Any young Karate Ka’s dream six decades ago in the early days of Karate, was to visit and train at the source – Japan! So, in the next few episodes, I’m going to tell you about my first visit to Japan in 1973 to train with my Teacher to this day, Higaonna Morio Sensei, in the world famous Yoyogi Dojo in Tokyo where he taught. I will explain how much different training in Japan was in those days compared to nowadays, with Japan now being a lot more ‘foreigner user-friendly’ than back in the seventies!
But first let me give you a short background to this incredibly important and significant era of my life! While I was doing my year of compulsory military service in 1966, my teacher at the time went to Japan, searching for a more ‘original or traditional’ style of Karate. After meeting the – now renowned – world Karate icon, Higaonna Morio Sensei, and training at the famous Yoyogi Dojo with him, he decided this was it! So we changed to a very formidable, ‘old school’ non-sport, classical or traditional style of karate, called ‘Okinawan Goju Ryu’.
So, returning from my Military Service in December 1966, just days before Christmas, I learned my first Goju Ryu Kata – Seiyunchin! Apart from being fascinated by adapting to this new style with it’s fluent movements – as opposed to the more rigid of my previous two styles, I was also absolutely fascinated to listen to my teacher telling about his experiences – his training experiences at Yoyogi Dojo, the special kind of person that Higaonna Morio Sensei was and fascinating aspects about life in Japan and Japanese culture of which very little was known in South Africa at the time and which appeared to be so totally alien to the life I was used to.
An Okinawan Goju Ryu body was founded in South Africa, one on the north of the country and us in the south. In 1969 and 1970, a few South Africans went to Japan on training visits to Yoyogi Dojo and Higaonna Sensei, but I was at university at the time and did not have the funds or time to join them. Little by little we started to become accustomed to this new form of Karate and it’s fundamental approach and attitude requirements, but training was still ‘second hand’ in the sense that, because of the distance to Japan and no technology such as the internet, we had to form our own interpretations of a lot of the techniques and applications of the techniques and Kata.
I was still active in the sporting side and competed in the All Styles events in South Africa occasionally, not so much because I liked it, but I felt an obligation to promote our new style of Karate, and Higaonna Sensei – both regarded a little sceptically by the other major styles in the country at the time. There were basically only two other styles in South Africa at that time.
In 1972, I was selected to represent South Africa at the first official World Karate Championships in Paris, France, where I went through to the quarter finals (again, keep in mind there were no weight divisions – only one division – Open!).
Higaonna Sensei was invited by my teacher to come and stay for a period of almost six months in Cape Town to teach and promote Goju Ryu and he came via Paris, where he met up with my teacher and watched the World championships at the same time. This was the first time I met him in person! Upon meeting him, he gave me a pair of Kobudo Sai, which I still have to this day!
Upon return to South Africa, the classes with Higaonna Sensei was incredible, even though he knew about five English words! This training with him and seeing the manifestation of Goju Ryu in this person, opened up a complete new horizon for me and my Karate pursuit! He was just on 33 years old at the time and absolute dynamite technically, power, speed and yet showing his deep intrinsic understanding of this system! After a couple of months in South Africa, I invited Sensei over to my mother’s house for a Sunday dinner and during this visit, he invited me to come to Japan for training sometime and he promised my mother that he would take care of me!
So the planning began to get to Japan! I had some senior students who could take care of my Dojo in Stellenbosch, but finance was still a challenge! Air tickets was incredibly expensive at the time because you could not fly to Japan direct and had to stop over and be accommodated along the way. With a stroke of luck, one of my seniors’ father working for a merchant shipping company whose ships carried sugar to Japan, arranged for me that I could work my way over to Japan by giving fitness training to the crew at sea. So it came that I left from Durban port in late March 1973 on the SA Sugela for a non-stop journey of 25 days at sea and the outskirts of one typhoon in the South China Sea!
The crew on board the ship was incredibly friendly, nice persons and on departure, I was introduced to those not operational by the Purser – the rest I got to know over the next 25 days – great guys who made me feel at home very soon! My accommodation was in the the owners cabin which was five-star quality and the meals on board was even more five-star. I was amazed at the quality of the accommodation and food on board, but by the end of my journey I understood that a ship’s safe, productive and efficient operating is totally dependant on the attitude and energy of the crew! A lesson many companies learned as well in those days, I guess!
I realised much later that if you take care of the crew and treat them like royalty, they perform and act like royalty – a happy crew is a productive crew which leads to a happy and productive working environment! It was interesting to see guys coming out of a shift in the engine room – basically a sauna – with a smile and calmly discussing a few hiccups with the Master over a beer and top class cuisine! After my initial three or four days of being seasick, I started moving around the ship to see what was happening in every department. I spent a lot time up on the bridge, especially at night and was amazed at the navigational skills of these officers – keep in mind there were no GPS systems in those days, they used the sextant to navigate on the azimuth of the Sun and used the stars at night to determine the ship’s position and calculate it’s speed.
After four or five days, I started an exercise regime by running up and down the deck from the bridge to the forecastle or fo’c’sle – a distance of 76 meters one way! I also did my push ups and sit ups and tried to do basic techniques and Kata – a strange sensation on a rolling and pitching deck! Two things that I remember clearly are the time changing about 20 minutes daily and the temperature became very hot and humid as we were getting closer to the equator and eventually entering the tropics. We more frequently now encountered rough seas with the swells sometimes coming over the forecastle and flooding the main deck. During one of these spells I noticed the kitchen staff running onto the deck with baskets and picking up things! the ‘things’ were flying fish that landed on deck in the night. We had that for dinner and it was fantastic! On another occasion, I was warned to stay off the decks as it was covered with yellow and black sea snakes – the very poisonous Coral reef snakes would wash up on deck with the swells!
Another interesting incident during this journey happened about two days before we were due to cross the Sundra strait between Sumatra and Java, The ships radar was malfunctioning, and the ship’s electrical officer, or Sparky, tried very hard to fix it, but needed some parts that he did not have on board. We were due to cross the Sundra strait at night and a heavy overcast and fog was looming, so the ship’s Master ordered a 180° turn around until visibility was clear the next morning and we turned around again and crossed the strait.
My eyes went big the next morning, seeing the traffic in the strait, which is only about 15 miles or 24 km wide! From local Junks with their funny sails to big oil tankers, cargo ships – all were crossing us on both sides! One of the not so pleasant experiences in the South China Sea was when we hit the outskirts of a typhoon that cause mayhem on the Chinese mainland! To see this huge ship being pushed back by the swells so that it’s huge propellors were completely out of the water at stages, and you could listen to them spinning in the air, was kind of hair raising! Luckily, the ship was heavily loaded with cargo and we were not tossed around too much, but it was still a big relief when we finally left the storm.
About 250 miles from the Japanese coastline, two very interesting experiences occurred! The first, was our Sparky turning on a television set in the lounge which picked up Japanese TV! Now you must remember that South Africa only got TV two years later for the first time, so this was indeed something that I have only seen in the movies before! I sat watching Japanese programs with a very bad blurry picture, but fascinated nevertheless!
The second was a bit more disturbing: Whilst doing my daily deck running, I noticed a lot of debris and rubbish floating past the ship’s bows – huge pieces of foamalite, plastic, cane, buoys, oil slicks, empty plastic containers, oil drums and cans and logs. Not noticeable at first, because of the typical warm ocean haziness. When the haze cleared up a bit, I noticed that as far the eye could see from Portside to Starboard side, Bow to Stern, the ocean was filled with wall to wall litter! One of the crew members explained to me that this ‘carpet’ was prevalent all around the entire Japan! This in 1973, was strange and also scary to me as in South Africa at that time, there was hardly any pollution, not even in the big cities!
A day before we arrived in Tokyo, it was confirmed that we will be docking down in Kawasaki.
I will never ever forget the sight at 04:00 hours while the ship was slowly moving into Tokyo Bay, engines cut.
It was like being under floodlights standing on the deck! All around the bay factories and buildings had their lights on and then entire bay was lit up like a football stadium! The bay was also completely full of other vessels, from oil tankers and cargo ships, to fishing boats and passenger liners, big and small – a world so totally different then what I was used to! Back home, Cape Town was a port, but so insignificantly small compared to this!
We slowly drifted in, waiting for our pilot to come onboard and take us in! At about 06h00, the pilot came on board climbing up a rope ladder on the side of the ship and started taking us in to our mooring.
After 25 days at sea, I had arrived in Japan!!! The first part of my dream completed!