September ’07

Trip to Okinawa
September 24 to October 4, 2007

Al Gagne, plus two of his black belts, Gene Cazeault and Jeff Irzyk and I went to visit Okinawa in September 2007. This was Al’s second trip. One of Al’s students, Dan Hadley, is stationed at camp Foster and met up with us, also.

We arrived in Naha (the capital of Okinawa) at around 9 pm, collected our luggage, caught a bus to Okinawa city (which used to be called Koza city when I was there in the 1960s), checked into our hotel (the Sunrise), and went to bed. The flight was a long 15 hours.

The next morning we all had breakfast, then headed out to see the famous Shuri Castle. We took busses and walked everywhere due to the high cost of taxis. During our last trip, in 2004, the Okinawans were working on the castle and once again they still are. It’s great to visit, though.

In one section of the castle you have to take off your shoes and no photos are allowed because the flash can damage the artifacts. It is inspiring to see one of the actual training locations of the famous Bushi Matsumura. You could almost feel the training going on if you let your imagination run wild. The whole visit eats up most of the day. We stopped in one of the out-of-the-way soba shops for lunch, since I like to eat in the same restaurants as the Okinawans. If you eat in one of the many English-speaking restaurants, you will pay a much higher price for your meal. It is hard to order because everything is written in Japanese, and none of us could read or speak Japanese well. I still retained enough of the language to ask for and order the few items I like to eat, like soba (a bowl of noodles with a slice of fish and a slice of meat, pork or beef, and spring onions, on top), fried rice, fish, shrimp, rice, meat and tea. Gene went wild over the soba and wanted to eat in places like that the whole trip.

Gene and Jeff could not speak any Japanese when they arrived, but caught on fast. They went and purchased an English to Japanese language book at Tuttle Books, and once the guys had that, they really found that they could get around by themselves. Each place we went we had to ask the Okinawans for directions and help. They were very friendly, though, and once they see you are trying to speak their language, they help in any way they can. They will even stop what they’re doing and either go with you or point you in the right direction to be helpful.

The next day we all went to the Fukushuen garden. This is a replica of the actual Fuzhou village in China. It commemorates the relationship between the old Ryukyu Kingdom and China. It is truly something to see – breathtaking is a good word. This was also the area where the original 36 Chinese families settled on the island. The garden is a scaled down version of it’s sister village in Fuzhou.

Besides Shuri Castle and the Fukushuen garden, we visited Nakijin castle, some karate dojos, Washita shops in Naha (a shopping district), both Murasaki Mura and Ryukyu Mura villages, Chatan town – which is one of the most modern areas on Okinawa, complete with a beautiful beach, American style movie theater, shops, restaurants and cafes. It even has a giant Ferris wheel. We tried to go to see a different place each day.

I had wanted to hook up with Ed Gingras, a man that studied first under Kise, than under Hohan Soken, Nishihara and other Okinawan karate masters. He’d been living and training on Okinawa since 1971, and we had been writing, talking and emailing each other for over 35 years, but had never met face to face. We were able to hook up on our third day. He is a tall, thin man, married to an Okinawan, and was the prefect host and very knowledgeable about Okinawan karate. He drove Al and me around to some of the Karate dojos, most of which were closed for the night. Ed, Al and I talked about karate, the old and the new that is on the Island.

I inquired about Nishihara Sensei, who we were planning to visit and possibly work out with. Ed informed me that Nishihara sensei had passed away a month or so earlier. Nishihara was Hohan Soken’s nephew, and was training with Soken Sensei the same time I was. It is a shame to lose such a knowledgeable Karate-ka. Soken had told Ed that if he wanted to learn his system of Shorin Ryu (Matsumura Seito) he should train under Nishihara. His death is a great loss to all of us who trained under Soken.

Although we had planned to work out with Ed, Nishihara, and possibly Shimabukuro, plus any others we could, it was not to be. Ed had closed his dojo and was in the process of finding another location; Nishihara had passed away; and we did not meet up with Shimabukuro until the last day on the Island.

During one of our many walks around Okinawa we came upon a karate class, Moto-Bu Udon-Te, Ryukyu Royal Family Martial Arts, Seidoukan, Grand master Taira Ryousyu, and we asked if we could watch his class. He welcomed us in and we watched for about 20 minutes. There were only two people on the floor, and it must have been a private lesson. The master himself got up and threw the black belt around the floor a number of times for our benefit. After a while we thanked him for letting us watch and left. We were to find that there are small dojo’s scattered throughout the many different towns.

We went to visit the Kise /Isao dojo, which is in Okinawa City, down toward Koza, on our second or third night. As we came to the dojo, the kids class was just finishing up, and there was to be an adult class after the kids, but there was only one adult who showed up that night. His name was Paul Gruger. Paul was the prefect black belt host, in as much as he welcomed us to the dojo, while Isao just sat there doing paper work and ignored us the whole time. Paul introduced himself and asked who we were. I told Paul who I was and he responded. “Coffman, Coffman, I know that name from some place.”

I said, “I bet you do!” I told him I had trained under Kise from 1960 to 1964 and gave him one of my cards. He said he would give it to Kise and that maybe Kise would contact us. I laughed, and said I would very much doubt that.

Paul showed us around the dojo, and I began to think that maybe Kise/Isao’s association had changed and that maybe they were a good thing after all. We thanked Paul, bowed to the master’s photos and left with a pleasant feeling.

Our second visit was not quite the same. We once again wanted to watch an adult class. Al and I went to Kise’s dojo a couple of days later, again arriving after the kids class. This time there were six to eight students. A man named Gerry Devries, a Go-Dan under Kise, came out to greet us – the same man we spoke to during our trip back in 2004. Gerry asked why we had come to the dojo again, saying that whenever I come to Okinawa, Kise Sensei gets upset, that I make him nervous, and why do I come to Okinawa? I told Gerry I do not come for myself, but come for the students, explaining that they want to see the roots of their karate as well as the dojo of Kise, just like every karate-ka wants to see the birthplace of their karate.

Gerry asked why I wrote such a negative article about Kise during our last trip. He stated that I misquoted him, that I read between the lines as to what he had said, and suggested that I had been mad and upset at the time. I agreed I was up set, and said that Al and I had been treated poorly. Gerry wondered why I couldn’t write something good about Kise and his dojo, instead of something bad – or at least not write anything at all.

I asked Gerry to tell me what was misquoted or where I had lied. He said he was not going to bother, that he did not want to get into an argument. I asked him several times to tell me where I misquoted him, but he refused each time to correct me. I said, “Well then, I guess it stands as written.” I told Gerry that he was right to defend his teacher and that he was welcome to write his version of the story – good, bad, or indifferent – and that I would put it on my website word-for-word. Again, though, he refused.

I told Gerry I would add to the end of my message about our trip in 2004 that he thought I had misquoted and possibly lied about some of the things he had said. I also told Gerry I would write up this trip, send it to him for review, and he could make his comments and/or corrections and I would place it on my site. Again he refused.

I told him all I wanted to do was to show the students the dojo and Okinawa, that we were visiting other karate masters as well, watching the different classes and just wanted to do the same with Kise. He said, you have seen our classes. I said, no, we have only seen the kids class and we all know than an adult class is different.

When a visiting karate-ka comes to my dojo, I can’t wait to get them on the dojo floor, hoping to see another style of karate that is as good as or better than ours. I want to see their karate, and for them to see ours. I want to see new techniques, different styles, experience their fighting – to see and let my students see the many different types of martial art forms. I would have thought that Kise would want a visiting student to see his karate as well.

This visit (again) did nothing but reinforce my belief that no matter what, if you were a student of Kise sensei in the past, but for whatever reason you chose not to remain a student/member of his, you are no longer welcome at his dojo, you do not or have you ever existed. There are many, many students such as myself that chose not to belong to his association but still have the love and respect for the teacher we once knew. It is truly a shame that such a great man has chosen this path.

Our last night on the Island we went to see Zenpo Shimubukuro , only this time we called ahead to make sure he would be there. We arrived to see the last bit of the kids class, with an adult class to follow. After the kids class had finished, Shimabukuro Sensei came over to us, and apologized for not recognizing me right away.

Sensei sat and talked to us for over two hours. He introduced me to his son, a 4th dan with 27 years of training, his senior black of 35-plus years, as well as a black belt who was living on Okinawa from Japan’s mainland.

We talked about old times back when we both were young students and about the many different karate instructors I knew back in the 60’s. He told me that many were now dead – Nakamura, Nishihara, Shiakawa, Kuda, Maishiro, just to name a few – and that others had changed, and that the karate instruction was not like it was when we were training in the 60’s.

He said that he used to train his student using a shinai (bamboo stick), but that he couldn’t use that type of training any longer, and that he has to watch the amount of contact used on the students. Things have changed, indeed. He said he is trying to put together a kind of Karate center that would consist of a main karate training hall, a hotel with low rates, and a karate museum, where all of the karate greats’ burial monuments would be located in one place. He said that many visiting karate-ka come to Okinawa to see the burial places of Okinawa’s great masters, and that the emporium would be only for karate students.

Shimabukuro sensei is the perfect model for Okinawa as well as for karate. He is open, speaks wonderful English, and is a gracious host and a strong karate instructor, willing to welcome the many visiting karate students from around the world.
If any of you visit Okinawa , I could not give you a better lead for a karate instructor.

James H. Coffman
Shorinji-Ryu 1960-
Matsumura Seito 1961-
7th Dan 1977-, Jikideshi