April 13, 2017

Montclair resident Karrin Pitt of Kincade School of Martial Arts in Montclair tosses out a sidekick. She is one of nine to travel to Okinawa, Japan for training.

Montclair resident Karrin Pitt tosses out a sidekick at the Kincade School of Martial Arts on Orange Road. She is one of nine chosen to travel to Okinawa, Japan, for training. DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Karrin Pitt is excited, and also admits to being terrified, to leave Montclair to live and study karate in Okinawa, the birthplace of that martial art. But the 31-year-old, who has a fourth-degree black belt, said she couldn’t pass up what is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even though it meant leaving her job, her family and favorite local haunts like Mr. Dino’s Pizzeria and Sunrise Bagels behind.

“She really wants this,” said Jocelyn Matthews, Pitt’s mother. “When she’s determined to do something, she gets it done.”

Pitt, who lives with her mother in Montclair, is one of nine people from around the world chosen to take part in the inaugural Okinawan Karate Nerd Programme. The participants are relocating to Okinawa to train with karate masters on that Japanese island. Pitt must pay for her own airfare and housing, find employment and volunteer at various karate-related events even as she studies at the program. This week she left for Japan, where she will spend from three to six months.

Pitt wants to travel to the source of karate and its traditions, which she said “may have been watered down” here in America.

“Over there it’s a lifestyle, over here … it’s an extracurricular activity,” she said. “Anyone who loves karate will make that trip, that voyage to Okinawa, at some point.”

Pitt resigned from her job as an editorial/media specialist in the communications department of Rutgers University in Newark so she could study abroad and soak up Japanese culture. She also started a GoFundMe page to raise $7,500 to help foot the bill for her expenses, mainly her airfare. So far, 68 donors have pledged just over $6,000. Pitt’s finances will dictate how long she is able to stay in Okinawa.

“I had no idea so many people would support me,” said Pitt, who not only still trains but also teaches karate at two area dojos.

A graduate of the Montclair public school system and Morgan State University in Baltimore, Pitt said that she learned about the new Okinawan program in November from a blog, KaratebyJesse.com, that she follows. She said she “poured my heart” into filling out an application and answering its essay questions. To her surprise, on Jan. 1 she received an email saying she was one of those chosen for the new program, which is being run by the blog, Seishin International and the Dojo Bar & Cafe. Pitt was one of roughly three dozen people who qualified to apply.

“Karrin seemed engaged in her local community, open-minded and passionate about self-development,” said sensei Jesse Encamp, creator of the blog and founder of Seishin International, in an email.

Before making her decision to go to Okinawa, she sought advice from her karate mentors, and “they all said go,” according to Pitt, who wants to open her own karate school.


Karrin’s favorite outfit when she was only two years old was a karate “gi,” or uniform. PHOTO COURTESY OF KARRIN PITT

Pitt has been studying karate for more than two decades, starting at the Montclair YMCA and eventually moving on to the Kincade School of Martial Arts on Orange Road in Montclair’s South End. Her interest in karate started young. There’s a photo of Pitt when she was only a tot, about 2 years old, wearing a “gi,” a karate uniform. Her mother, a big fan of martial-arts movies, bought the clothing for Pitt, and it became her favorite outfit, according to Pitt.

She asked her mother for permission to take karate when she was 6 years old, and then again when she was 7. Her mother refused, fearing her petite daughter would get hurt. But Matthews said her daughter didn’t let up, and asked again when she was 8.

“That’s that persistence right there,” Matthews said. “She was not going to stop until I said yes.”

Pitt’s instructor back then, Haress Goodson, admits he was like a drill sergeant — making kids do 250 sets of jumping jacks, for example — and that at first he doubted his new young student would be tough enough to continue taking his classes. Pitt surprised him.

“She doesn’t quit,” he said.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that expectations were low.

“Karate is a male-dominated sport, so sometimes we’re underestimated,” Pitt said.

As it turned out, she fell in love with karate and has done quite well over the years, becoming the first woman at the Kincade academy to achieve the master fourth-degree black belt and traveling across the country for tournaments.

“I did a lot of competing as a child, so my room is full of trophies from the early ’90s to the early 2000s all the way through,” she said.

Karate is challenging not only physically but mentally, and Pitt likes its emphasis on values such as respect, strong character, focus and giving back to the community.

“There’s a lot of discipline,” said Pitt, whose activities have included raising money for breast cancer awareness. “I believe that a lot of my work ethic stems from how I was brought up in karate, as well as the teachings from my mother growing up … I can see how much it’s helped me as an adult now. It’s grounded me.”

Hinton Kinzler, who is the Kincade school’s owner and has also known Pitt since she was 8, said most of his karate students have done well, going on to colleges such as Harvard University and graduating. The structured rules of karate help prepare youths to succeed when they pursue higher education, according to Kinzler.

Both he and Goodson, who now owns the Shokin Karate Academy in Hillside, said that karate is not just about throwing punches and kicking, as Pitt’s achievements illustrate.

“She does a lot of community service,” Goodson said. “She’s always giving back. And those are the principles we like to give to our youth when we’re training them.”

Pitt estimated that she will need at least $7,500 for her trip, although the cost could surpass that. A good part of the money is for airfare, since under Japanese law Pitt will be required to leave Okinawa briefly after 90 days and then return to renew her visa. She plans to stay at the Okinawan program at least 90 days, and hopes to have enough money to remain for six months.

Pitt plans to document her experience at the program on social media. Before she left for Japan she worked on a video about the countdown to her departure.

“I’ve been touring food spots in Montclair that I know I’m going to miss,” Pitt said. “I went to Mr. Dino’s … I went to Sunrise Bagels. Where am I going to find a bagel [in Okinawa]? … Everybody is like, ‘I hope you like sushi.’ I don’t, but I’m going to try my best to be open to it. I don’t want to starve.”

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