Posts Tagged ‘Sumi 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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Sumi sensei at MumeishiSumi sensei stopped over at Mumeishi dojo on his way from Edinburgh to the Ukraine. He spent the first hour of the two hour session taking everyone through a kihon lesson that yet again demonstrated his unusual, creative approach to teaching the basics.

This drill was geared to taking the students through the permutations of distance and timing for shikake and oji waza. With everyone working in pairs with shinai and without men and kote, he started with what he called “shadow hitting”; both partners facing each other from opposite sides of the dojo and moving forward with a big approach step and striking men with fumikomi footwork, This was done at a distance where neither partner came near to each other.

The exercise was then repeated with a small approach step and then a medium size step. The size of the cut was then changed to reflect the approach step; big step, big cut; small step small cut and so on.

After both partners had worked through these permutations in turn, sensei brought them together and had motodachi run through the sequences from the necessary distances to strike men correctly. Kakarite was asked to respond with nuki dou. Emphasis was put on striking the correct part of the target and using hiraki-ashi.

The drill was then expanded to include oji-kaeshi dou, men suriage men and men suriage kote. As people tried this it was pointed out that an active right hand was important to make the suriage effective and that suriage only works if your hands are in the centre of your body and you do not bring the point of the shinai back towards your face.

Each pair was then instructed to move into issoku ito mai and shown how to make kote kaeshi gote. This is a particularly difficult technique to achieve because of the need to create distance between blocking the cut and making your own strike. Sumi sensei made the point that you need to show your kote to prompt the attack and then block and return. If you start by showing the omote side of your shinai your opponent will not attack.

It is a lesson that takes a lot of concentration and on a hot evening people were sweating heavily even before putting on their bogu for keiko.  There was an obvious improvement in most of the participants in the hour that they had been practising. With Sumi sensei’s permission, I may steal this drill and use it in some of my own lessons.

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I have just returned from the keiko after the Mumeishi 3’s. This was a full-on 2 and a half hour session with some two hundred people in attendance.  I was reminded that in my last post I underestimated the motodachi count by one seventh dan, but even with 8 of us plus one 8th dan and numerous 6th dans it was still hard work.

The previous day’s taikai went without a hitch and Mumeishi’s “A” team won. This was a great way for the club to celebrate the event’s 40th anniversary. My job was that of shinpan-shunin, running “A” Court under the direction of our shinpan-cho, Sumi sensei. The overall standard of shiai was excellent and the referees did a good job in keeping everything moving. My only complaints were in the few cases where overzealous referees stopped shiai too frequently for minor points. Sumi sensei did however let me know that we should have dealt more strictly with one case of tsubazeriai infringement. Of course when a hanshi tells you something like this, you answer “yes” and make sure that it does not happen again.

Sumi sensei however is a very approachable hanshi and later at the after competition party we talked frankly about how strictly the tsubazeriai rules are enforced. I mentioned that I had attended the two World Championship referee seminars this year and the instructors had made it clear what was and what was not acceptable for tsubazeriai and what counted as a clean break on wakare. In effect tsubazeri is only legal if the shinai are crossed at the tsuba on the omote side. The shinai should not touch your opponent and neither of you should touch your own or your partners jinbu. On wakare both parties should break cleanly so that the shinai are clear of each other.

Nevertheless at the World Championships numerous examples of the players either covering the shinai from the ura side, or attacking before making a clean break on command were allowed by highly experience referees.

Sumi sensei made the point that at this year’s Asia zone referee seminar the most asked question was “why should we penalise this behaviour when it is becoming normal practise at the All Japan Championship.” I imagine quite a difficult point to answer.

There is obviously a divergence between the theory of good kendo and the practicalities of not getting beaten which needs to be resolved at the highest levels. In the meantime we can start by encouraging good kendo by enforcing the rules in our local competitions.

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I seldom write trailers for coming kendo events, but think this one deserves a mention. Next Saturday will see the 40th Mumeishi  3’s Taikai. This must be the oldest club sponsored kendo competition in Europe and is probably a serious contender globally. It is not only long lived, but it is also a big event. This year we have registered 74 teams and an equally impressive number of individual competitors for ladies and children’s matches.

For those of you who are not familiar the event, the Mumeishi 3’s has a unique formula. It is a competition for teams of 3 people, two of whom should hold dan rank and one kyu grade. There are also a ladies and a children’s individual competition. The children’s matches are split by age and the youngest are judged on technique and fighting spirit by hantei gatchi. Overall the tone of the competition is one of fun and friendship and it attracts competitors from all over Europe and beyond. In the past we have also had teams from Japan, and the USA.

Day two is to my mind even more interesting. A 3 hour keiko session starts at 9.30 a.m. and people are free to come and go as they please. Those travelling home early can enjoy a practice before they leave and those that partied too enthusiastically after the taikai, can catch the tail end. This year Sumi Hanshi and two of our Japanese O.Bs, Hosokawa and Miyagawa sensei will be joining us, so with our friends from Europe we should have an 8th dan and at least 8 7th dans taking part. Not bad for a small West London club practice!

Whilst Mumeishi members contribute a great deal of effort each year, the event is driven by the energy and determination of Mumeishi’s shihan Terry Holt. Every year Terry starts the process to attract participants and raise money for the next year’s event while the last one is still fresh in everyone’s mind. On the day, he can be seen rushing around in several directions at once, keeping every detail under control.

As a long time Mumeishi member, the Mumeishi 3’s holds many memories for me. I have attended as a competitor, helper and referee. Although I have missed a few years during the times I lived outside the UK, I have been there for most of its history and have seen it grow year by year. This 40th anniversary is special and I am looking forward to catching up with lots of old friends and meeting some new ones. Congratulations Terry! Here’s to another 40 years.

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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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On my occasional visits to one or other of the kendo message boards, I often see requests for advice or clarification, to which someone invariably posts the response – “ask your sensei”.  This seems to me to be the most logical and accessible way to have questions answered, but obviously many people find it a more daunting option than referring to wiki style resources or asking their peers online. Surely not all kendo instructors are ”grumpy old men”, (no personal comments please), who fill students with fear.

Reflecting on this situation it is worth thinking about the roots of kendo pedagogy. As an essentially Zen martial art, traditionally the onus has been on the student to find his or her own path to enlightenment. Stories of potential disciples sitting for days outside the dojo door begging for admittance are common as are accounts of the uchi-deshi (in-house student) spending months or years just occupied with cleaning and cooking, before being allowed to pick up a weapon. Even post war, there are numerous accounts of beginners spending up to a year on their own practicing suburi before being allowed to join the class.

Certainly during my experience in Japan in the 70s, many high graded teachers were reluctant to hand out advice. Whilst their intentions were obviously benign, their approach to teaching was to act as motodachi for kakarigeiko; allowing correct technique to connect and punishing poor attacks by breaking kakarite’s posture. Some were more approachable than others and were prepared to pass on a few words of encouragement when I waited to thank them personally after the final rei. Others were polite but less outgoing.

The world and kendo with it, has however changed. Kendo is no longer one of two choices for compulsory physical education in Japanese schools, although reintroduction is being discussed. Globally it competes not only with other martial arts, but with a whole range of sports and pastimes. In parallel we have seen a new breed of super-hanshi, people like Chiba sensei and Sumi sensei who are not only superb kendoka, but also great teachers who are happy to explain and coach as well as acting as training partners. Those of us lucky enough to spend time with them are likely to receive a quick, accurate analysis of our kendo strengths and weaknesses and tips on ways to improve.

It is however important that this openness is not abused. Remember that their time is limited; and if they have some advice for you they will tell you. When you cross the dojo to thank them, “arrigatou gozaimashita”, is sufficient. When you are part of a queue to bow your thanks, the last thing you should do is confront them with a list of questions; and never, never stop to ask a question during keiko. If sensei wants to tell you something he will; and you may be lucky enough to be part of a longer discussion later in the pub.

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Recently I was lucky to practice with Sumi sensei on his stopovers in London to and from a seminar in Russia. Despite suffering from jet lag he taught a one hour kihon session prior to jigeiko at Mumeishi. As well as enjoying (if that’s the word) the opportunity to stretch myself in keiko with him, it was interesting to see his unique approach to teaching kendo.

For many years I have seen Sumi sensei at least once a year and every time he offers a new method to teach some aspect of kendo. This time he seems to have put particular emphasis on timing and opportunity focussing on ojiwaza.

He has developed a series of drills based on moving the feet in a diamond pattern in suriashi, without ostensibly moving from the spot. Techniques included were men kaeshi men, men suriage men and men kaeshi kote. The kaeshi kote he further expanded on by developing the drill to move around in a continuous 360 degree circle.

He then introduced a practice based on an attack, block, change attack pattern, again using sliding footwork rather than fumikomi. Techniques taught in this way were kote, which was blocked and followed with kaeshi kote and men blocked overhead before the attacker reverting to oji dou. Finally he put the spotlight on seme by bringing in a drill where kakarite pushes the right foot forward to trigger forward movement from motodachi before striking men. This start on a simple hit per seme movement basis and then develops to take account of real mind contact and interaction between the two partners.

The whole approach was aimed to develop real interaction in keiko rather than the kakarigeiko style approach where you decide to attack regardless of your opponent’s actions.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, this holistic approach to kendo teaching is unusual. Chiba sensei takes a very different view of how timing, distance and opportunity are used by building different variants within drills for each technique. Both these meijin and some of the other leading hanshi teachers are being creative. In turn, trying to save us all much of the pain of learning only through hard won experience. This approach differs vastly from the old school style of teaching the basic waza by demonstration and repetition and letting the student work out how and when to use the techniques.

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Having spent a fairly relaxed summer, work has gotten hectic again as we enter September. Unfortunately, this allowed me just two brief visits to Sumi sensei’s current seminar in the UK. On the first, my participation was limited to acting as motodachi. However on the second, I managed to move over to shimoza, after the initial shidogeiko, to wait in line for Sumi sensei, Tashiro sensei and Kumamoto sensei.

Whilst I experience the same challenge as many non-Japanese senior kendoka , of being a “big fish in a small pool”, I try to do as much peer and senior keiko as I can, to the extent of visiting Japan regularly, to compete in the Kyoto Taikai and train with as many hachidan sensei as possible.

7th dan embraces a broad range of skill levels from young All-Japan level professionals, to ex-champions who have been at the same grade for 30 years; to middle aged rookie nanadan. All of us have passed the test to the same stringent criteria and although I am at the higher end of the 7th dan age spectrum, I am fairly confident of my ability to practice competently with most of my peers.

7th dan against 8th dan is another matter. In my keiko with Sumi sensei and Tashiro sensei yesterday, I immediately felt the need to “move up a gear”.

If you are a reasonably seasoned kendoka, you are spared the pain of collapsing into instant kakarigeiko against such senior opponents, but instead, you should show strong seme and make committed attacks against real opportunities. The difficulty, is that kendo players of this class, do not often show weaknesses. After repeatedly trying to break immovable kamai, you are forced to make attacks that you know are doomed to fail. Nevertheless once committed, there is no alternative other than to complete the technique with your best posture and zanshin.

Even though you are attacking at a lower work rate than you might with easier opponents, the effort required to break sensei’s kamai and attack correctly is enormous. After 5 minutes with Sumi sensei, I felt exhausted.

Several people commented that my keiko with Sumi sensei looked impressive, but frankly, that was more the result of his charity than of my ability. The famed difficulty of passing 8th dan is not exaggerated, and results in a breed of super-sensei that are head and shoulders above the rest of us mere mortals.

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Sumi sensei at Imperial

Sumi sensei at Imperial

I am trying to recover after 4 days and 5 nights of keiko with Sumi, Uegaki, Tashiro and Mori sensei.

We have just finished the annual Sumi seminar and by the final day there was a clearly visible improvement in the standard of Kendo for all participants. On the last day we held a grading examination to 5th dan level and for the first time in my experience, 100 percent of the candidates passed. Of course the sensei worked on improving technique and posture and a lot of focus was put on correct footwork, but in my view, the biggest improvement made to everyone’s kendo was through improved kiai.

I sincerely believe that in the UK, we fail to teach beginners the importance of correct breathing and strong kiai and that this has a major impact on the ability to finish waza correctly. Whereas if correct breath control is taught, the technicalities of finishing a technique tend to take care of themselves. Ideally, you should breathe in sharply and hold the air in your abdomen, then let out a small amount of this air as kiai or kakegoe before you enter cutting distance. You should then expel the rest of your breath sharply as a loud kiai at the point of striking. The difference between Kendo with and without this is similar to comparing a bout between two professional heavyweight boxers and a friendly slapping match.

As we get older and move up the grading ladder, kiai or perhaps more appropriately kihaku (the strength of our spirit), becomes more important. Muscle power decreases, so we need to resort to the strength of our mind or spirit to break an opponent’s centre as we make an attack.

Watching people like Sumi sensei, who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, you can see this transformation. Whereas twenty years ago I feared the speed of his attack, one is now transfixed by the strength of his ki.

So, coming back to our more immediate kiai concerns, what is the best way to train? The answer given loudly during the seminar was kirikaeshi. Deep breath, kakegoe, shomen and 5 yoko men with kiai without breathing in again – then stretch to shomen and seven yoko men. When you can do that go on to the whole forward and back sequence in one breath. It hurts! but, it will make one hell of a difference to your Kendo.

Post seminar practice at Imperial College – Sumi sensei in the second row center.

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Kendo heroes!

Chiba and Uegaki sensei

Chiba and Uegaki sensei

two weeks time we have 4 hachidan and a supporting cast of nanadan sensei visiting the UK for a seminar and I am really looking forward to a my “hachidan fix”. In the meantime I have been reviewing my videos of this years Kyoto Taikai and thinking about what makes some of the great sensei as good as they are.

Perhaps it is because of my own age and kendo aspirations, but I find the All Japan Hachidan Championships and the Kyoto Taikai far more inspiring than the All Japan Championships. The depth of Kendo shown by some of the sensei who are now in their 60’s appeals to me more than the speed and accuracy of the current younger champions. There is a long list of sensei whom I admire, but those that immediately come to mind are Yamanaka, Uegaki, Arima, Sumi and Chiba sensei.

If you are familiar with their kendo, you will realise that this is a very eclectic mix. I like the first two because of their phenomenal pressure and work rate. Sumi sensei’s kendo is big and bold with his signature big men attack whilst Arima sensei is renowned for small sharp tsuki and kote attacks. He is also one of the few senior sensei to use cheeky techniques like gyaku dou.

Chiba sensei’s jodan is of course legendary, but to be honest, I have never really had any interest in practicing jodan. It is just his ability to hit at will that makes his kendo so interesting to me. Of course he also teaches superb chudan kendo. This is by no means an exhaustive list of my current kendo role models, but these gentlemen all come quickly to mind when people ask “who’s kendo do you admire”

What makes it more interesting is that they are all thoroughly like-able people – humble, amusing and good to be with. It is almost as if the hachidan shinsa is in three parts – jitsugi, kata; and a formal nice guy examination, or maybe the last bit is just part of becoming hanshi. Here’s a picture of two of my heroes in London. + Ben Sheppard sent me this link of Chiba sensei in action .



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