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With Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis at Saineikan

With Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis at Saineikan

Last Tuesday Mumeishi  dojo  enjoyed a visit from two 8th dans, Takatera sensei,  Meiyo Shihan of the Imperial Palace Police and the well-known teacher and writer Ozawa Hiroshi sensei . They were accompanied by a third teacher Iino sensei, a senior kyoshi 7th dan.

The dojo was packed tight with students who came for the privilege of keiko with these excellent kenshi. We had our usual kihon session then an hour of free keiko, so I made sure that I had my men and kote on quickly and was the first to practice with Takatera  sensei  before  joining the line for the other two teachers, finally moving back to the motodachi side.

Although in his 60s, Takatera sensei is a remarkably fast, forward moving 8th dan. When you face him the pressure is intense. He very quickly “took me apart” before leading me through kakarigeiko and kirikaeshi. Different hachidan have different approaches to practice with older opponents and Takatera  sensei’s is obviously to expect them to work hard. The sessions with the next two sensei were almost relaxed by comparison.

There is a temptation for senior grades to stay on the motodachi side of the dojo and not take advantage of these occasional chances to learn from more experienced teachers.  If you are over 60, many Japanese instructors are relaxed about whether you join them for keiko or line up next to them. Whatever your age and grade you owe it to yourself to take every opportunity to improve and if it means finishing the keiko with wobbly legs, then so much the better.

When I joined Takatera sensei, who is as good natured as he is fierce, for a beer after training, he told me that even though he has retired from the Imperial Palace, he currently attends 15 keiko sessions per week, which makes my three seem decidedly lightweight by comparison.. Takatera sensei, along with some other notable teachers, works extremely hard at his own kendo practice and expects the rest of us oldies to work equally hard. So this was a timely reminder to keep up the intensity of my own training. For the rest of this week I have made sure that we make kakarigeiko  more challenging and that I join in as kakarite.

In kendo we use the expression “utte hansei, utarete kansha” meaning that we should  learn by reflecting on the successful strikes we make and by showing gratitude for the successful strikes against us. I clearly have a lot to thank Takatera sensei for.

* I will be away at the European Kendo Championships from mid-week until next Monday, so unless I can get my sausage fingers to work on a hand-held device, next weeks post will be late.

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Kendo childrenOne of the most difficult transitions in kendo is the move from being kakarite to becoming a good motodachi. Most of us at some time in our kendo careers have to cross the dojo floor and change from being attacker to receiver. To do so successfully calls for a mix of technical ability, judgement and compassion.

As a reminder to set the scene, most of us know that motodachi is the receiver, or high side partner in the whole range of kendo training exercises; for kihon practice we usually take turns as motodachi. The other option is for an instructor to take this role and to use his or her judgment on how to get the best out of kakarite. The most frequently used format for this is a combination of kirikaeshi, hikitategeiko (jigeiko between unequal partners) and  kakarigeiko or uchikomi-geiko. This type of training is generally referred to as shido-geiko

The challenge for the instructor is to encourage the student to stretch beyond his comfort level without causing physical damage, feelings of frustration or eroded self-esteem. For many of us this is a tough task, particularly when we have classes of varied ages and abilities. At Mumeishi dojo we have a mix of male and female members aged from their early 20s to mid-60s, from National Squad members to beginners; so a “one size fits all” approach would not work. The practice has to be tailored to get the best out of each student regardless of condition or experience level.

Whereas you might finish your keiko by asking an older kenshi to make one or two good men attacks, you could up the stakes with a young competition player, offering a tough kakarigeiko session before challenging them to a final one point match. If you get the first point, go to a second which with a bit of luck, (or subtle help) they will take. Ideally they should come out of a tough session feeling positive.

Not all instruction has to be verbal. If a student shows his kote every time he raises the shinai for men you should hit it frequently as a reminder. If he or she is young and fit, but has the habit of leaving their back foot in the air when they strike, a strategic push to remind them that their balance is unstable would not cause too much harm, providing you use a level of restraint. If they have a habit of stepping back, step in and take hikibana men.

We have talked about the qualities of a good motodachi in other posts and most of us accept that we need to be full of spirit and totally engaged in the moment. It is also important that we exercise impeccable judgement to get the most out of our dojo mates. The objective is to help them be the best kendoka they can, be whether they are aspiring juniors, national team members or senior citizens  and to make sure that we all make it safely to the final rei.

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downloadWith the European Kendo Championships looming and the next World Kendo Championships just a year away, many people are thinking about the most effective ways to train for shiai.

Opinion on how to best train for kendo competition seems to be varied. I had a lengthy conversation with one of the hanshi responsible for training the successful Japanese Team in a recent WKC and although he was reluctant to give away too many secrets, he told me that National Squad Training consisted of sessions with the younger, fitter 8th dan teachers acting as motodachi and putting the squad through a rigid regime of kakarigeiko style drills. There was also a stringent programme of medical checks to ensure that members with injuries that were likely to re-occur were excluded from selection.

Japan is obviously in a different situation to the smaller kendo nations, where although team selection is also limited to the fittest and best, we do not have numerous strong competitors to choose from. Whereas the Japanese squad come together on a limited number of occasions for team building and to put a final polish on already developed skills, other countries athletes sometimes need to use national squad training to develop far more basic skills. The training needs of a hobbyist with exposure to keiko for a few hours each week are very different to those of a police tokuren, who is paid to spend 30 hours a week in the dojo.

In most cases national squads can manage a few, infrequent training days together. Making the most of this time needs a great deal of thought from the coaching team. I have seen approaches that range from learning kata, to extensive kihon training to discussing shiai tactics and motivational psychology. I am sure that all of these have a place in the training tool kit. The most important consideration is how to make the best use of limited time spent as a group, particularly for teams which need to think and act as one.

One thing is clear, no-one should expect to learn the basics of kendo through a few group training sessions. National team members need to build their own kendo through regular keiko. Anyone chosen to represent their country needs to train as often as they can, with as many people as they can. In Mumeishi dojo the seniors make a point of giving extra help to National Squad members by adding an ippon shobu and some “tough love” kakarigeiko to each keiko, but how we develop as shiai players, and kendoka generally, is the responsibility of one person – ourselves.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring a visit to Japan some years ago I was taken to morning practice in Sakai, near Osaka by Uegaki Isao sensei. The session was led by his teacher, the late Furuya sensei and attended by numerous 8th and 7th dan members, many of whom were at least in their 60s. Much of the session was devoted to seme-geiko, which for me was a new experience. The idea was to work together in pairs in a mawari geiko format, taking turns as motodachi, whose job was to retain a strong chudan kamae. Kakarite had to break through motodachi’s defence to take centre and execute men, kote or kote-men attacks.  The practice reminded me of kakarigeiko for seniors, where no targets were offered, but we had to use the strength of our seme to make opportunities.

I have since introduced seme-geiko to a number of keiko sessions back home in the UK and found generally that the more experienced kendoka tend to get the most out of this practice.

This week in my local dojo where we have a mix of mainly first to third dan kenshi, I had a request to look at ways of improving seme, so seme-geiko seemed an obvious choice. Rather than jump straight in, we started by working together in pairs maintaining an even distance between the points of our shinai as we moved backwards and forwards. Each partner took turns as motodachi and controlled the practice by varying the sequence of steps in each direction. We then looked at our breathing and how we could exert more force by retaining our breath once we engaged in fighting distance. Finally we made a concerted effort to keep “mind contact” with our opponent as went through the drill.

From this exercise we moved on to hikibana men, pushing in to take centre and then following with a men strike as motodachi stepped back.  We then tried debana men, aiming to pull our partners in with hikidashi and taking the initiative as they started to attack.

From these basic drills we moved on to seme-geiko, trying to execute 3 or four strong techniques in thirty or forty seconds. Whereas Furuya sensei took the practice on to kaeshi-seme-geiko, where motodachi responds to some of kakarite’s attacks with oji waza, we kept to the basic attacking practice before moving into a short jigeiko session.

When I asked people at the end of the session if they found it useful, several made the point that it was much more tiring than more physical training methods and that trying to maintain mental contact with an opponent for even a short period was exhausting.

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Hasegawa senseiWe had a Hatsugeiko session at my local dojo on the evening of January second. Luckily this coincided with a visit from Hasegawa Makoto sensei, former JICA teacher to Nepal. He had contacted Holt sensei during a sightseeing visit to London and ours was the one practice that fitted in with his schedule. 

The session format was the one I normally suggest when we have senior visits. We started with kihon geiko, had a brief interlude for keiko between the kodansha and then finished with motodachi- geiko. We had a glass of sake to toast the New Year and then moved to the pub for a chat.

We asked Hasegawa sensei for a critique of everyone’s kendo and the point that he made was that people tended to use too much shoulder power. Many individuals made a cutting motion with their arms moving in parallel. Instead he suggested that they should rather push up and out with the left hand and pull up with the right, so that the shinai makes  an even arc as they raise and strike. He also commented on the need to grip only with the middle, ring and little fingers and not the forefinger and thumb. This applies to the grip in kamae, when striking and when making tenouchi on the point of hitting.

Good observations, but not revelations. They are exactly the same points that local instructors and other visiting sensei make repeatedly. The big question is “why are so many of us unable to change?”

I have often heard theories about westerners having different physical characteristics and that Japanese tend to concentrate more strength in their core and lower bodies because of “tatami lifestyle”, but to be frank I find these hard to believe. Most young Japanese people now use chairs and sleep in beds. I also see Korean and Japanese people who have started kendo outside their own countries, develop the same heavy hitting style as their Caucasian chums.

I believe the remedy is in the quality and quantity of basis practice we should do. Chiba sensei once said that leading up to his All Japan Championship peak; he did 3000 continuous suburi per day. Not only does repetition lead to perfection, but working at that level of intensity teaches you to relax and save energy. In the same vein if you regularly practice flat-out uchikomigeiko or kakarigeiko you learn to conserve energy by not being unnecessarily tense. The other point to consider is that correct breathing helps you to relax, so by practising multiple strikes with one breath in kirikaeshi or kakarigeiko you learn to use the power of your tanden instead of your shoulders.

Old advice, but certainly worth taking into account for this year’s training.

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Chudan Feet 2With my recent exposure to both Sumi sensei’s renzoku waza drills and Inoue sensei’s take on kirikaeshi, I am starting to think more and more about the importance of being instantly ready to attack at any stage in our keiko.

There is a tendency, particularly amongst senior, older kendoka to walk away and start again after exchanging a single attack. Although this allows you to conserve energy, it is long way from the ideal of being “constantly in full spirit”. Keiko should be short, sharp and intense. Far better to do 30 minutes of full-on keiko than two hours of leisurely posing.

The key technical requirements are that your back foot needs to be in the right place for you to attack throughout the practice and you need to keep within attacking distance. When you attempt to strike men going forward and your movement takes you past your opponent, you should turn quickly, bringing your left foot into position with hikitsuke and attack again. If you make a failed attempt on kote, push off immediately while you are in front of your opponent and go for men.

With hiki-waza, there is even more of a tendency to reverse into the distance. You should work on learning to keep you balance between  your feet so that if you take one step back you can instantly take one step forward, by pushing off from your back foot. That’s not to say that you should always do it, but if you see an opportunity, you should be able to take advantage of it even though it might mean a lightning fast change of direction.

To do this your left heel should at all times be slightly raised so that the sole of your foot forms a 15 degree angle with the floor. If it’s much higher that, you will lose traction as your left leg will slip out behind you when you try to move. If your heel is on the floor, you will stay firmly rooted to the spot.

Here’s the bad news. The best way to educate your left foot is through lots of kihon. Footwork drills, suburi, kiriaeshi, uchikomi geiko, kakarigeiko; they all play their part. Your objective when you do get into the short intense jigeiko sessions that we are talking about, is to become an effective kendo machine that can see it and hit it, all in a fraction of a second.

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Kirikaeshi smallInoue Shigeaki sensei has left the UK, leaving behind numerous exhausted but inspired kendoka.  During his seminar he focused on a number of relatively basic points including:

  • Fast and accurate cutting in suburi.
  • Keeping keiko short and intense.
  • Including uchikomi-geiko, kakarigeiko and kirkaeshi in each and every keiko with motodachi.

For me however the one point that really stood out was his view of the importance of kirikaeshi. He believes that by just practising kirikaeshi you could develop you kendo to a level where you could win major shiai.

Obviously to be beneficial kirikaeshi training has to be done correctly. Inoue sensei’s approach is as follows:

  • You start practising slowly and accurately ensuring that distance is correct.
  • You do this by taking just one step forward from the starting position and strike shomen with one step, one cut.
  • You make taiatari keeping your hands low and ensuring that motodachi provides suitable resistance. Neither of you should use your upper body power, but should push from the tanden.
  • You then concentrate on striking yoko men accurately with correct hasuji.
  • After the last yoko men strike you take only one step back (in tsugiashi) so that you are ready to make the next shomen attack  in one step, one strike distance, pushing off from the left foot.

Once you can do this correctly you add speed, concentrating initially on the speed of each strike, rather than the tempo of the whole exercise. Finally you start to work on correct breathing and kiai; breathing in deeply before the first strike, holding the air in your abdomen as you release part of it in kakegoe and then completing the whole kirikaeshi sequence in one breath with continuous kiai.

Inoue sensei asserts that from training with kirikaeshi in this way you learn about correct posture and footwork, timing and opportunity, striking action and hasuji, correct breathing for kendo and the ability to easily and smoothly deliver continuous attack renzoku waza.

If you include this with every keiko and also add uchikomi-geiko and kakarigeiko, it mirrors the training undertaken by the Japanese National Team under Inoue sensei and Kato sensei’s direction for the 14WKC in Sao Paulo.

For us mere mortals, the intensity and duration of training should take our age and physical condition into account and depends on motodachi’s intuition. Sensei did however make the point that you should be able to train in this way well into your 50’s. Hopefully by the time we hit 60 we should be kicked across the dojo into a motodachi position.

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