The Rise of Karate Tourism

There has been a rise of what can be called karate tourism of recent times, driven by providers both on Okinawa and in the USA who arrange seminars, logistics, hotels, translators, etc. Former guests on The Applied Karate Show podcast Mike Clarke Kyoshi (interviewed in episode 4) and Mario McKenna Sensei (interviewed in episode 12) have both recently posted thoughtful articles on this trend.

Both of these gentlemen have done things the hard way – taken themselves out of their comfort zone and travelled to a foreign culture and sought and received admission to a dojo so they could train under a teacher who they saw provided value. They didn’t look for a third party to make the arrangements for them. In many respects the journey was as important as the goal.

Mario McKenna Sensei expresses his thoughts beautifully:

IMHO, if you’re using a company or service to arrange your travel, accommodations, and training on Okinawa or Japan, then you’re doing kanko (sightseeing).

There’s nothing wrong with sightseeing, but it is important that we don’t confuse it with true keiko (training). I’ve had the opportunity to undertake both in the past, and enjoyed different experiences in each.

In 1991 I moved to Japan for two years where I trained with the hereditary head of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo, Hisataka Masayuki Hanshi. I had already been training in Shorinjiryu for 8 years by that stage, and had previously met Hisataka Sensei on several occasions. Nonetheless, I made my own arrangements (travel, work and accomodation), and armed myself with letters of introduction from our then chief instructors in Australia. Although I had sent a letter to Hisataka Sensei in advance, I made my own way to the dojo on my first day in Tokyo, and started my personal experience.

For the next two years, I had many wonderful experiences in budo. I was very fortunate to have others guide and include me in those, including people like Hisataka Sensei and Patrick McCarthy Hanshi (who I had met early in my stay), as well as other friends and colleagues I met in the dojo and at various events. This is the way of budo – it is not a solo journey, but one that you must undertake yourself in the company of teachers, seniors, peers and, eventually perhaps, students.

These two years were a personal journey, and involved many challenging events. For each challenge faced there was a corresponding personal victory. As another of my former teachers, Watanabe Shunji Hanshi likes to say.

Karate shugyo wa ningen shugyo. Ningen shugyo wa karate shugyo

Although hard to translate, shugyo can mean the “warriors quest or pilgrammage”, but I like the definition from the Shugyo Center that describes it as “dedicated and authentic physical and spiritual training”. So Watanabe Sensei’s quote means that something like “the dedicated and authentic physical and spiritual training of karate is the dedicated and authentic physical and spiritual training of being a human, and vice versa”.

In 2006, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a few days on Okinawa. Although I had lived in Japan for two years and had researched the history and practice of Okinawan karate and bukiho (weaponry, a.k.a kobudo) for many years, this was to be my first visit to the island. I made the decision that there would be insufficient time to train in any meaningful way, and thus decided to be a tourist.

Of course, I would be more of a karate tourist, visiting historic sites and dojo that were meaningful in karate history, absorbing the culture and perhaps meeting a few key masters.

We didn’t consider having anyone else organise this for us. We arrived on Okinawa and checked in to our hotel. Then each day we visited various locations. Of course, we visited the Shuri Castle and surrounding areas, the Okinawan Prefectural Museum, the markets, Tomari waterfront, various grave sites and monuments and Kudaka Island (my former teacher, Hisataka Sensei’s name is pronounced Kudaka in the Okinawan language, and his ancestors were feudal lords of this island). We visited Hokama Tetsuhiro Sensei’s Karate Museum and dojo, and visited many dojo to pay respects. A highlight was meeting the late Nakazato Joen Sensei at his Kyudokan Dojo.

From a research perspective, this was a wonderful trip, and there was a mental/spiritual element of shugyo to it. But it was not a training experience – I made a conscious decision to have a tourist experience on that occasion. On my next visit to Okinawa, however, I will be looking at a trip that is predominately training. I will still do some tourist things (there are still many sights unseen for me on Okinawa).

Mike Clarke Sensei has a wonderful view on the nature of (Okinawan) budo:

Okinawan karate and kobudo are very special activities, and in my opinion, neither should be given away lightly

Karate tourism provides a “50,000 foot view”, but real karate happens on solid ground. Tourism has it’s place, but don’t confuse it with training. A true teacher will only give superficial instruction to tourists.

I agree wholeheartedly that karate tourism should not be seen as karate training. But it does have a place, and perhaps the big part is that perhaps a small percentage of those who undertake karate tourism will have their eyes opened, and will go back to one day explore more deeply.

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