Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto Taikai’

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At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

During keiko yesterday I tried my best to coach a friend on making seme. As I see it, there are two separate but indivisible elements, the physical act of and the mental approach.  In kendo we talk about shikai, the four sicknesses of surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation. It is to prompt one of these conditions that we make seme.

There are many kinds of seme either involving the act of pushing in and taking away your opponent’s control of the centre or in pulling him in to make an involuntary movement, but typically when we think of seme we think of the former.

To break the opponent’s centre, pushing the shinai forward with our arms is not sufficient. We need to push in with our whole body, stepping in with our hips and tanden braced. Equally importantly our kiai and mental approach need to be correct. We should be confident, full of energy and if we are going to surprise our opponent or make him afraid we need to be downright scary. The term kizeme is used to describe the process of attacking your adversary with your ki, or spirit and although this sounds faintly esoteric is a simple process.

If outside of your kendo life you are confronted by someone who is extremely angry, or worse in a state of controlled anger, most people would feel fear. Whilst we don’t ever want to lose our tempers in kendo, we want to induce this feeling of fear in our opponent as we step in to attack. We do this by controlling our breathing and making strong kiai as we make seme and tame (the act of retaining your power in readiness to attack).

The friend that I was working with today is physically small, which makes it even more important for her to produce strong seme to make the other person react.  This is not at all impossible. Some of the most frightening hachidan sensei are of small stature. Arima sensei of Osaka fukei, Suzuki sensei of Hyogo kenkei, Takatera sensei, ex –Imperial Palace Police, and many others are formidable examples of how size does not matter in kendo. To have keiko with any of these sensei is a flat-out assault on your senses that leaves you feeling as if you have been hit by a tsunami.

I know that my friend  is going to watch the Kyoto taikai next month, so perhaps the best advice I can give her is to look out for the tachiai of these and some of the other smaller teachers and see for herself how scary they can be.

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EKF Calendar (300x320)Over the years the number of kendo seminars, taikai and grading examinations has continued to grow. In February alone there will be 10 events in the European zone. In comparison to the few opportunities that were available back in the days when I started kendo this is an enviable situation. The challenge however is selecting which to attend.

Some decisions are simple. If you are planning to take a grading examination the nearest venue provided by your local federation is the easy option. The same thing goes for your own regional championships. If however you are a keen shiai player in search of international experience, you could have a choice of two or three major taikai within weeks of each other.

For those of us who are asked to referee and sit on grading panels, we occasionally receive invitations for several things on the same day and face the dilemma of which to attend. In this case I usually go with the first invitation.

There are several weekends when equally important sensei will be teaching at the same time. In addition to the seminars arranged by national federations there are also a number of club events where the teachers have been invited direct by friends or former students.  Some of these have been advertised ahead of time and some of these are still not on federation websites nor have they been flagged up to the EKF. I know of at least two hachidan visits to the UK that have not yet been formally anounced.

Thanks to cheap air fares and the internationalisation of kendo we are now spoilt for choice. My only reservation is that when famous kendo teachers visit a country we should make sure that a significant number of people are there to benefit from their teaching. I have often heard Japanese kendo friends express surprise that there is no queue for keiko with visiting hanshi, whereas local kendo students in Japan seldom have a chance to practise with them.

I have queued for most of the hour allocated for asa-geiko at the Kyoto Taikai for one practice with a teacher for whom I have never waited for more than 5 minutes in the UK. In some ways we enjoy an enviable situation as international kendo students, but we should be careful not to take our luck for granted.  In an ideal world we would stagger sensei visits, so that they are distributed evenly over the year. Unfortunately this is almost impossible to arrange as visits abroad typically happen in gaps in the kendo and academic calendar in Japan.

My suggestion is that we make the most of as many visits as we can when we have the opportunity. Hachidan are not like buses; you can never guarantee that there will be another one along in a minute.

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29323_1401129875529_1450794437_1070239_8154535_nThe summer holiday period has started and dojo attendances are thinning out.  With the exception of next week’s Premier cup there is nothing much on the BKA calendar or on my international fixtures list until the autumn.  This is good news for my wife as we are planning a house move and I might have a chance to participate in the packing.

Nevertheless give or take one or two crucial weeks, I expect to continue with my minimum of three practices per week. I usually have keiko on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday which gives me at least a day between sessions to recover and look forward to the next one.  Whilst this is the best I can do with work commitments and travel time to various dojo, I am envious of some of my Japanese friends, particularly those over retirement age, who manage to practice up to 12 times per week.

This may sound like a lot of keiko, but asa-geiko or morning-practice makes double digit training opportunities a reality for non-professional kendoka. Many Japanese kenshi attend practice at 7.00 a.m with an 8.00 finish and a chance to get to the office by 9.00. I was never an asa-geiko regular having lived too far from work to get to the dojo in time, but I have had the pleasure of attending sessions in the old Noma dojo when I stayed in Tokyo and more frequently the asa-geiko sessions in the Kyoto Budo Centre at the time of the Kyoto Taikai.

The Kyoto Taikai asa-geiko is so popular that many people arrive an hour early to be number one in the line in front of their favourite hachidan. Even with a one hour advantage these plans can be thwarted, particularly by the group of unscrupulous lateral thinkers who wait outside the dojo with their men already tied in place and who rush to the front of the queue the moment that “men tsuke”  is called.

Queue jumpers aside asa-geiko has its benefits, not least of which is the appetite for a big breakfast that can only be satisfied by a fry-up at the Royal-Host. For some reason there seems to be one of these chain restaurants within a five minute drive of most asa-geiko venues. The other benefit is that morning practice is a great way to start the day, either leaving a clear working day ahead or giving my retired friends a chance to go home for lunch and a nap before starting the whole process again in the evening.


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Wu Chin-puAn eighth dan   recently asked me about my plans for retirement and I explained that as a self-employed consultant I aim to stop sometime before I die. Unfortunately I mistakenly used the Japanese word for “give-up” rather than the one meaning “cease”, so we had a lengthy conversation about “never giving up”. We finished on the positive note that in life and in kendo, throwing in the towel is something that you should never do.

Whilst most sports talk about not giving up and “no surrender”, kendo takes this idea to a new level by applying it to the whole of your life; not just the remainder of your sporting life, but the whole of your naturally life. We all know, or know of kenshi in their seventies and eighties who continue to train as hard now as they did in their twenties and thirties.

I received a text this morning from a sensei who is well into his seventies explaining that as he has a heavy cold he needed to miss a single session. In most sports, if someone of that age were able to turn up to train, he would be met by the national media and a marching band. The difference is obvious, most kenshi expect to continue throughout their active (and not so active) lives whereas in sport, you usually stop once you pass your physical peak.

The reason for our refusal to give up is simple. Kendo is a shugyo, a path to self- improvement. To give up would be tantamount to admittance that you had achieved perfection and that there is nothing left to strive for. None of the late 10th dans ever felt that they had attained kendo enlightenment. Mochida sensei famously talked about the immovable spirit taking over once the legs and body weakened, but admitted that his mind still strayed from time to time.

There is always a special display of affection for the final senseis’ enbu at the Kyoto Taikai and the last candidates in court eight of the 8th dan grading exams in Kyoto and Tokyo. Other kendoka respect the determination and persistence of these senior role models as much as they admire the technical ability of younger, fitter All Japan Champions; in fact in many cases the two are the same, at different stages of their kendo lives.

So next time my knees ache or I have the sniffles, I will think of the words of Winston Churchill (and Thomas the Tank Engine), when they said ”never, ever give-up”.

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IMG_1365I have a t-shirt that was given to me by an American sensei. On the back of the shirt are two kanji taken from the late Nishiyama sensei’s original calligraphy Mokkei. A number of friends have asked me what they mean and when I tell them “wooden rooster”, they are none the wiser. The term comes from Zen and is based on a fable from the Chinese sage Chuang Tsu. The story as told by Daisetz Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture is as follows.

Chi Hsing-Tzu was raising a fighting cock for his master. Ten days passed and the lord asked, “is he ready?” Chi answered “No sir, he is not ready. He is still vain and flushed with rage.” Another ten days passed and the prince asked about the cock. Chi said, “not yet sir. He is on the alert whenever he sees the shadow of another cock or hears it crowing.” Still another 10 days passed and when the enquiry came from the prince, Chi replied, “Not quite yet sir. His sense of fighting is smouldering within him ready to be awakened.” When another ten day passed Chi replied in response to the enquiry: “He is almost ready. Even when he hears another crowing he shows no excitement. He now resembles one made of wood. His qualities are integrated. No cocks are his match; they will at once run away from him.

Like many of these Zen parables this can be interpreted in a number of ways. It can be read as an instruction to lose unnecessary pride and anger, neither of which have any place in the dojo. It can also be seen as an instruction to avoid all unnecessary reaction and movement in keiko or shiai. I was told of a tachiai in this year’s Kyoto Taikai where neither party made a strike, simply because the opportunity was not there. I did not see the shiai myself, but it sounds like the embodiment of the concept of Mokkei, remaining in a state of heightened awareness, ready to attack when the opportunity presents itself, but making no unwarranted movement.

Often kendo instruction seems contradictory, we are told to constantly attack but to make no useless movement. To do this, our kamae, posture and balance must be perfect so that we can stop or go at will. At the same time we must have the courage to either hold back or attack with total commitment, with no compromise between the two.

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I was fortunate to find a Youtube clip of Matsumoto Toshio sensei, posted by the ZNKR from the 1986 Kyoto Taikai. At the time sensei was aged 78 and Hanshi 9-dan  his opponent was  Shigeoka Noboru sensei Hanshi 9-dan, aged 77.

Here is the link:


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Kyoto Asageiko

Harking back to my Kyoto Taikai post, it is obvious to me that what sets great kendo apart from the norm is sharp footwork. Watching the younger hanshi, their arms and upper bodies are invariably relaxed, power comes from the hips and legs and ki-ken-tai-ichi is absolutely instantaneous.

Theoretically we all know what to do. I went into some detail about the how in an earlier post.  What amazes me however is the velocity of movement from standing start to fumikomi and strike at this level. The secret appears to be that you have to start with a tank full of ki and to be ready to launch forward as soon as you see or make an opportunity. It is also vital that you do not waste time or energy by lifting your right foot, but skim it forward making an explosive fumikomi on contact.

I wanted to illustrate this with a video from the Taikai, but those I took from a distance are not worth looking at. Fortunately Kendo World and youtube  came to the rescue with this video of one of my favourite enbu of 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0igjqI0XgY This shows Arima sensei of Osaka Fukei and Suzuki sensei of Hyogo Kenkei both hanshi and both physically small. It is also worth remembering that both are well into their 60s. Points to look at are how close heels are to the ground and how explosive their attacks are. It is also interesting to see that they are still up for a bit of gentlemanly “roughing up” at close quarters.

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