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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.

Samurai3My recent kendo in or out of the Olympics poll produced an 80/20 vote in favour of out, against the 60/40 out at the time of the last Olympics. The poll and accompanying article also stimulated some well thought out comments which fell predominantly into the “out” camp.

On the evidence of this poll, and although as a former marketer I have learned never to trust surveys, I have leapt to the assumption that 80 per cent of us want to retain at least some of the traditions of kendo. I suspect though that there are many variations of understanding of what constitutes “traditional kendo”.

I have had a number of people tell me that “my dojo does traditional kendo”, explaining that they only practice big cuts, or that they avoid taking part in shiai. On the other hand I have been in many dojo in Japan,  including the Imperial Palace’s Sainekan and the old Noma Dojo, where  despite centuries of tradition, the kendo you see is effective modern competitive kendo.

Anyone who has read Alex Bennett’s excellent book, Kendo, Culture of the Sword can see how  kendo has adapted tradition through the ages, moving from the warriors art of medieval Japan to the reflection of samurai aesthetics in the Edo period, before becoming little more than street theatre when the samurai were dissolved. Kendo’s emergence into the early 20th Century was then blighted by being adopted by the ultra-nationalist cause.

Kendo as we know it has been in existence only since 1952, Under the stewardship of the AJKF kendo has been developed both as a sport and as a personal development methodology, utilising the techniques and ideals of traditional Japanese fencing. The Concept of Kendo is explained as “the way to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.”

To me this means training to reach a level where you can make effective strikes without thinking and at the same time treating your opponents, seniors, juniors and teachers with courtesy and respect. Kendo’s traditional system of reigi seems to provide a perfect framework to achieve this objective.

There are many Japanese sword arts and I can see the value of learning Iai or trying tameshigiri as an added extra is a great idea, but to my mind trying kesa-giri in your kendo keiko, or practising to be the perfect kaishakunin is taking tradition a step too far.

The ideal kendo session

Seiza 5Different people have different ideas on what constitutes the perfect practise session. Some are happy to arrive at the dojo, have a quick stretch, put their men on and enjoy an hour’s jigeiko. Others may prefer to concentrate on kihon drills for the whole session.

In my view there is no right answer. The way you structure your keiko depends on how much time you have to fill and the level and physical condition of those taking part. If you are lucky enough to have a number of kodansha in the dojo, then jigeiko can be a great learning experience. To be more precise what you are getting is hikitate-geiko, where sensei is taking a view of your strengths and weaknesses and stretching you to do a bit better. If there is one instructor teaching a class of students then a structured session built on demonstration and repetition is likely to be the best way forward.

The length of your training session also dictates what you do. My ideal kendo week would consist of five or six 45 minute to one hour practices, each conducted at maximum intensity. When you have two or 3 hours to fill, you need to bring in more variety and exercises that offer a change of pace. For example, start with kata or boken ni yoru kihon keikoho, move on to kihon drills, keeping them short and changing partners frequently and finally move to jigeiko.

With kihon drills it’s best to keep to a theme. It might simply be improving ki-ken-tai-itchi, or could be something more ambitious like incorporating seme into the attack. You can work on shikake-waza  one day and oji-waza on another, or you could practise men attacks and the oji-waza to use against them as part of the same session.  In drills like this it is important for both motodachi and kakarite to approach each technique with total commitment and not anticipate the others movement, otherwise you are in danger of producing the counter attack before the attack.

One other word of warning, don’t try to do too much. I have seen sessions which have included almost every technique in kendo. In this case it is difficult to remember what you have covered, let alone get any benefit from it.

However you approach each training session remember that the purpose is to improve your kendo, and to enjoy your time in the dojo.

Capture Olympic PollAt the time of writing this the Rio Olympics are coming to an end and the post that I wrote at the time of the London Olympics has had quite a few new visits.  This and the conversations I have had with kendo friends, make me think that kendo’s stance on the Olympic Games is still a hot topic for many people.

As part of that post, I included a poll which showed that the majority of readers were in favour of staying out with a vote of 62% to 38%. I would be interested in everyone’s thoughts this time round.

Perhaps I am softening with age, or am feeling my share of national pride at Britain’s medal haul in Rio, but I can now take a slightly more balanced view than I did four years ago. The pluses of kendo becoming an Olympic sport are that we would attract more players. With increased funding the level of kendo would improve globally, eroding the dominance of Japan and Korea.

In the minus column there is a very real probability that we would need to simplify our scoring system so that it was understandable to non-kenshi spectators. This could totally change the nature of kendo with the current values for yuko-datotsu being eroded. Without the insistence on valid strikes being based on the “Principles of the katana”, we would lose much of the spirit of kendo. Reiho would almost certainly suffer too as we develop a win-at-all-costs attitude.

One other change that is either good or bad depending on your point of view is that instructors and coaches might finally receive some payment for their efforts.

Along with many other people, I am confused about the amateur status of Olympic sport, particularly with the recent addition of professional golf and tennis to the games. Certainly the more successful competitors for many sports fall into the “paid to train” category and I am sure that kendo would soon see an increase in “professionalism” if admitted. Having said that it could be argued that police tokuren and dojang instructors fall into this category already.

Opinion is still polarised with The All Japan Kendo Federation staunchly refusing to join the Olympic movement for the reasons mentioned, but nevertheless taking Kendo into the Combat Games. The Korean Kendo Federation on the other hand continually lobbies for the inclusion of kendo, making impassioned speeches at FIK meetings and WKC referee meetings.

On balance I still come down in favour of staying out of the Olympics. Having spent almost 50 years treating kendo as a shugyo I would not like to see it devalued. I wonder though how much sentiment has changed over the past four years so I include a new poll and would appreciate you taking the time to tick a box.

 

HikimenHaving spent the past two weeks discussing the correct forms of zanshin for hiki waza, Olga reminded me that we have not looked at hiki waza as a technique.  Rather than start from scratch I have borrowed an excerpt from my book “Kendo a comprehensive guide. I have included Katsuya Masagaki’s excellent illustration for hiki men, which explains the technique far better than words alone. This is just one of a number of illustrations around the subject, which would make it worth looking at the book itself:-

Hiki waza fall into the category of shikake waza but are almost a class of technique on their own. Hiki waza are techniques made going backward from tsubazeriai. Men dou and kote can be done in this way. Only tsuki is not a viable hiki technique :-)

To get to tsubazeriai in the first place we normally push into close distance with our opponent using taiatari, so it is probably worth briefly describing how this should be done:

If after making a forward attack, your opponent is still directly in front of you pull your shinai towards your body and push forward using your hips. The secret to successful taiatari is not to compromise your posture. After hitting, keep your arms and shoulders relaxed, drop your hands into correct tsubazeriai, keep your balance between your feet and slightly drop your hips forward. This should be enough either to move your opponent, or at least to put you in safe, close distance, ready to make your next move

In tsubazeriai the omote side of the jinbu of the shinai should be crossed at the point above the tsuba. The shinai should not directly touch your opponent. Any variation to the above is classed as a tsubazeriai infringement and would earn a hansoku in shiai.

Hiki men

From tsubazeriai push your partner’s hands upwards. As he responds by pushing down he exposes his men. Lean back slightly and step back with your left foot, making sure that you create sufficient distance to strike the men with the datotsu bu of your shinai. As you strike men you should pull your right foot back, making fumikomi.  Zanshin should take the form of you continuing to move back to safe distance, keeping your shinai in chudan position.

Hiki gote

This time push your opponent’s hands to your left so that he pushes back to your right, opening his kote for attack. Moving in the same way as for hiki men, step back and strike kote. Remember that as his kote moves forward into kamae it is closer than men, so you will need to create sufficient distance.   2.28

Hiki dou

Again the process is the same. This time push his hands down and hit dou as he forces them up against your pressure.

 

Chiba JodanThank you Martin for giving me two topics to write about this week.  When I started this blog quite a few years ago, I was warned that a blog written by a seventh dan was doomed to failure because kendo’s respect system would kill debate. This has not been the case and Kendoinfo has received close to 2000 comments. Quite a few of these have been challenging, but nearly all  were good natured.

I don’t usually respond to comments, but commenting on the “stupidity” of someone’s view is not in line with kendo etiquette. It is also worth bearing in mind that the topic is kendo, not tameshigiri. I also can’t see how you made the assumptions that I advocate taking your eyes off or turning away from your opponent. The whole theme of my post was that zanshin is vital to kendo, and awareness of your opponent is the essence of zanshin.

Keeping these points out of the equation, our key disagreement is over the correct zanshin for hiki waza. You have suggested that keeping your shinai raised is both “furikaburi” and jodan.  Furikaburi means to swing up, not keep up, and jodan requires a great deal of hand foot coordination that goes beyond pointing your shinai skywards.  I remember Chiba sensei’s advice to a casual jodan player who asked him how to do better jodan. The answer was “stick to chudan”.

“Hit men as you step back and return to chudan” is not my invention. As part of the research for “Kendo a Comprehensive Guide” we looked at the writings of numerous famous sensei and they all advocated chudan as the end position for hiki-men. Looking at the available English language references, in both Ozawa sensei’s definitive guide and the AJKF’s Fundamental Kendo, the instruction is hit men and return to chudan. The AJKF’s “Official Guide for Kendo Instruction” takes things a step farther and cautions against hikiage as “an unacceptable action following a strike, such as exaggerated posturing after scoring a point in a match. This can result in the point being rescinded by the shinpan.”

I have always made a point of approving all comments to this blog and I thank you for contributing and look forward to hearing from you again. Please though, let’s keep within the spirit of kendo’s reigi.