Posts Tagged ‘kihon drills’


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had an interesting conversation with Uegaki-sensei during my last trip to Japan. He made the point that if you want to improve a technique then you should work on it exclusively for 3 months.

This makes a great deal of sense. If you focus exclusively on one waza for this length of time you are going to absorb it into your muscle memory and it is going to become second nature when you deploy it in keiko or shiai.

The only word of warning is that you need to practice the technique correctly. Constantly repeating a mistake will only magnify it, so you need to be fairly certain that you understand exactly what you are doing before you commit yourself to 3000 repetitions per day.

The best way to improve is through kihon drills, but it is difficult to focus these exclusively on your own needs. In most dojo the training exercises are prescribed by an instructor whose job is to build a training programme that is valuable to everyone in the dojo. Often though if you tell your sensei what you are trying to do, he will set aside some practice time to help you, and you will have the bonus of him helping you get it right. I sometimes use motodachi-geiko sessions with students to work exclusively on the points that they are struggling with.

If sensei is not able to, or available to help, then it may be worth going to the dojo early with a buddy and working together on one technique, or taking turns to act as a target for different waza that you each need to work on. I know a number of people who have gone to the trouble of renting squash courts so they can spend some quality time developing their tokui waza.

What takes more discipline is to use your time in jigeiko to focus on one particular technique. Going into a keiko with the intention of only hitting men is commendable, but if all of your opponents are head and shoulders taller than you, it is difficult not to switch to dou of kote. Perhaps a better way is to set a goal of trying a particular technique a given number of times with each partner. There is of course a strong likelihood that everyone will catch on to you plan and make it more difficult for you  to achieve your aim, but that resistance can also be used to improve.

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ShimbunThere were fewer of us than usual in the dojo on Thursday, so we used the opportunity to analyse how we cut men and to break down the movement to its component parts with the aim of repairing each element before putting it in the correct sequence to make an effective men strike.

Kendoka in the early stages of their kendo careers generally face three problems that affect their cutting action.

They either:

  • Lift the shinai before they step into their own uchima distance, rather than stepping in whilst maintaining chudan kamae and then lifting the shinai and striking in the timing of one.
  • Are unable to make correct footwork, because they are using the right foot to drag the left rather than pushing with the back foot, or lifting the right foot too high when making fumikomi, so that the left foot then flicks up in an arabesque movement to compensate.
  • Or they use too much upper body power to make the cut. This can be a case of too much shoulder power or in many cases strength is concentrated in the right arm.

Fixing these errors is not always simple; because cause and effect can become confused, and very often, bad habits in men striking are a combination of more than one problem area.

We went through the analysis stage and acknowledged our own and each other’s faults then went through a series of suburi, footwork and uchikomi drills and people were starting to show some improvement, but I noticed that in several cases the cutting path of the shinai was not following a straight natural line through the centre of the body.

This led me to a eureka moment when I remembered an experiment conducted by an elderly sensei at the Kyoto Taikai a few years ago. He had set up a device which looked a bit like a tall music stand in a space behind one of the bogu stalls surrounding the Butokuden. The stand had a frame with clamps on either side into which he inserted a broadsheet newspaper page. He then challenged all and sundry to cut through the newspaper using a shinai without fittings. There were various results from kenshi of varying grades. Those who used far too much strength just ripped the paper out of the frame. Those who put just too much power in the right hand made an uneven zigzag cut and those that were totally relaxed and centred cut the paper down the middle in a perfectly straight line.

Recreating this seemed the perfect way to demonstrate how to cut correctly, so I asked if anyone had a newspaper and someone obliged with the evening free-sheet.  We took turns at holding the newspaper pages and everyone, me included took turns at cutting. The result across the board was that the page floated towards the ground in one piece whilst the holder was left clutching the two top corners, leaving me to reflect on why it didn’t work.

There are four possible answers. The newspaper was wet; you need a frame to hold the paper properly; our cutting was not good enough, or it does not work with the London Evening Standard only with the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

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Courtesy of eBay

Courtesy of eBay

We have scheduled a kyu grading at my local dojo for this coming Thursday and we were discussing the format. My preference is that candidates who are taking their first kendo examination should be allowed to demonstrate basic technique without the pressure of fighting for opportunities against an opponent, or being constrained by wearing men and kote. The requirement would be for them to deliver kirikaeshi and a pre-arranged sequence of kihon attacks against an armoured motodachi.  Another option or possible addition is the inclusion of the “Bokuto ni yoru Kendo Kihon Keiko-ho” or Training Method for Fundamental Technique with Bokuto.

My rationale is that it is difficult enough to learn correct technique and footwork without the added complication of understanding an opponent’s timing, particularly if he or she is equally new to kendo. There is also a danger that when new kendoka are told to “fight” there is a temptation to block or move to avoid being hit, whereas if they are in the role of kakarite, they can concentrate on correct technique and posture.

Grading examinations really are the “tip of the iceberg”.  There is an often quoted urban myth that pre-war, adult beginners in some Japanese dojo were left to practice suburi in a quiet corner for at least a year and then admitted to the dan ranks. In the present day UK, it is more likely that you will get to wear bogu after your 6 or 8 week beginners’ course.

Wearing men and kote too can be more challenging than experienced kenshi realise. Of course using these essential pieces of kendo kit eventually becomes second nature, but I have seen several instances of beginners quitting because the feeling of being blinkered by a men or being hit on the head felt so unnatural. On the other hand some brave individuals, who start kendo with the image of the armoured samurai, ready to do battle from day one in mind, find it hard to be patient while they are learning the basics.

Buying bogu too early in your kendo career can be as punitive financially as it is in terms of technique development.  eBay and the kendo message boards regularly have used bogu for sale and I am sure that there is much more stashed in cupboards and attics against the slim chance of the owner starting again.

I am interested in your views on when we should start wearing bogu. Should we get the basics right first, or is it better to at least have a taste of keiko in armour during the early stages of our kendo careers?

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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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