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Posts Tagged ‘Kihaku’

downloadWhenever I come back to the UK after seeing high level kendo in Japan I am struck by one major difference in our kendo- we show far less kihaku. I don’t mean that our kiai is not loud enough, but overall we do not show the same inner force and explosiveness that our Japanese peers demonstrate.  Kihaku refers to the strength of spirit that we bring to our keiko. Outside the dojo in everyday Japanese a more usual translation would be “vigour”.

How this difference is manifested is difficult to explain, but let me try. It starts from the moment we stand up from sonkyo; instead of a “let’s wait and see what happens” attitude we should be fizzing like a piece of magnesium in water, looking for an opportunity to strike. When we find that opportunity we should explode, accelerating after we strike and taking our determination into zanshin.

Partially, the way to achieve this is through correct breathing – taking a big breath before you engage, releasing part of it through kakegoe, holding the remainder in tame and then emptying yourself on the strike.  Breathing alone though is not enough. We need to be in a state of constant readiness, able to attack at will. When we do strike it needs to be with total commitment. Win or lose we have to give it 100 per cent of our energy and effort. Our forward movement, particularly for men needs to be as fast as possible, picking up acceleration as we strike.

The strike itself should be sharp, not hard. A fast relaxed swing with good tenouchi is the way to do this and it goes without saying that our fumikomi, posture and strike should be as one.  Not everyone is in a position to do this. If you are in the early stages of your kendo career then you are still working on getting the basics right and it is almost impossible to put maximum effort into a strike when you are still thinking of the best way to do it. When technique is practiced until it becomes second nature, then it is the time to leave conscious thought behind and give it all you’ve got.

In my younger days I was delighted to be given the nickname “bullet” by my Japanese sempai. I was sure that this was based on the strength and speed of my attack. It was only later that I learned that the real reasoning behind the name was that when we hit the bars of Kyobashi after training, I was considered unstoppable. Still it was a confidence builder while it lasted.

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Brussels seminarI wrote this in preparation for the Seniors Seminar in Belgium which was held over this weekend,with the indulgence of the ABKF. This seminar was based on a number of posts that I have written over the years with thoughts about how we can continue enjoy kendo into old age.

Although I have a long way to go to get my keiko to the desired level, and hopefully have a few more years before I hang up my bogu, I have developed some fairly strong views on what we need do to get the most from our keiko. Some of these may appear contradictory, but please indulge me. It goes without saying that none of this work is my own. All of these ideas are borrowed from  senior Japanese sensei. The points to consider are as follows:

  • Work on your cutting action so that it is smooth and relaxed – do not use unnecessary energy by being stiff.
  • Develop strong kihaku but keep your upper body relaxed. – Learn to put your opponent under pressure and train to push power down from your shoulders to your abdomen.
  • Continue to strive to go forward with maximum speed when you make shikake waza, but work on your footwork so that you do not waste energy by lifting your right foot unnecessarily high.
  • Work on seme – making the opportunity is like baking the cake, the strike that follows is the icing.
  • Train your breathing – work on holding breath in your abdomen when holding “tame”; explode when you strike.
  • Control your footwork to take advantage of your opponent’s forward movement when you make oji waza – use hikidasu to draw him or her into your space.
  • Try kote, it take less energy than men

How can we train to achieve this?

  • Stick with the basics – practice suburi and kiri-kaeshi. Work on big correct waza, pay attention to cutting action, hasuji and tenouchi.
  • Practice oji waza drills until you own each technique, experiment with managing footwork distance to reach the target, taking the forward movement of your opponent into consideration.
  • Don’t stop kakarigeiko – do it bigger and slower with strong spirit.
  • Try seme- geiko – develop your ability to make the opportunity.
  • Sweat the small stuff – be aware of the correctness of your posture, bow and sonkyo – aim at developing kigurai, remember that each keiko starts with the first rei.

Obviously age decreases speed and physical strength. We need to continue to strive for correct technique and kiai so that we can control the keiko to our own advantage

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4th DanI am lucky enough to travel regularly for kendo and have been a panellist for or assisted with grading examinations in a number of countries over the past few years. During this time I have noticed that it is generally becoming more difficult to pass 3rd dan.

In the past it was often enough for a candidate to show correct waza and good posture to pass this grade. In some ways it was seen as a more polished version of 2nd dan.  Now, I feel that it is becoming the watershed that 4th dan used to be.

An experience that I have not had for quite a few years is to watch a prefectural grading in Japan, but I have been told by a number of senior sensei that the bar has been raised there too. Japanese grading panels now look for sharpness (sae) of strikes and for the ability to make opportunities through seme (breaking your opponent’s centre) or hikidasu (pulling him in), for third dan candidates in the way they looked at 4th dan in the past.

Although  purely conjecture on my part,  I imagine that this is a reflection of the fact that since 9th dan was discontinued, the kodansha grades of 8th, 7th and 6th dan have become more difficult to attain and slowly but surely there has been a trickle-down effect on the grades below.

Third dan seems to be particularly in the firing line, because 4th dan was traditionally seen as the point where strong kihaku (strength of spirit), seme and hikidasu were required to augment the technique learned up to that stage.  These elements now seem to be required for 3rd dan too.

Third dan candidates still need the basics of good cutting technique, posture and ki ken tai-itchi, but must now demonstrate the ability to control and dominate the opponent and to make sharp effective attacks at the right time.

Show the examiners that you mean business by ensuring that you are tuned into your opponent from the time you step into the shinsa-jo. Engage your partner’s attention and keep eye contact from the moment you start to bow. Then take three confident steps into simultaneous sonkyo before standing-up together. Allow the time to read each other and show strong kiai before an attack is made.

To prepare you should ensure that you work on creating correct opportunities in jigeiko and by including seme and hikidasu in your basic uchikomi drills. If you are able to combine good basic kendo with the ability to control your opponent at this stage, you should have a great foundation for the rest of your kendo career.

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Matsumoto sensei

Matsumoto sensei

I recently received an invitation from the Belgian Kendo Federation to run a weekend seminar next June for kenshi aged over 50. I am really excited about the prospect of doing so, as over the past few years I have put quite a lot of thought into how we can get the most out of our kendo as we get older.

The seminar will be held between the 19th and 21st of June and on the final day there will be a competition for participants. My aim is to share the information that I have gleaned from various sensei on how to make keiko meaningful and enjoyable, even if our physical powers are staring to wane.

As we get older it is tempting to take our “foot of the gas” and use less energy in our kendo. Conserving energy is essential, but at the same time our intensity should not decrease. We should relax, but be able to explode when we see an opportunity. The “feather in a hurricane” analogy that I have mentioned in previous posts, is a good summary of how we should relax, but at the same time be able to concentrate energy at the crucial moment. To achieve this we need to continue to practise kiri-kaeshi and kakarigeiko, but in a very different way to our younger friends.

Kihaku and good posture need to take over from work rate. We should relax but stay in what the ZNKR defines as “high spirits”, so that we are able to use what power we have when there is a real opportunity to attack.

The other crucial element is to use your experience to make the opponent do the work. If you can invite the other person to step into your distance, you have less far to travel to make your attack. The concept of hikidasu, or “to draw in“, is the way to conserve your own energy whilst making him or her come to you.

Basics are increasingly important as you age. If your footwork is incorrect, it is tiring, and worse still, potentially damaging to aging knees.  A recent study by Imafuku Ichiju looked at t the “piston” method of pushing off from the left foot used by younger kenshi and the way to swing the right foot forward  as you push off from the left  being more appropriate to older kendoka.

The one piece of advice for making the most of kendo as you age that I have not acted upon, came from Kawase sensei, who suggested that it is best to keep slim.  Still, I have a year before the seminar to lose a few pounds.

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Sumi sensei at Imperial

Sumi sensei at Imperial

I am trying to recover after 4 days and 5 nights of keiko with Sumi, Uegaki, Tashiro and Mori sensei.

We have just finished the annual Sumi seminar and by the final day there was a clearly visible improvement in the standard of Kendo for all participants. On the last day we held a grading examination to 5th dan level and for the first time in my experience, 100 percent of the candidates passed. Of course the sensei worked on improving technique and posture and a lot of focus was put on correct footwork, but in my view, the biggest improvement made to everyone’s kendo was through improved kiai.

I sincerely believe that in the UK, we fail to teach beginners the importance of correct breathing and strong kiai and that this has a major impact on the ability to finish waza correctly. Whereas if correct breath control is taught, the technicalities of finishing a technique tend to take care of themselves. Ideally, you should breathe in sharply and hold the air in your abdomen, then let out a small amount of this air as kiai or kakegoe before you enter cutting distance. You should then expel the rest of your breath sharply as a loud kiai at the point of striking. The difference between Kendo with and without this is similar to comparing a bout between two professional heavyweight boxers and a friendly slapping match.

As we get older and move up the grading ladder, kiai or perhaps more appropriately kihaku (the strength of our spirit), becomes more important. Muscle power decreases, so we need to resort to the strength of our mind or spirit to break an opponent’s centre as we make an attack.

Watching people like Sumi sensei, who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, you can see this transformation. Whereas twenty years ago I feared the speed of his attack, one is now transfixed by the strength of his ki.

So, coming back to our more immediate kiai concerns, what is the best way to train? The answer given loudly during the seminar was kirikaeshi. Deep breath, kakegoe, shomen and 5 yoko men with kiai without breathing in again – then stretch to shomen and seven yoko men. When you can do that go on to the whole forward and back sequence in one breath. It hurts! but, it will make one hell of a difference to your Kendo.

Post seminar practice at Imperial College – Sumi sensei in the second row center.

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Every time I come back from Japan, the intensity level of my keiko increases. Most strong sensei teach that the best way to improve your kendo is to train giving it 100 percent for limited periods and I buy into this concept completely.

Friends who run other dojo in the UK, and in some other European countries take a different view. They tell me that training should be pleasurable and that by deing too demanding they are likely to lose students, particularly those just starting their kendo career. They also quote the old chestnut “westerners are different” and we should do things our own way.

Traditionally there have been differences. Someone who started Kendo at age 7 and kept going through the school system to university can have 13/14 years experience and the heart and lungs of a twenty year old. He or she should constantly want to push harder to achieve kendo goals, but with the demise of kendo as a compulsory school sport in Japan and with more children’s clubs being started in other countries, it might be that the 14 year experienced 20 year old is a European and a Japanese or Korean beginner is a 40 year old lady. Yet age for age I believe they train harder than we do.

Gigeiko is fun! Kirikaeshi, uchikomigeiko and kakarigeiko are not. Done correctly with strong kiai and correct breathing these exercises constantly take you out of your comfort factor, but they certainly improve your kendo. The challenge for dojo leaders is to persuade students that a one hour keiko session should be broken down into 45 minutes of kihon drills and 15 minutes of gigeiko.

This applies to practice amongst kendoka of a similar level, if you are practising with senior sensei then don’t worry. Just wait for your turn and they will normally step up the practice to match and stretch your capabilities.

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