From the day that Sensei Ophira Bergman first mentioned a dojo trip to Okinawa, my heart just about burst and my mind was steeled on the idea of attending. We were to be attending a week-long seminar, hosted by Soke Kenji Nakaima and presented by Sensei Tsuguo Sakumoto, in honor of what would be the 200th birthday of the founder of Ryuei-ryu, Norisato Nakaima Sensei. We would be traveling alongside members of other dojos from San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, and Washington who had close relationships with Shihan Alfonso Gomez and Kyoshi Tomohiro Arashiro. As a dojo, we began practicing with more fervor and enthusiasm, and those of us committed to the trip were revved up more than ever. I marked my calendar for August 15 - 25, and set my sights on one of the most amazing trips that any karateka could take. The months, weeks, and days leading up to the trip truly tested my patience as I found myself daydreaming constantly, imagining what sorts of glory awaited us in Okinawa. The day finally came, and I took the long trip to the small island, once the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom before it became a prefecture of Japan.
On the second day of the seminar, we had to be awake quite early since everyone was meeting at a small beach village northeast of Naha to demonstrate karate fundamentals to the locals. Myself and another from our dojo were tasked to join Sensei Hickman as national representatives for the demonstration. We were to meet all the other seminar participants at a bus stop further into Naha, and join the other national representatives on a special bus to Onna Village’s government building. This was already turning out to be another honorable experience, since we got to chat with people from other countries and other styles of karate on the entire ride. Soon after our arrival to the government building, we were greeted by the warm smiles and applause of Onna Village government officials and other residents. We walked all the way to the top floor, where we sat in a room prepared for us by the government officials. We then got to meet the vice mayor of Onna Village and Soke Kenji Nakaima, who spoke of their amazement of the spreading of karate from Okinawa, and the honor they felt for our deep appreciation for karate’s origin. It was quite the opportunity and experience to hear all of this as a relative beginner to karate, and I’ll never forget how humbled it made me feel.
We soon joined the other seminar attendees at Nabee Beach, the village’s main beach, where we would be demonstrating for roughly 500 villagers (with 300 of us, that’s 800 people for karate!). It was fortunate that large pop-up tents were set up for us, since the sun started beating down rather fiercely and the heat from the previous days seemed cool. Instead of rehearsing the demonstration as a whole group, we were told to grab lunch and hang out before returning to the beach to replenish any exhaustion. Here we were able to further chat and bond with the other attendees, but soon we all got dressed in our gis and prepared for the demonstration.
As a national representative, I was to represent Colombia, as there were karateka invited from Colombia, who for some reason couldn’t make it to the seminar or Okinawa. I got to hold the Columbian flag and stand in line with the other national representatives, while the remaining seminar attendees performed the fundamentals behind us. They performed a kata called “Fu Kyu no kata,” which was meant to be a universal beginning kata across all karate styles. It was different than Kihon kata ichi, but was actually Ten no kata with zenkutsu dachi stances instead of sanchin dachi. They also performed repetitions of the basic punches, blocks, and kicks in unison. A group of children then gave a speech in Japanese and English, which was followed by the mayor and vice mayor of Onna Village, sharing their appreciation for the special event and karate’s presence across the globe.
Once we finished, it was announced that members of the Japanese national team would each demonstrate kobudo forms, and that there would be cultural music and dancing performed by local artists. We got the chance to see the three men’s team kata world champions perform: Ryo Kiyuna with bo, Takuya Uemura with sai, and Arata Kinjo with kama. This was followed by traditional Okinawan music and dancing performances--which allowed us to see some of the movements of karate hidden in the fluid dancing of the performers. When the last song started, everyone in attendance was prompted to dance along in the traditional Okinawan manner--with our hands making simple movements in the air while others whistled and shouted with the music. It was a remarkable and memorable experience in itself, but the fact that it was all on the sands of a beautiful beach in the tropics of the island prefecture, I couldn’t feel closer to my Okinawan roots in that moment.
With the demonstrations over, we were allowed to relax in the tents, enjoy the beach or play in the water. I chose the latter, finding the water to be around 80℉ and incredibly relaxing. Then it was time to head back to Naha, but not before stopping at a local shopping area on the way. I got a tasty treat called zenzai, which was shaved ice with sliced mangoes, syrup and condensed milk. Our time was fairly limited here, since we all had to be back at the buses by a certain time, but it was nice to see everyone feel excited by the authenticity of the moment. It was also pretty neat to see the Japanese national team relaxing and joking with each other; for a moment they had seemingly put aside being top tier athletes, training every day to be the best in the world. On the way back to Naha, almost everyone on the bus promptly fell asleep. It was a full day of Okinawan sunshine, beach, culture and festivities, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied.
The week as a whole was a remarkable series of events that made me feel a deep and strong connection to the world of karate and my Okinawan heritage. I came to appreciate the history of the art and of our style all the more; seeing the traditions/skills/spirit passed down from the older generation was a sight to behold. When we met the vice mayor of Onna Village and Nakaima Soke, my pride in our practice grew all the more; observing the expressions and hearing the passionate accounts of those from all over the world. For so many people to congregate on small island under a common love for the practice of karate, the idea swells my heart to play a part and share their love. I have never been involved in something that is so much larger than myself, with such a history and passionate following around the world. Indeed, karate is a global community of people with similar goals, struggles and teachings. I urge anyone who practices karate to travel to Okinawa if possible and experience the history of our art in the place that it all began.