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.

kata

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.

DO

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.