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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Okinawan Karate: A Word of Warning

I finally made my first pilgrimage to Okinawa (沖縄) the holy land of Karate, a place that seams to be worlds apart from main land Japan. Thanks to the incredible hospitality of a good friend’s younger brother I was able to explore many parts of Okinawa in a very short time. We got a taste of hiking through the mountains, eating at Shaky’s, Goya Chinpuru (ゴーヤ・チャンプルー), surfing, snorkeling and of course Karate.

Okinawa is a beautiful island that felt more like South East Asia than Japan to me. Though heavily influenced by Japanese culture Okinawa has its own distinct national identity. Something you will be quickly reminded of if you ever call an Okinawa person Japanese. Calling an Okinawan Japanese or Nihonjin (日本人) seamed to be as offensive as it is when Japanese call non-Japanese Gaijin (外人) rather than Gaikoku Jin (外国人).

All of my adventures on this tropical island were amazing, though surfing was terrible hard. I found my self wishing I had been strapped to a snow board instead. However with the words ganbatte (頑張って) and salt water ringing through my ears I am determined to give surfing another go this summer. It can’t be any tougher to stand on that board than the Karate training I witnessed in Okinawa. The training that I hope to
one day be lucky enough to endure.

So let’s get to the good stuff the stuff you are here for Karate. Okinawa is a Mecca for any traditional Karate enthusiast. It is full of living legends, who live to be centurions and have hands of steel. I have had a long standing interest in one such man, though he is not a hundred yet he is not young by any means and he looks incredibly for his age. He is vibrant, strong and moves with impeccable precision.

This man is the notorious Shinjo Sensei of Uechi-ryu (上地流). He is a tough old-school Sensei who is known for his unorthodox training methods particularly his body hardening techniques. He hardens his students through an array of techniques and implements including sticks, boards, mikiware (巻藁) and his own bare hands, possibly the toughest of all of those listed above.

I came across Shinjo Sensei while researching body conditioning techniques for Karate after starting Kyokushin Karate in 2010.You can see example of his extreme training in Human Weapon episode 3 Karate. His training methods are fascinating to me. I feel I have learnt as much as I can through internet research and have been dying to try out his unorthodox training methods for quite some time now.

We called the Dojo on Monday afternoon and asked if we could join the class that evening. The woman who took the call seemed to be friendly and inviting but when we arrived at the Dojo things changed a little. We arrived early, class starts at 7:30 not 7:00 as stated on The children’s class was still on. Due to spring break it was fairly empty. Shinjo Sensei worked one on one with a young boy who took every slap and blow in stride while performing various Kata. We watched for a little but felt we maybe distracting, so we took a walk. There is a beautiful look out just around the corner from the Dojo past the large western style homes. It could be a nice place to rest your legs after class.

When we returned we came across the young boy as he was leaving class. We asked if Shinjo sensei was a nice guy. He told us yes but that he was very strict in the most serious of ways. My friends seemed tp become a little worried as neither has had much or any martial arts experience, though they are both athletic strong Irish men who would make brilliant Karate-ka if they ever took serious interest.

Finally we were greeted by Shinjo Sensei he asked us a few questions. His eyes were piercing and his demeanor was solid with a stern powerful voice. As my Japanese is still quite poor I could not understand much of the conversation that was had between my friend, and some times translator Derry, and Shinjo Sensei but it seemed that he was insistent we watch the class at least for the first time.

We were offered chairs and the three of us took a seat. The class commenced and every thing we saw was brutal from beginning to end. Students would perform Kata while being struck in the ribs, gluteus, stomach, legs and just about any where else you can imagine. At times a large stick was taken out to demonstrate just how a strike should feel. The students conditioned their arms and legs by striking each other over and over again.

I slowly began to get annoyed. I wanted in on the action. I am a terrible voyeur and am partial to kinesthetic learning. However the expressions on my friends faces showed that they were more than happy to just watch. I told Len, a world class Kayaker who has taken up surfing in Okinawa, that it could not hurt any more than hitting the reef. He didn’t seam to believe me.

The class finally came to and end after a  few rounds of Kumite and a board breaking demonstration. The whole way through Shinjo Sensei maintained a hard exterior, only smirking now and then after making a few stern jokes. After the class was all rapped up and the students were finished cleaning the Dojo he seemed to lighten up a bit. He told us about how young students would escape his Dojo once reaching junior high school to play basketball and about his up coming trip to Canada. As he will be making a stop in Vancouver I informed him that there are two hundred and fifty six sushi restaurants in Vancouver. “びっくりした” (Bikurishita) he replied, meaning surprised, with a look of shock on his face similar to that of my friends while watching his training methods.

His toughening exercises are so brutal that many never return. Including the many Military who walk through his doors, do to the large American military bases that seem to cover most of the island. I asked a white belt who was a member of the Air Force which was tougher the Air Force or Shinjo Sensei’s Dojo? He replied with this “The Dojo! The Air Force has rules. If there are any rules here I don’t understand them.” Sadly this lack of understanding may be why many of Shinjo Sensei’s prospective students never return and with that being said I do not recommend this club to beginners. This seams to be a club that only the most enthusiastic Karate-ka would have any chance at lasting.

After seeing the class I am still as enthusiastic as ever to get into his Dojo and train though I might need to work hard and prepare. Luckily my contract on the mainland will last until the summer of 2013 and there are a few very tough clubs here in Matsuyama (松山市), the largest city in Shikoku (四国) not the seedy park where Karate may have been birthed in Naha (那覇). I am still a little disappointed that I did not get to participate in the class but I now realize Shinjo Sensei was offering us a word of warning. He was politely asking that we know what we are getting into before we waste our time and his, haphazardly dropping in on a class or two before never returning as so many have before.

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