By James Combs
Learn about Japanese arts at Arching Oaks Arts and Culture Center
Unlocking secrets of Japanese martial arts and culture.
From anime to sushi bars, Japanese culture has become an international phenomenon. And while visiting Japan is an unforgettable experience, Lake Countians only need to make a short drive to Eustis to immerse themselves in Nippon culture, specifically.
That’s where Sabastian and Chelsey Velilla operate Arching Oaks Arts and Culture Center.
At their nonprofit facility, which opened in 2019, Sabastian teaches students three major types of Japanese martial arts: Shotokan karate, kyudo (Japanese archery), and iaido (Japanese swordsmanship). Chelsey introduces her students to Japanese fine arts such as seihon (Japanese bookbinding), origami (Japanese paper folding), shibori (a dyeing technique) and nerikomi (Japanese pottery). She also leads a nature-based activity called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.
Their students range in age from 10 to 80.
“The Japanese are a very aged society,” says Sabastian, a 1988 Florida state karate champion who is now a certified instructor in the three martial art disciplines he teaches. “They have done some things in life very well. As westerners, we could learn something from how they eat, how they sleep, and how they think.”
For Sabastian and Chelsey, opening Arching Oaks Arts and Culture Center represented a career about-face. Sabastian spent five years with the U.S. Army. As a civilian, he trained international military soldiers from Japan in American warfare technology. That’s when he became more familiar with Japanese culture. Chelsey spent 12 years as an elementary school arts teacher and later served as gallery manager for the Mount Dora Center for the Arts.
“We reached the point in our lives where we had been working for so many other people that it was time to work on ourselves and help others work on themselves,” Chelsey says.
“We discovered that medium through Japanese martial arts and culture. Apart from the physical benefits, our students gain mental and wellness benefits, too. We’re one of only three Japanese cultural centers in Florida.”
Their 20-acre property off Thrill Hill Road is rooted in Japanese spirit. The 28-meter archery range lined with bonsai trees resembles private ranges found in Japan. The dojo decorated with Japanese floral arrangements and signage is where Sabastian trains students in karate, swordsmanship, and archery. Students are treated to traditional Japanese tea ceremonies inside an adjacent tatami room.
The Velillas say this cultural immersion helps students build confidence and empathy while feeling connected to others.
“Asians have faced discrimination since the outbreak of the coronavirus,” Sabastian says. “We help spread awareness as to what a beautiful culture it is. Also, we spend so many hours each day looking at a computer screen. We need a new outlet. And when people seek a new outlet, they experience a new sense of life. The only way to grow is to get out of your comfort zone.”
In step with nature
On an overcast Sunday morning, a howling wind can be heard over the calming sounds made by wind chimes. Spanish moss dripping from oak trees sways in the breeze. Birds chirp softly from atop tall trees.
Damian Bonazzoli had an opportunity to take it all in.
A resident of Lake Helen, Damian is a karate student who has advanced to the level of brown belt. But on this morning, he drove to Eustis to enjoy one of Arching Oaks Arts and Culture Center’s most popular programs: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.
Don’t let the name fool you. No actual bathing in the wilderness is required. Nor is this a hike or form of exercise. The goal is to connect with nature through the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The Velilla’s property lined with a lily pad-covered pond, pine trees, and oak trees provides an ideal setting.
Forest bathing became popular in Japan in the early 1980s.
“During that time, Japan was transitioning from an agricultural society to a technology-based society,” Chelsey says. “People were moving to cities and staying in their offices all day. There was a spike in health issues. The Japanese government realized the importance of getting people back in nature. When that happened, there was a decrease in stress hormones, blood pressure was lowered, and mental clarity was increased.”
Chelsey, who is certified through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, invited Damian to venture into the woods on three separate occasions. Before each journey, Chelsey conducted a meditation activity, or an invitation, to encourage him to connect with the natural world through his different senses and heighten his awareness to his natural surroundings.
Afterward, Damian joined Chelsey in the tatami for peppermint tea and cocoa-dusted almonds and shared what he experienced while immersed in nature.
“I am a music teacher, so my world is very fast-paced,” Damian says.
“For me, it was nice to slow down and enjoy a slow, mindful walk in nature and leave all my problems and worries behind. One of the coolest things I saw was a colorful butterfly fluttering around a bush. How often do we take the time to see the beauty of nature?”
Participants like Damian almost always feel therapeutic benefits. That’s why Chelsey refers to forest bathing as a “partnership with nature.”
“Trees emit phytoncides, which are part of its defense system against insects and bacteria,” she says. “Humans can take in these compounds through their skin or breathe them in. They provide both physical and mental benefits. Nature also benefits because when humans spend time outdoors, they will be more mindful of conservation.”
Later that day, a group of men make a ceremonial entrance into the kyudojo (a practical hall for kyudo) to hone their skills in Japanese archery. Each dons a white, short-sleeved keikogi (uniform) that is held in place by an obi (belt) and a black hakama (skirt-like trousers).
Forget everything you know about western archery. Kyudo (Japanese archery) is treated as a martial art, incorporating aspects of spirituality and Zen into its form and practice. The process of shooting an arrow known as hassetsu involves a series of eight distinct stages that flow seamlessly together.
Before a kyudo archer takes a shot, he begins in a kneeling position. After standing, he gradually places the arrow on the bowstring, raises his arms above his head, and draws the arrow back before shooting. Watching these graceful series of movements is like watching a ballet dancer.
Beginning archers use fiberglass bows and eventually graduate to bamboo bows, both of which are 7 feet in length. The circle targets, which are the size of a human chest and do not have a traditional bullseye, are placed 28 meters down range. Shooting the arrow into the target is less important than proper form.
“Proper form is proper hitting,” Sabastian says. “You want to aim for consistency in the form. In tests, archers can hit the target but still fail because they displayed improper form.”
Japanese archery can be challenging at first. The good news is that it’s an ageless endeavor. Just ask Dennis O’Hara, an 80-year-old resident of Eustis who recently became one of Sabastian’s archery students.
“For me, Japanese archery is not just a challenge, but also an opportunity to expand on a new highway. And this art has a low impact on the body, which is important for someone my age.”
Archery has been equally beneficial for 34-year-old Winter Park resident Chris Hill, who avoided sports after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 5.
“I started coming here for tea ceremonies during the pandemic because I had always been interested in Japanese culture,” says Chris. “I was so impressed that
I decided to take up archery. The fact that I can do this despite my medical condition has really boosted my confidence and self-esteem.”
Those words are music to the ears of Sabastian and Chelsey. They aren’t trying to produce Samurai warriors. They just want students to find inspiration outside their comfort zones.
“It doesn’t matter whether a student is here to participate in Japanese martial arts or Japanese fine arts,” Chelsey says. “They all leave here and say, ‘I really needed this today.’ They needed to step out of their normal life. They needed a few hours to breathe. They needed to feel calm and relaxed. People are lookingfor something traditional, unique, and different.”
Arching Oaks Arts and Cultural Center is located at 37114 Thrill Hill Road in Eustis. For more information, call 407.473.8859 or visit archingoaks.org.
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Give us a shout!
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Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County's many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!
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