Our oldest daughter, Ava, was 5 the first time she noticed an upper-grade classmate wearing a crisp, white gi with a white belt as she hurried from school to karate class with her mother. Pointing in their direction and whispering, “Mommy, loooooook,” Ava was instantly transfixed. I figured she was more impressed with the gi than the idea of studying karate or any other form of martial arts.
But, as we continued to watch mother and daughter heading out to karate each week, Ava began asking for lessons. After two years of her begging, my husband and I gave in, not having a clue that this road would lead us all the way to Japan.
For a couple of months, we dojo-hopped until we discovered Tenshin-Kai Tai Chi & Karate martial arts school in Westchester. Master of Tenshin-Kai Tenzan Hirakawa (aka “Kancho”) emphasized safety, manners and the dojo code of “no drugs, no street fights and respect for parents, teachers and friends.” He shared that Japanese martial arts focus on culture, discipline, morality and respect along with technique. Explaining how the students would progress from one belt level to another, he mentioned that students could test in Japan for their black belt exam and, upon passing, he would also give them a Japanese moniker. We signed up on the spot, and Ava went home with her own white gi and belt.
Over the next six years, Ava persevered from belt to belt, and through three degrees of brown belts. Late last summer, Kancho told us that Ava was ready to test for her first-degree black belt and could travel to Japan the following March. Ava was excited and a bit nervous, but we trusted Kancho, who has taken students to his native Japan for 20 of his 42 years of teaching, providing them the unique opportunity to train in a traditional Japanese temple and experience Japanese culture and karate in its country of origin.
Preparing to immerse
Students would travel to Japan during cherry blossom season and would stay the first week in the 1,600-year-old Saikyo-ji (Buddhist) Temple in rural Shiga Prefecture, where they would also train and test for their belts. The remainder of the trip would be spent relaxing and exploring Kyoto.
In Kyoto, families would stay in hotel rooms, but in the temple, the women and girls would board together as would the men and boys, sleeping on futon-like mattresses. We would bathe in traditional Japanese onsens and the students would set our tables and serve meals to the adults while waiting until we finished before they ate, and help us switch from our outdoor shoes to indoor slippers as we would come and go from the temple.
Making the trip with us were fellow students Aidan, Sophia, Nicolas, Shayne and William and their families, as well as my mother. We learned that in addition to karate testing, other students would be testing in tai chi, and that family members had the option of signing up for that seminar. We all decided to go for it!
A mother’s lesson
When our plane landed, we didn’t have much down time. We headed straight to the temple since training would begin in just a few hours.
Japan was beautiful, but the temperature in Shiga was close to 38 degrees Farenheit. Everywhere we looked, there were cherry blossom trees just waiting for the temperature to warm so they could bloom. The temple was expansive and breathtaking, nestled against the mountains and overlooking Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan.
Our days were scheduled from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. We woke up early to attend morning worship with the residing monks. Following worship, we swept the temple grounds, symbolic for sweeping away want, and then returned inside for breakfast and the first of three two-hour blocks of training.
As the karate students practiced katas and sparring for their respective belt exams, we adults received a Neo-from-the-Matrix type download of tai chi that we were to present at week’s end. The moves were beautiful, and everyone seemed to flow through them with ease. Everyone except me. I couldn’t remember the moves or where to place my feet, and I really, really wanted to quit. But watching Ava and the other students so focused on the other side of the room, I knew that if she could persevere for years to earn her black belt, I could power through a week to earn my tai chi certificate.
Between trainings, we would eat, nap, practice katas, explore the grounds and shop, and the kids would do homework. The unanimous highlight of any mini-break was when Kancho would show us how to channel our chi power and then have us arm wrestle. We could have done that all day long! Each night ended relaxing together in the training room with snacks and tea.
The week’s end finally arrived: It was time to test. Family members could watch, but had to remain quiet and sit along the perimeter of the room. Kancho called each student in to demonstrate the katas he requested. If they made a mistake, he would send them out of the room to practice, then return to try again. Each time that happened, we parents would exchange mutual looks of stress and support. We were rooting for each other’s children as well as our own.
The final portion of the exam was for black belt candidates Ava, Aidan and Sophia to punch 1,000 times while keeping perfect form and pace. I watched Ava’s pastel green shirt transform into turquoise as she punched through dripping sweat without flinching. As they reached punch 500, Kancho called up William, Nicholas and Shayne to join in. And when they reached 900, Kancho told us we could encourage them through the final 100 punches, which we were more than happy to do. When they reached punch 1,000, I don’t think there was a dry eye along that perimeter. Ava, Aidan and Sophia received their black belts, and Shayne, Nicholas and William received their advanced purple, blue and green belts, respectively.
Now it was our turn to test for our tai chi achievement certificates. The kids smiled and were amused as we performed our tai chi katas in unison. All of us passed as well. I’d never been so happy to receive a piece of paper. At the end of testing, the black belts were given their monikers. Ava was Haruka, “spring flower;” Sophia was Karin, “sweet;” and Aidan was Mirai, which means “future.” That night, we celebrated with pizza, sushi, cake, karaoke, line dancing (courtesy of my mom), a ton of junk food and huge doses of relief.
Beyond the temple
The next morning, we were up early to depart for Kyoto by train. One of the many things I love about Japan is the respect people show for each other’s space. With the exception of our group yelling how many stops were left, the train was silent. If riders were talking, it was in a whisper, and everyone with a cold or who did not want to contract a cold wore a mask. There was zero graffiti or trash. Since it’s in poor form to eat in public, there are hardly any public trash receptacles, so the streets stay clean. This threw our timing off a bit because we’re used to eating and drinking on the go, so we had to consider how much we really wanted a cup of Starbucks while exploring since we would have to finish our drinks in the café.
In contrast to rural Shiga, Kyoto is a bustling city lined with blocks and blocks of densely packed shops and shoppers selling and buying colorful edibles and wearables. There, it was a surprising 73 degrees, and warm weather meant cherry blossoms and more shopping. All day and night, friends and families gathered under the beautiful trees to celebrate the season. We learned that more weddings take place during cherry blossom season than during the rest of the year combined.
We all spread out and explored the many parks and the famous Yasaka Shrine. We hiked up and up and up to Iwatayama Monkey Park, visited the bamboo forest, enjoyed sentos and many massages, relaxed on a lake cruise and took a ninja class at the Ninja Dojo.
The time in Kyoto flew by, and before we knew it, it was time to head back to Osaka to begin our journey home. Not wanting the adventure to end just yet, we made a pit stop at the amazing Osaka Aquarium on the way to the airport. It was indeed the adventure of a lifetime. We set out for Japan so that our children could test for their belts, but in truth, we all gained so much more.
Marilyn Hayes is a diversity and inclusion strategist, mother, wife, tennis enthusiast and marathon finisher who resides in L.A.