I was told many years ago by a Japanese 7th dan in his 60’s that he found kendo increasingly challenging, particularly from the perspective of producing kendo that set a good example for his juniors. At the time, I was surprised to hear that someone who had reached his level still had concerns about his ability. I foolishly imagined that on reaching the kodansha ranks it was simply a matter of enjoying the benefits of past hard training.
Kendo continues to provide a challenge throughout our kendo lives, from learning to move our hands and feet together as beginners, to trying to gain some semblance of jiri-itchi when we reach the higher dans. As we progress, we face a series of barriers that we must overcome before we move to the next level. These often reflect the requirements for our next grading examination, such as renzoku waza for nidan and seme and tame for 4th and 5th dan, but they would still exist with or without a formal grading system.
Unfortunately these barriers have a way of getting higher and taking longer to overcome as we progress. It is often during these periods when people decide that it is easier to quit than to continue to strive. Kendo very quickly polarises those who appreciate the value we gain is from the journey itself and those who expect instant mastery. The latter tend to leave at the end of each beginners course, but even for the most dedicated kenshi, long periods without tangible improvement can be frustrating and disheartening. On the other hand it seems that higher the “wall”, the greater the improvement you make when you eventually climb over it.
Practically, the solution is wherever possible, to go back to basics and increase the amount of kihon geiko in our training schedules. This should be done in a way that focuses on, or reflects the elements that we need to change. It helps to share and to have the guidance of your teacher or seniors when you are working on correcting faults or developing new skills. Sometimes however this is not possible and you need to collaborate with your peers rather than try by yourself. You may well find that they are facing the same difficulties and that working together provides a win-win solution.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate the point that sensei was trying to make. The biggest improvement you can make is to reach a level where you become conscious of how much you have to learn.
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With my recent exposure to both Sumi sensei’s renzoku waza drills and Inoue sensei’s take on kirikaeshi, I am starting to think more and more about the importance of being instantly ready to attack at any stage in our keiko.
There is a tendency, particularly amongst senior, older kendoka to walk away and start again after exchanging a single attack. Although this allows you to conserve energy, it is long way from the ideal of being “constantly in full spirit”. Keiko should be short, sharp and intense. Far better to do 30 minutes of full-on keiko than two hours of leisurely posing.
The key technical requirements are that your back foot needs to be in the right place for you to attack throughout the practice and you need to keep within attacking distance. When you attempt to strike men going forward and your movement takes you past your opponent, you should turn quickly, bringing your left foot into position with hikitsuke and attack again. If you make a failed attempt on kote, push off immediately while you are in front of your opponent and go for men.
With hiki-waza, there is even more of a tendency to reverse into the distance. You should work on learning to keep you balance between your feet so that if you take one step back you can instantly take one step forward, by pushing off from your back foot. That’s not to say that you should always do it, but if you see an opportunity, you should be able to take advantage of it even though it might mean a lightning fast change of direction.
To do this your left heel should at all times be slightly raised so that the sole of your foot forms a 15 degree angle with the floor. If it’s much higher that, you will lose traction as your left leg will slip out behind you when you try to move. If your heel is on the floor, you will stay firmly rooted to the spot.
Here’s the bad news. The best way to educate your left foot is through lots of kihon. Footwork drills, suburi, kiriaeshi, uchikomi geiko, kakarigeiko; they all play their part. Your objective when you do get into the short intense jigeiko sessions that we are talking about, is to become an effective kendo machine that can see it and hit it, all in a fraction of a second.
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Sumi sensei stopped over at Mumeishi dojo on his way from Edinburgh to the Ukraine. He spent the first hour of the two hour session taking everyone through a kihon lesson that yet again demonstrated his unusual, creative approach to teaching the basics.
This drill was geared to taking the students through the permutations of distance and timing for shikake and oji waza. With everyone working in pairs with shinai and without men and kote, he started with what he called “shadow hitting”; both partners facing each other from opposite sides of the dojo and moving forward with a big approach step and striking men with fumikomi footwork, This was done at a distance where neither partner came near to each other.
The exercise was then repeated with a small approach step and then a medium size step. The size of the cut was then changed to reflect the approach step; big step, big cut; small step small cut and so on.
After both partners had worked through these permutations in turn, sensei brought them together and had motodachi run through the sequences from the necessary distances to strike men correctly. Kakarite was asked to respond with nuki dou. Emphasis was put on striking the correct part of the target and using hiraki-ashi.
The drill was then expanded to include oji-kaeshi dou, men suriage men and men suriage kote. As people tried this it was pointed out that an active right hand was important to make the suriage effective and that suriage only works if your hands are in the centre of your body and you do not bring the point of the shinai back towards your face.
Each pair was then instructed to move into issoku ito mai and shown how to make kote kaeshi gote. This is a particularly difficult technique to achieve because of the need to create distance between blocking the cut and making your own strike. Sumi sensei made the point that you need to show your kote to prompt the attack and then block and return. If you start by showing the omote side of your shinai your opponent will not attack.
It is a lesson that takes a lot of concentration and on a hot evening people were sweating heavily even before putting on their bogu for keiko. There was an obvious improvement in most of the participants in the hour that they had been practising. With Sumi sensei’s permission, I may steal this drill and use it in some of my own lessons.
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With the Easter holidays here and many of our kendo friends taking advantage of the school break to escape the British winter weather, attendance at keiko sessions has been a bit thin. This has led to the need for some creativity to ensure that the few people who have made the effort to get to the dojo enjoy their training as much as in busier times.
We had a grand total of five people at the dojo on Thursday and although it took a bit of extra effort to get psyched up at the start of such a practise, once we got going everyone agreed it was worth putting our bogu on.
The minimum number of people required for kendo training is two. I have been made aware of this on several occasions when I have visited Uegaki sensei in Yoshino and he has opened the dojo for just the two of us. There is something very rewarding and at the same time terrifying in having your own private eighth dan teacher for an hour. Come to think of it if you are prepared to settle for just suburi and footwork exercises then you can train alone, so in comparison five is quite a crowd.
Our Thursday sessions usually last for two hours and we normally spend at least half of that time on kihon and waza geiko allowing about 45 minutes for jigeiko. I believe that all keiko should be intense. If you spend too long in jigeiko with one partner you soon lose your focus and momentum, so on this occasion we cut the session down to just over an hour. We devoted forty minutes to kihon and twenty minutes to jigeiko with another ten or fifteen minutes for warm up and suburi. Both the kihon and jigeiko elements were practised as mawarigeiko and as we had an odd number, on every fifth turn we each got to take a break and watch the others.
Just through working on kirikaeshi and uchikomi-geiko, we put as much emphasis as possible on achieving our best technique. I tried to get people to consciously slow down the speed of their attacks so that they could concentrate of correct posture and cutting action. Only when this was achieved did we build back up to normal attacking speed. When we moved into the jigeiko session we also took special care not to compromise on the technical elements of our keiko.
So we came away with the feeling that we had put the evening to better use than we would have if we had just gone to the pub instead of training and then going to the pub and it was a lot less scary than an hour’s one on one with Uegaki sensei.
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One of our newer members is a professional musician. His kendo is visibly improving from week to week, but like almost everyone who starts as an adult he tends to use more physical power than he needs to.
Trying to find an easy analogy, I thought about my experience as an incompetent bedroom guitarist and realised that the inability to relax was the major reason for my lack of progress. When you watch great musicians they seem able to chill completely and just come in on the beat with lightest of touches. Amateurs like me on the other hand can be seen staring intently at the fret-board with their tongues poking out as they manfully prod at the strings.
In kendo relaxation is equally if not more important. You have to relax in order to keep an effective kamae and to be able to move easily. Shoulders, elbows, wrists and your grip on the shinai must be loose and must remain so throughout the striking process. People are often confused by the instruction to apply pressure, or tension and relax. What is generally meant is that your legs, hips and abdomen should be braced, but that your chest, shoulders and arms should not be tense.
To get this feeling you should push your shoulders back as if you are trying to make your chest feel wider. Then you should check that there is space between your upper arms and the sides of your body. Elbows should be bent. There is no reason why your left arm should not rest on your dou. Your right arm should certainly not be straight, as some people believe that it should, as it would pull your right shoulder forward and spoil your kamae.
Your left wrist needs to be turned slightly outwards to support the shinai, but this does not mean that it should be tense. Your right wrist should be in a completely natural position. Your grip should be relaxed. You need to grip only with the little and ring fingers of each hand, with the other fingers following without making intentional contact with the tsuka of the shinai.. The points of contact for the gripping fingers are the finger tips and the opposing point of the palm. You should not apply pressure with the inside surface of the fingers. Finally your tenouchi on striking the target should amount to no more than a squeeze without changing your grip.
Of course with kendo and music and I imagine any other activity that requires physical dexterity, the more you practise the more relaxed you become. Maybe there is a chance that if I keep playing my scales I may become another Carlos Santana or Eric Clapton. At the current rate of progress it should only take another 120 years.
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At the beginning of each New Year most of us think about our goals for the coming year’s kendo. These are normally ambitious and take the form of committing to pass the next dan examination or winning certain competitions, or making it into the National Team. Certainly these are all worthy ambitions and if you think you can achieve them, go flat-out to make it happen.
What we often ignore however, are the components we need to make our kendo strong enough to reach these heights. It is worth taking time to reflect on your kendo strengths and weaknesses and to isolate the elements that if worked on, would make the biggest difference to your future improvement. Naturally these vary enormously depending on your experience level and your physical condition, but here are some that you could work on that may make a big difference to your rate of progress:-
- Footwork – Ensure that you always bring your left foot up in hikitsuke, so that you are always ready to move the instant that you see an opening. Think about keeping your left heel off the ground so that the foot makes a 15 degree angle against the floor and you will have the power to launch at will.
- Posture and balance- Hold yourself perfectly upright, but with the feeling of leaning half a degree forward. Use your hips and back to power the strike and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. Keep your posture after you hit and make strong zanshin.
- Review your kamae – Check that your targets are not visible and make sure that your hands and arms can move quickly and freely when you see an opportunity.
- Think about tenouchi – Hold the shinai lightly with ring and little fingers and squeeze gently only after you have made contact with your opponents bogu.
- Make opportunities – Break your partners centre with strong seme or subtly invite him to attack to create the chance for ojiwaza.
- Commit – When you attack make sure that you do so wholeheartedly with a feeling of sutemi. Do not hedge your bets by thinking of stopping or going around him. Once you fire the bullet, there should be no way of stopping it.
- Be dignified – Win or lose show kigurai, but do so with humility.
Whether we are thinking about these points for the first time or are experienced kendoka who have thought about them time and time again, we should constantly review the basics and make sure that we do not let bad habits creep in.
If you have a master plan for achieving kendo greatness in 2013, please include some of these basics in your preparation. On the other hand if your aim is just to make the most of your keiko then perfecting any of these points would be a worthy ambition on its own.
Whatever your plans have a happy and successful 2013.
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I was talking to a friend in Japan who on starting at a new dojo was advised by an 8th dan teacher that he needs to learn to relax. He went on to explain that the harder he tries the more tense his kendo becomes. He was also told that his cutting action is too big and he needs to make it smaller. Of course, unless you are totally relaxed small cuts lead to overuse of the right hand which adds to the tension.
This reminded me of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch – 22”, where the harder his soldier characters tried to prove they were insane, the more they were judged to be mentally fit for service.
My friend has two distinctly different but related challenges. The first is that when you are practising with a senior teacher you are expected to try your hardest and to many people this means doing everything in your power to beat your opponent. This is seldom possible and needs to be replaced with a desire to show your best technique, even if it means making repeatedly unsuccessful shikake waza. In most cases keiko with a strong 8th dan very quickly becomes kakarigeiko and the only option is to ”go with the flow” and do your best. If you are lucky enough to get some advice afterwards, then think about it and try to change accordingly.
The second challenge is the need to make small cuts in a relaxed but effective manner, without relying on the overuse of the right hand. This is best achieved through repeated practice which comes through suburi and uchikomi geiko, where you can correct basic mistakes without the pressure of trying to beat an opponent.
It is not however always a straightforward matter of doing suburi to replicate the cut you wish to develop. Some teachers advocate starting with large suburi, touching your own buttocks with the shinai on the backswing. This is not to say that you should strike your opponent with such a big movement but the objective is to train yourself to develop a soft relaxed shoulder action which after time you make smaller and smaller, allowing you to use your wrists and elbows in an equally smooth fashion.
With uchikomi geiko you can then put this into action, adjusting for timing and distance whilst still not having to worry about being countered or beaten to the point. Hopefully when you take this improved technique into hikitategeiko with your instructor, you can then focus on getting it right rather than beating him two nil. The chances are that the session will still descend into kakarigeiko, but it will be better quality kakarigeiko.
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Posted in Kendo in Japan, Kendo Training, Reigi, tagged Asa geiko, Godogeiko, Hachidan, Hanshi, Kyoshi, Mitorigeiko, Nanadan, Nippon Budokan, Osaka Shudokan on November 5, 2012 |
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I briefly mentioned in my last post that a friend who recently returned to Japan was surprised at having to wait for 45 minutes of a one hour practice for keiko with a hachidan sensei in the Osaka Shudokan. George who witnessed and commented on the scene, will I am sure, back me up when I say this is not an unusual situation.
At the shudokan, or any of the big civic dojo in Japan, you have to be quick and determined to practise with any of the senior sensei. The rule of thumb when I was regularly training there, was that you could have 2 keiko with hachidan , 4 with nanadan, or up to 8 at peer level in the allotted hour.
Getting face time with senior sensei is an acquired skill. You need to put your men on faster than any of your rivals and be prepared to run to position whilst pulling your kote on. Some kendoka train themselves to tie their men in record time, others develop ingenious ways to pre-tie their men so that it can be slipped on instantly.
These skills are equally useful for the monthly godokeiko sessions at the Nippon Budokan or asa-geiko at the Kyoto Taikai. Even though there may be 200+ hachidan in attendance, the chance of getting to your favourite hanshi is close to nil. On one occasion in Kyoto I made it my goal to be first in line with Sumi sensei. I got up at 4.30 a.m. , arrived almost an hour before practice started and placed myself approximately in front of the spot where he would be sitting. Fortunately for him, not so for me, he had been awarded hanshi the previous day, so whilst he initially sat facing the spot where I was waiting; he was pushed up the line by the longer time served, but still kyoshi sensei. I had to run an extra 20 metres to beat the queue and finished 5th in line. Nevertheless I got my keiko.
Keiko with senior teachers offers two opportunities, one to practise with them and benefit from their advice; plus the chance to watch them with other students whilst you wait. The watching or mitorigeiko part becomes more interesting if sensei’s opponents are other kodansha. The downside is that usually they have the right to queue jump. This is a sensible arrangement as it allows them to get back to acting as motodachi with a minimum of delay. If however you are last in line and there is five minutes of keiko time left and someone steps in front of you, you may not see it that way.
Returning to the challenges of making the most of your time in the dojo, the Japanese system for adult kendoka is essentially, well, adult. You can invest your time in waiting to train with the top teachers, or if you think it is needed, you can stay at the shimoseki end of the dojo and practice kihon geiko with a buddy of your own grade. As long as you take your keiko seriously no-one will mind.
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With Uegaki sensei
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am a keen advocate of the value of kihon training. I also believe it is unreasonable for any instructor to prescribe activities that he or she is not prepared or able to do personally.
Now in my 60’s I am hugely impressed by some of the Japanese sensei of my generation who refuse to act their age. Yamanaka sensei and Uegaki Isao sensei immediately come to mind as role models. I have had the pleasure of training with Uegaki sensei several times in his dojo in Yoshino. He invariably includes kakarigeiko in training sessions for kenshi of all ages and grades, including himself.
I recently resolved to add more kakarigeiko to my own training schedule and if I am going to suffer, so should everyone else. At last Thursday’s practise in my local dojo, we concluded with 5 or 6 repetitions of kakarigeiko and I felt not only more virtuous but physically better for it.
I had the best of intentions to include kakarigeiko in yesterday’s morning practice at Mumeishi. Unfortunately I woke up with a case of “man-flu” and feeling unable to live up to my own expectations, I kept to the usual kirikaeshi and waza geiko routine before taking my place for motodachigeiko. I am determined however to get back on track as soon as I have stopped coughing and snivelling.
Following Uegaki sensei’s advice and example, I realise that us senior citizens can get as much benefit from kakarigeiko as do our younger, fitter colleagues. The elements that do not change are total commitment and big correct technique. Additionally we oldsters need to pay even more attention to producing strong kiai and seme, correct posture and good zanshin. So albeit slower than it used to be, kakarigeiko can still be a vital component of our training plan.
Whereas in hikitate geiko with less experienced players there is a tendency to rely on ojiwaza, kakarigeiko ensures that you make strong effective shikake waza against every partner. As such, it ensures that you constantly use your whole repertoire of kendo techniques and do not forget the value of making good seme men. The other benefits of this kind of training are increased appetite for a post-keiko beer and the ability to sleep like a baby.
So like any good male cold sufferer, I stopped off at Superdrug on my way home from keiko and collected a carrier bag full of vitamin C tablets, paracetamol, linctus and lozenges. I now plan to retire to bed with these and my Kindle. I will of course be keeping in touch with my wife by phone, sending frequent requests for soup and hot lemon and honey drinks. I should hopefully emerge by Tuesday, like an energised butterfly from a chrysalis ready for more kakarigeiko.
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Posted in Kendo shiai, Kendo Training, tagged Chiba Sensei, Jodan, Kendo basics, Kendo kihon, Kendo Training, NiTo, shiai, William Smith-Clark on September 17, 2012 |
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I am no longer surprised by beginners who after a few weeks in armour, are bursting to take up nito or jodan. Everyone who starts kendo does so with a vision of the kenshi that they wish to become. Of course having a goal to aim for is totally worthy. William S. Clark’s parting words to the students of Sapporo Agricultural College “Boys be ambitious”, became common currency in Japan, and are still quoted a hundred and thirty years after he said them.
We live in an instant age. Whereas singers and musicians achieved fame after years of learning their trade by gigging in pubs and clubs, todays “superstars” reach their dreams by appearing on talent shows. Clearly this view is slightly coloured by my status as a “grumpy old man”, but as a member of the “me” generation, I am probably as much to blame as is Simon Cowell. To face facts, there are no instant gains in kendo. Skill is built on years of hard training.
I have discussed the challenges of building patience into the kendo learning process with a number of my betters; particularly Chiba sensei. His view as a jodan player is that until you can invariably produce accurate waza from chudan with correct ki-ken-tai-itchi you should not move on to the more esoteric aspects of kendo. If you can’t control one sword then you are doubling the difficulty with two and if your feet and hands don’t work together then you will not solve the problem by reversing your foot position when you take jodan. In my humble (and Chiba sensei’s less humble) view, good kendo is built on the foundation of following good instruction and repeatedly practising basic techniques in chudan.
The stage at which people should embark on a shiai career follows similar logic. It is admirable to want to test your skill in competition against others, but unless you can do basic techniques correctly, you risk developing bad habits that could spoil your further development. One or two early exposures to competition will probably help confirm your place in the kendo universe, but without a good basis of accurate fundamental kendo, continued training with shiai in mind will harm rather than help your future development.
So far it all sounds rather gloomy, but to my mind, the joy in learning kendo is in training for its own sake and when something falls into place then the pleasure of achievement is enormous. Of course when you have assembled your kendo tool-kit then you can go on to become a great shiai player, whether in chudan, jodan or nito. As good old Bill Clark might have said “Boys be ambitious, but give it a bit of time”.
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