The #1 Reason Why Every Serious Karate-ka Needs to Travel to Okinawa Right Now

Some people might find this strange:

But my strongest memories from living in Okinawa (the birthplace of Karate) are not from the actual Karate training.

Sure, training Karate in Okinawa (or anywhere else in Japan) is a pretty intense and mind-blowing experience, for sure. Especially the first time. The sheer amount of cultural, physical, mental and spiritual input is overwhelming to say the least, and more than enough to etch life-lasting memories in anyone for sure.

That’s a given.

Nevertheless, my most memorable moments from Okinawa are not from the training.

They’re from the people.

More specifically, the numerous sensei.

Question: Have you ever been in the presence of another human being who can – purely by his/her manners, body language, attitude, character and charisma – enchant you to such a degree that you even forget about those damn cicadas screeching in the jungle just outside the dojo?

I have.

The raw pizzazz some of these Karate masters in Okinawa have (without even having to speak) is so inspiring that I still remember specific moments when I simply went “Holy shit, I want to be like him when I grow up!” secretly in my mind.

Now, to most of you, this might sound alien.

“Jesse-san, how can you be impressed by somebody who doesn’t publicly boast n’ brag? Who doesn’t show off?!”

Believe me, it’s easy.

When you meet a true Karate master, and I really mean a true one (one whom the ancient Okinawans would traditionally refer to as a “bushi”, a title often translated as “honorable warrior”) in every definition of the word, you will be not only inspired – but awe-inspired.

However, we, as Westerners, have been instructed since day one to continually pay attention to the ones who scream the loudest. The ones who wave their arms the highest and get in front of our noses the fastest.

It’s like that famous marketing slogan: “If nobody sees you; you don’t exist.”

And hey, “to exist” must surely be the first law of nature, right? I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to exist!? The thing, however, is that Karate wasn’t meant for making you get seen or heard. It wasn’t meant for gaining attention or boosting anybody’s ego. Heck, it wasn’t *even* made for winning tournaments!

It was originally made for self-defense.


We know that.

But more importantly, as people gradually realized the incredible power inherited in these lethal techniques, an element of philosophy was subsequently added to the stew. (And the same holds true for almost any authentic martial art on earth for that matter, let’s stop pretending Karate is unique in this respect.)

This element of rational philosophy was critical in order to gain balance between the two extremes of any fighting tradition:

  1. Life…
  2. …and death.

The inevitable outcome of struggle between men.

You see, if self-defense – in this case disguised as Karate – was ever to become more than a brute form of survival; then morality, ethics, virtue and other universal human ideals had to be taken into account by the proponents/pioneers of what was eventually to become an art form (you do practise a martial art, right?).

This, then, is the basis for the philosophy of Karate.

Which, as in any other moderately sophisticated martial art on earth, is often embodied best by the most experienced masters of the art (like the kind of grandmasters I hand-picked for The Karate Code book).

And that’s why I always want to go back to Okinawa.

  • Not for the sun.
  • Not for the beaches.
  • Not for the amazing culture.
  • Not for the awesome training/friends I’ve made over the years.
  • And no, not even for the irrationally delicious Okinawa soba (noodle soup)!

But for that unique chance of one day maybe re-experiencing the humble presence of a true Karate master once again.

One of those who make you go: “Damn, I want to be like him when I grow up!”

And it’s not because of their high ranks, belts, titles or amazing skills in the physical part of Karate. Oh no. Sure, their knuckles might be huge, their abs might be rock hard and their punches will most likely send you to the back of the moon – which is incredibly impressive too, please don’t get me wrong – but none of that matters much outside of the dojo.

Because those skills are rarely transferable.

Not to real life.

Character is. 

And that’s what really impresses me about a true Karate master. It’s exactly like the late Nagamine Shoshin sensei (1907-1997), founder of Matsubayashi-ryu Karate, once said when confronted about what defines a good Karate-ka:

“Devil’s fist. Saint’s heart.”

Instead of what you usually see with these McDojo sensei nowadays:

“Devil’s mouth. Puppy’s fist.”


At the end of the day, I believe there will be a) people who truly inspire you, and b) people who desperately try to inspire you.

More often than not, the people in the first category are rarely the same people as in the second category. Sadly, however, the people in the second category frequently overshadow the people in the first category – not only because of their massive abundance, but more so because of our own lack of knowledge and perception partly due to the cultural landscape we were brought up in.

Tough shit.

And that’s precisely why you need to go to Okinawa, or Japan.

Not so much for for training Karate.

But more for seeing where we went wrong.

“Tishimi suguritin, chi nu za suguritin, chimu do chimu sada me, shike nu nare ya.”

(“No matter how you may excel in the art of fighting, and in your scholastic endeavors, nothing is more important than your behavior and humanity as observed in your daily life.”)

– Tei Junsoku (1663-1734)


  • Dan
    Pizzazz? Alien? You've outwritten yourself today, haha. Jokes aside, Jesse-san, do you go to Okinawa once a year, or more? Just for the curiosity. =)
    • Dan-san: I'll take that as a compliment! ;) As for your question, I try to go at least once a year. It depends on the circumstances.
  • Chip Quimby
    Great article Jesse! Interestingly, my karate friends, those who are real fanatics about quality training, often ask me if I actually learned anything during my time there, from a technical standpoint, that I couldn't have learnt here in the states or any other venues that was closer. I usually answer them the same way you did, but with much less eloquence, of course. Thanks Jesse!
  • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
    Very convincing!
    • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
      Oh! I just wanted to add Hans Talhoffer's words from the "Königsegger Kampfbuch" (15th century): "Young man, [...] Talk nice about the women and be brave, like a man should be, and beware of lies and deception. Strive for integrity and cultivate knighthood. [...] Be in a good mood for joy and joke: Fencing demands heart. [...] Now have a man's courage against everyone who brings you injustice. If you want to stay honourable then you have to carry out truth. Beware of the evil minded, those who can't hold up fidelity. [...] If someone wants to give you advice then think over it well. Then you will be able to recognize if it will be help or do harm. [...] Now learn the true teachings: You have to bethink very well when you want to fence or wrestle. Take care to stay true to the art of fencing, because the custom is not recent; don't trust anyone. Be sincere and not double-minded. [...]
  • Damon
    first off i've never been to japan or okinawa but since we've had the best part of 40 years now of serious martial arts in the west do we really need an occidental to train us to our best. there are several high ranking european and american sensei. i don't get the obsession with going to japan. fair enough in the 60's and 70's when the quality was different but now?
    • Wayne Irvine
      With all respect, did you actually read the article? (written whilst in transit to Okinawa)
  • Marcilio
    *challenge accepted*
  • Deshi
    I actually just got back from Okinawa last night, and i felt that exact way about watching many of my teachers. I will definitely never forget.
  • Chito
    I certainly agree Sensei Jesse. This is the very reason why i'm trying to save for this trip to Okinawa. To feel and experience what your are saying. Thanks for making me more encouraged to pursue this dream. God Bless.
  • Shamus Mowrey
    You said it all! Quite elegantly! Shamus
  • Rikuto
    Ah...I wish I could go to Okinawa. Perhaps one day! I'm little more than a fledgling when it comes to karate, and it'd be nice to see the origins of my chosen arts.
  • Rugved
  • Elias
    i had read some of your articles, this one i like very much. Greetings from Mexico,
  • That is awesome! Meeting people whose lives emanate the discipline of Karate must be enchanting!
  • Wayne Irvine
    I read this article on my way to Okinawa in August, so thought I would share my experience here. On arrival I headed straight to the Dojo Bar and ordered a Karate Nerd cocktail. I got speaking to the people there and mentioned that I would like to train whilst I was in town. A gentleman named Chris showed me on Google Maps where to show up and and what time. I showed up to a little house in a back street a little earlier than my alloted time and was pleased to see a junior karate class in progress in a small room. When it finshed I entered to room and approached the Sensei and uttered the phrase I had been taught by a Japanese friend; "Issho ni keiko site kudasai?". Apparently he saw through my disguise, looked me up and down and said in English, "Ok". I was warming up with about 8 fellow karate-ka when everyone stopped and bowed towards the door. An elderly but fit man in casual clothing had entered. I bowed, and waited my turn. He addressed me and said my club name (Go Kan Ryu) looks very funny in Japanese (I've since learnt why). He said I was welcome to train in his dojo. I trained extremely hard. Many of the fundamentals of Goju are somewhat different to my style so it took some very mindful changes. And not being used to the heat of an Okinawa summer I worked up a good sweat. I later learned that the man was Morio Higaonna Sensei, 10th dan Goju Ryu (featured on a special release postage stamp no less). I had no idea i was in such a prestigious dojo and training with some extremely accomplished karate-ka. Truly humbling and the new highlight of my trip to Japan.
  • Like any one I know, those who are not boastful are usually those with real substance; and also those who do not have substance. The worst are those who do not have substance or just have some adequate substance are the one boastful behaving like they are the best. those who have substance who are boastful or showy will say: it is not bad to boast if you really have something to boast of. When they fall, they are so shameful in the eyes of those who know their boastfulness. Better have substance and humble or be humble because you are lowly. When you will be able to rise against odds, you will be a glittering somebody in the eyes of those who know you.
  • Soahm gupta
    I already read most of your articles Jesse sensei and decided to give it a re read and this has became my favorite on this site . There are articles where you understand something and get enlightened but there are some articles which makes you feel the matter this was one of them thank you very much Jesse sensei .
  • Nicolas
    As they say, the goal of a trainer is to grow and strenghten your ego, the goal of a sensei is to destroy it. Karate can be a very destructive force, so the practitioners must be humble people with a peaceful spirit, that's a part of the training as important as the techniques, so says my sensei. Thanks for the article Jesse san.
  • Ben Horne
    Inspired to go. I have been training Shotokan for 33 years but am still a beginner compared to these guys. Both Sensei’s I graded with were trained by Masatoshi Nakayama and I could only dream of ever coming close to their skill level.
  • Lisa Cohen Huff
    I’m blessed to have been able to travel to several times Okinawa, in groups that went with my Sensei. There is just a feeling when you are there that is hard to explain. Hanshi Zenpo Shimabukuro is always such a gentleman, unfailingly kind, plus an amazing karate master. Though I’ve also been blessed to train with and spend time around him here in the USA, there is really something special about training with him and just being around him on Okinawa. He’s one of those “awe-inspiring” people you talked about.

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