Posts Tagged ‘Kendo Training’

Seiza 5Different people have different ideas on what constitutes the perfect practise session. Some are happy to arrive at the dojo, have a quick stretch, put their men on and enjoy an hour’s jigeiko. Others may prefer to concentrate on kihon drills for the whole session.

In my view there is no right answer. The way you structure your keiko depends on how much time you have to fill and the level and physical condition of those taking part. If you are lucky enough to have a number of kodansha in the dojo, then jigeiko can be a great learning experience. To be more precise what you are getting is hikitate-geiko, where sensei is taking a view of your strengths and weaknesses and stretching you to do a bit better. If there is one instructor teaching a class of students then a structured session built on demonstration and repetition is likely to be the best way forward.

The length of your training session also dictates what you do. My ideal kendo week would consist of five or six 45 minute to one hour practices, each conducted at maximum intensity. When you have two or 3 hours to fill, you need to bring in more variety and exercises that offer a change of pace. For example, start with kata or boken ni yoru kihon keikoho, move on to kihon drills, keeping them short and changing partners frequently and finally move to jigeiko.

With kihon drills it’s best to keep to a theme. It might simply be improving ki-ken-tai-itchi, or could be something more ambitious like incorporating seme into the attack. You can work on shikake-waza  one day and oji-waza on another, or you could practise men attacks and the oji-waza to use against them as part of the same session.  In drills like this it is important for both motodachi and kakarite to approach each technique with total commitment and not anticipate the others movement, otherwise you are in danger of producing the counter attack before the attack.

One other word of warning, don’t try to do too much. I have seen sessions which have included almost every technique in kendo. In this case it is difficult to remember what you have covered, let alone get any benefit from it.

However you approach each training session remember that the purpose is to improve your kendo, and to enjoy your time in the dojo.

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SheepThe Christmas and New Year holidays mean kendo down-time for many of us. Here are some practical tasks that might help improve our kendo to try over next few days, before we get swept up in the pleasant routine of next year’s keiko.

  1. Wash your hakama and keikogi – I am a long term fan of the Japanese ritual of Osoji, making sure that everything is clean and in good order for the coming year. Starting the year with clean dogi feels like a fresh beginning to your keiko.
  2. Make sure shinai and bogu are in good condition – Check take, tighten tsuru and nakayui and replace old himo on bogu.
  3. Treat yourself to a pedicure- buy a foot file, or better still get a professional chiropodist to remove the callouses and hard skin inflicted on your feet by last year’s training. If you miss them don’t worry, you will soon be able to build up another set of kendo hooves.
  4. Find a role model – Think about teachers and senshu whose kendo you admire, ideally find someone with similar physical characteristics to your own. Look at their kendo on YouTube or read anything they have written about their own kendo philosophy and training habits and choose elements to introduce into your own practice.
  5. Practice suburi at home– Chiba sensei in his all-Japan prime used to do 3,000 continuous suburi every day, a few hundred would be a worthwhile activity for most of us. Words of warning –buy a short suburi shinai or watch out for low ceilings and light fittings. We don’t want to alienate our nearest and dearest at this time of year.
  6. Practice breathing – I don’t mean the standard life sustaining in and out stuff, but kendo chokoki tanden  kokyu, breathing in deeply and holding the air in your tanden before breathing out quickly through your mouth. Ideally you should do this sitting in seiza.
  7. Analyse your kendo – think about your keiko over the past year and the elements that felt “right”. Reflect on advice you have received and try to filter out any contradictions. If you have video footage of your kendo look at it in detail and try to understand the points that you should work on.

And that’s it! Another kendo year nearly over! Thank you for reading my blog in 2014. For local kendo friends, I hope to see you  at Sanshukan on Tuesday, I also look forward to meeting up with international friends in Brussels, Tokyo and various other locations over the course of 2015. Rainen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu. Have a great kendo year.

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Ryutaro HashimotoFrom my limited experience, kendo in Japan is a fairly egalitarian pursuit, attracting tradesmen, company workers, their wives and children and of course the professionals from the police and university factions. It also attracts some of the leaders of Japanese society.

Whether this is due to kendo’s samurai heritage or because Japan’s senior universities all have thriving kendo clubs is beyond me. It might be because many government departments and leading businesses, METI and Mitsubishi for example, have their own dojo that encourages the continued practice of kendo amongst Japan’s movers and shakers, but it could be argued that this is a function of effect rather than cause.

I can think of numerous government ministers and industry leaders who are active in kendo. In fact the current President of the AJKF, Cho Fujio who is honorary Chairman of Toyota recently took over from Takeyasu Yoshimitsu a former government minister. Probably the most senior kendoka in recent history was the late Hashimoto Ryutaro, former Prime Minister of Japan.

It could be argued that kendo either attracts successful people or that its practise develops habits that lead to success, but I wonder how this relates to those of us outside Japan who do not have the same cultural legacy. Any sport tends to attract competitive people and there are numerous examples of athletes who go on to become successful entrepreneurs, or build business or political careers. In most cases their concentration of effort tends to move from one to the other in that they focus exclusively on sport in their early years and then switch their energy to their working life.

Where kendo differs from other sports is that its pursuit can continue into old age, so it makes demands on time that might be added to the hours invested in work. Of course many career focused individuals take time out for the gym, but thirty minutes on the treadmill can be squeezed into the busiest schedule, whereas kendo training takes place at set times and dates and very often entails time spent travelling to the dojo.

For those of us who train regularly, this can equate to a considerable time investment.  My own kendo activities take up between 8 and 10 hours per week, which if added to my consultancy time sheet would account for another day’s income. Still I am totally convinced that the de-stressing benefits of kendo can keep us sane enough to continue making the most of our working lives. I am interested to learn your thoughts on the subject. Would you be more or less successful with or without kendo?

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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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Tai-atari image from Kendo, a Comprehensive Guide

To mix a number of metaphors – The road to kendo satori is paved with conflicting advice. We have to choose, or more likely we are told, either to put our tenugui inside or outside our men before or after practice, to make our suburi bigger or smaller and to use or not use tai-atari as part of kirikaeshi.

The kirikaeshi question is an interesting one. For such a standardised, widely practised exercise, there is considerable variation between the ways it is taught in different dojo. Distance, speed and timing tend to vary, there are two schools of thought as to where the break in continuous breathing should be, but the key point of contention is whether or not to make tai-atari after the shomen strike, before starting on the yoko-men sequence.

If you are kendo student the chances are that you will have no say in how you do the drill. The way you go about it will be dictated by your instructor’s preference; having said that, a thoughtful instructor will take your experience and skill level into account.

Tai-atari in kirikaeshi replicates the situation in keiko or shiai when the opponent remains in front of you after your first attack. You need to move into tsubazeriai and push him backward and attack again either with a hikibana or hikiwaza technique. So it’s a useful thing to practice. On the other hand unless your posture is developed to a level where you can constantly keep your hips and centre engaged while relaxing your shoulders, making tai-atari immediately after a men attack causes you to lean forward and use your shoulders. This makes you unstable and therefore unable to move quickly to the next technique.

What I am trying to say in a rather long-winded way, is that if you can do tai-atari correctly, then do it. This means that your posture should be completely upright but when you make contact with your opponents’ hands you should lower your hips and push down lightly, not relying on upper body strength.

If on the other hand this is new to you, then the best way forward is not to push, but to remain in the position in which you hit men as your partner steps back into the correct distance for you to start the yoko-men sequence. In some dojo this is practised with an emphasis on motodachi creating as much distance as possible – to encourage kakarite to stretch to reach the target.

My personal view is that this no-touch approach will serve most people well up to 3rd dan level, but again, your instructor should know best.

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Snake (1)At the beginning of each New Year most of us think about our goals for the coming year’s kendo. These are normally ambitious and take the form of committing to pass the next dan examination or winning certain competitions, or making it into the National Team. Certainly these are all worthy ambitions and if you think you can achieve them, go flat-out to make it happen.

What we often ignore however, are the components we need to make our kendo strong enough to reach these heights. It is worth taking time to reflect on your kendo strengths and weaknesses and to isolate the elements that if worked on, would make the biggest difference to your future improvement. Naturally these vary enormously depending on your experience level and your physical condition, but here are some that you could work on that may make a big difference to your rate of progress:-

  • Footwork – Ensure that you always bring your left foot up in hikitsuke, so that you are always ready to move the instant that you see an opening. Think about keeping your left heel off the ground so that the foot makes a 15 degree angle against the floor and you will have the power to launch at will.
  • Posture and balance- Hold yourself perfectly upright, but with the feeling of leaning half a degree forward. Use your hips and back to power the strike and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. Keep your posture after you hit and make strong zanshin.
  • Review your kamae – Check that your targets are not visible and make sure that your hands and arms can move quickly and freely when you see an opportunity.
  • Think about tenouchi – Hold the shinai lightly with ring and little fingers and squeeze gently only after you have made contact with your opponents bogu.
  • Make opportunities – Break your partners centre with strong seme or subtly invite him to attack to create the chance for ojiwaza.
  • Commit – When you attack make sure that you do so wholeheartedly with a feeling of sutemi. Do not hedge your bets by thinking of stopping or going around him. Once you fire the bullet, there should be no way of stopping it.
  • Be dignified – Win or lose show kigurai, but do so with humility.

Whether we are thinking about these points for the first time or are experienced kendoka who have thought about them time and time again, we should constantly review the basics and make sure that we do not let bad habits creep in.

If you have a master plan for achieving kendo greatness in 2013, please include some of these basics in your preparation. On the other hand if your aim is just to make the most of your keiko then perfecting any of these points would be a worthy ambition on its own.

Whatever your plans have a happy and successful 2013.

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I am now recovered from man-flu. Thank you well-wishers for your concern! I was back in the dojo last week and on Thursday had a visit from the British Army kendo team who are training for an inter-forces competition this weekend. After kihon practise we had a friendly shiai and finished with jigeiko.

During jigeiko the newest member of the Army squad stood there waiting for me to hit him. I am not keen on conversation in keiko, but thought a few words might be in order, so suggested that it might be a good idea for him to try attacking. He then expressed the view that it would be better if I went first. I then politely asked how long he had practised kendo, to which the response was 17 hours. I then did a quick calculation along the lines of an average of 8 hours keiko per week, over 50 weeks per year for 43 years,  gives me about 25,000 hours, so perhaps he would like to attack first and catch-up.

Talking to the rest of the squad in the pub after training, it was obvious that our friends in the forces have very different challenges to us civilian martial artists. With members being deployed at short notice to Afghanistan and Iraq, it is difficult for the same group to train regularly together, and with an emphasis put on “competitive sport”, forces teams are made up of experienced players and those who are just keen to give it a try. They then go through short periods of concerted training leading up to competition. As a good team member my reluctant attacker was practising “not getting hit”, with team strategy in mind.

It is good to know that kendo is now officially recognised by all three branches of our armed forces and many British universities including Oxford and Cambridge. Whereas kendo in the UK used to be practised only in unofficial clubs, it is now starting to gain more establishment acceptance. The trade-off is that these institutions expect to see a healthy level of competition along the same lines as other more established sports. Oxford and Cambridge have their boat race and their varsity kendo competition. In the same way the Army, Navy and Air Force have regular inter service competitions, as they do for Rugby.

So Army Team, I hope you were successful on Saturday and that kendo continues to increase in popularity. As for the man with 17 hours experience behind him, he was doing brilliantly under the circumstances.

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With Uegaki sensei

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am a keen advocate of the value of kihon training. I also believe it is unreasonable for any instructor to prescribe activities that he or she is not prepared or able to do personally.

Now in my 60’s I am hugely impressed by some of the Japanese sensei of my generation who refuse to act their age. Yamanaka sensei and Uegaki Isao sensei immediately come to mind as role models. I have had the pleasure of training with Uegaki sensei several times in his dojo in Yoshino. He invariably includes kakarigeiko in training sessions for kenshi of all ages and grades, including himself.

I recently resolved to add more kakarigeiko to my own training schedule and if I am going to suffer, so should everyone else.  At last Thursday’s practise in my local dojo, we concluded with 5 or 6 repetitions of kakarigeiko and I felt not only more virtuous but physically better for it.

I had the best of intentions to include kakarigeiko in yesterday’s morning practice at Mumeishi. Unfortunately I woke up with a case of “man-flu” and feeling unable to live up to my own expectations, I kept to the usual kirikaeshi and waza geiko routine before taking my place for motodachigeiko. I am determined however to get back on track as soon as I have stopped coughing and snivelling.

Following Uegaki sensei’s advice and example, I realise that us senior citizens can get as much benefit from kakarigeiko as do our younger, fitter colleagues. The elements that do not change are total commitment and big correct technique. Additionally we oldsters need to pay even more attention to producing strong kiai and seme, correct posture and good zanshin. So albeit slower than it used to be, kakarigeiko can still be a vital component of our training plan.

Whereas in hikitate geiko with less experienced players there is a tendency to rely on ojiwaza, kakarigeiko ensures that you make strong effective shikake waza against every partner. As such, it ensures that you constantly use your whole repertoire of kendo techniques and do not forget the value of making good seme men. The other benefits of this kind of training are increased appetite for a post-keiko beer and the ability to sleep like a baby.

So like any good male cold sufferer, I stopped off at Superdrug on my way home from keiko and collected a carrier bag full of vitamin C tablets, paracetamol, linctus and lozenges. I now plan to retire to bed with these and my Kindle. I will of course be keeping in touch with my wife by phone, sending frequent requests for soup and hot lemon and honey drinks. I should hopefully emerge by Tuesday, like an energised butterfly from a chrysalis ready for more kakarigeiko.

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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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Sueno sensei, hanshi hachidan and 1979 All Japan Championship winner from Kagoshima, is currently in the UK and has just given us a very interesting seminar. At the opening stage, he stressed the importance of continuing suburi throughout your kendo career and made the point that ”if you can’t do suburi, no matter how long your kendo experience, you can’t do kendo”.

He instructed that the path of the shinai in suburi should be smooth, in line with the centre of the body and close to the head and that we should use all three joints; shoulders, elbows and wrists.  He also insisted that we should ensure that we use the muscles in the underside of our arms rather than those on top. To achieve this, we should pull our arms back past the midpoint of the top of our heads and feel these muscles engage before starting the downswing. Once this has been achieved and the muscle memory kicks in, we are able to make our upswing smaller and smaller and that in keiko or shiai, the cut can be as small as you wish as long as it has impact.. We should not pull our elbows out and arms should remain relaxed. When viewed from the back our shoulder width should not change throughout the whole striking process.

Sueno sensei also talked about the old commonly taught concept of shibori (wringing the hands on completion of the cut), being incorrect and that we should not change our grip from beginning to end of the cut. He explained that the hands throughout the cut should be in kirite (cutting hand) position, although they could be extended in nobite (extended hand) form to lengthen our reach on impact. He also torpedoed the old myth that we should straighten our right arm on cutting men by demonstrating that doing this gave a 4 to 5 centimetre reach advantage, but that the resultant body imbalance caused us to lose 30 or 40 centimetres of distance from our footwork.

Sensei then went on to take us through a sequence of waza geiko, uchikomi geiko and kakarigeiko exercises, constantly reinforcing the concept of accurate relaxed swing. The other key point that was accentuated was correct breathing. When you breathe in you are open to attack, so before you enter fighting distance, you should breathe in quickly and conserve your breath in your tanden until you can conclude a successful waza. Finally he made the point that if you miss with your attack you should keep going until you make a successful strike.

Although I was there in an assistant instructor role, the temptation to try things myself was overwhelming. The highlight of the seminar for me was a keiko with Sueno sensei, who was of course, impossible to hit. As the old song goes “It don’t mean a thing, If you ain’t got that swing”.

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