Now we laugh about our trip in 1971 to Okinawa, my friend Mike and I—he was 23, I, 28—and sometimes, if it's late at night and we've had enough to drink, we talk about returning, just to look around, eat sushi, and check out the clubs in Namina-ue. Mostly, though, we think about the karate school of the Old Master. Nostalgia often can't discriminate between a warm shower and a scalding. Anyway, we managed to survive the trip with our sanity intact, though just barely.
We had come to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, with Ohima, our karate instructor, who was returning home after spending three years in the U.S. The purpose of our trip was to study karate in the dojo school of Nakahima, the Old Master, and to absorb the culture of the island where karate had developed. Naha was a city of squalor, far from the island paradise painted for us in America.
We had been studying in Naha for close to a month, and the temperature had been over 100� every day. After a two-hour workout in the dojo, the thermometer usually was pegged at 115�, and I was dropping from eight to 10 pounds a day. In addition, Okinawa was experiencing its worst drought in 50 years.
For many weeks we toiled in the dojo, where we were greeted by pettiness and by rancor instead of the promised blend of physical toughness and spiritual purity. No matter how hard we drilled, the heat kept us awake at night, and we took to drinking beer in the air-conditioned all-night sushi parlor.
Only twice was our routine interrupted. Once we took a late night journey with a native Okinawan through the mosquito-ridden countryside to meet a revered bow-staff maker.
Rural Okinawa was as dismal as the city, and littered with civilization's cast-off debris. We stopped, finally, at an intersection flanked by a putrid swamp and some ramshackle huts. As in all matters of the spirit, one obviously had to suffer to reach the home of the bowmaker. After we met the tiny old man, however, we learned that he had given up making the ancient weapon for the more lucrative trade of turning out ornate leather belts for GIs. A Sunday afternoon visit to Nakahima's favorite Zen monk was also disappointing. He was a grandiose man who talked at length about freeing the mind of bodily concerns, while his Mercedes sat in the driveway, Venetian blinds shielding the leather upholstery from the sun.
Eventually, Nakahima started giving lectures before each evening class. Ohima translated these talks for us, and the recurring theme was a call for adherence to strict karate training and renunciation of the material world. Some renunciation! Upon our arrival in Okinawa, Nakahima had offered Mike and me a single room attached to the dojo, six feet by 10 feet, with a double-decker bed, for $125 per month apiece. Our humble apartment in Naha cost $65 a month.
The black belts began skipping Nakahima's lectures and only showed up in time for the workouts. Different men taught on various nights and each had his own idea of how the kata—a sequence of dance-like exercises performed with ritualized repetition—should be executed. None of the changes were according to the precise and fluid movements Ohima had taught us. The Old Master was losing his grip, and each black belt was taking the opportunity to do things his own way in direct contradiction to the time-honored precept of selfless dedication to the art.
Finally, one night, a special meeting of all black belts was convened to standardize the kata as it had been performed for decades. We awaited the outcome with a sense of relief, certain that Ohima would straighten out the young upstarts, bring a semblance of continuity to Nakahima's dojo and give us all a break from the unnerving nightly corrections. But Nakahima countermanded the very techniques Ohima, his prot�g�, taught and sided with several of the younger black belts. Ohima, who had devoted his life to the study of the Nakahima system, was visibly distressed, but he said nothing, at least not to us.
I had begun my study of karate one winter when I was low on money and had to curtail my New England ski trips. To people who asked why I studied I gave these reasons: to find inner peace, to reach a better understanding of my body, to improve my powers of concentration. The truth was I entertained all the same wild-west daydreams that lure thousands of others into dojos. I wanted to stride fearlessly down any back alley, to saunter into the toughest bar in town and order a glass of milk.