Thursday, April 26, 2007

Okinawa Trip 2007 - Part 6

Overall Impressions

My trip to Okinawa was very worthwhile. As the birthplace of karate, it was good to at least see the place and meet the people who are part of karate history, even if it is the history of karate entering into the modern age. My friend Terry told me that when he visited Okinawa, it confirmed many stories about Nakata Sensei when he was on Okinawa. It was no different for me, whether it was noting the respect that many people paid him due to his being a student of Chibana, people reminiscing about his relationship with Chibana Sensei, or simply those mentioning his fighting prowess when he was there.

Secondly, it showed me the directions that karate was taking, even on Okinawa. The more I train, the more I am able to get what my instructor calls “karate no me”, or simply, an eye for karate. I’m certainly not as good as evaluating people as he is, but there are certain indicators using both the framework of osae, koshi, and hara as well as simple timing and posture that lets me know whether I would wish to train with them or not. I wouldn’t mind learning about other styles and instructors, but I’m not so sure if I would learn from them, as the direction Okinawa seems to be heading in is different than the one I am.

Thirdly, it was nice just meeting people and making contacts. They were all very friendly and open people. Should I ever come to Okinawa again, I’ll know some people I could talk to and Sensei could always be my “in”. If I ever want to know the location and practice times of anybody on Okinawa, I can just swing by Shureido and talk to Nakasone-san.

Fourthly, the food was tasty. Enough said there.

Goya Chanpuru and Tebichi

Fifthly (I can safely say that I have never before used the word “fifthly” before this), after having a sticker on my car for a couple of years that has “Okinawa” and “Ishigantou” given to me by my Japanese teacher in grad school, I can finally answer “yes” when asked if I’ve visited Okinawa before.

Sixthly, I got to see the world of karate politics on Okinawa. Some people we met were very straightforward while others had their own various agendas to attend to. Of course, everyone was really nice, but those are two separate things. Anyone interested in karate history should always take their source into account when reading historical accounts written by Westerners, Japanese, or Okinawans or talking to the people themselves.

Lastly (because “seventhly” would just be ridiculous), I got to see Terry, even if it was just for one evening. I could insert some really trite phrase about friends and long distances, but I’ll just content myself with saying it was cool to see him again.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Okinawa Trip 2007 - Part 5

Friday, 6 April 2007

Friday morning was my opportunity to pretend I was just a regular tourist in Okinawa. I naturally spent some time at the Shuri castle, which played a big role in the history of karate as many of the karate masters were associated in some way with royalty or of nobility, and the Chibana family was no exception. It was interesting just to be able to see the sites always pictured in various karate history books or on the vast multitude of patches, logos and emblems in dojo all across the world.

Shuri Castle, inner courtyard

The afternoon found me standing by a payphone and Sensei Goodin’s cell phone number nowhere in sight. After trying various ways to contact him, I finally gave up and did what anyone else would have done after walking from the Shuri station to Shuri castle, all around the castle, to Asato from Shuri, and all around town: I went to lunch. After a nice meal of goya chanpuru and tebichi (pig’s feet), I walked around for a few souvenirs and later met up with Sensei at the hotel.

From there, we went to Yonamine Kosuke Sensei’s dojo where we observed his Uechi Ryu practice. True to Uechi Ryu, it involved a lot of testing of muscular tension by hitting the students as they performed their basics and their kata. But just like my opinion on Goju Ryu, I’d rather learn how to hit with devastating power than to take hits. There were a lot of two-person sets where the student performed the kata and basically demonstrated the meaning of the movements with the partner as they went through the form. Amusingly enough, one of the younger students got a big kick out of discovering that karate exists on Hawaii. He apparently had a hard time believing that karate was practiced anywhere outside of Okinawa. After practice, Yonamine Sensei invited us into his house and we had a little to eat and drink while we discussed various things. Sensei told me that when he was on Okinawa, he would fight a lot with Yonamine Sensei because he was the strongest Uechi Ryu fighter back then. In the midst of discussion, Yonamine Sensei said that Sensei was the strongest fighter period back then and that I should continue my training with him (I assuredly will). Our talk was less on the historical side and more on just “catching up”, but it was still enjoyable. After an hour or so, we excused ourselves and made our way back to the hotel. I packed all my stuff and went to bed.

Saturday, 7 April

I got up, gathered my things, checked out of my hotel, and met up with Sensei and Sensei Goodin for breakfast at the little diner we ate at earlier. The plane ride back was uneventful and due to time zone changes, I ended up back in Hawaii about 6 hours before I left.

To be concluded in Part 6

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Okinawa Trip 2007 - Part 4

Thursday, 5 April

Thursday morning found me a little short on yen, so I did a lot of footwork around Naha looking for an ATM that would accept my gaijin debit card. After a good deal of hunger-inducing walking, I ended up at Sensei’s hotel empty-handed (and empty-stomached). Sensei and I walked around a bit and found a 24/7 diner that had a pretty decent Japanese breakfast for only 500 yen. We went shopping for a little while, as Goodin Sensei had to pick up some Shiseido products for his wife and I still had to find some way of getting some yen. I later found a machine at the end of Kokusaidoori (not the one that everyone told me about, but the one at the post office). Feeling a little less naked now that I had some more money, I met up with Sensei and Sensei Goodin. We ate at another local restaurant and had a reminder that Okinawa still is in the island of karate, regardless of if it strictly sticks to the old ways or not. As we paid for our meal, we noted that the humble restaurant owner had a karate menjo on his wall, being an instructor in Goju Ryu.

After making our way back to the hotel, Sensei and I swung by Shureido once more and had coffee again with Nakasone-san. At this point, I think I can say that I’ve had more coffee at Shureido than I’ve had in my entire life. I accidentally left my historian hat at the hotel because I somehow got absorbed in looking for T-shirts and didn’t catch most of what Sensei and Nakasone-san were talking about. They then discussed a little about our plans for the day and we mentioned that we were going to visit Oshiro Nobuko, wife of Uechi Ryu’s Yonamine Kosuke and teacher of Higa Yuchoku style Shorin Ryu. They provided us with directions to the dojo and after a little more talking, we went on our way.

We took a cab out to Urasoe City, where Oshiro Sensei had her dojo. We ended up coming a little before her 2nd class and watched for the duration of that one and some of the 3rd. It appears that she has 4 classes a night, with the 4th one being the adults class, although we did have the opportunity to watch an adult independently practicing in the background. I do have to say I was impressed with the discipline and focus of many of the kids. They were doing quite a lot of exercise without complaint and hitting the bags with a lot of power and focus (for their age). She was no slouch herself, being quite active and very fit despite being 59 years of age. Like some other Chibana lineage schools on Okinawa, there seemed to be a lot of personal interpretation which had taken place in the kata. After some time, we excused ourselves and found a taxi.

We made our way to Chatan to visit the dojo of Shimabukuro Zenpo Sensei, of Seibukan. We talked for a while in his dojo and I was very impressed by his fluent English. My instructor has apparently met him on occasion, and his father, Zenryo, would always visit Chibana Sensei very frequently and that the only other person who visited more often (when Chibana Sensei was in good health) was Nakama Chozo Sensei. In some ways, it seemed like my instructor and Shimabukuro Sensei were kindred spirits of a sort, both being similar in age and both trying to preserve what they learned from the last of the old masters in a world embracing modern karate. As it was, he was someone that we could ask direct questions to and get direct answers.

We talked both at his dojo as well as at McDonald’s (a late night place to get coffee). Not having had food in a while, I unashamedly ordered a cheeseburger in lieu of the coffee, although it wasn’t quite filling especially after I tossed the bun. Shimabukuro Sensei mentioned that Nakama Sensei taught him a version of Patsai called Patsai Gua, but he was unsure where Nakama Sensei learned it from. He said that while Nakama Sensei would stay with the Shimabukuro family during the week when he had a job working at the nearby military base messhall and would visit his family on the weekends. A lot of his training from Nakama Sensei occurred during this period. The other main source of karate training was Kyan-style karate from his father. Chibana Sensei would remark that Shimabukuro Zenryo Sensei’s karate was “true Kyan” karate. Chibana Sensei would also always say that karate should be learned with the body, so it was nice to hear Shimabukuro Sensei say the exact same thing. He also stated the kata should keep their original meaning; something Chibana Sensei would always say. Adding credence to the notion that Chibana Sensei never called his style “Kobayashi”, he mentioned that one time Nakazato Shugoro Sensei got upset when he accidentally referred to it as Kobayashi Shorin Ryu. It seems likes the closer a student was to Chibana Sensei, the more likely that student is to call their karate Shorin Ryu as opposed to Kobayashi Ryu or Kobayashi Shorin Ryu.

When speaking about Chibana Sensei, Shimabukuro Sensei echoed the sentiments that I have heard others say: his fighting was very strong and his kata was very clean. By “clean” (he used the Japanese term “kirei”… not to be confused with “pretty”), he meant that it was efficient and devoid of any extraneous movements. It always amazes me that with as much respect that everyone on Okinawa speaks about Chibana Sensei and as much as they acknowledge his seniority in karate and fighting prowess on Okinawa during his lifetime, such little is written or known about him in the wider English or Japanese circles. And sadly, even much of what is written in English tends to be incorrect… but I digress.

After we all talked for quite a good while, Shimabukuro Sensei kindly drove us all the way to our hotel and dropped us off. After Sensei and I chowed down on some big macs (minus the buns) I bought earlier (I made some lame excuse about buying breakfast for the next day), we turned in for the night.

To be continued in Part 5

Friday, April 13, 2007

Okinawa Trip 2007 - Part 3

Wednesday, 4 April

Wednesday morning, I woke up a little later than usual thanks to the awamori. We met up at Sensei’s hotel and went to Shureido where we talked with the owner Nakasone-san over coffee. He was a very nice man and seemed to know a lot about every karate instructor on the island, probably doing business with all of them. We heard later that Nakasone-san is always present at gatherings here and there, taking pictures and footage. He probably has exclusive media and is a veritable encyclopedia of karate history himself. Shureido called up Yonamine Kosuke of Uechi Ryu for us, since we were unable to reach him. They ended up getting in contact with his wife, Oshiro Nobuko, who runs a large Higa Yuchoku lineage school in Urasoe City and we decided to meet up with her the next evening. Speaking with Nakasone-san, I started to notice a trend that everyone we talked to asked how Nagaishi Sensei was faring. Fumio Nagaishi Sensei worked for the US government on Okinawa for many years. He studied under Chibana Chosin and is one of the most senior students of Taira Shinken (he is without a doubt the most senior American student of Ryukyu Kobudo). He served as a liaison for many of the early American karate practitioners on Okinawa and is a close friend of my instructor, Pat Nakata. Nagaishi Sensei is such a large part of karate history on Okinawa, yet he seems to be missing from any of the history books. Some of this is due to his humility, and some of it is due to his being an American despite the many years he spent on Okinawa.

In the afternoon we went to the head of Shorinkan Shorin Ryu Nakazato Shugoro Sensei’s dojo. There we saw Sensei Pat Haley with his group of 20-odd students from the U.S., (Canada?), and South Africa. When we walked in, Nakazato Sensei’s face lit up and he welcomed us, introducing Sensei to several of his 9th dans and a black belt of his who were observing the practice. When he mentioned that Nakata Sensei was a student of Chibana Sensei, they started bowing respectfully. Right away, I could tell that Nakazato Sensei was pretty comfortable with Nakata Sensei. We watched Sensei Haley’s students and they were trying very hard. At one point, one of the students suffered a contusion after bending down on his knee, so he was taken off to the side. Nakazato Sensei gave Sensei Haley a bandage of some sort and gave directions how to apply it, but Sensei Haley was having a little trouble understanding the Japanese and wasn’t really sure what the exact injury was. Nakata Sensei walked over, very quickly diagnosed the problem, and told the student exactly what to do to work it out. It was a nice reminder of just how broad and deep Sensei’s knowledge is. After that, a lot of the dialogue was funneled through Nakata Sensei both by Nakazato Sensei and Sensei Haley.

When their practice was finished, we went upstairs into Nakazato’s Sensei’s home with him and his wife. It was mostly Nakazato Sensei and Nakata Sensei reminiscing about Chibana and the level of familiarity of Japanese that Nakazato Sensei was speaking with indicated that they shared a deep bond since they were both very close to Chibana Sensei, far different from the typically distant Nakazato Sensei that I had heard about. Of course, Nakazato Sensei asked how Nagaishi Sensei was doing and expressed gratitude for what he had done for Chibana Sensei when he was ill (But let there is no doubt that of all the students, the one who did the most for Chibana Sensei when he was ill was Nakazato Sensei). Nakazato Sensei and his wife were visibly upset when they heard about Chibana Sensei’s house being sold and Nakazato Sensei’s wife was brought to tears when she heard about Chibana Sensei’s haka being sold. Nakazato Sensei mentioned that the burial plot he bought for Chibana Sensei was twice as big as his, but that Chibana Sensei was in the Chibana family plot, not the Tawada family plot as Nakamoto Sensei mentioned, but it is possible that some arrangements were made without Nakazato Sensei’s knowledge. We turned the conversation to lighter matters and ended with an open invitation for Nakazato Sensei and his wife to come to Hawaii just to visit if they wanted.

Upon returning to the hotel, Higaonna Sensei and Goodin Sensei were already waiting for us. We then went to another old bookstore and this time, Goodin Sensei spotted a rare book (he already had) with the founder of Goju Ryu Miyagi Chojun Sensei in it. Higaonna Sensei forked over a large sum of cash for it and left feeling very happy. After the bookstore, Higaonna Sensei treated us to dinner before we went to his dojo to observe his class.

The dojo was only a small distance away from both our hotels and like many on the island, was a part of the instructor’s house. Already in the dojo were not only Okinawan students, but students from across the world as well. Practice started with a lot of their hojo undo, which involved the use of traditional Okinawan or Chinese training devices. This usually entailed gripping something heavy and/or either hitting or hitting themselves with something pretty hard, like a rock or a big metal ring. I used to do a lot of hojo undo myself (more so the gripping of heavy things), but I sort of gave that all up a while ago in favor of modern training equipment (like my bowflex). While their ability to take punishment was impressive, I always prefer to train to give punishment rather than to take it. At any rate, after the hojo undo, they did their kata with the usual dynamic tension and artificial breathing methods of Goju Ryu. Higaonna Sensei asked if I wanted to try out some hojo undou, so I grabbed some jars and did some of the walking up and down the line. It was a bit gratifying to feel that the nigirigame (gripping jars) were a little lighter than what I used to train with (or maybe I just grabbed a light pair). When he was showing me how to punch the Goju Ryu way, I’ll admit I had a little difficulty… Some may say there is a lot of similarity between Goju and Shorin Ryu methodologies, but I would have to disagree strongly. Suffice it to say, I will stick with my Shorin Ryu for various reasons. After class, Higaonna Sensei took us upstairs into his house and showed us the beginnings of his museum, which was pretty good already. After a little while, we excused ourselves and I made my way back to my hotel… It was a pretty long day.

To be continued in Part 4

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Okinawa Trip 2007 - Part 2

Tuesday, April 3

After getting up, I walked around the area for a little while before heading to Sensei’s hotel. Upon arrival, I found that Higaonna Morio Sensei of Goju Ryu was already there talking with Nakata Sensei and Goodin Sensei. I found him to be a very soft-spoken and down-to-earth individual, like most of the other masters I met on my trip. We spent some time discussing various things, including the use of kata. While I disagreed with him (internally, of course) about the necessity of things like one-step drills or kumite, we all agreed that the kata should always be the root of one’s practice. In fact, Higaonna Sensei made the interesting statement that he did not mind if you made up your own kata, but you should never change the original kata. After spending time discussing various aspects of karate history, we agreed to meet again on Wednesday in order to visit an old bookstore, have dinner, and observe one of his practices.

Afterwards, we made our obligatory visit to Shureido, although Nakasone-san wasn’t there at the time. We drank our coffee they served us (although I never drink coffee) and looked around for some weapons. Unfortunately, some of their weapons inventory seemed rather low, which I speculate may have been because of Sensei Pat Haley of Shorinkan bringing a group of 20-odd students who probably bought a lot… I later asked Nakasone-san about this and he said they did. At any rate, I bought the last pair of tekko and Sensei bought the last pair of stainless steel sai. I was hoping to find a pair of stainless steel manji sai, but they were all sold out. Having accomplished that, we went around the Shuri area for a while and I ended up buying a pair of nice sunuke nunchaku at the weapons shop across from the Miyako hotel. Apparently, sunuke wood items will be getting pretty rare because it was recently put on the endangered list. They are nice and heavy.

Next, Sensei and I went to the Yamakawa Community Center, which relocated from where Chibana Sensei’s dojo used to be. We got there a little early, so we first ate at a nearby hotel before returning to the community center. Since we were on Okinawan time (similar to Hawaiian time, I guess), the 8:00 practice didn’t start until a little while later. There we met Isa Sensei, who is technically the successor of Chibana Sensei’s Shorin Ryu. He took over for Nakazato Akira (Chibana Sensei’s grandson) after Nakazato quit over 20 years ago. It was a rather mixed experience watching Isa Sensei and his students train, as their methodology has become rather distant from Chibana Sensei’s teachings. When practice was finished, Isa Sensei took us out to a small bar where he treated us to some drinks and snacks. The awamori hit me a little hard, since I haven’t been drinking all that much lately (and since I had some earlier in the day), but I couldn’t just go to Okinawa without trying some, right? After a while, we excused ourselves and turned in for the night.

To be continued in Part 3

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Okinawa Trip 2007 – Part 1

Okinawa Trip 2007 – Part 1

Sunday, 1 April

I spent the first week of April in Okinawa with my karate instructor Pat Nakata and his good friend Sensei Charles Goodin, who owns the Hawaii Karate Museum. Things were originally supposed to work out well for us, as my best friend Terry (and student of Nakata Sensei) now lives in Okinawa and this was an excellent chance for us to see him again. As fate would have it, Terry was called away for a trip the day after Sensei and I arrived, so we only saw him for a few hours. Much of this time was spent first finding Nakata Sensei’s hotel and then finding mine, which were actually in humorously close proximity to one another (maybe ¾ of a mile). Upon arriving at my hotel, we discovered they had no knowledge of my reservation, but it worked out in the end (especially AFTER they took my safety deposit). I stayed at the Forest Makishi, which was a bit cheaper than a hotel since it was a condo and ran me about 200 dollars for the whole week. After eating at a local diner and talking story, we turned in for the night and said our goodbyes to Terry.

Monday, April 2

We started the morning off by visiting Shinzato Katsuhiko Sensei of Kishabajuku Shorin Ryu, who is Sensei Goodin’s teacher. We watched Shinzato Sensei teach Sensei Goodin and a group of visiting Slovenians. It was interesting to see Shinzato Sensei’s methodology in some ways start to approach ours, with of course some very dramatic differences (at this point, far more differences than similarities). Shinzato Sensei was a professor at the Ryukyu University and his English is very good.

Afterwards, we swung by to visit Nakamoto Masahiro Sensei, prolific karate historian/author and kobudo practitioner (and to my surprise, wearer-of-bright-Hawaiian shirts). He was very excited to see us and showed us around his museum before taking us out to lunch (and later, dinner). We ate at a small restaurant that for all appearances looked like a house and had true Okinawan home cooking. It’s probably the kind of place that not a lot of locals know about. At any rate, it was quite good. Afterwards, he took us by the haka (grave stones) of Matsumura “Bushi” Sokon, Hanashiro Chomo, and Itosu Anko. Unfortunately, he informed us that not only was Chibana’s house sold, but his haka was sold as well. He said Chibana’s daughter was staying with her in-laws, so when Chibana’s son-in-law decided that as a Christian, he did not care to have a haka around, she could not object. Chibana Sensei’s remains are presumably interred on church grounds somewhere. Nakamoto Sensei said the people of Tori Hori were organizing a memorial for Toudi Sakugawa and for Chibana Sensei, and he was playing a part in the process. He felt especially that since Chibana Sensei’s haka and house are now gone, it would be a great shame if there was nothing physical to remember him by. 2009 will mark the 50th anniversary of Chibana Sensei passing away. We then swung by a used bookstore, where I bought Nakamoto Sensei’s book (and had him autograph it, which he got a kick out of) and Sensei Goodin found himself a pretty old book which mentioned karate. For dinner, we ate at a place that Nakamoto Sensei’s relative worked at, and included multiple courses that I easily lost track of. We had interesting things like umi budo (sea grapes… a type of seaweed) and ikasumi (squid ink mixed with rice). Quite tasty, actually.

It was quite interesting to hear many of the stories Nakamoto Sensei had to tell, such as his speculation that Chibana Chosin’s father was probably a martial artist, even if he wasn’t a famous one. He based this on the assertion that most all sakeya were martial artists, and they usually had to defend themselves walking home from the market. As the sake business was quite profitable, they had a lot of money to carry, and Chibana Sensei’s father was a leader in the business. During the rule of the Okinawa king, the Sakiyama area was the only place where sake was allowed to be made in honor of their efforts during the Japanese invasion (I need to confirm this). After the annexation of Okinawa and the king was deposed, the restriction was no longer in place, so it is surmised that the Chibana family entered the sake business at this point. At any rate, they ran quite the profitable business. Nakamoto Sensei remarked that on occasion, all the fighters (and bodyguards) in Torihori would come together and have a big fight without any referees or rules. As Terry mentions on his site, there is still some ambiguity regarding the relationship between Chibana-Tawada-Itosu. It is consistently heard that Chibana Sensei’s older sister married Tawada’s eldest son. This time, Nakamoto Sensei clearly said that Tawada’s daughter married Itosu’s eldest son. Regardless, the relationship meant Chibana Sensei was privy to a deeper level of Itosu’s and Tawada’s karate than other regular students of his.

When speaking about how Okinawans cared for their dead, he mentioned that it was the daughter-in-law’s duty to clean the bones (senkotsu) for a number of years after the body has decayed, which then allowed the person to ascend into heaven. Of course, this means you must always be nice to your daughter-in-law, because then she can pay you back by not taking care of your remains after you have departed! The remains are interred in a ceremonial jar and the ink they use to write the names on them is indelible, the same kind that the yakuza use for their tattoos. He mentioned that in this way, oftentimes the most reliable family tree records for old families would be found in the haka.

Another interesting bit of information turned up after Nakamoto Sensei showed us several old sai. These sai all had large bumps where the crosspieces met with the handle. He explained that in the old days, the way they made them resulted in a bulge in the intersection, which was also useful in order to stop blades or other objects caught by the sai. He was amused by people decrying cheaply manufactured sai with bulges where the crosspieces intersect. He stated sai originally had bulges there, although they were a little different. Of course, cheap manufactured sai with bulges are probably worse than well-made, modern “traditional” sai that do not have them. All the same, I had not heard that theory before and found it interesting. After spending the vast majority of the day with Nakamoto Sensei, we headed back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped by where Chibana’s old house used to be, which was a little bit of a letdown since I was interested in seeing it. After getting back, I planned to go out for a wild night on the town, but I just went to bed instead…

To be continued in part 2