On February 5th, 2014 I boarded a plane – well, to be accurate, three planes – and headed for Okinawa. I left my house at 8:00 am on a Wednesday morning and arrived, jet-lagged and tired, at 6:00pm on Thursday evening. By 8:00pm I had checked into my apartment and arrived at the IOGFK international headquarters in Naha.
This year I celebrate my 40th year of karate training. I’ve challenged myself to do 40 speaking engagements and/or special classes to share what I’ve learned and to express my gratitude for being given the tools with which to study.
I had already had three speaking engagements in Israel and hoped to find at least one more in Okinawa. But my main purpose was to re-experience being a student and only a student and to celebrate and renew my commitment to striving for excellence. In other words, to improve my kata.
That first class I was pounced upon by Senseis Uehara and Kuramoto. I made it to the second move in the first kata before I was corrected. “Jodan punch should be eye level.” Well, yea, I knew that. However, knowing that something should be so doesn’t make it happen. My punch was too low. I put it up. Now it was too high.
Uh-oh, my heel came up when I stepped. My fist was crooked in gedan uke. We are now on the third move of the first kata. By the end of the evening my ego had been flattened like a cola can run over by a semi and I did, indeed, feel like a student again.
Higaonna Sensei appeared and mesmerized me, and a group of 15 Russians, for the next three weeks. I guess he felt sorry for me when he saw me valiantly struggling, and losing the battle, to do kaki-e (pushing hands) with the larger and much, much, much stronger Kuramoto Sensei. He saved me from futility by taking me as his partner. “This is “ju” kaki-e,” he explained, as he rolled me around the dojo effortlessly, with the slightest movements, making me stumble and fall and trip over my feet and feel – yes, like a student.
In the 40 years that I’ve been on the mat I’ve never seen or felt anything like Higaonna Sensei’s hands. They are the size of baseball mitts and feel like sandpaper. His energy, and command of it, is like a waterfall, a cyclone and wave - harnessed.
At one point I was privileged to speak with Higaonna Sensei and I told him that on my birthday I did 56 kata to celebrate 56 years on earth. He told me that he once did kata Superenpei 108 times. (The name of the kata means 108.) “It took me six hours,” he reported, matter-of-factly.
This is the highest and longest Goju-Ryu kata. The most consecutive times I’ve performed the kata, I am ashamed to admit, was five? Six? Maybe ten times at a gasshuku.
And now I am thinking: Can I do it? Will I? Will I work up to it? Do it alone or with a partner? Do I want witnesses, or should this be a private challenge? Apparently it can be done. But should it? Maybe on my birthday…