Spinning, hissing, legs and arms pistoning: the 12 males are like steam locomotives. Karate grasp Morio Higaonna is supervising their coaching session. His consideration turns to me. “It’s no good just watching,” he says. “You have to take part.” Higaonna takes considered one of my palms and interlaces his fingers with mine in what could be, in different contexts, an intimate clasp. There is a pause earlier than, with stunning rapidity, he pulls my fingers up and again. I swear loudly and flap my hand to alleviate the ache.
Normally, in Japan, loss of decorum is frowned upon however on this event there may be laughter. With a mischievous smile, Higaonna apologises for hurting me. I look over at his palms. Decades of karate have distorted them into knuckly golf equipment. Higaonna is 78 however he doesn’t wish to cease practising karate. “I am not satisfied,” he says. “I have to continue seeking.”
Okinawa is an archipelago in southern Japan with tasty delicacies, coral reefs to dive for and extra excellent seashores than you may shake a flip-flop at. It can be the historic home of karate. The major karate attraction right here is the Karate Kaikan (or advanced) that opened earlier this yr at an apposite second: karate is to be included within the Olympics for the primary time, on the Tokyo 2020 video games. We are within the dojo, or coaching corridor, the place guests watch apply classes and tournaments.
The Karate Kaikan, Okinawa.
The kaikan is on a hill overlooking Naha metropolis, the Okinawan capital, set amid cherry, palm and pine bushes. The constructing is spare and low slung, fabricated from native cream limestone. Natural mild floods the inside, with gleaming pine flooring stretching in all instructions.
Nursing my hand, I try the kaikan’s museum, which tells the story of karate. The genesis of this martial artwork, I study, is all about synthesis. An indigenous preventing self-discipline referred to as Ti was mixed with Chinese martial arts – in addition to kobujutsu (one other Okinawan martial artwork), which adopted easy weapons, typically stated to be primarily based on farming implements.
The entrance to the kaikan
Interactive displays are outstanding. Karate practitioners strengthened their fingers by clutching the edges of earthenware jars and lifting them. I handle the 4kg and 8kg jars however the 12kg defeats me. Then there’s a game to evaluate the pace of fist strike. A punch that’s quick sufficient can extinguish a digital picture of a candle. Mostly, I fail. After confirming my martial limitations, I go to the kaikan’s restaurant to console myself with karate soba (about £6.50), a hearty dish of stewed pigs’ ft and ribs with noodles.
The kaikan just isn’t Okinawa’s solely karate attraction. For lengthy intervals, the martial artwork was banned and lovers practised in secret, utilizing secluded seashores, graveyards and caves. The most spectacular of the latter is the Bugei-do collapse Gangala valley (guided tour £15). Wandering down what is definitely a sequence of caves is enjoyable sufficient though, slightly than karate, the guided tour emphasises archaeological finds and pure historical past, notably stalactites, stalagmites, and an infinite banyan tree.
James Pankiewicz on the Dojo Bar, Naha City, Okinawa. Photograph: Alamy
After a hike, refreshment is welcome. A well-liked haunt for karate aficionados is the Dojo Bar in Naha City. It is owned and run by James Pankiewicz, an affable expat from Somerset and a black belt. His bar acts as an data centre for visiting lovers, drawn by the island’s repute.
“Okinawa is the most special place in Japan for karate,” he says. “There are more than 400 dojos here, and more experience and variety than anywhere else.”
Pankiewicz is impressed with the brand new kaikan. “I love it; it’s a great step forward. It will become a focal point for karate.” He is happy the Olympics is to confess karate as a result of the publicity ought to increase its recognition, although he acknowledges that native practitioners have blended emotions.
Karate grasp Tetsuhiro Hokama runs his personal non-public museum (entry £2.30), which has an in depth assortment of memorabilia and artefacts, together with a formidable show of weapons.
A karate grasp at Karate Kaikan, Okinawa. Photograph: Alamy
Tetsuhiro has just a few reservations concerning the Olympics. “My heart is divided 50-50,” he says. “If you just concentrate on the physical side of karate, that’s no good. The mental side is very important. Karate is not really a ‘sport’ sport.”
But the ultimate phrase should go to Morio Higaonna, who has been variously designated as an official Okinawan asset and whose expertise have led to him being described as “the world’s most dangerous man”. He says: “I’m proud of the kaikan. It’s splendid.”
He is equally clear concerning the Olympics. “We have traditional karate and we have a sport karate. For the Olympics, sport karate is OK.” When we bid one another farewell, in lieu of a handshake I provide him a well mannered bow.
• The journey was offered by the Okinawa Tourist Board. Okinawa Karate Kaikan, Tomigusuku 854-1, Tomigusuku-shi, museum admission about £three. Return flights to Okinawa from the Japanese mainland value round £140 with Japan Airlines or Peach