The Shibuya outpost of the Houkukan Dojo occupies the third floor of an inconspicuous building tucked away in a Dogenzaka back alley. Save for a small kamidana – a Shinto altar enshrining kami spirits – there’s little to suggest this modest, fluorescent-lit room houses one of the most respected dojos in the city.
But the Houkukan’s many devoted karateka know well that the dojo kun, the five guiding principle of karate, hanging on one of the walls, is all that is essential. As a children’s class comes to an end on a Saturday afternoon, the young karateka form ranks to recite the dojo kun in unison: seek perfection of character, be faithful, endeavour, respect others and refrain from violent behaviour.
While an older group comes filing in and starts warming up, we sit down with their Sensei, Kunio Kobayashi, a seventh dan black belt karate master who has won the Japan Karate Association (JKA) All Japan Karate Championship for both kata and kumite disciplines multiple times.
Kobayashi Sensei has been a disciple of the Shotokan school of karate for over 40 years, having been introduced to it at the age of 10. While his obi belt – the same one given to him when he was ordained a JKA instructor 26 years ago – has greyed with age, the Sensei is still going strong and serves as an international ambassador to karate in addition to running the Houkukan Dojo.
When we met with him, Kobayashi had recently come back from a masterclass in Italy and was about to pack his bags again for a trip to Colombia.
When prompted about karate’s upcoming induction into the Olympic programme at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Kobayashi Sensei told us that ‘there are two sides to it’.
‘On the one hand, the Games will provide more visibility for the martial art, which will lead to more people taking an interest. However, the downside is that karate might gradually be detached from its rootedness in Japanese culture and tradition, where it is celebrated not just as a sport but also as a way of life, whose practitioners strive towards mental and physical self-improvement. Karate is not always about beating an opponent, but also realising that the real opponent is within.’
Like a true sage, the Sensei resorted to allegory in illustrating his point: ‘The path of karate is not one but many, and some people may progress differently than others. The tortoise was much slower than the hare but persevered at his own pace and outran his opponent.’
After imparting his words of wisdom, Kobayashi began teaching the evening class, which was attended by karateka of all levels sporting a whole rainbow’s spectrum of belts – an accurate reflection of the dojo’s all-inclusive ethos.
The congregation included a black belt from Germany, who was on his annual karate pilgrimage to Japan, traversing the country from Kagoshima to Hokkaido and attending multiple training sessions on a single day, often in different cities.
The eldest member was a 69-year-old black belt, who told us that he is keen on practicing karate until he drops dead, at which point he intends to be taken to the grave in his karategi whites. As the saying goes, shrouds have no pockets – but sometimes they might have a black belt instead.