Teaching at the last seminar in Ireland was illuminating as there were a number of new kendoka who were working very hard to establish the basis of good kendo foot movement. This made me reflect on how important it is to perfect the basics before you can move on to learn more complex kendo technique.
Certainly from a western perspective the concept of suri ashi, (sliding feet) and okuri ashi, (moving the foot facing the direction you move in) is alien: We learn to walk heel- toe, lifting the leg from the knee and transferring the weight from the back to the front of the foot. Kendo foot movement developed in Japan at a time when people were used to wearing geta and zori and needed to slide their feet forward.
The repercussions of heel toe walking are still obvious, with many beginners instinctively pulling from the front foot rather than pushing from the back foot.
The key points to remember are that the back leg should be tense with the heel only slightly raised, (just 15 degrees). The knee of the front leg should be slightly bent and the foot should be parallel to the ground, as if a thin sheet of paper were between it and the floor. In the words of Matsumoto Toshio sensei, the movement should be, “like a cat walking”.
Everyone is taught that the toes of the left foot should be in line with the heel of the right and that there should be a fist’s distance in width between them. I think that this can vary. If you have sufficient leg power, then there is no reason why your feet should not be further apart. The width between them should also depend on your own body shape and size. What I am trying to say is that your feet should be in a position that feels comfortable and stable.
In my view, the most important element is hikitsuke, the process of drawing the back foot to its relative position with the front foot as soon as you move forward or make fumikomi to strike. In this way you maintain balance and the ability to move forward instantly.