Many travellers to the Japanese islands of Okinawa are attracted to the coastal lifestyle, the culture and a cuisine influenced more by China and South-East Asia than mainland Japan. But there is another kind of traveller to the region, who comes specifically to study the region’s unique martial arts heritage

One of those travellers was British-born Kevin Chaplin, who has now made Okinawa his home.

“I started learning karate at 12, and from a young age I had a romantic vision of studying martial arts seriously, living and training at a dojo,” he says. “In my late twenties this dream was reawakened and I decided to move to Japan to immerse myself in traditional martial arts.”

Kevin took the first job he could find in Japan, as an English teacher on the mainland, and began searching for a sensei (teacher).

“During the search, I found out more about Okinawan karate,” he says. “Most of the karate we see today is modern Japanese karate, which has an emphasis on sports and competition. Karate was born in Okinawa, and it is still focused on self-defense techniques and developing oneself mentally and physically.

I was fortunate to meet Master Kenyu Chinen of the World Oshukai Federation. He offered to let me live here at his dojo in Okinawa in 2011.”

Poto credit: Neil Smith
The shorin-ryu dojo in Murasaki Mura. Photo credit: Neil Smith

The dojo, or martial-arts training hall, is situated in Murasaki Mura, a vast replica village that was built as a set for a historic TV drama series set in the Ryukyu Kingdom (15th–19th Century). As well as learning karate, visitors here can participate in over 30 Okinawan workshops, such as making shisa dogs – traditional half-dog, half lion statuettes.

The dojo is picture-perfect – a timber building with a clay-tiled roof sits in a high-walled courtyard garden. It is here that Kevin now passes on his knowledge to interested students from all over the world. Kitted out in starched-white uniforms, they are guided through a series of self-defense moves, or kata, and told the fascinating history of shorin-ryu karate. For example, the Okinawan kobudo weapons lining the dojo’s walls evolved from farm implements.

Photo credit: Neil Smith
Nunchaku and other weapons were repurposed farm implements. Photo credit: Neil Smith

“The weapons include the bo,” says Kevin. “It’s a long wooden staff possibly taken from a pole that was carried across the shoulders with loads hung on either end. There’s also nunchaku – two short lengths of wood attached by a cord. There are many theories on the origin of nunchaku, but I’ve heard that they were adapted from a horse’s bit.” While the practicalities of karate are interesting enough, Kevin says it is his inner journey that has been most rewarding.

“I lived here for over a year, training every day, and had instruction at the highest level,” he says. “It was challenging but enriching. The accommodation lacked basic things like a soft bed, sofa and air conditioning, but they were minor inconveniences. I learned that my approach to training and any gains or losses in the dojo are intricately linked to my life outside the dojo. The more I put in, the more I get out.”

Photo credit: Neil Smith
Kevin teaches karate to travellers from all over the world. Photo credit: Neil Smith

Why I love Okinawa

Kevin says: “The first thing that jumps to mind is the surrounding sea. It is truly beautiful. I got into snorkelling in Okinawa – you can jump in the water nearly anywhere here and it will take your breath away with the variety of sea life. I have many friends who snorkel, scuba-dive, surf and kiteboard here. It’s a very comfortable place to live too – the people are friendly, the food is good and there is a relaxed pace of life. And did I mention it’s summer for six months of the year?”

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Do it yourself:

• OKINAWA: International Karate Study Centre

Murasaki Mura, 1020-1 Takashiho, Yomitan Village, Okinawa.

Open Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm, weekend sessions available upon request. Prices are JP¥2,575 (around AU$30) per person for a 1hr class. If you are interested in staying onsite to train, give them a call.

Tel: +81 98-956-4974; facebook.com/OkinawaIKSC

Email: karateexperience@gmail.com

To find out more about the beautiful islands of Okinawa, go to visitokinawa.jp

• SYDNEY: Try shorin-ryu karate in Australia at the Sydney Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karate Club. The club has recently moved, so check their website for the address.

Tel: +61 (0)435 270 600; okinawakarate.com.au

Note: This article was first published in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine. Please see relevant websites for current pricing and further details