In April of this year (2011) I was fortunate to be able to spend a week on the Belgian coast in Knokke Heist, and whilst there I took the opportunity of contacting the local Shotokan club (Nippon Karate Knokke Heist) to enquire about some karate training. I was told I would be very welcome to turn up with gi and train – and so I did. My first evening’s training was the Tuesday “over 30” session led by Sensei Wim. I introduced myself to him before the class and was immediately introduced to all those assembled in a warm and friendly manner. The oldest in the class was over 70, but you would not have known this from his karate, which he practiced with gusto. I was a little concerned (only a little) that language might have been a problem, since I speak very little French and no Flemish at all, but it turned out that it was not a problem at all – everyone spoke very good English when needed, and of course oi tsuki is oi tsuki wherever you go.

 

The club’s dojo is a nicely lit room in a very decent sport center in Knokke Heist with a very good sprung floor. If I ever felt that an “over 30 class” (my first, by the way – a nice idea) was to be an easy class that feeling would soon be dispelled. After a good warm up and stretch, Sensei Wim took us through some basic oi tsuki and then uchi ude uke followed by gyaku tsuki combinations in kokutsu dache, stepping forward and then back. This was followed by partner work (in threes, with one in the middle) practicing using the uchi uke to block a partner’s oi tsuki and then striking the partner with a gyaku tsuki.

 

We then practiced juji uke gedan followed by juji uke jodan, continuing with tetsui then oi tsuki, first on our own and then with a partner providing attacks that we were able to block and counter. By this stage, of course, it was obvious that a particular kata was looming.

 

We finally moved on to a shuto gedan uke / gedan nukite / manje gamai combination, first individually and then again with partners.

 

Then all this was put together in Heian Godan which we practiced first slowly and then quickly. All too soon the lesson had ended, but this was not to be the end of the evening. It is a tradition for those present to head upstairs to the sport center bar after training for a chat and a beer – and as those who know me will verify: I am always one for tradition. A couple of Belgian Beers later I cycled back to my accommodation, feeling very much more tired than when I arrived.

 

On the following day it was the turn of Sensei Stephanie to take the class. Again I received a very warm welcome and found her English to be excellent (as was the English of everyone in the club – putting second (third?) languages of the Brits to shame). After a similar warm up and stretch we started with some basic oi tsuki punches and then mae geris. I have generally found that if an instructor introduces kicks into a lesson early on then I know two things about them. They like kicking and they are invariably good at them, and this was certainly true of Sensei Stephanie (though this should not have come as a surprise since she is an ex world kumite champion). After ushiro ashi mae geri we moved on to mae ashi/ushiro ashi mae geri and then a similar suite of kicks with mawashi geri.

 

Then on to partner work. Sensei Stephanie had been joined by Sensei Peter, the instructor of the nearby Brugge club (a member of the Belgian national team) and I was fortunate enough to be assigned him as my training partner. We started with oi tsuki attack (partner step back and block with nagashi uki), step back and block with nagashi uki (partner oi tsuki) then oi tsuki (partner step back and block with nagashi uki followed by gyaku tsuki). We then practiced mawashi geri, ura mawashi geri and ushiro mawashi geri, all jodan with our partners providing the necessary targets. It was great to have a partner who could so obviously kick well but who also kicked with excellent control, inspiring me to try to match his speed and accuracy. Every now and then Sensei Stephanie would stop the class to demonstrated some aspect of the kicks, which she performed with speed, grace and an obvious underlying strength – if I were to use one word to describe her kicks I think it would be panache.

 

(At this stage it would be remiss of me not to mention Ellie, just turned 9, just turned 3rd kyu. Though she had never before practiced ura mawashi geri, let alone ushiro mawashi geri, she nevertheless just “went for it”, ably helped by Sensei Stephanie. Though she ended the class very tired, her attitude and spirit was something many children – and some adults – could learn from).

 

After this partner work we split into pairs for some jiyu kumite work. I started with Sensei Peter and thoroughly enjoyed his technique, sometimes defensive, sometimes offensive, always controlled and good spirited. After a little while we swapped partners and I was treated to a spar with Sensei Stephanie and was able to see at first hand just why she had been a world champion. Rarely have I been able to spar with karateka of such ability.

 

Finally we stopped sparring and finished the lesson with some kata (Heian Nidan and then Heian Godan, first slowly to make sure the technique was correct and then quickly, as if performing for a grading). All too soon the karate had finished and it was time to cycle back to my accommodation.

 

I found the rest of my week in Knokke Heist was spent on somewhat of a high. I had been made very welcome by some very decent karateka and had spent several enjoyable hours in their company practicing a common passion. I would like to thank Senseis Wim and Stephanie for such a wonderful time. I look forward to the next time I can visit your excellent dojo (and once again sample some of Belgium’s wonderful beer).

 

Oss

 

Dave

 

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(Karate Club Nippon Heist may be found at http://www.nipponkarateknokke-heist.be/site/index.php or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nippon-Karate-Knokke-Heist/142704205767012)

 

PS. I do find it interesting that, though we all share the same karate roots, there can be so many differences in etiquette between dojos. In the UK, it is usually the instructor who gets students to kneel and then bow to the dojo and fellow students and then the most senior student who issues the command “sensei ni rei” (sometimes, bowing to the dojo is omitted). The instructor then issues the command to stand (in English). Yet in the Belgian club, affiliated to the JKA, the senior student issues all commands, including the final “stand” command – in Japanese (kritsu). Obviously there is no right or wrong – they are just different, but it is a curious thing given we all have the same roots. Chinese whispers in a Japanese art, maybe.

 

Dave Paine