Karate: a personal account
Note: this was originally written to record my karate journey as an aide-memoir for my own amusement. It later became part of my early home page and has stayed up ever since.
I first went to a karate class in about 1978 at the Red Cross Hall in East Grinstead with my father and brother. It was run by Sensei Peter Zimmatore. While a couple of black belts and some kyu grades did kata at one end of the hall (though I didn't know what kata were then) we were shown front stance and lunge punch, and told to punch the cupboards at the back of the hall. We were also given a word list. My brother and I wore karate do-gi that Dad bought at a jumble sale that morning (the top of mine was from a judo gi). I can't remember how many lessons we actually attended, but it wasn't many.
In January 1985, when I was 15, I started karate at the dojo of Sensei Brian Whitehouse, who ran a small club at the Parish Hall in East Grinstead. My brother and two of his school friends came too, and for about half an hour we were too nervous to enter, but we were shuffling around so much that Brian heard us and invited us in. We insisted that we'd just watch, but he soon had us doing the basic stances, blocks, punches - and even going as far as back kicks (just to keep us interested). We ran home, excited at the new journey we were beginning, jumping and practicing the back kicks we'd been taught.
Brian, an ex- student of Sensei Ron Silverthorne, would probably be the first to admit he wasn't the most technically perfect karateka around, but he instilled tremendous spirit in his students, and gave a very good grounding in the concepts of traditional karate. His lessons were always hard work, nearly every student dripping with sweat for the full two hours. Each move was carried with full intention - attractive technique came second. To augment our training at the dojo, my brother and I, along with a couple of other friends, started training at home on a Saturday, with Funakoshi's Karate-do Kyohan and Nakayama's Best Karate series constantly at our side to help polish our technique.
Sessions under Brian consisted of lots of basics, up and and down the dojo. Combinations were rarely more than two moves. We did a little kihon kumite, but free sparring was the order of the day - bouts of sometimes up to ten minutes long. If Brian thought things were getting a little predictable he'd use the code-word "tiger" and we'd have to step things up a bit! As for kata, there was nothing outside of the core fifteen, and I don't think we knew more than eleven. It was a very traditional kihon, kata and kumite club, but it was good stuff.
In November 1985, and a 6th kyu, I went to live in California with my father for a year. One of my priorities was to find a good karate club, and if possible to learn from a Japanese teacher (Brian had written a letter that I was to give to my new sensei, saying I was his "best student" and that I was being sent to bring back new karate knowledge to the club. I was pretty embarrassed at this description of me and I kept the letter to myself).
We drove across the States from New York to Florida to Los Angeles, and I visited several dojo along the way, talking with instructors of different arts, styles and beliefs. In Florida I had a very pleasant chat with an instructor who had started his martial arts training in Okinawa in 1968, and had later been a student of Bruce Lee for several years. At the JKA headquarters in LA, I missed a visit by Sensei Masatoshi Nakayama by two days.
After we settled in Glendale, I came across the dojo headquarters of the International Karate Association (IKA), headed by 8th dan Soshihan Takayuki Kubota (now Soke, a 10th dan). I signed up for 6 lessons a week! Kubota's style was Gosoku Ryu, but he was very accommodating and accepting of any style, and Shotokan fitted in very easily. Kubota, trained police and security forces, as well as Hollywood actors, and taught with an edge of realism which I'd already had instilled by Brian, so it was a nice progression.
Every evening I'd start the half hour cycle (on my little fold-up bike, occasionally I'd brave the bus) from my home in Glenoaks Boulevard to the dojo at Glendale Avenue. Lessons were 1 hour, but very hard. I learnt so much in the time I was there and Shihan Kubota remains a strong influence on my karate to this day. I wrote back to my brother often, telling him about some of the stuff I was learning. A whole new aspect of karate, several in fact, had been opened up to me.
At the IKA honbu dojo you were expected to arrive early and warm yourself up before the lesson started. I was introduced to kizami-zuki, ashi-barai and tai-sabaki, favourite techniques at the dojo. If Soshihan demonstrated a move on you, he'd show it a couple of times, then finish off with a flashingly fast continuous attack until you were backed up against the dojo wall (usually followed by a big grin). My dad and I attended a few of the dojo's social gatherings. Kubota's students came from all over the world, and at one event we had to bring a traditional dish from our country. Fish and chips wasn't really convenient, so we made a trifle instead, and stuck a Union Jack flag in the top! We also attended the 11th Annual IKA tournament where Soshihan was given an amazing 3000-year old meditation bell (this was later reported in Fighting Arts International).
After almost every lesson I'd go across the street to the 7-11 and buy a Dr Pepper Super Gulp! If my dad was picking me up and he was late (nearly always), Soshihan would wait outside the dojo with me - concerned that I'd be cold or waiting too long. He even lent me a blanket from the boot of his car once, as he had to dash off... rather embarrassing, but what a fine person he was, as well as a true master of karate.
When I returned to England I went back to Sensei Whitehouse's club, often staying for two evening classes and doing the four hour session twice a week, and then also at his new Saturday morning class, which usually had just four of us training (he had several dojo and I attended them all - in East Grinstead and Crawley Down). His club was now under the tutelage of London's Sensei Mike Springer (5th dan) of the Ashanti Karate Kai. Mike was fast and incredibly sharp, his seminars proving very valuable in my gradings up to 1st dan, which he took me through. On the day of my black belt test I had just got back to England that morning from three days in Paris, where a friend and I had spent each night sleeping rough with no money for a place to stay ... not that we got much sleep - it had been Bastille Day, and Paris was full of crackers and fireworks! I passed, though it was exhausting. As well as Heian, Tekki and Bassai, my main test kata was Hangetsu, and I became the club's first black belt.
Over the next few years I drifted in and out of Brian's club and sampled several others - including the different styles of Uechi Ryu (just for a couple of weeks) and Kyokushinkai (for a couple of months). I lived in Canterbury for a few months, and attended a friendly Shotokan club in Herne Bay. I also tried to attend the occasional open day, including an excellent one with Sensei Morio Higoanna at the Elephant and Castle Sports Centre. I'd been a great admirer of Sensei Higoanna ever since seeing the BBC series The Way of the Warrior. When I couldn't find a club I liked, or felt was right for me, I'd practice at home, often with my brother. For a while I even taught kids privately in their homes, gaining some good teaching experience (though I had been a senpai at Brian's dojo for a few years), which led to me running a small group of older students and friends for training at Gatwick. I also took up yoga, which was a wonderful compliment to karate.
Into the mid 1990s I found myself without a root club to train at and seemed unable to find somewhere to advance further. I felt ready to start working towards my nidan, and at one club, was advised to learn and practice Tekki Nidan, Sochin and Nijushiho with that goal in mind (it was 2008 before I finally got round to learning Nidan, and 2014 before I managed to learn the other two). This was at the club of Sensei Jim Snook, who ran an excellent Shotokan group in East Grinstead (Brian and Jim had been kind of rivals in East Grinstead karate - one called his club the East Grinstead Shotokan Karate Club and the other the Shotokan Karate Club of East Grinstead).
In 1995 my mother died and my training all but stopped (my mum was a friend and shiatsu student of Mark Bishop, author of the well-known Okinawan Karate - he was very supportive at that time, and did a nice write up about mum in his newsletter, The Circle. I did a few sessions of T'ai-chi with him too). I trained irregularly at home, but was also now playing bass in a band which took up a lot of my spare time.
Not long after getting married, I joined a small club in Dormansland run by an ex-student of Brian's who may have recognised me as his once former senior. I wore a white belt at first, as a courtesy, but instead of letting me put on my black belt again after a month or two, I was told I had to test for 1st kyu. I didn't feel this was anything to do with my profiency. Another gap in training was forced when I cracked a rib doing 'jumping breakfalls' - I think I'd forgotten I wasn't 18 any more. A couple more years whizzed by and I then found a club in Lingfield where again, out of respect, I wore a white belt to begin with. The message here was even more unwelcoming - I could take my test for yellow belt, and I wasn't allowed to answer any of the other students' questions about kata above Heian Sandan. I toed the line, practised the karate virtue of humbleness, and just tried to enjoy the keep-fit aspect and the friendliness of the other students, but stayed just under a year before it became a bit too demoralising ... though I did, at least, get a lot of practice at my first three Heian kata!
After another few months gap, I started training at a new club in East Grinstead, having voluntarily re-taken my shodan grading in February 2008 (just to prove - to myself mainly - that I wasn't a yellow belt after all!). In October 2009 I passed my test for nidan (doing the kata Empi), and in late 2015 I attained sandan (with the kata Gankaku).
The focus of my interest with karate is kata and its application, and karate history (vital for understanding modern kata). I have a fondness for Gichin Funakoshi's pre-Shotokan karate and early Shotokan (Yoshitaka Funakoshi and the beginnings of the JKA), despite it moving away, to some degree, from its roots (whatever 'roots' are - no style is truly static, at any point in history). I like both the Okinawan 'te' aspect and the Japanese 'budo' aspect.
I have no interest in sport or performance karate and I have little interest in "real" fighting, even though that is an equally legitimate route (though I do like my kata applications to be pragmatic, if possible). I practise karate as one might practise kendo - a martial art for self improvement and fitness, not because I believe I need to be ready to fight someone on the street (though I hope I might have at least a slight advantage in that area - I also hope and intend to never find out).
I don't believe one martial art or style is better than another, and I don't believe one interpretation is better than another - it's all down to the individual. In the end nearly all martial arts are the same. You can find nearly everything in the Shotokan kata - but it's knowing what to look for and how to interpret it that's the hard bit. There is no doubt that taking up karate at an influential age changed my life enormously for the better and has contributed to the person I am today. I still have so much to learn - I've hardly begun to crack the shell of what karate really is.