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Posts Tagged ‘Kirikaeshi’

Grading + KataWe have one of UK kendo year’s biggest grading exams coming up next weekend at my own dojo, Mumeishi. This one goes up to 5th dan there are nearly 90 candidates registered.

I have recently sat in on a number of practise grading sessions and whilst I have seen some good kendo there are a few errors that people fall into time after time. One of these seems to happen mainly with people taking ikkyu and shodan and is a reasonably new phenomenon. Candidates are taking turns in opening up and letting their opponent hit them, as if they were doing uchikomi-geiko.

The alternative seems to be that the two fighters use the limited time available to perform a series of ai-men, hitting each other at the same time. What the jury will actually be looking for is the ability to take or make the correct opportunity to attack as well as the ability to show correct basic technique.

Going up the grades, the big danger is attacking too much, particularly at times when no opportunity exists. Two or three successful attacks are all you need, especially if you are aiming for 4th or 5th dan. (Sueno sensei recently suggested that you need to hit 5 times to make 2 clear ippon). Show that you can break your opponent’s centre and take clear points.

Here are some points to keep in mind regardless of the grade you are aiming for:

  • Be careful of your chakuso. Make sure that all your equipment is tied neatly and correctly. Watch the length of your men-himo and ensure that loops and descenders are of equal length.
  • Make correct rei and sonkyo. You should take kamae at the same time as you make sonkyo not before or after.
  • You must not attack when there is no opportunity and you must attack when there is.
  • Commit 100 per cent to any attack you make. Ensure that your kiai is strong and that you make sae on hitting. Ensure too that your zanshin is present on every strike.
  • If you miss, keep good posture as you move through after the attack. A missed point with good posture and kiai can be more impressive than a poorly executed hit.
  • If kirikaeshi is part of your exam strike sharply and accurately and make sure that you do not cross your feet when you step backwards.
  • Do not try techniques that you are not yet good at. Oji do is a good example. Few people do this well and many others try it in gradings. Even if it means relying solely on men, do only what you can do well.

If you are taking this or any other grading next week, do not attempt to make major changes to your kendo. Do the best you can with what you already have and keep these few tips in mind. Oh, and good luck on the day!

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Copy of P1010028It is easy for kendo teachers to get into a rut. We all have our favourite drills and exercises and there is a very real danger that every kihon session is a repeat of the last. The obvious argument against this is “if it works why change it”. I would suggest however that by varying our training routine we stop students from getting bored and therefore keep them more engaged.

An example is suburi. Many clubs regularly follow warming up exercises with the same suburi every session. They do the same number of repetitions of the same sets of jogi-buri, naname-buri, shomen-suburi, zenshinkotai-suburi and hayasuburi. As a result I often see people coast. They just go through the motions of swinging the shinai backwards and forwards without concentrating. To my mind it then becomes just a continuation of the warm-up and misses out on its main purpose, which is to improve ki-ken-tai-itchi , posture, tenouchi  and  hasuji.

As an antidote I started the New Year practice at Sanshukan with an idea borrowed from Chiba sensei. This time we worked in pairs with motodachi receiving on a shinai held above his head and counting to two hundred. Kakarite delivered that number of strikes whilst working on making the attacks both relaxed and sharp. The fact that we were doing something different was as valuable as the exercise itself and the next set of drills looked better than usual when performed by kenshi with tired shoulders. It is my opinion that we should regularly vary all of our drills. Kirikaeshi can be performed fast or slow, with suriashi or fumikomi-ashi. We can change the number of strikes, do it backwards and forwards across the length of the dojo, even swap men for dou strikes or combine them both.

The same goes for most drills. Rather than always following a set pattern of shikake waza  and ojiwaza, vary the routine. Have a session where you just try kote attacks and work on the relevant counter techniques, then devote another day to practise only men and oji waza against men. The objective with all these exercises is to focus on each technique and for everyone to develop and perform it to the best of their ability. There are techniques that some people will find harder than others, but even if it is not their favourite, they should work on it and earmark it for more effort in the future.

Everyone wants to improve their kendo, so as instructors we need to make training interesting to keep people engaged.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men1When I trained last month in Osaka Shudokan, Hayashi Kozo sensei introduced us to a method of practising kiri-kaeshi slowly with suriashi footwork. He explained that the objective of the exercise to learn to use our shoulders in a relaxed way whilst concentrating on correct tenouchi and hasuji. Since returning to the UK I have copied this in a number of our sessions. We start with 3 or 4 repetitions at this speed then build up to normal speed kirikaeshi before going on to other kihon drills.

Watching people go through this routine, it is fairly obvious that most of us can make big cuts correctly in slow motion, but when we make the action smaller or faster, shoulders tend to stiffen and we make too much use of the strength of our right arm. This is particularly true of kote, where many people keep their left hand static and use just right hand power to deliver the strike. I have even seen examples where the downward force of the strike is exaggerated by also pushing the left hand down.

Preventing such bad habits is the reason for constantly coming back to basics. We need to train so that we can strike with relaxed shoulders, elbows and wrists and add snap with tenouchi. Whether we are cutting kote, men or dou, large or small, fast or slow, we need to do so with the timing of one; lifting and striking in the same movement. This works in exactly the same way for shikake and oji waza.

To strike men all you need do is push your left hand up and let gravity do the rest. For kote the shortest route to the target is best, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the cut is made with a forward movement from the left hand, not a downward movement from the right. If your shoulders and arms are relaxed you will feel the impact of a successful hit not in your hands but in your abdomen as you move forward.

Kirikaeshi is not the only way to achieve this, but we need to practice cutting in a fluid relaxed way. If not through kirikaeshi then through suburi or repeated strikes against a partners shinai. We should start big and then if we can hit in a relaxed way then we can make the movement smaller. As an afterthought, small does not necessarily mean quick. I have seen accomplished kendoka make a big men strike in less time than a less experience kenshi needs to make a small kote.

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Kirikaeshi smallI have written on several occasions about the benefits to be gained from practicing kirikaeshi.  This time I wanted to share some thoughts on just how much kirikaeshi can tell others about your kendo.

I got home last night after the Watchet kendo seminar and grading. In the past in the UK, it was only necessary to include kirikaeshi in grading exams up to third dan.  Now to align with other European kendo countries, its inclusion has been extended to 4th dan  examinations.  With this in mind we did some work on kirikaeshi over the weekend and then as a grading panellist I watched 3 hours of it on Sunday, so as you can imagine, the topic is fresh in my mind.

It really is a very good indicator of an individual’s overall kendo level.  A demonstration of kirikaeshi is not affected by the relative strength of your opponent, it is a simple showcase for your kendo basics. It gives examiners a clear view of your ability to cut correctly with tenouchi, your footwork and ki- ken- tai-itchi and the strength of your kiai.

When as an examiner you watch kirikaeshi the first thing you notice is whether or not the candidate is demonstrating “full spirit”. A big kiai and the ability to make successive strikes in one breath will immediately get the panel on side. It is also easy to see whether the attacker is making correct cuts to the target. For yoko men this should be a a 45 degree angle to the temple and the right arm should be extended and the left hand should remain in the centre of his or her dou mune.

Many kendoka get into the habit of aiming at the opponent’s shinai rather than really trying to hit the target. When they are practising in their own dojo, they should get motodachi to receive the strike as close as possible to their men to encourage a correct cutting action and hasuji. It is also obvious if correct distance is being kept. This is usually a good indicator of someone’s ability to control their footwork.

One question I was asked several times over the weekend was whether tai-atari should be included in kirikaeshi in gradings. There are various schools of thought, but the simple answer is include it if you have to and don’t if you don’t. For instance if motodachi offers strong resistance, make tai-atari, if he goes back after your first strike, then there is no need.

Of course there are other elements of kendo such as timing, opportunity, seme and the understanding of riai that are not visible in kirikaeshi, which is why we go on to a jigeiko demonstration, but kirikaeshi certainly gives the panel a quick overview of a candidates level of competence with kendo’s fundamentals.

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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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With Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis at Saineikan

With Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis at Saineikan

Last Tuesday Mumeishi  dojo  enjoyed a visit from two 8th dans, Takatera sensei,  Meiyo Shihan of the Imperial Palace Police and the well-known teacher and writer Ozawa Hiroshi sensei . They were accompanied by a third teacher Iino sensei, a senior kyoshi 7th dan.

The dojo was packed tight with students who came for the privilege of keiko with these excellent kenshi. We had our usual kihon session then an hour of free keiko, so I made sure that I had my men and kote on quickly and was the first to practice with Takatera  sensei  before  joining the line for the other two teachers, finally moving back to the motodachi side.

Although in his 60s, Takatera sensei is a remarkably fast, forward moving 8th dan. When you face him the pressure is intense. He very quickly “took me apart” before leading me through kakarigeiko and kirikaeshi. Different hachidan have different approaches to practice with older opponents and Takatera  sensei’s is obviously to expect them to work hard. The sessions with the next two sensei were almost relaxed by comparison.

There is a temptation for senior grades to stay on the motodachi side of the dojo and not take advantage of these occasional chances to learn from more experienced teachers.  If you are over 60, many Japanese instructors are relaxed about whether you join them for keiko or line up next to them. Whatever your age and grade you owe it to yourself to take every opportunity to improve and if it means finishing the keiko with wobbly legs, then so much the better.

When I joined Takatera sensei, who is as good natured as he is fierce, for a beer after training, he told me that even though he has retired from the Imperial Palace, he currently attends 15 keiko sessions per week, which makes my three seem decidedly lightweight by comparison.. Takatera sensei, along with some other notable teachers, works extremely hard at his own kendo practice and expects the rest of us oldies to work equally hard. So this was a timely reminder to keep up the intensity of my own training. For the rest of this week I have made sure that we make kakarigeiko  more challenging and that I join in as kakarite.

In kendo we use the expression “utte hansei, utarete kansha” meaning that we should  learn by reflecting on the successful strikes we make and by showing gratitude for the successful strikes against us. I clearly have a lot to thank Takatera sensei for.

* I will be away at the European Kendo Championships from mid-week until next Monday, so unless I can get my sausage fingers to work on a hand-held device, next weeks post will be late.

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Hasegawa senseiWe had a Hatsugeiko session at my local dojo on the evening of January second. Luckily this coincided with a visit from Hasegawa Makoto sensei, former JICA teacher to Nepal. He had contacted Holt sensei during a sightseeing visit to London and ours was the one practice that fitted in with his schedule. 

The session format was the one I normally suggest when we have senior visits. We started with kihon geiko, had a brief interlude for keiko between the kodansha and then finished with motodachi- geiko. We had a glass of sake to toast the New Year and then moved to the pub for a chat.

We asked Hasegawa sensei for a critique of everyone’s kendo and the point that he made was that people tended to use too much shoulder power. Many individuals made a cutting motion with their arms moving in parallel. Instead he suggested that they should rather push up and out with the left hand and pull up with the right, so that the shinai makes  an even arc as they raise and strike. He also commented on the need to grip only with the middle, ring and little fingers and not the forefinger and thumb. This applies to the grip in kamae, when striking and when making tenouchi on the point of hitting.

Good observations, but not revelations. They are exactly the same points that local instructors and other visiting sensei make repeatedly. The big question is “why are so many of us unable to change?”

I have often heard theories about westerners having different physical characteristics and that Japanese tend to concentrate more strength in their core and lower bodies because of “tatami lifestyle”, but to be frank I find these hard to believe. Most young Japanese people now use chairs and sleep in beds. I also see Korean and Japanese people who have started kendo outside their own countries, develop the same heavy hitting style as their Caucasian chums.

I believe the remedy is in the quality and quantity of basis practice we should do. Chiba sensei once said that leading up to his All Japan Championship peak; he did 3000 continuous suburi per day. Not only does repetition lead to perfection, but working at that level of intensity teaches you to relax and save energy. In the same vein if you regularly practice flat-out uchikomigeiko or kakarigeiko you learn to conserve energy by not being unnecessarily tense. The other point to consider is that correct breathing helps you to relax, so by practising multiple strikes with one breath in kirikaeshi or kakarigeiko you learn to use the power of your tanden instead of your shoulders.

Old advice, but certainly worth taking into account for this year’s training.

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