Japan 2010

When I travelled to Japan last fall, it was my third trip there and my first time back since 2004. Things in my life have changed since then. I now have a beautiful daughter. I’m out of my 20s and in my early 30s, and lots of training has left me with some wear and tear. I was looking forward to heading back to Japan to see old friends and train hard.

Matt with Okashita-Sensei and some of his students

October 2010 also marked the 10th year of my first encounter with Sakamoto-Sensei, when he came to Toronto to put on a demonstration. I was 23 then and his performance left a strong impression, ultimately convincing me that I had to study under him. But I didn’t imagine then that one day I would be staying at his home in Japan and learning his concepts and approach to technique.

My first few days (Oct. 15 to 20) where spent with Okashita-Sensei, north of Tokyo. We trained every day, doing ichizen (stretching and ki warm-up exercises), ritsuzen (standing Zen), Sanchin kata, Nihanchi kata and basics in the mornings. In the afternoons or evenings, we would go over other kata, bunkai and exchange ideas on technique and applications.

He also showed me his ideas on shimegoshi hip action. I attended his classes going in Kasukabe and Tsukuba. It was nice to see and train with his students again. Some of his students where children when I was there in 2004, and now they are grown up and black belts.

Sakamoto-Sensei instructs Matt on transfer of power.

Matt receiving instruction from Sakamoto-Sensei.

On Oct. 21, I flew down to Kumamoto to see Sakamoto-Sensei. The first night we went out for supper, enjoyed a few beers and talked about karate. Some of the questions sensei asked me where tough to answer. For example, what is Chito-ryu karate? What is the meaning of this technique? What does that technique teach you? And so on. Our conversation gave me a lot of insight into how he thought about karate.

He talked to me about the three dimensions of technique: the Shuri-te sideways hip action (as used in Naihanchi kata ), the Naha-te front to back to front hip action (Nieiseishi kata), and how those techniques combine to start the fist step towards real todi technique.

The next day he met me at 10 a.m. in front of the hotel. We then walked to the dojo where we would practise. His student Nishizaka-san was there waiting for us. It was good to see him again after seven years.

We started by going through the basics and all the kata. Sakamoto-Sensei said to me, “I must break you and rebuild you, changing your mind and body 180 degrees.”

We worked on Shuri-te technique first. Sakamoto-Sensei said I have to remember the feeling inside, not to worry about hitting and that my whole body has to become loose, except for the tanden. You always focus on the tanden. “Stop locking your knees,” he would say over and over. “You are like a rock. Stop being a rock. Hip back more.” This went on for quite a while and at times I would get the feeling for the technique he was teaching me. We then worked on Naha-te technique, trying again to get the feeling for it inside.Then we worked on Naihanchi kata. Again my knees would lock. Then Sakamoto-Sensei made a change in my stance and, all of a sudden, my weight felt like it was falling to floor. I could feel my root and my whole body move as one unit as I did Naihanchi, flowing from one technique to the next. Sensei said, “That’s it. That’s shimegoshi. Remember the feeling.” We then worked on rebuilding my Neiseishi kata, and that was the end of that day’s training.

Sakamoto-Sensei goes through Niseishi details with Matt.

Sakamoto-Sensei, Nishizaka-san and Matt.

The next day we went off to Mt. Aso to do some training in one of Sakamoto Sensei’s favourite spots. We worked on basics and rebuilding my Seisan kata. After that training session, he said that I must work on Naihanchi, Seisan and Niseishi every day, as these are the base of all the other kata (except for the koryu kata – these require personal feeling and interpretation). He also said that now I must work on my own karate technique, making it work for my body, and that he could not teach me anymore. He could give me advice, but I have to find the way myself, as my body and understanding are different than his.

After a hot spring bath and lunch, we went back to Sakamoto-Sensei’s house for supper, a good night sleep before the long journey back home to Canada. I was excited to return to my family again. But I was bothered a little by the fact that I have no idea how to teach what I learned, as my technique is a feeling inside and not something that I can easily explain. I’m getting over that worry now and just doing my technique, with my enjoyment and enthusiasm for karate growing stronger every time I train.

In conclusion, there are concepts you must be taught at first to have a basic understanding of karate and start out on your path. But once you find your way, the technique becomes more personal – a feeling inside your body. To make your technique personal and effective, you must find the way yourself, with advice from others along the way.

—Matt Mannerow, 4th dan, shihandai, Grey-Bruce Ryusei Karate