The Way to Japan

Most of us cast ourselves as heroes in our life stories. To achieve this exalted status usually requires us to ignore some inconvenient truths and put a spin on others.

I usually present my decision to test for my 6th degree black belt in Japan like this: Sakamoto-Sensei had just finished an embukai (demonstration) where he displayed his mastery of technique. Following this, he gave two of his shihan in Japan long-overdue promotions to sixth dan. Then he e-mailed me and asked if I wanted to make a request for “special promotion.”

Following the examination in October, 2007, we took a road trip to see the bridges of Amakusa. From right: Jun Suzuki, the writer, Ken Sakamoto, Kazutaka Okashita and Peter Zehr.

But I didn’t want to be “given” my belt. Instead I insisted that I should do a physical test to prove my worthiness.

It makes for a good story but the truth is more mundane.

I would have gladly accepted my promotion if it had been clearly offered to me. I had been doing karate a long time and felt I deserved it. Other people were getting high ranks; why couldn’t I have one, too?

I was puzzled by the instruction that I should make a request for special promotion. I didn’t understand what Sakamoto-Sensei wanted. If he thought I was deserving, why didn’t he just give me the belt? Did I need to beg?

My irritation turned to anger and I sent an e-mail saying that I rejected the idea of asking for promotion.  I requested permission to go to Kumamoto for a physical test, to demonstrate my technique. Sakamoto-Sensei called my bluff and a date was set for a year later, in October 2007.

Pride goeth before the fall trip.

Way Too Hard

I elected to wait a full year before testing after I received the 6th dan criteria from Sakamoto-Sensei. The requirements included an essay on the technical theory of Ryusei karate, writing the Japanese  characters used for Showa and performing all kata from Seisan to Ryushan, and the Nage-no-Kata bunkai. I was also required to learn a new kata: Tensho.

The kata was not the Tensho of Goju-Ryu. The more elaborate, flowing version that Sakamoto-Sensei does is based on the Tensho that O-Sensei performed, learned from his teacher Higaonna Kanyro (Goju-Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi’s sensei as well). Apparently Sakamoto-Sensei also has a video of O-Sensei performing this kata.

The first time I saw Sakamoto-Sensei peform Tensho was at a demonstration in Toronto, in 2000.

I decided it would take at least a full year to learn a new kata. But that begged the question how would I learn it? The only person who could teach it was Sakamoto-Sensei. And he was in Japan.

I sheepishly e-mailed Sakamoto-Sensei with the problem. He replied that the koryu (old style) kata could not be taught. You had to learn them on your own.

I thought I understood. But usually this traditional model of learning requires the student to be geographically close to his master, so he can at least spy a performance.

The only option I had was to gather all my Ryusei DVDs with demonstrations by Sakamoto-Sensei and scour them for Tensho. Eventally I found four different executions. Not only was the transferred video footage difficult to make out, each one of the performances was substantially different.

After repeated viewings, I pieced together a basic pattern, mixing and matching the parts I liked best. To practise the moves, I related them to ones I knew in other kata.

Here I am stumbling around like a drunken monkey,
trying to learn Tensho.

In performing Tensho, I decided the key was to have the correct breathing and state of mind. Although the outer body had to be kept softer and suppler than usual, the concentration in the tanden should be just as intense as Sanchin. And the mind had to be calm, free of distracting thoughts, so the moves would flow.Easier said than done. Even after months of working on Tensho, I wasn’t sure if I had a kata or an unsightly hodgepodge.

The Way Down

After choosing a date for my exam, I trained with great enthusiasm at first. My technique felt good and I imagined myself performing with great distinction in front of Sakamoto-Sensei. But after a couple of months, doubts and frustration began to creep in.
My work got busy, my family demanded attention and I could not find the time to train as much as I wanted. I began to feel foolish about issuing my challenge. Not only was it rude but there was a good chance that I would go to Japan and make a fool of myself.

Without a strong spirit, your strength, experience and intention crumble into nothing. The only way is down. It makes you want to scream.

The situation brought on depression, something that bothers me now and then. My mood and energy level plunged, and I was plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. Although my training did not stop, the number of hours devoted to it dwindled. My workouts were listless and unfocused.

Occasionally the fog would be pierced by flames of anger. I’d imagine sparring at my exam and smashing my opponent down.  

Disgusted with myself and panicked about what was coming, I would decide to double my hours of practice. I’d start a workout well, but my morale was so weak that I would quit after a few minutes, often in the middle of a kata.

The Better Way

In the spring I discovered my training rhythm again. I decided that frequency of practice more important than duration. I couldn’t skip a day and hope to make it up later.

No matter how busy I was, there were always small opportunities for training. I’d divide up my waking time into half-hour segments and decide where I could steal 30 minutes. Once I got into this habit, I expanded my workouts to three sessions a day. If work became lighter, I’d lengthen my training time.

Training outside year-round in Canada poses special
challenges, particularly in winter.

In the mornings, I’d get up around 5 a.m. and start with 30 minutes of seated meditation, concentrating on my breathing. Then I would go to the backyard and and do variations on shime no kata, adapted qigong exercises and other internal maneuvers. I’d peform Sanchin and then move to Tensho and other kata.

I found that starting the day with a soft, internal workout better suited the capabilities of my 50-year-old body. Later I might do more vigorous, calisthenic workouts. When I trained at a proper dojo, I’d look for partners to practice Nage-no Kata.

It was difficult at first to train this much. Then it became natural to do so and soon I’d feel something was wrong if I missed a workout. I could feel the level of my technique rise.

When depression returned, I deliberately cut my training time short. As long as I did something, I learned to be satisfied. I knew that if I was patient the tide would change.

Under the Milky Way

Sometimes as I meditated in the morning, I would find my body hunched over, with fists pressed into the backs of my folded legs, flooded by strong emotion or unwanted thoughts. I would force my back to straighten, place my cupped hands back in my lap and concentrate on my breathing again. On these days, 30 minutes of meditation went on forever.

Occasionally, I’d feel a great calm come over me. My mind would still and I had a sensation of floating free. Then the 30 minutes would pass in an instant.

While I didn’t exactly look like this training under the moon, I presented an odd spectacle to my neighbors.

I also achieved a few periods of true calm in my training. I worked out one early morning under a full moon. Sometimes my training would take me to the backyard late at night, and then before sunrise the next day, before work. My neighbours must have wondered if I was cracking up. My wife was unhappy with me for killing our lawn.

On this occasion, the entire landscape was flooded with soft moonlight, illuminating everything if it were mid-day – from the waving branches of the towering poplar trees to the cat slinking through our garden for prey. My mind was light and floating, and my technique flowed with ease. No clouds obscured the view.

Often our state of mind colours how we see. Truth can appear one way today and then different tomorrow.

The Write Way

I kept putting off writing Showa sentences in Japanese calligraphy, filled with dread at the prospect. Sakamoto-Sensei had sent me a mailing tube containing four-foot-long sheets of hanshi (thin calligraphy paper) to  practise my writing. He also included a sample of Showa rendered by him in beautiful, cursive characters. His father is a shodo (art of calligraphy) expert and Sakamoto-Sensei follows in his footsteps.

I’m sure he sent his writing as inspiration, but I found it intimidating. My English handwriting looks like a dog’s breakfast. So how horrible would my Japanese calligraphy be?

Here is the copy of Showa that I wrote. Can you see the typo?

My poor Japanese was another issue. Since 1977, I have made many attempts to study Japanese. I would make a bit of progress, stop for one reason or other, and then pick it up again much later, forced to start from scratch. Like Sisyphus, I am doomed to push the boulder up the hill forever.

A couple of months before my departure, I realized I had better get started if I wanted to complete the task. First I had to count the number of strokes in each kanji (Chinese-based writing character), so I could look them up in a Japanese dictionary and see the stroke order. But when I looked again at Sakamoto-Sensei’s calligraphy, I realized that his cursive style made it impossible to discern where one stroke ended and the other began. So I had to do an Internet search to find the kanji for Showa. In a small notebook, I practised each character over and over again until I could approximate what appears in the dictionary.

A couple of days before boarding the plane, I prepared to write out Showa on one of the hanshi. Then a horrible thought occurred to me. I had been doing the calligraphy a small scale, in the notebook. What if actually writing in large script on the hanshi with a big brush were a much more difficult task? As well, I only had three hanshi. If I flubbed more than three times, I would run out of paper, with no way to get more.

I cursed myself for leaving things so late as I went out to buy a proper brush and ink from an art supply store. In my basement, I unrolled a long sheet of the paper on the floor, with weights on the ends to stop curling. Wielding the unfamiliar brush, I began writing the characters until I botched one halfway through. I couldn’t just hit a delete key and do it over. The sheet was ruined

On my second attempt I managed to finish. I thought I’d leave well enough alone. I was proud to have completed the task but aware of how bad the writing would look to a native Japanese.

I decided that I would bring the calligraphy with me but wouldn’t hand it over unless asked for it.

No Way Back

I travelled to Japan on October 6 with Peter Zehr, the head of the Grey-Bruce Ryusei karate dojo. Peter was visiting Japan for his first time and would test for his fifth dan. At the Fukuoka airport we were greeted by Sakamoto-Sensei and Hiroyuki Nishizaka, a retired policeman, who drove us to Kumamoto City. The pounding evening heat was like a hot summer day in Canada.

Here I am kneeling with the Nishizaka family in their living room. Mr. Nishizaka, his wife, Hatsumi, and daughter, Tamami, were kind and generous hosts.

We stayed at the lovely, two-story Nishizaka homeNishizaka-san, his wife, Hastumi-san,and daughter, Tamami-san, showed us wonderful hospitality, accepting us into the middle of their family life, complete with visits from the two sons, Tsuyoshi and Takeshi, their daughter-in-law and young, ball-of-fire grandson. I couldn’t think of a nicer way to start our visit.

The eldest Nishizaka son, Tsuyoshi, is a tough Kyokushinkai fighter.

As much as I enjoyed being back in Japan, I also felt oddly disconnected. At first I put this down to jet lag or apprehension about the test. But the feeling came to head on our third night, after a party thrown for us at the Sakamoto apartment.

I knew we were just around the corner from the Chito-Ryu Sohombu. So when festivities ended, I asked to be driven by, so Peter Zehr could see the dojo. As I stared at the outside of the empty, darkened building, I felt strange and bleak. It was the first time I had visited Kumamoto and not trained there or paid my respects to the Chitose family.

The younger Nishizaka son, Takeshi, and Noriko Sakamoto at our farewell party in Kumamoto.

I realized that I was chasing phantoms. Some think of the way as a road or path. I see it more as a river, constantly flowing forward. You cannot fight the current to go back.

As we drove away, I looked at the sports fields that stretch away from the bottom of the dojo’s street. I recalled running along the high embankments of the flooded rice paddies once there instead, past sunning snakes, fish dodging among rice stocks and small farmers wearing broad-brimmed hats. I would make my way through narrow backstreets to the stairs the led me past terraced graveyards and charge up the steep paths to the top of Tatsuda mountain.I smiled and looked forward to a final cup of sake at the Nishizakas’.

The United Way

Almost every evening in Kumamoto was marked by another celebration held in our honour, either at someone’s home or in a restaurant. The night after our arrival, the Nishizakas threw a welcome party for us, at low formal tables on the tatami mats.

We enjoyed a glorious selection of traditional Japanese foods. I pointed out to Peter a local delicacy I loved – basashi, or raw horsemeat, served with soy and ginger sauce. He tried the meat and allowed that it wasn’t his “favourite.”

Our welcome party at the Nishizaka home. From left: Sakamoto-Sensei, Peter Zehr, Kazumi Sakai, Hiroyuki Nishizaka and Kenjiro Takagi.

That night, Sakamoto-Sensei asked for my calligraphy. I sighed, retrieved the scroll and then tried to slide beneath the low table. He pondered my writing for a while and then shook my hand. I was so surprised that I didn’t feel too bad when he pointed out that I had made one small “typo.”

On the third night, we went to Sakamoto-Sensei’s apartment, where his wife, Reiko, joined by daughters Noriko and Mika, presided over a pot of bubbling odon and other fine fare. Okashita-Sensei and his senior student Suzuki-san added themselves to the group of Ryusei instructors, having flown down from Tokyo to help with our grading. While honoured I felt guilty for making so many people go to so much trouble and expense.

Reiko Sakamoto provided a wonderful feast for us on our third night.

Long conversations about karate, family and country were fuelled by the massive consumption of alchohol. In the morning, I’d meet Nishizaka-san at the breakfast table and one of us would say, “Futsukayoi,” which meant we had a whopping hangover. The other would nod.

His Way Alone

One morning Nishizaka-san drove us to one of my favourite places , the Reigan Cave. Japan’s most-famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, spent his final years here (splitting his time between the cave and being a guest of the Hosokawa clan).The drive from Kumamoto is spectacular, along winding mountain roads with breathtaking views of plunging green slopes and terraced orchards.

Peter Zehr sits in Reigan Cave, where Miyamoto Musashi spent his final days meditating and writing his great tome of fighting strategy, The Book of Five Rings.

As we paid to enter the shrine, we were splattered with rain, making the stone steps leading to the cave slick. Even so, I was glad; it meant we would have the cave to ourselves.

From its height the cave commands a sweeping view, though more obscured by the growth of trees than I remembered. I wondered at the strength of a man at the end of his life meditating here, with minimal protection from the elements, and the extremes of hot and cold.

On the way to the cave, you pass a slope with 500 Buddha, some damaged by weather and time.

When close to death, Musashi decided to meet his end alone in the cave, refusing medical aid. What a bleak, terrible decision, I thought, contemplating Reigan’s dark recesses, even for a man of his stubborn nature. Fortunately, the Hosokawa retainers had more sense. A young disciple, Yoriyuki, carried Musashi down from the cave on his back, despite the older man’s protestations. The legendary swordsman died in Chiba Castle, at age 61, on May 19, 1645.

I thought what an unusual hero for Japan, someone who even came to embody the national spirit. In a country that prizes social relationships, family, belonging to a group, knowing one’s place and tradition, Musashi was the ultimate outsider. As a swordsman he was self-taught, without lineage. Prizing his independence, he purposely remained a ronin (masterless samurai), refusing to become the retainer of a daimyo (lord), as most warriors in his position aspired to do. He tested his technique and spirit in match after match, and against the deprivations of life lived in the wild. Musashi never married and did not start his own family.

His amazing talent cut across barriers, defying classification, so he also became an accomplished painter, sculptor and man of letters. All his pursuits were connected by his overwhelming drive to find the transcendent spirit of the way.

A Musashi self-portrait (c. 1640).

In the spirit of doing things his way, Musashi wrote in “The Way of Walking Alone,” his last testament for his disciples, that one should “Respect the gods and buddhas, but do not rely on them.”

I think a similar sentiment should hold true for karateka. You should respect your teachers and organization but do not rely on them. A master such as Tsuyoshi Chitose revered his instructors but that did not stop him from adapting, changing and synthesizing their technique as he saw fit, creating his own unique martial way. Surely to honour such pioneering spirits, senior practitioners must learn to think and seek for themselves?

To merely belong to an organization and do what is expected of you is the safe but unproductive approach. A leader who is confident in his abilities and decisions will value the contributions of people striving to find their own way. A leader without this self-assurance will avoid independent thinkers and demand that everyone toe the line.

A karate organization only has value in how it helps its members learn their art. The moment that it becomes bloated, existing for its own sake or primarily as a way of raising cash, then it should be overhauled or discarded.

Places of the Way

In the two days before our test, Peter and I trained at dojo secured through the police connections of Nishizaka-san.  On Monday, we went to the Kotokukai dojo, in a tall building, managed by an ex-police colleague, Katsumasa Sakamoto-Sensei.
With a thick neck and powerful grip, Sakamoto-Sensei shook our hands and revealed that he had been a judo champion, who had great respect for Canadian fighting spirit. Four decades ago he had lost a match to Doug Rogers, the Canadian who won the judo silver medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Peter Zehr and I stand in the dojo of a Kumamoto police station, practising for our exam.

On Tuesday, Nishizaka-san took us to a Kumamoto police station, to use its dojo. He explained that every station has its own dojo, underlying the importance of the martial arts is to Japanese law enforcement.

The dojo was on the third floor. Although we threw open windows on both sides of the space – inviting curious looks from office ladies across the way – the blazing 34° C temperature turned the workout into a sauna.

The evidence of the karate men, judo men and kendo fencers using the space was everywhere, from the hanging sweat-stained uniforms to the proudly displayed trophies. Occasionally tough-looking policemen would come to the door and stare, as if they wouldn’t mind “comparing techniques” with us.

I had the impression that the martial spirit in this well-used dojo ran high. These policemen were probably like Peter Zehr, himself an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer, who valued practical, effective technique because of their line of work. I like this attitude. I am left cold when martial arts become just exercise, or a method of body awareness, with techniques cut off from their real applications.

A dojo should be devoted to serious training. Given the choice between thinking about and doing karate, you should always choose the latter. Many of us waste our time talking when we should be training. Or writing when we should be working out. Sigh.

Any Way You Can

The morning of the test was overcast and raining but still very hot. After breakfast, we returned to the Kotokukai dojo, with its broad wooden floor, half covered by mats. Peter and I were joined there by Sakamoto-Sensei, as well as the other senior Ryusei instructors. The exam would be woven into an embukai, or a special demonstration of technique.

Everyone involved in the exam and embukai. Top, from left: Peter Zehr, the writer, Sakamoto-Sensei, Nishizaka-san. Bottom: Sakai-Sensei, Okashita-Sensei and Suzuki-san.

We spent the session practising for the afternoon’s embukai. Late in the morning, Okashita-Sensei asked if I wanted to run through Nage-no-Kata. Before coming to Japan, Sakamoto-Sensei had suggested that I use Peter Zehr as my bunkai partner. I replied that I would prefer Japanese attackers, so I wouldn’t get any “help.”

I had hoped to do the techniques cold, without any prior practice with the attackers. But I did the run-through as requested, and felt my confidence level rise.

After lunch, the embukai began. The opening ceremony comprised performances of karate and kobudo kata, including Ryushan by Okashita-Sensei, Shihohai by Sakai-Sensei, Shiho no Kon by Suzuki-san. After a kai (oar) kata performed by Nishizaka-san, I got up to do the one I had learned from Inomoto-Sensei almost 30 years earlier, Tsuken Sunakake. The oar was bulkier and heavier than I was used to, throwing my technique and timing off. Still, I knew that if I had trained myself thoroughly enough, I could have done the kata well even if someone handed me a coat stand.

Peter Zehr peforms Sanshiryu and I do Seisan.

Next we were required to do the kata portion of our test, running through all the forms consecutively, from Seisan to Ryushan. Peter went first. As I watched, a strange calm overcame me. I could feel my heart beat very slowly but with a powerful surge.

After Peter’s committed performance, it was my turn. I have always found it difficult to do kata in front of other people. I can feel their eyes on me and it disrupts my concentration. By contrast, kumite is easy because you have to keep your focus on your opponent if you want to avoid getting hit.

Sakai-Sensei and Nishizaka-san demonstrate Nage-no-Kata.

As I walked to the spot in front of the examiner’s table, I still felt strangely relaxed. I launched into Seisan, a kata I love, followed by Niseishi, both the closed- and open-hand version, then Bassai and Chinto. After this, my breathing started to get away from me and I was sweating profusely in the heat, so I stopped for a few moments to wipe my brow with a hand-cloth and catch my breath. I would have to do this a few more times  before I finished.

Technically, my kata performance had good and bad points, but I felt happy that my spirit didn’t flag anywhere.

Next we moved to bunkai. Since there were no bunkai listed for Peter Zehr’s 5th dan exam, I asked if he could demonstrate Henshuho. He defended successfully against four different attackers, doing each move twice, once slowly and then with speed.

Okashita-Sensei performs his Tensho.

Then it was my turn to do Nage-no-Kata. I asked if I should do each movement twice too. Sakamoto-Sensei said no. Since this was part of my exam, I would have only one chance to make each technique work.

Sakai-Sensei did the first five high attacks with a standard oizuku. For the next five, I asked Okashita-Sensei to use chudan gyaku-zuk. Then I had Nishizaka-san do the first three first three low attacks with the standard shiko-zuki. Finally I defended against two front kicks, adapting the techniques to work. For many of the moves, I changed the standard finishing techniques to ones I had been experimenting with.

Sakamoto-Sensei does Unsu.

In every case, I made the attacker fall. Sometimes it was a matter of adequate technique, but in other cases I had to muscle through the moves. I still find numbers two, five and 11 difficult to do consistently well.

Later, when Sakai-Sensei and Nishizaka-san put on a demonstration of Japan’s Nage-no-Kata, I was interested to see that they performed it like a version of Chinese push hands, relying on the redirection of energy to make the techniques work.

For the final part of my test, I had to demonstrate Tensho. I made it through, though I stumbled a bit through the middle part. Sakai-Sensei and Okashita-Sensei then demonstrated their versions of Tensho, which they had to learn on their own, too. I noted with interest their different approaches.

At the end of the testing, Sakamoto-Sensei did a demonstration of Unsu, another koryu kata. Then he broke boards with incredibly focused slashes and stabs of his fingertips. Last fall, Ryusei Karate in Japan did an embukai with the 1,000-year-old Jigen-Ryu school of swordsmanship, in Tokyo. Impressed by their technique, Sakamoto-Sensei appears to be forging his hands into swords.

When the exam was finished, we had a long evening of celebration at a local yakitori restaurant.

Bridges to the Way

On the day after the test, we went as a group in two cars to see the bridges of Amakusa. The five bridges spanning high above the sea, connecting the area’s main islands, provide spectacular views of the jagged coastline, bobbing fishing boats and small outer islands floating peacefully in the distance.

In Amakusa, we stayed at Kameya Hotel on the west coast to enjoy hot spring baths and spectacular private dining.

Although I sat in the front of the car, with Nishizaka-san driving, and had the best view, my mind kept returning to the exam. I could see that I needed technical improvements in all areas, from kobudo to karate kata to the bunkai. Besides specific technical flaws in the kata, Sakamoto-Sensei pointed out the importance of breath control, especially in the upper kata.

Still I felt good about my effort in the exam. I also didn’t think the actual outcome had a lot of meaning. I understand that this sounds obnoxious, like the rich guy who tells you that money doesn’t matter, since I did pass. But what do dan rankings mean in North Amereica? Wherever you look there are seventh dans, eighth dans, ninth dans, 10th dans and even higher, including many Canadian and American “experts” who have founded their own styles and call themselves “Soke.” There are no universal standards in karate, only personal ones.

Padding the halls of the resort in myyukata, I probably gave the Japanese guests lasting nightmares.

My greatest ongoing challenge is to keep a properly focused mind. As I perform, I find it difficult to stop the mental chatter – unwanted images and thoughts that undermine my effort. While my spirit was fine during the exam, my mind was still erratic, like a ship slipped from its mooring.

I aspire to have a consistently calm and concentrated mind, with reactions coming from a deeper level. By this standard I am a long way from “passing.”

View from on bathes on the resort’s upper floor.

In modern society we tend to lead abstract lives. Our bodies are one place and our minds somewhere else. In my job I spend endless hours in front of a computer, with my thoughts flung over the cyberverse and little awareness of my immediate surroundings. My karate practice is one of the few occasions where I try to remain entirely focused in the here and now.

Somehow you have to find a way to achieve the same awareness in both your training and normal life.

Of course, the difficulty in doing this was underlined by my current situation: Here I was passing through one of the most beautiful places in Kyushu, something that existed, and I was lost in thoughts about the previous day, something that had vanished.

The Gentle Way

After an emotional farewell with the Nishizakas on Saturday morning, we drove to Inomoto-Sensei’s dojo in Yayamachi, where we had arranged to meet James Hatch, a friend and fellow Higashi dojo member from Toronto now living in Japan.

James was inside the spacious dojo, sweeping the floor, and Inomoto-Sensei greeted us outside, with an ear-to-ear grin. Sakamoto-Sensei and he had a long, respectful conversation. Then he and Nishizaka-san drove off, with Peter and I bowing deeply in appreciation for all their hospitality.

Peter Zehr, Inomoto-Sensei and James Hatch pose in Inomoto’s dojo. Now recovered from a stroke, Inomoto-Sensei is finally wearing his gi again.

I was happy to see Inomoto-Sensei in such good health and spirits. Threeyears ago, he suffereed a debilitating stroke. As he watched James practise a kata, he suddenly keeled over. At the hospital, Inomoto-Sensei was laid out in a bed, blind and paralyzed on one side of his body. James said in Japanese, “I didn’t know my kata was so bad.” One side of Inomoto-Sensei’s mouth curled in a smile.  

When Inomoto-Sensei became well enough to teach again, he would wear only gi pants with a shirt. He refused to put on his gi top and belt while he couldn’t properly demonstrate technique. The first time he appeared in a full gi and taught the whole class, his students broke into spontaneous applause.

Not only can Inomoto-Sensei perform bunkai for every kata technique, he can show multiple interpretations for each part of a move.

Nearly 70 , Inomoto-Sensei is fit, full of benevolent good humour and an amazing treasure trove of technical and historical knowledge about the martial arts in general and Chito-Ryu karate in particular.

On Saturdays, he opens his dojo open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., letting students come in on their own time to practise karate, kobudo and iaido. Inomoto-Sensei provides correction and advice as needed.

Inomoto-Sensei asked to see our kata. I had been experimenting with Bassai and showed him this. Inomoto-Sensei said he found it “strange” and “embarrassing” (hazukashii). Immediately I switched back to standard Chito-Ryu versions of kata and he seemed happier with these.

I find it interesting to contemplate the different personalities and approaches of the karate seniors I admire: Higashi-Sensei, Sakamoto-Sensei and  Inomoto-Sensei. Each man’s karate is different, and to some eyes, irreconcilably different. But such differences tend to disappear when viewed from the vantage of many years of training. Their spirit, generosity and dedication to a lifetime pursuit of improvement are what I most admire.

Of course, they’re also united in the belief that I could do better.

In his teaching, Inomoto-Sensei stresses technique should be shizen (natural) and kantan (easy). When applying shime/shibori, don’t use an extreme muscle contraction; a light one will do. All joints must be kept soft and supple, so your body moves like a threaded whip.

After finishing at 5 p.m., James, Peter, Inomoto-Sensei and I sat down on the dojo floor and talked for two or three hours, the night closing around us. James revealed that when we were done, Inomoto-Sensei would go upstairs to his home and make detailed notes about our meeting. Apparently he has kept a meticulous record of his training and research that goes back to his earliest days with O-Sensei.

I urged Inomoto-Sensei to write a book to record what he knew. But he smiled and said that true transmission of a martial came directly from the heart, so was done orally. Indeed, the name of Inomoto-Sensei’s style, Jikishin-Ryu means “straight lineage” school, as in straight from the heart, or straight from the masters he had studied under in karate, kobudo and iaido.

The Way Home

The last few days of our trip were spent at James and Sonoko Hatch’s apartment, with their daughter, Nanami, and son, Aodhan. It was a wonderful way to end the trip and prepare for the journey back. Not only were we able to see Fukuoka, the Hatches’ easygoing hospitality made us feel quite at home and relaxed.

James is a senior teacher at Fukuoka International School, a private school with students from many countries. Although James moved to Japan for the job, he was also motivated by the chance to further his martial arts training. Although two hours away from Inomoto-Sensei, he goes there for karate, kobudo and iaido at least once a month, and then lives in the dojo for a couple of weeks in the summer. 

One night the Hatches took us to best noodle restaurant in Fukuoka. From left: James Hatch, Nanami, Sonoko and Aodhan.

Every day before his school classes begin, he trains by himself in the gymnasium. After sweeping floor, he kneels and meditates for 15 to 20 minutes, before launching into a workout. We trained twice with James and had an enjoyable exchange of techniques and ideas. But most of all I liked just spending time with the Hatch family, without a set schedule to follow.

I think the greatest pleasure of travel is how it takes you out of yourself. In our daily lives at home, we stop noticing what’s around us and get buried in our thoughts and feelings. We walk like ghosts through our own lives.

Nanami and Aodhan feed pigeons at a mountaintop shrine.

One morning, James, Sonoko, Aodhan, Peter and I decided to go for a walk by the broad river near the apartment. On this warm autumn Sunday, the path by the water was travelled by ordinary Japanese at their leisure. We passed a father walking beside his young daughter, who wobbled on a unicycle. Intrepid fisherman cast their lines into the current. Young joggers swept by us, power walkers smiled as they approached and bicyclists bobbed their heads politely.

Completely calm, I could feel the life of the city whirling about us as we finally turned around to go back. We walked in the same direction as the river current. My thoughts moved with the water and its fluid course through the manmade structures of Fukuoka.

The river flowed under the sentry watch of buildings, past the city limit to join the sea whose free horizons stretched forever.

—Peter Giffen
Barrie Ryusei Karate