Archive for the ‘Kendo instruction’ Category

bulbAt the few dojo where I am a regular attendee, I enjoy teaching people whom I know. Each of us tend to learn in different ways, so knowing their learning style and motivation it becomes easier to transmit information in a way that appeals to them. When I teach at seminars, often in different countries, it is more of a challenge. Trying to motivate people whom you hardly know is not an easy job.

The fact that they come to seminars is an indication that they want to improve and build on their kendo. I point this out because there are many kenshi who have reached a level that they are happy with and who see kendo training as a way to enjoy exercise and fellowship, not a lifelong quest for self-improvement. Those that come to these events, come to learn, but we each have our preferred way of absorbing information.

There are people who respond to criticism and others who get the most from encouragement. Some appreciate the traditional approach of watching a technique demonstrated then being given the chance to try it themselves, others like to understand the reason behind the technique and contemplate how and when to deploy it. There are some who need to break each action down to its smallest part and then build the technique from the components and a lucky few who have the ability to see something once and then do it in its entirety.

Over the weekend I was teaching at a seminar in Brussels and all seemed to be going well. I noticed one individual who was concentrating hard and producing some good men attacks. With kote however he tended to tense up and almost crouch as he hit. I jokingly tried to give him a shoulder massage which was received with a degree of indignation.

Further into the our training, I decided to point out what he was doing and had a quite word without bringing it to everyone’s attention. I was told that I was mistaken and that he was perfectly happy with the way things were going, so I decided to keep my unwanted advice to myself.

We finished the day with mawari geiko. When we met I decided to take advantage of his crouch into kote and every time this happened I hit his men. At the end of the session he came over to bow and thanked me profusely for correcting his kote. As they say everyone is different.

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Capture yOU tUBEWe use video in a number of different ways for to help learn kendo. There are a few of Japanese instruction books that come complete with DVDs. These can be easier to follow than still photographs or book illustrations.  Many people learn by watching videos or YouTube clips of top level shiai players or of high ranked kendo teachers.

Some kenshi also like to video themselves or their students as a way to highlight bad habits that need fixing. I am in two minds about doing this. Watching yourself in action is a way to objectively understand what you are doing correctly and what is wrong, but this can have a negative effect on self-confidence.

When I look at clips of my kendo or the few keiko or shiai that other people have filmed and posted on YouTube, the disappointment at the opportunities I see myself missing or messing up outweighs any feeling of pleasure for the techniques that succeeded.  Perhaps it is a reflection of my own tendency to be self-critical, but watching a bad or mediocre performance can be very discouraging. Instead I prefer to keep an image in my mind of the quality of kendo that I aspire to and to work towards this, measuring improvement by the way I feel rather than by visual evidence.

This does not mean that I don’t like criticism. I positively enjoy advice from senior instructors and welcome input from peers if they see me doing something wrong. It is just seeing my mistakes on film that I find cringe worthy.

I am not alone in this view. I have spoken to a number of hachidan who are constantly having their tachiai and seminar teaching uploaded to the internet and have been told by several of them that they feel uncomfortable at having what they do not consider to be their best performances broadcast around the globe. Of course the rest of us less expert kenshi would give anything to be able to emulate these masters on a bad day.

To some extent this self-examination is typical of kendo, where we all constantly strive to be better. A kendoka who sits in front of the screen watching himself and whispering “Damn I’m good” or words to that effect would hardly inspire confidence.

Another interesting take on YouTube came from a hanshi who will remain nameless. He told we that he worries about the numerous uploads as they help his wife keep track of him. It is not so much the seminar and shiai posts that worry him, more the after keiko parties.

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MountainI spent this weekend at a seminar which finished with a grading examination. One of the candidates who failed asked for feedback  and when I explained that the reason was failure to actively strike their opponent, I was told that it was the fault of my co-instructor who had advised that strikes should not be heavy. The candidate had responded to this advice by just reaching forward with the shinai as their opponent came towards them.

I did my best to explain that there was probably some misunderstanding and what my colleague had meant was that they should not make heavy downward strikes but that the feeling should be one of going forward. Of course this did not mean that the hit should not be sharp. In my experience this is a common misunderstanding. We should still strike downwards but our body should move straight ahead. In short you can’t get ippon without hitting.

It is not surprising that people get muddled on this point. In kendo we talk about oshigiri or push cutting, but to do this we have to deliver the datotsu bu of the shinai to the target area before we continue to cut forward with our body movement.

To do this you have to learn to relax so that you can deliver a downward strike whilst pushing forward from your left foot. You can then make a sharp strike using your shoulders, elbows and wrists, whilst at the same time accelerating forward using our feet and hips and as we discussed last week, the force of our kiai.

This type of confusion is common in our kendo careers when we tend to swing backwards and forwards from one extreme to another. We are told to make our big strikes smaller by one teacher and the next sensei tells us to make our small cuts bigger. We are advised to attack less frequently and then told to increase our work rate. Incredibly most of this advice will be relevant, but it is based on what the advising sensei sees on the day. There is some good news, in my experience this conflicting information starts to slow down as you develop your kendo.

There is of course a difference in the approach of various instructors and as the saying goes “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”. When you attend seminars or visit dojo, the advice you may receive is based on what the teacher sees on the day. Of course kendo reigi dictates an answer of “yes thank you” rather than a discussion of what the last guy said. However it makes sense to take the new information away with you and reflect on how it will affect your kendo before incorporating it into your keiko.

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Nagamatsu senseiAs well as escaping a week of the British winter for the sunny south of Spain I had the pleasure of meeting Nagamatsu sensei from Hyogo Kendo Federation who was on the second stop of his teaching tour of Spain, which takes in Madrid, Malaga, Valencia and Santander. Nagamatsu sensei is a hachidan, former Hyogo police instructor who is now shihan of Kwansei Gakuin University.

I was able to take part in the first of his teaching sessions in Malaga which took place at Shion Dojo’s Estepona location. After an introduction where he talked about correct rei , sonkyo and posture, sensei spent much of the two hour session looking at everyone’s basics and made a number of very interesting observations after watching men suburi.

He stated that the weight of the cut should be in the shinai’s monouchi and that we should aim for maximum extension using the shoulders, elbows, wrists and tenouchi in that order. He also made the point that the feet and abdomen should play a key part in the striking process, using the analogy, ichi-gan, ni-soku, san-tan, shi-riki. (first sight, second feet, third abdomen, fourth power / waza).

Sensei was emphatic that the shinai should be raised to only at a 45 degree angle and not allowed to go back beyond that. I have heard this many times before and always try to give the same advice myself, but Nagamatsu sensei’s explanation of why was enlightening.  His view was that 45 degrees is the natural extension angle of the shoulder joint and that if we reach back beyond this point then we have to change our grip.

By keeping to the 45 degree rule we are able to lift the shinai and strike in the timing of one (ichibyoshi). If we go beyond that point, we follow a timing of two, as the movement is broken as we rearrange the positions of our fingers on the tsuka.

We then had a jigeiko session where sensei took great trouble to work with people on their individual strengths and challenges. Some tired but happy kenshi then headed for some very welcome beer and tapas at a local bar. Unfortunately I only had the chance to attend one of the three sessions before my own travel schedule took me in a different direction, but for me it was a much appreciated learning experience and I am sure that my friends in Malaga will make some real progress on the back of Nagamatsu sensei’s teaching.

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Copy of P1010028It is easy for kendo teachers to get into a rut. We all have our favourite drills and exercises and there is a very real danger that every kihon session is a repeat of the last. The obvious argument against this is “if it works why change it”. I would suggest however that by varying our training routine we stop students from getting bored and therefore keep them more engaged.

An example is suburi. Many clubs regularly follow warming up exercises with the same suburi every session. They do the same number of repetitions of the same sets of jogi-buri, naname-buri, shomen-suburi, zenshinkotai-suburi and hayasuburi. As a result I often see people coast. They just go through the motions of swinging the shinai backwards and forwards without concentrating. To my mind it then becomes just a continuation of the warm-up and misses out on its main purpose, which is to improve ki-ken-tai-itchi , posture, tenouchi  and  hasuji.

As an antidote I started the New Year practice at Sanshukan with an idea borrowed from Chiba sensei. This time we worked in pairs with motodachi receiving on a shinai held above his head and counting to two hundred. Kakarite delivered that number of strikes whilst working on making the attacks both relaxed and sharp. The fact that we were doing something different was as valuable as the exercise itself and the next set of drills looked better than usual when performed by kenshi with tired shoulders. It is my opinion that we should regularly vary all of our drills. Kirikaeshi can be performed fast or slow, with suriashi or fumikomi-ashi. We can change the number of strikes, do it backwards and forwards across the length of the dojo, even swap men for dou strikes or combine them both.

The same goes for most drills. Rather than always following a set pattern of shikake waza  and ojiwaza, vary the routine. Have a session where you just try kote attacks and work on the relevant counter techniques, then devote another day to practise only men and oji waza against men. The objective with all these exercises is to focus on each technique and for everyone to develop and perform it to the best of their ability. There are techniques that some people will find harder than others, but even if it is not their favourite, they should work on it and earmark it for more effort in the future.

Everyone wants to improve their kendo, so as instructors we need to make training interesting to keep people engaged.

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Repetitive Reiho

ritsureiI have touched on the subject of reigi numerous times in this blog and I am prompted to make it my topic again after a conversation that I had last week with a student who helps teach a regular beginners’ lesson. One of his colleague instructors defers to him when it comes to teaching the rules of kendo etiquette on the basis that “he likes reigi”. As he explained to me, he has no particular like or dislike of the subject, but having originally been taught by Japanese instructors and regularly nagged by me on the subject, he sees reigi as an integral part of kendo.

In my view the level to which reigi is displayed in the dojo is not open to discussion. It is a fundamental expression of our regard for others and without it kendo turns into a brawl with sticks. The rules of reigi, or more correctly reigi saho (the outward expression of etiquette) are not negotiable and are either correct or not.

From day one beginners should be taught how to behave in the dojo, how to bow correctly, how to treat the shinai as a sword and how and when to speak in the dojo. The latter point is best summed up by “as little as possible”. The instruction of etiquette should be delivered as a basic part of kendo teaching. The physical elements of reigi saho should be absorbed by the student from day one. If someone is capable of delivering a great men attack but cannot bow correctly, what they are producing is not kendo but a pale imitation.

I regularly hear the argument that kendoists outside Japan should not have to be part of a behaviour system that was formulated in the Japanese feudal period. I believe that the answer is that kendo is above all, a vehicle for personal development and that by physically observing and perfecting its courtesies, the practitioner develops an understanding that will have a long-term effect on his or her relationships with others, both in and outside the dojo.

The way you bow and stand in the dojo, the way you put on and take off your bogu and the way you thank people before and after keiko should be repeatedly polished. When these are correct and become a natural part of your behaviour they automatically improve your kendo technique and maybe make you a nicer person.

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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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Beginners2I don’t often teach beginners kendo classes. In both dojo that I frequent there are a number of people who do a very good job of getting people started. I usually only run the sessions for more experienced kenshi, which frankly is less difficult than taking people from zero to a level where they can join the main group. Those of us who have been training for a while have shared terms of reference, so that although it might be hard to change ingrained habits, we at least are aware of what we should do to achieve change. The instructor’s job is one of reminding people what to work on. With beginners the instructor is laying the foundations for their future kendo lives. With this in mind, I recently took on a six week beginner course at Sanshukan, my local dojo.

I am now three weeks in to what can be no more than a “taster” programme with 16 keen new kendoka of various shapes, sizes, ages and levels of physical ability. My challenge is to create an interesting experience for them, while at the same time trying to build a correct base which avoids creating habits that will have to be unlearned in the future.

In the past in Japan, the solution would probably have been to force them to spend a year practicing suburi in a corner of the dojo before grading them shodan. In the UK in 2015, we have as much an obligation to keep everyone engaged as we do to foster good kendo basics.

My first surprise with our new intake was that with the exception of one student, who tried kendo briefly in Japan, no one in the group had actually seen kendo. To remedy this, on week one I called on senior members of different ages to demonstrate what we are aiming for. This seemed to make most people more interested, although we lost 2 whose expectations may have been more Ninja Turtle than FIK.

Since then I have been trying to provide a balance of education and entertainment. Of course we have been involved in the serious business of drilling on kamae, footwork, posture, correct cutting and tenouchi etc. Suburi plays an important part, but It is very difficult for a first-timer to judge the sharpness of a strike just by cutting air, so they are also hitting uchikomi-bo and shinai.

I have also persuaded some of the seniors to put on their bogu and be used as targets for attacks made with differing levels of control.  A number of the newbies have expressed their enjoyment in hitting real people. We ran a mid-term customer satisfaction survey and people who did not drop out on week one seem to still be engaged . They also appear to be picking up some rudimentary kendo skills.

Whether anyone will stick at it once motodachi start hitting back is is anybody’s guess.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men1There has always been a debate in kendo about how far back your hands should go in the back-swing preceding a men strike. Some sensei will tell you that the shinai should stop at a 45 degree angle with the left hand held just above the mengane, others will advise you to bring the left hand back in line with the back of your men. Less frequently in waza geiko and jigeiko, but certainly in suburi there is a school of thought that says the hands should go to the back of your neck and that your shinai should hit your buttocks before you bring it forward.

You will also probably have had varied instruction on the ideal shape of the cut and path that the shinai should travel. Different schools of thought include pushing the point forward throughout the backswing and cut, keeping your left hand at the same distance from all parts of the body as you raise the shinai, bringing the point back so that the shinai is horizontal when above your head and the list goes on.

To quote the Japanese Proverb, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. Most kendo teachers would agree that theirs is not the only way to hit men, but it is a way of making their students use their shoulders, elbows and wrists when doing so. The key point is to teach students to relax their arms and push up with the left hand, using all three joints as they do so.  The right hand then follows using minimal force until it’s time to make tenouchi.

It is not essential to make big cuts in kendo, but until you can do so correctly, it is unlikely that you will be successful making small strikes. If you ask a raw beginner to make a small attack to kote, where the point of the shinai moves only a few centimetres, he or she will probably do so by using the left hand as a pivot and make the strike with the power of their right hand.   If when they do this you talk about using the power of the left hand, it would be very difficult to put into effect.

On the other hand, by asking them to bring their hands up to above or behind their heads, you teach them to cut correctly. Once they can do this then the next challenge is to reduce the size of the cut, replacing the momentum of a big swing with sharp tenouchi.

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8THAfter starting last week’s slightly heated debate about the value of learning kata from Japanese sensei. I should make it clear that I have always valued the instruction and guidance of senior teachers and I try to both reflect this in my own keiko and the advice that I give others. Kendo has a clear hierarchy and those of us who are, or have been privileged to learn from those at the top are fortunate.

Whilst there are a number of 9th dan sensei still with us, Hanshi  8th dan is now the pinnacle of kendo achievement. Kyoshi 8th Dan follows and then Kyoshi  7th dan and Renshi 7th dan and 6th dan. There are a handful of 8th dans outside of Japan and Korea, but by and large kenshi from other countries are lucky to be taught by a 7th or 6th dan.

What is not taken into account is that thanks to the ZNKR and the individual efforts of many senior sensei, the kendo world is now a very small place. Many of the eminent hanshi now travel the globe on a regular basis, leading seminars, helping with taikai and generally spreading their knowledge to the international kendo community.  Often during these trips they are available for keiko to all comers, which is a very different scenario to their accessibility at home.

Japanese friends who have attended seminars in Europe have been astounded that a British shodan may only have to wait for minutes to practice with a famous hanshi, when a Japanese 7th dan could spend an hour in line at the Budokan godogeiko or the Kyoto Taikai asageiko without reaching the head of the queue before yame is called.

Of course these teachers are as active and as generous in their home country, but they have a limited amount of time, so often it is only close students who benefit from regular one- on-one training. More often than not it is a case of transmission down the grades.

I have personally been very lucky in benefiting from the help of many important kendo teachers over the years both overseas and in Japan. In my younger days in Japan however, nothing came easily. It was a matter of putting in the time and effort and proving that you were worth a few minutes of sensei’s time before your existence was acknowledged.

I am looking forward to my next year’s first practice on January 2nd. If I take a bit of extra time in mokuso it is because I will be thinking of all the teachers, past and present who have given so much to make kendo such a treasured experience.

Happy New Year! Rainen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

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