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Posts Tagged ‘kendo keiko’

Most kendoka have heard the term sutemi. Whilst usually translated as sacrifice, the literal meaning is “throw away the seed”. The concept refers to a poem describing a horse chestnut in a fast moving stream. If left whole, it would sink. If the kernel is abandoned, the husk would float with the current. In kendo, sutemi means committing yourself one hundred per cent to an attack without fearing the consequences.

Shishin on the other hand is the state where the mind is preoccupied or dwells on a particular aspect of your or your opponent’s kendo, which makes it impossible for the body to move freely. No prizes for guessing that sutemi is regarded as a desirable element in kendo and shishin is not.

Correct tobikomi men is a practical illustration of sutemi. We enter our opponent’s distance and launch ourselves forward with full spirit and no thought other than hitting men. If our opponent moves away or counters, it doesn’t matter. Once you start a technique you should complete it with all your energy.

In uchikomi-geiko or kakari-geiko it is easy to take this do or die attitude, in shiai or jigeiko  it is more difficult. Very often we worry about our opponent’s reaction to our attack. For some people this causes a general fear of attacking. For others, it results in them stopping mid-technique rather than giving away the point. This “stopping” is my pet hate in keiko. Not only does it strangle many potentially successful shikake waza at birth, but it also robs the stoppers opponent of the opportunity to practise oji-waza.

Many people take the view that shiai is about not losing, but surely the reason for taking part is to win. It could be argued that both equate to the same thing, but the mind-set of winning is about courageously exploiting any opportunity with all your mental and physical power.

In keiko we talk about utte-hansei, utarete-kansya (reflection on how we made a successful strike and gratitude for being hit). This does not mean that we are masochists, but that we learn as much from our opponent’s success as we do from our own.

Of course we do not start any keiko with the intention of being hit. Our objective is to strike first or to break our opponents attack with a successful counter attack, but we can only do this if we have an attacking spirit from the outset

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Now with the excitement of the 15 WKC behind us, I have returned to the routine of keiko in my regular dojo. Unfortunately until Sueno sensei arrives in two weeks time, I am back on the motodachi side.

As the saying goes “it is better to give than to receive”. I very much enjoy practising with senior kendoka, be they more experience nanadan, or better still, hachidan sensei. Having spent much of my kendo life on the junior side of the dojo, I am comfortable with my obligation as kakarite. In short, I know that I need to constantly attack any target that I see, be it hard fought for or gratuitously given to me. The old kendo adage “see it, hit it” is crucial to being a good student.

If you see sensei’s men you should strike with 100% of your energy in the feeling of sutemi (throwing away the seeds). If he takes away your opportunity and returns your strike with kaeshi dou it doesn’t matter. The point is that you saw the chance and made a concerted, sincere attack.

Most kendoka understand this, but there are a few, who regardless of opponent treat every keiko like a shiai, where not losing points is more important than making them. This attitude encourages blocking the opponents technique with the shinai without the intention to counter. More bizarrely, I see people who drop their elbows to their sides to avoid having their dou hit. Perhaps the worst habit engendered by this approach is that of always holding back. By this I mean starting an attack but being prepared to stop it mid flow if the receiver tries a counter technique.

I believe that training in this way does not allow anyone’s kendo to develop. Unless we are able to attack wholeheartedly when we see an opportunity, we will never achieve the “holy grail” of mushin. As for motodachi, he or she is there to help you. In hikitate-geiko, which is by and large the most common form of keiko between senior and junior, the objective is for motodachi to stay just slightly ahead of kakarite.

After fighting for shodachi, or first point, the teacher will normally create a number of subtle opportunities for his opponent to attack. This can be particularly useful if these openings stimulate techniques that kakarite do not normally use. For instance if he or she tends to rely on counter techniques, then stepping back as you create an opening will encourage the use of hikibana waza and a more forward going approach.

Of course motodachi deserves some fun from the process, so a positive, fearless kakarite who is not constantly worrying about being countered, allows him or her the chance to crack in the odd kaeshi dou or suriage men. Above all, both partners should remember that the purpose of keiko is for all of us to grow and develop.

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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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After the rigours of kihon geiko at the beginning of each kendo session, I see quite a few people breathe a sigh of relief as they enter jigeiko. I am of course not a mind reader, but my guess is that their thought process runs along the lines of – “right that’s the hard part out of the way”. “Now it is me time – the chance to do what I enjoy by using my favourite techniques to beat the other guys”.

I stress that I am not trying to replace David Blaine. My insight is not based on the supernatural ability to read other people’s thoughts; it is based on observation of their keiko. Although I do sometimes feel guilt at playing a cross between the stern dad and a bad tempered puritan. In this situation, I feel that it is my duty to remind backsliders that keiko is for improvement rather than enjoyment.

The term keiko has the connotation of thinking about tradition and infers that when we train, we should be mindful of all that has gone before. Other terms for training include renma and tanren which describe forging the body through hard physical activity and shuren or shugyo which have the nuance of religious or ascetic training. None of these labels refers to the idea that kendo should be fun.

It is worth further clarifying exactly “what is jigeiko?” Collectively it describes gokakugeiko (keiko on a 50:50 basis, conducted as if you are equals), or hikitate geiko (between instructor and student, where some opportunities may be offered and correct waza allowed to score). In both cases there is a need to stretch yourself –  by creating chances to attack and ensuring that techniques are correct and in line with basic principles.

It is also important that you do not just use the opportunity to work on your favourite, tokui waza, but that you try to use all the techniques that you have learned. Of course winning and losing is important, which is why we put such emphasis on shodachi, or the first point. What we should not do however, is to sacrifice our kamae and posture by blocking strikes without the intention of responding with oji waza, or fail to follow through once we have started a technique, because we fear being hit by your opponent. We learn equally by hitting or being hit.

My next post may be slightly delayed as I will be in Tokyo all this week  to take the Kyoshi examination. While I am there , I will try to cram in as much keiko as possible into the short time available. Hopefully I can bring the right attitude to each practice; and maybe after the final rei there will be the opportunity to crack a few smiles in a nearby bar.

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My daughter on the golf course

Whereas I was drawn instantly and obsessively to kendo from the first time I saw it, none of my family feel the same. That’s not because they are not sporty. My wife spends as much time in fitness and dance classes as I spend in the dojo. My daughter works for a well known golf club and my grandson fits school work in between football, golf, tennis and swimming, but none of them show the slightest interest towards kendo. Fortunately they all treat my addiction to kendo with a level of good natured tolerance.

I have always been intrigued by the motivation of my fellow kendoka, particularly by those like me, who chose kendo when it is obviously not part of our own cultural heritage. Over time I have run a number of polls from this blog site, including a survey on “Why did you start to learn kendo?”  To be honest, the answers were not particularly illuminating, but this may be more a function of my lack of skill as a pollster. The three most common answers were:

  1. An interest in Japanese culture
  2. A good way to keep fit
  3. As an addition to other budo study.

Numbers 1 and 3 make sense to me, but the second answer could apply to any other form of exercise. It interests me more to understand what keeps people coming back to kendo week after week for many years; in some cases for a lifetime. Of course there are some elements that would be common to other sports or pastimes such as the support and friendship of a social group, but I believe that the long-term motivation to continue kendo is often based on a desire for personal growth that is to my mind, unique to kendo.

Kendo is “shugyo” – a long path that leads to self improvement and self fulfilment.  Now after 40 or so years of keiko, I feel that I am starting to get some of the basics established, but the current challenge is in adapting my own technique to an ageing body. At the same time I want to be the best motodachi I can be, whilst continuing to stretch myself.  So inspired by the advice of Mochida sensei, I am trying to strengthen my “ki” to make up for physical decline.

Kendo’s other attraction for me is that it requires us to suspend conscious thought and commit ourselves on a purely physical level.

Whilst it is interesting to analyse how and why we do things, reflecting on kendo, reading and comparing ideas with others needs to be done outside the dojo. The formula making the most of our keiko time is simple – turn up, listen to sempai and sensei, do your best to practice energetically and correctly and try to encourage others.

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