Arriving in Okinawa after a gruelling 24 hour journey, we were honoured to be met at the airport (in the middle of the night) by a group of sensei’s from the Rengoku Kai along with Dave Chambers. After being formally welcomed to Okinawa, and posing for the first of many group photos, we boarded the bus for the short journey to the hotel in the centre of Naha that would be our base for the next two weeks.
While most of the group fell into bed for a well earned night’s sleep, a few intrepid members headed out for their first experience of Okinawa – namely beer and food!
Below: Meeting with the Governor of Okinawa
Waking up bright and early (still on UK time!) for our first day in Okinawa, we helped ourselves to a tasty breakfast of noodles, rice and stir-fried vegetables, before heading of in the company of Ashley “the Welshman” Griffiths and John “Bunny” Walsh to explore the famous Kokusai Dori – the main tourist street in Naha.
Kokusai Dori was a blur of bright colours, and tweeting pedestrian crossings (no Ash – it wasn’t the dawn chorus!), selling everything from dried out frog purses to jars of Awamori (Okinawan Sake) containing the indigenous and highly venomous habu snake, and spam – lots and lots of spam.
Lunch consisted of indoor barbeque – almost leading to Bunny burning down Kokusai Dori – before wandering back to the hotel for rest before more exploring in the evening.
Day 2 saw an early rise for the monorail ride to Shuri Castle. The weather had started off dull, but the Sun was hot as we walked through Shuri – the former capital of Okinawa – to the Castle, which has been faithfully reconstructed after being destroyed during the 2nd World War. The Castle is elegant and peaceful, a stark contrast to the noise and bustle of Naha. Shuri Castle is an important historical site for students of Karate, being the place where Matsumura Sokon served as bodyguard to Sho Ko, King of the Ryukyu people.
In the evening, we visited a little bar near the hotel, soon to become known variously as “Mauds” and “Katie’s Bar”, where we met Heasai San – the waitress – who spoke excellent English, and Taisho San (lit. the Boss), who kept us well fed and watered for the next two weeks with a wide variety of delicious local dishes and plenty of Orion beer.
Day 3 saw the first day of training at the Budokan – an impressive purpose built complex of dojos which resembles a samurai helmet from the outside. After the event was formally opened by the President of the Okinawan Karate Federation, we began our first session with Shimabukuro Zenpo Sensei, of Shorin Ryu.
Shimabukuro Zenpo Sensei
Sensei took us through the basics of Shorin Ryu, concentrating on blocks and punches and teaching us some training excercises, followed by a question and answer session. It was to prove the first seminar in a series of excellent, technical training sessions, from which we picked up a lot of useful points to improve our training.
Finally we were treated to a demonstration of Nihanchi Sho and Bassai.
After a couple of hours for lunch (lovely noodles with pickled ginger), we were back at the Budokan for a seminar with Kuba Yoshio Sensei (Goju Ryu). Again, the content was very technical, concentrating on targeted punches and blocks, and keeping kicks low. We also worked through some wrist exercises and grabs, known as Kotegaishi. Finally we worked through versions of Saifa and Sanchin.
Day 4 and we were back at the Budokan again for a seminar with Itokazu Seisho Sensei (Uechi Ryu). This style of karate finds it’s roots in the Chinese style Pangai Noon, and is characterised by a more circular feel to the moves and an emphasis on sanchin principals. We concentrated on basics, including the characteristic shoken fist, whereby the knuckle of the index finger is prominent, and the sokusen kick, which uses straight toes.
After working through the basics, we practiced Sanchin, and also learned a basic kata of Uechi Ryu – Kanshiwa. After the session finished, the Senpai who had assisted Itokazu Sensei in teaching us treated us to a demonstration of Kobudo – weapons – including Sai, Nunchaku, and Tonfa katas.
Again, after lunch we returned to the Budokan for an afternoon of training with Taba Kensei Sensei (Shorin Ryu). Taba Sensei is a living cultural asset of Okinanwa who was a student of Nagamine Shoshin Sensei. We worked through the Pinan Katas and looked at the ways in which the Shorin Ryu style of Taba Sensei differed from our own.
Day 5 saw us return to the Budokan for a seminar with Aragaki Isamu Sensei of Shorin Ryu, and his son. Aragaki Sensei emphasised natural stances and technique and recommended maintaining an open mind to karate, finding the techniques that suit you personally and developing them. We worked through some basic punches and breathing exercises again before concentrating on Nihanchi.
This was a very detailed and technical study of Naihanchi as a core principals kata – performed in a similar way that Shitoryu students would perform Sanchin – with focus on body posture and strength through connectivity. Aragaki Sensei took the time to assist every student individually, often making seemingly small adjustments to positions of blocks or posture, which significantly improved the technique.
The afternoon of day 5 saw a break from the intensive training sessions we had received so far, as Tomoyose Ryuko Sensei (Uechi Ryu) arrived. Tomoyose Sensei is a living cultural asset of Okinawa and at the age of eighty he is a pivotal figure in Okinawan Karate, we were extremely fortunate to receive instruction from Sensei as he is now retired from teaching.
Sensei entertained us with an enthralling account of the origins of Uechi Ryu, made all the more poignant as it was Tomoyose Sensei’s father who persuaded Uechi Kambun to begin teaching again in Japan – the story is as follows…..
Uechi Kambun was a young Okinawan who emigrated to China illegally in order to avoid conscription into the Japanese Army. Uechi settled in the Fujian (Fukien) province of China, where he began to study Pangai Noon at a temple there.
After 10 years of study, Uechi was declared a master of the style and was able to begin teaching in China. He began his first school by setting up a stall at a nearby market and inviting people to watch his demonstration. The locals welcomed him, and he settled down happily, until one day a student of Uechi killed another man in a dispute over farm land. The locals blamed the “foreigner” Uechi and he soon returned to Okinawa, vowing never to teach again.
Uechi told known in Okinawa that he was a Pangai Noon Master, and did not teach again. Even when a former student of his, Gokeni (himself an influential figure in karate history) arrived from China and begged Uechi to teach him, Uechi refused. In a vain attempt to persuade Uechi to teach again, Gokeni arranged for a festival in the local village, and having told the villagers of Uechi’s skill, they attempted to force him to give a demonstration. Instead, they only succeeded in driving Uechi into hiding again, and he ran away to Japan where he took a position as a janitor in a textile factory.
It was at the factory that another Okinawan, Tomoyose Ryuyu (Tomoyose Ryuko Sensei’s father) met Uechi for the first time. Tomoyose had learned some martial arts, and one day he was involved in a fight which he later told Uechi about, demonstrating some of the techniques he had used. Uechi was drawn into showing Tomoyose sme ways to improve his techniques, and after much persuasion, he began to teach Tomoyose self defence.
After a time, Tomoyose told other Okinawans living in Japan about Uechi’s skill, and the grouped together to persuade him to open a school. Tomoyose collected money from all of the men wishing to train with Uechi and gave to him – finally persuading him to open a school in Wakayama in Japan.
Following the death of Uechi Kambun, his son Uechi Kanei was persuaded by Tomoyose Ryuko to begin teaching, and it was Kanei who bought the style, now named Uechi Ryu back to Okinawa where Tomoyose Ryuko had built a dojo for him.
After telling us the story of the foundations of Uechi Ryu, Tomoyose Sensei answered questions and explained more about the principals of his karate. At the age of 80, Sensei has a strength and agility that belie his years, a fact he puts down to Sanchin 3 times a day every day. In fact, Sensei revealed that his Sanchin is so good that one day as he was walking along a street, a dog attacked him, biting his thigh – unfortunately for the dog, Sensei’s Sanchin is so strong that the dog’s teeth could not break his skin.
This was the last training session of week one, and we had a few days to explore the island ahead of us before week two’s training commenced. Along with Bunny and Ash (now firmly established as Team Bunny – team hugs not withstanding!) we took Ash’s scenic route to the famous Shureido Martial Arts Store in nearby Tomari to browse and buy souvenirs.
Day 6 saw us touring the southern part of the island with Shimabukuro Sensei as guide. We visited the Underground Japanese Naval Bunker which is now a memorial to the devastation inflicted on the Okinawans by the events of World War II. We then visited the beautifully situated Peace Park before heading to Okinawa World and the Gyokusendo Caves, where we were able to find out more about traditional Okinawan customs, watch the Habu Awamori being made and eat purple sweet potato ice cream in the sun.
Day 7 took us to the north of the island, where we visited the Ocean Expo Park and Aquarium. The Aquarium was home to everything from whale sharks to manta ray, turtles to manatees and performing dolphins. On the way home we stopped off at a traditional Okinawan village and browsed around the shops before returning to the hotel.
Day 8 was a more relaxed day, and some of us decided to take to opportunity for a trip to Kerami Island for a day of sun, sea, sand, and as it turned out rain, rain and more rain! After a ferry ride from Tomari Port to the island, all was looking sunny as we hiked across the island to the beach, which was deserted and peaceful. Some of the group set up camp for a serious sunbathing session, whilst Alex and I – not known for a tanning qualities – headed off to investigate the rock pools. However as lunchtime rolled around, so did the rain clouds, but as the bus back to the port wasn’t due for a few hours we decided to make the best of it and explored another beach and more rock pools, before returning to the port to board the ferry and watch the island slowly disappear into the rain.
On day 9 we took the opportunity to visit the Chinese Garden and do some souvenir shopping along Kokusai Dori before training began again. In the evening, the senior members of the group were invited to train with Aragaki Sensei at his dojo, where he took them through more technical training, and instruction on use of the makiwara – a staple of Okinawan training. While the seniors trained, Ashley and I visited a local live music bar and enjoyed the live rock and roll band (you’ve never really appreciated “Johnny Be Good” until you’ve heard it sung by an Okinawan man with a teddy boy haircut and only the vaguest grasp of English).
Day 10 say us return to the Budokan for a seminar with Higuana Morio Sensei (Goju Ryu). This session focussed on sanchin stance and testing, and the importance of correct breathing (although several of the female students may have missed the finer nuances of the lesson, due to the physique of the Italian student demonstrating Sanchin). Sensei demonstrated Supa Empai and we worked through 3 applications to a Kake Uke drill (arm locks).
In the afternoon, Shimabukuro Sensei returned to take us through various punching and kicking drills, and Sensei’s son demonstrated Naihanchi Sho and Ni – again the kata was performed in the same way as Shitoryu students would perform Sanchin, with a great deal of focus on correct stances and posture.
In the evening, we attended the Sayonara Party which had been arranged for us by the Sensei’s at a local hotel. This was a formal event, and it was great to see everyone dressed up for the occasion. After speeches from some of the senior members of the Rengokukai, Dave Wilkins formally thanked our hosts and instructors. Lori and Derek Ridgway also expressed their thanks on behalf of all those training (Derek being accused of speaking the Queens English for the first time in his life, by the interpreter). We then enjoyed a buffet and drinks and took the opportunity to socialise.
Day 11, the last day of training, and of our time in Okinawa. Following the Sayonara party, and the events of the last two weeks, we were tired, and many of us were aching, either due to the exercise or the festivities. So we were perfectly primed for a gentle session of 2400 plus punches with Higa Minoru Sensei. Yes that’s right – 2400 punches, followed by a few more for luck!
Higa Sensei believes that true technique can only develop when the body is tired, as you can no longer rely on strength. To demonstrate this, he took us through a basic punching drill whereby we punched to the count. Despite the humidity, and the pain, the majority of students were determined to keep up with Sensei and his students and managed to remain standing for the whole exercise (although our ability to count to ten in Japanese was sorely tested). Sensei corrected our techniques as we worked. Finally, a senior female Senpai demonstrated Kushanku Dai, and Naihanchi.
As the conclusion to our training, Hega Sensei presented each of us with a certificate recognising that we had trained in Okinawa, and also a formal record of the instructors we had trained with, before the seminar was formally closed.
In the evening, we returned to “Katie’s Bar” for the last time. Heasai San and Taisho San had taken such good care of us that we felt we had made firm friends in Okinawa. This was proved true when Taisho San presented us all with a memento of our trip in the form of Shisha Keyrings (Shisha are the Lion Dogs seen on the roofs and entrances to houses in Okinawa).
The next day we said goodbye to Naha and Okinawa and began our journey home, keen to return again someday.
My overriding impression of the trip was of the openness and hospitality of the Okinawan people. Shimabukuro Sensei went out of his way to ensure we had an enjoyable stay in Okinawa, and we felt welcomed by the people we met. The training – though only a small taste of what Okinawan Karate has to offer – was invaluable and each Sensei was open and willing to teach us – even giving individual instruction to each student – no mean feat with a class of over 30. Should you have the opportunity to take a trip to Okinawa, I strongly recommend you take it.
It only remains for me to thank the people responsible for making this trip such a resounding success; firstly, the Sensei’s who taught us so well, and imparted valuable knowledge, as well as helping in the organisation of the trip, secondly, David Chambers who opened doors for us and was instrumental in allowing the trip to happen, and finally, of course, Dave Wilkins and Lauren Frearson, who committed so much of their time and energy to organising every last detail of the trip, and made it such an unforgettable experience for us all….Thank you Dave and Lauren.