Touching History - A Weekend with Abe Sensei
Of the legends in Shotokan, Keigo Abe has to be one of the greatest. On the 27th of October, Shaun and I for the first time had the opportunity to train with the teacher of teachers.
In the history of Shotokan karate, there are certain names that stand out from the rest. These people are revolutionary, and made a crucial stamp on the world of Karate. With his traditional approach, Abe Sensei places the greatest of emphasis on perfecting one’s fundaments, and this day of great training turned out to be an important look into the truest tradition of Shotokan.
When it comes to karate, Shaun and I seem to be blessed. We were lucky enough to be invited to a class with Abe Sensei at Ashford dojo the Friday night before the course. This was fantastic. To be offered the chance to train with an instructor like Abe Sensei at dojo level is both incredible and rare - a chance we very nearly missed due to underestimating the M25! The class was intimate, and this meant we not only got a feel for Abe Sensei's karate, but also of Abe Sensei as a Karate-ka. We want to sincerely thank our friends at the Ashford dojo for letting us crash their class.
The 28th of October was also a great day of celebration, being Abe Sensei’s 68th Birthday, and instead of taking a day off and putting his feet up (as most 68 years olds do and rightly so) Abe Sensei taught with great enthusiasm and depth of knowledge; keeping us younguns going till we felt like we would drop.
Abe Sensei’s teaching for the kihon section of the day was primarily focused on the stepping action of zenkutsu-dachi, stressing the need to speed up the A-B section of the A-B-C sequence that your legs travel (A) The beginning of a stance (B) When your rear leg pulls to meet your front leg (C) Being the completion of the stance. Maximising speed on the B-C section is far easier because you’ve already got the momentum and weight moving forward. The A-B section is far harder however as this is the phase where you start to move the body forward. This Abe Sensei said was the most important section to focus on.
Sensei also highlighted the need when punching in oi-tsuki to make the arms and legs work in unison. As he demonstrated, if you step, but punch too late, even a fraction too late, then this will render the technique ill-effective as the opponent will be able to defend. Moving the legs and arms simultaneously though makes for a much more effective technique.
Throughout the class, Sensei worked with us. As we punched, he also practiced, and this inspired us to no end. Despite age and its natural implications - and in Sensei's case, a very recent 8-hour operation, Abe Sensei remains strong, and his karate effective. This just goes to show what a strong, resiliant and determined character he really is.
The kata session dealt with the Heian Kata, and with great detail, Sensei informed us of the traditional way to perform certain techniques. While practicing Heian Shodan, he gave us an exercise that built upon the fundamentals of the first class. Sensei said that after every technique of your kata, your body should be in a position to kick mae-geri. By this he was conveying that you should have accurate balance and posture, good enough that a mae-geri can be performed immediately. This seemed a rather simple idea…until we started to practice it. This was exhausting, and as Abe Sensei demanded the fullest commitment, we worked to train as hard as we could. This was great mental training also, as Abe Sensei must have had us perform Heian Shodan – mae-geri style at least five times. Tough stuff, but a great exercise that works (teachers all reaching for a notepad).
Throughout our study of kata under this Master, we were given a rare insight into the original form of these fundamental kata. As I mentioned earlier, Abe Sensei is renown for teaching Shotokan as Master Nakayama once taught and this gave us a very interesting insight into the heritage of Traditional Shotokan Kata. Abe Sensei was also open and willing to answer our questions about Nakayama’s teachings and methods.
Interspersed throughout the kata session, Abe Sensei instructed us on the greater, finer details that should be considered when performing kata, and reminded us to keep the fundamental principles from the first class in our study of kata. With the great assistance of Ruben Cernuda (JSKA Chief Instructor of Spain), Abe Sensei performed his famous lifting throw from Heian Godan. This left us all lost for words, and inspired to our core.
This day of karate was a great one, and the very presence of this absolute genius made us all feel in total awe and excitement. As I entered the dojo, ready to train, I heard a young woman, a beginner, turn to her friend, a black belt and asked quite shyly ‘Is he here?’ At this point he wasn’t, but when he did indeed walk through those doors the atmosphere changed and a very powerful sense of admiration filled the room. When he began to teach, everyone tuned in, and to his demands everyone followed. After watching him teach, I can fully see why he is regarded as the legend that he is, and the principles he taught I will endeavour to incorporate into my own training.
The day ended with a wonderful after course party, attended by many who had trained in the day. This was a wonderful way to conclude a fantastic day of karate, and as we all got quite merry sipping shandy, we soothed our aches away.
I’d just like to say a big thank you to Steve Harrison for organising the event and making us so very welcome. It was a day to cherish, one that will always be firmly in our minds, and also a big thank you to Yoshiko for being such a willing translator, without whom Shaun and I would have spent a fantastic - but silent - hour with Abe Sensei!