My introduction to Enson Inoue was preceded by glittery things. Not the sparkle off the sequined bikinis of ring girls; nor the gleam off a MMA (mixed martial arts) prize belt, which he’s certainly worn over his 19 year career as a professional martial artist. It’s the bling from a roomful of crystals and gems, in which he sits peacefully in the middle of, braiding a bracelet- one of dozens he’ll make today.
“Come in,” he ushers me, this hulking barrel of a man with a genuinely bright smile on his face. I like him immediately.
I bring fairly little predisposition. I know he’s a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, and a fourth degree black belt in bujinkan budo taijutsu.
I know he retired from fighting in 2010 with a record of 12 wins and eight losses. He is a former Shooto Heavyweight Champion, and a UFC 13 Lightweight Tournament entrant in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
He’s a Big Deal in Japan, where he moved permanently in 1990. Here in Hawaii, his athlete brother, Egan, is a Big Deal. My only other association with the Inoue brothers was when I anchored at KHON2 for two years, and Egan was a regular monthly fitness expert. But this is all I know, really.
Later, I would learn that the 1985 University Laboratory School graduate started training in hapkido and taekwondo when he was 16. When he was 21, he transitioned to Brazilian jujitsu under the legendary Relson Gracie. From there, he made his pro debut with the Japan Shooto Association in 1995, winning his first Shooto match.
The Japanese media dubbed him Yamatodamashii, or Samurai Spirit, because that’s what his fighting persona embodies. He doesn’t tap out.
After retiring from the ring, Inoue opened a chain of Purebred gyms (purebredusa.com/about.html) around the world (the nearest ones to Hawaii are Guam, San Diego, and Washington State.) He still appears at seminars or other MMA events, to give back to a community that he loves.
However, his current life has transitioned from power punches to power stones, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. He hands me a beautiful bespoke bracelet he made for me. I’m touched.
The beads are light pink and beige, entwined in a rose colored string. The cording is tight, and the Chinese knot is immaculate. As an occasional beader, I am impressed.
Inoue hovers over my wrist to explain what each stones mean. “This is rose quartz for love, smoky quartz for grounding, and garden quartz for healing,” he states. Pulling out a larger garden quartz bead for my gem education, he holds it up to the light. “Look inside. Doesn’t it look like a little garden? This is one of my favorites.”
We get on quite well, as if we’ve known each other for decades. What a nice connection, we both muse. (His mom’s theory, after observing us for some minutes: “You’re both crazy. That’s why you get along.”)
We make a future date to one day attend the Tucson Gem Show together. We talk about hanging out and doing yoga. I find him open, intelligent, spiritual, thoughtful – and very, very sweet.
“Enson,” I comment, “it’s an incongruous image – this big guy, making these crystal bracelets.” He’s now in the middle of selecting and crafting a turquoise one for my nine-year-old daughter, upon finding out she loves these, too.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “People have said that. The ex-fighter, now a bracelet weaver. I don’t really think of it like that until people point it out. I just love it.”
Naturally, most people drop it after that. Nobody in their right mind is going to tease a five foot eleven, 220-pound MMA great with widely-reported connections to the Yakuza and a short prison stint to boot.
His journey from breaking people to healing them came about somewhat organically. It started in 2004, when he totaled his Mercedes Benz S500. “I was wearing one of these jyuzu [spiritual beads] that a friend gave me. The belief is that it protects you, and if it breaks, it was taking the bad luck for you. I walked out of that car accident with nothing more than a fat lip, and later, they found the broken bracelet on the floor of the car,” he recalls.
Two years later, he crashed another Mercedes, and the same thing happened – no injuries; broken bracelet on the car floor. Maybe there’s something to this lucky charm, he thought.
In 2006, Inoue was planning his 39th birthday party, and decided to give out these bracelets as gifts. “I spent $12,000 on bracelets for all 40 guests,” he said, on sharing a measure of the good fortune he had received from the jyuzu.
Inoue wanted to do it again in 2007 for his 40th birthday, but the vendor was unavailable to make 40 more bracelets. “He said he’d teach me, though, and I could make it for my guests. I thought, ‘What? There’s no way I’m going to learn this!’”
Never one to back away from a challenge, though, Inoue relented and learned. “My first one took me three hours!” If you watch him do it today, it takes maybe 20 minutes and he can do it while talking to customers – or bloggers.
He missed the deadline for his own birthday party, but continued honing his crafting skills, all the while, “loving it.” When he finally improved, he started giving them away as presents to friends.
In 2011, he displayed them on Facebook, where it “blew up” with people asking where they could buy them. He incorporated a new business selling the bracelets and necklaces, calling it Destiny Forever.
He started displaying his wares at booths and special events. When Shirokiya had its department store, he had a vendor table for four years, before finding a new space at Hilton Waikiki Beach on Kuhio.
“I can sit all day and bead. I have found that true happiness is in giving, and these beads give people happiness. It’s crazy how it affects people,” he relates.
He’s not exaggerating. In the two hours that I sit with him, I see a constant flow of people coming in to say hello.
It’s early, and most of them are hotel staff, but it’s clear he has a relationship with all of them. People like him.
Kat tells me she bought a necklace with beads that have etchings of dragons for confidence, leadership, and strength. “I immediately felt a difference. Maybe it’s mind over matter, but it was that same night I felt stronger,” she insists.
Tony drifts in. He bought one to combat his aches and pains, and bought one for his wife and sister-in-law, as well. He saw an improvement in his health in a month’s time. His wife, he tells me, loves hers and will notice a difference if she’s not wearing it. “I wasn’t a believer before this,” he admits.
Inoue smiles and cheerfully receives every one of these people. “Bring it in if it needs to be restrung!” he always offers, or he’ll recommend different stones for new maladies.
I feel like I’m in a country store in another time and place, where people talk to their neighbors and forge connections in an unhurried way. It seems less a business and more a way of life for him.
Midday, his mom, Naomi, drops in with a cooler of lunch for him. She bends to put it in the mini-fridge. “Enson! You haven’t eaten much! There’s so much food in there!” she chides.
“He’s too busy talking to everyone,” I tattle, while admiring their relationship and missing when my own mom was well enough to mother me.
She’s a vivacious and pretty woman, and she’s wearing two of his bracelets. “I was sort of surprised when he went from being a fighter to this,” she confesses. “I didn’t think it was going to last. But then again, he’s got a gentle heart, and he’s very spiritual.”
In 2010, Inoue developed his spirituality with a pilgrimage across Japan. The famous Shikoku Pilgrimage consists of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi) on the island of Shikoku, and is traditionally done by foot. In addition, there are another 20 temples that aren’t part of the official 88, but that can be visited as part of the trip.
Inoue walked this route alone, with no money or secured lodging, as a personal test of faith. “I once went four days without food, while walking 12 to 16 hours a day. Only six of the 30 days of this pilgrimage, I had housing. My fans recognized me and gave me a place to stay. Otherwise, I slept outside,” he recalls.
It’s such a tough road, pilgrims of old would wear their funeral attire, because they didn’t expect to make it home. Inoue did this from August 18 to September 18, 2010: The hottest summer since Japan began keeping records. He walked in the scorching heat for 880 miles.
He didn’t die, obviously, but the crusade did bring about a death of sorts – the end of one aspect of his personality, and the beginning of a new self. “It made me appreciate things I didn’t before. My philosophy of life can be summed up in three circles: Things that make you happy, things that don’t matter, and things that irritate you. The size of the circles changed after this pilgrimage,” he shares.
His Happy Circle is bigger. “When I go to bed, I now appreciate the bed- the softness of the bed, the warmth of the blanket, the fact that I have a bed to lie in. I’m no longer thinking about my to do list, social media, or anything else,” he continues.
Conversely, his Irritating Circle is smaller. He mentions an incident three months after Shikoku. “I was in line at a store, when a group of tourists off a tour bus kept cutting in front of me. Some women in front of me would hold the space and continually let their friends get in the line. The old me was assertive, but the new me is patient. I just thought, ‘The store is air conditioned, I’m going to be waiting maybe an extra seven minutes more to buy my drink, and I’ll walk out with a cold, refreshing beverage. So what?’”
Friends noticed it first. “You’re not such a hothead,” they remarked.
While Inoue continually stayed active in more pilgrimages and humanitarian causes, another key event in his life came in 2011, after the magnitude 9.1 Tohoku earthquake struck offshore of Japan, unleashing a tsunami and damaging several nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
He had ties to Fukushima; he lived there for four years upon first moving to Japan. Inoue loaded his Hummer with food and supplies and drove four hours north from Tokyo.
“I wasn’t a big humanitarian. I felt I should be a man and not run away from the situation, and I wanted to check on my friends,” he expresses. He was shocked at what he found: the devastation, the sorrow, the need.
That night, he bought a sashimi dinner for every one of the 87 people in the evacuation center. Sashimi, because that was what the townsfolk were used to eating, and they could no longer have that.
“To see the joy in their faces choked me up. For one moment, they could be happy. I couldn’t think of a more heartwarming feeling. There is nothing money can buy that can give me that feeling,” he says of this life-changing epiphany.
That’s the year he incorporated Destiny Forever LLC, as an extension of his efforts to give to others. He uses the money from jewelry sales to fund more relief missions in Northern Japan, but he makes it clear that Destiny Forever is not a non-profit. He uses its profits in the way he sees fit, just as you use your paycheck at your discretion.
In 2016, he started a not-for-profit organization, Enson Inoue Foundation (www.ensoninouefoundation.org.) It exists to fund those missions, and with it, he hopes to cast a wider net; you can donate to the cause.
“That’s why I love this,” he declares. “I believe what you create for yourself today, will be your destiny forever.”
Enson Inoue will be at Hilton Waikiki Beach Hotel on Kuhio (hiltonwaikikibeach.com) from February 10 – 22, 2017 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the second floor boardroom. More on Inoue’s jewelry and appearance schedule at www.destinyforever.com. Reach him via Facebook: Enson Inoue, Instagram: ensoninoue, and Twitter @ensoninoue.