Archive for the ‘Kendo’ Category

Without the benefit of a private dojo for toshikoshi geiko, my first practice of the New Year took place yesterday. This hatsugeiko was a great way to get back into the swing of kendo and with my wrist injury now mending, I am once again able to call on some oji waza to use against my fitter, faster juniors.

Perhaps because of the holiday break or maybe because it is a reflective time of year, a number of people asked me to help evaluate their keiko. The common theme was that we all seemed to be operating at a single rhythm, by which I mean that there was no real differentiation between the speed of approach, attack and follow through. This could of course be attributed to a surfeit of Christmas pudding, but more likely the cause is just general tension and inability to relax.

Many years ago, I was given some advice by Kikuchi Koichi sensei, former Vice President of the BKA, more recently of Shibuya dojo, that the feeling in kendo should be “like a feather in a hurricane”. This has been a constantly memorable image, signifying to me that kendo should be light and flexible but driven by a great elemental force. What sets great kendo players apart is the ability to instantly transform form a totally relaxed state to explosive movement.

Most of us will never achieve this, but there are certainly ways in which we can get closer to the ideal. Good posture and balance and a relaxed, flexible kamae are all necessities. Correct footwork too is essential, with the ability to drive off from the left foot as soon as you see the opportunity. Most importantly the cut itself must be done with relaxed shoulders, elbows and wrists. If you use too much shoulder power, it makes your attack heavy and slow. The feeling on making the attack should be as if you are being pulled upward and forward, accelerating through the strike into zanshin.

This is all very easy to describe but very difficult to do. The ability to relax, particularly in stressful situations such as shiai and shinsa, needs strict mental as well as physical preparation. You need to control your breathing and put aside the kendo sicknesses of fear doubt and perplexity. Whilst the ideal of “a feather in a hurricane” may not be achievable, you may avoid looking more like a pudding in a blizzard.

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Getting Hit!

How not to not get hit

How not to not get hit

I am back in the UK and am chasing Kendo practices where I can find them, as my own dojo is closed for August. At the weekend, at the end of a practice in London, I was asked for general advice for everyone and the first thing that came to mind was that many people were prepared to compromise the integrity of their kendo to avoid being hit.

By this, I mean that they were obviously blocking an attack without the intention to respond, or breaking there own timing mid-attack to avoid a counter attack. Whilst I understand the motivation behind this, even in shiai, it is not a good idea. Firstly an experienced opponent will have ability to hit another target, so if you block men, he will attack tsuki or dou, secondly you deprive yourself of the opportunity for your technique to flow forward to become renzoku waza and most importantly you sacrifice your own posture and balance.

Of course we are all human and therefore competitive, but keiko, both kihon geiko and jigeiko are learning experiences and as such, give the opportunity to learn from being hit as well as hitting. That’s not to say you should become an uchikominingyo type punch-bag. Of course you should start each keiko with full spirit and the intention of making shodachi, (the first strike), but whether you do or not, if you are hit, so what! Just carry on and try to take the next point.

Should you acknowledge your opponent’s strike? Yes to the extent that you should go back to safe distance and not attempt some irrelevant muri-waza directly after being hit, but unless you are teaching, overtly bowing or waving the bit that has been hit, is unecessary. This is particularly true when you are training with a significantly more experienced opponent. Telling someone who is four or five dan grades above you “that was a good men”, will generate the (hopefully not vocalised) response, in the words of Eddie Murphy “Tell me something I don’t know” .

Instead get to good distance, fill up with air, re-centre your ki and try again.

By the way, if you are competing in the upcoming 14WKC, you are allowed to duck a little bit. Good luck to all the competitors

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soup-lineFirstly apologies if you have had problems finding this blog over the last few days. My digital mentor and blog host, George had a server crash and Kendoinfo dissapeared into the ether. We are now back and retagged.

In my day job as a headhunter, I am seeing signs of the credit crunch biting into some of the geography and the business sectors that I cover. I am also involved in reviewing next financial year’s budget for The British Kendo Association and someone sensibly asked should we allow for negative growth because of the economy. Frankly I do not have a clue!

In hard financial times, do people cut back on their kendo practice or postpone taking up a new interest because there is less cash available, or do we become time rich and have more leisure to spend on our hobbies? From personal experience, I abandoned my private guitar lessons in a previous recession, but we were talking £25.00 per lesson and even if I had Eric Clapton as my tutor, It was unlikely that I would have progressed much beyond bad.

In kendo however, club fees are low and there are concessionary association fees, but of course the price of equipment makes a big difference. I also have a suspicion that most kendoka are sufficiently passionate to want to keep going regardless of their circumstances. I was talking to the CFO of a leading opera company, who was confident that the people who are interested in opera would make other sacrifices rather than miss their favourite performances. I have the same feeling about kendo.

The only conclusion I drew from my brief study of economics is that there is aways an equally strong contra argument for every thesis. So can anyone help?

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Shodan shinsa

Courtesy of FIK

Courtesy of FIK

Sometime back I wrote a post on how to train for grading examinations. Having sat on the 4th and 5th dan panel in Brussels last week and as I am scheduled to be an examiner for the Irish National Grading this coming week end, I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the points that the panel will be looking for on the day.

The purpose of the kendo grading examination is to allow you to demonstrate what you have learned and what you are capable of. It is unlikely that you will pull something out of the bag that you can not do in your normal keiko. You need to have put in the quantity and quality of practice since your last grading to justify promotion. There are some people that treat the shinsa like a lottery – turn up often enough and your number will eventually come up. The chances are if you are doing the same things you did the last time you failed, you will fail again.

There are some excellent guides available to tell you step by step what to do for each grade, so this is just a quick overview of the points that catch an examiners eye:

• Chakuso – clean unfaded hakama and keikogi. Hakama should be the right length, keikogi wrinkle free at the back. Bogu should be tied correctly with men himo of the correct length. Shinai should be in good condition with no protruding tsuru or nakayui and the tsuba should reach the bottom of the tsuka.

• Entry and exit – make sure that you understand the pattern for entering and crossing the shinsajo operating at that grading. Either watch the people before you, or ask if you are in the first group.

• Sonkyo – bow correctly and make a strong confident sonkyo with a straight back. If you have knee problems tell the organisers and make an alternative salutation.

• Kamae – keep a strong kamae and make sure your left heel is off the ground.

• Full spirit – give yourself time to settle and make a strong kiai. Attack at the right opportunity with full spirit. If your opponent counters or stops you with his shinai, do not let it break the force of your attack. Do not show emotion at, or acknowledge your opponents successful attack, just go on to take or make the opportunity for your own technique.

• Correct posture – keep your posture straight, do not duck to avoid being hit.

• Ki-ken-tai-ichi – remember that your hands and feet should work together.

• Seme – take the centre befor you hit. If you can make your opponent move first and take debana waza, you should impress the panel.

• Zanshin – show good zanshin, do not showboat. Ensure that you turn and go forward to the correct distance after each attack.

• Most importantly – keep a clear mind and do not panic into attacking when there is no opportunity.

Good luck!

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Tokui waza

Maybe too Tokui

Maybe too Tokui

Experienced kendoka are expected to have a “Tokui waza” It translates as “Unique Technique” , although it is generally thought of as favourite technique. Think of Eiga san’s tsuki and you have the kendo definition of tokui waza. Most strong shiai players have a technique that continually wins their matches; but of course, it is not their only technique. It is the one at which they excel and that which beats their opponent no matter how much it is expected.

Tokui waza as a concept, probably came from Judo, where your favourite technique was dictated by your physique. A tall long legged person might excel at uchimata and a short stocky player might prefer seotoshi. There is an element of this in kendo – tall guys favour men, shorter people kote, but there are no rules.

I am not sure if I really have a tokui waza. There are two possible candidates at the moment suriage men and kaeshi dou. Both have been equally effective in keiko and shiai, but they work best in different situations against different types of opponent. My own tokui waza have changed over time from hiki men to degote to debana men to the current favourites.

How do you develop tokui waza? You need to try as many techniques as possible and find the one that suits you. But there are two serious caveats. Do not try overly complicated waza until your basic ki-ken-tai-ichi and cutting technique is correctly established and do not continually over use any technique with the same people in jigeiko. For example a katsugi men or gyaku dou, every blue moon, may startle the strongest opponent, but try it several times in the same keiko and watch the bored expression on your opponents face.

So the answer in my view is to practice new techniques as drills – a few at a time and keep going unti you can do them well. When you feel something really works, try it now and then in keiko against different types of opponent. Another caveat; be careful about using techniques like tsuki on venerable hanshi unless you know them well. When you are comfortable that your tokui waza works and you can make it happen at will, then it’s time to use it to win shiai.

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Big or Small?

Big Furikaburi

Big Furikaburi

I am frequently asked by people in the early stages of their kendo career – “Why do you tell me to cut big when you cut small”. The non diplomatic answer is “because I can and you can’t”. Of course, I am a lot more polite and encouraging than that, but to make successful small attacks, you need good ki-ken-tai-ichi and tenouchi.

Thinking about it, ki-ken-tai-ichi is integral to everything we do in kendo and I have talked about it in other posts, but tenouchi is particularly relevant to making small waza work. Personally, I do not have a preference between big and small techniques. I believe that you should have both in your kendo armoury and use them to fit the opportunity. Kote is by definition a small technique as distance is closer than for men and you simply need to lift over your opponent’s chudan to strike. So the choice of big or small techniques is primarily for men.

Nuki men is a great example of big technique. You have to lift your hands up above your opponent’s kensen to avoid his attack. Tobikomi men too can benefit from a big furikaburi, lifting your hands above your mengane and taking your kissaki back 45% degrees or so behind your forehead. I find that this works against opponents with strong chudan kamae, particularly if you make the attack with a feeling of sutemi.

However whether we are talking about big or small techniques, none of them will work without correct tenouchi and wrist action. If your wrists are flexible, (see my post from July last year on holding the shinai), you should be able to strike men cleanly on top. If your wrists are stiff, either because your kamae is incorrect or because you are gripping the shinai too tightly, the shinai will land at the wrong angle and either strike the mengane or slide off the side of the men.

Chiba sensei showed us a great series of drills to overcome this problem. At first, he explained that for speed and flexibility, the cutting motion should be elliptical, with your hands coming down towards the top of your head as you start the downswing. He emphasized that in suburi, bringing the shinai back against your buttocks, as in the illustration above serves two purposes, it acts as a warm up, and it teaches beginners how to find centre. It is not the way to hit men. He demonstrated that the strike should be through to the chin and that the squeeze from the right hand should be just after the hit not on or before. Above all, he stressed that arms shoulders and hands should be free from tension.

At his recent UK seminar, he prepared the ground by telling how he practiced 4000 continuous suburi everyday, he then asked everyone to do a mere 200 using an opponents shinai, held at head height as a target. The psychology is simple, people were relieved at having to do only 200, but as this was more than the standard set 20 or 30 they relaxed from the start, saving energy for the last few. The drills moved on through a series of large and small techniques, both shikake and oji waza. By and large even people with particularly stiff kendo were able to be much more flexible and were successful with a far wider range of waza.

I think this is the key. If your shoulders, elbows and especially wrists are relaxed enough to do big techniques correctly, then it is equally simple to do small techniques. The choice is simply to find the most appropriate technique for the opportunity. In fact if you do enough kihon practice, the choice should make itself, but that is another subject.

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Go rin no sho

Go rin no sho

To misquote a well known saying!

I use a number of business networking sites for work and do get a lot of value from one in particular – Linkedin. This site is of a size where it has lots of specialist groups, including one for Kendo Business Professionals. In the Q and A sessions for this group, one question that regularly pops up is, “Do you believe that kendo has an impact on your working life”. People come up with some pretty good answers based on allegory using kendo images. Here are some recent examples:
“It does. Ki-Ken-Tai can be seen as intention, action, result and this applies to work too. Also Zanshin is important.. this relates to quality, attention to what has been done and how it worked. Well this is my opinion, I believe KenDo really is a way to achieve greater self-consciousness and increase willingness in life. ”

“Definitely. It teaches me to undergo tasks with full potential, purpose and concentration. It helps me deal with stressful situations without losing inner calmness or clarity of mind.”

This is by no means a new phenomenon, back in the eighties and nineties when the Japanese electronics and automotive industries were wiping the floor with their western counterparts; everyone was talking about keiretsu and kaizen. Even non-Japanese methodologies were jumping on the bandwagon with six sigma practitioners qualifying for their green belts and black belts. Books that were originally written to describe kenjutsu techniques and strategies, such as Musashi’s Book of Five Rings became business strategy bibles, much to the delight of their then niche publishers and translators. Chinese philosophy became conveniently japanised. I have somewhere, on a not too visible bookshelf, a copy of “Sun Tzu and the Japanese art of War”. And of course, we had the specially created books like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, – one of my favourites.

If I think about it objectively, you can draw parallels from any sport or pastime to any other aspect of existence. Life can be a “marathon”, negotiating a “game of chess” and (for UK TV viewers only), in the words of Swiss Tony, “Business is like a beautiful woman”. Kendo players are therefore absolutely right to use elements of their chosen shugyo as an illustration of other areas of their lives.

Where I am not convinced however, is that you should practice kendo specifically to become a better business person, parent or pupil. There is only one reason for practicing kendo – because you want to, and the reason for continuing, even though you hate kakarigeiko whilst you are doing it, is because you enjoy it.

That’s the motivation taken care of. But I do believe that Kendo makes a difference. Significant time spent training hard and sincerely, observance of kendo’s rules of respect and courtesy and the ability to relate to people from around the globe who share a common interest have together, got to help you become a better person. Just do not expect that that extra twenty minutes of kirikaeshi will make you any better at closing deals.

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Thanks to a slow work afternoon and Kendo World Forums, I came across a fascinating Youtube video of a gentleman, who may or may not have been helping himself generously to the contents of the medicine cabinet give what felt like a thirty minute lecture on the pronunciation of tsuka.

As well as fuelling my old fashioned view that there is an awful lot of bandwidth out there chasing content, it made me think about, “how far should we go in pursuit of accurate kendo terminology”.

In my experience, people practicing the sword arts are generally more concerned about using the correct pronunciation of Japanese terms, than are the devotees of say judo and karate. This may be because, that, as followers of what are classed minority pursuits in the west, we are still close to our Japanese roots and most of us have heard the correct terms from Japanese sensei.

I was a keen judoka in my youth, before my discovery of kendo and long before I went to Japan and learned Japanese. Although my Japanese accent is not too bad, I still mispronounce judo terms, because they were ingrained before I understood the meaning. On the other hand, I have a fairly clear view of Japanese kendo terminology and how it should be pronounced, because I learned much of my kendo in Japan in Japanese. Because of this, I sometimes find it easier to instruct Japanese students in Japanese, than I do English players in my own language.

There are several very good kendo dictionaries available, but by and large, kendoka are taught the terms in Japanese. The newest beginner thinks about kote, men, dou, rather than mask, hand, trunk. There were a number of early videos from the AJKF where the translators and voice over artists used English terms for things that we all always refer to in Japanese and they sounded strange, to say the least.


On the other hand, however perfect your understanding of the two languages, it is impossible to accurately translate Kendo terms into English, unless you are a kendoka. I attended an IKF meeting, where the very skilled simultaneous interpreters were unable to follow the conversation and I and one of the Japanese directors had to take over, even though our language knowledge was a fraction of that of the pros.

Mr R.A Lidstone, who was a founding father of British Kendo, wrote a book called “Introduction to Kendo”. In this work, one of the explanations of sen described the “long hand forestall”. Now, even as a native English speaker and someone who vaguely understands the concept of sen, I have a great deal of trouble understanding this terminology, whereas as a mediocre Japanese speaker, sen, sensenosen and gonosen are easier to understand.

Hopefully, readers will see that my post is in the interest of clear communication and that i am not being pedantic, but whilst the You tube guy got the Tsuku right, his aaa was too long

photo shows Mr Lidstone in action.

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