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I still love Kendo!

Apologies everyone for my long absence from posting in this blog! Last November we moved home. At the same time my wife was operated on for Brain Cancer, so kendo took a back seat.

In December I got the news that I have Stomach Cancer (one of Japan’s most popular). For a lifetime henna gaijin, it seems a remarkably appropriate disease. My lack of blogging is not so much a direct response to my illness, but for me training, teaching and writing are inextricably linked and I need the stimulation of all 3 (4 with refereeing)

Thanks to  great medical care and friend and family support I am continuing to enjoy life. I am still doing the job I enjoy and although I have given up on the big international engagements. I am still keeping up with many of my kendo commitments.

In the last two weeks I have taught and practised in a kendo class in Spain, run a referee’s seminar in Spain been shinpan shunin at Sunday’s Londo Cup and aim to run the big Watchet Kendo seminar in the UKs Somerset at the end of this month, with the help of some great 7th and 6th dan teachers. Best of all my buddy of 40 years from Japan, Hayashi Kyozo, kyoshi, hachidan is coming to the UK at the beginning of June, so I am hoping to be fit enough to receive yet another beating.

The one thing I do miss is my regular attendance at Mumeishi, either because of downsides in my chemotherapy cycle, or because the motorway from my home is permanently under repair at night and the journey home, causing me to break the curfew applied by my ever-caring wife. Still I try to get there when I can, and I am writing this now to congratulate and wish the best of luck to my colleagues, Yoshikawa Emiko sensei, who has been selected as a referee and to Sarfraz Aziz who will be fighting in this weekend’s European Championships in Budapest. Do it for the team guys!

I miss seeing many of your sweaty faces and hearing your knowledgeable comments in this blog, but as big Arnie says “I’ll be back”.

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Fixing fumikomi

stampThere seems to be a tendency amongst newer kenshi to lift the right foot too high when making fumikomi. This results in a seesaw motion and makes it difficult to equalise the balance between the feet and to bring the back foot up quickly in hikitsuke, ready for the next move.

There are lots of exercises designed to fix this fault, ranging from traditional footwork patterns up and down the dojo to lunges, with or without suburi. Some teachers use the idea of standing behind a line or court marking and throwing the right foot forwards as far as possible without moving the left.  In this way they encourage the flexion of the right knee. As I mentioned before, there is currently a very strong focus being applied to the practise of kihon using suriashi, (sliding footwork).

Everyone aspires to make a nice sharp slapping sound as the front foot hits the dojo floor and I suppose that there is certain logic in “the higher the drop, the louder the slap”. Only too often though, the end product is a sickening crunch as the heel hits the floor. In my view, the answer is to keep the foot close to the ground and strike the floor at a low angle. Pilots correct me if I have got it wrong, but it is a bit like bringing the pointy end down first.

If you bring your foot down at a shallow enough angle, you make maximum contact with the ball of your foot expelling the air between foot and floor and you then get a nice slapping sound. Remember to immediately bring your left foot up and you are ready to do it again.

A good way to set yourself up to make correct fumikomi is to first ensure that you start with your feet in the correct position and keep tension in the back of your left knee, at the same time have a slight bend in your right knee so that you are in a position to skim the floor with your foot. Immediately bring the left foot up so you are ready for the next step. Once you can do this, your hands and body come into play so that you can achieve ki-ken-tai-itchi and it’s job done.

On a slightly different tack, I had a bout of paranoia this week about the state of my kendo feet. I was offered and gratefully accepted a reflexology foot massage as part of some other medical treatment. I felt it was immediately necessary to explain away my kendo hooves to the charming lady doing the foot rub. To her credit she did not bat an eyelid and told me that as a keen dancer hers were pretty rough too.

Not drowning but waving!

FIK-Euro-Zone-referee-seminarFY2010-2I have been asked to deliver a referee’s seminar in the in UK in late spring. The purpose is to prepare people to take on this onerous task before those currently doing it become too old or too frail or too dead to continue.

I have very seldom heard of becoming a top referee as being high on the average kenshi’s bucket list. It comes a long way down from passing 8th dan, winning the All Japan/ World/European Championships, but like paying taxes we know we have to do it at some stage. Frankly refereeing is not cool. The last thing you are likely to hear from an exited group of high school kendo students leaving a shiai venue is “what did you think of the 3rd fight?” “Yeah, I thought the second fukushin was brilliant.”

Unfortunately like death and taxes there is a certain inevitability to becoming a referee, so we may as well try to do it as well as we can. The purpose of refereeing is to decide on valid yuko datotsu – strikes made on target, at the correct distance, with the correct blade angle and sharpness, in high spirits and followed by zanshin. You do this with your eyes and ears and you have to move in a way where you can constantly see both opponents and the signals of our colleague referees.

You also have to remember the senkoku commands, the flag signals and be responsible for the safety of the competitors without hindering the flow of the shiai. All of these elements are easily learned, but try them all together and chances are that even the most controlled, rational individual will look like a demented windmill undergoing a bout of Tourette’s.

Referees’ seminars can range from highly analytical whiteboard sessions where the finer points of yuko datotsu are discussed in detail to mass flag waving sessions reminiscent of a 1920’s youth rally. My ideal session falls somewhere between the two, with an emphasis on learning by doing, with the help of some constructive criticism from an instructor.

Usually space constraints do not allow more than one or two groups of referees to practise at the same time. For a reasonably well attended session, there are bound to be more onlookers than participants, making the 3 unlucky people in the shiai-jo particularly nervous.

What should be clear is that everyone is there to learn and we all learn by making mistakes. Once you have made your errors you can then go back to the side-lines and watch others make theirs. As long as you can laugh with, rather than at each other it becomes a rewarding experience.

Kendo childrenThe Japanese university kendo club is the perfect environment for learning and improving kendo. Usually with at least one high grade teacher to direct training and correct faults, members rely on each other as training partners.  Given that there is a maximum 4 year age and experience gap, groups are usually highly cohesive and supportive, with the more experienced seniors leading and encouraging their juniors. This encouragement may have occasionally in the past created some pressure for those at the front-end of the process, but most ex-university kendo players look back with appreciation at this stage of their kendo careers.

Those practising in general dojo face a much broader range of opponents. In smaller dojo, particularly in the West, if there are only a few of you, then you have no choice as to whom you practice with. Mawari-geiko may place you in front of a 25 year old 4th dan or a 60 year old rookie. In both cases the task is the same – to ensure that you each get the most value from each keiko.

There are some simple rules that guide us in most situations. If you are training with a much higher grade it is up to you to attack as well and as often as you can. If your opponent is your obvious junior you need to make and allow opportunities for him to attack. This all sounds fairly straightforward, but what do you do with partner of your own grade who is much older than you, or heaven forbid, a child who is much stronger than you.

The latter is not as unusual as it may sound. At Mumeishi we have had a number of junior and middle school champions in our kid’s classes who could knock spots off some of our adults. As a rule of thumb it is best to ensure that children train together or only with experienced motodachi, but at the occasional godogeiko, I have seen a few surprised seniors as these junior tornadoes attack from all directions. The key challenge when training with children, or much smaller adult opponents is to ensure that you work on your own seme and control the situation but avoid body contact or hitting too hard.

With older adults whose footwork might not be what it was, your objective could be to find good opportunities to attack against timing that is slightly different from that of younger kenshi.

Approached with the right mind-set, every keiko is a valuable experience, but if you are constantly training with the same few people then try to visit other dojo and practise with as many teachers as you can.

Lost Heroes

toda-senseishihan-chibaFirstly apologies for taking my longest ever time out from writing this blog. A troublesome house move and both my wife and I running into some health problems slowed things down a bit.

2016 has been a year where my baby boomer generation lost many of its heroes. The list of famous people who passed away seemed long and relentless. We were by no means untouched in kendo with the sad loss of Chiba sensei and now Toda sensei.

I was fortunate enough to get to know Chiba sensei well enough to write about him when he passed away earlier this year. Toda sensei I knew less well but had met him a number of times in France at the annual Orleans Seminar and again in Japan and at several international taika. All Japan Champion at the age of 22, he was a one Japan’s leading jodan players, becoming a double hero in his 50s by switching to nito and spearheading its revival.

A friendly sociable man he had both empathy for the people that he met and a great sense of fun.  I remember him demonstrating a good singing voice and some pretty mean guitar playing at a Kitamoto end of seminar party. The last time I spoke to him was at the referee’s training camp in Japan before the 15WKC. He was there to provide experience of refereeing nito matches. After one of his shiai which I witnessed from the sidelines, he delivered a particularly strong men strike which was not awarded ippon. I told him as he came from the shiai-jo that I was surprised that it did not score. His reply was that “you and I must both study harder”.

Chiba sensei and Toda sensei, I will be thinking of you both this New Year’s Eve. I am sure that your examples will give many people the strength and inspiration to build on kendo’s legacy in the coming years.

May I wish you all a happy, healthy and successful New Year.

Time out!

Excuse the silence. Kendo info is taking a week or two off to cope with the chaos of last week’s house move, Back as soon as I find the box with my hakama.box-1-457165-m

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.