The 2009 Okinawan Traditional Karate Do World Tournament
When I heard that there would be a special karate and kobudo event being held in Naha during the summer I immediately booked my place, flight and accommodation. A quick scan of the official web page was enough to convince me that it was worth paying the inflated air fare from my home in northern Kyushu down to Okinawa. The flight is a just over an hour, however the event was to be held during Obon week. This is a traditional Japanese holiday period when people pay their respects to their dead ancestors. Unfortunately for me this meant that my flight was now double the price it would have been a week earlier. In any case the lure of being able to train and observe such great sensei as Higaonna, Shimabukuro and Nakazato was too great for me to resist. I consoled myself with the fact that the actual price of attending the seminar was 1,000 yen, less than 10 pounds! Okinawa is a special place. This series of small islands in the pacific has suffered greatly over the years due to the conflicts of others. It is a real testament to the enduring nature of these people that they have managed to survive and indeed flourish whilst keeping much of their indigenous culture intact in the face of insurgences from both the USA and mainland Japan. I have lived in Japan for over three years and Okinawa is without doubt my favourite place in this interesting and varied country. The Okinawa people and the daily pace of life here is quite different from most of the mainland. Although on the surface things appear to be very similar. In Naha there are the usual ugly concrete buildings that blight the rest of Japan, there are the same convenience stores and super markets and of course mainland Japanese is now widely spoken. However scratch the surface just a little and the differences become apparent.
People are generally much more informal and relaxed. For example; I recall the sight of government employees commuting to work on the monorail dressed in their Hawaiian style shirts and casual slacks. I compare this to my Japanese colleagues in Kitakyushu who are forced to endure the sweltering Japanese summer in full business attire. Okinawa also relies on tourism for a major part of its income. This is reflected in the friendly nature of the public servants and shopkeepers. There are a lot more English speakers here than the mainland, a direct result of the American military presence I suppose. The fact that I can speak a little Japanese (admittedly very badly and with a strong Kitakyushu accent) cut a lot of ice here. Big smiles got even bigger and compliments gushed forth. This situation is not uncommon for foreigners in Japan. However in this case it seemed to me that the local people were genuinely impressed and appreciative of my clumsy efforts to communicate with them.
Day 1 – Friday August 14th
I flew into Naha on Friday August 14th. This was the first day of the event and I quickly rushed from the airport and onto the highly efficient and convenient Naha monorail system and I was soon on my way to the very impressive Budokan. I really wanted to get in early in order to get a good seat from where I would be able to enjoy the many demonstrations that had been promised. No luck there! There was no chance of a seat. The place was full to the rafters. I did manage to secure a good standing position however. The demonstrations themselves were a mixed bag. I have to admit to being very disappointed that the demonstrations were mostly group affairs comprising of around 100 participants performing kata in unison.
There were also a lot of children’s demonstrations. Of course this was great for the many parents and grandparents present, but not very interesting for the rest of us. A number of the demos were also repetitive. I lost count of the number of times I saw a group performance of Bassai or Seisan performed. Given the huge wealth and depth of talent present in Okinawa I was surprised that so few of the more eminent sensei were asked to demonstrate. More on that issue later. There were some interesting demonstrations though, including an example of shime (testing) during Sanchin kata and some really nice kata performances from some very senior sensei right at the end of the day.
Day 2 – Saturday August 15th
The second day brought the tournament. I was really very surprised here by the fact that this was not an elite event. I had perhaps erroneously assumed that this was an event exclusively for top level performers. I saw a very wide range of abilities on show. At first I was a little perplexed by this. However upon reflection, I think this was a good thing. A lot of people travelled a long way and spent a lot of money to be involved in this event. Of course, eventually the cream rose to the top and there were some superb performances in both karate and kobudo. I am not sure who the winners were. I have to be honest I lost interest towards the end of a very long day and decided that an early exit and a delicious bowl of Okinawan soba was a better option .
Day 3 – Sunday August 16th
The third day of the event was what I was really looking forward to. This would offer me the chance to train with some genuine legends of the karate world.
The first seminars held in the morning were conducted by a number of very senior sensei. Most of the teachers seemed to be ranked at least 8th dan. Nakazato Joen sensei is I believe around 87 years old. He is a 10th dan hanshi of Shorinji – Ryu karate do. Apparently he is the last surviving student of Kyan Chotoku sensei. At the seminar Nakazato sensei used a cane for support but in the dojo he seemed to become reinvigorated and spoke about karate with great enthusiasm. He began with a lecture on such topics as the history of Shorinjirryu, correct breathing in kata and other important factors. We were then treated to a display of various kata from some of his students. They demonstrated the old-style versions of a number of kata that are practiced in modern Shotokan such as Chinto (Gankaku), Wansu (Empi), Gojushiho, in addition to kata such as Ananku, Tomari Passai and Chatan Yara Kusanku which do not have Shotokan counterparts. At this time Nakazato sensei made various pertinent comments regarding the various kata. Old style versions of Passai, Seisan and Ananku were also taught. It was amazing to think that he has been involved in karate for so many years and yet despite the onset of old age has retained such enthusiasm and passion for his art.
After a quick boxed lunch it was time for more training and my chance to train with the teacher I was most looking forward to meeting. As a teenager I can vividly remember watching a documentary called “The Way of the Warrior” on BBC2. This was a 12 part series narrated by Dennis Waterman of Minder fame and was truly an excellent production. My favourite episode focussed on Okinawa and the karate of Higaonna Morio Sensei. This gentleman needs no introduction. He is perhaps the most eminent teacher of Goju Ryu in the world and has been featured in many magazines and TV shows. For over twenty five years I had wanted to meet and train with this karate legend and I was finally going to get the chance.
Before the class began I nervously approached Higaonna sensei and explained that although I didn’t study Goju Ryu I really wanted to train in his class. Immediately he let out that famous smile and said in very good English “No problem, no problem, everyone is welcome.”
The class itself was relatively small by seminar standards. I would imagine there were around 50 people training together. I was very excited and it seemed that the rest of the group felt the same way. Some people had travelled from all over the world to take part. Sensei started the class with a short introduction in English and we were soon warming up using traditional Okinawan style jubi undo. The core of the class was to be Sanchin training. Sensei explained the basic breathing, stance and stepping patterns. He also paid great attention to the correct timing of the arm movements and the need to keep the elbows tucked in close to the body. The need to concentrate power in the abdomen was also stressed. It was great to see this wonderful teacher perform Sanchin a few feet away. His movements were so smooth, yet powerful. Higaonna sensei is very impressive on film, but in the flesh he is even more so. He positively radiates power and energy when he is performing karate. We were also very lucky that a number of sensei’s top students were on hand to assist him. One of his senior students, Alessandro sensei gave a very impressive demonstration of Sanchin kata while Higaonna sensei pointed out various important points. This demonstration was made all the more impressive by the fact that Alessandro sensei had a very well defined, karate specific physique. We were able to witness the expansion and contraction of muscle groups in coordination with correct breathing. A fantastic demonstration and it was greatly appreciated by all in attendance. The time flew by and we were soon split into smaller study groups. For those Goju Ryu karateka who were graded godan or above, Sensei would be teaching a version of Superimpai kata. The other Goju karateka were offered the chance to study Kururunfa or Seisan, depending on their grade. I joined a small group taught by Alessandro sensei. The kata we studied is known as Gekisai Dai Ichi. This is a relatively simple kata and the movements could be learned quite quickly. It was really interesting for me to note the subtle differences in kihon waza between Goju and Shito or Shotokan. Although Shito Ryu has a Naha Te influence, the kihon waza practiced seem much more linear and have more in common with Shuri Te based systems. We also practiced a two man bunkai drill based on the various movements contained within the kata. The final section of the class brought us all together and Sensei once again gave another impressive demonstration. This section of the class was concerned with kake, the sticking arms type exercise which is widely practiced in this style.
Higaonna sensei demonstrated on a very large and powerful looking course participant. Higaonna sensei’s use of power from the feet, legs and hips was very apparent here. He seemed to control his “opponent” with ease. This is an exercise I had never encountered in Shotokan or Shito Ryu and I found it to be really difficult. Some of the senior students walked around offering advice though and I was at least able to gain a basic understanding of what I was doing wrong. Unfortunately time was up. Sensei thanked us all for our hard work and was in turn thanked with a thunderous applause. As the group dispersed people ran for their cameras. Everyone it seemed wanted a photo taken with Higaonna sensei. I was no different and have to admit I used whatever advantage my Japanese language skills gave me. I managed to get a photo and also one of my new friends was really pleased that Sensei signed a copy of a text book he had produced in the 80’s. Just imagine what that would be worth on E-bay!
Cameras down and we were straight into the next session. For this final session, I had opted to train under Sakumoto Tsuguo sensei of the Ryuei Ryu. Sakumoto sensei is best known for being the former world kata champion. I had previously seen many videos of this gentleman and I had always been greatly impressed by his power and finesse. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The actual class itself took the form of a series of demonstrations interspersed with some practice. Initially Sensei asked his top students to demonstrate.
The actual level of karate on show was exceptional. Not surprising when you consider we were watching members of the Japanese squad including the current ladies national champion. It seemed that sensei’s students performed almost all the empty handed kata of this system plus some kobudo, including a very interesting eku (boat oar) kata.
This was all wonderful stuff and breathtakingly good, however I was getting impatient. I wanted to train! Why didn’t this group of world class karateka give a demonstration yesterday instead of the seemingly endless examples of elementary school children performing Pinan Nidan that we were forced to endure? Anyway it was inspiring stuff and soon enough we were all given a chance to sweat. I was aware that Sakumoto sensei once worked (maybe he still does?) as a PE teacher in Okinawa. It showed. He really did have the autocratic air of a Japanese PE teacher about him. His teaching approach was different to Higaonna sensei. At some points he stood on a podium and directed from there, via a microphone. He also used his students as assistant instructors and I was lucky enough to get some personal tuition from a very pretty young lady! The first kata to be studied was Niseishi. The Shotokan kata know as Nijushiho was of course developed from a version of this kata and it was evident that they share a common ancestry. Of course there were many differences in the way that the kata were performed and it proved a tricky challenge. We performed the kata many times, first at a relatively slow pace and then with full speed and power, over and over again. In this type of teaching situation, i.e. a large group unfamiliar with the subject matter, I think this type of autocratic approach to teaching can work well. It seemed to work today. Most of us at least seemed able to remember the basic pattern of the kata.
Unfortunately there was no time for any bunkai practice, although sensei did give another great demonstration of a few practical applications. Sakumoto sensei first gained international prominence as a kata competitor in the 80’s. When he began to perform the then little know kata know as Anan at tournaments. This is a long, complex and technically demanding kata that was originally only practiced in Ryuiei Ryu. However several Shito Ryu groups have incorporated it into their syllabi over the years. My teacher in Kitakyushu knows this kata. I am not sure where he learnt it but he can and does perform it very well. I have seen this kata performed at close hand a number of times. None of this prior knowledge helped me I am afraid. This kata proved too much of a challenge to even retain more than a few of the movements after such a short period of study. A very enjoyable and interesting class none the less and it was once again a privilege to get the chance to observe so many top class karateka at close range. At the end of the class we were given a special treat. The group members were asked to form a circle and sensei then performed Anan with full speed and power. Absolutely wonderful, superlatives simply do not cover the level of this performance. It was a truly fitting way to end a wonderful day of Okinawan karate training. I was very impressed by the manner in which Sakumoto sensei handled the presentation of participation certificates to the group. Each person was announced along with his or her country; they then joined Sakumoto sensei at the front of the class and were presented their certificate in a very dignified manner. Sakumoto sensei also gave a lot of his time at the end to pose for photos and sign books. I had a quick chat with him and he seemed to be an affable man and someone who was really passionate about sharing his knowledge and expertise.
My one criticism of the seminars; there were not enough! Maybe in future there could be two days of training or an extra seminar in the evening. It was frustrating to have to make a choice between training with so many great teachers. For instance I really wanted to experience some Uechi ryu karate and I also really wanted practice with the hugely talented Shimabukuro sensei of Seibukan Shorin-ryu. However both of these classes were scheduled right alongside Higaonna sensei’s class. I think this event would have benefited from more actual training seminars and less of the aforementioned repetitive demonstrations.
Day 4 – Monday, August 17th
The fourth day of my karate holiday in Okinawa was a real treat. Along with a few other seminar participants I joined Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei on a tour of historical karate sights. I have had the pleasure of visiting Hokama sensei at his dojo and karate museum a number of times in the past and it was wonderful to meet up with him again. He is a highly respected teacher of both Goju Ryu karate and traditional Okinawan Kobudo. In addition to this Hokama sensei is perhaps the greatest living authority on karate and kobudo history. He has always struck me as an incredibly intelligent and inquisitive person. He speaks English very well and is also a master of shodo or Japanese calligraphy. Hokama sensei was featured in an issue of the sadly defunct Fighting Arts International magazine many years ago and some people may remember him from there.
All in all, I really can’t think of a better person to undertake such a tour with. As always it was an absolute pleasure to spend time with this extremely knowledgeable and amiable gentleman.
The first point of interest on the tour was a large stone monument in honour of Funakoshi Gichin sensei. With great attention to detail Hokama sensei explained the significance of Funakoshi sensei’s role in the spread of karate to the rest of the world. At this point in the proceedings sensei remembered that I am able speak a little Japanese and quietly taking me to one side asked me in Japanese if his English was adequate. I found this both amusing and indicative of the humble nature of this great man. Sensei’s English is really good and much better than my Japanese. I reinforced that his English was more than adequate and he was doing a great job. However this didn’t stop him from occasionally using me as an ad hoc translator. To be honest I was glad to help out when needed and really enjoyed the challenge. The other members of the tour were a nice group of people. Everyone was very friendly and keen to learn as much as possible. They were mostly Americans but there were also a couple of Canadians, a husband and wife from London and a family from Russia. People soon struck up friendships and it was interesting for me as a resident of Japan to note their impressions of my adopted home even after a few days. Some people seemed most impressed by the ubiquitous vending machines and the high number of US based fast food restaurants! An amusing incident occurred during lunch. Sensei had arranged for us all to attend a fantastic Okinawan tabi hodi (all you can eat) restaurant. The food on offer was wonderful. Every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable in addition to a variety of curry dishes and meat, fish, noodle and rice based cuisine.
After three years in Japan I can quite safely say I can eat almost anything. Trips to China and Korea have also widened my gastronomic horizons and I wasted no time in filling my plate with as much of the local food as possible. When I returned to my table I noticed that a few of my new friends were less than enthusiastic at the prospect of natto (fermented soy beans), hiya-yakko (grilled tofu with garnish and soy sauce) and gooyaa champuruu (fried bitter gourd).
Instead they had piled up their plates with fried rice and whatever meat they could find. I also overheard a conversation about where the nearest fast food place was. Anyway, lunch was soon finished and we were back on the bus in order to visit the shrines of both Matsumora and Ankoh Itosu sensei. Itosu sensei is obviously a very important figure in the history of Shotokan karate as he was a teacher of Funakoshi sensei. Once again Sensei took time to explain things in detail and answer any questions. We then moved onto a beautiful public park which overlooked the sea. Here we visited the two pine trees which have been planted as natural monuments to both Funakoshi sensei and his son Yoshitaka. Very apt, since the Chinese character or kanji for shoto (Funakohsi sensei’s pen name) can be read as pine tree wind. We were also encouraged by sensei to take part in an alfresco foot massage session. This exercise involved walking bare foot over a number of stones strategically placed to cause maximum pain! Hokama Sensei insisted that this was great therapy for our tired feet and everyone gave it a go. I must admit my feet felt good afterwards.
The day was wrapped up with a visit to Hokama sensei’s dojo and museum in Nishihara, a few minutes away from the impressive Shuri castle. Sensei’s museum always impresses me. It is an absolute treasure trove. The walls are filled with historic photos and mementos. There is so much history here it is truly an inspirational place to visit. Downstairs in the main dojo with its beautiful sprung wooden floor and racks of weapons, many people were admiring sensei’s traditional Okinawan hojo undo equipment.
The visit concluded with photographs and some heartfelt goodbyes with both sensei and his very gracious wife. In a few hours I was back in my apartment in Kitakyushu left to reflect on what I had experienced over the past few days. This was most definitely one of the most rewarding of my various karate adventures in Japan. Being able to practice karate in its birthplace with some of the best teachers in the world was a wonderful experience and I have to say that I was sad to leave and return to the mainland. Maybe it’s time to ask for a transfer!
About the author:
Lyn Jehu is originally from South Wales where he studied Shotokan karate. Since moving to Japan in July 2006 he has practiced Shito Ryu karate in Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka.