This month has been a busy one. Our little company, englishbiz, has been getting ready for the new school year with our language students and we are very glad to have such an excellent, intelligent, and thoughtful team to do our work together. But it has been hectic!
Besides our main work as language professionals, we also do work with Inbound Tourism. A special area, within the Inbound Tourism field, and where we have some speciality is welcoming and hosting martial artists. In my own background, I have trained in Shotokan karate for over 20 years and long ago wrote a book on the subject, (called “Karate The Japanese Way”). So, I might just have a feeling for what may be a good “karate experience” or martial artist adventure, and I also have some confidence in what can be done here in Shikoku for people who are interested in embarking on their own journey in Japan.
This time, we were very fortunate to welcome a karate organization that has in their mandate, and principles of organization, the strong desire to have “karate adventures”. That organization is the HDKI, the Honbu Dojo Karate International. This organization has dojos all over the world and is a fast growing forward thinking association that holds onto traditional values with training in a modern world.
Meet Scott Langley. Scott and I have been corresponding with each other on and off over the last 15 years or so. Scott is a very interesting person, a karate student, a karate teacher, a karate author, the mastermind behind a new (and better) way to develop karate organizations, and a very very good person. He is known all over the world as a top level karate teacher, and as a great technician and analyst of how karate really works, and he is heavily sought after as a teacher and mentor.
Martial arts organizations, by their very nature, can be brittle and delicate structures. There are a lot of large personalities to navigate around, and there are delicate sensitivities that demand too much attention. Having been at the business end of the heavy stick of karate organizations, Scott decided to form a new kind of karate organization. One that is more communal, more group focussed, more nurturing, more supportive, more collaborative, more fun, and more humane. I don’t know what it is, but there was so much packed into the culture of this kind of karate organization I was simply overwhelmed with this group and the rather incredible (albeit too short) time we had together. I love their approach and was very happy to meet the members that Scott had taken along on this Japan trip.
Our adventure together began with meeting at Takamatsu airport and immediately taking the group to Kotohira. Scott Langley bounded out from the Arrival gate and we shook hands. It was great to finally meet the man I had been corresponding with over the years. I had a good feeling right away, and Scott made a perfect first impression. After a busy morning of commuting from Tokyo to Takamatsu, the HDKI team was ready for the next, and final stage, of their three location Japan adventure. They had been in Sapporo for the famous snow festival, been in karate dojos all over Tokyo, and were now in Shikoku. I really felt a little pressure as I wanted their time here to be something they would not forget. I wanted to do what I could to “beat” the experiences that they already had in Hokkaido and Tokyo.
We were off to Kotohira and our first stop was to get his group fed for lunch. Normally we could have just gone to any lunch place, but I thought it might be fun to take the group to the Nakano Udon school. It was here where the group would have the chance to make their own udon noodles. The methods of the creation involved teamwork, rhythmic dancing, and much laughter.
After a couple of hours of the udon making experience, and eating their own noodles, the group took off up the road to climb the steps up to Kotohira, the famous shrine of Kagawa. I’ve been to Kotohira dozens of times by now, but I love going there each and every time. The trees, the steps, the gates, the shrines that dot the path up the mountain, the fresh air, and the wind on your face when you reach the summit. It just can’t be beat. Kotohira is known as the shrine for seamen, sailors, and those who have their livelihood on the waves. One of the members of the group was particularly motivated in knowing this and dedicated her climb up the hundreds and hundreds of steps to her father. That was quite touching. I love how she brought meaning to her own journey to Japan, and celebrated her father along the way. Thanks for sharing that, Amanda.
On the way back we had a chance to visit a sake brewer and try his wares. Traditional sake is something that needs a little time to get into, and some guidance to have a sense fo the variances in flavour and textures. My own palette, in truth, is still quite primitive and naive, and my own understanding of sake is rudimentary. Mr Hata of Kinryo Nishino was so kind in hosting us and letting the group try a bunch of different sake. The sake with the citrus yuzu was quite a hit, and I am very glad that several members of the group got some of those to take home with them from Japan.
It was now time for us to get out to Zentsuji. This was a very special part of our excursion, and a real highlight for martial arts visitors to Shikoku. We booked lodgings with the temple and stayed in the “Shukubo”, the lodgings that pilgrims often stay in when they travel through the 88 temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage. There was food that was unique in flavour and form, onsen, tatami mats with futons, and an earlier lights out than usual as everyone crashed out after such a busy day.
The next day we awoke around 5:00am. The temple holds its prayers from 6:00am and we were all invited to witness and participate. We gathered in the main temple. The primary deity could be seen at the back of the temple hall. It is an ancient and priceless relic. In came the priests in full regalia. Their robes sweeping across the floor as they moved up to the dias. Hands hidden in the folds of their sleeves, holding Buddhist rosaries, gongs, and books of sacred sutra. They bow, get into two rows facing each other, and kneel on their thin cushions. Then they chant. A mix of voices and incense. Gongs are rung, chanting trails off to the corners of the room, and we are transfixed as if in a spell.
Despite the chill and the creeping cold that finds my toes, then feet and ankles, the group remains calm and at peace, respectful and very much “in the moment”. The chanting ceases and the main priest turns to the group to speak. He tells us that even though so many of the foreign guests are unlikely able to understand in detail what was said or what so much of the rituals mean, he is encouraged to see so many people come so far to this edge of the world for a new experience, a new culture, and to be touched by being in the birthplace of his holiness, Kobo Daishi.
After the ceremony we are invited to journey beneath the temple itself and walk through the “Mikage” hall. It is pitch black, but you keep your left hand on the wall (which passes over images of the Buddha painted all the way through) to guide you. You hear the recorded voices chanting in the dark until you come to the epicentre of Kobo Daishi’s birthplace. In Shikoku, this may be considered the “holy of holies”. Then you walk up out of the darkness and into the morning light. It’s a great way to start the day.
To most first-time visitors to Japan, Kukai (Kobo Daishi) is an unknown entity. But to Japan, he is as famous as Jesus Christ and Leonardo DaVinci are to the West. Kobo Daishi is their saint, genius civil engineer, poet, diplomat, spiritual founder of Shingon Buddhism (enlightenment comes from within), linguist and creator of “hiragana” (written Japanese in a phonetic system), healer, architect, and sage. To come to the place of his birth, and then to travel in the tunnels beneath the place where he was born, was a pretty unique experience. As the guide for this project I fretted a little about throwing everyone into the “deep end” of Japanese culture, but everyone seemed to be rather impressed and moved by this experience. So, I guess that worked out all right. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
After prayers and breakfast we still had some time on the temple grounds before heading out for the day. Ando-san, one of the monks of the morning service was to be our guide for the temple. And it was marvellous. He carefully explained so much about how to visit the temple, its unique history and story, and even granted us access to go inside the five story pagoda which is off limits to the general public. We got a very good look at how the pagoda was constructed and the statuary inside which were gorgeous and simply stunning to behold. That was pretty cool. Then we were escorted out and the treasures were closed up again in the darkness, secreted away for another day.
We still had a little time before we were to depart so the group took good advantage of this incredible environment and went out to get some photos of themselves in “karate mode” among the temples, trees, gates, and stones. It was marvellous to see them so excited and enthused to get some rare photos of them in karate poses and doing kata and techniques by walls, gates, temple bells, and statues. And there was much laughter too. That was the best part.
Sadly, the next part of the HDKI karate adventure in Japan I cannot tell you about. I really would like to, but due to unforeseen circumstances related to a current threat of a pandemic, and also connected to the nature in which martial arts organizations are brittle and delicate, I can only say that we were able to arrange for Scott Langley and his HDKI group a very unique and most excellent martial arts experience here in Shikoku.
It was so good that they have promised to come again. And next time will be even more spectacular… but I can’t talk about it now.
So, after an amazing afternoon of (that which cannot be mentioned in detail) we headed back by train to Takamatsu. There we were awaited by the owner of the New Grand Mimatsu. We have used this old Showa era hotel before as it is very authentic, complete with onsen baths and old style Japanese hotel accommodations. We piled into his old bus with a mountain of luggage and were off. A few minutes later we arrived and the group took some time to check into their rooms and settle in for a little.
Our dinner was at the spectacular restaurant called “Seafood Umaimonya Hama Kaido Kajiyacho” and the group was having a great time. With ample drink, dish after dish of seafood and other Japanese dishes, drinks of cocktails and beer, there was a lot of free-spirited boisterous talk and laughter. There was even some close quarters karate kata performance as well by a recently branded black belt. Much cause for celebration and fun.
There is one thing that the HDKI group does on its karate adventures and it is called “Best Of – Worst Of” and people make comments about their experiences in Japan and what they thought was great, or not so great. I was over the moon as the comments that were frequently offered were about how much they enjoyed their time in Shikoku. That just made my day, and beyond.
We ended the evening at my absolute favourite bar in the world: Grandfathers. It was the perfect ending to a very action-packed Shikoku experience. And a lot of fun too.
This experience with the HDKI really solidified in my mind the notion that I want to do more of this kind of work. I find it deeply fulfilling. I am absolutely thrilled to see our guests, and new friends, so happy and satisfied. They come from a long way to find something interesting and unique in Japan. They risk a lot, and invest a lot I think. So when they are happy and glad and grateful for the experiences that we can help them discover I feel so great. And that is the gift I get to take from it.
I’ve lived now for over 20 years in Japan. It’s not my country, but it’s my home. My wife is here, my daughters are here, my work and company are here. Shikoku has been a very good place for me. The culture, the people, the style, the food, the weather, the environment, and the incredible chances to learn and explore and discover are everywhere. It’s a great pleasure and a profound honor to have guests from around the world come here to discover their own treasures in Shikoku.
Thank you Scott Langley and the incredible group with the HDKI. It’s my most sincere wish to see you guys here again. There is a lot more I want to show you, and things we have done that we can do again, but with greater intensity and depth and opportunities to journey and discover.
Lastly, here’s my pitch. If you are with a karate, or some other martial arts, organization, and would like to find a way to explore and experience Japan, please feel free to contact me. I’ve very recently made a collaborative business structure with two good Japanese friends and we are now ready to smoothly welcome you to this part of Japan, this Deep Japan. Please go to Tokyo and Kyoto and see the wonders that you have known about your whole life. But when you would like to take a step further, a step beyond, you ought to call us. We can help you discover and immerse yourself in the Japan that is seldom seen, and must less discovered. From pristine nature, to special and hidden cultural experiences, to temples and shrines, to mountain mystics, to pilgrimage, to the dojo floor, we can get you there. That is, get you here, to the deepest parts of Japan.
Below are links to Scott Langley’s books. I must confess, at first I had misgivings about the title for the first book, but in context, and after reading all three, my thoughts have turned around completely. Love the narrative, and the story is fascinating to follow. Scott’s experiences as a karate student, then a karate teacher, and then a karate association founder is an incredible story in the telling. And having met the man in person, I am glad to have a new friend, and to have met the inspiring leader, teacher, and student in person. He is honest, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, approachable, and full of mirth and boundless laughter. Marvellous. Read for yourself!
www.hdki.org This link is for karate students and teachers who would like to connect with Scott Langley to discuss his organization.