Japan: Walking in the Footsteps of the Masters
(Part 1 - Tokyo)
by Katarina Lezova

It was with mixed feelings that I was going to Japan in the summer. It was a trip that I was very much looking forward to as for years I wanted to visit Japan and especially Okinawa but I was also well aware that it would take me completely out of my comfort zone as for three weeks I would be stepping into the unknown in so many ways. In the past five years of training at the Uraniwa Dojo I have got to grow and got used to doing things that pushed me almost beyond what I thought I could do. In many ways, I have probably started to seek opportunities to do so and therefore, this trip was necessary for my Karate journey. Despite the unknown ahead of me, I had faith that it would all go well and would be an experience that will enrich my life.

I also knew that travelling on my own would help me to learn more about myself and it would also offer me a time for reflection and confrontation with where I stand with my Karate and where I want to take it further. When I look back, my trip was really about meeting people and it is them who made my trip so enjoyable and without whom I would not have opportunities to learn. Below are some of my reflections and notes about the places I visited and experiences that I encountered. I had three main stops in Japan – Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa. Interestingly, the number three kept coming up during the trip. Each of these three visits was distinctive, with plenty of similarities but also very specific experiences. In this first part of my reflection, I will talk about my time in the capital city and the surrounding area.

Welcome to Tokyo

I arrived in Tokyo - the 'Eastern capital' - early morning on 3 August. My flight from Frankfurt was very smooth and all went really well. After I landed, I got my stamp as a temporary visitor and while at the airport, I also obtained my Japan Rail Pass ready for my travel outside Tokyo. This is a great thing and I recommend it to everybody who is planning to travel around Japan as it makes life and travelling a lot easier and considerably cheaper. One thing that hit me straight after I got out of the air-conditioned airport was that it was incredibly hot! Nothing prepares you for this – it just has to be experienced. Because of the heat August is not the best month to travel to Japan, however, I had some work to do in Tokyo that month and therefore, I didn't have much choice. But then everything happens as it should and in the end, I just got used to it.

I didn't know what to expect from Tokyo but just considering that its population is over 13 million I was imagining crowds of people everywhere. I expected that streets would be really busy and I would feel rather overwhelmed. I was surprised about how I felt though. I felt as if I had visited this place before as even though it was my first visit it seemed all strangely familiar so I didn't have that weird feeling of being in a foreign country and feeling a bit lost. In fact, this feeling of familiarity stayed with me throughout my whole trip in Japan and somehow I felt integrated from day one and part of my surroundings. My very good university friend, Aya, lives in Tokyo. In fact, she only moved there just a couple of months before my arrival so my timing was very good. I was grateful for the opportunity to stay at her place in Setagaya which is a nice part of Tokyo, catch up with her, and be introduced to Japan by somebody who lives there. When I told her that I don't really feel like being abroad in Japan; she just laughed and said that I wanted to come to Japan so much that I had actually already visited it in my mind. However, along the trip I understood more why I had this feeling of familiarity - it had to do more with my training in the Uraniwa Dojo but I will explain this at the very end of my third and final part of my Japanese experience.

In Tokyo, at the start of my trip, I had some academic work responsibilities at the Marunouchi campus of the Kwansei Gakuin University. My talk and discussion with Japanese researchers dealing with European affairs went well and with a sense of accomplishment, I was looking forward to focusing on my 'Karate pilgrimage'. I had two main goals in Tokyo – at the beginning of my stay to meet Joe Swift Sensei from the Mushinkan Dojo and towards the end of my time in Tokyo practice at the Komeikan Dojo. After talking to Swift Sensei, I also decided to visit the Engaku-ji temple in Kita-Kamakura.

On my first full day in Tokyo, before meeting with Swift Sensei, I went on to explore some parts of the city. I visited the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace – the only part of the Palace grounds that is open to the public without reservation. I also saw the Imperial Palace that is the former Edo castle, the seat of the Shogunate. It was turned into the Imperial Palace in 1868 when Edo (then renamed to Tokyo) became the capital. It is open to the public only on two days in the year – 23 December, the Emperor's birthday and 2 January, for the New Year Greeting. I realised just later that walking around the moat surrounding the whole Palace was actually 5km long route used – despite the heat – by many runners for their training. It was becoming later in the afternoon and I had one more place I wanted to visit that day which was the Meiji Jingu shrine.

Ninomaru Garden, East Gardens of the Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace

Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine opened in 1920 and located in Shibuya in Tokyo. It is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. This was really the first stop on my Karate pilgrimage as it was here that the Miyagi Chojun Commemorative Demonstration was held on 7 May 1978. The yard in the shrine is quite large and I could just imagine the Karate demonstrations taking place there. Shinto is called Japan's ancient original religion and it is deeply rooted in the way of Japanese life. Shinto has no founder, no holy book and not even the concept of religious conversion, but it values harmony with nature. In Shinto, some divinity is found as Kami (divine spirit) and out of gratitude people have dedicated shrines to many of them. The shrine is surrounded by a man made forest of 100,000 trees that were donated by people who wanted to commemorate the Emperor and Empress. It is quite fascinating because when you visit the shrine you don't feel like being in the centre of Tokyo. The forest is quite large and it separates the peaceful shrine from the busy business part of the city full of skyscrapers.

Torii leading to the Meiji Jingu shrine

Because this was the first shrine that I visited in Japan it was here that I had my first experience of Temizuya (water purification basin). In every shrine in Japan on the way to the main sanctuary visitors go through a purification ritual. After I visited a couple of shrines it became a habit and somehow an important part of the experience.

Temizuya in front of the Meiji Jingu shrine

The evening was approaching and I didn't even know where the time went. I left the shrine with a nice feeling. When I visited shrines or temples in Japan I often forgot about time as these were places where I could pause, reflect and have a few quiet moments for myself. I was on my way towards the exit when I heard the announcement that the shrine is closing and a guard near the entrance door let me out. I was just wondering how it would be if I would be locked there!

The Meiji Jingu shrine is not too far by public transport from the Meguro station where I was meeting Swift Sensei. My time in Tokyo was limited and I was not staying over the coming weekend, therefore, I could not visit the Mushinkan Dojo for training. I hope that I will have an opportunity to do so next time. However, I was very grateful that Sensei had time to meet up for a dinner and talk about Karate and his experiences. Later on also his wife joined us and it turned out to be a very enjoyable evening.

Swift Sensei is extremely knowledgeable and talking to him was a real learning experience. We spoke about his latest book 'The Essence of Naha-te', the research that he does, about development of Karate and where it stands these days. We discussed also my next travel steps and when I said that I am planning to visit Kamakura the day after he mentioned that I could also visit the Engaku-ji temple where Funakoshi Sensei's monument is located. I wrote down the details about how to get there and got quite excited about the idea of visiting an important monument on the mainland and paying respects to Funakoshi Sensei.

If there was one thing that really stayed with me from my meeting with Swift Sensei it was his comment about black belt gradings these days. He said that grading should not be seen as a reward for what a karateka did but rather as a responsibility for what s/he will do in the future. The focus should be a lot more on what the karateka does next with all that s/he has learnt and where s/he takes it. Many perceive black belts as a final destination and a reward for all the years of training whereas the emphasis should be more on the next steps and being aware of our position and passing on what we have learnt. I found these as very wise words that have a real value. Inspired by the talk, I was already looking forward to my trip to Kamakura the day after.

Engaku-ji: Being in the right place at the right time

I think that when we travel to an unknown country for a longer period there comes a moment or two that stay with us forever. It is usually rather unexpected but we remember the place and the feeling that came with it long after. For me this moment came in Engaku-ji.

Engaku-ji is considered the second most important temple of the Kamakura Five Mountain Zen temples (Rinzai Zen Buddhism). It is located in Kita-Kamakura and was founded in 1282 to honour the spirits of those who died on both sides of the Battles against Mongolia. Nowadays it consists of 18 temples. The name of the temple comes from a copy of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Engaku means 'Perfect Enlightenment') that was found while the temple was constructed. The founder of the temple was Zen Master, Mugaku Sogen who arrived to Japan from China. Today, the temple is also known as 'The Temple of Spirit'.

Sanmon, Engaku-ji

The Sanmon or the Main Gate is the first part of the temple that you see when you enter the area. It is said that Sanmon represents San-Gedatsu-Mon: a gate for getting delivered from earthly bondage into three states of emptiness, no substances and no wants and it is believed that it clears away many kleshas. One must walk through Sanmon and break off from this world to pray to the principal image of Buddha in the Butsuden with a purified mind.

However, my main aim for coming to Engaku-ji was to visit Master Funakoshi's monument. The evening before my trip, I was looking online for more information about its location in the temple as I didn't want to miss it. But finding it was easier than I thought and I spotted it straight after walking through the Sanmon. It was my first opportunity in Japan to pay respects to a great Master. I thought to myself what a perfect place for a monument like this and I spent some quiet moments in front of it. I asked a gentleman passing by to take a picture and he was questioning if I know whose monument it was. He was very talkative and spoke about the temple and many other things! I really wished I could speak Japanese. The few sentences and words I knew were not enough for a longer conversation but in any case, people always appreciate the effort.

Funakoshi Sensei's monument was erected by the Shotokai in December 1968. On its left side is a calligraphy by Sogen Asahina, chief priest of the temple, reading Karate ni sente nashi (There is no first strike in Karate) - the second of Master's Twenty precepts. On the right side is a poem written by Funakoshi Sensei in 1922:

To search for the old is to understand the new.

The old, the new
This is a matter of time.

In all things man must have a clear mind.

The Way:
Who will pass it on straight and true?

Funakoshi memorial
Master Funakoshi's monument, Engaku-ji

In front of the monument is a stone with engraved words by Nobuhide Ohama that describe Sensei's life:

Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, of Karate-do, was born on June 10, 1870, in Shuri Okinawa. From about eleven years old he began to study To-te jutsu under Azato Anko and Itosu Anko. He practiced diligently and in 1912 became the president of the Okinawan Shobukai. In May of 1922, he relocated to Tokyo and became a professional teacher of Karate-do. He devoted his entire life to the development of Karate-do. He lived out his eighty-eight years of life and left this world on April 26, 1957. Reinterpreting To-te jutsu, the Sensei promulgated Karate-do while not losing its original philosophy. Like bugei (classical martial arts), so too is the pinnacle of Karate "mu" (enlightenment): to purify and make one empty through the transformation from "jutsu" to "do". Through his famous words 空手に先手なし (Karate ni sente nashi) meaning there is no first attack in Karate and 空手は君子の武芸 (Karate wa kunshi no bugei) meaning Karate is the martial art of intelligent people, Sensei helped us to better understand the term "jutsu". In an effort to commemorate his virtue and great contributions to modern Karate-do as a pioneer, we, his loyal students, organised the Shotokai and erected this monument at the Engakuji. "Kenzen ichi" ("The fist and Zen are one").

This temple has a special atmosphere or at least it seemed so to me. When I visited, there were not many tourists and it was very tranquil. In comparison to the temples in Kamakura or Tokyo which were full of visitors this temple had a very different feel. There were also a few people carefully weeding in the gardens and doing their daily works while paying attention to every detail. That kind of concentrated effort led to perfection and simplicity. The surrounding temple gardens were a great example of wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of beauty that comes from Buddhism.

Engaku-ji: View from the Hojo

The above picture really captures for me the temple's atmosphere. The green around was incredibly vivid and the blue sky just added another level to it; it created an unforgettable experience. This is the view from the Hojo which was originally used as a lounge for the Abbot of the temple but is now used for numerous functions, for instance Buddhist memorial services for the laity, Sunday Sermon Meetings, Zen Meetings, Summer lecture series and workshops. Before I left the temple, I visited Kaikibyo which is Engaku-ji patron Hojo Tokimune's mausoleum. On my entrance ticket to the mausoleum was a short piece of writing entitled 'Spoon'. I would like to share it with you as it includes a deep message:

Although the spoon is soaked in soup many times a day, it itself cannot understand the taste of the soup. But, unlike the spoon, just one drop of soup on your tongue can give you complete idea of how it tastes. What this means is that it gives you no meaning to meet the most honourable men or to read the most excellent books as long as you are insensitive like a spoon. It is completely worthless to read many books or to receive high education if you're too insensitive to learn wisdom from what you've experienced. Those who try to get a sense of peace by giving pains to others will never be able to cut himself off from a chain of grudge against him. We should not be insensitive of like this person. Wishing for this year to be better than last year, let's keep in mind that we do something good every day no matter how small it is.

(Butsunichian is 33rd Kamakura Kannon hallowed ground, Kamakura guardian deity of children hallowed ground 14th)

The peace that I felt in this temple stayed with me and it provided a perfect place for a pause and a quiet moment. It really felt like time stopped. I reconsidered my initial plans to see a number of other temples in Kamakura and decided to stay in Engaku-ji for longer. In the end, it turned out to be three hours but it was another experience showing that less is sometimes more.

Training at the Komeikan Dojo: An unforgettable experience

Before leaving for Tokyo, I wrote an email to the Komeikan Dojo of Toru Miyagi Sensei. I very much hoped that I would get a response and that if I was 'lucky' I would have a chance to practice with Chojun Miyagi Sensei's grandson. The idea of it seemed at the start a bit surreal but I did my best to introduce myself and after a couple of emails and an exchange of questions about my Karatedo background, my training and the kata I practice Toru Miyagi Sensei said that I can come to train with them on Friday – the day before I was leaving for Kyoto. From the start of our email conversation, I had a very good feeling about this encounter, mainly because how Miyagi Sensei wrote his email and the questions he asked me really reflected how teachers first tested their students. I valued this experience and was glad that it still exists these days and the true masters still approach their students with this attitude. During my trip I also became reassured that the martial artists who can teach you something of value and make a change in your life don't care about what grade you are but what you know and how you behave. And this was the case of Toru Miyagi Sensei.

Miyagi Sensei wrote me directions to the dojo and kindly offered that somebody will come and pick me up from the train station. I planed my travel and arrived early giving myself plenty of time. We agreed that we would meet in front of the train station, however, as it happens there were two exists! East or West? Fortunately, I had some phone numbers that Sensei gave me in his last email so I rang one of them and got to speak to Sensei's son Manabu who gave me some instructions. I wished I could speak Japanese to make this a lot simpler but eventually a car pulled up and it was Miyagi Sensei driving and his student Tanaka-san at the back seat. From that moment, I just tried to go with the flow. I was very excited about what would come and the experiences that I would gather. I felt extremely lucky to be in the presence of Chojun Miyagi Sensei's grandson and to have an opportunity to practice with him. In Toru Miyagi's eyes, I could see his grandfather and that was making the whole experience a little bit surreal.

Komeikan Dojo
At the Komeikan Dojo
From left to right: Tanaka san, Toru Miyagi Sensei, me and Manabu Miyagi Sensei

The Komeikan Dojo is at the ground floor of Toru Miyagi Sensei's house. The dojo itself was very simple, with some hojo undo tools on the side and two pictures on the wall: Chojun Miyagi Sensei's picture and a calligraphy of Ho Goju Tondo ('The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness') – a line from the Bubishi that served as an inspiration for Chojun Miyagi Sensei to find name for the Goju-Ryu style.

We started the morning training with junbi-undo (called Goju Taiso by Toru Miyagi Sensei's father, Kei Miyagi), followed by uke waza techniques and then the focus was mainly on Sanchin and Tensho. Toru Miyagi Sensei emphasised Sanchin and Tensho as kata important for mental and physical training and noted that these are very different from other kata. His father, Kei Miyagi Sensei, used to call Sanchin 'Zen in standing'. Kata always reflect our mind. We always need to think about what we do next and what technique follows. The imaginary opponent has to be constantly present. There were some differences in how Sensei performed Sanchin and Tensho (in comparison to how I learnt it) but this related more to the number of steps forward. However, as Sensei noted, you can do the kata also in one line and it doesn't really matter how many steps you do. It needs to be practical and work. A good lesson to remember.

After the morning training Sensei asked me if I had any plans for the rest of the day and said that I could stay for the afternoon training too. I was very grateful to have this opportunity and a chance to practice more after a nice sushi lunch that Sensei took me to.

In the afternoon we went through almost all kata except Kururunfa and Suparinpei as towards the end we were running out of time. First, I performed a kata and then Sensei or his son Manabu demonstrated how they do it and we spoke about differences afterwards. I was initially a bit nervous as the whole idea of performing all kata in front of Miyagi Sensei was a bit of a challenge but I did my best. This kind of approach – comparing the performances - allowed me to learn and gave me also an opportunity to show how I practice. I was trying to remember as much as possible from the whole experience but there were also many details that are now gone. Miyagi Sensei spoke some English and Tanaka-san was very helpful with translating but if I could understand Japanese, it would have taken it to a different level. However, sometimes words are not that important because it is more about seeing and feeling a technique because that allows us to remember it. However, being better at Japanese language remains my aspiration for the future. At the end of the day, Sensei said that I am welcome to come and train with them again – hopefully next time for longer. I treasure this invite as an expression of trust and as a responsibility to continue my training and improve.

After we finished the afternoon session, Sensei asked me if I would join them for dinner. I was very grateful for that as well as for the generosity and kindness that I encountered throughout the whole day. I found that a truly humble experience. For dinner, I tasted for the first time an eel and whenever I heard about the eel later on during my trip, it always brought back a nice memory! Time outside the dojo – the lunch and dinner - offered also a good opportunity to speak and talk about Karate.

My time in Tokyo was coming to an end and I couldn't have imagined a day better spent than at the Komeikan. Tanaka-san was kind to drive me to a closer train station, which made my journey back a lot less complicated. On the way home, I was reflecting on the experience and thinking about the whole day. I was just happy and thankful.

On Saturday morning, I was to leave for Kyoto to meet my sempai and an inspirational budoka Sue Eddie. I was looking forward to seeing her and spending the next six days in the former capital of Japan that I had heard so much about. But I will share this experience in Part 2 of my trip to Japan.

Katarina Lezova

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”