I briefly mentioned in my last post that a friend who recently returned to Japan was surprised at having to wait for 45 minutes of a one hour practice for keiko with a hachidan sensei in the Osaka Shudokan. George who witnessed and commented on the scene, will I am sure, back me up when I say this is not an unusual situation.
At the shudokan, or any of the big civic dojo in Japan, you have to be quick and determined to practise with any of the senior sensei. The rule of thumb when I was regularly training there, was that you could have 2 keiko with hachidan , 4 with nanadan, or up to 8 at peer level in the allotted hour.
Getting face time with senior sensei is an acquired skill. You need to put your men on faster than any of your rivals and be prepared to run to position whilst pulling your kote on. Some kendoka train themselves to tie their men in record time, others develop ingenious ways to pre-tie their men so that it can be slipped on instantly.
These skills are equally useful for the monthly godokeiko sessions at the Nippon Budokan or asa-geiko at the Kyoto Taikai. Even though there may be 200+ hachidan in attendance, the chance of getting to your favourite hanshi is close to nil. On one occasion in Kyoto I made it my goal to be first in line with Sumi sensei. I got up at 4.30 a.m. , arrived almost an hour before practice started and placed myself approximately in front of the spot where he would be sitting. Fortunately for him, not so for me, he had been awarded hanshi the previous day, so whilst he initially sat facing the spot where I was waiting; he was pushed up the line by the longer time served, but still kyoshi sensei. I had to run an extra 20 metres to beat the queue and finished 5th in line. Nevertheless I got my keiko.
Keiko with senior teachers offers two opportunities, one to practise with them and benefit from their advice; plus the chance to watch them with other students whilst you wait. The watching or mitorigeiko part becomes more interesting if sensei’s opponents are other kodansha. The downside is that usually they have the right to queue jump. This is a sensible arrangement as it allows them to get back to acting as motodachi with a minimum of delay. If however you are last in line and there is five minutes of keiko time left and someone steps in front of you, you may not see it that way.
Returning to the challenges of making the most of your time in the dojo, the Japanese system for adult kendoka is essentially, well, adult. You can invest your time in waiting to train with the top teachers, or if you think it is needed, you can stay at the shimoseki end of the dojo and practice kihon geiko with a buddy of your own grade. As long as you take your keiko seriously no-one will mind.