It’s safe to say Enson Inoue has followed his own path in his pioneering MMA career.

It’s been more than 20 years since Inoue journeyed from his native Hawaii to Japan, not to further his martial arts training, but in hopes of advancing a racquetball career. There, Inoue arranged for a try-out with Shooto, a seminal MMA promotion. Inoue had earned the ranking of Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt under Relson Gracie back in Hawaii, and wanted just one taste of combat in the ring, to test his fighting spirit.

Inoue would impress in that tryout, which led to a victory in a professional Shooto bout, against Shigeta Shingo in 1995. The Japanese media would hail his debut as “The Birth of a Japanese Monster,” noting Inoue as the first MMA fighter of Japanese origins to be trained in the Gracie jiu-jitsu style.

Momentum would quickly build, and one fight led to another. Still, he wasn’t thinking of fighting as a career back then.

He would arrange one more fight though… and then, another… and so, the journey began.

Inoue would eventually decide that he had found his calling in the fight game, and stayed in Japan for good. Among his accolades: earning the Shooto Heavyweight Championship against Joe Estes in 1997 and winning a bout at UFC 13 against Royce Alger that same year. Inoue battled Frank Shamrock in one of the greatest fights of the 1990s, handed Randy Couture his first MMA loss in 1998, and became a legend in the PRIDE organization during the heyday of Japanese MMA.

His fighting spirit would earn him the nickname, “Yamato Damashii,” or, the spirit of traditional Japan. Many Japanese fans had come to see Inoue as a man who brought that “samurai spirit” back to their country, and Inoue found fame in both his victories and defeats. Against Igor Vovchanchyn in 2000,  Inoue refused to quit despite enduring a frightful beating and sustaining numerous injuries, including a swollen brain, a fractured jaw, and damage to the liver.

He survived that night, and amazingly, would fight again later that year. He continued inspiring MMA fans in years to come.

His last MMA bout was a 2010 victory over Antz Nansen, but today Inoue is fighting a different battle for his adopted home: embarking on a journey to raise awareness for those still suffering and displaced by the 2011 Tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan.

Last month, Inoue left behind the comforts of his Saitama (greater Tokyo area) home to begin a walking pilgrimage across Japan, carrying his own food and water, and staying wherever he can find shelter. Joining Inoue on the spiritual walk are his longtime friends Roman Dela Cruz of Fokai Industries (who began the pilgrimage with Inoue last month), and Mike Fowler of Hawaii’s North Shore Jiu-Jitsu (who joined earlier this month).

As he prepared for the trek, which will span more than 1500 miles in a three month span, Inoue explained: “As far as food and water goes, we’re going to run out of supplies. But these people (in northern Japan) don’t have work, and don’t have a way to purchase what they want. That’s why I’m making that rule, that we only eat what we carry, to put us in the situation where we have to depend on people’s help too.”

“They’re in a situation (in northern Japan) where they need to rely on other people,” he continued. “It’s not possible to make it all the way across Japan only carrying food and water, without help. We’re going to have to sleep outside every day. So it’s kind of like their situation, unstable. They’re in temporary housing and they don’t know how long they’re going to be there. They’re not confident they’ll always have a place to sleep. We might find a good place to sleep one night, and not find anywhere to sleep the next.”

“You’ve got to keep the hope. If you look at the resources, there’s really no way to make it. If you look at the people in temporary housing, it’s the same: some of them end up having to wait until hope comes. I hope it inspires them to continue on.”

Caged Insider caught up with Inoue last week near Kyoto, at around the midway point of his journey. The MMA legend expressed a sense of awe at the response that he is receiving.

“I knew that I’m reaching martial arts fans,” he explained. “But when we walked up north, people were walking up to us and thanking us for what we’re doing. I never really saw it as walking up north and showing people that we care; it was really about letting people know that these people up north need help. We’re affecting way more people than I thought we would. It was very much a surprise. We’re getting people who don’t even who we are, but they’re grateful for what we are doing. It was a whole new level of inspiration for us.”

In addition to chronicling his journey on his blog and Facebook page, Inoue and company have been interviewed by Japanese media as well. Word is getting out.

“There was a time we were walking up north and a guy pulled over in his car, to ask what we were doing,” Inoue explained. “When we told him, he said we were some of the few people who haven’t forgotten that the people of the north are still suffering. He burst into tears.”

Video of that encounter is included in a CNN I-Report. Inoue described having mixed feelings about filming that visit, but said, “I think it’s important that we show that — how these people are still hurting.”

Inoue and the friends accompanying him are accepting food or shelter from those who offer, but have often found themselves sleeping outdoors. They’ve braved hundreds of miles on foot, and have been forced to find shelter during typhoons and heavy rain. Several weeks ago, Inoue met an elderly homeless man named Tomio along his walk.

Inoue agreed to a fan’s offering that day — but only if the fan included Tomio.

“I told the guy, we’ll go but we want our friend here to come along,” Inoue recalled. “The guy agreed to take him, too. We fed him, got him a bath, on the way we stopped at Yuniko, which is a clothing store, and got him a new shirt, pants, jacket for the winter. I could tell he still had a sense of pride. He was a year into homelessness. His house burned down and he didn’t have insurance. Nowhere to go.”

“That parting we had was kind of hard,” Inoue admitted. “We knew he didn’t have a home and we were wondering how he was going to make it.  I’m planning to make a run again in March, passing all these places, visit the people who are helping us.”

Yes, this journey is to be completed next month, but there will be more to come.

As in years past… one more fight, for “Yamato Damashii.” In times of hardship and in victory, the spirit remains strong.

(Please join us for Part Two, where we will also visit with Inoue’s companions on the trip, Fowler and Dela Cruz.)

Enson Inoue pauses on day nine of his walking pilgrimage across the length of Japan.