Okinawa Trip July 2006

Thursday July 13

 Joe, Lorie and I flew from Norfolk with not a great deal of trouble except for the noisy child behind Joe. We got the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, got ourselves settled and headed over to Harry Carry’s and had a great meal. Afterwards, we headed for the bar in the hotel where we saw Mario, the bartender from Bulgeria, and had some mudslides before calling it an evening. None of us could sleep and we stayed up watching “The Longest Yard” and ended up getting a couple of hours of shut eye.

Friday July 14

We got up early and were the first people to board the courtesy bus to the hotel. When we arrived at Chicago O’Hare, the three of us were able to upgrade to Economy Plus for only $75!  We headed to the bar for our traditional pre-flight bloody mary and saw Genevieve who remembered us from the last trip. Felix, Lindsey and her dad, Doug, found us at the watering hole and we caught up on each other’s trip to Chicago. After we boarded the plane, I completely let down my senior patrol leaders in Boy Scouts by completely abandoning the Boy Scout Motto “Be Prepared.” Now fellow Karate campers bound for Okinawa, do NOT forget your neck pillow and ear plugs! (which I did).

 I slept a total of 7 hours on this flight and nded up watching movies and listening to Stephen Wright comedy for the remainder of the flight. This is a tremendously long flight when you wake up early so strong sleep aids are great.(which I didn’t have) Sir Lord Baydon Powell would be turning over in his grave-some Eagle Scout I turned out to be.  There was a lot of turbulence on this flight and we were very grateful to finally land in Osaka. We exchanged our money there so that we didn’t have to spend the usual hour in the Okinawa Bank and were able to “hit the ground running.”

A karateka’s checklist for flights to Okinawa:

Neck pillow

Eye shades

Ear plugs

MP3 player

Something to help you sleep.(fill in the blank here with your own decision)

Snacks (airplane attendants seem to act if you have asked for their first born when you request peanuts)Airline food has stooped to an all-time low so make sure that you have plenty to eat. I have traveled to Okinawa 8 times in 10 years and have never had a decent meal on flights.

-Carry a backpack with all things that you will need during a flight that can fit under your seat.

-At your US destination, change into sweatpants/comfortable clothing so that you can relax on the flight over. When arriving in-country(Japan) change into your normal clothing at the airport changing rooms.

-Anything that you may have needed on the trip TO the airport in the US but may need later, stick in your carry on that will go overhead.(i.e. cell phone, sunglasses)

-Pack a gi and your obi in your carry on in case of an airline mishap, you are ready to train with no problems when you arrive in Okinawa.

When we got off the plane in Okinawa, we had a huge welcome from Gibu Sensei and the members of the Butokukan with a huge sign and a huge surprise. Neil Stolsmark Sensei and his wife Rocky Solsmark Sensei had also come to the airport to welcome us as well. Stolsmark Sensei is, to this day, one of my biggest heroes and is one of the most talented instructors and karateka of our generation. He has been a direct student of Okinawan Karate for more years than others “claim” and is a role model for all in karate-do to follow. This is one individual who not only can “walk the walk” more than anyone I have ever met and has a limitless knowledge of Okinawan Karate and Kobudo, but possesses the true warrior quality in giving everyone credit and acknowledgement, no matter how big or how small. If you ever have the opportunity to train at his camps or just meet him face to face, it is a life-changing opportunity.
Left To Right: Sunagawa Sensei, 5th dan; Izumi Sensei, 6th Dan; Ryoko Gibu, Hiroshi Gibu, Tamaki Sensei, 7th Dan; Sokuichi Gibu Sensei; John Spence; Joe Wilson; Lorie Spence; Tina Gerken; Keelan Gerken; Doug Lord; Lindsey Lord; Felix Vlad; Makato Gibu Sensei, 6th Dan; Rocky Stolsmark; Neil Stolsmark Sensei.

We all took pictures and it was neat to see Gibu Sensei and Neil“catch up” before we headed out. Izumi Sensei had borrowed the hotel bus to pick us up and we stopped by the “tree house” restaurant for some quick snacks before moving on to Okinawa City.

When we arrived at the Diego Hotel, everyone crashed except for Felix, Joe and I and we accompanied Izumi Sensei to our favorite restaurant The Lemon Grass for a late night snack and to catch up with each other.  After agreeing that Izumi Sensei needed to call it a night in order to function at work the following morning, Joe and I took Felix by the Koza dojo to show him this incredible school. After returning to the hotel, I got a total of one hour of sleep and spent the rest of the early morning hours on the hotel computer.  I had two student competing at the Okinawa Times Youth Tournament the next morning and could only hope that they were getting more sleep than me.

Sunday July 15-Okinawa Times Youth Tournament

Izumi Sensei picked us up at 6 a.m. to leave for the Budokan and we stopped on 58 to pick up Sunagawa Sensei who was also serving as a coach for the tournament We stopped in the Lawsons next to the Tree House restaurant and the Budokan to stock up on mochi cakes and copious amounts of Pocari Sweat for the long day. The tournament had divisions for elementary, middle and high school students and would take us through most of the day.

After getting everyone good seats in the Budokan, I began to warm up Lindsey and Keelan for the competition. Izumi Sensei had arranged for one of his students to compete with us to complete the 3 person team and had chosen for us to compete with Pinan nidan. We had both sent each other video tapes of each of our students performing the kata so that they could be matched up and perform well together once we got to Okinawa.  Tamaki Sensei and Sunagawa Sensei came down to the ring that we were using and were kind enough to coach Lindsey(team captain) on the correct commands in Japanese and the procedure for entering and leaving the ring.  I couldn’t get out of my head why this one was picked since other teams were doing higher level kata but Izumi Sensei explained that because there were a mix of styles as judges, this kata would be judged more fairly since it’s stances and techniques are relative to most styles.

They called all competitors and coaches onto the floor for the opening ceremony where we heard a number of speeches from various dignitaries.

They lined the all of the competitors up facing the shomen of the Budokan and Yamashiro Sensei of Higaonna Sensei’s dojo lead the entire group in a mass junbi undo session.

Afterwards, the Okinawa Times interviewed Lindsey, Keelan and I for an article in their paper and then we headed up to the stands for our long wait.

This was a little intimidating considering that there were almost 3000 students competing in the tournament and we were the only Westerners doing so. There were some students from mainland Japan but they were Shotokan clubs attempting to compete in a strictly Okinawan karate kata tournament. Don’t get me wrong-they were amazing, but the kata were not Okinawa in mechanics or delivery. The other interesting thing that made things  more difficult than the Okinawan World Karate/Kobudo Tournament was that they did not separate divisions based upon style.(i.e Uechi Ryu, Goju Ryu, Shorin-Ryu). Everyone was grouped together regardless of style or school.

The tournament began with the elementary school division and we learned that our group would not compete until 3:00 in the afternoon so we had about 5 hours to wait! I found Sensei and Yagi Sensei on the floor as they were beginning to make their way to the rings where they would be judging. I saw Hanshi Noaboru Ahagon in the hallway and stopped to talk to him a bit with his students.

 We wandered around the Budokan and saw a Koshiki contact tournament going on with some foreigners competing. It was interesting to see that the competitors from the Russian countries would not bow to their opponents and were constantly admonished by the Okinawan referees to show respect to each other.

As time grew nearer, we started to make our way down to the floor to the ring where they would be competing. A funny moment came when Izumi Sensei and I were trying to stay out of the way and stood in the hallway to the stage to the Budokan. I had my back turned as we were talking and I felt a hard slap across my side. I turned around and there was Nakazato Shugoro Sensei who had slapped me to get out of his way. For a brief moment, we looked at each other and he recognized my face. Then he looked at my Butokukan patch and then continued to walk down the hallway. Izumi Sensei was giggling and like a typical brother started saying “aawwwwwwww, your in troubllllle!!”

It came time for our group to compete and they had some stiff competition with students from some very senior Okinawan dojo. (Kiyohide Shinjo of the famous Kadena Uechi Ryu; Eiko Shimabukuro’s (Eizo Shimabukuro’s son) Koza dojo, Hanshi Zempo Shimabukuro’s Chatan Hombu dojo, to name a few). All of their students were amazing and Izumi Sensei told me that many of the teams had started a year ago practicing their one kata for this tournament.

Izumi Sensei and I gave our kids a last minute pep talk and reminded them that no matter how they did, they are having a great experience and it was an honor to be the only foreigners invited to compete at this tournament. Lindsey lead the team out when they were called and showed poise beyond her years. The team nailed the kata and we were all so proud of them. After a long wait for the other teams to finish(there were 23 teams in their division), they lined everyone up and began to call the winners up. When they called the 3rd and 4th place teams, I could feel my heart sink a bit because there was such stiff competition in their division. When they began to read the 2nd place winners, I noticed that they were struggling with the names and then just read out the team number. Even though we all recognized the number as our team, we were stunned before we actually could react. They came over and presented our kids with menjo and their medals. We were all besides ourselves and everyone from our group ran down from the stands.

Gibu Sensei hopped up from the ring next to us and came over with a huge fatherly smile. Most of us were in tears and so proud of the group. We took a number of group pictures and eventually made our way out of the Budokan.

Izumi Sensei was also so proud of everyone and informed us that we were all going out to celebrate. We had some time before dinner so Izumi Sensei and Sunagawa Sensei decided to take everyone to Shuri Castle and get a small bite to eat before dinner.
We ended up at Kentos for our tournament celebration where we all danced and sang as the Rockabilly band played all of the classic oldies. Everyone had a great time and we were all on cloud nine from the day’s events. Izumi Sensei was cracking everyone up and he never misses an opportunity to get us all laughing.

Monday July 16

We all slept in a bit after our exciting day and after breakfast, Joe and I went to pick up the rental van and car. We made a quick stop to the grocery store for supplies and then we piled everyone into the car for a trip to Moon Beach in Onna. Just up the road on 58 from Yomitan, Moon Beach is nestled in between the tourist hotels but for $5.00 for parking, it provides a great beach to relax, snorkel and swim. They had a few floating square platforms that you could lay on that fit about 4 people and we all had fun playing “King of the Mountain” to earn your place in the sun! We all stayed in the water until we were prunes and then headed back to Koza so that we could train at Izumi Sensei’s dojo that evening. The Hombu dojo was closed today and this would give us a chance to practice for Izumi Sensei’s dojo jun shun en Embutaikai(10 year anniversary demonstration). We got stuck in traffic right outside the flight line at Kadena and got to watch planes come in over our head, close enough that you could have hit them with a baseball.

After returning to the hotel, we got changed and then headed to Izumi Sensei’s dojo for class. We had a chance to practice for our demonstration at his dojo’s 10 year anniversary embu Taikai. Everyone from our group was dying from the heat and the humidity but continued to show great spirit. Izumi Sensei’s dojo is wedged in between the concrete buildings of the neighborhood and “bakes” from the heat of the Okinawa day. With the windows open, the heat just pours in during the workouts. We went over a number of kata, kobudo and some yakusoku and then presented gifts to Izumi Sensei and the dojo. We brought over a lot of American candy and wrapped them in little gift bags for the kids. Lorie passed them out to each child individually and played a cute game with them.

After everyone got dressed, Hiroko San called down on the intercom and said that a taxi driver had called and said that he was delivering my friend Carel vd Westhuizen to us. This was interesting since the information I had said that Carel wouldn’t be there until tomorrow. I went down to the street and found Carel with his two brothers Dani and Willem who seemed a little tired from all of the travel and confusion. I quickly brought them upstairs and introduced him to Izumi Sensei and gave them a tour of the dojo.

After dropping their things at the hotel, we headed to the Lemon Grass restaurant for a nice relaxing meal. Lorie was cracking Izumi Sensei up with jokes from home and it was interesting translating them into Japanese for her. We had a great time and returned to the hotel to crash for the evening.

Tuesday July 17

Lorie and I got up around 4:30 a.m. and went for a walk since we were not quite on Okinawa time yet. After a quick breakfast, we both met Izumi Sensei to help with crossing guard duty and Lorie gave kids some of the candy we had brought. It was cute to watch the children’s eyes, especially the girls, when they stared at her blonde hair.

We came back and after everyone had breakfast, we left with Izumi Sensei for the Chatan Montessori School where he teaches karate twice a week. Izumi Sensei led all of the kids in his normal training routine for that age group with kihon waza and asked that we fix stances and help with the instruction. We did a couple of fun drills with them and Carel got into the fun by leading a few drills. We all went outside where our group performed some kata and kobudo for the kids.

Next it was to Shureido where everyone bought gis and we waited for everyone to get personally fitted and exhaust their spending

I left for the dojo early since I had a private lesson with Sensei and his wife let me into the dojo so I could warm up. Sensei arrived and presented me with a new obi which was a huge surprise and honor. We went over empty hand kata and kobudo kata for about an hour before the rest of the group showed up. All of the Okinawan senior students started to show up and we had a great practice together. The dojo was the typical oven at this time of year and the Okinawans kept having to avoid the puddles that kept forming under all of us.

After keiko, Naka Sensei presented me with a pair of nunchaku that he had personally made and said that they worked well when doing nicho nunchaku(double nunchaku). We all quickly changed and followed the group down to a restaurant under the dojo for dinner. There was more food than you could imagine and we had a great meal with our Okinawan sempai and Gibu Sensei.
Wednesday July 18

I woke up early for flag duty with Izumi Sensei and we had a good time catching up as the kids made their way to school. I returned to hotel to get ready for class at the local pre-school that we were going to assist Izumi Sensei with later that morning. Izumi Sensei called me and said that he was going to pick me up to come help him at the local market for drinks for the class and some things for Hiroko san.

After the market, we all met him outside and we started to walk down one of the winding streets of Koza to the district of the school. I caught a lizard that nearly jumped right into the middle of our group. It had a lot of similar markings as a green iguana and didn't put up much of a fuss about being temporarily restrained.

The pre-school was VERY different than the horrible Montessori school that we taught at the day before. In education, I am sure that the Montessori method has many strong points but there is also something to be said about structure, discipline and the teacher giving direction, not the kids. Anyway, the Okinawa kids were wonderful and seemed very excited to have a few strange Americans teaching them. Unlike the Montessori school, the Okinawan kids were very obedient and followed all of our directions for class. (Not to mention adorable)
Most of us relaxed most of the day and did some shopping around Koza and Kadena. We arrived at Izumi Sensei's dojo around 6:30 for the evening's classes. Tonight was kumite class(Izumi's Sensei's student's favorite)and the kids were hitting each other with every ounce of strength in their bodies! It is funny how it doesn't create problems with parents or students there as it does here. "Please don't let Johnny get hit hard" "I don't want my child to get hit in sparring" All the things that we hear in our dojos. Not in Okinawa. The adults want their children to be strong and so kumite is embraced as something that builds mental toughness and the ability to push on. You will not find jiyu kumite in most dojos, they don't see the benefit of it.

Izumi Sensei then put on the kumite pants and let the kids hit him full contact for a round each. He pads up for these training sessions and really pushes the kids to reach their highest potential. After the kids completed their training, I asked Izumi Sensei to demonstrate low shin kicks as well as front kicks on the bags for all of us. He kept emphasizing to cut downward on the kick for more "effect" and it was amazing to see his power and speed. All of us were very thankful that we had never been on the receiving end of that kick.

After class, we all changed and were invited upstairs to Izumi Sensei's house for a home-cooked meal by Hiroko San. Toshinari san and one of his friends were our "waiters" and constantly ran back and forth to the kitchen for food and drinks for us. Hiroko san had worked a long time on the meal and we were very honored to be invited into their home for such a great experience. Izumi Sensei had remembered that it was Dani's birthday and had a birthday cake with candles after we had finished dinner.

I made sure that we left at a reasonable time so that we hadn't overstayed our welcome and we thanked the Izumi family for such a wonderful experience.

Thursday July 19

We started the day with flag duty with Izumi Sensei and then came back to the hotel to get ready for our photo appointment at the White River Studio. A number of us took photos in traditional costumes as well as in our dogi. It was a great deal of fun and it was entertaining to see Izumi Sensei in his other profession.

Everyone left back to the hotel for rest while Izumi Sensei and I rested in his studio. He showed me the dojo flags that he had made for his embutaikai and then we went upstairs to see Hiroko san's mother and father.

Training at the hombu dojo night was conducted by Yagi Sensei. Nicknamed "the General", he works out harder than people much younger than him and his classes are some of the most physically demanding. We concentrated on hojo undo, kata, body mechanics and then after class, piled our wet bodies into the van for the ride back to Koza. After a quick shower, we headed back to Sushi Yoshi and renunited with Masa San for a wonderful meal.

Friday July 20


Saturday July 21
Lorie and I had the unforgettable experience of being invited on a "double date" with Sensei and his wife for dinner. After meeting them at the Hombu dojo, Sensei drove us around Naha, pointing out places and then we finally arrived at our destination, The Naha Harborview ANA Hotel which is considered the best hotel in the city.
Gibu Sensei and his wife has arranged for us to have our own private Japanese-style room where we were treated to a multi-course meal. Mrs. Gibu and Lorie had some great conversations and we all talked about how we had met our spouses and shared stories about our families. Not once was karate mentioned and it was a true honor to have this time with my teacher and his wife.

After dinner, they invited us back to their house for coffee and wonderful Okinawa mango and we got a tour of their living room where so many of their family pictures and memories are kept. Mrs. Gibu gave Lorie some mango to take back with us and we thanked them for an amazing evening that neither of us would never forget.

When we returned, the group was on the roof and Felix had arranged a final attack on Koza's sushi supply before he and Lorie returned stateside the next day. Izumi Sensei and his wife Hiroko came over to say their goodbyes and everyone wished the two a safe trip back.

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