Finding Equanimity 2: Learning Karate in Okinawa

Grand Master Nakazato, with his Californiam students, Dave Blazer in the middle, photo Dave Blazer

The Cadences of Grand Master Nakazato

By Dave Blazer

After three and a half years of preparation for our first dan black belt tests, we departed for Okinawa from San Francisco International Airport. After a long flight to Tokyo for a change of planes and then a flight to Naha, Okinawa we arrived exhausted, but excited. Okinawa is a small, thin tropical island well to the south of the larger Japanese islands. Okinawa is just as close to China and Taiwan.

It was both gratifying and surprising to me to find master Nakazato and several senior members of the Shorin-ryu Shorin-kan (the name of the ryu or school) waiting for us at the Naha airport.


Cain’s Californian karate students in Shorin-ryu Shorin-kan

Sensei Cain had trained in the hombu (headquarters) dojo for several years and had made many friends among the senior students. This was our introduction to Okinawa’s culture of welcoming visitors and friends. The courtesy and generosity we were shown was humbling, I felt like an important visitor rather than a curious student tourist on a shoestring budget.

Since that budget was very real we stayed in bare-bones lodging made available on Kadena AFB by an Air Force friend of sensei Cain’s, three of us to one small room with sensei Cain holding down the couch in the adjoining room. We seldom spent any time there except to eat an evening meal on training days, clean and dry our gi (uniforms) for the next day, and sleep.

I felt like an important visitor rather than a curious student tourist on a shoestring budget.

The ride from Kadena to the Aja City section of Naha was a bit over 10 miles, giving us our first look at Okinawa. I had lived in the Philippines for a few years earlier, and it was reminiscent, but more urban. Traffic was brisk, but fast moving. We had arranged for a daily taxi in the morning and evening, a micro van that accommodated the four of us comfortably.


The Californian karate students, behind them is Shuri castle, then under restoration

We had a brief conference and lunch the next day with master Shugoro Nakazato, the president and chief instructor of the Shorin-kan organization, in his home on the second floor of the dojo. We set up a training schedule which would consist of two classes a day of two hours each, one from noon to 2:00PM and one, his regular evening class, from 7:00-9:00PM, working on open hand kata on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and kobudo (traditional Okinawa weapons) kata on Tuesday and Thursday nights. He signed us into his personal student roster, saying that we were now his students, making a joke at sensei Cain’s expense, and presented us each with his business card and told us if we had any difficulties while in Okinawa to call him.

The next day we arrived at the dojo a bit before noon on our first day of training. It was fairly small and unremarkable in most respects. It had the look and feel of a well-used boxing gym or dance studio, bare walls and floors with some minimal wall decoration in the form of historical pictures, and plaques set with karate related rules and expressions. One wall held training implements; traditional Okinawan weapons, and some weights and other exercise devices for the hands and wrists.

It had the look and feel of a well-used boxing gym or dance studio,

Everyone waited for us to change first. The senior students stood by and waved us into what passed for a locker room; a small, windowless area at the rear of the dojo. We dawdled a bit, and sensei reminded us that the seniors were showing good manners, and that we were keeping them waiting and that we should hustle up to show our appreciation. An early lesson, quickly learned. We were anxious, wanting to do well and represent our teacher’s efforts to his expectations.

At first, I was tense, not wanting to make mistakes, but the atmosphere that sensei Cain had created in his dojo in California was a near match for what we found here, and I soon settled into the rhythm. The format and material were familiar. We would fit in. He had prepared us well.

From that moment we trained rigorously every day for over four hours. We didn’t have much energy for other things. Most days we didn’t return to Kadena AFB for our 2:00 pm -7:00 pm break, we would go to nearby food kiosks, or small blue collar restaurants nearby, and then go to a local park and nap and rest until evening.

we would go to nearby food kiosks, or small blue collar restaurants nearby, and then go to a local park and nap and rest until evening.

The food was inexpensive, and healthy; a lot of sushi and similar things. We also ate great Okinawan noodles and seafood. When the locals in restaurants, the baths and other places we frequented learned that we were in Okinawa to study karate rather than being associated with the U.S. military, the social atmosphere changed. People were even warmer, friendlier, and more generous than they had been when we first arrived in the neighborhood.


Dave Blazer undergoing instruction from Hanshi Shuguro Nakazato

One afternoon we got caught out in the rain between classes, and, having nowhere else familiar to go, we returned to the dojo. Mrs. Nakazato, a well-known figure in Okinawan classical dance circles in her own right, saw us and came down and gave us several umbrellas, which we returned with a gift the next day.

… they were messing with us a little, increasing the temperature to see if we would hang in there

Some days we would go to the public bath between classes for a quick wash and then after the wash we went into a large communal tank of water with a number older Japanese men in it. I think that they were messing with us a little, increasing the temperature to see if we would hang in there – or perhaps they just increased the heat of water heat as part of their routine.

I was used to clothing optional hot springs in California, but ‘some like it hot’ was different here; those guys were pros. I was acclimated to 105°F, but they took it to a higher level. We didn’t go every day, there’s a danger of dehydration when such heat is combined with exertions in class.


Sai, used in kobudo, a part of Okinawan karate

The second night of training was kobudo class. We had rudimentary knowledge of the order of moves in the kata and again felt like we fit in pretty well. Since we were relative beginners in that area this class consisted of a higher levels of instruction rather than repetition of the form we knew. As we became familiar with using the weapons over the course of the three weeks we became accustomed to the class pace and intensity.

By the second night of open-hand kata class we felt at home. The master arranges the student in two or three lines by their characteristics, putting faster people next to slower ones, stronger ones near weaker ones, hesitant ones next to impulsive ones, and generally ‘balancing’ the room for everyone’s benefit. He then begins to mark the cadence in for each move of the kata, allowing for the proper intervals for us to move, expand, and then relax again into a neutral stance. Once the rhythm was set he would occasionally say ‘no count’ and we were expected to perform the kata without the metronome of his voice. We maintained the correct rhythm on our own.

we were expected to perform the kata without the metronome of his voice.

There’s a certain rhythm involved in delivering a telling blow; stance, breathing, expansion and contraction of the body are coordinated with the breath and maai (distancing). After that comes collection of energy, delivery, and relaxation. This is a vital component of the practice, but learning it is almost entirely tacit. You have to feel it, recognize it.

The movements quickly become hypnotic. I would liken it to the feel of sailing, or surfing on a steady wave. It reminds me of the heightened physical state of steadiness I felt when I ran long distances. I felt the energy, urgency and rhythm flowing. Once that you get there, you feel like you are floating in time and space.

I felt the energy, urgency and rhythm flowing. Once that you get there, you feel like you are floating in time and space.

By the second week, at the end of classes, I would be near exhaustion; when the master announced; ‘That’s all for tonight!’. At 9:00 pm and went upstairs I would collapse like a puppet with its strings cut. I was entirely hooked. We settled into the karate routines and time passed quickly.

Sensei Kamiya, Dave Blazer, Charlie Jeremias, front row sensei Cain, Hanshi Shugoro Nakazato, Don Holman.

One night while midway through the class I started getting tunnel vision; my view narrowed to pinholes. I interrupted my kata and with the aid of a senior class sempai told master Nakazato that I was afraid I would pass out. His response, translated by the sempai, was;

‘Find out.’ with a big smile, to reassure me that I was O.K.

On another night I was kicked in the wrist, and my forearm started turning black on the inside. I showed it to him. But when he looked at my arm instead of commiserating with me he said:

‘Good, good’ with another big smile. Sempai said that master Nakazato was very pleased with our level of effort.

I would collapse like a puppet with its strings cut. I was entirely hooked.

After the first week master Nakazato honoured us with an invitation to lunch. He took the four of us to a lovely restaurant and talked to us for a few hours. He seldom spoke English, but I suspect that his knowledge of it was greater than he let on. I didn’t realise that this was a very unusual action for him. He had a close relationship with sensei Cain. We were lucky to be along for the ride.

One afternoon we accompanied master Nakazato to an interview with a local newspaper at their offices. He was much more ebullient away from the dojo with the good manners you would expect from an experienced, confident, and well-known businessman. He greeted many people, held doors open for others and generally exhibited excellent manners in public.

The published article was about sensei Cain bringing his first group of students to Okinawa to fully participate in the traditions of the ryu. In recent times, the last 20 years or so, it has become more common for people to travel to Naha to learn karate. That’s good in some ways.

Master Nakazato was driving us around that day. There was one senior student and the four of us, As we went down the local freeway to return to the dojo he went so slowly that most of the traffic was overtaking us. Sensei Cain teased him: asked him

Sensei, why are you driving so slowly? Are you getting old?

‘Anybody can drive fast. It takes a real man to drive slowly.’ He answered. That little joke has stuck with me all these years, and the memory of it always brings a smile.

We spent a long day on the second weekend being escorted to some of the tourism and historical sights in the area. Master Nakazato’s son Minoru-san, now the current association president and Grand Master, was our guide. He was a suave, well-dressed and well-mannered young man of our approximate age, at the time already ranked 6th dan. He liked sensei Cain and had a great sense of humor.


The Shuri Castle, Wikipedia

We saw the Shuri Castle, which burned down in 2019 – it was in the process of restoration – and a subterranean river cave. We made a trip to a war memorial and the Nakazato family tomb and finally visited the local A&W Root Beer stand. A root beer stand was a novelty.

During the final week of our training the spring promotion cycle began. Instructors made recommendations for grade (dan) increases. The run-up classes to promotions night consisted of a detailed review and much repetition of kata. At times, especially when it was particularly hot and humid, tempers flared. Sensei Cain was upset with us.

‘Good manners are imperative.’ he said.

In a society where ‘face’, or image is important, a teacher will never recommend a student for promotion who isn’t very well prepared. Still, a master will usually promote a student unless they fail miserably. The instructor has a giri (duty) to teach, and the student has an equal and corresponding giri to learn. Ultimately, any pressure you feel is entirely self-generated, it is your responsibility to deal with your own stress. This was a good lesson for me to learn on its own.

Ultimately, any pressure you feel is entirely self-generated, it is your responsibility to deal with your own stress.

I was feeling O.K. I had been through this with judo and karate on other occasions. Sensei Cain was by far the most nervous of us; his students would be appearing before the association and his own sensei for the first time. We were taught that it is always too late to think about what you should have done and what might have happened. As Yagū Munenori  (柳生 宗矩, 1571 – May 11, 1646) would say;

‘No design, no conception.’

I felt good to go. We traveled to the dojo a little early on testing night, taking our best gi which we had all laundered, pressed and folded carefully. We changed and came out onto the floor. The senior members of the association were in uniform, sitting formally around the perimeter of the room, with master Nakazato at the head, seated on a low bench. There were a couple of other Western students there and a few marines from a local U.S. base.

Gary Cain and Minoru Nakazato

Nakazato specified a leader for a brief round of warmup exercises, and then had us be seated. He called up each small group by naming each student, and then specifying the particular kata they should perform. At first Nakazato called out a cadence to set the pace for the kata, and as the evening progressed, he would sometimes instruct an individual or small group to perform a kata without giving counting out the rhythm.

My turn came, and I felt good, I was excited, but I was also aware of what it was I was feeling. It wasn’t fear, but natural energy. It remained to be seen if I could apply that energy productively.

I don’t remember which kata I did first, it was in company with one of the senior students my age and one of sensei Cain’s other students. That went well, and he called cadence, so I was feeling the pulse of the practice.  Suddenly I felt a rush of adrenalin. Master Nakazato asked the two other students to sit down, leaving me up there alone. He assigned me a kata that he had mentioned was his favorite. I saw it as a sign of encouragement.

‘This is why I came here.’ I thought.

I took a breath and moved to the center of the floor. I took another breath. Then I called out the name of the kata and just let it go. I could feel the energy from the group practice in me alone, really for the first time, and I did what for me at that time was a great kata performance. I could see sensei Cain smiling when I finished. I immediately felt a strong sense of release. ‘This is why I came here.’ I thought. Now it was time to settle back and enjoy whatever came next. I performed one additional kata solo. It was easy for me to do. In fact, what I felt was a little bit of an anticlimax. But at that moment, I became a true believer in the full, Eric Hoffer, sense of the phrase.

… at that moment, I became a true believer in the full, Eric Hoffer, sense of the phrase.

A night or two after that, first one of our senpai that had helped daily with our training invited us to his home for dinner. We had a wonderful traditional ‘single pot’ meal, and when we presented a good bottle of scotch to him in gratitude, he insisted that we drink most of it.

Afterwards, some of the other sempai took us to a seafood and sushi restaurant that one of the them operated. We sampled deadly fugu and drank sake. And we also drank beer. And maybe also, a bottle of Jim Beam that sensei Cain bought at the P.X. He wanted to thank us for our efforts and to celebrate our achievements. That night in 1984 I learned the true meaning of ‘really drunk’, and I have never been there since.

‘That was fun, but I was getting tired of being so fu*king polite all of the time.’

We were seen off from Naha airport by several of the senpai who had worked closely with us, and had a feeling of sadness and loss when we said goodbye to them. On the return flight one of my fellow students put back his seat, kicked off his shoes;

‘That was fun, but I was getting tired of being so fu*king polite all of the time.’ Which brought a laugh from us all.

Now, we were taking what we had learned home to share with our classmates in California.


Dave Blazer is a retired financial securities industry manager and technical expert with a life long interest in Asian philosophy and martial arts. He is also a struggling left handed Blues Guitarist.

He served as a cryptographic and systems management technician in the U.S. Navy for nine years, and attended the Dominican College of San Rafael, CA. He was involved with the securities industry for nearly 30 years.

His martial arts career has spanned 50 years.