Just got back from another trip to Japan and Okinawa. It is always great to see friends, train hard, and see some of my teachers. I always learn something, and I always leave hoping I can return soon. Now that is has been more than a few years since I was living and training there though it seems that every visit there are fewer old faces amidst the new folks. People stop training, move away, or pass on. These changes are natural, but visiting every year or so instead of being in the dojo all the time makes them stand out.
One day early in this trip Miyagi Tatsuhiko sensei took me to the grave of our teacher, Sakai Ryugo. As some of you may know, Miyagi sensei is the shihan dai at the Ryushinkaikan dojo in Kagoshima, Japan. He is one of the most refined and powerful (and fit!) karate-ka I have ever seen, and it is my good fortune to be able to train with and learn from him when I visit. We met for lunch soon after I got to Kagoshima, and he suggested we visit Sakai sensei’s grave. Sakai passed away a few years ago and I had not had the chance to go, so I was glad for the opportunity.
We got some flowers, went to the family gravesite, cleaned it, set the flowers, and paid our respects. I was a little surprised at how much the simple visit affected me. I started training in the Ryushinkaikan in the early 90’s. I found the dojo essentially by chance- I was visiting Okinawa soon after moving to Japan and asked Mr. Nakasone at Shureido about dojo in Kagoshima. He gave me Sakai sensei’s address. They did not advertise, so I may never have found the dojo otherwise. (There was no internet in those days…)
At that time I had been training Goju Ryu and Matayoshi lineage kobudo for nearly 5 years. I had been training in a university dojo where a 4+ year yudansha was a senior student. It was the only dojo I had known and based on my experience I thought I understood this karate thing pretty well. On my first visit to the Ryushinkaikan I got a lot of compliments about my technique and my knowledge. Honestly, that felt natural to me. I was a senior, right? My training to that date had been of the highest quality. I knew what I knew, and it was good Goju Ryu. It was even a nearly identical lineage- Higa Seiko Goju Ryu, with influence from Toguchi Seikichi. But it’s what you don’t even know you don’t know…..
It turned out that there is a lot of difference between a 5 year yudansha in his early 20s and members of an adult dojo where the senior students have 20 or 30 years hard training under a good teacher. I had not known that. I should have been able to figure it out. I had been told it pretty directly, but I hadn’t really understood. Let’s just say I got shown the error of my ways.
For me, this was perfect timing. I think I needed a little ego knocked out of me. I certainly got that. But the lucky bit was that I got it in a respectful and sharing environment. I have visited other dojo that could have beat me down in those days. Luckily for me I happened into one that had an excellent teacher of a similar lineage who saw his role as one of guide and coach. So yes, I got a regular beating. But I also got careful instruction, attention to my technique and how it worked with my body, and occasional questions about how I was instructed before I got there. Instead of being dismissive, while making it clear he felt I had a lot to learn Sakai sensei also took pains to give me credit for what I had done. He welcomed me into the dojo, insisted the other members treat me as a training partner not a guest, and shared his karate and kobudo with me. So did everyone else, from the seniors and teachers on down. They wanted to share and wanted to see each other succeed. And they treated each other like adults, demanding personal responsibility for both one’s training and one’s behavior.
I hope I have taken those lessons with me. When I was standing by Sakai sensei’s gravestone all sorts of memories came flooding in- training, parties, conversations. I was only there for a couple of years, but the experience changed how I approach my practice. I made lifetime friends and gained a valuable window on both our Goju Ryu and on a successful dojo. I have Sakai sensei to thank for that, and I wish I could do so.
It came time to go, and I walked away from the grave with wet eyes. Later in the day Miyagi sensei and I went to the dojo. We did some “light training” – hojo undo, kigu undo, and so on- before regular training started. Sakai Ryuichiro sensei, Sakai sensei’s son, now runs the dojo and he joined us as other students came in. There were a couple of other old friends from the early 90’s and a few people I did not know. We greeted each other and started training. We sweat, and tossed each other around. Miyagi sensei and Sakai sensei corrected elements of my technique, and asked me to share some of what we do here with the rest of the dojo. As usual, it was great training.
When we finished and were having some tea and talking I was thinking again about the visit to the grave earlier in the day. I realized we had just done exactly what I think Sakai sensei would have wanted- continued to grow in our karate and to work together doing it. I hope that is thanks enough.