"The point of karate is not competition," said Sensei George Chan. "It's not just acquiring physical skills. The essence is in the mind and the spirit."
Starting karate late in life, and being neither fast, agile nor strong, I clung to Sensei Chan's words. It was a matter of self preservation when facing the agile young athletes in Sensei Chan's False Creek dojo in Vancouver where he has been teaching traditional Japanese goju ryu karate for almost two decades.
Yet I failed to grasp the spiritual side of karate. Sensei Chan suggested training in Japan with his teacher, Shihan Hirano Osamu, the master of Ku Yu Kai goju ryu karate.
I met Shihan Hirano in late November in Tokyo where he had arrived from his home in Wakayama City, south of Osaka. A small, unassuming man in his mid 60s, he was officiating at the 29th All Japan JKF tournament at the Budokan. Set on the ancient grounds of Tokyo Castle, the tournament featured participants from across Japan. It was an impressive display of skill. But it was basically still a sporting event.
The following week I travelled on the Shinkansen bullet train to Wakayama City, location of Shihan Hirano's home dojo. A highly respected teacher, who himself studied with Shozo Ujita starting in 1953 and with Gogen Yamaguchi in the early 1960s, Shihan has attracted many talented students including Teramura Seiji, one of the top 10 kumite practitioners in Japan. Shihan is also chief instructor at the Wakayama Medical College karate club where bright, dedicated students combine hard physical training with equally rigorous studies. Ku Yu Kai, Shihan's association, has fifteen dojos in Japan: thirteen in Wakayama and two in Kyoto.
I quickly learned that Japanese are serious about karate. Shihan Hirano trains at least four days a week. Few sessions last less than three hours. Warm ups of 250 squats, 150 sit ups, 50 push ups, and hundreds of strikes and kicks are routine. With their gis dripping in sweat, students from white belt to senior black, practise group kata under Shihan's direction. Sessions end with kumite techniques and free sparring.
Every year Shihan hosts a major tournament that draws participants from as far as Kyoto and Tokyo. Conducted on much the same basis as events in BC, children as young as 5 and 6 compete beside life-long karate-kas. It was at the tournament that I observed Teramura Seiji preparing for kumite. He sat cross-legged in a side room, with his eyes closed. Except for slow breathing, Seiji remained perfectly motionless for at least 30 minutes. He then gracefully raised himself, and walked into the tournament hall. Except for kiais, Seiji never uttered a word while he fought in four matches.
Seiji later explained he was applying techniques learned at Kokokin-ji, a Rinzai zen Buddhist temple in the orange-growing region around Yura in southern Wakayama prefecture. Shihan and many of his students also studied at Kokokin-ji. And Shihan had arranged for me to spend a week at the temple.
A bitter, cold Siberian wind was blowing over Japan as Shihan introduced me to the young abbott. Despite the cold, the abbott, stood motionless, dressed only in thin black robes and wearing straw sandals on his bare feet. He led me to a bare tatami room. No heat, just a futon under neatly folded quilts. After a meal of a single bowl of rice, miso soup and vegetables - invariably the same meal repeated three times a day - the abbot gave me a brief tour of the temple complex and introduced me to the half dozen resident monks.
Kokokin-ji was founded in the mid 13th century by Chinese zen master Bukko Kokushi who established zen in Japan after becoming the teacher of the powerful shogun Hojo Tokimure. Although the temple was sacked and burned several times in the preceding eight centuries of Japan's turbulent history, it was faithfully rebuilt each time.
In the temple everyone, monks and visiotrs, are expected to follow the daily routine. A Rinzai monk is woken by a large gong at 4:30 a.m. After a quick wash from a bucket of cold water, monks shuffle wordlessly over the ancient stone paths to the main temple. The abbott has already lit candles and incense in front of elaborate gold shrines depicting various incarnations of the Buddha.
For the next hour everyone sits motionless in seiza - a full squat posture - while the abbott leads in chanting the lotus sutra. The monks then do minor chores until seven when everyone goes to the zendo: a dark wooden building in the heart of the temple. A single candle provides the only light as the monks seat themselves on the raised platforms that run down each side of the ancient wooden building. A single bell marks the beginning of zazen meditation. For the next two hours, only the sound of breathing breaks the whistle of icy wind through the open windows. Another bell marks the end of zazen when the monks slowly stretch from the zendo and make their way to the kitchen for breakfast.
After a breakfast of a bowl of rice with a smaller bowl of miso and a few vegetables, the day's work begins. The rule at Kokokin-ji is - no work, no food.
My job is sweeping the ancient smooth stone paths and courtyards between the temple buildings. At noon a gong marks the midday meal of a bowl of rice, miso, vegetables and hot green tea. During the afternoon I clean the small temple pond - home to a family of tame ducks. The workday ends at 5 p.m. when everyone has an hour of free time before the evening meal. I use the hour to soak in the scalding water in the stone bathhouse.
The evening meal of rice, miso soup and pickled vegetable is followed by another two-hour session of formal zazen in the zendo, and another half hour of sitting in seiza through evening prayers. At 10 p.m. I finally roll out my futon and crawl under an icy pile of blankets. A thin crust of ice skims the glass of water that sits on the low lacquered table in the room. Outside the rustle of leaves in the wind breaks the silence until the 4:30 morning gong.
Each day at Kokokin-ji followed the same pattern. Despite the cold, the meagre diet, physical work, and the strain of zazen, the monks are a cheerful lot. They seem not to notice the cold. And their physical stamina is remarkable. Karate training was easy compared to a day in the temple, and I gained a new appreciation of what Sensei meant when he told me that the essence of karate is in the mind and the spirit.