Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Apologies for not posting so much recently as we have been busy trying to sort out things for the future and we have been practicing Nijushiho and Gojushiho-Dai. I would like to write up a technical report on this later, but frankly at shodan I am not competent to comment on either of these kata really. I can write up how Ibusuki Sensei teaches them, but I am sure this will cause trouble!
Also we are very excited about Oleg Larionov (online name is Oleg Takumi)* who is coming on Sunday to film Ibusuki Sensei for posterity. Yuko and I have maintained a great friendship with Oleg over the years and we were very complemented that he wanted to interview Ibusuki Sensei for the record. As one of or the only (I can't verify this, so I won't stick my neck out) student of Funakoshi Sensei still teaching Karate, this man, we think, is an living piece of Karate history.
OK this blog is going to be in two parts. In this Part I: Sticking Your Neck Out... I will stick my neck out and relay some of Ibusuki's commentary on Karate. In Part II: Not Sticking Your Neck Out, I will talk about a simple revelation I had that is really helping me recover my form. But I'm so thick, and it's so obvious, you've probably guessed what it is anyway.
So this entry is all about sticking your neck out, and the next one is about doing the opposite. And what the hell, eh? When I see moronic statements like "Today I saw true oi-zuki." think these people need to get out more often!
Returning to Ibusuki Sensei, his opinions on Karate are bound to stir the pot and I am sure that there are many who won't welcome his perspective. Harry must be laughing his way all through the miserable northern winter though ;-).
In a nutshell Ibusuki Sensei feels that the JKA really destroyed Funakoshi Sensei's Shotokan Karate when it introduced competition.
Don't misunderstand, Ibusuki Sensei was personally retaught the Nakayama Sensei "instant orthodox" Kata and personally great respected Nakayama Sensei. But it ain't what Ibusuki Sensei learned!
However, Shotokan needed a brand, and identity, and standardization, so Nakayama Sensei basically stuffed what was a very different Shotokan into a rigid Japanese box.
Deforming Kata to fit Nakayama Sensei's ideas of what Japanese orthodox Karate should be, including the nonsense of having to end up in the same place is fine as a training tool for Ibusuki Sensei.
But he believes that much modern Karate is a very deformed and stunted version of the original art; that Shotokan Karate is really a different beast. In fact, Ibusuki Sensei finds modern Karate ridiculously oversimplified.
- The cult of oi-zuki and maegeri as ippon attacks. Karate is a fluid art, with many different attacks from different angles
- The cult of ichigeki-hisatsu: this is particularly wrong because keeping at multiple techniques was of primary importance. Without strong ippon waza, Karate is ineffective. However it is a distortion to teach the idea of ichigeki-hisatsu in a modern context. In fact, when it comes to using Karate in a modern context, technique should be mastered so as to cause the minimum effective damage.
- The cult of extreme hanmi and shomen that was introduced as a training tool by the JKA, but has been turned into some cult-like fetish that totally alien to original Karate...
...I myself have seen a picture of a supposedly perfect deep oi-zuki with hips NOT in shomen, that is advertised by some as a "true" oi-zuki. What is this, North Korea or something?!
But some of these are straw men easy to shoot down out of context, so I'll try to explain in more detail in a different post.
To escape from the rigid ideas of younger Japanese....this is why Ibusuki Sensei was so happy to see Andre Bertel Sensei back earlier this year. Ibusuki Sensei considered Asai Sensei as the most talented and innovative Karateka of his generation, and probably of post-War Shotokan. He said to me last week:
"I was very disappointed by the differences that emerged in Asai Sensei's JKA. Frankly, most people thought that Mr. Matsuno's JKA would win, because all the really talented Karateka were with Asai Sensei, while the other side were very good, but lacked that genius element."
So when Andre Bertel Sensei started running around showing Asai Sensei's techniques, it was like a breath of fresh air for Ibusuki Sensei (and certainly for Yuko and I).
OK, I have to get back to work, so the next installment will be a very different kind of beast...soemthing like a tortoise, I predict.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
We were very privileged to have a guest in the rather vertical form of David Kremin Sensei from Philadelphia, comes to Japan each year with his family to spend time...with his Japanese family. I am very honored to have another "guest" article from Andre Bertel Sensei on a wonderful new addition my Karate life, a certain Kata called Nijushiho...
OK, first of all to the first half last Sunday's morning session:
Because Kremin Sensei comes from a "non-traditional" background, in that he is an accomplished Tang Soo Do Shidoin and champion as well as an excellent Karate teacher, he has all sorts of insights into Karate from his Shotokan Sensei, primarily but certainly not exclusively, Okasaki Sensei. So it was a great pleasure for us to have him train on Sunday in Ibusuki Sensei's class. It was also a good opportunity to sweat some of the beer, ramen and french fries consumed in disparate bars, restaurants and hostelries in Tokyo and Yokohama visited by us over several days!
The Holy Trinity
Today's practice introduced something new: dealing with people who grab you from behind
a) rear empi, driving elbow back
b) rear empi, spin uraken
c) rear empi, spin uraken, gedan kick to the knee
In Kihon, one of Ibusuki Sensei's favorite moves is sonoba maegeri, yokogeri and ushiro-geri. But how to deal with someone grabbing you from behind. First of all a reality check- having been bottled from behind and severely beaten by baseball bats with the first blow I couldn't stop being from behind, I am acutely paranoid about people getting behind me. Apart from rear headbutting and heel smash on ankle, Ibusuki's Sensei's empi, uraken and gedan kick is a way to go. The first thing is that the empi is really about smashing back, don't use your elbow to poke in the ribs, smash and twist like you are berserk. The rear shove and attack should work as a loosener, then you smash head and knee. Ibusuki Sensei believes that in any attack you should have at least three attacks lined up to discourage your opponent along the idea of if the first and second don't get him, the third will. We didn't ask him about a fourth.
In any case, Ibusuki Sensei believes, and we all know this really, that ippon waza is nice if you can do it, and we all strive for that, but you'd better have plenty in the tank. To me it all comes back to jab, cross and hook. I love it when you see Kyokushinkai derivatives that...have reverted to ....boxing. Nothing wrong with that, but...! Hum!
In any case, Ibusuki Sensei calls this "three pronged" approach The Holy Trinity of Karate. He actually started laughing as he said that. Halleluja, Gloria in Excelis Dojo.
The great and highly pleasant surprise of the lesson was suddenly we did Nijushio, in stages, then gorei then individual with corrections. It was great! We were supposed to finish of the Heian Kata, but Ibusuki Sensei decided that we would do something to welcome David Sensei.
a) In the JKA in Nakayama Sensei's time, Nijushio was considered kata to be taught and perfected at 3rd and 4th dan and not really before
b) It looks easy but actually is highly subtle, requiring tremendous merihari (contrast) in speed and power
c) Other people might have different opinions, but Ibusuki Sensei said that he felt the most important points about this Kata where the rapid directional applications and shifts, in particular combination with naname waza.
d) Ibusuki Sensei always makes a point about who he thinks is a role model for kata and said that in his opinion the person who had really mastered it was Asai Tetushiko. For Unsu or Bassai Dai, sure, YS. For Kanku Dai, IS, but for Nijushiho, without a doubt he said it was Asai Sensei.
Of course, if you love Asai-Ryu Shotokan like we do, naname hoko is a joy- particularly in Kakuyoku Nidan- oh I do love that sequence. If only I could do the whole kata properly. Actually Andre Bertel has a clip from one of his renditions of Kakuyoku Nidan. Just that sequence brings a smile to my face!
The biggest technical point out of the session that came out of it was that in the Nijushiho taught by Nakayama Sensei you do not kick jodan. Your leg should be parallel with the floor at the point of kime. In Ibusuki Sensei's opinon, people who kick jodan are not only showing off, but making a nonsense of the kata, because the point is the lightening speed and brutality with which you switch directions and attacks in this but compact and ridiculously beautiful "dance."
So we went home and consulted the Asai Sensei video on this. (When I say the video, I don't mean this version, which is wonderful, I mean from the series Asai Sensei produced later featuring Amos and Yamaguchi Sensei assisting when he was Chief Instructor of the Matsuno JKA).
Having now "practiced" Nijushiho I am in total awe of what I saw. We were both struck by just how magnificent Asai Sensei's rendition is. Yuko isn't really one for showing amazement, but even she said "Wow!" Sure, I am almost certain that there are purists who could maybe achieve more crispness on individual moves. It's like this for me; hell, I am sure there are people who could make Heien Sandan look somehow better than YS. However, when you see YS do H.3 in the JKA videos, you are left in now doubt that YS version has megaton yield. And that chimpira hair bouncing up and down. Quite a performance.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand: When I saw Asai Sensei's version, after about ten years, I realized the elements of power transition and spin and fluid motion were just...out of this world. They took my breath away. After watching Asai Sensei's Nijushiho, I felt I really understood why they called him "the storm."
So I asked Andre Bertel Sensei about this and this is the reply I got:
"Asai Sensei’s explanation of Nijushiho:
According to my late karate teacher Tetsuhiko Asai the name Nijushiho is in reference to the 34 hidden and lethal applications within this kata. Of course the name Nijushiho literally translates as 24 steps… So this initially may seem rather unusual. Sensei admonished that traditionally there were 24 clean transitions in the original Nijushiho, which is still known as Niseishi on Okinawa (and by various other ryuha such as Shito-ryu and Wado-ryu, here is a Wado-ryu version), hence the name.
And yes it is extremely advanced, and just like all of the other jiyu-gata, is usually far beyond the ability of those performing them, especially when considering the respective oyo/bunkai-jutsu. As Asai Sensei said “this is no problem if kata is merely for sports karate, as performance is all that matters, and therefore, kata are merely considered more advance, by their outward form. However, this runs in stark contrast to the JKA, which emphasizes form for optimal function.” Returning specifically to Nijushiho, Asai Sensei stated at the 1994 Gasshuku (in Gifu, Japan) “If Nijushiho is performed heavily, why not do Jitte or Sochin?” What he was emphasising in this case was `the loss of character amongst the kata’.
Asai Sensei AKA Nijushiho:
Asai Sensei truly loved Nijushiho, and as you will well know, it was the Shotokan-ryu kata he was most famous for. His heart, mind and spirit were immersed in Nijushiho, and when he performed it, "HE WAS NIJUSHIHO. "According to Mrs. Keiko Asai, Nakayama Sensei said just prior to his death “Mr. Asai is the only one who can execute Nijushiho properly”. The Nijushiho in Nakayama Sensei’s `Best Karate Volume 10’ is reflective of this.
My socho-geiko experiences of Nijushiho with Asai Sensei: During socho-geiko (morning practice), and when I assisted him in seminars, he never once failed to blow my mind with his performance of this kata.., and I can’t overemphasize the danger when he applied its actual oyo-jutsu. Often he would request free attacks and then `reactively’ apply the kata on me. If I did not attack hard enough or in a predictable manner he would get impatient and really `educate’ me. So I always tried to attack him with all of my energy. Even so, because of Asai Sensei’s extreme level, he sometimes thought I was holding back, and I’d cop it anyway! This was the case even less than a year before he passed away at 70 years old!
Spellbound by a legend: Anyway, performance-wise, seeing videos of him performing Nijushiho is mind blowing enough (if you comprehend authentic traditional Japanese karate), but everyone who saw Sensei perform Nijushiho right there front of them in person, just stood there gaping in awe… Totally stunned... In Tokyo I’ve seen today’s most senior instructors spellbound by Asai Sensei’s Nijushiho such as Mikio Yahara Sensei, Masao Kagawa Sensei, Akihito Isaka Sensei, Toru Yamaguchi Sensei and others.
Technically speaking Asai Sensei emphasised the importance of `action-integration’ and continuous flow of varying forms of power. Initially this was from Nijushiho and then later permeated throughout his karate-do. This fluidity and smoothness, as opposed to stiff, heavy and robotic movements were heavily influenced by his exposure to White Crane Chinese Boxing. Sensei primarily employed this art to return his technique to pre-competition `martial art karate’ as opposed to what he regularly referred to as "constipated motion". Another point worth mentioning here was Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei’s interest and exposure to Chinese martial arts and this cordially resulted in his full support of Asai Sensei’s way, and led to his position as JKA (Japan Karate Association) Technical Director..."
(Editors note: constipated motion ! Great! Having discovered Asai Sensei's Nijushiho, I realized that I lacked the vernacular to do credit to what I saw in the depth of the performance. I am starting to realize that Asai Tetsuhiko was loose at such a deep level that he was able to generate enormous power and vitality within his body. I perceive tremendous energy flow within his movements, which has been another tremendous discovery for me. The only other advanced Sensei I know devoted to such internal dynamics is Isaka Sensei through his slow motion training! Frankly, having seen Asai Sensei's Nijushiho, others look "stiff" both inside and outside...make sense? mmm....ok, back to Bertel Sensei...)
"...One special point that Sensei emphasized to me in Nijushiho was the lightness of his chudan yoko kekomi. I quickly discovered that his transmission of power was bone breaking… I won’t say any more… Let me just seriously emphasise `the lighter and more precise, the deeper the impact’. Another point with this technique, is that the kick can be done in three ways chudan yoko kekomi, gedan yoko kekomi (kansetsu geri) or as fumikomi. The fumikomi version alone is the original version, but the practice of the horizontal keriwaza will lead to a superior `up and driving down’ fumikomi from the hips/application of bodyweight. Ironically the yoko kekomi was added by Asai Sensei and his senpai, Okazaki Sensei. Another point was the haishu-uke or back hand block, which no one seems to do properly. A good hint I can offer to anyone is to closely study videos of Asai Sensei. After basic coordination of hands and feet note the forearm action, and the `special posture'. This is correct, not the kihon shisei. It is based on triangular power, which is a very deep subject, and can make all of the difference between a slap and a knockout!
I could go on and on about my teacher's Nijushiho all day as his execution was seamless and had such extreme technical depth. Add in the memories I have of oyo-kumite, many of which people have seen on the internet both photographically and in video, and you will begin to get a taste of Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei’s karate, which was literally spring-boarded by Nijushiho in the late 1950’s. There is much more to this story, and whilst I’ll always practice Nijushiho, when I do so I feel a great wave of total inferiority. From Sensei’s personal words to me on this kata, my direct study under him, having to attack him for application training, and just seeing him perform this kata.. I will never be able to call it my own based on this literally untouchable technical level, but will always be inspired by it."
--- So there you have it folks. For me, as a shodan, this Kata was revelatory of a whole new vista of Karate that I can now dimly perceive, but will I ever be able to appreciate this Kata. YS commonly says that to master the "simplest" technique, a Karateka must initially practice it 10,000 times. I figure at age 43, I might get round to completing my basic training for a nidan in the next ten years, which leaves me in my 50s to spend a decade trying to get to grips with Karate like this.
I would like to give my profound thanks to Andre for taking his very valuable time to provide those insights into not only Nijushiho but Asai Sensei's philosophy on this intriguing and impossibly beautiful Kata.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Hanmi and Gendan Barai: Co-authored with Andre Bertel Sensei
Had a long conversation with Andre Bertel Sensei on Sunday about quite a few things, and as usual I learned so much it made my hair stand on end. Well, I happen to be bouzu at the moment... but let's not get lost in ironic translation, shall we?
Anyway one of the many interesting things that came up was the difference in ideas behind hanmi; specifically the importance and role of hanmi. Now I am not taking sides here, as there are no sides- only different and highly relevant perspectives on this technique. The point is, if you are going to execute a technique, make sure you do it properly.
So let's explore this- to Hanmi or to Shomen - Jun Kaiten vs Gyaku Kaiten
...or as you might say, Lets Twist Again...
The origin of this entry is in the Heian Shodan that Ibusuki Sensei says is the original Heian Shodan he was taught, back in the late 1940s, which had no hanmi. Ibusuki Sensei has quite an opinion on Shotokan hanmi as he sees it as something that was introduced by Nakayama Sensei and the JKA as a muscle and hip strengthening exercise.
What is clear is that rigid rules, and some would argue, some very rigid stylistic channels and mindsets were introduced in the JKA, whereas before things were literally and metaphorically more fluid and dynamic and, let's face it, less dogmatic before the 1950s. Of course they didn't make it up as they went along...
No Hami - Ibusuki: Practical Grab and Smash
So in Ibusuki Sensei's Karate, Heian Shodan has no hanmi, so it seems half way to Taikyoku Shodan. The reason for the lack of hanmi is the basic idea that there is no block in Shotokan- the block is an offensive weapon that should be able to stop your opponent, or be part of an immediate attack. In H.1 there is no block, you basically try to get inside your opponent as quickly as possible, preferably grabbling the leg and smashing through with a punch, headbut, elbow smash, whatever the distance, timing, dynamics call for. This means that you don't block with a hanmi and then counterattack, but that you go at your opponent straight in so you defend with one hand and attack with the other simultaneously.
Of course, this makes perfect sense: the hanmi gedan barai, gyaku-zuki combination, are you really going to use this in a fight? Ji-yu ippon kumite, for sure or perhaps ji-yu kumite, because the other person is doing Shotokan Karate with its well-known patterns of attack.
Extreme Hanmi - Yahara: Twist and Smash
On the other hand this idea of no hanmi Heian Shodan is total opposite of KWF Heian Shodan, in which extreme hanmi, to the point where the rear hip is lower than the front, with compression on the back leg, is paramount. In Yahara Karate, the oi-zuki is supposed to be the blow that knocks your opponent down and you want to generate power through compression in hanmi to do this. In fact basic KWF yudansha ido kihon is based on the principle of maximum and extreme holding of hanmi to the last possible instant before unleashing an oi-zuki. It's built into Isaka Sensei's slow training and built into ido kihon.
Taking this idea to the KWF limit, you'll often see in the black belt class kihon going right back to what you should have been taught as a white belt, correct movement through the hips. So in the KWF you will move forward in extreme hanmi until the last possible moment before the oi-zuki making sure you are putting your full body mass and power behind the punch.
No arguments with that, right. And Ibusuki Sensei doesn't believe it's "wrong" at all- he loves Yahara Karate because it's so damn fine!
But for Ibusuki Sensei, this is just YS "brand" to suit his own philosophy. And you have to look at things from different angles: what are the downsides?
Well certainly one potential disadvantage is the time wasted with the extreme chambering could have been used to rip your opponent up; you could say, don't waste time; if he gets his leg anywhere near you bundle him off balance by smashing into him as quickly as possible.
And for those of you who are like me, only slighty above feeble and all techniques are hanpa, the Ibusuki Way makes perfect sense. I haven't got the speed. I'd be an idiot to block a leg with an arm. I should get out of the way, tai-sabaki, grab the offending limb, and get inside anyway.
On the other hand YS extreme hanmi also makes sense to me. The decisiveness of the hanmi means that you have huge amounts of energy to quickly attack your opponent, and the power generated through the hips makes the block all that stronger.
Twist and Shout: Hip Vibration
One of the first things I was taught by Richard Amos Sensei was to always flick the hips away driving down and back when blocking with gedan barai. This is supposed to make the block stronger. This so-called double hip movement or hip vibration was built into nearly every move: for example sonoba chudan-tsuki would have us wiggling our hips like itchy snakes.
So this is where I hand over to Andre Bertel Sensei to get a professional opinion, and make some sense of it all: This is what he wrote:
"My late teacher Asai Tetsuhiko interchangeably utilised jun-kaiten and gyaku kaiten for all of his techniques. This brightly highlights a key fundamental difference between Asai–ha Shotokan-ryu and majority of other Shotokan methodologies in the karate world. Quite simply he did not believe in the unalterable gospel of form that is typically enforced by many organisations. What I am trying to convey here is that he didn’t have a `set in concrete method’, but rather used the method, which was best, at any given time.
For example sometimes Sensei would perform the gedan barai in Heian-shodan employing a `to the limit hanmi’ yet other times he would wind up in the opposite direction and rotate towards the technique finishing in shomen. Another method he employed and can be nicely illustrated is in the first movement of Heian-sandan and Heian-godan (hidari chudan uchi-uke). This double hip action is sometimes referred to as hip vibration as it is a coordinated combination of jun-kaiten and gyaku-kaiten.
Asking Asai Sensei about such differences in basic hip rotation and he explained to me that everything depends on the target of practice or the situation. He explained to me that (Please note I have paraphrased these):
(a) ==> Gyaku kaiten into hanmi is superior for halving yourself as a target, and countering most powerfully with the hikite;
(b) ==> Jun kaiten into shomen is strongest and faster for immediately going in and attacking;
(c) Hip vibration allows for a stronger defensive measure than just a standard hanmi but is not as fleeting. However it does permit the maximum counterattack from the hikite which is perfectly equal with hanmi and although not previously mentioned, the gyaku-hanmi, which naturally torques the body for lead hand/arm techniques and hiza-geri or mae-geri with the rear leg (for example Heian-nidan, Kanku-sho etc.)
I cannot emphasise enough that Asai Sensei stressed physical understanding of karate, and decisive adaptability, which he claimed is necessary for reliable self-defense. Therefore, how Sensei executed his techniques in kihon and kata, at any given moment, would depend on what he was working on. And in kumite, it would depend on how his opponents attacked, and how he reactively responded in accordance to the situation. Much of this of course depends on ma. What I personally learned from this was how restricted one is, if they cannot use their hips in all ways, because each way has its advantages and shortcomings."
The message is clear- Karate is not a broken record: it's poetry in motion- and you author the script to fit the audience.
The only thing is, keep your Kihon King- if you are not bothered, there is always Kyokushinkai or kickboxing and MMA.