EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
In this issue we have a really charming interview with Sensei Koichi Sugimura based in Switzerland. We have not heard too much about this JKA sensei over the years which to me is admirable. He has maintained a low profile existence, yet he is so highly regarded and respected in his adopted country, Switzerland. In this day and age of self-promotion and the abundance of social media attention- seekers in the martial arts, I find this interview refreshing, almost innocent.
There are two separate articles in this edition of the magazine focusing on one of Shotokan’s most controversial subjects, namely our so-called, Kime. There are so many varying views and opinions on this subject and as you will see, my ideas are somewhat different from Kamil Kroczewski’s, although there are similarities. Kamil’s article is a chapter from his excellent book, ‘Karate Reinventing The Technique’, available on Amazon.
It was originally Nakayama sensei and Nishiyama sensei who first coined this expression and introduced this concept into their early books. We know for sure that the verb Kimeru means – to decide, and Kime is the noun taken from the verb. The differences lie in how we all interpret and feel about this idea. As we, ‘Shotokan Karate’ are the only karate style who advocate this concept, it’s important to give it the respect it deserves regardless of which side of the fence you sit – whether you believe in it – or not. If you have a JKA background then ‘kime’ will be a word you have heard in the dojo a million times.
It’s not easy these days for Traditional Shotokan Karate clubs/dojos, or in fact any traditional style, e.g. Goju Ryu, Shito Ryu, Uchi Ryu etc, to survive when they are surrounded by out and out commercial martial arts venues and so-called MA instructors! I have to say, there are some very dubious characters claiming all kinds of bogus martial arts Kudos. Just read Bill Viola’s tongue in cheek article, (yet with serious overtones), to understand this problem, especially in the USA. However, we ‘Shotokan’ are still strong, and will continue to be for many years to come.
Steve Ubl based in California is an American Shotokan sensei held in very high regard. I’ve been trying to get an interview with him for over 20 years but he’s a very private person and takes a low profile in the karate world. A big thanks to Scott Langley, Simon Bligh and friends for the report. SKM’s Clare Worth who has trained with Steve Ubl told me that he was, in her opinion, ‘in a league of his own’. I’ve never trained with Steve Ubl but I plan to rectify that one day. I’ve watched him many times on video and to me he epitomizes the concept of moving and operating from the centre/core/hara, the subtle art that takes the step–up in karate development after natural youthful athleticism declines.
American Shotokan pioneer Sensei Robert Fusaro 9th dan, who featured in an in-depth interview in SKM Issue 88 (July 2006) sadly passed away in July at age 86. A student of Nishiyama sensei, he ran the Midwest Karate Association in Minneapolis, MN. A truly great teacher.
Good health, good training. Editor.
TRAINING WITH STEVE UBL SENSEI: A KARATE ADVENTURE. By Scott Langley, Alexander Best, Pallavi Mittal and Simon Bligh.
So in our Karate lives many of us try and do everything, get to every class, every course, seize every opportunity. But sometimes you just can’t. So it was that I couldn’t get to this years latest HDKI trip. A weekend training in San Diego with Steve Ubl Sensei. I was disappointed as I know how fantastic he is.
I’d been on two courses previously and been highly impressed. First impressions are mixed, but as soon as you face him, and are “touched”..... you are converted. Then when he casually mentions, “Oh the missing final moves of Chinte, according to Nakayama Sensei, are these”.... I realised he is something special. I asked my friends to write their thoughts from the trip. Below are their impressions and a few comments from me.
Steve Sensei started karate in 1967 in Minnesota studying Tang Soo Do (a Korean version of Shotokan, sharing the same kata). He went to Japan in 1972 and was the first student to live in the Hoitsugan dojo.
Scott Langley sensei continues the story and his account of the trip....
“For the next 5 years Steve Ubl Sensei became a regular at the famous dojo, experiencing countless hours of private tuition from the JKA Chief Instructor. In 1977 he returned from Japan for the final time and spent the next few years completing Nishiyama Sensei’s JKA Instructors course, the only graduate to have done so full time. In the 1980s, a variety of factors led him away from the mainstream karate community, to a place where he could reflect on the copious notes that he had taken whilst in Japan. The subsequent 2 decades of research, self-training and intensive challenging of karate principles helped evolve Steve Sensei into what I believe to be one of the best karate-ka alive today. For this reason, ten karate-ka made the long journey to the west coast of the USA to train with this truly humble man.
Five of us from Europe and five from the States, ranging from hachidan to sandan, arrived in San Diego with the hope that our techniques would be tweaked, our preconceptions destroyed and our minds blown by the three day seminar. We were not disappointed. But how can I explain what Steve Sensei teaches?
I first trained with him in 2007 at a course in the UK. That weekend acts as a demarcation line in my karate career. Before Steve and After Steve! Most looked on confused, maybe 90%, however a few looked on in awe acknowledging that this was something entirely different....but this doesn’t really help explain what he does!
For Steve, there is no such thing as a basic technique, only basic principles. There are no such things as positions, only motion. No such thing as form, only function. And it is this purely ergonomic, utilitarian approach to karate that makes it so artistic. He doesn’t see techniques as one or two positions that are made – the preparation of the arm, followed by the execution of the block. No, he see’s an infinite amount of possibilities that start the moment you move, and finish the moment you stop. Within this landscape of endless potential, he seems to at will connect his center to the moving limb to deliver his full potential mass at speed to the unsuspecting target... More than this, his use of angles and lines, his ability to glide through the opponent and his capacity to be in the exact spot at the exact time to maximise the effectiveness of his karate is testament to the months, years and decades of intensive training.
Awesome, especially in America, is often used to such an extent as to devalue its true meaning, however I am at a loss to find any other way to sufficiently describe Steve Sensei other than awesome – he inspires awe”.
“Words can fail us. Some feelings and some realizations can only be experienced. We can all be in awe of the phenomenon that is Steve Ubl Sensei. We can see/feel/and be on the receiving end of that efficiently moving connected technique that he executes so effortlessly (now, let’s be cognizant of and appreciate ALL the effort that has transpired to eventually make it effortless.)”
Reading these thoughts reminds me of accounts of great Tai Chi masters and tales of Chi and effortless mastery. Far away from the standard raw power accounts of the stereo type Karate Master. (Simon)
“Day one was Sochin, I was honed-in on all the details, working on ergonomics, timing and posture......it’s difficult to transition from observing Steve sensei’s abilities to transferring that in parts into you own training. There is so much to absorb, the minutiae that is seen through his keen eyes that we are unaware of in our decades of training. Then there is a bit of disheartenment that instructors that came before didn’t notice or didn’t pay enough attention to mention to what needed to be done......I have always tried to train intelligently and made it my mission to learn about anatomy, body mechanics and learn massage. It was satisfying to hear Steve sensei talk in these terms. I have often said that, I want to be doing karate at 70 without ailments and need of surgery. Here I found a prime example of that. How he approaches karate as far as the body is concerned is very much in alignment with the evidence that is out there.
Sports science and physiology have made advances where professional athletes are playing their sports longer. My karate can continuously aspire, and not get to the level Steve sensei is at, but I am certain that if I move efficiently and maintain good ergonomics I will at least be practicing good karate when I am 70.
So back at the dojo now and I am reminded that the beauty remains in my practice. Those 1cm contractions in my abdomen, to install and maintain my center line, that drive in my kicks without slight hesitation or retreat... Steve sensei needn’t be concerned who he would leave his legacy to, because it culminates in each individual that was in his presence.”
Alexander Best, from Holland first heard about Sensei Ubl from Tom Kompier Sensei. He says...
“During my first meeting with Steve sensei, there were high grade instructors at the end of the class saying, “Where is my white belt... I’m an amateur”.
Not because they were belittled in any way, but because he was able to show all of us levels within levels we never thought possible. His unique style of teaching allows you to feel a direct link to the “old school sensei” in Japan, but also gives an understanding of much information that has been lost over the years and cannot be taught anymore in local dojo or in Japan for that matter. His depth of knowledge, eye for detail and the fact that he is a true gentleman, makes Steve Ubl a true sensei. This trip to San Diego has given me the opportunity to maintain the connection to this unique individual.”
(Simon Bligh) Other course participants told me of his training with a weighted vest, bag work and constant gripping exercises. He is a real “hidden master”, who has no desire for fame or adoration. A big part of his uniqueness is his relationship with the late Nakayama sensei. I think Nakayama sensei was able to share information with him because he was a sincere, talented foreigner. To do so with Japanese sensei would have been “difficult”.
I know for certain that one very high grade and talented instructor was told about the missing moves of Chinte and didn’t believe a foreigner could know such stuff. This hints at another area, that of very high grade talented instructors becoming stuck at their level, not wishing to be contradicted or pushed. There is a certain comfort in staying in your bubble.
All I can say is, if you get a chance, go train with Steve Ubl Sensei and stand in the front row.
“I have been a professional instructor ever since I left Japan in 2002. I travel and teach literally all over the world, trying to impart my ideas to eager enthusiasts. I am not often on the other end of that teacher/student relationship...but I wish I was. I love my job, but what a joy to be back doing karate simply for the joy of doing it.
The criticism from Steve sensei, the endless shaking of his head, the countless disconnected gyaku zuki punches didn’t devalue my level, it only elevated it. I left with a greater sense of my direction, a greater desire to improve, a greater affirmation that I was on the right path.
At the same time, I shared these experiences with similar minded friends, eating, drinking, sharing the joys of training together; literally having a gasshuku (to come together under one roof). What could be better?
When I started the HDKI, I wanted to teach good karate and be kind to people. Training with Steve Sensei helps me teach good karate. I wanted to provide opportunity. I was proud to train along side nine other senior HDKI members, having shared this chance with them. I wanted to have karate adventures. This weekend was the best karate adventure ever. And I wanted the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri to be the foundation of our group. Without a doubt we were exposed to an individual who has truly gone beyond the system.
Like all good things, the weekend came to an end. As we said our farewells, I had one last question for Steve Sensei;
“Same time next year?”
“I can’t wait.”