I recently travelled to Okinawa for some training, cultural exchange, and to see some old friends. This was my fifth trip to the birthplace of the martial arts known around the world as Karate. As with the other visits, this would turn out to be a blast and an incredible learning experience on several levels. I will try to cover some of the highlights here now.
Planning - The original idea was to return to Okinawa in 2020 or 2021, but the COVID19 situation threw a monkey wrench into that. Once travel restrictions to Japan were lifted, the new plan was for both Sensei Connie and I to make the trip in March of this year in time to see the ‘Sakura’ or cherry blossom season. However, with ZenQuest busier than ever and a sick animal at home it was decided that I would go it alone this time. At times it was a struggle to not get a little down about the fact that I would not have my partner with me to share in the new experiences and training, but I decided to just make the best of it and enjoy the trip.
Lost in Tokyo - What turned out to be an incredible adventure in many ways had kind of a rocky start. After over 18 hours of travel, I arrived in Tokyo to find out that my final flight to Okinawa had been cancelled due to a system failure at the airport. After checking in with the airline I was given some cash and told to find a hotel and come back for an AM flight. Being travel weary, what followed was about two hours of being lost in Tokyo. I essentially bounced from one hotel to another trying to find a place to crash for the night. Eventually, I was able to find a spot, get a few hours of sleep, return to the airport, and finally catch a flight to Okinawa. In a crazy ‘de-Ja vu’ I had to crash at a hotel in Washington, D.C for an extra night due to delays on my return.
Training - In order to receive high level advancements from the Okinawa Karate Association candidates need to train a minimum of 30 hours in Okinawa with intense scrutiny from some of the highest-level Masters in the world. In this way the organization can maintain high standards for its advanced students and familiarize them with the history, culture, and spirit of Okinawa.
After losing a day in Tokyo I was left with ten training days before test day, which translates to an average of three hours of training each day. Since the workouts in the motherland are typically two hours long this meant most of the days would include two hours each morning, and two additional hours most evenings. With a variety of instructors and dojos to visit, this proved to be a grueling physical and mental challenge.
S’koshi Itami – Although I had trained for over thirty hours during my last visit in 2018 I was still required to put in another thirty hours before a major promotion. This was getting to be kind of a big deal after all. After five four-hour training days on top of jet lag, sleep deprivation, and wandering around Tokyo my hip began to break down. For those not familiar I had hip replacement surgery in August of 2022. Although my recovery was going well it was not nearly as far along as I had hoped when I originally booked this trip. After this type of surgery most people would just be happy walking the dog or shopping around the supermarket at this point. What I was doing was about the equivalent of doing a 3k run in the morning, cooling down, and then doing another one at night.
On training day five I was clearly limping and my main teacher, Master Tsutomo Nakahodo, asked about it. I said that it was a little sore or “s’koshi itami”, but that I could push through without a problem. The next day I was told that I would only need to do two hours for each day remaining before the test under the circumstances. Doing a little math, that would give me the required thirty hours.
The Test - On the Friday night near the end of my visit Sensei Yamashiro and I went out to celebrate a bit. After some food he took me to a karaoke bar in Okinawa city. We arrived to find five local Okinawan people there, plus the owner. Sensei Yamashiro seemed to know the owner behind the bar, who was the only person who spoke a little English. Sensei explained that I was an American from Massachusetts, and they were all super nice.
We all hit it off well despite the language barrier. After a couple of songs by the locals and the guest, Sensei Yamashiro hopped from his barstool and said “Back in one hour Mark San” . . . and he walked out the door. After a moment of panic, I grabbed the karaoke remote and thought “I’m just going to karaoke until he gets back.” So, I asked my new friends what American songs they wanted to hear and started singing. I sang Elvis, the Beatles, Creedence, John Denver, Barry Manilow…even the Carpenters. After almost two hours Sensei Yamashiro came back in to find me belting out John Lennon’s Imagine with my new friends clapping and singing along. He looked around and gave me a big smile. I guess I passed that test.
Leveling Up - With my last Uechi-Ryu promotion happening in 2012 I had met the minimum requirements for the next level in 2019. The way things turned out I headed back to Okinawa for the first half of April of this year. I think I would’ve passed the test going into this trip, but with all the training and scrutiny I was definitely better prepared. On test day I warmed up a bit, and then it was time. I was able to focus well and include 90% of the critiques I had been given. I was very happy with the form, strength, and spirit I brought to it. The comments from the test board were mostly about taking care of my body going forward, promoting the art of Uechi-Ryu, and doing my best in teaching it to others.
Of all the martial arts that we offer at ZenQuest, Uechi-Ryu does have the most to offer for serious real-world self-defense. More importantly, it has the most to offer in the area of learning focus, self-control, and staying calm in our daily lives.
Ichariba Chode’ - The Okinawans or ‘Uchinan’ people have a saying, Ichariba Chode’ which means “When we meet we are family.” On this trip I made many new friends including my new brother Kazuhiko Shinjo, who helped me tremendously on this visit. I solidified friendships with many of my other teachers and training partners from the past. I also had the pleasure of meeting a couple of new brothers from Germany, who are also long time members of the OKA . . . and countless new karaoke friends.
Fortunate – Although I am super happy to get to a level that I never imagined when I started training 40+ years ago, at this point promotions mostly mean responsibility to me. Responsibility to provide the best instruction, facility, and training atmosphere I can…and represent these arts well.
I am very fortunate to have a great dojo/gym, an amazing group of people to teach and train with, and incredible teachers, too. I am very happy to know these arts as well as I do, and to be able to share them with others. Most of all I am lucky to have an amazing partner who is willing to share the grind and face the challenges that come along. Thanks to her and thanks to everyone else involved in the crazy soup of my martial arts life.