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Impressions from Okinawa – Michel Sensei

Seven years of waiting and anticipating to return to this place – Okinawa.  Just exiting the airport into the tropical heat and humidity soothes something inside of me.

I arrived with my student Vered and her father about a week before the Gasshuku and already the day after our arrival we were in Higaonna Sensei’s dojo for training: Hard, sweaty and very satisfying.  Kuramoto Sensei taught most of the classes.  Sometimes Uehara Sensei led and we even were privileged to train with Higaonna Sensei himself.

The Gasshuku passed very quickly; at each training session I learned a lot and was amazed.  It was a big honor to train under people who dedicated so many years, so much time and effort and who, inspired by their passion, turned karate into a way of life.

I really loved the way that Sensei Mistries from India explained Sanchin and the little tips that he gave about how to feel more confidence and stability while doing this important kata.  Every class with Masuyama Sensei from Sweden shot motivation straight to my heart and pushed all of us to do and be our best.  With Terauchi Sensei, despite a lack of verbal explanation, it was possible to understand him and, most importantly, to see the treasures of possibility beyond the performance of the techniques he demonstrated.

When the Gasshuku ended there was a period of about two weeks that I couldn’t train due to medical reasons.  I was pleasantly surprised that many people whom I didn’t know that well were happy to help; I was referred to good professionals who recommended I take a short break from training.

Happily, after this period, I returned to training in the Honbu dojo.  The pain had subsided and I returned to regular training.  I went to the dojo six days a week.  The extremely high humidity together with the intensive training caused me to leave each evening with a gi soaked in sweat – after I had stayed to clean up the river of sweat I’d left on the floor.

After one training session with Higaonna Sensei, it seemed to me that he was impressed with my ability to leave behind puddles of sweat everywhere I just stepped.  After a few days he connected me with, ‘the fellow who sweats from his legs.’  The training with him was particularly hard because you don’t know what to expect and you don’t know when the class will end, sometimes at 11pm.  Usually the training sessions with Kuramoto or Uehara sensei don’t go later than 10.  It’s very impressive that at his advanced age (he’s now 81) he is still active, trains himself and teaches.

On most days Senseis Kuramoto and Uehara taught.  Every day, right after the traditional warm-up, we would do basics and the next day Hojo Undo – supplementary training with traditional Okinawan weights (usually chi-ishi and nigiri-game).  Set exercises were done after the water break (and for me, the opportunity to clean the puddles of sweat I’d left), kata, bunkai or self-defense – depending on the day.

One day, after working with nigiri-game, my fingers were really sweaty and it was hard for me to grip the jar; I had to set them on the floor after each step so I wouldn’t drop and break something (either the jar or the wooden floor).  I managed to survive the class without dropping the jar.  We had to return them to their places.  There was a line.  When my turn came the jar slipped from my hand and broke another jar.  I felt terrible!  I apologized to Kuramoto Sensei and offered to pay for it.  He agreed but said that I’d need to tell Higaonna Sensei the next day when he arrived. 

The next day I was ready to take responsibility and tell Higaonna Sensei that I’d broken the jar.  When I asked Kuramoto Sensei, at the break, if I could approach Higaonna Sensei he said yes, and he accompanied me and even said (in Japanese) that ‘because the sweat last night the jar slipped too fast and fell.’  I bowed to Higaonna Sensei and said that I apologize and will pay whatever cost incurred.  Higaonna Sensei simply smiled a very wide smile and said, ‘No.  No problem.’  Again, I apologized and thanked both him and Kuramoto Sensei (from that point on I was really, really careful with the jars).  I was really astonished by his modesty and kindness.  Good heartedness abounds in this place and infects all who visits; it’s the nature of the people.

Generosity, kind-heartedness and compassion is what typifies Japan, especially Okinawa.  Even shopping is pleasant, be it in a supermarket or mall.  The moment you walk in the door you are greeted and welcomed; You get to the register, again you are greeted.  When you buy sushi, they wrap your chopsticks.  If you buy yogurt, they wrap the spoon.  If you buy a cleaning product it is wrapped again so as not to mix with the food.  Your money is taken with a bow and a thank you and your change is counted in front of your eyes before it is deposited into your two hands.  And of course, when you leave, they bow to you a bow of thanks, wish you a good day and say that they hope you’ll return.

This is the case in just about every transaction, business or otherwise.  There were places I frequented regularly when I visited Okinawa previously, until someone recommended a tasty restaurant that was cheaper.  He wasn’t mistaken.  A very old woman worked there, she looked to be about 70ish, or older (I didn’t ask because it isn’t polite!), entirely alone.  No helpers or cleaners.  With her own two hands she operated a restaurant that seated 20 with a varied, regular menu of more than 20 choices at a very reasonable price.

The first time I arrived there was another customer inside who explained how things worked there.  After you chose what you wanted you told her through a small window situated between the tables and the kitchen, and so I did this.  Every time I said ‘Hello’ before ordering and she always responded with a smile.   Shortly after, she’d emerge from the kitchen with my order on a tray.  Placing it on my table she’d say, ‘Sorry you waited.’

I tried several items from the menu in the course of my stay and they were always delicious.  Weeks passed and I didn’t even know her name until the day that I glanced at the wall; her business license was hanging there with the name, Yamaguchi.  I asked her if this was her name and she said yes, and afterwards she asked me my name and from what country I hailed.  She understood that I was here for karate training because of my t-shirts.  She served each customer with a smile and a soft word and made the orders generous.

Two days before my departure I asked her if it was okay to bring her spices and other kitchen items.  She said yes.  The next day I arrived relatively late with these things.  I couldn’t eat there because Kuramoto Sensei had invited me for lunch and I was stuffed.  I greeted her and before I could give her the bag she said, ‘Wait a moment.’  She turned toward the kitchen counter and took an envelope, gave it to me and said, ‘This is for your mother, she must certainly be sad that you were away from home so long.  It’s not a lot.’  My jaw dropped to the floor and I could barely say ‘Thank you.’  (But of course, I did, several times.)

I had never spoken to her about my mother and here, a woman who barely knew my name, had given me 2,000 yen (about 70 shekels or $20) to give to my mother, whom she had never met.  We chatted a bit more.  She asked about my marital status, if I had children, and so forth.  I really wanted to take a picture with her but she was shy, said she was already an old grandmother, so I just took a photo of the place. We parted with a smile and I said that if I return, I would be happy to eat by her regularly.  The next day I arrived a few hours before my flight, sad, because something about this place had really touched my heart.  Kindness, empathy, compassion are things are saturated in the spirit of Okinawa and can be felt even by visitors.  If only I could bring some of that back with me in my suitcase!

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