With more than 400 dojos on the island, it should be no surprise that Okinawa is the birthplace of karate.
But, when it comes to finding a place to start, whether it be learning the skills or seeing the cultural impact, you may have no idea where to begin. Finding your “Mr. Miyagi” may not come so easy.
Now, you have the Okinawa Karate Kaikan. The brand new facility, which debuted in March, is meant to kick open the door to the world of karate for everybody.
Learn skills, train, network with others, buy gear, even watch professional tournaments, you name it. This brand new institution offers one-stop solution to anybody who is interested in the classic martial art that Okinawa proudly presents.
What a better way to experience karate than to set foot in dojo with a karate-gi uniform on?
Located at the center of this large facility is a 13,756-square foot dojo, which houses four courts for karate bouts. This is a place created to host big tournaments and events. When weekends come around, people will fill the 380 seats to see professional karate matches or demonstrations by masters.
When such events are not happening, visitors have an opportunity to get out on the court and test their karate fighting skills.
Staff is on site to help visitors rent karate-gi and take photos. If the time is right, visitors can get a lesson from instructors like Katsuya Arakai, a 26-year-old black belt holder who works for the facility.
“People may be under the impression that karate is hard to approach,” said Arakaki . “But here, the door is open for anybody who is interested in karate. I am especially looking forward to coaching kids.”
The Okinawa Karate Kaikan’s dojo is also open to people who engage in other martial arts. In a training room adjacent to the dojo, people can kick a punching bag or test their fists against makiwara (striking posts made from straw).
Karate is often described as a martial art that is just as much mental as it is physical. Learning its history and cultural impact is important in perfecting the mental side of the art. The Okinawa Karate Kaikan also has an exhibition area to serve that end.
In its first segment, visitors are guided to a theater for a screening of a video which illustrates the history of karate in Okinawa.
Starting with how it originated in a native martial art called “Tee,” which developed before and through the age of Ryukyu Kingdom, the footage shows how major schools developed at locations such as Shuri, Naha, Tomari, reflecting the historical background of each location.
It’s interesting to see how the name “karate” helped the martial art spread nationwide when it was introduced between late 19th century and early 20th century, and what kind of role U.S. servicemembers played in putting it on an international stage.
The footage, which is packed with lots of action and special effects, is both entertaining and informative.
All the legends shown in the video set the stage for the second segment of the exhibit, which provides visitors with hands-on opportunities to try unique training tools that look straight out of an old karate or kung-fu movie.
For example, visitors are encouraged to throw a punch at a simulated candle flame. If the punch is sharp enough, the flame will be put out. You can also wear iron sandals or lift heavy urns which old masters used to do to work on their leg and arm muscles.
The third segment would tickle visitors’ curiosity even more with unique arms and weapons used for Kobudo, which means “old marital arts.” Items such as nunchucks, a set of a hand spear and a shield made of beef-skin and bamboo, Okinawan tonfa batons, brass knuckles and more are on display.
Many of the weapons have roots in everyday items on Okinawa, and are meant to be used for self-defense first and foremost. So they well deserve a spot in the landscape of a martial arts where “there is no first strike.”
Manager Wataru Kikuzawa stressed that this facility is open to everybody.
“We would like to make this place a theme park where anybody can have fun with karate, and we have many plans to achieve that,” Kikuzawa said. “Offering karate lessons for kids, or hosting Karatebics (Karate plus aerobics) workshop for beginners are part of it.
And we will be happy to help people find good local dojos for them. Plus, our English-speaking staff is ready to help people from foreign countries.”
According to the manager, this “theme park” of karate was a much-anticipated goal for karate devotees in Okinawa. Now, just a couple months since its debut, Kikuzawa already has an even bigger goal in mind.
“It is our hope to make this place a mecca for all the karate enthusiasts - like Wimbledon and St. Andrews are for tennis and golf.”
Okinawa Karate Kaikan
• Address: 854-1 Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku City, Okinawa Prefecture 901-0241(Near the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. Approx. 14 minute drive from Naha Airport)
• Tel: 098-851-1025
• Hours: Dojo (9 a.m. – 9 p.m.), Exhibition (9 a.m. – 6 p.m.)
• Admission: Entry to Dojo area for free unless there is an event; Entry to Exhibition is 310 yen (adult), 210 yen (High school and college student), 100 yen (middle and elementary school student)
Shared use of Dojo/training room/seminar room for 160 yen (adult) and 90 yen (65+ or high school students and below); Exclusive use of training room for 410 yen per hour.
*English-speaking staff on site