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.

4-dan-passesWe just had the grading that I mentioned in my previous post and as with all examinations there were euphoric successes and disappointed failures. From my side of the judges table the most impressive part of the day was the attitude of everyone who took part. Those who passed did so with modesty and those who failed did so with the determination to train hard for the next opportunity.

Within the constraints of the time I had, I tried to give feedback to everyone who asked for it. But for those I missed here are some general points.

For ikkyu and shodan, everyone went for it. There was no problem with staged , ”you hit me then I hit you” performances that I mentioned in previous posts. The most common criticism from the panel was “incorrect cutting” which in most cases meant that the hands finished too low and the monouchi was at too steep an angle so that it hit the mengane rather than the top of the men. There were also a number of people who did not lift the shinai enough to hit correctly.` The remedy is more suburi and uchikomi geiko.

Nidan and sandan mostly failed on timing and opportunity. I am sure that many of the candidates had developed their technique to a pass level, but unless they were able to make or take the opportunity to make a clear strike, there was no way to show the judges that ability. To train for your next grading, think about the opportunities to strike, such as when your opponent initiates his attack or steps back. or visibly breathes in. Also consider ways to break his physical and mental kamae. Don’t just save these for jigeiko, incorporate them in your drill regime.

Yondan and Godan  – Seme and tame were what let many people down. You need to demonstrate that you are controlling your opponent throughout the tachiai. You need to break his or her centre and take your own ideal maai. If you can see an opening when you do this then immediately strike the target. If his kamae stops you from doing this then keep control and hold your breath in your abdomen until he starts to move, then strike. You can encourage him to do this by slightly moving the point of the shinai or slightly moving your front foot forwards. Or as Chiba sensei advised, just slightly bend your forward knee. Incorporate seme into your kihon drills.

For everyone, pass or fail, a little more kata practice would not be wasted.

So congratulations or gambatte kudasai, but please keep going.

More grading exam tips.

Grading + KataWe have one of UK kendo year’s biggest grading exams coming up next weekend at my own dojo, Mumeishi. This one goes up to 5th dan there are nearly 90 candidates registered.

I have recently sat in on a number of practise grading sessions and whilst I have seen some good kendo there are a few errors that people fall into time after time. One of these seems to happen mainly with people taking ikkyu and shodan and is a reasonably new phenomenon. Candidates are taking turns in opening up and letting their opponent hit them, as if they were doing uchikomi-geiko.

The alternative seems to be that the two fighters use the limited time available to perform a series of ai-men, hitting each other at the same time. What the jury will actually be looking for is the ability to take or make the correct opportunity to attack as well as the ability to show correct basic technique.

Going up the grades, the big danger is attacking too much, particularly at times when no opportunity exists. Two or three successful attacks are all you need, especially if you are aiming for 4th or 5th dan. (Sueno sensei recently suggested that you need to hit 5 times to make 2 clear ippon). Show that you can break your opponent’s centre and take clear points.

Here are some points to keep in mind regardless of the grade you are aiming for:

  • Be careful of your chakuso. Make sure that all your equipment is tied neatly and correctly. Watch the length of your men-himo and ensure that loops and descenders are of equal length.
  • Make correct rei and sonkyo. You should take kamae at the same time as you make sonkyo not before or after.
  • You must not attack when there is no opportunity and you must attack when there is.
  • Commit 100 per cent to any attack you make. Ensure that your kiai is strong and that you make sae on hitting. Ensure too that your zanshin is present on every strike.
  • If you miss, keep good posture as you move through after the attack. A missed point with good posture and kiai can be more impressive than a poorly executed hit.
  • If kirikaeshi is part of your exam strike sharply and accurately and make sure that you do not cross your feet when you step backwards.
  • Do not try techniques that you are not yet good at. Oji do is a good example. Few people do this well and many others try it in gradings. Even if it means relying solely on men, do only what you can do well.

If you are taking this or any other grading next week, do not attempt to make major changes to your kendo. Do the best you can with what you already have and keep these few tips in mind. Oh, and good luck on the day!

Remembering Chiba sensei

IMG_0257On Wednesday we lost a great kendo teacher. Chiba Masashi sensei, hanshi, hachidan passed away. He had continued to fight the effects of a stroke which he had three years ago and he seemed to be winning, having retaught himself to speak, walk and write. He had made the journey to Yoshino this spring to view the cherry blossoms and was full of plans for other journeys. I saw him in Tokyo last February at his house in Nishi Tokyo and he was talking about making another trip to the UK.

He never gave up. Before the stroke he had undergone a cancer operation and when I visited him in hospital I had expected to see him in bed. Instead he was dressed in a track-suit demonstrating men to a group of Hitotsubashi students.

I first met Chiba sensei in 2006 when we invited Arima sensei of Osaka Police to attend The IKET Embu Taikai and Seminar in Edinburgh. He had a prior engagement and introduced Chiba sensei, who immediately won everybody over with his style of kendo teaching and his perpetual sense of fun. Since then I had continued to meet him at least once a year either in seminars in the UK or on my visits to Japan, where no matter how busy he was he always found time for me.

Over the years Chiba sensei was one of the most high profile kenshi in Japan. He was half of a golden couple, with a wife who had been a member of the volleyball team which won gold in the Tokyo 64 Olympics. Their house is the only home I have visited with his and her trophy rooms. He of course was a 3 time winner of the All Japan Championships, beating all comers with his unique style of Jodan. He had been Shihan of Keshicho and Hitotsubashi University and held appointments in Tokyo Kendo Federation. Throughout his kendo career he never failed to impress in shiai and it was always a joy to see him crack in one or two of his magic kote from Jodan at the Kyoto taikai.

Despite his fame in and out of Japan, he was always self-effacing and down to earth. We were drinking together with some other friends after the 8th dan grading in Tokyo, when jet-lag and few too many oyu-wari took their effect on one of the party. Chiba sensei suggested that we carry our friend to a taxi which could get him back to his hotel. We were making our way to the taxi rank with me at the head end and sensei holding the feet when a crowd of kenshi approached and asked for sensei’s autograph.  Without batting an eyelid Chiba sensei draped our friend over the bonnet of a parked Nissan, signed the autographs, picked up our friend and continued our journey.

I am sure that many kenshi around the world can tell similar stories, but I certainly owe my 7th dan to Chiba sensei. Sensei spent considerable time analysing my faults and trying to fix them. I even had a 2.00 A.M session in my kitchen with sensei working on my footwork. To make sure that I didn’t slack he left a to-do list with Yanai sensei to keep me following orders.

Chiba sensei was kind, generous and funny although he did not shy away from honest advice where it was needed. I remember him being asked “how can I improve my jodan” to which the answer was “give up”.

Forgive my indulgence in setting out my own personal recollections of this great man. Many hundreds of others will have their own special memories, but I am sure that we will all remember him with love and gratitude.

Pragmatic shu-ha-ri

shu-ha-ri2Most of us have heard of the principle of shu-ha-ri. In (shu) you start kendo and entrust yourself completely to a single teacher who gets you to the next stage (ha). You then have the freedom to learn from other teachers before you reach (ri) and the chance to develop technique under your own guidance. I have never heard a precise explanation of the timescales involved in each of these stages or the grades you need to attain before you move on, but my guess is that you reach ha in the middle dan ranks and only touch on ri when you are firmly into the kodansha stage.

This all sounds ideal and I have many friends who were lucky enough to go through junior, middle and high school kendo clubs under the guidance of 7th and 8th dan teachers and they just needed to turn up and do their best. On the other hand I know kenshi from around the globe who are either self-taught or who rely on someone who is their senior by a narrow margin or who are a page ahead in reading the instruction book. There are online and print resources that can help the learning process, but to improve we all need the help of experienced sensei as and when it is available.

We can get this type of help by visiting sensei (in your own country or abroad), or by attending seminars when  skilled instructors are invited by your club or national federation. I have had discussions in the past with my friend George McCall, of Kenshi247 fame who emphatically points out that this is not the same as learning from these sensei on an everyday ongoing basis. Having had the experience of doing this when resident in Japan I agree with him. I still feel that any exposure to leading instructors gives your kendo a boost.

One of the challenges however, particularly for less experienced kenshi, is that different teachers have different ways of getting us to improve. Don’t shoot me if I get one of these wrong, but to the best of my recollection Chiba sensei said bring the shinai back 45 degrees, Sumi sensei said 45 degrees, Sueno sensei said let it go past that point and Iwadate sensei said let the shinai touch your bottom.

All of these gentlemen are hanshi, all are capable of highly impressive kendo, all have trained champions and all have different ways of getting us to do correct kendo. My only suggestion is that if you are lucky enough to have the chance to learn from these or any of the other top teachers. Do as they say, try it for a while and see what works for you. This may put you in danger of some premature  ri, but hey, nobody is perfect.

Sueno senseiSueno Eiji sensei, hanshi  hachidan is back in the UK and has taken us through two evenings and two long but enlightening days of instruction. The seminar evolved from a detailed look at suburi through to the best way to display you skills in grading examinations, but sensei’s overriding thesis was that kendo training should be a step-by-step process, based on getting each stage right before you move on to the next.

He summed this up by expanding on his previous remarks ”that you can’t do keiko if you can’t do suburi” by explaining that you need to be able to reach a good level of men suburi before attempting tobikomi men drills in armour. You should be able to make correct single men strikes before moving on to making renzoku waza. Your renzoku waza should be correct before attempting uchikomi-geiko, which you should perfect before trying kakari-geiko and you should only go on to ji-geiko when everything else is correct. Once you have all of these points straightened out, you should keep them on track by spending 50 minutes of each kendo hour on kihon and the remaining ten on ji-geiko.

Sensei’s most controversial point was that in suburi and uchi-komi our furi-kaburi (upswing) for men should not stop at the 45 degrees insisted upon by many other kendo teachers. Instead our hands should come back in a low arc past the top of our heads. He qualified this by saying that we should not bring them back to a point where he have to open our elbows, but that the swing should go back as far as it can while keeping the arms in correct cutting position.

When asked why 45 degrees is still recommended by many teachers, his answer was that it was written down many years ago but had since been rethought about and that many sensei just keep quoting conventional wisdom. He quoted an example of the seminar held before the All Japan 8th dan Championships where every participant regardless of what he usually taught was bringing his shinai back past the 45 degree point in the warm-up suburi.

Sueno sensei’s other repeated point was that you should relax your arms immediately after  striking men, so that the shinai could bounce upwards, allowing your forward motion and following zanshin to continue smoothly. As he said himself, “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”.

20160910_230056Regular readers will know that I am a frequent  visitor to Southern Spain, since my wife and I finally decided to invest in a second home in Marbella. I’ve still not reached the nirvana of retirement, so my wife gets to top up her tan by the pool whilst I peer into my office laptop with the air-conditioning switched to maximum.

I was reluctant to commit to spending so much time here, until I discovered that Shion dojo had active kendo clubs at Estepona and Benalmadena. As we are based halfway between the two, I have the option of four keiko sessions per week. The other plus is that as the Costa del Sol is such a popular holiday destination, we get lots of kendo visitors.

Jacques van Alsenoy, 6th dan from Antwerp is a regular summer visitor and we made a mental note to train together when we were both here. Unfortunately Jacques was due to drive home the day after we arrived. Nevertheless, we both made it to the dojo on Tuesday and we had a really enjoyable keiko.

Friday saw the beginning of a seminar run by Mikko Salonen, kyoshi 7 dan, Makrus Frey, kyoshi  7 dan and Susanna Porevuo renshi 6 dan. On Friday I joined the seminar for the final keiko before enjoying tapas with Fernando, the Shion shihan and the Finnish group. On Saturday my colleagues bumped me up to be (a working) shinpancho for a Spanish open competition. It was great fun to referee with Mikko and Marcus as we have all previously worked together in European and World Championships.

For me the best part of every seminar or taikai is the open keiko session and I enjoyed my practice with kendoka from Spain, Estonia and had a great 1 on 1 with Mikko.

Sayonara parties have various formats, but Shion have their own take on the way it should be done. Fernando and his family provided a wonderful beach barbecue party, with sardines cooked over olive wood and home-made gazpacho and tortillas. Our schedule did not allow me to take part in the final Sunday session, but I am already starting to think about next week’s schedule at Mumeishi  when I look forward  to welcoming  Sueno sensei,  hanshi, hachidan  to the U.K.

As far as my friends in Spain are concerned, the story continues. My friend and sempai, Hayashi Kozo  sensei , kyoshi, hachidan is coming to the  UK to run a seminar  in October and we hope to extend the trip by a few days so that he can enjoy the hospitality of Shion dojo on the 25thand 26th of October.