016 Training in Japan Part 10: Okinawa

We’re back training Karate in Japan in 1973 in Higaonna Sensei’s Yoyogi Dojo, the free training after the last evening class, the actual ‘looking forward to’ part of the day because of more one-on-one tuition from Higaonna Sensei and more ‘Bigger Picture’ opportunity!

Also getting to know Sensei’s senior cadre better and personally. Not a big group then and most of them could only make this session, as distance from the Dojo and rush hour travelling were factors stopping them from the normal classes.   After the Friday evening sessions, we usually went to the izinkaya or Dojo pub where some would share stories of training in Okinawa at some stage or another. Kokubo Sensei remembered that all he did for two weeks was Sanchin!   He just pointed to his shoulders and shivered, and we got the message!!

I am going to jump ahead in time a bit to later in the year for today’s story!   In early September, Sensei announced that Yoyogi will field a contingent of volunteers to participate in the 20th Commemoration of Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s death arranged by the Jundokan group of Miyazato Sensei.  Needless to say, Pat, Denis and myself were in, Denis already having been there previously with Terry O’Neill for their ‘Fighting Arts’ magazine! 

We would travel by boat to Naha, spend just over a week there, culminating in the Commemoration, an all-day event of demonstrations from all Goju Ryu groups. Yoyogi Dojo would perform a group Kata demonstration, Higaonna Sensei his favourite Superinpei Kata and Bunkai and Sensei asked me to perform a self defence against a knife demonstration he saw me do in South Africa the previous year and to use Pat as a partner. 

It was a big honour – exactly how big, I would only realise when we got to Okinawa!  There was a problem – you could not buy an actual knife for this anywhere in Tokyo, so we used a short stick and thought it would not be a problem to get a knife in Okinawa!  

The group from the Dojo were about twelve altogether – Black and Brown belts, with Kokubo and Terauchi Sensei familiar names.   I cannot remember the exact port of departure, but I do recall travelling by trains for quite a while getting to the port in the early hours of the morning for a journey of just short of two days, weather depending!

The boat was not very big, I guess one third of the size of the boat that I went to Japan with!   We would spend a night on board, and I had this picture in my mind of a cabin, with a few persons sharing, but – surprise, surprise!    We travelled 2ndclass and the 2nd class ‘cabin’ was one big dormitory with everybody accommodated in one big area with a tatami floor and one tatami bed space per person with about a meter of free space on either side!   You got a futon, a blanket, a bamboo pillow to rest your head on and a round silver dish in case of seasick!   Nighttime was another surprise – the bright dormitory overhead neon lights stayed on!  Apparently to safeguard against pick pockets and harassers! 

Higaonna Sensei travelled with us and after the excitement of leaving the port, we had something to eat in the cafeteria and then chilled a bit after the early morning get-up and rush.  The ocean was like a mirror or swimming pool – calm, smooth and beautiful – after my experience in getting to Japan, I could not believe it! 

Late afternoon, we gathered on the upper open deck with Sensei and did light training and stretching and practiced the demonstration Kata – Seiyunchin – and Pat and I our demo.   Sensei also made us do Seiyunchin kata starting with the opposite hand and foot – to this day, still one of my own ways to practice the Kata when by myself!

Sleeping was a challenge with the lights on, but Japanese people are well disciplined – after No Noise time, everyone adhered! You put a towel over your eyes and with the heavy ocean air, you slept!

When we reached Naha, the apprehension was big for those who have never been there and there was Miyazato Sensei welcoming the group and immediately the relaxed Okinawa way was visible!  We bowed and shouted Onegaishimasu and Miyazato Sensei just waved his hand and casually said HalloWelcome!  Before we left, Pat, Denis and I got Miyazato Sensei the customary gift – real Scotch, which we found in the Ginza area – a bottle of Johnny Walker!  We handed it to him and he half-smiled and said Thank You in English!   We stayed in a high school dormitory, all in one room. We went to the Jundokan for training the next couple of days at various times to rehearse – quite an interesting experience!

I must clarify here that to me, to this point, it was not a ‘Wow! experience, as my ‘Wow! was Higaonna Sensei!  I was also not too clued up on Okinawan Karate history and the many names in Okinawan Karate. 

Being 24 years old, my philosophy then was to just train and not worry too much about theoretical stuff and ‘What Was’ more of ‘What Is Now’ and ‘What Will Be’ – still my motto today!  

Denis Martin explained a lot of the different schools and names to me from his research with Terry for their magazine a few months before.

But, to see, touch and handle the original Chi’shi from Miyagi Sensei’s Garden Dojo, was something special though!   Interesting aspects of the training in Okinawa were that there were no formal classes like in Yoyogi Dojo or back home – the training was in small groups of between two and maybe five or six persons – Sempai and Kohei groups.  We met another Gaijin there – Mark Bishop, who wrote a book with interviews with various Okinawan fighting arts celebrities. 

While preparing for the demonstrations, we saw a group of about eight Godan – very senior grades then – rehearsing Sepai Kata and arguing amongst themselves about movements and techniques in the Kata!  

In other words, there was no standardization, which is good in a small context, as you adapted the Kata to your own body and abilities, but not good in an organizational context, I guess.  Okinawans did not buy into the idea of an organization big time then – My Dojo, My Sensei, My Sempai – that was it!   Also remember that none of them were professional Karate men – they did Karate for themselves – totally parttime.   But unfortunately, the reality is that Karate would have been extinct by now if it had not been for full time professional sincere Teachers! Commercialism is a double-edged sword – it can be good or bad, depending on the integrity of teachers!

Some of the older members, when we were introduced, pointed to me and I heard ‘Chojun Sensei’ – Pat explained that they were saying that I had a very similar build to Miyagi Chojun Sensei, so, he was not a small person!   Also, quite a few of the younger bucks in the Dojo came up to me and wanted to smack my forearms – Ude Tanren – the forearm condition – to test me – they soon smiled, made sounds like whoaah, fingered my arms and shoulders, bowed, and wanted ‘oshashin’ – a photograph!  No mobile phones then, but they all had cameras!   It even happened at the socials, when Awamori courage kicked in and they would come up to me and wanted to do Ude Tanren!

There was an official welcome dinner for seniors – being the most senior from Yoyogi Dojo group, I went with Sensei and sat down close to the top of the table and it was a privilege to meet names such as Uehara Ko, Meitoku Yagi, Iha Koshin Senseis. 

We also did the tourist thing.  It was not that easy, no Ju Ju monorail – it was busses and taxis to the sites!   Walking down Kokusaidori, was interesting, ironically when I walked down there again in 1981 and to this day, just about nothing had changed! 

Shuri No Mo gate was still the original one, not the current restored one and Shuri Castle was a piece of wall a couple of meters long!  All that was left of it after so many wars on the island!  It was nice to see the replica in a later visit in 2002, but sadly that also burnt down recently!

Visiting the underground headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Navy, close to present Oroku station and the Cave of the Virgins and Suicide Cliff touched me deeply considering the totally unnecessary and barbaric suffering of innocent people all over for thousands of years during conflicts with which the average person had nothing to do!

Came the day of the demonstrations! We could not find a knife to buy in Naha either, just a smallish tanto, not as spectacular, but it worked!  

The demonstrations went on all day from early in the morning to 18h00 and it was interesting to see all the famous names I mentioned previously, performing Kata on the day.

I thought they were really not bad for ‘old guys’, but later I realized they were mostly in their late 40’s early or mid 50’s!  Yamaguchi Gogen, just made a speech in ‘old’ Samurai, Shigin style – sounding like aggressive shouting!

Without prejudice, Higaonna Sensei’s Superinpei and Bunkai on Ito – who flew in just before – was by far the highlight!  

Pat and I also got lots of compliments, as 99% of the demonstrations were either Kihon, Hojo Undo, Sandangi, Sanbon Ippon kumite, Sanchin, Tensho or a Kata – sometimes up to three and more Sanchin in succession – Yamaguchi Goju Kai group demonstrated some tournament fighting, but a little over choreographed while Higaonna Sensei and Pat and I actually demonstrated the practical using of Karate in conflict situations!

We had to move out of the high school dormitory the next morning, and we spend one last evening in a Ryokan and then it was time to go back! 

Standing on the deck of the boat leaving Naha, I did not realize that it would be eight years before I would be there again!

When we left, the sea was as calm as anything – until about eight hours out! I noticed we were starting to get swells and the boat started heaving up and down considerably!  The swells became bigger and bigger by the hour!   By nightfall, we were fully in the center of the storm, the swells were coming over as high as the ship’s bridge! The cafeteria was closed, and all doors, windows and portholes latched down, and everyone constricted to the dormitory!    It was rough, people were turning green in the faces, so the silver buckets were filling up quickly!  

I also felt a bit uneasy and just laid down and try to go with the up and down heaving of the boat.  At one stage, I was counting the rising and falling in seconds and from the moment the boat reached the top of the swell and started to go down to the bottom, I counted between 28 to 33 seconds!  Hitting the bottom felt and sounded like every rivet in the boat was being torn out of the structure!   This went on all night and at one stage I tried to go a side hatch just to look out – it was locked off course – in the center was a pole which I held onto. I would see my feet parallel with my face to my left heaving down and then again parallel with my face heaving upwards! I got a bit worried, when I saw one of the boat’s crew in the toilet being sea sick!

There was no food available, just free potato crisps in packages on the floor of the cafeteria, so that was dinner for me! Most of my comrades were not in a mood for eating at all though!   This went on until we were about five hours out from Tokyo, when suddenly, we were in the swimming pool ocean again!  It was crazy – going from popping up and down like a cork in a whirlpool the one moment, to as flat as a table top the next!    We looked back and could see the storm behind us!   Everyone was shaky and some still very green, but things got back to normal again and we arrived back in Tokyo in one piece, but a challenge to disembark, as people were still swaying while walking on land because of the motion of the boat in that terrible storm!

What I saw and experienced in Okinawa would only sink in and make sense through the passing of many years – even to this day, but the main message I got, was that Karate was personal, but it needed sincere devo ted full time professional teachers to continue developing!  

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Music by Basson Laubscher

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