Okinawan Journey


by Katherine Loukopoulos. From: Black Belt. World's Leading Magazine of Self Defense, May 1983.


Okinawan Journey - International champion Katherine Baxter traveled to the land of karate to visit the masters of her art. In this isle of many secrets and mysterious beauty, her quest for training was nothing like her expectations.


Okinawan Journey

... an adventure lay ahead... OKinawa... land of karate... island of many secrets and of all the strange tales which motivated me to train for so many years... would I be permitted to see all of this? Chuck Merriman had advised me before my trip, "Expect nothing and you will not be disappointed."


Soon after I arrived in Okinawa, I met Katsuhiko Shinzato, whom I met for the first time back in 1976 in a presentation for Shorin-ryu headmaster Shoshin Nagamine, at Columbia University in New York. I remember he had demonstrated Shorin-ryu's chinto kata. I had not spoken to him then, as I was a mere first-degree black belt. In comparison, he was an Okinawan god.

When Shinzato dropped by my Naha hotel, he looked the same as he had six years ago. Could he do chinto kata the same way? My fears and apprehension quickly disappeared as he was very friendly an we settled at the hotel's bar. First, we toasted and he welcomed me to Okinawa, wishing me a pleasant stay. I learned he is a linguistic professor at the Okinawa Kokusai University. We immediately began to speak on karate's current status in Okinawa, particularly regarding Matsubayashi-ryu. He was exceptionally informative and I found myself asking him questions which I had only dreamt of asking before.

Shinzato told me that in his impression of foreign martial artists, they have developed the wrong idea of Okinawan karate. To correct this, he wanted to take me to as many different dojo and let me train with as many different teachers as time would permit. I could formulate a better opinion, by observing classes and asking questions, about student and teacher relationships.

Shinzato felt that foreigners entertain a notion about Okinawan karate that the students are always slaves and teachers always bosses. But he himself maintained the opinion that students and teachers, through their karate training, through their philosophical discussions and through the application og their idealistis perceptions of martial arts etiquette, should wholeheartedly try to promote better relations among themselves and with the members of the society in which thy live.

"Their first responsibility is to train themselves honestly and sincerely, " SHinzato stressed. "Once attained, they then may teach and share their knowledge with other karateka."

"As a karate group they care for the welfare of each other and their families, " Shinzato continued. "When one martial artist has a problem, everyone in the group tries to help until it is corrected. This is performed with the utmost etiquette so that the person in need does not become embarrasses."

Shinzato wanted me to see how they practice karate and live day by day, and how karate has shaped their psychological approach to life. Karate is only part, not all, of their lifes. Everyone who practices karate (with the exception of Shoshin Nagamine) is also employed elsewhere. People in Okinawa train in karate out of love for their art and not for finacial gain.

"There are few established commercial dojo in Okinawa but many exceptional teachers, who get together in small groups and train in one of the practitioners' unadvertised backyard dojo. Unless one is a friend or relative of someone in that group, he would not know when and where training takes place. Philosophical discussions and question-and-answer sessions take place after practice in the teacher's home. If students have observed some error, even by their own teacher, or by a higher-ranking student, it will be politely corrected. The teacher will apologize for his mistake and promise to correct himself. This process serves to balance karate's evolution. It is preserved as an art and its technical aspects are sharpened.

"When you want to learn karate here in Okinawa," Shinzato explained, "you do not consult a telephone directory. Usually your father will recommend a friend of very good personal reputation in the community and excellent martial arts ability. Often, the first karate teacher is the father or uncle in the family. It is not uncommon for teachers then to recommend a promising student to another karate teacher of superior knowledge." Shinzato strongly felt I should understand this point about Okinawan karate teachers. He said, in contrast, "Where there is a financial gain to be made, teachers will selfishly hold on to their students; they will not recommend them to superior teachers because their own business would lose tuition money." SHinzato said that he would take me to both commercial and home dojo to observe, compare, and evaluate the true karateka of Okinawa.

The author with Miyazato Ei'ichi Sensei of Goju-ryu.

The very first time I went to Nagamine's dojo for class training, as soon as I had changed into my gi, I sat in seiza until the master took notice of me. He made preliminary introductions and without warning or a chance to warm up, he asked me to perform the first 12 kata or our system back to back while everyone gathered around, watching and observing every move. I did each kata as if my life depended on it. I felt strong and my kiai released all the built-up tension. When I finished, Nagamine smiled and called the class and me to line up. I was permitted to train!

There were frequent breaks given during this first class. I was feeling quite nervous. The higher-ranking students seemed to talk all at the same time. I could not understand what they were saying, but it was obvious that I was the subject of their conversation. They all asked me to perform various exercises and had something to say afterwards among themselves, all except one. This particular man stared at me with cold piercing eyes that never left my movements. He had studied for many years, for his gi was extremely worn and his belt almost white. He made me feel that everything I was doing was all wrong! Later I was told that he was simply observing and paying attention. Outside of the dojo I was surprised to see how much he smiled and laughed.

I had decided that I must be amusing them. How often does a foreign female come to Nagamine's dojo all by herself seeking training? By the end of my first very long class, I had performed practically every kata and exercise in the system and had also convinced myself they approved of my karate.

This memorable night ended with a welcoming drink attended by most of the students. Included in the group was Seigi Nakamura, second in the system after Nagamine. This stocky man with sparkling eyes, who had taken an interest in me during the class, told me that he was going to teach me personally.

I had moved into a small, traditional-looking inn located around the block from Shoshin Nagamine's dojo, where I would stay for my entire visit in Okinawa. My room was tiny, the size of four tatami mats, with a single window facing a narrow back street. The only furniture was a small low table for writing and a mirror balanced on the floor underneath the window. I had to comb my hair and apply makeup in a kneeling position. There was also an alcove displaying a beautiful scroll, and at the alcove's base were two dolls dressed in traditional female attire.

For the next 13 days I would wake at 6:30 a.m. and would remake my bed in order to go to sleep, totally exhausted but immensely content, between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. every night. Nagamine's higher-ranking students worked a very efficient schedule in order for me to train to the maximum, see the island, and still have entertainment time.

One day after a delicious breakfast at the inn, my friend and Matsubayashi-ryu practitioner, Yasumoto.san, and I drove to one of his secret places of training, located by the sea near the airport. Because of the high waves during the typhoon season, parts of the island have large rocks placed one on top of the other. They look like huge dog bones from afar, but when approached, they loom fantastically large and frightening. Here my friend invited me to run with him on top of these rocks while punching and kicking. He ran and hopped like a kangaroo; I ran beside him on a narrow walkway, and even that felt difficult.


In a dojo, my friend explained, the floor is flat and often highly polished; therefore, we are not really trained in an accurate environment where fighting may take place. Karate, he suggested, ought always to be practiced with the attitude of free-fighting. Agreeing with him, I began to climb the massive rocks. I felt totally out of balance and thought I would fall. I was told to forget the rocks and to concentrate on applying my hip properly while leaving my upper body relaxed. I chose easier rocks, avoiding tha ones with large gaps in between. He was very patient with me; as soon as he observed a slight ease in my moves he would add another complicated idea. I decided that if I really had to defend myself in this environment, my technique would be useless because my balance would always be broken.

The beaches of Okinawa hide many secret training places; only the waves and the rocks truly know how long it took to create such beauty. Training in neko ashi (cat stance) another day by the seas we made our back legs, where all the weight is placed during this particular stance, stiff as wood and dragged ourselves by our front legs while moving forward. We buried our feet in the sand, soothing to my feet, but after a while that feeling was a small luxury compared with the pain I felt in my thighs while dragged my hind leg under the sand. I felt  a great sense of stability and my upper body was totally relaxed while I punched and blocked in this manner.

Yasumoto picked me up another morning for some additional outdoor training. We drove to Kadena city and approached the old stone castle on top of the mountain. There were three such castles in Okinawa which were approximately three to four hundred years old and were used during the medieval era for fighting among the lords of Shuri, Naha and Tomari.

We walked up the hill toward the castle at a very fast pace. On top of the rocky ruins we practiced the kata naihanchi shodan. In order not to lose balance, I had constantly to apply my hip action. I was advised to balance first with my feet, then apply my hip while releasing the technique. I must admit that I felt a little something like a ninja. Upper body strength is essential. Concentration and guts are also necessary ingredients.

Coming down, we did not use the old stone castle steps. Instead, we simply jumped. The key is to make the body small in a crouch-like position and then jump, landing again in a crouch position like a cat. I was enjoying myself, allowing my imagination to run wild. I was in the surroundings of wilderness, in the midst of an old, ruined castle. I thought of the ancient Okinawa karateka practicing in the dark surrounded by stone walls. My friend suggested I climb a railing and do naihanchi shodan. "Not with your eyes open," he said. "Close your eyes and feel your surroundings; depend on your hips for balance." My souvenir from Okinawa would be the deeper understanding of hip application.


After outdoor training, I would go later to the dojo. My legs ached; my shoulders and neck were pounding with pain. Already it was 8:00 p.m.; however, my training with Nakamura had only begun. We worked on every kata (Shorin Matsubayashi-ryu has 18). detail for detail, technique by technique. We did this almost every night and most of the afternoons while I was in Okinawa. There were two to three hours of endless bunkai applications, theory, and technical detail of hip application in every attacking and defending technique. Nakamura treated me as his daughter, always present, always available to explain and demonstrate answers to karate questions which I had pondered for years.

Nagamine's morning karate classes were as crowded as in the evening. Quite a number of people prefer training first before work or scholl. In almost every morning class, Nagamine asked me to perform a small demonstration for the students.

One afternoon we went for Okinawan tea, much different than the type found on the Japanese mainland. At the tea room we met with another student, Taira-san, and the three of us went to his office. He brought out of a closet a pair of samurai swords he recently purchased for $10,000. I was fascinated by the delicate work of art and the intricate embroidery of the handles.

Most nights after training I managed to get out to experience Okinawan entertainment. The peolple have a unique amusement called "orchestra without singing." Restaurants and bars in late evening hours play recordings of music requested by customers. When a customer asks for particular music, he or she is presented with a microphone for singing. After each verse, everyone in the bar or restaurant claps. By the end of the night, each person has sung at least one song.

Okinawa also has a tremendously large theater called Geikinhan Go. While dining we watched the Okinawa folk dance company perform, doing dances which incorporated karate moves. The performed one Goju-ryu kata at the fast musical tempo of a drum.


Students of Shorin Matsubayashi-ryu begin and end every class with zazen meditation. On Sunday mornings a zen teacher, Okamoto Osho, comes to Nagamine's dojo for zen training lectures. Many people gather who are practitioners of zen but do not train in karate. The dojo is transformes into a zen-do, a place for zen training. The lights are dim, the altar is lit, and incense is burned. There are two rows of thin black cushions placed two to three feet apart. One black round cushion is placed at the head of the zen-do for the instructor.

There were two zazen sessions interrupted by a lecture by Osho. After the chanting of the sutras and the three bows, there was yet a second lecture given by Osho while ceremonially drank green tea. Nagamine asked me to perform a demonstration for Osho and the students present. After a demonstration of six kata performed one after the other, I bowed and they all clapped. At the time Osho and Nagamine invited me to take green ta with them.

Osho advised me to train hard in zen and in karate and to ponder consciously and comprehend that everything in the wolrd begins from zero. "Essentially." he said, "we human beings are born bare and must study what 'self' is. That is the beginning of everything."

Ken.zen ichi.nyo. Karate and Zen are one.

During my visit, I also had an opportunity to observe some competitions. Nakamura, Taira, Kadekaru, and I drove to a very large gymnasium where th annual tournament for kumite took place, sponsored by the Uechi-ryu organization of Okinawa. Competitors who took place in this annual event were students of Uechi-ryu, Kobayashi-ryu, Motobu-ryu, Shobayashi-ryu and Goju-ryu, but there were no Matsubayashi-ryu competitors. All competitors were men as women in Okinawa are not permitted to compete in kumite contests, only kata.

In the center of the gymnasium was a raised platform similar to a standard professional boxing ring without ropes. A mat covered the entire floor area with a setup of boundary ring markings similar to those used by W.U.K.O. for international amateur competitions.

There were chairs placed around the ring and throughout the gymnasium for the audience quietly observing their favorite fighters; they simply watched the competition, and after each point was scored, the audience politely clapped. On occasions they showed their enthusiasm by giving a standing ovation to an exceptional call made by the referee or a superior technique displayed by an athlete. The audience was neatly dressed with some older men and women dressed in traditional kimono. There was absolutely no eating or drinking by the audience.

The judging system they used had four seated corner judges holding red and white flags with a center referee at the head of the ring. All judges and referees were changed at the end of every complete round of competition. Before exiting the platform, they faced the new judges and referee and bowed to each other formally. The rules were identical to W.U.K.O. with a single exception: the fighters were not required to wear a groin cup or a mouthpiece.

When a fighter fell to the floor with an injury the medics never climbed the platform, the fighters would insists that they go down to the medics themselves, and the audience would clap. A new match would not start. Everybody waited to find out if the injured fighter was alright. An announcement was made over the microphone regarding the condition of th fighter.

After each complete round of kumite eliminations, there were demonstrations by different groups and dojo. I wittnessed kata suparinpei performed by Shinjo Masanobu;kata were performed by various karate adepts like Tokashiki Iken of Goju-ryu, and Nakazato Shiuguro of Kobayashi-ryu.

There were also kata weapons demonstrations and kobudo bunkai applications. A group of beautiful, long-haired Goju-ryu women performed kata sepai in a group. I was disappointed, however, by their lack of strength and their whispered kiai. Nakamura took notice of my grim look and patted me on the back and said, "At least they are training."

In high school, boys and girls who study karate also train and compete in kata and kumite. Kobudo is not taught. Schools follow the Japanese curriculum, and karate is taught under the umbrella of the JKA (Japan Karate Association) system; they learn shotokan. Consequently, students who excel in karate compete for national titles in mainland Japan under the auspices of the JKA.

In 1985 a National Athletic Meeting is planned for Okinawa with karate listed as one of the sports. It is foreseen that karate will very much grow as an activity; and that Okinawan youth and exceptional students will try out for the National Amateur Japanese Karate Team.

Nagamine Shoshin Sensei

Shinzato, Nagamine, and Nakamura were leading forces in my introduction to all the aspects of Okinawan life. Aside from training, I aslo performed many karate demonstrations, including some with weapons. One demonstration was particularly for women artists in Okinawa.

Fourteen days quickly came to an end. I had learned much about the philosophy, the tradition, the etiquette, and the manner with which people in Okinawa approached and trained karate. I did not see giants or gods performing supernatural feats of strength; I saw ordinary people diligently training in the art they love so much. I did not see competition among them, but each one strived to create a better character and human relationship with those they came in contact.


About the Author: Katherine Loukopoulos "Baxter" has studied Shorin Matsubayashi-ryu for some 13 years. She holds numerous championship titles for national and international karate competition, is fluent in three foreign languages, and is a monthly correspondent for a Greek karate magazine.