When I arrived at the airport in Hartford and approached the baggage carousel, I flashed back 15 years.  I saw the Lady that would eventually become my wife enter through the doors, preceded by a tiny four year old girl in full sprint.  She cleared the space between her mother and myself in seconds then leaped into my arms, slapping on a hug that would last as long as there was strength in her arms.

Meeting me this time was one of the Masters of our system and the host of this year’s IKA National Seminar.  The greeting this time around was mutual smiles, handshakes, bows and an “Ossu” –  a word that rapidly becomes a substantial part of the vocabulary at these events.

The theme of this year’s seminar was “Henka”, or variation.  It was an apt description on a number of levels.  In our 25th year of the National Seminar, this was the first time it was held in a hotel.  It was the first time we were able to fully register online (gotta love these newfangled gadgets.)  We had our own rooms, bathrooms and showers.  We ate meals that weren’t carried on cafeteria trays.  The variations, though, went far beyond just the venue and the logistics.

No, this time around we worked entirely on the variations of the “normal” ways we practice our techniques, our kata and our art in general.  We explored new applications of bunkai, in some cases multiple variations of the same sequence of moves.  We practiced self-defense – Jukido and Karate – from oblique angles.  We were shown creative defensive uses of our belts.  Our learning and/or refinement of kata leaned very strongly toward five of our Henka series.  Groups were put together so that nobody was in their comfort zone.  Many were learning an entirely new form.  Those that thought they “knew” a kata were quickly brought back to earth just trying to keep up with technicalities of the moves.  Newer students that had never held a weapon before were now part of groups learning aspects of handling bo 0r sai.  The only people not stretched by the sessions were the ones that weren’t there.

For the first time in the 25 years, we included youngsters in the seminar.  They added a new level of energy to the event.  They asked questions that the grownups either hadn’t thought of or for whatever reason didn’t want to ask.  They kept us on our toes and that is always a good thing.  They also brought smiles to our faces just because they could.  Another experiment that hit a home run.

We finished Saturday afternoon bruised and exhausted.  This is no variation from past years but we still bowed out at the end of the event extremely appreciative of what we had experienced.

In the time between the final session and the start of the banquet a number of us gathered in the hotel lounge for some pain alleviation.  One of our number brought with him several copies of Sankosho – the official guidebook of the IKA – the oldest of the bunch printed in 1989.  Those of us that have been around a while shared stories of the people pictured in the various editions.  We exchanged remembrances of Shihan Arel and Master Longo.  The “whatever happened to…..” questions came up whenever we came across faces from days past.  I had to explain to some of our members that I had, indeed, possessed dark hair once upon a time, armed with photographic evidence.

The banquet was as special this year as in every one past.  We shared stories with others at our table, compared bruises and continued getting re-acquainted with people we only get to see at these events.  We witnessed new Shodans, Nidans, Sandans and Yodans receive their promotion certificates.  We welcomed two new Masters to our system – both very well deserved.  We saw Kaicho Howard presented with his promotion to 9th degree by the Board of Masters.  We saw how much this meant to every one of them and felt blessed to be able to share in their moment.

So Sunday morning I’m back in the airport.  As before, I was taken back 15 years and remembered how much it tore a hole into my heart to have to leave my eventual spouse and daughter behind when it came time to go home.  Our time was always too brief and I hated for it to end.

The Henka this time, though, is that I equally hated for the Seminar to end, for the time I got to spend with my Kokondo family was likewise all too short.