I had an interesting dream last night about Japan. It was reminiscent of my trip there in 2001. Although it’s been almost twenty years, I still remember getting on the road in the early hours of morning before the sun rose to drive from my home town of Dalhousie, New Brunswick to Mont-Joli, Quebec where my team and I would grab the first flight of many that would carry us all the way across the globe to Narita, Japan.
It was a long summer before we travelled out in October of 2001. The world had changed about a month prior and I was curious as to whether we would actually be making the trip. But as it turned out, we decided to live life for the sake of living and risk it out. Although the rest of the team took the summer off, I trained hard as I anticipated getting my black belt in Okinawa. I was at the tail end of my time as a brown belt and this trip would provide the final step I needed to finally begin my journey in the martial arts.
We had a total of four flights, starting from Mont-Joli to Quebec City, Quebec, followed by a flight to Montreal, Quebec, on to New York before finally flying to Narita, Japan. We stayed overnight in New York and did the tourist thing. It was nice, and we even climbed the Empire State building. We dined at some restaurants and embarked on the fourteen-hour flight that would take us to Narita.
During that fourteen hours, our flight arc took us across Alaska. I remember everyone being fast asleep and the plane was dark and quiet. I was gazing over the snow-covered landscape that was 35,000 feet below me. I remember leaning my face against the window and thinking about how the world looks so peaceful and beautiful and serene from that high up… Then my bowels almost evacuated. The plane rocked violently and shifted to the side. It felt as though the plane struck something solid and I saw the port-side wing flex upward at what I felt was an impossible angle before settling back to its original position.
I sat there shaking, thinking about how close I came to dying. I looked around the plane and realized that no one had woken. I realized that if the plane had crashed, I would have been the only poor bastard awake to experience it. When Sensei woke up, I told him what happened. He got a good laugh at my expense as he explained that we probably struck an air pocket and dropped a few feet. Once the plane hit normal air, the wings would flex to accommodate the stress. If only I had known, I could have prevented making a fool of myself. It would be the first of many of those situations on this trip…
We landed in Narita, Japan and stayed at a traditional Japanese inn. The rooms had paper walls and tatami mats for beds. Honestly, the most comfortable sleep of my life with the exception of my memory foam mattress. There was a public bath and meals were served by the inn’s owner who was also the front counter person. We stayed there for three days and visited Tokyo Tower as well as the Budokan and Kodokan Judo Institute. Believe it or not, I had my very first beer at a Japanese dignitary’s home during my time in Narita. I was 23 years’ old.
We took a short flight across the Ryukyu islands to land in Naha, Okinawa. this is where we would be spending the following weeks of our stay. We checked in to the Oasis Hotel in Naha, where I would be sharing a room with the two other guys in my team while Sensei and his wife had the second room. As of the following morning, our schedule went a little something like this:
- Wake up at 6:00 am;
- Brief breakfast of whatever foods we purchased from a local grocery store and ate in our rooms;
- Three to four hours of karate classes in the morning before breaking for lunch;
- Afternoons to ourselves, which included laying on the beach, shopping at the local markets and visiting museums;
- No supper, because heavy shit was coming;
- Another three to four hours of karate with the senior class;
- Beer and food at Nakama-Sensei’s home afterwards;
- Ceremoniously pass out from exhaustion;
- Wash, rinse and repeat.
It was a gruelling few weeks of training and running around. Although it was October and considered to be the onset of the colder season for Okinawans, it was 40 degrees and hotter than hell for us. All the beer and sake we drank never came out. I could include a lot of the incidents that took place during our trip. The fact that Sensei filmed one of the other male students applying sunblock on my shoulders while at the beach, getting drunk in front of that aforementioned dignitary since it was my first time drinking beer and accidentally screaming “I love you” in Japanese to a fifteen-year old girl… Yeah, I wasn’t proud of that one. Y’all can tell me in the comments which of those fuck-ups you’d like to hear more about!
Out of everything I experienced in Okinawa, watching Sensei receive his 6th Dan was by far the most rewarding. Combined with a couple of Okinawan elders trying to set me up to marry their daughters and bring them back to Canada, it was a memorable night. It was also a fantastic way to wrap up our trip. I even got the opportunity to visit some Buddhist temples.
I miss Japan and Okinawa greatly. It was mostly a month of good times and good memories. It only surprises me that it’s taken me this long to dream memories of the place. Sensei has returned to Okinawa every two to three years since then. He keeps going back and all I’ve done is dream about the memories I’ve made. Perhaps someday I’ll go back.
I didn’t get my black belt in Okinawa like I planned. In fact, I only got it the following year in Sensei’s private dojo in my hometown. In some ways, a lot of ways, that suited me better. Would it have been memorable to get it in Okinawa? Sure. But I wouldn’t trade the memories I gained in Okinawa or the experience of my black belt test for anything in the world. ☯