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Martial Aids

477-mennaris-2tFriends from a nearby dojo have developed an addiction to doing suburi with a device that looks like a bicycle pump. When recently asked for my opinion of such a thing, I took the view that if the ZNKR had thought it a good idea, they would have issued a book on “kendo kihon practise with a bicycle pump” or “jitensha no kūki-ire ni yoru kendo keikoho”.

Apparently the device in question is supposed to slide open if you make a correct swing and stay closed if you don’t. I think it might be improved if it rang a bell or made a honking noise for each successful yuko datotsu. It may be that my view is coloured by the intransigence of old age, or the fact that on the one occasion I tried one out, it stubbornly refused to slide open for me, but the use of this piece of paraphernalia smacks of what my less charitable golfing or skiing friends would refer to as “all the gear and no idea”.

To be fair, I am not totally against new developments in kendo, but this joins the carbon fibre shinai and the men with a Perspex face panel in my list of unloved kit, particularly as the aforementioned men had a tsukidare which was fixed solidly to the mengane. In the event of the wearer receiving a tsuki the whole men tilted forward, either pushing the men towel over his or her eyes or falling off completely. I am also not a lover of cameras mounted on the men or shinai, that is unless you are trying to make a kendo equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.

More traditional items also go on my list. I have never understood the value of suburi with heavy suburi bokken. These invariably cause the user to engage too much arm and shoulder power to avoid cutting down too far, in effect making tenouchi before striking the men.

The ideal suburi aid should help us closely replicate the action of striking the men sharply and firmly in an “up, down” timing of one. It should allow us to focus on hitting the top of the men whilst cutting through to the opponent’s chin level. It should encourage us to use shoulders elbows and wrists on a relaxed and flexible way to transmit the power from our core. I know of the ideal tool to use for this. It is called a shinai.

Zanshin – All or nothing

image-iaidoHelton asks the difference between kigamae and zanshin.  This question deserves more than a two word answer. Kigamae  in everyday Japanese means mental position or approach. According to the AJKF Japanese English Dictionary of Kendo the meaning of kigamae is “the state where one’s entire body is alert and ready to react to the moves of the opponent’s mind and body that precedes a strike”.  In effect it is your “mind posture” a state of awareness where you are completely tuned into your opponent. The focus of kigamae is anticipation of your opponent’s movement in readiness to strike.

The most basic kendo explanation of the meaning of zanshin is “a state of awareness after striking”.  The concept of zanshin is however far more complex. In Zen zanshin means complete follow through, leaving no trace. Zanshin means “the remaining mind” and also “the mind with no remainder.” This dichotomy is also echoed by explanations I have heard about nokori, the remaining breath after a strike and kiai. For both breath and awareness the suggestion is that they remain and yet not remain.

Zanshin and nokori are tied closely together. A flow chart of a tobikomi men attack would be along the lines of:

Breathe in –hold your breath –make kakegoe, expelling a proportion of your held breath -step in while styill holding your breath – keep holding your breath in tame- launch yourself from the back foot and strike men in the timing of one, expelling the remainder of your breath – move through to a safe distance – turn and face your opponent in chudan no kamae while holding your breath, keeping yourself in a state of readiness to attack again.

In practical terms zanshin is the continued awareness of your opponent after you strike. You should be in a position to attack again instantly if he or she makes a move against you. I would imagine that this is even more obvious to Iai practitioners where zanshin is a matter of watching intently after delivering the final death blow. This is where I expose my ignorance, but I have the impression that even in returning the sword to the saya, it is done with the feeling of being able to draw again quickly should circumstances require it.

So to sum up – kigamae is the state of being ready to do it before you do it. Zanshin is the readiness to do it again after you have done it.

More on good manners in keiko

old-tsukiLast week’s post prompted some interesting questions. Tsuki as a technique is as important as men, kote and dou. As with attacks to all of these targets ippon is generated by a sharp, accurate on-off strike. Debana tsuki like debana men is made just as the opponent starts an attack. You should strike just as he starts to lift his hands, so it is up to you to step-in and hit the men dare.

Mukaetsuki is a tsuki that meets your opponent’s forward movement as he steps in to attack. Not only are you holding him off with the shinai’s point, you are increasing the force with which you receive him by pushing your hands forward at the same time. This is not only bad behaviour, it is dangerous as the shinai can cause damage if it slips under pressure and goes under the tsuki dare.

Daniel made reference to some kodansha hitting the target and releasing the tension in this situation. He also mentioned holding the shinai against the attacker’s dou mune.  To make sense of this, it is essential to realise that practice between juniors and seniors is different to that between peers. This hikitatgeiko is similar to jigeiko or gokakugeiko, but the senior takes the lead in encouraging good strikes and in using his own technique to pre-empt or block bad ones. This holding (but cushioning) kamae against a forward moving kenshi is normally done to teach the student about distance and timing.

As for walking away after striking, kodansha develop bad-habits like everyone else, although this could be an initiative by sensei to move you back to the right spot for keiko and to avoid leaving you in a space where you might bump into other players. Senior level zanshin may well be on the spot and not involve excess movement, but the strength of the attack and kiai and manifestation of kigamae would make it very clear that sensei had made a successful yuko datotsu.

Sumi sensei’s show of dropping into sonkyo after kaeshi  dou is as suggested a humorous way to emphasise a point. I have seen him do this too. He is not alone in concluding keiko in this way. Arima sensei of Osaka police was well known for taking kote or tsuki and immediately squatting, but he amplified the effect with his distinctive high pitched kiai as he wrapped things up by calling out something along the lines of “otsuki, otsuki, sainara (sayonara with a Kansai accent).

Good manners in keiko

1909_kendoA number of people have asked me where fighting spirit ends and good manners, or concern for the welfare of your fellow kenshi begins.

In keiko your objective is to break your opponent’s kamae and strike a target as soon as you have created an opportunity. There are many ways to do this you can make him start an attack and strike as he begins his movement. You can use kaeshi  waza, suriage waza or nuki waza to counter the attacks that you encourage him to make. You can take his centre by stepping  in and making a strong tobikomi attack, or you can use your shinai to knock your opponent’s weapon up, down or to the side, even to twist it out of his hands. All of these are permissible with the rules and spirit of kendo and you should do them as energetically as your stamina will allow

It is equally permissible to move your opponent by striking with your body, but only in the form of correct tai-atari where the contact should be tsuka on tsuka with the hands at waist height and the power coming from the lower body. Pushing to the chin or face, using your feet to sweep or trip, trapping your opponent’s shinai or using your own to push any part of his body constitutes an infringement. Taiatari should be one quick body check followed by an attack rather than a long concerted pushing match.

Tsuki is a valuable kendo technique but must be done correctly as a sharp on-off attack.  Mukaetsuki, with your arms locked as your opponent makes a forward movement against you is considered the height of bad manners. Even a good attacking tsuki against a teacher or senior in poor taste, if it is done when they make an opening for you to hit men.

Most of these are obvious violations of the rulesa of kendo and would be penalised in shiai. There are other less obvious breaches of etiquette that are undesirable in keiko. Using your shinai to block without countering is wrong and spoils the flow of the tachiai, as does starting and stopping an attack mid flow to prevent your opponent from hitting you. Hitting your partner off-target in order to create an opening is equally bad, as is showing contempt by celebrating or walking away after striking.

Some of the rules invariably get bent in shiai, but there are 3 referees in the court to stop you from transgressing too much. In keiko it is up to you to train as hard as you can whilst still showing respect for your dojo mates.

kedno_kihon_wazaDuring Hayashi-sensei’s visit he repeatedly made the point that everyone should practise kihon- geiko with suriashi footwork. This is particularly beneficial for beginners, but acts as a reminder to us all about completing techniques with ki-ken-tai-itchi.

This is not a new idea and I have seen this type of practice over the last 20 years. Sumi-sensei has long been an advocate of this approach, even before the introduction of the Bokutoen Ni Yoru Kihon Keikoho, which runs through the whole range of main kendo techniques in quasi kata style. The difference is that this kihon-geiko is practised as a drill with shinai and wearing men and kote and that we make full contact with the target as we would in other forms of uchikomi-geiko.

Apparently this type of drill is fast gaining popularity in Japan. I took part in suriashi kirikaeshi last year in the Osaka Shudokan, where emphasis was put on correct distance and hasuji.  This logically leads on to a series of men, kote and dou strikes followed by kote-men, all performed with sliding footwork and with zanshin then made on the spot after the strike. Sequences of large and then small cuts can also be introduced.

Emphasis is put on correct distance, hikitsuke (bringing up the back foot as we complete each strike), and raising the shinai and striking in the timing of one (ichibyoshi). Even though the speed of the drill is slower than the equivalent drill with fumikomi-ashi, the speed and strength of the cut itself should be the same.

When teaching small and large variations of each strike, it should be reiterated that the strength of the cut should not change with the size of the strike, but that the wrists and tenouchi should ensure that the power of a small cut is no less than a large one. For nidan-waza such as kote-men, we should hit both targets with 100 per cent commitment and not use kote just as a set-up for the men strike.

For beginners we could profitably restrict a training session to this type of suriashi kihon. For more experienced kenshi it is worth repeating all of the exercises with fumikomi footwork, but making sure that we achieve all the points about distance, hikitsuke, the timing of one etc. that we worked on in suriashi, The only difference is that we add fumikomi and go through for our zanshin after each strike.

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Hayashi Kozo sensei from Osaka is currently in the UK. During a weekend seminar and several teaching sessions he made some very interesting points about ojiwaza. For a start, he emphasised how important oji techniques are, not just for advancing to the higher dan ranks, but also for winning shiai at every level. No matter how good you are at shikake waza, if you don’t include ojiwaza in your keiko you will miss half of the opportunities to attack.

He focused on the ideaof going forward as if for a shikake strike for many oji techniques. Suriage-men as a prime example. If you can make your suriage with the shinogi of the shinai’s datotsubu you should be able to move at full forward velocity using fumikomi-ashi as you return the men attack. I have quoted the advice of many teachers in previous posts and they all invariably stress that you should control the opponent and timing of his shikake attack, not just wait and respond. This approach demands an attacking mind.

The addition to this thought is that you should also move forward with your feet and body in total commitment.

Degote is another opportunity for a fast forward attack, launching yourself as soon as you see your partner’s kote starts to twitch upwards. With techniques such as nuki-dou, kaeshi-dou or nuki men or kaeshi men you have to give your partner space to come forward.  With these we keep with the standard suriashi footwork and on-the-spot zanshin at the time of striking. Hayashi sensei suggested however that by using a strong diagonal step followed by hikitsuke in the required direction you could give yourself a better chance to strike with accuracy because of the increased distance.

He also made the point that dou need not be restricted to the convention of hitting the right dou and moving to the opponent’s left, but that you could also hit right and move right, or hit left dou and move left or right as long as you made strong contact between the target and the shinai’s monouchi . One other interesting recommendation was the use of hidari-dou against jodan players as many of them pull the right arm down blocking their dou as they strike. At the same time their left dou is open allowing you to hit with nuki or kaeshi dou.

I am sure that most of the people attending these sessions came away with some new ideas to put into their keiko. Even though I have known Hayashi sensei for many years and trained with him on numerous occasions, seeing him in a formal teaching situation gave me some food for thought. So jodan players watch out. I am working on my hidari-dou.

The hare and the tortoise

the-hare-and-the-tortoiseDifferent people learn at different speeds. This is particularly obvious in kendo where we can continue our development from youth to old age.

There are of course many naturally talented and driven kenshi who start strong and continue to improve at the optimum speed throughout their kendo careers, taking seventh dan in their late 30s, hachidan in their late 40s and continuing on to become the grand old men of our kendo community.

In the west, where many of us start as adults, there are those who appear to be naturally talented. Despite the odd nature of kendo movement, they race up the ladder to 2nd or 3rd dan, leaving many of their peers to struggle and make far slower progress. It is often these quicker learners who give up when improvement starts to become more difficult later in their kendo career. This can happen at many levels and I have seen people drop out after achieving fourth and fifth dan, in several cases 6th dan, where the pressure of making the next step seemed too difficult.

A number of kenshi will cheerfully admit to enjoying the fighting aspects of kendo and not being particularly worried about improving technique. They like the idea of putting on armour and clashing shinai for a few hours a week. Most dojo have members like this who keep the club funds topped up and play an important part of the life of the club, but do not see kendo as a sugyo.

I have watched others who are dedicated to learning correct kendo, who find every aspect a challenge. They return to the dojo week after week, struggle with the intricacies of footwork, breathing, cutting action and with uniting them all in ki-ken-tai-itchi . They cheerfully continue their training over a period of many years. Often these individuals spend many years slogging up the grading system, taking repeated attempts to pass each level.

Many of these slower starters do reach a stage where everything falls into place and their pace of progress changes completely. It might be that they reach an understanding of a single element of kendo such as correct breathing and everything else becomes clear. It may not be in the form of a dramatic epiphany, but one day a bad habit disappears and one correct action leads to another and 6th and 7th dan no longer seem unattainable.

Whatever our learning speed, kendo thankfully gives us plenty of time to correct our faults.