current member.

After a brawl in my school I became very close to another student who had practiced traditional karate for a couple of months. We started training together by ourselves using the books we had and his knowledge.


We were getting ready for the high school –admission exam and we both decided to join a dojo, after we passed the exam. In July 1986 we formally joined a dojo, which was just starting at that time. We were part of the first generation of students and never knew we would be part of building the history of Ashihara Karate in Romania.


The head instructor at that dojo was a self-taught karate-ka who had more than 10 years experience at that time. His name is Mircea Carloganu and he is still training now at almost 60 years old!


Although we were just teenagers, we were training with adults and the classes were very tough. The training at that time was more like a Marine Corp boot camp. Being bruised and bloodied was considered normal. We trained on a cement surface, often times in the dark, without any light. The only heat we had in the winter was the heat generated by our bodies. The harder it was, the more we enjoyed it, and these years were definitely character building.


After the 1990, the martial arts become legal in Romania, and the landscape of karate changed rapidly.


After 7 years of hard training I tested for my Shodan in Ashihara Karate. This was in 1993.


K: Wow that sounds like the tails of early Okinawan karate. I imagine such training helped forge some great Karate-Ka. So what brought you all the way from Romania to Vancouver?

S: I am often being ask this question and more specific why Vancouver and not some other part of the world. It is hard to give you a logical and simple answer, because I don't have one!

I have traveled across Europe, The US and Japan; however the decision to settle in Vancouver was more an instinct move than anything else. You could say it was the ocean or the mountains that attracted; however it might be the blend of cultures that made me come to stay. In my opinion Vancouver is a gateway between western and eastern cultures and I am trying to adapt and take the best of each world.


K: Vancouver really does have a little bit of everything, culturally and geographically. Because of this it seems more and more people are being drawn to the city every year. Leaving many industries including the martial arts heavily saturated. What difficulties have you found in starting a new Dojo in Vancouver?

S: Vancouver is a challenging environment for any kind of business let alone a martial arts school.

There is not a huge difference between establishing an IT startup and opening a martial arts school. On a funny note, our dojo is located close to Gastown, which is home to a multitude of IT start-ups who are waiting to be the next company to be bought by Google or Microsoft.


However unlike an IT startup instead of having an army of investors we just have a huge passion and dedication for the martial arts. Also our rewards come in a different form: instead of shares in the technology industry we invest in educating our students and enriching their lives to become better human beings. I find this to be a much better reward.


Although we knew it would not be easy, we knew we had to start somewhere, with small steps. From here we must continue moving forward, never giving up. It is the same for the karate practice.


K: What has been your favourite part of being in Vancouver?

S: Vancouver is an amazing city and there are many places that I love from Grouse Mountain to Third beach and Granville Island; I even like the rain that most people cannot take.

K: That’s important. If you can't stand the rain Vancouver really isn't the city for you.

S: That’s for sure. Of course I like sunny days at the beach. However the West Coast rain helps me to calm down from the life’s daily roller coaster and enjoy the present moment.

Although Vancouver has fantastic surroundings, I believe the biggest asset is the people and the multitude of cultures and traditions you can find here. In this way I think it is a truly unique place.


K: I to love the diversity of people in Vancouver. I always find it humorous when people comment on how multi-cultural Osaka is.

Vancouver’s diversity has given rise to many really fantastic organizations throughout the city. I was wondering, how did you connect with the Vancouver Japanese language school (VJLS)?


S: The VJLS was established in 1906, and they are dedicated to promoting the Japanese language, culture and arts. I found this to be a very good match with our mission at The Open Dojo. On my part it was about being patient and searching long enough to find the proper environment for our dojo. We are very fortunate to be part of the VJLS community and work with people who appreciate our dedication to the martial arts.

K: There are a lot of different martial arts schools throughout Vancouver. How do you see yourself fitting in with the greater community? I imagine it is great to be one of the only Dojos that are able to offer skilled instruction in Ashihara. How has it been beneficial to have a background in an uncommon style and have you connected with any other Dojo's that are connected to the NIKO.

S: As a joke I like to say the number of schools rivals with the number of sushi restaurants. For those who don't know Vancouver, you cannot walk in any direction for more than 10 minutes without finding one. Some of them are just good, while others are amazing; therefore you just need to search until you find the right one.

K: I believe there are about 250 Sushi restaurants in the greater Vancouver area. I love telling my Japanese students that number. They always look a little perplexed.  

S: In my opinion the North American perception of the martial arts has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. The student demographics seem to be at one of two extremes: either the young children, who might train for a few months or the gifted athletes who don't really need martial arts to defend themselves. This leaves most of the people, who could really benefit from the martial arts practice without an environment where they can feel comfortable to learn and be challenged at the same time.

I strongly believe our dojo offers a unique experience, promoting a culture of kindness, cooperation and respect, where people will be challenged and inspired to get better in everything they do. My goal as an educator is to give our students the ability to apply the martial arts principles in their daily lives.


Even though we are teaching we are constantly learning as well. Every class gives us the opportunity to look with a beginner’s mind at every technique and problem our students encounter. This is the fascinating part about the martial arts, you never stop learning and improving yourself.To me this is a very exiting journey and we are proud that we can offer this experience in our dojo.


Most of the people cannot tell the difference between the many types of martial arts, let alone between karate styles. Having a less known martial art as part of our curriculum is not really an advantage. It is human nature to use a product or brand you already know and trust, rather than trying something you have never heard about.


These days with all the information available on the Internet, I believe the idea that some unknown and mysterious martial art will transform you overnight into a superman is obsolete. It is about hard work, dedication and having an instructor who can guide you to overcome your limits. Ashihara Karate is no exception.


Ashihara is not very well known here, therefore it is our duty to build a strong reputation. Although we have only recently started our dojo in Vancouver, I had my own school back in Romania, and of course I keep in touch with them.


During my regular trips to Japan I have always met new people and I consider all of them part of the Ashihara family. This is another interesting aspect about the karate journey; you will make a lot of friends all over the world, from Denmark to New Zealand. Learning something from all of them is an enriching experience, and gives you a different perspective about life in general.


K: I totally agree with you in everything you have said. It really doesn't matter the art you choose but rather that you find a supportive environment that will help you continually move forward. 

Though Ashihara Karate is fairly unknown in the west I know there are many more seasoned Karate-ka looking to give it a try, I was one of them. Sadly (and luckily) I had to go all the way to Japan. To me it is really exciting to finally have a Ashihara Dojo in Vancouver.


Finally do you have any advice for people who are interested in teaching martial arts, particularly for those interested in teaching on the west coast or in a big city?


S: My recipe for success is pretty simple:


1.       - Be passionate about what you do.
2.       - Have the same dedication regardless of if you are teaching 5 or 50 students.
3.       - Always learn something from your students.
4.       - Never stop improving yourself.

I am very motivated to keep moving forward regardless of any difficulties I might encounter. Every day I am doing my best to follow this advice from Sendai Kancho Hideyuki Ashihara :



“Keep a smiling face and challenge yourself”.

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