On the 13/14/15th March 2009, JKS Great Britain hosted the world renowned Masao Kagawa 8th Dan for a weekend open course in Nottingham, UK.
Masao Kagawa, famed for his superb kicking ability, agile movement and thoroughly precise kihon, is nothing short of a karate treasure. His Sochin has been described by many as the ideal example of Shotokan Karate – a performance of grace, power and dynamic skill.
An opportunity to train with this living treasure was one that Emma and I could not miss…so we therefore packed the car on the Friday night to travel up for the Saturday’s training; full of excitement, buzzing with energy, whilst dreading the Friday night traffic that was determined to kill our enthusiasm.
It couldn’t however, it did not succeed; we arrived half-asleep, but itching to train with this legendary karateka.
There are many trends I have found in this weird karate world within which we exist and persist with a smile and lots of excitement. One of these unfortunate trends for example is that whenever there is a day of karate, within the walls of a sports centre, community hall or private dojo, the sun makes a surprise appearance. It makes a sudden ‘hello’ in spite of the fact that it has rained every weekend prior. The first sign of a gi being pulled out of a sports bag is the instantaneous prompt for the sun to fight back the clouds and shine its glorious beams down to the vicinity. Cruelly, the gi being zipped back into the said sports bag has its own consequences…rain, rain and more damn rain. The sun was shining as we arrived for the course with Sensei Kagawa at the KK Sports Centre in Nottingham, but sarcastically had turned to speckling with rain fall by the time we arrived back at our hotel.
Another of these unfortunate trends is that a karate calendar only has a few MUST attend courses throughout the year, ‘must’ courses that Emma and I always try and attend. This exact weekend however had two of these must attend courses going on simultaneously. What a gutter when you want to attend both. Someone however was watching out for us, as thankfully they were both taking place in the same city, only a few miles apart. Therefore, we attended a day of each to be decent to ourselves and to be…well, greedy you could say.
Now I will say something here…coming from a relatively quiet and small area in South Wales, going to Nottingham can be confusing, and finding the centre was hard. The damned Sat Nav, although given a Nottingham postcode, decided it would be far more entertaining to take us to Lincolnshire.
‘WHAT?’ Emma and I both exclaimed in both shock and horror. We had allocated an hour for the fifteen minute drive there from our hotel, but our Sat Nav was on strike. No-one inside any of the garages or walking the streets had heard of the KK Sports Centre. I was starting to sweat.
We decided to travel into Nottingham and look around, despair and anxiety expressing itself through the sweat on my brow and the expletives spewing from my foul Welsh gob.
Then, after driving around and around inner Nottingham, the universe tossed us a line. I would describe it as a divine intervention of sorts considering that there was a taxi parked up in the middle of no-where, not working, just chilling. He gave us directions, just around the corner and five hundred yards ahead. My inner Sat Nav had worked, we were there.
But then we looked at the clock. We had four minutes until the beginning of the first class. We ran in, got dressed and didn’t even have time to introduce ourselves to the hosts Alan Campbell and Scott Langley. My feet grazed the dojo floor at the instant “Line up” was called. The sweat on my forehead, now the only sign that I had had an hour of sheer panic and complete despair, at this point I started to cool.
At the back of the room I stood, like everyone, trying to gain the perfect view of Sensei Kagawa. The first class looked at kihon kata and Heian Shodan. This to some extent was the model of the day, an interesting approach – using kata as the prompt to thoroughly explore the finer points of JKS Karate. This was seamless, and a great way to embed the things he wanted to teach and develop throughout the weekend.
Here he stressed the need to develop a soft movement, free of the mechanical stiffness that often presents itself. This worked hand in hand with the emphasis on the smooth snap of the hips.
As Sensei Kagawa taught, Scott Langley, a graduate of the famous JKS Instructor Programme in Japan, provided translation, and wonderfully conveyed the points being made by Sensei Kagawa. One of the most important sequences of the first class was the three age-uke and three oi-zuki sequences in Heian Shodan. Sensei Kagawa pointed out that it is an all too common trend for the 1st and 3rd movement to be clearly defined and technically accurate. The second movement however tends to be unfinished and uncommitted.
This led onto Sensei Kagawa highlighting the need to a have a sharp contraction/relaxation when delivering the techniques. In order to improve the 2nd technique of the sequence, you need to be able to commit and relax immediately. This was exquisitely demonstrated by Sensei Kagawa who moved with ease and no unneeded, excessive movement. To further develop the concept of the fast switch of contraction to relaxation, we then practiced the kata Jion, with particular attention being placed on the Age-uke – Gyaku-zuki, Age-uke – Gyaku-zuki, Age-uke – Oi-zuki sequences.
Movements within this kata were also a perfect opportunity to introduce another very important part of the JKS approach to karate – the shoulder snap. For example, Sensei pointed out that many people, when performing manjigame-uki were not using the shoulder and hip snap correctly. He therefore, during the preparation of the block, suggested drawing the shoulder forward slightly and snapping it back with the hip movement, creating a full body action.
Another point of great importance stressed by Sensei in the Jion class was the pull back to Yoi. From the final technique, we were all asked to pull back to yoi, and then he pointed to me to come to the front of the class. Numpty here was getting it wrong, making the mistake of drawing the leg in from kiba-dachi and then elevating. Sensei however pointed out that to demonstrate maximum control of the body, you must draw the leg in whilst elevating, and also turning the head from the side to the front at the correct time. Sensei worked on this with me in front of the class with his great sense of humour and beaming smile. He then shook my hand…Oh My God, I shook Masao Kagawa’s hand! Ha ha, what a geek I am.
Through these kata during the first session, we were all given a great insight into what the rest of the weekend would hold.
Following the first session, I was able to go with Sensei Kagawa, Scott Langley and Alan Campbell to a private area, where we conducted the first part of an exclusive interview with him. Again, his superb sense of humour made this an enjoyable experience, and Scott Langley wonderfully translated the interview and made it an enjoyable opportunity for me to gain a greater insight not only into Sensei Kagawa’s life, but also his personality. This interview will be coming to TSW very soon.
The second session of the day furthered our insight into the magic of JKS Karate when we practiced the kata ‘Kakayoku Shodan’ – a kata developed by T.Asai, Chief Instructor of the JKS prior to his passing.
Sensei Asai was a karateka who made some of the most significant developments to Shotokan karate, with the JKS being the space that facilitated its further development and far-reaching spread throughout the world. This was not the first time I had practiced a kata developed by Asai Sensei, in fact I practiced a kata called ‘Senka’ with Richard Amos a little while ago, but I am to no extent a seasoned karateka in such kata, something I hope to change in time. This kata was taught, with JKS Instructors scattered throughout the room for us newbies to follow. Thankfully, for the majority of the class I had Scott Langley in front of me, so I had a reference for every technique to ensure I wasn’t going too far wrong. I still went wrong over and over and over again however.
I loved it; this kata is superb; complex but exhilarating.
This session was followed by a very short class with Scott Langley who spoke about the variety of different ways that the hips are used when punching. He wanted us to develop not only rotational power, as stressed so fervently in Shotokan, but to also develop a lift. This fast-paced lesson in many ways perfectly prepared us all for the next class.
The next class, after lunch, was based around Sanbon Kumite. The points developed in the first two sessions led perfectly onto putting techniques against an opponent. This is where Sensei started to demonstrate what he is most famous for…his kicks.
‘BOY oh Boy’ is he supple. His kicks were so relaxed, easy – in appearance but not so easy when we all did them – and fluid. In between physical practice ourselves, Sensei would call us around and people at the front were kind enough to sit for us at the back to see. We were using our camera on fast rapid shot mode – where it takes 12 pictures in sequence. We missed the kick!
One of my favourite sequences from this class seems like a relatively simple one when written down on paper, but in actual fact, when performed in the way he required it, was terribly difficult. He of course made it look simple, leaving us all loose-jawed.
The partner sequence was:
Step forward Jodan Oi-zuki
Step backward Age-uke
Step forward Jodan Oi-zuki
Step backward Age-uke
Step forward Jodan Oi-zuki
Step backward Age-uke
He wanted emphasis on the hips and their sharp use. The above sequence I believe is one of the sequences Sensei Kagawa uses when coaching the JKF team – You know the ones, the Champions!
Scott Langley gave the great explanation as to how kime should be used in sequences. Sensei wanted us all to move away from the mechanical, stilted, wooden karate and instead get the perfectly relaxed movement. Scott Langley used the analogy of a plate spinner to illustrate how kime works in sequences. He explained that a plate spinner, when a plate is in motion will use one smooth jolt of kime to keep the plate moving smoothly. He wanted us to move away from the frantic, excessive lock of the muscles, for as he pointed out, if a plate spinner did such a thing the plate would spin off the stick and smash. A perfect analogy in my opinion.
Following this session, Emma and I had our second time slot of the day to sit and interview Sensei Kagawa, another thoroughly enjoyable opportunity that I truly relished.
The final class of the day was centred around the remaining four Heian Kata – Heian Nidan, Sandan, Yondan and Godan.
The central themes of this lesson were the same as the other four classes, but again upped the expectations from the previous lesson. Intentionally or unintentionally, the classes had, in my opinion, a very prominent development where one class set you up for the next class…very much a journey.
This class again emphasised the cutting of the hips during movement, using the hips to generate the movement rather than the hips being an after thought. By putting emphasis on such a hip generated movement, the class moved far smoother and sharper. Sensei Kagawa highlighted that many of us in the class were fast during the latter part of the movement, but slow to get going. He used one gentleman from the class to develop this from the Heian Yondan morote-uke movement. Sensei had the gentleman step into kokutsu-dachi, and all Sensei did was tap his rear leg with his hand. This power of suggestion almost made him emphasise the hips and fast draw up of the rear leg. The comparison to his previous techniques was remarkable…Emma and I both looked at one another and smiled!
I loved how Sensei used the kata as the nucleus of his lessons, but not just running us through the kata. He used them as an opportunity to develop movement, something he had confirmed when we interviewed him. I thought this was a wonderful method of teaching the unique method of moving that is present in JKS Karate.
The last part of the final session was taken by Alan Campbell. This was wonderful as Emma and I both loved his teaching style. His fluidity – a great example of JKS Karate - was very inspirational and his 14 minute lesson placed emphasis on the shoulder snap as developed earlier in the day by Kagawa Sensei. He had us start by using the shoulders to accelerate the hands up to the ceiling. He advised us to avoid emphasising the hands here, and instead use the shoulders to snap the hands upward. We then did a similar exercise to accelerate the hands outward from the body to the sides. We then practiced the application of the snap in soto-uke and age-uke against a static punch. This was a great exercise!
Emma and I left feeling so inspired.
As I touched on at the very beginning of the report, Masao Kagawa is internationally renowned and respected as one of the World’s finest instructors. Training with him gave us a real insight into why he has gained such a reputation. I cannot wait to train with him again very soon!
PHOTOGRAPHY BY EMMA ROBINS & BASIL LEESHUE (Hover above each image for more details)