Japan: Walking in the Footsteps of the Masters
(Part 2 - Kyoto)
by Katarina Lezova

The second part of my Japan diary reflects on my time spent in Kyoto and the trips I made in and out of this city. It includes more pictures than the previous one but I hope that you will enjoy the added element that they provide to my written description of the events, situations and experiences. To be honest, I tried to minimise the number of photos as much as possible so that the second report is not just about pictures!

After five days spent in Tokyo, on Saturday morning I took a Shinkansen train to Kyoto. The travel was very smooth and in general the public transport in Japan is extremely reliable and comfortable. In a couple of hours I was about to meet with my sempai Sue Eddie, a great and inspiring karateka with whom I had the chance to train once last year when she visited our Uraniwa Dojo. I felt very lucky that she would have time to come for three days to Kyoto and show me around as she used to live there. Also, I would have the opportunity to meet and train with her Karate sensei Ueno Sensei. Sue has been living in Japan for the past twenty years and for me, she has been an inspiration and somebody who lives by example. Never before have I met such a strong female karateka who despite her power keeps her softness and beauty. Also, if you spend just five minutes with her you have no option but to smile and keep positive. She transmits positivity, so you can imagine how I felt after three days spent with her in Kyoto.

My time in Kyoto was divided into two parts: the first three days spent with Sue and the next three days - on my own - travelling around Kyoto. When I arrived in Kyoto we arranged to meet Sue at one of the underground stations. All went according to plan and it was nice to see her again.

Our idea for Saturday was to book into our hostel and then go straight to the Tao Centre for some Buddhist chanting. I was very excited to practice chanting in Kyoto. Sue practices Jodo Shu Buddhism. The Tao Centre was very tranquil and because it was August some other members of the Centre were away or travelling and it was only three of us doing the chanting. I was first introduced to Buddhism through my Karate teacher Garry Lever and then started my study of Nichiren Buddhism with his sensei Tsukamoto. I started to study it in the summer so it was early days for me and I was looking forward to experience a longer chanting session. Most of the session was spent in seiza and I went through a real challenge where my perseverance and determination were tested. I don't have a problem to sit in seiza but I soon realised that sitting in it for an hour and half is a different story. Sue mentioned at the start that if my legs hurt and I found it difficult to sit it would be absolutely fine to sit cross legged. I nodded in agreement but decided that I would push myself as much as I could and aim to endure the whole session. At the start, I didn't know how long it would last for and maybe that was good! I have to say that this chanting pushed me quite to my limits. My legs were giving up but I tried to focus on the chanting. In the middle of the session we stood up and walked in circles while chanting. I stood up but my legs below the knees were completely numb. Sue showed me how to quickly stretch so that I got the blood circulating properly again. I look back at it now and it was a great experience. Sue mentioned later that they chant for a lot longer, so this session was relatively short. After we finished we had tea and nuts and shared some experiences with the lady who led the session. Later during my last day with Sue we spoke about this experience in depth and had a proper laugh as I was describing to Sue how I felt and she was telling me how she thought I was so stubborn not to sit cross legged!

I was looking forward to spending a few days with Sue because I had only met her once before and I felt that I could learn a lot from her. Also, I knew that we would have many opportunities to share experiences and talk about life in general. On Saturday night we went for a walk to Kyoto town centre and Sue took me to a nice sushi place. For me this trip was about understanding the culture of Japan through training but also through food, customs and mostly people. It was interesting that when I was in Tokyo Swift Sensei and my friend Aya both took me to an Okinawan place for food, so I was already familiar with Goya champuru or Okinawan Soba noodles and could definitely say that I really liked them.

The next day in the morning we had breakfast near the Kamogawa river, planned some sightseeing and then early in the afternoon we were going to train with Sue's Karate sensei Ueno, so we had our gi in the backpacks. First, we visited the Chion Ji Temple. Its Sanmon Gate is the largest wooden gate in Japan. Once we went through the Sanmon, we had to climb many stairs to get to the main temple area. Currently, the main hall is under reconstruction but we had a walk around the grounds and stopped near a pond with beautiful yellow lotus flowers. Sue mentioned that we were quite lucky as the flowers open for one day only. Literally next to the temple is the Maruyama Park. During the cherry blossom season this is a very popular place and is full of visitors. Finally, we spent some time in the Yasaka Jinja Shrine. This is a very famous Shinto shrine in Kyoto. It's also called Gion Shrine as it's located near the famous Gion district. Afterwards we went for a lunch at the Shinjo street. This is a busy street full of restaurants and souvenir shops. We had also some ice matcha tea from one of the small shops and it came as a welcome relief as it was incredibly hot. Shortly we went to a couple of souvenir shops to cool down. I am not a big fan of air conditioning in general but in Japan it was very welcome.

Sanmon Gate of the Chion Ji temple, Kyoto
Visiting the Yasaka shrine with my sempai and friend Sue Eddie, Kyoto

The training at the Jun Ei Kan Shi Kan Dojo with Sue's sensei Yoshiaki Ueno was to start at 3pm and we had to take a bus from Kyoto. Ueno Sensei's dojo is located on the Heizan mountain at the border of Kyoto and Shiza. This journey was also a good experience for me as it was the first time that I had to use a bus in Japan. Sue explained to me how the buses work and that you pay at the end of your journey the amount that appears on the screen in the bus depending on which stop you got on. This was very useful to know for when I was in Okinawa traveling by bus to Hokama Sensei's Karate museum.

As is the case with most traditional dojo, it was in Sensei's house. Besides teaching Karate Sensei is also a Buddhist priest. As I have already found out myself the study of martial arts and Buddhism is interlinked and very complementary. When we arrived we changed into gi and Sue introduced me to some of the dojo members. The practice usually runs so that everybody does his or her own junbi undo and then focuses on some aspects of it. The dojo has mirrors so students can check their posture. This was a new and interesting experience, as I am not used to mirrors during my training.

I started to do junbi undo and one of Sue's sempai Taniguchi-san helped me and advised me on some parts of it. The advice mostly related to relaxation and correct exhalation when doing junbi undo dai san but we also spent some time on the cat stretch. Ueno Sensei came later when everybody was working on some aspects of their training. It reminded me very much of the traditional dojo where everybody practiced what he or she needed. Sempai helped their kohai but everybody took responsibility for their own training. Sue introduced me to Ueno Sensei and I had a chance to give him some gifts for accepting me to the dojo as a visitor and giving me an opportunity to participate in their training. He asked me briefly about my sensei and the lineage – we spoke about Miyazato Sensei whose many pictures were hanging in the dojo – and then he placed the gifts on the altar in the dojo. I would like to take this opportunity and say thank you to Sue who organised my training and introduction to her sensei as I understand how important this was.

We then followed with some kihon. This was done in a circle with everybody counting to ten. It was very hot and humid on that day so the training was quite demanding. We followed with kakie. I was paired with Matsui-san, an older gentleman who was 71 and very strong with kakie. We met him with Sue at the bus stop in Kyoto. He travels to the training from Osaka which is quite a journey – just another testament to the traditional way of training and of the determination that students show when they find the 'right' teacher. Just observing practice at another dojo and the way the students behaved was another learning experience.

After kakie we went through all kata one by one. Sue told me that I was quite lucky and that Sensei did this for me to have a look at all I knew. We spent some time on Sanchin too and Sensei advised me on some parts of it. Initially, when I first met Ueno sensei he appeared quite strict and I was not sure what to expect but I just thought to do my best and go with the flow of the training. However, I soon realised that he has a very warm character which was even more evident during the after training party that was to follow. I also started to get used to Sue talking to me in Japanese! She had frequently done it particularly during the training when she was correcting me. Other students in the dojo noticed it too and we had a laugh together. Karate training can be hard and requires physical and mental determination but it's good to have balance between go and ju and sometimes these moments of laughter and smiles belong to the whole experience as much as the hard training. Sue helped me with a number of things in my junbi undo and kata, the main aim was to blend the techniques so that everything was smooth and relaxed. I have still a lot to work on but a few things 'clicked' during the training and made me feel differently about certain things.

There was also another student, an 82 year old gentleman who used to be a professor at the Kyoto University and even spent a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He started with Karate when he was 60 on recommendation by his doctor. He was having some health problems and his doctor knew Ueno Sensei and recommended that Karate might be helpful. I have already learnt that in Japan age doesn't mean anything and it definitely does not represent any limitation in respect to what you can or can't do. This is a great contrast to how things are perceived in the West.

We trained for three hours and then Sensei announced that training would be a bit shorter on that day as they prepared a party for Sue to celebrate her great summer achievement – she brought the Peace flame from Hiroshima to Tokyo by bicycle – about 850km! The Flame was then to go to Jerusalem and other places in Europe as part of the Earth Caravan project. I was very lucky to take part in the party as it gave me an opportunity to talk to others outside the dojo over some delicious food and to enjoy the nice atmosphere after the training. At the very end, before our departure Sensei said that when I next visit Japan I am very welcome to come and train with them again. I was grateful for these words and everybody made me feel very welcome at the dojo. Ikai-san, another student in the dojo was very kind and gave us a lift back to Kyoto. This was very helpful as it was getting quite late and buses were not very frequent.

Juneikanshikan Dojo
Training with Yoshiaki Ueno Sensei and his students, Jun Ei Kan Shi Kan Dojo

On my last day with Sue we did more sightseeing. We visited the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and walked up the Inari Mountain, which was a really good experience and a good break from the town. While walking up the mountain we met only a few people as most visitors just stay near the main shrine or walk through the Senbon Torii to the Inner shrine. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is the head shrine of the 30,000 Inari-sha shrines nationwide. It has been a place of wide worship for the guardian god of abundant crops, businesses, prosperity and family safety since the God of harvest (Inari Okami) was housed on Mt. Inari. Inari Okami's servant is the fox and therefore, this symbol is everywhere around. However, it is said that this fox is not a fox that lives in the fields but a spirit fox that is believed to convey our wishes to Inari Okami. Another symbol of the shrine is the vermillion colour which has been considered to symbolise life force and counteracts spells. Many of the shrine buildings and toriis have a very vivid colour. There are approximately 10,000 toriis that stand on the grounds of the shrine and these have been offered by the worshippers as a form of gratitude and their prayers.

The Fox, servant of Inari Okami (God of harvest)
Senbon Torii
Senbon Torii (1,000 shrine gates)

After we walked through the Senbon Torii to the Inner shrine it started to go up the hill. Soon we were in a bamboo forest and that was an experience in itself. While walking through the forest we passed near a Shinto graveyard.

The bamboo forest on Mt. Inari

We then continued down the other side of Mt. Inari as Sue had a plan to take me to Momoyama castle (called also Fushimi castle) and then she had some kind of surprise for me. On that day we did so much walking! On the way to Momoyama castle Sue showed me the house where she used to live when she was in Kyoto. I very much appreciated her time and having her as guide was great as on my own I would never visit some of the places she took me to. For instance, the Momoyama castle doesn't really have signs to it and it's not a place visited by many people these days because the castle itself is not open to the public anymore but the grounds are accessible. The castle was built for Toyotomi Hideyoshi who ruled Japan in 16th century. However, in the following century it was completely demolished and then rebuilt only in 1964.

Momoyama castle, Kyoto's Fushimi Ward

After we spent some time near the castle, relaxed a bit with a cold drink after quite a lot of walking there was one more place Sue wanted me to go. She didn't want to tell me where we were heading so I was quite excited. It was the Tomb of Emperor Meiji. This was actually the original location of the Fushimi castle. When I was in Tokyo I visited the Meiji Jingu shrine which was dedicated to Emperor Meiji's and his wife's divine souls. It was quite interesting to find out about it and for me to realise the link. This is a sacred place where people come to pay their respects. It was a very peaceful place with looked after gardens. From there we had a great view over Kyoto. But obviously the view meant that was on top of a hill and therefore, Sue took me down the hill so that I can walk up the stairs that led to the tomb! The stairs were huge. We walked them up as brisk as possible – on that day it was extremely hot and humid so that was a good exercise in itself. Sue – as most of the time – was running ahead of me!

After visiting the tomb we headed back to the town but before that we stopped for some well-deserved late lunch – cold noodles. We were talking about the past three days and our time together. Sue also asked me about my chanting experience and what I felt. I was really honest and described how I focused on 'survival in seiza' and was checking the clock frequently towards the end. We had a good laugh together sharing our thoughts and perspectives. I had an amazing time with Sue and was really glad that we could spend some time together. We said our goodbyes as Sue was heading back home that evening. I felt a little bit sad that Sue was gone but that was probably also due to the realisation that from now on I will be on my own for most of the time and actually the biggest challenges were just ahead of me. I also knew that I will be busy travelling, exploring and meeting new people so at the same time I was also excited. In Kyoto I felt very comfortable and quite settled.

Stairs to Emperor Meiji's tomb, Kyoto

My plan for the next day was to visit Nara. The Shinkansen train from Kyoto took about 50 minutes so it was a rather quick journey. Nara used to be a capital of Japan (from 710 to 784 when it was called Heijokyo). I was glad that I had a chance to visit not only the current capital, Tokyo, but also two former capitals including both Kyoto and Nara. In the central part of Nara City is the Nara Park which includes many temples - the most famous being the Todaiji Temple. Nara is definitely a treasure where history and culture blends in one and if you ever visit Kyoto I very much recommend that you pay a visit to Nara too. Nara is also famous for its deer. There are about 1200 wild deer walking freely around the park. When they see that you have got some shika senbei (deer crackers) they even bow to you to ask for them!

After I visited the beautiful Yoshikien Garden I headed towards the Nandaimon Gate – a big gate with two enormous and fierce looking statues of Neo guardians. They were carved in the 13th century and were recently restored. They appear very 'alive' and I was really impressed by their size and the feeling that they give you when you look deep into their eyes; you could see true martial arts spirit in them. My sensei Garry Lever often mentioned these statues in our training, including their meaning and we also have a small version of them in the Uraniwa dojo. I read about them before but I really understood all he was talking about when I stood in front of these two statues. Once again, I was reminded that you need to experience things yourself, see the martial spirit in their eyes; you also need to be there to witness the beauty of this really impressive art work as each of the statues is over 8 metres tall. I really paused here to take this moment in. These two statues are protectors against evil spirits and stand at the entrance of most Buddhist temples (at Shinto shrines, for instance the earlier mentioned Fushimi Inari this role is taken by the two foxes). They symbolise birth and death of all things – beginning and end. One of the statues, called Agyo has open mouth and represents birth. On the other side the closed mouthed Ungyo represents death.

Agyo - Ungyo
Agyo & Ungyo, Nandai-mon gate, Todaiji Temple

Then I walked to the Todaiji Temple which is famous for the massive statue of the Great Buddha also known as Daibutsu (in Sanskrit Vairocana). It is one of the largest bronze Buddha images in the world. The temple was founded in 8th century, burnt down twice and was finally rebuilt in 1709 when it was scaled down to just two-thirds of the original size. The temple belongs to the Kegon school of Buddhism which is based on the Flower Garland Sutra. Walking towards the Daibutsuden Hall I was preparing myself for the sight. It really was an experience to see the statue of Great Buddha; it is impressive weighing 500 tonnes and measuring 14.98 metres in height. I spent some time in the temple and paused here while looking at the Great Buddha with each of his hands sending a different message through a different mudra: 'fear not' and 'welcome'. There are also other statues in the main hall – on each of Buddha's sides is a Bodhisattva and there are also two Buddha's guardians. It was a special experience and was definitely something that you need to see to comprehend its impact. I spent the rest of the day walking around the park a visiting a few other sites.

Daibutsu, Todaiji Temple, Nara

When I met Swift Sensei in Tokyo I told him about my plan to visit Hiroshima during my stay in Kyoto and he mentioned that his friend sensei Mark Tankosich lives there and that he could try to put me in touch. I had heard about sensei Tankosich before but I didn't know that he lives in Hiroshima. We exchanged a couple of emails and I started to look forward to meeting him. I took an early train directly to Hiroshima and when I arrived the sky was grey and by the time I got out of the station it started to rain quite heavily. I thought about how symbolic it was. It was 12 August and just six days before people commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped over Hiroshima. I wanted to visit this place to pay my respects to the people who died but also out of respect to Sue Eddie's 850km bike ride to Tokyo when she carried the Hiroshima Peace Flame.

I was meeting Tankosich Sensei in the evening and therefore, had the whole day ahead of me. I soon realised that I would definitely need to buy an umbrella as the rain was getting heavier. I spent a few moments near the Atomic Bomb Dome in the Peace Memorial Park. Its ruins became a symbol of Hiroshima and were registered in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's quite difficult to describe how you feel when you stand there. This really has to be experienced but I have to say that it was powerful and quite emotional particularly later when standing in front of the Children's Peace Monument. Through the Park I walked to the Museum. To be honest, this was quite demanding to go through at times but I believe that it was an important experience; very much part of my Japan trip and I am very glad that I made the effort to visit. One hopes that humanity has learnt from its mistakes and that the Flame that burns in Hiroshima now is about remembering the past and having hope for the future.

Sensei Mark Tankosich practices Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Jodo and Shindo Muso-ryu jo. He also studied Sho-ha Shorin-ryu Karate. He has lived in Hiroshima for over twenty years and teaches at the University. I have to say that it was very good to meet him. We spoke about Karate, his time in Japan, teaching and life in general. We spoke about our families and 'why we are where we are' at the moment. I also told him about the strange familiarity that I felt in Japan and the feeling of having visited this place before. I slowly started to understand the reasons behind it but as Tankosich Sensei said I might have been well prepared for the trip from my dojo, so that the culture was introduced to me there and as a result, I didn't find it strange. I was grateful for having the opportunity for this meeting and it made the end of my day in Hiroshima really enjoyable. It was time to go back to Kyoto so I took a late train and arrived just before midnight. The journey back gave me enough time to process the Hiroshima experience and think about some of the thoughts we exchanged with Mark Tankosich Sensei. I hope to return and meet him again.

The A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
Katarina - Mark Tankosich
With Sensei Mark Tankosich, Hiroshima

On my last day in Kyoto I wanted to take it a little bit easier and actually stayed in Kyoto. I went to the river and had my breakfast there while watching two white cranes. I then visited the Heian Jingu shrine where Miyagi Sensei demonstrated Karate when he visited Kyoto. It is a nice shrine and its yard is quite large – I could vividly picture a Karate demonstration taking place there. Once again, I thought that I would manage to see a few more shrines on that day but I decided to see this one properly and after I entered its garden, I knew that a similar scenario as in Engaku-ji temple would repeat itself. I spent a couple of hours walking around in this beautiful garden with ponds, lotus flowers and pine trees. It provided me with a good opportunity to reflect on my days spent in Kyoto, think about the experiences and start preparing for what comes next. The day after in the morning, I was leaving from Osaka to Okinawa. I was very excited but also aware that this third part of my trip would be the most challenging for in Tokyo or Kyoto I stayed with friends or met people I knew, however, in Okinawa I would be left completely to my own devices. I will describe this final experience in Part 3 of my journey notes.

Heian Jingu
Heian Jingu shrine, Kyoto
Garden near the Heian Jingu shrine, Kyoto

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.”