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th2IPKA53BMany kenshi go through events in their lives when kendo takes a back seat. Moving to a distant university where there is no kendo club, getting to examination time when studies have to come first, taking on a high pressure job or one that requires constant international travel are common reasons why people give up kendo.

The late thirties and early forties are particularly difficult ages to sustain kendo practice as many people face a combination of busy job, young families who need your time and in some cases elderly parents who may also need  help. As a result kendoka who have reached third or fourth dan become lost to us and their dojo become poorer places for their disappearance.

I never had to give up kendo at this stage, but went through a long period where my five keiko sessions a week turned to one every 2 months if I was lucky. This was perhaps even more challenging than a clean-break, as I almost felt as if I was re-starting every time.

The silver lining in the cloud is the addictive nature of kendo. Many leavers think regularly about kendo even when they are no longer able to train and because of this quite a few come back when their personal circumstances allow them to.

If you are a returnee, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that on day one back in the dojo you are going to be able to do everything you were able to on your last practice 10 years ago. I have seen highly successful Japanese ex- university team members develop Achilles tendon injuries on their first time back. This really is when you should build up slowly. It might be humiliating if you have to start again in the kid’s class, but it is better than being overstretched. If your dojo provides a mix of kihon and free practice make sure that you stop after kihon geiko and don’t get drawn into jigeiko until your technique and stamina catch-up with your fighting spirit.

Above all make sure that you stretch adequately before each session and build up slowly, concentrating on correct suburi and footwork.  Listen to your body and experiment. There are things you used to be able to do that you will never do again and at the same time you will be capable of techniques that were out of your range as a youngster. With luck you should have another twenty or thirty years in which to improve your keiko.

Above all enjoy it. You came back because you missed it, so make the most of it. Welcome back!

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29323_1401129875529_1450794437_1070239_8154535_nThe summer holiday period has started and dojo attendances are thinning out.  With the exception of next week’s Premier cup there is nothing much on the BKA calendar or on my international fixtures list until the autumn.  This is good news for my wife as we are planning a house move and I might have a chance to participate in the packing.

Nevertheless give or take one or two crucial weeks, I expect to continue with my minimum of three practices per week. I usually have keiko on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday which gives me at least a day between sessions to recover and look forward to the next one.  Whilst this is the best I can do with work commitments and travel time to various dojo, I am envious of some of my Japanese friends, particularly those over retirement age, who manage to practice up to 12 times per week.

This may sound like a lot of keiko, but asa-geiko or morning-practice makes double digit training opportunities a reality for non-professional kendoka. Many Japanese kenshi attend practice at 7.00 a.m with an 8.00 finish and a chance to get to the office by 9.00. I was never an asa-geiko regular having lived too far from work to get to the dojo in time, but I have had the pleasure of attending sessions in the old Noma dojo when I stayed in Tokyo and more frequently the asa-geiko sessions in the Kyoto Budo Centre at the time of the Kyoto Taikai.

The Kyoto Taikai asa-geiko is so popular that many people arrive an hour early to be number one in the line in front of their favourite hachidan. Even with a one hour advantage these plans can be thwarted, particularly by the group of unscrupulous lateral thinkers who wait outside the dojo with their men already tied in place and who rush to the front of the queue the moment that “men tsuke”  is called.

Queue jumpers aside asa-geiko has its benefits, not least of which is the appetite for a big breakfast that can only be satisfied by a fry-up at the Royal-Host. For some reason there seems to be one of these chain restaurants within a five minute drive of most asa-geiko venues. The other benefit is that morning practice is a great way to start the day, either leaving a clear working day ahead or giving my retired friends a chance to go home for lunch and a nap before starting the whole process again in the evening.


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Seiza and rei

imagesI am in Tokyo ready for the start of 16WKC tomorrow. Prior to arriving for the referees’ seminar we spent a week in Kansai and enjoyed several sessions in Osaka Shudokan. We also made a diversion to visit Uegaki sensei in his dojo in Kawakami village in the Kii mountains.

As well as having a private keiko session with two hachidan sensei, I had the opportunity to practice kendo no kata with Uegaki sensei using kata swords. Sensei has a reputation as a very strict kata teacher and I was constantly pulled up on many small but important points. The biggest impression made on me was sensei’s explanation of how to make correct seiza and rei. I have been doing these of course for the many years that I have been practicing kendo and apparently doing them wrong.

When we take seiza for rei at the beginning of kata, the underside of our toes should touch the floor as we lower our backside on to our heels. Only after we have placed our weight in such a way should we raise our hips and fold our toes under before we sit back into seiza for rei. This may well be standard practice for Iai, but it was new to me.

The second point was that when we make zarei we should break the movement as we rise after lowering our head to the floor, to look at our opponent before continuing to an upright position.

I wish I could have spent much more time with Uegaki sensei as it will take a lot more practice to take all he had to teach me on board. After keiko sensei turned from his strict instructor personae to his normal affable self, telling us that he had got up that morning to pick the potatoes that he had lovingly tended in his vegetable patch to find a monkey eating the last of them. To add insult to injury he is sure that it is the same monkey who stole his melons last year.

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JapaneseA colleague who trains in Brazillian Jujutsu showed me an on-line video of the sport. I could not but notice the similarity to Judo, although I am told that the groundwork differs but that the throws are almost identical. Having done Judo in the past I know many of these techniques only by their Japanese names and my friend referred to them by their English tags. He did not go into detail but I presume the original language used is Portuguese and that the countries where it is practised use their own terms.

This made me reflect on the fact that in kendo we use Japanese on a scale that followers of other martial arts would find difficult to justify. Not only do we have imported labels for the techniques, but all dojo and shiai commands are in Japanese. The courtesies we observe before and after practice are in Japanese and many kenshi have a vocabulary that extends to social conversation.

There are obvious advantages to the use of a single language amongst an international population. We can travel to countries where we do not share a common language and still understand the instructions given in a training session. The downside is that as beginner as well as having to learn to make your body do things that it has never done before, you have to learn a new vocabulary.

The official languages of kendo are Japanese and English and when we attend Europe Zone Referee Seminars, translation is provided from the former to the latter, we then usually have numerous side conversations to ensure that whatever message is being delivered is understood by those who are not fluent in English. My guess however is that nearly as many people understand the Japanese instruction as the English translation.

I personally like the fact that we use Japanese for kendo. Initially I found it part of the attraction as it made kendo seem exotic. Then having spent time living in Japan and using the language I realised that the meanings of technique names and commands are fairly mundane – “mask, glove, trunk, stop, start, thank you very much”; they do not sound nearly as grand in English.

If we did revert to our own languages, international competition would be interesting.  In the shiai-jo with a Spanish opponent and a German referee, should you shout glove, or guante, or handschu  or all three when you make a kote attack?

Kakegoe too would become interesting. When we make these initial shouts before attacking, although without meaning, they are usually modelled on Japanese sounds. I have a fear that in moving to English these would become more like the “sledging” insults used in English cricket to put the opponent off his stroke.  Standing up from sonkyo to taunts about my body shape or my opponent’s relationship with my wife does not seem like an ideal start to a good kendo tachiai.

It might not be ideal for everyone but I suggest that for the time being we keep the ZNKR’s dictionary of kendo terms in the bogu bag.

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As several people including the organisers of the Senior’s seminar and taikai have pointed out. I have been less than clear about the dates of the event.

The seminar will be held over the weekend of 19th to 21st June 2015, with the competition held on the 21st. I appreciate that it is a long time ahead, but I let my excitement run away with me.

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Me in the middle with short sleevesI recently saw a trailer for a post on Linkedin titled “what would you do differently if you knew at age 22 what you know now?” As usual I did not have time to read the article, but the heading made me think about how a similar question would work in a kendo context.

At 22 I was a first dan, three years into my kendo career, training regularly and energetically. My foot movement usually followed that of my arms and shoulders and when I hit men it was if I was trying to drive in a fence post or win a coconut at the fairground. When I later moved to Japan my friends and teachers suggested that my keiko was “gotsui” which in Kansai Japanese means “very”, but the inference is ”more than needed” or “over the top”.

Had the present day me been able to advise the 22 year old me, I would have suggested that I “lighten up”. I would have recommended that I relax, and instead of making my attacks hard and heavy, I should make them sharp and light, using forward motion and tenouchi. Even then, I probably would have ignored my own advice as I had that of various illustrious sensei, that is until my body was no longer able to waste energy.

Thanks to the teaching of Chiba sensei and the refusal of my elderly body to waste the effort that it dissipated in younger days, I now try to concentrate the little vitality that I have left on making correct approaches and sharp attacks. Of course I am still a long way from  my ideal vision of the kendo, but I am still able to enjoy keiko, and without false modesty, I am sure that my kendo is now more effective than it was when I was in my 20s. My big question is “could I have made this change when I was younger”, and if I had,”how much more progress could I have made in my kendo career?”

I see many younger friends make the same mistakes and even though they agree with the advice I give them, they seem unable to change. When you watch the All Japan Championships, you often see kenshi in their 20s and early 30s who are able to use kendo energy effectively. They may have started younger, practice harder and be more naturally talented than the average club kendoka, but I am sure that if we follow their example, there is a way to get our kendo looking like theirs before reaching old age.

So for me it’s not so much a case of “I wish I knew then what I know now”, more a case of “I wish I could do then what I know I should be doing now”.

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10153021_10200981771141538_7507786376156219769_nYesterday Stuart Gibson won the men’s individual event at the European Kendo Championship. This is the first time, at least in my memory, that a Brit has won the event.

I watched the final from the cathedral-like atmosphere of the referee’s seats, expressing my excitement with the occasional burst of polite clapping. The rest of the British squad sat quietly by the shiai-jo doing pretty much the same thing even though they were bursting out of their skins with enthusiasm.

When our national anthem was played at the closing ceremony we all stood in silence. This was in marked contrast to spectator behavior on  previous days and competitions when everyone joined in singing the French and Italian anthems. It may be because they have catchier tunes (apologies your Majesty) or simply that British reserve gets in the way of a good public sing song.

This national difference is evident in the way we applaud at kendo matches. The Brits have taken to the Japanese pattern of polite clapping, whilst our continental neighbours prefer more vocal support. Over the three days of the event, numerous requests were made for supporters to stop cheering or rhythmic clapping, but as soon as it stopped it restarted.

I was asked for my opinion of this at the sayonara party and frankly the fact that I am not keen on loud support is as much a reflection of my British reserve as my conservative kendo attitude.

Nevertheless, regardless of how I express it I am thoroughly delighted to have witnessed Stuart’s achievement. Well done Gibbo!






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