A Butokukan Student's Visit to Kushimoto
Butokukan Student Visits Master Nakachi's Gravesite
by Dawn at the Kitsilano Dojo

December 25th, 2002

Japan - I was on my way to visit Kushimoto - the birthplace and subsequent burial place of our Shihan, Yoichi Nakachi.   This trip was my Christmas gift from my mother.

Kyoto was my starting point.   I had talked to my Sensei ( Andrew Stephens ) a few months earlier about contacting Shihan Robert Hill for information about Kushimoto.  Actually it was Sensei Andrew's idea that I find Shihan Nakachi's gravesite.   I was able to get some information from Sensei Chris Olson and armed only with that, decided to make the best of it.

So there I was Christmas day.   It was a four hour train trip from Kyoto starting at 8:30 in the morning.   I had only four hours before I had to return.   I didn't even know how to say the word "graveyard !"

The trip down to Wakayama-ken was exhilarating.  It is farther south than a lot of Japan and subsequently quite tropical.  The flora changed along the way and so did the fauna!  I even got to see a group of monkeys sitting around at a temple through my train window.  Orange trees rushed by and luscious curved hillsides floated in and out beside me.  By far, the most exciting moment of the train trip was the first sight of the ocean through the cliffs.

The cold air of Kyoto was left behind as I stepped out of the train at Kushimoto.   It is a small train station and probably much the same as when Shihan Nakachi lived there.  Flowers bloom by the roadside, and here, where there are fewer foreigners, people are far more cautious about staring, so it appeared that I was completely ignored as I got off the train, but I knew better and was able to smile and catch the eye of a few who must have been wondering, "why is she in this small place?"

I had been so excited the night before that adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I had to stop and tell myself that I needed to get my head together and find this place.   So I walked - I just walked and went where I thought I would be if I were dead.  Turns out that this is not a good strategy for the living to use, and ended up asking all the older people going by if they had ever seen this man or knew his name.  Fortunately the Japanese are very polite and none of them thought I was too strange for asking, nor bothered to phone the police.

It also turns out that karate was not an overly well respected sport at the time Shihan Nakachi was in Japan.   Judo, Shihan Nakachi's first sport, was well respected and the people that I spoke to, knew him for his judo skills.   I was able to let the few that did know him that Shihan Nakachi was able to leave a legacy behind him in North America.  They seemed touched by that - Nakachi was apparently a very nice "yasashi"person and I was glad to bring more honor to his forename.

I finally found myself a hotel.  The clerk there was kind enough to show me where two cemetaries were, and upon finding out that Shihan Nakachi was from the Tenkiri-o religion, knew exactly where I should go and gave me precise directions.

Now, for a town in Japan to have two cemetaries, especially a small town such as this, is very unusual because of the practice of cremation.   Shihan Nakachi's religion seems to be quite different in that they have gravesites and gravestones dating quite far back.   Land is also at a premium in Japan and cemetaries are a huge consumer of otherwise of otherwise valuable living space.

Now completely exhilarated, I walked back to the train station and the other way from where I had originally headed out: the opposite way, of course that my instincts had led me.  I walked to the bank and found the Tenkiro-o church, which happed to be a house.

Big breath.  OK, this is where it all stops or starts I thought.   I knocked at the door and waited.   I knocked again.   I thought to myself - who would be here at the middle of the day on a Wednesday !   I was fooling myself if I thought I was going to get anywhere !  Then I heard a very fragile voice say hello and come in.   I had so completely convinced myself that there was no one home that I was shocked and had difficulty sliding the door open with my shaking hands.

As my eyes adjusted to the light I saw a very small elderly woman on the floor with one leg stretch out before her.   She apologized that she wasn't able to get up.   I quickly grabbed for my photographs and asked her if she knew where Shihan Nakachi's graveyard was.  She politely corrected my Japanese ( gravesite not graveyard ) and told me that she hadn't really known Shihan Nakachi and then promptly disappeared.

I began to worry that I had offended her in some way and wondered where she had gone.  She came back and said that her friend would be coming soon and would help me.   I wondered if she was politely trying to brush me off but decided I had nothing to lose in waiting.  By now one hour of my time had passed me by, and I had no idea where I was going.

The friend turned out to be a younger gentleman who turned out to be very kind and helpful.  He has one of those faces that automatically welcomes - a bright smiling kind of gentleness that beams onto the path of anyone who thinks to look.  He offered to drive me up to the gravesite and my jaw just about dropped.  These kind people were so generous to a complete foreigner, who without any warning, demanded that she be shown a gravesite.   I was overwhelmed and so thankful I could barely focus on what he was saying.

I asked him if he knew Shihan Nakachi or where he lived.  He said no, but then, pointed at his own house and said "but I live there!"  I laughed and thanked him. No less than three minutes later he pulled a sharp right and came up next to a short wall.   I looked over and gasped.  In front of me, all up the hillside was the biggest cemetery I had ever seen !  There were falcons circling in the air above us.   I now knew that there was no way I could find his gravesite in the three hours I had left, but maybe, just being at the cemetery was good enough.  After all, I hadn't thought I would even get this far !

I asked my guide if he could show me the characters that make up Nakachi's name and got out a piece of paper with a pen.  He ignored the paper and said, "Yes, just follow me !  He was taking to his gravesite !  Straight up the path we went.  Just at the beginning of the footpath up the hill he turned right, then left then right and to the end of the path.  We passed at least 400 plots along the way, each filled with a number of gravestones - memoirs of the generations of families buried in each.

Shihan Nakachi's was no different.  A very old gravestone demarked his grandparents, then newer ones for his father, and down below, his own.  My guide seemed very pleased at my story that I had come to pay respects.  He said that some of Shihan Nakachi's wife's ashes were buried with his, as is the custom in Japan.

I asked him if there was anything else he could tell me, but he said no, not much.  He knew that Shihan Nakachi had not been able to travel to Kushimoto because of his wife's kidney problems.  He said that a lot of young people were not able to stay in Wakayama because there was no work for them.

My guide showed me how to properly pray in front of the stone by clapping your hands twice and then bowing.  He said that New Years was the time to come and take care of the family gravestone so there would be a lot of people in the cemetery.   I suddenly desired to be alone at Shihan Nakachi's site so I thanked him profusely and said that I could walk back on my own.

Left standing there I wondered what Shihan Nakachi missed from his life in the United States.   I wondered if returning to Japan was a time of hardship for him, a loss of youthful freedom and a time to take on new responsibilities.  What foods would he have missed?  Would he have cared about his karate living on ?  Silence filled my ears as I realized that stones don't talk.  It is too late to appreciate those who guide us once they are gone.  My heart was filled with appreciation and love for my own Senseis and Shihan Hill.  I suddenly felt hopeless about my search.  It wasn't about finding the gravesite at all !   It was all about recognizing what I treasured and loved all along and now I was thousand of kilometers away and couldn't let them know.   I felt very alone as the hawks circles above me.

I took a few pictures.  My energy had suddenly evaporated.   I felt weary and yet strangely light.  I suppose it was the same feeling experienced by those who make pilgrimages, for this is what I now thought my trip was.   I felt anguished at my inability to do anything.   I felt inside my pocket and pulled out a chocolate bar, one I had brought from Canada.   I also had some rice and chopsticks ( a traditional altar offering to one's dead ).   This felt right !   I knelt down and placed them both in front.  Perhaps Shihan Nakachi would have appreciated the mix of the two cultures.  Sharing this joke with him made me smile.

I had done my best to honor his memory and realized that my job was to continue this memory through my practice at the dojo.  We are all mentors in the dojo.  We carry within us the ability to show through our training what is most important to us as we follow through the acts of our kata and kumite.  The ability to remember dignity and respect for all the members of the dojo.   I think of our affirmation "I respect my seniors as I do my senseis" and know that I fulfill this obligation by my acts.  Any lack of humility towards the seniors or indeed any member, is a stain on the message being passed along from Shihan Hill.

I am back home now and the memories of that day are quite fresh in my mind.  I found Shihan Nakachi's gravesite, but more importantly I found why am so proud to be a member of an organization that works to pass on the honor and dignity that was begun by the kind citizen of a small ocean-side town in the remote area in Japan.   Have no doubt that the effects of one determined person can leave a lasting legacy.  Thank you Shihan Nakachi for all that you began.  Thank you Shihan Hill for your tireless but gentle leadership.  Thank you Sensei Andrew Stephens and Sensei Caroline for your friendship and ongoing struggle to remind me to be the best I can.   I appreciate you all.