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GaijinPot on Location: ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Cobra Kai’ in Okinawa

Okinawa is a big part of the Karate Kid franchise, but where are the real-life locations that inspired it?

By 4 min read

Japan’s southern island, Okinawa, almost feels like an extra character in The Karate Kid and its spin-off Netflix series, Cobra Kai. Mr. Miyagi’s love of the islands, the lore of its ancient fighting styles and even its dark wartime history are a constant presence influencing his life and the lives of his students.

Like most 80s kids, I grew up watching The Karate Kid and its sequels, so naturally, I couldn’t wait to visit Okinawa and recreate the movie. I assumed it would be as simple as watching the movies and visiting the locations by car.

Like learning to crane kick someone to the face, however, I discovered it would not be that simple.

Shou Hashi Castle

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Shuri Castle

The Karate Kid Part II is almost entirely based in Okinawa. Or so I thought. The Okinawa locations shot for the sequel were a well-disguised Hawaii, mostly Oahu. Unfortunately, the movie director, John G. Avildsen, thought the real Okinawa was unattractive due to the island’s stormy weather.

This was a bit of a setback for me. Separating reality from fiction is difficult in a movie that uses real inspirations to create imagined places. A good example is when the character Kumiko points out to Daniel the ruins of the castle of King Shou Hashi. I would have loved to see it in person, but it was a matte painting hung in a studio and wasn’t even a painting of a Japanese castle.

Nevertheless, history buffs know that Shou Hashi was a real ruler of Okinawa. You can actually visit the ruins of two of his castles: Sashiki Castle in the southeast and Shuri Castle in the center of the island. Although neither is as beautifully preserved as the movie would have you believe.

Sashiki Castle is hard to access except by car and is mostly ruins now, whereas Shuri, despite being easy to access, is currently being renovated following a fire that destroyed most of the main building.

Finding Tomi village

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Is this the real Tomi Village?

Mr. Miyagi comes from Tomi Village. Although there is a real Tomi in Okayama Prefecture, the Okinawa location is fictional. However, there is a possible connection that the filmmakers could have used for inspiration.

In The Karate Kid Part II, Mr. Miyagi describes finding the Tomi Village: “Find Naha. Head south.” Using this description, you can find Tomigusuku, which was categorized as a village during The Karate Kid Part II’s filming and is now a city.

This change matches perfectly with Daniel’s surprise at seeing what has become of Tomi Village in the spin-off series, Cobra Kai. The area becomes gentrified when he revisits Tomi in season three. Perhaps Mr. Miyagi simply abbreviated the name from Tomigusuku to Tomi.

Mutabaru Observation Deck

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The view from Mutabaru Observation Deck.

Thankfully, when it came to seeing the locations for Cobra Kai, things were a bit easier. The series has been a hit, and there was lots of media buzz about the shooting and on-set locations. Unfortunately, however, this time poor old “Tomi Village” was shot in a mall in Atlanta, Georgia.

The first location is Mutabaru Observation Deck in Ogimi Village, where Daniel travels with his former nemesis, Chozen. The area was surprisingly hard to get to and had sustained considerable damage due to bad weather and typhoons. During my visit, excluding the angle from which the drama was shot, the area was a mess of broken glass and torn wooden panels.

However, the view out towards aqua-marine Shah Bay and several islands—including the aptly named Miyagishima (“shima” means “island” in Japanese)—is every bit as amazing as the show makes it look.

Keep in mind that the lookout point sits next to a failed and dilapidated resort, and as tempting as it may be for urban exploration or haikyo (abandoned building) fans, the area is strictly off-limits.

Daisekirinzan

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The limestone plateau of Yanbaru.

After Ogimi Village, Daniel and Chozen head to one of Okinawa’s better-known spots, Daisekirinzan, an impressive limestone plateau and national park. The forested area is in the northern part of Okinawa, called Yanbaru.

The area is recognized for its spiritual links to the royal family of the Ryukyu dynasty, who would go there to pray for a good harvest. In Cobra Kai, Daniel receives a sacred scroll of Okinawan karate in front of a sacred rock known locally as Goku Rock. The final shot where Daniel and Chozen finish their decades-old feud with a deep bow is, in fact, a bustling area. You can see this in the choice of shots as they carefully avoid signposts.

Ultimately, my quest to visit the real life spots that enamored me with Japan all those years ago brought me to parts of Okinawa that I might have missed out on otherwise. Much like how Daniel-san discovers the secrets of karate by mundane activities like washing cars and painting fences, I found a new path simply by asking: “Where exactly is Mr. Miyagi from?”

Have you been to any real life locations featured in your favorite movies shot in Japan? Love The Karate Kid franchise? Let us know in the comments below!

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