By Ray Tio
In this day and age of Mixed Martial Arts, and the huge growth of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), which I am also a big fan of by the way, many people have written off the importance of Traditional Kata training and have instead adopted an attitude of learning what they believe to be the most practical training specifically for one-on-one fighting that would work inside a cage. Traditional Kata is the essence of Traditional Karate. It is comprised of basic and advanced techniques that strengthen the body and mind, give you means to defend yourself in multiple attack situations, and also self-defense hand-to-hand combat situations. Kata helps to improve your Kumite and it is also full of artistry and quite beautiful to watch when performed correctly. Think of it this way, If you could perform kata strong, fast and sharply, moving in so many different directions while at the same time in low strong rooted stances, imagine how well you would be able to move once you transition that training into a free fighting kumite stance!
Over the years many students have asked me “Sensei, what’s your favorite kata? Unsu right?”
Of course it’s fair to assume it is “Unsu” because that’s the kata I have always performed at tournaments. The truth is, it is a very difficult question to answer because it really depends on how I’m feeling and what I’m training for.
As a child blackbelt growing up, hands down my favorite kata was “Unsu”, no doubt about it. Like many young brown and black belts, after watching a great performance of “Unsu” at a tournament, I was in awe. Such a beautiful kata with sharp movements, kicks on the ground and of course…the jump!!! I grew up watching videotapes of the legendary Yahara Sensei performing this kata in the 80′s, the same one almost every shotokan practitioner grew up watching. In the nineties I witnessed Hiroyoshi Okazaki perform it live at international tournaments with great success. How could I not want to learn and perform this kata after watching them!? They were both my kata idols, as well as my brother Stan’s, so we both would try to emulate them in our parents basement all the time! Since the age of 13 I have been performing this kata at tournaments. Now grown up I have come to realize that it has become a part of me to the point that, as difficult as it is for most to perform, It has become the most comfortable kata for me to perform even more so than the “Heian” Katas. Is it still my favorite? Not necessarily, but it is the one I am most comfortable with.
Growing up as a teen, I used to despise the katas “Bassai Dai” and “Jion”, and instead chose to perform katas like “Enpi”, and “Kanku Dai”. I found they were more beautiful because I could could perform “Enpi” sharp and quick, and again it had a cool jump. “Kanku Dai”, although the longest kata and the one I always felt the most fatigued after performing , had cool moves like an uppercut punch and duck to the floor, plus side kicks which I could show off when kicking to the face level, and once again a flashy jump at the end.
Now as an adult I love “Bassai Dai” and it is the kata I love teaching and performing in the dojo the most. I feel the strongest when performing this kata and love the emphasis on hip rotation, and sharp timing. I also love to practice the Heian Katas because I can perform them quickly and still apply lots of power (kime), and best of all they are short! LOL!
I love to watch a beautifully performed “Sochin”, yet I find it the most difficult kata to feel comfortable with when performing. It’s that kind of kata for me that I lack consistency with. Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I don’t. But to watch it performed properly for example by Kurihara Sensei or Tsuchiya Sensei, the two best “Sochin” performers ever along with of course Master Osaka, is another story. I could watch video of the three of them performing this kata for hours!
There was also a time when I was in my early twenties, that I did not like performing the kata “Gojushihosho” because it was at that time our kata we’d use for Team Kata and we would perform it so often that eventually I grew bored of it, and also felt that it had no flashiness to it at all. Now, older and wiser (I hope), I have a new fondness for this kata and have been practicing it on my own lately. I love that it consists of strong basic techniques, yet has elements that can be performed sharp and quick. When performed correctly is quite beautiful, a perfect example would be the performance by former female JKA World Champion, Terumi Nakata.
So what’s my favorite kata? Who knows! Soon I’ll be retiring from competition which means the kata “Unsu” will be performed much less, also due to the fact that I’m getting older and in my opinion it’s a young man’s kata. So, I guess this means that right now my favorite kata to perform for tournaments and for now the one I am most comfortable with is still “Unsu”. “Bassai Dai”, “Gojushiho Sho” and the “Heian” Katas are my favorite’s currently to practice in the dojo, and the kata I love to watch and to one day be able to perform more comfortably would be “Sochin” .
Of course this may all change again in a years time, which of course is the beauty of Kata and Karate in general. Never ending training!