Come on up to the house, or: How I came back to Japan

[caption id="attachment_698" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The final round of the Okikukai 2011 Kumite championship."][/caption] You can't go home again. Home again, home again, jiggity-jig. There's no place like home. Home sweet home. Home is where the heart is. Strangely, unexpectedly, and arranged only seconds before the last minute, I find myself in Japan yet again. It's not home, right? I lived here for a shade under three years, occupying four residences, three bicycles (at least, three that I owned,) and carving out my own little niche on the Web. Definitely not transience, perhaps something more like an extended stay, I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't moved to Japan. And now for three weeks, I'm back. As some of you know, I've been studying an Okinawan style of karate called Uechi-ryu since my freshman year of college, and about 30 of us from around the world have come here to participate in a tournament, in a black belt test, and to participate in the 30th anniversary celebration of one school. After my friends leave, I'm heading up to the Japanese mainland for some relaxation that doesn't involve violence and funny pajamas. This is my first trip to Okinawa, and if it weren't for the karate I'd probably never come here. I'm not much of a fan of humidity or beaches, and would rather be surrounded by snow and howling winds and enjoying a fireplace if given the choice. Okinawa, of course, doesn't give a damn what you think. The people are friendly and far more gregarious than most Tokyoites I knew, with an unhurried pace to life that's appropriate for the soup-like climate. It appears that there are generally two kinds of foreigners on Okinawa. The first comes courtesy the United States military, providing a titanium backbone to Okinawa's economy but bringing with him a history that could hardly be described as smooth. Local land use debates about the military bases on the Ryukyu Islands, the occasional case of sexual violence and rape, and World War II are not exactly the best prescriptions for international bonhomie. A quick trip to Google indicates that around 70 percent of Japan's miniscule alien resident population resides in Okinawa. So I find myself in a place I've never visited, helping my karate friends get around with my obscenely mediocre Japanese speaking ability. The Okinawans are invariably kind about my inability to communicate in any kind of rational way. I suspect that, and rightfully so, they humor my wild gesticulations and verbal flailings as they do a poorly scripted but earnest variety show. In a Frankensteinian pairing of deja vu and jamais vu, I find myself doing things that I know I've done before, seeing sights I know I've seen before, but of course these are completely new to me. Like an aggressive vine, the creep of nostalgia for a place that I'm very close to seeps through the cracks in my memory. Of course I've never eaten at that ramen shop, but it smells so much like this other I used to go to all the time. Rinse, lather, and repeat with conbinis, the lights crowd on the streets of Naha, rainstorms, and taxi cabs. The taxi cab drivers here are hilarious, and possibly worth a full post just about them. A group of us were taking a cab to a dojo the other night, and one of my friends says he'll buy my first beer of the evening if I ask the cab driver if he's a karate master. So, I politely ask the driver if he's ever done karate: Yes. We study Uechi-ryu, I tell him. Has he heard of it? Oh yes, he says. Not only has he heard of it - and let's face it, Uechi-ryu is a fairly obscure form of karate - the cab driver is a fifth-degree black belt who studied Goju-ryu, a sister style to Uechi. Another cab driver has studied with our Takamiyagi-sensei. The stereotype might be that everybody in Japan knows karate, but I'm beginning to wonder if, at least in Okinawa, it's based on a kernel of truth. Taking care of business: As you may have noticed, I've posted this to the blog that I originally created for traveling the world. I plan on merging my old Japan blog with this one, to create a single unified place to talk about my travels. Also, if you'd like to subscribe (or unsubscribe) to my e-mail list, that's available in the upper right corner of the blog. I also notify Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus about updates.

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