Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Nagasaki Trip

To commemorate two years in Japan Mizuho and I went to Nagasaki City for three and half days of R&R. We had such a great time wining and dining, sightseeing, and chilling out in general.

Naturally, whilst there, we also went to the Genbaku Kinenkan (Atomic Bomb Museum), and the Heiwa Koen (Peace park). Like our time in Hiroshima, this was an opportunity for us to reflect on the worst possible human suffering, death, and the horror of war.

Central Nagasaki: Besides our car navigation failing a few times, taking us down old streets with dead ends, or just wide enough to allow a scooter to get through, both Mizuho and I really enjoyed the central city. We stayed at the lovely Richmond Hotel Nagasaki http://www.yadoplaza.com/portal/PO10010?hotel_id=H000006055&mode=3 in Shianbashi, and this allowed us to conveniently use the infamous Romen Densha (Tram train) system. The vibe in Nagasaki is very different due to the large amount of European buildings and 'Christian influence' . This extreme merging of Japanese and Western culture (especially in regards to the architecture) is very unique.

A gondola ride and the night view of the city, from Inasayama, was one of Mizuho's targets, and fortunately the sky turned out to be very clear for her. Another target was to eat Champon and Sara udon in Nagasaki's Chinatown, which I'd recommend to anyone visiting the city. Delicious is the only word which comes to mind.

Hanami in Sasebo: On our way home Mizuho and I also had hanami in Sasebo City enjoying the beautiful sakura trees in full bloom. We did this at the Shinsaikaibashi and even managed to inhale a 'Sasebo Burger' in the process! Walking across the large bridge, the surrounding parks, and another bridge running parallel to it, ended up being really fun (and helped to burn off those nasty 'hamburger calories'). The warm sun, and refreshing spring breeze couldn't have been more perfect.

Overall this little holiday really recharged our batteries and was a great way for us to celebrate our second anniversary in Japan.
© André Bertel, Japan 2009

Thursday, 26 March 2009


Two years ago today we arrived back in Japan, therefore today is a day of celebration for Mizuho and myself. It feels as if only two months have passed, but looking at all the things we’ve done since arriving, and it could easily be five or even ten years. This is especially the case in regards to the karate training, which has been nothing less than fantastic.

I’m a person, like all true karateka, who always tries to live in the moment, second by second. Something that requires my constant effort as a 21st century man. I try not to focus on the past, I aim for maximum results now – this is true ‘self-control’. Why? Because the present is the only thing we can control. Being a student of Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei taught me to have future goals, and that these goals are dependent on what I do ‘right now’. This, to Asai Sensei, is what separated the ‘doers’ from the ‘dreamers’, the shapely people from the obese, and more than often, the winners from the losers. I know this is nothing more than commonsense, but in the long-term, it is the hardest ‘technique’ to master. “Past wins and losses are gone, and the future may not come, now is the biggest, and perhaps final chance”. People who live in the past are very sad indeed, as let’s face it, they miss maximizing the present.

If someone attacks me with a knife all that matters is what I do at that time, past achievements and future dreams no longer matter. This is the spirit of a true martial artist. This is why I can celebrate today, not because of the past, but because of now. Violent situations are always brutal and eye-opening if one is the victim. In one 'past' situation, a criminal attempted to take my leather jacket by pulling out a knife. This is what happened... After I rejected his demands he reached into his pocket for his blade. Without hesitation I drove my strongest kizami-zuki (jab punch) into his face, which stopped him motionless. I immediately followed up by hitting him with jodan kake-zuki (upper level hook punch), which put him on the pavement. And to make sure he couldn't come after me, I stamped on his head, and ran off with my knees still shaking. Is that a win worth boasting about? No, because if the same situation happens now, all that matters is now.

These last two years have been my very best in Japan in regards to my development as a karateka, far superior to my many other extended training stints here, but this is natural, following my thinking and way of life. It is not something to brag about, just simply 'get on with it'. My question is "Why do people find it so hard to simply 'try' to live in the moment?" Living in the moment is what makes 'living your dreams' possible. That's why I'm here in Japan! If you were to ask me “André, so what is your next target in karate?” I’d answer “To develop an even more clearer mind on the present”.

Two years in Japan today… But 'now' is all that matters.

© André Bertel, Japan 2009

Saturday, 21 March 2009


This week I’ve been revisiting junansei (softness) in my karate. As a student of the late master, Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei, I focus on ‘softness’ and ‘snap’ every day. However, my present focus is 100%. Therefore, no ‘particular’ kata or set of techniques are being trained. I’m just doing ‘everything’, with my complete attention on my junansei. As Asai Sensei propagated ‘Whether performing Heian-shodan kata or Rakuyo kata, chudan choku-zuki or kaeshi-ippon kumite, it is all the same… Natural energy.’

We never stop learning do we… And the learning of karate can only be a result of physical training itself. One of the, dare I say, ‘hardest’ points of karate, is ‘physically learning’ to relax. ‘Masterful relaxation’ means to control the body perfectly, via eradicating unnecessary muscle power. Therefore the result of proper junansei training is “economy of motion to achieve maximum effect with any karate technique”. Here is a link to a past article I wrote on this topic: http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2007/06/from-hardness-to-complete-softness.html

Sensei’s rendition of Nijushiho (I’m sure you’ve seen this many times) is an unparalleled example of junansei. Click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVHdhGWtuM.

To conclude, I’d like to say that seeing Asai Sensei perform this kata, standing next to him, was astounding. He totally ‘lived the kata’ and only thing you could do is stand there in total awe! Such wonderful memories have helped me to prioritize junansei.
© André Bertel, Japan 2009

Monday, 9 March 2009

Junbi undo

After suffering a severe spinal injury, over 20 years ago, I realized that many of the 'traditional karate stretches' deemed “standard” in most Shotokan dojo were in fact time-wasting. Why? Because since that injury, many of them, I'm became permanently unable to do, but for some 'magical reason' (after recovery) my technique itself was never hindered, and my ‘karate specific flexibility’ actually improved!

Interestingly enough, the only problem has been with some instructors who demand that I “must do these stretches”. However, once my kicks start flying, they soon turn a blind eye. Japanese instructors, in particular, become baffled. This is nothing new, it happened when training with the Asai JKA/JKS, here in Japan, during my teens, 20’s and still now in my 30’s.

In my opinion the only major weakness (karate-wise) of Shotokan in Japan, is the adherence to often outdated, and more importantly, non-karate-specific junbi-undo (preparatory exercises). More than adhering to tradition, this is the ‘cultural result’, of lacking the ability to understand individuality; that is, that all human beings are different… Every individual needs to approach stretching differently in accordance to their own physical attributes/genetics, deficiencies, age, injuries and the highly diverse combination of these variables.

My point here is that we do not do karate for the warm up or stretching. We do it for karate. Therefore, as long as we can optimize our karate technique and skills, the warm up/stretching we use is irrelevant. Optimal preparatory exercises are twofold… The safest method (to avoid injuries), and the best means to maximize our execution of karate itself.
Junbi undo is not a competition for me, it is to prepare my body for optimal karate performance. I don't mind being the least flexible person in the dojo if it means I can keep doing karate, like it has for over 20 years since my injury. What's more, if I can't bend/twist my spine in stretches, yet kick better than those who can, why should I feel concerned about the inability to perform such exercises, which are very dangerous for my body?

I'd like to end by saying "Please take care of your body. Listen to it, and make karate something you can do for the rest of your life, should you choose to do so. Optimal technique and working around injuries is not impossible, if you are determined." - I wish you the very best on your karate journey.
© André Bertel, Japan 2009

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Keage & Kekomi

In this article I’d like to go back to the ‘basics’ and clarify the difference between the two main categories of karate kicks: keage (snap kicks) and kekomi (thrust kicks). Hopefully this be useful for beginner, intermediate and advanced karateka alike. Needless to say, after 20+ years of karatedo training, I’m constantly struggling to perfect the kihonwaza of Shotokan, and never cease to find shortcomings in my karate via them.

Differentiating keage and kekomi – ‘The use of the knee-joint’

Keage: In keage (snap kicks) the knee of the kicking leg is pointed at the target before the lower leg fires out. The knee joint is fixed in position acting as a pivot. The kick is smoothly and rapidly whipped out, and back, precisely along the same trajectory.

Kekomi: In kekomi (thrust kicks) the knee joint drives from behind the kicking foot and likewise, it recoils it back, exactly following its outward trajectory.

Conscious joint power as opposed to conscious muscle power: "Think of kekomi as 'driving kicks' and keage as 'whipping kicks'. And in both cases, clearly understand the roll of the knee joint to differentiate the two." - Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei prioritized joint power/control over muscle power and that is clearly illustrated in this fundamental example.

More similarities than differences: In addition to the above points, here are the other major similarities between keage and kekomi…
(1) Just like snap kicks, thrust kicks are withdrawn immediately. Momentarily suspending an extended kicking leg in mid-air doesn't make it a thrust kick! The appearance of the kekomi being 'held out' is its 'drive' in contrast to the 'whipping action' of the keage. The 'posed kekomi' is the result of competition kata aesthetics and the misunderstanding born from this.

(2) Both kicks maximize ‘tight chambering’ of the kicking leg. This is no different to a tight hikite in hand/arm techniques… In all cases, 'compress the spring' as much as possible.

(3) Full body weight is applied to both kicks, not only the thrust kick. Fully utilize the large-scale drive of the supporting leg and hips/pelvis towards the target. In principle, the support leg in snap and thrust kicks should be no different to the driving leg in oi-zuki.
If nothing else remember two points. Firstly; “What makes snap kicks different to thrust kicks is how the kicking knee joint is used”. And secondly; “The depth of technique-penetration in all kicks is prioritized over target height, if highly effective 'power' kicking is one's goal. That is, attack as horizontally as possible from grounded foot to the respective target. In all cases, if maximum impact is desired, the hips should never rise." If you get these two points correct, and your execution and application of all keage and kekomi should be optimal.

Best wishes from Japan.

© André Bertel, Japan 2009

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The first day of Haru

Today Japan officially enters Haru (Spring) however the 'Shunbun no hi' (Spring Day) holiday is not held until March 20th. Haru is a beautiful time here in Nippon as the Sakura trees bloom, and we look forward to a boiling hot summer. For me this means even more opportunities to do my extra karate practice outdoors.

Anyway, here is a long overdue 'back log' of my posts. Hopefully this will be of assistance for those wanting to access past articles I've uploaded. Best wishes from Japan. - André

Links to articles 1-91 (June 19th 2007 to August 17th, 2008): http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2008/08/andre-bertel-blog-links.html

September 2008




October 2008








November 2008









December 2008









January 2009






February 2009





© André Bertel, Japan 2009