One of the people that has had a profound influence on my practice is Sakai Ryugo. He is relatively unknown and so I thought it might be nice to share a little more about him and his Ryushinkaikan dojo.
Sakai Ryugo was born in 1932 in Kagoshima prefecture. He moved to Okinawa with his family in 1949 and began studying Shorin ryu with Omine Chotoku in 1950. In 1952 he entered the Goju Ryu Karate Do Kenkyukai dojo. The head teacher and president was Higa Seiko sensei and he was assisted by a variety of people at that time, including Fukichi Seiko, Takamine Chokubo, and Toguchi Seikichi. (Miyagi sensei was still alive then, but I have no idea if Sakai ever trained with him. Neither does his son.) Though he maintained his training with Higa sensei, when the Shoreikan was founded by Toguchi sensei in 1954 he went with Toguchi and acted as an assistant instructor. Some of his juniors in the early years were people who later became famous in the Goju community and started their own organizations- Kanei Katsuyoshi, Shinjo Masanobu, and Toyama Zenshu, among others. His wife said she thought he helped design the Hakutsuru no mai in the Shoreikan, and also thought that he and Toguchi at one point were going to work on a tiger kata but I don’t have any other information on this. During the years he was on Okinawa he also became friends with Matayosh Shinpo, studying kobudo and some empty hand with him. They remained friends throughout his life and he considered Matayoshi a strong influence on his training. (In the demo photo for the 25th passing of Matayoshi Shinko he is seated next to Kina Seiko and in the demo photo for the 1999 memorial for Matayoshi Shinpo he is seated at the front, next to Kinjo Kenichi. (Photos annotated by Viet Ha Quoc.) He remained in Okinawa training and teaching until 1962.
In 1958 he began traveling periodically to Amami Oshima and started what may have been the first karate and kobudo dojo there, a Shoreikan dojo in Naze city. He started teaching full time at Oshima High School and in the Amami Shoreikan dojo in 1962. For the next 5 years he taught all over Amami and and laid the foundations for the Amami and Naze City Karate Associations.
In 1967 he moved to Kagoshima city and began teaching in what is now Kagoshima International University. While he maintained the dojo in Amami his main dojo was in Kagoshima from this point on. He opened up the first Ryushikaikan dojo in 1969 and founded the Kagoshima prefectural karate association in 1970. In 1971 he formally founded the Amami and Naze karate associations and one of his students opened his first Shibu dojo, in Miyazaki. In 1972 he demonstrated at the ceremony in Kagoshima to celebrate Okinawa’s return to Japan, with Matayoshi Shinpo. His dojo was a founding member of the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei and remained part until the passing of Matayoshi Shinpo. He founded shibu in Fukuoka, Kansai, Kyoto, Tokyo and around Kyushu over the next 15 years, did demonstrations on NHK, TBS and Nippon Television and had a small role in a Tohei films movie with Sonny Chiba, The Power of Aikido (Gekitotsu Aikido激突 合気道) as a kama wielding fighter. Starting in 1980 he began having an annual Goju Ryu gathering in Kagoshima city. The honbu dojo moved to Shiroyama in 1981 and to the first floor of the house he built in Tagami Dai in 1984, where I trained and where it remains today. Sakai Ryugo sensei passed away in 2002, leaving a legacy of excellent students and a reputation as a gentleman and a dedicated karate and kobudo practitioner.
I met Sakai sensei essentially by pure luck. A couple of weeks after I moved to Amami Oshima in 1990 I went to Okinawa for the first time. While there I asked Nakasone san at Shureido for some advice on a dojo near me. He suggested I get in touch with Sakai sensei, in Kagoshima city. The first time I visited the dojo I went with a fellow English teacher, Ann Denion, who was training there. I had a great time and returned to train every time I visited the city, roughly monthly, sometimes more. As an amusing aside, during that first visit I noticed a photo on the wall of a young Anthony Mirakian at a demo in the 50s, from when they had trained together in the Shoreikan. I had trained with Mirakian sensei 2 months earlier, visiting his dojo with Kimo sensei before leaving for Japan, and even more recently, completely coincidentally, we had had lunch together in Okinawa on the same trip I got Sakai sensei’s contact information. Sakai was pretty surprised, and so was Mirakian when he found out! Goju is a small world… I didn’t succeed in getting them in touch until a number of years later but after I got back to Massachusetts Mirakian sensei shared some photos and some wonderful stories with me, including one about Sakai having to forcibly evict two rather impolite marines from the dojo one evening. He had a great deal of respect for Sakai sensei and I was happy I could put them in contact after more than 30 years.
After the visit, on Amami I got in touch with a two former students of Sakai sensei’s. I trained in Nishi sensei’s Shindokan and Toguda sensei ran a small Shoreikan dojo primarily for kids and gave me a key so I could practice on my own when I wanted. The following year I moved to Kagoshima city and trained in the Ryushinkan full time. Sensei also gave me a dojo key and I wound up there some off nights, when I was not doing Ufuchiku kobudo with Masada Kei’ichi or Jigen Ryu. Training was fantastic. Sensei ran most of the classes and was both a great teacher, as evidenced by the caliber of his students, and a fantastic technician. My other main teachers were his son Sakai Ryuichiro and, most importantly, Nagata Ryudo, who treated me with great patience and worked with me hour after hour. The seniors were in incredible shape, and had a balance of hard and soft and an ability to move that I was astounded by.
When I returned home I stayed in touch but after a stay in 1995 while doing research for my masters’ I was unable to visit for about 10 years. Unfortunately before I could get back Sakai sensei passed away. His son and another senior student, Miyagi Tatsuhiko, took over the dojo. I have brought a couple of students to visit over the years and they have enjoyed training and have also remarked that they could see where some of my technique comes from, which I take as a real compliment.
Miyagi sensei is the main teacher there now. He has also been the first person to create any on line presence for the dojo, primarily through his Facebook postings. He is a fantastic technician, and I can’t think of many people 30 years younger (he is in his mid 60s now) stronger, more flexible, or in better overall condition. But the lack of public notice of the dojo is, in some ways, a real shame. Training there has had a profound impact on me. Not only did I learn a great deal about our karate and kobudo, but I learned even more about how to build and keep alive an adult dojo, keeping up high standards and doing so in a way that was very demanding but also very respectful, with a place for blood and sweat but also for humor.
I could tell a number of stories of course- Sakai sensei chiding the class for not listening when he had me teach Sepai, because since he had asked me to were they thinking he didn’t know who could teach?; Sakai sensei lecturing us in seiza for 45 minutes and the whole class’ legs falling asleep and none of us being able to get up and do soji afterwards; him (much to everyone’s surprise) giving me a hug after my sayonara party; hours and gallons of sweat; getting knocked and choked out; sharing watermelon on the dojo floor; his making sure I was as comfortable as possible sleeping in the dojo during my visit in 95. So many more, vignettes mostly but they stick in my mind. But those are really about me, not him, so I will stop there.
As for what was taught in the dojo, it was the classical Goju Ryu kata, of course, and some of the fukyu kata (geki sai san, geki ha, etc.) that Toguchi sensei had created, though done in a looser fashion. I did many of the same subjects under Kimo sensei and when I asked Sakai about the 2 man bunkai and kiso kumite, he told me that while he had done them for many years he felt they did not represent Goju Ryu well for a variety of technical reasons. Instead he used the kata as training tools and focused pair work on applications of the classical kata, kakie, and some drills he had developed- including seated, ground, and weapon-countering techniques- from what he had been taught by Higa and Toguchi. He taught Matayoshi kobudo as well, and was particularly good with the kama. His small weapon kata were a little different but when I asked about that he told me “Sensei was working on many things in the old days and I wanted to keep certain techniques that I liked so I adapted the kata, kind of like sensei did.”
The seniors were all in incredible shape but interestingly enough we rarely did any type of calisthenics in class. We would occasionally do a few but most of the work with the hojo undo and daruma-taiso esque exercises the seniors did, as well as makiwara and bag work, was done before or after training, or at home. “Up to you to be ready to do karate” sensei told me. Luckily I was working with the chishi before class at the time, not coming in late and out of breath….
Class was always demanding. Lots of kata, body conditioning, kakie, solo and two person basics, stepping, and application of kata. The standard was very high, but the atmosphere in the dojo friendly. I remember going to get water from the hose I had seen outside the dojo door on my first visit. One of the students went to stop me, and Sakai sensei yelled from across the room for him to let me go. Water was usually not allowed until training was finished but there was a huge puddle around where I had been, mostly because I was not used to the Kagoshima summer heat, and sensei told Shinji “if you have a puddle like that you can drink too!”. The rules were for reasons, not just because that was how it was always done, and that went for mechanics and application as well.
That included the rules for both doing and applying kata. Principles are a buzz word today, but they were certainly present in our practice then. In addition to some colorful traditions around the four animals of Goju- the crane, tiger, snake, and hawk, Sakai had some very clear ideas about how to apply kata, including what angles to use and why, when it was appropriate to strike vs. grab, when to use one or two hands, off balancing and kyusho as a part of any application, what is useful at different ranges, how to control range, turning and slipping as shown in the kata, and adapting to the situation, among other things. I remember a great moment doing applications from Suparinpe when one of the seniors was too close for the jumping kick and so backed off; sensei “asked” why he didn’t just knee: “application is based on the opponent, you should be able to do whatever needs to happen, jumping knee, flying side kick, whatever the situation requires”. His dojo is the first place I heard the term “fajing”, Japanized as “pachin” (his short power was excellent) and we had clear, non-elusive, discussions of kyusho. Most importantly he structured our application training to demonstrate and include all this information. It was great fun, and very demanding training.
But technique is only part of what he taught. The most important thing I took from his teaching, and the dojo he developed, was a strong sense of respect. Yes respect for the art and our lineage, but mostly for people. It started internally- you had to work to grow and when you were pushing yourself both you and everyone else knew it. But he also demanded that everyone in the dojo treat each other with respect. He insisted on students treating each other as just karate ka, not men and women, Japanese and gaijin, doctors or delivery people, or whatever else they were outside the dojo. Roles outside the dojo were just not important inside it. (Though the purpose of this discipline was not a kind of post-modern social enlightenment; the rigor of training was supposed to help you have the proper fortitude to fulfil your given role in the larger society. To be a good citizen.) He made sure everyone was working hard and that no one was treated poorly. Go and Ju, as it were.
There was a lot of sweat in the dojo, but a lot of laughter too. I could see how close many of the people had become and I still wish I had had more years to train there. I consider myself lucky for the experience and every time I go back I am happy to feel welcome, and to train together again. When I visited for the first time in 10 years I remember seeing my name still on the nafudake and how that affected me, but that was how the dojo was run. Once part of the group you were treated like family, both welcome and having certain expectations to live up to.
It is too bad, though not surprising, the group has gotten so little notice. Sakai sensei was a little slice of an earlier time training in Okinawa, before the organizations and fragmentation of today. The karate taught there is definitely not a sport. It is also some of the best karate I have seen, in or out of Okinawa. Training there has had a profound effect on how I train and teach to this day and I would welcome others having that chance. (There have been a few foreigners through the dojo over the years- Ann, whom I mentioned, Julia Henker, Glenn Forbes, and Michael Hazel have all trained for extended periods of time and besides a couple of my students my friend Mario McKenna and some of his students have visited a number of times.) That said, there is no easy path. Kagoshima is not Tokyo or Okinawa, and there is no one in the dojo who speaks English (or any other foreign language). No one is going to get quick rank or even quick access to information. Most all of training time is spent on what might be
considered “basic” training. The first 4-5 months I was in the dojo the only kaishu kata I got instruction on was saifa, even though I knew the rest of the system. Until my mechanics in saifa were up to snuff I could follow along but got no feedback on anything else. Once there things opened up, but the standards were the standards, and anyone who wants to train should be prepared for “a little light training”, as Miyagi sensei has a tendency to say before a 3 hour pre-training run through hoju undo, stretching, makiwara, and basics. Only one way to get good, I guess.
In any case, famous or not, I miss Sakai sensei. He was an amazing teacher and martial artist, and was a real gentleman. I can’t think of anything better to say, so I will end with that.
Thank you to Sakai Ryuichiro, Miyagi Tatsuhiko, and the late Anthony Mirakian for information and photos, and of course many thanks to the late Sakai Ryugo.