It was Monday, January 21, 1985 and after being released from work for the day, I ate a quick dinner, grabbed my white gi (I will use the term gi, rather than dobak, because it is more universally known) and belt, and ran to Master Yun’s dojang. My official journey in the martial arts and the art of Tang Soo Do Korean karate was about to begin.
One thing I learned really quick about Korea, was that the winters are COLD! I grew up in Buffalo, NY and was plenty used to winter and three feet or more of snow, but this was different. It was a cold that cut through whatever you were wearing, especially when the wind blew. So, all bundled up against the weather, I arrived at the dojang and realized there were only two rooms; the training floor and Master Yun’s office.
I bowed to Master Yun, saying hello and stood there looking around, wondering where I should change. After years of teaching servicemen, Master Yun must have seen the dumb look on my face and instructed me to change in his office, which I did.
I came out in my clean, bright white gi and belt, complete with bare feet and realized it was friggin cold in there!! This was 1985 and a small village in Korea. No triple pane, insulated windows with central heat and air. This was a concrete/stone building with basic glass pane windows in wooden window panes. As for heat…….a small wood burning stove at the end of the training floor, closest to the door. It wasn’t much, but it was a little warmer than outside. The rest of the heat came from work!
Class began and there was a total of four of us. The two blue belts, Kevin and Roger, Master Yun’s daughter Ms. Kim and myself. We lined up straight across the floor, with the most senior ranking to the left. Master Yun was in front of us. We bowed to him and bowed to the US and Korean flags at the front of the dojang.
“Stand by punch!” and everyone dropped into a horse stance, executing a punch. I had trained these basic stances and techniques in my parent’s basement for years and quickly recognized the technique. “Hana, Dul, Se!” Master Yun barked for three sets of ten. Ms. Kim came over and would make slight form corrections when needed.
From there, we walked the floor performing all of the basic techniques of the Tang Soo Do system. There was a list on the wall as you entered the dojang, and I recognized the techniques we performed as being on that list. Ms. Kim was there to make corrections to my form as I walked in the stances and as I turned around especially.
The first time I turned around, my leg ended up against the wood burning stove. I didn’t feel it right away, but after a second or two I jumped and yelled. Master Yun turned around quickly and everyone began to laugh. “Watch the stove!” he said, “Hot, very hot.” as he turned back around laughing and picking up where we left off. That stove would be an extra opponent on the floor for the entire winter.
That first class, I went through all of the basic techniques and then was pulled off to the side by Ms. Kim, who reviewed them with me while Kevin and Roger went on to do Hyung (forms), one step sparring and sparring. I was fascinated with the forms and one steps, having seen photos in books, but never having seen them performed live.
After they completed their latest form they were learning, Master Yun called me back into line and we went over the first form, Ki Cho Hyung Il Bu, by the numbers and slowly without a few times, so that I could start getting the grasp of it.
Before I knew it, Master Yun yelled for us to line up. We performed some more stationary techniques in a horse stance and then he called out to punch and leave our fist out. All of a sudden he pulled out a block of wood, worn smooth and with two slits cut in it from the top to about a third of the way down the block. He walked up to Ms. Kim, grabbed her fist and smacked the first two knuckles, making a loud clapping sound. He did this five times and then yelled (kiap) and we all punched with the other hand. Again, he grabbed her wrist and smacked the first two knuckles of her fist. I glanced over quickly and saw her wince, and I began wondering “What the heck is this?”
On down the line, he went. First Ms. Kim, Kevin, Roger and now he was standing in front of me! “Kiap!” he yelled and I punched out with my left fist. He grabbed it and smacked my knuckles with the block. Not too bad, I thought, but then saw him grin and the following smacks came harder. Once he got to five, “Kiap!” and my right fist went out. He grabbed my wrist and repeated the smacks on that hand.
Afterward, he called “Meditation” which was just closing your eyes and taking deep breaths with the diaphragm, relaxed. We then bowed to Master Yun, to each other, and class ended. Two hours flew by and I survived my first night, hungry for more. With my knuckles throbbing a bit, I asked Kevin about the block and he told me “Yeah, I think he enjoys it, we do it at the end of every class.”
Right after he said that Master Yun called me over near the entrance and pointed out two dark brown wooden posts off to the side. They were smooth, either from sanding or wear. He struck one with a loud crack, and I felt it reverberate through the floor. He struck it around five times, then looked at me with that grin and pointed to the post. “You try, ten times” My knuckles were still feeling the block, but I did as I was told. After my first strike, Master Yun took my fist and ensured my wrist was straight and only the first two knuckles were making contact with the post. “Only two knuckles.” he said “Wrist straight!” and I completed the ten each hand.
He told me to strike it when I first arrived and before left, working up to 50 times per hand. This would be my routine for the first two months of training.
The training I received under Master Yun was the best training I had received in my entire life to this point. I have been blessed to have had excellent instructors in the styles I studied, but my training with Master Yun was the traditional, original, old school training you don’t see anymore.
People in the United States wouldn’t pay to train that way because you had to work in less than favorable conditions, get hit, bruised and bleed. It was the training I read about in the books I checked out at the library as a kid. Masters training kata, striking the makiwara to forge their fists into weapons and focusing on self-defense.
Master Yun’s dojang was a fair size, approximately 12 feet wide and 25 feet long. Larger than some of the store front schools I see today. There were three windows, two on one side and one on the other, which served as the only source of air during the hot, humid summers. The floor was an old, hardwood floor, worn smooth and shiny from all of the students before me. I am not sure what year the building was built, but I know it was there a while.
The wooden floor boards were missing pieces in some spots and the edges where the piece splintered off were worn smooth and almost sharp. More than once, while performing basics or practicing forms, I would slide my foot along the floor, only to feel something sticky on my foot. I would look and the bottom of my foot would be covered in blood because I sliced it open on one of those gaps. I would bow off of the floor, clean up the mess, tape my foot and return to training. It became routine.
The winters in the dojang were cold and it was hard to warm up. It was surprising that no one pulled or tore any muscles. The summers were brutally hot and humid, with our uniforms soaked in sweat by the end of each class. All we could do is open the windows and doors and hope for a breeze.
After two months of striking the post when I entered the dojang, Master Yun just had me begin training and left the post for me to do when I wished. Class followed the same outline daily, beginning with punches in a horse stance and then walking the floor doing the entire list of basic techniques.
This was followed by forms or Hyung practice. Each form was completed by the count and without the count as a group. Once a form was reached that was more advanced, only those students that knew the form or were learning it continued.
The Hyung that I know for sure Master Yun taught;
Kicho Hyungs (1-3)
Pyung Ahn Hyungs (1-5)
Bassai (Bassai Dae)
Naihanchi Cho Dan
Naihanchi EE Dan
Kong San Goon
Once forms practice was complete, one step sparring or another lesson was taught. At times it was a new kick, new defense, blocking drill, etc. This was followed by sparring. Master Yun would pair up two students to face each other. Before he would yell “Begin” in Korean, he would say “Light contact”. Yeah…..right.
When sparring, the rules were no punches to the head, but punches to the front of the body were permitted above the waist. Kicks were to be kept above the waist unless you were attempting to sweep. Leg kicks were not permitted. No kicking to the back and kicks to any part of the head were permitted. The groin was off limits. We wore no protective equipment at all, although I wore a cup after the first few sparring sessions.
There were no gloves, no footpads or headgear, and when we hit each other it wasn’t full force, but it wasn’t light contact either. I believe Master Yun secretly liked seeing us hit each other. When we would get our bell rung, he would come check on us, but he was smiling the whole time! We would often connect with a side kick, launching each other into the wall and part way out of one of the windows.
Once sparring ended, we would line up, perform some punches, get the block on the knuckles and meditate to relax the mind and regain control of our breathing. We would then bow out.
The training at Master Yun’s dojang was very physical while I was there. We were taught to strike to do damage and when we blocked, our blocks did damage and/or caused pain. Blocking drills were done and arms were bruised and swollen.
Many times during sparring I injured a foot on someone’s head, bruised my elbows taking a kick and woke up sore the next morning. One class, I caught one of the students with a spinning heel kick to the head which knocked him down, but not out. He got up woozy and the sparring match ended. I made sure he was okay, but when I saw him later at the bar, he was still a bit out of it. The next morning my foot was black and blue and I could barely put weight on my foot. My heel was severely bruised.
Many students came and started classes, but few endured the training and most quit. I would say that there were at least 20 students who came in and began training, but only three other than myself made it to black belt while I was there. There may be schools like this in the states today, but they are the rare exception. Most Americans would not pay to be trained in this manner and pay for their rank with bruises, blood, and tons of sweat. Today, they expect their rank because they show up and pay their fees. It doesn’t work that way.
Classes were scheduled five days a week, but I would go as often as I could. On the days I was off from work, I would go into the dojang in the morning or afternoon (the doors were always open) and train on my own for 2 hours. Many times Master Yun would hear the noise and come see who it was. His home was attached to the dojang, and upon seeing me he would train me one on one for a bit and we would then go to his house to have tea or lunch.
I would do this, training twice a day, for two days a week, giving me four extra hours of training, at times privately with Master Yun. I would even go in at night, coming back to base from the village and quietly walk through forms in my civilian clothes. It became my passion and a HUGE part of my life, remaining so to this day.
Master Yun asked me to help Ms. Kim with her English, and I began tutoring her in English on the afternoons I was off or on Saturday evenings. I would help her with English and she would watch me like a hawk while training, making every correction she could find. She would also come into the dojang at times while I was there practicing alone and teach me, working on the forms.
Black Belt In One Year?
If you attended class regularly, you would test for your black belt after one year. When people hear this in the states, they believe it was handed to you and that you didn’t earn it. After all, it takes three years to get a black belt here! Well…….let’s compare.
On average, in the US, a martial arts student attends class for an hour per class, 2-3 times per week. Over the period of a year, giving them 3 days per week, that is a total of 156 hours.
On average it takes 3 years in most stateside schools to obtain a black belt, so that is about 468 hours to achieve black belt, not missing a class. To be generous, we can round it up to 500 hours.
As I stated above, each class was 2 hours in length, Monday through Friday, totaling 10 hours per week training with Master Yun himself. No senior student ever taught a class.
I personally would go on my off time and train at the dojang on my two days off per week for 2 hours at a time. This was often with Master Yun, one on one, when he wasn’t busy with something else. That is an additional 4 hours per week for a total of 14 hours of training per week. I am not even counting the occasional evening forms practice.
Over the 52 weeks, I was there, I put in 728 hours of training, and then some. That is 128 hours more than a black belt in the US attending class for an hour at a time, 3 days a week.
The other three black belt students of Master Yun attended class every week, and I am assuming they did not come to the dojang for extra training. They were in class for 10 hours per week, for 52 weeks, totaling 520 hours before testing for black belt. Still at least 120 hours more than the stateside student.
So, yes, not only did we put the in blood, sweat, bumps and bruises, we also put in more time in 12 months than most stateside students do in three years. We were there when we hurt, when we were bruised, sick, tired and just plain didn’t feel like it. I was even restricted to my room because I had strep throat the day of the black belt testing and snuck off base to test! We didn’t GET a black belt after one year…….We EARNED a black belt after one year!
After returning to the states in 1986, I kept in touch with Master Yun by letter. I would hear from him a few times a year, and in 1989 we began talking about him coming to the states to live and teach. We spoke about it and began laying out a basic plan, trying to figure out all that he would have to do. This went on until 1991 when the letters stopped.
I then moved to a different home, then a different state. My letters to him went unreturned and I stopped writing. I never knew why the letters stopped until 2010 when quite by accident I came across two of Master Yun’s former students who trained with him prior to me. One of the students, Ron, had informed me that Master Yun had died in 1991. That is why the letters stopped.
From what I understand, Master Yun was riding as a passenger on the back of a motorcycle when it was struck by a car and he was killed in the accident. Upon hearing the news, I had an empty pit in my stomach because I had always assumed he was still alive somewhere in South Korea.
Over the years I have tried to find photos of the village on Google maps and other locations on the internet, but the US Army base, Camp Ames was closed by the government and I could never find the location on a map.
This year, in January 2017 I came across a video on YouTube about Camp Ames, then and now. Camp Ames and the entire village that I lived in for 12 months, including Master Yun’s home and dojang are all gone. It is now an art school of some kind and there is little left to show that an Army base and village once stood there. The only trace of Master Yun that is left is whatever family he left behind in South Korea and his Tang Soo Do students.
I intend to carry on Master Yun’s name and memory, teaching Tang Soo Do in the same traditional manner that I was taught, to all who wish to learn. It is the reason for this website and all of the social media pages. That his lessons and art are passed on to future generations, from Master to student, as he lived to do and as it should be.
My training in Korea with Master Yun changed my life forever. He was more than just a teacher, he was a friend and a fatherly figure when I was so far from my own family. My time spent with him in the dojang and with his family outside of the dojang will always mean the world to me.
Master Yun was all about self-defense, and never trained us for tournament competition. He took me to one tournament, mostly because he had to preside over it as the head of Tang Soo Do for that region. Kevin and Roger, the blue belts were supposed to compete as well, but the backed out the morning of the tournament.
It was just me and Miss Kim once we got there because Master Yun left us to preside over the judging. I was pretty much on my own, but I did fair, earning a silver medal and a cut in the corner of my right eye. That was the only time tournaments were mentioned or attended the rest of the time I was there.
I carry the same outlook on the martial arts, and teach traditionally, but I know there was much, much more Master Yun wanted to pass on to me, but my time there ended and I could not return, as much as I tried. I am now making the journey through the true roots of the Tang Soo Do he taught, and those who came before him. Not what Tang Soo Do has become today or the Soo Bahk Do that Hwang Kee turned his art into. They are not the same thing, but that is for another time.
Next will be Part 3, the last part of my journey, where I will take your briefly through the other martial arts I have studied and what specifically led me to the journey to find my true Tang Soo Do lineage and history.
Thanks for spending this time with me,
Hello, I have been a student of the martial arts since 1985 and have studied various styles, always focusing on the self defense aspects of the arts. I have taught in the military, privately and publicly and have been a certified personal trainer. I believe that everyone should know how to defend themselves and that this can be learned from home through videos and written material. I am dedicated to you, the reader, in helping you learn self defense so that you are able to handle an attack on the street.