Thursday 26 December 2013

2013 winds down

2013 has been a very-very busy year for me. It included doing my final semester at the University of Canterbury; graduating and receiving my degree in absentia; teaching karate seminars in South Africa and New Zealand; moving back to Japan; joining the Japan Karate Association (JKA); attending a seminar by Shuseki-Shihan Masaaki Ueki (9th Dan); testing for JKA 5th Dan; celebrating seven years of being married.., the list goes on…

 One thing I can say, reflecting on all the busyness of 2013, is that it has been a very productive and happy 12 months. Furthermore, 2013 has provided me with ample opportunities to grow as human being. Needless to say, Karate-Do has been a major force in this process.
Today's training was hard and, yet again, showed me that I still know nothing about karate. Accordingly, this inspires me to continue my daily practice and keep seeking Karate-Do. Whether I can ever get `good' or  not is irrelevant. My aim is to simply move forward as best I can.

 I’d like to use this opportunity to thank everyone whom I have been fortunate to come into contact with this year through Karate-Do. Thank you all very much!

 Finally, I’d like to wrap up by wishing you, and your family, a very happy and healthy 2014. Kindest regards, Osu.

André Bertel

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2013).

Sunday 22 December 2013

Developing your `Radar'

It is obvious that nation states, in the modern world, without radar and other detection systems would be extremely vulnerable. Likewise, the concerted development of `radar like awareness’ is also essential for budoka (martial artists). But how can one develop such awareness? Well there are several ways, but the most important of these—in standard karate training—are as follows:

 Firstly, when practicing kihon or kata, in their solo forms of training, one needs to maintain constant awareness: of their surroundings/opponent(s). This takes immense mental discipline, but in time, becomes second nature.

 Secondly, when practicing jiyu-kumite don’t only focus on your opponent, but what’s around you—be ready for anything. Likewise, in the case of yakusoku-kumite (prearranged sparring), don’t concentrate on the `announced attack’ but rather be ready for a mawashi-zuki (roundhouse punch); someone applying a shimewaza (strangulation technique) from behind; a rugby tackle; a gedan mae-geri instead of a jodan oi-zuki, etc... As emphasized before, this ultimately becomes a concerted effort that one consciously undertakes in every moment of one’s training.

 By and large, `keeping your radar switched on’ becomes just like other fundamental skills, such as using your hips when you perform techniques or not changing height (during steps, turns and stance transitions).

Lastly, and most importantly, one needs to intensify their training environment whilst adhering the two aforementioned points. Only by having an intense/realistic training environment, and by maintaining self-discipline, can one sharpen their `detection capabilities’ to a high level. I hope the critical importance of fostering this skill has been vividly highlighted in this article; moreover, that developing it requires a concerted effort in one’s daily practice.

 © André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2013).

Friday 20 December 2013

Completely dedicated to kata

My training today was completely dedicated to kata. The session consisted of Heian-shodan; Heian-yondan; Tekki-shodan; the `Big Four’—Bassai (Dai), Kanku (Dai), Empi and Jion; and of course, Nijushiho.

In particular, I find the `Big Four’ extremely challenging due to their extreme technical diversity and unique `characteristics’. Like the Heian kata, they force me to face the weaknesses in my foundational techniques; albeit, in a more profound and merciless way. In this manner, one’s tokui kata becomes a real “treat”, a chance to shine a little, when practiced alongside these unforgiving challengers.

 Warm up: The session was tough as my junbi-undo (preparatory exercises/warm up) took much longer than usual: due to the extreme cold... Thank God for the new dojo! That being said, it was great to finally get warm and get stuck into training—the rewards of winter training.

 Training: Without undermining its utmost importance, Heian Shodan was used my `specific warm up’; subsequently, this led on to blasting out Heian Yondan, and Tekki Shodan. It was then onto Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai and Jion, which I only executed a couple of times each. Lastly, I extensively worked on Empi and Nijushiho.

Conclusion: I have to say that it was nice to spend an entire training dedicated to kata. Taken as a whole, I believe that the kata of karatedo are amazing tools for gaining a window of technical introspection; what is more, they are at the heart of self-training— the “key of self-motivation”—amongst long-time practitioners. These two points make kata invaluable and, for that reason, should not be forgotten in the overall context of budo (martial arts) training.
 © André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto, Japan (2013).

Tuesday 17 December 2013

冬将軍 (Fuyu Shogun)

Due to the extreme cold I have changed dojo for my private/self-training. Until last week, I had been practicing at the old Aso Budojo, which is located in Miyaji. This dojo while great—due to its age—is literally like a commercial freezer. Yes, the dojo even has icicles in it!!! With the snow now falling in Aso-shi, my feet were going purple and numb from the cold… Due to this, and it finally reducing the quality of my practice, I decided to move my self-training to the new Aso-Budojo.
As added bonus is that the new Aso Budojo is located in Uchinomaki only five minutes away from our apartment in Mikubo. Clearly, this is a another advantage as Japan's winter intensifies and travel becomes a challenge.
Anyway, here are some photos from my first training at the dojo, yesterday, on December 17th. The practice to christen the dojo included jiyu-kumite “image training” with hangeki-waza (countering jodan and chudan with chudan gyaku-zuki); stationary kihon (chudan gyaku-zuki and chudan mae-geri and jodan mae-geri); ido-kihon (chudan jun-zuki, jodan jun-zuki, mae-geri and mawashi-geri); and the following four kata: Heian-shodan, Heian-nidan, Nijushiho and Unsu.
Image training: chudan hangeki

Overall, the dojo was fabulous to train in, not to mention, it was great to be able to feel my feet after practice! Best wishes and greetings from wintery Japan. Osu, André
Nijushiho kata: my new work in process... A major challenge for the coming years.
Unsu kata: Christening my new dojo
Outside the Aso Budojo in Uchinomaki, Aso-shi. December 17th, 2013.
© André Bertel, Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2013).

Sunday 8 December 2013

Jiku-ashi timing and the bigger picture

My final practice in New Zealand before returning to Japan.  From l-r: Matt Brew, me, Lyall Stone Sensei & Andrew Makin.
 Based on several emails sent to me “questioning my `pivot foot timing’, and timing in general”, I decided to simultaneously answer both questions by synthesising both of these themes/technical enquiries. I did this as they are clearly related. Enough of my small talk, on with the article and the bigger picture of "timing"…

The “timing of the pivot foot”—a fundamental point in isolation (the small picture): When turning the jiku-ashi (pivot foot) must coordinate with the turn. Whilst this is highly comprehensive, and easy to understand in text, it still requires practice of `reserving’ the pivoting action. What I mean by reserving the pivoting action is keeping the foot in place and only turning it when the rest of the body completes its tasks. Unambiguously, when done correctly this results in single harmonious waza. For example, movement 10 of Heian Shodan (the 270 degree turn with hidari gedan barai); the second half of movement 25 in Heian Yondan (the transfer from migi hiza-geri into hidari shuto-uke) etc… Of course, there are numerous such examples throughout all of the JKA kata.

A “generic methodology to improve and/or resolve timing problems” (the big picture): If timing in this, or any other regard, is problematic for you or your students—here’s a simple tip. Just remember there are “three broad categories” of timing in karate-do: firstly, `same time’; secondly, `before’; and thirdly, (and less commonly in Shotokan) `after’…Basically, if something is wrong in your timing—or not working—(irrespective of whether it’s kihon, kata or kumite) use these three categories to guide you. TRY THE TECHNIQUE, OR APPLICATION, USING ALL THREE TYPES OF TIMING’…Decisively establish “what happens?” If nothing else, this will help you to better understand your waza.
Unsu kata

For example, in Jiyu Ippon Kumite (and of course, all other forms of kumite for yudansha in dojo training), when attacking, don’t only attack with the same timing of your footwork (the orthodox way); but also try `punching then advancing’—the best `oi-komi’ way; and `advancing then punching’. Generally speaking, these variations when applying appropriately and instinctively (and at a higher level, in an ever more subtle manner, can result in one’s opponent `mistiming their defensive action’ or `beating it’…Practicing in this way, so that one instinctively applies the appropriate timing for any given situation/opponent(s) “is utterly essential”: if mastery of karate techniques is a personal objective. This is something that is often weak outside of Japan, and, where it isn’t, has been reduced to means of merely `tagging’ ones opponent: as opposed to downing them with a single blow.

Jiku-ashi: Back to the timing of pivot foot, and its timing in turns.., why are such precise and harmonious movements sought after? The answer is that “by seeking perfection of movement, of harmonious/coordinated action (in a strict form) one can effectively deviate from this form very easily. Therefore, this training results in a clear path that, whilst being “never-ending”, functions as ‘subconsciously grooved line of reference’ for `variations’. Intrinsically, this is the base of henka-waza—a big part of my karate education between 1993 to 2006. Nonetheless, this is something I certainly won’t delve into today.

Conclusion: I would like to end by saying that “only by using/training the body as coordinated unit can we learn to use the different parts of the body—independently—with great effect”. Above and beyond physical skills, otherwise known as ‘optimal performance/ability’—the outcome of our `good days’, this must be grooved into the subconscious mind/ via relentless training. Good days are not reliable! Accordingly, this can only come from conscious effort and, as just said a moment before, relentless training. Thinking about the timing of the jiku-ashi in this way helps us to see karate-waza as whole—this is something that elucidates the importance of kihon. I hope you found this little article useful. But don’t think too much about it. Rather, get down to the dojo and sweat it out. All the best from chilly Nippon, André.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2013).

Monday 2 December 2013


It has been exactly four months since we returned to Japan; moreover, today Mizuho and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary—how time flies!
I will not write anymore now, instead, I’ll leave you with these photos from my training during Koyo. As the saying goes "A picture speaks one thousand words". Best wishes from Kumamoto, André.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2013).