Day 8 and 9 – Hiraki Ashi and Harai Waza

It’s been a rough week of things occurring outside of Kendo.  Life tends to happen sometimes.  But on to Kendo!

Class is really starting to ramp up for the two of us beginners.  We are now officially a part of the main class, although there is still plenty of basic things to learn yet.  We’ve continued to focus on footwork and added a new style of footwork in suburi: Hirakiashi

Hirakiashi is a way of stepping to the side while striking an opponent that was straight in front of you before you moved.  We used a men strike, first by stepping forward, then back, next to the right and then to the left.  When stepping to the right, step first with your right foot followed by left.  The movement is a circular one as if your opponent is a fixed point in space and you are rotating around them while still maintaining striking distance – so it’s not a straight step to the right, but one slightly up and right with the feet (and rest of the body) turned slightly left.   The step to the left begins with your left foot, again it’s a rotation around the circle but this time the left food ends up being the forward foot and the right foot is behind.  If none of that made any sense to you, there is a short but decent demonstration here.  Thank you digital age.

We did the usual kihon-geiko which included practicing kote-men which is an example of ni-dan waza or two strike waza.  In competition, you would use a ni-dan waza if the first strike (this case kote) didn’t land successfully, so then you immediately strike another target (this case men) to try and get a point.  I noticed some of the more experienced players were using very quick and small movements when striking.  For the beginners, we were told to keep our movements large in order to obtain good form.

 

 

The last new thing we were taught this past week is a technique known as Harai-men.  Harai-men falls into the category of waza known as harai waza.  Harai waza is a way to create an opening when your opponent does not present one for you (whether on purpose on not).  In the case of Harai-men, we start in chudon no kamae trying to maintain center.  Our opponent is doing a decent job on maintaining center (and so are we) but we want to strike so we flip our opponents shinai out of the way using a flick of our wrist and go in and strike Men.  The majority of the flick motion should be done using your left hand.  If you put too much power into the right you risk pushing your own shinai too far to the left making it difficult to bring it back up to center and strike men.  If you use your left hand to flick your shinai it is much more controlled and stays centered well.

It feels good to be practicing with the main group and I particularly enjoy uchikomi-geiko practice at the end.  It’s tiring, but good.  I’ve noticed that my reaction time is not very fast.  When the motodachi gives me an opening it takes a second or so to recognize which strike to perform.  I realize this will continue to improve with practice so practice I must continue.

 

Header credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cafnr/10805968233/

Day 7 – Sink or Swim

Holy crap what a day!

Today turned out to be a sink or swim kind of situation.  The beginner sensei was not able to make it to class again due to work constraints, and the other new beginner student didn’t show up.  Every other person that was there was ni-dan and higher.  Yikes, what’re we going to do???

Kendo of course!  So after usual warm ups and suburi we spent most of class doing kihon-geiko.  Kihon-geiko is a way of practicing basic strikes with a partner.  One person is motodachi (receiver) and the other is kakarite (striker).  In my case, since I am still without rank, and not even in basic uniform (hakama and gi), I was always kakarite.  In Kihon -geiko the job of the motodachi is to present an assigned opening so the kakarite can practice striking an actual person in bogu.  We did all the basic strikes – Men, Do, Kote, Tsuki and did one combination strike – Kote Men in which you strike two targets in fast succession.

Campeonato Mie de Kendo - 2008(Part2)

I was also (briefly) introduced to Kirikaeshi – an extremely fundamental and important part of Kendo practice.  There are many articles, videos, posts etc on Kirikaeshi that are able to describe it much better than I can at this point so I suggest a quick google search for that.  Let’s just say I failed miserably at my first attempt at it (mostly footwork related) and I’ll be spending plenty of time outside of the dojo trying to get better at this.

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The final 15 minutes of class were spent in ji-geiko – which is free sparring.  This is how the class usually ends for the higher ranks but they didn’t want to leave me out so I was invited in as well.  Now, before you start screaming “what were they thinking?!” I actually did not participate in ji-geiko.  Whenever I was paired with someone, they altered their geiko into uchikomi-geiko.  Uchikimo-geiko is much like kihon-geiko in that the motodachi offers openings.  Unlike kihon-geiko these openings are random and the kakarite needs to look for them and interpret them correctly to strike.  There is much more of a fighting spirit and a feeling of being in an actual match against someone as opposed to just practicing the same strike over and over.

It was a great practice and I’m glad I was able to rise to the challenge, however, if anything it really showed me how new I am and how much more time I need to spend on basics.  It also gave me something to look forward to and much progress there is to be made.  What an exhausting day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Header image credit: https://flic.kr/p/5D3ovV

Day 6 – Kihon Waza

When I arrived at the dojo today, there was no Iaido taking place.  The only people there were the main sensei and another student whom I haven’t met yet – a high school student who I believe is either Yon (4) Kyu  or San (3) Kyu.  Being still too new to wear any uniform or bogu (armor) I changed into my usual sweats and t-shirt.  The other new beginner arrived shortly after.  Looks like it’s just going to be us four today.

In order for the more advanced beginner to get something out of today’s lesson sensei decided to do something a little bit more advanced than what we’ve been working on: Bokuto ni Yoru Kendo Kihon Waza Keiko wo.  For brevity’s sake we’ll shorten that to just Kihon Waza.

 

Roughly 15 years ago Kihon Waza was created to help beginners develop technique in a way that helps them relate the shinai as an actual sword.  A bokken is used as it more closely resembles a katana than a shinai.  For a more detailed explanation of Kihon Waza I suggest reading this post on Kenshi247.

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Recently, our Federation (the SouthEastern US Kendo Federation) has made it a mandatory part of testing for 4 – kyu and above.  There are 9 total Waza and each rank has to learn a little more (1-3 for 4 kyu, 1-6 for 3 kyu, 1-9 for 2 kyu).  In Japan and in some places elsewhere, adult beginners can many times be assigned a rank of Ikkyu (1-kyu) right off the bat,  however in our Federation you can not directly test into ikkyu, you have to obtain an earlier kyu rank first and then later test for ikkyu; dan rank testing require more formal kata training.

Within our usual time we were able to cover the first 6 waza with everyone acting as both motodachi (receiving the strike) and kakarite (giving the strike).  This has been my favorite lesson thus far, probably because it resembled two person combat, albeit in a very structured and obtuse way.  I hope we get to practice this again soon.  Talking with sensei after class, he mentioned he feels like I might be ready to test for a rank at our annual tournament in June.  Based on how I feel, and their observations, they will let me know which rank they feel I can best achieve.  I’m in no rush to just blow through ranks, because in reality at this point it doesn’t mean much.  Of course I’ll revisit that statement when I approach Dan level testing in who knows how many years.

Day 5 – The Rising Do

Usual beginning to class – rei, warm ups, and suburi.  My haya-suburi is improving, but still not as fast as everyone else.  I’m pushing mysellf, but I’m not giving up technique for speed.  Speed will come, technique comes first.  We did the men lunge again – more sore muscles for me again tomorrow I predict.

In the beginner group, our sensei was trying to catch up the new beginner to where I was last week, so we again focused on basic strikes using okuri-ashi.  Truthfully, I’m a little disappointed that a new guy started last class – I felt like I was making good progress.  I’m a quick study, I like to move at my own pace, and I don’t want anyone to hold me back.  I know I should be supportive of everyone’s own journey and be willing to help my fellow beginner along.  I also know that without new beginners, the dojo won’t be able to stay in business – we are a non-profit, the teachers are volunteers – the club needs all the income it can to stay alive, but if I’m not going to be honest with myself and with anyone who reads this I’m doing a disservice by not portraying my true feelings.  This is all part of the Kendo journey – mental, not just physical.

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Getting back to practice, I had a small “eureka” moment concerning my do strikes.  Since Day 2 I’ve been practicing do and I haven’t seem to make any breakthroughs or improvements.  I’ve always struck do too high, or mostly too low, and when I did strike correctly, it felt more by shear luck or accident than actual skill.  I discovered with help from my sensei that it was a combination of stride length and hand positioning.  The feet were an easy fix, I just needed to take a larger step.  The hands took a little bit more work.

Essentially the left hand should maintain a line up and down on center.  When you raise the shinai the left hand stays center and even though the do cut is a diagonal cut, the left hand stays center as you come down. The way the shinai moves off center is due to a small guidance from the right hand and turn of the left wrist. I was using too much power in my right hand causing my right elbow to jut out.  I’ve discovered that the right hand should barely, every so gently, subtly suggest a divergence from center.  This makes it a lot easier to keep zanshin and pass through as well.

Class finished in the usual manner.

More practice is needed.  I will think upon these points.

Day 4, I’m No Longer a Bookend

As many experienced kendoka know, respect is an extremely important aspect to Kendo.  You respect your sensei.  You respect your dojo.  You respect each other.  You especially respect your sword.  Japanese culture puts an emphasis on respect for the elderly, which trickles down to showing respect to those who have more experience than you, whether it be in an activity, school, or just life.

The Long Road

During rei-ho at the start of practice we line up in order of rank and status.  The most senior sensei sit on one side; his students sit across on the right to the most junior on the left.  Until today I was the most left student.  As you can probably guess, we had a new student join us.  We actually had two students join – one was a completely new beginner like myself, and the other was a previously students years ago, had a knee injury, was currently studying at another nearby dojo but decided to return to ours.  Judging by where he stood in line, he was most likely a shodan (1-dan) or maybe a ni-dan (2-dan).

Rei

The new beginner joined for warm – ups but was taken aside when we started suburi.  Since I joined in on suburi last week, I now get to stay in with the rest of the established class for suburi.  Still trying to get the hang of haya suburi, but with anything that comes with time.  In the main class we did a new drill to help train our left foot.   In Kendo, the left foot is the “power foot” and shouldn’t be just dragged around when striking or moving.  The drill consisted of making a large step forward with our right foot into a lunge position with our left knee on the floor and holding our shinai above our heads as if we were to strike men.  Then, using only our left foot and not our right leg or body, we were to push ourselves up out of the lunge while doing a men strike.  We did this about 8 times down the hall then turned around and did 8 more back; always lunging forward with the right leg and pushing up with the left.  Was a great experiment in discovering what muscles you use, how you use them, and how much training one needs to do.

T. Yamada @ University of Washington Kendo Tournament 2010

After the new drill I split off from the main group to join the new student and our sensei.  Since it was his first class we went back to the basics and covered basic strikes and footwork.  Some good review as always.  I finished class with a sore spot on my left hand at the base of my pinky.  I’m sure it’s from just gripping the moving the shinai around.  No feet blisters yet though.  While I do have some pretty calloused feet from just being an avid walker/hiker, and walking barefoot on my hardwood floors for many years, not to mention the taji practice I know I’m destined to get a blister on my left foot as every kenshi has before me.  Time will only tell.

Day 3, or The Day I Got to Hit Somebody

Damn was I sore after Day 2.  Mostly my left hip flexors – which makes sense, because those are powerhouse sprinting and jumping muscles.  Why only the left side?  The left leg is the main propeller of motion (at least from what I learned so far) in the style of footwork I’ve been practicing – namely okuri-ashi.  I need to remember to stretch this area more.

The main culprit for the sore left flexors was something we touched on in Day 2 and elaborated further this class:  Zanshin.   Geoff Salmon notes that “in simple terms zanshin is the mental state and physical posture that allows you to respond to a counterattack after you make a strike.”  We did not delve too deeply into zanshin in the lesson but from a shallow perspective it involves striking a valid target while continue to move your energy forward into your opponent’s space or territory followed by turning and facing him in chudan, ready to strike again.

 

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Day 3 began the usual way except this time I was invited to join suburi with the rest of the class.  Suburi often refers to the warm up practice cuts while stepping forward and backward.   There are several types but we focused on joge-suburi (lit. up-down) where you make wide swings from almost touching your back to almost touching the floor, katata-suburi where you swing with only your left hand, shomen-suburi, head strikes, and haya-suburi which is a fast back and forth, almost jumping like, while making men strikes – this last one I’ll need to practice more, it was very awkward the first time.

After suburi I was taken aside for individual lessons again.  We continued to review the basic strikes, incorporating footwork, and zanshin.  In the previous lesson, my sensei would use his shinai as the target for striking.  Today, in order to practice the right distance for kote strikes, my sensedecided to wear his kote and let me actually strike him.  As most experienced kendoka are aware, there is a certain sound that occurs when getting a strike just right.  It was good to have this kind of auditory feedback when practicing. I was able to adjust my swings and I got it right more often than not.

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I was also allowed to practice do strikes on sensei as well.  Did not have as much success with that as with kote.  I’m still raising my right elbow a little too high, and I’m not coordinating the feet as well – taking too large of a step and often striking too low on his do.  I’m coming down at too much of an angle which is why my elbow is coming out and it’s preventing me from getting a good zanshin as well.

I will consider this carefully and train well.

Day 2

Arriving as Iaido was near its end I changed out of my work clothes and started stretching.  I’m wondering if any more new beginners show up today, or if it’s just going to be me again.  The beginner sensei mentioned last class he hoped more show, but to be honest, I’m enjoying the one on one education.

After rei and warm ups I again was taken aside.  No new beginners, just me.  We reviewed the okuri ashi footwook, combined with striking men up and down the dojo.  Last class we broke the strikes and footwork down into three parts:

  1. Raise the shinai above my head while moving the right foot forward
  2. Strike men while bringing the left food forward to it’s original position in relation to the right foot
  3. Return the shinai back to kamae posture (ready stance)*.

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This time we smoothed things out a bit into one continuous motion.  Things still lined up the same, raise shinai when right foot steps and strike at the same time your left food closes the gap, but we reduced the choppiness of it.  Time for repetition…

In order to give our arms a rest (ha! rest?!), we went over some basic etiquette such as how to bow when standing, how to enter and exit when sparring, and sonkyo.  Sonkyo refers to a type of squatting posture taken before and after you square off with an opponent.

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I was then shown how to do two more of the 4 strikes:  Kote (the wrist) and Do (the side of the belly).  The three strikes so far all start the same – you lift the shinai above your head while stepping forward with the right foot.  Part of this is to not let on to your opponent where you intend to strike.  With the kote you extend straight out similar to the men cut except you end up march farther down, but the motion is similar in maintaining the shinai in the center.  With a do cut, there is a slight curve as you come down to hit the side of the belly (and if this were a real sword/combat you would then proceed to slice all the way across disemboweling your enemy).

The do cut is a bit awkward as a beginner, because you have to keep your right elbow in and most have a tendency to extend the elbow out, which then puts the left wrist in an awkward position as well.  All this means is that I must continue to practice.

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The last thing we did was to put all the cuts to footwork and repeat up and down the dojo.  This time my sense held his shinai in different positions allowing me to actually get a feeling for striking an object.  Now that was something.  It’s one thing to just go through the motions of the body, but to actually strike something and hear that loud *SMACK* of bamboo against bamboo fills you with a certain energy and exhilaration.

I will continue to study and learn.  Until next time.

 

*There are five stances (or kamae) in Kendo:  jodan, chudan, gedan, hasso, and waki.  The most basic is chudan and is often taught first to beginners.

The First Step – Day 1

And so it begins…

I arrived at the dojo early and anxious, not quite sure what exactly to expect.  As I entered there were 4 practitioners present working on Iaido – the art of drawing, cutting, and sheathing a sword.  Removing my shoes I introduced myself to one of the club officers, filled out my paperwork, and payed my dues.  Because I’m new and not expected to have any of my own equipment, I was given a loaner bokken and shinai.  A bokken (bottom in picture) is a sword made of hardwood, crafted to resemble a Japanese katana.  The shinai (on top) is made strips of bamboo.  It’s completely symmetrical and is what’s used for actual contact between players.

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Iaido ends and Kendo begins.  I am the only brand new Kendoka present.  There are two other beginners who have been there for about 5 months and just started wearing Bogu (armor), 2 more advanced students, and the main 先生 (sensei).  We all start together with warmups – some basic stretching, ankle rotations, etc. – which is followed by a more formal opening ceremony.  We sit in a certain posture called 正座 (seiza), do a short meditation, multiple bows, and then return to standing.  It was engaging and helped to focus our mind on the task at hand.

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After warm ups I was taken aside, and since I was brand new, we needed to cover the basics.  We began with footwork, namely すい足 (suri-ashi, which is a gliding motion with the feet) and 送り足 (okuri-ashi, which is maintaining your right foot forward at all times when moving front and back).  We did the footwork while simply holding the shinai in basic posture forward and back.  And then we did it again.   And again.   And again and again.  And one more time, but not really because we really did three more times.  And then once more again.

You can see where I’m going with this.  As with any sport, martial art, hobby, etc. it’s going to involve repetition, repetition, repetition.  If Repetition is truly the mother of Skill, then she and I are going to be really close before I get to sign the adoption papers.

The last thing I learned was how to do one of the basic strikes.  In Kendo, there are 4 targets you can strike on an opponent and score a point, and without getting into too much detail, they are roughly the top of the head, the side of the belly, the wrists, and the throat.  The very first strike most kenshi learn is the men which refers to the head grill that kenshi wear.  Since it was my very first time holding a shinai I was obviously not going to strike my 先生 sensei, instead we focused on the basic mechanics of grip and striking.  And strike, and strike, and strike, and again….

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In total, the class lasted for about an hour and a half; a hour of direct education, with 15 minutes on either side for warm ups and opening and closing ceremonies.   Overall, a gratifying, rewarding, and valuable experience.  I will definitely continue.

 

A Prelude to the First Step

My very first time in a Kendo dojo will occur in less than 1 week.

I’ve known about Kendo for a while.  Being a fan of Japanese culture it’s hard to avoid and my fascination with swords and sword fighting goes back a long time.  It most likely started when I was 3 or 4 and my favorite film at the time was Disney’s Sword and the Stone, which, if we’re being honest, I was more interested in the magic of Merlin than Arthur or his ability to pull a sword out of a hunk a rock.

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The biggest push into swordplay came when I fist saw the original Star Wars trilogy when I was in middle school.  Magic and swords but just any regular swords, laser swords??  Count me in!   The style of their fighting also intrigued me.  It didn’t resemble anything I’ve seen in other films like Robin Hood or other European/English knight style fencing.  No hacking and slashing, no brute strength broadsword bashing.  There was poise, precision, calculation and seemingly mutual respect between fighter and foe.  Much later I would discover that Kendo served as an inspiration for the fighting style of the Jedi.

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Kendo is not my first foray in the martial arts.  About 8 years ago I started learning Taijiquan also known as Tai Chi Chuan or simply Tai Chi.   Taijiquan is a Chinese martial art of the internal style, meaning the energy comes not from your muscles but from the alignment of your body and the ability to redirect your attacker’s energy and use it against him.  Most people think of it today as something old people do in the park, but when trained properly and with the right teacher it can be one of the most effective martial arts there is.  I had to stop direct training in Taijiquan because I moved from Washington, DC to Chicago for graduate school.  I recently moved back to Maryland, but much too far from DC to return to Taiji training.  I looked for an alternative and in my investigation of various martial arts dojo’s in the area I turned up a dojo dedicated to Kendo – the Japanese way of the sword.

And so after contacting the dojo for more information I shall begin my journey in 2 days time.  This blog will serve as my travel diary and lesson log for this quest of Kendo. I hope it will serve to inspire others and give them a reasonable picture of what to expect along their journey should they chose to pursue one.  And if any more experienced kendoka read this, I look forward to their guidance.   Let us begin…

よろしくお願いします!