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Archive for the ‘kendo basics’ Category

Sueno senseiMumeishio dojo was fortunate to receive a visit last tuesday from Sueno Eiji sensei, hanshi  hachidan and former All Japan Champion.

Sensei instructed a kihon session before taking on all comers for jigeiko. He made a number of important points over the course of the evening and as per previous visits commented on the importance of correct cutting. After giving everyone the opportunity to try the ojiwaza of their choice against men and kote, he demonstrated how to control body movement so that they benefitted from the attackers forward momentum. Although most oji techniques are delivered moving forward, there is no need to continue across the dojo for numerous steps as in the case of shikake waza , instead it is enough to make a sharp attack and then to immediately assume zanshin, letting your opponent do most of the hard work.

Sueno sensei also talked about the preparation for ojiwaza and compared the difficulty of waiting and trying to counter your opponents timing rather than using seme and hikidasu to make him attack at a time when you are ready for him. He demonstrated applying and releasing pressure so that the attacker is drawn into your space and timing and therefore is unable to escape your trap.

Hi final comments after jigeiko however were much more concerned with basics. “The movement of our hands in kendo should be up and down”. He moved his open hands in a straight line from the wrists so that fingers were angled first up then down. He then showed us how many people were using their hands, and that the right hand was either pushing over to the left, or the right wrist was twisting inwards so that the shinai was either at an angle or turned to hit with the side edge. He also inferred that using our right hand in this way was likely to spoil our posture and balance.

So simple but extremely valuable advice – hands should be soft and flexible and like our elbows and shoulders move in a straight up and down motion, allowing us to hit the target accurately and sharply without wasting energy.

Thanks from all at Mumeishi to Sueno sensei. We look forward to your next visit.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men1When I trained last month in Osaka Shudokan, Hayashi Kozo sensei introduced us to a method of practising kiri-kaeshi slowly with suriashi footwork. He explained that the objective of the exercise to learn to use our shoulders in a relaxed way whilst concentrating on correct tenouchi and hasuji. Since returning to the UK I have copied this in a number of our sessions. We start with 3 or 4 repetitions at this speed then build up to normal speed kirikaeshi before going on to other kihon drills.

Watching people go through this routine, it is fairly obvious that most of us can make big cuts correctly in slow motion, but when we make the action smaller or faster, shoulders tend to stiffen and we make too much use of the strength of our right arm. This is particularly true of kote, where many people keep their left hand static and use just right hand power to deliver the strike. I have even seen examples where the downward force of the strike is exaggerated by also pushing the left hand down.

Preventing such bad habits is the reason for constantly coming back to basics. We need to train so that we can strike with relaxed shoulders, elbows and wrists and add snap with tenouchi. Whether we are cutting kote, men or dou, large or small, fast or slow, we need to do so with the timing of one; lifting and striking in the same movement. This works in exactly the same way for shikake and oji waza.

To strike men all you need do is push your left hand up and let gravity do the rest. For kote the shortest route to the target is best, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the cut is made with a forward movement from the left hand, not a downward movement from the right. If your shoulders and arms are relaxed you will feel the impact of a successful hit not in your hands but in your abdomen as you move forward.

Kirikaeshi is not the only way to achieve this, but we need to practice cutting in a fluid relaxed way. If not through kirikaeshi then through suburi or repeated strikes against a partners shinai. We should start big and then if we can hit in a relaxed way then we can make the movement smaller. As an afterthought, small does not necessarily mean quick. I have seen accomplished kendoka make a big men strike in less time than a less experience kenshi needs to make a small kote.

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Suburi with partner

Suburi with partner

Many years ago I visited a new dojo in a fairly remote part of the UK and watched the only two members run through a two hour kihon geiko session, practicing almost every technique in the kendo repertoire. Both deserved full marks for stamina and memory, but I wondered how much benefit they were getting from the session.

Almost every high level teacher that I have had the privilege of training with tends to tailor their training sessions around a particular theme, often limiting the waza taught to a very small number to ensure that they sink in. I have seen whole two day seminars limited to the correct way to strike shikake men; building up through static suburi to suburi engaging the feet, then including approach and seme, fumikomi and then zanshin. The correct way the use the grip or tenouchi to finish the attack crisply often warrants a teaching session in itself.

In the eyes of some kendoka this amount of drilling down becomes tedious, perhaps it is because we should, and often do, devote large chunks of our training sessions to these basic elements. In other sports it is the serious perfectionists only who are aware of the value of breaking technique down to the smallest component part. Of the millions of amateur golfers, it is a few deadly serious players who take the trouble to take lessons from the club pro. These normally focus on the minute analysis and reconstruction of the individuals swing. We call it suburi.

Most hanshi stress the value of correct suburi, Sueno sensei says if you can’t do correct suburi you can’t do kendo, Iwadate sensei focussed on big suburi to ensure that the cut is centralised; Chiba sensei regularly emphasised that 3000 continuous suburi a day were his path to success.

I am as guilty as the next kenshi in not doing enough suburi. I normally practice a hundred or so as part of the warm up to each keiko session and include a few more in front of the mirror when I have the chance, but I am sure that including more suburi in my keiko would do nothing but good. Suburi is the foundation on which we can build strong kendo.

Practising a kendo waza over and over again allows you to use it in keiko or shiai without thinking. If you then extend the suburi through uchikomi training with an opponent it becomes even more ingrained.  So although it may seem tedious, constant repetition and attention to detail is the way to success.

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Courtesy of eBay

Courtesy of eBay

We have scheduled a kyu grading at my local dojo for this coming Thursday and we were discussing the format. My preference is that candidates who are taking their first kendo examination should be allowed to demonstrate basic technique without the pressure of fighting for opportunities against an opponent, or being constrained by wearing men and kote. The requirement would be for them to deliver kirikaeshi and a pre-arranged sequence of kihon attacks against an armoured motodachi.  Another option or possible addition is the inclusion of the “Bokuto ni yoru Kendo Kihon Keiko-ho” or Training Method for Fundamental Technique with Bokuto.

My rationale is that it is difficult enough to learn correct technique and footwork without the added complication of understanding an opponent’s timing, particularly if he or she is equally new to kendo. There is also a danger that when new kendoka are told to “fight” there is a temptation to block or move to avoid being hit, whereas if they are in the role of kakarite, they can concentrate on correct technique and posture.

Grading examinations really are the “tip of the iceberg”.  There is an often quoted urban myth that pre-war, adult beginners in some Japanese dojo were left to practice suburi in a quiet corner for at least a year and then admitted to the dan ranks. In the present day UK, it is more likely that you will get to wear bogu after your 6 or 8 week beginners’ course.

Wearing men and kote too can be more challenging than experienced kenshi realise. Of course using these essential pieces of kendo kit eventually becomes second nature, but I have seen several instances of beginners quitting because the feeling of being blinkered by a men or being hit on the head felt so unnatural. On the other hand some brave individuals, who start kendo with the image of the armoured samurai, ready to do battle from day one in mind, find it hard to be patient while they are learning the basics.

Buying bogu too early in your kendo career can be as punitive financially as it is in terms of technique development.  eBay and the kendo message boards regularly have used bogu for sale and I am sure that there is much more stashed in cupboards and attics against the slim chance of the owner starting again.

I am interested in your views on when we should start wearing bogu. Should we get the basics right first, or is it better to at least have a taste of keiko in armour during the early stages of our kendo careers?

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Seiza 5I once spent an enlightening thirty or so minutes sitting in seiza listenting to a post keiko lecture from Kaku sensei in Nara. Kaku sensei’s theme was Hidari de motsu, hidari de utsu. “You hold with your left (hand) and hit with your left” The driving force behind the lecture was that kaku sensei had observed that many of the students at the practice were using too much right hand power and were therefore not striking effectively.

The extended seiza must have helped drive this lesson home, because it is easy to see that many of the problems of overextension, poor posture and inaccurate cutting are caused by the application of too much right hand power. The stiffness that we looked at in my last post is often “one sided” caused by the overuse of the right arm.
Many people overuse the right hand in an attempt to make small waza. The left hand becomes a fixed pivot and their cutting action is based on pulling the shinai back and pushing it forward with the right hand almost as if they were trying to touch their own nose with the shinai. Whilst this might appear to make the attack quicker it typically has the opposite effect.

Correct cutting whether large or small relies on the left hand raising the shinai to a point where it can be brought down on the target. The right hand is very much the junior partner and follows the left hand on its upward path and only makes a real contribution by squeezing to make tenouchi after the point of impact. In the case of men uchi this means raising the left hand to a point above your own men gane and then striking down. The right arm should be relaxed and not over straightened on the point of hitting. There should be a very slight flexion in your elbow and both shoulders should be square-on to the target.

With small techniques such as kote, the left hand should play its part, even if it is to lift the shinai no higher than the point of your opponent’s shinai. In this case it is a matter of striking sharply forward rather than down, but it is the left hand that does most of the work.

The benefits of doing this are enormous. It allows you to stay relaxed and to keep your posture correct and remain square on to your opponent. When your posture is correct you can push more easily from the left foot, maintaining correct ki-ken-tai-itchi and the shinai is more likely to hit the correct part of the target with sharp sae. The added bonus is you use far less energy.

So whilst my knees complained at the time. I owe a vote of thanks to Kaku sensei for the lecture.

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Often when I am teaching or watching others teach kendo, I find that waza drills take considerably longer than the time allocated to them. This is because I and most other instructors like to break techniques down to their constituent parts and build up to the finished technique.

I am sure that you know the sort of thing I mean. For instance, men suriage men; where kakarite starts by attacking men at close distance, then motodachi responds by sliding his shinai up against the down stroke and when he gets that right he moves on to striking men in response. When it’s all working, both parties build distance and speed to approximate a real-time opportunity. Well that is the theory anyway.

What invariably happens is that at the most basic stage, the instructor notices fundamental flaws with posture, or footwork, or grip and then tries to correct that before moving on. This is of course a far bigger task than anticipated and sometimes, when the class has a high proportion of less experienced kenshi; it never gets out of the correcting basics stage. It could of course be argued that this happens because the teacher is asking students to practice new techniques before they are ready to try them, but as most kendo classes consist of mixed abilities, should we aim to stimulate the more advanced student or keep it within the ability level of the newest?

I personally am happy to practise the most basic techniques and can see the value of constantly repeating suburi and uchikomi drills for basic shikake men attacks, many instructors however are worried about losing students to boredom, if obvious progress is not confirmed by them learning more complex techniques.

I would be interested in to hear your thoughts and have included a simple poll for you to tell me about your level of experience and the elements of training that you are most regularly involved in.

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