Posts Tagged ‘Kendo kihon’

Grading + KataI just got back from a weekend kendo seminar and grading examination.  As well as kihon and kata practice we had two keiko sessions where I was impressed by the fighting spirit of most of the people who trained with me.

At the conclusion of the seminar I advised the candidates for the subsequent exam to just relax and display their best kendo; which many managed to do, but in some cases minus the element of fighting spirit. What we saw instead were what appeared to be nicely choreographed displays of technique with clear opportunities being taken in turn with little or no resistance.

Grading panellists are looking for positive evidence of candidates’ ability to demonstrate all the key elements of kendo: correct cutting, good posture, hand and foot coordination, timing, the ability to make and react to opportunities and of course fighting spirit. These elements are required in varied quantities in line with the grade being taken, but at any level, you need to show that you are there to fight.

By fighting spirit I do not mean raw aggression, the feeling I am trying to describe is more like ability to keep a reservoir of energy centred in your abdomen so that you are constantly ready to step in and take the initiative and when you see the target to explode into action. At its best it is a combination mental attitude and correct breathing technique that allows you to commit 100 percent to an attack; win or lose.

At the early stages of our kendo careers it is difficult to rationalise applying pressure to our opponent whilst at the same time relaxing, but it gets easier to achieve the more kihon training we do. We can accelerate progress by actively developing the right attitude. By this I mean that even in the most basic drills you should try to make “mind contact” with your opponent and to always think about how you set up each technique by making your opponent move. This leads us into the concept of sen, sen sen no sen and go no sen, but whilst this is not difficult to understand on an intellectual level, the physical ability to make and take opportunity is one of the most difficult ongoing parts of our kendo training and can only be achieved through constant correct training.

So if you failed on this or a recent occasion don’t be discouraged, get back to the dojo, relax your shoulders, take a big breath, centre your energy and get back to kihon training with lots of confidence and controlled aggression.

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MountainI was told many years ago by a Japanese 7th dan in his 60’s that he found kendo increasingly challenging, particularly from the perspective of producing kendo that set a good example for his juniors. At the time, I was surprised to hear that someone who had reached his level still had concerns about his ability. I foolishly imagined that on reaching the kodansha ranks it was simply a matter of enjoying the benefits of past hard training.

Kendo continues to provide a challenge throughout our kendo lives, from learning to move our hands and feet together as beginners, to trying to gain some semblance of jiri-itchi when we reach the higher dans. As we progress, we face a series of barriers that we must overcome before we move to the next level. These often reflect the requirements for our next grading examination, such as renzoku waza for nidan and seme and tame for 4th and 5th dan, but they would still exist with or without a formal grading system.

Unfortunately these barriers have a way of getting higher and taking longer to overcome as we progress. It is often during these periods when people decide that it is easier to quit than to continue to strive. Kendo very quickly polarises those who appreciate  the value we gain is from the journey itself and those who expect instant mastery. The latter tend to leave at the end of each beginners course, but even for the most dedicated kenshi, long periods without tangible improvement can be frustrating and disheartening. On the other hand it seems that higher the “wall”, the greater the improvement you make when you eventually climb over it.

Practically, the solution is wherever possible, to go back to basics and increase the amount of kihon geiko in our training schedules. This should be done in a way that focuses on, or reflects the elements that we need to change. It helps to share and to have the guidance of your teacher or seniors when you are working on correcting faults or developing new skills. Sometimes however this is not possible and you need to collaborate with your peers rather than try by yourself. You may well find that they are facing the same difficulties and that working together provides a win-win solution.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate the point that sensei was trying to make. The biggest improvement you can make is to reach a level where you become conscious of how much you have to learn.

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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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Last week when I was in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to be invited to practice with the kendo club of Hitotsubashi University. Whilst I have practiced at a number of Japanese university clubs over the years, I tend to forget just how hard kendoka work at this stage of their careers to ensure that the fundamentals are in place to develop shiai and jigeiko skills.

Two thirds of the allotted keiko time was devoted to kirikaeshi, uchikomi geiko and yakusoku geiko. I was impressed by the fact that everyone from first year students on up knew all the drills and their sequence inside out. Of course the club captain provided the appropriate words of command, but everyone went through the whole session on autopilot, concentrating only on doing each technique faster and better. Chiba sensei who is Hitotsubashi Dai’s Shihan, was able to stay aloof from the process of running the session and only intervened to make corrections or suggestions to individual members.

Only after this kihon was completed were visitors brought into the final thirty minute jigeiko session. With twelve or so of these young kendo machines lined up for keiko with me, half an hour of flat-out practice was all I needed.  However after I left for a beer with Chiba sensei, the students continued their practice to concentrate on preparation for that weekend’s shiai with universities from Osaka and Kobe.

What I find particularly interesting is that Hitotsubashi University does not have a particular kendo or physical education focus. Its reputation in Japan is primarily that of an elite academic institution, so of course the students all have to spend a great deal of time focussing on their studies. Nevertheless it was obvious that kendo plays a major part of their lives, both in and out of the dojo. It was also clear from Chiba sensei’s opening and closing remarks that the objective of the university kendo club was not just to develop effective tactical kendo but to promote the holistic values of kendo and its impact on everyday life.

Certainly, judging by the way visitors are treated by these students, sensei has done a great job in reinforcing the true spirit of reigi. I understand that next year the Kendo Club of Hitotsubashi Daigaku is going to make a visit to Imperial College in London with the aim of establishing an official twinning relationship. Imperial also has the reputation for attracting some very bright students, so next year should see a meeting of minds as well as kendo spirit.

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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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