Now we laugh about our trip in 1971 to Okinawa, my friend Mike and I—he was 23, I, 28—and sometimes, if it's late at night and we've had enough to drink, we talk about returning, just to look around, eat sushi, and check out the clubs in Namina-ue. Mostly, though, we think about the karate school of the Old Master. Nostalgia often can't discriminate between a warm shower and a scalding. Anyway, we managed to survive the trip with our sanity intact, though just barely.
We had come to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, with Ohima, our karate instructor, who was returning home after spending three years in the U.S. The purpose of our trip was to study karate in the dojo school of Nakahima, the Old Master, and to absorb the culture of the island where karate had developed. Naha was a city of squalor, far from the island paradise painted for us in America.
We had been studying in Naha for close to a month, and the temperature had been over 100° every day. After a two-hour workout in the dojo, the thermometer usually was pegged at 115°, and I was dropping from eight to 10 pounds a day. In addition, Okinawa was experiencing its worst drought in 50 years.
For many weeks we toiled in the dojo, where we were greeted by pettiness and by rancor instead of the promised blend of physical toughness and spiritual purity. No matter how hard we drilled, the heat kept us awake at night, and we took to drinking beer in the air-conditioned all-night sushi parlor.
November 19, 1979
Only twice was our routine interrupted. Once we took a late night journey with a native Okinawan through the mosquito-ridden countryside to meet a revered bow-staff maker.
Rural Okinawa was as dismal as the city, and littered with civilization's cast-off debris. We stopped, finally, at an intersection flanked by a putrid swamp and some ramshackle huts. As in all matters of the spirit, one obviously had to suffer to reach the home of the bowmaker. After we met the tiny old man, however, we learned that he had given up making the ancient weapon for the more lucrative trade of turning out ornate leather belts for GIs. A Sunday afternoon visit to Nakahima's favorite Zen monk was also disappointing. He was a grandiose man who talked at length about freeing the mind of bodily concerns, while his Mercedes sat in the driveway, Venetian blinds shielding the leather upholstery from the sun.
Eventually, Nakahima started giving lectures before each evening class. Ohima translated these talks for us, and the recurring theme was a call for adherence to strict karate training and renunciation of the material world. Some renunciation! Upon our arrival in Okinawa, Nakahima had offered Mike and me a single room attached to the dojo, six feet by 10 feet, with a double-decker bed, for $125 per month apiece. Our humble apartment in Naha cost $65 a month.
The black belts began skipping Nakahima's lectures and only showed up in time for the workouts. Different men taught on various nights and each had his own idea of how the kata—a sequence of dance-like exercises performed with ritualized repetition—should be executed. None of the changes were according to the precise and fluid movements Ohima had taught us. The Old Master was losing his grip, and each black belt was taking the opportunity to do things his own way in direct contradiction to the time-honored precept of selfless dedication to the art.
Finally, one night, a special meeting of all black belts was convened to standardize the kata as it had been performed for decades. We awaited the outcome with a sense of relief, certain that Ohima would straighten out the young upstarts, bring a semblance of continuity to Nakahima's dojo and give us all a break from the unnerving nightly corrections. But Nakahima countermanded the very techniques Ohima, his protègè, taught and sided with several of the younger black belts. Ohima, who had devoted his life to the study of the Nakahima system, was visibly distressed, but he said nothing, at least not to us.
I had begun my study of karate one winter when I was low on money and had to curtail my New England ski trips. To people who asked why I studied I gave these reasons: to find inner peace, to reach a better understanding of my body, to improve my powers of concentration. The truth was I entertained all the same wild-west daydreams that lure thousands of others into dojos. I wanted to stride fearlessly down any back alley, to saunter into the toughest bar in town and order a glass of milk.
And so, on a snowy winter evening on eastern Long Island I stumbled into a dojo and for more than a year I strained and groaned my way through full-contact sparring, bumps on the head, bruises and tongue lashings about how karate would make me a man. One day a black belt opened a gash on the forehead of a much smaller brown belt. The next day I quit. I would either get myself maimed, or I would disfigure someone else. Neither possibility appealed to me.
Several months had passed when I heard about Ohima. The karate system had split into two separate schools, one following Ohima (and hence the Old Master, Nakahima), the other—mine—adhering to the full-contact approach. A guy I knew was working out in Ohima's school and talked me into coming with him to watch a class.
Ohima moved with the controlled power of a caged tiger, and taught by example with calmness and patience. He was a small man whose strength seemed understated. After class I talked to him and told him why I had quit karate.
"People who come into the dojo see many things," he said. "Maybe they think karate will make them tough street fighters; but ones who stay, who study for long time, are interested in something else. I believe true understanding of yourself is possible, but that takes very long. A karate teacher has great responsibility. He can turn out students who are animals, who want to fight, or he can teach so that his students will find the inner peace that I believe exists in true karate. This instructor's students will do all they can to avoid violence, because they will learn true dignity which, of course, must extend to all men...but to teach this is very hard."
Late that night I called my friend Mike and told him about Ohima. We decided to study with him and earn our black belts. For the next three years we worked out constantly. We would sit and talk with Ohima until the early hours of the morning, listening while he spoke about karate training, about the importance of practicing kata, until, one day, if we trained long and hard enough, we would reach "mu-shin," the ego-less state of mind that knows no fear of failure or of death, and the kata would perform itself. He was a man of unsurpassed skill in his art. He followed Nakahima, his master, and when Ohima decided to return home, Mike and I followed.
Three days after the disturbing black belts' meetings, we told Ohima that his promises of open arms and true spiritual development had been empty, that we had had enough. He asked us to remain, and we didn't have the heart to refuse. So we stayed a while longer in the heat, among unfriendly people, working out harder than before and drinking with Ohima more than ever, until one night, in a tiny bar on a nameless street, he began talking earnestly to his fist, and refused to let us take him home. About a week after that our money ran out. With nothing left but a plane ticket, we departed from Okinawa for good.
There were happy things, though, to remember about the trip: the day I hit the jackpot on the one-arm bandit at the Seaman's Club; the sushi man who used to slip us extra slices of our favorite fish; and the old lady from South Carolina—called to Okinawa by her Baha'i faith. We once showed up at her door, numb from working out, bug-eyed from the heat and on the brink of desperation. "Why you boys," she said, grinning, "you're nothing but a couple of karate bums who won't ever come to any good." Then she made us sandwiches and iced tea while we sat in front of her fan, just breathing. I still have a photo of her with her dog, scolding us with an uplifted finger.
Ohima returned to America some months after we did, but he had changed. I guess we had, too. He took to meditating a great deal, and he began drinking again. Our late-night talks grew hollow. I saw students improve markedly in karate but remain the same outside the school, the human heart being harder to change than the body.
In karate technique, Ohima was the best I'd ever seen and, still, with all his speed and strength, he remained a peaceful man, true to the words he'd spoken to me when I met him. But to grow, I could no longer follow him. Mike and I stayed to earn our black belts, and having reached that small personal goal, we both moved on.
From time to time I still slip into my Gi and work out and for an hour or so I drift back into the world of the elusive kata. Sometimes, the moves begin to flow, one into the other, like carefully wrought parts of a precision machine, and the beauty of the art appears. Then I think of the steaming nights in Naha, my forlorn teacher talking to his fist, and the words of Miyamoto Musashi, a renowned 17th-century Japanese swordsman, tacked to the wall of Nakahima's dojo: "Pay your respects to the Gods and Buddhas, but never rely on them."