Posts Tagged ‘Tenouchi’

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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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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downloadWhenever I come back to the UK after seeing high level kendo in Japan I am struck by one major difference in our kendo- we show far less kihaku. I don’t mean that our kiai is not loud enough, but overall we do not show the same inner force and explosiveness that our Japanese peers demonstrate.  Kihaku refers to the strength of spirit that we bring to our keiko. Outside the dojo in everyday Japanese a more usual translation would be “vigour”.

How this difference is manifested is difficult to explain, but let me try. It starts from the moment we stand up from sonkyo; instead of a “let’s wait and see what happens” attitude we should be fizzing like a piece of magnesium in water, looking for an opportunity to strike. When we find that opportunity we should explode, accelerating after we strike and taking our determination into zanshin.

Partially, the way to achieve this is through correct breathing – taking a big breath before you engage, releasing part of it through kakegoe, holding the remainder in tame and then emptying yourself on the strike.  Breathing alone though is not enough. We need to be in a state of constant readiness, able to attack at will. When we do strike it needs to be with total commitment. Win or lose we have to give it 100 per cent of our energy and effort. Our forward movement, particularly for men needs to be as fast as possible, picking up acceleration as we strike.

The strike itself should be sharp, not hard. A fast relaxed swing with good tenouchi is the way to do this and it goes without saying that our fumikomi, posture and strike should be as one.  Not everyone is in a position to do this. If you are in the early stages of your kendo career then you are still working on getting the basics right and it is almost impossible to put maximum effort into a strike when you are still thinking of the best way to do it. When technique is practiced until it becomes second nature, then it is the time to leave conscious thought behind and give it all you’ve got.

In my younger days I was delighted to be given the nickname “bullet” by my Japanese sempai. I was sure that this was based on the strength and speed of my attack. It was only later that I learned that the real reasoning behind the name was that when we hit the bars of Kyobashi after training, I was considered unstoppable. Still it was a confidence builder while it lasted.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men1There has always been a debate in kendo about how far back your hands should go in the back-swing preceding a men strike. Some sensei will tell you that the shinai should stop at a 45 degree angle with the left hand held just above the mengane, others will advise you to bring the left hand back in line with the back of your men. Less frequently in waza geiko and jigeiko, but certainly in suburi there is a school of thought that says the hands should go to the back of your neck and that your shinai should hit your buttocks before you bring it forward.

You will also probably have had varied instruction on the ideal shape of the cut and path that the shinai should travel. Different schools of thought include pushing the point forward throughout the backswing and cut, keeping your left hand at the same distance from all parts of the body as you raise the shinai, bringing the point back so that the shinai is horizontal when above your head and the list goes on.

To quote the Japanese Proverb, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. Most kendo teachers would agree that theirs is not the only way to hit men, but it is a way of making their students use their shoulders, elbows and wrists when doing so. The key point is to teach students to relax their arms and push up with the left hand, using all three joints as they do so.  The right hand then follows using minimal force until it’s time to make tenouchi.

It is not essential to make big cuts in kendo, but until you can do so correctly, it is unlikely that you will be successful making small strikes. If you ask a raw beginner to make a small attack to kote, where the point of the shinai moves only a few centimetres, he or she will probably do so by using the left hand as a pivot and make the strike with the power of their right hand.   If when they do this you talk about using the power of the left hand, it would be very difficult to put into effect.

On the other hand, by asking them to bring their hands up to above or behind their heads, you teach them to cut correctly. Once they can do this then the next challenge is to reduce the size of the cut, replacing the momentum of a big swing with sharp tenouchi.

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Matsumoto sensei

Matsumoto sensei

I had a Eureka moment this week about the importance of good kamae.

Of course we know that kamae, footwork, breathing, timing, distance and cutting action are all interdependent and equally important, but sometimes we forget that kamae not only determines how easy we are to hit but it also promotes or inhibits our ability to strike correctly.

We were using a number of drills to work on men-uchi, trying at first to make big correct kihon men attacks and then through a succession of different approaches and timing to make small, sharp men attacks. This is not an easy task as it is essential to stay relaxed, to modify your footwork so it is in time with the smaller striking action and to use the balance of both hands in the strike and tenouchi.

I am aware that many people in the earlier stages of their kendo career fall into the habit of leaving their left hand in place and making small attacks almost exclusively with their right hand, which forces them to use a pushing motion with the right arm. This usually results in an inaccurate strike, which often slips off the target. So if I am instructing I usually point out the importance of using the left hand, however small the technique.

I noticed that one individual was doing something quite different, in that at the point of impact, he was pushing his left hand above his right hand. When he hit the target the strike was weak. We tried a few things, adjusting the position of hands and arms which worked momentarily, but he kept returning to the same cutting action. As we proceeded through the drills, I noticed that his kamae was particularly low, with his left arm extended straight down and the left hand directly in front of the tare.

After I pointed this out, we spent a few moments adjusting his kamae, so that the left hand was in line with his navel. We made sure that his shoulders and elbows were relaxed and that his grip was light and hands were in the correct position and then, when he tried to hit men he was able to make an accurate sharp strike.

Thinking about this after, it occurred to me that I was attempting to do what Matsumoto sensei  had done with me. Obviously my efforts were not nearly as skilled, but going through this process made me think about how keiko with sensei had consisted of him spending a long period of time adjusting my kamae before commanding me to make one single men strike and that was it, game over. Obviously his point was “you are only going to succeed if you start from the correct position”.

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Losing the point

KissakiMany accomplished kenshi lose the opportunity to attack by dropping the point of their shinai as they make seme. I regularly experience situations where my opponent steps in with strong seme and takes control of my centre only to drop his kensen prior to making an attack, in the process allowing me to regain control of the centre.

Moving the point downwards often causes the attacker to lean forward so that their balance is on the right foot. If this happens he needs to readjust his posture so that there is sufficient pressure between the left foot and the floor to be able to push off and launch his attack. Dropping the point also alerts his opponent that he is about to move. It is almost tantamount to announcing “here I come”.

I have thought hard about the reasons why people do this and I believe that in most cases the action is involuntary. As we step in, we gear ourselves up to attack and as we do so we inadvertently tense our arms and shoulders. The result is that the tip of the shinai is forced down by this tension. This is not an easy habit to correct. Many people who fall into this trap are unable to correct their movement even though they are aware of the problem and its root cause

To repair this fault you have to relax and to focus your energy forward rather than down. To achieve this you need to go for overkill and think about making upward pressure. There are many ways to do this. You can imagine that you are pushing towards your opponent’s eye by angling your navel upwards as you step forward. You can also think about an imaginary string pulling the top of your head upwards; almost like a marionette being pulled up by a puppeteer.

Holding the shinai incorrectly is another reason why the point drops as you make your approach. If your grip is too tight, any tension in your body will result in the point either dropping or raising as you step forward. Your hands should of course be relaxed and you should grip the shinai lightly as we have discussed in previous posts.

In a perfect world the transition between stepping in to take the centre should be seamless and any unnecessary movement that signals intention should be avoided. Successful attacks in kendo depend on sharp footwork and light, relaxed kamae. The explosion on striking should come from good fumikomi, kiai and tenouchi and not upper body strength.

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Capture_so-shi-kyuKatsuya just pointed out to me that in this week’s post whereas I described the gripping action as “the little and ring fingers making the strongest contact. The hands should be turned in with a feeling of chakin shibori”. What Matsumoto sensei actually said was “Hold the shinai with a feeling of chakin-shibori  by the Hypothenar Eminence ( Sho-shi-kyu) of each hand.”

To be honest, I have never heard of the Hypothenar Eminence, but according to Wikipedia the  “hypothenar muscles are a group of three muscles of the palm that control the motion of the little finger”.  With this in mind the post’s description of the grip is pretty much in line with sensei’s directions although the translation diverges from the original.

*The arrow indicates the Hypothenar Eminence.

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