Reflections on a recent trip to Okinawa

Karate is a curious thing. You can do a sequence of movements for years, seeing them so clearly, painting over any gaps with your own ideas to dispel self-doubt in your understanding, and then a teacher reveals them in a different light resulting in a paradigm shift spiralling you upwards.

Once again my recent trip to Okinawa has left me with much to contemplate in my training.

I am filled with gratitude for the generosity of my teacher Higa Kiyohiko, his support and encouragement leads me deeper to the more subtle lessons of Ryukyuan bujutsu. When I look back over my journey of the past thirty years, there have been many adventures, ups and downs, but always my time with Higa is uplifting and challenging, thought provoking and enlightening.

I already have one family here, but there I feel lucky to be part of another, gaining two more brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.

This trip brought introductions to others which have richly benefited my documenting of Hanashiro Chomo’s karate for the forthcoming book too. Nor will I forget meeting senior sensei from the Zen Okinawa Karate & Kobujustu Remnei, a group of ‘old-type’ masters who have kindly invited me closer into the fold of their world.

The trip was underpinned by a certain melancholic vibe at times; bordering on frustration there is a sense of fading hope to a future where the old-school teachings are facing the reality of slipping beyond obscurity into non-existence. The eyes of the old masters of less known styles on the island, weathered and wise, quietly hope of younger talent to pass their legacies on to, but there are few taking up the torch. Is this a lack of willing or simply unawareness of the opportunity on their doorstep?

This issue is not a new one. There are many past masters of Okinawan karate who’s sons and descendants expressed no interest in continuing a family style forward. Some today perhaps mildly regret this but are unaware the door is still ajar.

The traditions of the Bugeikan, both the family system and those of other styles such as Tachimura, Yamane and Hanashiro are fortunate to benefit from an unbroken line of five generations. And the next one is currently enjoying running around the dojo in toddler form.

Unexpectedly the visit was concluded with the presentation of a certificate for ‘kancho’ in recognition of my efforts in training and promoting the teachings of Ryukyuan Bujutsu outside of Okinawa. I am deeply honoured to have received this acknowledgement and my heartfelt intention is to succeed in bringing Bugeikan out to the world.

This year is a big one for Okinawan Karate as a whole. Those of us teaching the various expressions of Syuri-ti, Naha-te, Shorin ryu, Uechi ryu and kobudo are standing on the threshold of a new period of growth and interest in the art. My hope here in UK and Europe is that we can collaborate and strengthen our position in an ocean of mediocre disciplines, so as to push forward and bring true Okinawan bujutsu to the fore.

When I met with Miyagi Masakazu sensei of Honshin ryu recently, he presented a journal of photographs displaying a series of medical X-rays revealing the excellent condition of his bones and joints as well as youthful depictions of strength.  It is hard to envision that the images I saw of a young man with a honed and powerful physique were that of the gentile eighty four year old sitting opposite. Other teachers, including Chibana sensei, Isyado and Shimabuko expressed similar physiques and I could present a catalogue of former karate exponents with the same. This reminds us of the importance of developing our minds and bodies, beyond mere fighting technique, to strive to peak performance.

In this vein I applaud the endeavours of Garry Lever sensei of Goju ryu, for reigniting something of the ‘old way’ and blazing a trail for others to follow. His fierce determination is a source of inspiration to us all. My personal opinion is that here in the UK we have the foundations of a tremendously strong movement in Okinawan Karate and should explore ways of taking this forward collectively.

Following the London Okinawa Day festival this June I am extending a warm invite to those of the UK Okinawan Karate and Kobudo world to come together and exchange ideas in a friendly meeting. I will contact you all individually for this soon.