Posts Tagged ‘Kendo basics’

Suburi with partner

Suburi with partner

Many years ago I visited a new dojo in a fairly remote part of the UK and watched the only two members run through a two hour kihon geiko session, practicing almost every technique in the kendo repertoire. Both deserved full marks for stamina and memory, but I wondered how much benefit they were getting from the session.

Almost every high level teacher that I have had the privilege of training with tends to tailor their training sessions around a particular theme, often limiting the waza taught to a very small number to ensure that they sink in. I have seen whole two day seminars limited to the correct way to strike shikake men; building up through static suburi to suburi engaging the feet, then including approach and seme, fumikomi and then zanshin. The correct way the use the grip or tenouchi to finish the attack crisply often warrants a teaching session in itself.

In the eyes of some kendoka this amount of drilling down becomes tedious, perhaps it is because we should, and often do, devote large chunks of our training sessions to these basic elements. In other sports it is the serious perfectionists only who are aware of the value of breaking technique down to the smallest component part. Of the millions of amateur golfers, it is a few deadly serious players who take the trouble to take lessons from the club pro. These normally focus on the minute analysis and reconstruction of the individuals swing. We call it suburi.

Most hanshi stress the value of correct suburi, Sueno sensei says if you can’t do correct suburi you can’t do kendo, Iwadate sensei focussed on big suburi to ensure that the cut is centralised; Chiba sensei regularly emphasised that 3000 continuous suburi a day were his path to success.

I am as guilty as the next kenshi in not doing enough suburi. I normally practice a hundred or so as part of the warm up to each keiko session and include a few more in front of the mirror when I have the chance, but I am sure that including more suburi in my keiko would do nothing but good. Suburi is the foundation on which we can build strong kendo.

Practising a kendo waza over and over again allows you to use it in keiko or shiai without thinking. If you then extend the suburi through uchikomi training with an opponent it becomes even more ingrained.  So although it may seem tedious, constant repetition and attention to detail is the way to success.

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I am no longer surprised by beginners who after a few weeks in armour, are bursting to take up nito or jodan. Everyone who starts kendo does so with a vision of the kenshi that they wish to become. Of course having a goal to aim for is totally worthy. William S. Clark’s parting words to the students of Sapporo Agricultural College “Boys be ambitious”, became common currency in Japan, and are still quoted a hundred and thirty years after he said them.

We live in an instant age. Whereas singers and musicians achieved fame after years of learning their trade by gigging in pubs and clubs, todays “superstars” reach their dreams by appearing on talent shows. Clearly this view is slightly coloured by my status as a “grumpy old man”, but as a member of the “me” generation, I am probably as much to blame as is Simon Cowell. To face facts, there are no instant gains in kendo. Skill is built on years of hard training.

I have discussed the challenges of building patience into the kendo learning process with a number of my betters; particularly Chiba sensei. His view as a jodan player is that until you can invariably produce accurate waza from chudan with correct ki-ken-tai-itchi you should not move on to the more esoteric aspects of kendo. If you can’t control one sword then you are doubling the difficulty with two and if your feet and hands don’t work together then you will not solve the problem by reversing your foot position when you take jodan. In my humble (and Chiba sensei’s less humble) view, good kendo is built on the foundation of following good instruction and repeatedly practising basic techniques in chudan.

The stage at which people should embark on a shiai career follows similar logic. It is admirable to want to test your skill in competition against others, but unless you can do basic techniques correctly, you risk developing bad habits that could spoil your further development. One or two early exposures to competition will probably help confirm your place in the kendo universe, but without a good basis of accurate fundamental kendo, continued training with shiai in mind will harm rather than help your future development.

So far it all sounds rather gloomy, but to my mind, the joy in learning kendo is in training for its own sake and when something falls into place then the pleasure of achievement is enormous. Of course when you have assembled your kendo tool-kit then you can go on to become a great shiai player, whether in chudan, jodan or nito. As good old Bill Clark might have said “Boys be ambitious, but give it a bit of time”.

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Thank you for completing my poll. As the graphs show, we are quite a conscientous bunch,most of us practising suburi and kirikaeshi at every session. We are less enthusiastic about kakarigeiko and oji waza drills, but overall we like kihon-geiko and want to do more. My supposition that there were lots of fat cats out there who only turned up in time for jigeiko was entirely wrong. What made the results even more interesting is that the bulk of my respondents have at least 5 years experience.

As always, you made some interesting and valid comments. I was particularly interested in Dillon’s thoughts from a “training in Japan perspective”. From my own experience of living and training in Japan, and of still visiting quite frequently, I agree that the onus for adult kendoka is on organising your own kihongeiko if you feel you need it. In the majority of town or city machi dojo that is the case and often the only way to get basic training is by joining the kid’s class.

In university clubs and in police kendo academies such as Tokyo kesicho or Osaka fukei, training consists predominantly of kihon drills, but in many dojo where there kihon training is less formalised, adults still do it either with motodachi, or in the case of some senior kendoka with each other on a “one-on-one” basis”. I have quite frequently been to open keiko sessions and had 15 or 20 minutes of kihon with a friend before joining the jigeiko.

The other option is to seek out sessions taught by sensei who are known to teach basics. Uegaki sensei in Yoshino, although in his mid 60s, survives on a regime of kirikaeshi, kakarigeiko and semegeiko, as of course do his students. I went with him to an asageiko session in Sakai where his teacher, the late Furuya sensei was in charge. The average age of kendoka there must have been over 60 and the average grade 7th dan, with several 8th dans taking turns as kakarite. We did kakarigeiko for an hour!

In Japan, you have access to the best kendo in the World, but that does not mean that everyone there trains to the highest level. There are many dojo where you can turn up once a week and enjoy your jigeiko, relying on the basics you developed in junior high school. There is clearly nothing wrong with this. Kendoka who make an appearance as and when they can, and enjoy their training, are the backbone of Japanese kendo.

Those that make it to the kodansha ranks however, particularly those who reach 8th dan, seldom do so without repeatedly reviewing and polishing their basic technique. And the only way to do this is through repeated kihon practice.

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Often when I am teaching or watching others teach kendo, I find that waza drills take considerably longer than the time allocated to them. This is because I and most other instructors like to break techniques down to their constituent parts and build up to the finished technique.

I am sure that you know the sort of thing I mean. For instance, men suriage men; where kakarite starts by attacking men at close distance, then motodachi responds by sliding his shinai up against the down stroke and when he gets that right he moves on to striking men in response. When it’s all working, both parties build distance and speed to approximate a real-time opportunity. Well that is the theory anyway.

What invariably happens is that at the most basic stage, the instructor notices fundamental flaws with posture, or footwork, or grip and then tries to correct that before moving on. This is of course a far bigger task than anticipated and sometimes, when the class has a high proportion of less experienced kenshi; it never gets out of the correcting basics stage. It could of course be argued that this happens because the teacher is asking students to practice new techniques before they are ready to try them, but as most kendo classes consist of mixed abilities, should we aim to stimulate the more advanced student or keep it within the ability level of the newest?

I personally am happy to practise the most basic techniques and can see the value of constantly repeating suburi and uchikomi drills for basic shikake men attacks, many instructors however are worried about losing students to boredom, if obvious progress is not confirmed by them learning more complex techniques.

I would be interested in to hear your thoughts and have included a simple poll for you to tell me about your level of experience and the elements of training that you are most regularly involved in.

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Is a song used to educate young skiers on the body part positions required to give the balance to ski correctly.  In kendo we have no similar prompts, but we definitely need them. Skiers who get it wrong, learn quickly by falling over, whereas in kendo you can continue to make the same mistakes for years.

Most students lack the ability to think holistically, which is not surprising, as kendo requires a range of movements which seem totally unnatural and unconnected.  The ability to move hands, feet and body together and to merge this with breathing and kiai are essential to achieving ki-ken-tai-ichi. Furthermore incorrect balance and posture make it almost impossible to hit with relaxed hands to the detriment of hasuji and tenouchi. Even relatively seasoned kendoka suffer from thinking sequentially. I regularly remind a third dan club member that his hand and foot timing is out and that he is using too much upper body strength. He regularly counters by explaining that “today I am working on my feet, or hands”, or whatever his current preoccupation happens to be.

Even after you have all the basics working correctly, it is easy to change the whole picture. When people change one element of their kendo, everything else is affected. A slight change of balance alters the timing of your footwork and the amount of upper versus lower body strength that is used in a technique. So you start by making a small correction and find you have to overhaul your whole kendo style.

How to avoid this? Why kihon of course. But, you need to ensure that you think “big picture “. With suburi, you should concentrate on achieving ki-ken-tai-ichi as you make each strike. For kirikaeshi and uchikomigeiko, you should ensure that you finish each cut correctly and that your timing is spot on. You also need to ensure that all of these exercises are carried out with a feeling of ichibyoshi, the timing of one, where you raise the shinai and strike in the same movement. Of course, correct breathing will help you achieve this.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you should keep the speed of kihon practise to a level where you are in control. Do not race ahead of yourself just to do it quickly. Of course speed is important, but get it right first and then make it faster.

So as far as I can see there are no real short cuts, or we maybe we could borrow the skiing memory aids “Atama kata hiza ashiyubi”, but it does not quite fit the tune.

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