Thursday, 31 December 2009

Final practice for 2009

Today was my final karate keiko for 2009. The single session comprised of lot’s of ido-kihon up and down the dojo, the practice of several kata (both Shotokan-ryu and Asai-ryu), and 15 minute run in the light snow. From now it is time to rest... And tonight, enjoy delicious Japanese food, sake and quality
time with family.
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Regardless of where you are in the world, I wish you a very happy and healthy 2010. My best wishes from Oita, Japan.
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© André Bertel, Japan (2009).


Tuesday, 29 December 2009

NANAKOROBI YAOKI (Day 4)

Today was 'officially' the fourth and final day of kangeiko but not the final training of the year, which will be held on the 31st. I'll also be self-practicing at the dojo tomorrow, as I seriously need to review the last four days of training, as well as work on my own karate (personal targets). The kihon and kumite themes of today were based on the koten kata Kakuyoku shodan, nidan and sandan (also Roshu kata, but I won’t address this here).
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The meaning of Kakuyoku: As I’m sure you are aware, the name Kakuyoku means 'Cranes Wings' referring to the numerous wing-like trapping and hooking defenses, found in all three kata. However, less commonly known is the origin of this name. Asai Sensei explained that ‘The Kakuyoku’ was actually a Samurai battlefield strategy. The tactic effectively aimed to envelope one's opponent(s) then finish them. This makes complete sense technically, when doing oyo-kumite (the kumite applications) with these kata, in particular, when employing shuto kake uke, tekubi-kake uke and tsukami-uke. Hooking, grasping, and/or trapping, then impacting.
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This was an great final training for the December 2009 kangeiko. Whilst (thankfully) being less physical than the previous three days, I found it to be technically more challenging. All the best from Oita, Japan.

© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

Monday, 28 December 2009

NANAKOROBI YAOKI (Day 3)

Today's kangeiko was completely dedicated to the five Junro kata, which I only just recently published an article on: http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2009/12/whilst-im-still-young-when-i-was-even.html. Anyway, here's a quick report on today's practice.
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Stripping the kata back into kihon: We began with the individual techniques and sections of the kata by thoroughly breaking them down into kihon. The points, which were strongly emphasised included: (a) Correct energy output for precise control of balance; (b) 'Moving from the tanden' and correct use of the hips depending on the technique/body shift. And (c) Snapping techniques, as opposed to forcing them. Nothing special in text, but awesome stuff in the dojo!
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Junro kata kumite no bunkai: The applications of all five kata were then trained as kumite. I must say that I love going through the bunkai/oyo-jutsu of the Junro series, and today was certainly no exception. So many valuable things to work on... Forever a student.
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Kata: To conclude this excellent third day of kangeiko, Junro-shodan, nidan, sandan, yondan and godan were all practiced many times over. Sorry, but I literally lost count. Time to rest!
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Needless to say, the two photos featured in this article fittingly feature my late teacher, Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei counting, as I demonstrated the five Junro. The many 'problem solving' kata, which Sensei left us, truly are a permanent testament of his phenomenal ingenuity.

OSU!
© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

Sunday, 27 December 2009

NANAKOROBI YAOKI (Day 2)

'Nanakorobi yaoki' literally translates as "stumbling seven times but recovering eight". A necessity in our lives, on all frontiers, including karate-do.
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Kangeiko is not easy, especially getting up so early, in the cold, and initially freezing in your dogi. But after the junbi undo (preparatory exercises/warm up) including the traditional run, you feel exhilarated. Then from the hard practice, your body starts to tire and shut down, then you push through it. After training, regardless of how you did, or you felt you did, it is very satisfying. Here's a quick summary of today's session, even though it was pretty much the same as yesterday. Roll on tomorrow! - Osu.
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Kihon: This was nearly identical as day one, but with less corrections made, and more focus on strong spirited continuance. The typical 'unstated command' via Japanese telepathy... Don't think, just do, and you will eventually 'understand'.

Kata: Once again Meikyo-nidan and Kibaken-shodan were practiced over, and over again. But we also went one time through the five Heian kata (Asai Sensei style), Joko-nisei, Seiryu and Hachimon.

Kumite: Same as yesterday, but subtlety 'breaking the line' before blitzing the opponent with your flurry of attacks. As with the kihon and kata, if you want more details, please refer to the previous day's post: http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2009/12/nanakorobi-yaoki-day-1.html

© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

Saturday, 26 December 2009

NANAKOROBI YAOKI (Day 1)

December Kangeiko (special cold/winter training) started in the early hours of this morning... And the big question is "where has 2009 gone?" Who in Japan pushes the 'fast forward button'? And why does Japan time , even in the countryside, not slow down? The exception to this rule is when one is suffering in the dojo, trying to keep going. "Common time, speed up!" Suddenly somebody pushes the 'pause button'! To me, this really highlights, that karate-do is such a great way, to learn to live each moment fully. Still, I have to admit that it seems like January Kangeiko was just yesterday, so I have very long way to go: http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2009/01/kangeiko-2009.html. The theme of this years kangeiko is 'exact technique for effective application', that is not wasting time, and energy, unnecessarily polishing techniques for mere aesthetics.
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Rather than make too much commentary, I'll give a brief overview of this mornings session, with the exception of the traditional outdoor run, which was funny, and not worth mentioning! Hahaha.
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A. KIHON: No technique 'lists' here, but rather the points closely examined, via all of the standard 'core' kihon (that is, the typical Shotokan grading syllabus ido-kihon): (1) Kime poise/completion/readiness, "no end and no beginning", as taught by Asai Tetsuhiko Shuseki Shihan. Technically very deep stuff! (2) Light and quiet ashi-hakobi/unsoku (footwork/leg movements/transitions). Essentially trying to avoid sounding like an elephant, as most karateka do. A review of a common theme, extensively taught by Asai Sensei, at J.K.A camps in 1990's. (3) Timing and distance of yori-ashi. Not trying to 'look smooth' but rather to 'be smooth' in transferring maximum power to the respective target. It was stressed that due to competition karate, very few karateka do this correctly, as the priority is given to aesthetics. This once again strongly brought to mind the main theme of this kangeiko.
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B. KATA: I lost count of the repetitions we did of Kibaken and Meikyo-Nidan. The application of the broad training theme, and points covered in the kihon (and corrections regularly made) resulted in making this part of the session the most educational.
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C. KUMITE: Oi komi! 100% purely biltz attacking techniques, aggressive and linear. This is traditional Japan style jiyu-kumite through and through. Kizami zuki kara gyaku zuki; Gyaku zuki kara gyaku zuki; Mae geri kara oi zuki; Kizami zuki kara gyaku zuki soshite mae ashi jodan mawashi geri... You name it, it was done!
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Dare I say, I'm really looking forward to day two of kangeiko! Two of the photos posted here, were outside of the beautiful Nakatsu-jo, our local castle, just after today's training ended. The other was from my embu (demonstration) of Meikyo-nidan at the completion of the practice. If I have the time, and energy, I'll try to complete small reports, covering each day, of this kangeiko. But as in this post, there will probably be a delay. So please excuse my punctuality! All the best to you from Oita-ken, Kyushu, Japan.
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Osu!

© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

Friday, 25 December 2009

Junro Kata

Whilst I'm still young, when I was even younger, in my teens, twenties, and even when I was 30 years old, Asai Shuseki Shihan told me to “train very-very hard”. He always advised me to really push myself, especially at seminars. He’d regularly come up to me with his infamous glare, and bark with gritted teeth “more power André!” or when frustrated, “more power YOU!” Actually, and thankfully so, he was relentless on me, even when he let others just cruise along. So seminars with Asai Sensei were mostly a survival game, with my technique jaded for most of the time... In actuality I was usually broken before they even started! The real learning times were almost always private sessions, where Sensei delved into things more deeply. When talking socially with him, he explained that “only by training hard, when you are young, can you expect to continue developing as you age”. “If you put in the work now, you’ll get the rewards later.” As many of you well know, Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei was very hard on me in the dojo, but for me it was always very invigorating, because I knew that he really wanted to boost my level. To this day I feel so privileged, as I certainly didn’t deserve all the effort that Asai Sensei so kindly put into my karate. Mrs. Asai once even told me that.

As I have stated countless times on this blog, Sensei emphasized that one must “physically understand how to relax, and use this to snap their techniques”. However, and hopefully not confusing to you, he also stressed, “to appreciate this, one must train hard, and to some extent ‘power their techniques’ whilst young”. One of the last things Sensei said to me, was “when you reach your mid to late 30’s, you will change, or you will be unable to continue karate throughout your life”. He also explained that “going from hard to soft is easy, as from there one can fully appreciate, and optimally generate/apply power from softness. But going from soft to hard technique is very difficult, especially for older people without a strong training base.” In some respects he was just telling me to make the most of my youth, but more than that, he claimed that vigorous training was a long term investment, for serious karateka, as long as they didn’t sustain too many injuries in the process. This is why Sensei pushed me so hard, he was literally setting me up for my future karate journey. At the same time, in private trainings Asai Sensei taught me how to move smoothly and softly, and how I should apply energy in actuality, where relaxation is essential to maximize one’s martial arts effectiveness.

“Hard technique is physical training - it is ‘karate exercise’. Using snap is martial arts: There are two main forms of martial arts karate. One is for physical strengthening and making a strong heart, the other is for application in real fighting. One is 'base physical training' for muscle power and fortitude, the other is how to use one's power most effectively/devastatingly, without restriction of motion. One is young man’s karate only, the other is every one's karate. They are different and can be separate, but it is best if you have the opportunity to do both, like I have.” This is the type of thing Asai Sensei would often be chatting about at the dinner table, then tell a story about his training Takushoku University. Anyway, I hope this is making sense to you, as I’ve been reluctant to write about these points, as the extreme contrasts may be confusing for readers. I have feared that I might misrepresent Asai-ryu karate-do, something which is characterized by relaxation, softness, smoothness, and whip-like snap, as opposed to muscular force.

The Junro Kata: Previously I’ve written articles about the ‘importance of these formal exercises’, and also about their excellence in 'perfecting one’s use of the jiku-ashi'. In saying that, above and beyond these, and other technical themes, the five Junro are very important in broadly understanding Asai sensei's junansei (softness)… Why? Because in contrast to the standard Shotokan-ryu kata, they cannot be done correctly utilizing sheer power; only by employing smooth 'natural energy', and snap. However, it was Asai Shuseki Shihan’s hope that via the mandatory study of Junro, his followers would then apply this method when doing the Shotokan kata (especially as one matures in age, and technically matures as a karate exponent). Asai Sensei plainly stated that “the Junro kata are the ‘initial introduction’ of power from softness in the grading syllabus, and also specific actions, for actual kumite. They are kumite kata. They are exactly for martial arts”. (This was Sensei’s reasoning for including them in the grading syllabus from 5th kyu onwards).

Softness and large-scale coiling are paramount in the Junro kata: Interestingly enough, even though they are ‘kumite-kata’, the five Junro do not ‘need’ to be performed rapidly, the main point is that they are executed with softness, using correct energy via full-coiling (of the limbs and also the stance/transitions). “Of course there is also nothing wrong with doing them fast, but they completely lose their overall purpose if ‘conscious power’ creeps in”. If you are going to ‘blast out’ a formal exercise, with power, Asai Sensei would tell you to “do a Shotokan kata!”

Summary of a karate life like an ‘orderly road’: Shuseki Shihan Tetsuhiko Asai’s ‘seemingly contradicting’ views on hard and soft movement, are not so difficult to understand if you look at karate as a lifetime pursuit as he did. “If you are young, regularly train hard, knowing that this training is a physical and psychological base for your future. But remember, that if you are to have a good future practicing karate-do, that your karate must evolve beyond this. If you are older, choose when to train hard, sensibly injecting power into your karate, but focus more on the ‘martial art aspect' through channeling natural energy”. In all cases, regardless of age, Asai Sensei claimed that the Junro kata provide the best ‘fundamental springboard’ for future advancement.

Now, well into my 30’s I still train hard, but my karate is softer, thus the overall intensity has naturally lowered. It is this softness that has allowed me to continue advancing, where otherwise I couldn’t have. I’m sure, externally I may have improved, but this would have been self-deceit, as my impact power had definitely reached its pinnacle. What I’m trying to say is that I crossed the zone, where if my karate was to continue developing, I had to follow the masterful advice, that my late teacher graciously offered. Needless to say, the Junro kata were extremely important for me in that transition, once again illustrating the deep wisdom which Asai Sensei possessed. As always, I feel in great debt to Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei, and will always be thankful for his incredible tuition.

© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Mizuho & me in JAF Magazine




I've back dated this post as I failed to publish it (so please disregard the date of publication). Anyway to make things clear for my English readers I've uploaded this a day after the `Frosty the Snowman' article in 2009 (even though Mizuho & I were interviewed in 2010). For those who can read Japanese, just click on the photos and use the auto-magnifying glass to read the JAF-Japan Auto Federation article. Actually it's a pretty funny interview! In case you don't know, JAFMate is literally read by millions of car owners across Japan, so I can't begin to tell you how many calls I got about being in it!!! More hilarious was when teaching seminars, during the break some people came up and said things like "We saw your karate story in JAF Magazine Andre Sensei. Very good, but next time use chains!"
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© André Bertel (backdated to 2009).

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Frosty the Snow Man

On the way to Aya’s and Daisuke’s wedding (Aya is a student), we managed to get our car stuck in the snow, isolated in the Ajimu mountains. After around three and a half hours wait, we were finally ‘rescued’ by Goto San, who I nicknamed ‘Frosty the Snowman’ from the JAF (Japan Auto Federation)… Goto San was not only our savior but was also a real comedian, hence I christened him ‘Frosty’.
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Whilst being towed along, we passed dozens of stranded vehicles (with drivers jealously staring at us), and we even saw a bus wildly slide, and crash into a taxi! Frosty thought it was hilarious, whilst emphasizing how Japanese cab and bus drivers think “they own the road”. What a universal concept hahaha… Anyway with the howling wind and carpets of snow travelling horizontally past our windshield, we were happy to finally continue the rest of our journey, on dry surfaces, further down the mountain. Thanks to ‘Mr. Goto’ AKA ‘Frosty The Snowman’. What a Christmas story folks.
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Fortunately, after ‘half a night’s sleep’, we made it on time to Aya and Daisuke’s “huge wedding” in Beppu. Hundreds of guests, and all the goodies! It was definitely worth getting stuck in the snow to make it. Congratulations Daisuke and Aya!

© André Bertel, Japan (2009).

Friday, 18 December 2009

Wankan

In Tokyo 1993, after passing my JKA (Matsuno-group) yondan, Asai Sensei said to me at the after party "if Nakayama Sensei had not so prematurely died, there would have been a Best Karate 12, featuring Wankan and Jiin. Also a 'special advice section on kata', much similar to Best Karate 8".
My purpose in my relaying this to you, is not solely for the preservation of Wan'kan kata, but rather to confirm something, which otherwise might not have been openly known. Yes, Best Karate volume 12, was a planned project, but sadly never eventuated.

© André Bertel, Japan 2009.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Junin toiro

The Japanese idiom 'Junin toiro' literally translates "ten men, ten colours", and means "every individual is different". This was something my late instructor, Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei emphasized when giving me private tuition. Often, when I tried to mimic his movements perfectly (which of course I could never do!), he scolded me, saying "You must move in the best way for yourself".
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His strict focus when teaching was correct form, trajectories of techniques, softness, smoothness, snap, and how things should be used (practically applied. That is, his bunkai/oyo-jutsu was 'three tiered' and highly specific... And he didn't accept variations). Beyond these points, as I stated before, he stressed that I maximise my own unique physique and attributes. You can compare Asai Sensei's and my kokutsu dachi in the photos here. Teacher and student, same stance but very different body shapes!

In retrospect I can see how wise he was, more than I could perceive back then, as this was the only way he could help me to develop my karate, and also pass on his knowledge. Sadly, I still have so many unanswered technical questions, but will continue to seek answers via my daily practice... One thing I do know is that it will take a full lifetime of karate-keiko to have even a small portion of the knowledge that Sensei physically possessed...

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Anyway, like Asai Sensei advocated, always keep in mind 'Junin toiro' when training. Seek exact technical form and economy of motion/softness, and the other 'prerequisites for success', but always overshadow this with your individuality. Only by following this path can you make the most of your karate.
© André Bertel, Japan 2009.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Traditional Karate Fighter?

Why is it that karate exponents, traditional karateka in particular, do not enter and win full-contact events, such as boxing, mixed martial arts, muay thai kickboxing etc? Well, firstly they would never win such competitions without completely changing their style into a fighting art (or cross training in one). What I mean by a fighting art is a martial art which is for “dueling with an opponent and winning”. Traditional karate is technically not a martial art which produces fighters, but rather a ‘hit and escape self-defense system’. I want to emphasize this strongly here, “TRADITIONAL KARATE INDEPENDENTLY DOES NOT PRODUCE FIGHTERS”.
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The nature of all techniques in traditional Japanese karate are to take out the opponent as quickly as possible, ideally with a single finishing blow or ichigeki-hissho. This is the best way in a self-defense situation, but is hardly the case in an organized fight or duel. Keep in mind that a fighter is someone who is training to win a fight. For example think of an amateur or professional boxer. Everything they do in their training is to win their upcoming bout or string of bouts. Compare this to a karateka practicing kihon, kata and kumite in a dojo, none of which directly/perfectly translates to a boxing ring or MMA cage. What is the karateka going to do in a boxing ring? How about in a MMA bout? Are they going to charge in with a combination of kizami zuki and gyaku zuki? How about demonstrate a kata for their opponent then ask if they want to see the "practical" applications?
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I’m proud not to be a fighter, and never wish to be one. However, I constantly hone my techniques to stop an attacker with a single devastating blow. To me, this is the physical meaning of “Karate-do ni sente nashi (There is no first attack in karate-do)”. Understanding and practicing karate in this way will send you in the right direction insofar as self-defense is concerned. If your desire is to become a ‘fighter’ you’d be much better doing another martial art, or at least cross training in one (or several)! But remember it won’t stop there! If you want to be a fighter, just training is not enough! You’ll have to get in fights, because needless to say, that’s what a fighter does, they fight. Either in organized competitions, on the street or both. Like I said before, I’m proud not to be a fighter!
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Karate, WHEN TRAINED CORRECTLY, is the 'best chance' martial art to deal with physically stronger opponents, multiple attackers, and armed assailants, such as those carrying a knife. Why? Because of its focus on “getting in and out as fast as possible”. Destructively impacting with a sharp weapon of the body, to a vital point, is what defines authentic traditional karate, as opposed to ‘slugging it’ out, or ‘grappling on the ground’.
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My advice is to always keep in mind what your targets are in training, and follow the path, which allows you to achieve these targets. Understand that traditional karatedo by itself will never turn you into a fighter, but also question "do you really want to be one?" To conclude I'd like to say that you will never see a traditional karateka win K1, a MMA match, or a boxing fight purely using karate-techniques. However, if they've trained correctly, constantly seeking ichigeki-hissho in their daily practice, they will more than equipped to handle themselves in any self-defense situation.
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© André Bertel, Japan 2009.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Matama

I thought I'd post a couple photos I took, when driving back from Bungo Takada (for teaching classes). Some of you will remember the article I wrote on March 1st, 2008, titled 'Land of the Rising Sun': http://andrebertel.blogspot.com/2008/03/japan-land-of-rising-sun.html. These photos were taken from the same view point, Matama Beach, Oita Prefecture. (Please note: Like the majority of photos posted on my blog, you can click on them to enlarge the picture).
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I am huge admirer of natural beauty and how nature puts into perspective how small and insignificant we are. At the same time, we can use this to energize our lives, if we take time to appreciate its beauty. Nature can teach us so many things if we open our minds to it. Every day the sun ascends and descends, it looks different. It is the same sun, but depending on numerous factors, presents itself differently.

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Train diligently, be positive and make the most of your days. Don't be concerned by things which don't matter, and people who have negative outlooks. So many karate organizations preach Karate-DO and the dojo-kun, yet in reality have such negative outlooks, are viciously judgemental, and will take any action to control others, due to having inferiority complexes (or sheer jealousy). Such minuscule behaviour is certainly worth avoiding! My advice is to keep the big picture of life foremost in mind, and make the most of everyday you live. Love your karate training, love your life, and don't get distracted or influenced by people, or groups, who are negative.

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My very best wishes and training to you from Japan, the land of the rising sun.

© André Bertel, Japan 2009.