The Shinsodo
by Richard Barrett

After returning from Okinawa and training at the Jun Do Kan in 2011, whilst training in my small Dojo one day, I soon came to realise that I needed more space and so came up with a ridiculous idea.

We live in an old rammed earth farm house, built by digging out the hillside and pressing the earth into wooden formers to build the walls, which are about 80cm thick. The new owner of the house worked the land at the front and had live stock in and around the house. Sheds at the back had chickens and rabbits (which I transformed into the Shinsokan, when I first came here) and they had also dug two small caves into the hillside, at the back of the house, with a small wall constructed at the front of these and within this they kept pigs.

My idea was to enlarge these two small caves (approx 1.5 meters cubed) and join them together to form one large cave and then construct it into a Dojo. I had never heard of anyone having a dojo in a cave, so thought it would be unique. All cave dwellings hold a constant temperature of approximately 20 degrees, so it'd be cool to train in the summer and warm in the winter. But I knew that would mean a lot of soil would be coming out. At the front of my house there is a small track leading up to a couple more houses and on the other side of this is the start of my land; the land drops and is terraced. I had the idea to build a dry stone wall a couple or meters parallel to the existing wall and fill it with the earth from the cave. I ordered a lorry of stone to be tipped on the terrace and started construction with the first line of the dry stone wall and started digging in the caves.

Wall

I needed to be able to stand in the caves to excavate, so I started on the ceilings using an SDS hand held electric chisel and a wheelbarrow below. I had in mind that the project would take 2 years to complete and thought I would limit myself to digging out 3 wheelbarrows a day.

After a week or so of digging out the ceilings and carrying the wheelbarrows around the side of the house and dumping them down the hillside, I noticed that because the earth in the caves is compacted (the reason you can make a cave in this part of the world), you dug out say 20cm cubed but by the time it hit the wheelbarrow below, it had doubled in size! It was now time to join the two caves, and so the digging turned horizontally, three wheel barrows dug out of one side and the next day the other side.

This went on for a while to the point where I wondered if I had missed the other. I had a 1 meter long drill bit and aimed through to the other cave and then went around to see if I could see the tip, nothing. I measured from the back wall of the house to see I was lining up and continued the dig, a couple of days later and the drill came back out, but this time when I looked for the tip it was visible and gave me encouragement and relief yet it also gave me a reference point so that I could see that one floor was 15 cm above the other, something else to think about for the future.

A couple of days later, one cave broke through to the other and over the next couple of weeks I ended up with a nice long tube of a cave.

Richard Barrett digging

When ever students came to train, they would help me in-between sessions, with the wall or the dig-out. Some were more enthusiastic than others, and throughout these days a little more excavating was done but generally I stuck to my 3 barrows a day rule which didn't impede to much on my normal day.

I came to the conclusion that a good size for this new dojo was 6 meters by 4 meters. Now that the caves were joined, I continued to dig the length of the dojo to create a 6 meter long tube, and then turned my direction in towards the hill side to start to get the width. Day after day the wall and the cave were growing, when I had got over half the width, my attention went towards the ceiling. All good caves have a curved roof, this being a nice strong structure. So with a 2.5 meter straight bar, with one end set half way on the floor, I could use the other end as a guide to achieve this curve.

The dig continued, taking slices upon slices in towards the hill side and up some steps to curve the ceiling, three barrows a day, day after day. Occasionally, I would start to unearth rocks that appeared and I would wonder at the time how big would they get, how much of a problem were they going to cause. Luckily most were manageable and could be rolled out of the cave while others had to be broken up once they had fallen to the floor.

One year later, with over 1000 wheelbarrow taken out and approximately 90 tons of soil deposited behind a new stone wall, the dig was finished. I was now standing in a 4x6 meter cavern, preparing now for the dojo build.

Cave

First I needed to add some structural strength. I went and bought a few sheets of metal netting, these were dragged into the cave and pushed up against the walls, cut into the contours and then joined together with wire. This gave a nice metal shell to the walls and roof. I then took the time to do the first fix for the electrics. On paper I had already decided there was going to be four lights, one in each corner and a double socket, just inside the 1st front door, and two light switches at each door. This all came back to a junction box and this would then exit the cave to connect to the house. Now it was time to cover this with a thick layer of cement. I knew this would be a long job, so again patience and timing would be important so that it didn't intrude on my family life. I picked a patch, spaced the metal away from the wall to get cement behind the net and started to throw the cement from a wheelbarrow onto the walls; it was strange at first to be going in the opposite direction with a loaded wheelbarrow.

Cementing Cementing

On the front wall I had already carved out an alcove, which would be my Tokunoma, and had cut some black granite to act as a shelf and sides. The top, like in the other dojo, would be a piece of orange wood that used to be part of a donkey basket-carrying harness; I liked the shape of these when I first found them, 10 years ago.

Shomen Shomen

Over the following months patch after patch was joined and an estimated 120 wheel barrows of cement were thrown at the walls and the ceiling (very good for the wrist and Ura uke/Ura ken) until it was complete.

Cemented

Next job to plaster all the walls and ceiling in white plaster. This was done over the following week, and because of all the curves, proved to be more difficult than first thought.

Shomen

The cave now was completely transformed, having before been quite dark in there, now it was white and bright. Two metal doors were put into the entrances (with windows cut into the top of each of them), wooden frames were made and then mosquito netting was stapled to the openings for this would allow good air flow through the cave to stop any mould from starting and would also stop flies and bugs coming in. Now I could do the second fix of the electrics and used roof tiles as covers for the four corner lights.

The wall and ceiling were complete, now for one of the most important jobs for a dojo, the floor.

A carpenter friend had told me of a wood yard that had tongue and groove flooring, so one Saturday morning I set off with my son in the van with the trailer attached, to the next town over to purchase the timber. They unfortunately only had 21 square meters and I needed 24. I also bought 60 meters of 5cm x 8cm timber that would act as joists under the flooring.

I levelled the floor, treated all the timbers and started to lay the flooring over the next couple of weeks, until I ran out of tongue and groove. I had been told the next shipment would arrive from Finland within the month and so went to do the skirting for the floor that I had laid. I bought some natural stone and cemented them as skirting. I already had made via a pottery shop, 5 Chinese animals that symbolise our group: the turtle, the dragon, the tiger, the snake and the phoenix. These were cemented into various locations on the walls, with the exception of the snake with was cemented to the centre of ceiling.

Floor Floor

A second lot of plastering to blend it all into the walls and I was nearly there.

Waiting for the next shipment of wood meant a delay, but as three quarters of the flooring was down I couldn't resist, and started to use the dojo and came up against another problem: because the walls and ceiling were all white with no sharp corners, they all blended into one, so as you practised your kata and got close to a wall, your vision played tricks with your distancing and you didn't know whether you were going to kick or punch the wall, being almost snow blinded with so much white and no references. So even though the construction wasn't quite complete, it was time to dress the dojo.

The other dojo is full of picture frames and different ornaments to help inspire and enhance the training that takes place their. In the cave dojo, I wanted the mood to be a lot less busy. So only a few hojo undo tools were brought in and on the back wall, a kata list and the dojo kun were mounted either side of a clock. On the left hand wall three pieces of calligraphy from Eiichi Miyazato Sensei and on the right wall two pieces of calligraphy. All these items were gifts from students and much appreciated. On the front wall, photos of previous sensei of Goju Ryu and in the alcove a statue of Busaganashi. Above this I carved some kanji into a piece of wood which displayed the sentiments that he stood for.

Shomen Joseki Shimoza

The wood from Finland came in soon after and I was able to finish the floor. The intention had been to complete the dojo in two years and true enough the interior was done, although I had to make a correction to the floor, putting floor vents at either end to allow air circulation under the floor.

I have started to build an entrance way to the right hand doorway and eventually the left hand doorway will have a similar entrance, with an built-in cupboard to house the cleaning equipment for the dojo. I also intend to tidy up the outside with stone terracing and a small garden. Even so, the most important thing to me is that I have spread my karate renshu into a new area and brought another small amount of satisfaction to my life.

Shomen

As I have stated before in the interview with Garry, I do not consider myself as anyone special, but if my training over the last 40 years has given me tenacity to complete a project, given me patience, has not made me lazy or a person who makes excuses, someone that wants something attainable and finds a way to make it happen, then the years of training have been all worth while.

Karate Do has given this to me, or at least revealed and nurtured these qualities though consistent training and reflection.

How about you, the karateka reading this, does your Karate unveil and hone your true character? Perhaps you're not that concerned and consider it too troublesome. Perhaps the Karate you practise is so superficial, that it could never take you to the point where you see your true nature? Miyazato Eiichi Sensei once said that "anyone can learn to kick and punch", and if that's all you want then fine, superficial physical Karate. But if you want a real challenge and fight, then you had better start to look within, and to do this you will have to hunt for an authentic Karate-do dojo and sensei, for without them, in my opinion, its an impossible journey.

Richard Barrett
June 2013

“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.”