Fitness for kicks and more

by Thomasina Larkin

The yearly ritual of storing away our winter duds and unpacking skimpy summer styles often leads to a common conclusion: It’s time to get into shape, and fast.

But running on a treadmill while staring at TV monitors at the fitness club might not be for everyone; likewise, yoga and pilates might be too “last year” for some people.

So what’s a slightly undertuned body to do?

Before deciding on your path to fitness, consider the well-defined muscles of Ryuta Suda as he performs graceful spinning kicks through the air. It’s hard not be inspired by the sight of this man as he practices the martial art of capoeira, (pronounced ka-pu-wei-la), the graceful form of martial art that combines self-defense, dance, music and ritual.

“I initially started capoeira because I thought it was cool. That’s all,” says Suda, 28, after his class in Hamamatsucho, Tokyo. “But since then I’ve gained so many more things from it.”

After five years of training in Salvador, Brazil, the heartland of capoeira, Suda achieved certification as an instructor and has since been teaching in Tokyo for the past four years.

“Of course, most people do it for exercise, mainly working the abs, shoulders, back, bottom and inner torso muscles, and to develop better balance, but it’s also a chance to learn about music, dance and another country’s culture,” says Suda. “Capoeira can be a way of understanding people from other countries through jogo (the game of cunning symmetrical battle played by capoeiristas) and when we sing about a wide range of topics, from songs about how girls can be so cruel to songs about history.”

While the exact details of capoeira’s origins are hazy, it’s generally acknowledged that it dates back over 400 years and was developed by African slaves in Brazil who managed to escape sugar and tobacco plantations. Taking refuge in the mountains, they blended various philosophies, self-defense techniques and rituals and gave birth to an eclectic mix of ligeiro (swift, quick and agile) fighting styles, all cleverly hidden under the cloak of dance.

Traditionally, capoeiristas hone their skills while gathered in a roda (circle) and sing while clapping and playing African instruments to form a taut rhythmic backbone.

To the trancelike music, a pair of capoeiristas begins the jogo by cartwheeling into the roda, facing each other and commencing ginga (the fundamental sway-like movement kept in rhythm throughout the match). When one player attempts a rimada (a spinning kick), for example, the opponent acrobatically responds, perhaps choosing a recuo (dropping to one hand on the ground) as a retreat.

Not surprisingly, given its dynamic qualities, capoeira has made cameos in movies, music videos, manga, anime and video games dating back to 1993 with Sega’s “Genesis.” “The first time I saw capoeira was on a video game called “Tekken.” I thought it looked amazing so I did an Internet search and found classes in Tokyo,” says 37-year-old Hidehito Tokawa, who started capoeira about a month ago. “Since I’m a bit older, I think I’m more impressed by the skills of the advanced students than the new younger students are. It takes a lot of flexibility. But I think anyone can do it. If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

While capoeiristas’ powerful moves could potentially produce bone-shattering results, a lively jogo is also a delight to watch, resembling a choreographed performance somewhere between 1950s swing and break dance.

“I like capoeira because it’s not only a martial art, but also incorporates music, dance, history and culture,” says Yurika Mitani, 26, who started doing capoeira three years ago after hearing about it at a university where she majored in Portuguese.

It’s not surprising that the unique sport has gained a foothold here when one considers that the largest community of Japanese living abroad is in Brazil (where they started to immigrate in 1908), and that, according to government surveys, Brazilians make up the third largest population of foreigners living in Japan (after Koreans and Chinese).

“I learned about those things in school and that’s how I became interested. All those things are combined with fighting, but this fighting is not to injure people,” she says. “We have to show respect for each other and not injure others. That is the spirit of capoeira.”

It could also be said that part of that spirit includes an open invitation to all comers.

Fabio Baiano, a 24-year-old San Paulo native who picked up capoeira when he was 10, says, “There are games everywhere you go and you can just enter as you like. You don’t have to be part of a group.” Baiano moved to Tokyo with his family when he was 13. “Only when I came to Japan did I enter a school and get a belt,” he says. “Like most people in Brazil, I learned from the streets where you get lots of experience by just watching the styles of many different people. You can learn the basics in three minutes, and especially if you’re someone who has done any kind of dancing.”

The first official school of capoeira was established in Salvador, Brazil, in the 1930s by Mestre Bimba, one of the most influential masters of the martial art. After slavery was abolished in 1888, capoeiristas were essentially an organized militia of jungle fighters who presented a serious threat to the government. Thus, the practice of capoeira was outlawed in 1892, and remained underground until the 1920s. It was around this time that Bimba began to develop a new hybrid style called the Capoeira Regional. His efforts over the following decade helped convince the government to accept it as a national sport.

Capoeira today, which has spread to schools, clubs and militaries worldwide, is practiced in two types: “Angola” is a slower form that adheres more to tradition. “Regional” is the quick, modern style developed by Bimba and practiced in Suda’s group, the Grupo de Capoeira Regional Tempo do Japao.

In the Tokyo area there are about 10 capoeira groups, with students from a wide range of age groups.

“I’ve been doing capoeira since I was 3,” says 7-year-old Kugo Mochida, who joined because his mother is a capoeirista in Suda’s group. He says his favorite part is the music. “I know many songs, but I don’t think I can sing them well yet. But it’s all a lot of fun and there are about 15 other kids around my age in this group.”

In a typical 90-minute class, the first 20 minutes are devoted to a rigorous warmup of various jogging combinations, stomach crunches, handstands, cartwheels, stretches and practicing the basic move, the ginga.

“The first lesson was so tough I couldn’t walk afterward and it was a long way home,” says 52-year-old Eiji Kuga, who after a year of practicing is a green belt, the second level of 10. “My muscles ached for a couple of days, and it was hard to walk up stairs.

“I realized now that I’m older, I’ve lost some strength, flexibility and stamina,” says Kuga, who was drawn to capoeira because he wanted to get back into shape after taking a long break from exercise, and who now has a very obviously toned upper body and arm muscles. “Learning capoeira brought those things back. After about one month of classes, I no longer felt exhausted afterward.

“When I first started taking lessons, I was too excited and the teacher was often telling me ‘calm down, calm down, take it easy!’ After a couple of classes I started to watch other people and to understand how to judge their timing and to know what move they would make next and then base my reaction on that,” says Kuga. “I believe anyone can do it if you just go at your own pace.”

For those wanting to check out some of Japan’s top capoeiristas, Grupo de Capoeira Regional Tempo will hold a free demonstration July 16, 1-5:30 p.m. in the basement of the Shinjuku Cosmic Sports Center.

Capoeira schools: where to sweat it out

If you’d like to check out a group in Japan, here’s a good place to start your search for a school. Only beginner lesson times are listed, and most places require a reservation for the trial class. Bring a change of loose-fitting clothes, a sweat towel and a bottle of water.

Grupo de Capoeira Regional Tempo

Classes held in Hamamatsucho, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-Gyoen. Monday-Saturday evenings, 1,000 yen/60 min.; 1,500 yen/90 min. Tel: 070-5578-7272; Web:

Bantus Capoeira Japao

Kichijoji, Inokashira and Mitaka. Tuesday and Thursday 6:30-8:45 p.m., Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 3-5:45 p.m. 600 yen intro class, 1,000 yen drop-in class, 5,000 yen yearly membership. Tel: 090-5406-7806 (English, Portuguese, Spanish); 090-1128-3519 (Japanese, English); Web:

Capoeira Zoador

Kitamagome, Ota-ku. Tuesday-Friday, 1-2:30 p.m., 3,150 yen class, 8,400 yen daytime member, 12,600 yen weekday member, 14,700 yen monthly member. Tel: (03) 3778-0263; Web:

Abada Capoeira Japan

Ikebukuro, Otsuka, Tabata and Minami-Otsuka. Monday-Saturday evenings; 5,000 yen admission, 1,500 yen injury insurance, 2,000 yen for shirt and 6,000 yen for pants required for events. Tel: 090-3686-4891; Web:

Capoeira Angola Center Japan: Kannai. Saturdays 8:15-10 p.m. Yokohama, Sundays 6-9 p.m. 1,000 yen; Web: