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Archive for the ‘Kendo Technique’ Category

Sueno senseiSueno Eiji sensei, hanshi  hachidan is back in the UK and has taken us through two evenings and two long but enlightening days of instruction. The seminar evolved from a detailed look at suburi through to the best way to display you skills in grading examinations, but sensei’s overriding thesis was that kendo training should be a step-by-step process, based on getting each stage right before you move on to the next.

He summed this up by expanding on his previous remarks ”that you can’t do keiko if you can’t do suburi” by explaining that you need to be able to reach a good level of men suburi before attempting tobikomi men drills in armour. You should be able to make correct single men strikes before moving on to making renzoku waza. Your renzoku waza should be correct before attempting uchikomi-geiko, which you should perfect before trying kakari-geiko and you should only go on to ji-geiko when everything else is correct. Once you have all of these points straightened out, you should keep them on track by spending 50 minutes of each kendo hour on kihon and the remaining ten on ji-geiko.

Sensei’s most controversial point was that in suburi and uchi-komi our furi-kaburi (upswing) for men should not stop at the 45 degrees insisted upon by many other kendo teachers. Instead our hands should come back in a low arc past the top of our heads. He qualified this by saying that we should not bring them back to a point where he have to open our elbows, but that the swing should go back as far as it can while keeping the arms in correct cutting position.

When asked why 45 degrees is still recommended by many teachers, his answer was that it was written down many years ago but had since been rethought about and that many sensei just keep quoting conventional wisdom. He quoted an example of the seminar held before the All Japan 8th dan Championships where every participant regardless of what he usually taught was bringing his shinai back past the 45 degree point in the warm-up suburi.

Sueno sensei’s other repeated point was that you should relax your arms immediately after  striking men, so that the shinai could bounce upwards, allowing your forward motion and following zanshin to continue smoothly. As he said himself, “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”.

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Tsuki KatateWith exception of jodan and nito we don’t often use single handed techniques in kendo. This is understandable as they are seldom taught and are difficult to do well. Kendo is primarily the art of two handed fencing, but katate waza do exist and therefore have a place in the kendo tool kit.

The advantage of katate waza is that the give the player extra reach, the disadvantage is that they can make you break your posture and result in untidy looking kendo. To use them you need to be at a level where you have developed good posture and tenouchi.

Not all techniques can be performed with one hand, but two waza stand out as being relevant and useful when used in this way. One is katate tsuki the other kote katate nuki men. With both it is essential that you drop your right hand to your right hip as you start the technique.

Katate tsuki is useful against jodan, it gives you extra distance which takes away some of the jodan players advantage. To make it work you need to push forward with your left hand while rotating your wrist inwards. As you release your right hand from the tsuka, you should pull it in tight to your right hip. This has the effect of bracing your core and keeping your posture solid. It goes without saying that like morote tsuki, the move should result in a controlled in-off hit to eliminate the risk of injury to your opponent.

With kote nuki men, you avoid the kote by dropping your right hand to your hip as you raise your left hand to jodan height and immediately make a yoko men strike to your opponent’s right side. Again the benefit is that you gain extra distance. It is essential that you maintain good tenouchi and cut down rather than to the side. The target is between the men himo and the centre bar of the men. A roundhouse swipe to your training partner’s ear is unlikely to be well received.

These are useful waza but they are not ideal for beginners. You need to have developed good kendo basics and posture before trying these and I would suggest that you don’t try them in grading examinations. They are however useful shiai techniques and if used only occasionally can surprise your opponent.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men2One of the most common errors that I see from beginners, and in some cases from more experienced kenshi, is the habit of putting an extra step into their approach and attack. What I mean is that they start outside of striking distance; take a step towards their opponent, take another step whilst raising the shinai and another one when bringing it down. This is often compounded by using walking footwork, alternating the forward foot in in this three stage step, raise, and strike routine.

The correct action is of course to step into range maintaining chudan kamae then raise and lower the shinai in a continuous movement, simultaneously taking a second step to strike the target. This sound simple but some people find it difficult, particularly if they have become used to attacking in a one, two, three rhythm.

Raising the shinai whilst you are outside striking distance gives your opponent early warning of your intention. It also leaves you open to tsuki and dou, particularly if you spend a long time with your shinai raised. It also means that your technique, should you manage to strike the target is likely not to have correct ki-ken-tai-itchi, as it is difficult to coordinate hand and foot movement.

There are numerous ways however to correct this fault. A good start is to practice suburi, concentrating on making the up and down movement in the timing of one (ichibyoshi). You can also practise men drills stepping into your own uchima distance without lowering or lifting the point of your shinai and then raise it as you push off from the left foot and bring it sharply down on your opponent’s men as your right foot hits the floor. You should ensure that before pushing off you bring your left foot up to the correct position and that the ball of the foot has strong contact with the floor.

Once you succeed with this drill you can develop it using smaller strikes just powered by your forward movement and tenouchi.  Then with your partner’s co-operation you can work creating and breaking pressure to build a basis for debana men.

If you do suffer from the “one, two, three” syndrome, it is worth correcting the habit as early in your kendo career as you can. Having good basics makes it much easier to learn advanced techniques.

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Perfect MasterFollowing a recent post on kaeshi men, Helton asked for more information on which techniques work for tall people against shorter people and vice versa.

One of the best guides to understand which waza work in which situation is Chiba sensei’s book and DVD set “Perfect Master” , where he devotes a whole section to which techniques should be used in which circumstances. If you can get your hands on a copy this explains a lot about kikai or opportunity, whereas most kendo books describe technique in isolation.

There are of course some very obvious examples of shikake and oji waza that have a probability of success in different circumstances. Men works for tall people against shorter opponents, dou and kote are more likely to help smaller kenshi against the tall. Tsuki too works for small people, which was regularly demonstrated by Arima sensei of Osaka Police.

As we discussed, kaeshi men is difficult against a taller opponent as their hands or shinai get in the way of the target whereas kaeshi dou or nuki dou are much more likely to succeed. Helton points out that at a height of 2 metres suriage men works for him. Strangely enough at my 1m 73 it also works for me, but I think that is because we are sliding up against a downward strike so both shorter and taller people can use it successfully. On the other hand kiri-otoshi is almost impossible against a much taller opponent.

Against jodan we have a whole new set of challenges regardless of the respective height of each player. I would guess however that many jodan players are relatively tall. In this case as well as the text-book tsuki, keeping your shinai in hirasegan and threatening  kote and switching to men or threating men and switching to hit kote are worthwhile  ploys. Kaeshi men too seems to work against jodan regardless of height as the jodan players men is open once he makes his attack.

Nito is a nightmare. Variations of techniques against jodan are still relevant, but the kodachi is always there to block men attacks. In this case tsuki and dou are the major targets.

In all of these situations practise and experimentation are the only way to find what works for you against different opponents, and if you train regularly with the same few people, it is worth visiting other dojo to broaden your selection of partners.

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3_Oji_Men_Kaeshi_men4_5As part of yesterday’s kihon-geiko we worked on some oji-waza against men. The three techniques we practised were men-suriage-men, men-kaeshi-dou and men-kaeshi-men.

The first two techniques are old favourites, probably because raising the shinai to deflect or block a downward cut is relatively easy for a smaller person against a taller opponent. Kaeshi -men however is a challenge, because taller opponents will often have their hands in a higher position than mine, so that when I try to return the men strike I hit their shinai rather than an open men.

For anyone who is not familiar with kaeshi-men, this is a technique where you receive your opponent’s strike on one side of your shinai and to return it on the other side. So if you block on omote you return the strike to ura and vice versa. As I mentioned this technique is most effective for taller people against shorter opponents and at my unexceptional 173cm, the logical question is “why bother?”

On a practical level, I teach kenshi of all heights, so I need to know the technique well enough to demonstrate it to people who might find it useful. I also do from time to time come into contact with shorter opponents, so it is worth keeping in reserve for these rare occasions. I also think that we should practise all kendo techniques on a regular basis, whether or not they are our favourites.

Reasons for regularly working on a wide repertoire of techniques are numerous. Doing so ensures that you don’t rely on one or two waza, that you can select the most appropriate response for each attack and because trying different techniques generally helps with your timing, balance and movement.

Oji waza in general is about using your opponent’s momentum to make effective strikes with an economy of movement. With kaeshi-waza you usually meet your opponent’s shinai as you step forward on one foot and return the strike as you bring the other foot up to position. So for example, if you are receiving on omote, you do so as you make a diagonal step with the left foot and strike as your right foot moves into place. This is therefore a great opportunity to develop ki-ken- tai -itchi  with hiraki-ashi footwork.

So for me, whilst it is unlikely that I will get any taller, using this technique at least acts as a reminder that my feet should be in the right place when I make a strike.

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kaeshidoEveryone has their favourite techniques. I like ojikaeshi do and suriage men. One works against taller opponents and the other is useful against players of the same height or less. I find though, that if you rely on a limited number of techniques, you are easy to read and a skilled opponent will instantly be on his guard. So there is a conflict between the need to polish your best techniques and insure you have a varied selection of techniques to work with.

I was taught that to learn a technique you should practise it exclusively for three months. The way I understand this is that you should concentrate primarily on the waza that you wish to master during your kihon practice and to use it as much as possible in jigeiko, but not to the extent that your dojo mates become totally bored.

To be frank, It is much easier to concentrate on a specific technique if you are the senior party in jigeiko. You can decide on a technique that you will attempt a certain number of times in each practice with your juniors as a form of yakusoku-geiko. This is not possible when you are evenly matched or outclassed. When you stretch to become a useful opponent for senior kenshi , you have to give it 100 per cent;  attacking any target that presents itself as soon as you see the opportunity.

When should you start to “make it your own”?  I am not sure. If you start too early, you are in danger of ingraining bad habits. If you never find a technique that you prefer to all others, you have either reached  a level of munen mushin that many martial artists aspire to throughout their lives, or you simply have not got anything to work for you well enough to concentrate on it as a speciality.

The logical way forward is to practice all the techniques that are taught to you. If and when you find something that is particularly effective; then experiment with it. Try techniques against shorter and taller opponents, younger faster and older more experienced players, when you find something that works start to polish it.

The first of the shogo titles, Renshi, means amongst other things, polished person. Polished in this case applies to the whole person, not just to particular techniques that they are good at. However in Japanese practising and polishing can have the same meaning and as the old British proverb has it “practise makes perfect”.

Train to perfect your tokui waza, then put it away. Hide it until the opportunity to make the decisive strike presents itself and then just let it out.

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IMG_0259I am constantly surprised by the difficulty that many people have in striking dou correctly. Because it works best as an oji waza they wait until their opponent makes a men attack and attempt nuki or kaeshi dou. In most cases they wait too long and hit when their training partner has entered their distance. The result is that they either strike the front of the dou or have to push both hands over to the right so that there is no power behind the strike. In either case it is a waste of time and effort as neither is classed as yuko datotsu.

The other common misconception is that dou is a diagonal cut. This probably was the case when cutting with a katana. The objective was to cut from the armpit to the hip. If however you try this with a shinai it simply slips down off the target. When combined with late timing and too close distance the result is hira-uchi, striking with the side of the shinai, which is probably the worst sin that you could commit in the long list of crimes against correct dou.

Coming back for a reality check, we need to hit the correct target with the correct part of the shinai with correct intention and “high spirit” followed by zanshin. In my view this means giving the side of the dou a good whack with the datotsu bu of the shinai ensuring that we hit with the bottom take. To do this you need to be in front of your opponent at the time of the strike and consciously punch forward with your right hand whilst turning your wrist sharply inwards. Your left hand should be more or less in line with the centre of your body. Only after you have done this should you think about breaking your grip on the shinai and moving through diagonally. It is also essential to keep your eye on your opponent and to retake kamae as soon as you are in safe distance.

One of the excuses often given for cutting dou incorrectly is that the opponent moved too quickly and did not allow us the distance to get it right. The way to avoid this is as with all successful oji waza, we should control the timing of his attack by maintaining and the breaking pressure when we want him to move. This and the flexibility of your right wrist are the keys to success.

There is an exercise developed by Chiba sensei that helps you gain this correct cutting action. You practice yoko men or dou suburi, but do so turning your hands inwards on each stroke so that the path of the shinai is horizontal or parallel with the floor.  It is a way to gain the wrist flexibility that you need to make your dou attack effective.

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M AliAnother great question! This time from Guiherme in Brazil, who asks how to vary his timing and mentions that as he becomes tired he operates at one speed. In kendo we hear the expression “ kan-kyu-kyo-jaku” , the approximate meaning of which is -kan (緩) slow, kyu (急) quick, kyo(強) strong, – jyaku (弱) weak/soft. To be honest we hear a lot more about this within Iai where it appears to be a requisite component of the 4th and 5th dan grading. In kendo, within my limited understanding, it is the change in pace and rhythm from keeping a strong deliberate kamae to exploding into action as soon as you make or see a chance to attack.
The late Kikuchi sensei talked about being “like a feather in a hurricane”, that is to say light and unfettered but then able to immediately change into explosive action. The great boxer Muhammed Ali described the process as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. However you describe it we need to change our timing to reflect circumstances and opportunities.
We practice kakarigeiko in order to be able to attack quickly. This does not mean that our jigeiko or shiai should be at a continuous flat-out pace from hajime, rather we should take our time to read and control the opponent, probe and push for an opportunity to attack and when we find it strike instantly. The point of attack is when we need maximum acceleration and this comes from the left foot, which is why hikitsuke or immediately bringing up the left foot after moving the right is so important.
After making a successful strike we again slow the rhythm by making strong, deliberate zanshin, whilst being ready to explode into action again if required. The only time when we keep the accelerator down is in renzoku waza, where we use continued speed of attack to keep the opponent under pressure unti we score a clear point.
In terms of the “hard” and “soft” elements, in my mind these could be better explained as “sharp” and “soft”. Our cutting action should be soft and fluid until the point of impact and beyond. Our arms and shoulders should still be relaxed when the shinai makes contact with the target. The only change is the impact added to the strike by our tenouchi when we squeeze the tsukagawa.
In some ways we are overly complicating what nature makes simple. If you watch heron fishing, or a snake stalking its prey, they stay perfectly still until the perfect time to attack and then grab their dinner in an instant, getting the maximum return for a minimal energy investment.

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Block (2)This is definitely turning into a readers’  problem page.

Dave has asked me what to do when his opponent constantly lifts the shinai up to head height at the time when he tries to bring his shinai down on the men.   The way the question was put makes it sound as if the offenders are doing it on purpose to sabotage Dave’s men. I suspect that in many cases it might be an innocent timing issue, but I am aware of some individuals who do this, either to protect their men or, to follow with a cut made on the back foot. In some cases it may be a bit of both.

Dave asks whether there is a way of dealing with people who do this, particularly in grading examinations where you feel the need to demonstrate good men technique. There is not an easy answer to this point. Conventional kendo wisdom suggests that if someone is blocking their men, you should aim for their dou or try tsuki, either to take a point or to gain access to their men by relying on their blocking instincts to cover these targets, leaving the men open.

If you strike men and their hands go up, try hitting dou and if their hands go down quickly attack men again. You can also subtly show your own men as a target before responding with debana or suriage men, but if your opponent is defensive or confused then he may not be prepared to respond to your attempt to draw him in.

I sometimes set myself personal challenges at the beginning of a keiko with less experienced kenshi. This week in a practice session with a tall opponent with challenging timing, I gave myself the goal of taking men as shodachi, (the first point). As hard as I tried I could not make it happen, so had to resort to kaeshi dou, before offering myself as a target for kakarigeiko.

The chances are, that unless your own timing is fundamentally flawed, an opponent who constantly covers his men with his hands or shinai is doing something wrong. It may or may not be intentional but in either case he should be discouraged from doing it. If you are his obvious senior then you need to help him correct the error through uchikomi-geiko or kakarigeiko. If you are his peer then maybe buy him a beer and have a friendly word.

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Mumeishi-History13I enjoy my Sunday Morning keiko at Mumeishi dojo, particularly when Holt sensei takes the Kihon practice. It means that with the exception of deciding what to eat for breakfast and whether to buy my wife a copy of the Sunday newspaper before or after keiko, I do not have to think.

Even when I am leading the training, it does not take a great deal of conscious consideration, because we have done most of the routines so many times they have become second nature, but it is even more comforting to position myself in the usual corner of the dojo and be taken through a familiar routine without any thought for what comes next.

This combination of Sunday morning lethargy and someone else calling the shots is my ideal antidote to the hectic work week and the preliminary session of repetitive kihon training sets me up for the following jigeiko by taking me to a state where I rely on ingrained technique rather than planning how to deal with each opponent.

I have jokingly suggested that the ideal kendoka should have the stamina of an endurance athlete, exceptional leg and core body strength, lightning fast reactions and an IQ of not more than 80. In reality I believe that it is more a question of temperament than intelligence, but it is true that some of my obviously brainy friends do occasionally tie themselves in knots by too much analysis.

Today one of our Japanese members mentioned that he was having trouble hitting my men. It was difficult to see why, as he has great kihon and posture, very strong kihaku and good timing, but then he confessed to thinking too hard about each attack. For some reason the harder you think about a technique the more difficult it becomes use it. The best thing is to do any analysis outside the dojo in the comfort of your home, favourite bar, or coffee shop and to spend your dojo time practicing with minimal consciousness.

As we have discussed before on numerous occasions, the only way of combatting the Four Sicknesses (Shikai) of surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation is to make or take your opportunity and then to attack with total commitment. The only way to gain the ability to do this is from regular, hard, intense kihon geiko.

We strive in kendo to achieve rin-ki-o-hen , the state in which we are instantly able to react to opportunities and changes in our opponent. For most of us this remains an ongoing quest. Nevertheless the ability to put the conscious brain on hold however occasionally is both good for our kendo and our lives outside the dojo.

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