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Posts Tagged ‘Sueno sensei’

shu-ha-ri2Most of us have heard of the principle of shu-ha-ri. In (shu) you start kendo and entrust yourself completely to a single teacher who gets you to the next stage (ha). You then have the freedom to learn from other teachers before you reach (ri) and the chance to develop technique under your own guidance. I have never heard a precise explanation of the timescales involved in each of these stages or the grades you need to attain before you move on, but my guess is that you reach ha in the middle dan ranks and only touch on ri when you are firmly into the kodansha stage.

This all sounds ideal and I have many friends who were lucky enough to go through junior, middle and high school kendo clubs under the guidance of 7th and 8th dan teachers and they just needed to turn up and do their best. On the other hand I know kenshi from around the globe who are either self-taught or who rely on someone who is their senior by a narrow margin or who are a page ahead in reading the instruction book. There are online and print resources that can help the learning process, but to improve we all need the help of experienced sensei as and when it is available.

We can get this type of help by visiting sensei (in your own country or abroad), or by attending seminars when  skilled instructors are invited by your club or national federation. I have had discussions in the past with my friend George McCall, of Kenshi247 fame who emphatically points out that this is not the same as learning from these sensei on an everyday ongoing basis. Having had the experience of doing this when resident in Japan I agree with him. I still feel that any exposure to leading instructors gives your kendo a boost.

One of the challenges however, particularly for less experienced kenshi, is that different teachers have different ways of getting us to improve. Don’t shoot me if I get one of these wrong, but to the best of my recollection Chiba sensei said bring the shinai back 45 degrees, Sumi sensei said 45 degrees, Sueno sensei said let it go past that point and Iwadate sensei said let the shinai touch your bottom.

All of these gentlemen are hanshi, all are capable of highly impressive kendo, all have trained champions and all have different ways of getting us to do correct kendo. My only suggestion is that if you are lucky enough to have the chance to learn from these or any of the other top teachers. Do as they say, try it for a while and see what works for you. This may put you in danger of some premature  ri, but hey, nobody is perfect.

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MonkeyThe timing of this year end holiday meant that I have had a two week abstinence from Kendo, my longest break for many years.

This has been a chance to reflect on the highs and lows of my last kendo year and to make plans for the year to come. The highs were refereeing in the 16WKC in Tokyo and in meeting and enjoying keiko with old friends from various parts of the globe as well as making new ones. I also felt a sense of pride seeing the improvement of some of my regular keiko partners at Mumeishi and Sanshukan dojo. The Mumeishi 3s ran without a hitch and we are already planning the 2016 event which we hope to make bigger and better.

I am now trying to get my schedule in order for 2016. So far the Brussels referees’ seminar is firmly booked, as are the annual BKA Spring Seminar in Watchetts and Summer Seminar in Kristiansand in Norway. I am also waiting to put final dates in the diary for a number of other seminars, taikai and grading panels. Sueno sensei will be running a Mumeishi seminar and we are looking forward to a visit from Hitotsubashi University.

My wife and I recently bought a holiday home in Marbella, Spain, so I also hope to have the occasional keiko with Shion dojo.

My personal kendo objectives are the most difficult to plan. I naturally want to improve my keiko, but I face the dual challenges of old age and limited access to teachers who can help me reach the next step. George McCall has touched on the point in his kenshi 247 blog that kendoka outside Japan who talk about learning from occasional exposure to Japanese teachers (forgive me for paraphrasing George), are deluding themselves.

As an overseas kendoka who has lived in Japan, I can see both sides of the argument, but I lean towards George’s view. Were time and money not limiting factors, spending a serious amount of time with my hanshi of choice would probably take me to where I hope to be, that is with a fighting chance of challenging for hachidan.  I am not suggesting that I would ever pass, but my objective would be to reach a level where I would not be totally wasting the shinsain’s’ time.

As things stand, it is unlikely that I will be in a position to become anyone’s elderly uchideshi in the near future, so I shall have to continue to make the best of the opportunities that I have. Still I intend to enjoy the coming year’s kendo whatever happens.

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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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During his recent UK seminar, Sueno sensei made the point that “ kote attack should be in a straight line”. Sumi sensei backed this up during his visit last week and Chiba sensei has certainly said more or less the same thing.  So why, when we get back to our normal hanshi free keiko, do people revert to hitting kote from a variety of odd angles.

Beginners in particular tend to stand directly in front of their opponent and move the tip of the shinai to their left to attack kote. This has the effect of diagonally cutting across the soft tsutsu part of the kote rather than making a correct hit on the kote buton. The other common mistake is to rotate the shinai under the kote which leaves the left hand too low to make a correct strike.

The key point to bear in mind is that when we talk about cutting direct from our centre to the target, it does not mean the centre of our body should be directly in line with the centre of our opponent’s body. It means that the centre of our body should be in a straight line with the target we are striking, be it men, do, or kote.

A useful tip for striking kote is to move your right foot over as you make the kote attack so that it lines up with your opponent’s right foot, rather than his left, which would be the correct position from which to strike men. By doing this, your body is facing the target, although you are now positioned slightly to the left of your opponent. Your shinai should be in a straight line, from your left hand, which should be in front of your navel, to your partner’s kote.

Another thing to remember is that when you move from the centre to hit kote, you only have to move above the height of your opponents shinai tip and no more than the width of his shinai to the left.

With this in mind it is tempting to leave your left hand in place and just use right hand power to make the attack. This is wrong! Your left hand should do the bulk of the work and the right hand just keeps it on course and squeezes gently with equal pressure to the left hand to make tennouchi on impact.

A final caution! You only need to cut through the thickness of your partner’s wrist. So the force of the attack should be forward. As Sumi sensei once eloquently put it “like a chameleon’s tongue coming out to catch a fly”.

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Following the recent Mumeishi seminar,  Sueno sensei attended our regular Tuesday practice and taught another session to add to the information that he gave us at the weekend.

As before he put us through some very simple men and kote drills and reinforced the importance of correct kiai in achieving good technique. I have long been aware of the difference that good kiai makes in kendo and wrote about it in the early days of this blog http://wp.me/stBQt-kiai . Sueno sensei however dealt with the subject much more eloquently and I feel that it’s worth summarising his explanation.

Before moving into the drills, he repeated the point he made at the seminar, that “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. A good way of saying that different teachers have different approaches, but that in kendo the end goal is always the same.  The drills themselves consisted of students working in pairs, starting in issoku ito maai with kakarite stepping into his or her own cutting distance and concentrating on delivering a men strike with correct ki-ken-tai- itchi timing. Each partner would make two large men attacks then receive two. After several repetitions, instructions were given to make the strikes smaller.

Once everyone was into the rhythm of exchanging men attacks, Sueno sensei made the following point. “Before starting the attack breathe in quickly through your nose; hold the air in your abdomen and make a big shout releasing some of the air. Then make your kiai as you strike, releasing the rest of your air as you move through to safe distance. As you strike your kiai should grow in volume and in pitch so that it increases your energy and acceleration and pulls your posture up throughout the attack and zanshin.”

He continued to point out that if you allowed your kiai to diminish as you hit, it would have the adverse effect, causing you to lose power and “grind to a halt”.

To demonstrate the feeling of “holding breath in your abdomen”, sensei suggested that we try to tense the muscles in our stomach and abdomen, which everyone could and did. Then he instructed us to put tension into our shoulder and chest muscles at the same time, which nobody could.

We then returned to the drills with the emphasis on just edging our feet into our own preferred striking distance rather than taking one clear step in.

As Sueno sensei says “There are many paths to the top of the mountain” and I would be happy to have many of the Hanshi sensei as my guide. However in much the same way as does Chiba sensei, Sueno sensei has the ability to make complicated kendo concepts appear simple and logical.

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Sueno sensei, hanshi hachidan and 1979 All Japan Championship winner from Kagoshima, is currently in the UK and has just given us a very interesting seminar. At the opening stage, he stressed the importance of continuing suburi throughout your kendo career and made the point that ”if you can’t do suburi, no matter how long your kendo experience, you can’t do kendo”.

He instructed that the path of the shinai in suburi should be smooth, in line with the centre of the body and close to the head and that we should use all three joints; shoulders, elbows and wrists.  He also insisted that we should ensure that we use the muscles in the underside of our arms rather than those on top. To achieve this, we should pull our arms back past the midpoint of the top of our heads and feel these muscles engage before starting the downswing. Once this has been achieved and the muscle memory kicks in, we are able to make our upswing smaller and smaller and that in keiko or shiai, the cut can be as small as you wish as long as it has impact.. We should not pull our elbows out and arms should remain relaxed. When viewed from the back our shoulder width should not change throughout the whole striking process.

Sueno sensei also talked about the old commonly taught concept of shibori (wringing the hands on completion of the cut), being incorrect and that we should not change our grip from beginning to end of the cut. He explained that the hands throughout the cut should be in kirite (cutting hand) position, although they could be extended in nobite (extended hand) form to lengthen our reach on impact. He also torpedoed the old myth that we should straighten our right arm on cutting men by demonstrating that doing this gave a 4 to 5 centimetre reach advantage, but that the resultant body imbalance caused us to lose 30 or 40 centimetres of distance from our footwork.

Sensei then went on to take us through a sequence of waza geiko, uchikomi geiko and kakarigeiko exercises, constantly reinforcing the concept of accurate relaxed swing. The other key point that was accentuated was correct breathing. When you breathe in you are open to attack, so before you enter fighting distance, you should breathe in quickly and conserve your breath in your tanden until you can conclude a successful waza. Finally he made the point that if you miss with your attack you should keep going until you make a successful strike.

Although I was there in an assistant instructor role, the temptation to try things myself was overwhelming. The highlight of the seminar for me was a keiko with Sueno sensei, who was of course, impossible to hit. As the old song goes “It don’t mean a thing, If you ain’t got that swing”.

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