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Japan Diary

A personal account of the Budo for Peace trip to Japan

by Nigel Kersh

 

Japan 07

The Team :

  Family Name First Name Age M/F Nationality Location
1 ASLA Basel 20 M ISRAELI ARAB CENTRE
2 BRATANOVA Bratana 29 F BULGARIAN CHRISTIAN CENTRE
3 HAKIM Danny 47 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
4 HAKIM Paul 45 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
5 HJOJ Abdul Kareem 14 M PALESTINIAN JERUSALEM
6 HOROWITZ Adam 13 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
7 ISMAIL Omar 30 M ISRAELI ARAB NORTH
8 KERSH Daena 15 F ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
9 KERSH Ilan 15 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
10 KERSH Nigel 48 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
11 KHALIL Ahlam 18 F ISRAELI ARAB NORTH
12 KHALIL Ali 44 M ISRAELI ARAB NORTH
13 LAHWANI Riad 10 M ISRAELI ARAB NORTH
14 MAHMOUD Mohammad Ammar Attalah 14 M PALESTINIAN JERUSALEM
15 MAHMOUD Nidaa 17 F PALESTINIAN JERUSALEM
16 MAHMOUD Samah 17 F PALESTINIAN JERUSALEM
17 MEHTA Rajul 36 F INDIAN CENTRE
18 MEHTA Ria 13 F INDIAN CENTRE
19 MOUSAI Dana 12 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
20 MOUSAI Moshe 47 M ISRAELI JEWISH CENTRE
21 NASSAR Wisam 15 M ISRAELI ARAB NORTH
22 SALAMEH Abdel Rauf 44 M PALESTINIAN JERUSALEM

 

Total 22 people
ISRAEL/JEWISH: 8
ISRAEL/ARAB: 6
PALEST/ARAB: 5
INDIAN: 2
BULGARIAN: 1


Monday, October 30, 2006
Day 1

While planning for the Budo for Peace (BFP) trip to Japan had begun some months earlier, most participants only really imagined that it was happening when they assembled at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Much drama had preceded this event, including the issue of the participation of the Palestinian children, the obtaining of passports and visas and the general planning of arrangements once the group arrived in Tokyo. Despite all of the difficulties, the team was assembled and ready, and eager to participate in the 9th Shotokan Karate-do International World Championships.

Most participants were familiar with one another, having met on a number of occasions since BFP was established some two years earlier.

The first excitement of the trip was the distribution of the brand new BFP tracksuits. These fine outfits, emblazoned with the logos of BFP’s sponsors, One-to-One Children’s Fund and food and commodities company, Sugat, were eagerly snapped up and donned by the team members.

Traveling by air is not really the fun adventure it used to be. One of the more mundane victims of international terrorism is the stretching of travelers patience as they must arrive several hours prior to their flight to submit to rigorous security checks. Most of the team arrived a full three hours before the flight lifted off on its two hour journey to Istanbul, Turkey, from where we would catch our 12 hour direct flight to Tokyo.

Arriving in Istanbul, the team assembled for a little light stretching and karate training. This was most welcome after the three hour wait in Tel Aviv, and the two hour flight. There was another five hour lay over time in Istanbul, so any distraction from the inevitable boredom of waiting was welcome. The group gathered in a circle and was led by Ali Khalil, the instructor of one of BFP’s original twinned dojos situated in Bueina-Nujeidat in the Galil region of Israel. Following Ali’s warm up, Danny Hakim, the BFP president, led the group in a series of stylised karate movement known as “kata”. Thoroughly warmed up and exercised, the group then split up to explore the delights of the Istanbul international departure lounge.

Japan TripOne of the first encounters that the BFP team had with competitors from other countries was an interesting meeting with the team from Iraq. Several of the Iraqi team “bumped into” the BFP while they performed their stretching routines, and stopped to watch. This was not a photo opportunity to miss, and so Ali Khalil, and Omar Knane, another Israeli Arab sensei from the north of Israel, approached the Iraqi team members and asked them to pose for a group photo. The Iraqi karate players agreed, and an interesting photo was added to the many hundreds that would be snapped over the course of the next ten days.

Having sat around for the next five hours, it was time to board the last leg of the journey to Japan. Most of the team were still upbeat, but having been up and about for 10 to 12 hours, some of the younger team members were beginning to flag. Still, hopefully there would be the opportunity to sleep during the 12 hour journey to Tokyo…

As chance would have it, very few people slept aboard the Turkish Airways flight to Japan. Traveling by plane is somewhat akin to being in hospital. You have your own private seat, and every chance to sit back and catch up on missed sleep, but it rarely happens. There are the constant visits by the air stewards bringing around drinks and meals. People are also jumping in and out of their seats to stretch their legs, or make use of the remarkably tiny toilet facilities. In short, after almost 24 hours of travel, the team arrived in Tokyo pretty well exhausted.

One of my pleasant duties aboard the plane was the completion of 22 immigrant declaration cards. These are the little forms one fills out when landing in any foreign country, giving your flight details and address etc. I sat with Bratana and filled out the forms which probably took the best part of three hours. Not only did we have to get all of the passport numbers and dates of birth etc., we also had to fill in the relevant addresses in Japan, which was no cakewalk. Added to this was the complicated issue of citizenship of the Palestinian members of the group. As citizens without a state, Palestinians basically define their nationality as what suits them at the time. Sometimes they will call themselves Palestinians, living under the quasi government of the Palestinian Authority. At other times, they may even call themselves Israelis, particularly if it involves security issues such as those that arise when flying from Tel Aviv’s international airport. Each of the Palestinians in our group had different ID cards, and these had to be clearly specified lest this lead to complications with immigration upon entry into Japan. The nationality issue is one of the key difficulties for BFP when traveling both within Israel, but more especially when traveling overseas.

During the flight I really had little sleep, and this gave me some opportunity to chat with some of our Arab friends. One person, of whom I am very fond, is Ali Khalil, the karate teacher from Bueina-Nujeidat. Ali was traveling with his daughter Ahlam as the only representatives of their dojo and village. He was as excited as I was about going to Japan. As karate veterans with over 50 years of karate training between us, we both saw this as one of high points of our karate careers.

Ali is an interesting fellow. He works as a physical fitness instructor in his village, as well as a part time karate instructor for BFP and for a number of other dojos that he runs privately. We sat on the plane and talked about many things, ranging from the politics in Israel, including the difficulties Ali faced as the father of a large family with quite a limited income. He explained that while his salary was quite moderate, those of his children who worked gave their entire stipend to their father who then distributed it according to the family’s overall requirements. This was a common method of managing financial resources, and it struck me as ultimately very sensible. The father of the family, who, by and large, had the most experience in managing financial matters, was given the task of looking after the entire family using pooled resources.

Another topic of conversation was religion. I am personally, and have been for many years, a fairly outspoken atheist. When I mentioned this fact to Ali, he almost had a heart attack. He asked me how I could be an unbeliever if I was Jewish. I tried to explain that while many Jews held onto their religion as their parents and grandparents had done before them, the majority of Jews in Israel, and in the world at large, were basically secular. They acknowledged their Jewish history and heritage in many ways, but religion was only one of them. I tried to explain to Ali that I saw my “Jewishness” in terms of Jewish history, Jewish humour, Jewish literature, Jewish languages… the list went on and on. For me, religion was simply one part that I chose to ignore.

This discussion with Ali illustrated one of the cultural barriers that divided us. While the majority of Israeli Jews were secular, the opposite was true of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs, virtually all of whom adopted the Islamic religion in a practical, and sometimes extreme way.

* * * * *

Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Day 2

When we arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo, it was already midday, local time. Our next mission was to gather the troops and their luggage and find some way to transport everything to the international youth hostel where we would be staying for the next eight nights.

Traveling with two people in a country where you cannot speak the language, or even read any of the public signs is difficult enough. But traveling with 22 people can be a nightmare. Our initial challenge was to transport the entire party, with all of their various bags to the youth hostel, some one and a half hours away. After much negotiation, and looking for various team members who had wandered away from the bus/taxi ranks, the majority of the party boarded a bus with all of the luggage, while a smaller party went into central Tokyo by train. This journey afforded all team members to sample Japan face to face.

The first thing I noticed was that the roofs of so many of the houses were designed in traditional oriental temple fashion. I was very surprised to see this, expecting only to see such design on official temple buildings. Either the Japanese builders were immensely proud of their religious heritage, or maybe there was some more practical reason for building in such a way.

Around three o’clock in the afternoon, the team re-assembled on the 18th floor of the high rise building that housed the international youth hostel. Rooms were clean and pleasant, containing four beds in each with the exception of one room, termed “Japanese style”, as the room contained no beds. Instead, futons, or Japanese mattresses were laid on the floor at bedtime with the sleepers lying head to toe, shoulder to shoulder. This was the room occupied by the ladies in the team. By and large, sleeping arrangements were satisfactory with most party members sharing rooms with other members from their communities. Perhaps more might have been made of integrating the various groups if the rooms had been more mixed, but I believe that allocating members from similar communities was the correct thing to do.

One urban legend that quickly did the rounds was that the hostel only contained Japanese style bathing facilities. Talk was that there were public bathing areas where people would wash themselves in the nude in front of other hostellers. There was also mention of the giant public hot water bath where bathers would assemble for a joint paddle. The truth of the matter was that such facilities did exist, but that there were also “European style” showers, with curtains, permitting those people who preferred a little privacy to avoid any public embarrassment. In fact, the public bath was simply a large tub full of very hot water where one relaxed after using the Japanese or European showers. One was able to submerge one’s entire body in the tub, which was totally relaxing…

Our next port of call was the residence of the Israeli ambassador to Japan, Mr Eli Cohen. Arrangements had been set for a meeting with 40 top Japanese business people to receive the BFP group. The businessmen were also scheduled to receive an overview of the BFP organisation, along with an address from some economic/financial guru. Of more interest to the bulk of the BFP members was the fact that Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, the spiritual leader of the entire worldwide karate organisation hosting the world championships, was also in attendance. The team was introduced to Master Kanazawa as well as to other high ranking karate instructors who were also in attendance at the meeting.

Following the formal speeches from Bratana (in Japanese), Danny (in English), and other officials (also in Japanese), the team was invited to partake of a multicultural buffet laid on by the embassy staff. This included an interesting blend of Japanese and Middle Eastern delights which were scoffed rapidly by the honourable guests and the hungry karatekas.

* * * * *

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Day 3

After a most excellent night’s sleep, the party woke to sample the delights of the youth hostel breakfast. This comprised one portion of scrambled egg, a couple of carved vegetables and two pieces of ham. The less orthodox members of party scoffed the offered sustenance with aplomb, but some small measure of consternation affected the more orthodox (Jewish and Moslem) members of the team, including a number of vegetarians. Vegetarian breakfasts were then prepared which were particularly meager and unsatisfying. It was agreed that different breakfast arrangements would have to be made for the following day…

Finishing breakfast, team members gathered their karate suits and set off for the Tokyo Metropolitan Sports Arena where the world championships were taking place. Fortunately, the distances traveled during our stay in Tokyo were short, as traveling on busy underground trains while trying to keep track of 22 people was not a task for the faint hearted. A buddy system of sorts was arranged where certain adults had two or three youngsters to “watch”, and ensure that they had boarded and left the various trains that we took throughout the day. I believe we returned to Israel with the same 22 people with whom we left for Japan, so it could be said that the system achieved its objective.

Arriving at the arena we were impressed by the amazing structure that housed the international sports halls. The building was constructed to give the look of being the top of an enormous Samurai warrior. We entered the building and took our bearings. The centre was very large, with multiple tunnels and corridors going off in all sorts of directions. This again raised the issue of keeping track of all of our party during the various events over the next week. It should have been a simple case of each teacher, or sensei, being responsible for his students. The trouble was, all of the events involved different ages and sexes of students competing in different places at the same time. Again, the logistics of managing a large group was an enormous daily challenge.

Some of the team with Kanazawa Sensei

Having determined the lay of the land, the group then assembled at an underground car park location close by to the arena where some further karate practice was conducted by team coach, Paul Hakim. One other challenging issue was that the type of karate, or “style”, was slightly different to that practised by some of the Arab students. As a result, last minute efforts were required to explain the finer points of the Kanazawa style karate to avoid any embarrassment or the loss of points in the forthcoming karate matches.

After spending some one hour practicing karate in the underground car park, the team returned to the main arena to participate in a special “youth seminar” for those karate students under the age of 18. The BFP adults were also able to join in and watch the top karate instructors in action. The class was led by Master Kanazawa, along with one of his top aides, Mr Tanaka, and Kanazawa’s son, Fumitoshi. The class was excellent, with most students staring in awe at their karate school’s “head honcho”. Mr Kanazawa senior, now in his eighth decade, moved around the hall like a man half his age, providing clear testament that karate really can be a lifelong pursuit.

After training, the team returned to the hostel to clean up and prepare for the evening’s activities.

Danny Hakim had organized a meeting at a Jewish cultural centre where the BFP team was once again presented to the audience. In addition, Danny’s film “Shadya” was also presented to the Jewish and Japanese audience.

Following the excitement of our first full day in Tokyo, and the exertions at karate practice, the team made their way back to the youth hostel to clean up and prepare for their first Japanese dinner on the town!

Bratana had arranged for us all to attend a special “traditional Japanese” dinner in a friend’s basement restaurant. The meal was very traditional – chopsticks, wooden plates full of Japanese salads and vegetables. Very nice - if you like that kind of thing. I did, but certain members of our party didn’t. Those with culinary tastes firmly set in the Middle East were seemingly unable or unwilling to “try something new”. This culinary inertia was an issue set to plague the rest of the trip. Instead of sampling further Japanese cuisine, it was decided to try to supply the majority desire for hamburgers, pasta and pizza. Pity…

* * * * *

Thursday, November 2, 2006
Day 4

The following day started with breakfast. However, rather than sampling the delicacies of the international youth hostel, Bratana and I decided to take matters into our own hands and purchase a range of breakfast items from a local minimarket. We then brought these back and distributed the goodies to each of the rooms, where hungry hostellers descended upon the various comestibles with great enthusiasm. We maintained the same policy throughout the majority of the time in Tokyo, bar the old visit to a Japanese McDonalds (just to see what it was like, of course…).

Thursday was an interesting challenge for me personally as I was scheduled to sit the examination for my 2nd degree black belt. I believe it was a close contest to see whether I was more nervous about sitting the exam, or more nervous traveling the Tokyo underground on my own, without Bratana’s Japanese language skills. I wouldn’t know until the end of the competition whether I had passed the test, and so I made my way back to the arena where my fellow team members had assembled to watch some of the opening matches.

After a relatively relaxed morning, we took the train to the Shibuya shopping area and ate McDonalds for lunch. Hardly Japanese culture, but at least the menu was in Japanese… We then split up into smaller groups and did some window shopping around the twisting Japanese streets. Shopping in Japan could have been fun, but it was somehow frustrated by our inability to communicate in any way with most of the shop owners. Having been an island community for so many centuries, the Japanese seem to still maintain an air of separateness, and one is peculiarly aware of one’s foreign status when walking down the streets, or going into shops and restaurants. English is barely spoken, although, for some reason, quite a number of people can read English. Perhaps the paucity of foreigners visiting Japan accounts for the poor level of spoken English among the general population.

Despite communication difficulties, Japanese window shopping is fascinating. Whether it is because of Japanese culture or not, many of the shops were presented in such pleasing and organized ways, that one was almost unconsciously drawn towards them and inside. There is an air of order and calmness, quite the opposite of what we normally experience back in Israel. Bratana helped us find a skateboarding shop that was simply amazing in the way it presented all the various skateboarding equipment and apparel. I don’t think I had ever seen a more compact and organized sporting store.

One interesting feature of many Japanese restaurants is the plastic sculpture modeling of the food for sale inside. These models are set either in the restaurant window, or on tables outside on the pavement. The models are so lifelike that I wondered whether any westerner might have stopped to taste what they thought were free samples…

Japan Trip

Having virtually worn out the younger members of the group (and some of the older ones…), we returned to the youth hostel for some much needed free time. Some people showered, while others chatted with other guests, many of whom were fellow karate competitors, in the hostel common areas. Others jumped onto the internet to make contact with friends and family back home. This contact was something that should have been better organized for the younger group members. It took a number of days before were able to arrange for the students to speak with their parents via the various complicated Japanese public telephone devices. Any future trips to such faraway lands should put a high priority on giving students immediate contact with their families when they arrive at their destinations.

Following some well-earned rest, the team again assembled to make their way once again to the Metropolitan arena. Each country had been allotted a period of time to practice their karate or, as in our case, to prepare their demonstration for the forthcoming opening ceremony on Saturday.

Leaving the arena for the second time that day, we returned to the hostel and took our evening meal in a local family restaurant called the “Royal Host”. Why it was called the Royal Host was lost on me, but it was a pleasant eatery, and everybody was very satisfied with this restaurant. We sat there for some time, mellowing out, digesting the various events of the past few days…

Returning to the hostel before curfew at 11pm, a number of us sat together to talk about the next few days. We had planned to have an evening meeting for all party members each evening. But due to the fact that only some of us had been involved with the planning, some resentment had been brewing among a few members. They felt that they had not been consulted on many of the planning issues, and weren’t too happy with the “on the move” decision making. As the trip had really been planned and executed on the 11th hour in many cases, much planning had been of the skin-of-the-teeth variety. This inevitably resulted in some frayed nerves and bad tempers. That evening two members had a minor skirmish, highlighting the fact that more open planning was needed. We endeavored to do this for the remainder of the trip.

*****
Friday, November 3, 2006
Day 5

Friday began with my waking early and collecting Bratana for our daily visit to the local minimarket. This was becoming an enjoyable morning ritual, and one which resulted in the team receiving some healthy nourishment at the start of each day.

JapanAfter breakfast, we took our daily train to the arena and prepared for the junior competitions. Of our party of 22, 12 were participating in the junior competition events. These were subdivided by age and sex, with each competitor being given a coach to guide them through their matches. This was easier said than done, with much of the time resulting in coaches trying to keep track of their students who were often wandering around the various rooms and corridors of the arena. I myself wanted to see my two children, Daena and Ilan compete, and found myself running between the main arena and smaller “sub-arena” where the students had to wait prior to being called to compete. On this particular day my daughter Daena was left waiting in the sub-arena for a total of seven hours, which was quite atrocious. Ilan and I did our best to keep her spirits up, bringing her drinks and food while she waited, but she was quite exhausted by the time her group was called. This is typical for events of this size, and it’s one of the reasons (but not the main one), why I am personally not a supporter of sports karate, but more about that later…

Daena did eventually compete, but neither she nor Ilan passed through to the final rounds. It’s hard to fly halfway around the world and be knocked out in the early stages of a competition. The Hakim brothers view is that this should make one want to train even more, so that one can be a “winner” at the next championship. Without any empirical evidence, one cannot say one way or the other, but let’s say that my own opinion differed with that of the Hakims.

Following the junior competition rounds, where none of our team achieved places in the finals, we gathered the weary troops and set off for dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Some of the group felt that they wanted to find somewhere else to eat, and so they left, while the rest of us stayed to eat pasta and pizza. It was a reasonable restaurant, but I found myself really asking why we were here, in the middle of Tokyo, eating Italian food… Danny made an effort to make Kiddush, but most people were either too exhausted, or disinterested to join in his enthusiasm for the ceremony.

And so to bed…

* * * * *

Saturday, November 4, 2006
Day 6 “Demo Day”

Saturday was a great day! Not only did BFP pull off a small miracle (more about that later…), but we were able to watch many matches of the senior grades competing at the highest levels. This was really the first day that we had managed to enjoy the competition itself. I sat with Daena, Ilan and Adam Horowitz placing imaginary bets on which fighters would win, and which techniques would score. Yes, this was real karate competition at its finest!

But the real drama of the day was reserved for the BFP demonstration. Initially, this was intended to comprise of a mini karate “peace play-let” that I had choreographed during a previous BFP event in Israel. The performance involved two parallel lines of 10 karate students in each, marching onto the arena floor. The students stop in the centre of the arena, and then the two lines turn, facing away from each other. Each student then links arms with the students at their sides, and the two lines then press their backs against on another. The result is a dense “wall” comprising two lines of karate students facing away from one another. This wall represents the conflict that exists between so many communities across the world.

The next stage involves the appearance of two young karate students and their two senseis. These pairs, a student and sensei on one side, and a student and sensei on the other, represent two karate schools from the two communities, separated by a wall of conflict. The senseis start shouting commands to their two young students who march up and down practicing their skills.

At that point, one of the students stops and moves over to the wall in an effort to see what he can already hear happening on the other side, but he can’t see through the dense wall. He is then sharply reprimanded by his teacher and told to continue practicing. Next it is the turn of the other student, who does exactly the same thing, until he too is called by back his own sensei.

Then the original student, who approached the wall first, does so again, but this time he sends an imaginary punch into one of the students, or “bricks” in the wall, and the student falls down. He continues along the wall, punching and kicking it until all of the bricks have fallen. At the same time, the other student is performing the same action on the other side, until eventually all of the student bricks are lying supine on the floor. The two young karatekas then look at one another, bow, and shake hands across the broken wall.

The finale involves all of the bricks jumping up and forming a circle around the two senseis and their students who practice their moves “together”.

Nice, eh?

Trouble was… we couldn’t do it. Why? Because the Palestinian team were informed of our intentions and made a complaint to the Japanese organizers. They said that the play was in bad taste in light of the fact that Palestinians are being “killed all the time by Israeli guns”. Of course, this was patent nonsense. The play was not specifically addressed towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but at all pointless conflicts around the world that take so many innocent lives. Unfortunately, the Japanese organizers, not wanting to be seen to be taking sides, conceded to the Palestinian request to prevent our planned demo from proceeding. This was a severe blow to BFP, but, in typical Danny Hakim fashion, the BFP president devised a new sketch.

This time the plan was for the two lines of mixed Arab/Israeli children and adults to march onto the arena floor and perform a simple kata. The Palestinians could have no complaint about such an innocuous display. However, the way we performed the kata caught everyone (ourselves included…) by surprise.

We lined up, 10 aside, facing each other around 15 feet apart. Due to the fact that we were Japan Demofacing each other, when one side was performing a forward step, so the two lines came closer to one another. At one critical point in the kata, two forward blocks are followed by a thrusting attack with an outstretched spear hand. Anyone watching the demo would have thought that we would possibly have attacked our opponent, but instead, the kata was planned in such a way that our two hands overlapped, and we grasped our opponents hands and gave a quick 1-2-3 handshake. This move caught everyone by surprise, as it’s not an actual part of the kata, and when we actually did the move, the crowd gave out a most incredible cheer. We were so surprised that we kept on shaking hands, bringing further cheering and applause from the audience. It was a magic moment. We then finished the kata and marched off together to a standing ovation from the 10,000 onlookers. Quite incredible…

I should mention at this point that three of our Palestinian team members did not want to take part in the demo. Investigations revealed that they were nervous about responses back home, lest they be termed traitors to the Palestinian cause. Further pressure had been placed upon the three young people by members of the official Palestinian delegation with whom we shared the youth hostel accommodation. After much cajoling, they all three agreed to participate, although this experience did leave a bad taste in the mouths of the other team members.

Saturday night’s dinner was taken at a traditional Japanese restaurant. Food comprised Japanese yakitori, or meat and chicken skewers. We also ate soup, rice and a range of different cooked vegetables. Joining me, Daena and Ilan were Paul, Moshe and Dana. It was a fabulous meal, spiced up by the fact that Paul fell asleep on a number of occasions. He had spent the previous night sleeping in the Royal Host restaurant as he had missed the hostel curfew… A number of our Arab team members had taken their meal in a Japanese “kaiten” restaurant, where the individual dishes move on a revolving conveyor belt to be selected by the guests. The response wasn’t good… I don’t think the idea of raw fish is something that would sell well in the Arab villages of northern Israel…

* * * * *

Sunday, November 5, 2006
Day 7

Sunday began with our customary minimart breakfast followed by a shopping trip organized (like most things…) by our tireless guide, Bratana. We visited a number of “100 yen” stores where one could pick up a range of Japanese nick-nacks for next to nothing. Lunch was in another pasta restaurant, followed by our daily trip to the arena. This time we were entertained by the finals of the seniors competition. This was an absolute treat, spoiled only by the fact that we had to return to the hostel at 5pm. I also received the great news that I had passed my exam, and was now an official 2nd dan. Not bad, after 33 years practicing karate…

Returning to the hostel, a number of the older members prepared to clean up for the farewell party. This was being held in a Japanese restaurant, but the events of recent days had taken their toll, and most of the party just wanted a “quiet night at home”… Those who did attend the party said it was wonderful, while other reports claimed that it was a bit of a drunken show with a number of karate masters taking a little too much sake than was good for them. I didn’t really feel that we missed out by not attending.

Taking the opportunity of a quiet evening, I went with Daena and Ilan to try out a genuine Japanese sushi bar. We found an excellent place quite close to the hostel, and settled down to sample the fresh fish delights. The only real issue was that we spoke no Japanese, and the sushi chef spoke no English, or Hebrew, for that matter… Additionally, the menu was all in Japanese with no pictures… Well, we thought, “when in Rome”, or “when in Tokyo”, for that matter, do as the Tokyo-ans do… We each picked out a dish, using price as a guide and sat back to watch our sushi-man do his stuff. The meal was absolutely astounding – the best we had in Tokyo. We made everyone laugh with our antics of trying to eat crab claws with chop sticks, and grimacing at the look of some of the very odd looking items that were placed before us. But we left the restaurant stuffed to the gills. It was a pity we were alone – it was a real “Japanese” experience.

* * * * *

Monday, November 6, 2006
Day 8

Today, our room decided to try out the McDonald’s breakfast. This was excellent. For some reason, the “Big Breakfast” is something that never quite hit it off in Israel, which is a great shame. Egg McMuffin – hash browns – sausage McMuffins – hot cakes… we had the lot! And it was cheap…! I discovered that the standard burgers were about 30% less than what we pay in Israel…

After breakfast we spent another couple of hours shopping. Fortunately for those for whom shopping is not the only reason they go abroad, there was also some culture on offer. Bratana had planned a trip to the Meiji monastery right bang in the middle of Tokyo. This was a Shinto shrine where many Tokyo-ans go to get married and bless their children. It was a most beautiful location, very calm and peaceful, in total contrast to the hustle and bustle of the rest of Tokyo. I had another religious encounter with Ali, who said that he really couldn’t understand the point of the Shinto religion. I asked him if he was able to tolerate the religions of other people, or whether they bothered him. I felt another philosophical debate brewing, and decided to tone it down….

Lunch… yes, once again at a pizza restaurant. Perhaps one day we’ll all go to Rome to eat sushi… Following lunch we did (yet more) shopping at a special oriental bazaar, which was actually very worthwhile. The multilevel store offered a huge range of oriental products – some exorbitant, but others very reasonable indeed. It was actually more like a museum than a shop.

By now it was around 6pm, and once again we headed back to the hostel. This evening we had arranged to eat at a traditional Japanese charcoal grill restaurant. This type of establishment provides its patrons with a small container holding hot coals over which a small grill is placed. The guests are then presented with plates of raw meat, which they then grill themselves over the hot charcoal. The meal was superb, and the thick smoke from the charcoal and cooking meats filled the air. 10/10 for that restaurant, Bratana!

Following dinner, it was time to head for home and pack our bags as tomorrow we would leave for the coast.

* * * * *

Tuesday, November 7, 2006
Day 9

Our final full day in Japan would be spent in the coastal town of Kamakura, just south west from Tokyo. We kicked off with our McDonald’s breakfast in our room… (sorry, but it’s a weak spot…), followed by stowing our main luggage in the hostel lock-up. We then took our overnight bags and headed, once again, to the trains.

After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at our destination. But it was worth the wait! Our main destination was the Buddhist monastery where we had arranged a session of Zen meditation to be conducted by a resident Zen monk. The monastery itself was truly a place of beauty. It reminded me of the monastery shots taken for the 1970’s TV show Kung Fu, with Kwai Chang Caine trying to snatch the pebble from his master’s hand.

Having looked around the monastery, we made our Meditatingway to the meditation hall. We were each given some cushions to sit on, and told the exact way in which we should sit. This was no easy matter, but we persevered. The monk explained, via Bratana as translator, that we were about to practice “zazen” or “sitting zen” meditation. We would close our eyes, or focus at some distant point outside of the prayer room. The objective, if there is any objective in Zen, is to achieve a state of “no mind”, or total emptiness. It was quite unlikely that any one of us would achieve such a state in the 30 minutes that we had been allotted for the exercise, but we all entered into the spirit of the event. One interesting diversion was being smacked on the shoulders by the “kyosaku”, which is long stick, flattened at the business end, and used to bring Buddhist trainees back into focus should their minds start to wander. Our host offered to smack any of us, just so that we could really benefit (!) from knowing what pain was involved. A number of us gave the required signal and took our punishment. Each serving comprises two whacks on the left shoulder followed by two whacks on the right. I can’t say it was painless, as it hurt like hell! But, it had to be done… And, of course, if you do it once (just to see what it’s like), then you had to do it again (just to see if you’ve got the guts…). I believe the record was four rounds…

After our spiritually enlightening experience we left the monastery and made for a spot called Onaiba where we saw the silhouette of Mounf Fuji at sunset. It was perhaps a perfect end to our Japanese trip.

After Mt Fuji we headed back to our Kamakura hostel and spent a final night together. The evening comprised dinner followed by a farewell party – of sorts. Danny had asked that each member of the group put forward their views on how the trip had been for them. Everyone put in their “bit”, and there were plenty of critical comments, interspersed among the praise. Issues raised included the rushed manner in which the trip had been planned. Others were bothered by the fact that we were unprepared for the competition, and our students weren’t really able to compete at the levels of the other competitors. My own personal “beef” is that BFP should have no real connection to competition whatsoever. Many purists, including Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate, himself said that there was no room in karate for sport. Still, this is a debate for another time and place.

There was unanimous praise for the tireless efforts put in by Bratana as our chief guide and translator. She put in a sterling performance easily deserving of a medal.

In summary, I can say that our trip to Japan will remain one of the highlights of my karate career. To watch so many talented karate men and women competing at such high levels, and in Japan… well, you can’t really top that. Well, OK, you can… sitting, and passing a black belt exam in the place where karate was honed and perfected, well… yes, that was pretty special too.

I think many of the younger members of the group enjoyed the trip, but I can’t really see that it made the impact it made on some of the other senior members. Many issues arose, and I know that a number of people came back from Tokyo disappointed. As with many events of this kind, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. For me, it was enough that I went, with my two karate kids to practice karate in Japan. For that I owe BFP and its sponsors my deepest gratitude. Osu!