Living & Training on Okinawa
As a Karate student studying Uechi-Ryu on Okinawa I have written a two-part article dealing with my experiences there in 1975. I sincerely hope that it will give readers an insight into what living and training on Okinawa is really like.
For the first part I thought I would write something less technical than the usual Karate article. It is a combination of a brief description of my first few months on Okinawa and an outline of Okinawa and its customs. I hope it may also be of some assistance to other people who may be planning to spend some time here.
The second part of the article deals with the characteristics of the style, training methods and other aspects of Uechi-Ryu.
I would like to preface the article with thanks to the people of the Uechi-Ryu Association for the kindness and generosity they have shown me since my arrival.
My destination was the Uechi-Ryu Dojo (formally called Futenma, Shu-Bu-Kan – the House of Refinement of the Martial Arts) in Okinawa. Okinawa is the main island of the Ryukyu Archipelago, a group that stretches from Kyushu, Japan south to Taiwan in the East China Sea.
From Lime Street Station, Liverpool to Naha Airport, Okinawa (At present the return air-Fare by charter-flight is approx. £400) is a long way and by the time I arrived, via Bangkok and Hong Kong, I was very tired and probably suffering from jet-lag. However, the friendly Okinawan who invited me to share his taxi to Futenma and the local children who helped me find a hotel soon cheered me up.
The next morning I set off to find the dojo. I had an address but this wasn’t much help since I discovered that houses are numbered not by locality, but by the order in which they were built. Eventually with the help of a policeman I got to the right place.
Sensei Kanei Uechi lives above the dojo and I was a little nervous as I went up the stairs to knock at his door. He answered and I tried to explain with the use of a phrase book, who I was and what I wanted. He didn’t understand a word I said (perhaps my nasal Liverpool twang) but he was very courteous and kind and took me to the apartment of an American who trained at the dojo He didn’t speak Japanese either but knew a shopkeeper who did. We all went to see her and sorted things out. Uechi Sensei suggested I start at the dojo that afternoon.
The afternoon class was a big shock for me, I hadn’t been too long in Karate, but I thought that there would be some similarities between Uechi-Ryu and the Karate I had been practicing. This proved not to be the case. Even the basic blocks and kicks were unfamiliar. Fortunately the demands of the class didn’t give me much time to worry. Beginners are expected to join the class and do the best they can. Occasionally at first someone will show them the correct way of doing something but there is no rush and everything is relaxed. Likewise nothing special seemed to be expected of me and by the end of the first class I had forgotten my first idea of running down the road to a Goju-Ryu dojo, where training may have been more familiar.
Not speaking Japanese wasn’t a big problem in the class. Sensei Uechi is patient and used to showing by example and a couple of American students were able to answer my questions about when the dojo was open and fees etc. I was pleased to find that it is much cheaper to train in Okinawa than in Great Britain or the United States. Membership of the Uechi-Ryu Federation is £3 a year and monthly tuition fees are £6. This entitles you to train up to ten times a week — that is if you have the stamina and desire to do so.
Toward the end of the first class, Mr. Takamiyagi arrived. He is the secretary of the Uechi-Ryu Federation and fortunately is also an English teacher. It was a relief to talk to him without sign language, and he gave me some advice on how to find a place to live. Later in my stay, Mr. Takamiyagi proved to be a generous host, and contrastingly a hard taskmaster when teaching. I discovered there are two types of apartment available in the town. There is the western style, usually expensive (about £40 per month) and normally occupied by G.l’s from one of the many U.S. bases on Okinawa or (and often with) bar hostesses from the local bar district. The other type, Japanese style, are much cheaper (about £20 per month) but harder to find because they are normally not advertised. Luckily one of the students at the dojo knew of a place that was about to become vacant and I went with him to look at it. I managed to convince the Mama-san (landlady) that I wasn’t going to have wild Occidental parties and she agreed to my moving in. At a later date I discovered that it is possible to rent a Japanese style house in the country areas. They are available if you look carefully and even cheaper than my apartment and with much more room. The apartment has a tatami-floored room, a kitchen, shower and toilet. Tatami are made of woven straw mats fixed over a thick straw core. They always measure 3 foot by 6 foot and I have a six tatami room. In Japanese homes the tatami floor is used to sleep on and at night futons or soft mattresses are taken from storage cupboards and spread on the floor. No shoe-wearing steps are allowed on the floor. I bought myself a futon and a few zabutons (cushions) to sit on and the Mama-san provided a low table.
If the Editor decides there’s enough space (There is…..Editor.) I would like to quickly describe an ordinary Okinawan home. The practicality and subtleties of these homes seem to me to reflect the qualities that can be found in Uechi-Ryu Karate.
The houses with their red tile roofs are built within a hedged yard and raised slightly off the ground. The roof extends beyond the walls to form a porch. The walls which are closed at night with wooden shutters stand open during the day. The tatami-floored rooms can be made into larger or smaller units by sliding doors. Facing the front of the house and dividing it from the back is a storage wall containing a tokonoma or picture alcove with a hanging scroll, and most important of all, the butsudan which houses the ancestral shrine. A low table stands to one side against a wall and is put in place for eating. The yard will include a garden which often has a small pond surrounded by ornamental flowers and fruit trees. The flowers are grown for use on the butsudan or for special occasions. In the past, plants for medicinal purposes were grown there also. Facing the entranceway to the house or on the roof is a statue of a lion-like animal called a shi-shi placed there to repel evil. Traditionally it is made by the person who made the tiled roof, using leftover mortar and tile.
I soon settled into my new home and finally felt able to concentrate on the Karate — I began to work out every day. Kyu grading sessions are held at the Futenma dojo every two months with grading for Shodan rank (1st degree Black Belt) and above being held every six months. Soon after my arrival a Kyu grading session took place, and I went along to watch. Students from all the other Uechi-Ryu dojo on the island came along to Futenma to be tested and I noticed slight differences in style between students of different Sensei. The grading was a very formal affair. The five Sensei to be judges were seated at a long table down the side of the dojo while Sensei Uechi and other people sat at the head of the dojo. The students are judged according to particular requirements for each rank using a points system — they are tested on seven different items.
Maximum score for all the exercises and kata is, 100 points and an average score of 80% must be achieved over the whole test for new rank to be awarded.
Above nikyu (2nd grade brown belt) sparring is included in the grading. Lots are drawn for partners and a contestant is judged on his style and courage as well as his point scoring ability. I was impressed during this sparring by the good nature of the contestants. They managed to combine a serious but none competitive attitude to their sparring with the result that no one was hurt.
On Okinawa the Uechi-Ryu ranks under Shodan are divided into five promotions, i.e., a Five kyu system. In the U.S.A. although the material covered is the same the ranks are in ten divisions, i.e., a ten kyu system.
I should add here that Okinawan students genuinely do not seem to be over concerned with rank and coloured belts are often not worn until Shodan rank is reached. Even then white belts are still worn by some.
After the grading I went to my first Uechi-Ryu Social Function. It was a meal to celebrate the solar calendar or Western New year. The restaurant was a Japanese style place and we had to take our shoes off at the door. The low tables were covered in laquer bowls containing various dishes and at the centre of each table stood a large bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky, which Okinawan men seem to drink like pints of bitter. The food was new to me but after tentative tastings I decided I liked it. Even the sashimi (thin slices of raw fish) was surprisingly tender and tasty. I think the incentive of appetite helped me deal with the chopsticks adequately.
Japanese manners and customs are very different from our own and on this occasion I made a few ‘faux pas’ but generally the evening went well and ended with two ladies, who train at the dojo, dancing to traditional Okinawan music played by Sense! Uechi on the Samisen (a three stringed banjo shaped instrument.
After training at the Futenma dojo for about two months I felt sufficiently familiar with the routines of the class and exercises to feel confident enough to work out occasionally at other Uechi-Ryu dojo in the area. Students are normally expected to train at one dojo with one Sensei but Sensei Uechi, aware that I want to experience as many facets of Uechi-Ryu as possible, doesn’t mind me going along to other classes.
Sensei Shinjo has a dojo in Kadena. He is one of ten men including Sensei Uechi still alive who were taught by Kanbun Uechi, the founder of the style. Only Sensei, Mr. Toyama and Mr. Shinjo are currently teaching.
Sensei Shinjo’s dojo is small and hot but nevertheless it has a vital atmosphere created by his enthusiasm. He roars and glares at his students urging them to better things. His eldest son, Kiyohide who is only twenty-three years old, has been training for ten years. He is a Godan (5th degree Black Belt) and the Uechi- Ryu island champion. Another son who is fourteen years old sometimes runs the class, very well, in his father’s absence.
The other dojo I sometimes train at is in Koza. It is run by Sensei Yonamine, one of Sensei’s most favourite, powerful and prospective students. His dojo is built on a hill and with the large shutters in the walls pulled back, stays pleasantly cool, even on the hottest night. Here they concentrate on body conditioning (which I will discuss later in the article) and some students do remarkable board breaking feats, such as breaking 2 in. x 2 in. square pieces of wood over their shins. Sensei Yonamine can often be seen walking around the class tapping his shins with a baseball bat! If I visit this class once a week it normally gives the bruising time to heal for the next class. Perhaps in a few months I will venture two visits a week.
Near where I live is the local community bath house and after a workout I like to spend time in there relaxing in the hot bath. The baths, sadly, are no longer mixed, but for the equivalent of 15p one gets entrance to the local clubhouse and a free disposable razor. The bath itself is recessed into the floor and is filled to shoulder level with scalding hot water. The ritual is to wash outside the bath and then to lie in it and soak. Finally a cold water shower completes the process which certainly helps aching backs and bruised ribs.
For the Okinawan Karateka the art is an intrinsic part of their lives. They will visit the dojo for an hour on the way to or from work, and school children with a day off will go along in the afternoon. This relaxed attitude is reflected in the way the sessions are organised. The Sensei is not involved with running the whole session and he is usually available to look at students Sanchin or other kata if they arrive late.
Even at birthday or wedding celebrations karate demonstrations are frequently a part of the entertainment. Birthdays by the way are extra special events on Okinawa since they are only celebrated every twelfth year.
The Lunar calendar which is used mainly by farmers and fishermen here is dived into twelve year sequences and birthdays are commemorated according to the year of birth. Thus a person born in the year of the Tiger would have his or her birthday on the first month of the next Tiger New year. The Chinese or Lunar New Year falls in February and this is the month for birthday parties.
Outside of Karate I have found the local food and culture involving. In the order of things, food came first in importance. Immediately after my arrival I thought diet was going to be a problem. Western style produce such as dairy products, meat and bread proved to be expensive and normally not very good. However, with the use of a Japanese cookbook (English translation) and the help of neighbours, who went with me to the local market and pointed out the ingredients I only knew the names of, I have been able to eat well on a limited budget.
The local food is completely different to our own and takes a bit of getting used to but the effort is worthwhile. For those interested in the types of meals that make up an Okinawan diet I have included a brief description. Breakfast is usually miso-shiru a soup made of soya bean paste boiled in water, flavoured with dried fish. To it is added vegetables and tofu (soya bean curd) and sometimes a raw egg. This is eaten with a bow! of rice.
Lunch, which can be bought easily and cheaply at one of the many noodle shops, could be a bowl of noodles in soup topped with vegetables and slices of tofu or meat. Alternatively you may prefer okazu which is a mixture of vegetables, meat, and tofu in any combination, sliced thin and fried, served with rice.
The evening meal may be miso soup containing daikon (Japanese radish) tofu and konbu (seaweed) followed by rice, and boiled or fried fish or sashimi (sliced raw fish) with side dishes of salad and pickled vegetables. The fish could be replaced by tempura which is vegetables or fish fried in deep oil after being dipped in an egg and flour batter. Another alternative is sushi which are patties of rice topped with seafood, meat or vegetables. On Okinawa, dessert is eaten before the meal but I still like mine at the end. Fruit is usually my choice but there are lots of shops selling local confectionery.
Craftsmen practicing traditional local arts can still be easily found on Okinawa and the surrounding islands. This is in spite of the strategic geographical position of the Ryukyus which has resulted in Okinawa being subject to frequent invasion. Fortunately the passivity of the Okinawans to these invaders disguised a stubborn ability to adhere to their own way of life and their culture remains intact. Incidentally, local farmers and fishermen still use implements that can be directly related to some of the weapons used in the Fighting Arts.
Part two will feature next month