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Posts Tagged ‘Suburi’

477-mennaris-2tFriends from a nearby dojo have developed an addiction to doing suburi with a device that looks like a bicycle pump. When recently asked for my opinion of such a thing, I took the view that if the ZNKR had thought it a good idea, they would have issued a book on “kendo kihon practise with a bicycle pump” or “jitensha no kūki-ire ni yoru kendo keikoho”.

Apparently the device in question is supposed to slide open if you make a correct swing and stay closed if you don’t. I think it might be improved if it rang a bell or made a honking noise for each successful yuko datotsu. It may be that my view is coloured by the intransigence of old age, or the fact that on the one occasion I tried one out, it stubbornly refused to slide open for me, but the use of this piece of paraphernalia smacks of what my less charitable golfing or skiing friends would refer to as “all the gear and no idea”.

To be fair, I am not totally against new developments in kendo, but this joins the carbon fibre shinai and the men with a Perspex face panel in my list of unloved kit, particularly as the aforementioned men had a tsukidare which was fixed solidly to the mengane. In the event of the wearer receiving a tsuki the whole men tilted forward, either pushing the men towel over his or her eyes or falling off completely. I am also not a lover of cameras mounted on the men or shinai, that is unless you are trying to make a kendo equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.

More traditional items also go on my list. I have never understood the value of suburi with heavy suburi bokken. These invariably cause the user to engage too much arm and shoulder power to avoid cutting down too far, in effect making tenouchi before striking the men.

The ideal suburi aid should help us closely replicate the action of striking the men sharply and firmly in an “up, down” timing of one. It should allow us to focus on hitting the top of the men whilst cutting through to the opponent’s chin level. It should encourage us to use shoulders elbows and wrists on a relaxed and flexible way to transmit the power from our core. I know of the ideal tool to use for this. It is called a shinai.

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Sueno senseiSueno Eiji sensei, hanshi  hachidan is back in the UK and has taken us through two evenings and two long but enlightening days of instruction. The seminar evolved from a detailed look at suburi through to the best way to display you skills in grading examinations, but sensei’s overriding thesis was that kendo training should be a step-by-step process, based on getting each stage right before you move on to the next.

He summed this up by expanding on his previous remarks ”that you can’t do keiko if you can’t do suburi” by explaining that you need to be able to reach a good level of men suburi before attempting tobikomi men drills in armour. You should be able to make correct single men strikes before moving on to making renzoku waza. Your renzoku waza should be correct before attempting uchikomi-geiko, which you should perfect before trying kakari-geiko and you should only go on to ji-geiko when everything else is correct. Once you have all of these points straightened out, you should keep them on track by spending 50 minutes of each kendo hour on kihon and the remaining ten on ji-geiko.

Sensei’s most controversial point was that in suburi and uchi-komi our furi-kaburi (upswing) for men should not stop at the 45 degrees insisted upon by many other kendo teachers. Instead our hands should come back in a low arc past the top of our heads. He qualified this by saying that we should not bring them back to a point where he have to open our elbows, but that the swing should go back as far as it can while keeping the arms in correct cutting position.

When asked why 45 degrees is still recommended by many teachers, his answer was that it was written down many years ago but had since been rethought about and that many sensei just keep quoting conventional wisdom. He quoted an example of the seminar held before the All Japan 8th dan Championships where every participant regardless of what he usually taught was bringing his shinai back past the 45 degree point in the warm-up suburi.

Sueno sensei’s other repeated point was that you should relax your arms immediately after  striking men, so that the shinai could bounce upwards, allowing your forward motion and following zanshin to continue smoothly. As he said himself, “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”.

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suburi bokken2Most Japanese kendojo have a suburi bokken hidden somewhere in a dark corner. These come in various shapes and sizes including oversized shinai, implements that look like overweight bokken or the massive hexagonal clubs used in some kenjutsu styles. What they have in common is that you see very few people using them.

The few times I have seen people working with heavy suburi bokken, it has been in unstructured sessions without the supervision of an instructor. Based on this limited evidence, I had the feeling that they were doing more harm than good. By this I mean that they had to make adjustments to their posture and cutting action to support the extra weight.

In trying to control a heavy bokken, the grip tends to tighten, making the angle of the wrists more acute and causing the biceps to take the strain. This in turn brings more shoulder strength into play and as a result the exponent may find himself leaning forward, which is at odds with the correct upright posture that we aim to develop.

Suburi bokken  have been used by for many years and by many great kendo masters past and present, obviously this  means that in the right hands they are an aid to developing good kendo. Where they cause problems, is when they are used incorrectly. In the hands of a kenshi who has good posture, cutting action and tenouchi, or under the supervision of a good instructor, they should help strengthen good technique.

The same good be said about katate, or singlehanded suburi , particularly if done for a high number of continuous repetitions. Without guidance a natural reaction is to adjust the position of arm and shoulder to take the strain. This will have a negative effect on cutting technique.

Whereas an adult male’s shinai should weigh around 520 gm, suburi bokken can be three times that weight or more.  An iaito or shinken is approximately double the weight of a shinai, ranging from 900 gm to 1.2 kg and Iaido practitioners are taught to do a good job of cutting correctly with these. Correct technique is the answer regardless of the weight of the weapon.

In kendo we need to keep an upright posture with our weight distributed evenly between our feet. Our tanden should be braced and our arms hands and shoulders relaxed as we make the swing and we should finish with sharp tenouchi at the point or just beyond the point of impact. If we can do this, then the heaviest weapon and the largest number of reps should help rather than damage our kendo.

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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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Suburi with partner

Suburi with partner

Many years ago I visited a new dojo in a fairly remote part of the UK and watched the only two members run through a two hour kihon geiko session, practicing almost every technique in the kendo repertoire. Both deserved full marks for stamina and memory, but I wondered how much benefit they were getting from the session.

Almost every high level teacher that I have had the privilege of training with tends to tailor their training sessions around a particular theme, often limiting the waza taught to a very small number to ensure that they sink in. I have seen whole two day seminars limited to the correct way to strike shikake men; building up through static suburi to suburi engaging the feet, then including approach and seme, fumikomi and then zanshin. The correct way the use the grip or tenouchi to finish the attack crisply often warrants a teaching session in itself.

In the eyes of some kendoka this amount of drilling down becomes tedious, perhaps it is because we should, and often do, devote large chunks of our training sessions to these basic elements. In other sports it is the serious perfectionists only who are aware of the value of breaking technique down to the smallest component part. Of the millions of amateur golfers, it is a few deadly serious players who take the trouble to take lessons from the club pro. These normally focus on the minute analysis and reconstruction of the individuals swing. We call it suburi.

Most hanshi stress the value of correct suburi, Sueno sensei says if you can’t do correct suburi you can’t do kendo, Iwadate sensei focussed on big suburi to ensure that the cut is centralised; Chiba sensei regularly emphasised that 3000 continuous suburi a day were his path to success.

I am as guilty as the next kenshi in not doing enough suburi. I normally practice a hundred or so as part of the warm up to each keiko session and include a few more in front of the mirror when I have the chance, but I am sure that including more suburi in my keiko would do nothing but good. Suburi is the foundation on which we can build strong kendo.

Practising a kendo waza over and over again allows you to use it in keiko or shiai without thinking. If you then extend the suburi through uchikomi training with an opponent it becomes even more ingrained.  So although it may seem tedious, constant repetition and attention to detail is the way to success.

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shino1nobkWe are away on holiday at the moment and for some reason the TV in our room seems to default to NHK. We watched a programme about Japanese pottery and how both professional and amateur potters lose themselves in the process of its creation.

Reflecting on this aspect of the Japanese arts, pottery is far from unique. Painting, calligraphy, flower arranging, the tea ceremony and numerous other arts and crafts are as much about correct mental attitude as they are  about the end product. The zen martial arts share this quest for mushin (the state of no-mind). Kyudo is perhaps the best example where the accuracy of the arrow is less important than the mindset of the archer.

Kendo shares this vision, with kenshi aiming to produce the perfect waza at exactly the right moment, without relying on conscious thought or planning. This is more easily said than done. Most people learn kendo through instruction, imitation and repetition, but nevertheless need to think hard about the correct timing and opportunity to use a technique. Complex ojiwaza or renzoku waza require even more forethought.

Whenever a kendo student receives new advice, even if it is a simple comment on the spacing of his or her feet or the height to which the hands should be raised prior to striking this causes a need for a major rethink. This is one of the reasons why I am reluctant to give anything more than tactical advice prior to a grading examination.

The route to mushin does not come from thought and reasoning, it comes from constant repetition. I have mentioned on numerous occasions, both in this blog and in after keiko chats, that Chiba Masashi sensei used to practice a continuous set of 3000 suburi every day. Those of you who have attempted just a few hundred will appreciate the effort that this involves. As a result of this hard work, anyone who has ever seen him in action will be aware that the time it took for his shinai to move from jodan to his opponent’s kote did not leave time for thought.

Most of us will never have time to do 3000 suburi a day, nor do we stand a chance of becoming another Chiba sensei, but if we do aspire to reach a state of no-mind in our keiko, the answer lies in constant repetition of the basics. It is of course worth reading up on the theory, but the way to satori is through hard slog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Catch 22I was talking to a friend in Japan who on starting at a new dojo was advised by an 8th dan teacher that he needs to learn to relax. He went on to explain that the harder he tries the more tense his kendo becomes. He was also told that his cutting action is too big and he needs to make it smaller. Of course, unless you are totally relaxed small cuts lead to overuse of the right hand which adds to the tension.

This reminded me of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch – 22”, where the harder his soldier characters tried to prove they were insane, the more they were judged to be mentally fit for service.

My friend has two distinctly different but related challenges. The first is that when you are practising with a senior teacher you are expected to try your hardest and to many people this means doing everything in your power to beat your opponent. This is seldom possible and needs to be replaced with a desire to show your best technique, even if it means making repeatedly unsuccessful shikake waza. In most cases keiko with a strong 8th dan very quickly becomes kakarigeiko and the only option is to ”go with the flow” and do your best. If you are lucky enough to get some advice afterwards, then think about it and try to change accordingly.

The second challenge is the need to make small cuts in a relaxed but effective manner, without relying on the overuse of the right hand. This is best achieved through repeated practice which comes through suburi and uchikomi geiko, where you can correct basic mistakes without the pressure of trying to beat an opponent.

It is not however always a straightforward matter of  doing suburi to replicate the cut you wish to develop. Some teachers advocate starting with large suburi, touching your own buttocks with the shinai on the backswing. This is not to say that you should strike your opponent with such a big movement but the objective is to train yourself to develop a soft relaxed shoulder action which after time you make smaller and smaller, allowing you to use your wrists and elbows in an equally smooth fashion.

With uchikomi geiko you can then put this into action, adjusting for timing and distance whilst still not having to worry about being countered or beaten to the point. Hopefully when you take this improved technique into hikitategeiko with your instructor, you can then focus on getting it right rather than beating him two nil. The chances are that the session will still descend into kakarigeiko, but it will be better quality kakarigeiko.

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