Watching the start of a recent kihon session I was reminded of a fairground stall where the objective is to hit gophers with a mallet as they randomly pop up and disappear back into holes. People were starting to bow as their partner finished bowing; others were taking sonkyo as their opponent moved into kamae. Not a particularly unusual spectacle, but ask kendoka at almost any level of experience “when does keiko start” and they will tell you “from the first rei”. So, we have got the theory right, but we don’t always put it into practice.
In kendo as in sumo, the term tachiai is used to describe a bout or demonstration. Tachiai literally means to stand and meet and if you are lucky enough to watch high level kendo you will see that from the initial rei through to sonkyo and kamae there is total engagement between the two partners. Some teachers describe this as “mind contact” others talk about the meeting of ki (spirit or life-force). In fact this is the real meaning of the term kiai. At the highest level kendo calls for total awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings and even involves mirroring an opponent’s breathing, (aun no kokkyu).
Obviously it’s extremely difficult to reach this level of harmony. Doing so may take a lifetime’s practice. If we are to stand any chance of reaching this hallowed ground, we need to start by co-ordinating our physical movements from the earliest stages of our kendo careers.
When we make the initial standing rei before keiko, we should make eye contact, raise the shinai to the hip and bow 15 degrees from the waist in unison with our opponent. We then take the three steps forward at exactly the same time, moving as one into sonkyo; drawing the sword at the same time as we drop into position. When in sonkyo we should try to make contact with our mind as well as the tip of the sword. Only when we feel that this contact has been made should we stand up together.
When we stand, we should either keep our position or step slightly forward, never back or to the side. This is when we should take time to read our opponent before making the first kakegoe. Most of us can’t achieve aun kokkyu, but we can ensure that we breathe in quickly and retain our breath for as long as possible. We should release half of our air on the initial kiai and keep the remainder (nokori) to expel on our first strike.
Mind-reading may take a lifetime’s practice, but we can at least start by moving as if we can read our partner’s actions.