As a teenager I once spent a few hours abreast of a sensei.
I was in Florida at the time on a disappointing family holiday, and, seeking respite from the relentless heat and insufferable tourist herd, I had pitched up in the hotel’s noisy Games Room. For several hours I’d immersed myself in mindless entertainment, pumping “quarters” into an ostentatious pinball machine, branded in line with the film Congo and replete with klaxons, whistles and strobe lights.
Desiring reprieve from the grievous sensory damage the machine’s electronic accoutrements were inflicting upon me, I sojourned to the relatively peaceful environs of the pool table and sat in the midst of an icy jet stream contrived by an enormous electric fan working in concert with an open bay window.
Easily distracted from my purview of fat American children sporting luminous green bum-bags, I noted a sturdy young bare-chested man in the corner, doing some sort of kung-fu exercises with a pool cue. I was familiar with Jackie Chan’s early films and had attended at least two beginner Judo classes as a child, so I knew that what this mysterious stranger was doing would be classified as “advanced” by any seasoned martial-arts critic.
The young man caught me staring and came over. My initial nervousness at being approached by a naked, armed man was offset by the obvious friendliness displayed on his face, which looked part-Oriental, part-normal. We got to chatting, standing side-by-side at the pool table, and I can honestly say that Ken Akanoru* would become one of the most interesting individuals I have ever met (and being, as I am, the sort of noted luminary who attracts all sorts of interesting bohemians, this is quite a claim).
It transpired that Ken had been born in Japan to a Japanese mother and American father, but, as a baby, he had been abandoned by his parents and left by the side of a road. He was fortunately discovered and later adopted by the aged monks of some sort of Shaolin Temple style kung-fu coven (I apologise for the vagueness of the description; Ken wasn’t exactly a stickler for details).
Harshly schooled in the arts – both martial and regular – he became an accomplished Shaolin Kung-Fu practitioner. At fifteen he left his monastic home and made his way to Brazil, where he scraped together a living as a street fighter**.
At this point of his story, Ken revealed to me some of the injuries he had sustained making a living in such an unorthodox way. He was rendered deaf in one ear after an Irishman fought dirty, kicking him in the side of the head whilst Ken had been grounded in the aftermath of an uppercut. Ken informed me he avenged this heinous act by ripping out the Irishman’s optic nerve via the side of his neck, blinding him in one eye. My face must have betrayed my incredulity, so Ken pressed some muscular fingers into my neck quite hard, and after a while the vision in my right eye went a little bit fuzzy. “You see?!” he asked. “Ken knows how it all is connected.” I stood nonplussed***, impressed by the air of lethality that exuded from the man.
But Ken was immensely wise, as well as deadly. He sprinkled his conversation with pearls of knowledge, and not necessarily in their logical place. A harsher critic might have branded them non-sequiturs, but I found that they lent an element of unpredictability to the proceedings. Anyway I was thirsty for his remarkable wisdom, and he seemed pleased that he had found such a captive audience. Occasionally I would contribute something to the conversation, but I was a mere boy at that point in my life and my experience paled in comparison to Ken’s, so the focus of the chat inevitably returned to him.
Whilst in Brazil, Ken eventually fought his way to a plane ticket to the USA, and vowed to leave the risky world of no-rules street combat. He told me he had secured a job in the very hotel we were in, and in fact was currently on duty as a barman. I was shocked by this statement, for I had assumed he was a guest. I had certainly never seen a barman bare-chested before, doing mad kung-fu stuff in the corner.
Ken told me that in his spare time he taught American kids kung-fu, but it is fair to say he was not impressed by the typical American mind, and he embarked on several lengthy diatribes on the banality of American culture. I stood entranced throughout, in awe of this learned, multi-cultural killing machine. I asked him if he would teach me the secret of kung-fu via email, a proposition to which he agreed, on the condition that I keep him supplied with my conspiracy theories, which he seemed to find very entertaining.
Shortly after my mother came by to collect me for dinner. Reluctantly I left my new hero in the games room, and my last ever memory of Ken is him attacking a steel pillar with his pool cue.
Later that evening I recounted my meeting with Ken to my father, who was perhaps a bit boozy after a day of drinking in the Florida sun. That would at least explain his reaction to my tale. “Bollocks, he was taking shite,” was what he said. He pointed out some inconsistencies in Ken’s story, but I told him that after a hard life of strict schooling and ruthless combat, one was bound to get a little confused. “But Shaolin’s in China!” my father exclaimed, but I was too appalled by his obvious state of inebriety to engage him in further debate.
When I returned to Carrickfergus two days later, I was devastated to discover that I had lost Ken’s email address. I waited by my PC for weeks in anticipation of an email from the sage-like warrior, but alas, none came.
Though he is by now a distant memory, I still think of Ken every now and again. Whenever I hear the struggling tones of a deep-voiced Oriental getting to grips with English. Whenever I spot a mixed-race barman at leisure. Whenever I see someone with a pool cue, or any time I look at a hotel. On these occasions my mind is transported back to that sweaty games room, and the magical meeting with the half-deaf semi-Japanese sensei.
*Please forgive me that I am forced to spell his name phonetically, as I never saw it written down and am unfamiliar with the rapid tongue of Nippon.
**No, he never fought Blanka! I did ask.
***Perhaps the most frequently misused word in the English language.